In 1199, a troop of rough-and-tumble French noblemen decided to heed new Pope Innocent III’s call for a Crusade. Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice, in his 80s and almost blind, agreed to supply the Frenchmen with ships, food, and matérial, in exchange for a payment up front and a percentage of the spoils of war. Venice ceased all other production, and spent a year preparing for the Crusade. There were enough outfitted ships for 33,000 men, but only 10,000 showed up— not enough to cover the charter fee and not enough to man the ships.
The failure of the Crusade would mean economic ruin for Venice. So the Doge decided to double down. He’d provide men and suspend the fee, he said, on two conditions: first, Venice would need a bigger take of the loot, and second, the expedition had to first stop at Zara, a rival city on the Dalmatian coast, and sack it. The Frenchmen reluctantly agreed, and Zara was taken. Initially, Innocent III was furious that Christians had attacked Christians, excommunicating all involved, but after the situation was explained to him, he absolved the Crusaders.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, then the seat of Greek Orthodox Christianity, a palace coup installed Alexius III on the Byzantine throne, ousting Emperor Isaac II. Isaac’s son also called Alexius, vowed revenge. He met with the Crusaders in the conquered city of Zara, and promised to underwrite the entire expedition and then some, if they would help install him as Emperor. The Crusaders agreed, and after a relatively short battle in Constantinople, succeeded. They waited out the winter on the outskirts of the great city, awaiting the promised money and supplies, so they could continue to the Holy Land in the spring.
But newly-minted emperor Alexius IV found the treasury bankrupt. There was no money to pay the Crusaders. Fearing for his life, he fled, turning over the keys to the kingdom to an advisor, who became Alexius V. Alexius V locked the Crusaders out of the Constantinople, shutting the city gates, and launched a pre-emptive fireship attack against the Venetian fleet.
Realized they’d been duped, the Crusaders attacked Constantinople on April 2, 1202. Three days later, they had laid waste to the greatest Christian city in the Near East, slaughtering its citizens, raping its women, burning its buildings (including the great library), destroying its precious artwork, and stealing whatever they could get their hands on. As one historian put it: “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”
That this unspeakable horror was committed in the name of Jesus Christ did not escape the notice of the Pope, who was livid when he heard the news. “Whoever suggested such a thing to you,” he wrote, “and how did they lead your mind astray?”
Coins like these are what financed the Fourth Crusade—and what the Crusaders plundered from the great city now known as Istanbul. The irony of the sack of Constantinople is how indebted the Venetian culture was to the Byzantine. Note the remarkable similarity between the 12th-century Byzantine aspron trachy and the 13th-century Venetian grosso.
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