Byzantine Spies and Venetian Sellouts – Part Two

There the mercenary Venetians refused us ships and it sickened my very entrails to see our chiefs go down on their knees to those merchant swine. They promised us ships at last but they set such a high price that we could not pay. None of us had any money, else we had never started on that mad venture. We wrenched the jewels from our hilts and the gold from our buckles and raised part of the money, bargaining to take various cities from the Greeks and give them over to Venice for the rest of the price. The Pope – Innocent III – raged, but we went our ways and quenched our swords in Christian blood instead of Paynim.

— Robert E. Howard, “Red Blades of Black Cathay”

The First Crusade saw the foundation of the Christian states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. The County of Edessa, first to be founded, was first to fall again to the Muslims. At the end of 1144, Zenghi esh Shami, the villain of REH’s “Lion of Tiberias”, took Edessa with terrible slaughter. When a minstrel offers to render a ballad about it, a knight who was there, Miles du Courcey, in true Howardian hero style, growls, “Your head shall roll on the floor first. It is enough that you praise the dog Zenghi in our teeth. No man sings of his butcheries at Edessa, beneath a Christian roof in my presence.”

In “The Lion of Tiberias,” too, the Byzantine Emperor, John Comnene, is shown as playing a double game with the Christian Franks and with Zenghi. A spy of Comnene’s, calling himself d’Ibelin, is challenged while riding into Saracen territory with a message from the Emperor, of the most treacherous intent. REH stays consistently with the stereotype here. There are no honest Byzantines, and least of all their rulers!

The author is not being false to history, though. John II Comnene was committed throughout his reign to recovering all the Byzantine territory that had previously been lost to Turks and Franks. He wasn’t above playing double games in pursuit of his aims. He formed an alliance with Prince Raymond of Antioch against Zenghi esh Shami, forced Raymond to recognize Byzantine suzerainty, and was planning to invade Antioch at the time of his death (1143). Miles du Courcey calls d’Ibelin “John Comnene’s spy” after that date, but he might well have known the man before the Emperor’s death, and “d’Ibelin” might have been serving John’s successor in 1146. Zenghi was assassinated in that year, and REH gives his version of the event in “The Lion of Tiberias.”

The sack of Edessa had the direct result of the Second Crusade (1145-49) being declared by Pope Eugene III. King Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany (with his famous nephew Frederick Barbarossa) were its leaders, but except for the sideshow of the northern Crusader fleet stopping at Lisbon to help the Portuguese capture that city from the Muslims, it had no Christian successes.  While Howard doesn’t say so, I consider that Geoffrey the Bastard, father of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, took part in the Second Crusade as a youth, and personally knew Raymond of Antioch, his niece Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the leader of the Assassins of Masyaf in Syria.

The mutual distrust between Byzantines and western Crusaders had become well established since the First Crusade. By the Second, the French had no wish to take the land route through Byzantine territory to their destination, being wary of Greek back-stabbing. The Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I, for his part did not want Crusaders on his soil either, viewing them as marauding bandits. Manuel, in fact, so mistrusted the Crusaders that he halted the campaign he had been fighting against the Sultanate of Rum, signing a truce so that he would have all his resources available to defend Byzantium against the armies of the Cross if need be; he suspected them of designs of conquest against Constantinople. The Fourth Crusade would show how right he had been. For additional details see “Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s Kin in the Crusades: Part Two.”

Meanwhile, relations between Byzantines and Venetians had grown steadily worse. Doge Domenico Selvo aided the Empire against the Normans under Guiscard, and during the Second Crusade, Sicily’s Norman king captured the Byzantine possession of Corfu in the Ionian Islands. The Venetians with their powerful fleet helped Emperor Manuel regain Corfu, but their arrogance offended him, and their lawless behavior in other respects eroded Byzantine tolerance towards them – especially in Constantinople itself. The Venetian fleets had become so much greater than the ever-weakening Byzantine ones that Venice enjoyed a strangling hold over the Empire’s sea trade. Dislike turned to hatred. Emperor Manuel I encouraged Genoa and Pisa to compete with Venice in Byzantine markets. In 1171, the Venetians in Constantinople attacked and destroyed the Genoese quarter, upon which the Emperor ordered the arrest and deportation of all Venetians. He confiscated their property, too. Many resisted, and were put to the sword as a result.

One of those who escaped was Aldo di Strozza, elder brother of Tisolino di Strozza, a Venetian who appears in the Cormac Fitzgeoffrey tale, “The Blood of Belshazzar”. Tisolino was then twenty. Aldo deserved to be one of the slain, if anybody did, since he had been one of the most brutal rioters, but justice nodded. The brothers continued to sail the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean in their father’s ships – di Strozza was a wealthy merchant – and after a few years Tisolino quit trading. He rose to become the captain of a squadron of Venice’s warships. Ruthless, arrogant, and contemptuous of the Byzantines, he became known as a resourceful, fearless fighting seaman.

In 1182, Aldo was again in Constantinople, and Tisolino with him. Once again there was a savage disturbance, this time with the Byzantines as aggressors against the Venetians. On that occasion Aldo was a victim of the massacre, and it was Tisolino who escaped. He hated all Byzantines with a merciless hatred from that time onward. In that respect his attitudes to the Empire reflect those of Venetians in general.

“The Blood of Belshazzar” says of Tisolino that he had been “trader, captain of Venice’s warships, Crusader, pirate, outlaw … ” before he arrived at Bab-el-Shaitan. He was “tall and thin and saturnine … with a hook-nosed, thin-nostrilled face of distinctly predatory aspect.”  In Hollywood’s glory days he could have been portrayed to perfection by Basil Rathbone.

In the year 1185, Tisolino was thirty-three. It was an eventful year. The Normans of Sicily invaded the Balkans and sacked the Empire’s second greatest city, Thessalonika, before being beaten at Demetritzes and driven back to the Adriatic coast.  (The inept Emperor Andronicus had been murdered and replaced by Isaac II Angelus.)

The new Emperor promptly raised a fleet of 70 ships to take back Cyprus from its rebel ruler. The pirate Margaritus of Brindisi, in the service of Sicily, met the Byzantine fleet in battle, and Tisolino joined him with his Venetian squadron. It delighted his heart to be able to injure the Byzantines. Margaritus and Tisolino trounced them, just as a Bulgar revolt was adding to the Empire’s troubles. The Venetian authorities decided Tisolino had exceeded his authority, however, and he was exiled, after which he became a pirate in earnest. He plundered Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus. He attacked Saracen, Byzantine, Genoese, even Venetian and – heading further west — Aragonese shipping impartially. Then, scenting greater profit as the Third Crusade loomed, he turned his dreaded galleys east again.

If the First Crusade was the most successful, and the Second the most complete failure, the Third was the most romantic and aristocratic – at a safe remove of centuries, anyhow. It was the Crusade of Walter Scott’s The Talisman, of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, and in REH’s fictional world, that of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, rage-filled outlaw warrior and considerably less than idealistic fighter in the Holy Land. The emblem on his shield is a grinning skull, and when asked why he took the Cross and travelled east, he answers frankly, “Ireland was too hot for me.”  Nor is he starry-eyed about conditions at home.

The Venetians played little part in the Third Crusade, except to give Crusaders passage in their ships and charge the highest prices they could. They had their own troubles, closer to home – with the Byzantines, the aggressive Sicilian-Normans, and their commercial rivals the Pisans and Genoese. As for the Byzantines, they and Saladin had common enemies. Saladin saw his possessions in Syria threatened by the firm Seljuk grip on the heart of Anatolia, and to the Byzantine Emperor (Isaac II Angelos) they were a greater menace still. Thus he negotiated with Saladin. When Frederick Barbarossa sought to march through Isaac’s lands (Isaac had formerly agreed to this) with the greatest of the armies going to the Crusade, Isaac impeded his passage as much as possible. Barbarossa forced Isaac to honor his engagements by taking the city of Philippopolis, but then he drowned in a river before reaching the Holy Land and his army fragmented.

Tisolino di Strozza, the Venetian, brought his pirate fleet to Cyprus and aided Richard the Lionheart to conquer it. Then he accompanied Richard to Acre in the hopes of immense plunder. He led his pirates against both Acre and Joppa, contributing his full share to the slaughter in both places, but many of his ships were destroyed and he failed to gain the wealth he desired. He also murdered and betrayed his way out of favor with Richard, Saladin and everybody else who mattered.

That was how he found – or descended – his way to the castle called Bab-el-Shaitan, “a lair of the spawn of hell, the last retreat of men so desperate and bestial that the rest of the world had cast them out in horror.”  (“The Blood of Belshazzar”)  It was in Bab-el-Shaitan that Tisolino finally died, during an encounter with Cormac Fitzgeoffrey and an attempt to steal the titular accursed ruby.

What became of Cormac in the end, after the Third Crusade. Is unknown. He receives a mention again in “The Sowers of the Thunder”, set in the thirteenth century. The readers are told that he “raided Shahazar in the mountains and bore away untold plunder”. Perhaps he died rich, against the odds.

The Fourth Crusade (1202-04) was the one that saw the most serious consequences for the Byzantine Empire.  Just before it was declared, the Teutonic Knights were formed anew as a military order at Acre, and early in 1199 the Pope issued a bull assigning them a white tunic with a black cross. They were mainly to campaign in the north, however, against the pagan Balts and Prussians, the last heathen left in Europe.

The Fourth Crusade’s original purpose was to march through Egypt and conquer Jerusalem from the Saracens. Godric de Villehard’s bitter comments at the head of this post show how the enterprise went. After paying Venice exorbitantly for sea transport (and being interned on the island of Lido for a time) they drove a bargain with the Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos to turn to Constantinople instead, and restore his deposed father to the Byzantine throne.  They agreed, still meaning to proceed to Egypt and the Holy Land afterwards. Doge Enrico Dandolo decided they could pay him by capturing some Byzantine cities for Venice. The Crusaders did make Alexios co-emperor on the Golden Horn, through their customary fighting valor, but a popular rising soon overthrew him and he was murdered in February 1204. Dead, he could hardly pay the Crusaders, and they and the Venetians settled on the conquest of Constantinople. They brutally sacked the city, destroying irreplaceable treasures of art and literature, and set up a Latin Empire.

The Marquis of Montferrat became King of Macedonia in this new order. In “Red Blades of Black Cathay” he sends Godric to find the kingdom of Prester John. The monarch Godric actually finds is Genghis Khan. In an unlikely denouement, he and his allies fight the Khan’s Mongols to a standstill and win from him, as the Khan says himself, “more concessions today than I ever made in my life before!” Back in Byzantine lands, the Crusaders’ Latin Empire lasted less than sixty years.

As REH remarked in a letter to Lovecraft of  August 9th in 1932:

By the way, the study of the East Roman or Byzantine empire contains a certain amount of interest, what of their continuous wars and intrigues with the Moslems and barbarians Mongoloid and Aryan. What a strange mingling of voluptuous luxury and bloody conspiracy that empire must have been!

Between the Fourth Crusade and the Fifth, the tragic mess of the Children’s Crusade ensued. Thirty thousand boys and girls set out for Palestine, many of them destitute street rats of the great cities, but some of them well-born, even noble. Their fate was the same; they were tricked aboard slavers’ ships and taken abroad to be sold, but the greater number of them did not survive even that far. They were shipwrecked off Italy, and drowned, all but those in a few vessels.

Innocent III cried, when he heard the Children’s Crusade had begun, “These children are awake while we sleep!” and preached a new Crusade of adults. He died before seeing any results, but his successor Honorius III followed his example and inspired (or misled) King Andrew of Hungary and Duke Leopold of Austria into leading it. Once again, the intent was to capture Ayyubid Egypt before going on to Jerusalem.  Andrew and his troops, once again, embarked in the ships of Venice’s great fleet. The price was the usual one, all the traffic would bear.

Andrew, a sick man by then, returned to Hungary in 1218 without achieving a thing of note. Oliver of Cologne arrived with a new German army, and Count William of Holland came to support him. They and Leopold made an alliance with the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum to save having to fight on two fronts, the classic basic error, landed at Damietta and advanced down the Nile towards Cairo. The river flooded ahead of them, halting their advance. The result was disaster and defeat.  They had to turn back with their supplies running out, and Sultan al-Kamil, in relentless pursuit, smashed them with a night attack.

The next Howard story set in this region and period, historically, was “The Sowers of the Thunder”, which takes place in the 1240s. It deals with Cahal O’Donnel, a failed and deposed Irish king who made the mistake of allowing the FitzGeralds to use him, with a de Courcey woman as sucker bait. Now he has arrived in Palestine, and the kingdom he considered his birthright lies among “all the unborn or forgotten empires which etch the twilight of the lost ages.”

He encounters no rascals from the Byzantine Empire or Venice. Instead he meets, more than once, a strange character evidently moving incognito from Egypt to Jerusalem, who turns out to be Baibars the Panther, general of Egypt’s mamluk soldiers, the “White Slaves of the River”. Both are present when the savage Kharesmians, fleeing west before the Mongols, descend on Jerusalem and drench it in blood, killing Christian and Moslem alike.

REH seems to have confused two different men in this story. Baibars al-Bunduqari, Baibars the Panther, was born around 1223 – by his own account, in REH’s story, the son of the great Mongol general Subotai and a Kipchak woman. But that would make him barely twenty-one in 1244, and still a mamluk slave in Egypt. The Baibars who saw the Kharesmians destroy Jerusalem, and commanded at the Battle of Harbiyah in October, against Walter of Brienne, the Templars and the Teutonic Knights, was an older man, an emir.

Real passion and enthusiasm for a Crusade had died in the common folk of Christendom by then. Even kings and nobles no longer felt it, with occasional exceptions like Louis IX of France and Prince Edward of England, later Edward I, who took the cross in the early 1270s. Baibars the Panther was Sultan by then, and despite his courage and skill in war, Edward achieved nothing against him, had to make a compromise truce, and was almost killed by an assassin’s poisoned dagger.

The Byzantine Empire had entered its last two hundred years. These pretty much were a time of steady decline, as biased and simplistic views later made its entire history out to have been. Venice continued to flourish. Besides its wealth from trade and shipping, it became the printing capital of the Mediterranean world in the fifteenth century (which a professional writer like REH would have had to approve). But the Republic’s decline also began then. Trade shifted to the Atlantic and the Americas; Spanish and English sea power grew enormously.

Venice enjoyed a famous romantic triumph when the Ottoman Turks besieged Cyprus in 1571. Venice’s fleet, allied with Spain, Genoa and the Order of St. John, under the command of Don John of Austria, met and spectacularly defeated the Ottomans at Lepanto. The battle became legend, and G.K. Chesterton commemorated it in his famous poem, but it did little good in the long run; the Ottomans built a new fleet, and by 1573 they regained complete possession of Cyprus. The Crusades were long over, like the great days of the Republic which had so frequently profited from them. In the 18th century, Venice was famous as the most elegant, cultured city in Europe; but time was running out. The clock was ticking down to the year Bonaparte would conquer and ravage it. As Robert Browning wrote:

As for Venice and its people, merely born to bloom and drop,

Here on Earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop.

What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

“The Lion of Tiberias” illustration by Nathan Furman

Read Part One