Post-classical history


The immediate aftermath of the Crusader conquest of Constantinople was mayhem. By the morning of 13 April the Byzantine aristocracy and ordinary citizens had either fled or ceased all resistance. During the night, however, the invaders were not sure of victory and so set further fires to extend the defensive perimeter already created by the previous year’s fires. As before, the conflagration got out of control and, starting near the Monastery of Christ Evergetes, raged southwards ‘to those areas that slope down to the sea and terminate in the vicinity of the Drungarios Gate,’ as Nicetas recalled. This meant that the three fires caused by the Westerners had now destroyed about one-sixth of the area within the fortifications of Constantinople. Even Villehardouin was shocked, though he still underestimated the devastation: ‘More houses had been burned in the city than there are houses in any three of the greatest cities in the kingdom of France.’

Most people tried to save themselves and their property, as Nicetas explained: ‘The day waned and night came on, and each and every citizen busied himself with removing and burying his possessions. Some chose to leave the City, and whoever was able hastened to save himself.’ There was no further resistance, and the following morning, when in some places the inhabitants lined the streets to welcome their new Emperor – whom they assumed would be the Marquis Boniface of Montferrat – the Crusaders and Venetians went on the rampage. As Villehardouin freely admitted: ‘Then might you have seen the Greeks beaten down; and horses and palfreys captured, and mules, and other booty of killed and wounded there was neither end nor measure.’


The horrific sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 is perhaps reflected in this unusually expressive early 13th-century representation of the Massacre of the Innocents in the church of Norrey, Normandy. (Author’s photograph)


In the 1960s many ships in the Golden Horn used a smoky fuel, while many houses were still heated by wood fires. Yet even this could not compare with the pall of devastation caused by the Fourth Crusade. (Author’s photograph)

Boniface may well have believed that, as nominal leader of the Fourth Crusade, he would become the new ruler. He therefore rode along the eastern shore of Constantinople to the Boukoleon Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, which the officials ceremoniously handed over to him. Boniface thus took control of a huge amount of treasure as well as a ‘larger number of the great ladies who had fled to the castle, for there were found the sister of the King of France, who had been empress, and the sister of the King of Hungary, who had also been empress, and other ladies very many’. Count Baldwin of Flanders’ brother Henry similarly took control in Baldwin’s name of the Blachernae Palace in the north-western corner of Constantinople. ‘There too was found much treasure, not less than in the palace of Boukoleon,’ Villehardouin recalled. ‘Each garrisoned with his own people the castle that had been surrendered to him, and set a guard over the treasure.’

The scene seemed set for a civil war between the victors, but instead the victors’ predatory energies were occupied in despoiling the city, which they did for three days without their leaders seriously attempting to stop them. According to Nicetas: ‘The populace … had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But their disposition was not at all affected by what they saw… Instead, they plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God.’ News of the sack spread across the Orthodox Christian world and beyond, to the Muslim world, where the Arab chronicler Abu Shama later noted: ‘The Franks took possession of the kingdom, looted its treasures and all the fixtures and marbles of its churches. They then brought them to the lands of Egypt and Syria, where they were sold. Damascus has seen plenty of that marble.’ In fact, this sale of valuable stone probably took place later, when the new Latin Empire of Constantinople was desperate for money. Most of the booty went westwards, to Europe and in particular to Venice, where for centuries four huge gilded bronze horses stood on the façade of the Basilica of San Marco as a constant reminder of the Fourth Crusade.11

The Latin Empire at its greatest extent






A huge amount of loot was brought back to Europe from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade. Amongst the most famous items were four ancient-Greek gilded bronze horses, which adorned the façade of the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice until the 1990s. (Author’s photograph)


A drawing of the now-lost seal of Baldwin I, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, dating from 1204 or 1205 and bearing the lion of Flanders rather than a variation of the Cross of Jerusalem subsequently adopted by the Latin emperors. (Author’s Photograph)

During the second week of May, to Boniface of Montferrat’s surprise and anger, Baldwin of Flanders was chosen as the first ruler of a newly established ‘Latin Empire of Constantinople’, being crowned on the 16th. Baldwin had clearly played a more active front-line role during the sieges of 1203 and 1204, yet his rule would be brief, and the Latin Empire itself lasted only until 1261. Nevertheless, tensions between Baldwin and Boniface almost led to violence. The loyal Raimbaut de Vacqueyras seems to have served as the disappointed Marquis of Montferrat’s mouthpiece, writing a poem a month or so later in which he accused the new Emperor of sloth in the face of enemies as well as a lack of generosity towards his comrades. Raimbaut’s call for Baldwin to continue the original purpose of the crusade by going to the aid of the Kingdom of Jerusalem may also have reflected divided opinion within the Crusader army:

And let him not fear cold or heat,

Nor linger in palatial ease, for he has placed on his neck a burden

Of such weight that, if he be not of great valour,

It will be hard for him to bear it to the end.

For the Wallachians and the Cumans and the Russians

And the Turks and the Pagans and the Persians

Will be against him, with the Greeks.

And if he does not endure toil for glory’s sake,

He may undo all he has done.12

Raimbault’s prediction of the multiple enemies and problems that the newly created Latin Empire would face proved prophetic.

The Crusader clergy had convinced the rank and file that their attack on Christian Constantinople was consistent with their original crusading vow, and Cardinal Peter Capuano now confirmed that defence of the city for a further year would complete that vow. He and his colleague, Cardinal Soffredo, also lifted the excommunication of the Venetians, even though they still refused to admit they had been wrong to attack Zadar back in 1202.


The largest territory acquired by Venice in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade was the island of Crete, though only to prevent its falling to the Venetians’ great rivals, the Genoese. (Author’s photograph)


The Lefke Gate of Nicaea (Iznik), where the most powerful of the fragmented Byzantine successor states was established after the Fourth Crusade. (Author’s photograph)

While these internal problems were gradually overcome, relations between the newly established Latin Empire and Bulgaria were worsening fast. Later in 1204 Tsar Kaloyan even sent a letter to the pope in Rome, warning that the situation could lead to conflict: ‘Write to the Latins, to keep them from my empire, and, if they do, my empire will not harm them, but let them not set it at little worth. If they make an attempt against my empire … and some of them get killed, do not your Holiness suspect my empire because it will not be my fault.’13

As it happened, the Latin Empire set all its new neighbours ‘at little worth’ and attempted to take over what had been claimed as Byzantine territory at the end of the 12th century. In many areas the Latins were successful, creating a Kingdom of Thessaloniki, which was allocated to Boniface of Montferrat, a Duchy of Athens and a Principality of Achaea, which were theoretically subject to Thessaloniki. The Latin Empire itself briefly occupied part of northwestern Anatolia, but then sought to extend its authority in parts of Thrace also claimed by Bulgaria. The result was a disastrous defeat outside Adrianople (Edirne) in April 1205 in which Emperor Baldwin was captured and taken to the Bulgarian capital of Tarnovo where he later died. Louis of Blois, Latin claimant to most of the Byzantine territories in Anatolia, was also killed. Baldwin’s brother Henry took over as the second Latin Emperor, ruling with some success until 1216. On 4 September 1207, however, the Bulgarians also defeated and killed Boniface of Montferrat, King of Thessaloniki, near the little Thracian town of Mosynopolis, which thereafter remained abandoned. The only Western power to enjoy long-term benefit from the Fourth Crusade was Venice. In addition to his share of the vast booty from Constantinople, Doge Dandolo had been very selective in his country’s share of the conquered territory. Although some of these new gains were held for only a few decades, others would remain in Venetian hands until the early 18th century.


Following the conquest of Constantinople, the Venetians were not interested in extensive territory, but instead demanded various coasts and strategic ports such as Heraclea (Marmara Ereğlisi). (Author’s photograph)


Another Byzantine successor state that emerged from the wreckage of the Fourth Crusade was the Empire of Trebizond (Trabzon) on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia. (Author’s photograph)

Meanwhile the initially demoralized Byzantines soon re-established three significant, but frequently competing, successor states: the Empire of Nicaea (Iznik) under a Laskarid dynasty, the Empire of Trebizond (Trabzon) under a Comnenid dynasty and the so-called Despotate of Epiros, whose dynasty sprang from the Doukas family, which never actually claimed the traditional Byzantine title of ‘despot’. It is often said that the Fourth Crusade broke Byzantine power and thus opened up south-eastern Christendom to Ottoman Turkish conquest. In fact the establishment of a strong Byzantine successor ‘empire’ based upon the fortified city of Nicaea actually pushed back the Turkish frontier for nigh on half a century. It was only when a new Emperor of Nicaea, Michael VIII Palaiologos, regained Constantinople in 1261 that Byzantine interest in its Anatolian frontier again declined, eventually making possible the staggering Ottoman conquests of the 14th century.

11 The orginals were transferred to the San Marco Museum, inside the church, during the 1990s and were replaced by replicas.

12 Fourth verse of ‘Sirventes XX’, in J. Linskill, The Poems of The Troubadour Rainbault de Vaqueiras (The Hague, 1964) p. 228.

13 Wolff, R. L., ‘The ‘Second Bulgarian Empire’, Its Origins and History to 1204’ in Speculum, 24 (1949) p. 198.

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