Post-classical history


The Fourth Crusade: Diversion

In the early summer of 1205 the papal legate Peter Capuano arrived in Constantinople from the Holy Land. A year earlier, the Byzantine capital had been captured by the army of westerners and much of southern Greece occupied in a campaign portrayed at the time as preliminary to the long-anticipated attack on Egypt. The diversion of the crusade in the autumn of 1202 to the Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia then, the following spring, to Constantinople had flouted papal prohibitions and aroused loud dissent within the crusaders’ own ranks. Many deserted. Only a rump of the great crusade host that had left western Europe in 1202 achieved the remarkable feat of storming the walls of Constantinople and taking the city in April 1204. Those who promoted these attacks consistently argued that they were necessary to keep the crusade intact and ensure the ultimate goal of the recovery of Jerusalem. Their success provided its own justification. However, a year on, the task of preserving the Greek conquests continued to absorb all the effort and attention of the crusaders. The legate had a history of doing what the crusade’s leaders wanted. Ostensibly on his own initiative and with his legatine authority he absolved the crucesignati in Greece from their vows to complete their journey to Jerusalem, thus ending the Fourth Crusade. The objective of Egypt and the recovery of the Holy Places remained as remote as on the day Innocent III launched the enterprise in August 1198. The pope, furious at his legate’s presumption and humiliated that the compromises of the previous three years had been for nothing, voiced a common view that the crusaders had ‘pursued temporal wages’ not the way of Christ.1 Instead of preparing the road to Jerusalem, the campaigns of 1202–4 had, in retrospect, not been diversions at all, but the sum of the crusade’s ambition. How this had happened, whether through malign conspiracy, organized hypocrisy or accidental concatenations of events, became and remains a subject of fierce debate, not least because the outcome was, on any standard, remarkable.


As the crusaders gathered at Venice in the summer of 1202 they were quartered on the island of the Lido on the eastern edge of the lagoon.2 The growing anxiety over fulfilling the terms of the 1201 treaty soon turned to alarm. Despite the large numbers gathering in Venice during the summer of 1202, it became clear that they would fall far short of the estimated complement. Villehardouin implied only a third of the 33,500 arrived; Robert of Clari thought only a quarter of the knights and half of the infantry.3 An army of perhaps 12,000 represented a huge logistic and human undertaking, especially when the Venetian crews and galley companies are added. But, as the rows of empty ships, galleys and horse transports in the lagoon mutely demonstrated, it fell far short of what was required to fulfil the contract, exposing a measure of confusion as to who would pay what proportion of the costs. Was each man to find his own costs or to contribute to the central fund that would be subsidized by the leaders? If each were to pay his own costs, why should he be obliged to follow the formula agreed in 1201 of two marks per person and four per horse? The calculations were complicated by the networks of support provided by lords for their followers and by the probable attendance of larger numbers of hired troops. The papal legate, Peter Capuano, who arrived on 22 July, compounded the funding crisis when he absolved the destitute, sick, women and non-combatants from their vows, enhancing military efficiency while reducing the numbers available to pay. One Rhineland witness, perhaps talking of those he consorted with, remembered that ‘a minority remained in Venice’.4

The delay caused by the lack of money was matched by the slowness of the muster. Although Baldwin of Flanders had been in Venice since early summer, Boniface of Montferrat only arrived in mid-August. The conditions in the crowded crusader camp on the Lido varied from the comfortable to the desperate, depending on status, wealth and association with the entourages of the great. The Venetian control of access to the island, to the city and to markets could be used to put pressure on the crusaders to honour their contract. The political cohesion of the expedition proved stubbornly elusive. The high command’s attempts to negotiate with the Venetians were always subject to the approval not just of the other baronial chiefs but the wider body of crucesignati, a three-tiered structure reminiscent of both the First Crusade and the Third in Palestine. As the doge began to press for payment, the responses of these different groups became crucial to the survival of the expedition.

The first expedient was to insist that every crusader paid his own passage. According to Robert of Clari, unlike the treaty of 1201, where payment had been calculated per capita, the leaders fixed rates according to function and perhaps ability to pay: a knight paid four marks, mounted sergeants two and infantry one, with horses, as before, costing another four marks each. As even this proved too much for many, ‘each man paid what he could’.5 The burden of collecting what amounted to a tax on movables fell on the barons, who were nonetheless faced with the problem that the sums raised were less than half the agreed price. A proposed further discretionary levy on those still with cash was refused by many, who not unreasonably objected that they had already paid for their passages; if the Venetians would not take them then they would go elsewhere or abandon the enterprise altogether. Embarrassed but determined not to allow the disintegration of the expedition, the high command was forced to hand over great quantities of their own gold plate and silverware. Baldwin of Flanders and perhaps others supplemented their contributions with borrowed money, adding to the debt. Many crusaders were left unmoved by such commitment. Some regarded the Venetians as simply rapacious.6 Only a minority seemed to have shared Villehardouin’s sense of impugned honour at the prospect of breaking the oath he had sworn to the 1201 contract. More than any previous large-scale crusade to the east, the Fourth Crusade had become the victim of confused and contradictory expectations.

After all efforts, the crusaders remained 34,000 marks – 40 per cent – short.7 Many crusaders on the Lido had barely enough left to survive as winter approached. However, what appeared a disaster for the crusaders also placed the Venetians, especially Dandolo, in a very awkward position. The doge had invested much political as well as financial, industrial and commercial capital in the project, his own and the city’s. By presenting the plan as a corporate enterprise, he had pinned Venice’s civic pride to the expedition. The option of keeping the money and allowing the crusaders to go home, while possibly legally sustainable, would incur a great loss in prestige as well as finance. If Dandolo wanted a return on the venture, it was in his interest to devise a way to keep the contract alive and acceptable to the crusaders and to his citizens. In any scheme to rearrange the crusaders’ debt, Dandolo knew how eager the high command – if no one else – was to save face and advance the objectives of the crusade. The ingredients of any solution were the existence of a huge bespoke armada; the crusaders’ guilt, debt and physical vulnerability; the presence of one of the largest and potentially most effective fighting forces seen in the Adriatic since classical times; the sustained commitment of Venice to the ultimate goal of the crusade; and immediate Venetian political interests. Dandolo’s scheme to break the deadlock relied on all of these.

Some time in September 1202, the doge proposed a temporary moratorium on the crusaders’ debt, which would now be held on account to be paid off by the proceeds of future conquests. In return, the crusaders were to embark in the already prepared fleet to assist the Venetians capture the Dalmatian port of Zara, with their share of any booty, it was hoped, satisfying the debt. This move was portrayed as the first step towards Egypt which, given the time of year, was out of reach until the spring. To sweeten the pill, and allay doubts as to Venetian sincerity, in a carefully theatrical performance, the aged Dandolo himself took the cross and promised to accompany the expedition.8 Despite the agreement of the crusade high command, who presumably saw little alternative, the plan to attack Zara was highly controversial. Zara was a semi-independent Christian maritime city that had spent much of the twelfth century under the control of Venice. However, from the 1180s, despite numerous Venetian attacks, Zara enjoyed the protection of the king of Hungary, and in 1202 King Emeric was a crusader. Any campaign against Zara would attract the condemnation of the pope on the grounds that Zara was Christian and its overlord, as a crusader, entitled to the protection of the church. The leaders of the crusade who struck the deal were well aware of its sensitivity. Although they were told the good news of the freezing of the debt, according to Robert of Clari, who was there, ‘the host as a whole did not know anything of this plan, save only the highest men’.9 The leadership clung to the line that the end justified the means, a dominant theme of Villehardouin’s account: anything rather than ‘the army broken up and our enterprise a failure’. When challenged by the bishop of Halberstadt, Peter Capuano, the papal legate, acknowledged the problem, insisting that the pope ‘would prefer to overlook whatever was unbefitting of them rather than have this pilgrimage campaign disintegrate’. The legate was entirely wrong. As soon as he heard of it Innocent III sent letters prohibiting the attack and threatening all those involved with excommunication.10


Whatever the murmurings and dissent, temporarily, the leadership’s obfuscation worked. Early in October, the great fleet set sail. Strangely, it left without its supposed leader, Boniface of Montferrat. Nervous, perhaps, at such a controversial operation, he may have been more concerned to explore the wider diplomatic possibilities for the crusade army opened up by the presence in Italy for most of 1202 of the Byzantine claimant, Alexius Angelus. Boniface was hardly missed. The size and quality of the fleet impressed not just those it carried. The citizens of the coastal cities of the northern Adriatic in its path quickly submitted to Venice. Zara would have followed suit if the unity of its opponents had not suddenly collapsed. Confronted with the prospect of dispossessing co-religionists, the consciences of many rebelled, ironically provoking not just a serious crisis for the crusade but the very thing they most opposed, a violent attack on the Christian city. The day after the fleet arrived on 11 November 1202, the Zaran authorities sought a negotiated surrender that would give the Venetians the city and its possessions in return for sparing the lives of its inhabitants. With the approval of most of the crusader leadership, Dandolo was prepared to accept the terms. But the Zarans withdrew their offer after contact with a group of crusader dissidents led by Simon of Montfort and Robert of Boves. They told the Zarans that the crusaders would never help the Venetians fight for Zara, so the city had nothing to gain by surrender, as there would be no attack. Unfortunately for them, the Zarans believed this, thus passing up a chance of a peaceful settlement.11 Whatever else, the crusader force knew how to invest a city. Scores of siege engines, presumably carried with the fleet in pre-fabricated sections as on the Third Crusade, were erected. When direct assault achieved nothing, mining was begun. The odds were clear. On 24 November Zara surrendered. The lives of the surviving citizens were in theory spared, although some killing occurred. The city and its contents were divided between the crusaders and the Venetians, who settled for the winter as uneasy neighbours in the conquered port.

The failure of the initial peace negotiations exposed the divisions of opinion within the crusader army and its peculiar political dynamics. Having scuppered the discussions with the Zarans, the faction hostile to the diversion provoked uproar when Abbot Guy of Les Vaux-de-Cernay, an associate of Simon of Montfort, produced a letter from Innocent III expressly forbidding an attack on Zara on pain of excommunication and cancellation of the crusade indulgences. The Venetians, incandescent with rage and unmoved in purpose, insisted that the crusaders honour their agreement to help capture Zara, Dandolo declaring: ‘I will not in any degree give over being avenged on them [the Zarans], no, not even for the pope’.12 Abbot Guy only narrowly avoided being beaten up. Once again the crusade leaders found themselves in a moral trap, to keep faith with their allies or to obey the pope (and canon law). Either way incurred dishonour. There seems to have been a view among those most committed to the Venetian alliance that the conundrum could be solved satisfactorily and honour saved by fulfilling their obligations, even the distasteful ones, in sequence. Once all intervening agreements with the Venetians had been concluded, then the original oath to recover Jerusalem would fall into place. This perception of the crusade as a series of contracts was shared by participants on opposite sides of the arguments over the diversions. Those wishing to preserve the Venetian alliance – and transport – could claim that the best interests of the crusade were served by keeping the expedition and abiding by accords freely negotiated, a sort of moral pragmatism. Their opponents countered with a far simpler slogan. Simon of Montfort was recorded as saying, ‘I have not come here to destroy Christians’.13 Yet, as in Venice, the pragmatists prevailed. Simon withdrew from the crusader camp, taking no part in the siege. The following spring, he left the army altogether with a large group of sympathizers. After some help from the king of Hungary, ‘our enemy’ Villehardouin called him, they reached Italy and sailed to the Holy Land.14

The crisis at Zara revealed just how secular the direction of the crusade had become. A striking feature of the whole campaign was the lack of ecclesiastical lead, partly the result of the absence of a papal legate. Peter Capuano, after his mealy-mouthed approval of the Zara plan, had not accompanied the fleet from Venice but had gone to Rome, whence he departed for the Holy Land to await events and, he presumably hoped, the arrival of the crusade. Without the authority of even a pusillanimous legate, the churchmen with the crusade army alternately squabbled among themselves on partisan lines mirroring those within the soldiery or followed the wishes of the commanders. At Zara, the majority – how large is impossible to guess – of the barons persisted in supporting the Venetians. Their actions were later justified to the pope as driven by necessity rather than choice. Yet to maintain the approval of the rank and file, they deliberately suppressed the papal letter. It would be facile to argue that the less exalted crusaders possessed greater religious commitment than their more sophisticated leaders. However, away from the baronial council, the issues appeared clearer, the ambition to recover Jerusalem more direct, attitudes reflected in a number of surviving accounts from sources not privy to the pressures on the high command. The profile of popular opinion in the army of the Fourth Crusade matches those found during the First and Third. The ‘commons’, their own term, were far from simple or ignorant.15 They appeared well informed, articulate and capable of exerting organized, precise, effective political influence, reminiscent of the early weeks of 1099 or the Palestine war of 1191–2. Leaders could not ignore the led; hence the repeated concealment during the Fourth Crusade. A number of eyewitnesses away from the baronial council were highly critical of the Venetians, if not their own leadership, and recorded extensive discontent with some of the decisions reached. After Zara fell there was serious rioting between crusaders and Venetians; little love appeared lost. A sense of exploitation was, perhaps, inevitable. In the winter of 1202–3, defection became endemic, some giving up altogether, but most apparently intent on travelling directly to the Holy Land. This raises the two related questions of how the leadership was able to push through their decisions and why they chose to do so.

One largely passive factor working for the leaders lay in the accustomed acceptance of decisions by troops tied into command structures by loyalty or cash. Robert of Clari’s attitude of neutral acceptance of the turns of events may have been widespread. His complaints revolved around the treatment of the less important or poor in the distribution of booty, not how or where it was won. Yet, deference was a negotiable commodity rather than a fixed asset. Without money or the means to provide largesse, lords lost authority. It is no coincidence that the crusade followed the course determined by the wealthiest lords, in particular Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders. Neither can it be surprising that the consent or instigation of the Venetian shippers exerted a decisive influence, especially once the crusade left Venice. As Simon of Montfort discovered in the winter of 1202–3, finding alternative travel arrangements was not easy. Groups of ‘menues genz’, non-aristocrats, sought to hire merchant ships or even horse transports. One ship carrying 500 defectors foundered with all hands. Escape overland risked attack by local bandits.16 Without a strong contrary motive, staying with the Venetian fleet made sense.

The leadership may also have possessed another trump card. The process of reaching decisions in the crusader army followed an almost constitutional pattern. Whatever the high command of perhaps a dozen or so magnates decided required the approval of the wider council of barons. Counsel and consent lay at the heart of all western European political structures of the period. The crusade army, a political society in microcosm, formed no exception. Some major decisions were put to an even wider body of all self-funding crucesignati. However, beyond them, perhaps literally when they met together, were the ranks of the paid troops. Baldwin of Flanders led more archers and crossbowmen than any other commander; many were probably professionals retained for pay. The division of paid soldiers envisaged in the Treaty of Venice, if, as is probable, a proportion had been recruited, were presumably under the control of Boniface of Montferrat. At the first assault on Constantinople in July 1203, the marquis’s division was described as ‘mult granz’, very large, and was in the rear while Count Baldwin’s professional force was in the van.17 Paid troops lent their commanders considerable, if mute, practical influence over the direction of the crusade as their support – and menace – did not demand consultation. The presence of mercenaries proved vital in another sense. From November 1202, defections from the army were frequent and significant. As the numbers left dwindled, a narrowly avoided split at Corfu in May 1203 threatened the whole expedition. By that time it is possible that more crucesignati had either abandoned the crusade or had gone to the Holy Land than were with the leaders in the Adriatic. Without the mercenaries the rump of the army could not have continued, still less triumphed.

The reasons why the leadership were so eager to endorse the diversions to Zara and then Constantinople were pragmatic, ambitious and opportunistic: to secure the expedition’s funding and material resources on the one hand and, on the other, to attempt to realign the politics of the eastern Mediterranean in favour of Rome, Outremer and the crusade. They were fully aware of the moral difficulties, even without the words of Simon of Montfort and the abbot of Vaux ringing in their ears. The apparent contradiction of crusaders fighting Christians – ‘detestable and unlawful’ according to Gunther of Pairis18 – was balanced by claims of justice, recorded by a number of witnesses: justice for past Venetian wrongs at the hands of Zarans; justice for the wronged Alexius Angelus. The Greek claimant provided what Dandolo was recorded as seeking for an attack on Byzantium, a ‘raisnable acoison’, a reasonable cause or good excuse.19 Writing to the crusader army in January or February 1203, Innocent III, while forbidding the crusaders from ‘invading [or] violating the lands of Christians in any manner’, entered a caveat: ‘unless, perchance they wickedly impede your journey or another just or necessary cause’, in which cause an exception could be made but only with papal guidance.20 At the time, Innocent may have had the Venetians rather than the Greeks in mind, especially as he had already rejected Alexius Angelus’s attempt to win papal approval for his restoration. The crusaders at Zara could not be so detached or theoretical. Legal and moral niceties could cost lives and decide the fate of the crusade, in the winter of 1202–3 far from simply academic considerations. However, moral posturing was not the preserve of only one side of the argument. Despite the outrage expressed against it, crusader attacks on Christians had not been seen as too shocking in the past – except by the victims. Towns on the Danube – Balkan road east had been attacked or threatened on each of the first three major expeditions. The cities of Thrace and Cyprus, and Messina in Sicily, had all fallen to the soldiers of the Third Crusade. As even the pope admitted, there were circumstances where such fratricidal violence by crucesignati was legally permissible, notably obstruction, a conveniently vague concept and reality. The principle proclaimed by Simon of Montfort was not as immutable as he pretended, as his own later career as leader of crusaders in Languedoc amply demonstrated.

In early December, Boniface of Montferrat finally reached Zara, followed, by the end of the month, by a delegation from Philip of Swabia and his brother-in-law Alexius Angelus. In return for placing Alexius on the Byzantine throne, they offered the crusaders union of the Greek Orthodox church with Rome; a gift of 200,000 silver marks; provisions for every man in the army; 10,000 Greeks to accompany the crusaders to Egypt; and the promise of a permanent Byzantine garrison of 500 knights in Outremer.21 The timing and content were well judged to appeal to their audience, suggesting at the least careful preparation if not active collusion with elements of the crusade leadership, especially Boniface of Montferrat. What was being offered amounted to the realization of western expectations regarding Byzantium and the crusade and a revolution in relations between the Greek church and Rome. The well-informed Venetians probably recognized the inflated implausibility of some of the details, while acknowledging the potential benefits of changing the Greek regime, not least to their commercial position. The convenience of the plan’s presentation just as the crusaders were contemplating the next season’s campaign was hardly fortuitous. But the prospect on offer was little short of momentous.


No such thing as a ‘western attitude’ to Byzantium existed in the twelfth and early thirteenth century. It remains a myth of crusading historiography. Instead, a variety of responses was determined by region, status, the nature of the contact or its timing. On the levels of silks, saints, soldiers, trade and icons, exchange between western Europeans and the Greeks was habitual, customary and usually mutually beneficial. While differences in religious observance increasingly grated on a western ecclesiastical establishment eager to impose discipline and achieve uniformity, there were few awkward diplomatic or political absolutes, except, perhaps, for Byzantine foreign policy’s single-minded Palmerstonian pursuit of material interests rather than set alliances or ideological posturing, a stance that so irritated successive popes and crusade leaders. Over the politics of Italy, the Danube basin, the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, Outremer and the Near East, western European powers and Byzantium competed, cooperated and coexisted. Whatever else, the scheme put to the crusader army at Zara spoke of contact, not alienation. It also recognized the implosion of Byzantine power since the death of Manuel I in 1180.22

Byzantium under Manuel I presented an image of universal power and a reality only little short of it. Although under Manuel’s predecessors Alexius I and John II the recovery from the defeats of the eleventh century – in Italy, Asia Minor, Syria and the Balkans – was territorially modest, by reasserting control over the ports of western Asia Minor and restoring the integrity of the Danube frontier, internal stability and the conditions for economic prosperity were secured. By 1180, the Byzantine empire included the Balkans south of the Danube, the islands of the Ionian and Aegean seas, Crete, Cyprus, western Asia Minor, Cilicia and the coastal ports of the southern Black Sea. A gold currency underpinned a comprehensive tax system and a centralized bureaucracy almost unknown further west. Diplomatically, the Greek emperor retained interests and correspondence from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, the Baltic to the Sahara Desert. Byzantine fleets operated from the Black Sea and the Adriatic to the Nile Delta. Satellite states sporadically festooned the frontiers, including Frankish Antioch and Seljuk Konya. Constantinople remained easily the grandest, largest and richest Christian city in the world, its population still about 375,000–400,000, six or seven times the size of Paris, despite its slums, inequalities of income, public affluence and private squalor, a magnet for trading communities from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The imperial guard recruited from as far as Scandinavia and the British Isles; visitors came from Nubia. The quarters occupied by the commerical representatives of Venice, Pisa and Genoa were matched by a large Jewish settlement and a Muslim presence recognized by a number of mosques in the city.

The serenity of Manuel’s empire masked certain underlying problems. The Comnenan rulers since 1081 relied more than previous emperors on their own family rather than on state officials, on the army rather than the civilians. Power became increasingly focused on the person and immediate entourage of the emperor rather than the civil servants and system of government over which he presided. Public centralization was eroded by a sort of privatized centralization, a deliberate policy of subcontracting military, commerical and fiscal functions of the state to foreign mercenaries – Turks, Franks, Armenians, Slavs – Italian traders, provincial landlords and defence contractors. The enormous consumption of Constantinople unbalanced the economy as well as politics. Academic uncertainty remains about the extent of economic growth in some provinces, but many parts of the empire clearly seemed highly attractive to acquisitive outsiders. The empire faced active or potential threats from the kings of Sicily; German emperors; Slavs beyond the Danube; Bulgarian and Serb freedom fighters in the Balkans; Armenians in Cilicia; and Turks in Asia Minor and Syria. As with many later cosmopolitan and imperial capitals, xenophobia stalked sections of the Greek population of Constantinople, inducing paranoia that spilled over into violent anti-western riots in 1171 and 1182. This undertow of Greek nationalism, evident in the strand of self-conscious Hellenism in the culture of twelfth-century Byzantium, counterbalanced Manuel’s eclectic pro-western policies, which included holding Frankish-style tournaments and taking a German and then an Antiochene Frankish wife.

Two central weaknesses persisted despite the political success of the Comnenans; the vulnerability of the long and intricate frontiers; and the dependence on the individual emperor. For the centralized system to operate effectively, the territorial base for taxation needed to be as wide, peaceful, prosperous and secure as possible. For the system to function at all required a united court supporting or led by an unchallenged emperor. The last quarter of the twelfth century saw both conditions disappear and with them the power of the empire. Manuel himself was defeated at Myriokephalon in 1176, ending his hopes to extend the reconquest of Turkish Asia Minor. Thessalonica, second city of Greece, was briefly occupied by the Sicilians in 1185. Large parts of the northeast Balkans threw off Greek overlordship in the 1180s to form the Second Bulgarian Empire (the first having been destroyed by Basil II the Bulgar Slayer in the early eleventh century). Other parts of the Slavic Balkans, such as Serbia, slid out of imperial control. The governor of Cyprus declared independence in 1184 and the island was conquered by Richard I in 1191. Local military commanders in Asia Minor, in central Greece and the southern Peleponnese followed suit. Remoteness from central control aided the secession of outposts such as Trebizond or Adalia. Villehardouin commented on the scene that confronted the crusaders: ‘each Greek man of note… for his own advantage, made himself master of such lands as he could lay his hands on’.23 The Fourth Crusade accelerated this fragmentation but was not its cause, and after 1204 the new Latin rulers of Constantinople tried hard to reverse the process. Paradoxically, the fissiparous pressures that undermined the Byzantine empire allowing the Latins to seize power also ensured Greek political survival, as the westerners failed to rebuild a centralized empire based on Constantinople.

The regional disintegration after 1180 mirrored the collapse of the Comnenan dynastic system itself. Manuel had been succeeded by a minor, Alexius II. There followed a rapid slide into untrammelled political factionalism and chaos, exacerbated by invasion and provincial rebellion. Between 1180 and 1204, fifty-eight coups, rebellions and conspiracies against the existing emperor have been counted, at least five successful, in 1182–3, 1185, 1195, 1203 and 1204. The westerner’s involvement in those of 1203–4 followed their compatriots’ roles in 1182 and 1187. Few political systems could survive such instability intact, certainly not one whose spirit lay in autocracy. This political collapse fed off itself. The territorial losses reduced the tax base, weakening the military and patronage props that sustained imperial control, thus prompting further disintegration. Two of the most striking features of the crusaders’ campaign in Byzantium in 1203–4 were the foreign complexion of the Greek defence forces and the absence of an effective Greek navy. Where Manuel’s fleet had seen action from the Adriatic to the Nile, in 1203 the Greeks could not raise even a flotilla to challenge the crusaders’ passage of the Hellespont. Whether or not Alexius III was a sybaritic incompetent, as described with perhaps professional disdain by Nicetas Choniates, head of Alexius’s civil service, there seemed inadequate funds to maintain a paid army to protect Constantinople as well as a fleet to prevent an attack in the first place. Only when Alexius III learnt of the crusaders in Greek waters in the spring of 1203 did he bother to discover that his fleet comprised barely twenty ‘rotting and worm-eaten small skiffs’.24 They sat as a metaphor not for the culture and society of Byzantium but for its imperial system. To the decline of this system the Fourth Crusade added a lethal concentration of violence and purpose.

Whether this can be represented as the fulfilment of a century of conflict, in particular concerning the crusade – what could be called the ‘Byzantium confronts the west’ interpretation – is doubtful.25 Each major crusade of the twelfth century created its own particular problems, only some of which, like the difficulties over markets, especially around the capital, or the status of Antioch, were perennial. A historiographical literary topos emerged among western clerical chroniclers that portrayed the Greeks as devious, deceitful and, most importantly, religiously as well as politically suspect. This was matched by a Byzantine convention, shared by Anna Comnena, John Kinnamos and Nicetas Choniates, that depicted westerners as intemperate, untrustworthy and greedy, always eager for a chance to conquer the empire. Alexius I’s testament in 1118 had voiced anxieties over large armies from the west.26 Both Manuel I and Isaac II had enormous difficulty in managing the transit of tens of thousands of crusaders in 1147 and 1190.

On the other side, the desire to win lands in Greece and the Balkans had been a staple of Norman Italian and Sicilian foreign policy ever since they had expelled the Greeks from their last Italian mainland base at Bari in 1071. The campaigns of Robert Guiscard in the 1080s began a series of assaults, some of which were or could be interpreted as forming part of crusades. Bohemund’s attack on Durazzo in 1107–8 masqueraded as a crusade to the Holy Sepulchre. Roger II of Sicily’s campaigns in 1147, which seized Corfu and raided Corinth, Athens, Thebes and the southern Peleponnese, coincided with the Second Crusade. In the 1190s, Henry VI inherited this tradition, as well as the imperial rivalry between Frederick Barbarossa and Manuel I in Italy and elsewhere. Henry’s threats and bullying in 1195–6 were associated with his crusade but formed a continuation of an essentially secular power struggle. Alexius III’s acceptance of Henry’s terms and his difficulties in raising the agreed reparations served as a sharp comment both on the Greek emperor’s weakness and the decline of his empire’s taxation system.

Yet these conflicts ran concurrently with the usually more prosaic relations between Byzantium and its commerical clients of Venice, Genoa and Pisa. Many western immigrants, the so-called ‘phrangopouloi’, did very well in twelfth-century Byzantium. Intellectuals such as the Pisan Hugh Eteriano in the 1160s were attracted to Byzantium, as was the more obscure Englishman John of Basingstoke, who claimed to have learnt the rudiments of Greek from the glamorous intellectual daughter of the archbishop of Athens, Michael (1182–1204), elder brother of the chronicler Nicetas Choniates.27 In such a cosmopolitan society as Constantinople, Greek relations with foreigners were not necessarily confrontational. In 1204 Nicetas Choniates, a harsh critic of the westernizing appeasement, owed his and his family’s life to his acquaintance with a Venetian wine merchant.28Contact and mutual dependence just as much as mutual suspicion characterized the relationship of Byzantium and the west. The events of 1203–4 were a direct product of that. Even the running sore of church union and the differences in theology and observance did not create insuperable barriers or entrenched enmity. In Sicily, Calabria, Cyprus and Outremer, Greek and Roman clergy coexisted. Innocent III still hoped for church union and endeavoured to maintain good relations with Alexius III. Without equivocation, he opposed any armed attack on Byzantium. When he learnt of the sack of Constantinople, Innocent angrily observed that the Greek church ‘now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs’.29 In Byzantium there flourished a fiercely anti-western, anti-Roman church party. For Byzantines, with the implosion of the state, the Greek church became increasingly a focus for identity, the disciplinarian uniformity of Rome seeming increasingly threatening and unacceptable. Yet the issue of the motives behind the diversion lies not with what the Greeks thought of westerners but what westerners thought of the Greeks. The previous century of contact had created certain stereotypes and embedded certain assumptions that informed the crusaders’ responses to events in 1202–4 but did not inspire their actions.


The plan to help Alexius Angelus depose his uncle Alexius III presented to the crusaders at Zara in December 1202 came neither out of the blue nor from conspiratorial shadow. By the end of 1202, Alexius’s ambitions were such an open secret as not to have been a secret at all as he hawked his claims around Europe. Alexius had escaped to the west with the help of the Pisans in 1201, making his way to the court of his sister Irene’s husband, Philip of Swabia. At Philip’s Christmas court at Hagenau, Alexius met Boniface of Montferrat, but there is no evidence that any deal was struck; circumstantial evidence suggests the reverse. Early in 1202, perhaps in February, Alexius tried his luck at the papal Curia and was met by Innocent’s absolute refusal to countenance support for his claim. Not least, Innocent was hardly likely to favour a plan or a puppet sponsored by Philip of Swabia. However, these negotiations were conducted quite openly, Alexius’s presentation at the Curia attracting a large crowd of cardinals and other notables. On leaving Rome, Alexius returned to consult Philip of Swabia. The muster of the crusade gave Alexius renewed hope. During his stay at Verona in the summer, according to Villehardouin, he made contact with Boniface of Montferrat again and with the crusade leadership.30

Both the pope and Alexius III were aware of these discussions in November 1202, by which time the crusade ‘principes’ had despatched Peter Capuano to discuss a possible attack on Constantinople. While the pope reiterated his opposition to any such scheme, he made clear to Alexius III his desire for church union and the emperor’s own vulnerability.31 The chronology hinted at in Innocent III’s letter shows that the essentials of the December proposals were in place before the crusade fleet sailed for Zara in October, even if those outside the circle of leadership were unaware of them. Given papal opposition to the Zara campaign and to Philip of Swabia, and the sensitivity of the mass of crusaders to any perceived deviation of purpose, discretion was important. Peter Capuano came to Rome to obtain papal approval for further negotiations. There, he found ambassadors from Alexius III, very worried about precisely the same thing. It was another measure of how detached Innocent had become from the realities of the crusade that he could imagine his strictures would exert any influence. Throughout 1202 to 1204, Innocent was handicapped by poor or delayed information mediated though those who pandered to his wishful thinking. Even after his prohibition on the attack on Zara had been blatantly disregarded, Innocent clung to the hope that the object of the crusade would be achieved in the end.32 Once Peter Capuano and the crusade parted company at Venice, one for Rome, the other for Zara, Innocent’s dilemma was fixed. The only control over the expedition left him was its cancellation.

The prospects for young Alexius improved as the crusaders’ debts rose. Crucially, Boniface of Montferrat was persuaded to back the scheme, perhaps during his absence from the crusade fleet between October and December 1202, confirming that the diversion to Constantinople to some degree represented a revival of Hohenstaufen eastern policy evident in Henry VI’s crusade plan. The Venetians were greatly in favour of the move, officially as it would secure the funding and provisioning of the expedition to Outremer. From their privileged position within Byzantium, the Venetians knew how feeble the Greek naval defences were and how the provinces were splitting away from the centre. Backing a successful coup would enhance Venice’s privileged position in the empire, stealing a march on the Genoese and Pisans, whose links with young Alexius could usefully be severed in the process. The young Alexius’s promised bounty offered full compensation for the Venetian capital expended in building and provisioning the crusade fleet. Armed with a highly dangerous army and equipped with a magnificent fighting fleet, the Venetians saw Alexius’s offer as a unique opportunity. Although there is no reason to suppose the Venetians had planned it, they would have been eccentric not to embrace it.

The crusader high command agreed, effectively settling the crusade’s future course. Alexius was summoned from Philip of Swabia’s court. However, the arguments reflected profound divisions within the army that could not easily be dismissed by the leadership’sforce majeur. Hugh of St Pol argued that, without the proposed Greek subsidy, the Jerusalem journey was impossible, with no money for wages for knights and men-at-arms or siege engines.33 The Venice treaty now only had six months to run. While some thought this argued for an immediate dash for the Nile or Holy Land, others, of the leadership’s persuasion, insisted Alexius’s proposal provided funding for an additional year at least. Money talked. In retrospect, Gunther of Pairis identified five reasons for the adoption of Alexius’s scheme: political – the influence of Philip of Swabia; legal – the legitimacy of young Alexius’s claim; pragmatic – the assistance available for the crusade; religious – the end of the schism; and opportunist – the Venetians’ eagerness for Alexius’s money and the chance to assert ‘sovereignty over the entire sea’. As Gunther noted, Venetian opinion mattered; they were providing the transport wherever the crusade went.34

The arguments appeared both simpler and more difficult in the camp at Zara. On news of the proposals and the willingness of the leadership to agree, defections accelerated. Reactions varied. Two separate objections emerged, one of principle, that fighting Christians was wrong; the other more practical, that the crusade should not delay in attacking Egypt. The leadership’s arguments were crafted to refute the former, insisting the diversion was just, and to reassure the latter, by presenting the Greek strategy as supportive and preparatory to the war further east. Not all were convinced. Some simply left, including, damagingly, the cousin of Louis of Blois, Reynald of Montmirail, who went to the Holy Land. Robert of Clari noted the opposition, but seemed more swayed by the stories of Greek atrocities against Alexius and Boniface of Montferrat’s family, and by the religious sanction given by the pliant clergy on the grounds that Alexius, the rightful heir, had been disinherited. Thus the diversion ‘would not be a sin but a righteous deed’ (grans aumosnes, literally ‘a great charitable act’).35 The suggestion that the diversion would constitute a just war, designed to counter the opposition of principle, cut little ice with some rank and file, who apparently swore oaths not to go to Greece.36 Even the leaders who accepted the terms faced the awkward problem of trying to persuade the pope to lift the excommunication placed on them for attacking Zara, even if they could not gain his blessing for the Constantinople venture. The messy scramble for the army’s support and the pope’s approval hardly indicates a carefully laid plot. Nonetheless, the acceptance by the high command of Alexius’s scheme reduced to two the options facing the crusaders at Zara: to stay with the fleet and sail to Byzantium; or to find their own way home or to the east.

The pope bowed to pressure and assurances from the crusade high command of their penitence for the attack on Zara, which they argued was forced on them by necessity.37 However, anxious lest their rights to Zara be undermined, the Venetians remained unrepentant and excommunicated, although Innocent forgave Boniface of Montferrat for suppressing publication of this bull of excommunication in the interests of army unity. The continued excommunication of their carriers reduced the crusaders and the pope to intricate sophistical contortions to allow soldiers of Christ to accept transport from those under the church’s anathema. More generally, the pope had placed himself in an increasingly false position. His refusal in February to condone any further attack ‘on the lands of Christians’, was diluted by his acceptance that a ‘just and necessary cause’ might allow an exception.38 To some observers, Alexius’s offer to submit the Greek church to Roman authority simply followed Innocent’s own stated policy, making his disquiet less easy to understand or even believe. His repeated prohibition of 21 April came as the fleet was leaving Zara for Byzantium. In June, he publicly rejected the justification for the diversion put up by the army’s bishops:

not one of you should rashly flatter himself that he is allowed to occupy or prey upon the land of the Greeks because it might be too little obedient to the Apostolic see and because the emperor of Constantinople usurped the empire… it is not your business to judge their crimes.39

Too little: too late. As the letter was being drafted, the crusade fleet was already edging its way into the Sea of Marmora.

By the time the crusade sailed from Zara in April 1203, their ranks had been further depleted by the departure of Simon of Montfort and the abbot of Vaux. At least this removed a vociferous source of dissent. However, even after leaving Zara, the issue of the crusade’s destination was not finally settled. The fleet left Zara in stages, agreeing to muster at Corfu. The young Alexius only arrived at Zara on 23 April 1203, where he was greeted by Boniface of Montferrat and Doge Dandolo. After a propaganda stop at Durazzo to allow Alexius to receive the public, although hardly unforced, approval of a Greek city, the marquis, doge and pretender caught up with the main army camped on Corfu. There the crusade almost fell apart. Faced by the Greek pretender, a large section of the army, as much as half, Villehardouin remembered, balked at the final commitment to restore him. Most of the ideological dissidents may have already left at Zara, but on Corfu many still worried about the propriety of the diversion as well as the practical commitment to the Holy Land. Only strenuous argument, earnest promises, histrionic pleading and emotional blackmail by the small coterie of the high command preserved what was left of the expedition intact. Among the most committed to the Constantinople venture were at least three of the deputation who had negotiated the 1201 treaty of Venice, as well as the count of Flanders and the Hohenstaufen faction, including Marquis Boniface and the bishop of Halberstadt. Once again, money, the control of the paid troops and the support of the Venetians probably swung the day. Even so, Alexius had publicly to swear to abide by the terms of an agreement, which now specified that, after Michaelmas 1203, when the Venetian treaty expired, the leaders were obliged to provide any member of the army with ships to take them to Palestine. While there is no evidence that the leaders dissembled in their acquiescence to this – in August 1203 Hugh of St Pol was still envisaging an attack on Egypt in the spring of 1204–such a bargain, after all the contractual problems the expedition had already experienced, reveals a surprising degree of trust and optimism.40

This optimism was immediately challenged as both the local citizens of the port of Corfu and the Greek ecclesiastical hierarchy made their hostility to Alexius and his western alliance very plain.41 As the fleet pulled away from Corfu on 24 May 1203, its prospects looked far from certain. Since Venice the previous summer, the expedition had lost much of its fighting force, some as casualties, more to disease, but most to desertion, an army now, it was observed not entirely speciously, ‘as insignificant as it was underrated’.42The pope, from whom the crusaders derived their summons and their privileges, had forbidden them to take the path they were pursuing. Half of ‘the Christian army’,43 the Venetians, were actually excommunicate. Their candidate for the throne, Alexius, was an untested young man of breeding but no experience or proven popularity. Past western involvement in Byzantine dynastic feuding had been less than happy. Over a century of assault from Norman Sicily had failed to secure any permanent territorial gains at Byzantine expense. Constantinople had never been captured by a foreign enemy since its foundation 900 years earlier. Success seemed to rest on believing Alexius’s own questionable estimation of his likely Greek support. This hardly smacked of some deep-seated, long-planned plot to subvert the crusade. As it was, and had been since Venice, expectations were to be repeatedly undone by events.

The Fourth Crusade found itself before the walls of Constantinople after a series of contingent decisions each of which created new unforeseen problems. Neither some fanciful conspiracy nor a general mind-set allegedly susceptible to anti-Greek propaganda adequately explains the course of events. Instead, conflicting ties of solidarity, honour, obligation and advantage exerted the strongest pressures, not least because the expedition was run on remarkably consensual lines. Although a small, possibly unrepresentative group determined the eventual destination of the crusade, their decisions were always subject to debate, scrutiny and dissent among the wider body of crucesignati. Proponents of the diversions were openly unapologetic. Villehardouin saw them as a matter of honour; Hugh of St Pol, in the context of the union of the churches, called the attack on Constantinople in 1203 ‘the business of Jesus Christ’, a clear association with holy war.44 The diversion to Byzantium was no accident, but rather the result of conscious choices painfully, openly and controversially reached. The motives behind them were immediate, contradictory, self-deluding and muddled rather than treacherous or malign.


The Fourth Crusade went to Constantinople to install Alexius Angelus as emperor before continuing their voyage east. In the eleven months after they reached the Bosporus, the crusaders were involved in two sieges, a number of major battles and three changes to the regime, the last producing a new Veneto-Latin order in Byzantium that changed the Greek empire for good. The protracted failure of Alexius Angelus’s scheme drew the crusaders so firmly into Byzantine domestic politics that they were unable to extricate themselves without risking their own destruction. In the end their very success in surmounting successive crises destroyed their capacity to pursue their original intention. What had been meant to secure the crusade ended it.

After a leisurely cruise around the coast of Greece, during which the fleet fanned out in raids and to collect supplies, the crusaders arrived at Chalcedon, on the Asiatic shore opposite Constantinople, on 24 June 1203. Two days later they transferred their camp to Scutari, further north on the east bank of the Bosporus. Two central facts became clear within a few days. Alexius III refused to surrender and his subjects entirely failed to share the crusaders’ enthusiasm for his nephew. When Alexius was paraded on a galley in front of the sea walls of Constantinople, none of the watching inhabitants seemed to know who he was, still less voice any support.45 His entourage of Venetians and western crusaders cannot have enhanced his attraction for the locals. Realization of this sullen indifference, especially so publicly demonstrated, must have been a nasty moment for the crusade leaders. They were too far committed – and too bereft of funds – to withdraw. Their only option was war.

On 5–6 July, a forced landing secured a bridgehead on the European shore at Galata while the Venetian galleys breached the chain across the Golden Horn, Constantinople’s natural deep-water harbour on its northern flank. The fleet transferred to the shelter of the Golden Horn, with the troops establishing a camp outside the Blachernae Gate at the north-west angle of the city walls and close to the imperial palace. On 17 July a concerted amphibious attack was launched, the Venetians managing to establish control of a long section of the walls to the east of the Blachernae Palace, which they sought to defend by starting a fire that soon ran out of control, destroying large areas, perhaps 120 acres, of the central part of the city. As the main army struggled to penetrate the land walls, they also had to contend with an attempted encirclement by Alexius III, who, faced with a robust advance by his outnumbered opponents, lamely retreated without engaging the crusaders. Much of the heaviest resistance, at Blachernae as on 5 July at Galata, was mounted by Italians and the Varangian guard mainly recruited from northern and western Europe. It said much for the plight of Byzantium that its fate was being decided by two western armies.


17. Constantinople at the Time of the Fourth Crusade

Although the assaults of 17 July failed to give the crusaders the city, its political impact achieved their aims. His city in flames, his enemies intact, his reputation disintegrating, the ill-prepared, discomposed and out-manoeuvred Alexius III, never a strong military figure, prudently chose to flee the city. By abandoning his post – ‘driven away by no one’ was Nicetas Choniates’s contemptuous if unfair comment46 – Alexius did more to wrong-foot the crusaders than he managed by his military ploys. Once his departure was known, in an attempt not to have to submit to foreign conquerors, remaining elements in the imperial bureaucracy, many of whom, like Nicetas Choniates, had served Alexius III’s predecessor, released the blinded Isaac II and reappointed him emperor. This preserved the fiction of Byzantine imperial integrity. It also presented the crusaders with a problem, as Isaac was not party to their agreement with his son Alexius and his presence on the throne ensured the continuance of pro-Hellenic factions proximate to power. Only after a rather tense conference with representatives of the Venetians and crusaders did Isaac accede to the Zara/Corfu compact to reunite the Greek church with Rome and pay for the crusaders’ expenses and projected campaign in the east.47 The guarantee for the westerners’ price for peace was the association in the imperial dignity of young Alexius. On 1 August, the pretender was crowned co-emperor as Alexius IV. Appropriately Alexius IV’s first act, presented by Robert of Clari effectively as the condition for his elevation, was to hand over 50,000 marks to the Venetians, with another 34,000 as the balance of the crusaders’ debt. A further 16,000 went to pay off the debts incurred by crusaders to meet the transport charges in 1202, mainly with Venetian bankers. Thus all, or almost all, of 100,000 marks went to Venice and her citizens.48 Nothing could have more starkly exposed the centrality of the 1201 treaty and the continued Venetian role in the whole enterprise.

Unlike his father, whose support was feeble enough, Alexius IV had no political base within the Greek establishment. Recognizing his survival depended on the crusaders’ continued presence, Alexius IV, a frequent visitor to his patrons in the western army’s camp and knowing how they operated, privately offered to hire them to stay as his protectors in Constantinople until March 1204, when it was thought the expedition to Egypt could begin. In return he would subsidize the crusaders for a full year from the expiry of the Venice treaty, Michaelmas 1203 to Michaelmas 1204, thus underwriting a summer campaign season in the east.49 The leaders’ reaction revealed with startling clarity how the crusade was organized. After being told of Alexius’s scheme, the wider council of barons insisted they could not give their approval without the general consent of the army, ‘le comun de l’ost’. A parlement was summoned, attended by the barons, company commanders (‘li chevetaigne’) and ‘most of the knights’ (‘des chevaliers la graindre parties’).50Those who at Corfu had only consented to stay with the expedition on condition they would be assisted to travel to Outremer in the autumn passage objected to yet another delay: ‘Give us the ships as you swore to do’.51 After the now familiar wrangling over what would best serve the interests of the Holy Land, to reassure the impatient and doubtful yet another deal was struck with the Venetians. After Alexius IV had ‘paid them enough to make it worth their while’, they promised to keep their fleet on station and at the crusaders’ disposal until Michaelmas 1204. To signal their serious intent, the leadership announced they had sent envoys to Egypt to challenge al-Adil.52 With transport apparently secured and underwritten by Alexius IV, the crusaders agreed to the emperor’s proposition. The immediate benefit to Alexius was realized when he hired Boniface of Montferrat, Hugh of St Pol and Henry of Flanders, among others, to escort him on a tour of Thrace to begin to establish his authority in provincial Byzantium and prevent a counter-coup by Alexius III. Allegedly huge amounts of gold were showered on the crusade leaders who accompanied Alexius IV, and even then some felt underpaid.53

The new agreement with the western invaders hardly endeared them to the locals. Relations were further damaged when a raid by pious louts from the crusader camp at Galata on a mosque situated outside the walls on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn provoked a general affray when Greek residents came to assist their Muslim neighbours.54 To protect themselves, the westerners set fire to the mosque and surrounding properties, deliberately intending to create as much destruction as possible. With a northerly wind fanning the flames, the fire burned for three days, cutting a devastating swathe through the centre of the city from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmora, consuming 440 densely built-up and populated acres. Unsurprisingly, Constantinopolitans turned against members of the western communities living within the walls, thousands of whom fled across the Golden Horn for the protection of the crusader camp, a mixed blessing for the invaders, at once providing more manpower and skilled labour while further testing the supply of provisions.

The deteriorating relations between the westerners and the Greeks was compounded by growing disenchantment with the new regime from both sides. The Greeks complained no action had been taken to restrict the fire or assist the destitute survivors. Despite the ravaged city, the new government continued to ransack churches for bullion to pay the their western protectors. On their side, the westerners feared that they would be sold short, with Alexius and Isaac unable to honour their commitments. Tensions grew between the co-emperors as Isaac failed to conceal his resentment at the growing prominence of his son, slandering Alexius with unguarded talk of his weak character and the louche company who joined him in sessions of homoerotic sado-masochism.55 After Alexius’s return to the capital in November, the political situation deteriorated. Payments to the crusaders dried up as the Greek resentment at the co-emperors’ exactions turned to violence in a series of riots directed rather randomly at both the government and their western allies. One drunken mob destroyed Phidias’s great statue of Athena Promachos that had once stood in the open air on the Acropolis of Athens. Within the palace Isaac and Alexius drifted further apart, the father retreating into astrology, the son to drinking bouts and undignified horse-play with his western allies in their camp at Galata.56 Neither appeared much concerned to retain the public dignity demanded by Byzantine imperial protocol. Rumour and astrologically inspired scare stories heightened a sense of impending crisis. By December, the westerners’ camp increasingly resembled a beleaguered fortress in hostile territory. Their ally Alexius faced an intractable conundrum. To maintain power, he needed to retain the support of his western protectors in the short term while not alienating the Greek populace for his long-term prospects of survival. Yet to pay his western allies to keep their favour incited the hostility of the Greeks, while appeasing his subjects by ending payments risked provoking a western attack. For the westerners, now seemingly stranded at Galata, the issue increasingly became one of survival, while for the Greeks, reeling from defeat, fire and rapacious taxation, the continuation of the current regime seemed to risk further ruin and loss of political independence and integrity. Once more, the lack of money and the consequences of misplaced optimism had cornered the crusade.

Throughout December, strained, often heated diplomatic exchanges were accompanied by increasingly open violence. An anti-western faction began to challenge Alexius’s appeasement, led by Alexius III’s son-in-law Alexius Ducas, nicknamed Murzuphlus because of his large eyebrows that met in the middle of his forehead. The emperors were rapidly losing contact with events. On 1 January 1204, the Venetian fleet, the crusaders’ lifeline, narrowly avoided destruction by Greek fireships. A week later, the army had to beat off a land attack led by Murzuphlus, who was increasingly conducting a belligerent policy of his own. Alexius IV quickly lost control. On 27 January, a rival emperor, Nicholas Kannovos, was set up by the Greek ecclesiastical establishment. Alexius tried to call in the crusaders to protect him by offering them access to the Blachernae Palace. This precipitated a coup led by Murzuphlus with the backing of the military, clergy and civil service. Alexius IV was arrested and imprisoned on the night of 27–8 January; Isaac was incarcerated, soon to die. A few days later, after assuming the imperial regalia himself as Alexius V, Murzuphlus removed Nicholas Kannavos, thereby in a few days efficiently disposing of all three rivals. In February, war began against the westerners. After his initial forays proved unsuccessful, Murzuphlus’s attempts to negotiate were met by the crusaders’ politically unrealistic insistence on his abiding by their agreement with his deposed predecessor Alexius IV. The final collapse of relations between the westerners and the Byzantine authorities came with the murder of Alexius IV, probably on 8 February, if western propaganda is to be believed by Murzuphlus in person.57

The removal of Alexius IV swept away the intrigues, contradictions and confusions of the previous year. Any hope that the crusaders’ treaties with Alexius would be honoured died with him. With their ships requiring overhaul and refitting, their supplies under serious threat as Murzuphlus closed the capital’s markets to them, and the anti-western militancy of the new Byzantine government, the crusaders held limited options. Murzuphlus no longer wished to bargain, beginning to reinforce the city walls and prepare for battle. Unlike Louis VII in 1147 or Frederick Barbarossa in 1189–90, the crusaders at Galata in 1204 controlled no fertile Greek provinces for easy forage. Extended raids to find provisions risked exposing the camp to Greek attack while provoking hostile intervention from Joannitza, king of Bulgaria, who saw great opportunities in the chaos at Constantinople to embellish his power. Bulgaria had only recently re-established its independence from Byzantium; it now sought any pickings from the imperial carcase. Crusader inaction would ensure famine and likely destruction. To survive, let alone have any chance of fulfilling their vows to journey to Jerusalem, the crusaders’ path led through the city. Only there lay the necessary supplies and funds. Only by defeating Murzuphlus and seizing the city could they guarantee they would get them. ‘Perceiving that they were neither able to enter the sea without danger of immediate death nor delay longer on land because of their impending exhaustion of food and supplies, our men reached a decision.’58 Step by step, the crusade had marched, stumbled and been driven to contemplate conquering Byzantium for themselves. While complicit in their own fate, neither the crusaders nor the Venetians had intended this frightening, dangerous and bloody denouement.

With conquest the only choice, Doge Dandolo, Boniface, Baldwin, Louis of Blois and Hugh of St Pol sensibly prepared for an orderly occupation of the city, government and empire. The so-called March Pact decreed that all booty – gold, silver, expensive textiles – was to be collected centrally and divided according to a formula that ensured that the Venetians would receive full and final reimbursement for the various obligations to them outstanding, to the value of 200,000 marks. Once this had been satisfied, the crusaders and the Venetians were to split the profits equally, as under the 1201 treaty. During the pillaging, women and clergy were to be respected, and rape and despoiling churches were banned, on pain of death. The future ruler of Constantinople and Byzantium was to be chosen by a committee of twelve – six crusaders, six Venetians – and was to receive a quarter of the capital as well as the two imperial palaces. He was forbidden to do business with any enemies of the Venetians, a canny if naked piece of self-interest on Dandolo’s part, yet no more blatant than the whole treaty was for all parties involved. If the lot as emperor fell on a crusader, the new Latin patriarch would be a Venetian, a secular intervention in the process of clerical election that insouciantly contradicted 150 years of fundamental papal policy. The rest of the empire would be granted out by another committee, of twelve Venetians and twelve crusaders, as fiefs to be held of the emperor. To secure the new political settlement, it was agreed that the army would stay together in Byzantium for another year, to March 1205, deferring the invasion of Eygpt for the fourth time since 1202. Anyone breaking the terms of the pact was threatened with excommunication.59

Yet even on the brink of war, which all could see by looking across the Golden Horn at Murzuphlus’s energetic preparations had become unavoidable, doubts remained. The Fourth Crusade has been damned as unholy, a betrayal of the original inspiration of the war of the cross. Yet the constant self-appraisal within its ranks and repeated insistence by the leadership and their clerical stooges that they were engaged on a just cause belies any such verdict. The consciences of many crusaders remained as tender as the day they took the cross. According to Villehardouin, even in the desperate plight of the army in February and March, the leadership staged a public presentation of the case for war to reassure their followers of the legitimacy and justice of what they were doing. The clergy declared ‘that this war is just and lawful’ on the grounds that the Greeks were schismatics, their emperor a regicide and a usurper, crimes in which his subjects were accomplices. This inspirational invective followed the line pursued at Corfu. It acknowledged the increasing penetration of academic ideas of just war in the conceptualizing of holy war. However, faced with imminent military action, the clerics at Galata added spiritual incentives to emphasize the holiness of the cause and boost morale: ‘if you fight to conquer this land with the right intention of bringing it under the authority of Rome, all those of you who die after making confession shall benefit from the indulgence granted by the pope’. If this was the actual formula employed, it copied Canon XXVII of the Third Lateran Council in offering full remission of sins, but only to those who died fighting.60 Whether or not the army’s bishops, with the legate still cooling his heels in Acre, actually possessed the claimed delegated papal authority to make such grants, they fell short ofdesignating Constantinople a target of the crusade. The battle would be just and earn spiritual rewards for the genuinely penitent casualties, in common with much religiously approved warfare since the ninth century, but it cannot be regarded as an extension of the crusade. That would require the attack on Byzantium to have been equated exactly with the Jerusalem war and for participation in it to fulfil the crusader’s vow. These, the bishops were apparently not offering. Villehardouin’s version may have been flavoured by special pleading and a retrospective desire to justify what happened, but Robert of Clari recorded an identical set of arguments preached to the troops on 11 April, the day before the final assault. He also remembered that on this occasion the bishops promised absolution to all, not just the fallen, because the Greeks ‘were worse than the Jews’, ‘enemies of God’.61 While these accounts were designed to present the events of April 1204 as unequivocally righteous to later audiences, they suggest that the crusaders needed convincing reassurance. It was not assumed that attacking Constantinople, while undoubtedly necessary, was self-evidently just. Faith and obedience in the middle ages were neither blind nor simple, relying on reason not credulity.

On 9 April, the crusader attacks began along the northern shore of the city between the Blachernae Palace and the monastery of Christ Evergetes. Highly sophisticated techniques of amphibious warfare were involved, with the Venetian ships acting both as troop carriers and aggressive siege engines. After the initial assault failed, fighting reached a climax on 12 April when, amid scenes of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, the walls were breached and the invaders established a secure bridgehead on a substantial front within the walls, slaughtering indiscriminately. As part of their tactics, the westerners determinedly killed and plundered their way into the city, making no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Once again, fearing counter-attack, they started a fire, which quickly spread from the north to the south of the city, consuming much of what had been left or rebuilt after the two earlier conflagrations. Even though the Varangian guard was prepared to fight on, Murzuphlus saw the game was up and fled during the night. By 13 April, the crusaders found no serious resistance was left. The city had been won, a startling tribute to the naval skill of the Venetians, the engineering ingenuity that converted their ships into fighting castles and the military training, perhaps even the military culture, of the western troops.

The sack of Constantinople proceeded in two stages.62 The first, the indiscriminate violence and pillage of the assault, was reined in the day after the crusaders’ entry. With substantial Greek forces still in the city, a descent into disorganized mayhem could have put the victory at risk. The second stage, perhaps more chilling than the first, saw the systematic plundering of the capital, the customary penalty suffered by cities taken by storm. For three days the crusader captains allowed their troops to vent their anger, relief and greed in an orgy of looting the thoroughness and lack of finesse of which appalled most of those who heard of it. The main savagery was reserved for the pursuit of treasure and property, including houses, palaces and churches, rather than people. Two of the most hysterical Greek eyewitnesses, Nicetas Choniates and Nicholas Mesarites, while lamenting in lurid terms the drunken rapine and sexual violence, both record individual instances where Greeks were treated with respect and afforded protection by the invaders. Much of the Greek shock was stimulated by the wholesale desecration of holy places, an aspect of the sack that western observers, proud of their purloined relics, rather admired. The worst excesses against citizens appeared concentrated only on the first day while the victims, according to one account, amounted to a couple of thousand, about half of one per cent of the city’s pre-1204 population.63Sufficient control was exerted on the looters to ensure the collection of much of the looted treasure in the three churches chosen as central depositories. When the looting was called off on 15 April, the official treasury had deposits worth 300,000 marks, along with 10,000 horses. This constituted perhaps less than half the total value of the goods plundered, the rest being kept by the looters, possibly as much as 500,000 marks, enough to fund a European state for a decade. The figures also exclude the boat-loads of relics stolen by ‘holy robbers’ like Bishop Nivelo of Soissons and Abbot Martin of Pairis.64 During the sack and for the difficult days immediately afterwards, anecdotal evidence suggests a measure of discipline and order in the plundering, including some respect for the lives at least of the Greek upper classes.65 The sack of Constantinople was an atrocity, but in the terms of the day not a war crime. The fire of August 1203 may have caused as much physical damage, not to mention those of July 1203 and April 1204 or the riots of the winter of 1203–4. Alexius IV’s own rapacity in stripping churches and icons for gold and silver to pay the crusaders’ tribute exactly matched the behaviour of the western conquerors. The loss of classical and Byzantine art, architecture and libraries is incalculable, although possibly not on a par with the cultural devastation wrought by the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. The intensity of human butchery pales beside the bloodlust in Jerusalem on 15 July 1099. If the victors had proceeded to the Holy Land the following spring, the fall of Constantinople may have never acquired its reputation for unique barbarism.


The immediate distribution of Byzantium’s spoils caused some disappointment that so much had been diverted into private streams. Among the rank and file it provoked fury as they accused the leaders themselves of being the worst hoarders, denying the ordinary crusaders (‘the commons of the host’), the poor knights and the sergeants ‘who had helped to win the treasure’ their due.66 The ratio of payment to knights, twenty marks, clerics and mounted sergeants, ten marks, and infantry, five marks concealed the injustice, as Robert of Clari saw it, of the common soldiers being fobbed off with plain silver while the choice gold, jewels and precious fabrics found their way into the coffers of the great. Some hoarders were convicted and hanged.67 Nonetheless, the sense of achievement rang through the memories of the conquerors. The greatest city in the Christian world had fallen to an army of 20,000.68 God’s will seemed clear.

It soon became less pellucid. By mid-May, Baldwin of Flanders had been elected the new Latin emperor. The Venetian Thomas Morosini became patriarch. Baldwin grandly proclaimed on his election his intention to proceed to the Holy Land once his new realm, so providentially granted him by God’s manifest will, had been pacified and secured.69 Although Murzuphlus was soon apprehended and executed, pacification of the area around the capital, let alone exerting control over the rest of the empire, proved much harder. Many of the crusade leaders were eager to receive and secure new lands, notably Boniface of Montferrat, who had been given Thessalonica as consolation for not gaining the imperial diadem. Relations between Baldwin and Boniface, perhaps understandably, deteriorated to the point of outright hostility. Others struck out on their own, such as Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s nephew and namesake in the Peloponnese. From the start, the Latin emperor in Constantinople lacked adequate manpower. In the provinces, where the same was true, the new Latin lords sought accommodation with local vested interests, religious and secular, of a sort denied the Latin emperor. The pope’s initial enthusiasm for the union of the churches turned to disillusion and anger when he learnt of the carnage and destruction of the sack and the cancellation of the crusade in 1205. He was soon opening diplomatic channels to the Byzantine successor regime in Asia Minor.70 For Innocent, the Fourth Crusade had proved a disappointment and a lesson. He proved an adept pupil.

The fissiparous nature of Byzantium did not suddenly end. While the Latins achieved some success in policing mainland Greece, Alexius III’s son-in-law, Theodore Lascaris, established a self-proclaimed legitimist Greek empire in Asia Minor around Smyrna and Nicaea, its ecclesiastical capital. Epirus in western Greece and Trebizond on the distant southeastern shore of the Black Sea emerged as other centres of Greek resistance and particularism. More immediate danger was presented by Joannitza of Bulgaria, whose overtures to the crusaders in 1203–4 for an alliance against the Greeks had been rebuffed.71 It was not in his interests to have any powerful ruler on the Bosporus, Latin or Greek.

Emperor Baldwin inherited the weaknesses as well as the palaces of his predecessors. Tentative moves to embrace the Greek tradition achieved little, wrecked by the issue of church union and the bitter memory of 1204. Continuity was limited. At Acre, on the news of Baldwin’s election, Bohemund IV of Antioch hurried to do homage to the new empress, Countess Maria of Flanders, who had arrived there expecting to meet her husband.72 She died before embarking for Greece. The new regime lacked money, as its tax revenues remained proportionate to its limited territorial grip. Much of Constantinople remained in ruins, its public buildings dilapidated. The Venetians, especially after Dandolo’s death in Constantinople in 1205, concentrated on securing their hold on their portion of the empire, the strategic islands of Euboea, Crete and the Aegean and trading posts such as Methone and Coron. They were, in any case, of limited use in helping Baldwin defend and extend his holdings on land.

More worrying for the future of the new Latin realm, the fall of Constantinople created no great rush of excitement and enthusiasm, still less colonization to compare with the impact of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. As the Fourth Crusade showed, the pull of the Holy Land cast other destinations into the shade even if, as in the case of those thousands who reached Palestine in 1202–4, little could be achieved there. Except for Venice, a few French families, especially from Champagne, the papacy and later the Angevin rulers of Sicily, no consistent help or material commitment came from the west. Indifference or a sense of a burden characterized reactions. Successive popes pleaded for aid for ‘Romania’, as the western conquests were known, and began proclaiming crusades for its aid, but, by the 1230s, the response of western knights was to swear oaths to prevent their crusade vows being deflected to Greece. No significant expedition, crusade or garrison ever came to aid or maintain Romania.

The Latin empire was a failure, politically, financially, culturally and dynastically. Exactly a year after the triumph of Constantinople, on 14 April 1205 Emperor Baldwin was captured and Louis of Blois killed in battle at Adrianople, where a Greek rebellion had been joined by Joannitza of Bulgaria. It was in the precarious aftermath of this defeat that Peter Capuano ended any fanciful lingering hopes for a campaign to the Holy Land by absolving from their Jerusalem vows those fighting for the Latins in Greece. The succession of disasters after 1205, including the death in battle of Boniface of Montferrat in 1207, severely limited the extent of Latin rule. Boniface’s so-called kingdom of Thessalonica was annexed by the Greeks of Epirus in 1224. The apparent unravelling of the achievement of 1204 provided a context and possibly a spur to the works of veterans such as Villehardouin (writing before 1212/13) and Robert of Clari (c.1216) in praise of deeds of the Fourth Crusade. While western rule in Athens, the southern Peloponnese and the Venetian maritime colonies persisted, and in places flourished, into the fourteenth century and beyond – Crete only fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1669–the imperial centre soon degenerated into a bankrupt husk, having to pawn relics such as the Crown of Thorns (in 1237) and, from the 1220s, sell the lead from the roofs of churches and palaces to survive.73 Emperor Baldwin II cut a pathetic, forlorn figure when he toured the west in the 1240s trying to drum up support for his failing cause. The succession of regents, minors and guardians who held the imperial title (Henry of Flanders; Peter of Courtenay; Robert of Courtenay; Baldwin II; John of Brienne), after surviving the crisis of 1205–6, when the existence of the empire seemed in doubt, played an increasingly minor local role in the politics of the region, increasingly insignificant in comparison with the Greeks of Nicaea and, briefly, Epirus, and the Bulgarian empire. In 1261, Constantinople was recaptured almost without a murmur by a Nicaean reconnaissance force taking advantage of the absence of the Latin garrison on a raid up the Bosporus. The suddenness of its fall even caught the new emperor Michael VIII Palealogus of Nicaea totally by surprise. Yet the end could not have long been delayed. In contrast to parts of the Peleponnese, the Latin emperors’ attempts to reach accommodation with the Greeks failed. No attempts were seriously pursued to create a new imperial cultural identity. Latin Constantinople appeared a shabby outpost, increasingly irrelevant as well as impotent, neglected by the nobility and people of the west, to whom its original conquest had been represented as being such a vindicating triumph.

The prime export of the Latin empire, from the night of 12–13 April 1204 onwards, lay in relics. Such was the flood of them on to the western market that Innocent III issued instructions on how rationally to authenticate them. In Constantinople, tourists and sacred bargain hunters sought certificates guaranteeing that the piece of bone, wood, cloth or stone was genuine. Gunther of Pairis’s account of Abbot Martin’s grand larceny amid the fires and chaos of Constantinople sought to validate the great haul that constituted the most tangible profit of the enterprise for his abbey. Martin and his chaplain had stuffed their folded habits with over fifty treasures from the monastery of Christ Pantocrator, ranging from relics of the True Cross and Holy Blood, to stone chips from the main Holy Sites to miscellaneous physical detritus and body parts of saints, including ‘a not inconsiderable piece of St John’.74 Similar motives of validation lay behind the descriptions of the deeds of the bishops of Soissons and Halberstadt, both of which listed the sacred booty acquired by their episcopal heroes, in Conrad of Halberstadt’s case including distinctly secular trophies: jewels, silks and tapestries. Bishop Nivelo of Soissons stayed at Constantinople in 1204–5, sending home a number of choice high-prestige objects associated with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist and, when he returned, bringing with him pieces of the True Cross. Even Robert of Clari’s memoirs may be seen as adding lustre to his gifts of relics of the Passion at the monastery of St Pierre, Corbie.75 These relics provided the Fourth Crusade’s most positive and lasting legacy in western Europe. The recipients of the holy treasure across northern France hoped to benefit through increased visitors to their new shrines. In places, entrepreneurial clerics transformed the fortunes of previously impoverished and obscure religious houses and churches. The struggling Cluniac house at Bromholm in Norfolk made its fortune after acquiring a piece of the True Cross purloined from the imperial chapel by an English priest in 1205.76 The key to success lay in miracles. Across western Christendom, this new influx of divine favour manifested in these fresh agents of the miraculous provided its own justification for the enormities of 1204. More tangibly, miracles attracted pilgrims. Church income rose. The new buildings erected to house the relics and cater for the tourists employed local labour and skilled craftsmen. The increase in church profits generated higher incomes, which were used to improve estates, roads and bridges.

Whatever transcendent gains accrued, the relics of Byzantium contributed to patches of economic prosperity across Europe. Some relics could even play a political role. The Crown of Thorns pawned to the Venetians in 1237 and later sold to Louis IX of France prompted the construction of the luminous Sainte Chapelle in Paris and played a significant part in the manufacture of a Capetian religion of monarchy. The acquisition by wealthy nations of the cultural icons of conquered or exploited weaker lands is a staple of world history, as shown by glancing at Ancient Rome, nineteenth-century England or the United States of America in the past century. Byzantium was another prime example, a storehouse of classical and Christian artefacts, many of which had been translated, stolen or otherwise removed from provinces of the empire. After 1204, this process took another step, if in an unrefined, vicious and unwelcome manner. The transfer of treasure and relics stood as symbol of defeat, the four horses from the Hippodrome erected in front of St Mark’s in Venice, although only placed there after 1260, a careful, considered celebration of victory and a new imperialism.

The consequences of the Fourth Crusade were not measured in spiritual or material profit and loss alone. In his history of the Crusades, Runciman’s pro-Hellenist complaint has two barbs; the duplicitous destruction of a civilization and the gratuitous weakening of a bastion of Christendom against invasion from the east. The Byzantine empire never recovered from the events of 1203–4. Much of the damage was self-inflicted by the political chaos and myopic self-interest so vividly displayed in the tawdry or desperate parade of emperors. Much of the physical destruction in Constantinople came from the secondary effects of the conquest, the fires of 1203–4 and Alexius IV’s frenzied scrabbling for bullion. There is no convincing evidence that the crusaders plotted the violent overthrow of the Byzantine system until they were presented with no viable alternative in 1204. That is not to say that Greeks were not demonized, their religious observances despised and feared by western elites as much as the rest. Doctrinal differences and the traditional Greek lukewarm response to the call of the cross could be and were exploited. Baldwin declared in his coronation circular that Constantinople had been stormed ‘for the honour of the Holy Roman Church and for the relief of the Holy Land’, a not completely mendacious justification.77

However destructive the sack of 1204, ultimately more damaging to the cohesion of Byzantium was the effect on church union and the inability of the Latins to re-establish a thriving capital. The failure of Latin – Greek accommodation and the inability of the Latins to suppress opposition changed the nature of the Greek polity as much as it failed to create a new Latin one. After 1204, independent, autonomous Greek statelets emerged, as at Nicaea/Smyrna, Epirus and Trebizond, with no constitutional relations with each other and owing no allegiance to a central Greek political authority. By 1261, this separatist tradition, unknown before 1204, had become enshrined as a feature of Byzantium, which persisted until the Ottoman conquests. Before 1204, Greek regional opposition had been reflected in central, imperial politics. Now the regions appeared entire to themselves. The Fourth Crusade had unstringed the lyre of universal order and degree. Between 1204 and 1261 Constantinople was no longer a centre of bureaucracy or consumption, had ceased to be a functioning capital except in name only. The restoration of 1261 could not recover its imperial dominance. The absence of metropolitan authority that had underpinned Byzantine power and unity before 1204 allowed the Orthodox church to fill the void. The role of emperor after 1261 was permanently weakened as the Christian religion rather than the Christian state acted as the chief source of cultural cohesion and political identity. This shift in authority was emphasized when successive Byzantine emperors over the next two centuries sought church union with Rome as the price for western military help. Thus the Fourth Crusade destroyed but redefined Byzantium, enshrining a political fragmentation that included the remaining western enclaves and was to be so brilliantly exploited by the Ottomans from the mid-fourteenth century.

This does not necessarily establish the Fourth Crusade’s blame for the later woes of eastern Europe, the second of Runciman’s complaints. He saw Byzantium so undermined by 1204 that it could ‘no longer guard Christendom against the Turk’. This ultimately handed ‘the innocent Christians of the Balkans’ to ‘persecution and slavery’.78 This is a view clouded by a crude religious and cultural analysis. Many Christians in the Balkans, innocent or not, had fought for generations against the Greeks – Serbs, Bulgars, Albanians – just as they later fought against the Turks. Byzantium had hardly been universally beneficent in its rule. Equally, the failure of Byzantium to retain its own territorial integrity from 1180 or defend itself in 1203–4 did not suggest it could necessarily have presented much of a bastion against later Turkish attack. However unpleasant, the Fourth Crusade did not precipitate the triumph of the Turk. The occupation of parts of the Greek empire by Latins and Venetians at least ensured some continuing western investment in resistance to the Ottomans that outlasted the Byzantine empire itself. More widely, the assumption that Ottoman rule was per se bad, ‘worse’ than Greek imperial rule or that of fractious and often vicious Christian groups in the Balkans, depends upon racial and religious stereotypes and prejudices. Not all fourteenth-century Greeks preferred Byzantium to Latin or Turkish rule. The translation of later historical, religious or cultural prejudices to explain past phenomena is here unprofitable. However, it reflects the most enduring legacy of the Fourth Crusade, one that as recently as 2001 elicited an apology from Pope John Paul II. The Fourth Crusade, the subsequent failure of the victorious Latins to build firm bridges between the Latin and Greek communities and the exploitation of the catastrophe by the Orthodox church to buttress its sense of unique righteousness confirmed and deepened the still unresolved and perhaps irrevocable estrangement of Greek and Roman Christendom. At least Innocent III was right about that.

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