How did medieval Europeans deal with Greek debt? They sacked their capital city

Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204

Historians of the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) have been seeking explanations why the crusaders decided to sail to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople instead of Egypt. Some believe that the crusaders were tricked into doing it by the Doge of Venice or some other conspirator, while others argue that the decision to go to Constantinople was almost an accident, where unforeseen events led to the crusader army.

But Savvas Neocleous, writing in the Journal of Medieval History, states “the real reason for the diversion to Constantinople in 1203 by the Venetians and the crusaders, and for their subsequent attack on the imperial capital in 1204, was a simpler and, in their minds, increasingly pressing concern: the payment of outstanding debts.”


Neocleous’ article, Financial, chivalric or religious? The motives of the Fourth Crusaders reconsidered, reconstructs the events  of the Fourth Crusade, and shows the crucial role a 34,000 silver mark debt owed by the Frankish leaders of the Crusade to the Venetians, played in the story. This debt came from an April 1201 agreement between several important barons and the Venetian authorities. Neocleous writes that the crusaders had promised to pay the Venetians 85 000 silver marks to help them transport across the sea what they expected to be 33500 men. But when only about a third of those crusaders showed up  at Venice, their leaders could not come up with all the money they owed, leaving them in debt to the Venetians to the amount of 34,000 silver marks.

Neocleous explains “while the crusaders were wintering at Zara (in late 1202), they were approached by envoys from Philip of Swabia. The envoys delivered a proposal made jointly by Philip and his brother-in-law, Prince Alexios, son of the deposed Byzantine Emperor Isaak II (1185–95, 1203–4) – Philip had married Alexios’ sister Irene. According to this proposal, if the crusade on its way to the East were to restore Alexios and his father to the throne of Byzantium, the patriarchate of Constantinople would be obliged to submit to the Roman Church and the crusaders would receive 200,000 silver marks, as well as provisions. Moreover, Alexios would join the crusade as it continued on to its final destination, or would provide it with an army of 10,000 men for one year.”

The offer split the crusaders – many were vehemently opposed to making a detour from Egypt to assist the Byzantine claimant, but Neocleous shows the those Frankish leaders who were in debt to the Venetians were the ones who were most eager to accept the deal.  Neocleous adds that while these crusade leaders tried to promote the idea that they were more interested in the provisions that the Byzantine emperor could supply, or that they were religiously-minded and hoped to bring the Greek church under Papal authority, these in fact were just excuses with the real agenda being to get the Byzantine money. Even Pope Innocent III was not fooled by their claims, and wrote to the crusader leadership that they “‘might claim that they laboured to this end [ecclesiastical unity]; nevertheless, it seems to other people that what they did they did more so to justify themselves than out of devotion to the Church.”


The fleet of the Fourth Crusade did make its way to Constantinople, where Prince Alexios was able to take control of the Byzantine throne, becoming Alexios IV. But it soon became clear that he could not deliver on his end of the deal and pay the crusaders the 200 000 silver marks he owed them.

Neocleous writes:

The crusaders’ only concern was to extract every penny of the money due to them. When, after mid-November 1203, Alexios IV began to cool in his attitude towards the crusaders and made only token payments to them, the crusading leaders, according to Villehardouin, ‘often sent to him [Alexios IV] and asked him for the payment of the moneys due, as he had covenanted’. Similarly, Robert of Clari records that the crusading leaders twice ‘asked the emperor for their payment’. In early December, after the flow of funds had ceased altogether, the barons finally decided to send envoys to Alexios to ask him to honour their contract, otherwise the crusaders ‘would seek their due by any means they could’. One of the emissaries sent to the imperial palace was Villehardouin. According to his first-hand account, upon admission to the audience chamber, the crusader envoys demanded that the emperor fulfil his commitments to the crusaders. If he failed to do so, the crusaders would ‘strive to obtain their due by all the means they could’. The rank- and-file crusaders were not ignorant of this ultimatum. Robert of Clari records that ‘all the counts and leaders of the army gathered and went to the emperor’s palace and demanded their money at once … [I]f he did not pay them, they would seize so much of his property that they would be paid’.

Alexios IV

Alexios IV’s dispute with the crusaders over money was not his only problem – by January 1204, the people of Constantinople had risen up in protest against their new ruler, and on the night of January 27th he was overthrown and imprisoned (and would be strangled to death a few days later).  But this not change the situation for the crusaders – they soon approached the new ruler, Alexios V, demanding 5000 pounds of gold,  which was the equivalent of about 90,000 silver marks, the amount that Alexios IV still owed them. When the new Byzantine emperor refused, the Crusaders decided the only way to recoup their debts was to attack the city, which led to its fall on April 12, 1204. Constantinople was thoroughly looted, with hundreds of Christian relics being stolen and sent back to Western Europe. For many observers and historians, this attack on a Christian city is a seen as a low-point in history of the crusade


Savvas Neocleous concludes that “despite vigorously proclaiming a range of high-minded motives when it suited them, the real reason for the diversion to Constantinople in 1203 by the Venetians and the crusaders, and for their subsequent attack on the imperial capital in 1204, was a simpler and, in their minds, increasingly pressing concern: the payment of outstanding debts.”

Neocleous is currently a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto, where he works on Byzantine history and the crusades. His article, “Financial, chivalric or religious? The motives of the Fourth Crusaders reconsidered,” appears in the Journal of Medieval History, Volume 38, Issue 2 (2012).

Click here to read more about the Fourth Crusade 



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