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 Rûm, 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.
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