Relations between the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and its Latin neighbours had been close but complex for centuries. However, the differences that seem obvious today were not necessarily seen that way at the time. Nor was the Byzantine Empire necessarily a declining power in need of Western help. Under the 12th-century Comnenid dynasty Byzantium appeared a powerful state bent on regaining territory from its Muslim eastern neighbours and from its Christian neighbours in the Balkans, Italy and even central Europe. Meanwhile, in Western Europe a remarkable economic revolution had already started more than a century earlier, yet it was still somewhat backward, warlike and aggressive. One area where Western superiority was already established was at sea, most of the Mediterranean now being dominated by Italian sailors and merchants. Amalfi had been first on the scene and its people had their own distinct quarter in Constantinople, where the Greeks regarded these Amalfitans as being almost as civilized as themselves. Following close behind, and already more powerful than Amalfi, were the merchant republics of Pisa, Genoa and Venice. The former two had a reputation for ferocity, often directed against each other, while the Venetians were theoretically still subjects of the Byzantine Empire, and would remain so until 1204.
Most crusades to the Middle East already relied upon naval power. However, the Fourth Crusade was an entirely maritime expedition, which cannot be understood without some appreciation of early 13th-century Mediterranean nautical knowledge. This was more advanced than is generally realized, the sailors possessing geographical knowledge that would not be written down for centuries. For example, there is strong evidence that simple forms of portolano coastal maps were used at a time when the famous medieval mappe mundi made by monks offered fanciful and entirely useless images of the known world. It is thus highly unlikely that popes and other rulers failed to use such information when planning major military expeditions overseas. On the other hand the merchants, sailors and governments involved in supposedly illegal trade with Islamic powers preferred to remain discreet.
A flanking tower of the Burj al-Gharbi (‘Western Gate’) in Alexandria, which was the original target of the Fourth Crusade. (Author’s photograph)
A lance-armed cavalryman pursuing a horse archer was a popular motif in Byzantine art, these being on an engraved late 12th- or early 13th-century bronze bowl. (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)
In contrast there was an extraordinary amount of misinformation in Western Europe that exaggerated, though did not entirely invent, the friendly relations between later 12th-century Byzantine emperors and Saladin or his successors. To this were added lurid stories about the supposed weakness, effeminacy and corruption of the ‘Greeks’, which reflected the undoubtedly sophisticated and often unwarlike character of the Byzantine ruling elite.
Alongside these negative images of Byzantium there was a dream of Latin–Byzantine cooperation against the ‘infidel’, which had existed for centuries. The ideal appeared in a later 12th-century version in chansons de geste epic poems such as Girart de Roussillon, although here Constantinople is a distant and strange place. Another manifestation is found in the 13th-century Chanson du Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, which was probably based upon a lost 12th-century or late 11th-century original. Constantinople is again portrayed as an almost magical city, perhaps reflecting fear of Byzantine technology and science.
A period of relative peace and stability had followed Saladin’s death in 1193, with both the rump Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s Ayyubid successors seemingly convinced that little was to be gained from further warfare. Early in 1200, however, the political and military situation changed dramatically when Saladin’s younger brother al-‘Adil Sayf al-Din (‘Saphadin’ to the Crusaders), who already ruled Damascus, Jerusalem and parts of the Jazira (Mesopotamia), also took control of Egypt. As a result he was generally, if not universally, recognized as head of the ‘Ayyubid Empire’. Al-‘Adil’s position was confirmed when, two years later, he was also recognized as overlord in Aleppo. For the first time in nine years Saladin’s realm was reunited and again virtually surrounded what remained of the Crusader states.
Throughout most of the medieval period, the Piazza San Marco in Venice was unpaved, as is the square in front of the cathedral of the small lagoon town of Torcello, north of Venice. (Author’s photograph)
Another significant player in this region was the Saljuq Turkish Sultanate of Rum (Rome), which was how Arabs, Turks and Persians knew the ‘Late Roman’ or Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately there is still a great deal of uncertainty about quite where the frontier zone lay between the Byzantine Empire and the Saljuq Sultanate of Rum around the time of the Fourth Crusade. For example, Lycia in south-western Anatolia had been a sort of no man’s land since the late 11th century. Meanwhile, the Saljuq Sultanate itself was going through a period of profound cultural, economic and military change, with many Saljuq Turkish cities being characterized by a thriving multicultural civilization incorporating Turkish, Greek and Armenian, Muslim and Christian elements. The overall impression of cultural coexistence also undermines the clarity of a supposed cultural frontier between Byzantium and the Turks.
Political tensions within the Saljuq Sultanate of Rum resulted from Sultan Qilij Arslan II dividing his realm into iqtas (fiefs) for his eight sons in accordance with Saljuq tradition. After his death in 1192, the Sultanate suffered from a long civil war caused by Rukn al-Din Sulayman II Ibn Qilij Arslan stripping his brothers of their domains. One of the latter was Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhusraw, who took refuge in Constantinople where he married a woman from a powerful Byzantine family.
The situation was similarly complex in Europe where, for example, rivalry between the Italian maritime republics had been fierce for centuries. Yet any successful crusade to the Middle East would depend upon support from at least one of them. Furthermore, their rivalry concerned their relationships with the Byzantine Empire. Genoa and Pisa were often at war during this period, but Byzantium gave trading privileges to both in an attempt to avoid a Venetian preponderance in Byzantine trade. The Fourth Crusade would, in fact, see Pisan and Genoese residents of Constantinople fighting alongside their Byzantine neighbours in defence of the city against Venetians and Crusaders.
Another significant power within Italy was, of course, the papacy itself. Pope Innocent III has been described as one of the great figures in papal history. He was certainly one of the most ambitious popes, though in the end his wide-ranging plans often came to nothing or even proved counterproductive. Innocent III’s dream of a great new crusade certainly backfired. Foulques de Neuilly was given a leading role in preaching this new expedition in 1198 and 1199. Unfortunately, Foulques was so obsessed with ‘moral rectitude’ that he offended several of the rulers and powerful aristocrats who were needed as potential leaders, including King Richard I of England. Furthermore, Foulques’ lack of tact undermined his attempt to reconcile the bickering (but militarily important) kingdoms of England and France. The impossibility of papal control over its own preachers of crusade certainly led to confusion. Whether this contributed to a lack of focus in the eventual expedition is impossible to say.