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27 Jul

Siege of Constantinople (1204)

In May of 1182, the Eastern Orthodox residents of Constantinople slaughtered the Roman Catholic, or “Latin”, population in an event that came to be known as the Massacre of the Latins.  Not only did this further tarnish the image of the Byzantine Empire amongst the Western powers, but it also had a hugely detrimental effect on the relationship between the Western and Eastern Christian churches.  Even after regular trade agreements were resumed between the Latin states and Byzantium, the underlying hostility between them left many Westerners wanting some form of revenge.

Further difficulties ensued after the first siege of Constantinople in 1203.  The pro-Crusader Emperor Alexios IV was crowned on August 1, 1203; by the end of the month, riots between anti-Crusader Greeks and pro-Crusader Latins had erupted that lasted until November of that year.  Understandably, the population began to turn against the Emperor.  When his co-Emperor, Isaac II, died in January of 1204, more rioting broke out and Alexios IV was deposed.  Alexios IV was then imprisoned by the imperial chamberlain, Alexios Doukas; Doukas then declared himself Emperor Alexios V on February 5th.

Alexios V tried to negotiate with the Crusaders for a withdrawal from Byzantine territory, but they refused to depart from their original treaty with Alexios IV.  Alexios V ordered the execution of Alexios IV on February 5 in an effort to eliminate threats to his power base.  The Crusaders, in return, declared war on Alexios V.  The next month, after deciding upon the outright conquest of Constantinople, Venetian and Crusader leaders drew up a formal agreement to divide the entirety of the Byzantine Empire between them.

The end of March saw the combined Crusader armies laying siege to Constantinople.  Alexios V, in addition to conducting operations outside the city, began to strengthen and reinforce the city’s defenses.  As of the first of April, the Crusaders were able to besiege the city from an encampment in Galata, which was on the other side of the Golden Horn from Constantinople.  On April 9, Venetian and Crusader forces began assaulting the Golden Horn fortifications by crossing the waterway to the northwest city wall.  When the assault troops landed, they were driven back by a combination of heavy archery fire and bad weather.  Three days later, the weather finally cleared and a second assault on the city was ordered.

Venetian ships were pushed close to the city wall by a strong north wind, allowing the attackers to seize some of the towers along the wall.  After a short battle, 70 Crusaders were able to enter the city; some Crusaders were able to knock holes in the city walls that were large enough for a few knights at a time were able to crawl through.  The Venetians were able to scale the walls from the sea, despite bloody fighting with the Varangians.  After the Crusaders captured the Blanchernae section of the city, they used it as a base from which to attack the rest of the city.  They burned down a huge portion of the city when trying to defend themselves with a wall of fire, leaving 15,000 people homeless.  That night, Alexios V escaped the city through the Polyandriou Gate and fled into the countryside to the west of the city.

For three days, the Crusaders pillaged and vandalized Constantinople.  Many ancient Roman and Greek works of art were either destroyed or stolen, including the famous bronze horses of the Hippodrome which were sent back to Venice to adorn St. Mark’s Basilica.  The Library of Constantinople was destroyed, and the Crusaders systematically violated and looted the city’s holy sanctuaries.  The total amount stolen from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks, which was divided up between the Crusaders and the Venetians.  Latin residents of the city also took this opportunity to revenge themselves for the Massacre of the Latins of 1182.

According to a prearranged treaty, the empire was divided between Venice and the Crusaders.  The Latin Empire of Constantinople was founded, and Baldwin of Flanders was crowned Emperor Baldwin I of Constantinople in the Hagia Sophia.  The majority of the Byzantine aristocracy fled the city, receiving no sympathy from the ordinary people who felt that they’d ruled the empire increasingly poorly over the years.  These aristocratic refugees went on to found their own succesor states, such as the Empire of Trebizond.

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