The Fourth Crusade and the Rape of Constantinople (1204)

This work by Antoine Helbert shows the burning city of Constantinople from the perspective of the Venetian fleet. The crusaders intentionally burned sections of the city to sow chaos and cover retreats.

In my estimation the Fourth Crusade was the important event in Byzantine-Roman history. This was the point from which there was no return. It was a moment when an ancient world, the city of Constantinople, came crashing down to a more medieval and less glorious reality. Constantinople had withstood great threats such as the Arab siege of 717, and had been the refuge of the Romans in hard times. However, this time the city was taken due to poor leadership, lack of a navy, and a collapse in the will of the people to resist. The Byzantine world was sent into a decline it could never fully recover from, despite an admirable effort by the Nicaean Emperors. The Fourth Crusade is a topic that comes up over and over in Byzantine history, because so many things came to an end in 1204, and it is a dark story that must not be forgotten. I hear many modern people express sympathies for the victims of the crimes of the Crusaders in the Levant, but they do not even know that the Romans suffered the longest-lasting Crusader states, longer than any in the Middle East. To this day, Greece is dotted with Frankish and Venetian crusader castles. They do not realize how superior Constantinople was to the rest of Europe when it came to culture, architecture, history, population, art, and wealth. The story of how a group of Catholic warriors who claimed to be fighting for God and swore to go to the Holy Land to fight Muslims ended up destroying the largest Christian city in the world must not be forgotten. It is a fascinating tragedy.

Ethem Onur Bilgiç - Crusaders; invasion of Constantinople
Crusaders Scaling the Walls, though I am not sure that any walls would have this view. Nonetheless, even if fantasy, it is good to help imagine the horrors of 1204. Artist: Ethem Onur Bilgic.


Manuel Komnenos was the last ruler of the Komnenian restoration, which had been started by Alexios Komnenos in 1081, and ended with the death of Manuel in 1180. His rule is controversial in terms of its evaluation. Alexios had used the First Crusade to begin the reversal of Roman fortune after incompetent rulers had lost Anatolia in the 1070’s. On one hand, when Manuel died the Roman Empire was the strongest on paper it had been since the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. On the other, he achieved nothing long-term for the Roman Empire and 24 years after his death Constantinople fell to Crusaders, was irreparably devastated, and the Empire barely survived after that only as a shadow of its former self. How much of that is to blame on him versus the incompetence of his successors is hard to fully decipher.

The Roman Empire under Manuel, though the Italian holdings lasted so little they should not even be on this map.

The Komnenian geopolitical reality was one where Byzantium had many enemies surrounding it, and Manuel was able to hold his own and defeat many of them. He was able to impress Crusader lords, Western monarchs, and prevent civil wars. What he was not able to do, however, was turn his wealth into lasting power and tangible gains for the Roman Empire. Manuel did not really solve any issues for the Roman Empire; he just managed them in his reign. His enemies feared him enough to wait until he died and then they all attacked Byzantium, but he did not use his strength to eliminate any enemies, particularly the weakened Seljuk Turks.

The Romans had a problem with the Italian merchants increasingly exerting influence in imperial waters. The Venetian problem originated in trade concessions made by Alexios Komnenos, who was in a much tougher position than Manuel and needed Venetian assistance against the Normans of Sicily and Southern Italy who had been invading the Balkans. These privileges meant the Venetian merchants paid no tax in the Byzantine Empire on their goods, but it also meant the Republic of Venice was pledged to help protect the maritime interests of the Romans. Mainly it was to offset potential Norman invasions from Italy. However, Manuel soured relations with Venice in his reign. The Venetians were becoming insolent, disregarding imperial power, and not really offering the Romans much in the way of naval assistance. Thus, Manuel had some good reasons for going to war, but did not solve them and left a bitter enemy that would come back to haunt Byzantium. Without the Venetian fleet involved, the 1204 fall of Constantinople was rather unlikely if not outright impossible. Manuel had defeated the Venetians at sea, and yet made peace without truly resolving the underlying issues or pressing the advantage. Tensions continued to rise after his death.

The inability to defeat the Turks is the most clear criticism of Manuel. Manuel spent most of his reign focusing on a host of other issues, including two failed Egyptian expeditions, a failed Italian expedition, impressing Crusader lords, building new palaces, etc. However, the real goal of the state should have been returning Anatolia to Roman rule. It had always been the core of the Byzantine Empire. Manuel finally made a botched full-force attempt at the battle of Myriokephalon (1176) with the strongest Roman army since Manzikert, but led the army in inept fashion. He failed to scout for the predictable Turkish ambush, and he never again had the chance for such a huge expedition. In 1177 the Turks were actually much more heavily defeated by the Romans at Hyelion and Leimocheir, meaning the military balance was still in Byzantine favor. However, as Manuel still could not subjugate the Turks, once he died they came back and began quickly reversing the century of Komnenian efforts to restore the Roman position in Anatolia.

The Norman problem was not resolved by Manuel either. He was able to subjugate the Norman crusader principality of Antioch in the Levant, but not truly conquer it. He also tried to retake southern Italy with an expensive expedition which garnered initial success, but failed miserably at great cost in the end. This soured Byzantine-Norman relations further and they would invade the Empire after his death, culminating in the sack of Thessaloniki in 1185, just five years after Manuel died, a brutal foreshadowing of 1204.


In the reign of Manuel, there was an event which had spawned the war between Byzantium and Venice. Niketas Choniates wrote in his history about the growing influence of the Venetians in Roman society: The Venetians “are vagabonds, like the Phoencians, and cunning of mind. Adopted by the Romans when there had been need for naval forces, they had left their homeland for Constantinople in swarms and by clans. From there they dispersed throughout the Roman Empire; retaining only their family names and looked upon as natives and genuine Romans, they increased and flocked together. They amassed great wealth and became so arrogant and impudent that not only did they behave belligerently to the Romans but they also ignored imperial threats and commands.” Over time, this belligerence became treasonous and intolerable to the Emperor Manuel Komnenos.

Eventually, “buffeted by a series of villainies, one worse than the other, the Emperor now recalled their offensive behavior on Kerkrya and turned the scales against them, spewing forth his anger like the tempestuous and stormy spray blown up by a northeaster or northwind. The misdeeds of the Venetians were deemed to be excessive, and letters were dispatched to every Roman province ordering their arrest, together with the confiscation of their communal properties, and designing the day this was to take place [12 March 1171]. On the appointed day, they were all apprehended, and a portion of their possessions was deposited in the imperial treasury, while the greater part was appropriated by the governors.” The Venetian reaction was war, and although a peace would be made, reoperations paid by Manuel, the Venetians seemingly never let go of the grudge which was formed by these events.


Another event in Roman history, certainly in the context of this story the least defendable actions taken by the Romans, is the massacre of the Latins. After Manuel had died in 1180, his child Alexios II Komnenos was never able to to rule as intended. Instead, Andronikos came in and had the boy sign his own mother’s execution order, then later had him strangled. Andronikos Komnenos also soured relations with the West more than any other.

In April of 1182, when entering Constantinople for his coup against the regent Empress Maria of Antioch, wife of Manuel, and mother of the young Alexios – he sent his Anatolian soldiers ahead of him to incite a fury against the Latins in the city. Donald M. Nicol wrote in Byzantium and Venice that “the people needed no encouragement. With an enthusiasm fired by years of resentment they set about the massace of all the foreigners that they could find. They directed their fury mainly agains the merchants quarters along the Golden Horn. many had sensed what was coming with the arrival of Andronikos Komnenos and made their escape by sea. Of those who remained, the Pisans and Genoese were the main victims. The slaughter was appalling. The Byzantine clergy shamelessly encouraged the mob to seek out Latin monks and priests. The pope’s legate to Constantinople, the Cardinal John, was decapitated and his severed head was dragged through the streets tied to the tail of a dog. At the end some 4000 westerners who had survived the massacre were rounded up and sold as slaves to the Turks. Those who had escaped by ship took their revenge by burning and looting the Byzantine monasteries on the coasts and islands of the Aegean Sea.” Chilling scenes, and though the Romans would pay reparations for this event, they would still suffer a revenge even greater than the offence.


Why was such a defensible city able to fall? The navy was the deciding factor in the fall of Constantinople to the Latins. The Romans had always, even in dark times, maintained a strong fleet. The Arab siege of 717 was won by the Byzantines because the imperial fleet destroyed the Arab fleet with Greek fire. The naval power of Byzantium was maintained during the Komnenian period despite some reliance on the Venetians. The Venetians did control the Adriatic, but in the Aegean the Romans still reigned supreme and could defeat anyone.

During the reign of Manuel, the Venetians sent a massive fleet in 1171 to seek revenge for the imprisonment of Latins in the capital and revocation of Venetian trade privileges, but Manuel’s fleet was able to stop them. The Roman fleet still had 150 ships in the engagement, a very large force. Manuel was able to dispatch fleets to southern Italy, the Levant, and Egypt. This showed just how far Roman naval power was able to be projected. William of Tyre, a Latin crusader historian wrote that Manuel sent: “150 ships of war equipped with beaks and double tiers of oars…there were in addition, sixty larger boats, well-armoured, which were built to carry horses…also ten or twenty vessels of a huge size…carrying arms and…engines and machines of war.” However after 1180, when Manuel died, the Roman fleet was simply not replaced. Wooden ships do not last a long time, and must constantly be replaced. Even in 5-10 years a fleet can just disappear without investment. By 1203, Choniates says that Alexios III “…began to repair the rotting and worm-eaten small skiffs, barely twenty in number…” Contrast that to William of Tyre, and compare it to the Venetian fleet, and disaster was inevitable.


The Crusader States which had been founded in the Levant following the success of the First Crusade were defeated decisively at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 by Saladin. The Pope Gregory VIII wrote the following after the fall of Jerusalem:

On hearing with what severe and terrible judgment the land of Jerusalem has been smitten by the divine hand…Saladin’s army came on those regions…our side was overpowered, the Lord’s Cross was taken, the king was captured and almost everyone else was killed by the sword or seized by hostile hands…The bishops, and the Templars and Hospitallers were beheaded in Saladin’s sight…those savage barbarians thirsted after Christian blood and used all their force to profane the holy places and banish the worship of God from the land. What a great cause of mourning this ought to be for us and the whole Christian people.”

The Crusader states in the Levant were being defeated, Jerusalem had fallen, and by the time of the Fourth Crusade only consisted of Antioch, Tripoli, and Tyre. The Third Crusade did very little to change the situation, despite the fame of King Richard the Lionheart.

The strategic situation in 1200 showing the weak and faltering position of the Crusader States

The Fourth Crusade was called by Pope Innocent III in 1198 and took a few years to materialize. The papacy itself genuinely intended this to be a mission to the Holy Land to fight the Muslims, and finally reverse the losses. Except this crusade would never make it there…instead, as Pope Gregory said of Saladin, the group of men gathered for the Fourth Crusade would also thirst for Christian blood. They would use all of their force to profane the holy places of Constantinople, the largest and most advanced Christian city in the world.


The Fourth Crusade seemed a bit harder to organize than the first few crusades had been and had a logistical problem in terms of how to get to the Holy Land. The Crusade leaders had decided that it was best to travel there by sea. The Second Crusade had been dealt bitter defeats by the Turks in Anatolia, as well as come to blows with the Byzantines in a battle between the Germans and Romans outside Constantinople in 1147. The Third Crusade had found safe passage by sea, and therefore the Fourth Crusade chose this route as well. It was also determined that an attack on Egypt would help secure Jerusalem, and a fleet would assist in the endeavor. However, as the Crusaders had no fleet, they had to purchase one from a maritime power. The natural choice was the Republic of Venice, but they had no intentions of offering any pious discounts for their fellow Catholics on their “holy” mission.

The leaders of the Crusade assembled at Compiegne, and chose six representatives to send to Venice to secure a deal to transport the army to the Holy Land. At this point no one was talking about attacking Constantinople, this was still a genuine attempt to reinforce the Crusader States in the Levant. These agents were given official charters, which were sealed documents offering guarantees to Venice that any deal would be honored. This deal was where the Crusade began, in hindsight, to take a sinister turn in comparison to previous crusades.

Venice was to be at the heart of the new direction of the Crusade, as it wielded immense power over the army that relied on it to transport it. The Venetians were a merchant republic, they knew how to negotiate a deal better than anyone. One can look to the extortionist trade deals made with Alexios Komnenos to aid against the Normans to see that. When the envoys arrived, the leader of Venice, the Doge Dandolo welcome them. He was around 90 years old by this time, and blind. There actually is a legend that Dandolo was blinded by Manuel Komnenos, but this is not supported by the sources, and is extremely unlikely. It sounds to me like a legend which was used to add a layer of revenge and moral justification to this story. Literary devices are common in ancient and medieval histories.

Jonathan Phillips included in his book that one of the envoys said to the Venetians: “My lords, we have come to you on behalf of the great nobles of France, who have taken the cross to avenge the outage suffered by our lord, and if God so wills, to recapture Jerusalem. And since our lord knows that there is no people who can help them so well as yours, they entreat you, in God’s name, to take pity on the land overseas, and the outrage suffered by our Lord, and graciously do your best to supply us with a fleet of warships and transports.” The Venetians were of course keen to look pious, but responded as the calculated shrewd merchants they were.

Dandolo responded: “How can this be done?”

The Crusader envoys were open minded and said “In any way that you care to advise or propose, so long as our lords can meet your conditions and bear the cost.”

With that, the Venetians got to brainstorming, and took a full week to calculate the best way to profit from the situation. This was quite possibly the biggest contract in Venetian history. Jonathan Phillips described the scale: “To transport the French crusaders to the Holy Land necessitated a level of commitment unprecedented in medieval commerce. The number of ships required would absorb almost the entire Venetian fleet and would entail the construction of many new ships as well. To devote the manpower of the city to one project was a breathtaking idea; in fact, it would require the suspension of practically all other commercial activity…” The Venetians did go all in on this, finding a way to seem to support the cause of the Crusade, and to profit as well. But, now they needed the Crusaders to pay up or the Venetian state itself was in trouble.

Thus the Venetians made serious demands, with Dandolo’s offer to a supply a fleet recorded by Geoffrey of Villehardouin:

“We will build transports to carry 4500 horses and 9,000 squires, and other ships to accommodate 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot sargeants. We will also include in our contract a nine month supply of rations for all men and fodder for all the horses. This is what we will do for you, and no less, on condition you pay us four marks per horse and two per man. We will, moreover abide by the terms of the covenant we now play before you for the space of one year from the day on which we set sail from Venice, to act in the service of God and of Christendom, whichever it may be. The total cost of all that we have outlined here amounts to 85,000 marks. And we will do more than this. We will provide, for the love of God, fifty additional war galleys, on condition that so long as our association lasts we shall have one half, and you the other half, of everything we win, either by land or sea. It now remains for you to consider, if you, on your part, can accept and fulfil our conditions.”

The Crusaders accepted the offer, and now the Crusaders had something they never had, a powerful cutting edge fleet to accompany a powerful army. This is what made this army a threat to Constantinople, the potent combination. The First Crusade had a powerful army, even more powerful than the Fourth Crusade, but with no fleet it would have struggled to besiege the Roman capital. However now this was the biggest threat Constantinople had ever seen, were this army to be at its doors. At this point in the story the Crusaders still did not intend to go there, but that is where they will end up.

Doge Enrico Dandolo Recruiting for the Crusade (1621) from the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.


The problem with the deal was the made it an assumption that a certain number of men would arrive in Venice to go on the Crusade. The 85,000 mark price counted on a certain number of men and horses showing up for the campaign as stipulated by Dandolo. The crusaders ordered a fleet to transport 33,500 men. To put it in context, the price for this fleet was twice the annual income of the King of France. It shows the extreme commitment both sides had to this deal. But the crusaders overestimated their numbers, and thus although they could pay the rate per man and horse, they did not have enough numbers to pay the total sum for the fleet they had ordered. Venice spent 13 months building ships, bought extreme quantities of food for 33,500 men, and ceased other commercial activity to focus on this deal, such a vast amount money could not simply be discounted.

By the fall of 1202, the Venetians could see quite clearly that the numbers of crusaders who had arrived at Venice were not enough to pay the agreed sum. 12,000 men had arrived, compared to the 33,500 expected soldiers. Dandolo was infuriated and issued a warning to the crusaders:

Lords, you have used us for ill, for as soon as your messengers made the bargain with me I commanded through all my land that no trader should go trading, but that all should help prepare this navy. So they have waited ever since and have not made any [money] for a year and half past. Instead, they have lost a great deal, and therefore, we wish, my men and I, that you should pay us the money you owe us. And if you do not do so, then know that you shall not depart this island before we are paid, nor shall you find anyone to bring you anything to eat or drink.”

12,000 soldiers now were waiting in Venice, short a vast sum, with Venice becoming an increasingly hostile host. The poorer crusaders suffered most during this waiting period, feeling as if they were the victims of their leaders poor planning. The Venetians price-gouged them for food, and controlled them strictly. Some crusaders even deserted due to this hardship and lack of direction, and for those who stayed a disease broke out in the camps. Villehardouin blames this hardship on the failure of those who swore oaths to crusade to show up in Venice, saying it was “the fault of those who have gone to the other ports.” The reality is, there was no promise by all the crusaders to go to Venice, and expensive deal agreed probably made some choose other routes to avoid the cost. It seemed like the crusade would fail. The crusade leaders tried to raise as much as they could to pay the Venetians, they were still short despite offering every available resource.


The Venetians, having invested so much, could not simply write this investment off. Dandolo had used his reputation to convince the Republic to back his plan, and it was failing. The infamous Doge can be criticized for his greed, but not his cleverness. He came up with a revolutionary but sinister and controversial alternative. The Venetians decided to extract their payments from other Christians. For the first time, a Crusader army was directed at Christian cities. Venice identified the city of Zara, on the Dalmatian coast, as a key target. The city was under the rule of King Emico of Hungary, a fellow Christian who actually had also backed the crusade. This means that the Crusade now had gone against the orders of the Pope, who ordered states who went on Crusade to be spared from attack while on their holy mission. This was an offense that could result in excommunication by the Pope for violating his guarantee of safety for the homelands of those who participated in the Crusade. Venice now had taken full control of this crusade from those who launched it and from the Papacy, and it now was never going to be facing any Muslim armies. At this point, the only thing making this a crusade was the rhetoric of its leaders, never again would this group actually act like it was truly on a crusade.

The Crusade leaders agreed to attack Zara, but hid it from their soldiers. This story is full of manipulation, greed, and lies on both sides. The powerful men in charge just told their ordinary men that their payment would be taken out of the spoils of war until the Venetians were repaid. The crusade, based on lies, now set forth to the Balkans. Zara had been a wealthy independent merchant city, associated at this time with Hungary, but at one time under the domination of Venice. In 1181 they had broken free of Venetian rule, and now was the time to force them back into subjugation. It was wealthy and well-fortified, but the Venetian fleet had been built to attack cities in Egypt, and the city was taken. On the way to Zara the Venetians used this crusader army to force other Christian cities like Trieste and Muglia into accepting the authority of Venice. Venice was using this army to propel itself into a major power, Dandolo had turned a loss into a win for the Republic. These attacks were also like practice runs for the coming siege of Constantinople, demonstrating the effectiveness of the Venetian fleet against fortified cities.


It is important to clarify that Pope did not certify these attacks on Christian cities, and never would certify the attack on Constantinople. Pope Innocent III had his representative Cardinal Capuano try to convince the crusaders to go to Alexandria instead of Zara, but he failed and Capuano seemed to understand Ventian sentiment. The Pope wrote a letter, the exact words not surviving, which condemned attack on Zara and threatened excommunication from the Church for the participants. But, his own legate, Capuano undermined his authority. So although the Pope Innocent III did not sanction this, the Catholic Church cannot entirely be absolved of guilt as an institution. It is also important to note that Papacy was guilty as an institution for supporting certain endeavors in the past. For example, Bohemond the Norman prince led an invasion of Byzantium with papal support after the First Crusade before being defeated by Alexios Komnenos. Other attacks by Crusaders on Christians were never condemned and de facto legitimized by the lack of negative reception in the West. Richard the Lionheart had conquered Cyprus, permanently severing it from the Byzantine world. The Principality of Antioch, a Norman Crusader state, had attacked Byzantine Cilicia and brutally raided Cyprus. However Zara was unique because it was a Catholic city. But now that Pandora’s box was open, the Crusade was not following any rules and had been hijacked by Venice.

I want to highlight that not everyone in the Fourth Crusade was ok with this change in direction to attack Christians. Simon of Montfort and a group of other French nobles, noting Papal disapproval, expressly disagreed with the attack on Zara. Simon even told Zaran diplomats that the French had no problem with them and they should not surrender to the Venetians. While his other French colleagues supported the attack as a means to pay their debts, I think it is important to remember that not everyone in the crusade was insincere in their intent to go to the Holy Land. Simon and others ultimately left the crusade, which left the remaining group of men with that much less of a conscious. Those crusaders left were those who had no issue with attacking Christians, and would eagerly seize any opportunities to make money.

After Zara had surrendered and the spoils of the city taken, the crusaders had to wait for the Papal reaction. Innocent III seemed to blame Venice said that the crusaders had “fallen in with thieves.” The Pope declared that the army no longer could earn remission of sins in this missiona as previous Crusades claimed. The Pope protested the Venetian looting of Zaran churches, but clearly the Venetians did not care as they would take that to new heights in 1204. It is clear that Venice was the mastermind of the Fourth Crusade now, and was employing it to build an Empire. Even the Pope knew this. This crusade would make Venice far more powerful than it ever had been, and the Pope had no control over its direction.


In December of 1202, after seizing Zara, the Crusader army encamped there. That was when ambassadors arrived representing Alexios IV Angelos, the young son (around 20 years old at this time) of the ex-Emperor Isaakios Angelos. The message read:

Since you are on the march in the service of God, and for right and justice, it is your duty to restore their possessions to those wrongly dispossessed. The Prince Alexios will make the best terms with you ever offered to any people and give you the most powerful support in conquering the land overseas…Firstly, if God permits you to restore his inheritance to him, he will place his whole Empire under the authority of Rome, from which it has long been estranged. Secondly, since he is aware you have spent all your money and now have nothing, he will give you 200,000 silver marks, and provisions for every man in your army, officers and men alike. Moreover, he himself will go in your company to Egypt with 10,000 men, or if you prefer it, send the same number of men with you, and furthermore as long as he lives, he will maintain, at his own expense, 500 knights to keep guard in the land overseas.

This is when Constantinople fell into the crosshairs of this crusading army which had fallen in with thieves. Alexios Angelos gave them an offer they could not resist, so grand that the Romans never could have actually honored it. This whole crusade seems to have taken a turn from the grandiose promises of a young man who did not know anything about governing, the Byzantine economy or situation. The childish Alexios IV Angelos had linked the idea of restoring him to the throne with a more successful crusade, giving the crusaders a self-justification for their future actions. The Crusaders, likely unhappy at being at odds with the Pope, seemed to have thought that forcing Byzantium back into the jurisdiction of Rome would restore their standing. Guntheir of Pairis wrote that: “It helped to know that this very city [Constantinople] was rebellious and offensive to the Holy Roman Church, and they did not think its conquest by our people would displease very much either the supreme pontiff or even God.” While Pope Innocent had not sanctioned this move, clearly the average rank and file crusaders thought he would approve of it nonetheless. This is not the first time this argument was used either, during the Second Crusade the French had similar sentiments. Odo of Deuil recorded in On Louis VII’s journey to the East that killing Byzantine people was no moral problem, and that “they were judged not to be Christians, and the Franks considered killing them a matter of no importance.” The Byzantines had been slandered and portrayed as traitors and heretics ever since the siege of Antioch in the First Crusade. This sentiment had now become truly deadly.

The crusaders were excited at this offer. Their debts could be lifted, and in fact they could go from indebted to enriched from this deal, and have a Byzantine army of 10,000 men to join them in Egypt. Add 500 knights to defend any new territory taken by the Fourth Crusade, and it was truly an unprecedented offer. The Venetian and French leaders convened, and debated the matter. The Abbot Guy of Vaux-Cernay opposed this idea because “it would mean marching against Christians. They had not left their homes to do any such thing, and for their part wished to go to Syria [the Holy Land].” But, sadly, most were in favor of the crusade going to Constantinople, arguing it was restoring the rightful ruler to the throne,aiding the crusade, and forcing the heretical Byzantines to accept the supremacy of Rome all at once. Robert De Clari records Dandolo encouraging the attack, arguing that the Byzantines were wealthy, and arguing that if “we could have a reasonable excuse for going there and taking the provisions and other things…then we should well be able to to go overseas.” The Venetians, a notable player in the Byzantine economy, knew just how many riches were on offer at Constantinople. Gunther of Pairis also says the Venetians were greedy and wanted the money, and also because “their city, supported by a large navy, was, in fact, arrogating itself to be sovereign over that entire sea.” In other words, the Venetians were masterminding geopolitical concerns rather than thinking of Jerusalem, even according to Western historians.

Robert De Clari also recorded another dialogue with the Doge Dandolo of Venice, regarding the suggestion to venture to Constantinople:

“‘Lords,” said the Doge, ‘now we have a good excuse for going to Constantinople, if you approve of it, for we have the rightful heir.’ Now there were some who did not at all approve of going to Constantinople. Instead they said: ‘Bah! What shall we be doing in Constantinople? We have our pilgrimage to make, and also our plan of going to Babylon or Alexandria.'” But, despite deliberation, the Crusade now had its eyes set on the fortunes of the Queen of Cities. The Crusade ultimately followed the money, and Alexios IV Angelos had convinced an army to go to Constantinople which would inflict a mortal wound on Byzantine civilization from which it would never recover.


Alexios IV Angelos joined the crusaders at Zara on April 25, 1203. The army sailed to Constantinople in their massive Venetian armada, stopping first at the Greek island of Corfu. The Crusaders seemed to see justification for the cause when the strategic city of Dyrrachium opened it’s gates to Alexios Angelos as the fleet passed by. But, it is highly likely that the residents heard what happened at Zara and simply preserved their city by doing so rather than them actually being big supporters of Alexios IV. It made the Crusaders perceive that the people of the Roman Empire wanted the restoration of their “rightful” ruler perhaps, and maybe they even imagined Constantinople opening itself to them as well. Because some crusaders like Simon had abandoned the crusade after it attacked Christians, there were worries the army was too small. However, after an argument between Orthodox and Catholic clergy on Corfu regarding the supremacy of Rome and the Pope, Alexios had the Crusaders raid the island to send a message to the Byzantine people that he would stop at nothing to be Emperor. On May 24, 1203, the army left Corfu and set sail to Constantinople.

It is clear that the mission was less and less being centered on eventually going to the Holy Land, and increasingly on material gain. Along the way, the men of the Fourth Crusade encountered a separate group of crusaders returning from the Holy Land, and some of them joined them. For piety? No, but instead one wrote that they were going “with these people, for it certainly seems to me they’ll win some land for themselves.” This mission clearly had appeal to those seeking wealth and new lands to conquer. Which makes one wonder what they actually thought would happen when they got to Constantinople. The Crusade was able to sail unopposed into the Sea of Marmara, unthinkable during the reign of rulers like Alexios, John, or Manuel Komnenos. However, the ease of travel to Constantinople did not mean they would be well received in the Eastern Roman capital.


The city was naturally defendable, but its ruler, Alexios III Angelos was incompetent and failed to properly organize the defense. The Emperor had been aware that his nephew was plotting with the crusaders to eliminate him, and did not use all the time at his disposal to prepare. Choniates is scathing in his description of Alexios III’s neglect of the situation:

“…his excessive slothfulness was equal to his stupidity in neglecting what was necessary for the common welfare. When it was proposed that he make provisions for an abundance of weapons, undertake the preparation of suitable war engines, and above all to begin the construction of warships, it was as though his advisers were talking to a corpse. He indulged in after-dinner repartee and in willful neglect of the the reports on the Latins [the Crusaders]; he busied himself with building lavish bathhouses, levelling hills to plant vineyards…wasting his time in these and other activities. Those who wanted to cut timber for ships were threatened with the gravest danger by the eunuchs who guarded the thickly wooded imperial mountains, that were reserved for the imperial hunts, as if they were sacred groves…”

Life went on as usual in the palace for Alexios III, but a harsh reality was moving towards them. The city was not prepared for what was coming. Constantinople, if properly prepared, was nearly impregnable. However the city was not prepared by the incompetent Alexios III, and crucially the Roman navy was in poor condition. This meant that the Crusaders could simply ignore the Theodosian walls and put pressure on the weakest parts of the city.

The sea walls in Balat, Istanbul. These walls would have been along the Golden Horn shore where the Venetian fleet would focus its energy. Credit: The Byzantine Legacy

The decline of Byzantine naval forces under the Angelos dynasty was going to be the determining weakness of the city. Choniates says the Romans only had 20 ships in poor condition wasting away in the harbor, which were repaired but this was not going to compete with the purpose-built top-of-the-line Venetian fleet the Crusaders had ordered. It seems there was no Greek fire in this siege either, that perhaps the secret had been lost, or there was no longer the ingredients available which were needed.

To be fair to Alexios III, Choniates is writing in hindsight, but it is clear he failed to do even an average job in a situation that required effective and proactive leadership. Once Alexios III heard that Alexios IV was proclaimed Emperor by some locals in Byzantine territory, he then began to prepare the city, pulling down some suburban houses around the walls in order to aid the defenders and remove cover for the attackers. But it was too little too late.


On June 23 of 1203, the Venetian fleet and its crusader army was within sight of the greatest city they had ever seen. The population of the city was possibly as high as 400,000 which was simply unheard of in Western Europe. The very largest European cities besides Constantinople had around 60,000 people at this time. Villehardouin described the impression of the crusaders as they saw the city of Constantine:

“I can assure you those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed very intently upon the city, having never imagined there could be such a fine place in all the world. They noted the high walls and lofty towers encircling it, and its rich palaces and tall churches, of which there were so many no one would have believed it to be true if he had not seen it with his own eyes, and viewed the length and breadth of the city which reigns supreme over all others. There was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shutter at the sight.”

They saw massive domed churches like Hagia Sophia, Pantokrator, and Hagia Eirene, still visible from the sea today. The long-gone Church of the Holy Apostles was an impressive site at the time as well. They saw the sea walls as a curtain around the city, the Boukoleon palace, massive columns like those of Constantine and most prominently the column of Justinian which the crusaders described in detail. The Hippodrome must have awed them – large arenas and the Roman Circus was a sight not seen in the west since long ago. But the Hippodrome of Constantinople was still well-maintained at this time, a large impressive structure from Antiquity. Clearly the crusaders knew the work and sacrifice it would take to seize this prize. The Theodosian land walls were so formidable the Crusaders seemed to know that breaking through them was unlikely. Taking note of the grandeur of the city, they took their time, gaining confidence as they approached.

Robert De Clari claims that the Crusaders sent a ship with Alexios IV onboard to convince the people of Constantinople to hail him as Emperor. Supposedly Dandalo spoke to the leaders of the Crusade and “said to them: ‘Lords, I propose that we take ten galleys and place the youth[Alexios IV] on one of them and people with him, and they they go under flag of truce to the shore of Constantinople and ask those of the city if they would be willing to recognize the youth as their lord.’ And the high men answered that this would be a good thing to do. So they got ready these ten galleys and the youth[Alexios IV] and many armed men with him. And they rowed close to the walls of the city and rowed up and down, and they showed the youth, who name was Alexius, to the people, ad they asked them if they recognized him as their lord. And they of the city recognized plainly and said that they did recognize him as their lord and did not know who he was. And those were in the galleys with the youth[Alexios IV] said that he was the son of Isaac [Isaakios Angelos], the former Emperor, and those within answered that they did not know anything about him. Then they came back again to the host and made known how the people had answered them. Then it was commanded throughout all the host that all should arm themselves, both great and small.”

This was when the lies of Alexios IV were first laid bare. His offers of endless treasure, that all they had to do was show up, show him to the people who yearned for his rule, and just free the city, were shown not to be true. The fraud of Alexios IV was beginning to tell, but, the Crusaders, wanting their money, prepared for war. Even if it was gonna be harder than they thought, they needed Alexios IV to get them their cash.


In 1203 a fight was shaping up between the two sides. The Crusaders held a clear advantage at sea, with complete naval dominance. Having broken the Golden Horn chain, they could now attack the weakest sections of Constantinople. They could ignore the Theodosian walls, and focus on the Blachernae walls by land, and the weak Golden Horn sea walls at sea. On land, the Roman forces were of a mixed quality, and included many foreigners. The Varangian Guard were by far the best forces available for the defense of the city, around 5,000 of the famous warriors. These were elite heavy troops, many armed with single-edged axes and well-armored. The Varangians had the capability to properly fight against the elite heavy knights the French would deploy in the battle. There were also some Italians fighting with the Romans from Pisa and Genova, in part motivated by their hatred of Venice and their rivalry. The Romans also had the people of the City, which when determined could be a force of their own. The will of the people to resist would play a big role in the siege at times.


Robert De Clari says that after offering Alexius to the people of the City, and the offer having been rejected, the Crusaders formed a plan to attack. He says they confessed their sins, received communion from priests, and prayed in order to prepare themselves spiritually. Robert explicitly stated that this was out of fear of attacking the city on the part of the Latin soldiers. Which, is understandable given the task and the looming fortress-metropolis that Constantinople was. The first step was landing, and taking the the Galata suburb.

The arrival of the Venetian fleet as the people of the City look on in fear. People would have crowded the sea-walls to sea something none of them had ever seen in the waters around the city.

Despite their fears, the Crusaders did set to task. Choniates says the Crusaders took three days “to lay down strategy,” which is probably the same period of preparation described by Robert De Clari. The Crusader historian says “when the people of the city saw this great navy and this great fleet and heard the sound of the trumpets and the drums, which were making a great din, they all armed themselves and mounted on the houses and on the towers of the city. And it seemed to them that very much as if the whole sea and land trembled and as if all the sea were covered with ships. In the meantime, the Emperor had made his people come all armed to the shore to defend it. When the crusaders and the Venetians saw that the Greeks were to come to the shore all armed to meet them, they talked together until the doge of Venice said he would go in advance with all his forces and seize with shore with the help of God. Then he took his ships and his galleys and his transports and put himself in front at the head of the host. Then they took their crossbowmen and their archers and put them in front on barges to clear the shore of the Greeks, and when they were drawn up in this way, they advanced to the shore. When the Greeks saw that the pilgrims were not going to give up coming on to the shore for fear of them, and saw them approaching, they fell back and did dare wait for them. And so the fleet made the shore.” So it was that the crusaders so easily achieved what should have been a challenging objective, to land safely, without a fight.

Doge Enrico Dandolo and the Venetian fleet approaching Constantinople during the siege of the city in July 1203 (Fourth Crusade: venitian doge Enrico Dandolo and his ships approaching the city of Constantinople during the siege of the city, July 1203) Illustration by Tancredi Scarpelli Photo © The Holbarn Archive.

The Crusaders were probably surprised just how poorly defended the area around the City was. Choniates says that some Roman forces kept watch, and fired some arrows at them, but none of it was effective. Eventually around July 5-6 of 1203, “not many days had elapsed before the Latins, realizing that there was no one to oppose them on land, came ashore. The cavalry moved out a short distance from the sea, and the long ships, dromons, and round warships moved inside the bay. Both the land and sea forces mounted a joint attack against the fortress, to which the Romans customarily fastened the heavy iron chain whenever an attack by enemy ships threatened, and forthwith they assailed the fortification. It was a sight to behold, the defenders fleeing after a brief resistance. Some were slain or taken alive, and others slid down the chain like it was a rope and boarded the Roman triremes, while many others lost their grip and fell headlong into the deep. Afterwards, the chain was broken, and the entire [crusader] fleet streamed through.” Robert De Clari says the same thing, that the Crusaders landed, took Galata, got the fleet in the harbor and the siege proper could then begin.

Villehardouin wrote in his history that: “Count Baldwin of Flanders and Hainult, with the advanced guard, rode forward, and the other divisions of the host after him, each in due order of march; and they came to where the Emperor Alexius[III] had been encamped. But he turned back towards Constantinople, and left his tents and pavilions standing. And there our people had much spoil.” He also explained just how important the capture of Galata was – “Our barons were minded to encamp by the port before the tower of Galata, where the chain was fixed that closed the port of Constantinople[The Golden Horn]. And be it known to you [the reader], that anyone must perforce pass that chain before he could enter the port. Well did our barons perceive that if they did not take the tower, and break the chain, they were but as dead men…” The first main objective had been accomplished.

The capture of Galata was a crucial element in the siege. The fact it fell in the first attack, without a true battle, immediately set the Romans up without one of their key defense layers. In 1453 for example, because of Genoese neutrality, the chain was unable to be broken by the Ottomans. This helped hold them off, until Mehmed used an ancient tactic to move ships overland into the Golden Horn. The Crusaders did not have the same manpower that the Ottomans had, but they were able to break the chain with ease so they did not need it.


Villehardouin says that after taking Galata “Then did those of the host take council together to settle what thing that should do, and whether the should attack the city by sea or by land. The Venetians were firmly minded that the scaling ladders ought to be planted on the ships, and all the attack be made from the side on the sea[Golden Horn walls]. The French, on the other hand, said that they did know so well how to help themselves on sea as on land, but that when they had their horses and their arms they could help themselves on land right well.” And thus, as agreed in all accounts, the attacking force was divided as such.

Now that the Crusaders had landed outside the city, taken Galata, and broken the chain – the siege of the City could begin. The tiny Byzantine fleet of small and run-down dromons had been guarding the chain in the harbor, but once it broke they had to return to port, unable to engage the Venetian galleys. Robert De Clari says the Crusaders then “assembled and took counsel together as to how they should attack the city. And finally they agreed among themselves that the French should attack it by land, and the Venetians by sea. So the doge of Venice said that he would have engines and ladders made on his ships by which they could assail the walls. Then the knights and all other pilgrims armed themselves and set out to cross a bridge which was about two leagues away, and there was no other way to cross over to Constantinople less than than four leagues from there except at this bridge. And when they came to the bridge, the Greeks came there to dispute the passage with them as best they could, until finally the pilgrims drove them away by force of arms and crossed over. When they came to the city, the high men encamped and pitched their tents in front of the palace of Blachernae, which belonged to the Emperor.” The events as narrated by Choniates are more or less in agreement with this narrative. Choniates added the perspective of the defenders in Blachernae, who “could see the raised tents and could almost converse with those within…”

The army of the Fourth Crusade camped in front of Blachernae by Antoine Helbert

The Crusaders were not stupid, they knew exactly were to attack. They did not waste time attacking the Theodosian walls, and focused on land on the weaker Blachernae section, and by sea on the weaker Golden Horn walls. This was the nightmare scenario for the defense of the city. To have a chance to take the city required naval supremacy by the attackers, and a strong land army, and now the Latins had both. Fortress Constantinople, through lack of preparation and leadership, had lost two advantages. One, the chain across the harbor was gone. Two, the Blachernae walls were exposed. Now the Crusaders could attack them both in close proximity. The advantage that the Theodosian walls still offered was that the walls would not be attacked, meaning they defenders didn’t have to man the entire length of the land walls. However, the sections that were attacked did not have the same robustness.

Byzantium1200 reconstruction of the Wall of Manuel Komnenos which protected Blachernae in some sections.


Choniates says that after the Crusaders landed “they were separated from us, not by palisades and camp, but by the City’s walls. Emperor Alexios [III] had long before set his heart on flight, and fully determined to do so, he bore no arms whatsoever. Nor was he seen to offer resistance to the enemy without, but instead sat back as a spectator of the events taking place and ascended to the lofty ‘apartments of the Empress of the Germans [a hall built by Manuel’s first wife Bertha-Irene],’ as they are called. His close friends and kinsmen assembled a cavalry force and a small contingent of infantry and sallied forth at intervals to show that the City was not entirely desolate of manpower.” Below you can see where Alexios III sat idly as critical events unfolded.

SOURCE: Byzantium1200 1. Theotokos Church 2. Soros Chapel. 3. The Hall of the Danube 4. Okeanos 5. Hall of Anastasius
6. Hall of Alexios 7. Anemas Dungeons 8. Palace bath 9. Palace of Manuel Comnenus
10. Chapel 11. Palace of Empress Bertha (where Alexios III was at this moment) 12. Tower of Isaac Angelus

In the opening stages of the battle, the sides were fighting small battles outside the walls between cavalry forces. At the same time, the crusaders began using catapults against the walls and the palace of Blachernae. The Romans had their own artillery on the walls and fired back as both sides tried to weaken the other. Choniates says that on July 17th, the Crusader attacks on Constantinople intensified. The Venetians brought their ships, now equipped with the equipment needed to board the walls from their masts, up the walls and began to attack in earnest. They covered their ships with hides in order to prevent the Romans from setting them alight.

By land, the Crusaders tried to use a “wall-storming” battering ram at the same time with crossbowmen in support as it advanced. Choniates describes “the horrendous battle that followed,” saying it was “fraught with groanings on all sides. The heavy-armed troops who surround the battering ram broke through the wall and gained access to a passageway within which led down to the sea to a place called the Emperor’s Gangway, although they were bravely repulsed by the Roman allies, the Pisans and the ax-bearing barbarians [Varangians], and the majority [of the enemy] returned wounded. When those in the ships approached the walls, using the light boats, they cast anchors onto the shore from the scaling ladders, raising the ladders, which were suspended from the stern cables, over many sections of the walls. They then engaged the defenders on the towers and easily routed them, since they were fighting above from a higher vantage point and discharging their missiles from above.” The low height of the Golden Horn sea walls made them poorly defended against the Venetian tactics, which to be fair were extremely well executed.

The Varangians were the only effective soldiers in the Roman defense of the city, and repelled the attackers successfully

The Venetians were able to seize sections of the sea walls, putting the defense of the City in jeopardy. For the first but not the last time, the Latins set fire to the City. The houses near the walls were set alight, sending its inhabitants fleeing. This was not a small fire, it burned a decent sized chunk of the city. Robert De Clari says of the fire that “there was burned of it a part fully as large as the city of Arras [a city in France].” Villehardoin said in his account that “when the Emperor Alexius saw that our people had thus entered the city, he sent his people against them in such numbers that our people saw they would be unable to endure the onset. So they set fire to the buildings between them and the Greeks; and the wind blew from our side, and the fire began to wax so great that the Greeks could not see our people…” In the face of such an onslaught, the seaward defenses failing, and the city being burned, Alexios III finally had to do something.

The Venetians attacking and burning their way into the city by sea


Although the Crusaders were formidable warriors without a doubt, the Romans did have one opportunity to attack their forces on land. After such a long period of inaction and lack of leadership, Alexios III realized that if he did nothing he was going to certainly be overthrown. Choniates wrote “when Alexios saw the pitiable plight of the queen of cities and the affliction of the people, he at last he took up arms,” because the people of Constantinople were beginning to see their peril and his obvious lack of leadership or competence. They saw Alexios III as a coward hiding in the palace, not taking any initiative, and naturally were angry and resentful. Niketas records that “the masses were bristling with anger, heaping abuse upon him, and hurling insults against him, for by choosing to remain safe inside the palace and resolving to offer no assistance to the defiled City, he had emboldened the enemy even more.” Probably the Emperor could see the next step in their rage would be deposing and killing him. Thus, he had to muster the courage to do something. The Romans calculated that if they could defeat the land army, the Venetians, which could not be directly defeated at sea, would likely leave without the manpower to storm the city. It was an apocalyptic scene, fitting for a movie, where the city of Constantinople was burning with blackened skies due to fires set by the Crusaders as Alexios III seemed like he was going to try to save the city.

An opportunity presented itself for the Romans to defeat their doom-bringers. Choniates says “Alexios marched out from the palace, followed by many horsemen and a highborn infantry regiment from among the flower of the City that had hastened to join him, and when the opponents land forces suddenly beheld this huge array, they shuddered. Indeed, a work of deliverance would have been wrought had the Emperor’s troops moved in one body against the enemy, but now the nagging idea of flight and the faintheartedness of those about him thwarted Alexios from what needed to be done. To the joy of the Romans, he drew up the troops in battle array and moved out, ostensibly, to oppose the Latins, but he returned in utter disgrace, having only made the enemy more haughty and insolent.” This was a moment that could have turned the scales. Success of course was not a guarantee, but Robert De Clari’s account from a Latin perspective adds to the sense that Choniates is right that this was a chance for a “work of deliverance” for Constantinople.

The Crusaders, during their attacks on the Blachernae walls, found themselves vulnerable to the Roman counterattack Alexios III was seeming to launch at them. In the morning, when the Crusaders and “Venetians were getting ready and ordering their vessels and had drawn as close to the walls as possible for the assault, behold the Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius [III], sallied forth from the city by a gate called the Roman gate with all of his people fully armed and there he arranged his forces…” Robert De Clari makes wild claims about the numbers of the Byzantine force, such as that it was 100,000 men on horse. Which is clearly false, even in the glory days of Justinian 100,000 horsemen were not ever fielded. Whatever the numbers were, the French land forces attacking the walls felt vulnerable and were outnumbered to some degree. Robert said that the “French saw themselves so surrounded by these battles, that they were greatly dismayed.” Robert De Clari adds that when the Emperor retreated, the women of the City jeered at him for his cowardice. Then, he agrees with the sentiment of Choniates that a huge opportunity was missed – “because he (Alexios III) had not fought against so few people as the French were, with so great a force as he had had with him.” The Romans would not get another such chance to end the siege again. The Crusaders seemed surprised, as they saw the Byzantines as weak, that they even tried to attack. With a capable leader like Alexios Komnenos, John Komnenos, or Manuel Komnenos, I believe the Crusaders would have suffered a defeat in this situation. But that is not history, with them in charge this entire scenario had been averted.

Next, the people of Constantinople were infuriated that Alexios III retreated without a fight. Robert De Clari says “there arose a great clamor in the city, for they of the city told the Emperor that he ought to deliver them from the French who were besieging them, and that if he did not fight with them they would seek out the youth [Alexios IV] whom the French had brought and make him Emperor and lord over them. When the Emperor heard this, he gave them his word that he would fight with them on the morrow. But when it came near midnight, the Emperor fled the city…” Not only that, but Alexios III knew the people would not accept his lack of leadership, cowardice, and selfishness. He probably felt like he Latins could not be defeated anyway. Thus, “he entered the palace and made ready his escape.”


After his failures to defend Constantinople, the Crusader attacks, and the anger of the Roman people against their Emperor, Alexios III decided he had to get out of the City immediately. On the night of July 17-18, he went to the Blachernae palace, and had his most trusted family members such as his daughters loot what was left of the Byzantine funds available. They collected “one thousand pounds of gold and other imperial ornaments made of precious gems and translucent pearls.” Then, that night, he left the city with the treasure in hand. It is truly despicable, selfish, and unbelievable that in the midst of such a crisis that the Emperor could do such a thing. But he did, clearly it ran in the Angelos family tradition to help destroy the Roman Empire. Choniates fittingly wrote that “it was as though he had labored hard to make a miserable corpse of the City, to bring her to utter ruin in defiance of her destiny, and he hastened along her destruction.” It is possible, based on what money the Byzantines would later give to the Crusaders, that with the treasure that Alexios III had taken they could have afforded the ransom of Constantinople. Or, they could have paid more men to defend it. Somehow, it may have made a big difference in the fate of the Roman Empire. However, it was not to be.

Alexios III, the man who had failed to prepare the City for the siege, now left the city to it’s fate. The Angelos family is at the heart of the Byzantine failure of the siege. In this case, his leadership offered so little that leaving had probably not actually hurt the Romans. Nonetheless, it was cowardly. Choniates says “Alexios travelled down the road he had chosen; the people in the palace of Blachernai saw Alexios’ escape as exceedingly insufferable and were thrown into a state of confusion and consternation because of the impending disaster…” However, since Alexios never really offered much in the way of order and organization, it mattered little. “This miserable wretch among men was neither softened by the affection of children nor constrained by his wife’s love, nor was he moved by such great city, nor did he, because of his love for his life and his cowardice, give thought to anything else but his own salvation…” And then the next of the Angelos Emperors stepped back into the fold.


Choniates and Robert De Clari tell this part of the story differently. Choniates, who was in the city, is the more likely to understand the Byzantine reaction to events after Alexios III abandoned his subjects. He says that “the eunuch Constantine [Philoxenites], the minister of the imperial treasuries, had assembled the ax-bearers [Varangians] and discussed with them what needed to be done and was assured of the support of a faction that agreed Isaakios should quickly assume the reins of empire. He had the Empress Euphrosyne seized, her relations were taken prisoner, and Isaakios proclaimed Emperor [17-18 1203].” In a most unusual occurrence in Byzantine history, “he who had been blinded was ordained to oversee all things and was led by the hand to ascend the imperial throne.”

The Romans were in a tough position after Alexios III had fled into Thrace. They knew they had to act and feared that “there was nothing and no one to put off and check the Latins who were encamped nearby from making an imminent assault against the City and penetrating inside the walls.” Surpisingly Isaakios Angelos, who had been imprisoned by his own brother Alexios III, was brought out from the prison to the palace and made Emperor. According to Choniates, Isaakios immediately sent word to the Latins and to his own son Alexios IV in the Crusader camp that he was now Emperor and Alexios III had fled the city. The Crusaders could not argue that Isaakios was illegitimate, because his deposition by Alexios III was the source of the claim of Alexios IV to the throne. But now Isaakios was back on the throne, and the whole argument that the Crusaders were putting the rightful Emperor on the throne was negated.

Robert De Clari offers a flowery version of events. He wrote that “When the morning was come on the morrow, what do they do but go to the gates and open them and issue forth and come to the camp of the French and ask and inquire for Alexius, the son of Isaac. And they were told that they would find him at the tent of the marquis. When they came there, they found him, and his friends did him great honor made great rejoicing over him. And they thanked the barons right heartily and said they who had done this thing had done right well and had done a great deed of baronage. And they said that the Emperor had fled, and that they [the crusaders] should come into the city and into the palace as if it all belonged to them. Then all the high barons of the host assembled, and they took Alexius, the son of Isaac, and they led him to the palace with great joy and much rejoicing. And when they were come to the palace, they had Isaac, his father, brought out of prison, and his wife also. This was the one who had been imprisoned by his brother, the recent Emperor. When Isaac was out of prison, he made great rejoicing over his son and embraced and kissed him, and he gave great thanks to the barons who were there and said that it was by the help of God first and next by theirs that he was out of prison. Then they brought two golden chairs and seated Isaac on one and Alexius his son on the other beside him, and to Isaac was given the imperial seat.”

As to how Alexios IV was put on the throne, Choniates is more vague. He says Isaac had to agree to uphold all of the offers of Alexios IV, “that none of the extravagant pledges to the Latins with glory and gain was to be held back. Doing everything to insure against failure in ascending the paternal throne, Alexios, a witless lad ignorant of affairs of state, neither comprehended any of the issues at stake nor reflected for a moment on the Roman-hating temperament of the Latins. Having purchased his entry to the city by the overturn of the imperial majesty, he was deemed worthy to sit on the throne with his father as co-emperor. The entire citizenry, therefore, ran in a bad to the palace to behold the son with his father and pay homage to both.” Probably, Choniates is correct that Isaakios was freed first, as he had more firsthand knowledge of Byzantine affairs. However, it is possible the Romans decided to accept Alexios IV and freeing Isaakios was the logical step knowing Alexios IV would come to the city. Whether Isaakios was freed before or after the arrival of Alexios IV is not important for the rest of the battle in any case.


Alexios IV Angelos had finally achieved his remarkable dream of being Emperor of the Romans. Surely he had a rush of joy and excitement at being crowned as co-Emperor with his blinded father. Initially, he may have even thought he could actually fulfill the offers he had made the Crusaders. However, reality would set in soon for the young man, setting his naivety into the spotlight. Alexios IV promised the money, and “surely would keep” his promises, but “wished first to be crowned.” The Crusaders took him at this word, and waited for their big payday. Robert De Clari says the majority of the Crusaders “dare not remain in the city at all, because of the Greeks who were traitors, but instead they went to take quarters across the harbor, over toward the tower of Galata.”

Choniates says “not many days later” after his coronation, sometime between July 19 and August 1 of 1203, the “Latin chiefs presented themselves at the palace together with their distinguished nobility. Benches were set before them, and they all sat in council with the Emperors, hearing themselves acclaimed as benefactors and saviors and receiving every other noble appelatio for having honored the power-loving Alexios [IV] in his childish actions, and moreover, for coming to his and his father’s aid in their time of adversity. In addition, they enjoyed every kindness and courtesy. Amusements and dainties were contrived for them, for Isaakios, taking possession of what little was in the imperial treasury and taking into custody Empress Euphrosyne and her kinsmen, whom he robbed with both hands, lavishly bestowed the monies on the Latins.” All was going well, Alexios IV was on the throne, in harmony with the Latins as he had dreamed off when he first lured the Crusaders to the City.

However, there was a huge problem. Alexios III had stolen most of the treasury, Alexios IV essentially started off as an impoverished Emperor with little control over anything other than the city of Constantinople itself. He gave gifts to the Westerners but “the recipients considered the sum to be but a drop” in a bucket of what they were owed. Robert De Clari says after Alexios IV was crowned, that a lord by the name of Pierre of Bracheux stayed in the palace with him, presumably to keep tabs on him, and the money they were owed.

Of course after the crowning of Alexius, the Crusaders expected the money to brought to them as had been agreed. But, Alexios IV had no idea what the state of Roman finances were even in good times, he had never been Emperor, and in the times he had sowed upon the city it was just impossible. Robert De Clari tells us that the “barons demanded their payment again, and he said he would gladly pay them as much as he could, and he paid them then a good hundred thousand marks. Of these hundred thousand marks the Venetians received a half, for they were to have half of the grains, and of the fifty thousand marks that remained they were paid thirty-six thousand which the French still owed them for their navy. And from the other twenty thousand marks which remained to the Pilgrims they paid back those who had loaned their money to pay for the passage.” The Venetians received most of the money, but it was nowhere near what they had expected from their puppet Emperor Alexios IV. “Afterwards the Emperor sought out the barons and said to them that he had nothing save Constantinople and that this was worth little to him by itself, for his uncle held all the cities and castles that ought to be his. So he asked the barons to help him conquer some of the land around, and he would right gladly give them still more of his wealth.” The Crusaders helped him “conquer” Thrace, and in the process more looting and destruction of the Roman people and their towns and cities occurred. Isaakios stayed in Constantinople while Alexios III went with the Latins into Thrace.

Robert De Clari blames the change in relations between Alexios IV and the Crusaders on Murzuphlus, the soon to be Emperor Alexios V Doukas. He had been freed from prison after the fall of Alexios III, and now was advising Alexios IV. Robert claims he somehow knew the advice he gave to the young Emperor: “Ah, sire, you have already paid them too much! Do not pay them any more. You have paid them so much now that you have mortgaged everything. Make them go away and dismiss them from your land.” Of course this infuriated the Latins, and “when the French saw that the Emperor was not going to pay them anything, all the counts and the high men of the host came together, and went to the palace of the emperor and asked again for their payment. Then the Emperor answered that he could not pay them anything, and the barons answered that if he did pay them, they would seize enough of his possessions to pay themselves.” Alexios IV may now have been regretting his wish to be Emperor in this way, for now he was in a perilous position between hostile Crusaders and resentful Romans.


Alexios IV could not come up with the money, these were not the days of Manuel Komnenos, such sums did not just sit idle in the treasury waiting to be spent. However, the Latins were preoccupied with nothing more so than getting their money. It is hard to argue this was a crusade at all by this point, the goal was no longer to get money to get to the Holy Land, it was just to get the most money from the Romans as possible. Choniates says “no nation loves money more than this race,” and the Crusaders would not leave without every coin they could get. Thus even though there was no money in the treasury, there was always one place in Byzantine society with money – the Church. Niketas says “because money was lacking, he raided the sacred temples. It was a sight to behold: the holy icons of Christ consigned to the flames after being hacked to pieces with axes and cast down, their adornments carelessly and unsparingly removed by force, and the revered and all-hallowed vessels seized from the churches with utter indifference and given over to the enemy troops as common silver and gold. The Emperor himself was in no way incensed by this raging madness against the saints, and no one protested out of reverence. In our silence, not to say callousness, we differed in no way from those madmen, and because we were responsible, we both suffered and beheld the most calamitous of evils.” It is clear he and almost surely many other Romans as well, looked back and saw the melting of the icons and church treasures as an insult to God that lost them God’s favor. I think it was a huge mistake to give this gold to the Latins. It did nothing but give them an advantage and the Romans a disadvantage. That money could have been taken from the church to save the Empire, to be used by the Romans to recruit more soldiers and pay the Varangians. More like how Alexios Komnenos or Herakleios requisitioned funds from the Church for the good of the Romans. Instead, the confiscation created resentment and achieved no positive gains. Throughout Byzantine history the Romans took great care to stay in God’s favor as they perceived it, and this was probably a great spiritual and material pain for many Romans.


When the Crusaders still had not received the impossible sum Alexios IV had offered them, the Venetian mastermind the Doge Dandolo went to speak with the Emperor. The Emperor went to the shore on a horse, and Dandalo came near the shore on a ship and the following conversation, according to Robert De Clari occurred:

An admittedly terrible representation of the conversation, the Emperor looks dressed more like Napoleon than a Byzantine Emperor, and there are minarets in the background.

Dandolo: “Alexius, what dost thou mean? Take thought how we rescued thee from great wretchedness and how we have made thee a lord and have had thee crowned Emperor. Wilt though not keep thy covenant with us and wilt thou not do anything more about it?”

Alexios IV: “Nay, I will not do more than I have done

Dandolo: “No? Wretched boy, we dragged thee out of the filth, and into the filth we will cast thee again. And I defy thee, and give thee well to know what I will do thee all the harm in my power from this moment forward.”

Although it sounds a bit like fiction rather than fact, it does represent the feelings of the Crusaders at this moment. They felt betrayed because they did not realize that Alexios IV offered more than he could ever pay. I am very confident this is a literary device to display the righteousness of the Latins to their audience. I am sure the Crusaders did demand their money, and clearly they did not get all of it, but why would Alexios IV risk his safety to go to the shore for such a meeting? Choniates does not record this meeting at all either.

Robert De Clari says the Romans tried to burn the Venetian fleet with fireships. Not “Greek”/Roman fire, which had been lost by now, but with ships laden with kindling, set on fire, and sailed at the enemy fleet. The Roman ships were ineffective so it was a reasonable gamble to take for the Byzantines. The Crusader historians said “while they were in such straits, what did the Emperor and his traitors who were with him do but plan a great treason” and take “ships into the city by night and have them filled with wood and have them set on fire. When it came towards midnight and the ships were well ablaze, a strong wind arose and the Greeks loosed these ships all on fire to burn the navy…” This attack, and a similar fireship attack a couple of weeks later, failed to damage the Latin ships. In this time, Robert says the Byzantines fortified the sea walls with wooden towers and platforms built on top of the sea walls to raise their height and reduce the advantage of the tall Venetian masts. The Latins busied themselves with looting the mansions of the elite around the Propontis and imperial suburbs.


The people of Constantinople were innocent victims in all this. The power-plays of the Angelos family, and the money-seeking of the Crusaders had combined in a way which left them in the crosshairs. Their city was being burned and attacked by foreigners. Then, after the Byzantines had debased their own sacred churches to pay the Latins, resentment boiled over in the imperial capital. It is important to note how God’s favor meant to the Byzantine people, look at his vicious the dispute over iconoclasm had been for example. Choniates describes the “city rabble” in a critical way as they unleashed their frustration on the residents of Constantinople who were from Western nations. They attacked and destroyed areas of the city where the residents were Italian. It may sound like revenge, but in reality this was a poor choice. It alienated the Byzantines even more. made the Romans look cruel, and fit into the Crusader moral narrative. The Pisans in particular, historical enemies of Venice, made cause with the Venetians after their quarter was razed. They had helped repel the first attacks, but now would be attacking the city with the Crusaders. Animosity between East and West was growing by the day, by the hour. The destruction in the city was about to go to levels not seen since the Nika riots, probably exceeding the damage from those events easily.

In his chronicle, Villehardouin described this final division between the Romans and the Westerners — “And the Latins, to whatever land they might belong, who were lodged in Constantinople, dared no longer to remain therein; but they took their wives and their children, and such of their possessions as they could save from the fire, and entered into boats and vessels, and passed over the port and came to the camp of the pilgrims. Nor were they few in number, for there were of them some fifteen thousand, small and great; and afterwards it proved to be of great advantage to the pilgrims that these should have crossed over to them. Thus there was division between the Greeks and Franks; nor were they ever again at one as they had been before, for neither side knew on whom to cast the blame for the fire; and this rankled in men’s hearts upon either side.” Reading all three accounts of Choniates, Villehardouin, and Robert De Clari – it seems very clear that the Crusaders did start the fire. It is a tactic they used repeatedly, and the Romans had nothing to gain trapped in their city to set a massive fire. Robert De Clari is shamelessly clear that fire was a tactic of first-resort, not last-resort.

The people also strangely took their anger out on a statue in the Forum of Constantine. Choniates says the “foolish rabble” destroyed it because her orientation and gesture seemed to be “beckoning on the Western armies.” He described the statue as “standing to a height of thirty feet and wore a garment made of bronze, as was the entire figure. The robe reached down to her feet and fell into folds in many places so that no part of the body which Nature has ordained to be clothed should be exposed. A military girdle tight cinctured her waisted. Covering her prominent breasts and shoulders was an upper garment of goatskin embellished with the Gorgon’s head[the Aegis]. Her long bare beck was an irresistible delight to behold. The bronze was so transformed by its convincing portrayal of the goddess in all her parts that her lips gave the appearance that, should one stop to listen, one would hear a gentle voice…” Choniates says the statue did not even point towards the Western armies, but the mob thought it did, “as a result of such misconceptions they shattered the statue of Athena.” It is very possible this was the Athena Promachos statue from the Acropolis in Athens. Whatever statue it was, it was one of grandeur, a true loss.

It sounds barbaric, and it was, but the context of events is important. Statue shattering was not a common event in Constantinople, which is why statues survived. However, the people were suffering and a superstitious belief the statue could somehow cause them harm would be taken more seriously at this perilous moment. The citizens were being taxed and having their wealth confiscated, some were homeless from the first fire, and yet the situation just got worse. Frustration was a natural outcome, even if this venting of it is most unfortunate.


On August 19 of 1203, the Crusaders launched a small raid across the Golden Horn. It is not clear to me if this was organized by the leaders of the Crusade or a more individual action. The Romans, with no fleet, could do nothing to prevent any enemy ships sailing around the city freely. The Venetians and French were also joined by the recently alienated Pisans. As per Choniates, “this evil battalion put into the city on fishing boats and without warning fell upon the synagogue (mosque) of the Agarenes called Mitaton in popular speech; with drawn swords they plundered its possessions. As these outrages were being committed senselessly and beyond every expectation, the Saracens defended themselves by grabbing whatever weapon was at hand; aroused by the tumult, the Romans came running to their assistance. Not as many arrived as should have, but soon, after fighting on the side of these men, the Latins were compelled to withdraw. The latter abandoned hope of resisting with weapons learned from experience to use fire; the proposed to resort to fire as the most effective defense and quickest course of action to subdue the city.” Robert De Clari’s writings support the claim Choniates makes about the Crusaders use of fire to subdue the city.

I modified the Byzantium1200 reconstruction to create this visual of the city burning at the hands of the crusaders.

To cover their retreat, the Crusaders organized themselves, waited for the right winds, and set ruthlessly fire to the city of Constantinople. Did it matter how populous the city was to them? Probably not, that was probably part of why they did that, such a large population resisting them was clearly a problem. The people had just chased them out of the city. Choniates, who was in the city, describes how “the flames rose unbelievably high above the ground throughout the night, the next day (August 20 1203), and the following evening as they spread everywhere. It was a novel sight, defying the power of description. While in the past many conflagrations had taken place in the city – no one could cite how many of what sort they had been – the fires ignited at this time proved all others to be but sparks. The flames divided, took many different directions, and then came together again, meandering like a river of fire. Porticoes collapsed, the elegant structures of the agora toppled, and huge columns went up in smoke like so much brushwood. Nothing could stand before those flames. Even more extraordinary was the fact that burning embers detached themselves from this roaring and raging fire an consumed buildings at a great distance. Shooting out at intervals, the embers darted through the sky, leaving region untouched by the blaze, and then destroying it when they turned back and fell upon it. The fire, advancing for the most part in a straight course driven by a north wind, was soon observed to turn aside as though fanned by a south wind, to move aslant, turning this way and that was it unexpectedly charred and burned everything. Even the Great Church was endangered. Indeed, all buildings lying in the direction of the Arch of the Milion and adjoining gallery of Makron, and the structure also called the Sinods, came crashing to the ground, for neither had the baked brick nor the deep set foundations which could withstand the heat.”

The fire started around the Mitaton mosque near the Golden Horn trading quarters, and burned its way all the way down to the Marmara sea, burning harshly along the southern walls. The destruction is hard to measure, but a large percentage of the city must have been destroyed by this. There is no way that a lot civilians did not die in these fires either. The way Choniates described the spread of fire by embers, tells me many must have been trapped with fires on all sides as their section of the city was enveloped by the flames. Choniates says “the most extraordinary thing is that the fire, advancing gradually and leaping over the walls, so to speak, ravaged the dwellings beyond…” This indicates that pockets were skipped by the fires only to be swallowed later, and surely many could not make it out before it was too late. However, there is no way to know how many died or what all was destroyed. I am sure people, art, buildings, monuments, and statues were all lost the vicious flames.

Thankfully, the fires stopped near the Hagia Sophia, saving the Great Church. But some other grand features of the city were lost to the tides of flames. “The so-called Porticoes of the Domninoes were also reduced to ashes, as well as the two covered streets originating at the Milion, one of which extended to the Philadelphion. The Forum of Constantine and everything between the northern and southern extremities were similarly destroyed. Not even the Hippodrome was spared, but the whole section towards the demes as well as everything leading down to [the harbor of] Sophia was engulfed in flames…The flames, encompassing the city from sea to sea and dividing it by a great chasm or a river flowing through her midst, made it perilous for loved ones to join one another unless they crossed over in boats. The majority of the City’s inhabitants were stripped of their possessions as the flames reached out to those who were taken by surprise.” Surely tens of thousands, if not 100,000 people or more, could have had their homes burned as the densely populated areas of the city burned.


Choniates says that the co-Emperors Alexios IV and Isaakios were “not in the least appalled” by this terrifying ordeal. He says before the fires even fully ended that the Emperors ordered another confiscation of wealth from the Church, this time “more exhaustive than before,” to melt down and award to the Crusaders in an attempt to buy them off. For the people of Constantinople, I cannot imagine the horrors of this time. Try to picture one’s city surrounded by enemies, cut off by sea and land, the government confiscating wealth, believing that you are losing God’s favor, feeling your leaders are incompetent, and having your city burned, and adding mass homelessness to the mix. It must have been an apocalyptic time, full of smoke and death and impoverishment. But, things were only going to get worse for the Queen of Cities.


The people had suffered hugely, and they knew who to blame. “The city populace, finding no fellow combatant and and ally to draw swords against the Latins, began to rise up in rebellion and, like a boiling kettle, to blow off steam…” The people gathered in the Hagia Sophia to find a new Emperor, but, they struggled to pick one. Choniates says “we made no attempt to nominate a candidate before the assembly, for we realized full well that whoever was proposed for election would be led out the very next day like sheep led to a slaughter, and that the chiefs of the Latin hosts would wrap their arms around Alexios[IV] and defend him. The multitude, simpleminded and volatile, asserted that they no longer wished to be ruled by the Angelos family, and that the assembly would not disband unless an Emperor to their like were first chosenDoukas [Murzuphlus] seized the opportunity to begin the rebellion over which he had travailed.”

Choniates details the downfall of the Alexios IV, the greedy young man who had contributed to bringing the Crusaders to imperial capital. Doukas went to the imperial chamber in the middle of the night of January 27-28 of 1204, and told Alexios “that his blood relations as well as a host of nameless men, but above all the barbarian contingent armed with axes (the Varangians), were standing at the doors after making furious assaults, eager to tear him to pieces with their hands because it was obvious that he was of one mind with the Latins and dependent on their friendship.” Doukas then pretended to help him, and threw a robe on him, escorted him out, only to “cast him into a the most horrible of all prisons and thus ‘made darkness his secret place’ as Doukas decked himself out with the imperial insignia” on January 28. Alexios IV was later strangled, and “sprang the trap leading to hell. He had reigned six months and eight days.” Robert De Clari says that Doukas strangled both Alexios IV and Isaac on the the night of the 27th, but both Choniates and Villehardouin agree that Isaakios died before the strangling of Alexios IV. Thus it was that the incompetent young man, who could not foresee the consequences of his actions, suffered the fate he would also bring upon his city – death. I cannot say he deserves any pity.

Robert De Clari blames it all on Alexios V Doukas, or Murzuphlus. However, he said “the Greeks who were traitors toward the Emperor and this Murzuphlus who the Emperor had freed from prison came together and plotted a great treason. For they wanted to make someone else Emperor, someone who would deliver them from the French, because Alexius did not seem good to them any longer.” The people saw the situation was failing, and that the only one trying to resist the Crusaders seriously was Murzuphlus. Robert claims Murzuphlus made an offer to the people: “If you will leave it to me,” said he, “I will deliver you from the French and will make me Emperor, so that you will never have any more trouble from them.” Considering the people wanted Alexios III to take action and save them, it makes sense now they looked for someone to try to save them again.


With a new Emperor who seemed determined to fight for the Queen of Cities, a newly found vigor emerged in the defenders. Like Alexios IV, Alexios V Doukas “found the imperial treasury neither full nor half-full, but completely emptied out…” Thus, Doukas had to find money where he could. Taxation and confiscation. Choniates says he took the wealth of those had held office under the Angelos dynasty, taking their money for the “public needs.” It is hard to see what other choice had had on that matter.

A depiction of the Alexios V and the Varangians

Initially, he made quite an impression in Constantinople. “In resisting the Latins, he surpassed all others; he shored up the City’s sea walls with beams, provided the land walls with fortifications, and rekindled the army’s courage with his own example. Moreover, clasping sword in hand and armed with a bronze mace, he would back the enemy’s sallies…” Surely after the impotent and cowardly rulers the Romans had in the first siege, the people must have rejoiced at such a sight, and “such deeds endeared him to the citizens.” However, the elites of the city did not enjoy having their wealth confiscated and resented him.


Choniates says that the Doge Dandalo decided to talk about peace terms with the Romans, and met Murzuphlus by the shore. This event sounds exactly like the way Robert De Clari described the encounter with Alexios IV, thus either this was a common way of meeting between the sides, or only one of these events occurred and it was remembered incorrectly by one of the histories. When they met, Niketas says that “as soon as the Emperor arrived there on horseback, they exchanged views on the peace, paying no heed to anyone else. The demands made by the doge and the remaining chiefs were for the immediate payment of 5,000 pounds of gold and certain other conditions which were both galling and unacceptable to those who have tasted freedom and are accustomed to give, not take, commands.” He added that “these demands were deemed to be heavy Laconian lashes to those for whom the danger of captivity was imminent and universal destruction had erupted, while the doge loudly again declared what had been stated earlier, that the conditions were quite tolerable and not burdensome. As the conditions for peace were being negotiated, Latin cavalry forces, suddenly appearing from above, gave free rein to their horses and charged the Emperor, who wheeled his horse around, barely escaping the danger, while some of his companions were taken captive.” The Byzantines get criticized by the Latins for tactics like that, they would be called “Greek traitors” for trying to capture or kill the Emperor in negotiations. But, this was common throughout history, not unique to the Romans or Crusaders. Choniates adds a sad line – “their inordinate hatred for us and our excessive disagreement with them allowed for no humane feeling between us.” And nothing was humane about the coming events. Peace had failed.


Villehardouin wrote that “those of the host spoke together, and took counsel what they should do. Much was advanced this way and that, but in the end, they devised that if God granted them entry into the city by force, all the booty taken was to be brought together, and fittingly distributed; and further, if the city fell into their power, six men should be taken from among the Franks, and six from among the Venetians, and these twelve should swear, on holy relics, to elect as emperor the man who, as they deemed, would rule with most profit on the land. And whosoever was elected emperor, would have one quarter of whatever was captured, whether within the city or without, and moreover would possess the palace of Bucoleon and that of Blachernae; and the remaining three parts would be divided into two, and one of the halves awarded to the host and the other to those of the host.” The seeds of the fracturing of the Roman Empire into Crusader states and splintered Byzantine factions had been sowed in this agreement. “The covenant was made sure and sworn to on the one side and the other by the Franks and the Venetians; with provision that at the end of March, a year thence, any who so desired may depart hence and go their way, but that those who remained in the land would be held to the service of the emperor in such manner as might be ordained. Thus was the covenant devised and made sure; and such as should not observe were excommunicated by the clergy.” Although I am not sure on whose authority they would be excommunicated. This entire mission was never sanctioned by the Pope. However, the plan to install a new “Latin emperor” was devised, but first the City had to be won.


On April 8 of 1204, the Crusaders launched a full-scale assault on the sea-walls. Their best and largest ships used their boarding mechanisms to unleash Crusader soldiers on the walls. The Romans fought hard, and it was a daunting task. Robert De Clari said rewards were offered to the brave soldiers willing to spearhead the assault on the walls. A small area of the city around the Monastery of Evergetes near Blachernae was occupied by the Latins, and as had become the norm, was burned “stripping it of ever pleasant spectacle.” But the assault was repelled by Alexios V and his soldiers.

The Crusaders did not breach the Theodosian land walls, but did attack the weak-point at Blachernae where they could attack by sea and land. This illustration is a bit inaccurate in that way.

On April 9, another assault by sea was sent at the defenders. Crossbowmen from the masts of the ships unleashed their vicious bolts upon the defenders on the walls and heavily armoured men boarded the walls. A battle raged all day, with both sides taking heavy casualties. Choniates says the Romans had the upper hand overall, the ships were repulsed, and the city’s catapults and trebuchets did damage to the enemy. On the Saturday of April 10, and April 11 which was a Sunday, the Crusaders rested and did not attack the city.


The Romans probably had no idea when they awoke on April 12, that it was to be the last day before Constantinople was to subjugated, raped, looted, and destroyed. Thus, they fought on. The Crusaders launched another attack along the sea walls. Around midday, the Romans had still repelled the invaders. Later in the day, the Crusaders made progress however. A small number of heavily armored men took over a tower and a small gate in the sea walls, the Romans began to waver, and the defenses began to collapse.

Robert De Clari says one of these armoured warriors was attacked my a mob of defenders who “rushed upin him with axes and swords and struck him fiercely, but because he was in armor, by God’s mercy, they did not wound him — as if God were protecting him, because He was not willing they should hold out longer or that his man should die. Instead, because of their treason and disloyalty and the murder that Murzuphlus had done, He willed that the city should be taken and all the people of the city dishonored.”

And dishonor the people of the city they would. Choniates paints a vivid picture as part of the city was taken by the Crusaders “the enemy, now that there was no one to raise a hand against them, ran everywhere and drew sword against every age and sex. Each did not join with the next man to form a coherent battle array, but all poured and scattered, since everyone was afraid of them.” The Crusaders took control of Blachernae, taking “the palace in Blachernai by assault without difficulty, they set up their general headquarters at the Pantepoptes monastery.” Now the Crusaders had a base in the city.

Alexios V Doukas was trying to rally the people, “he went hither and yon throughout the City’s narrow streets, attempting to rally and mobilize the populace who wandered aimlessly about. Neither were they convinced by his exhortations nor did they yield to his blandishments, but the fiercely shaken aegis filled all with despair.” At least he tried to rally the defenders. As the day and night wore on, “every citizen busied himself with removing and burying his possessions. Some chose to leave the city, and whoever was able hastened to save himself.” The defense was collapsed, and it became every man for himself. “When Doukas saw that he could prevail nothing, he was fearful lest he be apprehended and put into the jaws of the Latins as their dinner or dessert, and he entered the Great Palace. He put on board a small fishing boat…and sailed away from the City [night of April 12-13 1204], having reigned two months and sixteen days.” Now there were vicious Crusaders intent on dishonoring the people of the city, and they had no leader, no organized defense, and no hope.


After the Emperor had fled the city, a new Emperor had to be chosen. A Constantine Laskaris, brother of the future Emperor of Nicaea [the Roman Empire in exile], Theodore Laskaris, was elected by lot. Choniates says “Laskaris, bearing the same name as the first emperor of our faith, contested the captaincy of a tempest-tossed ship, for they viewed the great and celebrated Roman Empire as Fortune’s prize…” Laskaris was then accompanied by the Patriarch to the Milion, and tried to rally the people of Constantinople to fight on for their city. Normally in Byzantine history, the people of Constantinople had been stubborn, determined, and fought to have their way. They had overthrown Emperors, defended other Emperors from usurpers, rioted, and otherwise taken action in the streets. However, perhaps having seen the Emperor flee, and years of chaos, the city burnt by Crusaders, the relics from their churches given to pay the crusaders only to still be attacked — perhaps after all of this mismanagement, they were hopeless. For the first time I have read about, the people of the the City just gave up, and let fate exact it’s cruel plans upon them passively. As per Choniates, Laskaris tried to convince them they must fight in the “imminent struggle,” however “not a single person responded to his blandishments.” It is plausible the people lost belief in their government to save them by this point. Doukas had tried to bring the people to fight on with similar disinterest and disbelief as they sat by idly preparing for their twisted fate.

The Varangians were the most effective force the Byzantines had, their biggest hope was to get the Varangians to fight with the support of the people. But, like the people, the Varangians seem to have lost hope as well. Laskaris “pressed those who who lift from the shoulder and brandish the deadly iron ax, sending them off to the imminent struggle, reminding them that they should not fear destruction any less than the Romans should the Roman Empire fall to another nation; no longer would they be paid the ample wages of mercenaries or receive the far-famed gifts of honor of the imperial guard, and their pay in the future would be counted at a hair’s worth…the ax-bearers agreed to fight for wages, deceitfully and cunningly exploiting the height of the danger for monetary gain, and when the Latin battalions clad in full armor made their appearance, they took flight to save themselves [early morning of 13 April 1204].” Laskaris, seeing all was lost, fled to Asia Minor to Nicaea where his family would create the new legitimate Roman government at Nicaea.

Robert De Clari described what happened, of course from a Crusader perspective on the outside in comparison to the more insider knowledge of Choniates: “When it came towards midnight, the Emperor Murzuphlus the traitor knew that all the French were in the city, he was very much afraid and dared not remain there longer, but fled away at midnight so that no one knew anything about it. When the Greeks saw that their Emperor had fled, they took a high man of the city, Lascaris was his name, straightaway that very night and made him Emperor. When this man was made Emperor, he dared not remain there, but he got on a galley before it was day and passed over the Arm of St. George and went off to Nicaea the great, which is a fine city. There he stayed and he was lord and Emperor of it.

As soon as it was clear the city was going to fall, people began to look out for themselves. Whoever could, fled the city, but the Byzantines did not have many ships and thus the ability for most of the population to fleet was limited. Robert De Clari describes, with some added slant against the “Greeks,” a description of the refugees that showed up to the French camp: “When morning came on the morrow, what do they do, the priests and clergy in their vestments, the English, Danes, and people of other countries, but come in procession to the camp of the French and cry them mercy and tell them all that the Greeks had done, and said that all the Greeks had fled and no one was left in the city but the poor people. When the French heard this, they were mightily glad.”

The fires of the Fourth Crusade reaped great destruction on the city, but Robert De Clari made it clear in his history that even more of the city would have been burned if need be. The Crusaders showed wise military tactics in their restraint. They waited until daybreak, and came up with a pragmatic but extremely ruthless plan: “Then the high barons assembled and took counsel among them as to what they should do. And finally it was cried through the host that no one should dare go into the city, for it was a great peril there, lest they should cast stones on them from the palaces, which were very large and high, or lest they should slay them in the streets, which were so narrow that they would not be able to defend themselves, or lest the city should be set on fire behind them and they be burned. Because of these dangers and perils they, they did not dare seek quarters or disperse, but remained right there where they were. Then the barons agreed on this plan, that if the Greeks, who still had a hundred times as many men under arms as the French had, wanted to fight them on the morrow, they would arm themselves on the morrow morning and arrange their forces and await them in an open place which was father on in the city. And if they would neither fight nor surrender nor surrender the city, then they would watch from what quarter the wind was blowing, and they would set fire with the wind and burn them out. Thus they would take them by force. All the barons agreed to this plan.” Thank God that this did not happen, or Constantinople may have been nearly entirely burned, but that is only because the Romans gave up. Perhaps, with the hindsight of knowing this plan, it was for the best that they surrendered.

Niketas continued his history, describing the pathetic capitulation as the Romans, who had stubbornly fought for their city since 1203, abruptly gave up on the defense of their sacred capital. “The enemy, who had expected otherwise [a fight], found no one openly venturing into battle or taking up arms to resist; they saw that the way was open before them and everything there for the taking. The narrow streets were clear and the crossroads unobstructed, safe from attack, and advantageous to the enemy. The populace, moved by the hope of propitiating [winning their favor] them, had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But their disposition was not at all affected by what they saw, nor did their lips break into the slightest smile, nor did the unexpected spectacle transform their grim and frenzied glance and fury into a semblance of cheerfulness. Instead the plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God; the rest fortified themselves all around with defensive weapons as their horses were roused at the sound of the war trumpet.

The Crusaders were not going to be swayed by a welcome from the people, they were here to extract whatever wealth they could, and the pillage and rape of the Queen of Cities thus began on the morning of April 13…New Rome had fallen for the first time since it was founded by Constantine in 330AD.


Judith Herrin- Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about. They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups,-precursors of Anti-Christ, authors and heralds of his nefarious deeds which we momentarily expect. Manifestly, indeed, by that race then, just as formerly, Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments were divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground.” – Niketas Choniates

Constantinople had been exempt from the sackings that occur in most cities, such as Rome, Antioch, etc had fallen to enemies and lost their antique splendor. But, all things come to an end, and Constantinople paid its debt in dramatic sudden fashion. It accumulated wealth, people, imperial tombs, churches, mosaics, history, architecture, relics, from the time of Constantine in the 4th century until 1204. That is truly remarkable in such an unstable historical time, which made it the biggest treasure western Crusaders could imagine. And now, with the city fallen, it was not an imagination, it was a race to seize any wealth they could find.

This piece of artwork shows two crusaders, Pierre d’Amiens and Aleaume de Clari, breaking into Constantinople on 12 April 1204, during the Fourth Crusade. Artwork by Christa Hook

The first priority of the Crusader hierarchy was to secure as much loot for themselves as possible. After realizing the Roman resistance was over, and essentially walking into the city unmolested, thoughts immediately turned to the division of spoils. Robert De Clari claims the rich seized the best plunder right away with a secret plan to keep the greatest spoils: “Then they had it cried through the host that no one should take possession of a house until it had been decided how they should be divided. Then the high men, the rich men, came together and agreed among themselves to take the best houses of the city, without the common people or poor knights knowing anything about it. And from that time on, they began to betray the common people and to keep bad faith and bad companionship with them…so they sent to seize all the best houses and richest of the city, and had them all taken before the poor knights and the common people of the host were aware of it. And when the poor people were aware of it, they went each one as best he could and took what they could get. And many they took and many they found, and many were left, for the city was so populous.” The Crusade leaders were so greedy that not only would they divert the Crusade to Constantinople to steal its wealth, but they would deprive many of the Crusaders they had tricked into following them in deviating from the mission of their fair share of the plunder.

The Crusader leaders went farther than just claiming the best houses, they came up with a plan and according to Robert De Clari they “ordered all the wealth of the spoils should be brought to a certain church in the city (unnamed). The wealth was brought here, and they took ten knights, high men, of the pilgrims, and ten of the Venetians who were thought to be honorable, and the set them to guard this wealth. So the wealth was brought there. And it was so rich, and there were so many vessels of gold and silver, cloth of gold and so many rich jewels, that it was a fair marvel, the great wealth that was brought there. Not since the world was made, was there ever seen or won such a great treasure or so noble or so rich, not in the time of Alexander nor in the time of Charlemagne nor before nor after. Nor do I think myself, that in the forty richest cities of the world there had been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople…And the very ones who were to guard the wealth took gold ornaments and whatever else they wanted and robbed the treasure. And each one of the rich men took gold ornaments or cloth of silk and hold or anything else he wanted and carried it off. So in this way they began to rob the treasure, save the plain silver, like the silver pitchers which the ladies of the city used to carry to the baths. And other wealth the remained to be divided was concealed in such evils ways as I have told you. But in any event, the Venetians had their half, and the precious stones and the great treasure that remained to be divided went such evil ways as I shall tell you later.” It is truly amazing how much evil that men like the leaders of the Crusade, or Alexios IV Angelos (though he failed to elevate himself) were willing to to do in order to fulfil their greed. No cost was too much for them, no moral compass guided them.

It is impossible for me to truly convey the magnitude of what was lost. Even Robert De Clari, the best first-hand documenter of the sack, from a crusader perspective, struggled to describe the grandeur and beauty of what they found. Speaking of the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos in the palace complex, which was essentially the grand repository of the best Byzantine relics, and the greatest collection of Christian relics the world had ever seen, Robert wrote: “there was one of them called the Holy Chapel, which was so rich and noble that there was not a hinge nor a band nor any other part such as is usually made of iron that was not all of silver, and there was no column that was not of jasper or porphyry or some other rich precious stone. And the pavement of this chapel was of a white marble so smooth and clear that it seemed to be of crystal, and this chapel was so rich and so noble that no one could ever tell you its great beauty and nobility.” This church is less famous today than it should be, because of what transpired here. Its great relics were taken, never to return, and the wealth of the chapel was stripped bare, and it fell into disrepair. It was never even used following the Roman liberation in 1261 as it did not survive. I would not be surprised if some of its columns are on Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, or in an Ottoman mosque. This is just one of countless examples, and I am sure many other splendors were lost without such documentation. The Fourth Crusade took Constantinople from greatest city in Europe since ancient Rome, to a city more similar to medieval Rome, with great significance and majestic ruins all around it, but clearly a shadow of its former self.

I find it ironic that the descendants of those who destroyed the Western Roman Empire “matured” and grew in power, and destroyed the Eastern Roman capital. Niketas describes his belief that what the Crusaders did would lead to them suffering divine punishment in their afterlife: “Such then, to make a long story short, were the outrageous crimes committed by Western armies against the inheritance of Christ. Without showing any feelings of humanity whatsoever, they exacted from all their money and chattel, dwellings and clothing, leaving to them nothing of all their goods. Thus behaved the brazen neck, the haughty spirit, the high brow, the ever-shaved and youthful cheek, the bloodthirsty right hand, the wrathful nostril, the disdainful eye, the insatiable jaw, the hateful heart, the piercing and running speech practically dancing over the lips.”

In truth, they were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Sepulcher, they raged openly against Christ and sinned by overturning the Cross with the cross they bore on their backs (the True Cross relic), not even shuddering to trample on it for the sake of a little gold and silver. By grasping pearls, they rejected Christ, the pearl of great price, scattering among the most accursed of brutes the All-Hallowed One.” Referring to the Muslims as “the sons of Ismael,” he noted that even they “did not behave in this way” when they conquered. Despite the fact that “when the Latins overpowered the Sion the Latins showed no compassion or kindness to their race,” referencing the slaughter of Jerusalem by the First Crusade. He notes that the Arabs let everyone “depart in exchange for the payment of a few gold coins; they took only the ransom money and left to the people all of their possessions…” Niketas also pointed out that they did not go after Latin women to rape them. Essentially, he is saying that Byzantine and Arab customs were less barbaric than the Crusaders. “Thus the enemies of Christ dealt magnanimously with the Latin infidels, inflicting upon them neither sword, nor fire, nor hunger, nor persecution, nor nakedness, nor bruises, nor constraints. How differently, as we have recounted, the Latins treated us who love Christ and are their fellow believers, guiltless of any wrong against them.


The scenes of destruction, particularly focused on Hagia Sophia, are described in a passage from Choniates:

The report of the impious acts perpetrated in the Great Church are unwelcome to the ears. The table of sacrifice, fashioned from every kind of a precious material and fused by fire into one whole–blended together into a perfection of one multi-colored thing of beauty. truly extraordinary and admired by all nations–was broken into pieces and divided among the despoilers, as was the lot of all the sacred church treasures, countless in number and unsurpassed in beauty. They found it fitting to bring out as so much booty the all-hallowed vessels and furnishings which had been wrought with incomparable elegance and craftsmanship from rare materials. In addition, in order to remove the pure silver which overlay the railing of the bema, the wondrous pulpit and the gates, as well as that which covered a great many other adornments, all of which were plated with gold, they led to the very sanctuary of the temple itself mules and assed with packsaddles; some of these, unable to keep their feet on smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor. Moreover, a certain silly woman laden with sins, an attendant of the Erinyes, the handmaid of demons, the workshop of unspeakable spells and reprehensible charms, waxing wonton against Christ, sat upon the synthronon (Patriarchal seat) and intoned a song, and then whirled about and kicked up her heels in dance.

One can assume similar scenes to this unfolded at every church in Constantinople on a smaller scale, as it did at the Church of the Pharos. It is sad how such previous artworks were destroyed so thoughtlessly. Byzantine art impresses today, but the best works have not even survived. Imagine if we could see these things today.


Choniates also detailed the seemingly barbaric behavior the Latins engaged in. They come across as little more sophisticated than those who sacked and toppled the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. “The enemy reveled in licentious and wanton behavior, and, resorting to indecent actions, they ridiculed Roman customs. They dressed themselves in the broad-bordered robes, not because of need, but for the purpose of mockery, and roamed the streets. They covered their mounts with head veils of the finest linen…Others, holding reed pens and inkwells, pretended to be writing books, mocking us as secretaries. The majority lifted onto their horses the women they had taken by force…Carousing and drinking unmixed wine all day long, some gorged themselves on delicacies, while others ate of their native food…”

The Romans felt disrespected as Christians by the way their churches were disregarded as holy. It is a strange contradiction that the Latins greedily eyed relics which they considered legitimately Holy items, yet the buildings, vessels, furnishings, and people who had proudly preserved and venerated such things were casually, cruelly, and barbarically treated. Choniates describes how virtually no respect was given to Holy treasures – “When the spoils were divided among them, they made no distinction between profane and sacred furnishings and vessels but they used everything equally for their bodily needs, paying no heed whatsoever to God and Themis [Divine Justice]. They desecrated the images of Christ and the Saints by sitting on them and using them as footstools.”

The Romans also felt humiliated and sorrowful that their Churches, bishoprics, and priesthoods were assumed under Latin control. The Romans under Western occupation often lost their spiritual freedom, although Orthodoxy did stubbornly persist. Choniates describes the Patriarch that “arrived from Venice as Patriarch of Constantinople [end of July 1204] a certain Thomas by name. He was of middle age and fatter than a hog raised in a pit.”


Of course, the biggest losses to us in terms of our curiosity today is the material loss of buildings, treasures, art, tombs, and tangible things which we wish we could see today. However, it was a far darker tragedy than just the loss of possessions. Choniates describes how the every day people suffered as well – “No one was without a share in the grief. In the alleys, in the streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united. Nobles wandered about ignominiously, those of venerable age in tears, the rich in poverty. Thus it was in the streets, on the corners, in the temple, in the dens, for no place remained unassailed or defended the suppliants. All places everywhere were filled full of all kinds of crime. Oh, immortal God, how great the afflictions of the men, bow great the distress!”

The Crusaders desecrating the city and its people, in the fashion Choniates described. Artist: Unknown

It was metropolis wide brutality. TV shows and movies never show the full extent of violence. Sure you might see someone stabbed, beheaded, or shot with an arrow, but you do not see for example women, nuns, and young girls cruelly raped. Or old men killed for no reason. Fathers killed defending their family. But the violence was house to house, and we will never know their individual stories and the horror they suffered. Choniates describes how, in standard medieval procedure when a city was captured by force, the conquering soldiers fanned out to seize their prize: “On that day the City fell…and made us the most ill-starred of men…the despoilers took up quarters in the houses and spread out in all directions, seized everything inside as plunder, and interrogated their owners as to the whereabouts of their hidden treasures, beating some, holding gentle converse with many, and using threats against all. Taking possession of these things, they put them on display, both those furnishings which were in plain view and which were brought forward by their owners and those valuables which they found themselves after prolonged searching. They spared nothing and shared none of the belongings with their owners, nor were they willing to share food and house with them; and because they showed them utter disdain and refused to mingle with them, taking them captive while heaping abuse upon them and casting them out, the chiefs decided to allow those who so desired to depart from the City.”

Painting “The Bulgarian Martyresses” by Kontantin Makowski – Although not Byzantine in subject matter, this horrific scene depicts the kind of terror the women of Constantinople had to suffer.

Rape was of course not a subject which individuals would write about and attribute to their wife, or someone they knew, and the Crusaders naturally did not document their blatantly impious sexual pillaging. However, this was common in medieval warfare. During the sacking, Men were “put in chains” and women were “violated and wontonly raped.” The populace feared the Crusaders, particularly the French. Chonaites describes how the Crusader soldiers “looked with steadfast and fixed gaze upon those women who were of extraordinary beauty with intent to seize them forthwith and ravish them. Fearing for the women, we put them in the middle as though in a sheepfold and instructed the young girls to rub their faced with mud to conceal the blush of their cheeks so that should not, like a beacon’s fire in the night, signal wayfarers who would first become spectators, then admirers, and finally rapists, viewing their own pleasure as guiltless. We lifted our hands in supplication to God…with contrite hearts and bathed our eyes in tears and prayed that we all, both men and women, should escape those savage beats of prey unharmed.”

Choniates and his group of refugees were heading to the Golden Gate to flee the city, and one of the young girls with them was nearly abducted and raped. “A lecherous and unholy barbarian, like a wolf pursuing a lamb, snatched from our midst a fair-tressed maiden, the young daughter of a judge. Before this most piteous spectacle our entire company shouted in alarm. The girl’s father, afflicted by old age and sickness, stumbled, fell into a mudhole…turning to me in utter helplessness and calling me by name, he entreated that I do everything possible to free his daughter.” Choniates chased after the man to find the girl, and found some passing Latin troops and demanded they intervene. “I succeeded in moving some to pity and convinced them to go in pursuit this fleshpot…when we arrived at the lodgings of this lover of women, he sent the girl inside and stood at the gateway to repulse his opponents.” He also claims he personally guilted the man using Christian teachings, “You have decreed and sword the most awesome oaths to refrain from intercourse with, and if possible, from from even casting an adulterous eye on, married women, maidens who have never known any man, and nuns consecrated to God.” The soldiers Choniates convinced to intervene felt sympathy, and insisted the girl be set free, and thus she was. “The father rejoiced at the sight of his daughter, shedding tears as liberation to God for having saved her.” But many young girls were not saved, I will not even try to conjecture what horrors some surely suffered.

Faced with such acts of greed-fueled terror, naturally many Romans left, and many ended up in Nicaea where a new capital-in-exile would be established. Many who left suffered terribly nonetheless, they were not allowed to take any wealth, and “went forth wrapped in tatters, wasted away from fasting (starving), ashen in complexion, their visages corpse-like, and their eyes bloodshot, shedding more blood than tears. Some made their possessions the subject of lamentation, while others said nothing as though their belongings were a matter of no distress whatsoever; some bemoaned the abduction and deflowering of a beautiful young daughter of marriageable age or bewailed the loss of a spouse, while others moaned some other calamity as they made their way.” So yes, the material loss of the architecture and splendor of the city, the statues, etc did matter. But this terrible tragedy was far worse than that, many names lost to history lost their life, a loved one, and even their dignity on that day. Choniates says he himself was saved by a Venetian friend resident in the city, and his household was spared by the Crusaders, and sheltered Choniates and his family. His friend put on his armor and “pretended to be a companion in arms and, speaking to them in their own barbaric tongue, claimed that he had occupied the dwelling first. Thus he beat off the despoilers to a man.” This allowed him to leave.

Some Romans turned to lawlessness and chaos, trying to take advantage of the lack of authority and order. Some were buying items looted from Churches in Constantinople to upcharge and make profit from them. “The vulgar members of this wicked company engaged in profit making and again profaned the sacred by buying up those things being sold by the Latins and trafficking in them as though they were common silver, as if the fact they had been removed from the churches made them no longer sacred to God.

After leaving, Chonaites says the poor taunted the upper class refugees as they made their way from Constantinople. “The rustics and baseborn greatly taunted those of us from Byzantion. They foolishly called the misery of our poverty and nakedness the equality of civic rights, for they had not as yet been chastened by the evils at hand. Many seized upon lawlessness and said ‘Blessed be the lord, for we have become rich,’ and they paid very little for the possessions of their countrymen which were offered for sale. They had not as yet received the beef-eating Latins into their homes and did not know…that they treat the Romans with arrogance and contempt.” But, in time, the rural people would learn this harsh reality. They would do their best to survive, and some would have to wait decades for liberation by the exiled Romans who would form in Nicaea to do their best to reform the Roman state.


Choniates finds some amusement in the fact the Crusaders seemed to think that after capturing Constantinople that they could simply assume control over all imperial territory. They casted lots to decide who would get which piece of land, which city, etc, yet many of these territories did not have Latin soldiers, and were not keen to welcome them. Choniates described how “it was a marvel to behold and witness over a period of time the unsurpassed loss of all sense by these deluded men, or perhaps it would be more fitting to speak of their derangement. As though they had already been installed as king of kings and held the whole terrestrial globe in their hands, they commissioned tax assessors to register the taxable Roman lands, wishing first to ascertain their annual revenues before apportioning these by lot, and the principalities and powers enjoyed by other nations and kings they divided up forthwith. Even Alexandria, wealthy among cities, situated near the Nile, was subject to the draw of the lot.” The Crusaders even drew lots on distant impossible to conquer places, such as Persia, Mesopotamia, and Ikonion which was the capital of the Seljuk Turks.

Clearly they felt that if they could conquer Constantinople, nothing could stop them. But the Latins were soon to find out that the Bulgarians were ready to offer them a different kind of welcome. Baldwin I, the first Latin Emperor was defeated and captured at the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 by Tsar Kaloyan. He was later killed the same year. It was apparent quickly that the Crusaders would not be sweeping all before them and drawing lots on lands far and wide.


Though it was not immediately looted, the imperial tombs themselves were a source of plunder. The Crusader army looted the city and took most of the wealth out. The “Latin Empire” which found itself ruling Constantinople was broke and ruling a city that was half-burnt and despoiled of every movable source of wealth. Occurring in July of 1204, Choniates records the looting of the mausoleums with disgust: “Exhibiting from the very outset, as they say, their innate love of gold, the plunderers of the queen city conceived a novel way to enrich themselves while escaping everyone’s notice. They broke open the sepulchers of the emperors which were located within the Heroon erected next to the great temple of the Disciples of Christ and plundered them all in the night, taking with utter lawlessness whatever gold ornament, or round pearls, or radiant, precious, and incorruptible gems that were still preserved within. Finding that the corpse of Emperor Justinian had not decomposed through the long centuries, they looked upon the spectacle as a miracle, but this in no way prevented them from keeping their hands off the tomb’s valuables: In other words, the Western nations spared neither the living nor the dead, but beginning with God and his servants, they displayed complete indifference and irreverence to all.”

It is sad to picture what happened, I wonder if they even spared the body of Constantine the Great from looting and desecration. However, I do not believe Choniates would have mentioned Justinian, and not Constantine, if both tombs had been ravaged. Robert de Clari does note the presence of Constantine, saying “that Constantine the emperor lay there and Helena [Constantine’s mother], and many other Emperors” were buried there…so perhaps the Crusaders held it in some reverence.


One of the saddest aspects of the fall of the city to these “barbarians” was their destruction of the City’s ancient statues. These statues were made of bronze, and were essentially melted to make what was the equivalent of large quantities of pennies. In poetic terms – “great things were exchanged for small ones, those works fashioned at huge expense were converted into worthless copper coins.” Priceless works which the people of the time, neither in the West nor in Byzantium nor anywhere else, could replicate at that time. Choniates says “because they were in want of money (for the barbarians are unable to sate their love of riches), they covetously eyed the bronze statues and consigned these to the flames.

Countless works were lost when they went to the Forum of Constantine the Great , who brought many of the famous ancient works to the city to liken it to the old Rome. “The brazen Hera standing in the Forum of Constantine was cast into a smelting furnace and minted into coins; her head could barely be carted off to the Great Palace by four yokes of oxen. Paris Alexander, standing with Aphrodite and handing her the golden apple of Discord, was thrown down from his pedestal and cast on top of Hera.”

But it was not limited to that. Writing in clear disgust, Choniates describes the barbaric behavior of the Latins: “Who, having laid eyes on the four-sided bronze mechanical device rising up to a height nearly equal to that of the tallest columns which have been set up in many places throughout the City, did not wonder at the intricacy of its ornamentation? Every melodious bird, warbling its spring-time tunes, was carved upon it; the tasks of husbandmen, the popes and milk pails, and the bleating sheep and bounding lambs were depicted. The widespread sea and schools of fish were to be seen, some caught and others showing breaking out of the nets to swim free again in the deep. There were the Erotes, shown in pairs and groups of three; innocent of clothing but armed with apples, they shook with sweet laughter as they threw these or were pelted at them. This four-sided monument terminated in a point like a pyramid, and above was suspended a female figure which turned with the first blowings of the wind, when it was called the Amedoulion [Wind-Servant]. Nonetheless, they gave over this most beautiful work to the smelters…”

Byzantium1200 reconstruction of the tetrapylon with the Amedoulion on top

It did not end there either, “an equestrian statue of heroic form and admirable size that stod on the trapezium-shaped base in the Forum of the Bull,” was “broken into pieces and committed to the flames…” Moving on, “these barbarians, haters of the beautiful, did not allow the statues standing in the Hippodrome and other marvelous works of art to escape destruction, but all were made into coins.” A statue of Herakles, “mighty in his mightiness, begotten in a triple night and placed in a basket for his crib; the lion’s skin which was thrown over him looked terrifying even in bronze, almost as though it might give out a roar and frighten the helpless populace standing nearby…” but the Crusaders melted it down as well. “Together with Herakles they pulled down the ass, heavy-laden and braying as it moved along, and the ass driver followed behind. These figures had been set up by Caesar Augustus at Actium [which is Nikopolis in Hellas]…” Even a figure of Romulus and Remus couldnt be spared by the Latins. “For a few copper coins, they delivered over the nation’s ancient and venerable monuments and cast these into the smelting furnace.” Choniates also mentions some sphinxes, a man wrestling a lion, a “Nile horse whose posterior terminated in a spineferous and scaly tail, and of the elephant waving its proboscis.” The “ancient Skylla, depicted leaning forward as she leaped into Odysseus’ ships and devoured many of his companions,” was also thrown in a furnace.

Byzantium1200 reconstruction of the Skylla statue described by Choniates

A bronze eagle in the Hippodrome was melted. A statue of Helen of Troy, “who mustered the entire host of the Hellenes” was destroyed. Choniates seems particularly sad about this one, describing the feminine beauty of the statue, and unable understand “the gold-madness of these men…for that madness was the reason why rare and excellent works of art everywhere were given over to total destruction.” Going on to list this carnage of art, a statue of a young woman “in the prime of life” was destroyed. There were also statues of charioteers in the Hippodrome, such as that of Porphyrios, which were destroyed. Statues of animals such as Hippopotami, bulls, and others. Choniates explicitly stated that he did not even try to describe all the statues lost either, many more were consigned to permanent removal from history through the greedy flames of the Fourth Crusade.

Byzantium1200 reconstruction of a Bronze statue in the Hippodrome


Warren Treadgold wrote that “If the Fourth Crusade had not been diverted, under circumstances no one could have clearly foreseen, Byzantium of course would not have fallen in 1204. All the same, the Emperors beginning with Manuel Comnenus had alienated the Venetians, the rulers of Germany, and many other Westerners, leaving all them ready to divert a Crusade. The Empire had no reliable allies to whom it could turn in such a crisis. With it’s army weakened and its treasury impoverished, Byzantium could neither defeat the Crusaders nor buy peace from them.” This is the narrative where the Byzantines kind of just brought it on themselves. I have seen many say Byzantines were liars, and it was their fault. But the whole Crusade was based on a broken promise to to fight in Egypt and the Levant.

Can I absolve the Romans and the series of pathetic Emperors following Manuel of any guilt for this tragedy? Of course not! However, I am greatly disgusted by this inconsistent judgement displayed by Treadgold. He criticizes the Romans for their poor finances, and their inability to buy peace or defeat the Crusaders. The Crusaders mismanaged their own finances to the point that they had to break an oath they swore to God, to their Pope, to go the Holy Land, and instead attack the largest Christian city in the world. An act which was against the wishes of the Pope whom they claimed to represent. The Crusaders made themselves hostage to Venetian overlords with their own overestimation of the amount of men who would show up to Constantinople. I think both sides mismanaged their finances, and the Crusaders did end up with the upper hand. But that does not make them right. Ultimately, the Crusaders broke their oath, and the Romans were inside their own capital city, thus I do not see a legitimate way to blame the Romans for what happened. What I blame the Byzantines for was the decaying of the navy and armed forces. Had their defenses been just slightly better, the city could have defended itself. Even just having Greek fire might have helped defend the Golden Horn, but the formula was seemingly lost as the navy had been more or less dismantled. Thucydides said “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” The Byzantines let themselves be too weak, and suffered.

Another blame I give the Romans was paying the Crusaders at all. Treadgold says “Even with the Empire at its poorest in 1203, Alexius IV managed to pay 440,000 hyperpyra to the Crusaders and Venetians, since the next year they demanded only 360,000 as the balance due on the 800,000 they had been promised.” I believe if 440,000 had been spent on the defense, the Varangians would have fought on, more soldiers could have been recruited as the Crusaders were sailing to the city. But instead the 440,000 probably made the Crusaders realize how much more they could get if they succeeded. An important note is that 440,000 was more than the Crusaders originally needed to get the Holy Land, so the argument that that was all just the only to to continue the Crusade goes out the window when they stay to get the rest of the money. Any pretension of a Crusade was over, it was now a sacking the Vandals would have been proud of.


This is probably a matter of eternal discussion. Rarely, if ever can an event so complex and drawn out be boiled down to one cause. This story has multiple actors and layers. Firstly, let us rule out the Papacy itself. The Papacy did call the Crusade, but very quickly it lost any influence of the Crusade. The Pope even wrote letters ordering the Crusaders not to attack Zara, or Constantinople, and to focus on their stated mission to go to the Holy Land and the oaths they swore to do so. The most guilty parties are the Crusade leaders, the Venetians, and the greedy and selfish 21 year old Alexios IV Angelos who invited them.


Arguably this was the first moment where someone could look for a break in continuity of the Roman Empire. Because this was the first moment in Byzantine history where the Eastern Roman central government was destroyed when the City fell to the barbarians who conquered it, having to be reconstituted in Nicaea in a new form. But the Romans fought on. The Roman resistance was centered in three areas and in three different states. The Despotate of Epiros, The Empire of Trebizond in Pontos, and the Empire of Nicaea which was centered on the on the most valuable Byzantine lands in Anatolia. Nicaea and its new imperial government would go on to liberate New Rome. but neither the City nor it’s diminished “Empire” would ever be the same.

It wasn’t just a sacking, it was a deliberate destruction, systematic looting, and then also followed by a complete draining of all removable wealth from 1204 until 1261 when the city was liberated by the Romans. The city never would emerge as one of the same magnificence ever again. Paul Magdalino describes the city’s fall from grace: “The presence of the crusading army not only culminated in a violent sack that dispersed and destroyed the accumulated wealth and culture of centuries; it was accompanied by three terrible fires that ravaged the whole northern and central sections of the city, and it resulted in the establishment of a Latin regime that set off a steady exodus of Constantinopolitans to the Greek centers of government in exile. Far from restoring
the damage done in 1203–4, the impoverished Latin emperors melted down statues
for coin and sold the lead from palace roofs, while the Venetians, who now controlled
much of the city, exported their declining profits, along with choice relics and architectural spolia for their churches.”

The city would decay from 1204-1261, and any wealth which was not stolen by the Crusaders would be scoured by the Latin-Venetian colony which held the city in those years. If you want to continue reading about this story, follow events in Constantinople after 1204, to see the transformation Constantinople underwent, and it’s eventual liberation you can click the link below!


Medieval Constantinople: Built Environment and Urban Development. Paul Magdalino

Judith Herrin – Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton: New Jersey, 2007.

Niketas Choniates – O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates. Translated by Harry Magoulias. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984.

Jonathan Phillips – The Fourth Crusade and Sack of Constantinople (2004)

David Nicolle, John Haldon, Stephen Turnbull. The Fall of Constantinople: The Ottoman Conquest of Byzantium (2007).

Byzantine Art and the Fourth Crusade

Robert of Clari – The Conquest of Constantinople