Post-classical history


First Encounters with the Enemy

THE CRUSADERS’ ADVANCE into Asia Minor was a story of victories and near-disasters, high violence and clashing egos. Alexios, forced by political instability to remain at the heart of the empire rather than venture out on expedition, sought to manage the campaign from afar. It was a high-risk approach, but, for the first year or so of the Crusade, a triumphant one.

The size of the force that assembled at Kibotos in the spring of 1097, numbering in the tens of thousands, was astonishing; the challenge of keeping them supplied was enormous. The slickly run operation at Kibotos impressed Stephen of Blois, who wrote to his wife describing the extraordinary amount of food and supplies that the Crusaders found waiting for them.1 Others too commented on the abundance of goods in the town, as well as the presence of a huge number of merchants selling wheat, wine, oil, cheese and other essentials to the westerners.2

As in the Balkans, the price of these commodities was not left to market forces or to the whims of sharp traders. Even when the very first westerners reached Kibotos, reported one author, goods were supplied not only in large volume, but at fixed prices as a result of centralised imperial control.3 The plentiful provisioning kept morale high amongst the Crusader force; it also further boosted the emperor’s high standing amongst the western army. Regular distributions of money to the rank and file likewise produced a swell of goodwill and gratitude that left the assembled force determined to advance on the enemy at Nicaea.4 Alexios built on this enthusiasm, promising gold, silver, horses and more besides if the Turks were defeated and the town captured.5

The Crusaders set off for Nicaea in the early summer of 1097, reaching the town in May. As soon as camp was set outside the imposing walls, the westerners tried to take the town by storm. This took Alexios aback; he had concluded long ago that it could not be taken by force.6 Indeed, he had sought military help from the west in the first place precisely because of the failure of his own efforts on Nicaea in the early 1090s. Now his assumption that the only way to capture Nicaea was through a lengthy siege, supported by substantial manpower, was immediately challenged by the Crusaders.

Rather than set up a perimeter and slowly tighten the noose round the town, the knights made a quick assessment of Nicaea’s fortifications and straightaway set about probing its defences and attempting to breach the walls. They began their assault before some of the principal leaders had even reached the town; Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois arrived to find that the attack was already under way.7

Although enthusiastic, the westerners’ initial efforts made little impression. According to one Crusader, Nicaea had been enclosed with such lofty walls that its inhabitants feared neither the attack of enemies, nor the force of any machine. As we have seen, the town was also perfectly positioned and well protected by natural terrain, including a substantial lake to the west.8 To overcome the defences, the knights designed and built stone-throwing machines which, while not capable of seriously damaging the vast fortifications, were intended to provide cover so sappers could get close enough to the walls to start compromising them from below. A team under the supervision of Raymond of Toulouse soon managed to collapse a section of the defences, raising spirits in the Crusader camp and startling the Turkish garrison. It was only by working furiously through the night that the defenders were able to mend the damage that had been done.9

The Crusaders persisted despite sustaining early casualties. One leading knight, Baldwin of Calderun, had his neck broken by the blow of a stone hurled from the parapets as he led a charge against the town’s gates. Other prominent figures were also struck, including Baldwin of Ghent, who was mortally wounded by a fine shot from the battlements. Disease also began to take its toll: the young and courageous Guy of Possesse came down with fever and died soon after.10

Those inside Nicaea held important strategic advantages over the attackers. The view from the towering battlements and walls enabled them to see what the Crusaders were doing and prepare accordingly. They could also easily fire projectiles and arrows or drop objects down on to the exposed men below. And the Turks protecting Nicaea were resourceful: burning oil, grease and pitch were all used against those who came within touching distance of the walls.11 Furthermore, the Turks knew that the Crusaders had been gathering at Kibotos since the summer of 1096, and they had spent months stockpiling the supplies they would need to withstand a lengthy siege. They seemed so confident that they would not be forced to surrender that Nicaea’s governor, Kilidj Arslan, was not even in the town during the siege but elsewhere in Asia Minor.12 Like Alexios, Nicaea’s defenders felt that there was little chance that the town would be taken by assault.

They demonstrated their confidence by treating those they killed conspicuously badly. One knight from Robert of Normandy’s contingent found himself isolated in an attack and was picked off by the town’s defenders. After he had been killed, a device with sharp, iron claws attached to a chain was lowered over the walls, which clasped the corpse and dragged it back up over the battlements. The cadaver was then hung from a noose and suspended naked over the side of the walls for all to see. The message was clear: it was a waste of men, time and energy trying to take Nicaea.13

The Crusaders matched like with like. A detachment of Turks sent to relieve the garrison at Nicaea was defeated and its men all decapitated, their severed heads fixed to the end of spears that the westerners paraded to the town’s inhabitants. As Anna Komnene noted, this was done ‘so that the barbarians would recognise from a distance what had happened and being frightened by this defeat at their first encounter would not be so eager for battle in the future’.14

The knights stepped up pressure on the town. Siege warfare was an area where western European technology had evolved rapidly in the eleventh century. The Normans of southern Italy in particular had mastered the art of attacking heavily fortified towns and storming them, rather than slowly strangling them into submission. Their rapid conquests of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily in the 1050s and 1060s owed much to the innovation that they brought to siege craft and to the inventiveness they showed when dealing with well-defended fortresses. Thus the construction of siege engines, designed to test Nicaea’s defences, had started as soon as the first knights approached the city.

Attention was focused on one section of the walls in particular, which was protected by the Gonatas tower. The tower had suffered damage during a rebellion a century earlier and was already leaning. The expedition’s leaders immediately recognised it as the weakest point in the town’s defences.15 Raymond of Toulouse oversaw the design of a special siege engine to use against the tower, a circular contraption covered with thick leather hides to protect those working within it. After it was pushed against the wall, sappers with iron tools worked at its foot, digging out stones from the base of the tower and replacing them with wooden beams which were then set on fire. Although the Gonatas tower did not immediately collapse, the Crusaders’ work produced a visible deterioration in the wall. It also provoked panic within Nicaea.16

Alexios sought to take advantage of the growing anxiety among the Turks. The emperor had taken up an advanced position at Pelekanos, from which he could monitor and direct proceedings. As the first assaults on Nicaea began, Manuel Boutoumites secretly entered the town to try to negotiate a settlement, reminding its inhabitants of the generosity the emperor had shown to Turks in the past and warning of the consequences should the Crusaders breach the town’s defences. Manuel produced written guarantees of how they would be treated if the city was surrendered immediately.17

The Turks rejected this overture, confident of the strength of Nicaea’s defences. In addition, they were also receiving reports that an enormous army was on its way to relieve the town. Indeed, in the early stages of the siege, it was the Crusaders who had reason to be anxious. Spies found in the westerners’ camp, pretending to be Christian pilgrims, revealed under torture that the garrison in Nicaea was communicating freely with the outside world and that a large Turkish force was heading for the town.18 The sight of supplies being brought into the town across the Ascanian Lake to the west underlined the need to take decisive action, rather than hope a long siege would bring about surrender.

Controlling operations carefully, Alexios gave the order for ships to be transported overland from the Gulf of Nikomedia to blockade the lake, while ordering the assault on the town to be stepped up. Byzantine archers were deployed close to the walls and ordered to provide such heavy covering fire that the Turks were unable to raise their heads over the battlements. Imperial forces, accompanied by trumpets and drums, launched into war cries, giving the impression that a heavy attack was under way. The sight of a wave of imperial military standards advancing in the distance suggested the imminent arrival of yet more men to attack the town.19

Alexios’ plan was to present a picture of overwhelming military superiority and to seek the surrender of Nicaea on his terms. Once again, Manuel Boutoumites was secretly dispatched into the town, taking with him a chrysobull, a document signed by the emperor in gold letters, setting out terms. These included an amnesty, as well as liberal gifts of money, ‘extended to all the barbarians in Nicaea without exception’.20 This time the emperor’s initiative and cunning convinced the Turks to surrender.

This was a major coup for Alexios – and the vindication of his ambitious policy of seeking help from the west. Nevertheless, the situation had to be handled delicately. Fearing that the western knights would not be satisfied by a brokered truce, the emperor gave the order to stage an ‘attack’ on the walls. The aim was to give the impression that it was the Byzantines who breached the defences and successfully took the town, rather than the Crusaders.

On 19 June 1097, while the western army, still unaware of the deal that had been struck, continued its assaults on the town’s fortifications, Byzantine soldiers scaled the walls on the lake side of Nicaea, climbed on to the battlements, and set up the imperial standards above the town. To the sounds of trumpets and horns, the fall of Nicaea and its capture by the forces of the emperor Alexios I Komnenos was announced from the walls of the city.21

The fall of Nicaea sent shock waves through the Muslim world. As one contemporary writing in Damascus described it: ‘There began to arrive a succession of reports that the armies of the Franks had appeared from the direction of the sea of Constantinople with forces not to be reckoned for multitude … as reports grew and spread from mouth to mouth far and wide, the people grew anxious and disturbed in mind.’22 The use of Turkish tombstones to rebuild an area of Nicaea’s walls that had suffered damage during the siege cannot have helped calm nerves about what the implications of the massive western expedition might be elsewhere in Asia Minor.23

The town’s capture caused a stir closer to home as well. For the Crusaders, it was proof that the expedition to Jerusalem enjoyed divine blessing. As it became clear that the town had fallen, cries of ‘Glory to Thee, O God!’ went up inside and outside the walls, shouted in both Latin and in Greek.24 Nicaea’s capture revealed that the knights were doing the work of the Lord; it was a success they would refer back to when the odds ran sharply against them at later stages in the expedition. There was no such thing as an impregnable target for a force marching under God’s protection.

For Alexios, the recovery of Nicaea had been one of his primary goals. Yet the ambition, speed and determination shown by the western knights had been remarkable. The town’s capture in June 1097 was therefore a comprehensive vindication of the emperor’s decision to call for military assistance from the west. For Alexios this was an unmitigated triumph.

The fact that Nicaea passed into Byzantine hands with little bloodshed also presented future opportunities for the emperor: he would be able to present himself as friend and protector of the Turks who could save them from slaughter at the hands of the knights. This intention was reinforced by the emperor’s treatment of the Turkish inhabitants of Nicaea: having been offered imperial service and generous gifts, all were allowed to go on their way unharmed.25 The Crusaders were also well rewarded: gold, silver and precious robes were given to the expedition’s leaders, while the lower ranks received copper coins to celebrate the fall of the city.26

Not everyone was impressed by the emperor’s largesse, however. Misgivings began to be articulated about Alexios’ role and about why the emperor should be benefiting from western strength and skill. A leading cleric on the expedition wrote to Manasses II, archbishop of Rheims, some months later, noting that ‘the princes of the army hastened to meet the emperor who had come to express his gratitude to them. After receiving gifts from him of priceless value, they returned, some feeling kindly towards him, others not.’27 Ironically, it was Alexios’ generosity that caused some of this bitterness. The knights had set out from western Europe to do God’s will and to some, to be financially rewarded by the Byzantines seemed inappropriate.

Alexios’ decision to raise the matter of the oaths once again at Nicaea caused further discontent. Anna Komnene’s claim that her father wanted all those who had previously made commitments to reconfirm them in June 1097 seems unconvincing and is not supported by Latin sources.28 In fact, it was those knights who had not already sworn allegiance that Alexios was seeking to pin down after the fall of Nicaea. Some prominent leaders had escaped his attention in Constantinople. Some, like Tancred, the nephew of Bohemond, had quietly avoided paying homage to the emperor, which he regarded as a yoke of bondage according to his twelfth-century biographer.29 When, after the capture of Nicaea, Tancred too was pressed to take the oath, he protested violently – at least, that is, until he named his price: the same payments as had been given to the other leaders plus some additional incentives. When one Byzantine senior officer lunged at him for his insolence, the two men had to be pulled apart. Once again, it was Bohemond who smoothed things over, persuading Tancred to take the oath.30

Alexios’ efforts to strengthen his personal authority over the expedition after the fall of Nicaea stemmed from his decision not to join the march across Asia Minor in person – at least not for the time being. Although the emperor had advanced to Nicaea to oversee and witness the fall of the town, he was reluctant to venture deeper into Anatolia. Mindful of the dangers of leaving the capital after the problems he had experienced on the eve of the Crusade, he instead chose an experienced and trusted general to lead the western army east. The obvious choice was the emperor’s childhood friend Tatikios. Gnarled and experienced, Tatikios had long proved his loyalty to Alexios, especially during the denouement of the Diogenes conspiracy. He had a slit nose, which he covered with a gold proboscis – likely the result of his loyalty to the emperor during the fierce infighting of the mid-1090s.31 Tatikios was appointed to command the force that was to lead the Crusaders across Asia Minor, and to take possession of any towns captured on the route to Jerusalem.32

Alexios’ reluctance to take part in the expedition was understandable given the crisis in Byzantium on the eve of the Crusade. The emperor had told Raymond of Toulouse that he could not lead the knights to Jerusalem because ‘he feared that the Alemanni, Hungarians and Cumans and other savage peoples would ravage his empire if he made the journey with the pilgrims’.33 These were real dangers: the Cuman attack in the spring of 1095 had stretched Byzantium to breaking point, leaving the emperor unable to take direct action, having to stage an elaborate ceremony in Hagia Sophia where he placed two tablets on the altar – one saying he should march against the nomads, the other that he should not; the rest was left up to God.34

In 1097, therefore, the threats to the empire from within and without meant that the risks were simply too high for Alexios to contemplate taking the lead in person. As we shall see, a year later, when desperate reports from Antioch reached Alexios, begging him to head east to relieve the embattled Crusade force which was by that time on the edge of annihilation, there was little the emperor could do to help. The weakness of his position at the time of his appeals to the west underpinned the First Crusade. Nevertheless, Alexios still retained control of the expedition in 1097; although some of the knights agitated to press straight on with their journey after the fall of Nicaea, it was only when the emperor gave his permission to depart that the Crusaders got on their way at the end of June.35

Meanwhile the emperor stayed in northern Asia Minor, monitoring Byzantine attempts to recover the western coast and river valleys of the subcontinent. As soon as Nicaea was secure, Alexios equipped a force and placed it under the command of John Doukas and Constantine Dalassenos, with orders to move on Çaka’s base at Smyrna. From there, they were to retake the other towns on the coast that had fallen to the Turks before turning inland, with Doukas marching up the Maiander valley, while in a flanking movement, Dalassenos was to head north to Abydos. The aim was to recover a substantial swathe of territory in western Asia Minor.36

The emperor’s initiative was supported by the route taken by Tatikios when he set out from Nicaea to lead the Crusaders east at the end of June 1097. Rather than follow the most direct route across central Anatolia, the Byzantine commander led the massive army as far south as Antioch-in-Pisidia. This was done to maximise the Byzantine military presence across the coast and its hinterland as John Doukas’ campaign got under way.37 The idea was to persuade the Turks to surrender on the grounds that they might be otherwise subjected to a massive assault.

To further impress the Turks, Doukas took with him Çaka’s daughter, who had been taken prisoner at Nicaea. She was brought to prove that the town had fallen, and to show that her father’s power was waning. The fact that she was treated well by the Byzantines clearly demonstrated to Çaka’s faltering followers the benefits of co-operating with the emperor.38

The Byzantine campaign that began in the summer of 1097 was spectacularly successful. Smyrna, Ephesus and all the towns on the coast were recovered. Philadelphia, Sardis, Laodikeia, Khoma and Lampe were then taken by force or surrendered as Doukas advanced. By the summer of 1098, the coast and the key nodes of the interior were once again back in imperial hands. Byzantine governors were quickly appointed in the locations that had been regained. All those given such positions – men like Kaspax, Hyaleas, Petzeas, Michael Kekaumenos, Eustathios Kamyztes – were part of the new guard that had emerged after the Diogenes conspiracy. They had been obscure figures before the mid-1090s; now they were on the front line of a major fightback in the empire’s eastern provinces.39

Having caused trouble for the empire for nearly a decade, Çaka himself was finally forced to flee from Smyrna. His fall was dramatic. Arriving in Abydos to take counsel with Kilidj Arslan, he was murdered after a lavish banquet, a sword plunged into his side by the former governor of Nicaea himself. He had become a liability to the Turks of Asia Minor.40

Such was the revival in Byzantine fortunes that Kilidj Arslan sought out the emperor to come to terms with him. As Anna Komnene put it, ‘these did not fail to meet with success’. Although she does not provide any detail of what was agreed, the fact that ‘peace was restored to the maritime provinces’ is a telling indication that Byzantium’s fortunes in Asia Minor had improved suddenly and decisively.41

The most important towns and regions in the eastern provinces were back in imperial hands. And while there was still much to be done if the Turks were to be driven out of the subcontinent altogether, the emperor also had to be pragmatic about how much he could realistically recover in one go. Quite apart from finding enough officers he could trust to reimpose his authority, it was essential that the gains of 1097–8 were made permanent. There was of course the prospect that as the Crusaders marched on from Nicaea, the Turks would regroup and subject the town, and the rest of this region, to renewed pressure. This made the agreement with Kilidj Arslan a welcome development for Alexios, allowing him the scope to rebuild the empire’s position in western Asia Minor properly, and to consolidate the improvement in his own position in Byzantium.

The emperor had used the muscle of the Crusader army shrewdly, and benefited from its power both directly – at Nicaea – and indirectly, through the pressure it put on the Turkish presence in western Asia Minor generally. Yet ironically the willingness of Kilidj Arslan to reach a settlement with Alexios and sacrifice a substantial swathe of territory had negative consequences for the Crusaders who now drew the full focus of Turkish attention.

After setting off from Nicaea, the western army divided into two, with Bohemond, Tancred and Robert of Normandy in one group; Robert of Flanders, Raymond of Toulouse, Hugh of Vermandois and the bishop of Le Puy in another. There were practical reasons for splitting the force. Although supplies had so far been ensured by the emperor, the sheer size of the army as it started to move meant that keeping it provisioned was extremely challenging, especially in the baking heat of the central Anatolian plateau in the height of the summer months.

At the start of July, just a few days into the march, Bohemond noticed Turkish scouts shadowing his lead party, as it approached the ruined town of Dorylaion. Although he immediately sent word to the main contingent, he was ambushed by an enormous Turkish force under the command of Kilidj Arslan that was on its way to tackle the western knights. Shock and fear spread through the Crusaders as the enemy bore down on them ‘howling like wolves and furiously shooting a cloud of arrows’.42

The noise made by the Turks was terrifying. ‘They began to gabble and shout, saying in their language some devilish word which I do not understand’, wrote one eyewitness. They were likely to have been shouting ‘Allahu akbar!’ – ‘God is great!’ Yet it was not just the sounds that frightened the westerners. The attack was so ferocious that priests on the expedition prayed to God through streaming tears, so certain were they of their imminent doom.43 ‘What shall I say next?’ recorded another westerner. ‘We were all indeed huddled together like sheep in a fold, trembling and frightened, surrounded on all sides by enemies so that we could not turn in any direction. It was clear to us that this happened because of our sins … By now we had no hope of surviving.’44

Surrounded by mounted archers, Bohemond’s men were pushed back towards the nearby river. This turned out to be fortunate: for knights wearing metal armour and fighting with heavy swords, access to drinking water could make the difference between life and death. In addition, the Turkish horses found the marshy land hard going.

Thus falling back to more advantageous terrain, the Crusaders held their line in spite of heavy casualties and fought a fierce rearguard action until reinforcements arrived. Bohemond’s tactics and his ability to maintain discipline explains why the Norman leader’s star rose steadily amongst the rank and file of the expedition. He urged his men to hold their ground, leading by example in the first major open encounter with the enemy. The Crusaders maintained their faith: ‘we passed a secret message along our line, praising God and saying, “Stand fast all together, trusting in Christ and in the victory of the Holy Cross. Today, please God, you will all gain much booty!”’45 It seems it was not just faith that sustained the knights.

With the arrival of detachments from the contingents of Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Toulouse and Hugh of Vermandois, the balance began to shift in the westerners’ favour. The appearance of Adhemar of Le Puy proved decisive, with the bishop ransacking the Turkish camp, setting it on fire and then attacking the enemy from the rear. This spread confusion amongst the attacking force, which now began to disperse. A battle that had threatened to bring the Crusade to an ignominious and early end turned into an extraordinary victory. No wonder some commentators regarded it as yet another sign of God’s grace and protection: ‘It was a great miracle of God that during the next and the third days the Turks did not cease to flee, although no one, unless God, followed them further. Gladdened by such a victory, we all gave thanks to God. He had willed that our journey should not be brought entirely to naught, but that it should be prospered more gloriously than usual for the sake of that Christianity which was His own.’46

Nevertheless, the Turks had made a startling impression on the Crusaders; their skill on horseback, their impressive use of the bow, and their military ability earned them western admiration. Some Crusaders regretted that they were not Christians: ‘[The Turks] have a saying that they are of common stock with the Franks, and that no men, except the Franks and themselves are naturally born to be knights. This is true and nobody can deny it, that if only they had stood firm in the faith of Christ and Christendom … you could not find stronger or braver or more skilful soldiers; and yet by God’s grace they were defeated by our men.’47 Despite the knights’ grudging admiration for their enemy – Kilidj Arslan was referred to as ‘a very noble man, but nevertheless a heathen’ – the threat posed by the Turks to the expedition outweighed such niceties.48 As Alexios had stressed in Constantinople, the Turks were formidable fighters; unless strict discipline was maintained in battle, the Crusaders would be massacred.49

Having seen off the attack at Dorylaion, the knights continued their march across central Anatolia. They made rapid progress, meeting little meaningful opposition as the Turks they encountered melted away, rather than daring to engage. As the Crusaders approached Herakleia, on the northern coast of modern Turkey, the enemy fled ‘as quickly as an arrow, shot by a strong hand, flies from the bowstring’.50 The lack of resistance was due to the western knights’ spectacular victory at Dorylaion. As one Arabic writer noted, ‘when news was received of the shameful calamity to the cause of Islam, the anxiety of the people became acute, and their fear and alarm increased’.51

With Asia Minor opening up to the advancing army, Tatikios made sure that strategically important towns were taken along the way. These were identified in advance: the Byzantine commander therefore led the Crusaders not along the most direct route to the Holy Land, but via a series of locations that were to serve as bases from which further conquests could be launched in future. One such place was the town of Plastencia, east of Caeserea (modern Kayersi) which was recovered in the autumn of 1097. In accordance with the agreements between the Crusaders and the emperor, the town was placed in the hands of an imperial governor, in this case Peter Aliphas, who had taken service with Alexios in the mid-1080s. Now occupying an influential liaison role with the Crusaders, Peter took on the responsibility of securing the town ‘in fealty to God and to the Holy Sepulchre’ – rather than in the name of the emperor, at least according to one commentator.52

Similar arrangements were put in place to take control of other locations as the Crusader army marched east. A certain Simeon took command of a tract of territory in south-eastern Asia Minor, vowing to protect it from Turkish attack.53 Then there was Welf, a native of Burgundy who had expelled the Turks from Adana and taken control of the town by the time a small Crusade detachment arrived to assess the situation on the southern coast. Like Peter Aliphas, he was a westerner in imperial service who had been reclaiming towns for Byzantium as the Crusade made its way across Asia Minor.54

Two forays involving Baldwin of Bouillon, the younger brother of Godfrey, and Tancred seem to have had much the same purpose. In the autumn of 1097, Baldwin detached himself from the main body of the expedition and marched into Cilicia, his departure sanctioned by the Crusade leadership. Tancred set off around the same time – but without the same consent. He claimed he had resolved to make his own way to Antioch; in fact, he wanted to see what Baldwin was up to.55

The two men soon came to blows after they both made for Tarsos, a wealthy and strategically important town on the south-eastern coast of Asia Minor. Tancred arrived first, and thanks to a series of well-judged threats managed to raise his banner over the ramparts without having to launch an attack on the town. Baldwin reached Tarsos soon after and immediately had Tancred’s banner replaced with his own. Antagonism between the two men worsened as Tancred moved on to Adana and then to Mamistra, with Baldwin following close behind. Eventually their forces broke into open battle with Tancred’s surprise attack easily beaten back by Baldwin’s men.56

It is difficult to interpret this episode; it is usually presented as a case of personal profiteering, a chance for both men to enrich themselves by chasing the opportunities that opened up during the Crusade and then fighting over the spoils. In fact, it is to Constantinople again that we should look for an explanation.

Baldwin had caught the emperor’s eye in the capital, impressing Alexios by chastising the arrogant knight who had dared to sit on the imperial throne. His reprimand is quoted in full in the Alexiad: ‘You ought never to have done such a thing, especially after promising to be the emperor’s liegeman. Roman emperors don’t let their subjects sit with them. That is the custom here and sworn liegemen of His Majesty should observe the customs of the country.’57

Alexios was on the lookout for westerners whom he could trust. Even Bohemond, with his blue eyes, smooth face and a reputation that inspired terror in Byzantium, had been carefully considered by the emperor as he looked for commanders to take on responsibilities during the Crusade. Baldwin appeared to fit the mould perfectly. It was no coincidence, therefore, that he was put in command of a force that made for the coast, nor that he advanced on Tarsos and the south-eastern corner of Asia Minor. The capture of the town was a vital precursor for the assault on Antioch, the next focus of the Crusader expedition. It was an important base with a good natural harbour, making it an obvious location from which the Turks might harass the coast of Syria once the westerners arrived, threatening supply lines to Antioch not only from southern Asia Minor, but also from Cyprus. Alexios was already in the process of establishing Cyprus as a primary base from which to provision the Crusaders. Protecting maritime traffic in the eastern Mediterranean was essential if the expedition was to prove successful in Syria. Taking Tarsos and other towns targeted by Baldwin – like Mamistra – was a crucial part of the wider plan to recover Antioch, until recently the most important city in the Byzantine east.

Thus the dispatch of Baldwin to oversee the capture of Tarsos and the towns of its hinterland had nothing to do with profiteering, but was a foray executed under the direction of the emperor. This was the reason why Baldwin’s departure from the main army, which was still being led by Tatikios, was agreed to in the first place. It also explains Baldwin’s determination to drive off Tancred. The latter was a difficult character, headstrong and ambitious. Baldwin’s eventual use of force against him was a necessary step to keep the framework of the expedition intact.

Having secured Tarsos, Adana and other locations in the south-western corner of Asia Minor, Baldwin handed them over to Tatikios and the Byzantines. This was why, less than six months later, Tatikios was himself able to place the towns under Bohemond’s control when he left the Crusader camp in search of supplies and reinforcements.58 Baldwin had shown himself to be willing to defend Alexios’ interests aggressively, and it was not long before other towns and local populations who were keen to drive out the Turks appealed to him, as the emperor’s representative, for help. After briefly rejoining the main army, Baldwin set off on his second foray, this time into the Caucasus. He was invited to Edessa by its governor T’oros, a Byzantine appointee who had done what he could to defend the town, fighting the Turks ‘with the bravery of a lion’, according to one local source.59

Baldwin was welcomed as a saviour by the region’s inhabitants. ‘When we were passing through the towns of the Armenians’, reported one eyewitness, ‘it was a wonder to see them coming out to greet us, carrying crosses and banners, kissing our feet and our clothes so much did they love God and because they had heard that we were going to protect them against the Turks who had oppressed them for so long.’60 The joy with which he was greeted must have stemmed from the belief that the emperor was actively trying to protect and secure this region against the Turks, as he had been desperately trying to do immediately before the Crusade, according to the most likely reading of an inscription from the Harran gate in the town.61 It also explains the offer made by the people of Edessa to give Baldwin half the revenues and taxes of the town. This was not intended to line Baldwin’s pockets; these were funds earmarked for the emperor and were being handed to his agent in the traditional fashion.62

Like Plastencia and Tarsos, Edessa was strategically well placed to dominate a wider region and Baldwin’s securing of the town was clearly part of a wider plan. Alexios was building a network of key towns and locations in the east which were held by trusted lieutenants. It was a role that suited Baldwin perfectly. Devout, experienced and capable, the youngest of three brothers whose patrimony had been reduced in the eleventh century, Baldwin had sold almost his entire landholdings before setting off for Jerusalem. He was one of the Crusaders who saw the expedition not only as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but as offering the prospect of a new life in the east.

Baldwin formally took charge of Edessa on behalf of Constantinople. We can tell this not just from the fact that he started to wear Byzantine clothes and grew his beard in local fashion, but from other more substantial clues. It was striking, for example, that after settling into his position in Edessa, Baldwin took to having two trumpeters ride ahead of him to announce his imminent arrival when touring the region. Baldwin would travel in his chariot, which bore on a golden shield the unmistakable image of the authority with which he acted: the imperial eagle of Constantinople.63

Baldwin’s appointment as Alexios’ representative in Edessa and the surrounding area was formalised by granting him the official title of doux, governor. This was why Latin sources began to talk of Baldwin in this period as having the rank of duke – a title that he did not hold at home.64 His obligations in Edessa also explain why it was that Baldwin was later reluctant to leave the city and rejoin the Crusade: he had responsibilities that he could not ignore.65 A marriage to the daughter of a local potentate following the death of his English wife Godevere likewise suggests that he was putting down roots.66 In short, he was an excellent choice of lieutenant for Alexios in his ambitious and extensive plan to recover the Byzantine east.

While Baldwin was making headway in extending the emperor’s authority, the rest of the Crusader army continued east. In October 1097, they finally arrived at the great city of Antioch. The city was not only strongly defended but well located: set back against mountains on two sides, with the river Orontes to the west serving as a further obstacle, Antioch was protected by walls twenty metres high and two metres thick, with numerous towers offering full sight of any hostile activities below.67

It was not just the physical location and the defences of Antioch that were a cause for concern; so was its size. The circuit of walls stretched for five kilometres around the city, encompassing an area of some 1,500 acres. As one observer put it, as long as the inhabitants were supplied with enough food, they would be able to defend the city for as long as they liked.68 In so large a city, enough could be grown within its walls to sustain it almost indefinitely.

Antioch’s governor, Yaghi Siyan, was so confident about the city’s defences that he did little to oppose the expedition when it arrived. This gave the knights precious time to survey the city properly and regroup following the long march. Moreover, the Crusaders reached Antioch at a favourable time of year, when the scorching heat of the summer had dissipated and food was in plentiful supply. They were delighted to find ‘fruitful vineyards and pits full of stored corn, apple trees laden with fruit and all sorts of other good things to eat’.69

To start with, there was a curious normality about the scene. Those in the city went about their business seemingly unworried about the presence of a major army outside the walls; and those who had come to attack it set about making plans, oblivious to the perils and strains which lay ahead. As the chaplain of Raymond of Toulouse wrote wistfully, at the beginning the westerners ‘ate only the best cuts, rump and shoulders, scorned brisket and thought nothing of grain and wine. In these good times, only the watchmen along the walls reminded us of our enemies concealed inside Antioch.’70

The Crusaders established themselves in the surrounding area, taking the city’s port at St Simeon to open up supply lines by sea to Cyprus, where a new Byzantine governor had recently been appointed, after the restoration of Alexios’ authority there, to oversee provisioning of the knights.71 As Tarsos and other coastal towns had been captured already, there was little disruption to maritime traffic, either from Cyprus or elsewhere.

The Crusaders now tried to impose a blockade on Antioch. Although this initially affected the price of goods in the city, its geography and scale made it all but impossible to seal off completely. As a Muslim chronicler noted, ‘oil, salt and other necessities became dear and unprocurable in Antioch; but so much was smuggled into the city that they became cheap again’.72

The ineffectiveness of the siege was one thing; the other problem was that living conditions soon deteriorated for the attackers. Finding enough food and pasture was a problem for any besieging force tackling a large target. Maintaining a single horse could require between five and ten gallons of fresh water per day, as well as a good supply of hay, and plenty of pastureland. It is difficult to estimate the precise number of horses outside Antioch, but there would have been thousands, with leading aristocrats having brought several mounts with them. The cost and practicalities of keeping so many horses supplied, to say nothing of those who rode them, was substantial.

Ominously, supplies started to run out a few weeks after the army’s arrival at Antioch. The land that had been so pregnant when they reached the city was quickly stripped bare. By the end of the year, conditions became atrocious. As Fulcher of Chartres reported: ‘Then the starving people devoured the stalks of beans still growing in the fields, many kinds of herbs unseasoned with salt, and even thistles which because of the lack of firewood were not well cooked and therefore irritated the tongues of those eating them. They also ate horses, asses, camels, dogs and even rats. The poorer people ate even the hides of animals and the seeds of grain found in manure.’73

By mid-November, those leaving the safety of the camp to seek food – or for other reasons – ran serious risks. One young knight, Abelard of Luxemburg, ‘a very high-born young man of royal blood’, was found ‘playing dice with a certain woman of great birth and beauty in a pleasure garden full of apple trees’. He was ambushed and beheaded on the spot; his companion, seized by Turks, was repeatedly violated and also decapitated. The heads of both were then catapulted into the Crusader camp.74 The Turks demonstrated their confidence no less forcefully by hanging John the Oxite, the patriarch of Antioch, upside down over the walls, beating his feet with iron bars in sight and within earshot of the western army.75

Food shortages were soon followed by disease. According to one chronicler from Edessa, as many as one in five of the Crusaders died outside Antioch from starvation and illness.76 Infection raged through an increasingly malnourished and enfeebled force which was camped close together. Water carried deadly typhus and cholera bacteria. Tents rotting from the endless rain did nothing to improve morale or to stem the spread of disease.77

The situation worsened further when a large army under Duqaq, the emir of neighbouring Damascus, moved to relieve Antioch shortly after Christmas 1097. By a stroke of good fortune, the advancing force was spotted by Bohemond and Robert of Flanders who were on a foraging mission, and decided to engage the enemy. Vastly outnumbered, the western knights held rank and managed to avoid being encircled by Duqaq’s men by breaking through enemy lines.78 The Crusaders’ resistance had a surprising effect on Turkish morale. Duqaq had made for Antioch expecting to finish off a weakened and exposed western army. But Bohemond and Robert of Flanders had shown formidable determination and discipline when they came under attack, which startled the governor of Damascus and his men. Rather than continue on to Antioch, to the westerners’ great surprise Duqaq decided to return home. The first major Muslim army to attack the Crusaders at Antioch had folded at the first opportunity.

The sense of relief in the western camp did not last long. Barely a month later, at the start of 1098, scouts reported that another large relief army, led by Ridwan, the governor of Aleppo, was approaching fast. The principal leaders of the crusading force met in council and decided that some 700 knights would move against the Aleppan force, while the rest of the expedition was to remain at Antioch to maintain the siege as best they could.

Bohemond, Robert of Flanders and Stephen of Blois left camp on 8 February 1098 under the cover of nightfall.79 When they encountered the Aleppan army, Bohemond once more took a leading role in battle. As had been the case with Duqaq’s force, the Turks again threatened to overwhelm the western knights. Bohemond stood firm, urging those close to him: ‘Charge at top speed, like a brave man, and fight valiantly for God and the Holy Sepulchre, for you know in truth that this is no war of the flesh, but of the spirit. So be very brave, and become a champion of Christ. Go in peace and may the Lord be your defence!’80

Bohemond’s ferocious determination inspired his men and startled the enemy. But the Crusaders’ battlefield tactics were also important. Part of the western cavalry hid from view, waiting for the right moment to ambush the enemy. They chose their moment impeccably, successfully dispersing the Turks so they could be picked off in smaller groups. As the Crusaders counter-attacked, Ridwan’s army fell apart. Once again, a miraculous victory had been delivered against all the odds.

The stock of the commanders who had overseen the success rose dramatically. Raymond of Toulouse’s ill health had prevented him from taking part and he had been left in command of those who remained at Antioch. Tatikios and the Byzantine force too could not take any credit for the successes over the governors of Damascus and Aleppo. Bohemond, on the other hand, had been inspirational. As one eyewitness reported, ‘Bohemond, protected on all sides by the sign of the Cross, charged the Turkish forces like a lion which has been starving for three or four days which comes out of its cave thirsting for the blood of cattle and falls upon the flocks careless of their own safety, tearing the sheep as they flee hither and thither.’81 It marked the beginning of a personality cult that was to prove enormously powerful in the years that followed.

The rout of Ridwan’s army was a major boost to morale. Equally, it was a huge shock to the city’s inhabitants who were presented with the sight of Turkish heads on posts in view of the city’s gates. It was a grim reminder of what would happen to them if they continued to hold out.82

Three times now, in their encounters with Kilidj Arslan, Duqaq and now Ridwan, the Crusaders had come within a hair’s breadth of catastrophe. While they had survived on each occasion, the odds of them succeeding each time an army set out against them diminished. The governors of Nicaea, Damascus and Aleppo might have failed. But there were other local rulers, to say nothing of the mighty sultan of Baghdad and the vizier of Cairo, who were likely to intervene sooner or later. The question was whether the Crusaders could break Antioch before their good fortune ran out.

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