Byzantine Capital of Constantinople Captured by Crusaders, Sacked for Three Days

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Byzantine Capital of Constantinople Captured by Crusaders, Sacked for Three Days

"The Taking of Constantinople," oil on canvas by Palma Le Jeune (1544–1620)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 12, 1204,

For today's history lesson, I continue my focus on the Middle Ages, and shine a spotlight on probably the greatest crime of the thirteenth century: the assault and sack of the Byzantine capital city of Constantinople by western European knights bound for the Holy Land on the Fourth Crusade. It is a sad tale of good intentions, bribery, and greed.


Between 1095 and 1192, three church-sanctioned Crusades had set out to recover the Holy City of Jerusalem from Muslim hands. The First Crusade accomplished its mission, which allowed western nobles to expand their land holdings throughout Palestine and Syria. However, less than a century later, the Muslim emir Saladin took control of Syria and Egypt, then conquered Jerusalem and most of the Christian kingdom by 1187. The Crusader nation was then limited to three coastal cities: Tyre, Tripoli, and Antioch.

Saladin's victories provoked a Third Crusade, which is most famous for the involvement of King of England Richard I aka "The Lionheart." [Readers interested in one of Richard's greatest battles should go to the following link of my Burn Pit post of September 7, 2012: battle of arsuf .] This crusade accomplished nothing, except allowing Christians safe access to Jerusalem. This failure to reclaim the Holy Land caused Pope Innocent III – newly crowned in 1198 – to begin preaching for another crusade, making it the centerpiece of his papacy. [Another event linked to Pope Innocent was the declaration of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France in the year 1209. Readers seeking further information on that conflict should go to the following link to my Burn Pit post of July 23, 2010: God will know His own .] There was growing dislike for the crusading movement throughout Europe, but large numbers of French nobles were anxious to do their Christian duty.

Pope Innocent III (reigned 1198-1216); Fresco in St. Benedict's Cave (Sacro Speco) near Subiaco, Italy
Pope Innocent III (reigned 1198-1216)
Fresco in St. Benedict's Cave (Sacro Speco) near Subiaco, Italy

It was decided that the crusade on the Holy Land would first attack Egypt, which would be used as a base to re-conquer Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine. Agents of the leading Crusaders began looking for naval allies to ferry the as-yet unformed army to the Middle East. The Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, and other maritime states were approached to arrange transport to Egypt. Genoa was uninterested, but Venice readily agreed to the arrangement.

Negotiation with the Venetians began in March of 1201, with the final agreement stating that 33,500 crusaders, a very ambitious number, would be transported. This agreement required a full year of preparation on the part of the Venetians to build numerous ships and train the sailors who would man them, all the while curtailing the city's extensive commercial activities. The crusading army was expected to consist of 4,500 knights, (as well as 4,500 horses), 9,000 squires and men-at-arms, and 20,000 foot soldiers.

By the end of the late spring of 1202, the bulk of the crusader army was collected at Venice, though with far fewer troops than expected: 12,000 instead of 33,500. Between 4000 and 5000 knights and 8000 foot soldiers showed up. The Venetians had performed their part of the agreement: in the city's harbor lay 50 war galleys and 450 transports – enough for three times the assembled army. The Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, originally 85,000 silver marks. The Crusaders initially could only pay 35,000 silver marks. The Doge threatened to keep them interned unless full payment was made. At that news, French moneybags opened a bit further, and an additional 16,000 marks were collected, and only by most of the knights and nobles reducing themselves to extreme poverty. To this point, the entire arrangement was a looming disaster to the Venetians, who had halted their commerce for a great length of time to prepare this expedition. In addition to this, at least 14,000 men or as many as 20-30,000 men (out of Venice's population of 60-100,000 people) were needed to man the entire fleet, placing further strain on the Venetian economy. With less than 60 percent of the payment collected, the Doge and the Crusaders were looking for some way to satisfy both parties. Two events took place which set the Fourth Crusade on a divergent path.

Map of the Venetian Republic (in red), c. AD 1000 (text is German; "Venedig" is Venice)
Map of the Venetian Republic (in red), c. AD 1000 (text is German; "Venedig" is Venice)

Siege of Zara

The city of Zara (modern-day Zadar, Croatia) on the Adriatic Sea was a part of the Venetian maritime empire from 998. The citizens rebelled on several occasions, finally throwing off the yoke of Venice in 1182 and becoming an independent city under the protection of the King of Hungary and Croatia. Doge Dandalo made the decision that the Crusaders would assist the Venetian navy in the re-capture of Zara, to make up the remainder of the payment the republic was owed.

The Venetian-Crusader flotilla – 200 ships strong – left Venice in early October of 1202. The ship of the Venetian Doge Dandalo – who was over 80 years old and blind – was painted vermillion, with a vermillion canopy shading the deck. Arriving outside the harbor of Zara on November 10, the fleet was confronted by a large chain and boom guarding the harbor. Using the metal rams on the Venetian galleys, the invaders burst into the harbor. The troop ships and horse transports quickly deployed the Crusader force, and 150 siege engines were landed and set up. The inhabitants of Zara, seeking to show that they were neither infidels nor schismatic Eastern Orthodox, displayed banners on the city's walls and in the windows of their houses. The Crusaders ignored these banners, and attacked the city with zeal. After 14 days, the city surrendered.

The lives of Zara's citizens were spared, but the revolt was punished by the pillaging of their homes and the demolition of their city walls. The Crusaders decided to winter in Zara, as the season was too far advanced to head for Egypt. As they settled into a dull, dreary existence in a pillaged city, the second event occurred which sent the Crusaders down an even bloodier path.

Exiled Byzantine Prince Alexios

When the original leader of the Fourth Crusade, Count Theobald III of Champagne, died in 1201, an Italian nobleman Boniface the Marquess of Montferrat was chosen as its new leader. He was an experienced soldier, and Boniface's family was well known in the east: his nephew Baldwin and brother Conrad had been Kings of Jerusalem, and his niece Maria was heiress of the kingdom.

In the winter of 1201 Boniface spent Christmas with his cousin Duke Philip of Swabia in the city of Hagenau. Philip was married to Irene Angelina, a daughter of the deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos. In addition, Boniface also met with Alexios Angelos, Isaac II's son, who had escaped from the custody of his uncle Alexios III Angelos. During that time the three men discussed the possibility of using the crusading army to restore Alexios's right to the throne. Both Boniface and Alexios travelled separately to Rome to ask for Pope Innocent's blessing for the endeavor; however, Boniface was specifically told by Innocent not to attack any Christians, including the Byzantines.

Byzantine Emperor Alexios Angelos (later Alexios IV), reigned 1203-1204; 15th century drawing by unknown artist from the History of John Zonaras; Currently at the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena, Italy
Byzantine Emperor Alexios Angelos (later Alexios IV), reigned 1203-1204
15th century drawing by unknown artist from the History of John Zonaras
Currently at the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena, Italy

The Pope was angered by the attack on Zara by the Crusader army. The Holy Father even went so far as to write a letter to the leaders of the army, excommunicating everyone associated with the expedition, down to the lowliest foot soldier. This letter, however, was withheld from the army at large, as it would likely cause a steep drop in morale and encourage desertion. The Venetian doge was now the true war leader of this Crusade, with Boniface as only a figurehead. At this point, the doge played his trump card.

Alexios Angelos and Dandalo had already had discussions about using the Crusaders to put Alexios on the East Roman throne. During the winter of 1202-1203 the two men began serious negotiations to use the Crusader army against a target for which the doge yearned: the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. In 1182, the citizens of Constantinople rioted and attacked Italian merchants who dominated the overseas trade of the empire. Thousands of merchants, their wives and children were killed in the event, which has come down in history as the "Massacre of the Latins." Some Venetian, Pisan, and Genoese merchants escaped before the event, and likely held a grudge against the schismatic Byzantines. Perhaps Dandalo viewed the Crusader army as the perfect instrument of revenge.

Prince Alexios made many promises to the Crusaders and the doge of Venice if they would help him reclaim his kingdom. Among those promises were:

  • An offer to pay the entire debt owed to the Venetians, in addition to giving 200,000 silver marks to the Crusaders;
  • The assignment of 10,000 Byzantine professional troops to join the Crusade;
  • The use of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusader Army to Egypt; and,
  • Once the Holy Land was reclaimed, Alexios would maintain 500 knights there.

As the negotiations progressed, Dandolo knew he would need to placate the Pope in some fashion for defying his prohibition against attacking other Christians. Finally, Alexios Angelos pledged that, after he was placed on his throne in Constantinople, he would submit the Orthodox Church to Rome. [It is highly likely that the Venetian doge, a shrewd diplomat in his own right and having dealt with Byzantine diplomacy before, knew that this last pledge was almost certainly not going to happen. However, it was something that the Crusaders could be persuaded to believe, the potential humbling of the East Romans.] The doge used his considerable diplomatic skills to persuade most of the leaders of the crusade to agree to the new objective; others he simply bribed. Once he was informed of this latest provision, Pope Innocent gave vague approval for the expedition.

The remaining fleet of 60 war galleys, 100 horse transports, and 50 large troop transports (the entire fleet manned by 10,000 Venetian oarsmen and marines) sailed from Zara in late April 1203. It sailed around the tip of Greece, into the Aegean Sea, and set a course for Constantinople. The flotilla arrived at its destination in late June or early July of 1203.

Restored section of Theodosian walls of Constantinople, now inside the city of Istanbul, Turkey
Restored section of Theodosian walls of Constantinople, now inside the city of Istanbul, Turkey

It is unlikely that many of the Crusaders had seen a city to rival Constantinople. It was built on a set of seven hills (mimicking the "Eternal City" of Rome), and its landward side was protected by a series of walls built by Constantine the Great – the city's founder and by Theodosius, an early fifth century emperor. There were also seawalls that enclosed the entire city. There was also a huge chain which blocked access from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, a watery arm of the Sea of Marmora north of the city. The city also had a garrison of 15,000 soldiers – including the renowned Varangian Guard – and a fleet of 20 war galleys. [In fact, the 20 war galleys guarding the city were in great disrepair from neglect.]

Map of Mediterranean nations, c. 1180, before the Third Crusade (1189-1192)
Map of Mediterranean nations, c. 1180, before the Third Crusade (1189-1192)

Although their target looked formidable, the Byzantine Empire had suffered nearly two decades of turmoil, and was not the strong military machine it had been even half a century before. Since about 1180, portions of Croatia had been incorporated into the Hungarian kingdom, then Serbia and Bulgaria declared themselves independent of the Byzantines. Finally, in August of 1185 Normans from Sicily captured and sacked Thessalonica, the second largest city of the empire. The Crusaders then began their preparations to assault the greatest and richest city in Christendom.

Tomorrow: Part II – Siege and Fall of Constantinople

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