From The Alexiad of Anna Comnena

[Click on image to enlarge] Anna Comnena's biography of her father the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081–1118) is an important historical and literary document of the period that includes the First Crusade. The best introduction to Anna Comnena is her own Preface to the Alexiad, which contains the following very long and highly wrought sentence (abridged here):

I, Anna, daughter of the Emperor Alexius and the Empress Irene, born and bred in the Purple, >> note 1 not without some acquaintance with literature — having devoted the most earnest study to the Greek language, in fact, and being not unpracticed in Rhetoric and having read thoroughly the treatises of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato; . . . I, having realized the effects wrought by Time, desire now by means of my writings to give an account of my father's deeds, which do not deserve to be consigned to Forgetfulness nor to be swept away on the flood of Time into an ocean of Non-Remembrance.

The Alexiad reminds us of the complexity of the First Crusade, which was not simply a holy war between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam. Situated squarely on the Crusaders' route to the east was the Byzantine Empire with its capital Constantinople (later: Byzantium; today: Istanbul), founded in 330 by the emperor Constantine the Great, who converted Rome to Christianity. For a time some Roman emperors chose to reside in the West or in the East, establishing the distinction between the Western and the Eastern Empire. After the end of the fifth century, historians refer to the Eastern Empire as the Byzantine Empire, but Anna Comnena, although her father's empire no longer included Rome, always calls it the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire, although profoundly Christian, was often at odds with the Roman popes in diplomacy and in doctrine; Byzantine Christianity evolved into what is today the Greek Orthodox Church.

[Click on image to enlarge] At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire ruled over the heel and toe of the Italian boot and disputed with the West the control of several petty states in the south of Italy. Mercenaries from northern France found employment in constant warfare among the principalities of southern Italy. The son of a petty Norman knight, Robert Guiscard ("the weasel"), established Norman rule over most of the Byzantine territories in South Italy and styled himself Duke of Apulia. In 1071 drove the Byzantines from their last foothold on the Adriatic coast. In 1081, the year in which Alexius became emperor, Robert and his son Bohemond, who would become one of the most important leaders of the First Crusade, invaded the Empire, which was already embroiled at the time in war against the Seljuq Turks on its western flank. Bohemond outmaneuvered and defeated Alexius in a strategic encounter, and the Empire might well have succumbed but for Alexius's diplomacy, the death of Robert Guiscard, and internal strife among the Norman possessions in Italy that forced the invaders to turn back from their Byzantine campaigns.

The First Crusade, however, brought about an uneasy Christian alliance between the European Crusaders and the Byzantines against their common Muslim enemies, who themselves were split into several feuding ethnic and sectarian factions. Alexius made sure that the Crusaders converging upon Byzantium, whom he did not trust, were supplied with provisions and restrained from pillaging. Anna Comnena provides portraits of the Crusaders, whom she refers to disparagingly as "Latins," "Kelts," "Franks," and "barbarians" (the Greek word for all non-Greek speakers but with its modern connotations). The princess was certainly superior in education and culture to these rough-hewn western noblemen. She was both fascinated and repelled by Bohemond, to whom she reverts again and again in her book. Although her portrait of Bohemond is not completely factual or fair, and Bohemond is hardly typical of his fellow Crusaders, he nevertheless presents us, through Anna's eyes, with a portrait of a Crusader that provides a striking contrast with the idealized portrait of Chaucer's pilgrim Knight (NAEL 8, 1.219–220, lines 43–78). >> note 2

Like Father Like Son

His younger son Bohemond he [Robert Guiscard] sent with powerful forces to our country. . . . Bohemond resembled his father in all respects, in daring, strength, aristocratic and indomitable spirit. In short, Bohemond was the exact replica and living image of his father. He attacked Canina, Hiericho, and Avlona >> note 3 like a thunderbolt, with threats and irrepressible fury. He seized them, and fighting on took the surrounding areas bit by bit and destroyed them by fire. Bohemond was in fact like the acrid smoke which preceded the fire, the preliminary skirmish which comes before the great assault. Father and son you might liken to caterpillars and locusts, for what was left by Robert, his son fed on and devoured.

[Alexius welcomes his old enemy Bohemond, along with the other Crusaders, to Byzantium and tries to persuade each of them to swear an oath of fealty to him.]

A Byzantine Reception

Bohemond arrived at Apros with the other counts. Knowing that he himself was not of noble descent, with no great military following because of his lack of resources, he wished to win the emperor's goodwill, but at the same time to conceal his own hostile intentions against him. With only ten Kelts he hurried to reach the capital before the rest. Alexius understood his schemes — he had long experience of Bohemond's deceitful, treacherous nature — and desired to talk with him before his companions arrived; he wanted to hear what Bohemond had to say and while he still had no chance of corrupting the rest (they were not far away now) he hoped to persuade him to cross over to Asia.

When Bohemond came into his presence, Alexius at once gave him a smile and inquired about his journey. Where had he left the counts? Bohemond replied frankly and to the best of his knowledge to all these questions, while the emperor politely reminded him of his daring deeds at Larissa and Dyrrachium; he also recalled Bohemond's former hostility. "I was indeed an enemy and foe then," said Bohemond, "but now I come of my free will as Your Majesty's friend." Alexius talked at length with him, in a somewhat discreet way trying to discover the man's real feelings, and when he concluded that Bohemond would be prepared to take the oath of allegiance, he said to him, "You are tired now from your journey. Go away and rest. Tomorrow we can discuss matters of common interest."

Bohemond went off to the Cosmidion, where an apartment had been made ready for him and a rich table was laid full of delicacies and food of all kinds. Later the cooks brought in meat and flesh of animals and birds, uncooked. "The food, as you see, has been prepared by us in our customary way," they said, "but if that does not suit you here is raw meat which can be cooked in whatever way you like." In doing and saying this they were carrying out the emperor's instructions. Alexius was a shrewd judge of a man's character, cleverly reading the innermost thoughts of his heart, and knowing the spiteful, malevolent nature of Bohemond, he rightly guessed what would happen. It was in order that Bohemond might have no suspicions that he caused the uncooked meat to be set before him at the same time, and it was an excellent move. The cunning Frank not only refused to taste any of the food, but would not even touch it with his finger-tips; he rejected it outright but divided it all up among the attendants, without a hint of his own secret misgivings. It looked as if he was doing them a favor, but that was mere pretense; in reality, if one considers the matter rightly, he was mixing them a cup of death. There was no attempt to hide his treachery, for it was his habit to treat servants with utter indifference. However, he told his own cooks to prepare the raw meat in the usual Frankish way. On the next day he asked the attendants how they felt. "Very well," they replied and added that they had suffered not the slightest harm from it. At these words he revealed his hidden fear: "For my own part," he said, "when I remembered the wars I have fought with him, not to mention the famous battle, I was afraid he might arrange to kill me by putting a dose of poison in the food."

Such were the actions of Bohemond. I must say I have never seen an evil man who in all his deeds and words did not depart far from the path of right; whenever a man leaves the middle course, to whatever extreme he inclines he takes his stand far from virtue. Bohemond was summoned then and required, like the others, to take the customary Latin oath. Knowing what his position was, he acquiesced gladly enough, for he had neither illustrious ancestors nor great wealth (hence his forces were not strong — only a moderate number of Keltic followers). In any case Bohemond was by nature a liar. After the ceremony was over, Alexius set aside a room in the palace precincts and had the floor covered with all kinds of wealth: clothes, gold and silver coins, objects of lesser value filled the place so completely that it was impossible for anyone to walk in it. He ordered the man deputed to show Bohemond these riches to open the doors suddenly. Bohemond was amazed at the sight. "If I had such wealth," he said, "I would long ago have become master of many lands." "All this," said the man, "is yours today — a present from the emperor." Bohemond was overjoyed. After accepting the gift and thanking him for it, he went off to rest at his lodging-place. Yet when the things were brought to him, although he had expressed such admiration before, he changed. "I never thought I should be so insulted by the emperor," he said. "Take them away. Give them back to the sender." Alexius, familiar with the Latins' characteristic moodiness, quoted a popular saying: 'His mischief shall return upon his own head.' Bohemond heard about this, and when he saw the servants carefully assembling the presents to carry them away, he changed his mind once more; instead of sending them off in anger he smiled on them, like a sea-polypus which transforms itself in a minute.

The truth is that Bohemond was an habitual rogue, quick to react to fleeting circumstances; he far surpassed all the Latins who passed through Constantinople at that time in rascality and courage, but he was equally inferior in wealth and resources. He was the supreme mischief-maker. As for inconstancy, that followed automatically — a trait common to all Latins. It was no surprise then that he should be overjoyed to receive the money he had formerly refused. When he left his native land, he was a soured man, for he had no estates at all. Apparently he left to worship at the Holy Sepulchre, but in reality to win power for himself — or rather, if possible, to seize the Roman Empire itself, as his father had suggested. He was prepared to go to any length, as they say, but a great deal of money was required.

The emperor, aware of the man's disagreeable, ill-natured disposition, cleverly sought to remove everything that contributed to Bohemond's secret plans. When therefore Bohemond demanded the office of Domestic of the East, >> note 4 he was not granted his request; he could not "out-Cretan the Cretan," >> note 5 for Alexius was afraid that once possessed of authority he might use it to subjugate all the other counts and thereafter convert them easily to any policy he chose. At the same time, because he did not wish Bohemond to suspect in any way that his plans were already detected, he flattered him with fine hopes. "The time for that is not yet ripe, but with your energy and loyalty it will not be long before you have even that honor."

[The way from Byzantium to the Holy Land involved the Crusaders in many battles. A major obstacle was the rich and strongly fortified city of Antioch near the Syrian coast, which fell to the Crusaders only after a siege of fifteen months through treachery procured by Bohemond. Bohemond had all along aspired to make Antioch his personal prize. Although other leaders of the Crusade disputed his claims, the army eventually set out for Jerusalem without Bohemond and his forces, leaving him as the sole possessor of Antioch. The Conquest of Jerusalem, however, did not resolve dissension among Christians or make Bohemond the undisputed and independent Prince of Antioch. The Crusade had greatly increased the authority and military power of Alexius, who now exerted pressure on Bohemond to obey the oath he had sworn and to hold captured territories as the emperor's vassal. Anna tells a unique story, perhaps based on rumors or concocted by herself, about Bohemond's scheme to elude the Byzantine navy in order to raise an army against Alexius among the Normans in Italy.]

A Still-Breathing "Corpse"

Bohemond shuddered at the emperor's threats. Without means of defense (for he had neither an army on land nor a fleet at sea, and danger hung over him on both sides) he invented a plan, not very dignified, but amazingly crafty. First he left the city of Antioch in the hands of his nephew Tancred . . . ; then he spread rumors everywhere about himself: "Bohemond," it was said, "is dead." While still alive he convinced the world that he had passed away.

Faster than the beating of a bird's wings the story was propagated in all quarters: "Bohemond," it proclaimed, "is a corpse." When he perceived that the story had gone far enough, a wooden coffin was made and a bireme >> note 6 prepared. The coffin was placed on board and he, a still-breathing "corpse," sailed away from Soudi, the port of Antioch, for Rome. He was being transported by sea as a corpse. To outward appearance (the coffin and the behavior of his companions) he was a corpse. At each stop the barbarians tore out their hair and paraded their mourning. But inside Bohemond, stretched out at full length, was a corpse only thus far; in other respects he was alive, breathing air in and out through hidden holes. That is how it was at the coastal places, but when the boat was out at sea, they shared their food with him and gave him attention; then once more there were the same dirges, the same tomfoolery. However, in order that the corpse might appear to be in a state of putrefaction, they strangled or cut the throat of a cock and put that in the coffin with him. By the fourth or fifth day at the most, the horrible stench was obvious to anyone who could smell. Those who had been deceived by the outward show thought the offensive odor emanated from Bohemond's body, but Bohemond himself derived more pleasure than anyone from his imaginary misfortune. For my part I wonder how on earth he endured such a siege on his nose and still continued to live while being carried along with his dead companion. But that has taught me how hard it is to check all barbarians once they have set their hearts on something: there is nothing, however objectionable, which they will not bear when they have made up their minds once and for all to undergo self-inflicted suffering. This man Bohemond was not yet dead — he was dead only in pretense — yet he did not hesitate to live with dead bodies.

In the world of our generation this ruse of Bohemond was unprecedented and unique, and its purpose was to bring about the downfall of the Roman Empire. Before it no barbarian or Greek devised such a plan against his enemies, nor, I fancy, will anyone in our lifetime ever see its like again. When he reached Corfu, >> note 7 as if he had reached some mountain peak, as if the island were a place of refuge and was now free from danger, he rose from the "presumed dead," left the coffin where his "corpse" had lain, enjoyed the sunshine to the full, breathed in a cleaner air and walked round the city of Corfu. The inhabitants, seeing him dressed in outlandish barbarian clothes, inquired about his family, his condition, his name; they asked where he came from and to whom he was going.

Bohemond treated them all with lofty disdain and demanded to see the duke of the city. . . . Coming face to face with him, Bohemond, arrogant in look and attitude, speaking with an arrogant tongue in a language wholly barbaric, ordered him to send this communication to the emperor:

To you I, Bohemond, famous son of Robert, send this message. The past has taught you and your Empire how formidable are my bravery and my opposition. When I turn the scales of fortune, as God is my witness I will not leave unavenged the evils done to me in the past. Ever since I took Antioch on my march through Roman territory and with my spear enslaved the whole of Syria, I have had my fill of misery because of you and your army; my hopes, one after another have been dashed; I have been thrust into a thousand misfortunes and a thousand barbarian wars. But now it is different. I want you to know that although I was "dead," I have come back to life. . . . As far as you and your friends are concerned, I am a corpse; but to myself and my friends it is manifest that I am a living man, plotting a diabolical end for you. . . . If I reach the mainland of Italy and cast eyes on the Lombards and all the Latins and the Germans and our own Franks, men full of martial valor, then with many a number I will make your cities and your provinces run with blood, until I set up my spear in Byzantium itself.

Such was the extreme bombast in which the barbarian exulted.

[Bohemond's boast — no doubt, composed by Anna — proves an empty one. The emperor forces Bohemond to sue for peace on Alexius's own terms. Anna describes the final meeting of Bohemond with her father and then, in effect, writes Bohemond's obituary.]

Portrait of a Crusader

The arrangements made for [Bohemond's] reception, when he drew near the imperial tent, had been carried out in the manner settled by the envoys. Bohemond went inside, the emperor extended his hand, grasped Bohemond's and after the words of welcome usually spoken by emperors, placed him near the imperial throne.

Bohemond's appearance was, to put it briefly, unlike that of any other man seen in those days in the Roman world, whether Greek or barbarian. The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention of his name terror. I will describe in detail the barbarian's characteristics. His stature was such that he towered almost a full cubit over the tallest men. He was slender of waist and flanks, with broad shoulders and chest, strong in the arms; in general he was neither taper of form, nor heavily built and fleshy, but perfectly proportioned — one might say that he conformed to the Polyclitean ideal. >> note 8 His hands were large, he had a good firm stance, and his neck and back were compact. If to the accurate and meticulous observer he appeared to stoop slightly, that was not caused by any weakness of the vertebrae of the lower spine, but presumably there was some malformation there from birth. The skin all over his body was very white, except for his face which was both white and red. His hair was lightish-brown and not as long as that of other barbarians (that is, it did not hang on his shoulders); in fact, the man had no great predilection for long hair, but cut his short, to the ears. Whether his beard was red or of any other color I cannot say, for the razor had attacked it, leaving his chin smoother than any marble. However, it appeared to be red. His eyes were light-blue and gave some hint of the man's spirit and dignity. He breathed freely through nostrils that were broad, worthy of his chest and a fine outlet for the breath that came in gusts from his lungs. There was a certain charm about him, but it was somewhat dimmed by the alarm his person as a whole inspired; there was a hard, savage quality in his whole aspect, due, I suppose, to his great stature and his eyes; even his laugh sounded like a threat to others. Such was his constitution, mental and physical, that in him both courage and love were armed, both ready for combat. His arrogance was everywhere manifest; he was cunning, too, taking refuge quickly in any opportunism. His words were carefully phrased and the replies he gave were regularly ambiguous. Only one man, the emperor, could defeat an adversary of such character, an adversary as great as Bohemond; he did it through luck, through eloquence, and through the other advantages that Nature had given him. . . .

The emperor had achieved his purpose. Bohemond under oath had confirmed the written agreement . . . , swearing by the Holy Gospels put before him and by the spear with which the impious pierced the side of Our Savior. Now, after handing over all his troops to the emperor to command and use as he wished Bohemond asked for permission to return home. . . . Not more than six months later he died.


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