Komnenian reputation: Erdoğan’s Byzantine approach

The increasingly autocratic President of Turkey has been compared to an Ottoman Sultan, but in the relationship with his NATO allies Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is closer to a much older tradition.

The relationship between the West and Turkey has become more and more strained. In the wake of last week’s failed coup, President Erdoğan has sought to extend his autocratic ambitions, leading to increasingly insincere affirmations of friendship from NATO leaders. Turkey’s importance is not in doubt: as a ‘liberal’ democracy bordering the volatile Middle East, the country remains a strategic gateway to the Islamic world.

The West has had to set aside its discomfort with Erdoğan, a man whose interests seem increasingly unaligned with those of his allies. The suppression of Gülenists and Kurds are on his agenda; his rutting with Putin several months ago has also caused headaches for his allies.

It is a situation with a striking historical parallel. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the West’s eyes were – just as they are now – fixed on the Middle East. At that time the gateway to that region was the Byzantine Empire, an ostensibly friendly Christian state with which relations were becoming difficult. Keeping the Byzantines on side was important as the Latin West embarked on a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land from Muslim occupation. Successive Emperors knew the value of alliance with the crusaders but, like Erdoğan, their own objectives were to consolidate their power. Whether Greek Constantinople or Turkish Istanbul, the West has found dealing with the state straddling the Bosphorus a difficult task.

Successive Emperors knew the value of alliance with the crusaders but, like Erdoğan, their own objectives were to consolidate their power.

Since the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire had regarded itself as the most civilised part of the western world, as the final bastion of the Christian Roman world, beset by the barbarians to the west, and the Muslims hordes to the east. The historian Eustathius wrote that the former, the so-called Latins, did not know a ‘civilised and cultivated way of life.’ Ignorance was wilful and widespread, even among Constantinople’s educated elite, who looked to further the distinction between Byzantine civilisation and their primitive neighbours by archaising and misnaming them: the Italians were Franks, the Franks Celts, and the Catalans Italians. The religious differences, too, were stark. The Byzantine’s Orthodox faith had no concept of ‘holy war,’ so Pope Urban’s call to Crusade in 1095 took them by surprise; to preach war as a means to spiritual reward was unthinkable. Although rapprochement with the Latins could reap dividends in the form of military success against the Muslims, the cultural gulf that had grown only wider since the Great Schism (the break between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054) was to prove near impossible to bridge.

Under John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143), the Byzantines took a pragmatic approach to dealing with the Latins. Looking to assert his authority over the Crusader states of Antioch and Armenian Cilicia, John presented himself to the crusaders as sympathetic to their cause; even to the end of his life he made pains to conciliate, often offering to help drive the Muslims out of the Levant. These overtures were made chiefly with the safety of his own borders in mind. By propping up the Crusader states, John could secure a buffer between the Empire and the increasing threat from the Turks to the east. On his western flank, he made common cause with the Holy Roman Empire, with whom he shared an enemy in the Normans of Sicily. To Constantinople, the Normans represented the worst the barbarian west had to offer; near-constant warfare between them brought the ire – and often the fear – of the Byzantines. Indeed, during the reign of John’s son, Manuel (r. 1143-1180), there were suspicions that the Second Crusade had been launched as a ploy to keep the Empire busy while the Normans invaded Greece.

Distrust ruled proceedings, but Manuel could at times offered an apparently sympathetic hand to the Latins. Throughout his reign his objective was to reclaim lands lost to the Turks in Anatolia and to make an attempt to restore some credibility to an empire still calling itself Rome. He did go some way to achieving this goal, but his major success was managing the relationship between Byzantine Empire and the Crusaders during the Second Crusade. Manuel understood that the Crusaders relied on keeping the Empire happy in order to maintain access across the Bosphorus. He used this as leverage to exact what contemporary historian John Kinnamos refers to as ‘pledges of oath’ from Louis VII of France in exchange for free passage. Although the Crusaders were still held in high suspicion – Kinnamos continues to call them ‘barbarians’ – Louis ‘received a splendid welcome,’ that would have left him in no doubt as to his subordination to Manuel. In an attitude reflected today in NATO leaders paying lip service to their alliance with Turkey, Louis was simply humouring the Emperor. The refusal of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III to do the same perhaps speaks to a more contemptuous relationship, but all parties knew the mutual value in maintaining a cordial, if not friendly relationship.

The tenseness dissipated after the Crusaders’ departure from Constantinople, but the Second Crusade prompted new fears for the Byzantines. Firstly, it revealed that the West was now willing to act without consulting the Emperor: the Crusade had been a purely Latin response to the capture of Edessa by Muslim forces, rather than to a Byzantine call-to-arms as in the First. Secondly – and perhaps more ominously – the Holy Roman Emperor had, by coming to the aid of the Crusader States, asserted himself as their overlord, a role that Manuel claimed for himself. As a result, Manuel changed the entire direction of Byzantine foreign policy, choosing instead to attempt rapprochement with the West. This second period in relations was marked by what some in the Empire called ‘Latinophilia.’

Manuel’s attempts at rapprochement with the Latins earned him a reputation as a friend and admirer of Western Christendom.

When Frederick Barbarossa, Conrad’s successor as Holy Roman Emperor, began to support the creation of an anti-pope, Manuel seized the opportunity to appeal to the Pope in Rome. He asked Pope Adrian IV to crown him Roman Emperor instead of Frederick in return for the mending of the Great Schism. His attempts at rapprochement with the Latins earned him a reputation as a friend and admirer of Western Christendom. It is easy to see the disingenuousness in Manuel’s actions. It was clear that the Emperor had designs over the Crusader States and an enduring desire to reconquer lands long lost to Byzantium. He positioned himself as the natural protector of the Crusader States by marrying his niece to the King of Jerusalem and himself to a princess of Antioch, binding himself to Outremer not just for strategic and political purposes, but also by marriage. By surrounding himself with placated European allies and client states in the Levant, Manuel was able to focus entirely on the reconquest of Anatolia and the restoration of Roman borders. In this respect, Manuel’s duplicity towards the Western powers was to the Byzantines’ advantage.

These happier times for East-West relations did not long outlast Manuel. During the reigns of his immediate successors the influence of Westerners grew in Constantinople, culminating in massacres of Italian traders and eventually the sack of the city by Venetians in 1205. In the 21st Century, the strategic importance of Turkey is too great to squander. Erdoğan’s increasingly hard-line regime will only serve to further strain relations with his allies. The suspicion will increase, and the discomfort will grow. For Erdoğan substitute John Komnenos, for the Pope, NATO. Many have drawn analogies between the Turkish President and the Ottoman sultans, but to my mind, a more apt comparison can be made with the Byzantine Emperors, with whom the West (usually) shared a peaceful but strained existence.

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