Byzantine Spies and Venetian Sellouts – Part One

Europe, in the grip of feudalism, was weaker internally than on her borders. The nations were already taking shadowy shape, but as yet there was no real national spirit. In France there was neither Charlemagne nor Martel – only starving, plague-harried peasantry, warring fiefs, and a land torn by strife between Capet and Norman duke, overlord and rebellious vassal. And France was typical of Europe …

Already long shadows were falling from the east across the Golden Horn. Byzantium was still Christendom’s mightiest bulwark; but westward from Bokhara were moving the horsemen of the steppes destined swiftly to wrest from the Eastern Empire her last Asiatic possession. The Seljuks, blocked on the south by the glittering Indo-Iranian empire of Mahmud of Ghazni, were riding toward the setting sun, not to be halted until their horses’ hoofs splashed the waters of the Mediterranean.

— Robert E. Howard, “Hawks Over Egypt”

Sometimes I think there must have been advantages to writing for the pulps in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Political correctness was unheard-of, and you could use stereotypes as a kind of characterization shorthand, never mind who might find them offensive. Cruel Arab despots, cunning, fiendish Chinese criminals, brutish stupid (or childlike and dumbly loyal) blacks, tough but funny Irish (never represented as bright, at least not by English authors) avaricious Jews (stock types for dope peddlers and white slavers as well as grasping pawnbrokers) devil-worshipping Yezidees or Mongols – all of it was fine, and if you described a Kurd as “slant-eyed” the readers wouldn’t know or care that Kurds are not.

The stereotypes weren’t limited to contemporary stories, either. They abounded in adventure yarns set in the Middle Ages and Crusades. The crusaders (especially when they were English) were brave and noble. Saracens were wicked (except Saladin), Mongols were beasts, the French were arrogant and impractical, while Jews – were the usual Jews, going back to Isaac of York in Ivanhoe, and before him to Shylock.

Which brings us to the Byzantines and Venetians who usually appear in these yarns. The standard types were double-dealers who showed a smiling face to the crusaders from Western Europe, gave them ship transport or safe-conduct through their territories, and then betrayed them. This is evident in Robert E. Howard’s stories, very much so, although he was scarcely starry-eyed about the crusaders either. His heroes were hard, disillusioned men like Godric de Villehard, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey and Cahal Ruadh O’Donnel. The occasional pure-hearted idealist who takes the cross and rides east does not usually live long. (Godric refers to the Marquis of Montferrat as “that devious-minded assassin”, to Simon de Montfort as “that black-faced cutthroat”, and tells the eastern princess, Yulita, that the crusade’s leaders “plotted against each other all the way to Venice”.)

This picture was not only given in pulp stories. It prevailed in history textbooks – British Commonwealth ones, anyway, and doubtless in the U.S.A. also. Robert E. Howard lived from 1906 to 1936. This blogger can attest that a quarter-century later, when he was in high school, Australian history classes taught nothing about the Byzantine Empire. Plenty about Henry VIII and the Stuarts, and something about the Roman Empire, but our teachers gave us the impression that it fell in the fifth century, and after that, nothing worth mentioning happened until the Middle Ages began. Anything I heard about the East Roman Empire (not much, as I’ve said) implied a steady, corrupt decline of a thousand years, a dreary procession of gutless emperors, depraved empresses, courtesans, and eunuchs, until the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453. The only real men in the place where the foreigners of the Varangian Guard – tall blonde lads of Nordic stock. (The original “Varangians” were the Vikings who sailed down the rivers of Russia to found Novgorod and Kiev.)

Other writers besides REH give their readers a scornful view of the Byzantines. In Frans Bengtsson’s superb The Long Ships, the Viking Olof Summer-bird (so called for his bright magnificent clothing) says of the Byzantines, “They hold it less evil to blind or mutilate a man than to kill him, by which you may see the sort of people they are.”  The main character’s brother falls victim to a devious, greedy Byzantine official, and loses his eyes, tongue and right hand. Cecelia Holland’s The Belt of Gold deals with the intrigues and power plays of the Empress Irene, a crafty unprincipled bitch who had her own son blinded – and the hero is a stalwart Frankish barbarian, Hagen.  His love interest is a Greek girl of high intelligence, caught up in the intrigues of the Empress and her rival, John Cerulis. Hagen and his brother rescue her from “the wretched Karros, John Cerulis’s bully boy” as the novel opens. The general picture given of Byzantines and their culture is not endearing.

The actual truth is that Charlemagne, Irene’s contemporary, was no charmer either. Ask the pagan Saxons – the ones he left alive. The Franks had a long record as a fierce, treacherous lot who would murder without a qualm. Frankish kings frequently slew their brothers. Queen Fredegund (sixth century CE) was so fiendishly cruel she made Irene look like Minnie Mouse. As for the Vikings and their Christian successors the Normans – it was William the Conqueror, touted to the sky as a hero by many, who while he was Duke of Normandy reacted badly to taunts about his bastard birth from the garrison of a castle he was besieging. When he took it, he had the survivors’ hands and feet cut off. Irish kings were quite in the habit of blinding their rivals, even their own kindred, or anybody else they thought might start trouble for them. Blinding and mutilation were no exclusive practice of the Byzantines.

Regardless of that, REH seemed to be emotionally on the side of the Vikings, the stalwart barbarians, and to view the Byzantines as over-civilized and effete, never traits to his liking. His “Rhyme of the Viking Path” is narrated by a Norseman who had been captured raiding Miklagard (Constantinople) by his “own kin” – evidently the Norsemen of the Varangian Guard. He has been a galley slave for a time, and recounts that

 … I survived the reeking rack,

The toil, the whips that burned and gashed,

The spiteful Greeks who scarred my back

And trembled even while they lashed.

Byzantines may make fine decadent, corrupt heavies for historical fiction, but let’s take a look at the Eastern Empire’s record vis-a-vis that of the Western. If we arbitrarily suppose the latter to have begun with Julius Caesar around 45 BCE, and ended (again arbitrarily) with the Vandal sack of Rome in 455 CE, it lasted five centuries. Take the Eastern Empire’s course as having begun then, in the mid-fifth century, the time of the Vandal sack — and also the end of the Hun Empire, with Attila’s sudden death. Its culture and wealth had of course been developing for centuries already. But from 455 to Constantinople’s fall is a thousand years – twice as long as the Western Empire lasted.

When Justinian became the Roman Emperor in 527 (he never thought of himself as anything but ruler of the entire empire) he was effective master of the east only – Thrace, Greece, Anatolia, Crete, Cyprus, the Levant, Egypt and the Libyan coast. His greatest rival was the Persian Empire – his only real one, in fact, and it would have been more pragmatic to concentrate on that. But Justinian believed it his sacred mission to reconquer the lost western provinces of the empire. He overthrew the Vandal Kingdom quickly, but taking the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy required years of difficult campaigning that devastated the peninsula. Justinian was lucky enough to have some fine generals in his service, but his slightly warped mind could not rise above jealousy and mistrust of Belisarius, the best.

(Robert Graves wrote a novel – 1938 — about the general, Count Belisarius. He is one of the main historical characters in de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall. The Imperial general Bel Riose in Asimov’s classic SF novel Foundation and Empire is closely based on Belisarius as well. Like the original, he falls victim to his monarch’s ingratitude.)

Justinian ended his reign master of North Africa and even the southern third of Spain. However, by 650 all Spain was back in Visigothic hands, the Lombards held northern Italy, and the rise of Islam had brought Egypt, the Levant and Persia under the sway of the Arab Caliphate. On May 24th, 1932, REH wrote to Lovecraft:

Alexandria must have presented a gorgeous pageantry of splendor and colorful contrasts. I’d never thought much about it, and hadn’t realized that it kept its Grecian character so long. We of the West are well mixed, but the natives of the Mediterranean must be mongrelized beyond all reckoning.

We rarely realize today how much that view was taken for granted. The pejorative word “mongrel” was freely applied through the 19th century, and may have been considered one of the actual causes of Byzantine decline by advocates of national and racial purity. The Byzantine state was certainly a melting pot of Greek, Slavic, Thracian, Arab, Alanic and Hunnic strains, not to mention a fair amount of Germanic admixture. The 19th century bigot in Poul Anderson’s There Will Be Time is downright rabid on the subject (“kanaka-Jap-Chink mongrels”, etcetera), and his attitudes had not vanished by the 1930s.

REH was correct about the Greek character of Alexandria. It dated back to the conquest of Alexander the Great. The mighty Greek family of the Apions ran the Egyptian province of Arcadia almost as their private kingdom from 488 to 625. They had their own Nile fleet, courier service, private army and prisons, and even what amounted to a private bank. Many Greeks served Arab caliphs indispensably as viziers and other administrators. They were conspicuous in those capacities under the Ottoman Empire. Greek learning and culture permeated the realm of Islamic Egypt from the beginning, despite the burning of many Greek manuscripts by order of Caliph Omar circa 642.

Despite its supposed decadence and constant decline, the Byzantine state soon had a better equipped and organized army – and navy – than any of its contemporaries. Count Belisarius created its heavy cavalry corps, the cataphracts, by combining various aspects of the Persian, Gothic and Hunnic horse warriors. The Persians, like the Goths, rode tall strong horses and protected themselves with scale armor. The Goths were expert lancers. The Huns, horse archers, had long mastered hit-and-run tactics using deadly arrow flights. Byzantine heavy cavalry blended these advantages with round shields and cuirasses of lamellar armor, and placed the result under Roman discipline.

The Byzantine naval vessel of the time, par excellence, was the dromon or “runner”, a light swift single-banked galley developed from the previous liburnians. The dreaded incendiary secret weapon, “Greek Fire” long kept the harbors of Constantinople safe from Islam’s galleys. The weapon decisively repulsed a great Ummayad fleet in 678, and a thirty-year truce was negotiated as a result. Over the next two centuries, naval conflict between Islam and Byzantium intensified, and larger galleys, mainly of two oar-banks, became more common.

Emperor Basil I came to the Byzantine throne in 867. The Macedonian Dynasty began with him, and was to include some of the Empire’s ablest, strongest rulers. The two and a half centuries of revival and resurgence which ensued was not bad for a state often dismissed as corrupt and moribund.  Another achievement of great historical importance was the conversion of the rising state of Russia to the Eastern Orthodox religion. As a mighty, warlike and successful prince of an expanding state, Tsar Vladimir was seen as a worthwhile ally, and envoys representing various faiths were sent to him circa 955. The Muslim Bulgars didn’t get far, in spite of the attractions of their Paradise. Vladimir refused to be circumcised or to forbid his people alcohol, “for drinking is the delight of the Russians, nor can we live without it.”  Once he discovered that the Jews were scattered across the earth, without a land of their own, he sent them packing too. “Would you have us share your fate?”  He didn’t accept the Catholic faith either, since, as he explained, the Catholic nations to Russia’s west had long been troublesome neighbors and he also doubted the Pope’s supreme authority. Vladimir found the Eastern Orthodox representatives both diplomatic and persuasive, though, and when he sent emissaries of his own to Constantinople, the glories of its court and churches dazzled them. “Never can we forget the grandeur which we saw,” they reported to their prince, and for him that was conclusive. The Russian Tsars copied that Byzantine splendor as fully as they could, and after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, they boasted that “Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be.”

The Byzantine navy declined with time, and the Empire depended more on its alliance with the great merchant state of Venice, whose fleet became the most effective on the Mediterranean. Both Venice and the Empire were threatened in the 11th century by the aggressive Norman expansion led by Robert Guiscard. Doge Domenico Selvo and his successor took action against the Normans, and in gratitude, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus granted the republic rights of unrestricted trade throughout the Empire, with no customs dues, an immense advantage to Venice in trading with the east. Normans were pleased to despise the Venetians because of that, but to Byzantines and Venetians alike the Normans were barbaric wolves, no better than their pagan Viking forebears, the hearts within their hauberks unchanged, whether or not they wore the Cross on crusade.

The First Crusade, preached to the common people by Peter the Hermit and to the kings and nobles by Pope Urban II at the end of the 11th century, began with three huge multitudes of rabble making for the Holy Land with scarcely an idea of where it lay or how to reach it. In Charles Mackay’s words, “they rushed through Europe like a pestilence, spreading terror and death wherever they went.”  Hungary suffered worst from their outrages of plunder and murder, but the Hungarians were hard people and hit back without mercy. They hounded the obnoxious rabble out of their country and into Bulgaria, where they behaved in a similar way and met a like reception. Only about a third of them reached Constantinople. The Byzantine Emperor Alexius (the same one mentioned above) received them hospitably at first. They repaid him by rioting, stripping lead from church roofs to sell, and setting fire to the city’s glorious public buildings. Meanwhile other random swarms came out of Germany and France, but they conceived the notion that they ought to massacre unbelieving Jews in their own lands before fighting Turks – and they did. Then they made the mistake of moving into Hungary. The Hungarians knew how to deal with their kind by then. The huge stream of the Danube was choked by their corpses.

Emperor Alexius had been the monarch who originally appealed to the west for aid against the conquering Seljuk Turks who threatened his dominions. He regretted it when the rabble arrived, and almost as much when the more disciplined armies under the famous knightly leaders reached his borders – Godfrey of Boulogne, Raymond of Toulouse, Hugh of Vermandois (brother to the King of France), and Bohemund of Tarentum.  Robert Curthose, a son of William the Conqueror, was another of the First Crusade’s leaders. I assume he was also the ancestor of REH’s outlaw warrior of the Third Crusade, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey.

Alexius made the mistake of arresting the first commander to arrive at his borders, Hugh of Vermandois, possibly as a hostage to ensure the good behavior of the others. But when Godfrey appeared on the scene, he demanded the release of Hugh, and promised to waste the country with fire and sword if his demand was refused. The Emperor did refuse, Godfrey did precisely as he’d threatened, and Alexius knuckled under – a worse mistake than his initial one. A pattern was set. The western warriors were to regard the Byzantines as treacherous and fickle, not to be trusted, from that point on, and also to believe that they could be compelled at the sword’s point by any resolute leader.

The Byzantines for their part were to regard the Crusaders as beasts of the dark north, bandits, marauders and butchers. What happened when Godfrey, Hugh and Bohemond reached Jerusalem gave plenty of support to that view. The city being taken, the Christian forces slaughtered young and old until blood ran in the gutters and – as REH said of another, later conquest – “red hell reigned rampant in the streets of Jerusalem, where helpless men, women and children ran screaming before the slayers who rode them down”, to the sound of the Crusaders’ constant war cry, “God wills it!”  Those who had temporarily survived, retreated to the great Mosque of Suleiman, but had no time to fortify it, and ten thousand perished in that building alone.

The era of the Crusades had begun.

Read Part Two