The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
By Jonathan Phillips
(In 2005 I read and reviewed this book while on vacation in the New Hampshire mountains. If you think Church history books are dull and drowsy...well, here was my reaction.)
If there be those who look at the Fourth Crusade as simply the next installment in an ongoing Christian jihad, let them look again. The story of this Crusade--from its conception in the mind of Pope Innocent III to its unlikeliest of outcomes--is so dissimilar from the others that one wonders if we are looking at another species of war altogether.
By 1198 the term “crusading” had become a mentality, the use of armed force to dislodge infidels and unbelievers for spiritual gain, in a sense rather similar to the present day Islamic concept of jihad--with the unspoken assumption [by the troops, at any rate] that a crusader, under the right set of circumstances, could become quite rich should he survive the battle field. In the century since the First Crusade, a considerable body of expertise and tradition had developed on the subject. Crusading was becoming a family tradition and targets were becoming more numerous. By 1198 there had been three major and several minor crusades to recover the Holy Land, but other campaigns had targeted the Moors in Spain, for example. And, as Phillips observes, the custom of tournaments and jousts was fine-tuning the effectiveness of cavalry and foot soldiers alike.
Innocent’s global intent was a renewal of the European Church, of which recovery of the Holy Land, lost again in 1187, would rejuvenate and validate. What he did not understand fully was how the Third Crusade had disrupted western European politics. Monarchs who might have helped him before were too preoccupied solidifying their own positions. Innocent by default had to settle for second-tier leadership, so to speak, but this body would include a remarkable nobleman, Baldwin, and one Geoffrey of Villehardouin who would leave behind an insider’s journal of inestimable historiographical worth.
One major mistake made by this team was its first official act, and it would set in motion an unforeseen chain of events. Calculating that at least 35,500 troops would be necessary for the Crusade, and having learned from experience that sea passage was easier on fighting men, and that the destruction of Alexandria would be a necessary first step in the campaign, the leaders contracted with the only entity capable of producing that quantity of ships, Venice, and its remarkable 90 year-old Doge [leader] Dandolo. Venice in essence put its economy on hold for a year to build ships, in return for a commensurate payment from the crusade [85,000 marks] when it was ready to depart Venice. To their dismay, Baldwin and his team would discover that only 12,000 men had been recruited and very little of the funding. In short, Venetian interest in recovering its debt would now have to be factored into the military plan.
It was this set of circumstances that led Dandolo to recommend that Crusaders and Venetians combine military operations against Zara, a Christian city but a longtime Venetian competitor. The Crusaders and the Venetians successfully sacked the city, but still found themselves considerably short of funds. Wintering in Zara [1202-1203], the Crusaders learned that Innocent was so outraged that he threatened to excommunicate the entire lot, a move which would have effectively disbanded an army marching on the promise of a plenary indulgence.
While a delegation from the Crusade went to Rome to soothe troubled waters, Prince Alexius of Constantinople approached the Crusade at Zara with a remarkable offer: if the Crusaders and Venetians [now one effective force] would divert to Constantinople and restore his father to the throne of the Eastern Empire, the Empire in turn would fund the Crusade to the Levant and submit to the Roman Church. Baldwin and Dandolo decided to take the chance. Baldwin, a layman, felt that the reunification of the two Christendoms would more than appease the pope for the shame of Zara. Dandolo, on the other hand, saw immense economic opportunities for Venice.
And so it came to be that a Crusade once headed to Alexandria and Jerusalem proceeded in a diametrically opposite direction, north to the cradle of the Eastern Roman Empire. One can only imagine the persuasive powers of the Crusade’s leaders in explaining all this to the soldiers, let alone the pope. Phillips observes, however, that in every crusade there comes a moment when a pope in essence loses control of events, and indeed the armada proceeding to the Golden Horn was such a moment for Innocent.
Not surprisingly, the Crusade discovered upon its arrival at Constantinople that Alexius could not deliver what he promised. Quite the opposite. The Crusade, at maximum 20,000 men, found itself at war with a city of 500,000 surrounded by perhaps the best fortifications in the world. Phillips’ account of the battle for Constantinople is insightful and gripping. A combination of factors--the advanced naval techniques of the Venetian navy and the improved armor and technique of western knights, favorable weather, psychological stratagems, incredibly weak military and political will on the part of the Empire itself--led to one of history’s most stunning military upsets.
But no one, not even the author, comfortably uses the word “victory” to describe this achievement by the Fourth Crusade. The slaughter and mayhem that followed should have been predictable; the First Crusade had established a pattern for that. What adds gall to this army’s conduct was the desecration of perhaps the greatest collection of art and sacred relics in the civilized world at that time. Far from being exhilarated, Innocent was incensed not only by the carnage of the innocent but by the political repercussions.
The Roman West was now holding the seat of the entire Eastern Empire. The Fourth Crusade did not formally end. It morphed into a sixty year effort by successive western occupiers of the throne of Constantinople [Baldwin being the first] to subjugate both the Greek and the Asian ends of the Eastern Empire. That effort formally collapsed in 1261, but not before draining European resources to the point that there would be no fifth crusade.