The Byzantine Empire

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Why did the Byzantine emperor Alexius I ask the Pope for military assistance?

Alexios I asked the Pope for military assistance because he needed help in fighting off the Seljuq Turks. Twenty years after defeating the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuqs continued to make dangerous inroads into Asia Minor, threatening the Byzantines on their eastern borders.

As the Byzantine army had proved woefully inadequate in dealing with this threat, Alexios made a desperate plea to Pope Urban II for military assistance. In doing so, he inadvertently precipitated the First Crusade.

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In making his plea to the Pope, Alexios didn't expect that a full-scale Crusade would soon be underway with the express intention of liberating the Holy Land from the infidel. He simply hoped that the Pope would send him some mercenaries that he could use to keep the Seljuq Turks at bay on Byzantium's eastern borders.

Although Byzantine forces had been successful at pacifying their western borders, over in the east it was a different matter entirely. Ever since defeating Byzantium at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 the Seljuqs had been growing increasingly stronger.

Alexios had had to deal with a number of military threats during his reign, but nothing quite like that posed by the Seljuqs. The Seljuqs, along with their allies, cut a swathe through Asia Minor before eventually capturing Jerusalem, the holiest city in Christendom. Though Alexios was deeply aware of the religious significance of Jerusalem's capture by Muslim troops, his plea of assistance to the Pope was primarily concerned with saving his empire from a serious military threat.

The Pope, however, saw things differently. He saw the capture of Jerusalem as a golden opportunity to bolster the Papacy's prestige at a time when Rome was involved in a constant power struggle with European nobles. He did this by announcing the First Crusade, which Alexios's desperate plea for military assistance had inadvertently triggered.

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The Byzantine Empire needed military assistance in order to reclaim Anatolia. The Byzantines had lost an important battle to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071. Most of the Byzantine Empire's best troops were killed in that battle, and the Muslims were able to overrun Anatolia and even approach Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.

Alexius Comnenus (1048–1118), the Byzantine emperor who requested military assistance from the Pope, was himself a capable and experienced military commander. He had won battles against the Byzantines' numerous enemies before becoming emperor in 1081. Alexius did not know that his request for aid would unleash the huge Crusades. The Byzantines had requested aid before, but the West was unresponsive till Pope Urban II (circa 1042–1099) gave his stirring speech at Clermont in 1095.

Alexius had wanted a small force of Western mercenaries who would fight under his command. He knew that Western knights, in particular, were formidable. But he was surprised and worried by the enormous and unruly army of Crusaders. Alexius tried to work with them, and most of the Crusaders pledged loyalty to him. But relations deteriorated, and the Crusaders proved to be dangerous to both Muslims and the Byzantine Empire.

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Alexios I Komnenos ruled the Byzantine emperor from 1081 to 1118. During this period, the Byzantine Empire was beset by two major threats, the Seljuk Turks to the east and south and the Normans to the west. There are several reasons he turned to the Pope for help.

First, the disagreements between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople had historically been rooted in conflicts between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. Although theology played an important part in the Photian schism and other similar conflicts, many of the issues were geopolitical. As Islamic nations became more powerful, however, the political configuration changed.

With the rise of Islam and the Moorish occupation of Spain to the west and much of what had been the southern and eastern parts of the Roman Empire in North Africa and the Middle East, differences among Christians began to seem less important than the common Islamic enemy. The other major enemies of the Byzantine Empire were the Normans, who also threatened the Papal States. Thus despite ongoing theological differences, the Pope seemed a natural ally against the two major military threats to the Byzantine Empire.

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Alexius Comnenus was one of the greatest emperors of Byzantine and lived between 1048 and 1118. He accomplished many things, among which was securing Byzantine from external threats. The gravest threat was from the Islamic Seljuk Turks, who in 1071, defeated Byzantine at the Battle of Manzikert and took control over a major portion of Anatolia. Anatolia was critical for Byzantine as it was the main recruiting base for their army. The threat intensified and Emperor Alexius I, noting that the Seljuk’s would target Constantinople, Byzantine’s capital, sought military assistance.

In March of 1095, Emperor Alexius I sent a delegation to France to meet Pope Urban II and requested him for military assistance against the Turks to repossess Anatolia. In November of the same year, the Pope commissioned the first crusade in aid of Byzantine.

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While this question may seem obscure and unimportant, Alexius I’s action is actually quite important in Western history.  This is because his request led to the First Crusade.  Basically, Alexius I asked for military assistance because his empire was hard-pressed by the Seljuk Turks.

The Seljuk Turks were a central Asian people who took control of the Muslim Abbasid caliphate centered in Baghdad.  By the late 1000s, they controlled that empire and had enough power to mount military campaigns against Egypt and against the Byzantine Empire in an attempt to expand their territory.  In 1071, the routed the Byzantines at Manzikert (famous battle) in what is now Turkey.

Ten years later, Alexius came to the Byzantine throne.  He inherited a weakened empire.  It had been weakened by poor leadership and by religious tensions between the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox within the empire.  It was also threatened from the outside.  One of these threats was from the Seljuks.

Upon taking power, Alexius defeated some of the external powers that were threatening his empire.  However, he lacked the resources to truly fight the Seljuks, who were the greatest threat.  Feeling that it was necessary to push back against the Seljuks, Alexius appealed to the West for help.  This led to the calling of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095.

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