Exemplifying Byzantine Otherness: Historiographical Trends in Fourth Crusade Scholarship—By Alex Johnson

Introduction: Byzantines, Greeks, and Orientals
In 1994, as the Iron Curtain began to lift from Eastern Europe, Belgian statesman Willy Claes decried the “Byzantine influence” and “Oriental worldview” of Balkan states, noting that the latent, backward mindset of the people inhabiting formerly Byzantine land was a more fertile ground for the spread of Communism. Indeed, in Europe today, “‘Byzantine’ and ‘Oriental’ are still regurgitated as metaphorical synonyms.”[1] Historian Dimiter Angelov discusses the “harsh judgements” that are still being doled out by modern academics on this long-dead civilization, and the neologism “Byzantinism” is bandied around as shorthand for complex autocracy and bureaucratic theocracy, just as the adjective “byzantine” has become a pejorative adjective to mean complicated or obtuse.[2] What processes allowed the heir of Rome—the Byzantine state—to become something apart, something other, something alien, from the rest of Europe?

I respond to the call put forward by Anthony Kaldellis in his most recent monograph, The Byzantine Republic, to study the study of Byzantium.[3] My inquiry covers the scholarship of one critical incident that shaped the Byzantine state: the Fourth Crusade. Indeed, the event defined the thirteenth century in the Eastern Mediterranean; against the backdrop of centuries of political and ecclesiastical friction, this controversial crusade provides one of the few examples of an actual armed conflict between Eastern Romans and Western Europeans. Moreover, the scholarship of the Fourth Crusade exemplifies Western attitudes about Byzantium, as authors often took sides corresponding to the parties in the armed conflict. As a result, this historiography is revealing as to the historical biases that informed modern views of the Byzantine state.

Within this study of centuries of historiography, picking out the prejudices of many historians, I group authors thematically instead of chronologically. For example, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Edward Gibbon are included together because their similarly vitriolic views of the Byzantines shaped the later historians—they form an unholy triumvirate. Other historians are grouped along similar lines, though their works may have been composed centuries apart. They share more in terms of their view of the Fourth Crusade than their place in the timeline.

Voltaire and other Enlightenment authors created a perception of Byzantium as the “Other” within the frontiers of Europe, both damaging and denigrating the Byzantine state as something non-European and “Oriental.” They generated a two-pronged historiographical backlash. Subsequent generations of historians who studied the Fourth Crusade worked to undo the damage done to Byzantine studies as a discipline: Some historians buttressed the conclusions of the philosophers; others blatantly valorized the victims of the crusade. In composing objective histories, others yet effaced the biases of the eighteenth-century authors and sought culpability for the cataclysm.

Historiography and Philology
Launching from Venice in 1202 and culminating with the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the Fourth Crusade and its far-reaching consequences provide modern students of Byzantium with a rich historiographical tradition which meanders from the thirteenth century through the Renaissance and Enlightenment and into our own epoch. Authors have long addressed the issues and controversies of the crusade: Did the leaders of the crusading army intend ab initiō to sack Constantinople, or was their diversion a product of their circumstances, both material and financial? Debates on various issues related to the crusade have raged for centuries. Did the conquest of Constantinople really make inevitable the end of Byzantine civilization in 1453? How did subsequent authors describe Byzantium, and how did the Fourth Crusade affect their perceptions of the late Roman Empire?

The nomenclature and demonyms of the medieval Roman state are especially thorny, and, consequently, discussions of exonyms, endonyms, and philology will occupy a significant portion of this examination of the historiography of the Fourth Crusade. The widely accepted term today for the monarchic phase of the Roman state is Byzantium, based on the Greek word for the city that existed on the site before Constantine rededicated it as Constantinople, but even this term is an exonym applied in the 1500s by a German Hellenist.[4] “Byzantines” would not have recognized that term during the long life of the empire. While many use the term “Greek empire” to describe Byzantium in both academic publications and in contemporary popular works, this term is a maladroit exonym applied by Latin-speaking Romans to all Greek-speaking Hellenes after the Romans encountered a small community called the Graikoi in Italy. It is not a term Greek-speaking Romans used; however, dubbing Eastern Romans “Greeks” is commonplace in popular publications and in academic works today.[5] Every linguistic community employs exonyms to some extent, but in the case of the Eastern Romans, the clumsy exonym comes to define them as something “Other” compared to Western Europe, orientalizing them and alienating them from “true” heirs of the Roman tradition, and refusing to accept their identity as Romans. As is common among authors in the field, I will alternate between “Roman,” “Eastern Roman,” and “Byzantine” to describe the people and their state. I use these terms because the people in question would have called themselves Romans, and because scholars today have adopted Byzantine and Eastern Roman as acceptable exonyms.

It is clear that eight hundred years of distance makes the number of secondary sources on the crusade daunting; I have chosen relevant sources that speak to the event itself and enlighten us on how Byzantium was made into the “Other” by scholars studying the Empire and the Fourth Crusade in particular. Given limitations of space and time, I have necessarily omitted historiographical sources that deserve their own study and consideration, such as the literature and novels of the Fourth Crusade, the material history and relics that were taken to Western Europe, and the rich tradition of the artwork depicting the sack of Constantinople.

What is lost in the academic attempt to remain clinically objective and study the historiography on the Fourth Crusade are the tragedies, both in terms of human lives lost and cultural patrimony destroyed. An unknown number of Constantinopolitans were left homeless due to the sack of the city and the subsequent fires that raged therein. Countless Eastern Orthodox holy relics and treasures of the state were either melted down into coinage or stolen and taken to Western Europe, and the Byzantine state was splintered and hobbled, unable to retake its capital until 1261.

The Doomed Crusade: A Brief History
Departing Italy, the mostly Frankish and Belgian fighters of the Fourth Crusade cut a sanguineous swath through the Balkans, sacking the Dalmatian Christian city of Zara, and landed outside the walls of Constantinople, the great city of the Byzantine Empire. Whereas previous crusades had been led by kings and high courtiers, the Fourth Crusade was led by minor lords such as the nonagenarian Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo, who had provided the crusaders ships and provisions. The crusade’s leaders had expected many more fighters to come on the quest and, consequently, were significantly indebted to the Venetians when their host was smaller than expected. The intricate dynastic politics of the Angeloi princes and emperors certainly encouraged the Crusaders to divert to Constantinople; Isaakos II Angelos had been deposed by his brother Alexios III in 1195, and he and his son, Alexios IV, were subsequently imprisoned. Alexios IV, who was eventually freed and taken to Germany, met with the Crusaders, and convinced them to return him to the throne of Byzantium with promises of money and supplies for their crusade.

Lured by the promises of Alexios and having encountered financial troubles right from the start, the crusaders bivouacked outside the walls of Constantinople and awaited their payments. Alexios III fled after the Crusader Army attacked the city, and Alexios IV and Isaakos II were installed as co-rulers. Shortly thereafter, they appointed Alexios Doukas to serve as an emissary to the Crusaders; Doukas, seeing the dissatisfaction of the citizens of Constantinople, seized the opportunity and imprisoned Alexios IV and Isaakos, crowning himself Alexios V and ruling as emperor.

Constantinople had endured and even repelled sieges from far larger hosts before the Fourth Crusade, and the walls of the city had proved inviolate since the time of Constantine. When the Crusader siege finally broke the city’s defenses in April 1204, the acts of carnage and brutality committed against Eastern Christians and their city were widespread and indiscriminate. According to Robert de Clari, as discussed below, the conquerors were beyond amazed at the wealth, size, and splendor of the city, which was both one of the last living links to antiquity and a veritable museum of the achievements of Western civilization. After the Byzantine rout, Baldwin of Flanders was installed as ruler of the new Latin Empire.

“Supramundane Wonder:” The Primary Sources
The historians who have taken up the study of the Fourth Crusade have all drunk from, in one way or another, the same font of primary sources. There are a number of extant accounts from all sides of the conflict, and it behooves this study to briefly examine them and their divergent recounting of the history. These sources would come to inform the narratives of the historians writing centuries after the Fourth Crusade. My focus is on how the historiography turned against Byzantium and the Roman identity of the Byzantine state, and consequently, the primary sources play a smaller role compared to the secondary material.

The most complete Roman perspective is that of Niketas Choniates (ca. 1155 – 1217), a Byzantine historian and senator who served in a number of appointed positions in the Thracian poleis and in Constantinople. Synthesizing classical and Christian culture, Choniates was vividly Byzantine: a medieval polymath steeped in the classical works of the Graeco-Roman tradition, his annals, written after 1207, contain allusions to Homer, are filled with ancient anachronisms, and make frequent references to Scripture. Choniates was actually in Constantinople at the time of the crusaders’ sack of the city, and his is a lucid firsthand account of the rapine, plunder, and excesses of the Franks and Venetians. Choniates’ history is distinctly a product of his positions as a Roman of high status, one made homeless by the crusade, and as a statesman who watched the destruction of the Queen of Cities. Many later historians would lift passages liberally from Choniates, and most came to rely on him in one way or another.

It is difficult, even eight centuries after the pillaging of the great city, not to be stirred by Choniates’ lament: “O City, City, eye of all cities, universal boast, supramundane wonder […] What jealous and relentless avenging demons have made a riotous assault upon you in wild revel?”[6] Choniates also evokes the hypocrisy of the Latins as killers of Christians, contrasting their rapine with the benevolent treatment that Christians received from Muslims when they retook parts of the Crusader States.

The most useful extant Frankish sources are from fortuitously different men: one comes from nobleman Geffroi de Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, a leader of the Fourth Crusade, and the other, that of Robert de Clari, provides a common soldier’s account. Villehardouin plays the foil to Choniates—he was a Frankish apologist who participated in the battles at Zara and Constantinople. Villehardouin describes the Byzantines as “Greeks,” contrasted with the crusaders, whom he describes as “pilgrims.” While the Frankish Marshal omits any description of the wanton violence against the Byzantines, he does describe the mass plunder of Roman property. “Of the treasure that was found in that palace I cannot speak,” he writes, “for there was so much that it was beyond end of counting.”[7] Both Franks write that Catholic clergy traveling with the pilgrims allowed the crusaders to attack the “strongest city in all the world” because the Byzantines had “withdrawn themselves from obedience to Rome.”[8] Clari, perhaps having been influenced by Catholic clerics, calls the “Greeks” disloyal and “worse than Jews.”[9] He describes at length, after the conquest of the city, the inexhaustible and unbelievable wealth and mystical marvels of Constantinople: “Nor do I think, myself, that in the forty richest cities of the world there had been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople.”[10]

The Turn of the Philosophe: Declamations and Miracles
Voltaire, Montesquieu, and other philosophes who propelled the Enlightenment forward often took up the Fourth Crusade as an element of their study of the Romans.[11] As their government underwent changes around them, the thinkers looked back to Rome to examine the failures and successes of that state. The way they wrote about the Fourth Crusade, including their use of primary source material, altered the discipline of history by removing God as the primary agent of progress, and replacing Him with the acts and motivations of humans. By searching for motive and meaning of the historical actors themselves, the philosophes sought to understand the impact of humans on history. Moreover, the association of Byzantine kingship with Louis XIV was a key factor that soured the perspective of the philosophes on topics Byzantine.

Voltaire, guided by his zeal for reason and his skepticism of organized religion, describes the Byzantines and their achievements in florid language, offering both praise and scorn simultaneously—with the emphasis on the latter. In his 1769 essay “Le Pyrrhonisme de l’histoire,” Voltaire discusses the writing of Roman history after Tacitus, lamenting its lack of objectivity, and more subtly, the influence of Christianity on Roman historiography. Voltaire writes, “There is another history even more ridiculous: that is Byzantine history. This unworthy collection contains only declamations and miracles: it is the disgrace of the human mind, just as the Greek empire was the reproach of the earth.”[12] This passage, dripping with disdain, sums up Voltaire’s vision of Byzantium, which would affect the scholars who wrote after him.

Of note are several philological points. Voltaire does not recognize the Romans on their own terms: he refers to their history as “Byzantine” and their state as “Greek.” This is significant to the story of trends in Byzantine historiography, because the people living in the “Greek empire” fully identified as Romans in the ancient tradition, calling themselves Romans, living under a King of the Romans, and speaking the common language of the Eastern Roman Empire. Choniates, whom Voltaire had clearly read, even made an ironic quip about his countrymen being erroneously called “Greek,”[13] (τῶν Γραικῶν) by the Latins. To the Byzantines, this term was a clumsy and maladroit exonym.[14] In another work, Voltaire admits that these people called themselves Romans and not Greeks, but he refuses to use their own endonym and engage with them on their own terms.[15]

Voltaire addresses the crusades in detail in his multi-volume work “Essai sur les mœurs, et l’espirit des nations.” Voltaire constantly revised and tweaked the text up until his death in 1778. In it, he attempts to offer an impartial vision of the history of Europe and the Near East from the reign of Charlemagne until the reign of Louis XIV. He relies on primary sources to recount the history of the Fourth Crusade, a model that would be taken up by later historians, including Edward Gibbon.

In recounting the actual history of the crusade and the siege of Constantinople, Voltaire draws heavily from Choniates’ account, and even recounts a detailed passage of a harlot singing sordid songs on the patriarchal chair in the Hagia Sophia.[16] In his reproduction of Choniates’ account, the man of the Enlightenment is repeating as fact the history of the Roman courtier and imperial historian while also applying the lens of Enlightenment reason and skepticism. Voltaire’s text is deeply critical of the actions of the crusaders, saying that, “These men of the cross, […] ruined their Christian brothers,” and it acknowledges that “Constantinople was something other than Jerusalem.”[17] In the latter quotation, Voltaire seems to argue that the goal of the crusading expedition was not intended to be reaching Constantinople, but rather that the warriors were diverted there; he later suggests that perhaps the tangled web of the dynastic struggles of the Angeloi enticed the crusaders.[18] In his quest to untangle the many webs of history, Voltaire attributes the actions of historical figures to the human condition and some of its less savory elements, including greed and lust.

Additionally, in accordance with the Enlightenment zeitgeist of the eighteenth century, Voltaire vigorously questions the particular details of the Fourth Crusade and of sources like Choniates. He even brings into doubt the use of Greek Fire in the crusader siege of Constantinople. One wonders if perhaps he doubted its veracity or that it ever existed—after all, how could an empire capable of only profane declamations and miracles master this technology that brought other armies to their knees? Voltaire writes of the fire, “If it was real, as has been said, it would have assured [Roman] victory,” comparing it to the phosphorus that was used in his own time.[19] To follow Voltaire’s logic, because the Constantinopolitans were conquered by the Latins, one of their primary military technologies must not have actually existed. Voltaire’s histories of the Fourth Crusade and his caustic portrayal of the Byzantines were caught up in the larger Enlightenment milieu of anti-clericalism and vigorous rational inquiry; to him, the Romans of Late Antiquity and especially the Byzantines of the Middle Ages were simply too ecclesiastical and too unlike the Classical Romans he admired.

Montesquieu, another prominent French thinker writing in the early eighteenth century, studied Rome from its republican epoch to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 in his 1734 work Considerations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains, et de leur decadence. In this wide-ranging work Montesquieu synthesized his Enlightenment philosophy and presented his vision of government as well as his understanding of Roman history, including his thoughts on the Fourth Crusade.

Montesquieu’s vitriolic view of the Byzantines is especially relevant for this study: he blames the “feebleness of the mind” of the Eastern Romans for their defeat, and identifies their religion and monastic tradition as key elements of the fall of the empire.[20] Like Voltaire, he regularly denigrates the Eastern Romans as “Greek” and views their state as a fallen Rome, a lesser Rome. “Greek” can be read in this context as a coded attack against the Byzantines.

Montesquieu describes the result of the Fourth Crusade as an inevitability, given primarily the lust for war among the Western Europeans and the Venetian hatred towards Constantinople.[21] In addition, Montesquieu’s philosophy of history turns away not only from God, but also individuals, as agents. He writes that throughout history, general causes and movements affected kings and nations more than the acts of individuals.[22] This may be familiar to the modern reader as a notion of “progress,” the teleological sense that history is moving in a particular direction—that things follow a certain linear path towards a particular end.

For these eighteenth-century historians, the correlation of Byzantine kings with the autocracy of France’s Louis XIV was clear. In seventeenth-century France, a renewed interest in Byzantium resulted in the printing of many imperial Byzantine texts and histories—some of which were ordered to be printed by the royal court.[23] Louis XIV may have studied Eastern Roman kings as he expanded his own power in and over the state. For authors concerned with freedom and the role of the state, this association mattered.

Both Montesquieu and Voltaire are representative of the Enlightenment view of the Fourth Crusade and Byzantium: an inferior Roman state, a feeble-minded ecclesiastical autocracy and, most importantly, a “Greek” state that was more alien than European, more foreign than familiar. Though they largely viewed the Fourth Crusade negatively, they were less inclined to criticize the crusaders themselves than the people whom they conquered. Ultimately, the ways in which each historian wrote about the Fourth Crusade are similar. Each looked down on the Romans, and by calling them “Greek,” they redefined their identity as something distinctly non-Roman and something other than Western European.

Edward Gibbon: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Edward Gibbon’s 1776 The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a canonical work still studied today, and its importance to the modern study of Rome cannot be overstated. Writing three centuries after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Gibbon traces Roman history from early on in the empire (98 CE) until the final conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans. His work, which builds on the Enlightenment tradition of objective, primary source-driven history, was a leap forward for the profession of history—indeed, his methods make him one of the first true modern historians of Rome. Gibbon’s prose is exhaustive, thoroughly researched, and his language is precise. His conclusions, however, are often reductive and unabashedly anti-Byzantine. Naturally, in any work with such remarkable breadth a historian is wont to gloss over certain details of history or to lapse into his or her particular biases. Because his work would become so iconic and widely-read, Gibbon’s obvious bias tainted the study of Byzantium for the following centuries.

Gibbon lavishes praise on the chief Venetian of the Fourth Crusade, Doge Dandolo. He writes that Dandolo was “one of the most illustrious characters of his times.”[24] No Eastern Roman leader received such praise. Of the crusade’s other leaders, he offers equal admiration. This lofty praise spills over to Gibbon’s descriptions of the attackers of Constantinople; he lauds the “fearless spirit” of the crusaders, and describes their battle tactics as “bold” and “skillful.”[25] While this may have been the case, the act of valorizing the attackers while denigrating the defenders must have had a polemical motivation. Unlike Voltaire and Montesquieu, who recognized the bellicose folly of the Fourth Crusade, Gibbon seems to largely admire the warriors and their leaders.

In discussing how a “great empire” could be brought to its knees by Franks and Venetians, Gibbon suggests that the Byzantines were “an unwarlike people, […] subject to the will of a single man.”[26] Gibbon’s assertion of the absolutism of the Byzantine basileia and the weakness and cowardice of its people would be common themes in later scholarship, though each fallacy has been conclusively disproven by modern scholars, the former most recently and thoroughly by Kaldellis.[27]

Finally, Gibbon questions the account of the battle as recorded by Choniates. “The streams of blood that flow down the pages of Nicetas [sic.] may be reduced to the slaughter of two thousand of his unresisting countrymen.”[28] While Gibbon is justly praised for respecting primary sources, his questioning of Choniates seems especially strange, given that this Byzantine was actually in Constantinople and saw the events firsthand. Perhaps Gibbon was so profoundly anti-Byzantine that he refused to see Choniates’s history as containing any truth.

Gibbon echoes the philosophes who had come before him in calling the conquered Romans both “Greeks” as well as “Orientals.” The latter term is of particular interest, given the baggage that it would acquire in the following centuries. By terming the Romans Orientals, Gibbon tried to conclusively separate the Byzantines from their European and Roman origins, and to denigrate their state, for which, as is clear from his prose, he had little respect. No Oriental state could be an heir of the Roman tradition that Gibbon admired. Indeed, an Oriental state would be more Asiatic and more barbaric than Roman.

Gibbon offers one solitary teardrop for the Byzantines conquered by the Fourth Crusade. As an historian who was well-steeped in the classics, Gibbon lamented the destruction of an unknowable number of ancient manuscripts and papyri in the sack of the city, perhaps including fragments from the Library at Alexandria: “We may drop a tear over the libraries that have perished in the triple fire of Constantinople.”[29] Twentieth-century medievalist Steven Runciman posits several plausible reasons in an attempt to explain Gibbon’s bias. Runciman notes that Gibbon chose to use only a small number of available Byzantine primary sources, and that at the time his work was written, many more sources were available from printers across the continent—Gibbon either did not know about some of the texts, including several military histories that would have dispelled his notion of “unwarlike” Byzantines, or he chose not to read and translate those texts. Moreover, Runciman states that the author’s grasp of medieval Greek was weak compared to his ability to read Latin, and as a result Gibbon may have glossed over Greek texts or even used shoddy translations of the originals.[30]

In the end, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, particularly chapter LX on the Fourth Crusade, perpetuates an anti-Byzantine trend in scholarship that has persisted in some form up to our own time. His vision of the Eastern Romans as unwarlike, autocratic Orientals separates them from their legitimate Roman heritage, and praised their conquerors as bold and noble, almost romantic European knights. In a sense, Gibbon reinforces the themes of Villehardouin and Clari’s triumphalist, apologist accounts of the Fourth Crusade, praising them while simultaneously anathematizing the account of Choniates.

The Byzantinist Backlash: Crimes Against Humanity
In the twentieth century, long after Gibbon and his contemporaries had taken their turns attacking the Byzantines, the historiography of the Fourth Crusade began to shift in the direction of pro-Byzantine sentiments. While these historians, such as Steven Runciman and Spyros Vryonis, were celebrated academics and authors, their conclusions were just as biased as Gibbon and the philosophes, albeit in a different direction.

Runciman, a prolific author on topics medieval and Byzantine, penned a multi-volume work on the crusades, with particular attention to the Fourth Crusade, in 1954. This work addresses the crusade in detail, and Runciman’s accounts of the history are nuanced. Runciman explains that the Byzantine palace and dynastic disputes enraged the crusaders, who had expected to enter in Constantinople without resistance, and that the Venetians had always wanted to attack the city.[31] By suggesting that the Venetians were the antagonists and that the French knights simply went along with their paymasters, Runciman places blame for the sack of the city on the Venetians—though when it came to the actual seizure of Byzantine property and the indiscriminate acts of violence, he blames the Franks, as they were “filled with a lust for destruction.”[32] For most of his text, Runciman remains objective and recounts the history as it was written in the primary sources; he uses Choniates, Villehardouin, Clari, and others, including the papal communications of Innocent III. Runciman wrote with an unrivaled dramatic flair that suited his hybrid academic/popular audience. But after having described the actual battle for Constantinople, Runciman sheds his mantle of objectivity and began to write as an apologist for the Eastern Romans.

Runciman writes, “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”[33] This statement seems indefensible and bizarre, given that by the 1950s, the world knew the extent of the Holocaust. While the brutal, unjustified sack of Constantinople was undoubtedly a tragedy for civilization, it on no level parallels the crimes against humanity that had occurred during Runciman’s lifetime just a few years before this passage was published. Runciman’s scholarship can be credited for sparking a renewed academic and popular interest in the Fourth Crusade as well as sympathizing with the vanquished Constantinopolitans, who had not had their own voice in history after Choniates. However, his clear bias in favor of the Byzantines and against the crusading forces seems to lessen the value of his text.

Another Byzantinist who contributed to the Byzantine apologist backlash against older historiography is Speros Vryonis, a decorated academic and lifelong professor of the history of the Balkans and the Near East. While not reacting specifically to Gibbon or Voltaire, his work typifies the mentality that Runciman and others advanced; Vryonis and Runciman reacted to the climate of anti-Byzantinism with similarly strong rhetoric. Vryonis’s 1967 text Byzantium and Europe is a taut volume that touches on the Fourth Crusade, which he sees as directly causing the decline of Byzantine civilization. Like Runciman, Vryonis contrasts vivid language to recount the sack of the city with otherwise consistent objectivity. Before discussing the crusade, he recounts the dynastic struggles of the Angeloi and uses Byzantine poetry and chroniclers to describe the difficulties that had befallen the empire in the twelfth century.[34]

He writes of the crusader conquest of the city, “The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable.”[35] Vryonis’ portrayal of the Venetians is also of note, because he sees them as having harnessed the Frankish crusaders and used them to sack Zara for commercial purposes. Moreover, he argues that the Venetians “cleverly exploited” the situation in which the Byzantine Empire found itself as the crusade loomed.[36] This portrayal of the Venetians and their leader as cunning and conniving would be picked up and scrutinized by future authors seeking to place blame for the crusade.

Vryonis, as a product of his times, reflects a Greek-cum-American perspective. During his lifetime, Greece was occupied by the Nazis, underwent several coups and revolutions, and ultimately established a stable republic. The author may have written so forcefully because he was defending his sense of Hellenic heritage as a modern Greek-American. His emotion and passion in describing the sack are clear, and this is perhaps a result of a sense of a shared Greek history with Byzantium, or that Byzantine history was a part of Greek national history and character.[37] In a sense, the Byzantinists who so ferociously condemned the Fourth Crusade were as guilty as Gibbon and Voltaire for their exaggerated conclusions about the result of the events. Whereas Gibbon had valorized the crusaders and praised the bravery of the men who put the city of Constantine to the sword, the Byzantinists who wrote in the twentieth century valorized the victims of the crusade—each side deserved a fair, impartial treatment which they had not yet received in the historiography.

The Dawn of Empiricism
Fortunately, other historians of the crusades, writing just after Gibbon’s epoch, were more inspired by his methodology of primary source-driven history than by his spurious conclusions and curious biases. Charles Mills, an English author and a student of Gibbon, studied the Fourth Crusade in detail, writing in the early part of the nineteenth century. His two-volume work, The History of the Crusades for the Recovery and Possession of the Holy Land, is a triumph of objective history and achieves what Gibbon could not when it came to Byzantine subjects. Historians such as Mills and Edwin Pears I classify as empiricists because they used Gibbon’s methodology without repeating the prejudice he espoused. Writing in 1821, Mills sought to discern the motives of the players involved in the Fourth Crusade in a way that had not been done in previous texts. Of the Venetians, Mills suggests that their motives were primarily economic and commercial.[38] And indeed, the Venetians used the crusader force, which was heavily indebted to their Italian paymasters, to sack Zara, a trading rival. In addition, Mills suggests that by conquering Constantinople and installing an ally as the emperor there, the Venetians were attempting to secure their trading routes along the Euxine—this effort to discern the motives of the crusaders set the empiricists like Mills apart from their predecessors.

When describing the siege of the city and the subsequent sack, Mills was capable, unlike Gibbon, of detailing both the bravery of the Latin soldiery in battle while simultaneously recognizing the brutality and cruelty unleashed on Constantinople once the gates had been smitten asunder. Further, Mills separates blame for the violence and destruction wrought by the Latin army; he claims the Franks were responsible for the lion’s share of the violence and sexual assaults, whereas the “more refined Venetians were satisfied with the milder crime of robbery.”[39] As a student of Gibbon, Mills repeats the claim that only around 2,000 Constantinopolitans were killed as a result of the sack of the city.

In an important philological development, Mills also recognizes the Byzantines as Romans, or at least as the heirs of Rome. He describes the coronation of Baldwin of Flanders as investing “a barbarian with the Roman purple.”[40] Whether the purple (the traditional color of the Byzantine imperial raiment and the akakia, a ceremonial object filled with ashes and held by the emperor during processions) was intended to refer to the transference of the Byzantine basileia to Baldwin or to the continuity of authority from Rome to Constantinople to the Latin Empire is unclear, but at the very least, Mills recognizes that which the Byzantines knew to be true—that theirs was a fully, inherently Roman, identity. Finally, after detailing the art, icons, and treasures lost in the looting of Constantinople, Mills closes his balanced history with an ode to soothe the pain that still lingered four centuries after the Fourth Crusade. He writes:

The misfortunes of a city may be repaired by future prosperity; the disgrace of defeat may be effaced by subsequent glory; and the sympathy of after ages for the demolition of edifices, and the waste of property, is softened by the reflection, that the tomb has long since closed upon the sufferers.[41]

Like Mills, English jurist and author Edwin Pears also recognized the important distinction in Byzantine identity, calling the state a “Greek-speaking Roman empire.”[42] Pears lived in Constantinople for much of his life and published his treatise on the Fourth Crusade in 1886, just as the nascent academic discipline of history began to assert itself in the universities around the world. Using the analytical techniques of a barrister and the methods of an historian, Pears sought to “call attention to the political aspect of the conquest of Constantinople.”[43] Pears set up his narrative to explain the irony of the Latin crusaders sacking Constantinople, as the Byzantines had restrained the Turkish and other “Asiatic” forces from entering Europe. Like other authors, Pears saw the fall of Byzantium in the fifteenth century as directly attributable to the actions of the crusaders.

Pears’s detailed history of the diversion, the siege of the city, and the sack of the city are not extraordinarily different from any other author. What matters for this historiographical inquiry is his unusual attempt to repudiate centuries of historiographical tradition. Just as Mills recognized the Byzantines as Romans, Pears actually recognized his own bias as well as the flaws of the historians who had come before him. Pears writes, “As the descendants of peoples who acknowledged the rule of the Latin church, we have taken our ideas and our prejudices from our fathers, and are in this sense all of us the sons of the Crusaders.”[44] He goes on to describe how an anti-Byzantine mindset had long been cultivated in Western European academe and in Western culture more broadly, writing, “Western Europe has been only too ready to find evidence of the corruption and effeminacy of the Eastern capital, to recognize that Asiatic influences had lessened the vigor which had characterized its government during the centuries preceding the Crusade.”[45]

Pears’s perspective is that of a foreigner living in Constantinople, which had been an Ottoman city for over 400 years. During his life, the “Eastern Question” had occupied the minds of the Western European intelligentsia—indeed, Pears lived through the drama of the Crimean War, the turbulent Russo-Ottoman relations in the later 1800s, and the dramatic reshaping of the Balkan states, formerly Byzantine territory. It is not difficult to see why Pears would place blame on the warriors of the Fourth Crusade for having hobbled Byzantium to the point of its destruction, as, in his view, the Romans had served as a bulwark to prevent “Asiatic influences” and “barbarism” from spilling into Europe

Building on the precedent established by the nineteenth-century empiricists, George Ostrogorsky, a Russian-born academic who taught Byzantine studies in Serbia in the mid-twentieth century, sought to outline and explore the internal developments of the Byzantine state during its millennium. Consequently, his history of the Fourth Crusade occupies only a small portion of his monumental work, but its perspective is one that deserves inclusion. Ostrogorsky takes a long view of the subject, examining the policies of Byzantine rulers vis-à-vis Venice and blames these, in part, for the Italians being enticed to lead the crusade. According to him, Venice sought to control the throne of the empire in order to cement its economic advantage and its trade supremacy because Venice had been given a maritime trade monopoly by the Roman emperors, which also explains the attack on Zara. Ostrogorsky paints a picture of Dandolo as a cunning politician who was the “mainspring of the whole undertaking,” and who wanted to ensure the economic surety of his republican lagoon.[46]

This emphasis on the internal politics of Byzantium also led Ostrogorsky to the conclusion that the result of the Fourth Crusade was an inevitability, after the Great Schism with Rome and after years of hostility that had pent up during the earlier crusades. He explains that, faced with centuries of tension and more recent hostility around the crusades, “Western hatred turned to thoughts of conquest.”[47] Ostrogorsky gave only a fleeting account of the sack of the city, but his study of Constantinopolitan court politics and policy regarding Western Europeans and his conclusion that these decisions led to Western animosity and a zeal for conquest set him apart as an historian of the Fourth Crusade. Instead of recounting the history as recorded by Choniates and the Villehardouin, Ostrogorsky researched the breadth of history that led up to the Fourth Crusade and based his reasoning on this evidence. Ostrogorsky, echoing the academic movements afoot in Europe in the postwar world, embraces the longue durée understanding of the Fourth Crusade.

In the 1980s, a prolific English popular historian aimed his gaze to the East. In three bestselling volumes, Sir John Julius Norwich studied Byzantium from the dedication of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of the city in 1453. Among his wide range of subjects was the Fourth Crusade. Norwich’s clear, dramatic, narrative prose and attention to detail make his popular history an interesting addition to the scholarship of this keystone event. For Norwich, the impetus of the sack of Constantinople was the dynastic dispute of the Angeloi as well as the role of Doge Enrico Dandolo. While other historians had discussed the various leaders of the Fourth Crusade, Norwich clearly centers his narrative on Dandolo himself, identifying him as the expedition’s leader, primum mobile, and conniving architect. Whereas Gibbon had praised him and others had decried him, Norwich tried to study Dandolo objectively to discern his motives and his remarkable role in the conquest of Constantinople.

Dandolo, likely 96 years old when the crusaders arrived at Constantinople in 1203, personally led the van of the Venetians and even planted the banner of Saint Mark beneath the walls of the city, according to Norwich.[48] Norwich centers Dandolo in his work by arguing that his presence with the crusading army was “the key to it all,” asserting that he directed the particulars of the siege of the city as well as the politics of the Latin Empire, including an attempt to secure Venetian power over Constantinople and the region.[49] Norwich also sought not to place blame for the destruction of the crusade but rather to identify the culprits and the leading figures who had enabled the crusade. Unlike some of the previous historiography, he firmly argues that Venice, and Dandolo in particular, deserved responsibility for the Fourth Crusade: “Just as Venice derived the major advantage from the tragedy, so she and her magnificent old Doge must accept the major responsibility for the havoc they wrought upon the world,” he writes.[50]

The voluminous work of historian Thomas F. Madden will be the final point of the inquiry into the historiography of the Fourth Crusade. Madden has written extensively on the later Byzantine period, Venice, and the crusade. Madden’s 1999 volume A Concise History of the Crusades synthesized his existing work on the subject, and presents an overall balanced view of the crusading expedition. The author suggests that the lack of planning and preparation in the beginning of the crusade was the cause of all the maladies. Instead of Ostrogorsky’s “West hates East” model, Madden proposes that, because the Franks had brought so few knights and because they were so poor, from the beginning, the Venetians sought to recoup their investments by way of conquest. According to Madden, “The real blame lay with Villehardouin himself and his fellow envoys, who drastically overestimated the number of crusaders.”[51] As a military historian, Madden also identifies that it would have been nearly impossible to summon an army of 33,500, which was the size planned for by the crusade leaders.

In his other works on the event, Madden uses rarely-seen primary sources to understand the Fourth Crusade from all sides of the conflict. His 2012 article on the Venetian perspective uncovered an historiography that, prior to his work, had largely relied on Dandolo’s letters to Pope Innocent III.[52] Madden used Venetian archival records, estate records, mosaics, and primary source texts to argue that in Venice, the complicated historical memory of the Fourth Crusade had shifted over time, from a simple “good vs. evil” dynamic in the early 1200s to a “multilayered strata of competing narratives” by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[53] Madden’s methods and conclusions seem to be the end of the arc of historiography that began with Voltaire.

The empiricists strove to write objective histories of the Fourth Crusade, pushing back against the wild biases of their own as well as previous generations. They pioneered a balanced middle path, neither praising the crusaders, as had Gibbon, nor denigrating the Byzantines, as had the philosophes, nor describing the conquest as one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity, as had Runciman. They sought meaning and culpability for the Fourth Crusade, and they tried to identify the responsible party for the devastation of Constantinople. More often than not, the Venetian forces and Doge Enrico Dandolo himself became the target of the empiricists.

Conclusion: The Horses of San Marco
Today, four horses stand guard above the arch of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, solemnly watching over the hustle and bustle of tourists in the Piazza San Marco. They are replicas of original bronze statues, likely of ancient Roman origin from the second or third century, which are protected inside the basilica. This triumphal quadriga, a remnant of Byzantine civilization, represents in many ways the tragedies of the Fourth Crusade: the statues were purloined from Constantinople by the Venetians after the conquest of the city, and their ungainly collars disguise where the horses’ heads were removed for transport to Venice. They had graced the Constantinople Hippodrome for perhaps nine hundred years when they were taken.

While Voltaire and Montesquieu pioneered new methods of writing history, their treatment of the Byzantines in the context of the Fourth Crusade was wholly negative because of Byzantine associations with the autocracy of Louis XIV as well as perceived religiosity and doltishness. The eighteenth-century philosophes sowed the anti-Byzantine seeds that Gibbon would harvest in his canonical text. Gibbon, for his part, savaged the conquered Byzantines as cowardly, while lavishing praise on the leaders of the Fourth Crusade. The works of these early authors set the tone which later historians had to work to reverse.

The anti-Byzantine sentiment of Gibbon and the like created a backlash from some, whose conclusions were almost as spurious and exaggerated as the historians whom they tried to refute. Finally, generations of empiricists sought both to bring to light the Roman identity of the conquered Byzantines, and to find those culpable and responsible for the Fourth Crusade, whether the culpable party was Dandolo himself or the Venetians writ large seeking to cement their economic monopoly and secure their trade contracts. Their methods and search for the objective truth of the crusade revealed the tragic elements of the Fourth Crusade without the ostentatious language of those who came before them—and the tragedies of the Fourth Crusade abound.

In the end, the historiography of the Fourth Crusade reveals an important dynamic in the centuries-long study of Byzantium—that early on, the way Byzantium was studied and perceived suffered from misconceptions and outright falsehoods, which, even centuries later, historians are still attempting to repair. While the unfathomable damage done in just a few days by the Venetians, Franks, and their allies can never be repaired, the injustices done to Byzantine studies can be repaired through the writing of tireless, empirical history. Not unlike the horses of the triumphal quadriga, damaged and decapitated and now put back together, the battered reputation of the discipline of Byzantine studies can be refreshed by understanding its origins.

Alex Johnson, University of Northern Colorado

Alex Johnson is a student in the History program at the University of Northern Colorado, working towards his MA. In addition to studying and writing on the Fourth Crusade, Alex is currently examining how Byzantine coinage changed in the sixth century to reflect imperial propaganda. In his spare time, Alex enjoys cultivating a Byzantine coin collection, studying Greek and Latin texts, and spending time in the natural beauty of Colorado and the Western U.S.


[1] Claes’s speech is excerpted by Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 5.

[2] Dimiter Angelov, “Byzantinism: The Imaginary and Real Heritage of Byzantium in Southeastern Europe,” in New Approaches to Balkan Studies Vol. II, ed. Dimitris Keridis et al. (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s), 2003, pp. 4-5.

[3] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. xiv.

[4] George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969), p. 3.

[5] Evaggelos Vallianatos, “Byzantium or Medieval Greece?” Huffington Post, 25 October 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/evaggelos-vallianatos/byzantium-or-medieval-gre_b_12626380.html.

[6] Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. Harry Magoulis (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), p. 317.

[7] Geffroi de Villehardouin, Memoirs of the Crusades, trans. Frank Marzials (London: Everyman’s Library, 1965), p. 65.

[8] Ibid., pp. 56, 65.

[9] Robert de Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, transl. Edgar Holmes McNeal (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1969), p. 94.

[10] Ibid., p. 101.

[11] I will use the term philosophe, from the French for “philosopher,” to refer to Voltaire and Montesquieu. Their roles as philosophers who used history to advance their vision of the world makes them neither historians as we will come to understand them, nor fully philosophers in the Attic sense.

[12] Voltaire, “Le Pyrrhonisme de l’histoire,” in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Tome 27, [ed. unknown] (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1877), p. 265.

[13] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p. 316.

[14] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p. 316.

[15] Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs, et l’espirit des nations; et sur les principaux faits de l’histoire, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à Louis XIII, (n.p., 1775), p. 86.

[16] Ibid., p. 116. Many scholars picked up on Choniates’ salacious tale, perhaps to paint a more vivid picture of the conquest of the city, or to add some authentic Byzantine hues to their histories.

[17] Ibid., p. 117.

[18] Ibid., p. 115.

[19] Ibid., p. 116.

[20] Montesquieu, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, trans. Jehu Baker (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889), pp. 448, 460-461.

[21] Ibid., p. 475.

[22] Ibid., pp. 378-379.

[23] Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, p. 3.

[24] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. II (New York: The Modern Library, [No date of publication given] 1930s), p. 1095.

[25] Ibid., pp. 1104, 1112. ­

[26] Ibid., p. 1102.

[27] I use Kaldellis’ definitions of the βασιλεία as the official apparatus of state, including the kingship, court, and the imperial office, contrasted with the πολιτεία, the Byzantine political community, and everything that contributes to the common good of the state, τά κοινά. For definitions of these terms, see Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic, pp. 32, 93.

[28] Gibbon, The Decline and Fall, p. 1113.

[29] Ibid., p. 1119.

[30] Steven Runciman, “Gibbon and Byzantium,” Daedalus 105, no. 3 (1976): 103-104.

[31] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), p. 121.

[32] Ibid., p. 123.

[33] Ibid., p. 130.

[34] Speros Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), pp. 149-150.

[35] Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe, p. 152.

[36] Ibid., p. 151.

[37] Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, p. 11.

[38] Charles Mills, The History of the Crusades for the Recovery and Possession of the Holy Land (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), pp. 146-147.

[39] Ibid., p. 142.

[40] Ibid., p. 142.

[41] Ibid., p. 138.

[42] Ibid., p. 410.

[43] Edwin Pears, The Fall of Constantinople: Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1886), p. xiii.

[44] Ibid., p. 410.

[45] Ibid., p. 410.

[46] Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, p. 413.

[47] Ibid., p. 414.

[48] John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 302.

[49] Ibid., p. 303.

[50] Ibid., p. 306.

[51] Thomas Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), p. 103.

[52] Thomas Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade: Memory and the Conquest of Constantinople in Medieval Venice,” Speculum 87, no. 2 (2012): 316-317.

[53] Ibid., p. 344.