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Anna Comnena

The Alexiad

 

 

Anna Comnena was the daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who reigned from 1081-1118. The Alexiad is the biography of her father, written around 1140. In this excerpt she recounts the coming of the first Crusaders. 

Let me, however, give an account of this subject more clearly and in due order. According to universal rumor, Godfrey [1], who had sold his country [2], was the first to start on the appointed road; this man was very rich and very proud of his bravery, courage and conspicuous lineage; for every Frank [3] is anxious to outdo the others. And such an upheaval of both men and women took place then as bad never occurred within human memory, the simpler-minded were urged on by the real desire of worshipping at our Lord's Sepulcher, and visiting the sacred places; but the more astute, especially men like Bohemund [4] and those of like mind, had another secret reason, namely, the hope that while on their travels they might by some means be able to seize the capital itself, looking upon this as a kind of corollary. And Bohemund disturbed the minds of many nobler men by thus cherishing his old grudge against the Emperor.

Meanwhile Peter [5] after he had delivered his message, crossed the straits of Lombardy before anybody else with eighty thousand men on foot, one hundred thousand on horseback, and reached the capital by way of Hungary. For the Frankish race, as one may conjecture, is always very hot-headed and eager, but when once it has espoused a cause, it is uncontrollable. The Emperor, knowing what Peter had suffered before from the Turks, advised him to wait for the arrival of the other Counts, but Peter would not listen, for he trusted to the multitude of his followers. So he crossed and pitched his camp near a small town called Helenopolis. After him followed the Normans numbering ten thousand, who separated themselves from the rest of the army and devastated the country round Nicaea, and behaved most cruelly to all. For they dismembered some of the children and fixed others on wooden spits and roasted them at the fire, and on persons advanced in age they inflicted every kind of torture. But when the inhabitants of Nicaea became aware of these doings, they threw open their gates and marched out upon them, and after a violent conflict had taken place they had to dash back inside their citadel as the Normans fought so bravely. And thus the latter recovered all the booty and returned to Helenopolis. Then a dispute arose between them and the others who bad not gone out with them, as is usual in such cases, for the minds of those who had stayed behind were aflame with envy, and thus caused a skirmish after which the headstrong Normans drew apart again, marched to Xerigordus and took it by assault.

When the Sultan heard what had happened, he dispatched Elchanes against them with a substantial force. He came, and recaptured Xerigordus and sacrificed some of the Normans to the sword, and took others captive, at the same time laid plans to catch those who had remained behind with Cucupeter. He placed ambushes in suitable spots so that any coming from the camp in the direction of Nicaea would fall into them unexpectedly and be killed. Besides this, as he knew the Franks' love of money, he sent for two active-minded men and ordered them to go to Cucupeter's camp and proclaim there that the Normans had gained possession of Nicaea, and were now dividing everything in it. When this report was circulated among Peter's followers, it upset them terribly. When they heard the words "partition" and "money", they started in a disorderly crowd along the road to Nicaea, all but unmindful of their military experience and the discipline which is essential for those starting out to battle. For, as I remarked above, the Latin race is always very fond of money, but more especially when it is bent on raiding a country; it then loses its reason and gets beyond control.

As they journeyed neither in ranks nor in squadrons, they fell foul of the Turkish ambuscades near the river Dracon and perished miserably. And such a large number of Franks and Normans were the victims of the Ishmaelite sword [6], that when they piled up the corpses of the slaughtered men which were lying on either side they formed, I say, not a very large hill or mound or a peak, but a high mountain as it were, of very considerable depth and breadth--so great was the pyramid of bones. And later men of the same tribe as the slaughtered barbarians built a wall and used the bones of the dead to fill the interstices as if they were pebbles, and thus made the city their tomb in a way. This fortified city is still standing today with its walls built of a mixture of stones and bones. When they had all in this way fallen a prey to the sword, Peter alone with a few others escaped and re-entered Helenopolis; and the Turks who wanted to capture him set fresh ambushes for him.

But when the Emperor received reliable information of all this and the terrible massacre, he was very worried lest Peter should have been captured. He therefore summoned Constantine Catacalon Euphorbenus (who has already been mentioned many times in this history), and gave him a large force which was embarked on ships of war and sent him across the straits to Peter's succor. When the Turks saw him land they fled. Constantine, without the slightest delay, picked up Peter and his followers, who were but few, and brought them safe and sound to the Emperor. On the Emperor's reminding him of his original thoughtlessness and saying that it was due to Peter not having obeyed his, the Emperor's, advice that be had incurred such disasters. Peter, being a haughty Latin, would not admit that he himself was the cause of the trouble, but said it was the others who did not listen to him, but followed their own wills, and he denounced them as robbers and plunderers who, for that reason, were not allowed by the Savior to worship at His Holy Sepulchre. Others of the Latins, such as Bohemund and men of like mind, who had long cherished a desire for the Roman Empire, and wished to win it for themselves, found a pretext in Peter's preaching, as I have said, deceived the more single-minded, caused this great upheaval and were selling their own estates under the pretence that they were marching against the Turks to redeem the Holy Sepulchre. . . .

Now Count Godfrey crossed about this time, too, with more Counts, and an army of ten thousand horsemen and seventy thousand foot, and on reaching the capital he quartered his army near the Propontis, and it reached from the bridge nearest to the monastery of Cosmidium right up to the church of St. Phocas. But when the Emperor urged him to cross the straits of the Propontis, he let one day pass after another and postponed doing so on one pretext after another; the truth was that he was awaiting the arrival of Bohemund and the rest of the Counts. For although Peter for his part undertook this great journey originally only to worship at the Holy Sepulchre, yet the rest of the Counts, and especially Bohemund, who cherished an old grudge against the Emperor, were seeking an opportunity of taking their vengeance on him for that brilliant victory be had gained over Bohemund when he engaged in battle with him at Larissa.[8]  The other Counts agreed to Bohemund's plan, and in their dreams of capturing the capital had come to the same decision (which I have often mentioned already) that while in appearance making the journey to Jerusalem, in reality their object was to dethrone the Emperor and to capture the capital.

But the Emperor, aware of their rascality from previous experience, sent an order by letter that the auxiliary forces with their officers should move from Athyra to Phileas (a seaside town on the Euxine) and station themselves there by squadrons, and watch whether any messenger came from Godfrey to Bohemund and the other Counts behind, or contrariwise one from them to him, and if so, to prevent their passage. But in the meantime the following incident occurred. The Emperor invited some of the Counts with Godfrey in order to advise them to suggest to Godfrey to take the oath; and as time was wasted owing to the longwinded talkativeness of the Latins, a false rumor reached the others that the Counts had been thrown into prison by the Emperor.

Immediately numerous regiments moved on Byzantium, and to begin with they demolished the palace near the so-called Silver Lake. They also made an attack on the walls of Byzantium, not with siege-engines indeed, as they had none, but trusting to their numbers they actually had the impudence to try to set fire to the gate below the palace which is close to the chapel built long ago by one of the Emperors to the memory of Nicholas, the greatest saint in the hierarchy. Now it was not only the promiscuous mob of Byzantines, who were utterly cowardly and unused to war, that wailed and howled when they saw the Latin troops, and beat their breasts, not knowing what to do for fear, but the loyal adherents of the Emperor, recalling that Friday on which the city was taken, were alarmed lest on this day vengeance might be taken on them for their former actions. All who had military knowledge rushed helter-skelter to the palace.

But the Emperor did not trouble to arm himself, did not even put on his corselet of scale-armor, nor take shield or spear in hand, nor gird on his sword, but sat firmly on his throne and with cheerful countenance encouraged and inspired confidence in them all, while deliberating with his kinsmen and generals, about the action to take. To begin with, he insisted that not a single person should go out of the city to fight the Latins, firstly, because of the sacredness on which our Savior suffered an ignominious death for us all) and secondly, because he wanted to avoid civil strife. So he sent frequent messengers to persuade the Latins to desist from their undertaking; "Reverence," he said, "the God who was slain for us all to-day, who for the sake of our salvation refused neither the Cross nor the nails nor the lance, things fit only for malefactors. But if you really desire war, we shall be ready for you the day after our Lord's resurrection."

Not only did the Latins not obey him, but they even placed their troops more closely and sent such heavy showers of darts that one of the men standing by the Emperor's throne was hit in the chest. Seeing this, most of those who were standing on either side of the Emperor proceeded to draw back. But he sat on unmoved, consoling and gently chiding them in a way; this demeanor filled all with amazement. However, when be saw that the Latins approached the walls quite shamelessly and would not listen to sensible advice, he sent first for his son-in-law, Nicephorus, my Caesar. Him he ordered to take stout soldiers, skilled archers, and station them on the top of the wall, and added the command that they should shoot plenty of arrows at the Latins without taking aim, but should rather miss, so as to terrify them by the frequency of the darts, but by no means to kill. For, as I said above, he respected the sanctity of the day and did not wish for civil war. Then he bade others of the nobles, most of whom carried bows, and others wielding long lances, to throw open the gate of St. Romanus and make a display of a violent assault upon them. They were to draw themselves up in this order. . . . each of the spear-bearers was guarded by two peltasts on either side; then in this order they were to proceed at a slow pace, but send a few skilled archers ahead to shoot at the Franks from a distance, and to keep turning about from one side to another. And as soon as they saw only a narrow space left between the armies, they were to give the order to the archers accompanying them to direct a shower of arrows at the horses, not the riders, and to dash at full speed against the Latins, partly to break the violence of the Franks' onrush by wounding the horses so that they could not ride against the Romans, and secondly, which was more important, to prevent any Christians being killed. The nobles joyfully fulfilled the Emperor's bidding; threw open the gates, and now galloping at full speed against the enemy, and now checking the horses, they killed many of them while only a few of their own party were wounded on this day. I leave them to their perdition.

* * *
After him [7] came another innumerable, heterogeneous crowd, collected from nearly all the Frankish countries, together with their leaders, kings, dukes, counts and even bishops. The Emperor sent men to receive them kindly and to convey promises of reasonable help, for he was always clever at providing for the future, and in grasping at a glance what was expedient for the moment. He also gave orders to men specially appointed for this purpose to supply them with victuals on their journey, so that they might not for any reason whatsoever have a handle for a quarrel against him. And they (the Crusaders) hastened on to the capital. One might have likened them to the stars of heaven or the sand poured out along the edge of the sea. For these men that hurried on to approach Constantinople were "as many as there are leaves and flowers in the spring time," as Homer says. Though I much desire to do so, I cannot detail the names of the leaders. For my speech is paralyzed partly because I cannot articulate these strange names which are so unpronounceable, and partly because of the number of them. And, why indeed should we endeavor to recount the names of such a multitude, when even the men who were present were soon filled with indifference at the sight?

When they finally reached the capital they disposed their armies at the Emperor's bidding close to the Monastery of Cosmidium and they extended right up to the Hieron. It was not nine heralds, as formerly in Greece, who controlled this army by their shouts, but a large number of brave hoplites who accompanied them and persuaded them to yield to the Emperor's orders.

Now the Emperor was anxious to force them all to take the same oath as Godfrey had taken, so he invited them separately and conversed with them privately about his wishes, and made use of the more reasonable ones as intermediaries with the more recalcitrant. As they would not obey, for they were expecting Bohemund to arrive, but found various means of evasion by continually making some fresh demands. The Emperor very easily saw through their pretenses and by harassing them in every possible way, he forced them to take Godfrey's oath, and sent for Godfrey from over the sea at Pelecanus that he might be present during the taking of the oath. Thus they all assembled, Godfrey amongst them, and after the oath had been taken by all the Counts, a certain venturesome noble sat down on the Emperor's seat. The Emperor put up with him and said not a word, knowing of old the Latins' haughty nature.

But Count Balduinus stepped forward and taking him by the hand raised him up, rebuked him severely, and said, "It was wrong of you to do such a thing here, and that too when you have promised fealty to the Emperor; for it is not customary for the Roman Emperors to allow their subjects to sit beside them on the throne, and those who become his Majesty's sworn bondmen must observe the customs of the country." He made no reply to Balduinus, but darted a fierce glance at the Emperor and muttered some words to himself in his own language, saying, "Look at this rustic that keeps his seat, while such valiant captains are standing round him."

The movement of the Latin's lips did not escape the Emperor, who called one of the interpreters of the Latin tongue and asked the purport of his words. When he heard what the remark was, he said nothing to the Latin for some time, but kept the saying in his heart. As they were all taking leave of the Emperor, he called that haughty-minded, audacious Latin, and enquired who he was and of what country and lineage. "I am a Frank of the purest nobility," he replied, "all that I know is that at the cross-roads in the country whence I come there stands an old sanctuary, to which everyone who desires to fight in single combat goes ready accoutered for single combat, and there prays to God for help while he waits in expectation of the man who will dare to fight him. At those cross-roads I too have often tarried, waiting and longing for an antagonist; but never has one appeared who dared to fight me."

In reply to this the Emperor said, "If you did not find a fight when you sought for it then, now the time has come which will give you your fill of fighting. But I strongly advise you not to place yourself in the rear nor in the front of your line, but to stand in the center of the 'hemilochitae,' for I have bad a long experience of the Turkish method of fighting." It was not to this man only that he gave this advice, but to all the others he foretold the accidents likely to happen on their journey, and counseled them never to pursue the barbarians very far when God granted them a victory over them, for fear of being killed by falling into ambushes.

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[1] Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, a leader of the Latin Army.

[2] That is, he sold or mortgaged much of his property to raise money to send soldiers on the Crusade.

[3] "Franks" was the term used by the Byzantines for all people of Western Europe. They referred to themselves as "Romans."

[4] Bohemund I of Taranto was a Norman from Southern Itlay.

[5] Peter the Hermit was perhaps the originator of the Crusading idea and leader of the "People's Crusade."

[6] "Ishmaelite, " that is, "descendant of Ishmael," was a common term for Muslims.

    [7] Hugh, Count of Vermandois, son of King Henry I of France.

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From: Anna Comnena, Alexiad, trans. E. A. S. Dawes (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company, Ltd.) 1928, pp. 250-252, 257-260, 261, 262-268. Reprinted in Charles T. Davis, ed., Sources of Medieval History, Vol. II: Western Awakening c. 1000-c. 1500 (New York; Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967) pp. 150-159.

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