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According to tradition, the First Crusade began at the instigation of Pope Urban II and culminated in July 1099, when thousands of western European knights liberated Jerusalem from the rising menace of Islam. But what if the First Crusade’s real catalyst lay far to the east of Rome? In this groundbreaking book, countering nearly a millennium of scholarship, Peter Frankopan reveals the untold history of the First Crusade.
Nearly all historians of the First Crusade focus on the papacy and its willing warriors in the West, along with innumerable popular tales of bravery, tragedy, and resilience. In sharp contrast, Frankopan examines events from the East, in particular from Constantinople, seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The result is revelatory. The true instigator of the First Crusade, we see, was the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who in 1095, with his realm under siege from the Turks and on the point of collapse, begged the pope for military support.
Basing his account on long-ignored eastern sources, Frankopan also gives a provocative and highly original explanation of the world-changing events that followed the First Crusade. The Vatican’s victory cemented papal power, while Constantinople, the heart of the still-vital Byzantine Empire, never recovered. As a result, both Alexios and Byzantium were consigned to the margins of history. From Frankopan’s revolutionary work, we gain a more faithful understanding of the way the taking of Jerusalem set the stage for western Europe’s dominance up to the present day and shaped the modern world.
In his project to give fuller credit to those Byzantine and Turkish leaders who actually caused the First Crusade, Frankopan proves refreshingly undaunted by the prospect of scaling the citadel of almost a thousand years of scholarship. He is like the Byzantine warrior he describes who invented an ingenious flying bomb, "coating young birds with pine resin mixed with wax and sulphur before setting fire to them and despatching them back to their nests inside the walls of the city he was besieging." Scholarly and yet accessible, and unapologetically partisan, The First Crusade, as any vibrant history should, is bound to set a lot of feathers flying...All in all, The First Crusade is a persuasive and bracing work. Peter Frankopan is not yet well known, but he deserves to be. One trusts him to go on ploughing his own furrow and not join the brat-pack of historians.
— Nicholas Shakespeare
Highly readable...The First Crusade tells a complex story, but its presentation of political machinations, compromises and betrayals seems utterly convincing. The harsh truths of realpolitik are, alas, with us always.
— Michael Dirda
The Crusades have been at the center of Western thought for 1,000 years, and have been the subject of too many books to count: For Crusades buffs, it sometimes feels like there is nothing new under the sun, and for beginners, it can be difficult to know where to start. Oxford historian Peter Frankopan has crafted a narrative and an argument that will appeal to both groups. In the popular imagination, the First Crusade begins with Pope Urban II's stirring speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Frankopan reminds us there is another side to the story. The idea for the crusade, he writes, originated in the East, in a desperate yet strategic plea to the West issued by Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos, whose bold but misguided policies had placed his empire in grave danger. Much of the book is devoted to this often-overlooked Byzantine context, and it makes for a welcome rectification and lively reading. Frankopan's most interesting contribution is the idea that Alexios "knew how to appeal to Westerners," and created the Jerusalem objective as a selling point.
— Benjamin Soloway
Frankopan's reassessment of the first crusade through the prism of Byzantium is a useful corrective to the mass of western-centric crusade history...This book offers an accessible and convincing account of the crusade, which was both concocted and executed under the long shadow of Byzantium.
— Josh Glancy
Frankopan [writes] with tremendous literary verve...[The] cry to free Jerusalem has never been better expressed...Frankopan's creative revisionism pierces the armor of medieval history with a new weapon: the call of the East.
— Colin Gardiner
Frankopan's work will challenge scholars while interesting and entertaining general readers… The overall contribution of this engagingly written and well-researched book is substantial.
— S. A. Throop
From Chapter Four:Asia Minor in the 1080s
The Byzantine empire was under great pressure when Alexios took the throne – threatened by the incursions of aggressive neighbors, weakened by a collapsing economy, and riven with political infighting. Looking back through the distorting prism of the First Crusade, it would seem natural to assume that the greatest of these dangers came from hostile Turkish expansion in the east. This was certainly the impression created by Anna Komnene ; her testimony even suggested that Asia Minor has been essentially lost to the Turks before Alexios came to power. In fact, Asia Minor was relatively stable in the 1080s; indeed, the relationship between Byzantium and the Turks in the first part of Alexios’ reign was generally robust and pragmatically positive. It was only in the early 1090s, in the years immediately before the beginning of the First Crusade, that there was a dramatic deterioration of Byzantium’s position in the east. Conflict with the Muslim world, in other words, was by no means inevitable; it appears that the breakdown in relations between Christians and Muslims at the end of the eleventh century was the result of a spiraling political and military process, not the unavoidable conflict between two opposing cultures. It was, though, in the interests of Anna Komnene to create the opposite impression; and it is an impression that has lasted down through the centuries.
At the start of his reign the new emperor’s attentions were focused squarely on the Normans and the Pechenegs. The Byzantine position in Asia Minor, on the other hand, was fairly resilient: there were many locations which had mounted stern resistance against the Turks in the decade following the battle of Manzikert, and they continued to hold out effectively after Alexios took the throne. In many cases, the defiance was the result of effective local leadership, rather than of the actions of Constantinople. The area around Trebizond, on the north coast of Asia Minor, for example, was secured by Theodore Gabras, a scion of one of the town’s most prominent families. Such was the ferocity of Gabras’ defence of the surrounding region that his exploits and bravery were remembered with admiration by the Turks more than a hundred years later in a lyrical poem about their conquest of Asia Minor. A substantial area around Amaseia meanwhile was held extremely effectively by Roussel Balliol, a Norman initially in imperial service before declaring himself independent of Byzantium, frustrated by the lack of support he was being given by the government, and inspired by the strong support of the local population which lionized him for the protection he provided.
Commanders were holding out far into the eastern extremities of Anatolia, even into the Caucasus. Three sons of Mandales, ‘Roman magnates’ according to a Caucasian chronicler, were occupying strong points in the region of Kaisereia in 1080-1, presumably on behalf of the empire, rather than opportunistically for themselves. Basil Apokapes held the important town of Edessa before Alexios’ usurpation and after, to judge from lead seals issued in his name. The appointment of a new governor of Mesopotamia by Alexios’ predecessor in 1078 likewise provides an indication that there were significant Byzantine interests worth protecting hundreds of miles from Constantinople.
Preface and Acknowledgements xix
Author s Note xxiii
1 Europe in Crisis 13
2 The Recovery of Constantinople 26
3 Stability in the East 42
4 The Collapse of Asia Minor 57
5 On the Brink of Disaster 71
6 The Call from the East 87
7 The Response of the West 101
8 To the Imperial City 118
9 First Encounters with the Enemy 138
10 The Struggle for the Soul of the Crusade 157
11 The Crusade Unravels 173
12 The Consequences of the First Crusade 186
Further Reading 238