The Capture of Constantinople

Widely divergent views exist with regard to the causes and consequences of the crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople in 1204. It has been called “the greatest crime against humanity” and a “holocaust.” It has been seen as the result of centuries of assumed antagonism between the Latin and Byzantine worlds and as the outcome of a Western—papal, German, or Venetian—conspiracy against Byzantium. Others, however, refuting the notion of widespread Latin–Byzantine ill-feeling before 1204, have pointed out the many factors of an accidental nature that had the ultimate effect of bringing the Fourth Crusade to the gates of the Byzantine capital. The fundamental instability at the top in Byzantium—the absence of binding rules regulating the succession—should in any case be stressed as a key factor.

It was indeed the Byzantine pretender to the throne Alexios IV Angelos—son of Isaac II, who had been deposed and blinded by his brother Alexios III—who in 1202 personally invited the crusader leaders to detour from their expedition’s original goal of Alexandria to Constantinople in exchange for financial and other compensations. These princes—the counts Baldwin IX/VI of Flanders/Hainault, Louis of Blois, and Hugh IV of Saint-Pol—who at the time found themselves in dire straits because of an ill-advised transportation contract with Venice, gladly accepted the offer and succeeded in placing their protégé on the throne. However, after Alexios IV was murdered a few months later and replaced by Alexios V Mourtzouphlos, the crusader leaders saw no other option than capturing the city for themselves. Another important consideration, at least for the Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo, who had become one of the expedition’s main leaders, must have been the safeguarding of the substantial Venetian trading interests in Byzantium.

After the westerners had captured Constantinople on April 12, three days of pillaging followed, the customary treatment for a city refusing to surrender. Contemporary Byzantine authors such as Niketas Choniates lamented and condemned the outrageous and scandalous behavior of the invaders and the destruction of works of art; in contrast, the later chronicler Georgios Akropolites soberly observed that the capital simply underwent the fate of a conquered city. Before the actual conquest, the city had already suffered major damage from three successive fires during the military operations. The older view that one-third or one-half of the city burned down now seems inflated. A recent study estimated that only one-sixth of the city’s territory suffered from these fires to a lesser or greater extent, including some of the densely populated areas along the Golden Horn. (Recent study’ye referans verilmeli)

These events caused an exodus that appears to have been largely confined to part of the upper echelons of society (the imperial aristocracy, the civil bureaucracy, and the clerical elite) and should not be exaggerated. Some fled permanently to the Byzantine states in exile being set up at Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epiros; others went to Bulgaria or Konya. Still others returned to Constantinople after the chaos had died down. For example, the aforementioned Choniates, a former logothetes ton sekreton (an official supervising all fiscal departments during the Komnenian period), returned for six months; later, not having found a job in the new Latin imperial administration, he left for Nicaea.

1- The Pantokrator Monastery / Zeyrek Mosque which was used as the Venetian administrative center during Latin invasion (Gurlitt)

Latin Emperors, Byzantine Courtiers, and Venetian Podestà

As capital of a feudalized and territorially considerably smaller empire, Constantinople played a less prominent political role than before, losing some of its centrality within the Byzantine space. Up to around 1224, the so-called Latin empire still stretched from Thessalonike to northwestern Asia Minor, and from the Peloponnese to the Rhodope Mountains. But after this date—due to the successes of Nicaea and Epiros, but also of Bulgaria and the Mongols—it remained largely limited to the immediate hinterland of the capital and a number of autonomous principalities in southern Greece.

According to the terms of a pact concluded in March 1204, the capital was split in two. Five-eighths (the section to the west and south of the Mese) came under the authority of the Latin emperor, and the remaining three-eights (the section along the Golden Horn) under Venetian authority. In the imperial part, there appears to have been a substantial measure of governmental continuity at first. The contemporary and well-informed Cistercian Gunther of Pairis stated that all laudable laws and institutions in the city were preserved. With the Byzantinized Italian Dominikos Manios the eparchos ( the head of the metropolitan administration), appears to carry on his duty under Latin rule. Several specialized courts of law also seem to have continued to function initially, but, no doubt in the context of the contraction of the empire after 1225, these had been abolished by 1261. Local civil law was upheld, as a 1232 appeal of the Byzantine Theodora to pope Gregorius IX shows.

Of course, there was innovation: in criminal law, Western procedures (duel, trial by ordeal) were introduced. These were criticized by part of the local population, but also found their way to neighboring Nicaea. Nevertheless, an important argument supporting the idea of governmental continuity is the fact that Michael VIII Paleologos did not implement major reforms after the Nicaean conquest of Constantinople. The Latin emperors also opted for at least partial continuity in other spheres of government (e.g., court nomenclature). This also suggests that the political personnel were not exclusively Latin. Members of prominent aristocratic families (e.g., the Angelos, Branas, Laskaris, Philokales, Pyrros, and Tornikes) continued to be part of the Constantinopolitan court elite. Among the important Latin families were the Béthunes, le Brébans, Cayeuxes, Merrys, and Toucys.

The emperors engaged in the beautification of their capital, showing themselves to be conscious of its symbolic and ideological dimensions, although after 1225 the available means for doing so became scarce. Emperor Henry of Flanders/Hainault built at least one church—Saint Thorlac’s for the Varangians of the Scandinavian community—and renovated two others: the former Byzantine xenon (hospital) of Saint Samson—now turned into the headquarters of a new local military order—and the Cistercian monastery of Sancta Maria Sancti Angeli, which could also count on the support of Robert of Courtenay. Even his brother Baldwin II, though almost continuously hard-pressed for money, took care to leave his imperial imprint on the city by building a small Byzantine-style church dedicated to Saint George near the Charisios Gate, described as beautiful by a late fourteenth century Byzantine author. The emperors also invested in fortifications. By 1259 Galata had been fortified, and Baldwin II is known to have personally inspected the land walls’ condition. The imperial palaces—the Great Palace (Boukoleon) and the palace of Blachernai—remained in use until 1261, though they suffered from neglect during the later years. In the latter part of his reign, Baldwin II saw himself obliged to sell the lead from the roofs of a number of buildings.

The Venetian sector of the city was under the authority of the podestà—the representative of the doge—and his aides (counselors, judges, prosecutors, a chancellor, and notaries). The governmental and judicial structures of the mother city were largely transplanted to Constantinople. No Byzantines appear to have been included among the higher functionaries. At the lower echelons, Byzantines were inevitably involved in the fiscal administration and other elements of city government. The Pantokrator monastery served as the Venetian headquarters. Although the Venetian quarter was an autonomous entity, it is clear that there was cooperation and coordination between the imperial and Venetian authorities, for example with regard to certain military, judicial, and fiscal matters (e.g., mixed court cases and taxes deriving from the foreign colonies in the city). Also, high-ranking imperial dignitaries owning palaces in the Venetian sector, like the protovestiarios (senior-most financial official) Cono I of Béthune, must have been exempted from Venetian jurisdiction.

Accommodation, Acculturation, and Tension

The western presence in Constantinople probably never amounted to more than a few thousand people: some 3,000 Latins fled the city on the morning of the Nicaean capture of the city (25 July 1261). The relations between this Latin minority and the few hundred thousand Byzantines may be described in terms of accommodation and even acculturation. Collaboration at the political level was cemented socially through marriage. The kaisar Theodore Branas, for example, married his daughter to the regent Narjot of Toucy. Another regent, Anseau I of Cayeux, married Eudokia Laskaris, daughter of the late Theodore I of Nicaea. Megas doux (commander-in-chief) Philokales seems to have had some kinship connection with the Venetian Navigaioso family. Lady Isabelle of Clermont (circa 1228–1233) was married to a member of the imperial Angelos family. Emperor Robert himself also appears to have married a Byzantine woman. A few steps down the social ladder, Latin–Byzantine marriages also occurred. A number of Venetian merchants took Greek wives. Their offspring were called gasmouloi, some of whom after 1261 were valued by Michael VIII as mercenaries. Although it remains unclear on what scale intermarriage took place, this practice—with someone like the regent Philip of Toucy being of mixed descent—must have contributed considerably to the establishing of closer and more effective relations between these two components of the city’s population.

Of course religious differences could be a source of tension and conflict between the two groups. In 1204–1205 the crusade leaders and Pope Innocent III had immediately replaced the Byzantine patriarch with a Latin—the Venetians, in line with the stipulations of the March pact, playing a dominant role in patriarchal politics—and western clerics had taken over several dozen important churches and monasteries. In this context—and because Pope Innocent rejected the idea of a Byzantine patriarch alongside the Latin one—a number of Byzantine clerics chose to leave the capital for, among other places, Nicaea, where a Byzantine patriarchate in exile was established in 1208. Many other ecclesiastical institutions remained in Byzantine hands, while others, such as Saint Sophia, had a mixed Latin–Byzantine clergy. Some religious institutions thrived—for example, the Cistercian Saint Mary of Le Perchay monastery, which included many Latin barons among its benefactors and was able to lend substantial sums of money to the emperor in the 1230s, and the Byzantine Theotokos Evergetis monastery, which managed to maintain contact within the broader Byzantine space (Nicaea and Serbia). Others sooner or later found themselves in difficulties—for instance, the Latin Holy Apostles church, which had, prior to 1220, complained of a lack of revenues, or the Byzantine Saint John Prodromos monastery at Petra, which received much-needed money from Nicaean emperor John III Vatatzes after one of the earthquakes that hit the city in 1231 and 1237.

2- Hagia Sophia which was looted during Latin invasion (Fossati)

Several attempts were made to bridge the religious divide and reunite the Roman and Byzantine churches. Negotiations between papal representatives and Constantinopolitan, later Nicaean, churchmen were conducted repeatedly throughout the period. From the Roman point of view, Byzantine acceptance of papal primacy was the most crucial condition; this was never met. The correspondence of the Nicaean patriarchs Theodore II Eirenikos and Germanos II shows nevertheless that, while part of the metropolitan clergy and populace remained loyal to the patriarchs in exile, another part had accepted papal rule and opted to cooperate with the Latin ecclesiastical hierarchy—for example, Theodora, mentioned earlier, who appealed circa 1232 to Pope Gregory IX to obtain a divorce, or the priest Demetrios in the entourage of Baldwin II. Furthermore, a number of Greeks entered the Franciscan order, indicating there was room not only for pragmatic accommodation but also for acculturation.

3- The coins minted during the Latin invasion of Istanbul (Istanbul Archeology Museum, Coins Section)

Of course, the Latin–Byzantine differences could cause serious problems for the Byzantines who remained loyal to the patriarchs in exile, including the family of later Nicaean politician and chronicler George Akropolites. Until the early 1230s, papal legates and Latin patriarchs occasionally persecuted Byzantine clerics who refused to submit to papal authority, closing down their churches and putting them in prison. Such large-scale actions, however, appear to have been rather uncommon and did not always have the support of the secular authorities: Emperor Henry reopened the churches in 1213 against the wishes of the legate Pelagius. Individual Latin clerics could also exert pressure on Byzantine colleagues: around 1234-1240 Dominican friars forced Lukas, hieromonachos of the Hagios Mamas monastery, to accept the Latin view on the azymes controversy. Conversely, around 1237, Greeks seemingly posed a threat to Templar properties in the city. But relations at the religious level could also be more relaxed: Nicolas Mesarites, archbishop of Ephesos, received an enthusiastic welcome from Latins and Byzantines alike when he entered the city in 1214 according to the church union negotiations, and from sources documenting the translation of relics to the West—which in itself must have created enmity ——one may glimpse Latin appreciation for Byzantine piety.

With regard to other religious denominations, nothing much is known. In the 1250s there was still an Armenian community present. In 1205, Emperor Henry had transferred a number of allied Armenians from the Troad region in northwestern Asia Minor to Constantinople, to compensate for the demographic losses sustained the year before. The Franciscan traveler and missionary William of Rubrouck, visiting the capital and imperial court in 1253, encountered an Armenian prophecy concerning the future of the Near East that predictedsaged good relations between Latins and Armenians. The Jewish community is also acknowledged, composed of both Rabannites and Karaites; they may have relocated from their quarter in Galata, which burned down in 1203, to Constantinople proper. There was also a Muslim presence in the city, the diplomatic and commercial contacts between Constantinople and the Seljukid sultanate of Konya providing an explanatory context. In the early 1230s, the Dominican Petrus of Sézanne is said to have converted a Muslim dervish to Christianity.

Cultural and Economic Dynamics

The cultural dimension of Latin Constantinople has mostly been dismissed as irrelevant or nonexistent, but there is no reason to paint such a bleak picture. Among other things, the imperial court continued to provide a number of occasions for celebrations that enlivened the city, such as mixed Latin- and Byzantine-style coronation ceremonies, marriages, religious processions, and triumphal entries after military victories. The city also remained an attraction within the broader Byzantine space, at least during the first decades of Western rule: the future archbishop of Novgorod, Antony, probably visited the city around 1210, the Hungarian king Andrew II in 1217, the Russian bishop of Polotsk in 1218, the Hungarian crown prince Bela (IV) in 1221, and the Serbian archbishop Saint-Sava in 1235. Western visitors—crusaders, pilgrims, envoys, and others—also came to the city, of course, and in no doubt greater numbers than before. Around 1223 the English chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall could still describe the capital as very rich on the basis of such traveler’s accounts.

Intellectual life in the city did not come to a halt after 1204, although it became partly Latinized and was no doubt scaled down. Imperial marshal Geoffrey of Villehardouin and imperial cleric Henry of Valenciennes both wrote chronicles documenting the empire’s early years. From passages in 14th century Byzantine chronicles it might be inferred that there may also have been Greek historiographical or panegyrical texts that have not survived. A version of Niketas Choniates’ Historia circulated within the city. Authors of lyrical and theatrical works, such as the regent Cono of Béthune and the aforementioned Valenciennes, were present in the city. Emperor Henry inspired a cycle of Greek folk songs. Latin Constantinople also was part of the inspiration for the Norman romance Gui de Warewic. Also the donation, sale, or theft of relics, a number of hagiographic texts were composed, with Latin authors obtaining authentic information from Greek clerics.

Polemical works were written to address Latin–Byzantine theological differences, for example a Greek tract on the azymes debate (circa 1214) and the tract Contra Graecos, written by a Dominican friar (1250s). Astrology was rather popular (for example, the horoscope of Baldwin II), while there was also an interest in medical science, as Latin annotations to a copy of Dioskorides’ De Materia Medica show. Latin clerics searched the Greek libraries for ancient philosophical and patristic texts. Other sciences (logic, mathematics, and physics) received less attention; around 1244, Nicaean academic Nikephore Blemmydes lamented their decline in Constantinople and other Byzantine cities. Byzantines like the young George Akropolites could still obtain a good basic education, but as regards higher education for the later years, there is no trace of the survival of any centralized system or imperial patronage. Still, Baldwin II had in his entourage a certain John Phylax, whose intellectual capacities were greatly valued by the later chronicler George Pachymeres.

The arts did not greatly flourish, but there certainly was artistic activity. As mentioned before, successive emperors built and renovated several churches. The Venetians added stained-glass windows to the Pantokrator. Saint Sophia was strengthened with flying buttresses after successive earthquakes. Goldsmith Gerard, a master of the Mosan school, created a splendid golden reliquary for Emperor Henry. A chapel in the local Franciscan church was decorated with a cycle of frescoes illustrating the life of the patron saint. In the 1250s, a number of richly illuminated manuscripts were produced for the local Latin elite. One John Alexis donated an evangeliary (book of the gospels) to the Theotokos tes Varaggiotisses church around 1250. Archbishop Saint Sava of Serbia in 1220 recruited Constantinopolitan painters to decorate the Zica monastery, and in 1235 again conducted business with unspecified Byzantine artists in the city.

Until recently it was assumed that after 1204 Constantinople and its emperors, elites, and merchants were poor rather than rich and that luxury manufacture thus practically ceased to exist. This view has, however, been adjusted: even Baldwin II still had the means to invest in artistic patronage and luxurious ventures—such as the building of a church, a peerless imperial vessel. In particular, the 1240s and 1250s were a period of economic growth with many Venetian merchants becoming wealthy. These merchants specialized in long-distance trade, including with Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. By 1220, expanding trade required the podestà Tiepolo to build a new fondaco (inn). To compensate for the loss of economic centrality in the now politically fragmented Byzantine space, and because of a shrinking local market due to the decline of the Latin empire in later years, the Venetians also tapped new markets such as the allied sultanate of Konya and, more importantly, the Black Sea region, where they traded in slaves, furs, and grain. Byzantine merchants, entrepreneurs, and artisans must have played a leading role in provisioning the city with food, raw materials and manufactured goods, whether produced in Constantinople itself or in its hinterland. The manufacture of luxury goods also continued, though in later years no doubt on a reduced scale. For instance, the silk trade and book illumination are carried on. In the Venetian quarter, Greeks lived side by side with Italians; some Greeks leased plots of land from the patriarchate of Grado. The lively economy of the city continued to attract Venetian, Pisan, Amalfitan, Anconitan, Lombard, Tuscan, and Greek immigrants until shortly before 1261.


4- The Latin Commander Henricus Dandalo’s grave who died in Constantinople during Latin invasion (Hagia Sophia)

The history of Constantinople in the years 1204–1261 was characterized by political and cultural contraction and loss of economic centrality, in particular from the 1220s onward, after the Latin empire had lost its position of aspiring hegemon within the Byzantine space. Nevertheless, the city retained its pioneering status as the imperial city par excellence and in this way always remained a player to be reckoned with. Its economy was reinvigorated restored soon after the conquest of 1204 and partly reoriented. The city furthermore functioned as a laboratory in which, amid conflict and tension, Latins and Byzantines could cooperate and interact closely in various ways, such as in government, economics, and religion, resulting in a partial blurring of identities and allegiances. This experiment came to a halt when, almost accidently—and after full-scale sieges in 1235/1236 and 1259/1260 had failed—the Nicaean general Alexios Strategopoulos managed, with a small force, to seize the Queen of Cities in a night-time guerilla attack while the Latin garrison and Venetian fleet were out on a raid against the island Daphnousia. In the process, he set fire to the city in four different places. This last fact is little noticed by modern authors discussing Michael VIII’s Constantinopolitan (re)building policy.


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This article was originally written in English for History of Istanbul and its Turkish translation was published in 2015.