The negative Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) attitude towards a conception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of religion

The concept of ‘holy war’ is defined and distinguished by two core ideas: First, by the idea that warfare is arbitrarily justified as divine order, i.e. command; second, that warfare is perceived and propagated as a means of religion employed against infidels or heretics, thus granting the believer-warriors absolution and sanctification.

The main focus is set, here, on a comparison of Byzantine reactions towards the concept of jihād, which scholars of medieval studies almost unanimously categorize as a medieval notion of ‘holy war’, with Byzantine reactions to crusade, which is generally regarded as the western Christian notion of ‘holy war’.


The central aim of the study is therefore to clarify the Byzantine position towards the western Christian idea that the waging of warfare can be justified as divine will and that death or killing in battle against infidel enemies can be perceived as a means per se to achieve absolution and sanctification. This question concerns not only the issue of the Byzantine understanding of crusade but also the issue of the existence of a Byzantine type of ‘holy war’, which differs in its special characteristics from crusade as well as from jihād.

Byzantine positions towards the concept of jihād

Byzantine polemic is directed against the two core ideas that enable the categorization of jihād as a species of ‘holy war’: the idea that God commanded the subjugation or annihilation of the infidel and the idea that the believer could gain eternal life in Heaven and become a martyr through his participation in divinely ordained warfare. The first polemical mention of a Byzantine source against the Islamic concept of shahīd (i.e. warrior-martyr) is found in the work of Theophanes the Confessor, written in the beginning of the 9th century. The author defines Mohammed’s religion as a heresy and emphasizes the absurdity of the idea that the killing of the enemy or being killed by the enemy in warfare can be spiritually meritorious. A few decades later, during the reign of Michael III, Nicetas Byzantius rejects in his answering letter to a Muslim theologian the Islamic idea that the killing of men could be legitimated as divine will. The Byzantine author, based on a rationalized Christian ethic, argues that killing and, consequently, warfare can by no means be perceived as a religious task, since God cannot wish and favour the destruction of his noblest creation, i.e. man. Within the framework of this idea Leo VI blames the Arabs in his military treatise “Tactica” for being impious, since they believe God to be the cause of every evil deed and to rejoice in war, whereas God disperses the warmongering nations. Finally, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos refers to the Muslim concept of absolution through participation in warfare in two passages of his political treatise “De administrando imperio” and denounces it. In the first passage, he characterizes Mohammed as madman and deluded because of his teachings that killing the enemy or being killed by the enemy will bring his followers to Heaven. In the second, he copies out word for word Theophanes’ polemic.

It is important to emphasize that the theological dispute between Byzantines and Muslims referred to the common God of the monotheistic tradition of the Scriptures. This is made clear in Theophanes’ mention of Islam as heresy, which is adopted by Constantine Porphyrogennetos, as well as in the case of Nicetas Byzantios, in which the theological debate refers to the differentiated interpretation of the one God. This means that the negative Byzantine attitude towards the ideas of divinely ordained warfare and spiritually meritorious death in battle cannot be simply attributed to the political and cultural animosity caused by the otherness of the Muslims and their God. Byzantine rejection of the Muslim notion of ‘holy war’ was formulated on an ideological – theological level that concerned also their own religion, since it referred to the differentiated Byzantine perception of God’s relation to warfare. In this light, all aforementioned statements demonstrate a negative Byzantine attitude towards the core ideas of the ‘holy war’ concept in the period before the First Crusade and stand in clear contradiction with present-day theories which highlight Byzantine religious rhetoric in wars fought against infidel enemies as an indication of a Byzantine type of ‘holy war’.

Byzantine positions towards the concept of crusade

Most of the scholars who have explored Byzantine attitudes towards the Crusades tend to the conclusion that the Byzantines had little or no understanding for the Crusaders and their movement. However, a clear line must be drawn between Byzantine attitudes towards the political and the ideological aspect of the Crusades. Most of the Byzantine authors’ negative comments – especially of the three main historians of that period, Anna Comnena, Ioannis Cinnamus and Nicetas Choniates – about the movement concern its political aspect which clearly contradicted Byzantine political interests. Moreover, these authors may emphasize the political and cultural differences between the Byzantines and the Latins, but do not object to the central aim of the Crusades, i.e. the protection or liberation of fellow Christians and their lands from the Muslims.

The sources of the middle Byzantine period as reflected through the Byzantine polemic against jihād, demonstrate an explicitly negative Byzantine attitude towards the ideas that warfare could be justified as divine order and perceived as a means for plenary remission of sins.

The theoretical statements of Leo VI’s military treatise “Tactica” demonstrate the main ideas which defined the relation between religion and warfare in Byzantine thought. The author of the text devotes three paragraphs to the clarification of the concept of dikaios polemos (just war). In those, he makes clear that a just cause for war was explicitly defined by the natural need of defense, which was identifiable with the integrity of Roman territory and the protection of its inhabitants against foreign attack (indifferently whether the enemy was Christian or infidel). In the last constitution (20) as well as in the epilogue of his treatise, he then clarifies the role of God within the Byzantine conception of just war. Among other things he says:

Constitution 20:

57. I believe it is right that the beginnings of war must be just. A person defending himself against others who are acting unjustly is truly just himself and he has divine justice for support and as an ally in campaigning against the unjust. The person who first begins injustice has his victory taken away by divine justice itself.

169. Certainly justice must be at the beginning of every action. More than other actions however, the beginnings of war must be just. Not only must it be just but war must be conducted with prudence. For then God will become benevolent and will fight along with our armies. The men will be more enthusiastic (to fight) when they defend justice realizing that that they are not initiating injustice, but they are warding off those committing unjust acts.


14. Preoccupy yourself with the stratagems and with the armament of the army lest not to act unjustly or to initiate an unjust war or to launch pillaging and unjust raids against people that have done you no wrong, but to live in piety and be at peace with the enemies, as far as it depends on you. Thus, if you act reverently and in a God-pleasing manner, you will have the weapons for defense against the unjust enemies.

15. If your pious life encompasses these things, I am sure that you will have God Himself campaigning with you along with justice.

16. The belief that one is not acting unjustly, but is being treated unjustly will have God as leader and general and is important to believe that God has obligated himself to bring a just war to a good conclusion, the same as an unjust one to the contrary.

17. Just as it is impossible for the unjust person not to suffer at some time the penalty for his injustice from God the Judge, so it is also impossible for one who defends himself and fights against injustice not to obtain victory from God. For God is a just judge and will bring everything about with justice.

The information of the “Tactica” reveals a system of ideas and beliefs in which justice in warfare is explicitly defined by a natural-law cause. The pre-Christian rational principle of defense (which in the Byzantine case could also be distorted through the idea of reconquest) was the only reason that could legitimate Byzantine war action and secure God’s favour for the cause of the war. Within this conception, God and religion can neither define the just character of warfare, nor motivate its initiation; they only become advocates of a justice which is based on human needs. The old-testamentary idea of God being the archetypal source of justice and judgment, which determines everything, i.e. also the outcome of wars, is in this case modified and subordinated to a rationalized concept of justification for the use of armed force. In Byzantine perception, it is not God’s will that can be arbitrarily employed to define any war as just. Justice in warfare was explicitly predefined through the natural-law cause of the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the political entity “Roman Empire”.

Consequently, the religious element in Byzantine warfare functions as an ideological amplifier of the ethical legitimation of an ideologically “restrained war action” that was motivated and justified by a rational cause, with rational goals thus assimilating to the life-affirming character of modern ‘just war’ conceptions. That is why a Byzantine defeat in a just war fought for the Empire’s defense/restoration was, on the one hand, perceived as a consequence of God’s inscrutable judgment, i.e. as irrational, since God, in opposition to the rational expectations of the righteous fighters, had not helped them to accomplish their rationally righteous cause; on the other hand, it was not understood in retrospect as a sign that the cause of war had been unjust, since justice did not depend on God’s will and therefore could not be doubted irrespective of the outcome of war.

From a Byzantine standpoint, God or religion could not be perceived as wanting and commanding, i.e. causing, war but only as supporting just warfare by association within the framework of the interrelation between the empire and its institutionalized religion in order to ensure that justice would triumph over injustice in terms of a rationally defined cause, i.e. defense/liberation. This subordination of God and religion to the raison d’état enabled the Byzantines to employ a strong religious rhetoric and symbolism not only in wars fought against infidel but also against Christian enemies, as well as in ‘civil’ wars in which both sides were considered to be Christian and Roman.

If we consider the religious rhetoric and symbolism of Byzantine wars, the justification of which was principally defined by the need for defense or restoration of the Roman Empire’s territory, as proof of a Byzantine notion of ‘holy war’, we should then reduce the concept of ‘holy war’ to an armed conflict in which the warriors appeal to and expect God’s favour, even though they do not perceive religion to be the principal cause of the war. In such a case, we should promote all Byzantine wars, offensive or defensive, against all enemies (Christians or non-Christians) as well as civil wars to ‘holy wars’, since the Byzantines did not go to war without appealing to and believing in God’s help, as the source evidence clearly shows. Moreover, the fact that in the Byzantine concept of just war God did not arbitrarily command the waging of warfare, but was simply aiding the Byzantines when they were acting righteously within the framework of a natural-law cause, granting thus warfare a religious dimension by association and not by nature, demonstrates the divergence of Byzantine war ethic from Saint Augustine’s ideological tradition. The latter’s work does not preclude the idea that God could ordain and arbitrarily justify the waging of warfare, thus reflecting the influence of the Old Testament on the western medieval perception of war.

It is important to say that the ideological image of the Crusades is a matter of discussion until the present day. Modern scholars have pointed out that the initial motive for the movement was the idea of a ‘reconquista’ in order to support the eastern Christians, the Byzantines, to regain their lands. The papal proclamations at Clermont, however, granted the movement the image of an armed pilgrimage towards Jerusalem among the masses, which gradually evolved into a perception of divinely ordained warfare, since the main motivation of the participants became to fulfill God’s will and achieve plenary remission of sins through the killing of infidels.


The absence of a Byzantine polemic against the core ideas of crusade, which made it a notion of ‘holy war’ and which were similar to the core ideas of jihad, was due to the fact that the idea of a just cause of liberation of Christian-Roman lands dominated the ideological image of the movement by the Byzantine elite. Anna Comnena, although hostile towards the movement, had no objection against the justice of the initial cause.

However, the difference of attitude towards the religious dimension of warfare between Byzantines and Latins seems to be revealed by one reference of Anna Comnena to the Latin image of the warrior-priest, which she explicitly rejects in her text:

For the rules concerning priests are not the same among the Latins as they are with us; For we are given the command by the canonical laws and the teaching of the Gospel, “Touch not, taste not, handle not! For thou art consecrated”. Whereas the Latin barbarian will simultaneously handle divine things, and wear his shield on his left arm, and hold his spear in his right hand, and at one and the same time he communicates the body and blood of God, and looks murderously and becomes ‛a man of blood’, as it says in the psalm of David. For this barbarian race is no less devoted to sacred things than it is to war. And so this man of violence rather than priest wore his priestly garb at the same time that he handled the oar and had an eye equally to naval or land warfare, fighting simultaneously with the sea and with men.

Anna’s reference makes it clear that they had no understanding for a higher religious cause, a divine order, which could overshadow the canonical norms and justify the participation of priests in warfare.

The presence of priests as warriors in a campaign so far away from their homeland certainly raised questions among the Byzantines regarding the motivation and the religious perception of crusading warfare.The fact that Latin priests were willing and felt legitimated to fight against the infidel as well as against Christians for the sake of their cause was fundamentally opposed to eastern Christian mentality according to which war was a sin and as such could not be the task of a servant of God. Therefore, Anna’s deprecatory reference to the participation of Latin priests as warriors in the First Crusade is a further indication of the principally negative Byzantine attitude towards a conception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of religion.

Similarly to Anna Comnena, Nicetas Choniates seems to distinguish between the just cause of the reconquest of Christian land and the political aspect of the Crusade that posed a threat to the empire.

Let us examine Choniates’ attitude towards Manuel I’s campaign to Myriokephalon (September 1176) which has been characterized as a Byzantine Crusade, i.e. a ‘holy war’, by modern scholars. This characterization is based on the religious rhetoric of a sermon addressed to the emperor by Euthymios Malakes (early 1176) to praise the rebuilding of the fortresses Soublaion and Dorylaion. Two characteristic passages of the sermon which could be viewed as an indication for a crusade concept are the following:

But, if I should die on the field of battle, it would be a good thing to die defending Crusade and to exchange the perishable earthly Kingdom for the unshakeable Kingdom of Heaven. In sum, it is either you will receive me again as a victorious and glorious emperor or you will call me an athlete of Christ and a martyr. This is what you said…

… You said: soldiers, we labor to defend piety and go to war on behalf of God. We do not conquer Barbarian cities nor pursue what it is not ours. We do no injustice to others but fight for what is our own. For it is abominable that the inheritance of God is stolen and reduced by the impious.

Based on the second passage, it is evident that the main idea which motivated and legitimated Manuel’s war was the just cause of restoration of Roman rule over former Roman territory, which in Byzantine thought was identifiable with defense. The reason that Manuel fought against the infidel according to the author is not because they are infidel, but because they are barbarians (i.e. foreigners) who have occupied Roman land. His goal is not to conquer the cities of the infidel on God’s command but cities which formerly belonged to the Empire. Thus, he remains faithful to the just war concept of Leo VI’s Tactica according to which the Byzantines had no justification to fight against nations which stayed in their own territory irrespective of their religion. God and religion are here once more viewed neither as the source of motivation nor of justification for the launching of war. In this case, we deal with a reflection of the ideological concept according to which the role of religion in warfare was a secondary one attributing to Byzantine war a religious element by association within the framework of the Empire’s relation to its institutionalized religion.

Manuel wishes for himself the title of an athlete of Christ and a martyr in case he should die in battle against the Muslims. Certainly, this is not the only case in Byzantine texts in which the title of an athlete of Christ, i.e. of a martyr, is related to Byzantine soldiers. However, the equation of the soldiers with the martyrs in all these cases is expressed as a wishful appeal to God and not as an affirmative recognition of a plenary remission of sins and a martyr-status explicitly for those who lost their life in battle against the infidel. This interpretation is further underpinned by the fact that, apart from the rarity of such references in the sources, neither a cult of soldier-martyrs is evident in Byzantium (in the period of the Comnenoi or previously) nor an echo of a martyr-image of the soldiers killed in all relevant battles can be found in the sources.

The most important evidence though that Manuel’s campaign does not represent a Byzantine Crusade or a ‘holy war’ and therefore does not reflect the preponderance of such a concept within Byzantine society is the total absence of a martyr-image for the numerous Byzantine soldiers who died by the hand of the infidel enemies in the Byzantine sources. According to the speech of Malakes, Manuel had said that he would either return victorious or die and become a martyr. If we accept that this statement was not only a wish, which the pious emperor expressed in terms of rhetorical exaggeration, but that it represented a social – religious practice which related to a broadly established perception of warfare as a means of indulgence and sanctification within Byzantine society, it is not victory that should have made the soldiers of Manuel’s “Crusade” into martyrs but death, even if it had come by a defeat. However, no evidence of a martyr-image for the numerous fallen soldiers can be found in Choniates’ account or in any other source. On the contrary, the latter reports only on the great frustration of the living soldiers after the battle, which was directed in an unusually disrespectful manner against the emperor himself and his policy by accusing him of greed for war and power. Even if those accusations against Manuel, as presented by Choniates, do not refer to a real incident but to the author’s attempt to put indirectly judgment on the Emperor’s policies within the framework of Kaiserkritik, they still reflect a certain ideological starting-point. This starting-point was designated by the absence of a preponderant idea within Byzantine society which promoted a perception of warfare as a divinely ordained means of absolution and, consequently, an image of fallen soldiers as martyrs.

The ideological image of Manuel’s campaign, as presented by Choniates, is also verified in anonymous poems, written to glorify the emperor’s action at Myriokephalon, in which no concept of crusade or of soldiers-martyrs is evident. The total absence of a martyr-concept in all other Byzantine sources for the campaign of 1176 along with the fact that Malakes highlights the idea of restauratio imperii in his sermon demonstrate in my view that the religious rhetoric, which is presented by the author in his speech, should be interpreted within the framework of the Byzantine concept of just war rather than of an alleged crusade or ‘holy war’ concept.

The perception of the reconquest of Christian – Roman lands as a God-favored cause, which was common in both the concept of Byzantine just war and the concept of crusade facilitated the employment of a similar religious rhetoric by the ideological underpinning of warfare. The perception of the relation between religion and war however remained different.

A condemnatory statement regarding the idea that war could be viewed as God’s command in the concluding lines of Choniates’ text further verifies the author’s differentiation from the ideological core of crusade. Following his description of a sculpture which depicted two wild animals involved in a deadly fight, the author makes the following comment:

This mutual destruction and killing has persuaded me to say that these death-dealing evils, ruinous to men, not only are portrayed in images and not only happen to the bravest of beasts but frequently occur among the nations, such as those which have marched against us Romans, killing and being killed, perishing by the power of Christ who scatters the warmongering nations, and who does not rejoice in bloodshed, and who causes the just man to tread on the asp and the basilisk and to trample underfoot the lion and the dragon.

This comment relates to the events of the Fourth Crusade. The biblical idea that God destroys the warmongering nations is employed by the author as an implicit accusation against the Latins that had attacked and conquered Constantinople. Choniates says explicitly that God will help the righteous, who in his ideological system are clearly identifiable with the Byzantines, to triumph eventually over the unrighteous because God rejects bloodshed and punishes the nations which cause wars. The accusation against the Latins in this case is the same that Leo VI made against the Muslims in the Tactica. In both cases, the criticism concerns the idea that war could be perceived and justified as God’s command, an idea that designated the ideological core of both crusade and jihād. Furthermore, Choniates’ statement also corresponds with Niketas Byzantios’ statement which rejects the Muslim idea of God as the source of justification for warfare. The explicit repudiation of the Latin idea of deus vult, which was fundamental for the motivation and legitimation of the Crusades as wars of religion, in the final lines of Choniates’ text concludes the image of the author’s differentiated attitude towards one of the core ideas of the crusade concept.

Constantine Stilbes’ denouncement of the Latin concept of indulgence

This ideological continuity is further demonstrated and confirmed in the statements of Constantine Stilbes, which represent a direct and indisputable rejection of the religious dimension of crusading warfare. In his text on the errors of the Latins, written shortly after the fall of Constantinople (1204), the Byzantine author counts among the Latin religious errors the idea of war being a means of indulgence. From a total of seventy-five accusations against the Latins given by him, three of them are of great significance in regard to the question of Byzantine attitudes towards the ‘holy war’ aspect of crusade. In his thirty-eighth accusation, he raises the issue of the fighting priests, thus demonstrating an ideological alignment with Anna Comnena in this matter:

38. The high-ranking priests participate in warfare and fight and are killed or become the killers of men, the very ones that are pupils of the nonviolent Christ and use the same hands to sanctify the secret body and blood.

Furthermore, in accusations number sixty and sixty one he is referring directly to the matter of indulgence through war:

60. Their [i.e. The Latins’] high-ranked priests approve of the slaughter of Christians and claim salvation for the ones doing that.

61. They glorify those among them, who are killed in battle, as saved and say that they enter heaven directly, even if they lost their lives fighting because of avarice or bloodlust or some other excess of evil.

Here, we are dealing with a clear concept that rejects war per se as means of absolution. The author denounces in the first accusation (sixty) the idea that the killing of Christians could be rewarded with salvation. In this way, he explicitly condemns the Fourth Crusade that had turned against the Christians of Constantinople. In the following accusation, he makes clear that warfare in general cannot be considered a means of salvation. By saying that, he does not refer again only to wars fought against Christians, because he has done that already above. He now focuses on and criticizes the concept of crusade which was mainly perceived as divinely ordained warfare leading to absolution. The words he uses are carefully chosen in order to distinguish the concept of crusade from that of a just war.

Stilbes not only rejects the idea that war per se could be a means of indulgence but he also doubts the piety of the Crusaders and the righteousness of their cause.

As long as the controversy between Byzantines and Crusaders referred to the controlling of the re-conquered territories of the East, the first continued to view the latter as fellow Christians and showed ideological understanding for the just aspect of their cause, the reconquest of Christian-Roman lands from the Muslims. However, as soon as the Crusaders attacked and conquered Constantinople they became impious enemies and therefore unworthy – from a Byzantine point of view – to serve a cause as just as the war against the Muslim occupation had been.


Byzantine polemic against the concept of jihād becomes evident in the sources over a century – at the least – after Islam had been established in the Arab world. Byzantine polemic against the concept of crusade dates also over a century after the emergence of that concept in the West. The great chronological distance in both cases shows that such concepts, besides taking some time to establish within the same society, took a longer time to become well known and cause reactions within neighbouring societies. From a Byzantine perspective the Muslim concept related to a religious movement that was initially viewed as a Christian heresy and developed then into a different religion the followers of which were considered infidels. Moreover, this concept was ideologically directed against the empire and its own religion, causing thus a political, military and religious controversy. Conversely, the Latin concept emerged within a society that shared the same religion with the Byzantines and apart from certain political and cultural differences between the Hellenized East and the Latin West ideologically was not directed – at least in its initial phase – against the empire but corresponded in many aspects with its own war ideology. The ideological complexity of the crusade movement, which was generated by the idea of a reconquest of Christian-Roman lands, but from the very beginning developed into an armed pilgrimage and a notion of divinely ordained warfare with spiritual merits for those participating in it, is the key for the decoding of Byzantine attitudes towards it.

The evidence from the Byzantine sources of the period before the Crusades demonstrates that the strong religious aspect of the Byzantine concept of dikaios polemos did not include the idea that war could be justified as divine will and consequently be perceived as a means of plenary remission of sins and sanctification. The source evidence after the First Crusade shows that the Byzantines were positive towards the idea of a war of reconquest of Christian (former Roman) lands from the Muslims, which is explainable in respect of the ideological correspondence of such a concept with the Byzantine concept of restauratio imperii. The present-day theory which explains the absence of a Byzantine polemic against the ‘holy war’ aspect of crusade before 1204, based on the argument that the Byzantines were familiar with the idea of God commanding a war and rewarding the faithful soldiers with eternal life in Heaven, is questionable insofar as it fails to explain Byzantine rejection of these very ideas in the case of Nicephorus Phocas’ appeal to the Byzantine Church as well as within the framework of Byzantine polemic against the Islamic jihād.

(Source: Jihād and Crusade: Byzantine positions towards the notions of “holy war”, by Yannis Stouraitis, 2011)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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