Meanwhile, on 25 January 1204, the protovestiarius Alexius Ducas Mourzuphlos deposed Alexius IV and assumed the throne. He immediately began to improve the city’s defences, awaiting the imminent attack. After receiving absolution, on 9 April 1204, the Crusaders attacked. Constantinople fell on 12 April, after three days of the final, furious attack by land and by sea. Once inside the walls, the Crusaders began an orgy of carnage, brutality and vandalism not seen in Europe since the barbarians invaded seven centuries earlier.
Nicetas Choniates wrote in despair: “I do not know how to put any order into my account, how to begin, continue or end. They smashed the holy images and hurled the sacred relics of the Martyrs into places I am ashamed to mention, scattering everywhere the body and blood of the Saviour. These heralds of Anti-Christ seized the chalices and the patens, tore out the jewels and used them as drinking cups… As for their profanation of the Great Church, it cannot be thought of without horror. They destroyed the high altar, a work of art admired by the entire world and shared out the pieces among themselves… And they brought horses and mules into the Church, the better to carry off the holy vessels and the engraved silver and gold that they had torn from the throne and the pulpit and the doors and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure.
A common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch’s chair to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs and danced immodestly in the holy place… nor was there mercy shown to virtuous matrons, innocent maids or even virgins consecrated to God… In the streets, houses and churches there could only be heard cries and lamentations.”
Fires were started throughout the city. Villehardouin wrote that in the conflagration, “more houses were burnt… than are to be found in the three greatest cities of the Kingdom of France.” The butchery ended only when the Crusaders were so tired that they could no longer lift their swords. Then began the looting and profanation on a scale unparalleled in history. This pattern of pilferage and desecration was repeated in churches, monasteries and palaces throughout the city. The tombs of the emperors were rifled, and all the classical statues and monuments which had survived from ancient Greece and imperial Rome were destroyed. What was not carried off was burned, smashed, melted down for its precious metal content or stripped for its jewels.
For the Greeks of Constantinople, the tragedy had only begun. There began a slow and steady removal of treasures out of the Orthodox temples and into the churches and cities of Latin Europe. Epistle books, ladles, church plate, censers, candelabra, epitaphia, reliquaries, vestments, banners, manuscripts, miniatures, mosaics, thrones, tapestries, furniture and architectural items were all pilfered. Cartloads of gold and silver from Hagia Sophia found their way into the Vatican treasury. Constantinople had become the gold mine which supplied Latin Christendom.
A scandalous traffic in relics was started. The head of St John the Baptist was carried off to Amiens. Amalfi took the head of St Andrew from the Church of the Holy Apostles, along with a set of heavy bronze doors. The bishop of Soissons shipped home the head of St Stephen and a relic of St John. The remains of St Clement, pillaged from the Church of St Theodosia, were taken to Cluny. St Albans received the relics of St Marina. Halbstadt claimed the relics of St James. The True Cross was divided up among the barons, with a portion sent to Innocent III. King Louis IX of France paid 10,000 silver marks for the ‘true’ Crown of Thorns, for which he built St Chapells in Paris.
From the Monastery of the Pantacrator, the Venetians appropriated a group of exquisite gem-crusted enamel cameos, to enhance the Palo D’Oro, an elaborate Byzantine bejewelled gold screen which was used in the cathedral in Venice to cover the relics of St Mark. They also carried off the Icon of the Theotokos of Nikopeia, as well as a relic of St Stephen. The golden tabernacle from the Church of the Holy Apostles, a replica of the church itself, was added to their booty. Venice’s prized possessions are the four magnificent glided bronze horses, cast in Constantine’s time, which once stood in the Hippodrome; today, except when removed for cleaning, they stand atop the gallery of St Mark’s basilica. The Roman porphyry statue of four tetrarchs, taken from a palace, stands in a corner of St Mark’s treasury.
Many ancient artworks were destroyed. Among them, the immense bronze statues of Hercules by Lysippus, Pegasus by Rhoecus and Hera by Theodoros of Samos were melted for their metal by the barbarous Crusaders. Even statues of the Mother of God, a focal point in the Forum of the Ox, were not respected.
Venetians valued craftsmen, and they took away the best: goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers, iconographers, woodcarvers, stone and glass workers. Much of the Venetian glass technique so famous today originated in Constantinople. St Mark’s contains the finest collection of Byzantine craftsmanship in the world. It includes 32 Byzantine chalices, plus assorted relics, reliquaries, altar pieces, gospels, jewels, vestments, manuscripts and church plate. The collection was recently exhibited in Melbourne, though it is interesting to note not so much attention is paid to the return of these artefacts as to the Parthenon Marbles.
The Latin Empire lasted for about forty years before the Byzantines retook the city. During that time, the Orthodox Church was persecuted and the inhabitants of the Empire were treated as no better than slaves. Constantinople was used as a base from which to raid the Aegean Islands and Greece, resulting in the Venetian capture of Athens. Scions of Byzantine families, set up Byzantine seigneuries in sundered parts of the Empire: the Angeloi founded the Despotate of Epirus, the Komnenoi, the Empire of Trapezous, in the Pontus and the Palaologoi, the Empire of Nicaea in western Asia Minor.
The Fourth Crusade surpassed all acts of faithlessness, duplicity and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had not been just the wealthiest metropolis in the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe’s classical heritage. By its sack, Western civilisation suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs – perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history.
Politically too, the damage done was incalculable. Although Latin rule along the Bosphorus was to last less than sixty years, the Byzantine Empire never recovered its strength or any considerable part of its lost dominion. A strong and wealthy Byzantium would have halted the Turkish advance and saved eastern Europe from destruction. There are few greater ironies in history than the fact the fate of Eastern Christendom was sealed by men who purportedly fought under the Cross. It is only with the late John Paul II’s apology on behalf of the Western Church for the Crusade,that the tremendous wounds, bleeding for over seven centuries, can finally be healed.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.