The speed at which the empire collapsed took even its citizens by surprise. In the past when Byzantium was threatened, great leaders had arrived to save it, but now it seemed as if the imperial stage was conspicuously absent of statesmen. Manuel’s twelve-year-old son, Alexius II, was obviously incapable of dealing with the looming problems facing the empire and could only watch as the Turks advanced unopposed in Asia Minor, the brilliant Stefan Nemanja declared independence for Serbia, and the opportunistic king of Hungary detached Dalmatia and Bosnia from the empire. Some relief arrived when Manuel’s cousin Andronicus seized the throne, but he proved a deeply flawed savior, fully earning his nickname of Andronicus the Terrible.* Gifted with all the brilliance but none of the restraint of his family, he understood only violence, and though he cut down on corruption, his rule quickly descended into a reign of terror. Nearly demented with paranoia, he forced Manuel’s son to sign his own death sentence, had him executed, and, in a final act of depravity, married the eleven-year-old widow. After two years, the people of the capital could take no more and in suitably violent fashion put a new emperor on the throne.
For all his faults, Andronicus the Terrible had at least preserved some sort of central authority in the empire. Isaac Angelus—the man who took his place—founded the dynasty that would throw away the empire’s remaining strength and preside over its complete breakup. Unaccustomed to enforcing his will on others, Isaac sat back while the authority of the central government crumbled. Governors became virtually independent, and friend and foe alike began to realize that Constantinople was impotent. The Aegean and Ionian islands, safely outside the reach of the decaying navy, rebelled almost immediately, and the Balkans slipped forever out of Byzantium’s grasp.
The empire’s misery was compounded by the worsening situation in the Christian East. The Muslim world was united under the brilliant leadership of a Kurdish sultan named Saladin, and the squabbling crusader kingdoms could put up little resistance. In 1187, Jerusalem fell, and inevitably the West launched another Crusade to retake it, again using Constantinople as a staging point. The presence of foreign armies passing through the capital was dangerous at the best of times, but Isaac would have been hard pressed to have handled the situation more poorly. When the German ambassadors arrived to discuss transport to Asia Minor, Isaac panicked and threw them into prison. The enraged German emperor Frederick Barbarossa threatened to turn the Crusade against Constantinople, and the blustering Isaac caved completely, immediately freeing the prisoners and showering them with gold and apologies.
This shameful behavior went a long way toward confirming the abysmal Byzantine reputation in the West and thoroughly disgusted the emperor’s beleaguered subjects. Whatever support Isaac had left crumbled away when he made the insane decision to officially disband the imperial navy and entrust the empire’s sea defenses to Venice. Seeing his moment to strike, Isaac’s younger brother Alexius III ambushed the emperor and his son and—after blinding the emperor—threw them both into the darkest prison he could find.
Unfortunately for the empire, the new emperor proved to be a good deal worse than his brother. Capturing the throne had taken most of his energy, and now he couldn’t be bothered to actually govern. While the Turks marched up the Byzantine coastline in Asia Minor and Bulgaria expanded in the west, Alexius III busied himself in a search for money to fund his lavish parties—even stooping in his greed to stripping the old imperial tombs of their golden ornaments.
As the emperor plundered his own city, Isaac in his black cell was dreaming of revenge. His own escape was impossible and, since he was blind, quite pointless, but if his son Alexius IV could break free, there might yet be justice. Somehow the old emperor made contact with his supporters in the city, and in 1201, two Pisan merchants were able to smuggle the young prince out. Fleeing to Hungary, Alexius IV stumbled onto an unexpected sight: a new crusading army was on the march.
The Third Crusade hadn’t been a success. After sacking the Seljuk capital of Iconium, the fearsome German emperor Frederick Barbarossa had drowned in a freak accident while crossing the Saleph River in southeastern Anatolia.* Without him, the German army panicked and melted away, with some soldiers even committing suicide in their desperation. The English and French armies, on the other hand, arrived in much better condition, and—led by the dashing Richard the Lion-Hearted—they were ready to fight. Repairing the damage done to the crusader kingdoms was tedious work, though, and Richard had no patience. After a year spent conquering the coastline, he was terribly bored with the entire thing. Jerusalem seemed as unreachable as ever, the crusaders were squabbling mercilessly, and the French king (he rightly suspected) was plotting against him. After hastily patching up a truce with his Muslim rival—the gallant Saladin—Richard sailed off to find another adventure, announcing before he left that any future Crusade should be directed against Egypt—the “Achilles’ heel” of the East.
Richard’s reputation was so great in Europe that the German leaders of the Fourth Crusade decided to take his advice and capture Jerusalem via Egypt. This, of course, meant that the entire army would need to be transported across the Mediterranean, and there was only one place that could provide enough ships for an entire Crusade. Gathering their courts, the princes of Europe headed for Venice.
The islands in the Lagoon of Venice had a long and tangled history with the empire. Originally composed of refugees from the Lombard invasion of Italy in the sixth century, the collection of islands that made up Venice was administered by the imperial governor of Ravenna and drew heavily on the Byzantine culture around it. The church on its oldest island, Torcello, had been paid for by the emperor Heraclius, the main cathedral of Saint Mark’s was a loose replica of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and Venetian sons and daughters were regularly sent for education—or spouses—to Byzantium. Even the title of “doge” was a corruption of the original imperial title of dux, or duke. Recent years, however, had seen more competition than cooperation between the republic and the empire, and the latest heavy-handed treatment of Venetian traders by the Comnenian emperors still grated on Italian nerves.
This was especially true of the doge who greeted the crusaders in 1202. He was none other than Enrico Dandolo—the ambassador who had vainly protested the emperor Manuel’s seizure of all Venetian property within the Byzantine Empire thirty years before. Now in his nineties and completely blind, the old doge masked a fierce intelligence and an iron will behind his seemingly frail frame. Here was an opportunity not to be missed for the calculating Dandolo. Venetian claims for lost property were still outstanding, and the insults endured at the hands of the empire had lost nothing in the intervening years. Now, at last, however, was a chance of revenge.
First, he agreed to build the necessary ships, but only in return for an enormous sum. Unfortunately for the crusaders, turnout for the expedition was embarrassingly low, and they could only come up with little more than half of what they owed. Dandolo shrewdly cut off food and water to the Christian army now trapped on the lagoon awaiting its navy, and when they were appropriately softened up, he smoothly proposed a solution. The Kingdom of Hungary had recently ousted Venice from its protectorate over the city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. If the crusaders would only consent to restoring this city to its rightful owners, payment of the sum could be postponed. The pope instantly forbid this blatant hijacking of the Crusade, but the crusaders had little choice. A few soldiers trickled away, disgusted by the thought of attacking a Christian city, but the majority uneasily boarded their ships and set sail. The terrified citizens of Zara, bewildered that they were under attack by the soldiers of Christ, desperately hung crosses from the walls, but it was to no avail. The city was broken into and thoroughly looted; it seemed as if crusading zeal could sink no lower.
It was at Zara that the fugitive Alexius IV joined the Crusade. Desperate for support, he was willing to say anything to free his father and overthrow his uncle, and he rashly promised to add ten thousand soldiers to the Crusade and pay everyone at least three times the money owed to Venice. As a final incentive, he even proposed to place the Byzantine church under Rome’s control in return for the Crusade’s help in recovering his crown.
Perhaps no single conversation in its history ever did the empire more harm. Enrico Dandolo knew perfectly well that the Byzantine prince’s wild offers were pure fantasy. Central authority in the empire had been collapsing for decades, and the frequent revolts combined with a corrupt bureaucracy incapable of collecting taxes made it virtually impossible to raise any money—much less the lavish sums offered by Alexius IV. The old doge, however, sitting amid the ruins of Zara, had begun to dream of a much larger prize, and the foolish Byzantine would make the perfect tool. He had probably never intended to attack Egypt at all, since at that moment his ambassadors were concluding a lucrative trade agreement in Cairo. Dandolo ostensibly agreed to redirect the Crusade to Constantinople, and to those soldiers squeamish about attacking the premier Christian city, he smoothly pointed out that the Greeks were heretics and that by placing Alexius IV on the throne they would be restoring the unity of the church. The pope frantically excommunicated anyone who considered the idea, and some drifted disgustedly away; but the Venetian doge was persuasive, and again most of the soldiers dutifully boarded their ships. The Fourth Crusade was now firmly under Dandolo’s control.
Alexius III had already proved lazy and corrupt, and he now showed that he was a coward as well. The moment the crusading army showed up beneath Constantinople’s walls, he fled for Thrace—taking the crown jewels with him—and left the capital to its fate. The dumbfounded inhabitants of the city watched as the crusading fleet dismantled the massive chain protecting the imperial harbor and launched a ferocious attack against the lower, vulnerable seawalls. Soon they came pouring into the city, setting fire to every house they found. In the imperial palace, the terrified courtiers realized that there was only one way to stop the invaders. These terrible westerners had come to topple the usurper and restore the rightful emperor, so they hurriedly sent someone to fetch Isaac from the dungeons. Within moments, the blind, bewildered emperor had been mounted on the throne with a crown perched precariously over his remaining wisps of hair, and messengers were speeding toward the crusader camp to inform them that their demands had been met. Alexius IV was solemnly crowned alongside his father, the treaty he had made with the Crusade was ratified by both of them, and the crusaders withdrew across the Golden Horn to await their reward.
Old emperor Isaac may have been blind—and thanks to his prison stay more than a little mad—but he realized at once that his son had made impossible promises to these western thugs. It wasn’t long before Alexius IV came to the same conclusion. Emptying the treasury and confiscating most of his citizens’ wealth only managed to raise half the sum, and by Christmas of 1203 his popularity matched that of the Antichrist. He had brought nothing but calamity to the city from the moment he had appeared with these barbaric savages in tow, and now he was bleeding them white. If only, some of his citizens mused, this unsatisfactory emperor had remained in his prison cell, none of this would have happened.
The crusaders had an even lower view of Alexius IV. To them, he was a pathetic figure, and a liar to boot. They couldn’t believe that the ruler of such a magnificent city of grand monuments and soaring buildings would have trouble raising the sums promised. Surely the emperor could snap his fingers and raise ten times the amount offered. Enrico Dandolo was not the least bit interested in the promised reward, but he smoothly played on the crusader fears, suggesting that Alexius IV was holding out on them, stonewalling while he prepared his army to resist. The emperor, he said, was a treacherous snake whose promises were worthless. The only way they would see their reward now was war.
While Enrico Dandolo steered the crusaders inexorably to war, Constantinople finally shook off its lethargy. There were many who wished to see the Angeli gone, but it was a remarkable figure named Alexius Murtzuphlus who finally acted.* He rushed into the emperor’s quarters at midnight, shook his drowsy sovereign awake, and told him that the entire city was howling for his blood. Promising to spirit the terrified emperor to safety, Murtzuphlus instead rushed him into the arms of his co-conspirators, who shackled the youth and threw him into the dungeons where his father, Isaac, already waited. The reunion between the two of them was understandably bitter, and this time it was also short, since Murtzuphlus was taking no chances. Isaac Angelus, old and ailing, was easily dispatched; but after poison failed to achieve the desired result with his son, Alexius IV was strangled with a bowstring.
In another time and place, Murtzuphlus would have made a fine emperor. In his mid-sixties, but still vibrant and decisive, he infused his citizens with a new spirit, shoring up walls, setting aside food, and posting guards on the ramparts. But his forces were too spread out, the walls were too long, and his enemy too numerous. On Monday, April 12, 1204, spurred on by Dandolo’s whispers, the crusaders again attacked, hurling themselves against the same stretch of seawalls that had proved vulnerable before. Murtzuphlus, who had sensibly raised the height of the walls, seemed to be everywhere at once, racing along the ramparts to encourage his men where the fighting was thickest, but within a few hours several towers had fallen and a group of French soldiers managed to smash open a gate. The crusaders poured into the breach, and from that moment on the city was doomed. The Varangians surrendered, and after a valiant attempt to rally his men the emperor realized that all was lost, and slipped out of the Golden Gate to plan a counterattack.
The moment Murtzuphlus fled, any semblance of Byzantine resistance collapsed. The crusaders, however, fearing a last stand in the crowded warren of streets, set fire to as many buildings as they could, hoping to keep the inhabitants at bay. Most of them had never dreamed of a city so large and were staggered by its sheer size. Palaces and magnificent churches rose up on every side in cascading rows of wealth, manicured pleasure gardens sprawled luxuriously down to dappled harbors, and grandiose monuments seemed to stretch out around each corner. A French chronicler, disbelieving the evidence of his own eyes, wrote that more houses were burned in the fires they set than could be found in the three greatest cities of France combined. The great crusading princes were just as astonished as their men. Overwhelmed by Constantinople’s vastness, they called a halt to the slaughter when night fell, thinking that a city of such size couldn’t possibly be conquered in less than a month. That night the invaders camped in one of Constantinople’s great forums, resting in the shadow of brooding monuments to long-lost Byzantine greatness.
The citizens of Constantinople awoke the next morning to find their city still burning, but they hoped that the worst of the violence was at an end. The nightmare, however, had only just begun. The proud city on the Bosporus had stood inviolate since the days of the Roman Empire’s strength, a great beacon of light in a swiftly darkening world. Unrest and turmoil may have stained its streets, threats and privations may have dimmed its luster since Constantine had made it his capital nearly nine hundred years before, but alone among the cities of antiquity it had never felt the sting of a foreign conqueror’s boot. Its libraries still brimmed with lost Greek and Latin writings, its churches were packed with priceless relics, and its palaces and squares were adorned with wondrous works of art. The city was unlike any other in the world, the last jewel in the Roman crown, and when the crusaders awoke that Tuesday morning, they fell on it like wolves.
Armed bands went roving through the city in an orgy of destruction. Nothing was sacred in the frenzied search for riches. Tombs were smashed open, reliquaries had their contents flung aside, and priceless manuscripts were hacked apart to extract the jeweled coverings. Churches were desecrated, women defiled, and palaces pulled down. Neither the living nor the dead were spared. The lid of Justinian’s magnificent sarcophagus was cracked open, and though the sight of his preserved corpse gave the vandals a momentary pause, it couldn’t stop them from hurling it aside to get at the golden vestments and silver ornaments.
For three days, the fire and the looting continued unabated, and what escaped the clutches of one was inevitably claimed by the other. When silence finally settled on the shocked and shattered city, even the crusaders were taken aback by the amount of plunder. No city, one of them wrote, had produced such loot since the creation of the world.
Of all the crusaders, only the Venetians thought to preserve—not destroy—the priceless artifacts that had fallen into their power. They knew beauty when they saw it, and while the rest of the army hacked apart classical statues, melted down the precious metals, and divided the spoils, the Venetians sent back the works of art to adorn their city on the lagoon.*
For Dandolo, it had been a remarkable triumph. Venetian commercial power was guaranteed for the foreseeable future, and her main rivals of Pisa and Genoa were completely excluded. The old doge had effortlessly hijacked the armed might of Europe and used it to his advantage, disregarding threats of excommunication along the way and ensuring Venetian greatness for decades to come. But in doing so he had perpetrated one of the great tragedies of human history. Byzantium, the mighty Christian bulwark that had sheltered western Europe from the rising tide of Islam for so many centuries, had been shattered beyond repair—wrecked by men who claimed that they were serving God. Blinded by their avarice and manipulated by the doge, the crusading leaders broke the great Christian power of the East, condemning the crippled remnants—and much of eastern Europe—to five centuries of a living death under the heel of the Turks.
After the events of the Fourth Crusade, the already deep divide between East and West stretched into a yawning chasm that was truly irreconcilable. The crusading spirit, which had started out as a desire to help Christian brothers in the East, was revealed as a horrendous mockery. In the name of God, they had come with hardened hearts and cruel swords to kill and maim, to plunder and destroy—and in the work of a moment they had broken the altars and smashed the icons that generations of the faithful had venerated. Once the riches drifted away and the palaces subsided in ruins, the West eventually lost interest and turned away, but the East never forgot. Watching the crusaders walk their charred and blackened streets, the Byzantines knew that these men with the cross sewn brightly over their armor could no longer be considered Christians at all. Let the powers of Islam come, they thought. Better to be ruled by an infidel than these heretics who made a mockery of Christ.
*By the time he came to the throne he had already seduced no fewer than two of his nieces.
*Like King Arthur in Britain, a legend soon grew up that Barbarossa wasn’t dead but merely asleep in the brooding mountains of Germany. He will arise—so the story goes—when ravens cease to fly, and restore Germany to her ancient greatness.
*Murtzuphlus means “downcast” or “depressed.” Alexius’s real name was Ducas, but since he had unusually bushy eyebrows that gave him a permanently despondent look, he was universally known by the nickname Murtzuphlus.
*Where a large part of it still remains. One Venetian in particular climbed on the Carceres—the monumental gate to the Hippodrome—and removed four life-size bronze horses. Once shipped to Venice, they were brought to Saint Mark’s, where they can still be seen today.