Monday, April 23, 2007

Plan for Alexandria, Wind up in Constantinople?

Deus Vult! Jonathan Phillips’ The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004) (I’ve previously reviewed Madden’s Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice and a book Phillips edited about the First Crusade.)

Here is a (very) brief chronology of the Fourth Crusade, with parts for the major players:

June 1198
Pope Innocent III: Go to the Holy Land, avenge the injury to Christ!

Crusaders: Mea culpa, we have sinned! We will repent by recapturing the Holy Land! We will pay our own way there!

April 1201
Crusade leaders: We need a way to get 33,500 men there.
Venetians: We will suspend all other operations for a year to help you get there; we’ll only charge per man and horse for all the men.
Crusade leaders: Yeah! (sotto voce) Don’t tell anyone we are really going to first sack Alexandria and use Egypt as a launching point for recapturing the Holy Land.
Venetians: Yeah! (sotto voce) The riches of Alexandria will also help pay our expenses and give us access to that market!
Pope Innocent III: Get moving!

Summer 1202
Venetians: Where is everyone?
Crusade leaders: Oh no! We are idiots! Some of the crusaders found passage to the Holy Land another way! We only have 12,000 men with us!
Crusade leaders: (sotto voce) Don’t forget, we are going to Alexandria.

utumn 1202 – the Sack of Zara
Venetians: Why not help us recover our debts now – let’s sack the Christian city of Zara!
Crusaders: Yeah! They have been fighting you guys for years anyway!
Innocent III: You’re all excommunicated!

December 1202
Young Prince Alexius: Help me depose the usurper Alexius III and recover the Byzantine throne for myself and my father! I will pay LOTS! And give you even more men and ships to conquer Alexandria.
Venetians: We can get our money back?!
Crusaders: Yeah, let’s go to Constantinople!
Pope Innocent III: You’re all excommunicated!

June 1203
Crusaders: Yeah, we’re outside of Constantinople!
Venetians: Parade Alexius around so that the people will welcome him and we can get our money and get out of here!
Young Prince Alexius: OOPS! (sotto voce) I might have left a few things out…I don’t know…the situation is more delicate than that….
Byzantines: Who is this fool Alexius? We will not negotiate!

July 1203 – SIEGE! FIGHT!
The Byzantines roll over, Alexius and his increasingly insane father Isaac II share power, Alexius III flees.

August 1203
Venetians: Where is our money?
Now Emperor Alexius: Ah, oh, hmm, um…
Isaac II: We owe you nothing!


Fall 1203
Crusaders: Let’s leave!
Emperor Alexius (Alexius IV): If you leave, I can’t keep the throne and I won’t be able to repay you! But here, let me burn down some religious art and relics to pay you!
Venetians: Money, money, money!
Pope Innocent III: You’re all excommunicated!
The Byzantine throne changes hands a few more times, all the emperors (6 in about a year) refuse to negotiate with the Crusaders and get them away from the city.

Winter 1204
Byzantines: We’re going to kill you!
Crusaders: Huh?!

Lent 1204
Byzantines: Prepare for war!
Crusaders: Umm, okay!

April 1204 – SIEGE, take two
Crusaders: GRRR!
Byzantines: AAAH!!! Run for your lives!

13 April 1204
Byzantines: We surrender!
Crusaders: We’re going to take EVERYTHING!
Byzantines: AAAH!!! Run for your lives!

Venetians: We have our money!
Crusaders: We have money too!
Both in unison: Divide the spoils of the city!

Innocent III: You’re all excommunicated! How many times do I have to declare it? 'How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood,­ they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex.' Oh, wait (November 7, 1204), the capture of Constantinople is a ‘magnificent miracle…done by the Lord and is wondrous in His eyes.’

In Phillips' analysis, the fundamental error of the Fourth Crusade, the one that placed the whole expedition on the railings towards a train wreck, was the failure to ensure that all Crusaders would take the Venetian vessels to the Holy Land, as had been contracted by the Crusade leaders. For thirteen months Venice suspended all other commercial activity to prepare a fleet for the Crusade: enough room for 4,500 knights, 9,000 squires, and 20,000 foot soldiers. Also included was room for 4500 horses and the 30,000 Venetians (half the population of the city) who would be required to sail this fleet of 200 to 250 ships. When less than half the proposed number of Crusaders showed up in Venice, the leaders were left holding a contract that owed a tremendous amount of money to the Venetians to avoid the economic collapse of that state. Almost everything that played out over the next two years were maneuvers to allow the Crusade leaders to recover the money that was owed to the Venetians.

Once we reach Constantinople, there are a few very important lessons: 1) Do not antagonize a standing army outside one’s city, particularly an army composed of battle-experienced soldiers who have been away from home and family and living on rations for over three years. Do not rattle this cage. 2) Byzantine politics have never looked so byzantine. When an army is outside the gates and all they really want is money and then to get out of there, never-ending political upheaval, refusing them money, and attacking them is NOT a good idea, especially if on the way to your city they already sacked one of their own. 3) Was there not a single skilled military leader for the Byzantines in all of Constantinople?! Talk about a military in disarray…

Phillips' book follows the work of Queller and Madden to re-examine the Fourth Crusade, and revise the rather hostile to the West interpretations of Runciman and JJ Norwich. About 30 years ago, Queller published works that focused attention on the devout piety of Western crusaders, and as is clear from contemporary accounts (Robert of Clari, Geoffrey of Villehardouin), Westerners really were profoundly moved by requests to reconquer the Holy Land for the sake of Christ. They were also battle-experienced: military skills were a regular part of life. Both Queller and Madden have carefully searched for support for the commonly held view that the Venetians wanted to divert the Crusade to Constantinople in order to eliminate a shipping rival, and have found the evidence sorely lacking. Madden's works on Venetian history carefully demonstrate the degree to which stability was prized by the Venetians, and how they would have had no interest in diverting resources to maintain control or govern additional lands, as their own actions after the establishment of the Latin Empire indicate. It was mere chance that the future Emperor Alexius IV, also a brother-in-law to one of the Crusade leaders, would show up asking for assistance in recapturing the Byzantine throne of his deposed father, Isaac II.

But these facts do not address the most striking element of the sack of Constantinople: not the fact that it happened, but the sheer violence of it. The Crusaders, in fact, had made a vow not to engage in killing of women or children, or pillage of sacred sites, and they were also supposed to turn in all of their spoils to be divided according to previously agreed upon percentages. Neither Phillips, Queller, or Madden have proferred explanations of why the sack of the city played out the way it did. We are only left to surmise that perhaps the average knight in Crusade, having committed himself to the conquest of the Holy Land, and then forced to languish on a sandy island outside of Venice for nearly 9 months, suffered through disease outbreaks and plague conditions on the Adriatic coast, diverted to conquer another Christian city and been excommunicated for it, only to end up outside of Constantinople for nearly a year and at times be terrorized by a hostile populace was perhaps not, in modern day terms, in the healthiest frame of mind.

Now to the book: Phillips writes in an engaging style that is meant to entertain the casual reader. He intersperses his thoughts with letters and documents from the time period and successfully creates an “if you were there” feel. This book is not as detailed or exhaustive as Queller & Madden’s definitive The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople (2nd ed 1997), which revised the entire view of the Fourth Crusade by analyzing the goals of the Venetians and finding the evidence to support a planned attack on Alexandria, not Constantinople, on the way to the Holy Land. But it is a fun read.

1 comment:

Aurelian said...


A both excellent and charming review of a splendid and highly readable book. Its charming in its touch of humor and fun way of presenting the chronology of events, in a way one can almost see making an impression in a classroom.

Yet at the same time, like in the quote of Pope Innocent III's initial `excommunication' address after the sack of Constantinople, the outline also captures the real gravity and perception of events. Events that still have great bearing today, not least because they are routinely cast - like the Crusades themselves -- in the most malicious light with anachronistic judgments imposed on interpretation.

Like Queller & Madden, Jonathan Phillips accomplishes the very significant result of making clear that in many sense of the word, the staggering attack on and division of the Christian Byzantine Empire by a Crusader Army intended to liberate the Holy Land --- was no dire machevellian plot, but yes, something of an accident of history.

Each step of the way, more venal motives certainly intervened, but the book makes clear the overall sincerity and genuine piety driving much of the initial organization of the Fourth Crusade. What is somewhat ironic, even sad, is you learn that in some ways it was one of the more enthusiastically embarked on ventures and not the cynical enterprise off-cuff debate among religious blogs Catholic and Orthodox both, as well as media commentators tend to make it.

Phillips writes in an engrossing, indeed entertaining style. A style that also is very informative every step of the way, with such details of how difficult it was for the Venetians to construct their fleet, and how much of their time and literally economy that sank into it. That they needed to be `paid' was no trivial matter of greed. The uses of the sources is careful, and clever. Phillips gives anecdotes of the journey, the personalities, and feats of bravery and cowardice during the battle that always interest.

One of the book's strengths is its detailing of how a Crusade came to be mobilized, organized, recruits sought and found, and plans made to get to the Mideast to liberate Christian territory. In this sense, it goes outside 1204, and is a highly recommended read for understanding the climate and circumstances of the era of the Crusades itself.

If you are looking for exacting scholastic narration and exhaustive analysis of every political nuance and logistics of the age, this book makes not pretense of claim to such. However, if you want a very good and reasonably in-depth account of both the forming of a great crusade and how a tragic chain of events led to Christian Constantinople being attacked by a `holy war' army, then this is an excellent start.

AG's review witty review does proper and amusing justice to the pleasure the book itself is to read. Well related!

- Aurelian