Byzantium Ascendant: Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade

Peter Frankopan. The First Crusade: Call from the East. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

The Crusades have justifiably proven a focus of attention for both academics and the general public for centuries. It can hardly be avoided in Western history curriculums, yet Peter Frankopan’s analysis of their instigation is not one commonly encountered. The First Crusade is, above all else, a  rehabilitation for the character of Emperor Alexios Komnenos, ruler of the Byzantine Empire and, according to Frankopan, the man responsible for both the existence and the successes of the host of Christendom.

Context is the rule of law in Frankopan’s study, and one which he seeks to remove from nearly a millennium of Western biases. The forces of the First Crusade don’t depart from Constantinople until over halfway through the book, yet Frankopan’s painstaking construction of the expedition’s foundations pays dividends for his narrative. Through a revised reading of the main source for the period, the Alexiad, Frankopan challenges the traditional conclusion that Byazantine control over Anatolia had been smashed at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, instead positing that Alexios’ policy of employing Turkish client-leaders and diplomacy with Baghdad allowed the reclamation and maintenance of stability until a series of reversals and betrayals in the 1090s. This sudden loss of Anatolia then occasioned Alexios’ 1096 entreaty of Pope Urban II, who himself was embroiled in a struggle for dominance with a second pope appointed by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Having established inroads in the Eastern Church in an effort to supersede his rival, Urban then proves adept at both rousing religious fervor and courting support where the military men Alexios most needed could be found.

Rather than a mass religious movement, what became known as the First Crusade is in Frankopan’s hands thus transformed into a highly organized, targeted military strike arranged by Alexios in the long Byzantine tradition of employing Western mercenary forces. The knights’ swearing of fealty to Alexios is here thrown into high relief, as are the resultant conflicts. Aware of the logistical challenges of transporting such a large force from Western Europe to Anatolia, Alexios is seen to make the arteries of his empire available to the Crusading knights and maintained ample supply lines until the close of the campaign in 1099. Though closely managed as they fulfilled Alexios’ goals of retaking Anatolia, the Christian knights’ obsession with Jerusalem that had proven so effective in mustering popular support in Europe proved their undoing in the Near East as they passed outside of Byzantine support and some lords turned against the emperor in their own bids for power. Frankopan ends on a precipice rich with consequences:  determined to carve their own holdings out of the Holy Land, the former servants of Alexios begin to foment a wide-reaching dissent against the emperor that irrevocably alters the course of Christian colonization in the Near East and, ultimately, results in Frankopan’s own work of historiographical revision.

While his narrative is certainly a tour de force, Frankopan stumbles in his presentation of the textual analysis that supports it. He is to be commended for avoiding the quagmire of intense academic jargon and reference, but this comes at the cost of much of his early chronological re-calibration seeming to be simply his word as new translator against the established interpretation. This is particularly problematic due to Frankopan’s core source, the Alexiad, having been written by Alexios’ own daughter Anna. Though the ensuing complexities of memory and bias are acknowledged, Frankopan seems to convey certain minor details too trustingly. The reader is told that descriptions of Alexios as a deeply pious man are not just rote formulas, yet one begins to doubt the accuracy of such a conclusion after Alexios repeatedly appropriates church relics for funds after swearing not to. At not much more than two hundred pages, Frankopan’s work certainly could have afforded more space to prove his conclusions, yet these pitfalls largely do not detract from what is at heart a highly enjoyable re-framing of one of the more significant events in the development of post-Roman Europe.


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