by Sir Steven Runciman
The story of the Fourth Crusade is misted by controversy. Historians still argue whether the diversion of the Crusade to Constantinople and the capture and sack of the city and the establishment of a Latin Empire there was the result of deliberate planning by Venice and perhaps also by certain leaders of the Crusade, or the outcome of a series of historical accidents. Perhaps it is safest to say that the Venetians were eager to use the Crusade to set up a government favourable to their commercial interests in Constantinople and that the Crusaders were convinced that a friendly government there would help the whole Crusading movement, believing that its failures were largely due to the equivocal attitude of the Byzantines; and then a series of unforeseen events, for which the ineptitude of various members of the Imperial family of the Angeli must take much of the blame, led to the tragedy of the fall of the great city and its division between Venice and a Latin Emperor.
Whatever the causes of the Fourth Crusade, its outcome marked a turning-point in the history of Byzantium. No longer could the Empire act as the bulwark of Christendom against Islam. The Latin conquest was incomplete; but the Byzantines in exile were too busy establishing a stable government and too anxious to recover their capital city to pay much attention to their Eastern frontier. A strong Byzantium might have been able to take advantage of the period in the mid-thirteenth century when the Anatolian Turks were hard pressed by Mongol invasions and to recover much lost territory. But the struggling Empire based on Nicaea, able though its rulers were, was in no position to take the offensive in the East. By the time that Constantinople was recaptured and Western attempts at retaliation countered, it was too late. The Osmanli Turks were beginning to emerge; and the Byzantine Empire had become only one state in Eastern Europe set amongst other states, many of them larger and richer than itself.
But the Fourth Crusade also marked a turning-point in the history of the Crusading movement. Hitherto the Crusades had been directed against the infidel Muslims; and, apart from the re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula (where the idea of the Holy War had in fact first been realised), their essential object had been to restore the holiest places of Christendom to Christian rule and to keep the road thither open to pilgrims. The earlier Crusaders knew that they needed the co-operation of Byzantium. Their armies had to march through Byzantine territory to reach the Holy Land; and the Crusaders settled in the East continued to see the importance of the Byzantine alliance. But the Crusaders failed to understand that the interests and the duty of the Byzantine Emperor were to consolidate his own dominions and not to indulge in adventures further to the East, however much he might sympathise with their cause. To the Crusaders he seemed an ally of doubtful loyalty. The Western Europeans had long felt a jealous dislike for the Greeks; and the refusal of the Greek Church to abandon all its traditions and submit to the authority of the Roman pontificate added to their dislike. The Greeks were schismatics and not to be trusted. The best solution in Western eyes would be to establish authority over Byzantium. The Fourth Crusade was therefore both politically and morally right – in their eyes. In fact, whatever the morals of it, it was politically and strategically a disastrous mistake.
In the last decades of the twelfth century Byzantium was passing through a period of weakness. The Emperor Manuel I’s ambitious schemes had overstrained the Empire; and his terrible defeat at the hands of the Turks at Myriokephalon in 1176, which temporarily destroyed the Byzantine army as a fighting force, and then the dynastic problems that followed his death and the accession of the incompetent Angeli emperors: all that combined to enable the Turks to establish themselves so solidly in Anatolia that the overland route to Syria would no longer be practicable for Christian armies. Frederick Barbarossa, leading the largest army that ever went on a Crusade, managed to fight his way through in 1190; but his army disintegrated on his sudden death. Future armies would have to go by sea; and the control of Constantinople was therefore strategically irrelevant.
But there was a more serious outcome for the whole Crusading movement. Whatever Pope Innocent III may have thought about the ethics of the Fourth Crusade, once Byzantium with its schismatic citizens was brought under Western control and the control of the Roman Church, it became to the Papacy a matter not only of pride but of religious duty to maintain that control. To fight against the schismatic Greeks therefore became as holy a task as to fight against the infidels further to the east. It earned the same spiritual rewards. In consequence a pious but ambitious knight need no longer make the arduous journey to Palestine, to fight there in a cruel climate against a relentless enemy. He could receive the same spiritual benefits by making a shorter journey to the pleasant lands of Greece, where the enemy was disorganized and more docile. It was far easier and more attractive to set up a lordship there. The outstanding example of this is the case of Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who was to become Prince of Achaea. He had set out late for the Fourth Crusade and sailed straight for Syria. But when he arrived there he heard of the pickings that were to be obtained in Greek lands. So he at once gave up all thought of fighting the infidel and turned back to make his career in the Peloponnese.
There were, it is true, still in the thirteenth century Crusaders of the old type who felt it to be their duty to fight the infidel in the Holy Land. But there was no longer the same concentrated effort there. The beleaguered inhabitants of Outremer, the Prankish lands in Syria and Palestine, saw men and money that should have been devoted to their help going instead to buttress up the tottering Latin Empire of Romania or carving comfortable lordships at the expense of the Greeks. The Papal authorities even encouraged this. In 1239 Pope Gregory IX did his best to persuade Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to divert the money that he had collected for a campaign in Palestine to an expedition against the Greeks of Nicaea. Pope Innocent III had already extended the Holy War to include wars against the Cathar heretics in southern France. This further extension against the Greeks shocked many pious Catholics. Soon after the Fourth Crusade the monk, Guyot de Provins, in his satirical work called La Bible asked pointedly why the Crusade was now directed against Greeks. It was from sheer greed, he said. The troubadour Guillem Figuera, who as a southern Frenchman, and possibly a heretic, resented the Albigensian Crusade as well, wrote about the same time in a poem: “Rome, you do little harm to Saracens, but you massacre Greeks and Latins.” The resentment by genuine Crusaders was to become greater when the Papacy began to preach the Holy War against its political enemies in the West. This was the final debasement of the Holy War; and when the Papal wars failed in Europe, with the War of the Sicilian Vespers, the grand conception of the supreme universal Papacy collapsed. With its collapse the Crusading movement also faded out.
But it faded out slowly. So long as the Crusaders kept a foothold on the Syrian mainland, that is to say, till the fall of Acre in 1291, there were periodical expeditions that went to the East to fight the infidel, all of them unsuccessful except for the Crusade of the excommunicated Emperor Frederick II, which succeeded without fighting in temporarily recovering Jerusalem. Even after the fall of Acre there were still a few Crusaders eager to fight against the infidel, such as King Peter I of Cyprus, whose expedition against Alexandria in 1365 did far more harm to Christian trading interests than to Muslim power. More practical Crusaders saw that the Turks in Anatolia were now the most dangerous enemy to Christendom; but expeditions against the Turks were generally unsuccessful, apart from the allied effort in 1344 which resulted in the Christian capture of Smyrna.
The Latins who captured Constantinople soon came to realize that its possession was not of value for the Crusading movement. The Latin Empire that they established endured unhappily for nearly half a century. Already before the Byzantines recaptured the city in 1261 the Venetians, who were always practical, had decided that it was not really worth preserving. (The Genoese, more practical still, saw the advantage of the Black Sea trade and farsightedly made an alliance with the Greeks.) The loss of Constantinople was a blow to Latin pride; and the restoration of the Latin Empire became a duty for pious western potentates. But Greece was another matter. From a practical point of view it could be argued that control of the harbours in the Greek peninsula and islands was essential, now that Crusades to the Levant had to travel by sea and now that the chief Muslim enemy was entrenched in Anatolia. This was the excuse for the Hospitallers’ siezure of Rhodes in 1308. It could indeed be argued that even the Greeks in Greece profited from the presence of the Military Knights in that key position, as a buttress against the Turks.
In Western eyes Greece was thus in a pivotal position for the continuance of the Crusading movement. The Greeks were schismatic and therefore not to be trusted; so it was a pious duty to occupy their lands and to fight against them if they objected. Venice, as usual, took a practical line. In the division of territory arranged and signed by the Crusader allies in 1204 -a division that optimistically covered large tracts of territory that they had not yet conquered-, Venice demanded far more than she intended to occupy, including all western Greece and most of the Peloponnese. This was so that she might have a legal right to any places in the area that she might later find it convenient to take over. In fact she occupied only the ports of Corone and Methone and the island of Crete, and, later, Nauplia, all of them with harbours that would be useful strategically both for commerce and for war. But she encouraged her leading citizens to find themselves lordships in Greek lands, as did the Genoese in spite of their alliance with Byzantium. The other lords who acquired territory in Greece were nearly all Frenchmen or Burgundians, the most eminent being the Villehardouins in the Peloponnese and the de la Roches in Thebes and Athens.
From the New Griffon, A Gennadius Library Publication, American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Editor: Haris A. Kalligas, Director, Gennadius Library. Produced & Distrbuted by Potamos Publishers & Booksellers, Athens 2002.