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Byzantium: The Sack of Constantinople

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia

We have moved on now to the end of the 12th Century. Ever since the death of Basil, there had been a steady decline; the Byzantine Empire was no longer the great place it had been. There was increasing pressure on the borders from all sides. The city was still the richest in the world, but many of the buildings were starting to fall down through neglect, and there were large areas uninhabited, due to fire damage. The army was no longer the all-conquering Roman Army. The Byzantines now considered themselves above fighting, so they hired in mercenaries.

Isaac II and Alexius III

The Emperor was one Isaac, surnamed Angelus. Crowned in 1185, he was a weak and ineffectual ruler. One contemporary said that he 'sold Government offices like vegetables in a market'. Isaac raised taxes to fund the army, and managed to stabilise the borders of the Empire, but also spent a lot of the same taxes on his own wedding, to Margaret of Hungary. He fought many unsuccessful campaigns against the Kingdom of Bulgaria.

In 1195, Isaac's brother Alexius decided to take over. He waited until Isaac was away from the city, hunting. He had himself declared Emperor, and when Isaac returned, Alexius ordered his troops to capture him and gouge out his eyes. Isaac was then thrown into a dungeon. Alexius was crowned Emperor Alexius III, but he turned out to be almost as weak and ineffectual as his brother. He spent Imperial funds like there was no tomorrow, to no great effect. This resulted in a greatly weakened army and navy, and the loss of a lot of the Empire to the Seljuk Turks in the east and the Bulgars in the west.

Isaac had a son, also called Alexius. Let's call him Prince Alexius, to avoid confusion with his uncle, the usurping Emperor. Because Prince Alexius would probably have inherited the throne from his father, he was a threat to the throne of the usurper, so he was imprisoned too. He escaped, however, in 1201 and fled to Hungary, the home of his mother.

Preparations for the Fourth Crusade

Meanwhile in the West, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade against the Muslim inhabitants of the Holy Land - it is known in the history books as the Fourth Crusade. Huge numbers of Western knights and their foot soldiers signed up to attack the Muslims. They decided the best way to incapacitate the armies of the East was to attack Egypt, as it was the main source of food for the Muslim world. The only way for a Christian army to reach Egypt was by ship, so the Crusaders approached the city of Venice, at the time the best in the world at shipbuilding and sailing.

The Venetians contracted to feed the army and to make enough ships to carry 35,000 people to the East, and also to provide 50 war galleons, in exchange for a huge sum of money and half of any land that was recovered from the crusade.

The whole of Venice threw itself into the task, doing nothing else for a whole year except build the ships and gather enough provisions for the army. This task would make or break the city, since they put everything they had into it and now depended on getting back payment for their services. When the spring of 1202 came, and the Crusaders arrived in Venice ready for their sea voyage, far fewer had turned up than expected. There were only about 10,000, not enough to pay the full price that had been agreed with Venice, even if they each paid twice what they could afford. The Venetians decided to wait, to see if more Crusaders would arrive in Venice. Months went by, in which the Crusaders consumed much of the provisions that Venice had assembled for the army. Eventually it became obvious that nobody else was coming so the Venetians came to an agreement. The city of Zara, on the Dalmatian Coast, had been under the control of Venice but had broken free and was now under the protection of Hungary. If the Crusaders helped the Venetians recapture the city, they would consider that as part payment.

The Siege of Zara

The complication was that the Crusaders had taken a vow that they would fight only Muslims, not each other. The Emperor of Hungary had just announced his intention to take part in the Crusade himself. This meant that he was technically a Crusader, and his subjects were protected by the Crusaders' vow. There was a lot of debate, but eventually they decided that they needed to attack the city to get the support of the Venetians. They needed the support of the Venetians to get to Egypt, so they were justified in their actions. This sort of thinking has been used many times in the history of the world.

In November 1202, the Crusaders set off in the Venetian ships and laid siege to Zara. The siege of the city was fairly uneventful, but after about ten days, the Zarans realised that they hadn't a hope, so they surrendered. The Venetians recovered control of the city, but the Pope was furious when he heard about this, saying the Crusaders had misused their position as Knights of Christ. The Pope excommunicated them all, which meant that by the rules of the church the Crusaders would not go to heaven if killed in battle. This was a very serious matter for the Christian knights.

Venice was now prepared to waive some of the payment for the transport, but the Crusaders still needed more money, and they needed provisions to survive a lengthy campaign in Egypt.

The Offer

At this stage, Prince Alexius contacted the Crusaders in Zara. He wanted the Crusaders' help to recover the city of Byzantium from his uncle. He persuaded them that he was popular in the city and that Byzantium was crying out to be rescued from the incompetent uncle.

The Prince offered that if the Crusaders helped him retake the city, he would pay them a vast sum in gold, more than twice the amount owing to Venice. He would also provide food, an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to attack Egypt, and a permanent force of 500 knights who would guard whatever conquests they made in the Holy Land.

As a final carrot to entice the Christian knights, he offered that the Eastern Orthodox Church would forget their differences with the West and submit themselves to the authority of the Pope. This was something that he hoped would mollify the Pope and allow him to forgive the knights for their behaviour in Zara. It was also something which he was not capable of giving, since the Eastern Church would never change their beliefs for any ruler, as was shown many times over the centuries.

The leaders of the Crusaders thought long and hard about the offer, and eventually decided they had no option but to accept or to abandon the crusade altogether. This decision was not at all popular with the ordinary soldiers, who had thought they were going to fight against unbelievers in the Holy Land. Nevertheless, the fleet set sail and arrived in Constantinople in June, 1203. They made camp on the eastern shore of the Bosphorus, the Asian side.

The First Siege of Constantinople

Emperor Alexius was horrified when he found an army of Western knights suddenly1 on his doorstep - these iron-clad men on horses were born warriors, who spent much of their spare time practising fighting; the Byzantines, on the other hand, spent their spare moments writing histories and discussing theology. The Byzantine army was large but consisted mainly of mercenaries, and the navy wasn't worth talking about.

In comparison, the Venetians were the most skilled sailors in the world. They could land a ship in such a way that a fully-armoured knight on horseback could ride off it as it hit the shore. The army of knights and foot soldiers, although much smaller than the Byzantine army, were second to none in ability and quality.

On 5 July, 1203, the armies of the West landed just north of Galata. The small Byzantine army sent to obstruct their landing fled at the sight of the Westerners and they quickly took the town of Galata, which is just north of the Golden Horn inlet and separated by it from the main city. The Golden Horn was the harbour of Constantinople, and the entrance to it was protected by a giant chain which was stretched across the harbour mouth. It could be lowered into the water to let ships enter and leave, or it could be raised to prevent movement of ships. The mediocre Byzantine fleet was positioned safely behind the chain. On 6 July, 1203, the Venetians rammed the chain with their biggest ship and broke it. Now they had access to the inner harbour, where they quickly polished off the Byzantine navy. The Venetians had successfully taken control of the seas around Byzantium.

On 17 July, 1203, the main attack on the city took place. There weren't enough Crusaders to surround the city, so they decided to concentrate on the northwest corner of the city. Here where the Land Walls came down to the Golden Horn, it was possible to surround a portion of the city on two sides, with the Crusaders led by Baldwin of Flanders on the land outside the Land Walls, and the Venetians led by the Doge, Dandolo, attacking the Sea Walls from their ships. The area in between held the Blachernae palace, the residence of Emperor Alexius.

Alexius decided that the main threat was from the land army and sent his best fighters, the famous Varangian Guard, to man the walls at that point. The sea walls were left relatively undefended. The Venetians did not achieve very much on the sea until Dandolo, who was now more than 80 years old and completely blind, stood at the front of his ship and ordered the ship to land just beneath the sea wall. At this sight, the other Venetians were shamed into landing too; the defenders on the walls were terrified and fled. The Venetians quickly broke down the gates and entered the city. They took possession of a part of it, and set fire to the city; the smoke prevented the defenders from driving them out. It is estimated that the homes of 20,000 people were burned in this fire.

Meanwhile, Alexius decided that the best way of getting rid of the army outside his Land Walls was to scare them away. He unleashed his own army, which poured out from the St Romanus Gate. The Crusaders were indeed daunted - they themselves had only about 1,000 mounted and another 1,000 foot soldiers. The Byzantines had far more troops, probably more than twice as many. The two armies lined up and faced each other, but by this time the Crusaders were getting desperate - they were running out of food and they really needed to conquer the city. They stood their ground and started to advance in an orderly way on the Byzantines. This was make or break time - they could win or lose everything. Neither side attacked.

Then the unexpected happened. Alexius sent the order to retreat to his army, the bigger of the two. It's not clear why he did this. His side would probably have won if it had come to combat. The Byzantine army withdrew, much to the disgust of the ordinary people of the city, and Alexius lost all credibility with his people as a commander. He said he would send the troops out the next day to fight, but already his heart wasn't in it. That night, Alexius and his family fled the city. The next day the people of Byzantium woke to find themselves without an Emperor. They quickly realised what had happened, and decided to restore Isaac to power. He was dragged out of his dungeon and proclaimed Emperor again, despite the fact that he was blind. Isaac's first move was to contact his son among the Crusader army, and soon the gates were opened in peace to the Crusaders.

Alexius IV

Emperor Isaac was unwilling to rule on his own, so Prince Alexius was crowned Emperor Alexius IV and ruled jointly with him.

Now Alexius had to fulfil his part of the bargain and pay the Crusaders. However, there wasn't anything like as much in the Imperial coffers as he had thought, so he started taking gold from the churches of the city, where there was plenty, and melting it down into ingots. This made him very unpopular with the residents of the city, who saw the treasures of their city being destroyed to pay a foreign army. Meanwhile, the Crusaders were hanging around, wanting to get on with their crusade. There started to be some unrest in the city, with clashes between the local Greeks and the western 'Latins' as they were known. Alexius asked the Crusaders to move across the Golden Horn (the channel to the north of the city) and settle in the area called Galata. They agreed to do this, but this put them outside the city walls. They were still free to come across to Byzantium in small numbers. One evening, the Crusaders found a mosque in the city - this was the sort of thing they had come to stamp out - so they set fire to it. The fire spread and a huge section of the city was burned. The ill-will between the Greeks and the Crusaders grew even more.

By December 1203, Alexius still hadn't come up with enough gold, although he continued to provide plenty of food for the Crusaders. They in turn started to demand that he pay up quickly, because they were aware of their precarious position. Meanwhile, the Byzantines were getting very restless, aware that the enemy, as they saw it, sitting just outside their city, was getting hostile.

Alexius V

In January 1204, things came to a head. A man called Alexius Ducas, known as 'Murtzuphlus' because of his hairy eyebrows which met in the middle, seized control of the city. Alexius IV was imprisoned and then strangled. It is said that Isaac, when he heard the news, died of shock, although he might very well have been murdered. Murtzuphlus was crowned as Emperor Alexius V Ducas.

Murtzuphlus closed the city to the Crusaders and cut off their food supply. There was no chance now of the Crusaders being paid. They could not afford to continue their Crusade to the Holy Land, so they had only two alternatives: to return home in shame and penury, or to fight and win the richest city in the world. They chose to fight.

The Second Siege of Constantinople

So began the Second Siege. Once again the Crusaders surrounded the city; now there was a different Alexius inside: it was Murtzuphlus who led the defence of the city against the armies of the West. His first action was to brick up most of the gates into the city.

The Land Walls of the city were huge and impassable. The attackers decided to concentrate on the sea walls at the same point in the northwest that they had attacked the previous year. However, in the intervening year, the defences there had been strengthened and the walls raised by the addition of wooden towers on top. On 9 April, 1204, they commenced their attack, with scaling ladders, battering rams, machines for firing huge rocks and others which would shoot flames. The Byzantines responded with similar machinery, storms of arrows, and the occasional cauldron of boiling oil poured on the attackers. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing off-shore, so the Venetians were unable to drive their ships all the way in to the shore. The attack went on for about six hours, after which they decided they weren't getting anywhere, so the attack was called off.

Three days later, on 12 April, they renewed the attack. This time, the wind was blowing onto the land. The Venetians did an amazing trick of navigation, strapping two ships together and building a walkway between the masts at the height of the top of the sea wall. This projected outwards 50 feet from the ships. They then sailed the two ships up against the walls and some knights were able to run across and jump down onto the walls. The first knight across, a Venetian, was quickly hacked to pieces. The second, a French knight in full armour, one Andrew of Dureboise, fell onto his knees as he landed, and was attacked with many blows by the Greeks. But he stood up and drew his sword - the defenders were terrified, and fled. Soon the Crusaders were in full control of the top of the tower. However, a rising swell forced the ship to retreat, so this group was isolated in the top of the tower. They couldn't actually achieve very much, but the sight of the Crusader flag flying above the tower brought courage to the hearts of the knights, and must surely have brought anguish to Murtzuphlus as he watched the whole battle from a nearby hill in the city.

The real breakthrough came later in the day. Some knights discovered a small doorway in the sea wall which had been bricked up recently. A team of 70 people set to with picks and crowbars to open it up again. Hiding under their shields, they were bombarded by a rain of rocks, arrows and boiling oil from above as they worked. Eventually a hole the size of a 'small fireplace' was made, and one brave knight, Aleaumes of Clari, crawled through. Enduring a hail of stones on the other side, he drew his sword and charged. Once again, the Greeks fled in terror. Soon, the full 70 attackers had come through the hole. They quickly opened the city gates from the inside.

The Crusaders ploughed into the city; there was widespread slaughter, as the Crusaders attacked everybody on sight. As the day came to a close, they had secured one large corner of the city. They expected that they could gain the rest of the city with a few days of hard fighting.

That night, Murtzuphlus realised he had lost, and he fled from the city. When 13 April dawned, the Crusaders, preparing for a fight, found there was no-one left to fight them. The defenders had all either fled or surrendered. The city was theirs.

The Sack

Now the destruction began. The knights proceeded to systematically strip the city of all its gold and jewellery. Nowhere was safe - churches were torn asunder looking for gold. They left the buildings intact, but monuments made from precious metals were pulled down and melted. The obelisk of Constantine Porphyrogenitus which stands in the Hippodrome to this day used to be covered in metal. This was removed, leaving the 'brick obelisk' that is still standing. The four bronze horses which stood in the Hippodrome were removed and brought back intact to Venice where they still stand in St Mark's Basilica2. No hiding place was safe - Greeks leaving the city were strip-searched in case they were taking anything of value with them.

The soldiers let themselves go with massive displays of debauchery, engaging in drunken feasts and raping the Greek women, despite having sworn solemn vows before the battle that they would not harm the locals. Monks were attacked and beaten until they revealed their hidden treasures.

Also important to the crusaders, who still considered themselves Christian knights on a holy mission, were relics of the saints. These were objects which were said to be either things that had belonged to the saints, or even body parts of the saints, which were venerated. Constantinople was full of them. These were all looted too - a crime which does not seem so serious to our eyes but would have been worse to the Byzantines than the theft of all their gold.

The Latin Empire

The Crusaders decided that Byzantium was such a strategic city, standing guard between the Muslim world and Europe, that it would be imprudent to leave it and go on to Egypt, now that they were in control of it. They wrote to the Pope and asked for permission to cancel the Crusade, saying that God had delivered the prize of the East to them. The Pope was delighted - the Eastern Christian religion had always been a thorn in his side. Then reports came back to Rome of the bloodshed, the fighting of Christian against Christian, and the destruction of all the riches of the churches of Byzantium. The Pope was now furious; but there was not a lot that he could do.

The crusaders were now firmly established in Constantinople. They took control of much of the Byzantine Empire, naming it the Latin Empire of Constantinople. They appointed Baldwin as the first Emperor. The lands of the Empire were divided between the different groups who had contributed to the Crusade. As seafarers, the Venetians got many of the islands of Greece, while the mainland was divided between the other Western European nations.

The Crusade had failed. What should have been a fight against unbelievers had degenerated into a brawl between Christians, and the greatest city in Christendom had been looted and burned. Meanwhile the Byzantines had fled to the east and set up a new capital in Nicaea (present day Iznik), where they bided their time, planning to get back their city.


After the Sack of Constantinople, everything had utterly changed. The city and most of the western lands of the Empire were now in the hands of French-speaking Crusaders and Italian-speaking Venetians, who practised their Roman Catholic religion in the Orthodox churches. The Byzantines had set up court in Nicaea, with Constantine XI Lascaris as Emperor, but the lands they controlled were very small - one small part of what is now the Asian part of Turkey. It really looked as if the Empire was at an end. The Christian knights had not killed the Empire, but they had forced it to the ground and kicked it.

The death-blow wouldn't come for another 250 years.

1In fact, the Emperor had a year's notice of the attack, but did nothing to prevent it.2They stood outside for nearly eight centuries but were brought in out of the rain in the 20th Century. Four replicas now take their place outside.

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