The Fourth Crusade and the Byzantine Empire

Oct 4, 2018 · 18 min read

The Fourth Crusade (1204) was a turning point in Byzantine history. It meant the fragmentation of the Byzantine world and the emergence of competing Greek and Latin states. Much like the Arab conquests of the seventh century, the Fourth Crusade sped up a process of change that had begun earlier. Before examining the consequences of the Fourth Crusade, it is important to have a look at condition of the Byzantine Empire just before 1204 in order to make sense of how the glorious empire of the Komnenos dynasty collapsed under the attack of a crusading army assembled almost by chance.

Byzantium before the Fourth Crusade

Image Source: Byzantine Empire, c. 1180. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Byzantines and Latins

Byzantium, despite its dealing with the crusaders during the first two crusades, was always suspicious of them. The two parts of Christendom (Eastern — Byzantine and Western — Latin/Frankish) had been fractured by the schism of 1054 but this wasn’t initially viewed as important; there had been schisms like that before and the unity of the Church had been mended. Rather it was the arrival of large numbers of Westerners in Byzantine territories that highlighted the cultural differences between the two parts of Christendom. To quote Sir Steven Runciman:

There are idealists who fondly believe that if only the peoples of the world could get to know each other there would be peace and goodwill forever. This is a tragic delusion. It is indeed possible for men and women of education to enjoy the company and customs of foreigners and to feel sympathy for them. But simpler folk who find themselves in a country whose language and habits are unintelligible to them are apt to feel at a loss and resentful.

The presence of Westerners in Byzantium showed how differently the two parts of the once common Roman world had evolved; Westerners viewed the Byzantines as ‘effeminate’, ‘perfidious’ and ‘treacherous’ while Byzantines viewed Westerners are ‘brutes’ and ‘uncivilized’: they, to use an example, were shocked that Latin priests would take part in war. Anna Komnene, in her Alexiad, mocks the posturing of the Norman leader Robert Guiscard.

The Byzantine commoners too were suspicious of the ‘Latins’. In large part because the Crusading armies crossing the Balkans during their movement to the East came to friction with the local population. Although Byzantium, being nominally an ally of the Crusaders, was supposed to supply them, the central government had difficulty exerting such influence in its northernmost regions and this meant that there were cases of plunder on the part of the crusaders in order to get the supplies they needed.

Relations were not helped by the mutual distrust. The Crusaders felt that Alexios I Komnenos had betrayed them during the First Crusade because he withheld aid when it looked as if the Crusaders were about to be defeated. They also despised the fact that the Byzantines were open to communicating with the Muslims (during the third crusade, Isaac Angelos had made a secret alliance with Saladin). The Byzantines, on the other hand, rather cynically viewed the Crusaders as ‘mercenaries’ of sorts they could use to reclaim back lands that had been lost to the Muslims. When the Crusaders established Latin states in the Levant (and refused to give Antioch to the Byzantines), this turned into a major dispute between the two sides.

Another aspect of friction were the privileges afforded to Western merchants (especially Venetian). Although it has been argued (with good reasoning) that such expansion of trade led to economic growth, urbanization and profited Byzantine merchants too (who did cooperate with foreign merchants), the state lost revenues from the tax that those merchants would otherwise pay, depended more on foreigners for the navy and there was a suspicion and anger on the part of population (especially on Constantinople) regarding those foreign merchants, which led to a massacre of the Latins in the city in 1182.

That is not to say that there weren’t cultural exchanges and cooperation. The Byzantine Empire employed plentiful of Western mercenaries in its armies and admired the fighting prowess of those warriors. Emperor Manuel Komnenos was a known admirer of Latins, enjoyed Western-style jousts and employed many Westerners on his court. Westerners tended to admire the sophistication and wealth of the Byzantines and during the initial phase of the First Crusade, many sincerely wanted to help their Christian brethren against the common Muslim foe. The cultural division however remained and mutual hostility only grew as time went by; Byzantines tended to criticize the ‘Latin-lover’ Manuel for his employment of Westerners in the court while in the West the Byzantines were increasingly being viewed as ‘schismatic Greeks’.

To quote Jonathan Harris’ ‘Byzantium and the Crusades’:

When news reached Rome in March 1138 of John II’s first expedition against Raymond of Poitiers in Antioch, Pope Innocent II (1130–43) was outraged. He issued an edict calling on all Latins serving in the Byzantine armies to desert on the grounds the emperor ‘separates himself from the unity of the church’, that is to say he was a schismatic. In 1147 a French bishop went even further, arguing that John’s attack on Antioch showed that the Byzantines were Christians in name only and that it would therefore be legitimate to make an attack on Constantinople itself. Much the same was said by the clergy with the army of the Fourth Crusade in April 1204.

Byzantine Lands and Economy

Byzantium during the late twelfth century comprised mostly of the Balkans and coastal Anatolia. At this point, it was the Balkans that was the wealthiest region of the Empire, displacing Anatolia which had held that role between the seventh and eleventh centuries. With the loss of the Anatolian interior, the Empire relied on Thrace, Macedonia, Bulgaria and to a lesser degree in Serbia to provide for cattle and horses. Animal raising and horse breeding was practiced on large estates and by the Vlachs. Bulgaria, Thessaly, Thrace and Macedonia provided cereals while the Mediterranean coastlands and Aegean islands provided olive oil and wine. Manufacturing and artisan production was linked with urban centers. Constantinople was the main hub of production while Corinth was the second major center while other smaller centers were located mainly in Greece.

Anatolia was divided between the interior that was poor and held by Turkic tribesmen and the richer coastal area that was under Byzantine control. The plateau held by the Turks was an important source for cattle and horses but it was poorer than the coastal areas of Anatolia and less populous while (as stated above) regions in the Balkans replaced the Anatolian interior in the provision of cattle and horses. From the remaining Byzantine lands in Anatolia, Bithynia provided cereals while the regions close to the Aegean produced wine and olive oil.

Political developments leading to the Fourth Crusade

By 1200, the Byzantine Empire was already in a state of decline and had to face political instability, violent revolts and secession of provinces. This loss of central control was only sped up by the Fourth Crusade, which led to the creation of competing Greek and Latin states.

Manuel I Komnenos’ reign (1143–1180) was both the high point of Byzantium and the beginnings of its decline. Manuel has been blamed for being too ambitious and older historians would claim that he wanted to restore Justinian’s Empire. His ambitions however were more modest and his power more impressive than it was thought by previous historians. Manuel was more concerned with security than expansion. Manuel sought to create a ring of reliable satellite kingdoms. Hungary, Jerusalem, the Sultanate and Sicily were all tried in this role to a greater or lesser extent.

Manuel also sought to reclaim the eastern coast of southern Italy from the Normans in order to put an end to their raids of the Balkan mainland (and not due to any grand ‘Justianianic’ plans). His intervention failed though, despite some initial victories, and this alarmed the Holy Roman Empire which at the time was led by Frederick Barbarossa (1155–1190), a greatly ambitious ruler who had plans of placing Italy under control. Manuel decided to support with funds, spies and even some troops Frederick’s Italian opponents (for example, he supported the Lombard League against Frederick). Relations between the two realms reached a low point. In a letter to Manuel, Frederick called him ‘Greacorum moderator’ (ruler of the Greeks) and claimed that his predecessors had passed onto him ‘the monarchy of the city of Rome’, to which the Greeks were also subjects. He then admonished Manuel for failing to show honor to the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope.

The Komnenian Empire was greatly centralized by the standards of the age and it had all the functions of a fully developed pre-industrial state: standing army and navy, elaborate bureaucracy and monetary taxation. This centralization and identification with the capital, Constantinople, proved to have detrimental effects to the Empire: the limits of the empire coincided with the territory which a mobile military emperor from Constantinople could control without allied aid.

Constantinople, a city with 300,000–400,000 inhabitants, relied on the provinces for the import of raw materials, money, food, men and manufactured goods. In the localities, the imperial center had to accommodate with local elites. The system of pronoia (granting of state lands and revenues to mounted soldiers) allowed the imperial center to build patronage in the provinces. This created an unequal relationship in which Constantinople needed the outer provinces more than they needed Constantinople. Under Manuel’s successors, provinces would become centers of opposition and would gradually secede. This process of fragmentation would be sped up by the Fourth Crusade which would see a collapse of centralized control.

The fatal characteristic of the Komnenian Empire, though, was the identification of the state with the dynasty. Relatives of the Emperor were granted titles that were graded by degree of kinship to the Emperor and according to the seniority of the kinsman within each degree. The Byzantine Empire was governed by lineage and kinship. This type of government depended on large part on the cohesion of the extensive imperial family; while Manuel was able to ensure that, his 11 year old successor Alexios II could not.

All those conditions combined with a dynastic crisis created the perfect storm. While initially real power was held by the mother of Alexios, Maria, a Latin princess who was notorious for her favoritism towards Westerners, in 1183 the emperor’s uncle Andronicus had himself crowned emperor and shortly thereafter murdered the young emperor, after having first murdered the boy’s mother, half-sister and other members of the Komnenos family that could pose a threat to him. Andronicus’ rise to power had also been accompanied by a massacre of 80,000 Latins by the enraged Byzantine mob. Andronicus’ reign was equally bloody as he terrorized the aristocracy in an attempt to enforce his rule and eliminate rivals. As aristocrats were the backbone of the Byzantine military might during this period, Andronicus’ actions weakened the foundations of the empire’s military power.

Andronicus was eventually overthrown in 1185, ending the Komnenos dynasty, and Byzantium entered a period of prolonged crisis. The new emperor was Isaac II Angelos, who was connected with the Komnenos family as his grandfather had married the youngest daughter of Alexios I. He was a rather mediocre emperor but he had his successes; his general Alexios Vranas was able to check Norman expansion in the Balkans. In 1189, though, a revolt broke out in Bulgaria led by two brothers, Peter and Asen, who exploited the anger of the Bulgaria and Vlach populations at excessive taxation. Stefan Nemanja in Serbia used this opportunity to throw off Byzantine control. Cyprus had also moved outside imperial control, being taken over in 1184 by Isaac Komnenos, an adventurer who was a brother of Manuel I. As such, we can already see a process through which Byzantine control of the provinces was weakened, with ‘exterior’ lands seceding from the empire.

Isaac II, for all his flaws and despite being somewhat of a mediocre ruler, was energetic and willing to take the field. He campaigned, rather unsuccessfully, against the Bulgarians. As he was preparing a new expedition in 1195, he was overthrown by his elder brother Alexios III, a man who had all the flaws of Isaac but none of his brother’s virtues.

The Fourth Crusade

Image Source: Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Prince Alexios and the Crusaders

Under Alexios III, the disintegration of Byzantium sped up. In Greece, the lord Leo Sgouros was able to become a virtually independent ruler and expand his powers at the expense of the central government. Other regions too saw local notables gaining independence from the central government and the preoccupation of the government with external threats ensured that there was little resistance from the imperial center.

Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, also challenged Byzantium and forced Alexios to agree to pay a tribute of 1,600 pounds of gold.

To quote Jonathan Harris’ ‘Byzantium and the Crusades’:

A special levy, the Alamanikon or German tax, was imposed on the provinces to meet the demand, and the gold and silver ornaments on the tombs of long dead emperors were plundered to provide further funds, only that of Constantine the Great in the Church of the Holy Apostles being spared by imperial decree.

Thankfully for Alexios, Henry VI died and so he wasn’t able to carry out his threats. However soon enough a new threat emerged; prince Alexios, son of the overthrown Isaac II. The young prince promised to crusaders that had been assembled in Venice that he would pay for their transportation to Egypt (their initial destination), end the East-West schism and provide military assistance if they aided him in recovering the imperial throne. The crusaders were in urgent need for money; they had initially agreed with Venice that an army of 33,000 soldiers would be transported by the Venetians to the East, however only 12,000 showed up. The Venetians had already prepared the ships (which were costly) and so were not willing to allow the crusaders to pay only for the fewer ships they needed. On the other hand, being far fewer than expected, the crusaders did not have the money needed to pay off the Venetians. Initially they were forced to sack the Catholic city of Zara, an antagonist of Venice, but this wasn’t enough; as such, Alexios’ promise of money was welcomed by the crusaders.

Ideological and Geostrategic Underpinnings of the Fourth Crusade

While, as mentioned above, the diversion of the Fourth Crusade towards Constantinople happened almost by chance, there were ideological and geostrategic underpinnings behind this attack on Byzantium. Aside from the cultural differences between East and West, there was also an ideological conflict between Byzantium and the Papacy, as both claimed universal sovereignty as each claimed to be God’s representative on Earth. Venice also had reason to want the weakening of Byzantium as they coveted the wealth of the Empire and despite trade deals that affirmed favorable to Venetians privileges, those had to be reaffirmed by the emperors and were subject to revocation. There had also been incidents of attacks on Venetian merchants, either by the central government or enraged Byzantines.

The Sack of Constantinople

In 1203, the crusaders arrived to the city. Alexios III fled and Isaac II was restored emperor, along with his son, the prince Alexios who was now known as emperor Alexios IV. Alexios attempted to fulfill his obligations but he soon realized that he did not have the resources needed to pay off the crusaders, despite his efforts at finding the money. Understandably, the people of Constantinople became rather angry at the presence of a foreign army outside the city that demanded their wealth and in January 1204, riots broke out. Alexios IV was killed and Alexios Mourtzouflos, an advocate of resistance to the crusaders, became emperor Alexios V.

The crusaders became enraged at what they saw as a ‘treachery’ and decided to take over the city. In March, they drew up a treaty (Partitio Romaniae) that partitioned the Byzantine Empire amongst the crusaders. The battle for the city then began. In April 9, Alexios’ forces were able to push back the crusaders. This demoralized the crusader army but the clergy reassured the army by stating that the ‘Greeks’ were traitors since they had murdered their monarch and that “the Greeks were worse than the Jews”. In April 12, the crusaders managed to enter the city despite considerable resistance.

Consequences of the Fourth Crusade

Image Source: The Latin Empire and the Partition of the Byzantine Empire after the fourth crusade. Wikipedia. GNU Free Documentation License

Plunder of the City

The Crusaders plundered Constantinople, the wealthiest and most cultured city of Christendom. For three days they murdered, raped and looted. Innumerable books (including many ancient Greek texts), treasures and works of art (some of them dating back to antiquity) were destroyed. Christian relics, manuscripts and sculptures that had been gathered by the emperors of Byzantium since the times of Constantine the Great were shipped off to the West. Even the tomb of Justinian was plundered. When the crusaders opened the tomb, they found that his corpse was uncorrupted after over 600 years and this initially scared them but shortly thereafter they stripped off anything of value from the sarcophagus. In another instance, looters accompanied by an abbot and two priests, who were after holy relics, upon finding an elderly Greek priest, they threatened to kill him unless he revealed the location of the relics. The looters departed with part of the True Cross, a trace of the blood of Christ and other holy items. In Hagia Sophia, the holiest church of Orthodoxy, the crusaders smashed the silver iconostasis and icons and seated upon the patriarchal throne a prostitute who sang coarse songs while they were drinking wine from the Church’s holy vessels.

Constantinople never recovered from this destruction. During the Latin occupation, the city wasn’t able to make a recovery and despite the attempts of the Byzantine emperors who recovered the city to repopulate and beautify it, Constantinople was but a former shadow of itself. Only after the final fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II did the city make a recovery, this time not as the capital of a Christian empire but rather as the capital of an Islamic one, the Ottomans.

Fragmentation of Byzantium

As already mentioned above, the process of fragmentation had begun in the 1180s, so it cannot be blamed wholly on the Fourth Crusade. Nevertheless, the fall of the imperial center greatly sped up that process. A full detail of the campaigns of the crusaders in the Byzantine world is out of the scope of this answer, but it can be sufficed to say that they were able to establish a couple of Latin states thanks to their military prowess. Those states included the Latin Empire (Constantinople, Thrace and parts of northwestern Anatolia) and its vassal states; the Kingdom of Thessalonica (Macedonia, Thessaly), the Duchy of Athens (Attica and Boeotia), the Principality of Achaea (Peloponnesus) and the Duchy of Archipelago (Cyclades). The Westerners brought with them the practice of Western feudalism, as they granted fiefs to noblemen and established classic feudal relations with them.

In the other Byzantine provinces, several local notables emerged as independent warlords (including the already mentioned Leo Sgouros) but most of them were eliminated either by the crusaders (as in the case of Sgouros) or by fellow Byzantines (in Asia Minor mainly). This meant that only three major Greek successor states emerged; the Despotate of Epirus, the Empire of Nicaea (western Anatolia) and the Empire of Trebizond (Pontus). The Empire of Trebizond is an example of how a process that had already begun during the last years of Byzantium was sped up by the Fourth Crusade. The brothers Alexios and David Komnenos, with Georgian assistance, established an independent state in Pontus in 1204, shortly before the takeover of Constantinople by the crusaders. As the imperial center was overthrown, there was no serious resistance. In western Anatolia, local magnates had established their independence from central government, a process that had also begun before the crusade. Theodore I Laskaris, though, managed to bring those territories under his control and thus the Empire of Nicaea would emerge. Nicaea would eventually recover Constantinople in 1261 and as such its emperors are counted as Byzantine emperors in exile, unlike the rulers of the other two major Greek states. The last major Greek state was the Despotate of Epirus, established by Michael I Komnenos Doukas in 1205; initially, he had been following the Latins but he was invited to Epirus by its governor, a relative of his. When he reached there though, the governor had died and so he was able to establish his rule in the region. Epirus was poor but its mountainous terrain meant that it was easily defensible.

The principle result of the Fourth Crusade thus was the speeding up of the process of fragmentation. The Aegean world, despite Slavic incursions in the seventh century, had more or less been united since the times of the Roman Republic, more than 1300 years before. As such this breakdown of the Aegean world led to a new reality in the region. Despite the recovery of Constantinople by the state of Nicaea, the restored Empire wasn’t able to unite the Byzantine world. The Emperors attempted to extend their influence both in Epirus and in southern Greece, but their successes were rather ephemeral. Unity was restored only in the 1500s as the Ottomans united the Aegean region under their rule.

The monetary consequences of the Fourth Crusade

The conquest of 1204 entailed a major disruption in the monetary situation of the Byzantine world. In the twelfth century, the Empire had a common currency, foreign coins were not accepted and Byzantine gold was of major importance for international trade. The fall of the imperial center and the fragmentation of Byzantium meant that foreign coins entered local circulation and that Western gold currencies would dominate the Mediterranean trade. Byzantine coin shifted from gold to silver. The Greek successor states would create regional currencies, whose iconography also served ideological purposes. The Latin Empire too circulated its own coinages but it imitated the old Byzantine ones and did not introduce Western elements due to fear that they would not be accepted by the local populace.

Emergence of Greek national identity

1204 has traditionally been seen in Greek historiography as the year when a Greek national identity begun to emerge. The extend and influence of such a reemergence of Hellenic identity has been debated among modern historians (both Greek and foreign) but there is no doubt that there was a revival of Greek identity. The loss of Constantinople, the city which made a ruler the ‘Roman Emperor’ and not just another king, created an ideological problem to the courts of the Greek successor states. This had to be countered by an alteration of traditional imperial ideology and a claiming to the legacy of the ancient Greeks.

To once again quote Jonathan Harris’ ‘Byzantium and the Crusades’:

The process can be most clearly traced through the speeches that were delivered on special occasions at the court of Nicaea. In stark contrast to previous practice, some orators now took to referring to the Byzantines not as ‘Romans’ but as ‘Hellenes’, a word that in the past would have had the connotation of ‘pagans’. This was probably a direct riposte to the Latin seizure of Constantinople and the claim that this victory demonstrated Western superiority. On the contrary, as heirs of the ancient Greeks, whose language they spoke, the Byzantines had inherited a sophistication and culture of which the Latins knew nothing. One had only to look, claimed Niketas Choniates, at the thoughtless way in which the Westerners smashed classical bronze statues and melted them down into coin, revealing them as ‘haters of the beautiful’. Another departure was a recognition that Byzantium was more than just its capital city. In the past, the educated elite had scarcely acknowledged the existence of anything beyond the walls of Constantinople. Now the emperor himself made a speech in praise of Nicaea, extolling the city a second Athens.

Choniates compared the Seljuk sultan with Xerxes and patriarch Germanos II the victory of John III Vatatzes with the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Emperor Theodore II Laskaris in letters to his father (emperor John Vatatzes) made reference to the ‘Hellenic breasts’ of the imperial soldiers, whom he called ‘sons of the Hellenes’. He also mentioned Alexander the Great as a former king of the Hellenes. Laskaris was proud of ‘Hellenic wisdom’ which he believed that it could defeat the Latins (‘The whole company of the margrave was routed by Hellenic philosophy’). He also used Hellenism in polemicals directed against the Latins:

‘the Hellenic genos is superior to all others on account of its position and good climate and therefore in cleverness and science.’

‘every kind of philosophy and knowledge was either an invention of the Hellenes or was improved by them . . . But you, O Italian, in whom do you boast?’

It should be made clear though that the Byzantines did not stop considering themselves as Romans and Roman identity always had precedent. The Byzantines did not consider that there was any contradiction in claiming that they were Hellenes and Romans. After the recovery of Constantinople in 1261, this experiment with Hellenism was put on hold and imperial ideology returned back to its traditional themes of Romaness.

Turkish danger

The Byzantine Empire, since its creation, had been acting as a shield of the West, protecting Europe from Persians, Arabs and Seljuk Turks at a time when the Western European states weren’t prepared to face such an onslaught. The Fourth Crusade fatally weakened Byzantium. Although the Empire was restored in 1261 and was able to make a recovery of sorts, it wasn’t able to act as a shield of the West anymore and this allowed the Ottoman Turks to rise and expand in Western Anatolia and the Balkans, eventually becoming a formidable threat to the Christian West, one that reached the gates of Vienna.


Image Source: The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (Eugène Delacroix, 1840). Wikipedia. Public Domain.

To summarize, the Empire of the Komnenoi had systemic problems that led to instability and begun a process of disintegration of the Empire. The Fourth Crusade sped up that process, leading to a fragmentation of the Byzantine world between Latin and Greek states. This ended both centralized control over the Aegean world and led to a major departure from the unified monetary traditions of Byzantium. It also led to a revival of Hellenism and its ideological use by the courts of the Greek successor states, especially Nicaea. Constantinople was eventually recovered in 1261 by Michael VIII Palaiologus but the empire wasn’t able to fully recover. This vacuum allowed the Ottoman Turks to rise and become a regional power and eventually replace Byzantium as the leading imperial state in the region.

Christos Antoniadis

Written by

Undergraduate university student. Greek. I mainly write on historical subjects but occasionally write essays from a libertarian conservative viewpoint.

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