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.]