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1204: the Crusader Sack of Constantinople

Above: woodcut of Constantinople by Giovanni Andreas Vavassore, circa 1535.

Editor’s note: see part 1 in this series: “Eastern Orthodoxy and the Pathology Against Charity.”


The Fourth Crusade is perhaps the greatest wound of blood between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. In the year 1204 crusaders came and sacked Constantinople, the greatest Eastern Orthodox city in the world, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Catholics might be tempted to point the finger at the Eastern Orthodox and point out that the Greek Empire massacred its Catholic population in Constantinople in 1182, a little over two decades earlier. However, this tit for tat method doesn’t get one very far. It’s like a Catholic and Protestant debating Justification by Faith Alone. Protestants quote Romans 3, Catholics respond with James 2 and we walk away feeling victorious. While this may be satisfying it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It doesn’t get into the details which reveal the true nature of the event. This article will attempt to show some of these details using the primary sources, in an effort to shed some much-needed light on this dark point in the history of east-west relations.

Greek Game of Thrones and the Western Hopes

First, let’s look at the situation in the eastern Roman Empire known today as the “Byzantine Empire” (in this essay, we will use the terms “Eastern Roman,” “Greek,” and “Byzantine” interchangeably). Alexius Comnenus was the Roman Emperor in the east who had appealed to the Pope for the crusades at the end of the 11th century. This crusade resulted in the conquest of Jerusalem, the establishment of four crusader states and much recovered land for the Roman Empire in Anatolia such as the important cities of Nicaea and Dorylaeum. Alexius died in 1118 and was succeeded by his son John. John reposed in 1143 and was succeeded by Manuel Comnenus who reigned until 1180.

These three rulers were very competent and managed to run the empire well. Manuel was succeeded by Alexius II who was very young at the time. This brought instability to the Empire and Manuel’s cousin, Andronikos Comnenus, came into town and started to run the show while Alexius II was still emperor. This is when the infamous massacre of the Latins occurred in 1182. Shortly after that, Andronikos murdered Alexius II and became emperor. A couple years later, Andronikos was murdered by a mob and the Comnenus dynasty came to an end. The new ruler was Isaac Angelos who ruled as Isaac II. This emperor actually allied with the Muhammadans against the crusaders during the Third Crusade. In 1195 he was blinded by his brother Alexius and thrown into prison in Constantinople. In addition to all this palace intrigue, many parts of the empire were in rebellion, which made things very unstable. Cyprus had separated under the rebel leader Isaac Comnenus. Unfortunately for Isaac he made efforts to impede Richard the Lionheart on his way to the Holy Land and this resulted in the crusaders capturing the island. [1] The Normans and Hungarians were conquering Greek territory in the Balkans. Bulgaria was in open revolt as well. The eastern Empire had turned into a real life version of Game of Thrones. Understanding this political situation is a key for understanding what happened in 1204.

Meanwhile from the western view, the Third Crusade from 1189 to 1192 had been a huge success. Before this crusade, Saladin’s conquests had left the Kingdom of Jerusalem with the city of Tyre and not much else. Richard the Lionheart came to the Holy Land, defeated Saladin multiple times and captured Acre, Jaffa, and other coastal settlements. Despite Richard’s many gains, Saladin managed to hold on to Jerusalem and the crusade ended in a three year truce in September 1192. Saladin died six months later and his Ayyubid empire plunged into chaos. Richard died several years later from gangrene after being hit by an arrow while in a siege. Saladin’s brother Al-Adil now reigned in Egypt and under his leadership the Ayyubids were but a shadow of what they were under Saladin. Jerusalem was waiting to be taken and the time seemed right for a new crusade.

Pope Innocent III called the crusade on August 15, 1198, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On November 5, 1198 the pope commissioned the charismatic preacher Fulk of Neuilly the job of preaching the crusade. Fulk took this job seriously and preached the crusade of Innocent III. He spread the word far and wide and eventually reached Champagne in France. He found some knights at a tournament and the message of the crusade resonated with them. Several knights took the cross including Baldwin of Flanders and Geoffroy of Villehardouin who was the Marshall of Champagne. These knights were led by Thibault of Champagne. With the crusader movement starting to crystalize around these knights, Pope Innocent III’s dream of a crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Muhammadans was starting to look more and more like a reality.

Debt to Venice

These French nobles who took the cross had one problem, they didn’t have a fleet in which to take them to the Holy Land. Champagne is a landlocked province in France so they needed to head to a port city and contract a fleet. The crusaders headed south first to Genoa. They made explicit their demands but the Genoese couldn’t give them a fleet. They were asking for a fleet so large that the Genoese couldn’t provide it. They then went south to Pisa only to receive another negative answer. The French nobles then headed to the Republic of Venice.

Venice was under the control of the Doge, Enrico Dandolo. He was over ninety years old and completely blind but he was still sharp in his old age. The crusaders had a meeting with the Doge and presented their needs. They told the Doge that they needed a fleet to transport 33,500 men and 4,500 horses to the Holy Land for a crusade. Dandolo succeeded where Genoa and Pisa failed. He told the crusaders that he could provide them a fleet, but it wouldn’t be cheap. After negotiations, the crusaders were to pay 85,000 marks – an enormous sum of money, equivalent to twice the annual income of the kings of England and France.[2] Of course, the number of 33,500 men was an estimate; there were nowhere near that many crusaders in Venice at the time.  However, the crusade was still being preached throughout Europe and when they showed up in Venice, they could each pay their part. The crusaders attended Mass with the Doge and signed a contract for the ships. The crusaders informed Pope Innocent III about this plan and he approved.

Around this time, Thibault of Champagne died. When this happened Boniface of Montferrat replaced him as leader of the crusade. The Venetians were true to their word. After the agreement had been signed, they got to work preparing the fleet. Since it was such a large fleet, Dandalo banned all work in Venice that was unrelated to this fleet. Weidenkopf quotes Philip who draws a modern analogy by saying that this was like a major international airline ceasing flights for a year just to move one client for a short period of time.[3] Venice was fully committed to this fleet which is why they had charged so much – if they did not receive the funds, their entire republic would be ruined. This financial situation is another key to this whole affair.

The crusaders would raise the money by charging a fee to each individual after they showed up. Unfortunately for the crusaders, far less people than they expected were showing up. Many went to other ports and gradually it looked more and more likely that 33,500 men wouldn’t materialize. In fact, it would be nowhere near that amount. Based on what they were able to pay, probably a third of the expected number showed up. Since such a low number of men had showed up for the crusade, the ones who did show up had to pay more. The crusaders dug deep but could only come up with about half the money.

Zara: the Forgotten Sack

Doge Enrico Dandolo wasn’t happy about this at all. He had worked hard to prepare the fleet but it looked like he wouldn’t be getting the full payment. Dandolo decided to make the best of this situation. Venice and Hungary had been fighting over the city of Zara, which is the modern city of Zadar in Croatia. The Hungarians controlled Zara and Dandolo wanted it back under Venetian control. At this point the Venetians took up the cross and decided to join the crusade. The crusaders, both French and Venetian took the fleet and sailed to Zara which was on the Dalmatian coast. The French, being in debt to Dandolo, seemed to be forced into this position. The crusader fleet reached Zara and they captured and sacked the city.

Zara Roman Forum with Church of St. Donatus in modern Zadar, Croatia

When news of this reached Pope Innocent III, he was furious and excommunicated the entire crusade. In a letter to the crusaders, he denounced their wickedness:

Behold, your gold has turned into base metal and your silver has almost completely rusted since, departing from the purity of your plan and turning aside from the past onto the impassable road.[4]

This sack of a Christian city, said the pope, was “an outrage that is already notorious throughout almost the entire world.”[5] Not only was Zara a Christian city, but the King of Hungary was under a crusader vow. Having attacked fellow crusaders, this event forced Innocent III to excommunicate them. An excommunicated man cannot partake of the indulgence offered by the Papal office so the crusade was pointless to their salvation at this point. The French sent an envoy explaining their desperate situation and begged forgiveness. The Pope then lifted the excommunication on the French crusaders. The Venetians never sent an envoy so they remained excommunicated. Nevertheless, even after the atrocity of Zara, the booty was not enough to pay the debt to Venice.

Enter the Greek Prince

At this point in the crusade, another player entered onto the scene. This man was Alexius Angelos, the son of Isaac II Angelos. If you recall from earlier, Isaac II was old, blinded, and imprisoned in the dungeons of Constantinople. Ruling Constantinople and the Roman Empire was Alexius III, the brother of Isaac II and uncle of Alexius Angelos. Young Alexius longed for an army to go to Constantinople and restore him and his father to power. Through written correspondence young Alexius made the crusaders an offer. The terms were very generous to the crusaders. Alexius would pay them 200,000 marks. This was more than enough to pay their remaining balance for the fleet and fund their trip on the crusade and back. In addition to this, Alexius promised to place the Patriarch of Constantinople in submission to the Pope in Rome, thus ending the Schism of the Greeks. If that wasn’t good enough Alexius promised to join the crusade with 10,000 Greek troops and establish a permanent garrison of 500 knights in the Holy Land at his expense. All the crusaders had to do was to restore him and his father to power. It was in fact true that Alexius III was a usurper, so the argument could be made that the crusaders were going to restore justice to the Eastern Roman imperial line.

Alexius Angelos, later Alexius IV

The crusade leadership discussed their options. Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders agreed that they didn’t really have any other choice. It was either Constantinople or a bankrupted and failed crusade – not to mention broken crusader vows. Constantinople and young Alexius were their chance to finally go to liberate the Holy Land from the Muhammadans. Once all the agreement were settled via correspondence, Alexius showed up in Zara. Thus after their crusader vow and the Venetian contract, they added a new vow to the Greek prince. The crusaders informed the Pope about their plans and then set sail for the city of Constantine.

But when Pope Innocent heard the news that they were headed for another Christian city, he wrote again to them urging them “not to return to their previous sins like dogs returning to their own vomit.”[6] He pleaded with the crusaders:

Let no one among you rashly convince himself that he may seize or plunder Greek lands on the pretext that they show little obedience to the Apostolic See, or because the emperor of Constantinople deposed his brother, blinded him, and usurped the empire.[7]

But the crusaders disobeyed the pope and listened to the Greek prince.[8]

The Eastern Roman Capital

It was the summer of 1203 when the crusade vessels arrived at Constantinople. They docked at Chalcedon and were attacked by Greek soldiers, but the French Knights defeated them. At this point the reigning Emperor Alexius III sent the crusaders a messenger with a kindly written letter in an attempt to smooth things over. He wished the crusaders well on their journey and offered them some provisions if they needed them. The crusaders, bound by their debt and their vow to Alexius Angelos, refused the offer.

The crusaders sailed close to the walls and showed the people of Constantinople their future leader, though it didn’t have the dazzling effect that they had planned. Because of the danger to the city, the defensive chain was raised, barring all ships entrance to the Golden Horn. The crusaders simply went to one of the towers, disabled the chain and entered the Golden Horn.

A map of Constantinople in the Byzantine period. The Golden Horn is shown on the top of the map.

The French crusaders were deployed in front of the land walls while the Venetians controlled the ships in the Golden Horn, presenting both a land and naval threat to Constantinople. Despite being extremely low on supplies, the crusaders attacked the city by land and water. Fighting one Greek emperor in the name of another Greek prince, the attack favored the crusaders. The French knights managed to defeat Alexius III’s troops on land while the Venetians took twenty-five towers on the walls of the Golden Horn. The Venetians then managed to set several fires in the city.

Alexius III knew that he was in trouble. Under cover of darkness, he fled the city in the middle of the night. Unfortunately for the crusaders, he took quite a bit of money out of the imperial treasury. Keep in mind that one of the things that young Alexius had promised them was a large sum of money.

With Alexius III gone, the Roman empire was in need of an emperor. Old and blind Isaac II was taken out of the dungeon and restored to the throne of the empire. The gates were opened and Alexius entered the city. Alexius was made co-emperor and ruled with his father as Alexius IV. Isaac II wasn’t the only one freed from prison. A man close to Isaac II and Alexius IV received his freedom and was made steward. He is known to history as Mourtzophlus and will become a key player later on.

The crusaders approached Isaac II and informed him about the promise that his son made. Isaac was shocked when he heard of the lofty promises made by his son but was thankful to the crusaders for what they had done and agreed to honor the promise.

Geoffroy de Villehardouin recounts the episode as such:

‘In truth,’ said the emperor, ‘this agreement is a most burdensome one, and I do not see quite how it can be fulfilled. However, you have done both my son and myself such service that if you had been granted the whole empire you would have well deserved it.’ Many different opinions were stated and restated there. But the outcome was that the father confirmed the terms of the agreement just as the son had done, with sworn oaths and with charters bearing golden seals. One charter was handed to the envoys, who then took their leave of Emperor Isaac and returned to the camp, where they told the barons that they had succeeded in their mission.[9]

The crusaders had fulfilled their end of the bargain. Two emperors had agreed to honor the promises made to them so it’s reasonable to say that this was official imperial debt owed to the crusaders. Victorious, the crusaders entered the city and toured Constantinople. A joint letter was sent by Emperor Alexius and Patriarch John X Camateros, submitting to the Pope.

Alexius IV paid the crusaders 100,000 marks which was half the money from their deal in Zara. Half went to the French and half went to the Venetians. The French had to pay a large portion to the Venetians to pay off the last of their debt. The remaining money mostly went to the French who had paid extra. Half of the financial debt to the crusaders had now been paid. The citizens of Constantinople weren’t happy about this. In their mind, Alexius IV had brought a foreign army to the city and paid them a large portion of money. As time went on the crusaders kept asking for the money but the pleas continued to fall on deaf ears. The remaining 100,000 marks didn’t seem to materialize, to say nothing of the other promises made by Alexius IV.

Although Alexius IV controlled Constantinople, much of the Empire was either still in rebellion or loyal to his uncle, Alexius III. Incredibly, Alexius IV then asked the crusaders to help him conquer more Greek land, promising to pay them even more money. Half the crusaders went with Alexius to restore the eastern Roman Empire while the other half stayed in Constantinople to receive payment from Isaac II. In the course of three months, Alexius IV and the crusaders conquered twenty cities and forty castles.

So once again, the crusaders were risking their lives for the interests of the eastern Roman Emperor. This doesn’t necessarily make their cause just, but helps to add complexity to the stereotypes contained in Greek secondary sources.

But back in Constantinople, Isaac II wasn’t paying the crusaders. So a message was sent to the crusaders who were accompanying Alexius IV to return. They returned to Constantinople as did Alexius IV because he didn’t want to risk battle without the crusaders. The crusaders still needed payment before they could depart for the Holy Land, besides the promise of Greek troops from Alexius IV to help fight the Muhammadans.

To understand the breakdown over debts and vows, it is important to understand what an oath was at that time. The Crusaders were bound under pain of mortal sin to fulfill their crusading vow to fight for the liberation of the Holy Land. Even though they had stained this very oath with the sin against Zara – and the Venetians were in fact still excommunicated – they still had a strong sense of fulfilling their oaths and the terms of the contract. Their lord – Alexius IV – had just vowed them these funds to finish the Venetian debt and then fund their Crusade to the Holy Land – besides his own personal crusading support. Then he had asked them to lay down their lives again, with more promises, which they did, trusting in him to fulfill his side of the oath. At least in the sense of the contract itself, their claim against the Roman emperor was entirely just.

The Sack

Alexius IV was now in a difficult position. He had the crusaders who were camped outside the walls and whose vessels were floating in the Golden Horn. He also had the people of Constantinople who were furious since Alexius IV had brought a huge army to the city and they  weren’t going to leave until their promises were fulfilled. In early 1204 crusader envoys marched into the throne room. They stood before Alexius, Isaac, and other high ranking imperial figures and demanded their payment. But against their own previous oaths to the crusaders, the Greek emperors chased the crusaders out of the city. The Latins then informed the crusader barons what had happened.

The emperor had broken the treaty.

They weren’t going to hold up their end of the bargain and so the friendship between Alexius IV and the crusaders was over. The Greeks decided to take action against the Venetian vessels in the Golden Horn. They filled up seventeen vessels with wood, set them ablaze and projected them toward the Venetian vessels. This failed, along with Greek attacks against the land forces.

Around this time, Isaac II died and Alexius IV was governing alone. Despite the fact that Alexius IV had turned on the crusaders, he wasn’t popular in the city. One night, Mourtzophlus (whom the crusaders had help free from prison) led a coup and had Alexius IV murdered. Yet another usurper, Mourtzophlus became the new Roman Emperor and was crowned as Alexius V. But Mourtzophlus had the support of the people of Constantinople. At this point the crusaders, who were still camped outside the city, knew with certainty that they’d never receive payment.

Mourtzophlus sent troops outside the city to attack the crusader land forces but was defeated and almost captured himself. The crusaders did manage to capture his battle standard and a holy icon that the Greeks carried with them into battle.

The knights and barons consulted with their clergy. It was determined that due to Greek treachery and schism, they were a legitimate military target. Villehardouin recalls the episode in his account:

All the clergy, including those with a mandate from the Pope, agreed with the assessment presented to the barons and pilgrims; anyone who committed such a murder [as Mourtzophlus had done] had no right to possess lands, and all those who had consented to the crime were complicit in it.  And, above and beyond all this, the Greeks had withdrawn from obedience to Rome.

‘We therefore tell you,’ said the clergy, ‘that this battle is right and just.  If you have the right intention of conquering this land and placing it in obedience to Rome, all those of you who die here having made your confession will receive the same indulgence the Pope has granted you.’ You should know that this was a great comfort to the barons and pilgrims.[10]

The other primary record of the justification says that the Latin clergy judged the Greeks to be “enemies of God” because they were “traitors and murderers and disloyal, since they had murdered their rightful lord.”[11]

Now it was true that the Greeks had murdered their emperor and installed a usurper. But notice the two reasons given by the clergy to justify the sack – the treachery of the Greeks against their lord and disobedience to the Holy See – are precisely the two reasons that the pope excluded from any reasonable cause to attack the Greeks before the fact, in the quote we mentioned above. In this, the clergy directly contradicted the explicit orders from Innocent III. Likely, the underlying justification was really the unpaid debt of the Roman Emperor.

On April 12, the crusaders mounted a full-scale naval attack on the sea walls from the Golden Horn. Somehow they managed to breach the wall and get into the city. Mourtzophlus didn’t bother trying to put up a defense. He fled the city then the crusaders proceeded to sack the city and loot it. Casualties were low but the looting was immense. The crusaders then committed atrocities against the people of Constantinople – including the murder of civilians and rape of nuns.[12] Having forsaken their vows to the pope on crusade, they further sinned against God by this wickedness.

They had sacked another Christian city, and committed more atrocities which cried to heaven.

Nevertheless in the memory of this outrage, some exaggerations have been spread. For example, it is often mentioned that the crusaders put a prostitute on the Patriarchal throne in Hagia Sophia. This is false. The Greek chronicler Nicetas Choniates recounts what really happened:

Moreover, a certain silly woman laden with sins, an attendant of the Erinyes, the handmaid of demons, the workshop of unspeakable spells and reprehensible charms, waxing wanton against Christ, sat upon the synthronon and intoned a song, and then whirled about and kicked up her heels in dance.[13]

It is obvious from this passage from Choniates that this ungodly woman indeed sat upon the synthronon, though the crusaders did not place her there as it is often claimed. According to this Greek noble, the prostitute herself is to blame for this heinous sacrilege.

The Pope Responds

When the pope heard of the sack, he again condemned the sinful crusaders:

You rashly violated the purity of your vows; and turning your arms not against the Saracens but against Christians, you applied yourself not to the recovery of Jerusalem, but to seize Constantinople, preferring earthly to heavenly riches… These ‘soldiers of Christ’ who should have turned their swords against the infidel have steeped them in Christian blood, sparing neither religion, nor age, nor sex… They stripped the altars of silver, violated the sanctuaries, robbed icons and crosses and relics… the Latins have given example only of perversity and works of darkness, No wonder the Greeks call them dogs![14]

It seems that the pope was one of the few at the time who was speaking the truth against the multiple evil actors in this whole sorry affair.


Baldwin of Flanders was crowned as Emperor and the Latin occupation of the city lasted a few generations. As Howard recently wrote, despite the unjust seizure of New Rome and the bloodshed spilled on both sides by evil men in these years, God brought some good out of evil as He does, in the form of two reunion councils and Byzantine Thomism. Nevertheless the sack and subsequent atrocities left a lasting scar on the east. The full details of the history after 1204 are beyond the scope of this essay, but we will mention a few points of interest.[15]

A few months after the capture of Constantinople, Mourtzophlus and Alexius III met. They agreed to join forces to try and take back Constantinople. Unfortunately for Mourtzophlus, Alexius III betrayed him and had him blinded. While roaming the countryside blind, Mourtzophlus was picked up by crusaders and taken back to Constantinople. The crusaders executed him by throwing him off the top of a pillar. According to the chronicler Gunther of Pairis, this pillar had once been occupied by a stylite.

In 1261, a Greek successor state managed to take the city back. The anti-Latin sentiment was growing and the memory of 1204 would be passed down for centuries.

It is often said that this sack and its subsequent occupation sealed the fate of the city and made it an easy target for the Turks who eventually captured it in 1453.[16] This is false for several reasons. First of all, 192 years separated the recapturing of the city and the fall of the city. During this period, Constantinople withstood many Turkish sieges; 1453 wasn’t the first time the Turks attempted to take the city. Knowing this, it’s a stretch to say that 1204 and 1453 are directly connected.

The 15th century Greek historian Kritovoulos debunks this myth that 1204 led to 1453. In History of Mehmed the Conqueror, he writes:

The hapless City was also captured by the Western peoples, tyrannized for over sixty years, and robbed of great wealth and of many very beautiful and costly statues from the churches. The brilliant and honored and sought-after masterpieces which had been seen and heard of by all were carried off to the west, while those which were left in the city became the prey to the flames. But loss and suffering were limited to that, though of course that alone was no small thing. Of the inhabitants, however, no one lost wife or children or was deprived of his most valuable things. All the inhabitants were unharmed and unmolested. Then, having overthrown the tyranny and recovered herself, the City regained its former state and was a seat of the empire again, ruling over many races in Asia and Europe and not a few islands. It became splendid and rich and glorious and famed, a ruler and an example in all good things, the center of learning and culture and wisdom and virtue, in fact, of all the best things in one.[17]


Very few people know the history of what really happened in 1204. It’s considered a black eye for the Catholic Church. But as I hope I’ve shown here, there are plenty of evil actors on both sides of this event, and we need to see the complex historical reality for what it is, instead of falling into unchristian attitudes of hardened hearts and unforgiveness. It’s also important to remind everyone that two Christian cities were attacked on this crusade, Zara and Constantinople. Keep in mind, Zara had committed no treachery like the Greeks had so they were truly an innocent victim. With this in mind, ask yourself; when is the last time that you’ve heard a Hungarian complain about Zara? They simply forgot about it and let it go. The Greeks and other Eastern Orthodox Christians should do the same with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Let’s move past these shallow polemics and get to the more substantial issues which still prolong this awful schism between the Apostolic See of Old Rome and most of the Greek rite Christians.


[1] For this and all other details about the crusades, we refer the reader to the excellent volume by Steve Weidenkopf: The Glory of the Crusades (Catholic Answers, 2014).

[2] Weidenkopf, 140.

[3] Ibid., 141.

[4] Ibid., 146.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Geoffroy de Villehardouin in Chronicles of the Crusades, trans. Caroline Smith (Penguin, 2009), 50.

[10] Geoffroy de Villehardouin, op. cit., 60.

[11] Robert of Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Edgar Holmes McNeal (New York Columbia University Press, 1936), 94.

[12] Weidenkopf, op. cit., 157.

[13] Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. Harry J. Magoulias (Wayne State University Press, 1984), 315.

[14] Weidenkopf, op. cit., 158-159.

[15] On further Latin atrocities and outrages against the Greeks after 1204, see Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy 1071-1453 AD (SVS Press: 1994), 199-238.

[16] This is a claim made by Papadakis, loc. cit.

[17] Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. Charles T. Riggs (Princeton University Press, 2019), 79.

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