Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Very Old Grievances In A New Context

The tensions between Greece and northern European countries regarding repayment of huge financial obligations are nothing new. To many hard working northerners the Greeks have always been and are now nothing but a bunch of lazy, corrupt spend-thrifts with an inflated self-image. Many Greeks have tended to view the northerners as a bunch of voracious boors with no appreciation for the finer things in life whose unstated goal is to loot even more Greek antiquities like the Elgin Marbles, the Zeus Altar and the Four Horses of the Hippodrome whose replicas now grace Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. These age-old mutual misperceptions would be comical if they were not interfering in the deadly serious business of trying to solve the massive Greek debt problem without having it spread to other countries in the Euro zone.

Efforts by the so-called Troika -- the IMF, the European Union, and the European Central Bank – to get Greece to implement drastic economic and social reforms required for further financial assistance are seen as nothing more than an extension of the pressure and excuses the Crusaders and Venetians used in 1204 during the misnamed Fourth Crusade when they sacked the glittering, golden capital of Greek Byzantium, Constantinople, filled with art treasures, splendid palaces, public buildings and monuments never seen in Western Europe at that time. Some in Greece accuse their current creditors of acting no better, using the crisis as an excuse to reduce Greece’s economic sovereignty – bringing it down effectively to something like the state of Rhode Island in the United States – broke and powerless.

Many of us have trouble remembering what we had for lunch yesterday let alone what happened more than 800 years ago in the long-deceased Byzantine Empire. Not so with many Greeks who still tend to see their current relations with northern Europe through that prism. Just how Christian crusaders theoretically motivated by religious zeal to reclaim Jerusalem wound up sacking not one but two other Christian cities is an interesting question that has been examined by a number of scholars whose work provides valuable insights into these events that resonate in today’s highly charged negotiations.

With deep apologies to the scholars, it might be fair to say that the Venetians and Crusaders viewed the conquest of Constantinople in commercial terms (‘Nothing personal, you understand. Just pay us what you owe us and we’ll be out of here.’) while the Greeks viewed the assault as nothing more than a crude attack on their city, their imperial sovereignty, and, most important of all, their Greek Orthodox religion that refused to bow down to Rome. In the end the Venetian navy and Crusader army proved much better at warfare than the Greeks and their assorted allies including other Italians and the Viking imperial guard.

In short summary the Venetians had charged the French, German and Flemish Crusaders an exorbitant amount that would make the Mafia wince to transport their army from Italy to the Holy Land. The Crusaders were short of funds and had to agree to a Venetian alternative that included helping Venice recapture a Christian city across the Adriatic called Zara. The city was duly taken, but the Crusaders were still short of men and money. Enter a feckless young man called Alexius IV who wanted to recapture the throne of Byzantium from those who had overthrown and blinded his father Isaac II in one of the many Byzantine orgies of self-destruction. Here was a deal ready to be made. And the very commercially minded Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo wasted no time.

Dandolo extracted promises of riches beyond belief, ships, men for the Holy Land, and even a pledge to renounce the Orthodox heresy and return to the Roman Catholic faith if the Venetians and Crusaders would just help restore Isaac II and young Alexius IV to their rightful throne.

Thus the stage was set for yet another diversion to sack another Christian – albeit what the Crusaders regarded as a heretical branch of Christianity – city. Putting Alexius IV and his father back in power proved much more complicated than anyone anticipated. The young man was not popular, and very few in the city liked the deal he made with the Venetians and Crusaders. In too deep to back out, the Crusaders persisted in their efforts to put him on the throne. Ultimately they succeeded but then Alexius began to renege on his promises of wealth and return to Roman Catholicism. The deal really went bad when Alexius himself was overthrown and strangled. His successors told the Crusaders in no uncertain terms that any deal Alexius made was off.

“We’ll see about that,” Dandolo must have said. In short order the Venetians and Crusaders conquered the city and stripped it of much of its finery – the Four Horses were shipped back to the basilica of Saint Mark in Venice for example – in payment of debts they felt they were owed. “We had a deal, and you tried to stiff us,” you can just hear the Crusaders telling the Greeks.

The Latin rule of Constantinople lasted only about 50 years, but the entire Byzantine Empire never really recovered from the sack of the city, and it fell totally to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Was this fate caused by insufferable pressures from the Roman Catholic Crusaders or did it reflect the internal weaknesses of the Greeks? In short, as one French crusader leader Geoffrey de Villehardouin claims again and again the Greeks got nothing more than what they deserved as regicides, heretics and generally untrustworthy people. He even gets some support from a highly placed contemporary Byzantine official Nicetas Choniates who laments in his history the deep divisions of Greek political society, the lack of respect for authority, the mob rule of the streets, and the family groupings who pursued their own interests at the expense of the common good.

Sound familiar in today’s context? It should. And sad to say very few people seem to have learned the ruinous cost of these continued misperceptions.

Note: Anyone wishing to get a more complete view of the fascinating and disastrous Fourth Crusade will enjoy the following works:

The Fourth Crusade: Event & Context. Michael Angold
The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople .Donald Queller
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. Jonathan Phillips
Geoffrey de Villehardouin: The Conquest of Constantinople. Villehardouin was a high ranking French crusader whose work drips with self-righteous criticism of the Greeks.
Robert di Clari: The Conquest of Constantinople. Di Clari was another French knight who adopted a less formal style than Villehardouin and gives more the sense of the splendour of Constantinople, especially when you think about his home of Picardy in northern France in 1204. No comparison.
Nicetas Choniates: O City of Byzantium. This literate, articulate high ranking Greek official gives perhaps the best account of the internal decay of the Byzantine Empire at this time. Highly critical of the Latins, he is honest enough to say that in many ways the Greeks dug their own grave.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

It is so interesting when we look at the ancients through young eyes, and when we reflect back current events to be scrutinized by the old and wise. Nothing new, as you so astutely comment.