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Impearls: 2003-12-07 Archive

Earthdate 2003-12-12

Crusades IV – The Byzantine Crusades

Geitner Simmons, writing in his blog Regions of Mind, has followed-up on Donald Sensing's and my earlier Crusader articles (after linking to them) with a piece called “The first crusader.”  Geitner points out that the crusades could properly be said to commence early in the 7th century, with the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and the Persian invasion of the empire — and thus began neither with the Spanish Reconquista nor the Western numbered Crusades starting in the late 11th cent.  This is quite a reasonable point of view historically, and the story Simmons refers to is indeed terrific: total victory over the Persians (and Avars) by Emperor Heraclius after the former had initially conquered almost all the Roman Empire's Asian and African territories, at the same time that the barbarian nomadic Avars occupied and threatened most of Byzantium's remaining European possessions.

The book review that Geitner quotes from, however, is unfortunately quite unsatisfactory (no fault of Simmons, he pointed to what he had) in communicating the enormous scale of Heraclius' astonishing achievement, which without hyperbole can be said to rival the exploits of Alexander.  Here's what historians Donald MacGillivray Nicol and John L. Teall, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica (we'll give folks a break from The Cambridge Medieval History), had to say in this regard: 1

When Heraclius “went out into the lands of the themes” in 622, thereby undertaking a struggle of seven years' duration against the Persians, he utilized the third of his sources of strength: religion.  The warfare that ensued was nothing less than a holy war: it was partly financed by the treasure placed by the church at the disposal of the state; the Emperor's soldiers called upon God to aid them as they charged into battle; and they took comfort in the miraculous image of Christ that preceded them in their line of march.  A brief summary of the campaign unfortunately gives no idea of the difficulties Heraclius encountered as he liberated Asia Minor (622); fought in Armenia with allies found among the Christian Caucasian peoples, the Lazi, the Abasgi, and the Iberians (624); and struggled in far-distant Lazica while Constantinople withstood a combined siege of Avars and Persians (626).  An alliance with the Khazars, a Turkic people from north of the Caucasus, proved of material assistance in those years and of lasting import in Byzantine diplomacy.  Heraclius finally destroyed the main Persian host at Nineveh in 627 and, after occupying Dastagird in 628, savoured the full flavour of triumph when his enemy, Khosrow, was deposed and murdered.  The Byzantine emperor might well have believed that, if the earlier success of the Persians signalized the resurrection of the Achaemenid Empire, his own successes had realized the dreams of Caesar, Augustus, and Trajan.

Yet this was a war fought by medieval Byzantium and not by ancient Rome.  Its spirit was manifest in 630, when Heraclius triumphantly restored the True Cross to Jerusalem, whence the Persians had stolen it, and — even more — when Constantinople resisted the Avar-Persian assault of 626.  During the attack, the patriarch Sergius maintained the morale of the valiant garrison by proceeding about the walls, bearing the image of Christ to ward off fire, and by painting upon the gates of the western walls images of the Virgin and child to ward off attacks launched by the Avars — the “breed of darkness.”  The Avars withdrew when Byzantine ships defeated the canoes manned by Slavs, upon whom the nomad Avars depended for their naval strength.  The latter never recovered from their defeat.  As their empire crumbled, new peoples from the Black Sea to the Balkans emerged to seize power: the Bulgars of Kuvrat, the Slavs under Samo, and the Serbs and Croats whom Heraclius permitted to settle in the northwest Balkans once they had accepted Christianity.

As for the Byzantine defenders of Constantinople, they celebrated their victory by singing Romanos' great hymn “Akathistos,” with choir and crowd alternating in the chant of the “Alleluia.”  The hymn, still sung in a Lenten service, commemorates those days when Constantinople survived as a fortress under ecclesiastical leadership, its defenders protected by the icons and united by their liturgy.  This they sang in Greek, as befitted a people whose culture was now Greek and no longer Latin.

Heraclius accomplished all this not only by superb generalship, but with also a great dash of personal valor.  As historian Enno Franzius writes in his biography of Heraclius in Britannica: 2

In 622, clad as a penitent and bearing a sacred image of the Virgin, he left Constantinople, as prayers rose from its many sanctuaries for victory over the Persian Zoroastrians, the recovery of the Cross, and the reconquest of Jerusalem.  He was, in effect, leading the first crusade.  Indeed, in the ensuing hostilities, a pious poet contrasted the dancing girls in the Persian general's tent with the psalm singers in the Emperor's.  In a brilliant campaign, he manoeuvred the Persians out of Anatolia and suggested a truce to the Persian monarch.  This offer Khosrow II contemptuously rejected, referring to himself as beloved by the gods and master of the world, to Heraclius as his abject and imbecilic slave, and to Christ as incapable of saving the empire.  Mindful of the propagandistic value of Khosrow's response, Heraclius made it public.

The next two years he devoted to campaigns in Armenia, the manpower of which was vital to the empire, and to a devastating invasion of Persia.  In 625 Heraclius retired to Anatolia.  He had encamped on the west bank of the Sarus River when the Persian forces appeared on the opposite bank.  Many of his men rushed impetuously across the bridge and were ambushed and annihilated by the enemy.

Emerging from his tent, Heraclius saw the triumphant Persians crossing the bridge.  The fate of the empire hung in the balance.  Seizing his sword, he ran to the bridge and struck down the Persian leader.  His soldiers closed rank behind him and beat back the foe.

In 626 the Persians advanced to the Bosporus, hoping to join the Avars in an assault on the land walls of Constantinople.  But the Romans sank the primitive Avar fleet that was to transport Persian units across the Bosporus and repelled the unsupported Avar assault.  Heraclius again invaded Persia and in December 627, after a march across the Armenian highlands into the Tigris plain, met the Persians near the ruins of Nineveh.  There, astride his renowned war-horse, he killed three Persian generals in single combat, charged into enemy ranks at the head of his troops, killed the Persian commander, and scattered the Persian host.

A month later, Heraclius entered Dastagird with its stupendous treasure.  Khosrow was overthrown by his son, with whom Heraclius made peace, demanding only the return of the Cross, the captives, and conquered Roman territory.  Returning to Constantinople in triumph, he was hailed as a Moses, an Alexander, a Scipio.  In 630 he personally restored the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Heraclius fought his “crusade” very differently from the sort of general mayhem and massacre which later western European-organized crusades acquired a reputation (not entirely warranted) for.  As Franzius wrote:

[E]ven though he fostered the crusading spirit, [Heraclius] waged war in a less inhumane manner than most of his contemporaries.  He did not enslave or massacre the inhabitants of conquered towns and he treated his prisoners of war well, releasing them rather than butchering them when he could not feed them.  His mercy contrasted sharply with Khosrow's acerbity and probably hastened his victory in Persia.

Heraclius' more humane treatment of helpless prisoners and captured cities may reflect yet more of the supreme qualitative chasm in education and culture separating the medieval East Romans from the western European states and their knights (as Impearls' earlier piece Crusades II attests).  In this regard, it's worth looking at application of the death penalty in medieval Byzantium, which is quite at variance from ordinary perceptions of the brutality of the Middle Ages.  J. B. Bury writes: 3

From Augustus to Justinian penalties were ever becoming severer and new crimes being invented.  After Justinian the movement was in the direction of mildness.  In the eighth century only two or three crimes were punishable by death.  One of these was murder and in this case the extreme penalty might be avoided if the murderer sought refuge in a church.  On the other hand penalties of multilation were extended and systematised.  This kind of punishment had been inflicted in much earlier times and authorised in one or two cases by Justinian.  In the eighth century we find amputations of the tongue, hand, and nose part of the criminal system, and particularly applied in dealing with sexual offences.  If such punishments strike us to-day as barbaric (though in England, for instance, mutilation was inflicted little more than two centuries ago), they were then considered as a humane substitute for death, and the Church approved them because a tongue-less or nose-less sinner had time to repent.  In the same way, it was a common practice to blind, instead of killing, rebels or unsuccessful candidates for the throne.  The tendency to avoid capital punishment is illustrated by the credible record that during the reign of John Comnenus there were no executions.

Revisit that last bit again: in a cosmopolitan, sophisticated state whose capital city incorporated hundreds of thousands of residents — empire as a whole, millions — over a reign (Emperor John II Comnenus) of 25 years, there were no executions.  However one feels about applicability of capital punishment in the present day, such a record cannot but convey a certain culturally-based merciful attitude by medieval Byzantium towards offenders that ought to give us pause today.  Are we really so sure, for example, that locking up criminals for years or decades of time — or executing them — is more humane than just cutting off a nose?  If deterring crime is the goal, loss of a nose (with more to follow if one persists in one's crimes) might be a greater deterrent for many a potential criminal (as well as pragmatically solving the problem of “community notification”) than vague prospects of prison.  While not seriously entertaining such punishments for the present day, I do emphasize that our own conventions of what's humane and what's not aren't unchallengeable.  In my view, East Rome has a decent claim to having been, in reality, basically a moral as well as cultured civilization, and very far indeed from what some might propose as the necessary character of such a Christian theocracy: a kind of Christian Taliban — that's manifestly not medieval Byzantium.

One other thing: we've focused here (as does Geitner) on the crusade of Heraclius in the early 7th century, and what that tells us about the medieval Byzantine world — however, there's plenty else in the history of the East Roman state warranting the appellation of “crusade.”  After the Muslim irruption from Arabia, commencing near the end of Heraclius' life, for many decades the Byzantines were forced into a struggle merely to survive; a large part of their territory was stripped from them, and central Anatolia became the residual core of the empire.  Throughout the 10th and much of the 11th centuries, however, East Rome rebounded to the extent of undertaking quite a Reconquista of her own, recovering from Muslim rule the pirate-nest islands of Crete and Cyprus, most of eastern and southeastern Anatolia, the important city of Antioch in Syria, even threatening Jerusalem — all this, though, is a tale for another day.  It was only after the empire's defeat and even more disastrous aftermath of the epochal battle of Manzikert in 1071 (caused, as Bury notes, by the execrable judgment of the emperor in command) that the Byzantines were driven to the desperate and dangerous expedient of appealing to the West for aid.  The rest, as they say, is history.


1 Donald MacGillivray Nicol (Koraës Professor Emeritus of Byzantine and Modern Greek History, Language, and Literature, King's College, University of London) and John L. Teall (Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts), “The History of the Byzantine Empire: The Heraclians and the Challenge of Islam,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

2 Enno Franzius (author of History of the Byzantine Empire), “Heraclius,” Op. cit.

3 J. B. Bury (M.A., F.B.A.), “Introduction” to Volume IV: The Eastern Roman Empire, edited by J. R. Tanner, C. W. Previté-Orton, and Z. N. Brooke, The Cambridge Medieval History, planned by J. B. Bury, Cambridge at the University Press, London, 1923; p. xiii.

UPDATE:  2005-07-29 10:00 UT:  An article The Arab Admiralty – and an Arab naval view of the Crusades by Ibn Khaldûn has been posted.  See also the associated piece Ibn Khaldûn – Master Historian of the Arabs.

UPDATE:  2003-12-14 12:30 UT:  Geitner Simmons responded to Impearls' article above with a link and some very kind words:  “What worthwhile examinations of history Michael McNeil provides at Impearls.  […]  Now a new post at Impearls delves deep into the story of Heraclius' “First Crusade,” yielding many great historical nuggets.  […]  The post shows the fine work that the history-blog universe, at its best, is capable of.”

Eric Scheie also commented in an e-mail:  “That is a wonderfully written, thoughtful, well-researched piece.”

UPDATE:  2003-12-15 19:20 UT:  Eric Scheie linked to this article from his blog Classical Values, calling it “a real gem!” and some other praise that I blush to repeat except say that I'm not “a genuine scholar of the Byzantine period” — or of much else actually — just a guy who's read some books, and remembered oh-too-tiny a bit of what I've read.  (Keeping a big, fat tome or two in the bathroom does wonders, I find: a page or couple at a sitting out of a history book eventually covers a lot of temporal-spatial territory!)  I do appreciate the compliments, though, and they make nice decoration for these updates!  (In response to Eric's question, I do have something to post on that, but I'm not quite ready to do so — have to look up some stuff then think about it — and in the meantime the link his reader dropped off seems to provide more than a good start, much of that material I'll also have to absorb, so let's keep the topic in mind as an article idea for the future.)

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