(This article originally appeared in Varangian Voice No. 14)
“They were not able to believe that there could be so rich a town in the whole world, those high walls and mighty towers, those luxurious palaces and lofty churches.” Geoffrey de Villehardoin
Constantinople was the greatest city of Christendom in the Middle Ages. Also known as Byzantium, it gave its name to the Byzantine Empire of which it was the capital. The Vikings knew it as Miklagard (the Great City), but the Byzantines just called it “I Polis” – the City.
The land walls of Constantinople, recently restored to appear as they would have in 1204
Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but the Byzantine Empire’s ruin was accomplished two and a half centuries earlier at the hands of fellow Christians. The City had undergone seventeen sieges, and survived weak Emperors and incompetent generals. The greed of Venice and the venality and gullibility of the Crusaders contributed to the destruction of an Empire that had lasted nine hundred years.
“Constantinople had been for centuries the strongest bulwark of defence against Asia. The men of the West had every interest to maintain and strengthen it. Instead of doing so they virtually let loose Asia upon Europe.”
(Pears – Introduction to The Fall of Constantinople 1886)
In 1199 Count Tibald of Champagne conceived the idea of a Crusade to attack Muslim Egypt, and a declaration by Pope Innocent III gave it official sanction. On Tibald’s death in 1201, Boniface of Montferrat took over the leadership.
Behind the scenes was a very complex political situation. Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelos had been deposed and blinded by his brother, who took the throne as Alexios III. Isaac’s son, another Alexios, had escaped Byzantium to Swabia, whose lord, Philip, was son-in-law of the deposed Emperor. Boniface visited Philip, presumably looking for support for his Crusade. However, he would hardly have failed to note young Alexios’ presence, and this may have begun a train of thought which was to lead to catastrophe.
The Venetians, who were to play a major part in the coming tragedy, were trying to take over Byzantium’s rich trade routes. Their Doge, eighty year old Enrico Dandolo, had become almost blind years before in Constantinople, and is thought to have harboured a secret grudge against the Byzantines. It has also been claimed that Venice was negotiating a secret trade agreement with the Egyptians, against whom the Crusade was aimed.
Over optimistic about the likely response to the Crusade, or possibly gulled by the Venetians, the Crusade leaders committed themselves to a fleet three times too large, and a debt of eighty thousand marks. To offset the debt, the Venetians persuaded them to attack the city of Zara, which had rebelled against Venetian control. The Pope, furious at an attack on a Christian city, excommunicated all involved, but recanted so the Crusaders could go to Egypt. The debt was still enormous, and Boniface proposed that the Crusaders deviate to Byzantium and put young Alexios on his father’s throne. In return Alexios offered two hundred thousand marks and an army of ten thousand to aid against Egypt.
After a voyage marked by bitter dissension, the army reached the Bosphoros, and camped across the Straits from Constantinople. The Byzantine fleet which should have destroyed them was in ruin. Michael Stryphnos, admiral of the fleet, and the Emperor’s brother in law, had grown rich by stripping it and selling off its equipment. A scouting troop of five hundred cavalry led by Stryphnos landed across the Straits to observe the Crusaders’ movements, but was chased away by eighty mounted knights. The Crusaders sent an envoy to Byzantium to proclaim young Alexios as Emperor, but the Greeks sent him packing, and when Dandolo had Alexios sail past the City to show himself to the people they jeered and threw insults.
On July 5, 1203 the fleet crossed the straits and landed at Galata, a suburb across the Golden Horn harbour from the City proper. Their ships were unable to enter the harbour, which was blocked by a fifteen hundred foot iron chain protected by a fortified tower. A combined night attack by the Byzantines across the harbour and from the tower failed disastrously – ending with the Crusaders capturing the tower. They lowered the chain, and for the first time in history, a hostile fleet entered the Golden Horn.
Theodore Laskaris, another son-in-law of the ruling Emperor, Alexios III, was one of the few Byzantine nobles to vigorously oppose the invaders. He led ceaseless attacks – six or seven a day for ten days – against the Crusaders’ encampment, but they continued to prepare their attack.
On the tenth day, in a dual assault, the Venetians beached their ships against the harbour walls, the weakest part of the City’s defences, while the Crusaders attacked a barbican at its landward corner. The Crusaders were cut to pieces by the axes of the Varangian Guard, but the Venetians scaled the harbour walls and captured twenty-five towers within an hour. When reinforcements arrived, they fired the buildings between themselves and the Byzantines.
The northern end of the Land Walls, where the crusaders were repulsed by Varangian axemen
Emperor Alexios III led an enormous army from the main gate of the landward wall, threatening the crusaders at the north end, and forcing a general retreat. But Alexios did not attack the crusaders. Once the enemy had retreated, he re-entered the City with his army.
Byzantine soldiers, from a church mural in Cyprus
During the night, Alexios III Angelos, ruler of the greatest Empire in Christendom, and one of the most worthless men in that Empire, gathered up his favourite daughter and ten thousand gold pieces and fled the City.
On hearing the news, the crusaders were elated, but the Byzantines neatly turned the tables on them by returning to the throne young Alexios’ father Isaac, the Emperor deposed and blinded by the runaway Alexios III.
Four representatives of the invaders entered the City along a road lined with tall axe-bearing Varangians. After lengthy negotiations they managed to have young Alexios made co-Emperor with Isaac. To pay the crusaders their promised reward, Alexios sequestered the golden treasures of the Church, masterpieces of Byzantine artistry, and had them melted down.
Theodore Laskaris and Alexios Doukas Murtzuphlus (yet another son-in-law of the runaway Alexios III) kept resistance alive. Neither approved of their imposed co-Emperors, but Murtzuphlus worked his way into the new Alexios IV’s confidence.
Shunned in the City, Alexios spent most of his time with the crusaders. In an attempt to raise more money, he accompanied them on a tribute-gathering tour of the nearby province of Thrace. While he was away, a party of drunken crusader soldiers started a fire which swept through the richest part of Constantinople. From then on, foreigners were not safe within the City. Fifteen thousand fled across the Golden Horn to the Crusaders’ camp.
On Alexios’ return from Thrace, he became a recluse in the Blachernae Palace. His father ceased to be a force in Byzantine politics, closeting himself with astrologers. Alexios still could not pay his debts, and on Murtzuphlus’ advice finally stopped the payments entirely. A delegation to demand their reinstatement threatened the Emperor in front of his court, scandalizing the Byzantines at their gross breach of protocol.
On the first day of 1204 the Byzantines tried unsuccessfully to destroy the Venetian fleet with fireships. Dissatisfaction with Alexios increased, and on January 25th, Murtzuphlus acted. He decoyed the Varangians away from Alexios, threw him in prison, and took the Imperial diadem for himself. When told that Alexios had betrayed the fireship attack to the crusaders, the Varangians transferred allegiance to the new Emperor. Isaac died about this time, apparently of natural causes, but Murtzuphlus had Alexios strangled. Though the crusaders now no longer had the excuse of a puppet to restore to the throne, they had a new one: punishing a regicide.
Murtzuphlus was a harsh but capable man. He imposed further taxes, raised the harbour walls, and erected 2-3 storied wooden stages above the towers. The ordinary citizens gave him grudging respect, but the nobles disliked him intensely. Murtzuphlus was fighting a losing battle, but he very nearly carried it off.
A council of crusaders held early in March decided to take the City by force. They also agreed on the division of spoils, and that if a crusader were elected Emperor the Patriarch should be a Venetian and vice versa.
On Friday April 9th, 1204, a mass seaborne attack was launched at the harbour walls. It was beaten off with severe loss. After two days of repairs, they attacked again at the same place.
The second assault was far more successful – fireproof coverings had been placed on the ships and they had been strengthened against flung boulders. Crusaders ran up landing ramps which reached to the top of the city towers; the wind blew the ships hard against the walls and the new wooden structures began to shake. The crusaders poured into the towers and the defenders retreated stage by stage. Then a small gate was forced open, and sixty crusaders got through. A contingent of Byzantines sent against them was worsted. The crusaders managed to open a gate large enough to allow horsemen through, and the Venetians beached their transport ships before it.
The Imperial cavalry, less well armoured and led by the disaffected nobility, broke before the Crusaders. Murtzuphlus retreated through the streets accompanied by his footsoldiers and the Varangian Guard. The defenders on the walls, seeing the crusaders streaming into the City beneath them, abandoned their posts. The crusaders set up camp in the Petrion area, where Murtzuphlus’ command post had been. The City was too large for them to advance into with safety.
There were three days of sack and massacre in the occupied area of the City. Thousands were killed. The Crusader Geoffrey de Villehardoin in his chronicle later wrote:
“More houses were burnt in these fires than are to be found in any of the three largest cities in France.”<
The aftermath. Execution of a captive Byzantine. (Church of St John the Evangelist, Ravenna, c. 1213)
Overnight Murtzuphlus, all support gone except for the Varangian Guard, fled the City. Theodore Laskaris tried to rally the people, but soon realised the futility of his efforts and left as well. He crossed the Bosphoros and went to the city of Nikea in Asia Minor, where he set himself up as Emperor-in-exile. Next morning the Byzantines lay down their arms.
The crusaders looted the whole city of its treasures. The Patriarch left Constantinople with neither money nor shoes, mounted on an ass. A whore was enthroned in the Patriarchal chair. Relics from the churches were distributed throughout Europe – many of the most precious treasures of Venice came from the sack of Constantinople. Not only Christian relics, but also ancient pagan treasures were lost. A bronze of Hercules was melted down, as well as a statue of Pegasus by Alexander the Great’s court sculptor. The bronze horses now at St Mark's Cathedral in Venice formed part of the loot. The total of plunder came to four hundred thousand silver marks and ten thousand horses, not taking into account the amount “stolen” by the troops.
The official leaders of the Crusade, Boniface of Montferrat and Count Baldwin of Flanders were rival contenders for election as Emperor. With the support of the Venetian Doge Dandolo, who considered Boniface too dangerous, Baldwin won the diadem.
The Pope was horrified when he learned what had happened. The rift between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church was perpetuated. Even 250 years later, when the Turks were besieging Constantinople, one of the City’s last great statesmen remarked “Better the Sultan’s turban than the cardinal’s hat”. The Venetians appointed one of their own as the new Patriarch of Constantinople, without even consulting the Pope.
Venice had the pick of the Empire. Boniface got less and so did Baldwin, even though he was nominally Emperor. Conflict broke out very soon between Boniface and Baldwin, and it was only with difficulty that Dandolo made peace between them.
Betrayed and forsaken by his followers, Murtzuphlus was tricked and captured by ex-Emperor Alexios III who had him blinded. Shortly afterward, he fell into Baldwin’s hands and was taken in chains to Constantinople where he was thrown to his death from the top of a high tower.
Alexios III fled Thrace for Asia Minor, where he conspired against his son-in-law Theodore Laskaris for the Kingdom of Nikea. He was captured and spent the rest of his life in a monastery.
Within three years Dandolo, Baldwin and Boniface were all dead. At Byzantine instigation, the Bulgarians attacked the crusader Empire which claimed authority over the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It became a religious war. Baldwin was captured on April 25th 1205, when his army was almost completely wiped out near the city of Adrianople. the Bulgarians cut of his head and sent it to their king Kalojan.
Boniface of Montferrat secured a kingdom in Thessaloniki and made his vassals rulers of small independent realms. His daughter, Agnes, married the new Emperor Henri in 1206. But in 1207 Boniface was caught by the Bulgarians in a defile and mortally wounded.
Dandolo died peacefully in bed and is still regarded as a hero by the Venetians. he was buried in Haghia Sofia cathedral in Constantinople, where a stone commemorates him to this day.
Dandolo’s tombstone in Haghia Sophia cathedral
The “Latin” Empire disintegrated within ten years. Greece proliferated with small feudal kingdoms, with jousting, Courts of Love, Seneschals and Grand Constables. Meanwhile the Greeks set up three separate kingdoms, each claiming inheritance of the Byzantine Empire. Theodore Laskaris’ Empire of Nikea was home to the new Patriarch and was the new centre of the Orthodox Church. The crusaders were happy to conclude a peace treaty with Laskaris leaving him in possession of all traditional Byzantine territories in Asia Minor. Under his successor, John Vatatzes, nearly the whole of Asia Minor was regained from the Turks.
In 1261 Michael Paleologos, the ruler of the Empire of Nikea, captured Constantinople,which had been left undefended while the Latin “Imperial” army was on campaign. Baldwin II, the last Latin Emperor, fled with the Latin Patriarch and Venetian settlers. the Greek patriarch returned to Haghia Sophia. Dandolo’s body was apparently dug up and thrown into the Bosphoros Strait.
Though the Nikean exile had strengthened and purified Byzantine culture, the Empire had been too badly damaged and its decline could not be arrested. By the fourteenth century an Arab geographer related seeing “sown fields within the City and many ruined houses”. The Imperial Palace was in ruins the last Latin Emperor had stripped the lead off the roof to pay his debts. A city which had housed one million people lay almost deserted.
In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks. Emperor Constantine XI died heroically in the forefront of the battle. Despite rapine and pillage, the behaviour of the Muslim conquerors was far better than that of the Christians of the Fourth Crusade.
Gregorius later wrote of the Latin Empire “ . . . it fell after a miserable existence of fifty-seven years, leaving behind it no other trace than destruction and anarchy. That deformed chivalrous feudal state of the Latins belongs to the most worthless phenomena of history.”