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Siege of Constantinople (1203)
Part of the Fourth Crusade
Constantinople Mural Fourth Crusade.jpg
The Venetian Fleet entering the Golden Horn after breaking the chains that protected the city
Date 1203
Location Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Result Alexios IV Angelos takes Byzantine throne
Palaiologos-Dynasty-Eagle.svg Byzantine Empire Fourth Crusade
Byzantine Empire Alexios III Angelos
Palaiologos-Dynasty-Eagle.svg Alexios V Doukas
Argent a chief gules.svgBoniface I
Flag of Most Serene Republic of Venice.svg Enrico Dandolo
Byzantines: 30,000 men[1]
  • Byzantines: 20 ships[2]
Crusaders: 10,000 men[3]
Venetians: 10,000 men[3]
  • Venetians: 210 ships[1]
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown

The Siege of Constantinople (1203) was a Crusader siege of the capital of the Byzantine Empire.


The siege

To take the city by force, the Crusaders first needed to cross the Bosphorus. About 200 ships, horse transports and galleys would undertake to deliver the crusading army across the narrow strait, where Alexius III had lined up the Byzantine army in battle formation along the shore, north of the suburb of Galata. The Crusaders' knights charged straight out of the horse transports, and the Byzantine army fled south. The Crusaders followed south, and attacked the Tower of Galata, which held one end of the chain that blocked access to the Golden Horn. As they laid siege to the Tower, the Greeks counterattacked with some initial success. However, when the Crusaders rallied and the Greeks retreated to the Tower, the Crusaders were able to follow the soldiers through the Gate, and the Tower surrendered.[4] The Golden Horn now lay open to the Crusaders, and the Venetian fleet entered.

On July 11, the Crusaders took positions opposite the Blachernae palace on the northwest corner of the city. They began the siege in earnest on July 17, with four divisions attacking the land walls, while the Venetian fleet attacked the sea walls from the Golden Horn. The Venetians took a section of the wall of about 25 towers[5], while the Varangian guard held off the Crusaders[6] on the land wall. The Varangians shifted to meet the new threat, and the Venetians retreated under the screen of fire. The fire destroyed about 120 acres of the city.

Alexius III finally took offensive action, and led 17 divisions from the St. Romanus Gate, vastly outnumbering the Crusaders. Alexius III's army of about 8,500 men faced the Crusader's 7 divisions (about 3,500 men), but his courage failed, and the Byzantine army returned to the city without a fight.[7] The retreat and the effects of the fire greatly damaged morale, causing the citizens of Constantinople to turn against Alexius III, who then fled. The destructive fire left 20,000 people homeless.[8] Prince Alexius was elevated to the throne as Alexius IV along with his blind father Isaac.

Alexius IV realised that his promises were hard to keep. Alexius III had managed to flee with 1,000 pounds of gold and some priceless jewels, leaving the imperial treasury short on funds. At that point the young emperor ordered the destruction and melting of valuable Byzantine and Roman icons in order to extract their gold and silver, but even then he could only raise 100,000 silver marks. In the eyes of all Greeks who knew of this decision, it was a shocking sign of desperation and weak leadership, which deserved to be punished by God. The Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates characterized it as "the turning point towards the decline of the Roman state".

Thus Alexius IV had to deal with the growing hatred by the citizens of Constantinople for the "Latins" and vice versa. In fear of his life, the co-emperor asked the Crusaders to renew their contract for another six months, to end by April 1204. There was, nevertheless, still fighting in the city. In August 1203 the Crusaders attacked a mosque, which was defended by a combined Muslim and Greek opposition. Meanwhile, Alexius IV had led 6,000 men from the Crusader army against his rival Alexius III in Adrianople.

Map showing Constantinople and its walls during the Byzantine era

Later attempts

On the second attempt of the Venetians to set up a wall of fire to aid their escape, they instigated the "Great Fire", in which a large part of Constantinople was burned down. Opposition to Alexius IV grew, and one of his courtiers, Alexius Ducas (nicknamed 'Murtzuphlos' because of his thick eyebrows), soon overthrew him[9]and had him strangled to death. Alexius Ducas took the throne himself as Alexius V; Isaac died soon afterward, probably of natural causes.

The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Murtzuphlos honor the contract which Alexius IV had promised. When the Byzantine emperor refused the Crusaders assaulted the city once again. On April 8, Alexius V's army put up a strong resistance which did much to discourage the Crusaders.

The Greeks hurled enormous projectiles onto the enemy siege engines, shattering many of them. A serious hindrance to the Crusaders was bad weather conditions. Wind blew from the shore and prevented most of the ships from drawing close enough to the walls to launch an assault. Only five of the Greek towers were actually engaged and none of these could be secured; by mid-afternoon it was evident that the attack had failed.

The clergy discussed the situation amongst themselves and settled upon the message they wished to spread through the demoralized army. They had to convince the men that the events of 9 April were not God's judgment on a sinful enterprise: the campaign, they argued, was righteous and with proper belief it would succeed. The concept of God testing the determination of the Crusaders through temporary setbacks was a familiar means for the clergy to explain failure in the course of a campaign.

The clergy's message was designed to reassure and encourage the Crusaders. Their argument that the attack on Constantinople was spiritual revolved around two themes. First, the Greeks were traitors and murderers since they had killed their rightful lord, Alexius IV. The churchmen used inflammatory language and claimed that "the Greeks were worse than the Jews", and they invoked the authority of God and the pope to take action.

Although Innocent III had again demanded that they not attack, the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy, and the crusaders prepared for their own attack, while the Venetians attacked from the sea; Alexius V's army stayed in the city to fight, along with the imperial bodyguard, the Varangians, but Alexius V himself fled during the night.[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b J. Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 106
  2. ^ J. Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 159
  3. ^ a b J. Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 269
  4. ^ "Sack of Constantinople, 1204". Retrieved 2008-12-30.  
  5. ^ "The Fourth Crusade and the Fall of Constantinople". Retrieved 2008-12-30.  
  6. ^ "The Fourth Crusade and the Fall of Constantinople". Retrieved 2008-12-30.  
  7. ^ J. Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 177
  8. ^ J. Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 176
  9. ^ "Alexius V". Retrieved 2008-12-30.  
  10. ^ "Sack of Constantinople, 1204". Retrieved 2008-12-30.  

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