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THE CRUSADERS SIGHT THE CITY
It was the morning of June 22nd, 1203. The sea was calm, the wind southerly, and the coastline of Asia shimmered under the June sun. A great fleet under way is one of the most moving sights in the world, and the fleet which was now gliding northwards under oar and sail through the mile-wide confines of the Dardanelles was larger than any that even these embattled waters had ever known. It consisted of over 450 warships, merchantmen and transports—not counting the innumerable small vessels that followed in its wake. "To the east the Straits seemed to blossom with the decorated warships, galleys and merchantmen. It was something so beautiful as to remember all one's life ..." So wrote the Comte de Villehardouin when, as an old man, he recorded the greatest experience of his youth—the advance of the fleet that bore the Fourth Crusade towards the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
The piping of a galley overseer's whistle, as he issued his orders to the rowers, etched itself on the still air as sharply as a burin on fine silver. Every now and then, the dull boom of a gong revealed where one of the galleys was raising or lowering the stroke in order to maintain formation. Sails "seen like blown white flowers at sea" were broadcast over the blue acres of the Marmora and, like flowers, they opened and closed as the prevailing speed of the convoy dictated.
Fifty galleys formed the backbone of this armada. The officers' quarters in their sterns were decorated with elaborate scroll-work and gilded carvings, while their bows swaggered with carved and painted figures above the lean underwater rams that had changed little since the fleets of classical Greece. Above the dark line of oar-ports (where the rowers toiled in their sweat and stench) the rubbing-strakes of the galleys were bright with gold. The bulwarks of plain wood that rose three or four feet above the level of the upper decks were in startling contrast to the rest of the vessels' decoration. Spaced at irregular intervals along them hung the shields of the knights embarked aboard, the blazons and quarterings of the great families of northern Europe.
Behind the lean greyhound galleys—the finest warships of their period—came hundreds of transports and merchant ships, their square sails filling and emptying as they wallowed forward with the southerly swell under their blunt sterns. Most awkward of all were the huissiers or palanders. Bluff-bowed and rounded aft, in the fashion of Adriatic vessels, these were transport landing-craft specially designed to carry men and horses. Although they were now closed for sea-going, one could make out the square disembarkation ports cut in their sides (marked by their fringes of oakum and tar) whence the war-horses would be led down ramps on to the invaded shore.
Larger than the palanders but hardly less gainly were the broad-beamed merchantmen which formed the bulk of the fleet. Laden with stores, victuals and war-armament—siege-engines, mangonels, ballistas and spear-hurling catapults—they trailed astern dependent solely on the wind. Behind them again, and scattered all round the horizon as far as the eye could see, there dipped and flashed the lateen sails of small boats. These belonged to the independent adventurers, Italian and Jewish merchants, and pirates from the Aegean Islands. They hovered astern of the Fourth Crusade like seagulls that follow a fishing-fleet for their pickings of gut and offal.
Behind it the fleet left a wake of fear—the island of Andros over-run, the coastline at the mouth of the Dardanelles pillaged and the ancient city of Abydos on the verge of starvation, for the Crusading army had stripped the countryside of the harvest. Abydos, famed for the loves of Hero and Leander, had surrendered within a few hours of the advance guard coming ashore—"Like men," the Comte de Villehardouin harshly remarked, "who have not sufficient courage to defend themselves."
It might be wondered what possible chance of defence the citizens of this small port could have had against so overpowering an army and so large a fleet. The surprising thing is that they should ever have been expected to defend their city against an army that "had taken up the Cross" to prosecute the war against the enemies of the Christian Faith. The inhabitants of Abydos were neither Turks nor Moslems, but Greeks of the Orthodox Christian Faith. Their city was one of the toll-gates of the Byzantine Empire. They were citizens of a nation that had fought against the Turks, and against all the barbarian invaders of eastern Europe ever since the Emperor Constantine had founded his capital on the Bosphorus nearly nine centuries before.
Villehardouin commented that everything which the Crusaders took from the neighbourhood of the Dardanelles and from Abydos was paid for, "so that the people of the city did not lose even the smallest coin in exchange". He was far from consistent, however, for he had earlier suggested that he had always known the object of the Crusade was not the one which the Pope had blessed. Describing the fleet after it had left Corfu on its way to the Aegean Sea, he wrote: "It was a more wonderful sight than has ever been seen before. As far as the eye could reach, the sea was covered with the sails of ships and galleys. Our hearts were filled with joy, and we felt sure that our armament could undertake the conquest of the world" These were hardly the words of a man who would be concerned whether the citizens of a small port were compensated for everything that was taken from them.
The history of the Fourth Crusade has been described as "a history of the predominance of the lay motive, of the attempt of the papacy to escape from that predominance, and to establish its old direction of the crusade, and of the complete failure of its attempt". Certainly Pope Innocent III, who had promoted the Crusade, had intended that its goal should be Egypt, since Egypt was now the centre of Mahommedan power. It was also (something that could not fail to be of interest to an Italian, son of the noble Trasimondo family) the country most important to Italy's mercantile communities on account of its proximity to the Red Sea and to the commerce of the Indian Ocean. If the Pope blessed the Crusade, it was always with the understanding that its direction should be towards Egypt. Even now, as the great fleet moved slowly through the Sea of Marmora towards the Bosphorus, messengers were carrying the news to Rome that there could be no doubt the Crusade had left Corfu with the intention of proceeding to Constantinople. The knights and nobles and men-at-arms had turned aside from their holy war against the infidel. By now they should long ago have disembarked and been engaged on the hot sands, and or in the steamy delta-land of Egypt, against the enemies of the Faith.
Like the famous First Crusade of 1097, the Fourth was predominantly a French enterprise. Tibald, Count of Champagne, had been chosen as its leader, but when he had died in May 1201, Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat, was elected his successor. Hugo, Count of St. Paul, Baldwin, Count of Flanders, and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, were prominent among the leaders. While the bulk of the lesser nobility and men-at-arms were French or French feudatories, the fleet that carried them and the galleys that escorted them were Venetian. Boniface might be the nominal head of the expedition, but to all intents and purposes the man whose galley led the fleet, and whose ability and intelligence controlled it, was Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice.
Over eighty years old, almost totally blind, Enrico Dandolo had been elected Doge in 1193. He had already proved himself one of the most capable and energetic rulers that his city had known. One of his greatest successes had been in restoring the Venetian authority over the Dalmatians (who had rebelled against Venice under the protection of the King of Hungary). In this campaign he had failed to capture the important seaport of Zara—but this was an omission which he rectified only a few months before, when, in November 1202, Zara had fallen to the combined forces of the Crusaders and the Venetians. The city had been razed to the ground, and its walls, towers and palaces destroyed. With this ruthless achievement behind him, the Doge now viewed the prospect of a campaign which, if successful, would secure for his city the inheritance of an empire, and would render his name immortal in the annals of Venice.
His aim was no less than to place upon the throne of the ancient Byzantine Empire a pretender who would be permanently in debt to his protectors, or (and this the Doge may secretly have hoped) if this proved impossible, to capture Constantinople itself and take for the Venetian Republic in his grandiloquent phrase "one half and one quarter of the Roman Empire". The hero of one country is almost inevitably the villain of another. If Enrico Dandolo has deserved well of Venice, the story of the Fourth Crusade may lead to the thought that he has deserved less well of Europe and the world.
The pretext for the diversion of the crusaders from their legitimate destination was aboard the Doge's galley. As the ships fanned out into the Sea of Marmora, Alexius, the pretender to the throne of Byzantium, was nearing his goal. He waited to be proclaimed Emperor in his capital, Constantinople, with the backing of the same Crusading swords that had given Zara to the Doge. Insignificant though he was as a human being, the ambitions of this young man were to lead to a tragedy beyond all measure.
Alexius's claim to the throne was based on the fact that his father, Isaac II, had been the Emperor for ten years until deposed by his brother in 1195. Isaac, who has been described as "one of the weakest and most vicious princes that occupied the Byzantine throne", was imprisoned and blinded. Blinding was one of the penalties for failure in that world. Yet even so it was more merciful than the torture and death that were often the fate of deposed emperors. It could be maintained that it was by his reluctance to kill his brother that the new Emperor, Alexius III, had provided the Doge and his nephew with an excuse for the present expedition. Isaac II, father of the Alexius who now accompanied Doge Dandolo towards Constantinople, had lain imprisoned in the imperial dungeons of Constantinople for eight years. The proclaimed object of the Doge was to restore his heir to the throne.
It was natural enough that a son should wish to take vengeance upon the man who had maimed his father and usurped his throne. Nevertheless, the young Alexius had no rightful grounds for his claim to the imperial mantle and the scarlet buskins of the Byzantine Emperor. Although in the later centuries of the Empire, and especially after the period of the powerful Macedonian dynasty, the children of the reigning sovereign had been regarded as more or less legitimate inheritors of the throne, the real tradition of Byzantium was inherited from ancient Rome. The Emperor was the heir of the Roman Caesars and, as such, he was in essence no more than princeps or first citizen.
It is true that there was no constitutional way of deposing an emperor once he was upon the throne, but recourse had always been had to the equally ancient Roman system of armed revolution, led by the subject most pleasing to the people.
"If the coup failed, he met with the shameful death of a usurper; if it succeeded, his victory was the sign that God's favour had abandoned the dethroned Emperor. Not a few emperors were forced to abdicate, or met a violent death as the result of revolts in camp or in the palace. Success legitimized the revolution. In a somewhat modified sense, Mommsen's description of the Principate—'the imperial power is an autocracy tempered by the legal right of revolution'—is applicable to the Byzantine Empire."
Young Alexius had no legitimate claim upon the throne of Byzantium, and Doge Dandolo was certainly aware of this. His interest in Constantinople and its empire was realistic. Why should the Doge of Venice care about the legitimacy, or not, of the reigning Byzantine Emperor? The star of Venice had been rising for centuries, just as that of Byzantium had been declining. Pragmatic Venice was, in theory at any rate, the servant of the Roman Church, while the city founded by Constantine was the capital of the Orthodox Faith. Between these two branches of the Christian religion (which in those days was still strong enough to tolerate feud, division and strife between its members) a deep schism had long existed.
If the Doge wished to assuage his conscience for his contemplated attack on eastern Christendom, he need only remember that, in the eyes of the Pope, the Byzantines were heretics. It is always pleasant to be able to combine the necessary evils of business with the blessings of God.
The Doge, the Venetians and the Crusaders had already incurred the wrath of the Pope for their attack on the Christian city of Zara. For the violation of their crusading oaths they had incurred the very real and terrifying penalty of excommunication. Something of the thought that "It is better to be hung for a sheep than for a lamb" may have occurred to the Doge and to Boniface, the Marquis of Montferrat.
Enrico Dandolo, that patrician with the morals of a merchant on the make, was one of the ablest politicians of his day. He understood the nature and character of the Pope. Innocent III was one of the greatest popes in history, but as a great ruler and a man of affairs rather than as a spiritual authority. Unlike Dandolo, however, Innocent was no cynic. He was possessed by the belief that it was the will of God that the Pope should be supreme over all temporal rulers—even though this entailed his being increasingly devoted to mundane affairs. He genuinely regretted this involvement: "I have no leisure to meditate on supermundane things; scarce I can breathe. Yea, so much must I live for others, that almost I am a stranger to myself ..." At the same time he made the claim (which he failed to see was at variance with Christ's "My Kingdom is not of this world") that "The Lord left to Peter the governance not of the Church only but of the whole world."
The supreme claim of the Papacy to dominion here on earth was made in the reply of Innocent III to the ambassadors of Philip Augustus of France when he had compelled that monarch to repudiate his wife Agnes and take back the wife whom, in the Pope's eyes, he had wrongfully divorced. Since this event had taken place in the year 1200, it is very possible that Dandolo knew of the Pope's statement. But whether he did or not, he certainly understood Innocent's view of the Papal position. "To princes power is given on earth, but to priests it is attributed also in heaven; to the former only of bodies, to the latter also over souls. Whence it follows that by so much as the soul is superior to the body, the priesthood is superior to the kingship ... Single rulers have single provinces, and single kings single kingdoms; but Peter, as in the plenitude, so in the extent of his power is pre-eminent over all, since he is the Vicar of Him whose is the earth and the fullness thereof, the whole wide world and all that dwell therein."
Dandolo had probably calculated that the submission of Constantinople to the arms of the crusaders would be justified if it entailed also the submission of the heretic Orthodox Eastern Church to the throne of Peter. If Dandolo could restore to the true Faith the whole of the Byzantine Empire, spiritually at any rate, his act in taking that empire would be justified. If he could place upon the throne an emperor who owed his restoration to the force of crusading arms, that emperor would be willing to see that his church and his people accepted the spiritual jurisdiction of Rome. If at the same time this strengthened the Venetian trading position, even if it put into the hands of the Venetians and their allies all those rich territories in eastern Europe, the Pope would surely be prepared to overlook the crime of making war upon fellow-Christians if it brought those Christians back to the Church of Rome. The young Alexius had already told Dandolo and the other leaders that "If God allows you to restore me to the throne, I will place all of my empire under obedience to Rome."
Excerpted from The Great Betrayal by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1967 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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