• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Fourth Crusade Blame Game: The Betrayal of Byzantium

Launched by Pope Innocent III in August 1198 with the aim of taking Jerusalem from the Ayyubids, the fourth crusade’s blueprint had a Venetian fleet carrying an army of Franks to Egypt where their mission was to neutralise the nucleus of Ayyubid power before cracking on north to take Jerusalem. Instead, however, like an erratic pinball it bounced to all the wrong parts of the Mediterranean. Its first victim being Zara – a Hungarian possession that had once been part of Venice’s backyard – and then the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople.

The irony was not lost on contemporaries. But most were at a loss for an explanation or, more accurately, drowned in a glut of them. Niketas Choniates blamed a malevolent greed, claiming Venice had planned revenge ever since its trading privileges had been restricted in Constantinople. Another account, the anonymous biography known as the Deeds of Innocent III, agreed though with the rather obvious aim of absolving the pope.

Geoffrey of Villehardouin blamed 1204 on the poorer crusaders who either couldn’t or wouldn’t adequately finance their endeavours (a claim that conveniently covered the fact far too few people had turned up in the first place) and then falling into a comedy of mishaps or accidents. It was logical, he argued to take up Alexios Angelos’ offer to restore his father Isaac II because it was the easiest way to defray the expenses of the expedition. It was only once it ignored its debts that Constantinople suffered.

These were followed in the nineteenth century by nationalist historians who played blame games in which their own leaders were guiltless and other national leaders were guilty of conspiring against the Romans (who, in hindsight, had been elevated to legitimate and worthy Christians). For instance, some French historians accused the Venetians of duplicity, others accused the north Italian house of Montferrat of being in cahoots with Philip of Swabia (who, in turn, was accused of seeking to continue the aggressive exploits of the German emperors such as Barbarossa). And the remainder accused Innocent III of planning the whole thing, noting (rather tenuously) that Peter of Capuano (the papal legate) refused to let an abbot abandon the crusade when he expressed doubts about killing Christians.

The German historian Walter Norden resuscitated Villehardouin in the twentieth century, suggesting that the long-term context of civilizational hostility set the chess pieces in place, while the playing of them involved chance and accidents – a little like the philosophical argument that free will is similar to being chained to a cart hurtling down a hill and being able to choose which direction it is pulled in.

Sir Steven Runciman followed suit, though in the place of hostility he substituted mutual incomprehension – a fault he placed squarely at the doorstep of the West who (like Jordanes’ “womb of nations” i.e. Scandinavia) churned out barbarians who refused to understand the Romans out of ignorance if not spite. While his pupil, Donald Nicol, sympathised more with the Franks and claimed that it was the Romans and their snobbish ways that made cultural exchange impossible.

The issue with civilizational determinism as a cause is that it doesn’t add up. First, For every example of estrangement, there’s two of mutual dependency. So, while tensions were evident, so was the fact that Latins made up the most effective part of the imperial army, and that most of western Christendom could be found begging for Byzantine relics and silks.

Second, the idea of being civilizational nemeses (especially when coupled with the excuse of non-payment) would surely have supplied troops with a worthy raison d’etre; an enthusiasm for a coup de grace that would skewer the heretical hydra through its heart. On the ground, however, the opposite was true. The rank and file were bitterly opposed to the diversion and acceded only after being blackmailed.

Third, the enterprise was so unpopular in the West that the Latin “emperors” were forced to repeatedly beg for volunteers to bolster their manpower. One of the main causes of the the Latins’ demise (they lasted less than six decades in the imperial capital) was thanks to the fact so few Latins wanted to fight on behalf of a cause that smelled so morally dubious.

More recently, and in my view more accurately, Jonathan Harris presented 1204 as the culmination of a policy clash. First, the Latins had moved on from the ancient notions of legitimacy that underpinned Roman rule in the East in order to pursue a reformed papacy and a Latin kingdom in the Levant. Second, the Latins also despised the means (notably using Latin manpower – which could have been used for Latin ends) the Eastern Roman Empire employed to fuel its own goals (which were easily portrayed as treacherous because a Latin kingdom in the East was the only legitimate end of any foreign policy in the tunnel-vision imagination of the West) instead of placing its seemingly immense resources in the hands of the crusaders.

Recommended Reading: Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades (2003)