The Venetian lesson

In view of the troubled situation in various parts of the world today and the disparaging allusions to the Crusades, referring to the Fourth Crusade may not be considered opportune. This especially when it seems more fashionable, even in Europe, to criticise the Crusaders rather than to praise these staunch defenders of the old continent.
This argument however is the main reason for this introduction. Is it not better to try to shed more light on a fatefully important error of the XIII century, than not refer to it at all? Would it not be depriving the 'enemy' of a concession, rather than granting a concession to the 'enemy'? Today more than ever before, the recorded truth of the past
is available for the taking. If it's masked or glossed over by the first,
it can easily be retrieved, possessed and exploited by the second.

Historically this fateful episode also represents an example of how various, complex circumstances, incidents, limitations, national and personal interests can intricately (diabolically) weave themselves together into a terribly ironic, Shakespearian twist, creating a combined effect that not only has nothing to do with the original objective, but even works totally against it.

In 'La Chute des Anges',  I made certain allusions that might also be pertinent here. Is there not a relative parallel in deforming the truth for a cause, and in deforming/defying the word of God? (The essential, universal truth). Isn't this the fundamental fault of religious fanatics who perpetuate crimes in the name of God they pretend to worship? And those condescending clerics who, after ignoring or deforming the religious laws they pompously profess to uphold and represent, still vainly presume to be God's élite, thus, in the most brutal way, disposing of any others who dare try to voice an alternative opinion. Are not such tyrants further examples of Lucifer's henchmen?

But in the camp of the Crusaders, why would their cause merit greater respect if they also abused the truth for its benefit? Is this not the same? When both sides are nevertheless convinced that they represent the will of God and that their enemy represents the Devil, God might be inclined to dismiss both, judging that neither the one nor the other can represent him at all. In this case both could go to the devil..

If it were heard said that the Christians of the Balkans, Lebanon and Syria who were to be subjected to the domination of the Ottomans for five centuries, would always prefer Turks to Latins, the effects of the Fourth Crusade might have had something to do with it. And this shameful episode in Medieval history created the irreparable cultural schism between the East and the West. After this final Crusade it was inconceivable that there would ever be any unity between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

To pave the way to Jerusalem, the original plan authorised by Pope Innocent III was to conquer Egypt which by the year 1200 had become an important centre of Islamic power. The project however seemed to have been doomed from the very beginning.
In order to transport the crusading army of several thousand, an important fleet was required. Venice was chosen because it was able to build the ships and was a near enough location for a western European army consisting mostly of Francs.
Part of the final, official agreement was that Venice would supply a fleet large enough to carry up to 35,000 soldiers to 'recapture Jerusalem' for the sum of 86,000 marks. Despite the wording of 'Jerusalem', Egypt was the real goal from the outset.
The Venetians, merchants at heart, also proposed to supply escort war ships on condition that they would receive half of the spoils of all conquests.

Initially there were problems between the Crusaders themselves which led to division. A contingent of Flemish soldiers consequently made its own way arriving in Acre in 1202. Others left from the port of Marseilles, France.
Many other soldiers and wealthy Knights on whom the project also depended, never arrived in Venice, and it soon became apparent that the sum agreed upon with the Doge wouldn't be met. All too late because the fleet was being built according to the agreement. A bit more than half of the sum was eventually found, but the remaining debt gave Doge Dandolo the upper hand. But had he not always anticipated this, in order to exact his own plans?

The first of these was the recuperation of the port of Zara (Zadar in Croatia) retrieved from Venice by Hungary. Zara was an important commercial rival, and the Venetian objective was to control and monopolise all Mediterranean trade. Now that Venice had an army at its disposal, this was within reach. Although Zara was a Christian city, the heavily indebted Crusaders felt that they had no other choice, and this, notwithstanding the protests and threats of excommunication from the Pope.

In October, 1202, a fleet of 480 ships sailed from Venice to the city of Zara. The city was taken the 24th November after five days of fighting. It was entirely sacked. 'Christians' ransacked Christian churches taking everything of value.
Although the Pope was furious and carried out his threat of excommunication of all who had participated in this abomination, he cancelled his decision after receiving word that it had been unavoidable. He was also swayed by the hope that the Crusade would not veer off its main course again.

The spoils of Zara however were not enough to pay the outstanding Venetian debt, and other plots were hatching. Unknown to the Crusaders, Venice had previously negotiated an agreement of trade with Egypt. The Venetians had therefore no reason to want to participate in a project that would compromise their own interests. Constantinople however, was the only remaining obstacle preventing Venice from realising its objective of Mediterranean trade supremacy.

It is also said that Doge Dandolo had another, more personal grudge against Constantinople, for it was there where he happened to lose his eyesight.

Coincidentally, the leader of the Crusade, Boniface de Manferrat, having recently sojourned in Germany, had been received by King Philip of Swabia. Expecting to receive the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and having family ties with Constantinople (his wife was daughter of Emperor Isaac II who had been disposed in favour of Alexius III in 1195) the King of Swabia had his own designs.
Isaac II also had a son, Alexius Angelus, who had managed to flee Constantinople when his father was dethroned. He had made his way to Germany to the court of King Philip.
The King hoped to divert the Crusade to Constantinople in order to place Alexius (as Alexius IV) on the throne.

A deal developed and was agreed upon when Alexius Angelus offered the Crusade 200,000 marks and an army of 10,000 soldiers, if and when he gained the Byzantine throne. He had also promised that Constantinople and its Empire would become subject to the Papacy.

The fleet sailed across the Bosporus towards Galata in July, 1203. The first goal was the Tower of Galata guarding the entrance to the Golden Horn. The defence was weak, the tower was captured and the fleet thus gained entrance to the Horn.

At first the walls were well defended by the Varangian Guard, but the unanticipated flight of Alexius III, abandoning everything including his family, radically changed the situation. By releasing old Isaac II and restoring him to the throne, the Byzantines thought that any argument would be settled and that the Crusader's pretext would no longer exist.
But this wouldn't pay the Venetian debt.

It was then agreed that negotiators must debate with the newly restored Emperor, who was faced with the serious problem of his son's engagement. He had no choice but to agree, and it was arranged that both Isaac II and Alexius IV be jointly crowned in the Santa Sophia. But there was still the financial problem. The previous reign had been generally disastrous, also in economic affairs. To try to find money it was even thought necessary to deprive some churches of their treasures.

Unsurprisingly Alexius IV was not popular with the Byzantines of Constantinople. They also suffered from the imposition of new taxes. For them he only represented the interests of the western barbarians. The developing danger prompted the young Emperor to ask the Crusaders to stay on for his protection, in return for which he promised them even more money.

Accompanied by a strong escort, Alexius IV toured Thrace to try to collect funds and gain the loyalty of the people. During his absence a great fire broke out in Constantinople. It killed hundreds of citizens and destroyed a huge part of the old city centre. The Byzantines' furious reaction caused the flight of thousands of European refugees to the Golden Horn.
Alexius IV returned to this grave situation. His father was no longer in a condition to rule in any way. A delegation of Crusaders approached the court of Constantinople once more demanding that the debt be honoured. The Byzantine court took this as intolerably insulting, and it led to open war.

On the first day of January, 1204, seventeen ships were prepared, set alight and made to drift towards the Venetian fleet. The crews reacted promptly, managing to cast off and steer the fleet from harms way in time. Only one merchant ship was lost. The bold attempt had failed.

This failure made things even worse for the young Emperor, and anarchy broke out in the city.
The senate, deciding that a new leader was urgently needed, chose a young nobleman (Nicholas Canobus) who wasn't very keen on the idea. Meanwhile the threatened Alexius IV sent an urgent message to Boniface begging for his help and protection.

But then another Alexius appears upon the scene, the courtier Alexius Ducas, son of Emperor Alexius III- he who was the first to flee. This was then his moment. Pretending that a mob is about to storm the palace to kill the Emperor, he persuades the Varangian Guard to defend it. At the same time he convinces the Emperor, Alexius IV, that he must save himself.
Alone and unprotected the young Emperor is easily disposed of by Ducas and his henchmen. His imperial robes are seized and he is imprisoned.
Alexius Ducas claims the throne as Alexius V, supported by his clan and generally accepted.

This was all too much for old Isaac II, who died in despair. His hapless son Alexius IV was assassinated (poisoned and strangled) by order of the new Emperor. An Emperor of action who the people seemed to believe in because of the way he organised and improved the defence of Constantinople, encouraging attacks on the Crusaders whenever possible. The members of the nobility were far more reserved about him, having lost their influence. The Emperor's court had been replaced. Alexius V also had the precious support of the Varangian Guard none of whom had ever trusted Alexius IV. They too were encouraged by the new Emperor's fighting spirit.

A spirit that showed by the following successful defence of the city's ramparts when the Venetian ships tried to attack and breach them the 9th April, 1204.
The Crusaders were desperate and frustrated. They had heard that all those who had independently left for Syria had perished. The initial project of invading Egypt no longer interested them, and in any case they were still indebted to the old Doge Enrico Dandolo, and thus still under his yoke.

For the second assault of the 12th April, the wind was far more favourable, enabling the Venetian ships to beach a greater distance thus gaining enough height to use their specially constructed drawbridges which now reached the heightened ramparts. Costly defensive mistakes were made this time resulting in the loss of the north wall to the Venetians, and the lower grounds to the Crusaders.
If, in their eyes the battle had only just begun, the Byzantines had a different view: their walls had been breached, therefore they were lost. Everyone was trying to escape. The army too had already given up, for it was vastly outnumbered by the invading force. And the Emperor had fled the city.
A noble, Theodore Lascaris (reportedly to be crowned Emperor, later in exile) hopelessly tried to organise a last defence, but he too fled that night. A fateful night lit up by a second great fire, destroying even more of the ancient city.

The invaders woke up on the 13th April, 1204 to find that the war was already over. The city was theirs for the taking, in every way.

The Sack of Constantinople, three days of murder, rape, looting and wanton destruction, are recorded in full detail, accounts of which are easily accessible. It was a vile, senseless and barbaric act that obviously had nothing to do with whatever religion one professes to defend, if true religion ever needs to be defended. Such barbarity can only represent the worst that man is capable of, when he gives full rein to blind hate, prejudice, frustration and greed.
The loss of art treasures by the Sack of Constantinople is inestimable, and had the Venetians, being far more appreciative of art, not taken part, it would probably have been a lot worse. At least the Venetians conserved and treasure what they took. The Francs pretending to be Crusaders, apparently saw no reason why, amongst many other irredeemable, fine works, a magnificent bronze of Hercules, a creation of Lysippus, the famous court sculptor to Alexander the Great, shouldn't be destroyed and melted down, just for its bronze.

In reality, it was the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, in his eighties and blind, who had things in hand. The power of debt, indeed similar to that of Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice'.
To insure that there be no threat to the subsequent trading interests of the Republic of Venice, it's likely that Dandolo decided who then should take the throne of Constantinople (a choice that was fully accepted by the Pope).

The Venetians had triumphed, after all, they were primarily merchants, and not religious warmongers. They had used the Crusaders against their own cause and interests to remove the final obstacle obstructing Venice from establishing total dominance of Mediterranean maritime trade, and at the same time they had prevented the Crusaders from attacking their new trade partner, Egypt.

Trophies from Constantinople can be seen in la Piazza San Marco, such as the horses, the imperial quadriga, and the fine marbles adorning the Cathedral.
And what of the Byzantine Empire, the longest reigning Empire (1123 years) in the history of civilisation? By all accounts it must already have been in serious decline.

This sad episode in medieval history also reminds us that priorities were determined more by the power of wealth and financial considerations, than by the power of any presumed noble principles and religious considerations.
Eight hundred and six years later, this certainly still seems to be the case today, whatever one's nationality, culture or religion.

Text © Mirino (PW). Main Source (with thanks). Images Medieval Byzantine frescos. February, 2010

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