Part II – Siege and Fall of Constantinople

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Part II – Siege and Fall of Constantinople

"Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204"
15th century miniature, author unknown
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 12, 1204

First Siege of Constantinople, 1203

"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 Villehardouin, French knight and historian of the Fourth Crusade

When they arrived before the city of Constantinople in July of 1203, most of the Crusaders were shocked and awed by the sight of the greatest city of Europe. [By contrast, the city of Rome had a population of between 40,000 to 50,000 in the Middle Ages, while London did not achieve a population of 100,000 until about the year 1300.] The Vikings knew it as Miklagard, "the Great City," but the Byzantines themselves simply called it I Polis – "the City."

"Crusaders arriving at the land and sea walls of Constantinople"; From a Venetian manuscript (ca. 1330) of La Conquete de Constantinople by Geoffrey of Villehardouin (Illustration courtesy of
"Crusaders arriving at the land and sea walls of Constantinople"
From a Venetian manuscript (ca. 1330) of La Conquete de Constantinople by Geoffrey of Villehardouin
(Illustration courtesy of

Upon arriving, the Crusaders landed on the Asian shore across the Sea of Marmara from the capital. A small cavalry fight ensured, in which 500 Byzantine horsemen were driven off by 80 western knights. The next day, 10 Venetian war galleys sailed past the city's seawalls several times, displaying to the populace that Alexios Angelos – son of the deposed emperor Isaac II Angelos and nephew of the current emperor Alexios III – had returned to assume the Byzantine throne. His return was ignored by the nobility and the people jeered and hurled insults at him.

[The western Crusaders were puzzled by this behavior, as they believed the Byzantine people would welcome Alexios as a liberator; however, western attitudes of succession colored their beliefs. In addition, they did not understand that the Byzantines regarded an emperor who sat the throne through assassination or other means was considered just as legitimate. In fact, family succession was not a highly regarded part of Byzantine imperial politics.]

Shortly thereafter, the western leaders began to formulate a plan to force their way into the city, and place the young pretender Alexios on the East Roman throne. The seawalls guarding the city's shore on the Sea of Marmara came all the way down to the water's edge. However, the seawalls guarding the Golden Horn's shore did not. Therefore, it was decided that this would be the first objective: to gain access to the Golden Horn.

Topographical Map of Constantinople during the Byzantine Period<br />
Fortified suburb of Galata (which guarded the great chain) is north of the city across the Golden Horn
Topographical Map of Constantinople during the Byzantine Period
Fortified suburb of Galata (which guarded the great chain) is north of the city across the Golden Horn

Assault on the Byzantine Capital

On July 5, 1203 the entire Crusader fleet crossed the straits and landed at Galata, a suburb across the Golden Horn harbor from the city proper. Their ships were unable to enter the harbour initially, as it was blocked by a 1500-foot iron chain protected by a fortified tower. After crossing the Bosphorus, the 200 ships, horse transports and galleys delivered the crusading army across the narrow strait. They were confronted by the current Byzantine emperor, Alexios III, who had lined up the Byzantine garrison army in battle formation along the shore, north of Galata. The Crusaders' knights charged straight out of the specially-constructed horse transports. Taken completely by surprise by this quick deployment, the Byzantine army fled south, almost without striking a blow. The Crusaders followed, and attacked the Tower of Galata. As they laid siege to the tower, the Greeks counterattacked with some initial success. However, when the Crusaders rallied and the Greeks retreated to the tower, the Crusaders were able to follow the soldiers through the fortress's main gate, and shortly afterwards the tower surrendered. This allowed the rest of the Venetian fleet access to the Golden Horn, the first time in history an enemy fleet had entered its waters.

Part of the great chain which guarded Constantinople until 1453; Currently in the Istanbul Military Museum, Turkey
Part of the great chain which guarded Constantinople until 1453
Currently in the Istanbul Military Museum, Turkey

Following up this initial success, on July 11 the Crusaders took positions opposite the Blachernae palace on the northwest corner of the city. Alexios the young pretender was paraded outside the walls, but the citizens were apathetic to his presence. Six days later on July 17, four divisions of Crusaders attacked the land walls, while the Venetian fleet attacked the sea walls southeast of Blachernae. The Venetians took a section of the wall of about 25 towers, which could be considered a major achievement. Meanwhile, the emperor's household troops, the Varangian Guard, held off the Crusaders on the land wall, finally forcing them to fall back.

[The Varangian Guard had been safeguarding the Greek emperor's person for nearly 220 years. Originally, its members were recruited from the Rus tribesmen of what is modern-day Russia and Scandinavia. After 1066, many Saxons fled their English homeland and joined the Guard. Many contemporary chronicles refer to them as "axe-wielding barbarians" for their preferred weapon.]

Following the Crusader's recoil from the city walls, Emperor Alexios led about 8500 men out of the city, threatening the flank of the land attack. This act forced the Crusaders to pull back from the walls, offering the Byzantine attack force a golden opportunity. However, after observing the Crusaders' retreat, Emperor Alexios and his legions quickly withdrew behind the city walls, although they outnumbered the Franks nearly 3 to 1. As had occurred at Galata a week before, the Greeks – save the Varangians – had not struck a single blow.

After stopping the Crusader attack, the Varangians hurriedly shifted their position to meet the Venetian threat, and in turn drove off the Venetian marines. Reluctant to give up their hard-earned gains, the Venetians slowly retreated after setting a fire to cover their withdrawal. This fire lasted for 3 days and destroyed about 440 acres of the city, leaving 20,000 people homeless.

Varangian Guardsmen (figure on the right is probably how they looked in 1203-4) (Illustration courtesy of
Varangian Guardsmen (figure on the right is probably how they looked in 1203-4)
(Illustration courtesy of

During the night, Alexios III, ruler of the greatest empire in Christendom – and one of the most worthless men in that empire – gathered up his favorite daughter and ten thousand gold pieces and fled Constantinople into nearby Thrace. On hearing the news, the crusaders were elated, but the Byzantines neatly turned the tables on them. Rather than recognize the young pretender Alexios, the Byzantine populace returned his father, the deposed and blinded Isaac II Angelos, to the throne. [Under Byzantine law, any individual who was blind or physically deformed in some way was ineligible for the throne. Apparently, this proviso did not matter to the kingmakers.]

Byzantine-Latin Relations Worsen

Shortly thereafter, four representatives of the Frankish invaders entered the city along a road lined with Varangians, seeking to discuss terms. [One of these representatives was Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who chronicled the Fourth Crusade for posterity.] After lengthy negotiations they managed to have young Alexios made co-emperor with his father, the coronation taking place on August 1.

To pay the crusaders their promised reward, Alexios IV confiscated the golden treasures of the Orthodox Church, including icons and other masterpieces of Byzantine artistry, and had these items melted down for their gold and silver. He also confiscated property belonging to nobles who opposed him. These acts yielded him only about 100,000 silver marks, only half of the amount he had promised to the Franks. Alexios led 6000 soldiers from the Crusader army into Thrace to once-and-for-all eliminate any possibility that his deposed uncle Alexios III would endanger his reign. He obtained some more loot from sacking a few Thracian towns, but not enough to help settle more of his debt to the Crusaders, nor did he eliminate his uncle. The Franks continued to pressure Alexios IV to give them the balance of their promised fee, but the young emperor refused.

Almost immediately after the coronation of Alexios IV, a large force of Crusaders and Venetians attacked a Muslim mosque (there was a large Muslim population in Constantinople at this time). A riot ensued, with the Crusaders and Venetians being pushed back by a Greek-Muslim mob. In an attempt to cover their retreat, some of the Venetians set fire to several buildings, which promptly grew into the "Great Fire." This fire burned down a large portion of the Byzantine capital, and provoked more disorders and increased opposition to Alexios.

At the beginning of January 1204, Alexios IV retaliated against the Crusaders by setting fire to 17 Greek ships and sending them against the Venetian fleet, but the attempt failed. Several weeks later, the Byzantine populace tried to crown a rival emperor, evidently showing that the populace did not look with great favor on a ruler who bowed to the Frankish invaders. Finally, on the night of January 27, 1204 the co-emperors barricaded themselves in the royal palace to protect themselves from Greek rioters. The emperors then sent Greek courtier Alexios Doukas (who acquired the nickname of "Mourtzouphlos" either for his very bushy eyebrows or crestfallen, sullen disposition) to seek help from the Franks. Instead, Doukas ordered that Isaac II and Alexios IV be taken into custody. Isaac II died shortly afterwards – probably from old age – and Alexios IV was ordered strangled to death on February 8. Alexios Doukas then was proclaimed emperor as Alexios V Doukas.

The Crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honor the contract with Alexios IV. When the new Byzantine emperor refused, the Crusaders prepared to assault the city once again.

Crusaders Second Attack on Constantinople

"The Second Conquest of Constantinople," by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1580-1605, currently in the Great Council Hall, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy (Illustration courtesy of
"The Second Conquest of Constantinople," by Jacopo Tintoretto,
c.1580-1605, currently in the Great Council Hall, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy
(Illustration courtesy of

On April 9, the Franks and Venetians undertook another full-scale assault on Miklagard, following the same strategy as the previous July – the Crusaders attacking the land walls in the northwest of the city and the Venetians attacking the shore defenses along the Golden Horn. Alexios V's army put up a strong resistance which did much to discourage the Crusaders. A small number of the Venetian forces managed to land on the shore. Some of the siege engines were deployed, but their fire caused minimal damage to the city's defenses.

The Byzantines hurled enormous projectiles onto the enemy siege engines, shattering many of them. They also unleashed an accurate archery fire at the Frankish and Venetian attackers. Another serious hindrance to the crusaders was bad weather conditions. A prevailing wind blew from the south and prevented most of the ships from drawing close enough to the walls to launch an assault. Only five of the wall's towers were actually engaged and none of these could be secured; by mid-afternoon it was evident that the attack had failed.

That night, the Latin clergy discussed the situation amongst themselves and settled upon the message they wished to spread through the demoralized army. They had to convince the men that the events of the day were not God's judgment on a sinful enterprise: the campaign, they argued, was righteous and with proper belief it would succeed. The concept of God testing the determination of the Crusaders through temporary setbacks was a familiar means for the clergy to explain failure in the course of a campaign.

The clergy's message was designed to reassure and encourage the Crusaders. Their argument that the attack on Constantinople was spiritual revolved around two themes. First, the Greeks were traitors and murderers since they had killed their rightful lord, Alexios IV. The churchmen used inflammatory language and claimed that "the Greeks were worse than the Jews," and they invoked the authority of God and the pope to take action. Although Innocent III had again demanded that they not attack, the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy.

The Frankish leadership bided their time, waiting for the winds to change before launching another assault. Finally, after three days the local winds shifted, and began blowing from the north. The Crusaders launched another attack on the land walls near the Blachernae section of the city, while the Venetians renewed their attack from the sea. The attackers seized some of the towers along the land wall. After a short battle, approximately 70 Crusaders managed to enter the city. Some Crusaders were eventually able to knock holes in the walls, small enough for a few knights at a time to crawl through. The Venetians were also successful at scaling the walls from the sea, although there was extremely bloody fighting with the Varangians. After heavy fighting, the Crusaders captured the Blachernae section of the city in the northwest and used it as a base to attack the rest of the city. However, while attempting to defend themselves with another wall of fire, they ended up burning down even more of the city. This second fire left 15,000 people homeless. Apparently seeing the writing on the wall, Emperor Alexios V fled from the city that night through the Rhegium Gate and escaped into the countryside west of the city.

Sack of Constantinople

The Crusaders looted, terrorized and vandalized Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were either stolen or destroyed. The famous bronze horses from the Hippodrome were sent back to adorn the facade of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, where they still remain. As well as being stolen, works of immeasurable value were destroyed merely for their material value. One of the most precious works to suffer such a fate was a large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of no lesser than Alexander the Great. Like so many other priceless artworks made of bronze, the statue was melted down for its content by the Crusaders whose greed blinded them.

Bronze horses looted from Constantinople in 1204; St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy
Bronze horses looted from Constantinople in 1204
St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy

The Library of Constantinople was destroyed. Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, the Crusaders systematically violated the city's holy sanctuaries, destroying or stealing all they could lay hands on; nothing was spared. The city's population were subject to the Crusaders' ruthless lust for spoils and glory; thousands of them were killed in cold blood. Women, even nuns, were raped by the Crusader army, which also sacked churches, convents, and monasteries. The very altars of these churches were smashed and torn to pieces for their gold and marble by the warriors who had sworn to fight in service of Christendom without question. Although the Venetians engaged in looting too, their actions were far more restrained. Doge Dandolo still appeared to have far more control over his men. Rather than wantonly destroying all around like their Frankish comrades, the Venetians stole religious relics and works of art which they would later take to Venice to use to adorn their own churches and other buildings.

It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks. The Venetians received 150,000 silver marks that was their due, while the Crusaders received 50,000 silver marks. A further 100,000 silver marks were divided evenly between the Crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were secretly kept back by many Crusader knights.


According to a prearranged treaty, the empire was apportioned between Venice and the crusade's leaders, and the Latin Empire of Constantinople was established. Baldwin of Flanders was placed on the throne. He was crowned Emperor in the Hagia Sophia as Baldwin I of Constantinople. Boniface, denied the imperial throne, went on to found the Kingdom of Thessalonica, a vassal state of the new Latin Empire. The Venetians also founded the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean Sea. Byzantine aristocratic refugees founded their own successor states, the most notable of these being the Empire of Ncaea under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexios III), the Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus.

Footnote #1: The Crusaders' capture of Constantinople did not destroy the Byzantine Empire, but it did weaken it. The various Latin and breakaway states lasted less than 70 years. The wave of Ottoman Turkish conquest finally engulfed the former East Roman Empire, culminating in the capture of "The City" in 1453.

Memorial marker for Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo; Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Memorial marker for Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo
Hagia Sophia mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Footnote #2: The Venetian doge Dandolo continued to take an active part in political and military matters, particularly in a disastrous expedition against the Bulgarians at the battle of Adrianople in 1205. He died in May 1205. He was buried in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, probably in the upper eastern gallery. In the 19th century an Italian restoration team placed a cenotaph marker near the probable location, which is still visible today. The marker is frequently mistaken by tourists as being a medieval marker of the actual tomb of the doge. The real tomb was destroyed by the Turks after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Footnote #3: When Pope Innocent heard of the capture of the Byzantine capital, he excommunicated everyone involved. Nevertheless, the Pope's negative reaction was short-lived. When the crusaders took the piles of money, jewels, and gold that they had captured in the sack of Constantinople back to Rome, Innocent welcomed the stolen items and agreed to let the crusaders back into the Church.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.