"... a sack is a serious job" - the Fall of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade

12 April 1204, the city of Constantinople was captured and put to the sack by Frankish and Venetian crusaders.

“A sack," Baudolino explained, like a man who knows a trade well, "is like a grape harvest: you have to divide the tasks. There are those who press the grapes, those who carry off the must in the tuns, those who cook for others, others who go to fetch the good wine from last year.... a sack is a serious job" (Umberto Eco, “Baudolino”)

Eugene Delacroix’s “Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople“ (1840)

The relationship between the Byzantine Empire and La Serenissima, Venice, back then the two major naval powers in the Mediterranean, was a mess in the late 12th century. Why the two former allies fell out is difficult to say, trade rivalries, jealousy and the mutual contempt of the long timer and the parvenu, claims to power on the Balkans and Greece, it all reached a boiling point when xenophobic riots in Constantinople against the Latin minority climaxed in the confiscation of Westerners' property, the burning down of their city quarter and imprisonment of Venetians as well as Genoese and Pisans and the subsequent declaration of war by the Serenissima. An uneasy peace followed in 1177, but the afterpains of the Latin pogroms were still noticeable a generation later, when the ill-fated Fourth Crusade arrived in Venice and the pilgrims suddenly realised that they were not able to pay the Venetians to ship them to Palestine who, in return, were threatened with bankruptcy if their investments in the endeavour did not at least even up. An agreement had to be reached.

Gustave Doré: "The Crusaders negotiating with Enrico Dandolo" (1875)

At first, against the expressed papal interdict that threatened the city of Venice with excommunication, the crusade was rerouted to the then Hungarian city of Zara in Catholic Dalmatia and the place was captured in the fall of 1202 by the pilgrims who were actually supposed to be fighting in Egypt or capture Jerusalem or spill the blood of heathens ad maiorem dei gloriam. Pope Innocent III nearly had fits when the Crusade set forth from there towards Constantinople, allegedly to reinstall the overthrown emperor Isaac II. For a fabulous reward, goes without saying. The pilgrims reached the Golden Horn in June 1203, the new emperor Alexios III fled after a few skirmishes and Isaac professed himself unable to pay his fabulous debts to his accomplices. 10,000 Frankish crusaders and the same number of Venetian soldiers on site threatened to collect outstanding amounts and the people of Constantinople rioted against the foreign army at their gates, the Latins in their city and their emperor while the Westerners had a major logistics problem if the Byzantines would not supply them very soon with provisions. By the end of the year, Isaac was toppled again and murdered. His successor Alexios V simply said: “Clear out, Latins” and the situation escalated completely.

Palma Le Jeune (1544–1620): "The Siege of Constantinople"

A first assault of the Westerners on Constantinople was repulsed on April 9th, but the second one along the sea walls by land and from the water succeeded and the city was put to the sword. For three days the crusaders raped, murdered and plundered. Almost 1000 years of accumulated riches in art as well as goods in the then largest city of the world were either looted by the Venetians or destroyed by the Franks, churches and libraries burned down and many treasures of antiquity, brought to his new capital by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century were lost – along with thousands of lives of men, women and children. The Latins put one of their own on the throne and established a Latin empire in Greece and western Asia Minor that lasted for about 50 years until the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople in 1261 and threw the Westerners out. The uneasiness between Latin and Orthodox Christianity remained, though, and the sack of the city was never quite forgotten. It was the deathblow for the Eastern Roman Empire, that finally ceased to exist when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453.

And more on: