Thursday, December 24, 2020

Did the Crusades Hurt Byzantium?

Prelude to the Downfall of Byzantium

Second Crusade besieging Damascus
The soldiers of the Second Crusade besiege Damascus ca. 1148 (William of Tyre, Histoire d'Outremer, ca. 1479, illuminators Master of the Flemish Boethius & Master of Edward IV). Shown are the armies of King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, King Louis VII of France, and at right, Emperor Conrad III of Germany (British Library).

What was the effect of the Crusades on Byzantium? The Crusades had a huge impact on the Byzantine Empire even though it was a Christian state. You might think that the Byzantines thus had little to fear from the Crusades due to the fact that all Crusaders took an oath not to attack fellow Christians, but this was not the case. What resulted was a great tragedy that benefited a few adventurers, hurt many, and led to the downfall of Byzantium.

What gave the Crusades cohesion was their religious foundation. When that was lost, their objectives changed dramatically. Crusader, Psalter, with litany, prayers, and Easter tables (The “Westminster Psalter”), c. 1200, f. 220 (British Library).

First, to set the stage, what were these Crusades? They were military expeditions to the Middle East styled as religious efforts to "recover" the Holy Land (which the Latins had never possessed unless you go back to the days before the formation of the Eastern Roman Empire). There were numerous Crusades and nine to the Holy Land. The First Crusade was in 1099 and the final official Crusade to the Holy Land was in 1271. However, there also were expeditions known as Crusades as late as 1444. Their effectiveness decreased with time. Most of the Crusades had extremely limited impact on Byzantium except for a couple, the First and Fourth.

Crusades through Constantinople
As can be seen in this map of the first four Crusades, all land routes to the Middle East were long and arduous, and they all ran through Constantinople (upper right).

The Effect of the First Crusade on Byzantium

The overall effect of the Crusades on the Byzantine Empire was highly destructive, though they got off to a fairly good start. The first few Crusades arguably were beneficial. Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus instigated them by sending legates to a "church council" at Piacenza who subtly made the case for helping out the Byzantines from the threat from the East after the disaster at Manzikert in 1071. This was the spark that led to all the Crusades that followed and is an excellent example of how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Battle of Antioch
 "Battle delivered under the walls of Antioch between the crusaders led by Bohemond and the army of Karbouka, general of the Sultan of Persia, June 1098." Henri Frédéric Schopin (1804-1880). The Crusaders won this battle. Antioch was a previous Byzantine possession that by agreement should have been given to the Byzantines, but the Crusaders made it into an independent Crusader State led by Bohemond instead.

The problems between Crusaders and Byzantium began with the First Crusade and got worse with each succeeding one. The Latins viewed the Byzantines as unreliable allies, and the perception became the reality because the western European armies were none too polite as they rolled through the Byzantine territory. They took what they needed and occasionally even occupied Byzantine cities. By the time the Crusaders got to Constantinople, there had been pitched battles between the Crusaders and the Byzantines that were only ironed over through strenuous diplomacy based on a common goal. Emperor Alexius got his "allies" across the strait into enemy territory as quickly as he could, thereby preventing further problems, but according to his daughter, he was unhappy they had ever entered his kingdom.

First Crusade battle
Crusaders led by Godefroy de Bouillon (c1060-1100) of the First Crusade (1095-1099) storm a castle held by Saracens, who fire arrows down as the Crusaders attempt to scale the walls. From a manuscript of Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon ca. 1754.

Despite all the problems, things worked out reasonably well during the First Crusade for both Byzantium and the Latins. Crusaders were skilled fighters using advanced equipment and scored many victories that the Byzantines were unable to match. The Byzantines regained some cities that the Crusader assault captured when the Latins voluntarily (per agreement) handed them over. This helped to maintain good relations with the Crusaders as long as they were actually fighting the enemy. The Crusading armies distracted the Turkish forces that had swallowed large chunks of Byzantine territory over the past 500 years. The Byzantines ultimately proved too weak to hold on to these territories for long, but for a while, there was a brief Renaissance of Byzantine influence.

Second Crusade enters Constantinople
A painting by Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) depicting the Second Crusaders (1147-49), led by Louis VII and Conrad III, as they arrive at Constantinople. The painting is a bit fanciful because Constantinople, lying on uneven ground, could not have a moat.

The Effect of Subsequent Crusades on Byzantium

The problems between the Crusaders and the Byzantines increased with the next two Crusades, in 1049 and 1089. The Byzantines by this time really didn't want any help from the Latins, having seen the high price it carried, but the Crusades had taken on a life of their own. They were seen by many in Western Europe as a way to gain kingdoms and wealth, particularly by younger sons or brothers of kings who had small armed forces of their own but really wanted their own kingdoms. However, the Byzantines were not on board with these objectives, and rumors began to swirl in Western circles that Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (grandson of Alexius) actually tried to join forces with the Saracens (the medieval term for Muslims) to drive the Crusaders back. During the Third Crusade, the reigning Emperor, Isaac II, also apparently tried to make an alliance with the Saracens against the Crusaders. Once again, there were pitched battles between Byzantine and Crusader forces as the undisciplined Crusaders rampaged through the Byzantine lands en route to the Levant. The Crusaders got through, but there were a lot of hurt feelings and much ill will.

Saladin accepts Latin surrender
Twentieth-century depiction (Said Tahsine (1904-1985 Syria)) of a victorious Saladin accepting Guy de Lusignan's surrender after the battle of Hattin ("the Horns of Hattin") in 1187. That battle led directly to the fall of Jerusalem. Needless to say, Middle Eastern Muslims look at the Crusades from a completely different perspective than many Europeans may.

The Crusaders, experiencing reverses in the Holy Land such as the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, also began blaming a supposed lack of Byzantine help (although the Byzantines by and large upheld their agreements) for their own military failings. Furthermore, the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church that had begun in 1054 was widening all the time, and the Crusaders increasingly took a cynical view of their "friends in the East" despite the very real help they offered (such as transporting them by ship into Asia Minor).

A possible portrait of Saladin made during his lifetime. It was found in a work by Ismail al-Jazari (1136-1206) published circa 1185.

While there were many factors at play, the fundamental change in why the Crusades turned against Byzantium was that they lost their pan-European religious character and increasingly became single-nation expeditions. There was little enthusiasm in 1202, when the Fourth Crusade began, for new Crusades in most western countries after the loss of Jerusalem and the failure of Richard the Lionheart to recapture it. Generally, one Crusade per generation was quite enough. Due to military exhaustion, the peace treaty that Richard negotiated with Saladin in 1192 began to look like a pretty good deal to many warriors now wary of fighting the surprisingly tough "infidel" for fun and profit.

Siege of Jerusalem
A painting by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) of the First Crusaders at the walls of Jerusalem in 1099. (Royal Palace of Turin, Italy)

The Disastrous Effect of the Fourth Crusade on Byzantium

So, trying to recapture Jerusalem was out for the time being. That had been done and access to the city for pilgrims assured by a treaty. Unfortunately for bloodthirsty Crusaders, there weren't a whole lot of other worthwhile targets. Only European adventurers with idle hands and their men at arms wanted to "take up the Cross." A half-hearted plan to attack Egypt never amounted to anything, but that didn't stop the Crusaders. They boarded Venetian transport ships on a cash-and-carry basis (the Venetians were not interested in religious boondoggles) and then had to admit they couldn't pay for their passage. The Venetians, now with ships full of armed warriors who were completely at their mercy and who had to do their bidding to ever see home again, saw little profit in Egypt. They did, however, have a huge vested interest in trade routes flowing through Byzantium. Seeing their opportunity, the Venetians adroitly convinced (or coerced) the Franks into attacking the "easy" target of Constantinople in order to satisfy some unpaid bills. The Venetians who wanted to destroy Byzantium took the Franks, who had no quarrel with the Byzantines, to Constantinople instead of Egypt and waited for events to unfold.

Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo
Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo Recruiting for The Crusade by Jean Leclerc (1587-1633). Dandolo was the guiding force behind the entire Fourth Crusade and ultimately got exactly what he wanted out of it.

The Franks and Venetians used the usual pretext for invasions during the Middle Ages of finding a pretender to the Byzantine throne. This enabled them to claim the moral high ground, as they were simply "dispensing justice" by capturing the city in order to install the "rightful claimant" on his throne. This plan quickly fell apart, though, when the Byzantines, who were no dummies, simply said, "Okay!" and installed the pretender on the throne without giving up their city. This was extremely shrewd politics, one might even say Byzantine in both senses of the word, but not at all what the Crusaders (mostly the Venetians) really wanted. It settled nothing as far as the Crusaders were concerned because they couldn't have cared less which Byzantine ran Byzantium, they wanted it for themselves.

Map of trade routes in Middle Ages
Trade routes of the 14th Century. It is plain that whoever controlled Constantinople (center right) controlled access to major trade routes (and thus wealth) in the Black Sea and also overland to Europe. Enrico Dandolo would have been as aware of this as anyone.

After that, the veneer of legitimacy completely disappeared. The Venetians still wanted the city (and its trade routes), and it didn't matter what the Franks wanted because they weren't going anywhere without the Venetian ships. The Crusaders grudgingly set up camp outside the city and awaited a "provocation." We all know how that works, where an intimidating figure "gets in your face," annoys you, and just waits for you to start a fight you have no hope of winning. An incident came along soon enough as the city's inhabitants roughly treated some high-handed Crusaders visiting a local market (it was not at all unusual for Crusaders from any of the first four Crusades to be arrogant and dismissive in their dealings with the Byzantine locals, not paying for goods and so forth). To this was added the fact that the new (Crusader-supported) Emperor also couldn't fulfill his fanciful financial promises to the Crusaders (he was promptly replaced by the Byzantines when he proved of no use in getting rid of them). The Crusaders were "insulted" and this called for a reckoning, just as the Venetians had hoped all along.

Fall of Constantinople
This painting by Delacroix (1798-1863) depicts the entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. (Louvre, Paris). Note that the actual breach into the city was not on horseback, but from Venetian ships over the sea wall.

Now with a new "justification" for attacking a nation that had done them no harm, the Crusaders bided their time. The Franks and Venetians "got all their ducks in a row" by dividing the Empire up between them, and finally attacked Constantinople in a coordinated assault. The Franks took the city on the second attempt by using the tall Venetian ships to get over the sea walls that had frustrated so many previous attackers. In the final analysis, advancing ship design finally robbed the fabled Constantinople walls of their defensive power. This was inevitable at some point, and within a couple of hundred years at most the land walls also became obsolete. Without the invulnerability of the old Roman walls, Byzantium was just another ephemeral Middle Eastern power.

Fall of Constantinople
A somewhat more accurate depiction of the fall of Constantinople showing Crusaders scaling the sea walls to gain a foothold in the city.

The loss of Constantinople was catastrophic for the Byzantine Empire. It was somewhat akin to what would happen if a foreign power somehow occupied London and then held it for decades. All of Byzantine life flowed through and from the capital city. The Byzantines regrouped in separate camps both in Anatolia and in Epirus to the west, but the aura of Byzantine power was shattered forever. They also lost one of the prime advantages of holding Constantinople, its position astride the main trade routes from the East that filled the state coffers with taxes and duties. Without Constantinople, the Byzantines could not control access to the Black Sea, and now the Venetians could sail through without hindrance. It was a boon to Venice that turned it from a moderately successful trading city into the dominant sea power in the eastern Mediterranean. Basically, the Fourth Crusade reversed the fortunes of Venice and Byzantium.

Fall of Jerusalem
Émil Signol (1804-1892) titled this painting "Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099". Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims during the First Crusade, 1095-1202, and held for almost a century (Palace of Versailles, France).

The Fourth Crusade of 1204 thus began the true decline of the Byzantine State. The Crusaders, frustrated at lack of success against the Turks, took Constantinople instead despite the fact that it was a Christian city (they already had taken the Christian port of Zara and been excommunicated for doing so, thereby robbing the expedition of any true religious character). The Fourth Crusade thereby lost all focus and just turned into a band of amoral soldiers of fortune out for personal gain. It was a great betrayal of the original purpose of the Crusade and, though the Byzantines eventually recovered their capital in 1261, the Byzantine State never was the same.

Crusader Church
The Crusaders built the Church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem ca. 1140 while Jerusalem was the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, one of the Crusader States.

Events After the Fourth Crusade

Some later Crusades were attempted during this period, but the Western powers were now wary of Byzantium. Siding with the Byzantines would be seen as a slap at fellow Latin pretenders to the Byzantine throne, and Crusaders were not interested in supporting their former numbers who had taken Constantinople, either (and trying to help them at all likely would turn into a permanent affair). There was no profit in that. The entire region became a political quagmire. In any event, the former leaders of the Crusades, aside from some individuals (usually French kings) trying to make a religious statement or pursuing imperialistic goals, basically lost interest. The Western powers never again mustered sufficient strength to make a real effort until it was their own kingdoms (such as at the two battles of Vienna) at risk.

Roger de Flor arrives in Constantinople
Roger de Flor arrives in Constantinople, by José Moreno Carbonero (1858-1942).

As the Byzantine world shrank in the 14th and 15th Centuries, it became a staple of Byzantine government policy to try to get the Crusaders to come back and fight off the Turks. The Byzantines made all sorts of extravagant concessions to do this, such as legally "granting" the old Roman province of Britain, which the Byzantines somehow figured they still owned, to its current rulers. The Western nations, however, never did more than pay this idea lip service. Future Crusades simply bypassed Constantinople altogether as Western navies improved and armies no longer had to make the long march overland. Some Western paid adventurers such as Italian mercenary Roger de Flore of the Great Catalan Company arrived to "help" Byzantium. However, they weren’t Crusaders at all and had taken no oath (for what that was worth). The Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II welcomed them anyway because he was increasingly desperate for any aid against the advancing Saracens. These soldiers of fortune did more harm than good to Byzantium but certainly hurt both sides as they grabbed whatever booty they could find. It didn’t help that the Byzantines had problems paying these mercenaries as promised, so there are two sides to that story.

Fall of Constantinople
A reasonably accurate depiction of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.


While the Byzantines under Michael VIII did recapture Constantinople in 1261, the Latin Crusaders had robbed the city of its treasures and turned it from virtually a living museum of antiquity into a hollow shell. The inhabitants, desperate for sustenance, began planting crops within the city walls, unheard of during the Empire's height, and the population fell from year to year. The cataclysm of the Fourth Crusade reduced Byzantium from a major power with influence throughout the Mediterranean to a regional force that rarely again influenced events outside of its own diminishing borders. The road from the Fourth Crusade to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 was a straight line. Without the continuing Byzantine presence in Anatolia, though, the Turks would have taken the city perhaps as much as two centuries earlier.

The Genoans and Venetians, however, were there to stay despite the eventual fall of the Latin kingdom of Constantinople. They were the Westerners with the only real pecuniary interest in the region due to its trade routes, so they had an interest in keeping Constantinople out of the hands of the Turks. They remained active in the Byzantine Empire until the end. However, they were only interested in trading profits that they could derive as the Byzantine Empire crumbled, not in helping the Empire. Nominally trading partners, they sucked money out of the Byzantine State. It should be noted, however, that there were some Venetians in Constantinople in 1453 helping to defend the city, and they fought heroically against the Turks (unlike the Genoese, who stayed out of it) to protect their interests there, but it was a hopeless cause.

So, overall, the Crusades were a nail in the coffin of the Byzantine Empire. In many ways, though, the damage inflicted on the Empire was due to its own ambivalent attitude in the midst of the battles between the Latins and the Saracens.

"The City Walls (Descending to the Port)" (Istanbul) engraved by J.G.Varrall after a picture by W.H.Bartlett. Published in Beauties of the Bosphorus, 1838.


Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Fourth Crusade Captures Constantinople

The Great Betrayal

Fall of Constantinople 1204
The Capture of Constantinople in 1204 (Domenico Tintoretto, 16th Century).
"Kill them all. God will know whose are His." ("Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius") - Arnaud Amaury, ca. 1209.
By the year 1200, the Byzantine Empire had survived for over 800 years. It had withstood ferocious assaults from the North (the Bulgars, Pechenegs, and Russians), the West (Normans), and the East (the Persians, Arabs, and Turks). The Empire's strength lay in its ability to bend with the blows that constantly rained down on it, giving ground as necessary in the knowledge that the Roman walls of Constantinople were invulnerable. This strategy kept the old Roman traditions still practiced along the Golden Horn alive even as the world around them changed dramatically.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
 Mosaic of John II Comnenos in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
Unfortunately for the Empire, cracks were beginning to appear, not just in the walls themselves, but in the Empire's sustainability. The catastrophic 1071 loss at Manzikert had been only partially redeemed in subsequent decades, mostly due to the intervention of Crusaders invited into the region by Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1081–1118). The 12th Century had been a curious mixture of revival and decay, as Alexius's main successors in the Comnenian Dynasty (John II (1118–43). Manuel I (1143–80) and Alexius II (1180–83)) proved to be capable military leaders if uneven administrators.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
The Byzantine Empire before the Fourth Crusade.
The problems for Constantinople were deep and enduring. The fundamental strength of a nation lies in its economy, and the military brilliance of the Comnenian Restoration only masked the rot that set in at the Empire's foundation. While the Crusaders had reopened a land road to the Levant and restored some areas in western Anatolia to Byzantine control, most of Anatolia was lost forever. This had been the Empire's source of men and materials since its founding, and there was no chance of getting the region back despite desperate efforts to do so. 
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Manuel I Comnenus.
The situation is best encapsulated by the reign of Manuel I. He completely understood the threat from the East and vigorously pursued a policy of collaboration with the Pope and other power-brokers of Western Europe. While making the Empire's final attempt to recover Sicily, Manuel otherwise allied himself with Western leaders and the princelings of the Crusader states. His strategies did achieve some successes, but his grand attempt to recover the interior of Anatolia only led to another military disaster, this time at Myriokephalon. Barely escaping with his own life, Manuel was forced to make peace with Sultan Kilij Arslan II. The Empire had lost the greater part of Anatolia, the old source of its strength, for good.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
The Great Schism of 1054 split the Christian world in half. However, friendly relations and meetings continued between the two factions.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders were indifferent allies at best. They had their own difficulties maintaining their hard-won kingdoms in the Middle East and never viewed the Byzantines as "one of them." It wasn't that they hated the Byzantines, but the only thing that really held the Crusaders together at all was the rather abstract cohesion of Catholicism. The Byzantines might have been Christian, but they weren't Roman Catholic. The Great Schism of 1054 had seen to that, and while the differences in the religions might seem slight, any difference was critical when that was the only thing providing the Crusaders with an identity.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Frederick I Barbarossa ("red beard").
Manuel, who always maintained a very Western orientation at court with jousting tournaments and similar affairs, had helped the Second Crusade pass through his territory without incident in 1147. This had been the policy of Alexius during the First Crusade., and once again it avoided problems. The Third Crusade of 1189-1192, however, was a different matter altogether. Emperor Isaac II Angelos was a much different man than Manuel. As Frederick Barbarossa approached at the head of a massive army, Isaac's paranoia flared out of control. After some rather high-handed military and diplomatic moves by Barbarossa, Isaac decided he didn't need this wild card of an army tried to make a deal with Saladin, who had just recaptured Jerusalem, to keep them out. This came to nothing, but there were some scattered military "incidents" between the Empire and Barbarossa's forces as the latter passed through the Empire, and it left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. 
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Richard the Lionheart.
Barbarossa's army (he died en route, dissipating the entire effort) and the other Crusaders including Richard the Lionheart failed to recover Jerusalem, leaving the Crusaders frustrated and resentful. However, the Third Crusade did strengthen the Crusaders' position in the Levant despite the failure of its ultimate objective. Richard negotiated a peace deal with Saladin that, while far from ideal, provided a modus vivendi that neither side was anxious to disrupt, at least in the near future. The Crusaders began looking around for other ways to occupy themselves.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem wasn't the only worthwhile target in the East, however. There was one much closer at hand. That it was the home of "fellow Christians" who had been somewhat helpful in the past was a minor detail.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Pope Innocent III.

First Attacks On Constantinople

Pope Innocent III decided to get the Crusade ball rolling again in 1198. He issued a papal bull (Post miserable) and sent emissaries to the various kingdoms that could send troops. The Germans and English, however, were not interested after having fought the Third Crusade so recently. King Philip of France, however, signed up, and the other kingdoms grudgingly contributed financially after a lot of nudging from Innocent. The character of the Crusade was established from the outset as basically a French expedition. Pope Innocent didn't really care about the objective, but he required all leaders to swear an oath that they would not attack a Christian city and would bring along a Papal representative.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
An ancient map of Venice, which began as a Roman/Byzantine city under the exarch of Ravenna.
Since nobody wanted to take on Saladin directly again and disrupt the treaty at Jerusalem, the French began a long preoccupation with Egypt (e.g., the Seventh Crusade of King Louis IX and Napoleon's Egyptian expedition) by setting Alexandria as the objective. Since marching there through the Levant was out of the question, the French engaged the Venetians to supply transport ships. This is one of the first appearances of the Venetians in Byzantine history, and it would be quite an entrance. The Venetians were not about to just give up their shipping "for the cause," so they demanded full payment. After the French boarded the ships, they had to admit that they did not have sufficient funds. This left them in a very difficult position, as the Venetians were their only source of food and water, too. A stalemate developed, with many of the French left by the Venetians on an island where they were completely dependent on the ships.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara (Zadar) in 1202, painted by Andrea Vicentino (1539-1614).
The Venetians, seeing a chance to kill two birds with one stone, offered the French a way out by forgiving the debt on one condition: they conquer and sack the city of Zara (Zadar). Zara was well known to everyone as a Christian city under the control of Béla III, King of Hungary and Croatia. Basically, Zara was their neighbor's property which just so happened to be nearby and relatively defenseless. The French, in serious difficulties, agreed, and Zara was taken despite its inhabitants making show demonstrations of being fellow Christians by painting crosses on the city's walls and the like. The Pope heartily disapproved and excommunicated the attackers, which only had the effect of turning the "Crusade" into a massive pirate expedition.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
A painting of the Venetian lagoon by David Roberts (1796-1864). Trade was the source of Venetian power, and the idyllic scenery hid predatory business practices.
The Venetians were no dummies and realized they now had control over a potent weapon. The Francs had shown they had no money and, more importantly, no scruples. What the Crusaders did have in abundance, though, was a lot of armed troops that could conquer just about any seaside city that wasn't expecting an attack. The Venetians had just such a city in mind: Constantinople. While no longer much of a military threat, the Byzantines were major trade competitors throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. This was an area of very valuable trade, being the source of very expensive and desirable spices, silk, and other rare commodities. 
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Alexius IV Angelos, pretender to the throne.
All the Venetians needed was an excuse to attack Constantinople, and Byzantine politics provided the standard pretext for any invasion during the Middle Ages: an exiled prince seeking to reclaim his throne. Such claimants were always readily available in medieval times when the need arose. Alexius IV Angelus was a former Emperor (his father was Isaac II who we met above) following a successful coup in 1195 against his father by his uncle, Alexius III. Alexius IV made all sorts of extravagant promises to the French and the Venetians about how he would reward them and help the Crusade ... once they put him back in power. Whether or not anyone believed such promises is another matter, but they provided the requisite pretext for a predatory invasion of Byzantium.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Alexius III Angelos.
The French and Venetians cynically brought Alexius IV to the outskirts of Constantinople and made it clear that they were only there to reinstall the poor young man as Emperor. When the citizens of Constantinople turned a deaf ear, the Crusaders began attacking the city. Alexius III, the incumbent, turned out to be a terrible military leader, and the citizens of Byzantium had no great love for him. Eventually, the Crusaders broke into the city, only possible using the Venetian ships, but the Byzantines still had enough troops on hand to keep the battle fairly even. Alexius III lost his nerve, however, and deserted the city in the night.

This did not mean that the Crusaders had taken Constantinople because they had not. The Byzantines remained in nominal control, but the French and Venetians were the true power in the city now even as they pretended to let things play out in Constantinople before launching any more attacks. 
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Doge Enrico Dandolo (Tintoretto).
Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian Doge (leader), came up with a plan. He decided to move things along rather than wait for the Byzantines to figure things out. Everyone was amazed when the Crusaders had someone drag Isaac II out of his prison, and then when he promptly appointed Alexius IV as the new Emperor. Now, there was nothing standing in the way of the young Emperor fulfilling his promises to the Venetians and French - or was there?
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Doge Enrico Dandolo crowns Baldovino the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (Giacomo Leonardis).

Final Latin Capture of Constantinople

With Alexius III gone and their protege Alexius IV on the Byzantine throne, the Crusaders seemed to be sitting pretty. This was the realization of every half-baked scheme to champion a "true king" against an actual one. Alexius IV had full command of the Byzantine army and navy and the key to the treasury. What could go wrong?
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Doge Enrico Dandolo.
It turned out that everything could go wrong because there was no money in the treasury. Alexius wanted to pay the Crusaders what he had promised them, but even confiscating church property and other radical measures only got him halfway there. The Crusaders began getting angry at the delay in payment, while the inhabitants of the capital tired of the foreigners lording it over them. The situation was ripe for misunderstandings and violence. If the French Crusaders had their own way, they likely would have just sailed away at this point, but Dandolo wanted not only his payment from them, but now he also wanted the throne of the Byzantine Empire.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
Alexius V Ducas "Murzuphlus."
In January 2004, things came to a head. The Byzantine leaders - senators, clergy, administrators - were tired of taking orders from the Latin stooge Alexius IV. He couldn't even keep the Latins happy, so what good was he. The city elders met at St. Sophia and decided to replace Alexius IV, whose unpopularity had grown in tandem with the sheer hatred of the Crusaders, with a nonentity named Nicholas Canabus. Before this could be done, however, Alexius "Murzuphulus" Doukas (Ducas) suddenly staged a coup and seized power ("Murzuphulus" was his nickname due to his thick eyebrows which loosely translates as "Mr. Unibrow"). Within weeks, both Isaac II and Alexius IV (and also Canabus) were dead at Doukas's hands and Doukas the usurper was proclaimed Alexius V. While in normal times the citizenry would instantly riot at such a blatant seizure of power, this was such a moment of crisis that it passed quietly. A man of action and no friend of the Crusaders, Alexius V quickly slammed shut the city gates and told the Francs and Venetians that all deals were off.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
David Aubert (1449-79) - 15th-century miniature.
Naturally, this did not please Enrico Dandolo. He began agitating for an all-out attack on the city "to avenge Alexius IV." The Franks and Venetians made plans to split the Empire between them, and on 9 April 1204 launched their attack. It failed, but the Venetians changed their tactics, and on 12 April 1204 their ships again got the Franks over the walls near the Petria Gate. 

It was the first time that Constantinople had fallen to an outside invader. Alexius V escaped on a fishing boat and headed into Thrace to join up with Alexius III (who soon became his father in law). The victors quickly put into motion their agreed-upon plans for splitting up the empire, which they were to hold until 1261. The Franks became the rulers of Constantinople, while the Venetians took over key trade routes and began carting the glories of the Roman Empire back to Venice.
Fall of Constantinople 1204
The Eastern Mediterranean after the fall of Constantinople.


The Byzantines in Constantinople were beaten, but the Empire was far from vanquished. In fact, power centers soon developed in Anatolia at Nicaea, on the Black Sea coast at Trebizond, and also to the west. The Crusaders controlled the city and, at first, made some inroads in Thrace. However, their attempts to conquer the rest of the Empire failed over time and they were soon restricted to the environs of the city itself. This, of course, was more than they deserved, but far less than they had hoped for when they planned their final assault in April 1204. It was the fruit of a great betrayal of their Crusading oath to the Pope not to attack a Christian city.

The Fourth Crusade, conceived with honorable intentions, was a misbegotten adventure that never should have been launched. It came too soon after the previous Crusade and failed to generate widespread interest. Turned into a one-nation expedition rather than a multinational cause, the Fourth Crusade from the outset lacked any kind of high-minded purpose. Instead, it degenerated into a predatory and imperialistic adventure that differed little from pure piracy. The fruits of their conquest can still be seen today in Venice, where artifacts from Constantinople such as the Triumphal Quadriga at St. Mark's Basilica constitute some of the city's most prized possessions.

Fall of Constantinople 1204
A lasting reminder of the Fourth Crusade.


Saturday, December 5, 2020

The First Crusade and Emperor Alexius

We're From France and We're Here to Help

Alexius I Comnenus
Alexius I Comnenus.

Following the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071, the Empire lost Anatolia to the Seljuk Turks. This was no small matter, as it contained the manpower desperately needed for the Imperial Navy and Army. It also supplied food and raw materials and was the site of numerous cities that controlled the surrounding territories. While Byzantine forces held a bridgehead across from Constantinople, trends were not flowing in the Empire's direction.

Things were not much better in the West, where Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard captured Bari and threw the Byzantines out of Italy. Emperor Michael VII had appealed to the Pope in Rome for help, which backfired spectacularly when Pope Gregory took this as a sign of weakness and began extending his own influence across the Adriatic.

Robert Guiscard
Robert Guiscard (1015-1085).

The Byzantines were still alive a kicking, however. Only a hundred years before, its armies had been campaigning in Syria and down toward Jerusalem. Nobody thought the Empire was about to disappear. A vigorous new emperor, Alexius Comnenus, took over on 4 April 1081. Only 24, he represented the hope of the Empire, but he was tested immediately when Guiscard invaded Imperial territory and took the key port of Dyrrachium (Durrës, Albania). In a sign of things to come, Alexius finally defeated Guiscard and Guiscard's eldest son Bohemond with the aid of the Varangian Guard, who were extremely eager to defeat any Normans after the Battle of Hastings fifteen years earlier. Things settled down after this, with the Empire intact but thirsting for revenge against the Turks.

It was in this atmosphere that Alexius began to think about reconquering Anatolia. The Turks there were finding it hard to digest the former Roman territory and were quarreling among themselves. Alexius knew he needed help, however, and he decided to try to get the Western Christian states to send troops. This was a fateful decision with consequences that remain with us in the 21st Century.

Pope Urban II at Clermont
Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, given a late Gothic setting in this illumination from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer, of c 1474 (Bibliothèque national). Note that this does not depict the actual speech inciting the Crusades, as that occurred on a nearby hill.

When Pope Urban II made one of Rome's periodic outreaches to Constantinople in late 1094 to mend the Great Schism of 1054, Alexius agreed to send legates to a religious conference at Piacenza in northern Italy. These conferences always had high-sounding religious discussions on abstract principles as their announced purpose but inevitably descended into more mundane matters of the earth such as how to handle this or that king's adultery and the like.

The Byzantine legates at Piacenza started the ball rolling, and thus, it is to them we can credit the actual germination of the entire Crusader concept. They talked grandly about recovering the Holy Lands while also casually mentioning in passing that there was a lot of booty to be had in the old Christian cities that the Turks had captured. Pope Urban listened carefully, and after the conference he took a long, slow trip back to his native France, mulling over what the Byzantines had said. He announced another council to meet at Clermont, France, where he said he would announce something of importance to all of Christendom. This attracted huge crowds in the small city, exactly what Urban wanted.

Pope Urban II statue
Statue of Pope Urban II at Châtillon-sur-Marne.

At this second council, Urban gave a great speech. It was "great" because of the effect it had, not because of what said, because we don't know that. But whatever he said from a platform erected on a nearby hill, it electrified the crowd and spurred French nobles into action. The gist of Urban's 27 November 1096 speech was that a huge army had to be assembled to reconquer the lost Holy Lands in a Holy War and that it should begin this adventure no later than the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1096.

Back in Constantinople, Alexius soon heard about the pope's speech at Clermont but was somewhat taken aback. It had never been his intention to have a foreign army come to his territory and begin battling the Turks. All he wanted was some mercenaries and troops to operate under his command. This whole idea of a "Holy War" was nonsense, as the Byzantines had been fighting the Turks continually for many years and there was nothing "holy" about it. However, Alexius decided to make the best of it and make the crusading knights his allies rather than simply another invading army.

Peter the Hermit during the First Crusade
Peter the Hermit leading the First Crusade, as depicted in Abreviamen de las Estorias, 14th century (The British Library).

The People's Crusade

So, Alexius went to work preparing for the arriving western armies. He stockpiled supplies for them at critical waypoints such as Durrachium so that the arriving soldiers would not scavenge the countryside. He also told units of his own army to "escort" the arriving soldiers and make sure they stayed out of trouble. Alexius hoped that he could get these dangerous armies through his own territory with as little trouble as possible and possibly get some use out of them once they were in Anatolia. In the back of his mind, he must have been thinking about how these armies already had tried to conquer his kingdom in 1081 and been stopped only with great difficulty.

The first arriving Westerners, however, turned out to be a decidedly mixed bag. Led by Peter the Hermit, they were simply untrained vagabonds, tens of thousands of them, that had been captivated by the monk's wild tales of redemption in the Holy Lands. They traveled by land and soon gained a terrible reputation for looting cities and stealing from everyone in their path.

Peter's force arrived on 1 August 1096, and Alexius got them away from Constantinople as quickly as possible. He provided transports for them to cross the Bosphorus on 6 August and after that washed his hands of them. Peter led his men (and women and children) first to Nicomedia (Izmir), then further south to the vicinity of the Seljuk capital at Nicaea. After some defeats, and in the absence of Peter who had returned to Constantinople, the ragtag army began to retreat but was slaughtered by Turks who ambushed them outside of Cibotus. This ended the so-called "People's Crusade." Oh, and Peter the Hermit escaped back to Europe and lived a long and quiet life.

Map of the First Crusade

The Real First Crusade

The demise of Peter the Hermit's ragtag army did not end the First Crusade. It just served as a warning that the Turks were not to be trifled with and defeating them required a professional army. This soon began arriving, and once assembled, it was composed of roughly 75,000 troops led by knights and many nobles. Alexius quickly realized that this was a formidable problem and reached some basic agreements with the Crusaders. In return for Byzantine aid, they could invade the Seljuk Turk lands but had to return all land formerly held by the Empire. Once that was done, the Crusaders could form their own empires as they wished beyond the Empire's borders.

Hugh of Vermandois
Hugh of Vermandois.

Hugh of Vermandois, younger brother of King Philip I of France, arrived first by ship in November 1096 and agreed to all of Alexius' terms. Subsequent French nobles, however, proved to be a different story. The two brothers Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne arrived by land on 15 December 1096 after seizing some formerly Byzantine lands along the way. They promptly refused to make any agreements with Alexius, perhaps thinking such would force them to relinquish the lands they already had annexed. This began several months of wrangling and raiding by the two brothers, and Alexius finally lost patience and sent troops to attack the Crusaders just before Easter. This finally convinced the French to swear an oath to Alexius and agree to return recaptured Byzantine cities to the Empire.

Bohemond of Antioch
Bohemond of Antioch (Merry-Joseph Blonde).

Not taking any chances, Alexius shipped the French across the Bosphorus the day after Easter. However, just as they were leaving, another French army arrived. Led by Bohemond, Prince of Taranto and eldest (and disinherited) son of Robert Guiscard, this army was well-behaved and disciplined. Bohemond quickly gave his oath of loyalty to the Emperor, avoiding the earlier unpleasantness. However, the next arrival, Raymond IV of Saint-Gilles, caused more problems, with their plundering resulting in another battle with Byzantine forces. Alexius engaged in some delicate diplomacy and finally induced Raymond to make the same agreement as the others had. The final arrival was Robert, Duke of Normandy, the oldest son of William the Conqueror, and he did not cause any problems.

The Crusaders quickly captured Nicaea in June 1097 and, as agreed, turned it over to Alexius. Victories following on 1 July 1097 at Dorylaeum, 3 June 1097 at Antioch, and finally on 15 July 1099 at Jerusalem. The Crusaders began setting up their own fiefdoms, Baldwin of Boulogne at Edessa and Bohemond at Antioch. Godfrey, who was older than brother Baldwin, became ruler in Jerusalem after Raymond turned down the honor.

Godfrey of Bouillon
Godfrey of Bouillon, first Crusader ruler of Jerusalem.

Hearing of all these successes, Alexius had mixed feelings. It was nice to hear that Jerusalem had been recovered after almost four hundred years, but the new Crusader states, especially at Antioch, made him nervous. That city had been in Imperial hands as recently as 1078 and had a large Greek population, so technically it should have been returned to the Empire. However, on the bright side, the local Turks were not pleased with having lost Antioch and now began to focus their efforts against it rather than the Empire itself, so there was some benefit to the Empire from its capture.

Following these successes, more French armies arrived in the following years. They had some initial successes, such as capturing Ancyra (Ankara) and returning it to the Empire but soon ran into trouble. The Turks understood the terrain and knew that water sources were the key to survival, so they poisoned wells and laid traps at rivers along the Crusaders' routes. One Crusader army was ambushed and destroyed by the Danishmends at Mersivan, another was destroyed at Heraclea Cybistra (Eregli), another was ambushed at a river. A crushing defeat of Bohemond's army at Harran (near Edessa) caused him to return to Europe to raise new armies. While there, Bohemond went to great pains to ascribe all of the Crusaders' defeats to lack of support from the Byzantine Empire.

Map of the Crusades
The First Crusade was followed by several more, most of which achieved little.


The First Crusade was of some benefit to the Byzantine Empire. It recovered territory for the Empire and gave the Seljuk Turks new enemies to fight, sparing the Empire the burden of defending the entire eastern frontier. The recapture of Jerusalem, while of no benefit to the Empire, provided the Crusaders with a base of operations in the Middle East that gave the Empire some breathing room. Valuable cities such as Nicaea and Ancyra were returned to the Empire, and Anatolia's manpower and supplies to some extent were once again available. The extent of these successes was limited to the fringes of the Seljuk Empire but did achieve a lasting impact there that enabled to Byzantine Empire to survive for another 350 years.

However, in the long term, the First Crusade also did a great deal of damage to the Byzantine Empire. It demystified the Middle East and made people think about how they benefit personally from fighting there. The Byzantines, while fellow Christians, received no special status from that fact and were seen as just another foreign power that had a lot of nice things that might look better in French cathedrals. 

The Crusades quickly degenerated into a free-for-all in which the Crusaders sought to establish their own kingdoms in the East without regard to what Emperor Alexius or his successors wanted. Bohemond, during his return to Europe, disparaged the Byzantines and convinced Pope Paschal that the entire Middle East was ripe for conquering. The religious motive behind the Crusades disappeared, replaced by pure imperialism and greed. Since these objectives now were backed by the Pope, planners could dispense with the pretense that Crusades were about religion instead of pure self-ambition. Henceforth, the Crusaders would view the Empire as just another potential victim of their naked aggression, a change in attitude that would have dire consequences for the Byzantine state in later years.

Siege of Jerusalem
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099, Émile Signol, oil on canvas (1847).