Constantinople Captured! Ambition, Violence, and the Disunity of Christianity
“Weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity.” 1
The Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates’ firsthand account describes a barbaric raid and crimes against human dignity. More specifically, it begins to describe the horrors of what happened when Christians took up arms against fellow Christians in the Sack of Constantinople.
“Christianity” is an umbrella for literally thousands of different denominations, interpretations, and congregations. Most Americans know that the Protestant Reformation contributed to this proliferation, but far fewer know anything about the previous major split in Christianity called the Great Schism, which created the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. The tale of this division not only concerns theology and dogmas, but is one of violence and bitterness. It challenges a belief in the essential unity between Christian churches and the notion that Christians can overlook deep divides within Christianity without an effort to bring healing, forgiveness, and consensus to historical and present day disunions. Though I will try to focus on one aspect of the disunity of Christianity, many others may be explored. 2 Here, I will detail the violence that occurred between Latin-using Christians and Greek-speaking Christians, and the effect it had in cementing the Great Schism – showing how human ambition has split Christ’s church.
Perhaps the most famous example of Christian violence is the coercion and killing of Muslims in the Crusades, but a lesser known episode in the Crusades is the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.3 The fight over Constantinople is not a simple war between religions, but a complex story in which we see Christian fighting Christian, with Western crusaders motivated not just by religious aims, but also political and economic incentives. How did Christians – who believe in peace – succumb to violence in this episode, and how do human failings affect the unity of Christians? Let us first consider the historical event.
The siege and capture of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, by western crusaders is a complex event which modern historians still try to untangle. Here is the simple story.4 The Fourth Crusade set out in 1202 to reconquer Jerusalem, which had been recaptured by the Muslim Salah ad-Din 15 years earlier after an 88 year rule by Western European forces. They would never make it to the Holy Land. In order to transport thousands of soldiers to Holy Land, the leaders of the Crusade made a deal with the city of Venice to provide ships. Trouble arose when the crusaders could not pay for the ships, and were coerced into diverting their forces to capture a city for the Venetians. At the same time, a dispossessed young Byzantine prince, Alexios, was wandering about Venice looking for champions to regain his throne for him, as his uncle Isaac had usurped his father’s place as Byzantine emperor. The Byzantine Empire at the time was the direct continuation of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean, carrying on much of the legacy and traditions from antiquity. The Byzantine Empire was also a center for the Christian world, the locus for theological disputes and missionary activity, and a wealthy center for trade. Convinced by this young prince based on his promises of monetary reward and military help, the knights of the crusade agreed to fight for economic and political gain, and for, as one leader said, the “desire of glory and conquest.”5 In Venetian ships, they sailed across the Mediterranean and arrived outside the gates of Constantinople. After grueling fights, the current emperor abandoned his city, leaving it to his nephew. Having taken the city, the crusaders demanded to be paid by the Byzantine prince, but were put off, mainly because there was no money in the imperial treasury. Sitting outside Constantinople, the famed, the beautiful, the crusaders had time to remember that it was at the time the largest and richest Christian city.6 To possess the city would not only win fame and wealth for the crusaders, but it would allow the leader of the crusaders to claim the title of Roman emperor. Impatient with the delays in payment and hopeful of winning gold and glory, the western crusaders decided to capture the city in a horrifically bloody siege and take the empire as payment, founding a Latin empire in Byzantine territory. Their unstable empire lasted for 60 more years, until the Byzantines finally gained back Constantinople in 1261.7
The capture and pillage of Constantinople is only one example of the many acts of violence within human and Christian history, but it became embedded in the religious disputes of the day, putting an end to any hope for reconciliation in the on-going contemporary theological conflict. In 1054, 150 years before the capture of Constantinople, the Catholic and Orthodox church authorities had officially excommunicated each other because of several issues. First, there were differing local customs, such as the fact that in the eastern Mediterranean priests could marry, but in the western regions they could not, or the difference in the type of bread used in the Eucharist. Perhaps these smaller issues would not have led to a break in the body of the church if there had not also been conflict within the hierarchy of the church. With the growth in the political nature of the papacy, the pope began to make unilateral decisions on theological issues, such as on the Filioque in the Creed, which ran counter to the tradition of having councils of all concerned theologians and clergy to decide theological matters.8 The conflict also hinged on differing ideas of the hierarchy of the church, with the pope and western Europeans claiming to have ultimate authority over all Christendom and all bishops, while the rest of the Christian world traditionally agreeing that there were five head bishops or patriarchs sharing equal status, with the bishop of Rome being honored as first among equals.9 Things came to a head in 1054 and the patriarch of Constantinople and the representative of the pope ended up throwing excommunications at each other, meaning that the two sides could no longer receive the Eucharist or other sacraments together.10 Each side viewed the other as Christian, but in a sense, exiled from the community of believers that is the Church.
Could the theological dispute have been healed? Quite possibly. Other disputes had previously been resolved without a break in the Church.11 The excommunications levied were not necessarily permanent and the two churches remained in communication about the issues. However, the capture and sack of the capital city of Constantinople, where the patriarch had his see, put a tombstone on the dialogue, alienating Greeks to the extent that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches remain separate to this day.
Though violence in war is expected, the violence of the Latin forces against the Byzantine Greeks was especially shocking and alienating because it seemed that as Christians, the Byzantines and Crusaders would support each other. In the process of capturing the capital of Constantinople, the crusaders raped, pillaged, vandalized, and killed for three days, carving a deep scar on the psyche of Byzantine Greeks. Along with the human toll, great quantities of valuable objects, holy relics, and pieces of art stolen during the three days of sacking still adorn Italian cities, including the cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice.12 Niketas Choniates, a Byzantine historian who lived through the period, describes the horror of the sack, saying that everywhere was “weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united.”13 Choniates was especially disturbed by the violence of the Crusaders against the churches and the desecration of sacred spaces by murder and pillage, describing it as a second crucifixion of Christ. The disrespect and vandalism of deeply beloved churches and holy objects, along with the rape and murder of citizens, created long-lasting anger and hatred towards western Christians, finally breaking the last remaining bonds between eastern and western Christianity. The modern historian Warren Carrol describes the rift saying, “the Greeks never forgot the sack of Constantinople in 1204; its memory, more than anything else, has prevented the healing of the Greek schism from that day to this, despite several major efforts at reunion.”14 The three days of violence, caused by Crusader ambition and greed, broke Christ’s church in two.
What is the role of human ambition in all this? Neither the Byzantines nor the western Crusaders who aspired to the emperor’s throne were free of it, and it led to destructive violence, breaking common bonds. Violence is not a teaching of Christianity, but historically fallen Christians have resorted to violence to get what they want, and thereby gravely wounded the body of Christ, as well as those outside the church. One uncle envied his brother and so stole his nephew’s throne. That nephew wanted his throne back. Some warring Western Christians wanted Jerusalem. The Venetians wanted money. All told, the result was the sack of Constantinople.15 Human ambition led to the split of western and eastern Christianity because greed and ambition drove these men on to a bloody fate. The tragedy of this violent disunion is Christians’ frequent inability to live out the commandment of being unified in Christ’s mission to love one another and to love the world. Violence causes disunity, and disunity with resentment severs Christ’s kingdom on earth. Human failing and man’s reckless ambition for power and glory slew the mission of Christ and his disciples to create a universal body, united as one in Christ.
The sack of Constantinople has important implications for Christians and for the moral life. Ambition and a thirst for power lead to callous disregard for the good of others. Consumed by self-interest, ambition can blind one to the immorality and utter inhumanity of one’s actions, or make morality seem irrelevant to one’s end goals. Even if the desired glory or power is sought for God’s sake (as some crusaders sought to conquer the Holy Lands for God), the end does not justify the means. Christians will never please and honor God by committing violent or hateful acts, only alienate themselves from their fellow human beings and from the God of love.
Eight hundred years later, in 2004, Pope John Paul II apologized to the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for the butchery occurring with the capture of the Byzantine capital city Constantinople.16 While an official apology mitigated some of the residual resentment, the events of 1204 still ripple through history and religious relations to the present day. Despite renewed discussions between the pope and patriarch, any unity and reconciliation will have to overcome a thousand years of theological disagreements and bitterness.17
1 Choniates, Nicetas. “Medieval Sourcebook: Nicetas Choniates: The Sack of Constantinople (1204).” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Trans. D. C. Munro. Fordham University. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.
2 See Zachary Young’s piece on the Protestant Reformation in this issue of the Ichthus.
3 The Crusades in the Holy Land are certainly a tragic misuse of religious fervor, with human ambition, ignorance, and distorted Christian teaching fueling atrocities.
4 See this article for a detailed explanation of events. Robinson, Richard McCaffery. “Fourth Crusade,” Military History, August 1993. http://www.historynet.com/fourth-crusade. htm.; And the eyewitness account of Geoffrey Villehardouin for a Latin Crusader’s perspective. De Villehardouin, Geoffrey. “Medieval Sourcebook: Geoffrey De Villehardouin.” Villehardouin: Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople. Trans. Frank Marzial. Fordham University. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.
5 Geoffrey of Villehardouin. “Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade.”
6 Kazhdan, A. P. “Constantinople.” The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
7 The history of the capture of Constantinople and the subsequent Latin Empire is a great deal more complicated, but good resources are certainly available including those cited in this article if you wish to explore the complexities of the issue. 8 Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. “Patriarch.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. N. pag. Print. See also an explanation of Church councils, the traditional way of resolving theological disputes: Orthodox Church in America. “Sources of Christian Doctrine: The Councils.” http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/ doctrine/sources-of-christian-doctrine/ the-councils
9 See “Pentarchy (Christianity).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 07 Nov. 2013. Catholic history obviously tells this differently, claiming the episcopal see of Peter gave the pope absolute authority over the entire church. Historically the pope was the first among equals, given precedence, but only had absolute authority within his own territory and never had an infallible status. The four other patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople had equal status and sometimes greater importance on theological issues. For the Catholic view see New Advent’s encyclopedia entry on “Eastern Schism” For an overview of the Orthodox view see “Great Schism” at http://www.stgeorgegreenville.org/ OrthodoxLife/Chapter1/Chap1-7.html
10 See for more information on excommunication. “Excommunication.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA. Web. 07 Nov. 2013.
11 The Ecumenical Councils were key to resolving such disputes, although the Monophysite and Nestorian disputes did permanently divide the Church in the 5th century. See Samuel Moffett’s History of Christianity in Asia.
12 Robinson, Richard McCaffery .“Fourth Crusade.” 13 Choniates, Niketas. “The Sack of Constantinople.” 14 The Glory of Christendom, Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993, p. 157-158
15 The 4th Crusade never actually made it to the Holy Land.
16 Connolly, Kate. “Pope Says Sorry for Crusaders’ Rampage in 1204.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 June 2004. Web. 07 Nov. 2013
17 For information on the recent dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics see Burger, John. “Pope Francis Gives New Hope to Catholic- Orthodox Reconciliation.” Aleteia: The News of the World from a Catholic Perspective. Aletia, 1 July 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2013. and Pentin, Edward. “First Greek Orthodox Leader in Thousand Years to Attend Pope’s Inaugural Mass.” Newsmax. Newsmax, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2013
Margaret Eichner ‘14 is a History concentrator in Winthrop House, a staff writer, and the Book and Arts editor for the Ichthus.
Image: The Crusaders’ entry into Constantinople, 12th April 1204, 1840 (oil on canvas) – Eugene Delacroix, 1840.Tags: Christianity, church, Crusades, history, Islam, Niketas Choniates, Orthodox, violence, Vladislav Krasnov, Warren Carrol