One state eventually dominated the story of the Fourth Crusade: the Republic of Venice. Until 1204 Venice remained theoretically part of the Byzantine Empire, though in practical terms its elected duke, or ‘doge’, was by now an independent ruler. On the other hand, a close and ancient association with Constantinople gave Venice huge commercial advantages over its rivals – to some extent even over the indigenous merchants of the Byzantine Empire. Lying along the vital Venetian trade route down the Adriatic Sea lay the rugged coast and multiple islands of Dalmatia, where a largely Italianized population had dominated towns and some stretches of coast since Roman times. For most of the early medieval period Dalmatia was dominated by the Byzantine Empire, often through its proxy, the Doge of Venice, as ‘Dux Dalmatie’. In practical terms this could result in Dalmatian towns promising fidelity to Venice in return for Venetian protection, while at the same time remaining effectively autonomous.
During the 12th century however, the joint Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia dominated much of Dalmatia. This the Venetians saw as a threat to their trade routes, and as a result two port-cities, Zadar (Zara) and Split (Spalato), became the focal points in a bitter rivalry; Venice generally dominated the former while Hungary dominated the latter. A short-lived Byzantine revival under the Comnenid emperors pushed back the Hungarians in the 1160s and 1170s, but Byzantine authority then collapsed again, leaving Venice to face a dangerous situation.
Medieval Venetian art was under very strong Byzantine influence, as seen in the costume and weaponry shown on this 12th-century Venetian ivory panel. (Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. 295-1867, London)
The gilded interior of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice mirrored that of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. (Author’s photograph)
Elsewhere in Europe, internal problems or hostility between major states meant that no king or emperor was available to take command of the new crusade. There had, for example, been a notable deterioration in relations between the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires during the second half of the 12th century. The former was the direct heir of the eastern half of the ancient Roman Empire, while the latter claimed to be heir to the western half, as revived by Charlemagne in the 8th century. Nevertheless, the ruling dynasties of the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires did forge dynastic links, which, though they achieved little, had an influence upon the course of the Fourth Crusade.
The situation in France and England was even less encouraging for Pope Innocent III’s new crusade. King Richard of England died in 1199 and his brother, King John, inherited his quarrel with King Philip Augustus of France. As a result of this, official French and English participation in the expedition was impossible, though large numbers of French, Anglo-French and Anglo-Norman knights did take the cross. In fact the year 1204, when the Byzantine capital fell under Crusader control, was also a very significant year in French and English history – Philip Augustus expelling his Anglo-Angevin rivals from all of France except for Gascony in the far south-west and the Channel Islands in the far north-west.
Another area that would play a major role in the forthcoming crusade, and its leadership, was Flanders. Though a feudal fiefdom of the Kingdom of France rather than an independent state, Flanders had become an important, wealthy and strongly urbanized part of Western Europe. During the decade before the Fourth Crusade the Count of Flanders’ power had declined and, despite being economically very developed, the area remained politically somewhat anarchic. The situation was further complicated by the neighbouring counties of Flanders and Hainault having being ruled by one person since 1191, despite Flanders being within the Kingdom of France and Hainault being part of the German Empire.
Dalmatia was part of Croatia, which had been a joint kingdom with Hungary since 1102, and became the first victim of the Fourth Crusade despite the fact that King Imre of Hungary and Croatia had himself taken the cross. Much of Dalmatia was nevertheless outside any government’s control. Here the Latin aristocracy of the coastal cities despised the surrounding Slav peasantry and tribesmen. Each of the old Roman cities also retained their autonomy and frequently competed with each other, while loyalties were very localized, much as they were in Italy.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Catholic Hungary and Orthodox Byzantium had long been close, though not always friendly. During the first half of the 12th century these two huge realms had been allies, after which Hungary found itself resisting Byzantine expansion until a sudden collapse of Byzantine power in the later 12th century. It was during these years that Hungary seized extensive territory in ex-Byzantine Serbia and regained much of Dalmatia, where it found itself in competition with Venice. The glorious reign of King Béla III ended in 1196, being followed by that of Béla’s son Imre (1196–1204), which saw civil war between the king and his younger brother Andrew. Meanwhile the pope urged Imre to lead a crusade against Bogomil heretics who had established themselves in Bosnia and various other parts of the Balkans.
The sudden decline of Byzantine imperial power in the later 12th century permitted the re-emergence of independent or autonomous entities across much of the Balkans. The first Albanian state emerged around 1190 under its own ‘archons’, or local leaders; this independence then being lost to the Byzantine Despotate of Epirus in 1216. In most of the Balkan Peninsula Orthodox Christianity provided a regional identity but no real unity, while this separateness from their western and northern neighbours was also reinforced by the Balkan peoples’ essentially Byzantine cultural heritage.
Like Albania, Bosnia and Serbia emerged as separate entities. However, much of what would later be the southern part of medieval Serbia initially exchanged Byzantine for Bulgarian domination. Furthermore, as Byzantine authority declined, so Hungarian pressure continued and a Hungarian army actually reached Sofia in the late 1180s. Indeed, competition between Byzantium and Hungary for domination over the lower-Danube region remained a feature of this period.
The outbreak of a revolt in what is now Bulgaria in the mid-1180s then forced the Byzantines back to the Danube Delta on the Black Sea coast. Credit for initiating and leading this revolt, which resulted in the establishment of the ‘Second Bulgarian Empire’, remains a source of heated nationalistic debate between Bulgarians and Romanians, three peoples actually being involved: Romanian-speaking Vlachs, Turkish-speaking Kipchaqs (Cumans) and Slav-speaking Bulgarians. By the time of the Fourth Crusade a Byzantine counter-attack had faltered and the new state had emerged in the northern part of what is now Bulgaria, while Byzantine authority was restricted to the lowlands of eastern Thrace. In 1201 or 1202, as the Crusaders were mustering in the west, the Vlachs and Kipchaqs again raided Byzantine territory, getting dangerously close to Constantinople. This was followed by a peace agreement between the Byzantine Emperor Alexios III and Bulgarian King Ivan II, otherwise known as Ioannitsa or as ‘Kaloyan the Romanslayer’. This remained the situation when the Fourth Crusade suddenly appeared on the scene in 1203.
The preliminary sketch for a Byzantine wall painting, made some time after 1171, from the church at Durdevi Stupovi near Novi Pazar. (National Museum, Belgrade. Author’s photograph)
The Byzantine Empire has naturally been the subject of intense historical research to discover quite how and why a once-mighty (and still extensive) state with its massively fortified and hugely wealthy capital fell so suddenly to a handful of crusading adventurers and their Venetian allies. No simple answer has been agreed, because there is no simple answer. The weaknesses of Byzantium at the time of the Fourth Crusade were manifold, though none of them fully accounts for this collapse. On the other hand there are a number of basic facts. During the 12th century the Byzantine Empire made significant territorial gains in the Balkans and this is believed to have resulted in a shift of emphasis from the Anatolian or Asian provinces to the European provinces. Nevertheless, it is far from clear how important the regions north of the Rhodope Mountains were, either economically, politically or militarily.
Similarly, Emperor Manuel’s massive defeat at the hands of the Saljuq Turks at the battle of Myriokephalon in 1176 may not have been as important as once thought. Certainly the Saljuqs chose not to follow up their success by conquering additional Byzantine territory. Similarly, the Byzantine army continued to defend the empire’s frontiers with reasonable success until its collapse in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
Tensions between the indigenous, largely Greek, population of the empire and the Latin, largely Italian, merchant communities in the major cities also seem exaggerated. In fact the Byzantine populace turned against these economically dominant foreigners only when the latter got drawn into Byzantine political rivalries. Then, of course, there were appalling massacres such as that of 1182. Michael Angold, the renowned historian of this period, summarized the situation immediately prior to 1204 as follows: ‘Ever since the death of Manuel I Komnenos in 1180 the weaknesses of the Byzantine Empire had become increasingly apparent. By the end of the century there was an atmosphere of complete demoralization. There was vicious intrigue and corruption in the capital, anarchy in the provinces, and growing external pressure on the boundaries of the empire’.1However, the Fourth Crusade was more than merely another element in this disintegration, instead it converted a threatening situation into a complete catastrophe.