It is the Year of Our Lord 1075 and a great disaster has befallen Christendom.
The Islamic armies of the Seljuk Turks have taken Jerusalem.
In Western Europe the Roman Empire is gone some 600 years. In the East the empire still lives at Constantinople, its Emperor ruling portions of the eastern shore of the Adriatic through the Balkans and Greece into Asia Minor and Syria. It is in constant conflict with the Seljuk Sultan to its east and had recently lost the southern Italian provinces to the Normans shortly after their conquest of England.
There is much talk in the West led by Pope Urban, ruler of central Italy and Rome itself and Peter the Hermit of raising a vast army to recapture Jerusalem. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were being treated harshly and needed protection.
A crusade would not have been practical however without two developments. First was the conversion of Hungary to Christianity. Bordering Christian Germany, it was now possible to take a land route through Hungary to the border of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and on to the middle east to face the Islamic enemy.
Secondly, the rise of Genoese and Venetian naval power which swept the Islamic navies and pirates from the central Mediterranean and the recapture of Sicily and Corsica from Islamic forces which made a sea voyage from France feasible and safe. Christian war galleys were seen in areas where no western vessel had been seen for centuries.
Free access to the East was now open. And so the news came in 1095 to Emperor Alexis that the nations of the West were mustering their armies and directing their march towards his frontiers with the expressed intention of driving the Muslims from Jerusalem.
The Emperor had little confidence in the purity and zeal of the Crusaders. His wily mind didn’t trust them and he feared the crusader armies would turn against him. And indeed when the hordes of armed Frankish solders began to arrive his fears were justified as the new comers pillaged and plundered his countryside right and left.
So the Emperor, with a Byzantine talent for intrigue and insincere diplomacy resolved to reduce the crusader chiefs to do him homage and return to him all the old dominions of the empire they might reconquer from the Turks. In return he would aid them with troops if called upon, provisions and money. After tedious negotiations he got his way. And the crusaders passed to the east to fight the Muslim.
Neither the Emperor or the crusaders lived up to the bargain struck. The Emperor sent troops who lagged behind like jackals. As the crusaders laid seize to Nicaea for example, the Turks surrendered but not to the crusaders. They surrendered to the Emperor and secretly let his troops enter the fortress. The crusaders were naturally unhappy.
And so it went; as the crusaders crushed the Turks the Emperor’s troops picked up the spoils, lagging safely behind and attacking other Turkish strongholds while the Sultan was busy with the main army of the crusaders.
When it was all over the crusader army did not return many of the cities they re-conquered to the Emperor, instead setting up the Frankish Kingdoms at Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and more importantly the new Kingdom of Jerusalem
The Emperor was more than satisfied; the Franks had rolled back the Seljuk Turks some 200 miles in a couple of years and dealt them a blow from which they would not recover for a century.
The crusade however was a death blow to Byzantine commercial power as the Genoese and Venetian traders began to visit the ports of the Levant bypassing Constantinople completely. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, by far the weakest of the new feudal powers was much easier to bully for commercial concessions than was the powerful Emperor of Byzantium. The financial deterioration of the Empire would be its ruin as its commercial prosperity was the basis for the state. Territorial expansion lead observers to believe the empire was strengthening while its rotting financial condition drew little attention.
Two Emperors followed Alexis; the second, Manuel, spent his entire reign at war piling up debt and pillaging the treasury. In 1180 he died and with him died the Comnenus dynasty. He left a boy of 13, Alexius, as heir and with a Regency always comes trouble. Andronicus, a first cousin of Manuel took over the throne and guardianship of the young prince. No sooner was he seated on the throne and secure than he seized and strangled his young relative. And like Richard III he immediately faced rebellion and insurrection to avenge the murdered Prince.
A minor nobleman, Isaac Angelus would lead the mobs and Andronicus was torn to pieces in the streets. Even his own guards would not lift a sword to defend him.
“The empire now passed from the rash and wicked Andronicus into the hands of the two most feeble and despicable creatures who ever sat upon the Imperial Throne” – the brothers Isaac and Alexius Angelus who reigned from 1185 – 1204.
These two conducted the affairs of state on the principle of “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!” Had more competent Emperors sat on the throne, such as Leo III or even Alexius I, the great catastrophe which was to befall Constantinople might not have happened. Instead they fell back on personal enjoyment. Isaac liked gorgeous clothes and collecting miraculous icons. Alexius was the consummate “foodie.”
The disaster the Angeli brought to the realm was possible only due to the complete disorganization of the military and the empire’s finances. The army was now filled with mercenaries with little loyalty and none if they weren’t paid. The administrative and civil service positions were put up for auction to the highest bidder.
Isaac lost Bulgaria and Cyprus which had been in the hands of the empire for more than 200 years. Cyprus was lost by a revolt led by a relative of Manuel. Provinces had been lost by the empire through invasion by foreigners but this was the first time a thoroughly Greek province was severed from the empire through a revolt led by a relative of a former Emperor.
Isaac was deposed by his own brother Alexius; he was caught, blinded and locked away in a monastery. But Isaac had a young son, named after his brother, who escaped to Italy and took refuge with Phillip of Swabia, the new emperor of the west. Phillip was married to Isaac’s daughter and was eager to help his young brother-in-law.
Enrico Dandalo – Doge of Venice
Jerusalem had been retaken by Saladin and the Pope was calling for a new crusade. The troops gathered in Venice where the Venetians had contracted to bring them to Egypt. But the Venetians had lucrative commercial contracts with Islamic Egypt and decided that the troops should be turned against some other enemy of Christendom.
The leaders of the Fourth Crusade were unable to pay the full price for transport so the wily old Doge of Venice, Henry Dandalo proposed that the crusaders do something to aid Venice in full payment. Who should appear in their camp but the young Alexius and Phillip of Swabia requesting they rescue the blind father/emperor from the dungeons into which he had been cast by his cruel brother. If they would drive out the usurper and place the rightful emperor back on his throne they could have anything which the Byzantine empire could give.
The greedy barons soon agreed to attack Orthodox Christians rather than Egypt which suit the Venetians just fine. In Doge Dandalo the ruthless energy of the Italian Republics stood incarnate. He was the one man in the crusader army who knew exactly what he wanted.
The barons and the Doge signed a contract with the young Angelus binding him and his father Isaac to pay them lots of money, send 10,000 men to Palestine and acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope over the eastern church.
The lobby of the Hotel Danieli, formerly the home of the Dandalo family. Enrico Dandolo became Doge of Venice in 1192 and led the Fourth Crusade, sacking Constantinople in 1204
The Venetians sailed to the Dardanelles without striking a blow and began a seige on both the land and from the sea. The Doge himself mounted a fierce attack from the sea-side and seized several towers.
The cowardly Emperor fled into the Balkans and Isaac was taken from his prison and proclaimed his restoration. The young Alexius entered the city and proclaimed an end to hostilities. It can safely be said the troops were not happy; there was the loot available if Constantinople was sacked.
The old emperor Isaac was blind approaching dementia; his son was a mere boy unable to deal with the greedy barons. In trying to raise money to pay the Franks he began seizing and melting down the gold candle sticks and icons in every church bringing the resident Greeks to revolt. They would not support an emperor who acknowledged Papal supremacy and was pouring the hoarded wealth of an ancient empire into the hands of the Catholic Franks.
In January 1204 the populace shut the gates of the city, killing the Franks locked inside. Their leader Alexius Ducas, strangled the young son and the old Emperor Isaac it is said died of fright.
Ducas made a fight of it. On April 8th the crusaders, lead by the Venetian fleet attacked the sea wall again but were beaten off with heavy losses. Many of the troops saw this as punishment for attacking a Christian city and wanted to embark for the Holy Land.
But Dandalo and the Venetians insisted on repeating the assault and on April 12th the second attack was delivered. The next morning the Franks found themselves in full possession of the city. Ducas had fled.
The crusaders, with great deliberation, proceeded to sack the place. Every atrocity which attends the storming of a great city was soon in full swing. It was a carnival of rape and plunder, especially among the Venetians, with orgies conducted in the holiest of places. Even the Pope claimed that no good could come out of the conquest. The clergy of the crusading army did nothing but plunder the churches of all of the holy relics and bones.
Down to 1204 Constantinople had contained the monuments of ancient Greek art in enormous numbers. Her squares and palaces were filled with the art works placed there by Constantine when he made the city the capital of the Roman world.
The famous bronze horses from the Hippodrome were sent back to adorn the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where they remain. As well as being stolen, works of immeasurable artistic value were destroyed merely for their material value. One of the most precious works to suffer such a fate was a large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of Alexander the Great. The Great Hera of Samos; the brass figures which Augustus set up after Actium. The great Roman bronze of the wolf with Romulus and Remus. Paris with the Golden Apple. Helen of Troy, all went into the melting pot. The monuments of Christian art fared no better. Like so many other priceless artworks made of bronze, melted down for its content by the Crusaders; turned into cheap copper coins. The great Library of Constantinople was destroyed.
As the Greeks lamented “the eye of the world, the ornament of nations” destroyed.
After the city’s sacking, most of the Byzantine Empire’s territories were divided up among the Crusaders. Byzantine aristocrats also established a number of small independent splinter states, one of them being the Empire of Nicaea, which would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261 and proclaim the reinstatement of the Empire. However, the restored Empire never managed to reclaim its former territorial or economic strength, and eventually fell to the rising Ottoman Sultanate in the 1453.
And so while the”Second Rome” was no more, the Princess Zoe Paleologos escaped to Rome. She would marry Ivan, Grand Prince of all the Russ, change her name to Sofia and bring Byzantine court etiquette, ambitions and art to Moscow. Ivan would become Tsar, defender of the faith and Caesar of the Third Rome and the Tsars would adopt the double eagle of Byzantium as their standard.