The world’s newest monotheistic religion, Islam, had existed for only four centuries, yet was the biggest threat to Christianity since the polytheistic rulers of the Roman Empire by the end of the eleventh century. Islam, founded by a trader named Mohammed(Prophet Muhammad) in 622, spread from its homeland in Arabia to the west across northernAfrica and, in less than a century, had made its way into Christian Spain. Muslim warriors traveled north as well and conquered the Levant, the area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea where the Holy Land is located, and its surrounding areas, threatening the Christian Byzantine Empire.
In the eleventh century, western Europeans attempted to pacify this threat, beginning the Christian holy wars known as the Crusades. in 732, which halted the spread of Islam further into Europe. This battle did not expel the Muslims from Europe though; it only forced them back into Spain where they remained a formidable force for the next seven centuries, until they were permanently pushed across the Straits of Gibraltar in 1492. The Muslims were a thorn in the side of the Christian rulers near Spain because they conquered Christian territory and forced the conversion of many Christians to Islam, and they also threatened to conquer more territory and, as the rulers saw it, corrupt more Christians. The fact that Muslims still occupied much of Spain was second of the Pope’s worries, though, since Muslims still controlled the Holy Land where Jesus Christ, the founder and central figure of the Christian faith, had lived, preached, and died.
The Spread of Islam
Conditions at the West In the eve of the Crusade:
In Western Europe the idea of a holy war developed later and for different reasons. So much has been written about this that there is no need to enter into detail. First, we must remember that what we call a crusade was, especially during the first century or so, a pilgrimage, and those who took part in it were pilgrims; it was a holy journey (iter, passagium), not a holy war. It was regarded primarily as defensive, that is, armed escorts were to protect pilgrims on their way to the sacred shrines of Christendom and were to recover or defend the holy sites in Palestine. This defensive character differentiated it from jihad, as did the fact that it did not advocate the forceful imposition of Christianity upon others. In subsequent centuries, admittedly, and for some participants it did take on a more belligerent character. One need only recall the so-called Albigensian crusades or the one that sacked Constantinople in 1204. Still, the notion of using force to convert the infidel was, with few exceptions, foreign to Christianity, East and West. But the Crusades were proclaimed by the highest religious authority in theWest, the pope; they were directed toward a religious end, the protection of fellow Christians in the East and the recovery and defense of the holy places; and those who took part were promised religious rewards, particularly the remission of sin.
The Crusades 1096-1270
From time immemorial, religion has played a role in warfare. One people offers sacri- fice to its gods before going into battle and, upon emerging victorious, will topple the statues of the other people’s gods and set up its own. Are these religious wars, or are they simply tribal conflicts motivated by revenge, plunder, or the acquisition of land or slaves? The invocation of deities is basically an additional means of assuring victory, of enlisting the aid of powerful allies and shifting the balance in your favor. Consider the Trojan War. Not only were gods and goddesses called upon with prayer and sacrifice, but they participated directly in the fighting. Yet nobody calls the Trojan War a holy war. Consider, too, those conflicts that have often been cited as precedents and inspirational models for Christian holy wars, I mean those waged by the people of Israel, as related in the books of Joshua, Judges, Kings, and elsewhere. Do they really qualify as religious wars? Were they not primarily armed conflicts between seminomadic tribes struggling to acquire land? Their god may grant them victory or deny it, but, in the final analysis, the fundamental motivation and objective of most of those wars were not primarily religious, those of the Maccabees perhaps being an exception. How many wars, then, waged later by Christians and Muslims were truly religious wars, not to mention holy wars? Were they not, to a large extent, tribal or feudal conflicts with a lot of religious trappings?
In trying to categorize a conflict as religious or holy, we might ask: Are they fighting this war primarily for religious reasons? If little or no religious motivation were present, would they still be fighting? The Crusaders provide a good example. Nobody in his right mind, even in the Middle Ages, would leave the comforts of home, pack up all his belongings, and march off for two thousand kilometers, endure incredible hardships, and face the very real threat of death unless he were religiously motivated. While there were some, like Bohemond, who may have had less lofty motives, the majority of the Crusaders gained no strategic, economic, or political advantage, especially during the first hundred years. They marched off to the East for what they regarded as a religious act, if not a duty. For them, this was surely a holy war.
On the other hand, the long campaigns of Herakleios against the Persians, sometimes depicted as a prototypical crusade, abounded in religious elements. The Persians had destroyed churches, massacred Christians, and taken away the holy cross from Jerusalem; they must be punished and the cross restored. The patriarch prayed for victory and blessed the troops as they marched out under the standard of the cross. Religion played a major role throughout the conflict. But, even if these religious motivations had not been present or had not been so prominent, Herakleios would almost certainly have still gone to war. His wars were waged as much for strategic advantage and territory as for religion. The wars of Herakleios were but one phase of the geopolitical conflict between the Romans and the Persians that had been going on for six hundred years. These were imperial wars, not holy wars. Although religious rhetoric and ritual were prominent and pervasive, subsequent Byzantine wars, those of Nikephoros Phokas in the tenth century, for example, or those of the Komnenian emperors in the twelfth, were first and foremost imperial wars. That their objectives sometimes coincided with religious ones did not alter that basic characteristic. Finally, it should be noted that the same religious practices were observed by the Byzantine armed forces whether they were facing a non-Christian or a Christian enemy.
War cries, such as “God help the Romans,” “The Cross is victorious,” do not transform the nature of a particular war. Religious shouts and symbols are used to instill confidence in the individual soldier and to raise the morale of the army. Religious services, especially the eucharistic liturgy, are meant to comfort the soldier and to prepare him to risk his life. Chaplains still conduct religious services for modern armies, but that does not sanctify their conflicts. Athletes often join in prayer before a game, but we do not talk of a holy football game or a holy soccer match. The church certainly prayed for victory, but it rejected the request of Nikephoros Phokas to have fallen soldiers honored as martyrs. The cross was displayed on the standards, or used in place of a standard, to remind the troops of God’s protection and that they were fighting for a Christian nation.16 Through the centuries, the cross, it may be noted, has been depicted on many banners in wars that have been far from holy. The cross displayed on the flags of several modern nations does not tell us anything about the religious sensibilities of its citizens; Great Britain has three crosses on its flag.
The Byzantine attitude toward war can best be understood in the context of the way in which they viewed the world and life in general. This world and the life it bore were fragile and transitory. The only permanent reality was to be found in another world, the kingdom of heaven. The empire on earth was a mere reflection of that in heaven, and the emperor was called to imitate the Lord of heaven. Under God, he was to assure the well-being of his subjects and protect them from all dangers, within and without. The church had a different role. Jesus had told his followers that he could call upon legions of angels to save himself from death, but he did not do so, and neither would his church. Unlike its Latin sister, the Byzantine church left the call to arms and the waging of war, even against the most pernicious and destructive heretics and infidels, to the imperial government. But it took the lead in another kind of struggle, one for the souls of the faithful, a struggle not against human enemies but against cosmic powers and superhuman forces of evil. For Byzantine Christians this was a form of warfare that could be called holy, although I have not found explicit use of that term. The concept of the Christian being involved in a war against the forces of evil goes back, of course, to St. Paul, if not before.
While every Christian had to withstand the onslaughts of the devil, the monks were the frontline troops in the war against the legions of Satan. Night and day, according to Gregory of Nazianzos, the monk must fight the spiritual war (pneumatikos polemos). Chrysostom tells his audience that the war against demons is difficult and never ending. Spiritual combat is a regular theme in the vitae of the saints. Demons in a variety of shapes, from hyenas to dragons, viciously attacked saints Theodore of Edessa, Gregory of Dekapolis, Joseph the Hymnographer, John Psychaites, Isidore, abbess Sarah, and many others. Story after story is told of their incessant struggles against the forces of sin and darkness.
The demons, for their part, took warfare seriously. They appear in full battle array, in phalanxes of cavalry and infantry that wheeled about in formation. They wore iron breastplates and carried bows and arrows and other missiles. They began their advance against St. Ioannikios in proper order, although making a tremendous racket; they drew up in formation, shouted their war cry, and shot a steady stream of arrows at him. All of this he repelled by the sign of the cross. Under their commander (strategos) Satan, the demons arrayed themselves in their phalanxes in a proper battle line (parataxis), just as the armed forces of the emperor do, and charged against Constantine the Jew. As the military manuals prescribe, they feigned retreat, shouted insults from afar, regrouped, and attacked again. The saint beat them off with a wooden cross made on the spot, but the effort left him exhausted. A monk in Skete heard a battle trumpet sound as the demons prepared to attack him and force him to quit his prayers.
To confront such adversaries, the monk had to be a soldier. Symeon reminds his monks that they have been called to fight against invisible foes. They have enlisted and taken their place in the ranks of Christ’s soldiers. The monks did not wait to be attacked; they did not simply hold the fort, but took the war into the devil’s territory and fought him on his own turf, in the desert and in other wild, abandoned locations. Many made a point of settling in the desert where the demons lived. Daniel the Stylite learned that demons were hiding in an old church. He immediately went in to fight them “as a brave soldier strips himself for battle against a host of barbarians,” holding the invincible weapon of the cross.
What, then, about the visible, tangible wars waged by the Byzantines with armor and weapons made of solid iron and steel, and against other human foes? No Byzantine treatise on the ideology of war, whether a holy or a just war, has come down to us, and it is unlikely that any was ever written. One must glean what one can from the military manuals and the histories. Although there were occasional rhetorical flourishes in admiration of valor and bravery on the field of battle, and although they were dependent on military means for their survival, the Byzantines, in the words of a retired combat engineer in the sixth century, regarded war “as a great evil and the worst of all evils.”, “We must always prefer peace above all else,” wrote Leo VI, “and refrain from war.” For them war was not the “politics by other means” of Clausewitz, but was the last resort. The threat of overwhelming force was preferable to the actual use of such force, and in this, it may be noted, they displayed a striking continuity with the ancientRomans. They sought to obtain their objectives by diplomacy, bribery, covert action, paying tribute, or hiring other tribes to do the fighting. Only when all else had failed were they to take up arms. And even then they tried to avoid a frontal assault and concentrated on wearing out the foe by light skirmishing, clever strategy, and adroit maneuvering. They were reluctant to wage war on both moral and practical grounds. Killing, even when deemed justifiable, was evil—one need only recall the famous, if rarely observed, canon of St. Basil which declared that soldiers who had killed in battle were to be refused communion for three years. On the practical side, war was both hazardous and expensive.
All this is consistent with the remarkable centrality of defense in Byzantine strategic theory and practice. One American military scholar wrote of a sixth-century tactician: “He has a distinctly defensive mind, and sees so clearly what the enemy may do to him that he has no time to think of what he may do to the enemy.” The Byzantines were not a warlike people and, in fact, this led the Crusaders to accuse them of cowardice. Their entire attitude toward war was colored by their emphasis on defense and, in this respect, certainly differed from the crusade and the jihad, both of which were aggressive by nature. Even the offensive campaigns into enemy territory of Herakleios, Nikephoros Phokas, John Tzimiskes, and Basil II were aimed at recovering and protecting regions that rightfully belonged to the Roman Empire.
In the Byzantine world, war was not, as sometimes in the West, a lethal playing field on which so-called noblemen displayed their prowess and sought glory. In itself, war was not a good or meritorious act, and it was certainly not “holy.” How, then, did they justify war? “The purpose of all wars is peace.” So wrote Aristotle long ago, and in the eleventh century Anna Komnene quoted him in explaining why her father Alexios had to devote so much time and energy to warfare. She also makes it clear that, as with an individual, so a nation was entitled to use force in defending itself. Alexios was also, in her mind, justified in taking military action to recover lost territory, to force compliance with a sworn treaty, or to avert a greater evil. Other writers, when they do advert to the causes of war, seek to justify it much as Anna.
Perhaps the clearest and most deliberate explanation of the Byzantine view of war is that put forth by Leo VI in the beginning of his Tactical Constitutions, very early in the tenth century. While the emperor’s highest priority was to see to the peace and prosperity of his subjects, he realizes that, to assure this, he must maintain the armed forces in good order and promote the study of tactics and strategy. Why must war take up so much of the emperor’s energies? “Out of reverence for the image and the word of God, all men ought to have embraced peace and fostered love for one another instead of taking up murderous weapons in their hands to be used against their own people. But since the devil, the original killer of men, the enemy of our race, has made use of sin to bring men around to waging war, contrary to their basic nature, it is absolutely necessary for men to wage war in return against those whom the devil maneuvers and to take their stand with unflinching resolve against nations who want war.” Eventually, he hopes, “peace will be observed by all and become a way of life.”
The Byzantines were not to wage war against other peoples, Leo wrote, unless those others should initiate hostilities and invade our territory. “Then,” he addressed the commander, “you do indeed have a just cause, inasmuch as the enemy has started an unjust war. With confidence and enthusiasm take up arms against them. It is they who have provided the cause and who have unjustly raised their hands against those subject to us. Take courage then. You will have the God of justice on your side. Taking up the struggle on behalf of your brothers, you and your whole force will be victorious. . . . Always make sure that the causes of war are just.”
The Byzantine wars were not “holy” wars, but just wars, imperial wars. They were waged to defend the empire or to recover land that rightfully belonged to it. The soldiers put their lives on the line for the emperor and the people subject to him, the Christian people. They were to “struggle on behalf of relatives, friends, fatherland, and the entire Christian people.” Toward the end of the tenth century another military author spoke up on behalf of the men on the eastern frontier who “choose to brave dangers on behalf of our holy emperors and all the Christian people. They are the defenders and, after God, the saviors of the Christians.”
In conclusion, then, Muslims believed force might be used to bring all people under the sway of Islam;Western knights believed that they were called not only to defend but to “exalt” Christianity and that attacks on its enemies could be holy and meritorious. The Byzantines believed that war was neither good nor holy, but was evil and could be justified only in certain conditions that centered on the defense of the empire and its faith. They were convinced that they were defending Christianity itself and the Christian people, as indeed they were.
The Conditions of the East in the eve of the Crusade:
taken together, the eleventh and twelfth centuries are a unique fulcrum in the development of the medieval world. The relations between Latin Christendom, the Scandinavian world, the Byzantine empire and the world of Islam underwent immense and sometimes conclusive changes in this period, and the development of Europe, let alone of western Europe, cannot be studied in isolation from that of her neighbours with whom there was increasing interaction. Throughout this volume we have tried to take a broad view of what mattered in the relationships not only between western and eastern Europe, but also between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In order to attempt to account for the comprehensive changes and growth that took place over this long period, differing kinds of discussions and numerous chapters are required. This fourth volume of the the New Cambridge Medieval History has two parts which are each of a length comparable with the other volumes in this series. They are complementary to each other rather than sequential: Part 1 focuses mainly on themes – themes in economic, social, governmental, ecclesiastical and cultural history – while Part 2 gives more attention to government on a territorial or institutional basis.