13 April 1204: Crusaders devastate Constantinople

Christian armies smash, steal and slaughter


Have the wounds from the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople ever healed? It might sound a strange question, but ever since the crusaders burst into the Byzantine capital, relations between the Latin and Orthodox worlds have never been the same.

It was, from start to finish, a ghastly story. Called by Pope Innocent III, the Fourth Crusade was supposed to capture Jerusalem. Before the crusaders had even left Europe, however, they were unable to pay for the extravagant Venetian fleet they had ordered. The Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, promised to suspend their debts and offer them funds – if they would help take the city of Zara (Zadar). This diversion eventually led the crusaders to Constantinople, one of Venice’s chief commercial rivals.

Here, after a series of immensely complicated machinations, the crusaders agreed to install the future Alexios IV on the throne, in return for thousands of soldiers and 200,000 silver marks. Alexios duly took power but was eventually toppled by a rival, Alexios V. The crusaders demanded their money anyway. The second Alexios said no – and so they decided to seize the city, with all its treasures, for themselves.

For three days, having scaled the walls and fought their way into the centre, the crusaders ran riot. The altars were shattered, the nuns violated, the townsfolk slaughtered without mercy. Many priceless artworks were destroyed; others were taken, like the bronze horses which stand in Venice today.

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“No one was without a share in the grief,” wrote the Byzantine official Nicetas Choniates, recalling the sound of “weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity... All places everywhere were filled full of all kinds of crime.”

The city – and indeed the empire – never recovered. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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