Byzantine Villainy: The Fourth Crusade Revisited

by Joe Hargrave

My post on the crusades has promoted a lot of discussion, here and around the web. I want to thank those who have linked to it on their blogs, including – and I know this won’t improve my reputation with some folks – Ann Coulter. Whether one agrees or disagrees with my perspective, it is a discussion long overdue, and one that ought to continue.

This post may not garner as much attention, since I am going to address relations among Christians, as opposed to those between Christians and Muslims, but I feel it is equally important. For another old canard is often floated around in discussions about the Crusades – that the noble, peace-loving Eastern or Byzantine Christians were the perpetual victims of the rapacity and greed of the Latin Crusaders.

Indeed, a certain commenter who accused me of “painting in black and white”, and engaging in a “dark dualism”, did more to paint such a picture with regards to inter-Christian relations. Well, I’ve always known that knee-jerk criticism (as opposed to the kind that, well, actually addresses the arguments made) is usually little more than projection. But there were others who made this point, and I have encountered it many times in the past.

Again, I cannot give an exhaustive historical review in a blog post. My goal here will be to highlight some basic historical facts and provide perspectives, and those who wish to add facts in the comments are welcome to do so.

There are some basic facts about the Fourth Crusade that often go unmentioned by those who romanticize Byzantium and demonize the crusaders. The first and most pertinent is that neither violence among Catholics, or between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, was ever sanctioned and was indeed severely condemned by the Papacy. Pope Innocent III went so far as to excommunicate those crusaders who participated in the siege of Zara (a city held by Catholics) – though it was a condition demanded by the Doge of Venice to secure his participation in the crusade. Those crusaders were later granted absolution, but only upon the following condition set down by the pope:

A person who sins once [in reference to Zara — J.H.], and then returns to commit the same sin again, is indeed irresponsible.  None of you should therefore dare to assume that it is permissible for you to seize or to plunder the land of the Greeks, even though the latter may be disobedient to the Apostolic See, or on the grounds that the Emperor of Constantinople has deposed and even blinded his brother and usurped the imperial throne.*

What happened in Constantinople in 1204 was indeed horrific, but it was not sanctioned by the Papacy. It was carried out – as I pointed out in my last post – against the express orders of the spiritual head of Christendom.

Is there anything,  however, that might help understand the scale of the savagery unleashed by the Western crusaders against the Greek inhabitants of Constantinople? While it bears repeating once again that their conduct was horrific, and beyond all justification, that does not render it arbitrary. There was already a historical tension between Westerners in general, and the Venetians and other Italians in particular, and the Greeks.

By the 12th century, Italian merchants had established a commercial presence within the Byzantine Empire and within Constantinople itself. The representatives of each major Italian city, such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa had established quarters in the city. The Venetians especially had increased their dominance of maritime trade as the fortunes of Byzantium declined, though I have seen no evidence to suggest that the agreements entered into between Venice and Constantinople were anything but voluntary.

Naturally this created a tense situation, as foreigners began to amass more wealth than many of the native Greeks. This lead to a xenophobic reaction that culminated in a violent slaughter known as “The Massacre of the Latins” in 1182. The Greek emperor Andronikos I Komnenos did not intervene in the mayhem, and as a result historians estimate that 60,000 “Latins” – Venetians, Genoese, and others – were murdered or forced to flee the city by enraged Greeks for no reason other than envy and resentment.

William of Tyre chronicled this brutal crime, describing it in the following terms:

The vandals… repaired to the hospital of St. John, as it is called, where they put to the sword  all the sick they found. Those whose pious duty it should have been to relieve the oppressed,  namely the monks and priests, called in footpads and brigands to carry on the slaughter under promise of reward. Accompanied by these miscreants, they sought out the most secluded retreats
and the inmost apartments of homes, that none who were hiding there might escape death. When  such were discovered, they were dragged out with violence and handed over to the executioners,  who, that they might not work without pay, were given the price of blood for the murder of these wretched victims. **

It didn’t end with murder; the Greeks sold those who survived, upwards of four thousand, into Turkish slavery, a fate that in some cases may have even been worse than death. Tyre concludes that this fate was entirely undeserved, as the Latins “by long living together [with the Greeks], had become their friends.”

These events preceded the sack of Constantinople by a mere 22 years, and they were fresh in the minds of the Venetians who took part in the Fourth Crusade. Much of the cruelty-in-kind meeted out the Greeks of Constantinople may well have been revenge for the massacre of 1182.

None of this is meant to excuse or justify what took place within the city walls beginning on April 12, 1204. But the historical narrative of a virtually innocent and pious Greek Christian people constantly exploited and oppressed by violent barbarians from the West is completely false. It is told by some of the same people who complain the loudest when this is allegedly done to Christians and Muslims. The truth is that the Greek Christians of Constantinople, out of envy and hatred for foreigners who had done them no intentional harm that I can discern, mercilessly slaughtered, ran off, or sold as chattel over 60,000 Western Catholic Christians and sowed the seeds of the evils revisited to them a little over 20 years later.

I’ll close on this note. Pope John Paul II apologized to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, in 2004, for the Fourth Crusade and particularly the violence accompanying the sack. If the “spirit of reconciliation” is all-important, then perhaps it is time for the Patriarch to acknowledge the Massacre of the Latins. It couldn’t hurt.

* See this excellent website for downloadable primary sources on the Fourth Crusade.

** Sources on the Massacre.

[Correction: The number of Latins who were actually murdered isn’t known. And the number is 60,  not 80 thousand, who were either killed or forced to leave Constantinople.]

13 Responses to Byzantine Villainy: The Fourth Crusade Revisited

  • Thanks for a great post, Joe. Wow, Ann Coulter! Woohoo. I do appreciate this very much as a World History teacher. Will definitely bookmark this one!

  • Great post Joe, you are giving me a run for my money as the resident historian of the blog. To most Roman Catholics this all seems like ancient history even though it is medieval history. For many Greeks, their grievances against the Church and the West are as fresh as yesterday.

  • A bit of background regarding the Pope’s apology for 1204:

    “In May 2001, the Pontiff took a pilgrimage that would trace the steps of his co-namesake, Saint Paul, across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Syria to Malta. John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Greece in 1291 years. The visit was controversial, and the Pontiff was met with protests and snubbed by Eastern Orthodox leaders, none of whom met his arrival.

    In Athens, the Pope met with Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece. After a private 30 minute meeting, the two spoke publicly. Christodoulos read a list of “13 offences” of the Roman Catholic Church against the Orthodox Church since the Great Schism, including the pillaging of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204. He also bemoaned the lack of any apology from the Roman Catholic Church, saying that “until now, there has not been heard a single request for pardon” for the “maniacal crusaders of the 13th century”.

    The Pope responded by saying, “For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us forgiveness”, to which Christodoulos immediately applauded. John Paul also said that the sacking of Constantinople was a source of “deep regret” for Catholics.

    Later, John Paul and Christodoulos met on a spot where Saint Paul had once preached to Athenian Christians. They issued a “common declaration”, saying, “We shall do everything in our power, so that the Christian roots of Europe and its Christian soul may be preserved. … We condemn all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism, in the name of religion.” The two leaders then said the Lord’s Prayer together, breaking an Orthodox taboo against praying with Catholics.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastoral_trips_of_Pope_John_Paul_II

  • In the Roman Catholic Church, “Forgive all injuries” (even injuries incurred 800 years ago in Turkey) is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Apparently, that is not so among Greek patriarchs. We are mere barbarians, anyhow.

    I was ignorant of the taboo against praying with Roman Catholics. Not so good. Was the taboo in force in 1453 when thousands of Catholic knight and soldiers died defending Constantinople?

  • The most striking image I have in my mind of Ann Coulter is of her in a sleek back dress, chest half bared, with a glittering cross in her cleavage, and right next to this startling combination, the words: “GODLESS”–http://www.amazon.com/Godless-Church-Liberalism-Ann-Coulter/dp/1400054206#_

    The most striking words of hers that I recall are these, written shortly after September 11th (and so, perhaps, understandable):

    “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”

    I believe these words of hers were part of what led me to re-examine my profession of arms. Thank you, Ann Coulter!

  • Anyhow, about the post, Joe–I didn’t know about the slaughter of the ‘Latins’. Thanks for sharing that. I wonder, however, if it is true. I wonder at the historical authenticity of most of the slaughters and massacres, as they are usually written with an axe to grind or a crown to burnish.

    We’ll all know at the end, I suppose.

    Did you know that the ‘children’s crusade’ probably never happened either? At least, I read it in a book once! Hah.

    We can’t agree on what happened two years ago, let alone two thousand. In fact, the most verifiable event of all history may actually be the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–since we have four separate eyewitness accounts (even if Mt and Lk use Mk).

    If we are looking to find truth, to figure out a way to address the challenges of today, it might be more worthwhile to turn to Christ–not simply as we imagine Christ–but the Christ we find in the Gospel.

  • Nate,

    That comment of Coulter’s was what got her fired from National Review.

    On history, though, I’m confused by your optimism. If anything, I would imagine there have probably been more great slaughters in history than the survivors have been willing to admit to.

  • You might be right, DC. I would make a very poor historian.

  • “If we are looking to find truth, to figure out a way to address the challenges of today, it might be more worthwhile to turn to Christ–not simply as we imagine Christ–but the Christ we find in the Gospel.”

    Nate, I certainly don’t disagree with that.

  • “If we are looking to find truth, to figure out a way to address the challenges of today, it might be more worthwhile to turn to Christ–not simply as we imagine Christ–but the Christ we find in the Gospel.”

    More worthwhile than what? I didn’t think the point about clarifying what the Crusades were was to figure out what to do about x now, but to elaborate historical truth.

  • Once again, the only purpose of this post is to defend the Latin crusaders, but this time it is far worse – this time, you are basically saying that the Roman empire had it coming. Rather than address the moral problems with this argument, which are self evident, I will instead address your selective view of history.

    In your view, the poor Venetians were attacked because they were simply getting richer than the native Byzantines. Let’s talk history. All the way back to Basil II (late tenth, Early eleventh century), Venice had special trading status. Merchants were given substantial privileges in return for naval aid. The Venetians got reduced entry and exit fees. Later on, Alexios Komnenos gave more concessions in return for more aid, by which time the Venetians had a while quarter along the Golden Horn.

    Tensions were frayed, not only with the locals but with merchants from other Italian cities. In fact, most of the trouble until the incident you describe involved the Venetians attacking their competition. Resentment grew because the Venetians were seen as untouchable, protected directly by the emperor. The worst insult was the 10 percent kommerkion tax that Byzantine merchants had to pay, but Byzantines did not. A bit similar to the tax revolt at the founding of your own country.

    The sack of Constantinople had precious little to do with the attack on the latins. It was motivated by greed, pure and simple. It was not originally part of the plan but then the hopelessly ineffectual prince Alexios offered a reward for helping overthrow his uncle and putting him on the throne, the crusaders could not resist. In this they were heavily influenced by Dandolo, who had spent a long time in Constantinople and lost an eye in
    the attacks. Dandolo focused his good eye on Roman wealth, and we all know what happened next. Of course, Alexios didn’t cough up as promised, and they attacked with a ferocity that shocked the Byzantines.

    There is a subtext to this tale. The prevailing stereotype in the Latin west was that the Byzantines were effeminate and untrustworthy, with their log robes, their eunuchs, and their trappings of wealth. And their preference diplomacy only added fuel to the fire – Andronikos wopas accused of being in league with Saladin, and Isaac II Angelos was loathed for doing a deal with the Mamluks during the third crusade. Sadly, this stereotype was picked up during the Enlightenment and persists to the present day – after all, “Byzantine” is not exactly a complimentary term. This is shame, as the eastern Roman empire was one the great civilizations in history.

  • “Once again, the only purpose of this post is to defend the Latin crusaders”

    Someone has to provide balance to the lopsided narratives that you and others promulgate about Latin-Byzantine relations.

    I fully acknowledge the evils that took place during the sack of 1204. The problem is that no one acknowledges the evils that took place in the mass murder of 1182.

    “this time, you are basically saying that the Roman empire had it coming”

    I’m saying that evil begets evil, and that there are no innocent parties. Everyone shares blame for the breakdown in relations, though not nearly as much belongs to the Papacy as has been assumed by the ignorant.

    No one has mass murder, rape, and plunder “coming.” But no one should be surprised when the evils they meet out to others are revisited upon them.

    “In your view, the poor Venetians were attacked because they were simply getting richer than the native Byzantines.”

    Yes, and you didn’t provide any evidence to challenge that basic thesis, so you obviously accept it. How did Venice acquire special status? Was it through force, or through a voluntary agreement between Venice and the Byzantines?

    Never mind the fighting that took place between Venetians and Genoese and other Italians; what did the Venetians do to the Greeks to deserve that slaughter? What did any of the Italians do to the Greeks for that matter? As best I can tell they were fighting among themselves, not with the Greeks.

    “The worst insult was the 10 percent kommerkion tax that Byzantine merchants had to pay, but Byzantines [you mean Italians I assume] did not. A bit similar to the tax revolt at the founding of your own country.”

    So this “insult” justifies mass murder? It justifies the butchering of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children and the selling of the rest into slavery? We both know it doesn’t. And that’s the point here – your precious Greeks were just as barbarous, just as prone to irrational violence, greed, hate and lust as the Italians, the Franks, and all the other Western cursaders.

    And while we’re on the topic, this is NOTHING like the taxation without representation that led up to the Revolutionary War. The American colonists were being denied historical rights as Englishmen by the British Crown – and they rebelled against that Crown.

    The Greeks took out their envious rage not upon their monarchy, which actually levied the tax, as the American colonists did, but instead on people who had done no wrong and who could not defend themselves.

    “The sack of Constantinople had precious little to do with the attack on the latins. It was motivated by greed, pure and simple.”

    No, it’s not that simple. Do you think the Venetians forgot that thousands of their countrymen had been massacred by the Greeks? I assure you they hadn’t.

    That said, I did NOT claim that the 1182 massacre was the cause of the sack – I only claim that once the sack was taking place, the intensity of the violence may have been partially rooted in memories of that event. Of course the French behaved even worse than the Venetians during the sack, so I don’t claim it was the sole motivator.

    “The prevailing stereotype in the Latin west was that the Byzantines were effeminate and untrustworthy”

    And that reputation was soured even more greatly by the 1182 massacre.

    “This is shame, as the eastern Roman empire was one the great civilizations in history.”

    And that just shows your bias. And I freely admit my own – I believe Western “Latin” Christendom is THE greatest civilization in history. Which is why I like to set the historical record straight.

  • – The worst insult was the 10 percent kommerkion tax that Byzantine merchants had to pay, but Byzantines [you mean Italians I assume] did not. A bit similar to the tax revolt at the founding of your own country —

    No, I mean local Byzantine merchants. They had to pay the tax while the protected Venetians got off scot free.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention last night, your number of 80,000 seems staggeringly off. That would be every single foreigner living in Constantinople and 20 percent of the city’s population. My guess is that it was only a few thousand, if that. Certainly, when you look at Venetian claims, they asked for compensation for their destroyed ships and property, which suggests a somewhat different focus.

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .