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.
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About the Author
Peter Frankopan is Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research at the University of Oxford and author of The Silk Roads.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Table of Contents
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
What People are Saying About This
In this fluent and dramatic account, Peter Frankopan rightly places the Emperor Alexios at the heart of the First Crusade and in doing so skillfully adds a dimension frequently missing from our understanding of this seminal event. Frankopan illuminates the complex challenges that faced Alexios and deftly depicts the boldness and finesse needed to survive in the dangerous world of medieval Byzantium.
Jonathan Phillips, author of Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades
A dazzling book, perfectly combining deep scholarship and easy readability. The most important addition to Crusading literature since Steven Runciman.
John Julius Norwich, author of Byzantium
Filled with Byzantine intrigue in every sense, this book is important, compellingly revisionist and impressive in its scholarly use of totally fresh sources. It refocuses the familiar western story through the eyes of the emperor of the east and fills in the missing piece of the puzzle of the Crusades.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography
Peter Frankopan's reassessment of the Byzantine contribution to the origins and course of the First Crusade offers a compelling and challenging balance to traditional accounts. Based on fresh interpretations of primary sources, lucidly written and forcefully argued, The First Crusade: The Call from the East will demand attention from scholars while providing an enjoyable and accessible narrative for the general reader.
Christopher Tyerman, author of God's War: A New History of the Crusades