Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes- Part 10

The Fourth Crusade

“Constantine’s fine city, the common delight and boast of all nations, was laid waste by fire and blackened by soot, taken and emptied of all wealth, public and private, as well as that which was consecrated by God, by the scattered nations of the West…”

 – O City of Constantinople: Annales of Niketas Choniates, Niketas Choniates (120?)

The seeds of Byzantium’s destruction were sown long ago. They had taken root amongst the enmity between the eastern and western churches, and grown strong in the presence of the early crusaders, the mass of soldiers, knights and lords who travelled far from their cold and blustery homes to the decadent shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. Now it was all around them, choking the life out of them…

Outside the walls of Constantinople, an army was gathered. Primarily French and German, it faced the mighty Theodosian Walls, while an armada of Venetian ships blockaded the city’s ports in the Sea of Marmara.

How had it gone so wrong? A little over a century before, the forces of Western Europe had ridden to the defence of the Byzantine Empire (or so it could be argued). Now they were laying siege to its capital.

In truth, the weapons turned against the Byzantines had actually been intended for the Muslims who once again occupied the holy cities of the Levant. The Sultan of Egypt, Saladin, had conquered much of the former Crusader Kingdoms including Jerusalem, and decisively defeated the crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. He had also managed to stave off attempts by King Richard I of England, called “the Lionheart”, and others of the Third Crusade to dislodge him from the Holy Land.

When Saladin died in 1193, Jerusalem was still firmly in Ayyubid hands (although a treaty allowed free access to the city for Christian pilgrims).

Thus, in 1198AD the newly-elected Pope Innocent III called for a new crusade.

Bonifacio-de-MontferratoIt was not a call that many rushed to accept though. Many of the European nations were too concerned with their own territorial disputes, and it took some time for the idea to gain traction. Eventually, an army was organised at a tournament by a French noble named Count Thibaut, who promptly died and was replaced by an Italian, Boniface of Montferrat.

In order to ensure the success of their mission, Boniface and the other leaders of the crusade decided to target the Muslim-held territory of Egypt first – by sailing directly there, and bypassing the land route across Anatolia, they hoped to speed their conquest and avoid the attrition of a long march through enemy territory.

Gustave_dore_crusades_dandolo_preaching_the_crusadeAnd to achieve their aim, they recruited the Venetians to their cause. Under the guidance of their doge, Enrico Dandolo, the citizens of the Most Serene Republic poured themselves into building and manning a fleet large enough to carry the crusaders across the Mediterranean.

It must have come as a disappointment then when there weren’t enough crusaders to actually pay for the fleet. Many who had “taken the cross” sought alternative passage, or lost the enthusiasm that had initially motivated them. In the end 12,000 gathered in Venice for the expedition, rather than the previously expected 35,000.

In order to settle their debts to the Venetians, the Crusaders agreed to aid them in a domestic matter: the Dalmatian city of Zara had until recently been an economic vassal of Venice. It had rebelled though, and established its independence. Eager to regain control, the Venetians turned to the crusaders as the instrument of their revenge…

On 24 November 1202AD, the city fell after a brief siege, and the pillaging began.

It was the first time the crusaders had turned their weapons on fellow Christians. And despite condemnation (and excommunication) from the Pope, it would not be the last.

A dynastic struggle in Constantinople presented a unique opportunity when the deposed Prince Alexios IV Angelos asked the crusaders for help in reclaiming the throne of his father Isaac II from the reigning Alexios III. In return for their aid, he offered to furnish them with funds, ships and manpower to complete their quest. He also, crucially, offered to place the Patriarch of Constantinople under the authority of the Pope, ending the Great Schism once and for all.

Gustave_dore_crusades_the_crusaders_war_machineryIn June 1203AD, the crusaders arrived at their destination, and promptly put the city under siege. Internal dissension meant the Byzantines were in no way ready to mount a concerted defence, although they did manage to ward off the initial attempts to storm the city, thanks in part to the formidable fortifications and the presence of the Varangian Guard.

Eventually, dismayed at the ongoing presence of the hostile army at his doorstep, Alexios III fled with much of the imperial treasury, leaving Alexios IV unable to pay the crusaders their due. Raised to co-emperor alongside his ailing father, Isaac II, but bereft of any means to placate his former allies, the one-time exile-prince was in a tough spot.

A spot he was unable to extricate himself – or the citizens of Constantinople – from.

Gustave_dore_crusades_mourzoufle_parleying_with_dandoloIn short order, Isaac II passed away, and Alexios IV was deposed. The Byzantines, chafing under the crusader yoke, sought a new emperor – one who could drive Boniface, Dandolo and the others away. The man chosen, Alexios Doukas, was crowned as Alexios V and set about strengthening the city’s defences. He also had his predecessor strangled, provoking the crusaders to attack…

Initially successful in their resistance, the Byzantines almost looked as though they would prevail once again. That is until the crusaders, desperate and about to break, poured everything into one last assault.

Showing his true colours (and emulating Alexios III), the emperor fled. And though the defenders did everything they could, in the end it was the Venetians who proved the victory-makers, using the knowledge gained from years of trade with the Byzantines to force a breach in the sea-wall.


Noted Byzantine historian Judith Herrin said it best, in her book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2007):

“In April 1204, the crusaders attacked Constantinople with their most sophisticated siege weapons, which had been destined for Muslim-held Jerusalem. After four days, they forced an entry over the sea walls and subjected the Byzantine capital to a five-day sack. They then elected Count Baldwin of Flanders as emperor and the Venetian, Thomas Morosini, as patriarch, setting up a Latin Empire. The Byzantines were forced into exile.”


“In this way the leaders of the Fourth Crusade subverted the ideals of the First. The spirit of Christian pilgrimage and adventure, inspired by Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont, was destroyed by the Latin occupation of Constantinople. Although this did not put an end to crusading, its dark shadow hung over all attempts to re-create Christian unity against Islam.”

The wholesale slaughter, rape and robbery of the Byzantine population during the sack was notorious ever-after. The city was never the same again, large swathes having been destroyed; and much of its wealth was carted-off to Western Europe.

Medievalist Steven Runciman said in 1954:

“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”

Next time: Reclaiming the Capital

About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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