The Third Crusade had freed Acre, but had left Jerusalem unredeemed; it was a discouragingly small result from the participation of Europe’s greatest kings. The drowning of Barbarossa, the flight of Philip Augustus, the brilliant failure of Richard, the unscrupulous intrigues of Christian knights in the Holy Land, the conflicts between Templars and Hospitalers, and the renewal of war between England and France broke the pride of Europe and further weakened the theological assurance of Christendom. But the early death of Saladin, and the breakup of his empire, released new hopes. Innocent III (1198–1216), at the very outset of his pontificate, demanded another effort; and Fulk de Neuilly, a simple priest, preached the Fourth Crusade to commoners and kings. The results were disheartening. The Emperor Frederick II was a boy of four; Philip Augustus thought one crusade enough for a lifetime; and Richard I, forgetting his last word to Saladin, laughed at Fulk’s exhortations. “You advise me,” he said, “to dismiss my three daughters—pride, avarice, and incontinence. I bequeath them to the most deserving: my pride to the Templars, my avarice to the monks of Cîteaux, my incontinence to the prelates.”42 But Innocent persisted. He suggested that a campaign against Egypt could succeed through Italian control of the Mediterranean, and would offer a means of approaching Jerusalem from rich and fertile Egypt as a base. After much haggling Venice agreed, in return for 85,000 marks of silver ($8,500,000), to furnish shipping for 4500 knights and horses, 9000 squires, 20,000 infantry, and supplies for nine months; it would also provide fifty war galleys; but on condition that half the spoils of conquest should go to the Venetian Republic.43 The Venetians, however, had no intention of attacking Egypt; they made millions annually by exporting timber, iron, and arms to Egypt, and importing slaves; they did not propose to jeopardize this trade with war, or to share it with Pisa and Genoa. While negotiating with the Crusaders’ committee, they made a secrettreaty with the sultan of Egypt, guaranteeing that country against invasion (1201).44 Ernoul, a contemporary chronicler, alleges that Venice received a huge bribe to divert the crusade from Palestine.45

In the summer of 1202 the new hosts gathered in Venice. There were Marquis Boniface of Montferrat, Count Louis of Blois, Count Baldwin of Flanders, Simon de Montfort of Albigensian fame, and, among many other notables, Geoffroi de Villehardouin (1160–1213), Marshal of Champagne, who would not only play a leading part in the diplomacy and campaigns of the crusade, but would enshrine its scandalous history in face-saving memoirs that marked the beginning of French prose literature. France, as usual, supplied most of the Crusaders. Every man had been instructed to bring a sum of money, proportionate to his means, to raise the 85,000 marks payable to Venice for her outlay. The total fell short by 34,000 marks. Thereupon Enrico Dandolo, the almost blind doge “of the great heart,” with all the sanctity of his ninety-four years, proposed that the unpaid balance should be forgiven if the Crusaders would help Venice capture Zara. This was now the most important Adriatic port after Venice itself; it had been conquered by Venice in 998, had often revolted and been subdued; it now belonged to Hungary, and was that country’s only outlet to the sea; its wealth and power were growing, and Venice feared its competition for the Adriatic trade. Innocent III denounced the proposal as villainous, and threatened to excommunicate all participants. But the greatest and most powerful of the popes could not make his voice heard above the clamor of gold. The combined fleets attacked Zara, took it in five days, and divided the spoils. Then the Crusaders sent an embassy to the Pope begging his absolution; he gave it, but demanded the restoration of the booty; they thanked him for the absolution, and kept the booty. The Venetians ignored the excommunications, and proceeded to the second part of their plan—the conquest of Constantinople.

The Byzantine monarchy had learned nothing from the Crusades. It gave little help, and derived much profit; it regained most of Asia Minor, and looked with equanimity upon the mutual weakening of Islam and the West in the struggle for Palestine. The Emperor Manuel had arrested thousands of Venetians in Constantinople, and had for a time ended Venetian commercial privileges there (1171).46 Isaac II Angelus (1185–95) had not scrupled to ally himself with the Saracens.47 In 1195 Isaac was deposed, imprisoned, and blinded by his brother Alexius III. Isaac’s son, another Alexius, fled to Germany; in 1202 he went to Venice, asked the Venetian Senate and the Crusaders to rescue and restore his father, and promised in return all that Byzantium could supply for their attack upon Islam. Dandolo and the French barons drove a hard bargain with the youth: he was persuaded to pledge the Crusaders 200,000 marks of silver, equip an army of 10,000 men for service in Palestine, and submit the Greek Orthodox Church to theRoman Pope.48 Despite this subtle sop, Innocent III forbade the Crusaders, on pain of excommunication, to attack Byzantium. Some nobles refused to share in the expedition; a part of the army considered itself absolved from the Crusade, and went home. But the prospect of capturing the richest city in Europe proved irresistible. On October 1, 1202, the great fleet of 480 vessels sailed amid much rejoicing, while priests on the war-castles of the ships sang Veni Creator Spiritus.49

After divers delays the armada arrived before Constantinople on June 24, 1203. “You may be assured,” says Villehardouin,

that those who had never seen Constantinople opened wide eyes now; for they could not believe that so rich a city could be in the whole world, when they saw her lofty walls and her stately towers wherewith she was encompassed, and these stately palaces and lofty churches, so many in number as no man might believe who had not seen them, and the length and breadth of this town which was sovereign over all others. And know that there was no man among us so bold but that his flesh crept at the sight; and therein was no marvel; for never did any men undertake so great a business as this assault of ours, since the beginning of the world.50

An ultimatum was delivered to Alexius III: he must restore the Empire to his blinded brother or to the young Alexius, who accompanied the fleet. When he refused, the Crusaders landed, against weak opposition, before the walls of the city; and the aged Dandolo was the first to touch the shore. Alexius III fled to Thrace; the Greek nobles escorted Isaac Angelus from his dungeon to the throne, and in his name a message was sent to the Latin chieftains that he was waiting to welcome his son. After drawing from Isaac a promise to abide by the commitments that his son had made with them, Dandolo and the barons entered the city, and the young Alexius IV was crowned coemperor. But when the Greeks learned of the price at which he had bought his victory they turned against him in anger and scorn. The people reckoned the taxes that would be needed to raise the subsidies promised to his saviors; the nobility resented the presence of an alien aristocracy and force; the clergy rejected with fury the proposal that they should bow to Rome. Meanwhile some Latin soldiers, horrified to find Moslems worshiping in a mosque in a Christian city, set fire to the mosque, and slew the worshipers. The fire raged for eight days, spread through three miles, and laid a considerable section of Constantinople in ashes. A prince of royal blood led a popular revolt, killed Alexius IV, reimprisoned Isaac Angelus, took the throne as Alexius V Ducas, and began to organize an army to drive the Latins from their camp at Galata. But the Greeks had been too long secure within their walls to have kept the virtues of their Roman name. After a month of siege they surrendered; Alexius V fled, and the victorious Latins passed like consuming locusts through the capital (1204).

So long kept from their promised prey, they now—in Easter week—subjected the rich city to such spoliation as Rome had never suffered from Vandals or Goths. Not many Greeks were killed—perhaps 2000; but pillage was unconfined. The nobles divided the palaces among them, and appropriated the treasures they found there; the soldiers entered homes, churches, shops, and took whatever caught their fancy. Churches were rifled not only of the gold, silver, and jewels accumulated by them through a millennium, but of sacred relics that would later be peddled in Western Europe at good prices. St. Sophia suffered more damage than the Turks would inflict upon it in 1453;51 the great altar was torn to pieces to distribute its silver and gold.52 The Venetians, familiar with the city that had once welcomed them as merchants, knew where the greatest treasures lay, and stole with superior intelligence; statues and textiles, slaves and gems, fell discriminately into their hands; the four bronze horses that had surveyed the Greek city would now romp over the Piazza di San Marco; nine tenths of the collections of art and jewelry that would later distinguish the Treasury of St. Mark’s came from this well-managed theft.53 Some attempt was made to limit rape; many of the soldiers modestly contented themselves with prostitutes; but Innocent III complained that the pent-up lust of the Latins spared neither age nor sex nor religious profession, and that Greek nuns had to bear the embraces of French or Venetian peasants or grooms.54 Amid the pillage libraries were ransacked, and precious manuscripts were ruined or lost; two further fires consumed libraries and museums as well as churches and homes; of the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, till then completely preserved, only a minority survived. Thousands of art masterpieces were stolen, mutilated, or destroyed.

When the riot of rapine had subsided, the Latin nobles chose Baldwin of Flanders to head the Latin kingdom of Constantinople (1204), and made French its official language. The Byzantine Empire was divided into feudal dominions, each ruled by a Latin noble. Venice, eager to control the routes of trade, secured Hadrianople, Epirus, Acarnania, the Ionian Isles, part of the Peloponnesus, Euboea, the Aegean Isles, Gallipoli, and three eighths of Constantinople; the Genoese were dispossessed of their Byzantine “factories” and outposts; and Dandolo, now limping in imperial buskins, took the title of “Doge of Venice, Lord of One Fourth and One Eighth of the Roman Empire”;55 soon afterward he died, in the fullness of his unscrupulous success. The Greek clergy were mostly replaced by Latins, in some cases precipitated into holy orders for the occasion; and Innocent III, still protesting against the attack, accepted with grace the formal reunion of the Greek with the Latin Church. Most of the Crusaders returned home with their spoils; some settled in the new dominions; only a handful reached Palestine, and without effect. Perhaps the Crusaders thought that Constantinople, in their hands, would be a stronger base against the Turks than Byzantium had been. But generations of strife between the Latins and the Greeks now absorbed the vitality of the Greek world; the Byzantine Empire never recovered from the blow; and the capture of Constantinople by the Latins prepared, across two centuries, its capture by the Turks.

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