There are few cities in the world which have had a longer, more complex, or more turbulent history than the city we today know as Istanbul, Turkey. One hint of this can be found in the number of names it has carried over the centuries; the Greeks first called it Lygos, then Byzantion, the Romans changed its name to Byzantium, New Rome, and eventually Constantinople, the Vikings who traded with it or even served as mercenaries to guard its emperors knew it at Miklagard, meaning essentially “the great stronghold,” and then eventually it was officially renamed as Istanbul in 1876, though not generally referred as such by the world at large until 1929. It stands at the crossroads of civilization, with a foot in Europe and a foot in Asia. It has been the center of longstanding political and religious conflicts, particularly in its role as the final Eastern bulwark against Islamic jihad for hundreds of years until, worn down to a mere shell of its former glories by war and by the slow but inevitable diminishment of its provincial territories, it was sacked by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, bringing the Roman Empire in the East to a final end nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Western Empire.
The consequences of the sack by Mehmed II echo down to the present day, as might be seen even this very week. The Hagia Sophia, the largest church ever built when it was first constructed, and designed to be the beating heart of Eastern Christianity, was immediately converted into a mosque after the Turks conquered the city. Centuries later, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the first president of the newly formed secular Republic of Turkey turned the building into a museum, acknowledging its complicated past as a holy site for both Christians and Muslims. But just a few days ago, in a major political victory for Prime Minister Erdogan and all Turkish Islamists, that decision was reversed and the building has once again been reclaimed as a mosque. The logic of the decision? Apparently, by rights of conquest, the building was still the personal property of the 500 years deceased Sultan Mehmed II who had taken it, and the city, in 1453–and therefore the republican government had been acting illegally in changing it into a museum.
But the sack of Constantinople in 1453, though fascinating and worthy of its own podcast episode, did not occur on July 17th, so that’s all we’ll say about it for today. Instead, we have to discuss a different sack of Constantinople. And in fact, we’ll manage to talk about two. So let’s turn back the clock.
July 17th, 1203
An army of western Crusaders arrived outside the city of Constantinople a little less than a month ago. They began their siege on the city 11 days ago. And today, after a lengthy assault on both the sea and land walls, and a terrible fire which destroyed some sections of the city, Emperor Alexios III led his troops out of the gates and formed lines of battle, prepared to face the bulk of the Crusader army.
If you are wondering why an army of Christian crusaders is making an assault on Constantinople, at this time one of the largest Christian cities in Europe, that’s understandable. The circumstances that have led to this moment have been so strange as to almost beggar belief.
First, a brief reminder of the broad context of the Crusades. The first Crusade was called in response to a request for aid, interestingly enough, from Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire’s territories in Anatolia had been steadily falling to assaults by the Seljuk Turks for nearly 20 years, particularly after the disastrous battle of Manzikert in 1071. Nicaea, one of their largest remaining cities in Asia Minor had fallen in 1081; by the 1090s, Emperor Alexios I Comnenos recognized that the Byzantines alone could never hope to retake the lost territories without help. So he wrote to Pope Urban II. Urban saw in the emperor’s request an opportunity to reunite the Eastern and Western Christian churches, which had been in open theological disagreement with one another for more than 50 years, and to unite constantly feuding Western nobles by giving them a common enemy and a common purpose. Thus, the first Crusade was preached, organized, and set off. They retook Nicaea (well, sort of–that’s an interesting story in its own right, but we don’t have time for it) and then proceeded south, hoping to liberate other formerly Christian territories. Beyond Nicaea, however, Emperor Alexios was uninterested in the Crusader’s efforts, and offered little to no assistance. Jerusalem and the whole of the Levant had once been Byzantine territory, sure enough, but most of it had been lost nearly 500 years ago, and he knew how difficult it would be to hold it now, surrounded by hostile forces on all sides. If these Western Crusaders wanted to try to take and maintain the Holy Land, they would have to do so themselves.
And so the Crusaders did, of course, hoping to create a territory in which Christian pilgrims could once again visit the holy sites of the life of Jesus without fearing being slaughtered on the road by Seljuk Turks, as thousands had apparently been in the years leading up to the first Crusade. But it was just as difficult to hold onto those lands as the Byzantines had predicted. Within 50 years, half of the territory captured in the first crusade had fallen back under Islamic control. And a little over a decade ago, in 1187, Jerusalem itself was retaken by the Kurdish Muslim Salah-ad-Din, who we remember in the West as Saladin. Since then, the Third Crusade reclaimed a foothold in the Levant but failed to take Jerusalem, and the few remaining crusader strongholds are now in dire straits and entirely surrounded. Hence the call for a fourth Crusade.
After the terrible suffering of the first Crusaders during the land march to the Holy Land, more recent crusades have relied on a naval force of galleys and transport ships to move their armies across the Mediterranean. In order to build and crew such a fleet, the leaders of the crusade turned to one of the dominant naval powers of the day: the Republic of Venice. They struck a bargain with the city’s leader, Doge Enrico Dandolo, to build and crew enough ships to transport an army of nearly 34,000 men across the Mediterranean. The entire Venetian economy was diverted for a year in order to build the ships and train enough sailors to man them. And gradually, the Crusaders began to arrive. The Venetians set aside a large plot of land for them to camp on a small island off the coast, and ferried them over group by group.
Unfortunately, however, not enough arrived. Not nearly enough. After waiting for weeks, it became painfully clear that many supposedly pledged crusaders had backed out, and others had decided to find their own transport to the Holy Land. Of the expected 34,000, only about 12,000 arrived. The vast navy the Venetians had built for them was three times larger than it needed to be; worse, the Crusaders could not among their smaller numbers gather nearly enough money to pay the Venetians the promised sum.
Doge Enrico Dandolo, the leader of the Venetians, was at least 70 years old when the Crusaders reached Venice, and he had been completely blind since a head injury 30 years before, but he still managed to be both a remarkable and, at times, a genuinely frightening human being. When reading stories about him, it’s hard not to picture something like an elderly “don” from a Hollywood Mafia movie, wielding intelligence and an icy charisma as powerful as any other weapons at his disposal. He had risen to power in this city for a reason. He had maintained power in this city in spite of his age and blindness for a reason. And a deal was a deal. The Crusaders ordered these ships, and must pay for them. In full. Regardless of how many had showed up. And until the sum was made right, the Crusader army would not be leaving that small island on which they were boarded off the Venetian coast.
Crusade leaders made rounds of the camp, collecting whatever donations they could squeeze out of the knights and footsoldiers who had arrived. Despite reducing most of the army to abject poverty, however, they were only able to raise a total of 49,000 marks of silver. They owed 85,000.
Dandolo called for a meeting with the Crusade leaders, who explained their financially disastrous position. One can imagine the Doge stroking his short-cropped beard and staring down on the Crusaders with blank eyes. And then he proposed a solution.
Venice at this time was the seat of a small empire, of sorts, wielding influence over a variety of other cities around the coast of Italy and on the other side of the Adriatic. One of these cities, Zara, had thrown off Venetian influence several decades before, and had aligned itself with the kingdom of Hungary instead. Should the Crusaders help Dandalo forcibly bring Zara back under Venetian control, they could perhaps gain enough loot in the sack of the city to pay back the Venetians what was owed.
The leaders of the Crusade were horrified. Zara was a Christian city, allied with a Christian king who had himself taken the cross during a previous crusade. But Dandalo was firm. If they wanted to repay what was owed, this was their only option. Eventually, the crusaders caved.
The pope, catching wind of what was going on, sent a letter demanding that the Crusaders desist, and threatening to excommunicate all of them en mass if they turned their swords against fellow Christians. But the letter arrived in Venice too late. The crusaders and a vast number of Venetian allies besieged the city of Zara. Citizens hung banners from their windows and over the walls marked with the sign of the cross, pleading for the Crusaders not to attack, but their please were ignored. The city was swiftly taken in an assault, and then the pillaging began. The Crusaders desperately attempted to find as much wealth as possible. But Zara was poor, and the Venetian forces did their own extensive pillaging, none of which Doge Dandolo would count towards the Crusader’s tally. In the end, the Crusaders were left spending a miserable winter in the city of Zara, still in debt and now excommunicated by the same pope who had blessed their crusade in the first place. (A letter had arrived informing them of this, but the leaders did not pass the message along to their troops, believing that the news would lead to mass desertions.)
Meanwhile, one Crusade leader, Boniface of Montferrat, had left and gone north, to spend the early winter months with his cousin in Swabia, a region in modern Germany. While there, he made a fateful encounter with a young man named Alexios Angelos.
Alexios was effectively a prince. His father, Isaac II Angelos, had been the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and lord of Constantinople until just a few years before. Then, in a tale as old as time, Isaac was overthrown by his younger brother, who put out his eyes and imprisoned him. Young Alexios had fled, certain that his uncle would be even less gentle with him.
Now, by what seemed a remarkable chance, perhaps even a stroke of destiny, young Alexios met Boniface. Boniface and the Crusaders had a large army, but needed money to repay the Venetians. Alexios needed an army to deal with his uncle and reclaim his rightful throne–and once he was the ruler of Constantinople, he could pay the Crusaders anything they wanted. In fact, he promised that not only would he make up the remaining debt to the Venetians, he would also pay an additional 200,000 marks of silver, as well as provide 10,000 Byzantine soldiers to strengthen the Crusading army, and establish a knightly order of 500 knights to guard the Holy Land in perpetuity at Contantinople’s expense.
It’s easy to promise money you don’t have. Surely the Crusaders knew this. But Boniface introduced young Alexios to the rest of the Crusade leaders, and without a better plan, and having already sacked one Christian city with far less of a legitimate reason already, they agreed to support young Alexios’s claim.
And Doge Dandolo? He was thrilled. Not only would the Venetian fleet transport the Crusaders to Constantinople, but he would fill the remaining empty vessels with his own army, and he would personally accompany them. There could be few things more sweet to Enrico Dandolo than the potential sack of Constantinople.
To understand why that is, we have to turn back the clock a little further.
In the middle of the 12th century, the city of Constantinople had a population of over half a million individuals. Many of these were ethnically Greeks, as Greeks had for countless generations made up the bulk of the population of the Byzantine Empire. But there were tens of thousands of foreigners living in the city as well. And perhaps the highest percentage of those foreigners were Italians, mostly from the city states of Pisa, Genoa, and (you guessed it) Venice.
Now, if you know anything about Italy in the Middle Ages, then you know that to say that all of these groups were Italians but from different city states is to say that they mostly hated each other. If you had approached any Italian of the 12th century and suggested that someday all of Italy would be again united as a single political entity, you’d likely have been laughed at or maybe spit on. Since the fall of Rome, Italian unity had been a distant dream. And so the Italians in Constantinople continued ancient feuds with one another. Wisely enough, the emperors had assigned them separate districts of the city in which to live; unfortunately, this just meant easily drawn battle lines, and violent raids by the Venetians upon the Genoese quarters of the city or the Pisans on the Venetians were common.
In 1171, after the Venetians raided the Genoese quarter one too many times, the Byzantine Emperor had every Venetian in the Empire arrested and confiscated all their money and property. This extremely harsh measure drew fury from Venice itself, which effectively declared war on Constantinople; a middle aged Enrico Dandolo was involved in the short-lived military campaign, during which he likely suffered the injury that left him blind. While an uneasy peace was eventually achieved, and Venetians and other Italians gradually returned in huge numbers to live in Constantinople, matters were still exceptionally tense. The Italians also had the reputation of being arrogant and thinking they were better than the local Greeks; the religious differences in the wake of the schism of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches added additional fuel to the fire, and the fact that the Venetians and other Italians had come to dominate matters of trade and finance in the city, at the expense of local businesses, earned them further hatred. Finally, things burst into flame. In 1182, a popular uprising of the Greek population overthrew Maria of Antioch, who had been ruling as regent for her infant son and had strongly favored good relations with the Italians, in favor of her cousin Andronikos. And the massive mob which had supported Andronikos then turned to vent their hatred on the so-called Latin quarters of the city.
Tens of thousands of Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian residents were slaughtered in the ensuing riots, including men, women, children, and even Latin patients lying ill in hospitals. The religious element in the hatred of the Latin population is made horribly clear by early accounts which describe Roman catholic clergymen being tortured to death, and the local papal Legate, Cardinal John, was beheaded; his head was then tied to the tail of a nearby stray dog, so that it was dragged through the city streets, bashed to unrecognizability over the cobbles.
Enrico Dandolo must vividly remember the reports of these events which became known as the Massacre of the Latins. He remembers the treatment of the Venetians a decade before that, too. All of Venice remembers. And an opportunity to simultaneously vent their old anger against the city which had slaughtered so many of them and to reestablish Venetian dominance in Byzantine politics was too good to pass up.
The Crusaders arrived at the city, and presented the young Alexios as Alexios IV, their rightful emperor. They were surprised when the citizens responded with anything ranging from indifference to outright mockery. It turned out that the people of the city had not particularly liked Isaac II, young Alexios’s father, and now supported his uncle. Incidentally, although I’ve managed to avoid it up to this point, I must now admit that the uncle in question is also named Alexios. Ethnically Greek or not, the Eastern Roman Empire had managed to maintain its reputation for a lack of creativity with names. Technically this brings our Alexios count to 4: Alexios I Komnenos, whom we mentioned as the emperor who first asked for help from the West leading to the First Crusade, young Alexios who will be proclaimed as Alexios IV Angelos, his uncle Alexios III Angelos who has been ruling Constantinople since the blinding of Isaac, and one more… the young son of Maria of Antioch, in whose name she was ruling? You guessed it. Alexios. But don’t worry. We’re not done.
Anyway, that brings us back to today, July 17th. After the failure of the citizens to open up the gates and welcome young Alexios IV with joy, the Venetians and Crusaders have decided that they must take the city with force in order to install him. Dandolo personally leads the Venetian fleet in its assault on the sea walls which surround Constantinople, while the Crusader army leads an assault on the land walls to the west. Alexios III Angelos, the usurping uncle, leads his army out into the field to meet the crusaders.
And then he doesn’t. Despite outnumbering the Crusaders, and possessing a remarkable elite guard of axe-wielding warriors called the Varangian guard, descended from Viking warriors who traveled to the city they called Miklagard by river generations ago, Alexios III looks at the crusaders line of battle and changes his mind. He retreats back inside the city walls with his troops. And then, he quietly slips away, abandoning the city and fleeing. What exactly inspired this shocking act of cowardice remains unclear to this day. The remaining garrison, learning of their emperor’s desertion, release Isaac II from prison and declare him emperor again, thus bringing the siege to a peaceful end.
Tomorrow, young Alexios will reunite with his blinded father in what one must imagine to be an extremely touching scene. Father and son will be declared co-emperors. The crusaders and Venetians will establish a camp across the Bosphorus strait, waiting for the arrival of their payment and the promised soldiers, so that they can finally go on their crusade.
And then things will take a dark turn.
Young Alexios IV had made tremendous promises to the Crusaders, and I believe we must give him the benefit of the doubt that he really, really intended to keep them. But he had no true idea of the state of the treasury of Constantinople when he made the promise. It turns out that when Alexios IV will throw open the gates of the royal treasury, there will be almost nothing inside–not even enough to pay the remaining debt to the Venetians, let alone the exorbitant 200,000 additional marks of silver he had promised. Constantinople’s treasury had been horribly depleted by foolish spending both in his father’s day and his uncle’s, and when his uncle had fled the city he had done so with a wagon loaded with almost everything of value that was left.
And so young Alexios IV, desperate to keep his word, will go to the churches (including the Hagia Sophia), and he will take religious icons, candlesticks, crosses, and anything which has any significant quantity of gold or silver. He will melt it down into bars. In the process, he will gain the absolute and unequivocal hatred of the vast majority of his new subjects. He will present this ill-gotten treasure to the Venetians and Crusaders… the equivalent of 100,000 marks of silver, less than half what he had promised. And it will come with an addendum: he now needs the Crusaders to help him further, as his uncle is now using the money he had taken from the treasury to raise an army in Adrianople, intending to retake the capital and regain his place as Emperor. Once his uncle is finally defeated and the lost treasury reclaimed, he’ll really be able to pay them. Reluctantly, frustrated once more, the crusaders will agree.
Then, while Alexios IV is attempting to manage the military campaign against his uncle, his father, aged, blind, and wracked with illness after years in the dungeon, will die. And then a nobleman in the city will rise up in open rebellion, with the support of an infuriated population. The nobleman’s name? Want to take a wild guess? Yep, Alexios. Alexios Doukas. And our young and foolish friend Alexios IV, having ruled Constantinople for a truly horrible 6 months in which we must imagine it felt, at all times, as though the world was collapsing around his ears, is deposed, imprisoned, and then strangled to death in his cell. The new Alexios, now crowned as Emperor Alexious V Doukas, will declare to the Crusaders that he has absolutely no intention of honoring the deals made by his predecessor, and that they must depart. They can go to the holy land, they can go home, they can go to the devil, but they can’t stay here.
Furious at the murder of their young patron and the loss once again of what was promised them, the crusaders will sack the city of Constantinople a second time. Doge Enrico Dandolo, white hair blowing and blind eyes glaring, will lead the Venetian contingents over the walls in person. And while the first taking of the city involved no serious pillage or plundering, this second siege will be different. The crusaders will visit a terrible devastation on the city, plundering it for loot, killing many inhabitants, and intentionally or accidentally burning much of the city. One of the buildings that will suffer the worst desecrations is that great cathedral of the Eastern Church, the Hagia Sophia.
After the sack of Constantinople in 1203, the region was ruled for a time as a so-called Latin Empire under the control of former Crusaders and sponsored largely by the Venetians. While eventually the Byzantines reclaimed their city, they never truly recovered. The Byzantine Empire had been in a state of decline even before the city first fell; after the Fourth Crusade, the downward spiral was irreversible. As for the city of Constantinople itself, its population steadily declined, its buildings went into disrepair, and eventually the once great city fell to the bombard cannons and armies of Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. But that’s a story for another day.
When looking at this period of history, I find myself pondering the ugly truths it shows about human nature. We find it terribly easy to hate one another, to find reasons and excuses for division. We consistently choose to focus on what divides us, rather than the things we hold in common. We easily fall into cycles of violence and retribution, with the predictable results. We tear ourselves apart from within, and then are easily conquered from without.
It looks absurd on the face of it that Christian crusaders sacked a Christian city. But when you look deeper, it all makes far too much sense. Selfishness. Tribalism. Frustration. Foolish promises. None of these are alien, all of them are understandable. And yet it doesn’t make the horrible irony of it all any less poignant.
In my years of history teaching, I’ve often discussed with my students the classic statement that “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” I’ve personally always found that to be quite an unconvincing idea. Chiefly, because it seems pretty clear that even those who do study history are still doomed to repeat its mistakes, at least to a significant degree; merely knowing the right path is sadly no guarantee that we will follow it, and the truth of that is written across all the pages of history. But there’s still enough truth in the old adage to bear repeating it. And in this particular case, I think the lesson of history is something like this: If we focus chiefly on our divisions and wage war among ourselves rather than seeking a common good, we will be unprepared for any greater threat which comes from without, whether on a personal, national, and global scale. Make of that what you will.