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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantium and the Crusades

Foreign policy of the Angeli 


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In his qualities and capacities the new Emperor scarcely differed from his brother. The same foolish lavishness, the same lack of any political talent or interest in government, the same military incapacity brought the Empire by rapid steps far on the way towards disintegration and humiliation. Not without malicious irony Nicetas Choniates remarked concerning Alexius III: Whatever paper might be presented to the Emperor for his signature, he signed it immediately; it did not matter that in this paper there was a senseless agglomeration of words, or that the supplicant demanded that one might sail by land or till the sea, or that mountains should be transferred into the middle of the seas or, as a tale says, that Athos should be put upon Olympus. The Emperor's conduct found imitators among the nobility of the capital, who exerted themselves to the utmost to compete with each other in expense and luxury. Riots took place in both the capital and the provinces. The foreigners who resided in Constantinople, the Venetians and Pisans, often met in bloody conflicts on the streets of the capital. External relations were also unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the son of the deposed Isaac II, the young prince Alexius, had succeeded in escaping on a Pisan vessel from Byzantium to Italy; he went then to Germany, to the court of Philip of Swabia, king of Germany, who was married to his sister Irene, daughter of Isaac Angelus. It was the time of the beginning of the Fourth Crusade. The prince begged the pope and the king of Germany, his brother-in-law, to help him to restore the throne to his blind father Isaac. After many complications Alexius succeeded in inducing the crusaders in the Venetian vessels to sail to Constantinople instead of Egypt. In 1203 the crusaders seized the capital of Byzantium and, deposing Alexius III, re-established upon the throne the old and blind Isaac (1203-1204); then they seated his son Alexius by the side of his father, as his co-emperor (Alexius IV). The crusaders encamped close to Constantinople expecting the accomplishment of the terms for which they had stipulated.

But it was impossible for the Emperors to fulfill those terms, and their complete obedience to the crusaders roused a riot in the capital which resulted in the proclamation as Emperor of a certain Alexius V Ducas Mourtzouphlos (1204), related to the family of the Angeli and married to a daughter of Alexius III. Isaac II and Alexius IV perished during the revolt. The crusaders, seeing that they had lost their chief support in the capital in the persons of the two dead Emperors, and realizing that Mourtzouphlos, who had raised the banner of the anti-Latin movement, was their enemy, decided to take Constantinople for themselves. After a stubborn attack by the Latins and desperate resistance by the inhabitants of the capital, on April 13, 1204, Constantinople passed over into the hands of the western knights and was given up to terrific devastation. Emperor Mourtzouphlos had time to flee from the capital. The Byzantine Empire fell. In its place there were formed the feudal Latin Empire with Constantinople as its capital and a certain number of vassal states in various regions of the Eastern Empire. The dynasty of the Angeli or Angeli-Comneni, Greek in its origin, gave the Empire not one talented emperor; it only accelerated the ruin of the Empire, already weakened without and disunited within.

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