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- Published on Amazon.com
Review first posted on Amazon.co.uk on 12 February 2012. Book published in the UK on 2 February 2012
This book, draw from the author's PHD thesis, aims to show that the First Crusade was initiated by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnene. It puts him squarely on the center of the stage as the one who put in motion the chain of events that led to the First Crusade. The reason for the Emperor to do this is that, according to Frankopan, the Empire was on the brink of disaster by 1095 and Alexios' rule had become unstable for he was blamed for this situation. Frankopan explains why the Emperor's role has not been recognized in all its importance up to now largely because both his daughter Anna in her Alexiad and most of the latter sources for the First Crusade, those written after 1107, have either minimized his importance or denigrated him.
This thesis is extremely interesting and, at times, fascinating. Frankopan is at his best when presenting the situation in Asia Minor between 1071 and 1096. In particular, he shows that Asia Minor was NOT almost entirely lost in 1081, when Alexios came to power. He also assumes that Alexios used Suleyman, a turkish chieftain, and then his good relations with the Seldjuk Sultan to control what was left of Asia Minor or even to recover ground and towns. This strategy, however, failed after the death of the Sultan, in 1092, as the Seldjuk Sultanate became torn by civil war and the various Turkish chieftains in Asia Minor each went their own way and tried to extend their territory.
There are, however, numerous problems with this book, or rather, with the methods that Frankopan uses to make his case. He often and repeatedly states a point without always providing any evidence to back it up. One glaring example is his statement - repeated three times across the book - that the Normans' conquest of Byzantine Italy and Arab Sicily were swift and easy. They were neither swift - each took about 30 years - nor easy. The Normans in Italy and Sicily were relatively few and both the Byzantines and the Arabs of Sicily and modern Tunisia put up a long and though fight before both territories were finally conquered. One example is the statement that "Southern Italy was left to its devices (by the Emperor's) and fell swiftly to the Normans". This, at best, is both a simplification and a gross exageration because the Empire in fact counter-attacked several times when Normans had become overstretched over several decades, sending troops when these could be spared elsewhere, including Varangian shock troops. So Apulia was certainly NOT left to its own devices, although Calabria probably was, simply because the two provinces did not have the same strategic value for Byzantium.
The book even contains some factual mistakes, which is rather astonishing coming from a historian that has studied at both Cambridge and Oxford. For instance (page 35), the news that a major norman attack had begun could simply NOT have reached Constantinople before the Komnene brothers carried out their military coup (early April 1081) simply because Robert Guiscard had not yet left the coast of Italy at that time, although, as Frankopan correctly stresses in his comment below, Bohémond had left sometime in March with the vanguard. However, the preparations of the Normans had been known by the Byzantines and had been going on for at least a year, if not more. Moreover, a Norman embassy had been sent to Constantinople to negociate and using the threat of an invasion as leverage. All this is ALSO in the Alexiad, but Frankopan does not mention it...
There are also omissions, or at least elements that are minimized. While Frankopan correctly stresses the importance of the battle of Levounion where the Petchenegues were decisely defeated, he fails to mention that this was largely thanks to Alexios' timely alliance with the Cumans. Alexios and his armies had been previously defeated at least three times by the Petchenegues. He had also been defeated three times by the Normans and all these defeats meant that new soldiers had to be recruited and equipped and money had to be raised through extra taxation, confiscations and extorsion, including from the Church. So Frankopan's statement that Alexios' "first decade in power thus appears to have been remarkably successful" is VERY strange, to say the least. A more accurate assessment would be to say that Alexios finally overcome these two ennemies DESPITE multiple defeats. So, Peter Frankopan does seem to have a rather unpleasant tendency to twist the facts anf "forget" about those that do not reinforce the points he is trying to make.
Interestingly, I couldn't help wondering whether Frankopan wasn't in fact doing exactly what he criticizes when it comes from Anna Komnena: being over dramatic and exagerating a situation about which we know essentially little so as to make his point. Anna does this both when presenting the situation of the Empire in 1081 and in 1091, just before Levounion. Frankopan does the same, but for the period 1092-1096. One element seems clear, however. In all three cases, there still was a fairly numerous Byzantine army in 1081, with which Alexios was defeated by the Normans, mostly by his own fault, regardless of all the excuses that Anna tries to make for him. He also had a significant army that was more than enough to take on the German contingent gathered around Godefroy the Bouillon and his brother Baudoin de Boulogne (and not "de Bouillon"!), even if was certainly smaller than the Crusader contingents when all of these were added up. Another element on which we can be rely are the lavish gifts and the considerable costs encurred by the Emperor to provision and pay the Crusaders that were camping outside the city. To be able to afford this kind of expense, the Imperial Treasury was obviously not entirely empty and the situation not as catastrophic that Frankopan would want us to believe...
One last example of some questionable statements made by the author relates to the sources. Frankopan claims that Ferdinand Chalendon's book (published in 1900) "is still the last major monograph on Alexios' rule". The last, to my knowledge at least, is a book published in 2007 by Elisabeth Malamut and also in French (Alexis Ier Comnène, Edition Ellipses, 2007). So, either Peter Frankopan wasn't aware of this, which is surprising, or he deliberatly omitted to mention this in his section on "further reading". In either case, his statement is incorrect.
So, this is a very interesting read on the First Crusade, but it is probably not for "beginners" on Byzantium and it is rather controversial. Some bits and pieces of the story have been skipped over rather quickly - in particular the reigns of Michal VII (1071-1078) and Nicephore III (1078-1081) - despite their importance for assessing the state of the Empire when Alexios came to power. The book has to be read with a critical eye. It requires quite a lot of background and knowledge of the sources to be able to check to what extent the portraits being painted by the author are plausible, or even accurate, and to identify the places where they are, at best, exagerated to make the author's point more "convincing"...