“The Highest Enterprise Ever Undertaken”: The Venetian Side of the Fourth Crusade


              The Republic of Venice – also known as the Republic of St. Mark or La Serenissima – was a medieval city-state centered around the Adriatic city of the same name and governed by a merchant oligarchy. That governing group of elites met in the Grand Council chamber, or Sala del Maggior Consiglio, of the Palace of the Doges to make critical decisions on war, peace, and commerce. The walls of the room are bedecked with beautiful paintings by Renaissance masters like Tintoretto and Vicentino, depicting famous scenes of glory from the history of the Republic, including the 1177 Peace of Venice.[1] A large portion of the chamber, however, is taken up by a series of works related to the infamous Fourth Crusade. That fateful conflict has historically been seen as an utter disaster for Christendom, both at the time of its occurrence and centuries later; observers and commentators from Pope Innocent III – who declared the crusade initially – to Voltaire lambasted the crusaders, especially the Venetians.[2] Given this widespread condemnation, why would the Venetians, who had the opportunity to renovate the Grand Council chamber after a devastating fire in 1577[3], choose to celebrate their participation in the Fourth Crusade? Are the tales “of the Venetians who had no religion but profit and the state, and of the devious Dandolo who spun a web to entrap the naïve northerners to achieve his ends”[4] true? Could the Venetians not be the greedy, rapacious villains of this story?

              To understand the perspective of the Venetians and how it differs significantly from the traditional accounts pushed by Frankish, Byzantine, and Papal sources, we must first gain an awareness of how and why these narratives came into being. The primary driver of the Fourth Crusade’s infamy among historians is the fact that it ended up only targeting Christian cities, whether they were Catholic (Zara) or Eastern Orthodox (Constantinople). Scholar Stephen Runciman, for example, has argued that “the harm done by the crusaders to Islam was small in comparison with that done to the Eastern Christians,”[5] and his viewpoint is quite commonly held. There have been many efforts over the years to absolve other parties to the Crusade of blame for this ill – including Philip of Swabia, Boniface of Montferrat, Pope Innocent III, and the eventual Alexius IV – “but few have tried to exonerate the Venetians.”[6] This is a fundamentally biased evaluation of the facts of the Fourth Crusade which ignores the nuances of the situation on the ground during the various stages of the campaign. It starts with an endpoint in mind – that the Crusade was a disaster and that the Venetians were primarily responsible – and selectively interprets evidence to fit this conclusion. The men who led and fought on the Fourth Crusade did not have the luxury of hindsight, and were completely unable to foresee the final battle in Constantinople – and its future impacts – from their initial vantage points in Champagne, Montferrat, and, indeed, Venice.

              Modern observers have come to certain important conclusions about the Venetians and their motivations and choices that are unsupported by the evidence; these include believing that the religious motivation for the crusade was nonexistent in Venice, that Venice treacherously forced the crusade to follow its preferred anti-Christian path, that the Venetians did not sacrifice much and benefited greatly (and exclusively), and that the attacks on Christian cities were completely unjustifiable, among many others.[7] To counter these assertions, one needs to delve into the primary sources from the time, of which there are many: the chronicle of the Frankish crusade leader Geoffrey de Villehardouin, the letters of the knight Hugh of St. Pol, the writings of the clergyman Gunther of Pairis, and the memoirs of the regular soldier Robert of Clari. Even with these, and other, direct accounts of the crusade itself, there are no extant Venetian sources available to modern scholars.[8] Despite this lack of direct records, those looking to piece together a Venetian perspective can look to art, a letter from the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo, a translatio narrative telling the tale of relic transfer from Constantinople to Venice, a 1267 chronicle that is often wrong on basic facts, and medieval theories around war and justice, as well as reading more carefully into the more widely-studied Frankish sources. These disparate sources and lenses, when understood together, can shed light on what the Venetians of the time may have thought of the Fourth Crusade.

              What did the men of Venice believe was happening during the momentous years of 1200 through 1204 and how did they justify their military acts? The most reasonable interpretation of the evidence is that there was a series of complex, interlocking actions and decisions which inexorably drove the Fourth Crusade away from its initial targets in Egypt and the Levant and towards the waters and walls of Constantinople. The Venetians consistently followed through on their immense obligations to the campaign – often being the only ones to do so – and were the primary reason for whatever success the Crusade had. The motives of the Italians were not greed, plunder, and anti-Christianity; they had religious motives just like the Franks did, and also wished to secure the tenuous position of La Serenissima. To follow this contrarian reading of the Fourth Crusade, its motives, and its path, we first need to understand and explore the sources and the theories of war which dominated the age.

The Evidentiary Background

              The evidence necessary to garner a better understanding of the potential motives and rationales of the Venetians at the time of the Fourth Crusade is of two distinct types. First, there are the sources from around the time of the crusade, the early and mid-thirteenth century. These are mainly from non-Venetian perspectives – most writers are Greeks or Franks – but some accounts do come closer to that point of view, namely the surviving letter of Doge Dandolo to Pope Innocent III, the translatio narrative of the relics of St. Simon the Prophet, and the 1267 history of Martin Da Canal. The other means through which to understand the motives of the Republic is to look into the Just War Theory, a popular way to conceptualize conflict at the time.

Figure 1: Map of the Progress of the Fourth Crusade (1202 – 1204)

The Sources

              Discussing the examples of the large number of non-Venetian and the far smaller number of Venetian sources separately will aid in gaining further insight into a possible Venetian narrative of the Fourth Crusade.

Non-Venetian Sources

              The vast majority of accounts of the Fourth Crusade are from a non-Venetian perspective; they do, however, comprise a “diverse array of perspectives on the event – ranging from those of low-level knights to churchmen to barons to Greek aristocrats.”[9] These sources can shed light on the events of the campaign and the experiences of those who wrote them, but few of these chroniclers had any direct contact with actual Venetians on the Crusade.[10] In fact, there is only a single named Venetian in any of the myriad Frankish, Byzantine, or Church accounts: the ‘Blind Doge’ Enrico Dandolo.[11] That there was but one Venetian discussed specifically in all sources did not mean that the characterization of him was universally fair; unfortunately the source to which most historians go when looking for pithy depictions of the doge, the Byzantine senator Nicetas Choniates, had no contact whatsoever with the man. His descriptions, parroted by scholars for centuries, are wildly inaccurate and inflammatory and tend to influence overall ideas about the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade. One such statement referred to Dandolo as “a sly cheat . . . madly thirsting after glory as no other”[12]; portrayals of the doge in Greek and Church sources often played upon this false characterization to impugn the motives of all Venetians. Church sources, especially those from Pope Innocent III, were also very much anti-Venetian in their tone and tenor. These letters and papal bulls must be understood in light of the Pope’s drive to enhance his own power and protect his and the Church’s reputation; Innocent constantly tried to gain control of the military expedition from Rome, sending papal legates like Peter Capuano and Cardinal Soffredo[13] along with the campaign, and wanted his letters to buttress his preeminent status within Christendom. He wielded the holy tool of excommunication like a bludgeon, often anathematizing and forgiving the same people in the span of a few months[14]; his desire to remain on top of the shifting circumstances of the Crusade are evident from his letters. Innocent’s anger towards the Frankish crusaders was harsh, but he reserved most of his ire for the Venetians; their disregard for his leadership and direct control of the military affair – very much justifiable, as the Pope was not a warfighter – led to a grudge that was not dropped until after the crusade ended and Doge Dandolo died.[15] Looking at either the Byzantine or papal sources for unbiased insight into the motives of the Venetians is a fool’s errand.

              The Frankish sources, although also suffering from the issue of lack of contact with Venetians, are more balanced and some writers actually did have direct interaction with Dandolo himself. He is still the only named Venetian, but the Frankish sources have a much more positive portrayal of the doge than do the Church or Byzantine accounts. The Marshal of Champagne, crusade leader and chronicler Geoffrey de Villehardouin, worked directly with Dandolo and wrote often of him, saying he “was an old man and saw naught, but very wise and brave and vigorous”[16]. Count Hugh of St. Pol, another Frankish knight, said of Dandolo: “We truly have very much to say in praise of the doge of Venice, a man, so to speak, who is very prudent, discreet, and skilled in hard decision-making.”[17] Lower-level soldiers also wrote positively about the Venetians and their leader; the French chronicler Robert of Clari called Dandolo “a very excellent man”[18], for instance. The various sources are also useful for getting a secondhand Venetian perspective on the crusade; Villehardouin in particular quotes Dandolo at length and, although likely not verbatim, the words attributed to the Venetian can give us a degree of insight into his rationale. These sources are very helpful in gaining insight into what the Venetians may have been thinking and are far more valuable for that purpose than the papal and Greek sources discussed above.

Venetian Sources

              The sources that come directly from Venetian actors are few and far between, especially if we focus primarily on those which were contemporaneous (or near) to the crusade itself. There are three major sources we can look at that fit these constraints – a letter from Doge Dandolo to Pope Innocent III in 1204, the translatio narrative of the relics of St. Simon the Prophet, and Martin Da Canal’s Les estoires de Venise. The artwork of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio that was mentioned above was produced centuries after the crusade, but can also give us an idea as to what later Venetians found important about their participation in the campaign; three of these works which depict the three major phases of the crusade will be discussed as we go along.

              The most direct account we have from a Venetian perspective was a letter written by Doge Enrico Dandolo at Constantinople in 1204 justifying crusader actions to Pope Innocent III after the conquest of the Byzantine capital.[19] This letter was an apologia for the Venetian role in the crusade, defending the attack on Zara, the diversion to Constantinople, and the flouting of the excommunication sent by Innocent; it also gives us the benefit of hearing directly from the most important Venetian figure on the whole campaign and his motivations and understandings of the progress of the crusade to that point. Dandolo’s account of events is truthful factually – it would have to be given the volume of correspondence the Pope received from other crusaders – and depicts the series of happenings that inevitably led towards the Bosporus. In the letter, the doge explains why Zara was besieged even though its nominal lord, the King of Hungary, was protected by the Pope[20], as well as how the crusade ended up at Constantinople and why it sacked that Christian city.[21] Hearing these arguments straight from the most significant Venetian on the crusade gives us a great window into the overall motivations of the men from La Serenissima.

              The tale of the theft of the holy relics of St. Simon the Prophet, known as the Translatio Symonensis, dates to 1205[22] – immediately following the sack of Constantinople – and describes the motives of Venetian soldiers of the time. The story revolves around a plan, made by several Venetian crusaders, to steal the body of St. Simon the Prophet from its resting place in Constantinople and bring it to its ‘proper’ home at the parish of the same name in Venice; it is a mix of humorous slapstick (hiding the saint’s glowing relics in an abandoned chapel) and theological treatise, but still gives us good insight into what the Venetians may have thought.[23] By way of background, the translatio describes the Venetian impetus in attacking the Byzantines, the favor of God on the Italian side, and the holy motivations of the relic thieves themselves.[24] By way of allegory, the story shows that the Venetian crusaders were righteous even if their campaign was unauthorized and that the Fourth Crusade was supported and promoted by God.[25]

              The last Venetian source from the era that could be seen as unique and uninfluenced by the more commonly-known Frankish narratives of Villehardouin and others was the 1267 chronicle of Martin Da Canal, known as Les estoires de Venise. Da Canal wrote for a wider audience, crafting his tale in Old French; still, this story does not borrow from any non-Venetian sources.[26] Similar to the regular Frankish soldier’s account of Robert of Clari, Da Canal’s story was one of the average Venetian sailor – both were mistaken about large-scale decisions and specific details, but were accurate in describing the action of the crusade from the view of the everyman. Da Canal almost never mentions any French nobles by name, contrasting heavily with the Frankish accounts, and “depicts the Franks as little more than bellicose and mildly foolhardy cargo.”[27] The narrative focuses on the details of the sea, with accurate descriptions of tides, conditions, and vessels[28]; its narration of the process of the crusade is lacking in those critical details. Da Canal lionizes the Venetians, often skipping over Frankish participation in the successful sieges of the crusade; in one instance he declares, of Zara, that the “Venetians alone captured the city, destroyed its walls, and then invited the French to spend the winter there.”[29] These details are completely wrong, as are myriad others in the account, but they are ostensibly taken from an older, Venetian-specific story of the crusade making Da Canal’s perspective worth exploring.[30]

Medieval ‘Just War’ Theory

              Besides the direct accounts of the Fourth Crusade, we can garner an appreciation of what the Venetian crusaders may have been motivated by through the lens of ‘just war’ theory, which was developing at this time. These arguments are referenced in the letter of Doge Enrico Dandolo to Pope Innocent III, as well as being referenced in the translatio narrative and the account of Da Canal, so it is imperative to understand them to get a sense of Venetian motives. In 1200, when the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade initially gathered in Venice, there had been over a century of crusading history in the West; the concept of the holy crusade for justice against infidels and heretics was firmly implanted in the Christian psyche.[31] Crusaders for God “considered themselves to be pilgrims,” involved in “holy warfare”[32]; the soldiers and sailors of the Fourth Crusade were no different, as the preaching of crusade leading up that campaign was as fervent and renowned as any to that point.[33] Crusading soldiers “who fell in battle merited eternal reward as martyrs for the faith,”[34] leading many men of ill repute to sign up for a remission of their sins. These crusades could fight any sort of heretical enemy, whether they were Muslims in the Holy Land, Egypt, or Spain, Cathars in southern France, or pagans in the Baltic; as we will see, this justification could and was applied to the schismatic Byzantine Orthodox Church.

              Wars for God were not the only justifiable wars, however. Medieval scholars and theologians had developed a significant literature around the idea of a ‘just war’ by the outset of the thirteenth century. One theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux, was particularly influential on thought in the first half of the twelfth century; his theory “indicated that a licit war demanded a ‘good cause’,” meaning that it “had to have divine sanction, and the participants a right intention.”[35] Later scholars would expand on these ideas. Gratian, for instance, looked to the writings of Isidore of Seville and Augustine to concoct his definition of a just war; Isidore believed that a just war “is waged on authority to recover property or to drive off enemies,” while Augustine thought that a just war avenges wrongs, punishes a nation for “refusing to make amends for unlawful deeds done by its citizens,” or restores property wrongfully seized.[36] The theory, now universally accepted, that force used in self-defense was always proper, came out of this era and has influenced legal perspectives of warfare through the modern day.[37] Perhaps the most important work on ‘just war’, and the most relevant to the issues of the Fourth Crusade, was Rufinus of Bologna’s Summa. Rufinus wrote that “A war is called just . . . on account of the one who declares it, the one who wages it, and the one against whom it is waged.”[38] These ideas, and others relating to whether soldiers should obey orders to participate in an unjust war[39], would be seen influencing the course of the Fourth Crusade and the minds of the Venetian leadership.

The Course of the Fourth Crusade

              With the relevant background delineated, a Venetian perspective of the Fourth Crusade can now be teased out. The campaign can be divided into three distinct sections, each with its own rationales attached: the period in Venice from about 1200 to 1202, the period at Zara from 1202 to 1203, and the final period at Constantinople from 1203 to 1204. Was historian Stephen Runciman – a man alive during the horrors of the Holocaust and Soviet gulags – correct in his judgment that “there was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade”[40]? As we will see, the members of La Serenissima Repubblica would have strongly disagreed with Runciman’s contention, believing themselves perfectly justified in their actions during the historic campaign.

Figure 2: Jean Leclerc, Doge Enrico Dandolo Recruiting for the Crusade

The Crusade at Venice (1200-1202)

              The initial stop of the Fourth Crusade, and the place where the plan started to unravel, was Venice itself. The vast majority of the decisions and incidents that would drive the crusade inexorably towards Constantinople originated in the planning and negotiation of the crusade in Venice. Pope Innocent III laid the first foundations for the crusade with his encyclical of August 15, 1198[41], urging the knights and nobles of France and England to sign up for a sojourn to the Holy Land. Concurrently, he sent a legate, Cardinal Soffredo, to the Adriatic city “with a clear directive from the pope to enlist Venetian participation”[42]; later historians saw this envoy as being related to those sent to Pisa and Genoa, Venice’s sea state rivals. Soffredo’s mission was different than that of the legates sent to western Italy – he was sent specifically to gain Venice’s aid, while the other envoys were only meant to negotiate a peace between the warring Pisa and Genoa.[43] Doge Dandolo was not immediately forthcoming with aid, and convinced the Pope to allow Venetians a crucial concession: limited trade with Muslims in Egypt, solely of “nonstrategic goods”.[44] This focus on protecting Venice’s commercial interests would recur consistently throughout the course of the crusade.

              The Frankish crusaders, now led by the counts Thibault of Champagne, Baldwin of Flanders, and Louis of Blois, sent envoys – including the chronicler Geoffrey de Villehardouin – to Venice in order to arrange transport for the army. They chose Venice because there “they might expect to find a greater number of vessels than in any other port,” and arrived in February 1201 to negotiate for passage to the Levant.[45] These negotiations mark the beginning of the issues that would beset the campaign throughout. The biggest problem that arose, the overprovisioning of the crusade and the high cost therein given the eventual number of soldiers, has been blamed mainly on the Venetians, but this is pure scapegoating. It is clear that the major error in estimating the number of crusaders that needed seaborne transit was committed by the Frankish crusaders, who were leading the land forces. The Treaty of Venice of 1201 “called for the passage of 33,500 Christian soldiers and 4,500 horses and their maintenance for one year at a total price of 85,000 Cologne marks”[46]; these estimates were likely made by Villehardouin, “who as marshal of Champagne was supposed to know how to assess military strength and force sizes.”[47] The promises made by the Franks were, in hindsight, impossible to keep; although thousands across Europe were taking the cross, many were unfit for combat, and the total numbers promised dwarfed even the largest French armies of the era.[48] In the end, less than one-third of the estimated total troop strength materialized in Venice.[49]

The Venetians were experts at navigating the waves, and their part of the estimation regarded the number of vessels required, the purposes of each, the manpower needed, and the ultimate cost for construction and a year’s provisions.[50] Some historians contend that the prices charged by the Venetians were extortionate, but they were in reality well in line with the costs of similar journeys.[51] The most comparable contract to the Treaty of Venice was a deal reached by the Genoese and French crusaders in 1190; in that deal, Genoa charged thirteen-and-a-half marks per manpower unit (one knight, two horses, two squires) for a year, while Venice charged the crusaders fourteen marks per year per unit in 1201.[52] The Genoese, moreover, provided less in terms of supply and performed poorly on the contract, while all sources show that the Venetians overperformed expectations.[53] In the end, the Venetians built five hundred transport vessels, including special purpose-built horse transports that ensured the animals were uninjured during the arduous journey, many of which would never be used again.[54] This task was a gargantuan undertaking for the small maritime republic; Venice had to conscript half of its total manpower to staff the ships for the entirety of the crusade, likely over 17,000 men.[55] It also took immense time and sacrifice to build the fleet in the first place. Robert of Clari has Doge Dandolo claiming that Venice had to fully interdict all commercial voyages, the lifeblood of the merchant city, for a full year and a half so as to prepare the crusading fleet.[56] Given these immense costs, the fact that the Frankish crusaders disregarded their side of the treaty was very troubling to the Venetians; this concern would lead to the fateful events of the rest of the crusade. Before the ships ever left Venice, the crusaders were to have fully paid their contractually-obligated fee of 85,000 marks in four installments; nothing besides the initial good-faith amount borrowed from Venetian banks had been deposited by the time crusaders began to arrive.[57] In the end, the crusaders could only come up with about 50,000 marks, leaving a full 34,000 unpaid[58]; this forced the Venetians into a very difficult position, as the success or failure of the crusade could completely sink the fortunes of the republic.

Despite these financial woes and the frontloading of risk onto the merchant republic, the Venetians themselves were fervent believers in the crusade, especially the religious dimension. This becomes clear when looking at two important aspects. First, the Venetians did not only agree to transport and provision the Frankish crusaders, they supplied fifty of their own war galleys, fully armed with Venetian crews, to take the fight to the Muslims; the price for this was simply half of the future conquests made on the campaign.[59] The willingness of the Venetians to join the crusade was stoked by the heroic actions of their elderly, part-blind doge, Enrico Dandolo. In a famous episode recounted by Villehardouin, Dandolo speaks to the assembled Venetians and crusaders, saying:

Signors, you are associated with the most worthy people in the world, and for the highest enterprise ever undertaken; and I am a man old and feeble, who should have need of rest, and I am sick in body; but I see that no one could command and lead you like myself, who am your lord. If you will consent that I take the sign of the cross to guard and direct you, and that my son remain in my place to guard the land, then shall I go to live or die with you and with the pilgrims.[60]

Dandolo’s taking of the cross was a trigger for other Venetians to do the same, as they “began to take the cross in great numbers, a great multitude”[61]. This moment is depicted in one of the paintings from the Venetian Grand Council chamber, Jean Leclerc’s Doge Enrico Dandolo Recruiting for the Crusade, seen in Figure 2. This painting draws the viewer’s eye to the cross in the center of the image, bathing it and the priest next to it in a divine light. This showcases the religious motivations of the crusade, both at the time and in Venetian historical memory.

Figure 3: Andrea Vicentino, The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara in 1202

The Crusade at Zara (1202-1203)

              Another crucial decision was made by the Venetians with respect to the next stop on the crusade: Zara. Due to the financial issues dogging the campaign already, the Venetians needed to find a way to recoup some of the significant unpaid costs which the crusaders still owed them, as well as finding a place to stock up and spend the winter months that was not directly across the lagoon from the Rialto.[62] As crusades were “not generally lucrative enterprises,” the Venetians needed to find another method to benefit and reduce their risk; the Franks still owed the Venetians 34,000 marks in promised payment – equivalent to almost nine tons of pure silver.[63] The decision was made to divert the crusade to Zara, a fortified city on the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia, which had been taken from the Venetians by the King of Hungary, Emeric.[64] Zara was a critical possession for Venice, as it provided the first port outside Istria for resupply on the way to the Levant, as well as having access to and control over forests of high-quality Dalmatian oak needed to build the immense fleets Venice relied upon for its livelihood.[65] Regardless of whether the crusaders would have wintered in Zara, the Venetians planned to  sail down the Adriatic coast to stop at its allied cities to pick up additional supplies and men for the crusade; the diversion to Zara was a stop along the way to the ultimate goal of the crusade – Egypt.[66] Attacking Christian cities on the crusades was not an uncommon occurrence: moves by the Venetians and Pisans against Mediterranean Christian cities occurred in 1099 and 1124.[67] Zara was technically under papal protection as the King of Hungary had previously taken the cross, but the Venetians ignored this – why? As told by Doge Dandolo in his letter to Pope Innocent, the Venetians could not believe that the Pope would bother protecting “those who only assume the Cross in order to wear it, not even to complete the journey for which pilgrims normally assume the Cross but to acquire the possessions of another and to criminally hold them.”[68] This fiery account was justified in that the Hungarian king “continued to ignore his crusading vow, except when it suited him to acquire papal favors or protection.”[69]

              Venice had good reasons for which to retake Zara, especially when considered under the just war theory that was widely accepted at the time. As stated above, the Zarans had perfidiously gone over to the Hungarians, even when they owed the Venetians an oath of loyalty. In his letter to Innocent, the doge states that “Inasmuch as it was criminally rebellious toward me and the Venetians for a long while by reason of its betrayal of a sworn oath, I justly (so I judged) took vengeance on the city and citizens, according to the custom of mutual enemies.”[70] Other chroniclers support this assertion. Robert of Clari has Dandolo stating that “The people of this city have done us much evil, and I and my men want to punish them, if we can,”[71] a sentiment to which Villehardouin lends support.[72] Abbot Martin, a churchman who joined the crusade, described the Venetian argument against Zara thusly: “They said that the city had always opposed their interests, even going so far that its citizens often plundered their heavily loaded merchant ships in piratical attacks.”[73] If left unchecked during the crusade, the Zarans could have allied with Venice’s rival Genoa to significantly harm La Serenissima while its forces were occupied elsewhere. For these reasons, reasserting Venetian control over Zara was paramount to ensuring that the crusade could proceed successfully, and that the Venetians could protect their home as well as recoup some of the funds owed to them.

The issue that led to the excommunication of the Venetians by Pope Innocent III – the sacking and razing of Zara – was entirely avoidable and would never have happened had a faction of the Frankish crusaders not undermined the overall plan. Some of the crusaders did not wish to attack a Christian city, flat out refusing to do so, regardless of the legitimate justifications given; if the Venetian plan had been followed, they would not have had to attack Zara at all. How could this be? When the crusaders arrived, the Zarans, knowing their fate was upon them, chose to offer terms to Dandolo: “the surrender of the city and its goods to his discretion with the sole condition that the lives of the inhabitants be spared.”[74] Dandolo, as only one leader of the crusading expedition, chose to confer with his Frankish allies before accepting the peace – something he was not required to do, but was good practice to ensure the continuity and cooperation of the various crusading factions. This delay was fatal for the denizens of Zara, as an offshoot of the Frankish army supported by the Pope and led by Simon de Montfort[75] told the Zarans that they “would not help the Venetians capture a city under the protection of the Church,” building their resolve to fight the remaining crusaders and the Venetians.[76] This decision was an utter disaster for the Zarans, as the few crusaders who refused to attack Zara were absolutely not enough to save the city. Dandolo was furious, beseeching the Franks saying “Signors, I had this city, by their own agreement, at my mercy, and your people have broken that agreement; you have covenanted to help me to conquer it, and I summon you to do so.”[77] Most of the Franks agreed with the Venetians, and as we can see from another painting that sits in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Andrea Vicentino’s The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara in 1202 (Figure 3), the conquest did indeed occur. That image depicts the storming of Zara, drawing the eye up the scaling ladders to the flag of St. Mark’s which surmounts the walls of the city, symbolizing the Venetian right to the territory. The cooperation of the Franks on their chargers aided the Venetians, and this joint effort was commemorated by Vicentino’s beautiful work. Clearly the Venetians of the sixteenth century did not believe the traditional narrative of the evil sacking of Zara, instead seeing it not only as a triumph of Venetian arms, but as a completely justified action.

The Crusade at Constantinople (1203-1204)

              The trials and tribulations of the final phase of the Fourth Crusade, the siege and sack of Constantinople, are too numerous to describe fully here; it is sufficient to understand the Venetian motives with respect to these actions and to debunk the idea that the move to Constantinople instead of Egypt or the Levant was a purely Venetian scheme. The redirection to Constantinople was a long time coming and was primarily driven by Frankish and German concerns; it revolved around the contentious claim to the Byzantine throne of the future Alexius IV Angelus. This controversy is complex and entangled with the opaque and confusing succession of the Empire of the East, but in brief Alexius’s father, the rightful Emperor Isaac II Angelus, was deposed and blinded by his own brother, the man who would be crowned Alexius III; the younger Alexius (Isaac’s son), brother-in-law of the powerful German noble Philip of Swabia, looked to Westerners to put him or his father back on the throne in Constantinople.[78] A plan to depose the now-ruling Alexius III in favor of Alexius Angelus was hatched by a group including Philip of Swabia, the leader of the crusade (and subject of Philip’s) Boniface of Montferrat, and the Frankish crusading barons[79]; the Venetians, led by Dandolo, were explicitly excluded from these negotiations and the choice to go to Constantinople was presented almost as a fait accompli to the doge.[80] In no way were the Venetians the driving force behind this decision, “the project of Boniface of Montferrat and a few French leaders,”[81] although the deal proposed by Alexius was beneficial to Venice. Alexius promised everything he could (and likely much he could not) to the crusaders in exchange for their support: “he would place the Byzantine church under obedience to Rome,” “would provide supplies for the crusading army and, more importantly, pay them 200,000 silver marks.”[82] This bounty, even being split, would have satisfied the debts of the crusaders to the Venetians, as well as providing a tidy profit on the crusade, while at the same time allowing the crusaders – after aiding Alexius – to go into the Levant well-supplied and accompanied by “10,000 men to join the crusade for one year and . . . 500 knights in the Holy Land for the rest of [Alexius’s] life.”[83] This deal, although too good to be true, was enticing to the Venetians, and already having the support of the Franks, they decided to join the mission to Constantinople.

              The situation in the Byzantine capital was far different than the one that was promised by Alexius, Boniface, and the Franks who supported this plan; the German envoys who “assured the crusaders that the majority of the citizens of Constantinople desired the overthrow of the usurper who occupied the throne”[84] were dead wrong in their assessment. It was a serious fight to depose Alexius III in favor of his nephew, one which the Venetians led with aplomb; the heroic deeds of the crusaders are well-documented and are unnecessary to our story, but their quest was successful and Alexius Angelus was crowned Alexius IV on St. Peter’s Day, August 1, 1203.[85] The force used to place Alexius on the throne was justified in multiple ways. First, it was clear to most observers that Alexius IV’s father, Isaac II Angelus, was unjustly and evilly deposed and blinded; this wicked deed done to the God-given sovereign was anathema to the Westerners on the crusade. Indeed, at Corfu, the last stop before the final leg of the journey to Constantinople, the soldiers asked their bishops about going to the Byzantine capital “and the bishops answered that it would not be a sin but rather a righteous deed; for since they had the rightful heir who had been disinherited, they could well help him to win his rights and avenge himself on his enemies.”[86] Another rationale for supporting Alexius IV was his promise to restore the Byzantine church to obedience to Rome and the Pope; ending the schism would “certainly be highly pleasing to the Supreme Pontiff, and indeed to God.”[87] The average crusader would have been very much aware of the schismatic nature of the Greeks and crusading literature and theory of the time saw the split between the Greek and Latin churches as needing rectification.[88] This, combined with Alexius IV’s promise to subordinate the Byzantines to Roman spiritual power, made the religious motivation an important one for the crusading armies, including the Venetians.

              The coronation of Alexius IV did not end the Fourth Crusade, however. In early 1204, after stalling the crusaders on his promises to pay them and submit Orthodoxy to Catholicism, Alexius IV was deposed by another Greek contender, Alexius Dukas Mourtzouphlus, who had himself crowned as Alexius V around February 5.[89] This new Emperor flat out refused to honor any of his predecessor’s commitments to the crusaders and ordered them to leave the city’s environs under threat of attack.[90] The decision was made to sack the city and punish Mourtzouphlus for his actions, but how was this decision justified, especially by the Venetians? First, the same motivation that allowed the crusaders to place Alexius IV on the throne would necessitate their removal of Alexius V: a violent usurper had taken the throne by force from its rightful owner, and in this case, had him executed. Another reason that cropped up again was the religious nature of the promises that the new emperor was abrogating. The crusaders had placed Alexius IV in Constantinople so as to end the schism; Alexius V was now an enemy of the Catholic church and a traitor to all of Christendom, making him no better than a Western heretic or an Islamic infidel.[91] Robert of Clari relates the discussions before the final assault:

Meanwhile the bishops and the clergy in the army debated and decided that the war was a righteous one, and they certainly ought to attack the Greeks. For formerly the inhabitants of the city had been obedient to the law of Rome and now they were disobedient, since they said that the law of Rome was of no account, and called all who believed in it ‘dogs’. And the bishop said that for this reason one ought certainly to attack them, and that it was not a sin, but an act of great charity.[92]

Geoffrey de Villehardouin offers similar sentiments, writing: “’Wherefore we tell you,’ said the clergy, ‘that this war is lawful and just, and that if you have a right intention in conquering this land, to bring it into the Roman obedience, all those who die after confession shall have part in the indulgence granted by the Pope.’”[93]

Another rationale offered mainly by the Venetians relates to a preemptive attack by the Greeks on the crusader ships which were moored in the harbor of Constantinople. Doge Dandolo mentions this assault that was initiated by the Byzantines “sending burning ships against us in order to destroy our fleet by fire”[94] to Innocent, but it is chronicled in detail by Villehardouin, who praises the Venetians for their bravery. In this telling, the Greeks sent large ships filled with flammable material downwind towards the crusader – namely Venetian – fleet, which was vulnerable when moored at night.[95] The Venetians “sprang into the galleys and boats belonging to the ships, and seized upon the fire ships, burning as they were, with hooks, and dragged them by the main force before their enemies, outside the port, and set them into the current of the straits, and left them to go burning down the straits.”[96] These incredible deeds saved the crusading fleet from total devastation, which would not only have destroyed the Venetian economy given the astronomical costs of the flotilla, but would have stranded the crusaders and effectively ended the Fourth Crusade in abject failure. The quick actions of the Venetians avoided the intended damage and steeled their resolve against the Greeks inside the city. This aggressive action was more than enough, along with the other motivations detailed above, to justify the sack of Constantinople. The attack, depicted in Tintoretto’s painting The Capture of Constantinople in 1204 (Figure 4) – which hangs in the Venetian Grand Council chamber – was chaotic, enormous, and, in the end, successful. The extreme bravery involved in scaling the never-before-conquered walls of the Byzantine capital is shown in the painting, as men scramble across the masts and yardarms of the Venetian ships to surmount the walls of the city and unfurl the Lion of St. Mark. The sack of the city itself, full of blood, rape, pillage, and violence, was not unlike those of other military campaigns of the time, although it has gained an outsized reputation in history. To some Venetians, the sack had positive connotations, as can be seen in the translatio accounts of the mid-thirteenth century. These stories told of relic transfer to La Serenissima and supported the “narrative of the Fourth Crusade as divinely ordained and appropriately beneficial to Venice.”[97] Clearly the Venetians felt that they had significant justification in sacking Constantinople; Doge Dandolo wrote to the Pope that “the city of Constantinople had to be conquered for the honor of God and the Holy Roman Church and the relief of Christendom.”[98]

Figure 4: Jacopo Tintoretto, The Capture of Constantinople in 1204


              The Fourth Crusade has historically been portrayed as a Venetian project to attack Christian cities solely to please the god of mammon. This is, as has been discussed in detail, a blatant smear on the Venetians, without whom the Fourth Crusade never would have left the docks. The idea that the Venetians were motivated purely by greed and the assessment of the crusade as a failure are both unsupported assertions. The Venetians – including the seemingly ancient doge, Enrico Dandolo – had genuine religious fervor, taking the cross in large numbers and following through on their vows. The people of Venice wagered their city’s profits, freedom, and very existence on the success of the crusade, and were let down by their Frankish partners nearly every step of the way – from failing to pay what was owed initially, to blowing up a peaceful takeover of Zara, to diverting the crusade to its endpoint in Constantinople. The Venetians soldiered through, fulfilling all of their contractual responsibilities with vigor, and proved flexible enough to keep the crusade going for several years, despite the innate risk to Venetian livelihood. Doge Dandolo was the only reasonably competent leader of the forces, and showed his intelligence and bravery throughout. As Dandolo wrote to Pope Innocent III, a man who grew to detest him and his fellow Venetians, “I, together with the Venetian people, in whatever we did, we labored for the honor of God and of the Holy Roman Church and for your honor, and likewise we know we labor of our free will.”[99] The pride shown by future generations of Venetians through their embrace of heroic visual depictions of the Fourth Crusade is obvious; they, as did their thirteenth-century leader Dandolo, firmly believed that the crusade was indeed “the highest enterprise ever undertaken”[100]. Given the evidence presented, it is hard to disagree with them.


Andrea, Alfred J. and Brett E. Whalen. Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade, Revised Edition. Leiden: Brill, 2008. PDF.

De Villehardouin, Geoffrey. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople. Project Gutenberg EBooks, 2004. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6032/6032-h/6032-h.htm

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Fourth Crusade 1204: Collected Sources.” Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University, last modified October 15, 2019. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/4cde.asp

Leclerc, Jean. Doge Enrico Dandolo Recruiting for the Crusade. 1620. Oil on canvas. Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. https://en.wahooart.com/Art.nsf/O/8XZP6W/$File/Jean-Leclerc-Doge-Enrico-Dandolo-Recruiting-for-the-Crusade-2-.JPG

Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. PDF.

Madden, Thomas F. “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade: Memory and the Conquest of Constantinople in Medieval Venice.” Speculum 87, no. 2 (April 2012): 311-344. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488041

Perry, David M. Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2015. PDF.

Phillips, Jonathan. The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. New York: Viking, 2004.

Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977.

Queller, Donald E. and Gerald W. Day. “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade.” The American Historical Review 81, no. 4 (October 1976): 717-737. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1864777

Schmandt, Raymond H. “The Fourth Crusade and the Just-War Theory.” The Catholic Historical Review 61, no. 2 (April 1975): 191-221. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25019674

Tintoretto, Jacopo. The Capture of Constantinople in 1204. 1578-1582. Oil on canvas. Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Tintoretto.2tomaconstantinopla.jpg

Vicentino, Andrea. The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara in 1202. 1578-1582. Oil on canvas. Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3c/Siege_of_Zadar.jpg

[1] Thomas F. Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade: Memory and the Conquest of Constantinople in Medieval Venice,” Speculum 87, no. 2 (April 2012): 313, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488041

[2] Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (New York: Viking, 2004), xiv-xv.

[3] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 313.

[4] Donald E. Queller, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), x.

[5] Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, xiv.

[6] Donald E. Queller and Gerald W. Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade,” The American Historical Review 81, no. 4 (October 1976): 717, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1864777

[7] Queller and Day 718.

[8] Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, xvii.

[9] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 313.

[10] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 313.

[11] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 313.

[12] Thomas F. Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 118.

[13] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 119.

[14] Alfred J. Andrea and Brett E. Whalen, Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade, Revised Edition (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 39-40.

[15] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 145.

[16] Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople (Project Gutenberg EBooks, 2004), 95, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6032/6032-h/6032-h.htm . Quotes from Villehardouin are cited by the passage number shown in the Project Gutenberg e-book.

[17] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 199.

[18] Paul Halsall, “Medieval Sourcebook: The Fourth Crusade 1204: Collected Sources,” Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University, last modified October 15, 2019, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/4cde.asp

[19] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 128-30.

[20] Andrea and Whalen 129.

[21] Andrea and Whalen 129-30.

[22] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 317.

[23] David M. Perry, Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2015), 96-99.

[24] Perry 96-97.

[25] Perry 99.

[26] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 323.

[27] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 324.

[28] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 324.

[29] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 324.

[30] Madden, “The Venetian Version of the Fourth Crusade,” 325-26.

[31] Raymond H. Schmandt, “The Fourth Crusade and the Just-War Theory,” The Catholic Historical Review 61, no. 2 (April 1975): 194-96, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25019674

[32] Schmandt 194.

[33] Schmandt 194.

[34] Schmandt 197-98.

[35] Schmandt 197.

[36] Schmandt 198-99.

[37] Schmandt 199-200.

[38] Schmandt 200.

[39] Schmandt 201-02.

[40] Schmandt 195 FN9.

[41] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 119.

[42] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 119-20.

[43] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 119-20.

[44] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 120.

[45] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 4.

[46] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 722.

[47] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 124.

[48] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 723.

[49] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 131.

[50] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 125.

[51] Queller, The Fourth Crusade, 11.

[52] Queller, The Fourth Crusade, 11.

[53] Queller, The Fourth Crusade, 11.

[54] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 724-25.

[55] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 725.

[56] Halsall, “Medieval Sourcebook”.

[57] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 131.

[58] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 727.

[59] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 722-23.

[60] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 16-17.

[61] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 17.

[62] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 728.

[63] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 134-35.

[64] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 16.

[65] Queller, The Fourth Crusade, 50-51.

[66] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 135.

[67] Queller and Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians,” 727-28.

[68] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 129.

[69] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 135.

[70] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 129.

[71] Halsall, “Medieval Sourcebook”.

[72] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 16.

[73] Schmandt, “The Fourth Crusade and the Just-War Theory,” 206.

[74] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 142.

[75] Ironically, the same Simon de Montfort who would lead the massacres of the Albigensian Crusade.

[76] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 142-43.

[77] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 21.

[78] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 146.

[79] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 146-47.

[80] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 147.

[81] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 147.

[82] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 147.

[83] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 147.

[84] Madden, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, 147.

[85] Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 197.

[86] Schmandt, “The Fourth Crusade and the Just-War Theory,” 209.

[87] Schmandt 211.

[88] Schmandt 211.

[89] Schmandt 214.

[90] Schmandt 214.

[91] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 130.

[92] Halsall, “Medieval Sourcebook”.

[93] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 56.

[94] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 130.

[95] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 54-55.

[96] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 55.

[97] Perry, Sacred Plunder, 99.

[98] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 130.

[99] Andrea and Whalen, Contemporary Sources, 130.

[100] De Villehardouin, Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, 16.

[101] Jean Leclerc, Doge Enrico Dandolo Recruiting for the Crusade, 1620, oil on canvas, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy, https://en.wahooart.com/Art.nsf/O/8XZP6W/$File/Jean-Leclerc-Doge-Enrico-Dandolo-Recruiting-for-the-Crusade-2-.JPG

[102] Andrea Vicentino, The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara in 1202, 1578-1582, oil on canvas, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3c/Siege_of_Zadar.jpg

[103] Jacopo Tintoretto, The Capture of Constantinople in 1204, 1578-1582, oil on canvas, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Tintoretto.2tomaconstantinopla.jpg

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