Liberation of Constantinople 1261


The Fourth Crusade was an event where a western army which swore an oath to God and their Church that they would go to Egypt to fight for the Holy Land was directed instead against the largest Christian city in the world. The crusaders attempted to divide the entire Eastern Roman Empire among themselves, but not fully succeed. Steven Runciman wrote in Byzantine Civilization that “A Latin Emperor was set up in Constantinople. Latin Lords overran the Greek peninsula…Venice took islands and built colonies along the coastline and won concessions that captured for her the whole Eastern trade. But the attempt to take over the whole Empire failed. Imperial Asia Minor remained in Greek-speaking hands. In the western Anatolian city of Nicaea, Alexius III’s son-in-law Theodore Lascaris established a court that soon became the quarters of the Empire in exile (commonly known as the “Empire of Nicaea”). At Trebizond, a Comnenus declared his independence, and in Epirus, an Angelus, who soon acquired Thessalonica from its Latin Lords. These three self-styled Empires disputed the claim to be the Roman Empire in exile, but Nicaea’s was always the most generally accepted and in the end triumphed.”

The Roman world that emerged was much smaller than the pre-1204 Roman world. And it was not to get better long-term, only worse.

The story of the Roman liberation of their sacred capital of Constantinople was the triumph of Nicaea which Runciman is referring to. The Nicaeans had always focused on trying to piece the Empire back together, but it was an overwhelming task.



Just because the Emperor was back, the city’s fortunes were not. The wealth of the city was symbolically and literally stripped during and after the Fourth Crusade, it is impossible to get it back. One cannot simply reverse the desecration of places like the Holy Apostles and Hagia Sophia. It did improve, it did receive investment from Michal Palaiologos, but it could not be brought back to what it was. Michael did try, but he did not have the resources to create a new Late Antiquity style city. It took centuries for Constantinople to recover from its first decline following the Arab invasions and outbreaks of plague. The state had bigger resources then, and the population of Romans was far larger. But demographic, fiscal, and territorial decline created a reality which was far different in the 13th century. The following passage from Paul Magdalino describes better than I can the transformation which occurred in Constantinople when it became the capital of the Roman Empire again:

“They were thwarted by the irreversible decline in their territorial base and by the development of the Genoese trading colony in the suburb of Pera into a separate fortified settlement, where immunity from imperial tolls drew business away from the old city. Constantinople became once more, as in the seventh and eighth centuries, a ruralized network of scattered nuclei, though with several important differences. It was now the south coast that declined, as the Great Palace fell into decay, the Port of Julian became a military naval base, and the Jewish quarter, with its stinking tanneries, moved from Pera to Vlanga, near the former Port of Theodosios. The great open cisterns ran dry and served as kitchen gardens. The main foci of power and wealth were now at the corners of the urban triangle, particularly in the Blachernae quarter, and at the east end, where the patriarchal church of Hagia Sophia still remained the center of religious
life, but as such looked more to the monasteries on and around the Acropolis than to
the decaying civic center to the west. The shore of the Golden Horn, where the Venetians reestablished themselves, took over from the Mese as the main commercial axis.
Finally, in a complete inversion of the early medieval situation, the state sector was
weak and fragmented, but building continued, albeit on a modest scale. The Palaiologoi operated an even more devolved version of the Komnenian dynastic system and literally encouraged the imperial nobility to enrich themselves at the state’s expense; individuals accordingly built themselves sumptuous palaces and commissioned extensive additions or improvements to old monasteries. Such munificence became rarer from the mid-fourteenth century, when Constantinople was hit by the Black Death and progressively deprived of its agricultural hinterland. Yet profits were to be made in commerce, in spite of, but also in association with, the predominant Genoese and Venetian enterprises. Western visitors described a space “made up of villages, more empty than full,” a ghost city of crumbling tourist attractions that caught the eye of humanists and invited comparison with Rome. But imperial Constantinople, like papal Rome
after the Great Schism, was untypical of the wider Mediterranean urban scene, with which it was inextricably involved. In the final decades before the fall, the population numbered seventy thousand, and along the Golden Horn, on the hills above the busy markets, the new three-story houses of a prosperous aristocratic bourgeoisie turned their back on the urban decay behind them, creating a built environment that had much in common with the bustling Genoese business center across the water.”

But Paul Magdalino is just one of many scholars who conclude that the recapture of Constantinople and the successes of Michael’s reign were hollow and they did not strengthen the Empire more than they cost it. The recapture of Constantinople was a big victory, one which was achieved without a bloody siege as well. It did make the map look better, and it makes it sound like the Romans made a huge comeback. However, it seems it did not really change the grim reality the Romans faced in the 13th century. It’s possible with better leaders more could have been made of the situation, but as Steven Runciman put it after 1204: “the harm was irrevocable. Michael entered a half-ruined depopulated city. It was a valuable recovery…and it was glorious for the prestige of the Empire. But it brought problems and expenses that were too much for him to bear. The Genoese had been his allies; they must be paid with commercial privileges which reduced the Empire’s revenues. The Latins found a champion and would-be avenger in Charles of Anjou, now King of the Two Sicilies; he had to be outmaneuvered by a movement for Union with the Latin Church, a movement which infuriated the Emperor’s subjects without restraining Charles. The imperial coinage, stabilized by the thrift of the Nicaean Emperors, began to fall again; and Michael, unable to afford the system of paying his frontier forces with gifts of tax-free land, abolished such holdings in Asia, and so weakened his defenses. On Michael’s death in 1282 the Empire showed the barrenness of its political revival.”


Medieval Constantinople: Built Environment and Urban Development. Paul Magdalino (2002)

The Last Centuries of Byzantium 1261-1453. Donald M. Nicol (1999)

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

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Judith Herrin (2007)

Steven Runciman – Byzantine Civilization (1933)