Post-classical history


Hindsight is probably more dangerous when studying the Fourth Crusade than any other crusade. Few if any people at the time realized quite how hollow a shell Byzantium had become. To its citizens, the Byzantine Empire was still the Roman Empire; it was Romania to most Westerners and Rum to most Muslims. Its people, its rulers and presumably most of its soldiers retained a massive sense of cultural, administrative and military superiority. A dip in this confidence had followed the catastrophic battle of Manzikert in 1071, with some cultural or religious leaders criticizing the empire’s concern with selfenrichment and pleasure, but this proved to be a passing phase and the self-satisfied Byzantine selfimage had been restored by 1203. Byzantine pride in the empire and its capital apparently meant that the people envisaged heaven as an improved, purified and infinitely successful version of their own state. Certainly the majority believed that their state was under the special protection of God, Christ and his saints.


A more than usually realistic illustration of a soldier in a 12th-century Byzantine manuscript. (Works of John Chrysostom, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. Gr. 806, f.94v, Paris)

The city of Constantinople was far larger and more sophisticated than any other in Christendom. Several estimates of its population have been suggested, though a figure of around 500,000 seems most likely. Foreign visitors were also clearly impressed. One such was the Jewish scholar and traveller Benjamin of Tudela in northern Spain, who wrote: ‘Constantinople is a busy city, and merchants come to it from every country by sea or land, and there is none like it in the world except Baghdad, the great city of Islam… A quantity of wealth beyond telling is brought hither year by year.’ Benjamin also described the imperial Blachernae Palace: ‘He [the Emperor] overlaid its columns and walls with gold and silver, and engraved thereon representations of the battles before his day and of his own combats. He also set up a throne of gold and precious stones, and a golden crown was suspended by a golden chain over the throne, so arranged that he might sit thereunder.’2

Much was made of a supposed Byzantine economic collapse in the later 12th century; however, some recent historians have disputed this interpretation, even suggesting that the economy was expanding until stopped by the catastrophic Fourth Crusade. What is certain is that Constantinople itself was hugely wealthy in 1203. It is also worth noting that the city’s population was apparently fed with grain from Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly, most of which were still under imperial control.

For an empire in which religion was a central aspect of identity it seems odd that the Orthodox Church had actually become a source of weakness. By the time of the Fourth Crusade it was wracked by doctrinal disagreements and bitterly competing factions. Nevertheless, most of its leaders and adherents remained passionately opposed to the pope’s equally insistent claims to the leadership of the entire Christian world. Written exchanges between the Patriarch of Constantinople, John X Camaterus, and Pope Innocent III were as fierce as ever on the eve of the Fourth Crusade, yet within the Byzantine Empire there was no apparent fear of the Orthodox Church being militarily conquered by a Latin Catholic army.

Nor was Byzantine society unified religiously or linguistically. For centuries the Emperors had forcibly resettled defeated invaders or rebels in different parts of their empire. The largest groups were Slav or Turkish, and although such resettled communities were assimilated into local populations, this process took time. Another group retained a separate identity until the end; the Armenians not only spoke a different language but adhered to a different branch of Christianity. Their importance and numbers within the Byzantine administration and army had declined during the 12th century, but one substantial community lived in north-western Anatolia, around Abydos (Nara Burnu). Even here, far from their ancestral homeland in eastern Anatolia, the Armenians resisted Hellenization and were in turn deeply mistrusted by the Greeks. Their fate in the immediate aftermath of the Fourth Crusade would be a tragic one.

The Byzantines have often been portrayed as both fearing and despising outsiders, yet this has again probably been exaggerated. For example, Byzantine ‘lives of the saints’ dating from the 12th century often expressed a positive view of the Latin Catholic West, especially of Italy and the papal city of Rome. Nor were Westerners regarded as much of a threat. Even the aggressive Normans of southern Italy, who had so often invaded Byzantine territory, had recently been defeated. Indeed, Emperor Manuel Comnenus admired Western military systems and some other aspects of Western European civilization. Less known is the fact that Manuel also admired Turkish things, and had a chamber in his palace decorated in Turkish style. Of course Byzantine respect for Muslim Arab and Persian civilization went back much further.

Byzantine Greeks may have had a huge sense of cultural superiority but they were rarely xenophobic, despite the multitude of external threats to their empire. The last major Siculo-Norman invasion had been crushed in 1185, but the victorious Byzantine general Alexios Branas then revolted against the emperor, eventually being defeated and killed by Conrad of Montferrat. The latter was an Italian nobleman who had recently married Emperor Isaac’s sister, Theodora, and would briefly be the nominal King of Jerusalem. As a result the name Montferrat was long remembered in Constantinople, which was of some significance when Conrad’s brother Boniface of Montferrat appeared before the city walls as nominal leader of the Fourth Crusade.

The Saljuq Turkish threat seemingly revived in the later 12th century, when authority within Byzantine Anatolia was seriously weakened. However, the fragmentation of the empire was probably a greater problem before the Fourth Crusade. Within the Anatolian provinces alone a nobleman named Theodore Magaphas had installed himself in Philadelphia (Ala ehir) and soon controlled a wide area; another man named Maurozomes dominated the Meander Valley and neighbouring areas, perhaps including Smyrna (Izmir), while the Comnenid family dominated the region around Trebizond (Trabzon). Some of these autonomous governors also used Turkish help to maintain themselves.

The situation had reached such a point in 1204 that the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, when they agreed the Partitio Romaniae, which would divide the Byzantine Empire once it had been conquered, left regions like Smyrna, Trebizond, Rhodes and most other Aegean islands out of their calculations. Perhaps this was because these areas were no longer dominated by the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople at that time. Whether the Crusaders similarly gave up on those European provinces that were currently out of central-government control is less clear. This, then, was the ramshackle Byzantine Empire as the Crusaders gathered in Venice.

1 Angold, M., A Byzantine Government in Exile (Oxford, 1975) p. 9.

2 Adler, M. N. (tr.), The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (Malibu, 1987) pp. 70–71.




8 January

Election of Pope Innocent III.


Proclamation of a crusade.



Preaching of the crusade by Foulques de Neuilly.



28 November

Tournament at Ecry-sur-Aisne, where the Counts of Champagne and Blois take the cross.




Al-‘Adil, the Ayyubid ruler of Damascus, Jerusalem and parts of the Jazira takes control of Egypt and is recognized as leader of the Ayyubid Empire.

23 February

Count Baldwin of Flanders takes the cross.



Throughout year

Sultan al-‘Adil is weakened by problems in Yemen and ongoing famine in Egypt.


Treaty between crusade leaders and Venice to transport 4,500 horsemen to the Holy Land.

24 May

Death of the nominated leader of the crusade, Count Thibaud of Champagne.


Marquis Boniface of Montferrat takes the cross and is selected as leader of the crusade; Church discussion at Cîteaux; many Burgundians take the cross.

Late September to October

Prince Alexios Angelos escapes from Constantinople and heads for Italy but is rebuffed by the pope.

Around Christmas

Prince Alexios Angelos at the court of Philip of Swabia, King of Germany, seeking support, and meets Boniface of Montferrat.




Al-‘Adil gains suzerainty over Aleppo, confirming his position as leader of the Ayyubid Empire.


Most Crusaders head for Venice.

20 May

Major earthquake shakes the Middle East from Egypt to northern Iraq, causing severe damage in Palestine, Lebanon and western Syria, including the fortification of the main Crusader city of Acre.

29 June

Original date planned for the departure of the Crusader fleet, nothing happens.


The Crusader leadership cannot pay Venice for the fleet; they agree to help Venice recover Zadar.

8 September

Doge Enrico Dandolo takes the cross.


Emissaries from Prince Alexios Angelos win support from crusade leaders; Alexios agrees to join the crusade army at Zadar before 20 April 1203.

Early October

Crusader fleet leaves Venice in two divisions.

10–11 November

Crusader fleets reaches Zadar, which it besieges.

24 November

Zadar capitulates and is sacked.

November 1202 to April 1203

Pope Innocent III excommunicates the Crusader army, which winters at Zadar; many Crusaders leave the army.




Agreement between Crusader negotiators and Prince Alexios to help him become the Byzantine Emperor.


Pope lifts excommunication from Crusader army but not from Venetians.


Martin of Pairis arrives in Acre and finds that many Germans have already arrived; there are probably also many Flemings there.

7 April

Crusader army evacuates Zadar, whose fortifications the Venetians largely demolish.

20 April

Crusader fleet sails from Zadar for Corfu; Boniface of Montferrat and Doge Dandalo remain to await Alexios Angelos.

25 April

Alexios Angelos arrives at Zadar, then sails for Corfu with Boniface and Dandolo.

16 May

Forces of Crusader Principality of Tripoli defeated by those of the Muslim governor of Ba’albak near Ba’rin.

24 May

Crusader fleet leaves Corfu.


Main Crusader fleet rounds Greece; several smaller Crusader contingents arrive in Acre (May to August); a current truce between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt and Damascus leads to arguments because the Crusaders want to attack the Muslims immediately.

3 June

The Muslim ruler of Hims defeats the Hospitallers and Principality of Tripoli; Templars unsuccessfully attempt to negotiate a truce on behalf of the Hospitallers.

23 June

Crusader fleet arrives before Constantinople (Istanbul).

26 June

Crusaders make camp on the Asiatic shore facing Constantinople.

2 July

Emperor Alexios III offers to provision and finance the crusade if it leaves Byzantine territory; Crusader leaders demand Alexios III abdicate in favour of Prince Alexios Angelos.

4 July

Crusader leaders decide to attack Constantinople.

5–6 July

Crusaders disembark at Galata, capture Tower of Galata and open defensive chain across the Golden Horn; Venetian fleet enters Golden Horn.

10–16 July

Crusaders besiege Constantinople, focusing on the north-western corner of the city.

17 July

Crusaders assault Blachernae Palace area; Venetians capture a long stretch of the fortifications facing the Golden Horn and start a major fire in the northern part of the city, but abandon captured walls in order to assist other Crusaders threatened by a feigned attack by Emperor Alexios III.

Night of 17–18 July

People of Constantinople enraged by fire and apparent defeat of Emperor Alexios III, who therefore flees the city.

18 July

Byzantine nobles reinstate Emperor Isaac II, but Crusader leaders insist that Alexios Angelos be made co-emperor.

1 August

Alexios Angelos is crowned as Emperor Alexios IV.

Early August

Alexios VI and a force of Crusaders campaign in Thrace, regaining some territory but failing to capture Alexios III.

18 August

Rioting in Constantinople around this date, Greeks kill some Latin residents of the city.

19 August

Armed Latins (probably refugees from the city) burn a mosque on the southern shore of the Golden Horn and cause a huge urban fire that burns until 21 August.

Summer (April–November)

Muslim ships attack Christian vessels off Cyprus without authorization from the Ayyubid Sultan al-‘Adil; ships from Acre retaliate by capturing six Muslim ships off Acre; King Aimery of the (nominal) Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem declares the truce void and raids Muslim territory in northern Palestine (after 10 September); al-‘Adil responds by taking his army to the outskirts of Acre, but does not launch an assault and retires shortly afterwards; plague breaks out in Acre and half the newly arrived Crusader knights die.

Before September

A group of Crusaders, attempting to 9 march from Tripoli to Antioch through Muslim territory near Latakia, are ambushed and many are captured.


The people of Constantinople begin turning against Alexios IV.


Truce agreed around this date between Hospitallers and Muslim ruler of Hims, probably for ten months.

1 December

Conflict erupts between Crusaders and Byzantines.



25 January

Co-Emperor Isaac II dies around this date; rioting in Constantinople; people depose Alexios IV, who turns to Crusaders for support but is imprisoned by the imperial chamberlain, Alexios Doukas, who declares himself Emperor.

5 February

Alexios Doukas crowned as Alexios V.

7 February

Alexios V attempts to negotiate the Crusaders’ withdrawal from Byzantine territory, but they refuse to abandon their treaty with Alexios IV.

8 February

Alexios V has Alexios IV strangled; Crusaders decide on full-scale war against Alexios V.

Later in February

Alexios V plans major ambush of Crusader foragers under Henry of Flanders but is defeated.


Prolonged siege of Ankara by Saljuq ruler Rukn al-Din as part of Saljuq civil war prevents Saljuqs from intervening in confrontation between Fourth Crusade and Byzantine Empire.


Crusader and Venetian leaders agree a new treaty, which will divide the Byzantine Empire following their victory.

9 April

Crusader and Venetian forces assault the western half of the Golden Horn fortifications but are repulsed.

12 April

Crusaders launch another assault and gain a foothold within Constantinople.

Night of 12–13 April

Emperor Alexios V flees from Constantinople.

13 April

Crusaders and Venetians seize Constantinople and indulge in three days of pillage and massacre.


Sultan al-‘Adil is weakened by continuing confrontation with Zangid ruler of Mosul.

16 May

Baldwin of Flanders is crowned as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople.

29 May

A naval attack from Acre against Egypt reaches Fuwa on Rashid branch of the river Nile.

24 August

On expiration of the truce between Hospitallers and the Muslim ruler of Hims, the Hospitallers and Crusaders launch a major raid, which defeats the ruler of Hims and reaches the outskirts of Hama.


Truce between Sultan al-‘Adil, the nominal Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Crusaders; al-‘Adil cedes Nazareth, Jaffa, Ramla, Lydda and an area inland from Sidon to the Crusader Kingdom.

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