Trailer Goodness (?) and “Gravity”(!)

A couple of film trailers have dropped recently that have sent tongues a-waggin’ (so to speak).

The first is for the fourth instalment of the “Mad Max” series (which, unfortunately, was not shot in Australia like the previous three, does not feature Mel Gibson  – or any Australian, for that matter – as Max, and seems to have a minimal number of references to the fact that the setting is supposed to be post-apocalyptic Outback Australia…so, yeah).

At least George Miller has still got plenty of ‘splosions to dazzle us with!

Next up is the third and final “The Hobbit” film, which should tie together that trilogy and “The Lord of the Rings” films.

Seriously, Smaug…!

And in other news, I finally got around to watching “Gravity” the other day, the critically lauded and commercially successful 2013 film that once again showed us the wonder of space travel while simultaneously making us hope that it’s never us that’s going to have to deal with that

Warning: the following clip contains (possibly) offensive language and awesomeness!

Mind = blown.

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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes- Part 10

The Fourth Crusade

“Constantine’s fine city, the common delight and boast of all nations, was laid waste by fire and blackened by soot, taken and emptied of all wealth, public and private, as well as that which was consecrated by God, by the scattered nations of the West…”

 – O City of Constantinople: Annales of Niketas Choniates, Niketas Choniates (120?)

The seeds of Byzantium’s destruction were sown long ago. They had taken root amongst the enmity between the eastern and western churches, and grown strong in the presence of the early crusaders, the mass of soldiers, knights and lords who travelled far from their cold and blustery homes to the decadent shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. Now it was all around them, choking the life out of them…

Outside the walls of Constantinople, an army was gathered. Primarily French and German, it faced the mighty Theodosian Walls, while an armada of Venetian ships blockaded the city’s ports in the Sea of Marmara.

How had it gone so wrong? A little over a century before, the forces of Western Europe had ridden to the defence of the Byzantine Empire (or so it could be argued). Now they were laying siege to its capital.

In truth, the weapons turned against the Byzantines had actually been intended for the Muslims who once again occupied the holy cities of the Levant. The Sultan of Egypt, Saladin, had conquered much of the former Crusader Kingdoms including Jerusalem, and decisively defeated the crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. He had also managed to stave off attempts by King Richard I of England, called “the Lionheart”, and others of the Third Crusade to dislodge him from the Holy Land.

When Saladin died in 1193, Jerusalem was still firmly in Ayyubid hands (although a treaty allowed free access to the city for Christian pilgrims).

Thus, in 1198AD the newly-elected Pope Innocent III called for a new crusade.

Bonifacio-de-MontferratoIt was not a call that many rushed to accept though. Many of the European nations were too concerned with their own territorial disputes, and it took some time for the idea to gain traction. Eventually, an army was organised at a tournament by a French noble named Count Thibaut, who promptly died and was replaced by an Italian, Boniface of Montferrat.

In order to ensure the success of their mission, Boniface and the other leaders of the crusade decided to target the Muslim-held territory of Egypt first – by sailing directly there, and bypassing the land route across Anatolia, they hoped to speed their conquest and avoid the attrition of a long march through enemy territory.

Gustave_dore_crusades_dandolo_preaching_the_crusadeAnd to achieve their aim, they recruited the Venetians to their cause. Under the guidance of their doge, Enrico Dandolo, the citizens of the Most Serene Republic poured themselves into building and manning a fleet large enough to carry the crusaders across the Mediterranean.

It must have come as a disappointment then when there weren’t enough crusaders to actually pay for the fleet. Many who had “taken the cross” sought alternative passage, or lost the enthusiasm that had initially motivated them. In the end 12,000 gathered in Venice for the expedition, rather than the previously expected 35,000.

In order to settle their debts to the Venetians, the Crusaders agreed to aid them in a domestic matter: the Dalmatian city of Zara had until recently been an economic vassal of Venice. It had rebelled though, and established its independence. Eager to regain control, the Venetians turned to the crusaders as the instrument of their revenge…

On 24 November 1202AD, the city fell after a brief siege, and the pillaging began.

It was the first time the crusaders had turned their weapons on fellow Christians. And despite condemnation (and excommunication) from the Pope, it would not be the last.

A dynastic struggle in Constantinople presented a unique opportunity when the deposed Prince Alexios IV Angelos asked the crusaders for help in reclaiming the throne of his father Isaac II from the reigning Alexios III. In return for their aid, he offered to furnish them with funds, ships and manpower to complete their quest. He also, crucially, offered to place the Patriarch of Constantinople under the authority of the Pope, ending the Great Schism once and for all.

Gustave_dore_crusades_the_crusaders_war_machineryIn June 1203AD, the crusaders arrived at their destination, and promptly put the city under siege. Internal dissension meant the Byzantines were in no way ready to mount a concerted defence, although they did manage to ward off the initial attempts to storm the city, thanks in part to the formidable fortifications and the presence of the Varangian Guard.

Eventually, dismayed at the ongoing presence of the hostile army at his doorstep, Alexios III fled with much of the imperial treasury, leaving Alexios IV unable to pay the crusaders their due. Raised to co-emperor alongside his ailing father, Isaac II, but bereft of any means to placate his former allies, the one-time exile-prince was in a tough spot.

A spot he was unable to extricate himself – or the citizens of Constantinople – from.

Gustave_dore_crusades_mourzoufle_parleying_with_dandoloIn short order, Isaac II passed away, and Alexios IV was deposed. The Byzantines, chafing under the crusader yoke, sought a new emperor – one who could drive Boniface, Dandolo and the others away. The man chosen, Alexios Doukas, was crowned as Alexios V and set about strengthening the city’s defences. He also had his predecessor strangled, provoking the crusaders to attack…

Initially successful in their resistance, the Byzantines almost looked as though they would prevail once again. That is until the crusaders, desperate and about to break, poured everything into one last assault.

Showing his true colours (and emulating Alexios III), the emperor fled. And though the defenders did everything they could, in the end it was the Venetians who proved the victory-makers, using the knowledge gained from years of trade with the Byzantines to force a breach in the sea-wall.


Noted Byzantine historian Judith Herrin said it best, in her book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2007):

“In April 1204, the crusaders attacked Constantinople with their most sophisticated siege weapons, which had been destined for Muslim-held Jerusalem. After four days, they forced an entry over the sea walls and subjected the Byzantine capital to a five-day sack. They then elected Count Baldwin of Flanders as emperor and the Venetian, Thomas Morosini, as patriarch, setting up a Latin Empire. The Byzantines were forced into exile.”


“In this way the leaders of the Fourth Crusade subverted the ideals of the First. The spirit of Christian pilgrimage and adventure, inspired by Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont, was destroyed by the Latin occupation of Constantinople. Although this did not put an end to crusading, its dark shadow hung over all attempts to re-create Christian unity against Islam.”

The wholesale slaughter, rape and robbery of the Byzantine population during the sack was notorious ever-after. The city was never the same again, large swathes having been destroyed; and much of its wealth was carted-off to Western Europe.

Medievalist Steven Runciman said in 1954:

“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”

Next time: Reclaiming the Capital

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Quote of the Day

“Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.”


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Quote of the Day

“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”


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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 9

Alexios Komnenos and the Crusaders

“When Pope Urban had said these … things in his urbane discourse, he so influenced to one purpose the desires of all who were present, that they cried out ‘It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’. When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, [he] said: ‘Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.” Unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. For, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’”

 – Urban II: Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, Robert the Monk (11??)

Alexios Komnenos was not the first usurper to come to the throne of the Caesars in Constantinople. But he would be one of the last who did so for the betterment of the Empire. He stands alongside Heraclius and Basil (who we spoke about here and here as the (almost) founder of a ruling dynasty that restored Byzantine Imperial fortunes…

At least for a while.

Alexios_I_KomnenosLionised most famously by his daughter Anna, in her history The Alexiad, Alexios was born in 1056AD to one of the most powerful families in the capital, and entered Imperial service during the reign of Romanos IV Diogenes. He served under the preceding emperors Michael VII Doukas and Nikephoros III Botaneiates, and gained renown with the victories he won against would-be usurpers and the western mercenaries under Roussel de Bailleul who rebelled in 1074.

When he seized the throne in 1081AD, it was partially thanks to the machinations of his mother, Anna Dalassena, who blindsided the old emperor in order to pave the way for her sons, Alexios and Isaac.

Coming into power a proven battlefield commander and able administrator, Alexios would spend the majority of his reign fighting wars and reforming the Imperial bureaucracy; by the end of his time on the throne it more closely resembled the courts of Medieval Western Europe, with a complex web of inter-familial alliances and appointments replacing the traditional meritocracy, strengthening factional stability.

In the field he fought wars against the Pechenegs in the north, the Paulician and Bogomil heretics in Thrace, and rebellions all around. His two greatest foes though would be the always-conquering Normans in the west, and the Seljuk Turks in the east.

A recently emerged threat, the Normans were originally Scandinavian raiders (Vikings) who had settled in northern France and adopted Christianity, as well as many other “Frankish” customs. Under William the Conqueror they would seize the kingdom of England, and under Roger and Robert Guiscard they would drive the Arabs out of Sicily and occupy the heel of Italy, bringing hem inexorably into conflict with the Byzantines across the Adriatic.

In 1081AD Guiscard and his son Bohemond invaded the Balkans with 16,000 men, under the pretext of restoring Michael VII Doukas to the throne. Here was a real test for the Emperor Alexios, a vigorous and battle-hardened enemy determined to be writ-large in history. It took 4 years for the Byzantines to drive them out.

Whatever the seriousness of the threat from the Normans though, the continued threat of the Seljuk Turks was just as bad.

They had by now settled into their new lands in Anatolia and looked keenly across the waters at Constantinople. Alexios, mindful of the empire’s dwindling manpower, and having seen the effectiveness of western heavy cavalry (knights), was looking for a new weapon to combat the growing power of Nicaea, Damascus and Baghdad.

Thus, in 1090AD he made reconciliatory overtures to the Papacy in Rome, looking to heal the rift between the eastern and western churches sufficiently to elicit the help of some of Europe’s most seasoned professional soldiers.

What he got, was a crusade.

Pope_Urban_II_Preaching_the_First_CrusadeNo one knows for certain whether the Pope at the time, Urban II, merely misunderstood the Emperor’s appeal or chose an opportune moment to make a play for the Levant. What we do know is that at the Council of Clermont he preached holy war and called on all the Christian lords of Europe to lend their arms, and their lives, to the reclamation of the Holy Land promising eternal salvation to all those who “took the cross”.

The first to arrive in the east were not lords though, but peasants. A great mass of them, inspired by the Pope’s plea, made the arduous journey overland to Constantinople. Espousing their pious intent, the pilgrims nevertheless preyed on some of those they encountered and were subsequently preyed upon themselves, before reaching the relative safety of Imperial territory. Led by Peter the Hermit, the paupers of the “People’s Crusade” arrived at the gates of the capital in July, 1096AD.

Ever the pragmatist, Alexios gave this first batch of crusaders what they wanted: passage to Asia-Minor. When he requested aid, he hadn’t thought to receive 20,000 of Western Europe’s hungry, tired and poor. To keep them at Constantinople would surely only do the Byzantines harm, so he ferried them across the Bosphorus. And unwilling to wait until he could organise safe passage, Peter the Hermit and his flock pressed on into the territory of the Turks. Now, Almighty God would be their only shield…

They were cut down by the thousands, killed or enslaved.

The next lot of Crusaders to arrive fared better. Led by various princes from Western Europe (including Alexios’ old enemy, Bohemond), feudal knights and their retinues soon arrived before the Theodosian walls. Suitably wary, Alexios used diplomacy to counter the implied threat of 35,000 soldiers at his doorstep – from each of the leaders (but one, who swore only to do the Empire no harm) he extracted an oath of fealty and a promise to return to the Empire any territory they took from the Seljuks.


Crossing into Asia-Minor, the crusaders advanced first to Nicaea which they took after a lengthy siege. Honouring their oaths, they returned the city to the control of the Byzantines. Thereafter, any gains for Alexios would be small. Some territories were brought back into the fold, but once the crusaders passed through the Cilician Gates, the lands they conquered became their own. First at Antioch, and then Jerusalem itself they were victorious (although the uninhibited slaughter that followed the fall of the Holy City quickly became legendary, and has been used ever-since as an example of Western barbarism).


Now that the crusaders had achieved their primary objective, many returned home, while others stayed to establish the Crusader States – the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch (ruled initially by Bohemond) and the Kingdom of Jerusalem – that would last for approximately two hundred years.

CrusaderstatesNow in his mid-forties, Alexius would spend some of the remainder of his life fighting his long-time enemy (some would say, nemesis), Bohemond, eventually defeating and humiliating him after a failed siege of Dyrrhachium.

Despite the success of the Komnenian Restoration (as it would later be called), Alexios spent his last few years agonising over the succession.

He died in 1118AD, leaving the Byzantine Empire to carry on without him. And though they once again occupied a strong and influential position in the eastern Mediterranean, never again would the Byzantines be on the offensive…

Next part: The Fourth Crusade

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Unleash the “Fury”!

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Quote of the Day

“I can’t tell if a straw ever saved a drowning man, but I know that a mere glance is enough to make despair pause. For in truth we who are creatures of impulse are not creatures of despair.”

Joseph Conrad.

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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 8

The Seljuks and Manzikert

“…the fortunes of the Roman Empire had sunk to their lowest ebb. For the armies of the East were dispersed in all directions, because the Turks had over-spread, and gained command of, nearly all the countries between the Euxine Sea and the Hellespont, and the Aegean and Syrian Seas, and the various bays, especially those which wash Pamphylia, Cilicia, and empty themselves into the Egyptian Sea.”

 – The Alexiad, Book 1, Anna Komnene (1148)

Manzikert must have been a word synonymous with “disaster” to the Byzantines of the Middle Ages. Conversely, to the Turks it might have meant “victory”.

In truth, Manzikert is just a place (now called Malazgirt) in eastern Anatolia. But it was here that the army of Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes met that of Sultan Alp Arslan, and history turned soundly against the Romani (the name the residents of the Byzantine Empire would have used for themselves, literally “Romans”).

The architects of their demise were the Seljuks, a collection of Central Asian nomadic tribes that converted to Islam in the 10th century and embarked on a series of conquests, eventually forming an empire that encompassed all of the former lands of Persia (absorbing elements of the Arabic Abassid empire) and threatening the eastern territories of the Byzantines.

Manzikert 1

Early victories by the Seljuks afforded them control over the strategically important territory of Armenia. Seemingly outmatched, the emperors in Constantinople sought peace, and the Seljuks agreed, preferring to direct their efforts against the Fatimids in Egypt (for the time being).

For Romanos Diogenes though, a conveniently timed treaty allowed him the opportunity to launch a sneak attack and attempt to wrest back the lands his predecessors had lost. Unfortunately he was beset by political problems at home that forced him to entrust a significant part of his forces to Andronikos Doukas, his co-regent and direct rival.

The army they marched across Anatolia was composed of the bulk of the professional Byzantine forces: the western and eastern tagmata; Frankish, Norman, Bulgarian and Pecheneg mercenaries; and most of the Varangian Guard. It numbered somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 men (medieval sources were notoriously inaccurate about such things) and was the largest concentration of the Empire’s military seen in some time.

It was an army designed to strike a decisive blow: to end the threat of the Seljuks and restore Constantinople’s authority in the east, once and for all.

It would fail.

Manzikert 2

On the 23rd of August, 1071AD, after (foolishly) splitting his forces in two, Romanos managed to capture the town of Manzikert, but was immediately repulsed by the advancing army of Alp Arslan, who had abandoned his attack on the Fatamids after learning of the Byzantine double-cross and force-marched 20,000 to 30,000 of his own men to meet them.

After three days of maneuvering, trying to bring the elusive Seljuks (who were fighting in typical nomadic-steppe style) to battle and being constantly harassed by their archers, the Byzantines were exhausted. With night fast approaching and no likelihood of the decisive engagement he was seeking, Romanos ordered a general withdrawal, no doubt hoping to retire to a fortified camp and resume hostilities in the morning.

Unfortunately, in the confusion of battle things quickly began to go awry. Doukas, either accidently or deliberately, abandoned the Emperor (who was commanding the Byzantine centre) with the entire rearguard. Meanwhile, the right wing misunderstood Romanos’ orders and became disordered.

Manzikert 3

It was an opportunity Alp Arslan would immediately take advantage of. Seeing the confusion in his enemy’s ranks, he ordered an attack that overwhelmed the Byzantine right, then the left; and finally surrounded the centre where Romanos Diogenes made his stand with the Varangian Guard.

Despite their valour, the Emperor was wounded and captured, and the forces that stayed close to him were cut down. Somewhere between 2,000 and 8,000 were killed, while another 4,000 were captured. At least 20,000 managed to flee, scattered to the wind for all intents and purposes.

And that was that.

Romanos would later conclude a new treaty with Arslan that redrew the map with Armenia on the Seljuk side of the border, and agreed to pay a regular tribute to secure his own release. He was then promptly deposed at Constantinople in a coup that led to his eventual mutilation and death.

More internal dissension, coupled with the loss of so many of the Byzantines’ armed forces, would lead to the continued erosion of the territories in Asia-Minor until the Seljuks controlled almost all of it but for the Aegean coast.

Manzikert 4

It was a perilous situation to be in: without the vital Anatolian heartland, the Byzantines could no longer furnish themselves with the men or the resources to maintain the viability of their empire.

But it would take a miracle to reverse the tide now. A miracle, or a few words from the Bishop of Rome…

Next part: Alexius Komnenos and the Crusaders

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Quote of the Day

“Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

Che Guevara.

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity

One of the gems from this year’s E3 conference that I can’t stop watching. And I’m not even a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series (although I did love Ubisoft’s ‘Prince of Persia’ trilogy, its spiritual predecessor)!

Maybe it’s the cinematic quality of the action, maybe it’s the historical setting, maybe it’s the eerily human-like computer generated characters…or maybe it’s a combination of those things and Lorde’s ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, that makes it so compelling?

All I know is, it looks epic!

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