Dean Kalimniou looks at the clash between Western Christians and their Byzantine brothers, and explores the impact of the Crusaders on the Byzantine Empire
“They had taken up the Cross and sworn on it … they would pass over the lands of the Christians without shedding blood…Instead of defending [Christ’s] tomb, they …outraged the faithful who are members of Him. They used Christians worse than Arabs use Latins, for at least the Arabs respect women.” When Nicetas Choniatis, erstwhile Grand Logothete of the Byzantine Empire penned these lines in 1204, he was in exile. He penned them still unable to grasp the enormity of the crimes he had seen being committed before his very eyes. It is a crime that implicated the whole of Western Christendom, the wounds of which are still suffered today by the eastern Christians. It is little known that the classical Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens, largest in France, was built to contain the head of St. John the Baptist, stolen during the commission of one of the greatest crimes in history: the sack of Constantinople by the Latin West at the time of the Fourth Crusade. Ostensibly, the Crusades were fought with several aims in mind: to free the Holy Land, to stop the spread of Islam, and as set out by Bishop of Rome Innocent III, to unify the Eastern and Western Churches, which by 1204 had been in schism for two hundred years. However, they failed in all of these: the holy places remained under Mohammedan control, Islam continued to extend its influence, and a deeper wedge was driven between the two churches. If anything, the Crusades hastened the demise of the Byzantine Empire and its ultimate fall into Moslem hands. This had devastating effects on the whole of Europe.
Not only did it let the Turks into Europe; it subsequently led to the Balkan problem and the economic disparity between eastern and western Europe. And all this to a city, which for nine hundred years, safeguarded Europe from the devastation of the Avars, Bulgars, Arabs, Rus and the Turks. Bishop Innocent III of Rome called the Fourth Crusade in 1196. Essentially, it was a French enterprise, supported by Swabians, and later, by Venetians. Because Mohammedan power had shifted from Palestine to Cairo, its objective was to take Egypt. This meant launching a maritime campaign, requiring ships and related supplies, which the French did not have. They turned to Venice, ruled by the aged, blind doge Enrico Dandolo, for assistance. The wily Dandolo persuaded the Crusaders to move on Zara on the Illyrian coast in 1203 instead. When this attack against a Christian city outraged the church in Rome, a remarkable pretext occurred to whet the Crusader’s appetite elsewhere. The ruler of Swabia had received a letter from his brother, the deposed Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelos, who had been deposed by his brother, Alexius III. Isaac’s son. In exchange for western help to enthrone his son, Alexius the Younger, he would pay for the crusade against Egypt, supply an army of ten thousand men, dispatch 500 knight to guard the Holy Land, and also offered the submission of the Eastern Church to the west. Dandolo convinced the Crusaders that better pickings were to be had in Constantinople and it was agreed the Egyptian Crusade should be put off. Arriving in Constantinople, the French chronicler and Crusader, Geoffrey de Villehardouin wrote that the Crusaders “when they saw those high ramparts and the strong towers with which it was completely encircled and the splendid palaces and soaring churches…there was not a man so bold he did not tremble at the sight.”
Disembarking at Chalcedon on the Asiatic shores, the Crusaders attacked and occupied the commercial centre of Galata and proceeded to attack the City from the imperial palace of Blachernae. Knowing all was lost, Alexius III fled the city. Thus, the son of blind Issac, Alexius IV was crowned emperor on 1 August 1203. He inherited a treasury hat was empty. He also inherited a population that was furious against the continued sojourn of the unruly, rude and uncivilized Crusaders. Tensions drew to a height when a gang of maurauding Crusaders set fire to the Church of St Irene, causing the greatest fire in the City , since the days of Justinian. Furthermore, the Crusaders were feeling resentful against the Byzantines as well. The loot promised them would be used only to pay off the Venetians for their transport. They were gaining nothing materially from this, the richest City of the known world. Moreover, it was revealed that Alexius did not have the means to honour his father’s extravagant promises. It was at this juncture that the perfidious Dandolo orchestrated the crime of the millennium. He intimated to the Swabians that nothing could be expected from the Greeks, who had betrayed them and would not fulfill their promises. If the Crusaders took the city, they could establish a Latin Emperor on the throne, who would have a quarter of the city, while a half would go to Venice along with the right to appoint a Venetian patriarch to the City.
Meanwhile, on 25 January 1204, the protovestiarius Alexius Ducas Mourzuphlos deposed Alexius IV and assumed the throne. He immediately began to improve the city’s defences, awaiting the imminent attack. After receiving absolution, on 9 April 1204, the Crusaders attacked. Constantinople fell on 12 April, after three days of the final, furious attack by land and by sea. Once inside the walls, the Crusaders began an orgy of carnage, brutality and vandalism not seen in Europe since the barbarians invaded seven centuries earlier.
Nicetas Choniates wrote in despair: “I do not know how to put any order into my account, how to begin, continue or end. They smashed the holy images and hurled the sacred relics of the Martyrs into places I am ashamed to mention, scattering everywhere the body and blood of the Saviour. These heralds of Anti-Christ seized the chalices and the patens, tore out the jewels and used them as drinking cups… As for their profanation of the Great Church, it cannot be thought of without horror. They destroyed the high altar, a work of art admired by the entire world and shared out the pieces among themselves… And they brought horses and mules into the Church, the better to carry off the holy vessels and the engraved silver and gold that they had torn from the throne and the pulpit and the doors and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure.
A common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch’s chair to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs and danced immodestly in the holy place… nor was there mercy shown to virtuous matrons, innocent maids or even virgins consecrated to God… In the streets, houses and churches there could only be heard cries and lamentations.”
Fires were started throughout the city. Villehardouin wrote that in the conflagration, “more houses were burnt… than are to be found in the three greatest cities of the Kingdom of France.” The butchery ended only when the Crusaders were so tired that they could no longer lift their swords. Then began the looting and profanation on a scale unparalleled in history. This pattern of pilferage and desecration was repeated in churches, monasteries and palaces throughout the city. The tombs of the emperors were rifled, and all the classical statues and monuments which had survived from ancient Greece and imperial Rome were destroyed. What was not carried off was burned, smashed, melted down for its precious metal content or stripped for its jewels.
For the Greeks of Constantinople, the tragedy had only begun. There began a slow and steady removal of treasures out of the Orthodox temples and into the churches and cities of Latin Europe. Epistle books, ladles, church plate, censers, candelabra, epitaphia, reliquaries, vestments, banners, manuscripts, miniatures, mosaics, thrones, tapestries, furniture and architectural items were all pilfered. Cartloads of gold and silver from Hagia Sophia found their way into the Vatican treasury. Constantinople had become the gold mine which supplied Latin Christendom.
A scandalous traffic in relics was started. The head of St John the Baptist was carried off to Amiens. Amalfi took the head of St Andrew from the Church of the Holy Apostles, along with a set of heavy bronze doors. The bishop of Soissons shipped home the head of St Stephen and a relic of St John. The remains of St Clement, pillaged from the Church of St Theodosia, were taken to Cluny. St Albans received the relics of St Marina. Halbstadt claimed the relics of St James. The True Cross was divided up among the barons, with a portion sent to Innocent III. King Louis IX of France paid 10,000 silver marks for the ‘true’ Crown of Thorns, for which he built St Chapells in Paris.
From the Monastery of the Pantacrator, the Venetians appropriated a group of exquisite gem-crusted enamel cameos, to enhance the Palo D’Oro, an elaborate Byzantine bejewelled gold screen which was used in the cathedral in Venice to cover the relics of St Mark. They also carried off the Icon of the Theotokos of Nikopeia, as well as a relic of St Stephen. The golden tabernacle from the Church of the Holy Apostles, a replica of the church itself, was added to their booty. Venice’s prized possessions are the four magnificent glided bronze horses, cast in Constantine’s time, which once stood in the Hippodrome; today, except when removed for cleaning, they stand atop the gallery of St Mark’s basilica. The Roman porphyry statue of four tetrarchs, taken from a palace, stands in a corner of St Mark’s treasury.
Many ancient artworks were destroyed. Among them, the immense bronze statues of Hercules by Lysippus, Pegasus by Rhoecus and Hera by Theodoros of Samos were melted for their metal by the barbarous Crusaders. Even statues of the Mother of God, a focal point in the Forum of the Ox, were not respected.
Venetians valued craftsmen, and they took away the best: goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers, iconographers, woodcarvers, stone and glass workers. Much of the Venetian glass technique so famous today originated in Constantinople. St Mark’s contains the finest collection of Byzantine craftsmanship in the world. It includes 32 Byzantine chalices, plus assorted relics, reliquaries, altar pieces, gospels, jewels, vestments, manuscripts and church plate. The collection was recently exhibited in Melbourne, though it is interesting to note not so much attention is paid to the return of these artefacts as to the Parthenon Marbles.
The Latin Empire lasted for about forty years before the Byzantines retook the city. During that time, the Orthodox Church was persecuted and the inhabitants of the Empire were treated as no better than slaves. Constantinople was used as a base from which to raid the Aegean Islands and Greece, resulting in the Venetian capture of Athens. Scions of Byzantine families, set up Byzantine seigneuries in sundered parts of the Empire: the Angeloi founded the Despotate of Epirus, the Komnenoi, the Empire of Trapezous, in the Pontus and the Palaologoi, the Empire of Nicaea in western Asia Minor.
The Fourth Crusade surpassed all acts of faithlessness, duplicity and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had not been just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs – perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history.
Politically too, the damage done was incalculable. Although Latin rule along the Bosphorus was to last less than sixty years, the Byzantine Empire never recovered its strength or any considerable part of its lost dominion. A strong and wealthy Byzantium would have halted the Turkish advance and saved eastern Europe from destruction. There are few greater ironies in history than the fact the fate of Eastern Christendom was sealed by men who purportedly fought under the Cross. It is only with the late John Paul II’s apology on behalf of the Western Church for the Crusade,that the tremendous wounds, bleeding for over seven centuries, can finally be healed.