The city of Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) was the capital of the Byzantine Empire until it was captured in 1204 by the army of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Shortly afterward it was divided into two sections. The new Latin emperor, Baldwin I (IX of Flanders), obtained five-eighths of the city, including the imperial palaces of the Blachernae in the north and of Boukoleon in the southeast, while Venice obtained the remainder. Constantinople then functioned as the capital of the Latin Empire of Constantinople and as the center of Venetian government in the empire until 1261, when it was retaken by the Greeks of the empire of Nicaea who made it the capital of the restored Byzantine Empire. The city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
Three fires in 1203 and 1204 and the crusader assault on Constantinople on 12 April 1204 inflicted destruction upon large sections of the city, crippled its economic infrastructure, and caused heavy loss of life. The crusader conquest was followed by the massive looting of relics and precious artifacts and their transfer to the West. These events led to an exodus of Greek population, including the imperial household, members of the lay elite, merchants, and silk manufacturers. The seizure of ecclesiastical property, the establishment of a Latin patriarch, and the pressure to acknowledge papal supremacy also induced many Greek priests and monks to leave the city. Smaller-scale emigration continued throughout the period of Latin rule. The Greeks nevertheless remained the largest group within the city’s population. High-ranking Greek officials in the service of the Latin emperors account for the Byzantine imprint upon the coronation ceremonial, the Latin imperial administration, the use of Byzantine titles, and the formulae of imperial documents. Former Byzantine officials at lower ranks and interpreters enabled the use of Byzantine cadasters and other documents found at Constantinople, upon which the partition of the city and the empire was based. They also ensured the large-scale continuity of the Byzantine fiscal system, both in the imperial and Venetian sections of Constantinople and elsewhere in the Latin Empire.
The urban economy was reactivated shortly after the Latin conquest, yet it underwent important changes. It substantially contracted in the absence of massive local consumption and investment in high-grade manufacture. In addition, its operation was increasingly dependent upon the transit and transshipment of goods in the framework of medium- and long-distance trade. This function was ensured by the continuity of Constantinople’s pivotal role in com- mercial-exchanges between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and the city’s multiple commercial connections with ports in both these regions. Economic growth was furthered by treaties between Venice and the powers holding the coastline of Asia Minor, namely the Greek empire of Nicaea and the Saljūq sultanate of Rūm, as well as with the kingdom of Cilicia (Lesser Armenia) and Egypt. This process accelerated in the last two decades of Latin rule. The consolidation of Mongol rule along the northern Black Sea coast and over its vast hinterland (achieved by 1240) generated a growing involvement of Latin merchants and carriers based in Constantinople in the Black Sea trade. They established direct links between that region and the Mediterranean, which led to the full integration of their respective trading networks in the early Palaiologan period. This integration lasted until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. The Latin period thus made a decisive contribution to the long-term development of Constantinople’s economy.
The political and territorial partition of Constantinople between the Latin emperor and Venice, implemented shortly after the conquest, lasted until the end of the Latin Empire in 1261. It created different political, economic, and social conditions in each of the two sections and a disparity between their respective evolutions. Venice was the only Italian maritime power to benefit from the conquest. Its quarter, spared from destruction by fire, was substantially enlarged as a result of the city’s partition and became the center of an administration exercising full sovereignty over the Venetian portion of the Latin Empire. This quarter was the focus of commercial activity in the city. Its prosperity and state investments contributed to the maintenance of private, public, and ecclesiastical structures, while the imperial section of the city suffered from neglect.
Modern reconstruction of Constantinople’s land walls. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)
The crusader conquest and subsequent economic growth furthered ongoing Western immigration and settlement during the Latin period. Especially Venetians were attracted by the privileged status they enjoyed in their national quarter. While they constituted the driving force in Constantinople’s economy during the Latin period, the share of Pisan, Genoese, Florentine, and other Italian settlers should not be overlooked. These resided in the imperial section of the city, which also accommodated the imperial court, the feudal nobility, and non-Venetian commoners. The loss of Greek population was not offset by Latin immigration. Some 3,000 Latins, mostly Venetians, fled when Nicaean forces reconquered Constantinople in 1261.
By the end of 1204 many churches had been abandoned by the Greek Orthodox clergy, as reported in a letter of Pope Innocent III. The churches and monasteries remaining in the hands of the Greek clergy suffered from the loss of their sources of revenue. The number of these institutions seized by the Latin clergy is unknown. The Church of Hagia Sophia was taken over by the Latin patriarch of Constantinople. In its own section of the city, Venice granted several Greek monasteries to Venetian religious institutions. One of them, the Pantokrator, became Venice’s center of government and administration in Constantinople, and its monks were replaced by Latin clerics. The substantial increase in the Latin ecclesiastical presence in the city did not outlast the Latin period.