Alexius IV Angelus

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Alexius IV Angelus

Byzantine Empire


Byzantine emperor

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"[The Crusaders] sent two knights to the emperor [Alexius IV] and demanded again that he should pay them. He replied to the messengers that he would pay nothing, he had already paid too much, and that he was not afraid of anyone."

—Robert de Clari, "The Summons to Alexis," in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook,

Alexius IV was one of a long line of emperors of the Byzantine Empire, the eastern Roman Empire. Though his reign lasted only six months, his time spent as head of the empire had far-reaching effects. Alexius IV persuaded the Christian soldiers, or Crusaders, who were gathering for the Fourth Crusade (1202–04) against the Muslims in Egypt to set sail first for his home in Constantinople and put him on the throne as emperor of the Byzantine Empire. If they did this, Alexius IV promised, they would receive enough money, weapons, and ships to fight their Crusade in Egypt as originally planned. But such things do not always work out as expected. Alexius's invitation to the Crusaders led to the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the end of Byzantine rule in the capital and surrounding lands for more than half a century. Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire never recovered from this incident. Though Constantinople was recaptured in 1261 and survived until the Turks took it in 1453, the Byzantine Empire had been struck a severe blow in 1204. Alexius IV was eventually put to death by yet another Alexius, his successor, Alexius V.

Plots and Stolen Kingdoms

Based on different sources, the Byzantine Empire was between seven hundred and nine hundred years old by the end of the twelfth century. It had gone through numerous family dynasties of emperors, beginning with the Constantinian family and its founder, Constantine I (ruled 306–337), the person who had moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Asia Minor, setting up headquarters in the city of Byzantion. The empire that grew out of this move was called the Byzantine Empire, after the name of its major city. By the Middle Ages, the city had changed its name to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in honor of its founder. When Constantine's reign ended in 337, the empire was run by eight different dynasties over the next 867 years. The Comnenan dynasty ruled from 1081 to 1185; its last emperor, Andronicus I, was so unpopular in Constantinople that his own citizens rebelled and killed him. After that, the Angelan family took over, with Isaac II Angelus becoming basileus, or emperor, of a kingdom that included much of present-day Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans.

Ruling Byzantium, as the empire was also called, was always a messy business. The far-flung lands of the empire were constantly rebelling against Constantinople, and there were infighting and court intrigues, or plots, in the capital. This meant that the emperor had to stay alert to enemies all around. Power could change hands by the simple addition of a drop of poison in the emperor's soup. The word "Byzantine" entered the English language as a description not only of the empire and art of the time but also of anything that was very complex and difficult to understand.

That perfectly describes the situation of the Byzantine emperor. Isaac II immediately had his hands full with rebellions in Bulgaria and Serbia and the arrival of the Third Crusade (1189–92)—or at least the German members of that unsuccessful coalition, or partnership, to win back the Holy Land from the Muslims. In fact, the Germans, under King Frederick I, had come to conquer Constantinople, but Frederick I died en route. Crusades had never been an easy business for the Byzantines. Old rivalries between the western and eastern kingdoms, and between the Roman Catholic Church of the European kingdoms and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Byzantium, were stirred up. Though these two branches of Christianity should have been friends and allies, in truth there was a deep and lasting suspicion between the two. Such distrust was felt between the ordinary citizens of the two areas as well. The Latins of Europe and the Greeks of the Byzantine region did not get on well. Emperors of Byzantium looked at Europe as just one of many possible threats.

Isaac II overlooked one threat he should have been aware of—namely his own family. So busy was he dealing with outside threats to the Byzantine Empire that he forgot internal ones and lost control of the political situation in Constantinople. In 1195, with Isaac II away in the Greek region of Thrace, Alexius III, the brother of Isaac II, and Alexius's powerful wife, Euphrosyne, stole the throne with the support of army officers. When Alexius III later captured his brother, he had Isaac II blinded, so that he would be unfit to rule again as emperor, and put him under house arrest. Alexius III and his wife were so busy paying off the bribes that had put him in office that he was an ineffective emperor. His wife was better at governing than he was, but in the end there was much corruption at his court, and Alexius III continued to lose parts of the empire.

Alexius IV Angelus grew up amid all these intrigues. After the overthrow of his father, Isaac II, Alexius IV was also imprisoned by his uncle, Alexius III. He spent six years in confinement before he was finally able to escape in 1201 and make his way to Europe, where his sister was married to a German noble.

The Fourth Crusade

Alexius IV must have known what he was getting into when he asked the nobles of Europe for help, for he had grown up with the complex relations among various nobles in Constantinople. He must also have known about the plans in Europe to conquer Constantinople. The German emperor Henry VI wanted to become master of Constantinople, and it was his brother, Philip of Swabia, to whom Alexius IV's sister, Irene, was married. Philip happily took this young man under his wing, and together they came up with a plan to enable Alexius IV to regain his rightful position.

It so happened that their plan matched the needs of a Crusader army gathering at the Italian port of Venice. The Crusaders, under the leadership of Boniface of Montferrat, had been stuck in Venice for some months because they could not afford to pay the Venetians the fee required to transport them to Egypt, where they planned to fight a new Crusade against the Muslims. The Venetians, led by Enrico Dandolo, their eighty-five-year-old doge (ruler), were pressuring the Crusaders to help them put down a rebellion in one of the cities of their empire in return for part of the fee to transport them. These Christian knights did not feel good about attacking other Christians, for the rebellious city was Zara, on the Yugoslavian coast.

Around this time Philip of Swabia and Alexius IV appeared and presented their plan for liberating Constantinople. According to the plan, Alexius IV would help the Crusaders pay off their debt to the Venetians and finance the rest of their Crusade in Egypt if they agreed to get rid of his uncle, Alexius III. This was too good a bargain to pass up, and on October 1, 1202, with Alexius IV in their company, the Crusaders sailed out of Venice. They made quick work of Zara, capturing it for Venice, and after wintering there they sailed on to Constantinople in April 1203. By this time Innocent III (see entry), the pope in Rome, had heard of these battles against Christians and excommunicated, or expelled, the Crusaders from the church. They had nothing more to lose by fighting in Constantinople and arrived in the city by the end of June 1203. Alexius IV rode below the gates of the city, telling his people to throw Alexius III out and to restore their rightful emperor. But the people of Constantinople would not support anyone who, in turn, was supported by the hated Latins. There would have to be a battle for the city.

This battle began on July 5, 1203, when the Venetian army was able to break the huge chain blocking the harbor. Then the Crusaders attacked Constantinople by both sea and land. On July 17 the Venetians, led by their ancient doge, were the first to land, and the battle seemed to be favoring the Crusaders. Alexius III grew nervous. Instead of counterattacking, he fled, taking five tons of gold and one daughter with him. Now it was Alexius IV's turn to take the throne. He was surprised to discover that the Byzantines had already released his father, Isaac II, from prison and, despite his blindness, had made him emperor once again. However, with pressure from the Crusaders, Alexius IV was declared co-emperor.

The Sack of Constantinople

Now it was Alexius IV's turn to keep his bargain. He tried to raise money to pay off the Crusaders by increasing the taxes of the citizens of Constantinople, but this made him unpopular with the people, who also blamed him for bringing the Latins to conquer their city. He attempted to get money from church lands, but this action also angered the people and powerful church officers. The Crusader army, camped near the city, grew restless, and trouble between this army and the citizens of Constantinople was sure to follow. As the winter approached, relations between the Crusaders and Alexius IV broke down. His promises of riches for the Crusaders did not come true, although he managed to raise half the promised funds. He began to withdraw from public life, spending more and more time in his palace. The aged Venetian doge finally confronted Alexius IV, as recorded by Robert de Clari:

Alexius, what do you think you are going to do? Remember we have raised you from a very humble estate. We have made you lord and ... crowned you emperor. Will you not keep your agreement with us and will you not do more? No, replied the emperor, I will not do anything more. No?, said the doge, "wretched boy, we have raised you from the mire, and we will throw you into the mire again and be sure that I will do you all the injury that I can, from this time on.

In the end, however, it was not the Crusaders who unseated Alexius IV but a rival at court, another Alexius nicknamed "Murzuphlus," or "the Bushy-Eyebrowed." A member of the powerful Ducas family, Alexius Murzuphlus brought anti-Latins together and took power, strangling Alexius IV, throwing his father Isaac II back into prison, and declaring himself Emperor Alexius V. He told the Crusaders that there would be no more payments to them.

This was all the Crusaders needed to set them at the walls of Constantinople once again. On April 9, 1204, they struck the city, agreeing to divide the stolen goods among themselves. Though their initial attack was driven back, the Crusaders struck again on April 13 and broke through the city walls. The Crusaders killed men, women, and children and looted private homes and churches. Much of the city was burned, and its treasures were divided among the Venetians, the German emperor, and the Crusaders, with the Venetians taking the biggest share. Alexius V fled the city but was later captured by Alexius III, who blinded him as he had done his own brother and then turned him over to the Crusaders to finish him off.

With the emperors dead, the Crusaders set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople and elected the first Latin emperor, Baldwin I. This put an end to the Fourth Crusade, however,

The Loot and the Shroud

Ships loaded with loot set sail from Constantinople for Europe after the sack of the city in 1204. Gold and jewels were among this booty, as were works of art and church relics, objects held to be holy because of their association with saints. Even the four horses that now stand so gracefully atop the Basilica of Saint Mark's in Venice originally came from Constantinople. Lands were also part of the stolen goods. Venice won territory on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea as well as islands in Greece, including Crete.

The medieval chronicler Nicetas Choniates gives this account of the looting:

How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious [evil] men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden underfoot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about. They snatched the precious reliquaries [vessels holding holy objects], thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups, precursors of Anti-Christ [one who opposes Christ], authors and heralds of his nefarious deeds which we momentarily expect. Manifestly, indeed, by that race then, just as formerly, Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments were divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground.

One of the most famous objects to be looted in 1204 was the Shroud of Turin, thought to be the linen cloth placed over the face of Jesus after he was crucified, which is supposed to bear a likeness of his face as a result. The Shroud of Turin had a long history before it ended up in the bag of a Crusader. This cloth first turned up in 544, in Edessa, a city now part of southern Turkey. While repairs were being made to the outer walls of that city, the cloth was discovered and then placed in a church for safekeeping. Called the Edessa Cloth, it became famous throughout the Christian world, for people believed that the shadowy image of Christ that could be seen on the cloth was a miracle and not the work of a human being. By 1204 this cloth had made its way into the treasury of Constantinople. When the city fell to Crusaders, it was among the objects stolen. It was taken to Athens and began to be displayed in Europe, where it has remained ever since. Kept in Italy, it was given the name Shroud of Turin and has been studied widely by scientists and the faithful to discover the secret behind the sacred image many claim to see on it. To this day the mystery of the cloth has not been fully explained.

for the new Latin Kingdom had its hands full fighting enemies on all sides. The idea of moving on to Egypt and from there to Jerusalem was put on hold until the next Crusade. During his very brief reign, Alexius IV had managed to so weaken the Byzantine Empire that it would never recover. By inviting the Crusader army to Constantinople, he signed a virtual death warrant for his empire. The only real winners of the Fourth Crusade were the Venetians, who gained loot and new territories to be added to their own expanding commercial empire.

For More Information


Angold, Michael. The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2003.

Bartlett, Wayne B. An Ungodly War: The Sack of Constantinople and theFourth Crusade. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2000.

Queller, Donald, and Thomas F. Madden. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Web Sites

"Constantinople." New Advent. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

"Fourth Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

"Internet Medieval Sourcebook: The Fourth Crusade 1204: Collected Sources." Fordham University. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

"Internet Medieval Sourcebook: The Sack of Constantinople (1204)." Fordham University. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

"Internet Medieval Sourcebook: The Summons to Alexius." Fordham University. (accessed on June 16, 2004).

"The Sack of Constantinople." Illustrated History of the Roman Empire.–1204.html (accessed on June 16, 2004).

"Venetians and Crusaders Take Constantinople." International HistoryProject.,%20Venetians%20Take%20Constantinople.htm (accessed on June 16, 2004).

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