In 1201, the Europeans were, once again, riling themselves up for another crusade, when the emperor of Constantinople clearly decreed that no crusading army would be welcome in his lands. During previous crusades, Christian armies had ventured through Asia Minor and Anatolia to reach their targets in the Holy Land. The crusaders, however, turned out to be unruly and destructive guests, so when the Fourth Crusade was about to begin, the emperor of Constantinople barred the crusading armies from the borders of his empire.
Since they could not travel by land, the crusaders decided to voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. The soldiers turned to Venice for transportation. Venice had been a former ally of Constantinople, but by the Fourth Crusade, they were enemies. With a huge army delivered to their harbor, the Venetians began to manipulate the crusaders into pursuing a new target. The crusaders agreed to the plan, but Venice knew how to bargain—once the crusaders reached their bountiful destination, Venice would keep 3/4 of the loot, 3/8 of the captured territory and 1/2 of the positions on a council to choose the next ruler of the seized territory.
When the crusaders agreed to Venice’s terms in 1204, the army was packed onto ships and sent on their way. The crusaders, however, were no longer setting sail to the Holy Land, they were on course for Constantinople.
At the time, Constantinople was arguably the greatest Christian city of its day. Nevertheless, the crusaders caught the city, and its emperor, completely off guard. For around three days, the crusaders brutalized the city of Constantinople, killing its inhabitants, looting its wealth, and vandalizing its structures. With the emperor of Constantinople ousted, and the empire in disarray, the crusaders and Venice founded their own Latin Empire in Constantinople and Greece that lasted from 1204 to 1261.
Though the Crusaders were eventually driven from Constantinople, the empire never fully recovered. After the Fourth Crusade, it is estimated that the emperors of Constantinople could never raise more than 5,000 troops to fill their armies for imperial campaigns. The destabilization caused by the Fourth Crusade proved fatal for Constantinople as its enemies only continued to grow stronger. In 1453, Constantinople, and its empire, fell to Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Turks.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Byzantine Art of War by Michael J. Decker. Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 2013.
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.