This painting, by the Greek artist Vasilios Chatzis (c. 1870–1915), recalls the awkward Fourth Crusade, when Christians crusaded against Christians. This bizarre series of events began around 1201, when the European kingdoms were once again riling themselves up for another crusade campaign. During previous crusades, Christian armies had ventured through Constantinople’s territory in Greece and Anatolia to reach their targets in the Holy Land. The crusaders, however, turned out to be unruly and destructive guests in these earlier wars, so when the Fourth Crusade was about to begin, the emperor of Constantinople barred the crusading armies from the borders of his empire. Initially, the crusaders decided to accept the decision and planned to transport their forces by sea instead of land.
After reassessing the situation, the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade chose to set sail from Italy, with Venice being the designated hub for transportation. Venice did not host the crusaders out of charity—they drove a hard bargain in their terms and conditions. Per the agreement, once the crusaders reached their bountiful destination, Venice wished to 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. Furthermore, the Venetians began to manipulate the crusaders into pursuing a new target for their campaign. In this regard, Venice’s recent history at that time should be addressed. Venice had been a former ally of Constantinople, but by the Fourth Crusade, they were bitter enemies. With a huge army delivered to their harbor, the Venetians began contemplating a plan to strike a blow against their imperial foe. Therefore, when the crusaders agreed to Venice’s terms in 1204, the army was packed onto ships and sent not to the original target of the Holy Lands, but instead 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. Such are the events that inspired Vasilios Chatzis’ artwork.
After decades of occupation, the Crusaders were eventually driven from Constantinople. Nevertheless, the empire never fully recovered. The destabilization and damage 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.