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Basic but problematic introduction,
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This review is from: The Fourth Crusade 1202-04 (Campaign) (Paperback)
This Osprey campaign book is, as another reviewer put it, merely an introduction to the Fourth Crusade and there are indeed a host of "bigger and better books" on the topic, with a large number of them having been issued in 2004-2005 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sack of Constantinople. There are accordingly a number of glitches and problems due to size constraints. This, however, does not explain all of the problems that this volume has.
As another reviewer mentioned on another book - one of the "bigger and better ones" - any book on this controversial topic has to address and answer at least three fundamental questions. These are:
- Why did the Crusade end up in Constantinople instead of attacking Egypt?
- How were the Crusaders and their small army able to conquer Constantinople?
- Why was the sack of Constantinople particularly brutal, even by medieval standards?
One of the merits of this little book is to attempt to find some middle ground between the two extreme theories that historians have developed to explain one of the most shameful events of the Middle Ages, and of the Crusades in particular: the storming and sacking of the capital city of the Byzantine Empire by fellow-Christians and the sharing out of the spoils, both riches and lands, of the Empire.
The traditional explanation was that of collusion between the Venetians and the Crusaders, with Pope Innocent III as an accomplice, to take over the declining and weakened Empire. This is what we call today a conspiracy theory and it was debunked and refuted by Donald Queller and Thomas Madden in their book on the Fourth Crusade as of 1978 (and again in the second edition in 1997). They insisted on a series of circumstances that led the Crusade astray and demonstrated the absence of any pre-conceived plan to attack the Empire and sack its capital.
David Nicolle, in his Osprey Campaign little book, seeks to strike a balance between the two views. Unfortunately, he does have the space that would be needed for such an effort, so a lot of the explanations are, at best, cursory. Missing elements include the misunderstandings and tensions that had been building up between the Byzantine Emperors and the West and the Papacy since BEFORE the First Crusade, with the first attacks of Robert Guiscard and his son Bohémond (with the somewhat forced backing of pope Gregory VII). Also missing is a history of the tensions that arose every time a Crusade wanted to march across the Empire to reach the Holy Land and a history of the tensions with the Venetians and the other maritime republics that the Byzantine Emperors used to play against the Venetians.
On the other hand, Nicolle mentions that scheme that the Venetians came up with once it was clear that the Crusaders could not honour their financial engagements because their leaders had seriously overestimated the number of Crusaders that would join up. It was Queller and Madden's merit to show that the size of the planned expedition was such and the Venetian commitment needed was so large that the Republic and its leading merchant families would probably have been bankrupt if a solution had not been found to repay them. The temporary solution was to recover the port of Zara for the Venetians. The ultimate solution was to accept the pleas of the imperial Prince Alexios to put him on the throne of Constantinople in exchange for a huge sum of money that would more than cover what was owed to Venice. It is only once the prince had been put on throne and became both unable and unwilling to pay what was due that the Crusaders' and Venetians' target really became to storm and take the city. This became even more the case when Alexios IV was overthrown.
David Nicolle does not deal with the second question very well. His presentation of Byzantine forces is rather superficial and his does not even come up with an estimate regarding overall numbers. Moreover, his statements about the Byzantines being "unwarlike" and suffering from severe shortages of military, agricultural and economic manpower are not backed by any substance or evidence and may even be incorrect. If anything, the economy and the population of the Byzantine Empire was growing just like it was in the West at the time. However, the central government faced a financial crisis and its finances were rather mismanaged and raked by corruption. A lot of land had been lost the Bulgars, provinces were restless and taxes went uncollected, especially those from the aristocratic and warlike powerful families (and from the Church, which did not pay any taxes and had become the largest landowner in the Empire).
The army also declined both in numbers and in quality. However, contrary to what Nicolle mentions, it was still mainly made up of native troops and foreign mercenaries were only a minority, although a powerful one because they were over represented among the elite shock troops, of which the best know were the Varangians. The main problems, however, seems to have been a lack of respected and competent leadership, starting with the Emperor, and a lack of unity among the military aristocracy, with the main families busy plotting and feuding against each other instead of uniting behind the Emperor to defend the city. A related point was poor morale, and therefore very probably poor discipline and lack of trust among the troops so that once the Crusaders and Venetians broke into the city, there was no concerted defence. Everyone tried to save himself and the fires added to the chaos and mayhem. A symptom of this is the claim that the Varenguard tried to extort more money to continue fighting. While this might be true, it may also be a cover story for the fact that they had not been paid for a while because all the spare cash had been used up to pay the Crusaders and Venetians what they had been promised by Alexios IV
The third question is the one which is the least well dealt with. First, there are the claims (drawn from the primary sources) that both imperial palaces contained a huge amount of treasury. This is strange and somewhat inconsistent because the two last Emperors, Alexios IV and Alexios V were notoriously short of money to pay the troops or the besiegers. Second, the book does not acknowledge that the Crusaders and Venetians were probably short of food for most of the nine months during which they were camped in front of Constantinople. So, once the defences were breached, the pent up tension was probably something similar to what the First Crusaders had experienced when they broke into Antioch or Jerusalem. Third, in this case, the city was so huge that the besiegers were afraid of being trapped even once they had stormed the walls, hence some of the fires that they lighted because they feared a counter-attack.
The sections of the Crusaders that did reach the Holy Land is a rather good one whereas the piece on the aftermath of the conquest is summarized to such an extent that we do not learn that Robert of Flanders, once elected Emperor, tried to renege of the promises he had made to Boniface of Montferrat. Neither do we learn that the Latin Empire of Constantinople, because it was always short of manpower, in fact attracted Crusaders away from the Holy Land, rendering both military indefensible in the long run. Finally, I did not like the plates very much and found that the somewhat "impressionist" style adopted by the illustrator was not a very good idea.
For those wanting to go beyond this basic introduction, the best "popular" history is Jonathan Phillips' "The Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople", although he does tend to overdo the dramatic effects somewhat, and the most scholarly ones are "The Fourth Crusade - The Conquest of Constantinople" by Queller and Madden and "The Fourth Crusade" by Michael Angold, with the latter being perhaps a bit more balanced.
If you are looking for a novel, try Umberto Eco's Baudolino, which is largely based on Niketas Choniates, a high ranking Byzantine civil servant who was an eye witness and wrote about the sac of the "Queen of Cities".