Bolt Thrower – “The IVth Crusade”

Many of us were taught that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, when Germanic barbarians dethroned the last Roman emperor, coincidentally named Romulus Augustulus (the names of Rome’s first king and first emperor). This anticlimactic event, hardly noticed by contemporaries, draws an all-too-convenient line between what we think of as classical antiquity and what we think of as the middle ages. This is an arbitrary line between a so-called age of reason and civilization and a so-called age of darkness and barbarism. Reality is much more complicated: while Roman political authority in the western provinces gradually gave way to the sovereignty of Germanic kings, and pagan religion gave way to Christianity, there was much more continuity of culture and learning than discontinuity, albeit restricted largely to the institution of the Catholic Church, and albeit restricted to the knowledge of the Latin language.

One significant discontinuity, however, was the loss of knowledge of the Greek language, ere a staple of elite Roman education in Rome, Italy, and the Western provinces. Without knowledge of Greek, so the classics of Greek literature, from Homer’s epics to Thucydides’ history to Plato’s dialogues, disappeared from the Western European mind for several centuries. Their eventual reappearance, certainly by the time of the Italian Renaissance, is owed to the civilization that flourished for long after Romulus conceded his crown, that of the Greek-speaking Eastern half of the empire that by the fifth century became its own administrative zone under a separate emperor. By the seventh century, Latin gave way to Greek as the official imperial language. The emperor Constantine, back in 330 CE, had rechristened the Greek city of Byzantium as a new imperial capital, Constantinople, and though throughout its thousand-year history it called itself Roman, we today refer to it as the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantines preserved ancient Greek literature as much as they preserved Western Europe from the conquest of Muslim powers, bearing the brunt of the Arabic onslaught, till by the eleventh century the empire had lost Egypt, the Levant, and Asia Minor. The emperor Alexius I reluctantly looked to the now maturing kingdoms of the west for aid, and received it in the form of the Crusades organized by the now estranged western Church. Religiously and politically, the Byzantines had strained relations with the westerners, whom they still collectively referred to as “Franks” and the same “barbarians” who usurped Rome. The first three Crusades between 1089 and 1192 first conquered the Holy Land from the Muslims but by the end had lost it. Nevertheless, the Byzantines benefitted by reclaiming a large chunk of the land they lost in Asia Minor.

In 1202 a Fourth Crusade was launched, its mission to conquer Egypt and then to reconquer Jerusalem from there. But for the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire, France, and especially the Republic of Venice, things did not go according to plan. Dynastic strife in Constantinople offered a tempting diversion, when the deposed Angelos family offered the crusaders the support of the Byzantine Empire if they restore them to the throne. Arriving at Constantinople, the army forced the population to do just that. However, a popular uprising soon deposed the emperor Alexios Angelos, and thus he was unable to offer the crusader army its promised payment and support. The result was a siege and eventual capture of the city in April 1204. Constantinople was plundered of its vast treasures, and for the next half-century, would be ruled by a western monarch (who would be deposed in 1261 by a native Greek dynasty). But the greater loss may have been the number of works of ancient literature consumed by the fires of the Fourth Crusade. The burning of the Library of Alexandria, whenever it happened, was not the only reason we have so little of the literature of antiquity.

The British death metal band Bolt Thrower were no stranger to songs of war, conquest, and the extremes of human brutality when they embarked on their fourth album. Yet with the aptly named The IVth Crusade, Bolt Thrower began thinking more about war as conducted in human history. They chose as their album artwork the 1840 painting by Eugene Delacroix titled “Entrée des Croisés à Constantinople” (“The Crusaders’ Entry into Constantinople”), showing the once proud Byzantines humiliated before the banners of armored knights on horseback as the smoke of their burning capital rises in the background. A porch of Corinthian columns to the left signal Constantinople as the bastion of classical culture and learning, once again like Rome conquered by “the barbarians.”

The title track to this album is delivered from the perspective of one of those Greeks forced into abject submission in this painting. We feel the shock of those observing their fellow Christians subjecting their holy city to rape, slaughter, plunder, and fire: “mortified by the lack of conscience / our sanctity bears no relevance.” The shock gives way to a reality check: the once proud Romans (as they called themselves) are now reduced to beggars, and the order of the universe they once thought they controlled has been inverted. Perhaps they had no true destined role to play: “insignificant is our existence.” And much as shock gave way to new wisdom, so their futile pleas for mercy (i.e. the “litany of life’s persistence”) give way to a wish for death and an end to their suffering. If we truly are insignificant, and God has abandoned us, better to die now than live in misery. This tragedy is proof of the absurdity of their existence, that an army that set out to conquer in the name of the Christian god should conquer those who also pray to Him. We pray to Him no more if He allow such nonsense as this. The song ends in a state of utter helplessness, the inability to close one’s mind from the suffering that surrounds them. Praying to God for mercy does no good. The victim of the Fourth Crusade as Bolt Thrower gives life in this song could be the victim of any military conquest, from the Trojan War to contemporary Kurdistan. What is glorious for the victors comes at a bitter price, woe, for the vanquished.

Mortified by the lack of conscience
Our sanctity bears no relevance

Insignificance is our existence
Hear the litany of life’s persistence

Our pleas for mercy fall upon unhearing ears
Take my life, my soul, and wipe away these bitter tears

Vanquished in the name of your god
One of the same to whom we all pray

Vanquished in the name of your god
One of the same to whom we once prayed

Try to close my mind – From the screams I hear
Repentance is denied, the conformation of my fear

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