Posts Tagged ‘June 21st’

Assailing to Byzantium

Posted in General, On This Day on July 7th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 6 Comments

I wanted to write about the Fourth Crusade.  I just didn’t realize how much I had to say.  Well, if you were looking for some summer reading, here it is.    If it is any relief to you, I have almost exhausted myself on the Byzantine Empire.  Almost….

And to save your eyesight, I am using a more generous font.

History is replete with villains.  Indeed, but for their capers and crimes, history might be little more than statistics.  But the evil genius, although a staple of Hollywood, is actually rare.  Who had that diabolical brilliance to ensnare, manipulate and destroy his way to triumph?  Many thought that they did–and history records all the failed efforts.  During the Peloponnesian War Alcibiades managed to betray both Athens and Sparta as well as some neutral countries, and yet he was smugly certain that he would always maneuver his way to power and adoration;  two countries claim credit for his assassination.  For a more recent example, take a look at Berlin in 1945; the Thousand Year Reich lasted about as long as a production of the Ring Cycle.  Evil geniuses do not make mistakes, especially suicidal ones.

So, who are indisputable examples of evil genius?  If you have not immediately thought of Otto von Bismarck, you just aren’t trying.  Then there is Vladimir Lenin: visionary, ruthless, and  a brilliant improviser.  Who else would have conned Imperial Germany into subsidizing the Bolshevik Revolution?  (Yes, Stalin and Mao were evil and cunning, too; but Lenin also had the unique distinction of being sane.)  I think that Alexander Hamilton belongs on this list; so did everyone who knew him.

But these are familiar fiends.  I want to introduce you to such an extraordinary monster that he seems like an outtake from “Dr. Who”:  an elderly, blind invalid animated by greed and warped patriotism.  I have just described Enrico Dandolo, the most infamous and successful doge in the history of Venice.    Dandolo (c. 1110-1205) achieved his greatest triumphs in statecraft and perfidy when he was in his 90s.  He would make Venice the mistress of the Mediterranean, creating a commercial empire that would last three centuries.  His triumphs turned out to be a catastrophe for Western Civilization,  but foresight is not a real concern for a blind nonagenarian.

Even in the 12th century, Dandolo was an old family name in Venetian society; and Enrico had a distinguished career as a diplomat.  When he became Doge in 1193, it might have been regarded as the Republic’s retirement gift.  But he was not the retiring type; and neither was Venice.  The city state was thriving, its ships transporting Crusaders to the Middle East and importing oriental luxuries to Europe.  This trade was not quite duplicitous because the chivalrous Christians were slaughtering the Moslems of Syria and the Holy Land, but not the Venetians’ commercial partners in Egypt.  However, the Fourth Crusade was planned as an attack on Egypt, and Venice found herself in a bind: how could it protect Egypt while transporting an invading army?    A lesser man might have been stymied and perhaps succumb to ethics; the Doge had no such problems.  In 1201, Venice and the Crusaders reached a binding agreement; however, the Crusaders couldn’t have imagined how binding it would be.

Venice agreed to transport 13,500 knights and squires, their horses, along with 20,000 foot soldiers, and provide nine months worth of food.  In return, the Republic would be paid 85,000 silver marks, the mark being the equivalent of a half pound.  If any of the Crusaders were literate, they should have read the contract’s fine print.  That sum was non-negotiable.  If no one showed up for the Crusade, Venice would still be owed that amount.  And strangely enough, the courts of Europe were soon pervaded with the most discouraging reports about the impending Crusade.  Somehow the Egyptians had been warned of the impending attack, and were preparing for it.  Furthermore, questions now were raised as to this Crusade’s mission:  Egypt was not the Holy Land, and so carnage there offered no spiritual redemption.  When, in 1202, the Crusaders were to assemble in Venice, less than a third of the anticipated number arrived.

Nevertheless,  they still were expected to pay that 85,000 silver marks.  The Crusaders might as well have taken a vow of poverty, selling and pawning whatever they could; but their earnest destitution only scrapped together 50,000 marks.   Venice took that as a down payment but its ships stayed anchored; and the Crusaders were stranded.  (They were camped on the Lido, but in 1202 they were about seven centuries early for the tourist season.)  An army of idle and exasperated Crusaders could have been a danger to the city, but Dandolo found  a way to divert them.  It just so happened that Venice was at war with Hungary; would the Crusaders like a little gainful employment?  Anything they could loot from Hungarian towns and corpses would help pay their debt to Venice.  Once that was settled, the Crusade could set sail.  The Pope had threaten to excommunicate anyone responsible for this misuse of the Crusade; but Venice didn’t care and the Crusaders really didn’t have a choice.

Their expedition would attack the Adriatic port of Zara.  Prior to its departure, the force was to be blessed at San Marco’s.  The sacraments presumably mitigated the irony that the Crusaders were about to sack a Catholic city.  The mosaics and icons of San Marco would have been second-rate Byzantine, but that still would have surpassed anything the Crusaders had seen back home in France and Germany.  That alone would have awed them, but it was merely the backdrop.  For a blind man, Enrico Dandolo still had a wonderful sense of spectacle, and he was about to steal the show.  Addressing the assembly of Venetians and Crusaders, the Doge declared:

“I myself am old and feeble; I need rest.  My body is infirm.  But I know that no man can lead you and govern you as I, your Lord, can do.  If therefore you will allow me to direct and defend you by taking the Cross…I am ready to live and to die with you and the pilgrims.”

The gesture was magnificent:  the ancient invalid would be a crusader.  The motive behind it was equally breathtaking;  the shameless scoundrel intended to hijack the Crusade by taking command of it.  (He didn’t have any apprentice evil geniuses to delegate the heist.)  The expedition embarked in early November, and Zara was conquered a week later.  The Crusaders then expected to sail on to Egypt, but the Doge preferred to winter at Zara.  Since it was his fleet, no one was going anywhere without him.  In the meantime Dandolo was negotiating a new enterprise–and different direction–for his Crusade.  A Byzantine prince wanted to rent it.

A Byzantine Bargain 

Alexius Angelus was the son of the deposed and imprisoned Emperor Isaac II.  To be honest, Isaac deserved to be deposed.  His ten year reign (1185-1195) had been a disaster.  The man was an incompetent tyrant.  He levied ridiculous taxes but usually collected rebellions instead.   Bulgaria revolted over a special tax to pay for an imperial wedding.  The Emperor’s inability to crush the Bulgars only encouraged other provinces to rebel.  During Isaac’s short reign the Empire lost Bulgaria, Serbia and Cyprus.  Faced with reduced revenues and loathing responsibility, the Emperor came up with an unique cost-saving measure.  He out-sourced the Byzantine navy.  The maritime burdens now would be bourne by Byzantium’s former colony and long-time ally…Venice.  (And Venice didn’t mind at all; apparently maritime powers like being handed monopolies.)  Yes, catastrophe is a Greek word, and Isaac’s long overdue ouster came at the hands of his own brother Alexius.

The usurper merely blinded and imprisoned Isaac.  When Isaac had seized the crown, he had his predecessor tortured to death; but that deposed emperor was only a cousin.  If exemplary a brother, the now anointed Alexius III proved just as incompetent.  At least, he had less of an empire to lose.   Through his ineptitude, however, he managed to alienate Byzantium’s most useful ally.  Alexius thought that the Venetians were becoming too powerful.  Of course, he was right; but did he have a practical alternative?  Rebuilding the Byzantine fleet would have been the solution, but that would have required leadership, ability and effort.  Alexius would also be spending money on ships rather than himself: out of the question!  But the Emperor imagined that he had a clever idea: renege on the Treaty with Venice, instead allying the Empire with the two maritime cities of Pisa and Genoa.  In theory, their two smaller fleets would replace the void left by Venice.  And that certainly was a theory.  Now Byzantium had neither a fleet nor an adequate surrogate, but it did have a new enemy.

But here was a Byzantine prince offering Venice a restored alliance, the added incentive of 200,000 silver marks, and an invaluable diversion from Egypt.  The Crusaders were promised 50,000 silver marks of that sum and the cancellation of their debts to Venice.  Alexius further pledged to supply 10,000 soldiers for the Crusade once his father was back on the throne.  Of course, this reinforced Crusade would logically attack the Moslems conveniently adjacent in Anatolia and Syria.  Why bother with an unnecessary detour to Egypt?  And to coax the Catholic Church into removing its excommunication of the Crusaders, Alexius promised to reunite the Greek Orthodox Church with Rome.  So Dandolo had achieved a complete diplomatic triumph; now all he needed was a military one to match it.  But he had to accomplish what the Huns, the Persians, the Arabs, the Bulgars, the Vikings and the Russians had to failed to do:  take Constantinople.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had chosen the site as his capital because it was so easily defended.  A peninsula, protected by water on three sides and the world’s most formidable walls on the fourth, Constantinople defied attack.  Even the sea walls circuiting its harbors and coast were daunting.  Constantinople was not just intimidating but humbling, the greatest city in Christendom.  Its beauty reflected a thousand years of wealth and art.  In the 10th century, Russia  converted to Orthodoxy because “if God existed He had to live in Constantinople”.   At the time of the Fourth Crusade the rich, sophisticated metropolis had a population surpassing 300,000.  Paris would have had a population of 80,000–and without the erudition and hygiene; and don’t even ask about London.

At least, Venice had some semblance to culture–which it acquired primarily from the Byzantines.   The Adriatic city had been a imperial subject until the tenth century and remained a valued ally (at least until Alexius III).  San Marco was originally a Greek Orthodox church and is a replica of the second most prominent church in Constantinople.  Aside from the cultural hand-me-downs, Constantinople conferred one of its greatest favors on the ducal families of Venice:  an imperial princess as a bride.  The Doges did not quite merit a sister or daughter of the emperor, but a niece or a cousin still was considered a munificent offering.  One Byzantine princess introduced to Venice a sophisticated new eating utensil, which we call the fork.  So the Venetians knew Constantinople, and felt a mixed reverence and envy.

On June 24, 1203, the Venetian fleet anchored off Constantinople.  In two different ways, it was an inspiring sight.  The warriors from Western Europe beheld the most magnificent city imaginable, and the sailors from Venice saw no fleet to challenge them.  The great Byzantine navy no longer existed,  and the Pisan and Genoese proxies proved equally absent.  There still were towers that guarded the straits and harbors, but the garrisons also seemed to vanish at the approach of the Venetians.  Alexius III didn’t inspire much heroism.

By mid-July, the Bosporus was just another Venetian lagoon.  But behind its walls, Constantinople remained defiant.  To successfully attack the triple-line of fortifications guarding the city’s landside, the Crusaders would have needed a miracle:  specifically, one that rushed by two centuries the development of the cannon.  (And an excommunicated army couldn’t count on that.)  But the city’s sea walls were not so uniformly impregnable.  The imperial palace, built along the Black Sea, had lower walls so not to interfere with the scenic view.  Those sea walls were not much higher than the prow of a Venetian ship.  In fact, it was possible to swing from a Venetian mast on to the Byzantine ramparts–although a knight in full armor probably shouldn’t have tried.  So, on July 17, 1203, guess where the Venetian fleet attacked?

And leading the attack was Enrico Dandolo himself, standing on the prow of his ship and holding the banner of Venice.  Of course, he was blind to the dangers, and the Byzantine archers proved to be equally blind.   But the Doge’s stance and luck inspired his forces forward.  Within a few hours, the Crusaders held Constantinople’s northern walls and had begun their customary rampage; they were especially fond of arson.  The Byzantines looked to Alexius III for leadership, and then they were just looking for him.  That night he fled the city, abandoning his family but remembering to take the imperial treasury.   The following day the Byzantine imperial council decided that Isaac II had been the rightful emperor all along, transporting him from prison back to the throne.  Since the Crusaders’ sole goal was the old emperor’s restoration,  the war now was over.  Of course, there remained the matter of payment….

Isaac was dismayed to learn of his son’s lavish promises, but he could hardly renege.  Indeed, his consent was superfluous.  The Crusaders had insisted that Alexius be named co-emperor; that way his word was law and so were his debts.  In the best of times, 200,000 silver marks would have amounted to one seventh of the Empire’s gross national product.  (That would be equivalent to $2 trillion dollars in the American economy.)  And this was not exactly a great year for Constantinople.  The treasury had been embezzled; and the provinces, whether in rebellion or confusion, were withholding their revenues from the capital.  So, Isaac II and Alexius IV actually ruled only over Constantinople itself.  Even with new taxes and confiscating silver plates from the city’s churches, the Emperors barely paid half the amount they owed.  But until they paid the rest, the Crusaders were staying in Constantinople–as the Byzantines’ guests, of course.

Unfortunately, the Crusaders did not endear themselves to their hosts.  Crude, unwashed and enthusiastically violent, the “Franks” (the Byzantines’ generic term for the western louts) disrupted daily life in Constantinople.  As tourists, their itinerary was one brawl after another.  It must have thrilled the Byzantine citizenry–the accosted women and the beaten shopkeepers–that their exorbitant taxes were paying for these assaults.   In fairness, the Crusaders were just as sick of Byzantines–those arrogant, decadent deadbeats.  Many of the Crusaders wanted to leave; if the Byzantines had no more money or tolerance, what was the point of remaining?  But the Crusaders couldn’t leave without the Venetian fleet, and Dandolo was intent on staying.

He knew that a continued occupation would lead to war; but that was exactly what he wanted!  The Doge was encouraging the Crusaders to overthrow Isaac and Alexius, and take control of the Empire itself.  However, the army’s commanders were inconveniently ethical.  Yes, the Emperors turned out to be  inept disappointments but they still were allies, so the Crusaders would not betray them.  That lukewarm loyalty surpassed the Byzantines’ regard for their co-emperors, those despised collaborators with the West.  The growing Byzantine outrage would provide Dandolo with his war.

Byzantine patriots found their champion in Alexius Ducas, a noble who overthrew Isaac II and Alexius IV in January, 1204.  Being only a cousin, he had no compunction about killing them.  Although adhering to that annoying nomenclature–Alexius V!–he had more originality as a ruler.  For the first time in two decades, the Empire had a dynamic and inspiring leader; unfortunately, there was not much left to that empire.  Still, the bankrupt city found the resources and resolve to rebuild and rearm itself.  The seawalls breached by the Crusaders were strengthened and heightened; now they will higher than Venetian masts.

Of course, the Crusaders were also preparing for war; but they were more intent on how they would divide up the loot and the empire. It took a month of negotiations between the Venetians and Crusaders, and you know who wheedled the advantages.  The Republic would get three/eighths of the spoils and the same proportion of the empire; first pick, naturally.  There would be a new emperor; Dandolo graciously excluded himself from consideration.  But Venice would have the deciding voice in the selection.  With the pact concluded, all that remained was the necessary carnage.

The Venetian ships attacked on April 9th.  To their surprise, they were repelled.  Imagine what Alexius V could have done with money and a navy.  But the amphibious attacks continued.  By April 11th, the Crusaders had scaled a section of the sea walls and then seized a city gate.  As the night fell, they only controlled a small section of Constantinople; to level the rest of the city, the Crusaders started fires.  By the end of the next day, half of the city was smoldering; but Byzantine resistance had collapsed.  Alexius V ceded the city, fleeing to northern Greece where Alexius III had absconded.  The Fifth hoped that with his ability and the Third’s money, the two could rally the Byzantines.  The old usurper treated his guest like family–blinding him.

Constantinople was shown less mercy.  According to the etiquette of medieval warfare, upon taking a city the victorious troops were entitled to three days of pillage, rape and vandalism.  And here was the richest city in Christendom at their mercy.  Three days really weren’t enough.  The rape of Constantinople became a contest between the Venetians’ discerning thefts and the Crusaders’ carefree destruction.   The city’s hippodrome was as much a museum as a stadium.  Atop the track’s starting gate was an exquisite collection of ancient bronze horses.  Crusaders might have used them as target practice; but the Venetians claimed them first.  Those bronze horses are still on display in Venice, a symbol of the Republic’s glory.

With centuries of accumulated art, the Orthodox churches were tempting prey; the more discerning nobles and the Venetians tried to save the jewel-encrusted icons and relics before the foot soldiers smashed them for the pretty stones.  Yes, the art was still stolen but at least survived; much of it is now seen  in the churches and museums of western Europe.  (Relic forgers would add a cachet to their frauds, claiming the works were taken from Constantinople.)  No such deference was shown the imperial tombs; the corpses of emperors and empresses were stripped of jewelry and then flung away as garbage.  And no one thought of saving the Library of Constantinople.  The illuminated manuscripts were possibly worth stealing, but who cared about those thousands of old scrolls?   They were in Greek!  Even the literate soldiers could decipher only half of that alphabet.  Just who was this A-p-i-z?-t-o-t-something?  So the  last extant collection of ancient literature, including the complete works of Aristotle, simply made a glorious bonfire.

Divide and Consent

While no one begrudged the soldiers such fun, their leaders were preoccupied with matters of state–at least a more elevated form of grave robbing.  Even conceding the independence of Bulgaria and Serbia, the Byzantine Empire still was a large realm.  It encompassed half the Balkans, the area we would recognize as Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Thrace.  As the Venetians certainly knew, the Empire also held the Crimea and, through it, the market of Russia.  Byzantium ruled western Anatolia; the Turks had yet to conquer and rename it for themselves.  But now the Crusadists were to divide up that empire.  Venice claimed three-eighths of it,  and Dandolo knew exactly what he wanted.  Of course, that included the prime real estate of Constantinople itself.  Venice demanded possession of the Golden Horn, the main harbor of Constantinople; how else would it monopolize the city’s trade?    But Venetian venality also had an aesthetic side.  Since their church of San Marco was merely a replica of Constantinople’s second best church, the Venetians now seized the best:  Hagia Sophia.  It would be a Catholic Church with a suitable–meaning Venetian–archbishop.  (The Pope would queasily accept the new archdiocese, acknowledging a faith accompli.)  As for the rest of Byzantium, Venice claimed every major seaport from the Adriatic to the Crimea, the Ionian Islands and Crete.  The Republic would control the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea; one could sail from Italy to Russia coasting along the Venetian Empire.

What was left of the Byzantine Empire still required an Emperor, and it was agreed that a Crusader would have the throne.  Two candidates vied for the crown.  An Italian marquis had distinguished himself  for his leadership and character; furthermore, he was related by marriage to Byzantine royalty.  The Venetians had consistently outwitted him, but his ethics and independence were a nuisance.  No, Venice wanted an affable stooge and found its ideal candidate in a Flemish count.  Hail Baldwin I.   The new emperor was duly crowned at Hagia Sophia in mid-May, just enough time to clean the horse manure from the basilica.  Those equine souvenirs were not an intentional affront but a logistical byproduct.  The Crusaders and the Venetians had agreed to bring their plunder to Hagia Sophia, where the loot  would be inventoried and then distributed.  The total haul was an estimated 900,000 silver marks.  (Yes, the Venetians would get their 3/8ths–plus yet another 50,000 silver marks to settle the Crusaders’  debts.  There must be something very devious about bookkeeping in Roman numerals.)  But how do you tote a thousand years’ accumulation of treasure and art?  Trains of horses and mules carried the loot into Hagia Sophia, and then carried it out.  So, for one fetid month, the greatest church in Christendom was also a stable.

As Emperor, Baldwin was entitled to one quarter of the Empire and the fealty of his vassals, the recipients of the remaining three-eighths.  In turn, those vassals would distribute their estates to their retainers who then would dole out morsels to yet a lower tier in the social registry.  Feudalism was great for heraldry but a very dubious form of government.  With this tenuous chain of command, any efficiency was miraculous;  even loyalty was a pleasant surprise.  And if Feudalism was to work at all,  there actually had to be land to award.  But that wasn’t the case in Byzantium.

All the provinces were in rebellion.  A number of Byzantine princes had somehow survived family gatherings; two now established themselves as emperors in Anatolia.  A third, with charming modesty, was merely the Despot of Epirus (alias Albania).   That reprobate Alexius III held northern Greece.  In Thrace, the Byzantines were forming an alliance with the Bulgars; Orthodox barbarians were preferable to Catholic ones.  While in the safety of Constantinople, the Crusaders were free to confer dukedoms upon each other.  But taking them was another matter:  they had to fight their way there and earn their  titles.   Of course, being Crusaders  they welcomed slaughter.

In Greece, they usually won.  There would be Dukes of Athens  and Kings of Thessalonica, and Alexius III would be a fugitive again.   However, Epirus remained Byzantine; its mountains and poverty discouraged conquest.  Trying to hold Thrace, Emperor Baldwin died a prisoner of the Bulgars.   As for Anatolia, the Crusaders had to concede it to the Byzantines.  Invading the peninsula required a navy, but the Crusaders no longer had one.  The Venetians had immediate need of their fleet to transport their Byzantine loot– including 75 tons of gold and silver–back home.  After that, the fleet would be fighting for control of Venice’s  newly acquired territories.  It seems that the only passive Byzantines were in Constantinople; Crete would take eight years to conquer.

But however fierce the provinces’ resistance, without Constantinople the Empire ceased to exist.  Its fragments were rump states of Greeks and Crusaders, warring with each other and among themselves.  In 1261 one of the Greek states would regain the city of Constantinople but it could not reunite and revive the Empire.  Constantinople became  just one more enclave among the patchwork of Balkan states.  It would not challenge the empire that Venice had created.  The Republic would maintain its mercantile supremacy for three centuries, finally driven from the seas by the growing naval power of the Ottoman Empire.

Ironically, that too was a consequence of Enrico Dandolo’s brilliant machinations.  Since the rise of Islam, Byzantium had been Christendom’s bulwark against Moslem invasions of Europe.  It had thwarted the Arab attempts and, though losing eastern Anatolia,  it had halted the Turkish advance.  Yet solely for Venice’s profit, Dandolo had destroyed Byzantium and Christendom’s strongest defense.  Now  the Turks only faced two smaller feuding principalities in Anatolia and assorted chaos in the Balkans.  Just as the Venetians thrived in the absence of Byzantium, so too would the Ottomans–and their empire would be ruled from Constantinople.

Enrico Dandolo died in 1205.  You’d think that in his last days he would have returned to Venice to bask in the adulation of a dazzled Republic.  He was not only the greatest doge in the city’s history but the founder of its empire.  If only in Venice, the man deserved a triumph.  But Dandolo stayed on in Constantinople, eschewing the celebrations because he had an empire to manage.  Besides Venice could not give the ailing nonagenarian what he really wanted:  the last laugh.  He wanted to be buried in Hagia Sophia, the site of his greatest and most infamous achievement.    And there he remains, his last and ever-lasting affront to the Byzantines.