On this date in 1204, the Fourth Crusader army, directed by the pope to recapture Jerusalem from Muslim forces, but instead besieging Constantinople, breached the walls of the city which led to the sack of Constantinople: one of the most heinous crimes in the history of warfare anywhere in the world. I was taught Byzantine church history at Oxford by a Greek Orthodox archimandrite, and when he spoke of the events of 1204 there was real anger in his eyes and voice. At the time, the Sack of Constantinople was over 750 years in the past, but his fury at its barbarity remained fresh. Think of it. The Crusaders claimed to be Christians on a mission to free holy sites from infidels (a dubious mission in its own right), and instead they raped, robbed, and murdered other Christians. Ever since the East/West schism of 1054 (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/east-west-schism/ ) the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches had been at loggerheads theologically, but they had recognized that they were both Christian and could conceivably have found a way to come back together under one communion given enough diplomacy. After the Sack of Constantinople, reconciliation was unthinkable (and remains so). I won’t go into much detail – enough to give you the flavor. What I particularly want to show is that the Crusades in general, and the Fourth Crusade in particular, were not primarily about devotion to Christian faith, but were about greed and financial gain.
The majority of the crusading army that set out from Venice in early October 1202 originated from areas within France. The crusade was to be ready to sail on 24th June 1203 and make directly for the Ayyubid capital, Cairo, which they would conquer as a stepping stone to Jerusalem. This agreement was ratified by pope Innocent III, with a solemn ban on attacks on Christian states. The Venetians, under their aged and blind doge Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to for their transport vessels and equipment, originally 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could initially pay only 35,000 silver marks. The doge threatened to keep them interned unless full payment was made, so a further 14,000 marks was collected, and that only by reducing the crusaders to extreme poverty. This was disastrous to the Venetians, who had halted their commerce for a great length of time to prepare this expedition. In addition, about 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.
Dandolo and the Venetians considered what to do with the Crusade. It was too small to pay its fee, but disbanding the force gathered would harm Venetian prestige and cause significant financial and trading loss. Dandolo, who joined the crusade during a public ceremony in the church of San Marco di Venezia, proposed that the crusaders pay their debts by intimidating many of the local ports and towns down the Adriatic, culminating in an attack on the port of Zara in Dalmatia. The city had been dominated economically by Venice throughout the 12th century but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with king Emeric of Hungary and Croatia. Subsequent Venetian attempts to recover control of Zara had been repulsed, and by 1202 the city was economically independent, under the protection of the king.
King Emeric was Catholic and had himself taken the cross in 1195 or 1196. Many of the crusaders were opposed to attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by the elder Simon de Montfort, refused to participate altogether and returned home. While the papal legate to the Crusade, cardinal Peter of Capua, endorsed the move as necessary to prevent the Crusade’s complete failure, the pope was alarmed at this development and wrote a letter to the crusading leadership threatening excommunication.
In 1202, pope Innocent, despite wanting to secure papal authority over Byzantium, wrote forbidding the Crusaders from committing any atrocious acts against their Christian neighbors. However, this letter was concealed from the bulk of the army who arrived at Zara on 10–11 November 1202, and the attack proceeded. The citizens of Zara made reference to the fact that they were fellow Catholics by hanging banners marked with crosses from their windows and the walls of the city, but nevertheless the city fell on 24th November 1202 after a brief siege. There was extensive pillaging, and the Venetians and other crusaders came to blows over the division of the spoils. Order was achieved, and the leaders of the expedition agreed to winter in Zara, while considering their next move. The fortifications of Zara were demolished by the Venetians. When Innocent III heard of the sack, he sent a letter to the crusaders excommunicating them and ordering them to return to their holy vows and head for Jerusalem. Out of fear that this would dissolve the army, the leaders of the crusade decided not to inform their followers of this. In February 1203 he rescinded the excommunications against all non-Venetians in the expedition, apparently believing that they had been coerced by the Venetians.
In January 1203, en-route to Jerusalem, the Crusader leadership, still lacking funds, entered into an agreement with the Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos to divert the Crusade to Constantinople and restore his deposed father as emperor. The intent of the Crusaders was then to continue to Jerusalem with promised Byzantine financial and military aid. On 23rd June 1203, the bulk of the Crusaders reached Constantinople, while smaller contingents continued to Acre. In August, following clashes outside Constantinople, Alexios was crowned co-Emperor. However, in January 1204, he was deposed by a popular uprising. The Crusaders were no longer able to receive their promised payments from Alexios. Following the murder of Alexios on 8th February, the Crusaders decided on the outright conquest of the city. On 12th April 1204, the weather conditions finally favored the Crusaders so that they could cross the Bosporus and assail the fortress of Constantinople. A strong northern wind aided the Venetian ships in coming close to the walls, and after a short battle approximately seventy crusaders managed to enter the city. Some were able to knock holes in the walls, large enough for only a few knights at a time to crawl through. The Venetians were also successful at scaling the walls from the sea, though there was fighting with the Varangians. The Anglo-Saxon “axe bearers” had been amongst the most effective of the city’s defenders, but they now attempted to negotiate higher wages from their Byzantine employers, before dispersing or surrendering. 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. While attempting to defend themselves with a wall of fire, however, they burned even more of the city. The Crusaders completely took the city on 13th April.
The Crusaders sacked Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient Greco-Roman and medieval Byzantine works of art were stolen or ruined. Many of the civilian population of the city were killed and their property looted. Despite the threat of excommunication, the crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted the city’s churches and monasteries. 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 up between the crusaders and Venetians. The remaining 500,000 silver marks were secretly kept back by many crusader knights. Only a handful of the Crusaders continued to the Holy Land thereafter.
The conquest of Constantinople was followed by the fragmentation of the Empire into three rump states centered in Nicaea, Trebizond and Epirus. The Crusaders then founded several Crusader states in former Byzantine territory, largely hinged upon the Latin Empire of Constantinople. The presence of the Latin Crusader states almost immediately led to war with the Byzantine successor states and the Bulgarian Empire. The Nicaean Empire eventually recovered Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire in 1261. The Crusade is considered to be one of the most prominent acts that solidified the schism between the Greek and Latin Christian churches, and dealt an irrevocable blow to the already weakened Byzantine Empire, paving the way for Muslim conquests in Anatolia and Balkan Europe in the coming centuries.
In a nutshell, the Fourth Crusade, rather than achieving its stated aim of “liberating” regions from Muslims, saw to it that the Middle East and much of the Mediterranean and eastern Europe came under Muslim rule. The simple fact is, however, that the Crusades were not about the importance of Christianity and spreading the Gospel, but about greed and power – pure and simple. That was the nature of Medieval warfare, and things have not changed a great deal.
Here is a slightly strange video attempting to reconstruct Byzantine cooking:
Constantinople was a crossroads in Medieval times with its cuisine showing influences from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and, in turn, influenced the cuisines of Europe thereafter. Istanbul (modern Constantinople) is still a crossroads, and the cuisine is still eclectic.