Frederick to Saladin: Roman Fantasies March 16, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback
Politics is supposedly the art of the possible, but, in medieval times, politics was more often the art of the barely believable. Beachcombing has long loved the particularly incredible tones that the Middle Ages throw up and had a particularly pleasant memory – recently refreshed by Ostrich – of a letter exchange between Frederick I and Saladin around the date that the latter retakes Jerusalem for Islam in 1187. It is the combination of fantasy and good manners that makes Frederick’s letter so extraordinary.
Frederick, by the grace of God Emperor of the Romans, ever august, the magnificent triumpher over the enemies of the Empire, and the fortunate governor of the whole monarchy, to the illustrious Saladin, formerly governor of the Saracens. May he take warning from Pharaoh, and touch not Jerusalem!
What is fascinating here is that Frederick is enjoying the full fantasy, played out by many ‘German’ Emperors of the Middle Ages, that they were actually Roman Emperors, some seven hundred years after the Empire in the west had burnt out.
And how did the Roman Empire die? Well, these are things that you can only say in a hushed voice, but essentially because Frederick’s Germanic ancestors goose-stepped across the Rhine c. 410.
What is most interesting about Frederick’s Roman psychosis is that he presumes that Saladin will be familiar with the rules: as if one inmate in the asylum expects all others to know that he needs his daily dose of Josephine and Marengo.
For we can scarcely believe that you are ignorant of that which all antiquity and the writings of the ancients testify. Do you pretend not to know that both the Ethiopias, Mauritania, Persia, Scythia, Parthia, where our general Marcus Crassus met with a premature death, Judea, Samaria, Maritima, Arabia, and Chaldea, also Egypt, where, shame to say, a Roman citizen, Antony, a man endowed with signal virtues, passing the bounds of temperance, and acting otherwise than as became a soldier sent from so great a state, submitted to the unchaste love of Cleopatra? Do you pretend not to know that Armenia, and other innumerable countries, have been subject to our sway?
So Marcus Crassus (obit 53 BC) who died in the Persian deserts is ‘our’ Marcus Crassus claimed by a barbaric northern parvenu a long millennium after his death. Oh the perversity of history: what would Caesar have said at the notion that a king of Germany should call MC his own?!?
Mark Anthony’s regrettable erection still stands, meanwhile, on the Roman Germans’ conscience long after the last queen of Egypt and her lover had paid the price for insurrection against Augustus…
Then don’t get Beachcombing started on Frederick’s Roman territories: some regions mentioned here including Chaldea and Ethiopia and Sythia were barely even in contact with the Empire at its height. Beachcombing is naturally on the look out for any other ridiculous claims of this nature: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Frederick, in any case, has a nice, final rhetorical flourish:
This is well known to those kings in whose blood the Roman sword has been so often steeped; and you, God willing, shall learn by experience the might of our victorious eagles, and be made acquainted with our troops of many nations the anger of Germany, the untamed head of the Rhine, the youth from the banks of the Danube, who know not how to flee, the towering Bavarian, the cunning Suabian, the cautious Franconian, Saxony, that sports with the sword… etc etc.
Beachcombing has spared the reader another five or six lines of this.
Saladin’s letter is too long to quote but has some good playground banter in it, not least because Saladin did take Jerusalem:
Whenever your armies are assembled, we will meet you in the power of God. We will not be satisfied with the land on the seacoast, but we will cross over with God’s good pleasure and take from you all your lands in the strength of the Lord. And when the Lord, by His power, shall have given us victory over you, nothing will remain for us to do but freely to take your lands by His power and with His good pleasure. By the power of God we have taken possession of Jerusalem and its territories, and of the three cities that remain in the hands of Christians, we shall occupy them also!