Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Five


The Sack of Constantinople

Between 1195 and 1204, Crusaders serve themselves, and Constantinople falls

THE FINAL CRUSADE of the twelfth century was a sordid series of landgrabs that barely bothered to wave the cross.

In 1195, the emperor Isaac Angelus lost his throne when his older brother, Alexius, mounted a revolt; Isaac Angelus had grown unpopular after a series of fruitless military ventures, and Alexius was able to claim popular support. He imprisoned his brother and then blinded him, after which he allowed the disabled ex-emperor to live in relative comfort. Isaac’s thirteen-year-old son, also named Alexius, was taken prisoner as well; but by 1201 his uncle had decided to give him the freedom to move about the city. According to Nicetas Choniates, the boy, now nineteen, paid a Pisan merchant ship to smuggle him through the Hellespont and out into the Mediterranean.1

The ship docked at Sicily. From there, young Alexius made his way to the royal court of Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI had died unexpectedly of malaria in 1197, at the age of thirty-two. The German noblemen had elected his younger brother Philip as his successor (although Philip had not yet received the crown of the empire from the pope’s hand); and Philip had married young Alexius’s sister, Isaac Angelus’s second daughter, Irene.

Alexius’s arrival at his sister’s palace in Germany soon galvanized the Fourth Crusade.

This Crusade was already sputtering, very slowly, towards the Holy Land. Since August of 1198—eight months after his election—Pope Innocent III had been pleading for a renewal of the crusading effort. He had sent a letter to every head of state in Europe, begging each to commit to a March 1199 departure for the Holy Land. The usual rewards were offered—full pardon for sins and eternal salvation, plus the more immediate promise of debt relief—but this call to crusade had a distinctly judgmental tone. “The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is held in hostile hands,” Innocent wrote, “. . . [while] our princes . . . give themselves over to adulterous embraces . . . and harass one another in turn with inexorable hatred.” Indeed, England and France were at war; the kings of Christian Spain were fighting each other instead of the Almohads; Philip II of France had shut his wife in a convent so that he could marry again; Philip of Germany was struggling with a splinter group of nobles who had elected the second son of Henry the Lion, Otto, as a rival king. There were plenty of sins that needed forgiving.2

But all this Christian infighting meant that none of these kings were secure enough to leave their thrones untended and go on crusade. By 1201, King Emeric of Hungary was the sole monarch to answer the pope’s call. But he had been joined by a healthy contingent of French noblemen, German barons, and English knights, and popular enthusiasm for another crusade had been whipped into froth by a charismatic French preacher named Foulques who had traveled through the countryside, calling on the faithful to take the cross. A crusading army had come to life, but without kings, royal navies, or royal treasuries, it had no good way to get to Jerusalem.

The French Crusader Geoffroy de Villehardouin, who wrote an eyewitness account of the Fourth Crusade, tells us this problem was addressed by six French noblemen who went to Venice (where they would find “a greater number of ships . . . than at any other port”) and negotiated with the Doge of Venice for a fleet that would transport them to the Holy Land. The Doge, Enrico Dandolo, was ninety years old and nearly blind, but in full possession of his wits. When negotiations were finished, the Crusaders had agreed to pay 85,000 marks—a quarter again as much as Richard the Lionheart’s ruinous ransom—for ships and provisions.3

But when the Crusaders assembled at Venice in June 1202, as planned, less than a third of the expected force showed up—and a good many of the would-be holy warriors were too poor to chip in. The Crusaders managed to collect less than a quarter of the required payment. And there lay the fleet in front of them, out of reach.

Enrico Dandolo let them fret for a while before making a proposal: Venice had lost one of its treasured strongholds, the port city of Zadar, to Hungary. If the Crusaders would stop off on their way to the Holy Land and conquer it, they could have the fleet.

There were a few dissenting voices, but since the alternative was going home in humiliation, the Crusaders finally agreed. Despite age and blindness, Dandolo himself accompanied them to Zadar, where a nasty siege was laid into place—despite protests from the walls that the Crusaders were attacking a Christian city, held by a king who was himself a Crusader (although King Emeric hadn’t yet made a move towards the east). As a last resort, the defenders hung crucifixes from the parapets. But, encouraged by Dandolo, the Crusaders carried on with the siege until the city surrendered.4

By now it was nearly December, a bad time to travel by sea, and the Venetians and Crusaders decided to winter at Zadar. They divided the city in half and occupied it. Zadar was now home to over ten thousand bored, sword-carrying men, and at least one vicious armed brawl left both Venetians and Crusaders dead in the streets.

Meanwhile, young Alexius’s sister Irene had “beseeched her husband Philip of Germany to do his utmost to succor her father . . . and to help her brother, who was homeless and without a country and wandered about like the planets.” Philip was very willing to do so. Pope Innocent III had refused to crown Philip as Holy Roman Emperor, instead declaring his rival Otto be the emperor elect. Now Philip was being asked to help restore the rights of another Christian emperor; removing a usurper from the throne of Constantinople would certainly show Philip to be fulfilling the role of Holy Roman Emperor, no matter what the pope said.5

As he was unwilling to leave Germany open to Otto, Philip himself couldn’t go to Jerusalem. Instead, he and young Alexius concocted a plan: they would send envoys to the Crusaders at Zadar and ask them to help Alexius get the throne back. “Since you are on the march in the service of God, and for right and justice,” Philip wrote, “it is your duty . . . to restore their possessions to those who have been wrongfully dispossessed.” More concrete incentives were offered as well; Alexius was promising ten thousand men and 200,000 silver marks, which would solve all of the financial troubles of the Fourth Crusade.6

The Crusaders did not embrace this deal at once; in fact, they divided into three parties. One was all for marching to Constantinople, since this gave the entire Crusade the best chance of success. A second group insisted on going straight to the Holy Land. The third lobbied for going to Egypt first and attacking the sultan who controlled Jerusalem before tackling the city itself.

Eventually, the Constantinople party won the day. But the arguments continued all winter. “I can assure you,” writes Villehardouin, “that the hearts of our people were not at peace, for one party was continually working to break up the army, and the other to keep it together.” A good number of the lower-ranked Crusaders deserted. Shortly after Easter, 1203, the whole army left for Corfu, where they would meet Alexius; as they departed, they destroyed the city behind them.7

It was late June before the entire fleet finally reached the Bosphorus Strait. Young Alexius had apparently convinced them that the people of Constantinople would immediately rally to him, and that any fighting would be brief. Instead, the city closed against him. The Crusader army was forced to lay siege to it.

As sieges go, it was a brief one. The attack began on July 5. Ten days later, the first Crusader knights managed to scale the walls and enter the city. They were driven back, but a second assault then began, with Venetian warships hurling stones and arrows from the water while scaling ladders were put into place. “The din was so tremendous,” says Villehardouin, “that it seemed as if both land and sea were crumbling.” The attackers finally broke into the city itself, driving the panicked inhabitants in front of them. To block the approach of the emperor’s royal guard, they set the city on fire.8

That night, the emperor packed up his treasures and fled from the city. The blinded Isaac Angelus was sprung from prison by his supporters within the city, and by morning he was back in his palace, sitting on his throne.

There was a very brief respite of rejoicing, during which young Alexius was crowned as his father’s co-ruler; and then the Crusade derailed permanently.

Alexius, aware that his uncle still had partisans in the city, was afraid that the exiled usurper would return as soon as the Crusaders left. He offered to pay the army to stay until the following spring. Another argument erupted between the Crusader parties. In the end, they remained in Constantinople; but once again they were divided, bored, and aimless. They began to fight with the natives. A second fire, deliberately set by an unknown culprit, destroyed another huge swath of the city, this time wiping out the homes of the most powerful and wealthy inhabitants. Alexius, discovering that the royal treasury had been thoroughly raided, could pay his hired troops only by collecting special taxes. He tried breaking into the tombs of the previous emperors for their jewels, and even so could raise a mere fraction of the money needed. By January, everyone hated him.

Finally his own trusted lieutenant, a veteran named Mourtzouphlus, led a midnight raid on the young emperor’s bedchamber and took him prisoner. With the full support of the Byzantine army, he declared himself emperor, taking the name Alexius V Ducas. Old Isaac, now almost entirely senile, died (conveniently) sometime in the next few days; young Alexius was kept prisoner for several weeks, until the new emperor ordered him strangled.9

The Crusaders now realized that they were never going to get paid; and they were too broke to make it to either Jerusalem or Egypt. Constantinople was still a rich city, even after Alexius’s depredations. Alexius V Ducas was a murderer and usurper. Their duty was clear. They needed to seize Constantinople and bring justice to the palace. The clergymen who had accompanied the expedition assured them that bringing Constantinople back under the authority of the Church of Rome, after its long estrangement, was a valid crusading goal and would be rewarded with remission of sins.

Alexius V Ducas and the Byzantine army fought back. The struggle between Crusaders and the imperial army began on April 8, 1204; within four days, the troops of Constantinople were in full flight. Late on the night of April 12, Alexius V Ducas himself escaped through the Golden Gate.

On the morning of April 13, Constantinople lay under Crusader control, and the Crusaders began to strip the city clean. “Gold and silver, table-services and precious stones, satin and silk,” writes Villehardouin, “mantles of squirrel fur, ermine and miniver, and every choicest thing to be found on this earth. . . .”

So much booty had never been gained in any city since the creation of the world. Everyone took quarters where he pleased, and there was no lack of fine dwellings in that city. So the troops of the Crusaders and the Venetians were duly housed. They all rejoiced and gave thanks to our Lord . . . that those who had been poor now lived in wealth and luxury.10

Ibn al-Athir writes that, during the three-day sack of the city, the Crusaders killed priests, bishops, and monks, and destroyed churches. The altars were stripped, icons smashed apart, jewels pried out of sacred vessels, relics stolen. The eyewitness Nicholas Mesarites tells us that, in their greed, the Crusaders stripped women to see “whether a feminine ornament or gold was fastened to the body or hidden in them.” And there was worse to come.

They slaughtered the newborn, killed matrons, stripped elder women and outraged old ladies. They tortured the monks, they hit them with their fists and kicked their bellies, thrashing and rending their reverend bodies with whips. . . . [M]any were dragged like sheep and beheaded, and on the holy tombs, the wretched slew the innocent.11

By the second day of the sack, many of the Crusaders were thoroughly drunk from looting Constantinople’s luxurious wine cellars. They were, says Nicetas Choniates, braying like salacious asses at the very sight of women, and a sickness of rape swept through the city. No one was spared: virgins, married women, the old, even nuns were violated in the streets. Men who tried to stop the assaults were run through, decapitated, or left to die in the streets with their limbs hacked off. Nicetas himself managed to get his pregnant wife out of the city by smearing her face with mud and shielding her with his own body.12

Finally, when the looting and murder had run its course, Crusaders elected one of their own, the Count of Flanders, to be the new emperor: Emperor Baldwin I. Constantinople had been transformed into the capital of yet another Crusader kingdom: the Latin Empire.

And that was the end of the Crusade. Not a single Crusader made it to Egypt, let alone Jerusalem.

Innocent III, appalled at the bloody ending to his treasured cause, sent a fierce reproof from Rome: “They who are supposed to serve Christ rather than themselves,” he wrote, “. . . have bathed those swords in the blood of Christians.”13


25.1 The Conquest of Constantinople

But self-service had been a part of the crusading impulse since Bohemund’s refusal to give up Antioch. The rot that had set in after the First Crusade had eaten through to the surface; when a crusade offered power, the chance to grasp a kingdom would always trump the cause of Christ.


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