Just War Theory?

GIBBON’S Decline and Fall for all its horror of its own subject is really the first great work of modem Byzantine studies. Byzantium was the continuation of the Roman Empire. Her thousand years of history deserve study simply because of the longevity of the state, let alone the achievements of politics, art, architecture, economics and Christian mission, theology, spirituality and organization. In Steven Runciman and John Julius Norwich Byzantine studies boasts two masters of prose history.

Byzantinists, like most people, think the Crusades to have been a Bad Thing. The trouble the beginning of the movement caused the Emperor Alexios I Comnenus (wonderfully recorded in the deliciously spiteful Alexiad of his daughter Anna Comnena, available in Penguin Classics) and the calamity of the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 prejudice Byzantinists further. But the fact remains that Byzantine governments, including that of Alexios, welcomed the Crusade and aided it, not merely out of necessity, but out of policy.

Runciman’s great three volume work on the Crusades is well balanced. He records the horrifying pogroms of Jews perpetrated

by the rabble who preceded the First Crusade, but he does not forget to commend the bishops who protected many and prevented much worse. He points out also the immorality and the political folly which attended the sack of Jerusalem. But others acted similarly. The uncomfortable fact is that the Crusade was no more or less prejudiced than anyone else, just more ruthless.

In the end, though, what has been effectively obscured is the fact that the Crusades were not necessarily wrong per se. The Holy Land had been part of the Byzantine Empire until conquered during the Arab wars in the seventh century. Damascus thenceforth became a forward post of Moslem aggression against the southern marches of the Christian Empire, which for its part never stopped attempting the reconquest of the lost provinces. The (successful) First Crusade was a limited war, with a specific goal, sanctioned by the temporal and spiritual governments to resist aggression and reclaim provinces seized by force. On all the criteria then, a just war.

Luke Miller is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Tottenham.