Friday, April 12, 2019

The First Fall of Constantinople

The First Fall of Constantinople


      Today marks the anniversary of the fall, in 1204, of Constantinople, one of the only two times that its famed walls would ever be breached.


      Constantinople, after having been re-founded by the Emperor Constantine, was protected, on at least the landside, by an initial wall.  The city subsequently expanded and it was in the early 5th century that the famous double Theodosian Wall was constructed.  Over the years, these walls would deflect attacks ranging from the army of Attila the Hun to several long-term sieges by various Muslim forces.  They would fall, ultimately, to a western Crusader army.


      The Fourth Crusade intended, by means of an assault from the sea, to capture Egypt and thereby create a land base from which to again take possession of the Holy Lands and particularly Jerusalem; the few coastal cities remaining in the Crusader’s states were simply insufficient as a logistics base from which to act.  From the start essentially nothing went to plan.  Venice had been offered a significant contract to build and equip a fleet to move the Crusader army, its price calculated on a per capita basis.  Venice, a preeminent trading venture, essentially stopped all activities for two years in order to perform its part of the agreement.  When, however, time came for the Crusader army to depart, its numbers were significantly smaller than had been planned.  Those Crusaders who were present simply did not have the wherewithal to satisfy their end of the bargain.  After significant haggling, the reduced army departed, traveling first not to Egypt but rather to Zara, a city in the Adriatic that had earlier revolted again Venetian control.  Part of the army’s debt to the Venetians would be satisfied by bringing Zara to heal.  This action earned the Crusader army an excommunication issued by the Pope.


      Having now picked up a particularly weak claimant to the Byzantine throne, one who assured the Crusaders and the Venetians that he would be welcomed with open arms if returned to Constantinople, the fleet headed for Constantinople.  Needless to say, the Emperor was not pleased to find the fleet pulled up before the walls of his city, especially accompanied by a claimant to the throne.  Relations between the Byzantine authorities and the Crusaders/Venetians started off bad and essentially only got worse.  Ultimately, the fleet and the army would attack Constantinople and breach its walls, an event that for centuries forms a major iconographic event in Venice’s history. One means of entry were "flying bridges" mounted on the masts of the Venetian galleys - they sailed up next to the seaward walls and over-hanged the walls, then men at arms and knights climbed up the masts and walked over what must have been a precarious bridge. The city would fall and suffer a three day sack. The bronze horses that are featured on St. Marks Cathedral in Venice were part of the incalculable possessions stripped in the course of the sack. Ultimately one of the Crusader chiefs, Baldwin, would be placed upon the throne of Constantinople.


      The so-called “Latin Kingdom” in Constantinople would survive for only fifty-seven years when it would fall, the throne again taken by the Greeks.  However, the Latin Kingdom seriously weakened the Byzantine Empire, setting it up for its ultimate fall in 1453 to the Islamic Ottoman forces under Mehmet II.

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