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.


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