Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Latin Conquest of Constantinople

The state which had been drained of its resources by the energetic but wasteful Manuel, and disorganized by the rash and wicked Andronicus, now passed into the hands of the two most feeble and despicable creatures who ever sat upon the imperial throne—the brothers Isaac and Alexius Angelus, whose reigns cover the years 1185—1204.

Among all the periods which we have hitherto described in the tale of the East-Roman Empire, that covered by the reign of the two wretched Angell may be pronounced the most shameful. The peculiar disgrace of the period lies in the fact that the condition of the empire was not hopeless at the time. With ordinary courage and prudence it might have been held together, for the attacks directed against it were not more formidable than others which had been beaten off with ease. If the blow had fallen when a hero like Leo III., or even a statesman like Alexius I. was on the throne, there is no reason to doubt that it would have been parried. But it fell in the times of two incompetent triflers, who conducted the state on the principle of, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." Isaac and Alexius felt in themselves no power of redeeming the empire from the evil day, and resignedly fell back on personal enjoyment. Isaac's taste lay in the direction of gorgeous raiment and the collecting of miraculous "eikons." Alexius preferred the pleasures of the table. Considered as sovereigns there was little to choose between them. Each was competent to ruin an empire already verging on its decline.

The disaster which the Angeli brought on their realm was rendered possible only by its complete military and financial disorganization. As a military power the empire had never recovered the effects of the Seljouk invasions, which had robbed it of its great recruiting-ground for its native troops in Asia Minor. After that loss the use of mercenaries had become more and more prevalent. The brilliant campaigns of Manuel Comnenus had been made at the head of a soldiery of whom two-thirds were not born-subjects of the empire. He, it is true, had kept them within the bounds of strict discipline, and contrived at all costs to provide their pay.: But the weak and thriftless Angeli were able neither to find money nor to maintain discipline. A state which relies for its defence on foreign mercenaries is ruined, if it allows them to grow disorderly and inefficient. In times of stress they mutiny instead of fighting.

The civil administration was in almost as deplorable a condition, while those two "Earthly Angels" (as a contemporary chronicler called them) were charged with its care. Isaac Angelus put the finishing touch to administrative abuses, which had already been rife enough under the Comneni, by exposing offices and posts to auction. Instead of paying his officials he "sent them forth without purse or scrip, like the apostles of old, to make what profit they could by extortion from the provincials." His brother Alexius promised on his accession to make all appointments on the ground of merit, but proved in reality as bad as Isaac. He was surrounded by a ring of rapacious favourites, who managed all patronage, and dispensed it in return for bribes. When high posts were not sold, they were given as douceurs to men of local influence, whose rebellion was dreaded.

The history of the twenty years covered by the reigns of the two Angeli is cut into two equal halves at the deposition of Isaac by his brother in 1195. It is only necessary to point out how the responsibility for the disasters of the period is to be divided between them.

Isaac's share consists in the loss of Bulgaria and Cyprus. The former country had now been in the hands of the Byzantines for nearly two hundred years, since its conquest by Basil II. But the Bulgarians had not merged in the general body of the subjects of the empire. They preserved their national language and customs, and never forgot their ancient independence. In 1187, three brothers named Peter, John, and Azan stirred up rebellion among them. If firmly treated it might have been crushed with ease by the regular troops of the empire. But Isaac first appointed incompetent generals, who let the rebellion grow to a head, and when at last he placed an able officer, Alexis Branas, in command, his lieutenant took the opportunity of using his army for revolt. Branas marched against Constantinople, and would have taken it, had not Isaac committed the charge of the troops that remained faithful to him to stronger hands than his own. He bribed an able adventurer from the West, Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat, by the offer of his sister's hand and a great sum of money to become his saviour. The gallant Lombard routed the forces of Branas, slew the usurper, and preserved the throne for his brother-in-law. But while the civil war was going on, the Bulgarians were left unchecked, and made such head that there was no longer much apparent chance of subduing them. Isaac took the field against them in person, only to see the great towns of Naissus, Sophia, and Varna taken before his eyes.

While a national revolt deprived the Emperor of Bulgaria, Cyprus was lost to a meaner force. Isaac Comnenus, a distant relative of the Emperor Manuel II., raised rebellion among the Cypriots and defeated the fleet and army which his namesake of Constantinople sent against him. He held out for six years, and appeared likely to establish a permanent kingdom in the island. This revolt was of the worst augury to the empire. It had often lost provinces by the invasion of barbarian hordes, or the rebellion of subject nationalities. But that a native rebel should sever a civilized Greek province from the empire, and reign as "Emperor of Cyprus," was a new phenomenon. By the imperial theory the idea of an independent "Empire of Cyprus" was wholly monstrous and abnormal. The successful rebellion of Isaac Comnenus pointed to the possibility of a general breaking up of the Byzantine dominion into fragments, a danger that had never appeared before. Till now the provinces had always obeyed the capital, and no instance had been known of a rebel maintaining himself by any other way than the capture of Constantinople. Isaac Comnenus might, however, have founded a dynasty in Cyprus, if he had not quarreled with Richard Coeur de Lion, the crusading King of England. When he maltreated some shipwrecked English crews, Richard punished him by landing his army in Cyprus and seizing the whole island. Isaac was thrown into a dungeon, and the English king gave his dominions to Guy of Lusignan, who called in Frank adventurers to settle up the land, and made it into a feudal kingdom of the usual Western type.

While Isaac II was in the midst of his Bulgarian war, and misconducting it with his usual fatuity, he was suddenly dethroned by a palace intrigue. His own brother, Alexius Angelus, had hatched a plot against him, which worked so successfully that Isaac was caught, blinded, and immured in a monastery long before his adherents knew that he was in danger.

Alexius III never showed any other proof of energy save this skillful coup d'etat aimed against his brother. He continued the Bulgarian war with the same ill-success that had attended Isaac's dealings with it. He plunged into a disastrous struggle with the Seljouk Sultan of Iconium, and he quarreled with the Emperor Henry VI., who would certainly have invaded his dominions if death had not intervened to prevent it. But as long as Alexius was permitted to enjoy the pleasures of the table in his villas on the Bosphorus, the ill-success abroad of his arms and his diplomacy vexed him but little.

But in 1203, a new and unexpected danger arose to scare him from his feasting. His blind brother Isaac had a young son named Alexius, who escaped from Constantinople to Italy, and took refuge with Philip of Suabia, the new Emperor of the West. Philip had married a daughter of Isaac Angelus, and determined to do something to help his young brother-in-law. The opportunity was not hard to seek. Just at this moment a large body of French, Flemish, and Italian Crusaders, who had taken arms at the command of the Pope, were lying idle at Venice. They had marched down to the great Italian seaport with the intention of directing a blow against Malek-Adel, Sultan of Egypt. The Venetians had contracted to , supply them with vessels for the Crusade, but for reasons of their own had determined that the attack should not fall on the shore for which it had been destined. They were on very good terms with the Egyptian sovereign, who had granted them valuable commercial privileges at Alexandria, which threw the whole trade with the distant realms of India into Venetian hands. Accordingly they had determined to avert the blow from Egypt and turn it against some other enemy of Christendom. The leaders of the Fourth Crusade proved unable to pay the full sum which they had contracted to give the Venetians as ship-hire, and this was made an excuse for keeping them camped on the unhealthy islands in the Lagoons till their patience and their stores were alike exhausted. Henry Dandolo, the aged but wily doge, then proposed to the Crusaders that they should pay their way by doing something in aid of Venice. The Dalmatian town of Zara had lately revolted and done homage to the King of Hungary; if the Crusaders would recover it, the Venetian state would wipe out their debts and transport them whither they wished to go.

The Crusaders had taken arms for a holy war against the Moslems. They were now invited to turn aside against a Christian town and interest themselves in Venetian politics. Conscientious men would have refused to join in such an unholy bargain, and would have insisted in carrying out their original purpose against Egypt. But conscientious men had been growing more and more rare among the Crusaders for the last hundred years. There were as many greedy military adventurers among them as single-hearted pilgrims. The more scrupulous chiefs were over-persuaded by their designing companions, and the expedition against Zara was undertaken.

Zara fell, but another and a more important enterprise was then placed before the Crusaders. While they wintered on the Dalmatian coast the young Alexius Angelus appeared in their camp, escorted by the ambassadors of his brother-in-law, the Emperor Philip of Suabia:. The exiled prince besought them to turn aside once more before they sailed to the East, and to rescue his blind father from the dungeon into which he had been cast by his cruel brother Alexius III. I f they would drive out the usurper and restore the rightful ruler to his throne, they should have anything that the Byzantine Empire could afford to help them for their Crusade money in plenty, stores, a war fleet, a force of mercenary troops, and his own presence as a helper in the war with Egypt.

Pope Innocent III. had already been storming at the adventurers for shedding Christian blood at Zara, and tampering with their Crusader's oath. But the prospect of Byzantine gold seduced the needy Western barons, and the desire of keeping the war away from Egypt ruled the minds of the Venetians. They hesitated and began to treat with Alexius, though they knew that thereby they were calling down on themselves the terrors of a Papal excommunication. All now depended on the leaders, and among them the abler minds were set on the acceptance of the proposal of the young Byzantine exile. The three chiefs of the Crusade were the Doge Henry Dandolo, Boniface Marquis of Montferrat, and Baldwin Count of Flanders. In Dandolo the ruthless energy of the Italian Republics stood incarnate; he was the one man in the crusading army who knew exactly what he wanted. Old and blind, but clear-headed and inflexible, he was set on revenging an ancient grudge against the Greeks, and on furthering, by any means, good or evil, the fortunes of his native city. Baldwin and Boniface, the two secondary figures in the camp of the Franks, are perfect representations of the two types of crusader. The Fleming, gallant and generous, pious and debonair, worthy of a more righteous enterprise and a more honourable death, was a true successor of Godfrey of Bouillon, and the heroes of the First Crusade. The Lombard, a deep and hardy schemer, to whom force and fraud seemed equally good, was simply seeking for wealth and fame in the realms of the East. He cared little for the Holy Sepulchre, and much for his own private advancement Behind these three leaders we descry the motley crowd of the feudal world; relic-hunting abbots in coats of mail, wrangling barons and penniless knights, the half piratical seamen of Venice, and the brutal soldiery of the West.

Boniface of Montferrat and Doge Dandolo gradually talked over the more scrupulous Baldwin and his friends, and the crusading fleet was launched against Constantinople, after a treaty had been signed which bound Alexius Angelus and his blind father, Isaac II., to pay the Crusaders 200,000 marks of silver, send ten thousand men to Palestine, and acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope over the Eastern Church. In these conditions lay the germs of much future trouble.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


The Crusading armament reached the Dardanelles without having to strike a blow. The slothful and luxurious emperor let things slide, and had not even a fleet ready to send against them in the Aegean. He shut himself up in Constantinople, and trusted to the strength of its walls to deliver him, as Heraclius and Leo III. and many more of his predecessors had been delivered. If the siege had been conducted from the land side only, his hopes might have been justified, for the Danes and English of the Varangian Guard beat back the assault of the Franks on the land-wall. But Alexius III., unlike earlier emperors, was attacked by a fleet to which he could oppose no adequate naval resistance. Though the Crusaders were driven off on shore, the Venetians stormed the sea-wall, by the expedient of building light towers on the decks, and throwing flying bridges from the towers on to the top of the Byzantine ramparts. The blind Doge pushed his galley close under the wall, and urged on his men again and again till they had won a lodgment in some towers on the port side of the sea-wall. The Venetians then fired the city, and a fearful conflagration followed.

Hearing that the enemy was within the ramparts, the cowardly Alexius III. mounted his horse and fled away into the inland of Thrace, leaving his troops, who were not yet half beaten, without a leader or a cause to fight for. The garrison bowed to necessity, and the chief officers of the army drew the aged Isaac II. out of his cloister prison and proclaimed his restoration to the throne. They sent to the Crusading camp to announce that hostilities had ceased, and to beg Prince Alexius to enter the city and join his father in the palace.

The end of the expedition of the Crusaders had now been attained, but it may safely be asserted that the chief feeling in their ranks was a bitter disappointment at being cheated out of the sack of Constantinople, a prospect over which they had been gloating ever since they left Zara. They spent the next three months in endeavouring to wring out of their triumphant protégés, Isaac and Alexius, every bezant that could be scraped together. The old emperor, already blind and gout-ridden, was driven to imbecility by their demands: his son was a raw, inexperienced youth who could neither be firm, nor frank, nor dignified in dealing with any one. He angered the Franks by insincere diplomacy, and the Greeks by his reckless schemes for extracting money from them. The winter of 1203-04 was spent in ceaseless wrangling about the subsidy due to the Crusaders, till Alexius, growing seriously frightened, began exactions on his subjects which drove them to revolt. When he seized and melted down the golden lamps and silver candelabra which formed the pride of St. Sophia, stripped its eikonostasis of its rich metal plating, and requisitioned the jeweled eikons and reliquaries of every church in the city, the populace would stand his proceedings no longer. They would not serve an emperor who had sold himself to the Franks, and only reigned in order to subject the Eastern Church to Rome, and to pour the hoarded wealth of the ancient empire into the coffers of the upstart Italian republics.

In January, 1204, the storm burst. The populace and troops shut the gates of the city, and fell on the isolated Latins who were within the walls. They were not long without a leader; a fierce and unscrupulous officer named Alexius Ducas put himself at their head and determined to seize the throne. Isaac II. died of fright in the midst of the tumult; his son Alexius was caught and strangled by the usurper. Thus the Angell ceased out of the land, and Alexius V. reigned in their stead. He is less frequently named by chroniclers under his family name of Ducas, than under his nickname of "Murtzuphlus," drawn from the bushy overhanging eyebrows which formed the most prominent feature of his countenance.

Alexius Ducas had everything against him. He was a mere usurper, whose authority was hardly recognized beyond the walls of Constantinople. The Angeli had so drained the treasury that nothing remained in it. Twenty years of indiscipline and disaster had spoilt the army; the fleet was non-existent, for the admirals of Alexius Angelus had laid up the vessels in ordinary, and sold the stores to fill their own pockets. Nevertheless Murtzuphlus made a far better fight than his despicable predecessor and namesake. He collected a little money by confiscating the properties of the unpopular courtiers and ministers of the Angeli, and used it to the best advantage. The army received some of the arrears due to them, and Alexius spent every spare moment in seeing to their drill and endeavouring to improve their discipline. He strengthened the sea-wall, whose weakness had been proved so fatally four months ago, by erecting wooden towers along it, and building platforms for all the military engines that could be found in the arsenal. He ordered, too, the enrolment of a national militia, and compelled the nobles and burghers of Constantinople to take arms and man the walls. To the discredit of the Byzantines this order was received with many murmurs: the citizens complained that they paid taxes to support the regular army, and that they therefore ought to be excused personal service. Little good was got out of these new and raw levies; they swelled the numbers of the garrison, but hardly added anything appreciable to its strength.

Alexius Ducas himself with his cavalry scoured the country round the Crusading camp every day, to cut off the foraging parties of the Franks, and when not in the field, rode round the city superintending the works, inspecting the guard-posts, and haranguing the soldiery. If courage and energy command success, he ought to have held his own. But he could not counteract the work of twenty years of decay and disorganization, and felt that his throne rested on the most fragile of foundations.

The Crusaders took two months to prepare for their second assault on Constantinople, which they felt would be a far more formidable affair than the attack in the preceding autumn. They directed their chief efforts against the sea-wall, which they had found vulnerable in the previous siege, and left the formidable land-wall alone. The ships were told off into groups, each destined to attack a particular section of the wall, and covered with as many military engines as they could carry. Flying bridges were again prepared, and landing parties were directed to leap ashore on the narrow beach between the wall and the water, and get to work with rams and scaling ladders. The attack was made on April 8th, at more than a hundred points along two miles of sea-wall but it was beaten off with loss. Alexius Ducas had made his arrangements so well, that the fire of his engines swept off all who attempted to gain a footing on the ramparts. The ships were much damaged, and at noon the whole fleet gave back, and retired as best it could to the opposite side of the Golden Horn.

Many of the Crusaders were now for returning; they thought their defeat was a judgment for turning their arms against a Christian city, and wished to sail for the Holy Land. But Dandolo and the Venetians insisted upon repeating the assault. Three days were spent in repairing the fleet, and on April 12th a second attack was delivered. This time the ships were lashed together in pairs to secure stability, and the attack was concentrated on a comparatively small front of wall. At last, after much fighting, the military engines of the fleet and the bolts of its crossbowmen cleared a single tower of its defenders. A bridge was successfully lowered on to it, and, a footing secured by a party of Crusaders, who then threw open a postern gate and let the main body in. After a short fight within the walls, the troops of Alexius Ducas retired back into the streets The Crusaders fired the city to cover their advance, and by night were in possession of the northwest angle of Constantinople, the quarter of the palace of Blachern.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


While the fire was keeping the combatants apart, the Emperor tried to rally his troops and to prepare for a street-fight next day. But the army was cowed; many regiments melted away; and the Varangian Guard, the best corps in the garrison, chose this moment to demand that their arrears of pay should be liquidated; they would not return to the fight without their money! The twenty years of disorganization under the Angeli was now bearing its fruit, and deeply was the empire to rue the next day.

Alexius Ducas, in despair at being unable to make his men fight, left the city by night. He was soon followed by the last Greek officer who kept his head, the general Theodore Lascaris, who endeavoured to make one final attack on the Crusaders even after his master had departed. Next morning the Franks found themselves in full possession of the city, though they had been expecting to face a hard day of street-fighting before this end could be attained.

In cold blood, twelve hours after all fighting had ended, the Crusaders proceeded with great deliberation to sack the place. The leaders could not or would not hold back their men, and every atrocity that attends the storm of a great city was soon in full swing. Though no resistance was made, the soldiery, and especially the Venetians, took life recklessly, and three or four thousand unarmed citizens were slain. But there was no general massacre; it was lust and greed rather than bloodthirstiness that the army displayed. All the Western writers, no less than the Greeks, testify to the horrors of the three days' carnival of rape and plunder that now set in. Every knight or soldier seized on the house that he liked best, and dealt as he chose with its inmates. Churches and nunneries fared no better than private dwellings; the orgies that were enacted in the holiest places caused even the Pope to exclaim that no good could ever come out of the conquest. (The drunken soldiery enthroned a harlot in the patriarchal chair in St. Sophia, and made her rehearse ribald songs and indecent dances before the high altar. There were plenty of clergy with the Crusading army, but instead of endeavouring to check the sacrilegious doings of their countrymen, they devoted themselves to plundering the treasuries of the churches of all the holy bones and relics that were stored in them) "The Franks," remarked a Greek writer who saw the sack of Constantinople, "behaved far worse than Saracens; the infidels when a town has surrendered at any rate respect churches and women."

After private plunder had reigned unchecked for three days, the leaders of the Crusaders collected such valuables as could be found for public division. Though so much had been stolen and concealed, they were able to produce no less than 800,000 in hard gold and silver for distribution. The sum was afterwards supplemented by the use of a resource which makes the modern historian add a special curse of his own to the account of the Crusaders. Down to 1204 Constantinople still contained the monuments of ancient Greek art in enormous numbers. In spite of the wear and tear of 90o years, her squares and palaces were still crowded with the art-treasures that Constantine and his sons had stored up. Nicetas, who was an eyewitness of all, has left us the list of the chief statues that suffered. The Herades of Lysippus, the great Hera of Samos, the brass figures which Augustus set up after Actium, the ancient Roman bronze of the Wolf with Romulus and Remus, Paris with the Golden Apple, Helen of Troy, and dozens more all went into the melting-pot, to be recast into wretched copper money. The monuments of Christian art fared no better; the tombs of the emperors were carefully stripped of everything in metal, the altars and screens of the churches scraped to the stone. Everything was left bare and desolate.

Such was "the greatest conquest that was ever seen, greater than any made by Alexander or Charlemagne, or by any that have lived before or after," as a Western chronicler wrote, while the Greeks grew hyperbolical in lamentation, as they saw "the eye of the world, the ornament of nations, the fairest sight on earth, the mother of churches, the spring whence flowed the waters of faith, the mistress of Orthodox doctrine, the seat of the sciences, draining the cup mixed for her by the hand of the Almighty, and consumed by fires as devouring as those which ruined the five Cities of the Plain."

At last the Crusaders sat down to divide up their conquests. They elected Baldwin of Flanders Emperor of the East, and handed over to him the ruined city of Constantinople, half of it devoured by the flames of the conflagrations that attended the two sieges, and all of it plundered from cellar to attic. Four-fifths of the population had fled, and no one had remained save beggars who had nothing to save by flight. With the capital Baldwin was given Thrace and the Asiatic provinces Bithynia, Mysia, and Lydia, all of which had still to be conquered. His colleague, Boniface of Montferrat, was made "King of Thessalonica," and did homage to Baldwin for a fief consisting of Macedonia, Thessaly, and inland Epirus. The Venetians claimed "a quarter and half-a-quarter" of the empire, and took out their share by receiving Crete, the Ionian Islands, the ports along the west coast of Greece and Albania, nearly the whole of the islands of the Aegean, and the land about the entrance of the Dardanelles. They seized on every good harbour and strong sea-fortress, but left the inland alone; commerce rather than annexation was their end. The rest of the empire was parceled out among the minor leaders of the Crusade; they had first to conquer their fiefs, and were then to do homage for them to the Emperor Baldwin. Most of them never lived to accomplish the scheme. Meanwhile a Venetian prelate was appointed patriarch of Constantinople, and news was sent to the Pope that the union of the Eastern and Western Churches was accomplished, by the forcible extinction of the Greek patriarchate.

It only remains to speak of Alexius Ducas, the fugitive Greek emperor. He fell into the hands of the Crusaders, was tried for the murder of the young Alexius Angelus, and suffered death by being taken to the top of a lofty pillar and hurled from it. The Greeks saw in this strange end the fulfillment of an obscure prophecy about the last of the Caesars, which had long puzzled the brains of the oracle-mongers.