Post-classical history


In fact the Byzantine government was in no position to supply the funds, food and military support that had been promised in its name, though an initial payment was enough for the Crusaders to pay their debts to the Venetians. Instead the co-emperors started confiscating church treasures, which made them very unpopular with ordinary people. In contrast, the Greek Orthodox Church leadership apparently making no protest because, in Nicetas’ opinion, ‘They had been taught to fawn, like Maltese spaniels’.

As weeks passed into months, the leaderships on both sides found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. The Crusader leaders were unable or unwilling to fulfill the promise to their followers that the crusade would press on towards the Holy Land, while the co-emperors Isaac II and Alexios IV were caught between the demands of their people and those of the Crusaders. Meanwhile there were those within the Byzantine leadership who wanted a vigorous resistance; one was a warlike nobleman and political prisoner named Alexios Doukas, who was released and made the empire’s protovestiarios. Robert de Clari also claimed that a ‘Sultan of Konya’ – almost certainly Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhusraw I, who was currently a refugee in Constantinople – proposed an alliance with the Crusaders. The facts behind this story remain unknown, but, according to Robert, the Crusader leadership decided that, ‘It would be dangerous to leave so great a thing as Constantinople in such case as it now was… When the sultan heard this he departed, sore displeased.’ Ghiyath al-Din did indeed return to Anatolia, where the Saljuq civil wars continued.


Though the carving on the façade of the Cathedral of St Donino in Fidenza dates from around 1200, the military equipment is surprisingly old-fashioned. (Author’s photograph)

The aged Isaac II was now almost certainly suffering from dementia. Meanwhile his son, Emperor Alexios IV, suggested a joint Crusader–Byzantine campaign to extend central-government control and hopefully capture the fugitive Alexios III. A Crusader force under Boniface of Montferrat, Henry of Flanders and Hugh of St Pol agreed to take part after being offered ‘sixteen hundredweight of gold’, according to Nicetas. So, in mid-August 1203, Alexios IV and his allies marched into Thrace, foraging widely and seizing several towns, including Adrianople, while Alexios III fled farther west.

Meanwhile, a riot broke out in Constantinople, during which Greeks killed a number of long-standing Latin residents, including Pisans and Amalfitans, who had previously supported the Byzantine Emperor. The survivors fled to join the Crusaders and Venetians, but the next day a band of armed Westerners retaliated, crossing the Golden Horn, attacking a small mosque that had been built as a token of friendship to Saladin, and started another fire, which burned until 21 August. It became one of the most extensive urban conflagrations in European history and rendered some 100,000 people homeless.

This time the people blamed Emperor Alexios IV for bringing the destructive Westerners to Constantinople. Arriving back in his capital, the young ruler tried to crush opposition by hanging all those involved in the deposing and blinding of his father, Isaac II, and seeming to distance himself from his hated allies. Nevertheless his popularity ebbed away, and, after a formal warning, Alexios IV stopped all further payments on 1 December 1203. For their part the Crusaders wanted what they believed the Emperor had promised them – namely the means to continue their crusade to the Holy Land. Therefore they ravaged and looted the surrounding territory to put pressure on the Byzantines.


The northern end of the landward walls of Constantinople, where they dip down to meet the walls along the Golden Horn. (Author’s photograph)


The Story of St Nicaise, shown in a stained-glass window made shortly before or after the Fourth Crusade. (Louvre inv. OA 6006 and OA 6119, Paris. Author’s photograph)

This in turn resulted in skirmishing, in which, according to Nicetas, ‘only Alexios Doukas… contriving to win the throne and the citizens’ favour, dared to give battle against the Latins’. During one skirmish near Trypetos Lithos on 7 January his horse stumbled, and Alexios Doukas would have been captured ‘had not a band of youthful archers from the City who happened to be present stoutly defended him’. Although the Byzantine leadership was divided about taking strong action against the Crusaders, considerable efforts went into strengthening the city’s defences. Robert de Clari described how, during the winter of 1203–04, the Byzantines ‘caused to be built atop these towers of stone goodly wooden towers. And these wooden towers did they overlay well on the outside with good planks and cover them over with good hides, so that they had no dread of the ladders or ships of the Venetians.’

The defenders also attempted to destroy the Venetian fleet moored within the Golden Horn. According to Robert de Clari, ‘They seized the [Byzantine] ships within the city by night, and they caused them all to be filled with very dry wood, and pieces of swine’s fat amongst the wood, then set they fire to them’. However, the Venetians were ready for these fireships and no damage was caused. The Byzantines tried the same tactic about a fortnight later, but again without success, ‘save one merchant ship which was come there. This one was burned’. The Russian, Scandinavian or Varangian Guardsman whose recollections formed the basis of the Novgorod Chronicle maintained that ‘Isokovic’ (the son of Isaac II, namely Alexios IV) had warned the enemy.

On 25 January 1204 Byzantine patience finally snapped. There was rioting in the streets, and when Alexios IV turned to the Crusaders for support he was imprisoned by Alexios Doukas. Around the same time the aged and confused co-emperor Isaac II died. For a few days the mob also tried to force the Byzantine imperial crown upon a young nobleman called Nicholas Kanabos. The precise dating is unclear but Alexios Doukas now proclaimed himself Emperor and the unfortunate Nicholas Kanabos was executed. Alexios V Doukas was crowned on 5 February 1204, and for a while it looked as if the Byzantines had a determined ruler who could unite the capital against the Crusaders and Venetians. However, the Westerners still refused to abandon their protégée, who, being seen as a threat to the new Emperor, was strangled on the night of 7–8 February.


A stained-glass window in Canterbury Cathedral, made between 1190 and 1220. It illustrates a siege of the city by Danes and offers a vigorous image of the sort of combat faced by defenders and attackers during the Fourth Crusade. (Author’s Photograph)

The scene was set for a final confrontation, and Alexios V continued to strengthen Constantinople’s defences while conducting more-active operations outside the city. However, he desperately needed money, and so turned upon the many officials who had been raised to high rank by his predecessors, demanding large sums if they were to retain their positions.

In this crisis the Byzantine government also contacted the Saljuqs of Anatolia, but they were still involved in a civil war and could do nothing. Emperor Alexios V was on his own, though Crusader short-sightedness prevented his situation from being even worse. During the winter or early spring 1204 the Bulgarian leader, Ivan II, nicknamed ‘Kaloyan the Roman Slayer’, offered the Crusaders an alliance if they recognized Bulgarian independence. However, the Crusader leadership sent him a dismissive response, apparently regarding the Bulgarian leader as a rebel within territory they now wanted for themselves.

Around Constantinople, both sides now needed to forage for food. The Byzantines were not strong enough to stop the Crusaders from doing so, while the Crusader army was too small to prevent food convoys and additional Byzantine troops from entering the city. The biggest clash took place in February, when Emperor Alexios V led an ambush against Crusader foragers led by Henry of Hainault. The Crusaders were returning from the region of Phileas; though unidentified, it may have been what is now Kilyos on the Black Sea coast north of Constantinople.

Both sides were few in number, but when the Byzantines attacked the Crusaders adopted their standard defensive array, placing eight crossbowmen ahead of the mounted knights. Robert de Clari again provides the most dramatic account: ‘The Emperor Mourtzouphlos [Alexios V] the traitor and the Greeks came toward them very swiftly and smote them fierce and fell; but, through God’s mercy, never a one of the Franks did they unhorse. When the Franks saw the Greeks thus rushing upon them from every side, they let fall their lances and drew the coustiaus and misericordes [large and small daggers] that they had and began to defend themselves right hardily, and they slew many of them.’

The ambush force then fled, but some were overtaken: ‘They let fall the Icon, and his imperial cloak, and the ensign with the Icon, which was all of gold and set with rich and precious stones.’ This was a terrible loss for the Byzantines, as Nicetas explained: ‘The icon of the Mother of God, which the Roman emperors reckon as their fellow general, was taken by the enemy.’

Alexios also tried to negotiate, but according to Nicetas the Venetians – whom he compares with ‘wicked Telchines’ (ancient sorcerers with webbed feet) – sabotaged Byzantine attempts to find a peaceful outcome. He also accused the Venetians of breaking a truce and trying to capture the Emperor when the latter met Doge Dandolo outside the Monastery of Sts Kosmas and Damian.

In March 1204 the Crusader and Venetian leadership decided on the outright conquest of Constantinople, and drew up a formal agreement to divide the Byzantine Empire between them. Any doubts that might have lingered amongst the rank and file were supposedly removed by the army’s priests, who assured them than an attack upon Constantinople was morally equivalent to an assault on Muslim-held Jerusalem. Having learned valuable lessons from their previous attacks, the leadership focused on the Golden Horn fortifications, where the Venetians had previously been successful. So, during Lent, the attackers mounted stone-throwing siege weapons on many ships and scaling ladders on others. Nicetas claimed that, ‘Banners were flown on top, and huge rewards were offered those who would ascend to give battle’. Nor were the Byzantine defenders idle, making the timber defences on top of their walls and towers even higher than before.

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