The Crusades >>
The Fourth Crusade >> Venetian Plunder
Venice in 1200 was the richest city in the West, and one that
had a direct interest in developments in the eastern Mediterranean. The city was
ruled by a tightly-knit upper class of merchants and property owners, who were
represented by the Doge, an executive who was elected for life by a small ruling
council. The city's wealth came almost entirely from its role as an entrepôt,
moving goods from the eastern Mediterranean to Lombardy and over the Alps to
northern Europe. She ruled much of the Adriatic and had outposts on the
Dalmatian coast and in Greece. She also had significant trading interests in
Outremer. She even had a major colony of merchants in Alexandria, even though
that was a Muslim city.
Relations with Constantinople were not good. Venice had long enjoyed special
trading rights in the city, but lately she had seen her privileges erode.
Emperor Manuel had ordered a mass arrest of Venetians throughout the Empire in
1171, and all Latins in Constantinople were massacred in a paroxysm of
anti-Western sentiment in 1182. Isaac II had renewed their privileges, and so
had Alexius III, but the latter did so only for form's sake. In practice, he had
been harassing the Venetians and favoring Genoa and Pisa.
This was the situation in 1201, when six representatives of French lords arrived
in the city to negotiate a deal. They wanted Venice to contract with them to
carry the Crusader army over the sea, and they named a price. The city council
thought about it for a few days, then made an even more generous offer in
return, offering to become an equal partner in the enterprise. The city agreed
to provide ships for 4,500 knights and their horses, 9,000 squires, and 20,000
foot soldiers. There was a formula for calculating the price for each type of
soldier, and the whole price came to 94,000 marks. This was to be paid in
installments, and the fleet was to be at the service of the army for one year
and was to be ready by June 29, 1202 (the following year). In addition, Venice
would supply fifty warships, and would share equally in any conquests.
Clearly Venice wanted to do more than just provide transport, which was all the
original offer contemplated. She saw an opportunity to win territory. Since the
French and Venice agreed secretly that the object of the Crusade would be Egypt,
the city was probably thinking of the great wealth of that country and what a
prize it would be should Venice be able to win half of Alexandria or Damietta or
As it turned out, the details of this deal was the root of the diversion of the
Crusade to Constantinople.