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.
This is not the place to attempt to give a summary of the complicated history of the Francocratia in Greece. But it is important to remember that every Prankish lord in Greece believed that somehow by his presence there he was helping the noble cause of the Crusade against the infidel, and that, if he showed intolerance towards the Orthodox, it was because he believed that not only were they in religious error by not accepting the Pope as Vicar of God but that they were unreliable as allies in the great Crusading movement.
To some extent, according to their lights, the Frankish lords were right. Ever since the time of the First Crusade there had been a misunderstanding between Byzantium and the Western Christians about the aims and the methods of the Crusades. In the West the motive force had been to reopen the pilgrim routes to the Holy Places and to ensure that pilgrimage should continue for ever guaranteed by Christian possession of the Holy Land. To Byzantium the primary aim had been to drive the Turks back out of Anatolia. The Emperor was much less interested in what might happen in lands beyond the historic boundaries of the Empire. At the time of the First Crusade he would have been quite content to leave Palestine under the rule of the tolerant Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt, who had accepted him as protector of the Orthodox in their dominions — and, indeed, the Orthodox in the Crusading states were soon to find that they had been rather better treated by the Caliphs than they were by Frankish rulers. Reciprocally, the Orthodox were more tolerant of Islam and less ignorant about it than were the Westerners who were horrified to find that there was a mosque in Constantinople for the use of visiting Muslim merchants and for Muslim mercenaries and prisoners of war. As regards methods, the Byzantines believed in diplomacy, at which they were adept. They would go to great lengths to avoid warfare, which they found to be expensive, disruptive and rather risky. They knew how to play off one Muslim potentate against another, even if that might involve bribes and, to Western eyes, indecorous gestures of friendship towards some of the infidel. The Westerners glorified war; and, though the Crusaders settled in Syria and Palestine soon learned the advisability, indeed, the necessity, of similar diplomatic methods, each new wave of Crusaders from the West came simply to fight the infidel and was horrified by any thought of making even temporary gestures of friendship with a Muslim – an intransigence that was a main cause for the elimination of the Crusader states. To such Crusaders the Orthodox inevitably seemed untrustworthy.
The schism complicated matters. The Orthodox were ungodly as well as untrustworthy. It was a pious duty to bring them into the Roman fold. The average Westerner felt that could be done only by force. But there were others who hoped that the Orthodox authorities, that is to say, the Emperor in Byzantium could be persuaded to submit to Rome and to bring his subjects with him. This might involve the use of threats; but force should be avoided. Pope Gregory X, Pope from 1271 to 1276, who was genuinely concerned about the Crusaders in the East, favoured this view, and achieved a religious diplomatic triumph when he induced the Emperor Michael VIII to send delegates to the Council of Lyons bearing with them his submission to Rome. But Michael soon found that he could not carry his people with him.
The Frankish rulers in Greece nearly all took a hard line against the Orthodox. The Greek hierarchy was replaced by a Latin hierarchy, many of whose members tried to enforce Roman usages throughout their Episcopal sees. Only a few of the wiser princes, such as the Villehardouins, endeavoured to restrain such zeal and to allow their Greek subjects to retain their local priests and their liturgy – so long as the priests accepted the nominal authority of the Latin upper hierarchy. But it is doubtful if any of the princes would really have welcomed the complete submission of the whole See of Constantinople to Rome. That would have been too likely to involve the restoration of a Greek hierarchy throughout, a hierarchy which though it might recognize Papal supremacy would have been Greek. Pope Gregory X, with his zeal for a Crusade in the East and his desire for a peaceable union of the Churches, was not a popular figure amongst the Frankish rulers. He was particularly resented by the potentate who was the most active protagonist of the Latin cause in the later thirteenth century, Charles of Anjou, the youngest brother of Saint Louis, King of France.
Charles had in 1265, with the blessing of the Papacy and material help from the Guelphs, the Papal supporters in Italy, conquered the kingdom of Naples and Sicily from the Hohenstaufen King, Manfred; and he aimed at the creation of a Mediterranean empire. He was a man of tireless energy and great administrative ability, ruthless and lacking in humanity; but according to his lights he was genuinely pious and saw himself as a soldier of God fighting against the infidel and the schismatic. He saw his imperialistic ambitions as being justified because they served the cause of God. But he found it more convenient to his aims to fight the schismatic rather than the infidel. He wished to restore the Latin Empire of Constantinople to its claimant, Baldwin II, whose daughter and heiress he married to one of his sons, while another son married the heiress of the Villehardouins, the marriage contract giving him control of her inheritance. Pope Gregory X, who (as I have said), hoped to convert rather than conquer the Byzantines, tried to make Charles devote his attention to the Crusaders in the East by helping him to buy the rights to the throne of Jerusalem from an elderly spinster princess whose own rights to it were very shaky; and for a time he established his authority in Acre, the capital of the dying kingdom. But he never took any action against the infidel in the East. The only Crusade in which he took part was that of his brother, St. Louis, in 1270. St. Louis had intended it to go to Palestine; but Charles persuaded his brother to direct it, with his help, against the amiable and tolerant Emir of Tunis. It was not a success. St. Louis died in the course of it; and though the Emir paid Charles a large and useful indemnity to go away, Charles’s fleet was badly damaged by a storm when sailing home.
It is necessary to dwell a bit upon Charles of Anjou, as he provided the greatest threat to the Greeks arising out of this neo-Crusading spirit, calling for Crusades against the schismatics, justified as a necessary step before the original Crusade, the Crusade against the infidel, could be resumed. Very shortly before Charles’s conquest of Naples Byzantium had begun to re-establish authority in the Peloponnese with the acquisition of the three great fortresses of Mistra, Maina, and this historic city of Monemvasia – the result of a battle fought far way in Macedonia, at Pelagonia, which had resulted in the capture by the Byzantines of William II of Villehardouin, Prince of Achaea – he was hiding in a haystack in disguise but was recognized by his prominent teeth. The cession of the fortresses was the price of his release. Soon Byzantium was in control of Laconia; and this resurgence of schismatic power, slight though it was, alarmed the Latins both in Greek lands and in the West; and Charles saw himself as their protagonist. He did not trouble seriously to attack the Greeks in Laconia. He calculated that if he captured Constantinople the provinces would yield without resistance. He used the resources of his kingdom -southern Italy and Sicily were still prosperous in those days- to build up a strong army and a large fleet. He secured the alliance of Venice and the promise of Venetian ships. He had the blessing of the Papacy. He had, it is true, enemies in the West, the anti-Papal Ghibelline cities in Italy, but he had crushed all of them but Genoa. There were still members of the Hohenstaufen family living, including Manfred ‘s daughter Constance, now Queen of Aragon. But he did not think that Aragon would dare to challenge his power. Nothing was to prevent him in his Crusading duty of recapturing Constantinople for the Latins.
However, the first expedition that he planned had to be diverted to help his saintly brother on his Crusade, where his army was reduced by disease and (as I have said) his fleet damaged by a tempest. When next he was ready, the expedition was forbidden by Pope Gregory X after Michael VIII had submitted to the Papacy. But after Gregory’s death and the failure of the Emperor Michael to induce his people to accept religious union, the Papacy reverted to its former policy and gave Charles full support. By the end of 1281 his preparations were made for a great expedition against Constantinople, which would set out the following spring.
I have not the time to talk in detail about the great international conspiracy that was to save Constantinople. We can only note that its organiser was a Neopolitan, John of Procida, a doctor who had been employed by eminent men of all parties but who was himself loyal to the Hohenstaufen and had ended up as Chief Sectetary to King Peter of Aragon and his wife, Constance of Hohenstaufen. Later legend described how he toured round the Mediterranean world in disguise, collecting allies against Charles of Anjou. As he was in his seventies and was signing documents in Barcelona throughout those years, it is unlikely that he travelled far. But he certainly had trustworthy agents. The secrets of the great conspiracy are still not wholly revealed. We know that John was in close touch with the Emperor Michael VIII who was desperately afraid of Charles’s expedition; and the conspiracy was financed by Byzantine gold. He was in touch with the Genoese, who detested Charles; and he had the confidence of the Aragonese Court. Both he and Michael seem to have realized that Charles’s weakest point was the island of Sicily. The Sicilians had always resented Charles’s rule; and to keep them in order he governed them through military garrisons of Frenchmen, men from his French dominions on whom he could rely but who were bitterly resented by the islanders.
Early in 1282 Charles’s great armada assembled in the Sicilian port of Messina, ready to sail in April against Constantinople. On Easter Monday, when a crowd was gathered outside a church for Vespers -30 March, seven hundred years ago- the bad behaviour of a French sergeant towards a married Sicilian woman sparked off a riot which led at once to a massacre of the French. Within a week all the Frenchmen on the island were dead or had fled, except at Messina; and it soon fell to the insurgents. Charles’s fleet was half destroyed and half scattered; and he soon found himself involved in a war against Aragon and Genoa, a war still waging when he died. The expedition against Constantinople had to be indefinitely postponed.
This massacre, known in history as the Sicilian Vespers, was of pivotal importance to the history of the Mediterranean world and above all to the history of the Greeks – and to the history of Hellenism. It foiled the last attempt to send a Crusade against the Orthodox in the East. Later Crusader theorists continued to talk of the necessity of bringing the Greeks into the Latin fold. When Philip IV of France talked of going on a Crusade in the East his advisers told him that he must conquer the Greeks first. But he had no intention of actually Crusading. Most theorists contented themselves by saying that the peaceable conversion of the Greeks must be achieved. Byzantium was left alone; and the Greeks in the Peloponnese had little more than local opposition to face in their task of recovering the whole peninsula.
It has been argued by some Western historians that if a strong Latin state had been established in Consantinople it might have been able to prevent the Turkish advance into Europe. But could a strong Latin state even have been established there? The story of the Latin Empire in the earlier thirteenth century hardly supports that view. Could Charles of Anjou’s Mediterranean empire have been more effective? I doubt it. It would have been loathed by its subjects and its neighbours in the Balkans, and it would not have been able to count on the steady support from the West which would have been necessary to maintain it. The national kingdoms arising in the West were mainly interested in establishing and enlarging their own frontiers. They were not interested in Eastern Europe, even when the Turks became a real menace to all Europe. The Italian merchant cities who were interested in the East looked at things only in the perspective of immediate profit. And the Greek world had been mortally wounded.
The word “Crusade” now has a noble connotation. It is used to describe a brave struggle for a righteous cause. The actual history of the great Crusades in the East belies that interpretation. The Crusaders did indeed believe that they were carrying out God’s will; but they were characterized by ignorance, intolerance and savagery. They set out to save Christendom; but to the Christians of the East they brought nothing but disaster. It can be said that Byzantium profited by the First Crusade, which did indeed help the Emperor to recover much of Anatolia more quickly than he could have managed alone. It is possible, too, to maintain that the existence of the Crusader states in the East served to divert Muslim attention from Constantinople. But the Second and Third Crusades did nothing for Byzantium except to create embarrassment and ill-will; and the Fourth Crusade dealt the Empire a wound from which full recovery was impossible. It is true that there were in fact no further Crusades specifically directed against the Greeks, the Sicilian Vespers having prevented what was planned to be a replica of the Fourth Crusade. Even though men from the West who fought against the Orthodox were promised by their religious authorities the same spiritual benefits as were ordained for those that fought against the infidel, in Greece itself relations between the lords of the Francocratia and their Greek neighbours were not always bad. There was social intercourse; there was often intermarriage. But in the background there was always the animosity created and encouraged by the religious authorities, an animosity felt especially by newcomers from the West, an animosity that was part of what the later Crusading spirit had become. All that is why, to me, “Crusade” is a dirty word.
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.