Brief by the Venetian envoy, knight and historian Geoffrey

Brief backgroundGF1 :



“Those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed very intently at the city, never having imagined there could be such a place in the world”. These were the words pronounced by the Venetian envoy, knight and historian Geoffrey De Villehardouin, who saw for the first time Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.1

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This precious testimony from one of eyewitnesses of the conquest of Constantinople by the Christians in the early 13th century GF2 elucidates the roleGF3  of the Mediterranean city in human history.2

Born on the edge of Europe, between the Middle East and North Africa, Constantinople is the city of many names and rulers. Capital of the Eastern Roman Empire from 330 AD until its fall under the Ottoman Empire in 1453, is indisputably considered the longest-lived political identity in Europe, lasting for more than 8,000 years.3

The reason why the Byzantine Capital was the ultimate prize for two opposite culturesGF4 , the Christian and the Islamic, is very simpleGF5 : its strategic position for trade- it converged on the Silk Road- , maritime hegemony – making it the coveted prey – and cultural identity- especially for the Hellenic and Roman legacy- brought conflict in the Bosporus straitGF6 .

In 1204 the threat of Muslims and the following sack by the Crusaders and the Republic of Venice transformed the city into a vandalized and desecrated place. As a result, 249 years later, still vulnerable, the Ottoman Sultanate’s siege became an unparalleled victory, strengthening the power of the Empire, which collapsed only after the First World War.  

Both of the events are the main examples of siege warfare in the Middle-Ages, and product of the continuous military and technological development. De facto, military tactics, army structure, fortifications and naval warfare underwent through a rapid and drastic transformation, which enabled the alternated supremacy of the two fronts: Venice and the Ottoman Empire.

The figure 1.1 (see in the Appendix) illustrates the Venetian sea route to the Holy LandGF7 , started in the summer of 1202 and led by the Doge Enrico Dandolo with an expected force of 33,500 crusaders  from the Count of Champagne Theobald III (10,00 after his death in 1201), 30,000 men from the King of France Philippe Augustus and more than 200 ships for the transportation, financed by Venice and Pope Innocent III.4 In comparison to the Byzantine Prince, Alexios Angelos, who defended the city with an army of 10,000 Greeks, 5,000 Byzantines and 20 ships, Venice had the complete supremacy.5  

Venice, after the conquest of Constantinople, always preferred to trade with the Turks to fighting them. However, after their expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and in the Black Sea, the commerce was vital to pursue the Republic’s trading fortune.6 As a result, the Venetian strategic position in the Bosporus was appealing for the Ottoman forces, who, in 1452, built an army and on 29 May 1453 broke down the walls of Constantinople on the Golden Horn, erected c.5500 BC, which name “is said to come from the number of glistering fish and marine mammals that could be caught here during the annual migration south”.78

After centuries of history, the Golden Horn was still functional for the defense system of the city. This statement arises one question: how the city changed, allowing the victory of Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the siege warfare?


How the city changed:

The City’s metamorphosis from the 13th to the 15th century was inconsistent and insufficient GF8 to stop the Muslim’s attack, even though Constantinople was nearly impossible to conquerGF9 , especially by sea. Certainly, the Ottomans significantly influenced those developmentsGF10 , but for a millennium-old Empire to be conquered it required more than aggression.9 Through the comparison of Constantinople’s maps before the sack of 1204 and before 1453, as shown in figures 1.2 and 1.3, it is evident how the siege strategy was successful to subjugate the city. GF11 

The defense system, constituted by the city walls (see section 2), reinforced strategic locations and water system. Water, in fact, was essential for the imperial capital in order to survive to long sieges. However, the lack of water and food supplies was fatal for the defenders and the citizens, especially in 1453, when the Ottoman Empire surrounded the city blocking consequently any goods’ trading. In 1452-3, the blockage by the Ottoman Empire of the Bosporus strait in the European shore with the Ottoman stronghold known as ‘Rumelishari’, which had cannons that shoot balls of 225/300 kgGF12 , (figure 1.4) was sufficient to control maritime trade and military help from Europe. Before the fourth crusade, Constantinople had weak points in its land defense system, especially in the north-west corner of the city, when the crusaders’ attack was directed against the sea frontage of the imperial palace of Blachernae and its angles formed between the Theodosian land walls and those following the line of the Horn. 10 This lack in the Byzantine defense system limited the Emperor army and the additional internal politics in the city resulted fatal, since Venice took only 3 days of fighting within the city to conquer it, after years of siege. Two and a half centuries later, Constantinople was still weakened by its attack, and not able to resist, because left economically crippled, territorially truncated (see firesGF13 ) and powerless to defend itself against the Ottoman tide. We can say that the City was condemned hundred years before by the ones who ‘tried’ to defeat the Muslim’s threat.

Both of the siege warfare in 1204 and in 1453 have similarities in the defense system, which allowed the City’s defeat.  The Golden Horn had a fundamental role, especially for the naval fleet. In both cases, it was reinforced. In 1203, Byzantines began to smother the regular line of crenellations and towers with a hideous shantytown of multistoried wooden constructions (some said to be six levels high) designed to make a barrier tall enough to defy the Westerners’ ships.11

In 1453, a defense chain mechanism that blocked the access to the Bosporus strait (figure 1.5), allowing passage of allies and blocking the enemy, who was forced to construct a system of 2 km of gangways to transport its fleet by land to surpass the chain, realizing the prophecy by which    

‘Constantinople would have ended only when boats had sailed on land’. 12


During both of the siege warfare in 1204 and in 1453, water was fundamental. The two sieges were conducted not only via land, but mainly by the naval forces. Even though in the fourth crusade the Byzantine empire did not have a naval force to contrast the opponents’ fleet, GF14 

–       S3: Development of the Venetian Empire (power in Middle Ages and after the)

–       Rise of Ottoman Empire


Development of the Venetian Empire


Venice’s victory in 1204 and its loss in the siege of 1453 had heavy impact for the maritime republic. Its power derived for centuries from maritime trade and while the fourth crusade increased Venetian hegemony and wealth, soon after the half of the 15th century it developed a setback, which led to its decline.

After 1204, Venice had appropriated the best parts of the imperial territory and free trade throughout the imperial dominions, which made it result as the only real winner among the other allies. However, their havoc in the siege became a ‘shameful glory’.13

The Venetian Republic cannot be blamed for the loss of the Byzantine Empire by Muslims, however, it was the indirect cause that led to its defeat. The purloin of treasures from sacred sites, the fire which destructed the whole city and the refuse of the Byzantine crown for himself, in order to avoid constitutional problems, with the consequent influence on the elections, ensuring the Franks to govern the city. Its previous relationship with the Church and Constantinople had an impact in the ‘protectionGF15 ‘ of the city, because its participation at the Fourth Crusade was merely an economic issue under the promises of Alexios Angleos.

Venice’s fortune changed in 1453: when the City fell, it was the Venetians who suffered more than their rivals. After the emotional shock that arrived in the lagoon the 29th June 1453, one month later, Byzantium ceased to have any real political and economic importance. Additionally, the fact that the victorious Sultan could threaten the whole Mediterranean with his incontestable victory pressured Venice to secure his territories.14

Consequently, its decline started in the 16th century, following the Ottoman-Venetian wars, lasted until 1718.

On the other hand, Ottoman’s power and force in the siege warfare strengthened the Islamic prestige in Europe. Their power derived from an advanced army structure and technology

1 G.D. Villehardouin, trans. Shaw (1963), 58-9

2 G.D. Villehardouin, De la Conquête de Constantinople,

3 B.Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities: Instanbul, page 6.

4 F.C.Lane, Venice: A maritime Republic, pages 36,37;

5 Phillips, The Fourth Crusade, page 157;

6 J.J.Norwich, A History of Venice, pg. 326

7 B.Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities: Instanbul, page 388

8 B.Hughes, A Tale of Three Cities: Instanbul, page 27;

9 T. Filiposki, ed J.Schimtt, The Ottoman Conquest of the Balkans, page 65

10 J.J.Norwich, A History of Venice, page 133;

11 Fourth Crusade: Conquest of Constantinople | HistoryNet

“Fourth Crusade: Conquest Of Constantinople | Historynet.” HistoryNet. N. p., 2006. Web. 24 Jan. 2018.


12 T.Koetsier, M.Ceccarelli, Explorations in History of Machines and Mechanism, page 206

13 J.J.Norwich, A History of Venice, chapter 10, page 122 to 143;

14 J.J.Norwich, A History of Venice,page 331

 GF1Too analytical?

Perhaps should go in the intro

 GF2Or 1204

 GF3Or value

 GF4Or religions

 GF5Change it

 GF6Maybe add a map

 GF7Can I say this?





Check page 234 black book about loss of venice 1453

 GF8Evidence??    Or the opposite





 GF13Should I explain the fires to conquer the city? No part of the defense system tho


 GF15Should I explain this?