Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Beginning of the End of the Worlds

Illustration by Jacques Reich
“ The second son of Odin is Baldr, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr's brow; of all grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both in hair and in body. He is the wisest of the Æsir, and the fairest-spoken and most gracious; and that quality attends him, that none may gainsay his judgments. He dwells in the place called Breidablik, which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be… ”

Such was the reverence of Baldr held by his fellow gods and goddesses. The envy of gods and desire of goddesses, not one evil could one attest to his name. Peace was at hand in the Nine Worlds, the fields of Asgard glowed gold and Midgard was bathed in the radiant glow of the Sun. For a time, all was well. But, tragically, events would be set into motion that would hurl man and god into the most dreadful apocalypse.

Lurking in the shadows as ever he did skulked the figure of Loki, the half giant friend to the gods, trickster and joker. But little did the Aesir know of the terrible truth now. The blood of the Jötunn flowed in Loki’s veins, and with it an anger which did not forget, or forgive. From the moment Loki saw all the other gods laugh at him in his humiliation, when his mouth was sewn by the Dwarf Brokk (for this story, please click here), when his friend Thor stood and laughed, his allegiance to them all had perished. He had seen his own children, Fenrir (here) and Jörmungandr (here), bound and smote by the gods, and in secret he was now a sworn enemy of the gods, walking among them, laughing with them in face, concealing the vengeance within. Now, the time to strike had come at last.

One night in Asgard, a nightmare of monstrous and eerie horror terrorised Baldr as he lay in sleep. Premonitions, evil portents of Death and a vision of his own end roused the fair god from his slumber with a scream that chilled the blood of the Aesir. Utter dread flooded him, as he felt the rotting hand of Death coming for him. Rising from his bed, drenched in cold sweat, Baldr rushed to tell someone, anyone, of the ghastly apparitions. When the Aesir heard these things, an ominous chill gripped the Hall of Valhalla. But it was nothing compared with the faces of Odin and Frigg, King and Queen of the Aesir and parents of Baldr. Never before had mighty Odin seemed so shaken. Once, long ago, he had heard this day would come, and swiftly upon its heels would come the end of the world. Frigg wailed for her son, her boy who had only just become a man, favoured of her children. The Aesir decided that all would defend Baldr from any foe. Frigg was relentless, as she embarked upon a vast journey throughout the Nine Worlds of the Cosmos. The mother of Baldr visited every single thing, asking each to swear an oath never to harm her son. Fire and water swore the oath. Wood, stone, ice, iron, gold, bronze, silver and all metals swore the oath. Gods, giants, dwarves, elves, trolls, serpents, poisons, venoms, plagues, birds and beasts all swore to Frigg never to harm Baldr. After her epic journey, Frigg returned to Valhalla, and could rest easily once more.

Each arrow overshot his head
Illustration by Elmer Boyd Smith
Time passed, and the gods had come to find fun in Baldr’s newfound invulnerability. They had devised a game by which the gods would hurl whatever came to hand at the fair god, and watch with amazement as each flew harmlessly away from him at the last moment – the oaths of all things were unbreakable. Spears rebounded wide, stones deflected off thin air, and swords magically stopped before they reached his flesh. “But when Loki saw this, it pleased him ill that Baldr took no hurt”. His eyes burned with wrath at the harmony in Asgard, and the Deceiver made his move. Above all other things, Loki was gifted as a shape shifter. Taking the form of an elderly woman, Loki moved among the shadows as the other gods were immersed in their new entertainment, and came before Frigg. The Queen of the Gods saw the woman, and pitied her ragged state. Frigg explained the game to her, proudly pointing out how no thing could harm her son. Loki pounced. “Have all things taken oaths to spare Baldr?” Frigg, distracted by the party, thought carefully and conceded “there grows a tree-sprout alone Westward of Valhalla, it is called mistletoe; I thought it too young to ask the oath of”. This revelation came as a triumph to Loki, and the ruin of all other things. Immediately, the trickster rushed to the place, and pulled up a sprig of mistletoe, and set to work fashioning a spear from it.

With haste he returned to sacred Valhalla, where the Aesir made merry and laughed raucously at Baldr’s invincibility. Scanning the hall, Loki saw his opportunity. The blind brother of Baldr, Höðr, stood back from the crowd, a dejected look upon his sightless face:

            “ Then spake Loki to him, ‘Why dost thou not shoot at Baldr?’ He answered
               ‘Because I see not where Baldr is, and for this also, that I am weaponless’.
               Then said Loki ‘Do thou also after the manner of other men, and show
               Baldr honour as the other men do. I will direct thee where he stands,
               shoot at him with this wand… ”
                                - LOKI'S DECEPTION

Baldr Slain
Painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
And so Höðr took the mistletoe spear, and took aim at his brother, his arm steadied by the hand of Loki. With a mighty throw he let the shaft fly, and its aim was true. The blade pierced Baldr’s heart and with a murmur of dread, fell cold to the floor, dead. Words failed the Aesir, struck dumb by shock were they. Then rose a great lamentation, as the wails which heralded the beginning of the end of times sounded through Valhalla. But in none was the grief as terrible as Odin’s for he and he alone knew what the death of his son would truly begin.

The day came when the body of Baldr was borne out to sea, laid to rest in a magnificent vessel.The King of the gods laid his most precious ring, Draupnir, forged by the dwarves, upon his son’s chest as he wept. Nanna, wife to the fallen god, was so stricken with grief her will to live was broken, and followed her husband in Death. The giantess Hyrrokkin pushed the craft far out into the Ocean, with such force a spark flickered, and flames consumed Baldr. It was then, when mourning reached its peak, that Frigg asked the Aesir if there was one among them who would take the road to Hel, and try to persuade her to release Baldr, and restore him to life. Hermóðr, son of Odin, took up the challenge. Taking his father’s noble steed, Sleipnir the Lord of Horses, Hermóðr galloped nine days and nights through dark forest and dale grim. At last he reached the Gjöll Bridge, where marched many companies of dead men to their fate. Onward, Down and North, to Hel’s realm of decay Sleipnir’s hooves thundered, until there at last, seated on throne high was Hermóðr’s brother, the fair god Baldr. He moved to embrace him, but found his way barred by the goddess Hel herself. Flinging himself at her feet, Hermóðr begged the rotting lady of Death to release his brother, pouring out his heart to her and telling of the world of grief that Asgard had become. Hel considered him, and could not fail to be moved, bound as she was by the laws of the Cosmos as she was. “If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Aesir, but he shall remain with Hel if any gainsay it or will not weep”. Hermóðr looked up, excited. Could there really be a chance to get Baldr back?

Hermóðr rides to Hel
Image taken from the 18th century
 Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66
Frantically, Hermóðr thundered back to Asgard, and there was much rejoice amongst the Aesir. So, once again, Frigg undertook her mighty voyage, asking all things to weep for Baldr. Fire and water mourned. Wood, stone, ice, iron, gold, bronze, silver and all metals mourned. Gods, giants, dwarves, elves, trolls, serpents, poisons, venoms, plagues, birds and beasts all wept for the fair god. The spirit of Baldr had been readying to rejoin the land of the Aesir, when at last, only one remained to be asked. Messengers of the Aesir came to the cave of the giantess called Þökk. They approached her and prayed that she would shed tears for Baldr. But Þökk replied.

                         “ Þökk will weep waterless tears,
                            For Baldr’s bale-fare;
                            Living or dead, I loved not the churl’s son;
                            Let Hel hold to that she hath! ”

                                      - THE GIANTESS REFUSES TO MOURN

With her words rose a terrible scream of “No!” from the mouth of Frigg. The rotten hand of Hel grasped Baldr, and pulled him back down to the shadow land, there forever to dwell. Tears of the uttermost despair fell on Asgard’s golden meadows.

But then, the eye of Odin caught sight of the giantess Þökk. Her form changed. With a surge of realisation at the terrible truth, the King of the gods saw Loki standing in her place laughing manically at his triumph, for it had been he all along. Rage such as that never before seen exploded in the Aesir, all trace of grief replaced with an earth shattering roar as one. Having seen and suffered Loki’s tricks all this time, at last they saw their foe before them. The wrath of the gods turned upon him, as Thor hurled himself at his friend of old, ready to tear him limb from limb. But too skilled and agile a being was the Deceiver. Odin commanded all gods to seize Loki, to face justice at last for his heinous crimes. The Aesir gave chase, as Loki made his escape from Valhalla. For days he eluded them, until he came at last to a great river which would grant him escape from Asgard. The gods bore down on him, and many a hand dived for him, but Loki was a giant no more, but a salmon! Leaping into the waves he escaped them once again. Once, in a time before, the Aesir would have stopped, but not this time. Relentless, the Aesir planned a stratagem, and wove a net of unyielding strength, such as that which bound the wolf Fenrir all that time ago. Many times wily Loki evaded them, but there at the final dash to the sea, the net was drawn, Thor grasping one end and the rest of the Aesir the other. With a powerful burst Loki soared over the net, but not over the Thunderer’s fist. The Aesir immediately closed ranks and bound Loki tightly.

Loki in Agony
Illustration by Mårten Eskil Winge 
Given over to anger, the gods dragged Loki to a certain cave. Across three stones they lashed him to the rock, tying the chains with cruel force. Skadi, the frost giantess took up a great serpent and coiled it in the roof of the cave above him. Sealing the cave, with Loki and his wife Sigyn within, the Aesir departed. Venom dripped from the serpent’s fangs, and when each drop struck the Deceiver’s cheek, he writhed in agony, each throe rousing a terrible earthquake. Sigyn, desperate to help her husband, took a bowl and held it under the serpent’s jaws. But there come times when the bowl is full, and Sigyn must empty it. In the seconds in which she does, the fiery poison strikes Loki’s cheek once again, and maddening pain is his. Once, Loki had desired to humiliate the Aesir, but only humiliate them. As each drop of the serpent’s venom kindled his rage, his hate grew. Events had now been set in motion that could not be reversed. For Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, where the world will be overturned in fire, is coming. It will begin here, in this cave, when Loki will break free of his chains, to one end alone – the annihilation of the gods.  

United Kingdom

The Prose Edda
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(The original old tales of Norse Mythology, written a thousand years ago)

United States

The Prose Edda
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(The original old tales of Norse Mythology, written a thousand years ago)

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Otho's Noble End

“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” is one of the most misquoted lines in popular culture. Lord Acton's famously declared words were actually "Power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely", changing the meaning considerably. The misquotation is a phrase loudly trumpeted in the 21st century, and after the atrocities of the 20th century, it would seem to be rightly so. However, there is no shortage of a great many individuals in history who undermine this. Here is the story of one man, largely unknown and ignored even by other Roman historians, who deserves our remembrance.

The Emperor Galba
Statue in the gardens of Anglesey Abbey,
Cambridgeshire, England
AD 68. Almost a thousand years after the foundation of the city, the world was thrown into turmoil. Almost a century ago the Roman Republic, which had stood for a half a millennium, was at last dissolved. The young Gaius Caesar Octavianus, through his defeat of Mark Antony, had assumed sole rule of the Roman world. In 27 BC, he took the new name of Caesar Augustus, becoming the first Roman Emperor, giving birth to the Roman Empire, which would last for one and a half thousand years. Now, the last of his line, the Emperor Nero, is dead. Declared an enemy of the Senate and People of Rome, the infamous Emperor has taken his own life. But who should succeed him? The governor of the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis (Northern Spain), Servius Sulpicius Galba, seemed a good choice. 70 years of age, he had held a long distinguished career, serving in Africa, Germania, Hispania and Gaul (known as France today). 27 years earlier, when the Emperor Caligula was assassinated, he had refused calls to take up the Imperial mantle himself. A strict disciplinarian, he was quite a contrast to the extravagant Nero. Earlier in the year, Gaius Julius Vindex, Governor of Gallia Lugdunensis (Southern France), had risen in rebellion against Nero. Legions loyal to the Emperor crushed the revolt, and Vindex was slain. Galba, who had lent his support to the cause, escaped with his life only through the suicide of Nero. On June the 8th, the Senate hailed Galba as Emperor.

The Roman World AD 69 - The Year of the Four Emperors
Map created by the author
An extremely strict and ruthless taskmaster, towns which did not acknowledge Galba on his march to Rome faced stiff fines, and the ringleaders faced execution. Galba arrived in Rome to find the Imperial Treasury nigh on destitute, as a result of Nero’s boundless profligacy. As the year came to an end, the soldiers would need to be paid – a dangerous situation was rising. Sabinus, commander of the Praetorian Guard (the personal bodyguard of the Roman Emperor), promised the Guard a reward in return for supporting him as a new Emperor. The plot was foiled, and Sabinus took his own life. The Guard, however, demanded payment from Galba. An arrogant and aloof man, Galba scorned them, shouting that soldier should not be bribed in return for their loyalty. The Guard was enraged, and with the new hefty taxes the Emperor was forced to bring in, Galba found himself alienated from all classes of the Roman World, including one man who had supported him – Marcus Salvius Otho.

The Emperor Nero
Statue in the gardens of Anglesey Abbey,
Cambridgeshire, England
38 years of age, the young Otho had lead a remarkable life. Born to a distinguished Etruscan family, as a young boy he was known for his mischievous ways, frequently getting himself into trouble. An elderly lady serving the Imperial House found him delightfully charming and amusing, and before long, young Otho became introduced to the young, future Emperor Nero. The two became inseparable friends, often playing practical jokes on each other, and others. Years later, when Nero ruled the Empire, he entrusted to Otho’s care a lady, Poppaea Sabina. An attendant at court and rumoured to be one of the Emperor’s mistresses, Poppaea’s beauty was the talk of the court. Seven years younger, Otho was entranced by her the moment he saw her. Driven near mad with her, the two were soon wed. Otho was eager to introduce Poppaea to his friend, and he brought her before the Emperor, a decision he would ever after rue. Nero too was taken by her gaze, and Poppaea was seduced by the power which she believed she now wielded. Poppaea and Nero began an affair in secret, Otho unaware of their treachery. Poppaea strengthened her hold on the Emperor, and planted vile schemes in his mind. If Nero were to simply execute Otho, the whole scandal might become public, and ruin the Emperor. Poppaea’s whisperings, however, soon gave rise to a heinous plan. When he was twenty eight, the Emperor’s men arrived at Otho’s house. The Emperor declared Poppaea’s marriage to Otho void, announcing his own intentions to wed her. On Poppaea’s insistence, Nero banished Otho to govern the province of Lusitania (Portugal), conveniently one of the furthest provinces in the Empire from Rome. The news fell upon Otho with a terrible weight. Dejected utterly, wracked with the most horrific grief and the fury of injustice and the betrayal of his best friend and his wife, Otho was distraught. For ten years he existed in exile, a shadow of a man, but a new man. News later arrived that Nero, tiring of her, had murdered Poppaea. Otho put his head in his hands and wept. Once an extravagant wastrel and best friend to one of history’s most notorious tyrants, Otho experienced something of a revolution in his character. Through his own terrible suffering, he saw that of others too, and saw the errors of his old ways. His governorship of Lusitania was marked by his extraordinary fairness and virtue, and his willingness to help all who called out to him for help, regardless of social class. He was admired deeply by the legions for his deep generosity. Whenever he attended a banquet, he always stopped to talk to the guards on the door, giving every man a gold piece. Once he judged a case of two men arguing over the boundaries of each other’s territory. Otho bought the land and presented it as a gift to a wounded soldier under his care.

The Emperor Vitellius
Statue in the gardens of Anglesey Abbey,
Cambridgeshire, England
When news came of Galba’s declaration as Emperor in defiance of Nero, Otho offered his support, as the prospect of retribution against his old friend and the murderer of his wife grew strong. Yet when Galba’s support began to dwindle, the legions remembered the man who had cared for them so, and begged Otho to lead them. New Year’s Day, AD 69 arrived. The traditional oath of allegiance that all soldiers across the Empire swore to the Emperor was not taken. The Praetorian Guard bore Otho on their shoulders, and declared him Emperor. The cohort on duty on the Palatine Hill deserted Galba, and the Emperor was ambushed and slain at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. Only one guard, Sempronius Densus, honoured his duty to his Emperor, and fought to the death to defend him. As night fell, Otho stood now as the Emperor of Rome. Coming before the Senate, he declared that he would rule for all Romans, in consultation with all. Unfortunately, urgent messengers arrived in Rome that the Legions stationed on the Rhine had hailed their own commander, Aulus Vitellius, as Emperor. Delegations were sent to Vitellius, urging a restore to order, for an Emperor had been chosen. But the ambitious Vitellius ignored them. Otho, who despised Civil War as a monstrous aberration, exhausted every diplomatic option, before war became unavoidable. The Praetorians and Legions under Otho’s command denounced Vitellius and swore undying loyalty to Otho. Agents sent by Vitellius to were apprehended by the Guard, who dearly cared for the new Emperor. The omens were bad, as Otho set forth from Rome. The Tiber burst her banks and flooded the city, and the auguries boded doom. Ignoring these signs, Otho resolved to end the war quickly, and put an end to all uncertainty, as his men eagerly marched to war. Making camp at Brixellum, in northern Italy, the Othonian troops won three victories at the Alps, and the Emperor took heart. Vitellius sued for peace talks, and Otho’s forces marched out to hear the terms near Bedriacum. Then the full extent of Vitellius’ fell stratagems were laid bare. Springing a trap, the Othonian troops found not an embassy of peace, but the fully armed elite Legions of the Rhine, fresh for battle, arrayed against them. Battle was joined, and the Othonians fought valiantly, but could not hold out the crack Legions.

Back in Brixellum, a lowly soldier ran into the camp, throwing himself before Otho and his generals. With tears in his eyes he looked into the Emperor’s telling of their defeat. Otho’s generals berated the soldier, accusing him of lies and deceit. One called him a coward, who had chosen to desert rather than fight. The soldier, distraught by the allegations, knowing the penalty for desertion, threw himself upon his sword at Otho’s feet. The Emperor was shocked to his very core. The Legions around him shouted encouragements to Otho, and this was no sycophancy - they meant it. News arrived that fresh Legions from Dalmatia (modern Croatia), loyal to Otho, were on their way. Nearby troops clasped his knees, eagerly willing him on, declaring that they would stand with him to the death. But the Emperor could not take his eyes away from the soldier now dying at his feet. Tears welled in his eyes. Moved by the sight, Otho declared he would not expose his men to any further danger, men who had served him so well. The armies pleaded with Otho to lead them one last time against Vitellius. That man had dishonoured the codes of war, and deserved his fate. The Commander of the Praetorians begged him again and again not to give up, and the armies cheered. But Otho, an altruistic man, would hear nothing more of war. But deep down, he knew that there was only one way this war could end, and took a decision of leadership beyond equal in human history. Never before or since has one man commanded such admiration in defeat from his own soldiers. “It is better to die one for many, than many for one”, Otho declared:

         “ We have learned to know each other, Fortune and I… Self-control is
            harder when a man knows that his fortune cannot last… I want neither
            revenge nor consolation… Am I the man to allow the flower of Rome
            in all these famous armies to be laid down once again and lost to the country?
            Let me take with me the consciousness that you would have died for me.
            But you must stay and live. I must no longer interfere with your chance of pardon,
            nor you with my resolve. It is cowardice to go on talking about the end.
            Here is your best proof of my determination; I complain of no one.
            To blame gods or men is the mark of one who desires to live… ” 
                                           - OTHO ADDRESSES HIS MEN ONE LAST TIME

The Emperor Otho
Statue in the gardens of Anglesey Abbey,
Cambridgeshire, England
As the Legions stood, all other woes forgotten, struck dumb by the man before them, the Emperor descended from the dais and embraced each man, calling them by name. He turned to his brother and the two men held the other close. Otho looked down to his brother’s son, seeing the tears in his eyes, and comforted him. Dismissing them all, the Emperor returned to his quarters. All letters and documents which held any praise for himself or ill words for Vitellius he burned, so that none could incriminate others, and he sat down to write a letter to his sister. All the money he had he divided up and gave to his household slaves. A disturbance sounded outside. A few men who had tried to take leave had been suspected of deserting and restrained by Otho’s loyal troops. “Let us add one more night to this life”, Otho thought. He issued an order that force was to be used against no man, and left his door open well into the night for any to come and see him. Taking a drink of ice cold water, he picked up a pair of daggers. Testing the point of each, he chose one and laid it beside his pillow. Laying upon his bed, he enjoyed one last peaceful night, not without some sleep.

Dawn arrived on the 16th of April. As the rays of the sun rose in his room, Otho thrust the dagger into his breast. As the darkness fell over his eyes, his dying sigh was heard by the Guard, who rushed in. With a howl of deep pain they gazed upon their fallen Emperor. The breath of life left his body, and so ended the seventh Emperor of Rome, a man truly worthy of the name. Tears streamed in their eyes as the Guard bore Otho’s body aloft outside. The effect on those who were there was profound. Cries and shouts of grief rent the air asunder as the mightiest armed force in all history all wept as one, for one:

           “ Many of the soldiers who were present wept greatly and fervently
              and kissed his hands and feet as he lay there,
              declaring that he was the bravest of men, the one true Emperor… ”
                                             - THE REACTION OF THE ARMIES TO OTHO'S END

Otho’s body was laid upon the pyre, as his funeral was to be conducted quickly and with little fuss, as per his instructions. More than a few in the mighty array were moved beyond tears. Some could not bear to be separated from so great a man:

            “ It was then that some of the soldiers there took their own lives beside the pyre,
               not through servility or fear, but from love of their Emperor… ”
                                             - THE FINAL SACRIFICE

Never before or since has such devotion been shown to a fallen leader. The army gave him a magnificent funeral, burying him in a simple unmarked grave, for they knew that Vitellius would desecrate it if ever he found it. What happened to Vitellius, you might ask? Rome endured less than a year of his irreverent rule. Vespasian, the commander of the Eastern Legions whom Otho’s supporters called upon, who would one day build the Colosseum, marched on Rome, defeating Vitellius at Bedriacum. Vitellius met a sticky end, and a new era of peace came to Rome and the World.

Power corrupts. Or does it? I’ll leave you to make your own choice. Otho reigned as Emperor for just three months. His name deserves to be known. Many years later, the great historian Tacitus said of him:

                            “ Others may have held the sceptre longer,
                               but no one can ever have laid it down so bravely ”

United Kingdom

The Lives of the Caesars:
The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
(Biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors of Rome, in full salacious detail, written by the Emperor Hadrian's private secretary)

The History of the Civil War:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(A detailed account of the Year of the Four Emperors, written by one of the most erudite of ancient Romans - Tacitus)

United States

The Lives of the Caesars:
The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
(Biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors of Rome, in full salacious detail, written by the Emperor Hadrian's private secretary)

The History of the Civil War:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(Biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors of Rome, in full salacious detail, written by the Emperor Hadrian's private secretary)

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Holy Lance

It was under a dark shadow that the lords, knights and barons of the West embarked upon the First Crusade in August 1096. The call of Pope Urban II had been answered by lord and peasant alike, but also fanatic. The mass slaughter of Jews in Germany, and the pillaging of Roman towns by the ‘People’s Crusade’ had left an ugly stain on the Crusade (for this story, please click here), but now the true crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. It was a road that even in 1096 could be done in a matter of weeks. But it would be four gruelling years before the Holy City appeared on the horizon…

The Crusaders cross the Bosphorus
Artist unknown, painted in the 19th century
Beginning their arduous voyage in August 1096, the four leaders of the crusade marched forth for Constantinople. Raymond, Count of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baron of the Holy Roman Empire, Hugh of Vermandois, brother of King Philip I of France and Bohemond, Prince of Taranto, lead four contingents from across Europe to the Imperial City, as an unprecedented truce between the Christian nations of the West was declared. Tens of thousands across the Christian world flocked to their banners. Class and right of birth was no distinction as knight and peasant marched side by side. Ever wary of a collapse of discipline such as had occurred under the People’s Crusade, the Eastern Roman Emperor Alexius I kept a tight watch on the Christians who now flooded his lands. This time, he had even greater cause for concern. For Bohemond, along with his father, Robert Guiscard, had launched an attack on Roman lands some twenty years earlier, driving the Romans from Southern Italy. The Emperor summoned the leaders of the Crusade to him one by one, ordering them to swear an oath of fealty to him, with a solemn pledge to return the lands they liberated to the Empire. One by one they took the oath, some more grudgingly than others, except the cautious Raymond, who simply promised to do no harm to the Empire. Putting his own demons aside, the hot headed Bohemond swore the oath, knowing the disaster it would spell for the Crusade if they were denied the valuable supplies of the Empire. For a brief time, the crusaders embraced the Romans as their brothers once more, and the Emperor declared his blessing for the Crusade, generously gifting them a plethora of supplies, as well as ordering his own general staff to advise the crusaders on what they were up against from the Turks. So, in 1097, the First Crusade cross the Bosphorus straits, and made landfall in Asia.

Bidding farewell to the comforts of friendly nations, the crusaders now trod in hostile territory. Finding the mauled remnants of Peter the Hermit’s crusade, the Christians were under no illusions of complacency this time. The Sultan of the Great Seljuk Empire, Kilij Arslan, confident after his triumph over the People’s Crusade, left his cities with minimal garrisons as he marched to war in the East, fatally underestimating the new threat. The crusaders stormed across Anatolia to the walls of Nicaea, a once great Roman city, now capital of Arslan’s realm. Hardly could they believe their luck as they saw the enemy’s heartland so scantily defended, and they seized the opportunity, placing it under siege. Arslan, roused by the news his heralds brought, made peace with his foes in the East, and rushed to the aid of his capital. The large lake by Nicaea’s walls made the siege difficult for the crusaders, as they could not cut off the city’s supplies completely. Arslan arrived on the scene, expecting another rabble such as that Peter had lead against him. It was with a terrible shock that he laid eyes upon the mighty crusader force as he reached the crest of the hill before the city. The crusaders, emboldened by their fortunes so far, pounced. The Sultan’s force was badly bloodied, and Arslan fled. The garrison of Nicaea, spirit broken, surrendered to the crusaders on the 19th of June 1097. It was with much reluctance on the part of many that the city was immediately handed over to the Empire, honouring their oath. One crusader rejoiced that Jerusalem was only five weeks march away. Little did they all know that it would be two years before the Holy City lay in reach.

Bohemond storms Antioch
Painting by Gallait
Emboldened by success, the crusaders roared through Anatolia, as city after city fell to Christendom. Arslan lay in wait, desperate for a weakness to open up. On July 1st, at Dorylaeum, a chance came. The Norman contingent, under Bohemond, had ventured ahead of the crusader force in search of food and water. The sun grew strong. A glint in the distance, and a flash of sunlight on metal caught Bohemond’s eye - Turkish scouts. Barely a moment later, the slopes erupted in a storm of thundering hooves as the Sultan struck. The Normans were cut off, but not for nothing was Bohemond so loathed by the Emperor of the Romans. Leaping from his horse he rallied the Normans, turning them to face their foe. Many fell, yet the Normans held firm. Hours of the onslaught passed and Bohemond refused to break. Just then, when death seemed certain, the sign of the Cross appeared on the horizon, signalling the arrival of Raymond, and salvation. The Sultan retreated once more, and Christendom rejoiced, but not for long. The Crusade advanced, but soon it dawned upon the Christians how little there was to forage here. Not one to risk all in battle, the Sultan had devastated the land, burning its fields and laying waste its pastures. Christian morale, that had been so high, began to dwindle, as the burning sun withered them and lack of food weakened them. Supplies from Constantinople began to ebb away. Desperation sank in the crusader lines:

                  “ We did not dare to go outside; we could find absolutely nothing

                     to eat within the land of the Christians, and no one dared to enter
                     the land of the Saracens without a great army ”
                               - THE SUFFERING OF THE CRUSADERS

Well might the Christian plight seem hopeless, as they descended into Syria, and the great city of Antioch lay before them. One of the mightiest cities ever built, with fortifications that rendered its defenders all but invincible, high on a mountain, to say the city was a daunting prospect was an understatement if ever there was one. Once a great city in ancient times, prospering under the Eastern Romans, the Turks had seized it fourteen years earlier. Even worse, the Turkish governor of Antioch knew the crusaders were coming. The Christians moved quickly to surround the city, but so vast were her walls that even they did not have enough men to surround it. Though stopping most supplies entering the city, they were unable to stop riders breaking through, racing toward the Turk’s allies for aid. A galling prospect now arose. A beleaguered Christian force now faced one of the mightiest citadels of all time, and the knowledge that enemy may well be reinforced by further armies to their rear. On the 20th of October 1097, the crusaders dug in for a gruelling siege. “Even if all mankind came against it”, Antioch need not fear defeat, one Christian priest travelling with Raymond declared, as the crusaders stared up in horror at the towering walls.

St. Longinus pierces Christ's side
Fresco by Fra Angelico
Days passed in deepest tension. Every effort the crusaders made toward Antioch was fought off by the garrison, halting the Christians before they even reached the impregnable walls. Raising earthworks, to desperately gain respite from the endless barrage of missiles from the walls, the Christians casualties mounted. The arrival of Christian reinforcements from Europe by sea actually worsened their situation, as food was so scarce. Winter set in. Food ran dangerously low for the crusaders, and still no impact on Antioch, and then, on New Year’s Eve 1097, the crusaders’ failure to stop the Antiochian riders came back to haunt them. Duqaq, the fiery spirited ruler of Damascus, whose bloody rebellion two years earlier had thrown Syria into a brutal civil war, had answered the city’s call and marched to their aid. The crusaders fought valiantly, but it was the appalling weather which spared them this time. So heavy was the rain and so biting the cold that Duqaq soon retreated back to Damascus, but the damage was done. Much of the food the crusaders had foraged for was lost. Fodder for the horses reached such a price that even the knights were forced to sell their helmets and breastplates for even one days rations.1098 arrived, and with it news that yet another Islamic force was on its way, under Ridwin of Aleppo. Men and horses were starving to death every day in the Christian camp, and desertion began to have its ruinous effect. Even Peter the Hermit escaped, though he was soon retrieved by the irate commanders. News that Eastern Roman supply ships were on their way fired the morale of the crusaders, as the Christian knights hurled themselves at the fresh threat. Shocked by the size of the crusader force, and the power of their attack, the Aleppans were routed. To the amazement of all, the Crusade was hanging in, just.

Fresh supplies from the Romans brought desperately needed food and raw materials for constructing siege engines – now at last the crusaders could cut off the city. The morale of the Crusade grew, only to be dashed once again when an unnerved scout arrived. The crusaders would have to face not one, not two but three relieving armies. This time, however, the force which marched on them was enormous, as the governor of Mosul, Kerbogha, advanced with the combined forces of the Turks, of Persia and Mesopotamia. Near the entire Islamic world now bore down upon the First Crusade with breakneck speed, determined to grind the crusaders into the desert sands. The leaders of the West held urgent council. Now was the endgame. If Antioch did not fall soon, they would be annihilated when Kerbogha arrived. Bohemond stepped forward. If all present agreed that the city would come under his control, he would ensure Antioch’s fall. Near all the other leaders, driven by desperation, gave in to his wish. Raymond, however, an honourable man, was fired with rage, reminding him that it was the rightful property of the Empire, and that Bohemond had sworn an oath before the Emperor. Alas that honour was outvoted that day. By means of utmost stealth, Bohemond had already opened secret lines of communication with a disgruntled Tower Guard of Antioch, a man by the name of Pirus, who was angered by the seduction of his wife by a Turkish officer. The two men agreed a daring plan. The crusaders would break camp and march away, deceiving the garrison of Antioch that they had turned to engage the Saracen forces on their way, and under cover of darkness creep quietly back. A few select men would sneak up to the tower Pirus guarded, who would then throw a ladder over the side. So, on the night of the 2nd of June 1098, the raid began. A few picked men, wielding Bohemond’s banner, dashed up onto the wall. Initially alarmed at how few they were, Pirus feared. But, overjoyed after six months of toil, the crusaders eagerly beckoned their brethren on. The crusaders stormed through the city, though so mighty was Antioch, even this was not enough to take it once and for all. The Turks still held the highest citadel, far up on the mountain, while the Christians cursed. The food situation in Antioch, they discovered to their horror, was little better than their own.

The Crusaders march before the Holy Lance
British Library Manuscript in the Yates
Thompson Collection
Now trapped in the city between the garrison and the armies of the East, the situation for the crusaders was desperate. Only four days later, Kerbogha arrived and surrounded the city. The besiegers had become the besieged. The Emperor Alexius, hearing reports of their plight, decided that the situation was hopeless, and did not send aid. The crusaders were on their own. Days passed, and hellish perdition descended on the Christians, as famine, disease and thirst felled many every day. But then, when all hope had faded, a priest, Peter Bartholomew by name, in the Christian camp awoke with a start after a stunning vision. Seized with urgency, he made haste to his leaders, eager to share a revelation. A stranger had appeared in his dream. Peter asked the stranger “Who art thou?”. Spake the vision “I am St.Andrew, the apostle. Know, my son, that when thou shalt enter the town, go to the church of St. Peter. There thou wilt find the Lance of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, with which He was wounded as He hung on the arm of the Cross”. Raymond, Bohemond and Godfrey were taken aback. Many could not believe it. The Holy Lance, its location revealed? The actual spear of Longinus, thrust into Christ’s side at the Crucifixion? (It is a common mistake to believe that it was the crucifixion itself that killed Jesus Christ – it was in fact the spear thrust into his side by the Roman soldier Longinus while he was nailed to the Cross). Many crusaders, driven to the brink of madness by hunger, prone to hallucinations, hailed Peter as a new prophet. Bohemond was highly sceptical. One of the holiest of relics in Christendom, here at last? Raymond did believe, however, and urged Peter to follow his vision. On the 14th of June, a meteor was seen in the sky, an omen, but good or bad? Peter climbed the heights to the Cathedral of St. Peter, and thirteen men dug from dawn until dusk under the nave. Then, as night fell, Peter climbed into the pit. All present were utterly struck dumb, as Peter reached down into the dirt and his hand closed around a spear point. It was as though seven months of agony had never happened. The fire of zeal burst through the Christian camp. “Joy beyond measure arose in the whole city”, one eyewitness reported. If there were any doubters, they were silenced now. They bodies battered, but their spirits born anew, the crusaders, spurred on by their faith, turned to face their foes. Deciding to risk everything on one great gamble, the entire crusader force burst out of the gates and charged down upon Kerbogha’s vast array. Riding before them was Adhemar, legate of the Pope, bearing the relic of the Holy Lance. Many crusaders saw visions of St. George, St. Demetrius and St. Maurice riding beside them. A great roar rose from the Christians, and Kerbogha feared. Shocked to see a fully unified Christian force before him, he could not believe his eyes. He had been told they were on the brink of utter collapse. Vast were his forces, yet they hailed from all parts of the Eastern world. Many emirs schemed and plotted against him, rumours that he planned to take over all of Syria upon his victory, and division rippled through his lines. Quaking before the armoured knights now thundering towards them, many turned in terror. The Muslim lines were thrown into anarchy, as the crusader knights slammed into them with irresistible force. The Christians rode to a crushing victory, and the garrison high in Antioch, distraught by what they saw, surrendered. Antioch, the great city, had fallen at last. Finally, the road to Jerusalem was open…

United Kingdom

Eyewitness accounts
The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (Middle Ages)
(A very useful collection of eyewitness accounts of the First Crusade)

United States

Eyewitness accounts
The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (The Middle Ages Series)
(A very useful collection of eyewitness accounts of the First Crusade)