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The sack of Constantinople, 1204

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Friday, 5 August 2011

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This edited article about the Byzantium and the Crusades originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1003 published on 30 May 1981.

Sacking of Constantinople, picture, image, illustration

The old Venetian Doge, Enrico Dandolo, leads the sack of Constantinople in 1204, by Tancredi Scarpelli

Thousands lined the battlements of Constantinople, gazing in silent astonishment at the huge fleet sailing past into the Bosphorus strait. There were some 500 ships – slim war galleys, merchant ships with billowing sails, and squat transport craft, many of them packed with horses.

Those aboard the ships, too, were filled with wonder at their first sight of the city, with its buildings rising in shining splendour behind the lofty walls; and, dominating all, the great dome of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. This was the fabled city founded nearly nine centuries before by Constantine the Great on the site of ancient Byzantium, as a new capital for the Roman Empire; and now the eastern stronghold of the Christian Church.

There should have been no cause for the people of Constantinople to fear the fleet that sailed beneath its walls that day in 1203. For it carried the Soldiers of the Cross, sent on the Fourth Crusade by Pope Innocent III to liberate the Holy Land.

Yet the citizens soon found that they had very good reason to fear this formidable armada. For the crusaders, landing to the north of the Golden Horn harbour, showed obviously hostile intentions. They swept all resistance aside, detached the massive chain which blocked the harbour entrance and sailed their ships in. Christians they might be, but clearly they had come as foes.

The Byzantine emperor at the time was Alexius III, who had usurped the throne, and whose reign was marked by lavish pomp and luxury, and by corrupt and incompetent government. The empire’s military power had sunk to a low ebb.

The imperial navy had once been the terror of the seas, including among its weapons flame-throwers, discharging the dreaded “Greek fire” to devour men and ships. Now, thanks to the extravagance of the imperial court and the indolence of luxury-loving aristocrats, lack of funds and neglect had reduced the fleet to an ineffectual remnant, incapable of putting up a fight.

The nominal leader of the crusaders was a Lombard, the Marquis of Montferrat. But sailing with them was Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice. The Venetians had supplied the ships for the expedition – and had yet to be paid for them. Dandolo made it clear that he expected the crusaders to wrest from Constantinople the money and supplies they needed. They had little choice but to comply; for without the Venetian fleet they would have been powerless.

The Doge’s real intentions went much further. He hoped to destroy the Byzantine grip on trade in the eastern Mediterranean, and to transfer this rich market to the Venetians.

The walls facing the harbour, though formidable, were much less so than the seaward fortifications or the massive Walls of Theodosius facing inland. Yet the first attack by the crusaders failed, after some initial success.

The pick of the defenders had been the imperial Varangian Guard, a body of axe-wielding mercenaries from England and Denmark. Many of the crusaders were Normans, against whom the English warriors were especially eager to strike a blow.

Hostilities died down while there were months of negotiations; but when the imperial throne was seized by a resolute man named Murtzuphlus, determined to oppose the crusaders at all cost, he succeeded in rousing the mass of citizens to rally to their city’s defence; though the pampered, silk-clad aristocrats would have preferred peace at any price.

In April, 1204, the crusaders renewed their assault from the harbour side. Great catapults had been erected in the bows of the ships; others were equipped with scaling-bridges, designed to reach the walls across the narrow mud beach at their foot. But, assailed by Greek fire, and a heavy rain of rocks and arrows, the attackers were forced to retire.

Three days later another attack was made; and this time a foothold was secured on the walls. Gates were thrown open, and the mail-clad knights clattered into the city.

It would still have been possible to put up a powerful resistance. But most of the Byzantines, seeing that, for the first time in nine centuries, their sacred walls had failed them, lost heart. Even Murtzuphlus, considering further resistance useless, took refuge in flight, and soon the city was in the crusaders’ hands.

The scenes that ensued were almost beyond description in their horror. Montferrat could exercise little control over his victorious forces. Thousands of citizens were slaughtered, and about a third of the city was destroyed by fire.

Countless works of art were pillaged – gold and silver objects from the palaces and churches; sacred paintings, or icons, which were the pride of Constantinople; works by the finest sculptors of ancient Greece. Much of the gold and silver, and many bronze statues, were taken simply for melting down; other works, like the bronze horses still to be seen outside St Mark’s Cathedral, in Venice, were stolen intact.

Dandolo and the crusaders tried to justify what they had done on the grounds that the Eastern Christians needed to be brought forcibly under the authority of the pope at Rome. But Pope Innocent vigorously condemned their actions, and their failure to carry out their appointed mission.

Constantinople was to linger on as a Christian city for another two and a half centuries, but the treacherous attack by the so-called Soldiers of the Cross dealt it a blow from which it would never fully recover. Instead of reuniting the Catholic and Orthodox Christians, they had sowed the seeds of lasting hatred between them.

The captors of Constantinople set up a new emperor in Constantinople, Baldwin of Flanders. He was succeeded by a series of Western, or “Latin”, emperors. At Nicea, across the strait, a rival dynasty of Greek monarchs was established, and claimed to rule the empire and the Church. In 1261 one of these Greek emperors, Michael Palaeologus, recaptured Constantinople.

There could, however, be no restoration of the old glory. Pressure on the remnants of the empire came from many directions. Much of Asia Minor had already been lost to the Turks, and it was from that quarter that the final blow to the Byzantine empire was to come.

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