Eight hundred and twelve years ago to the day, on April 8th 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the siege of Constantinople began. What distinguishes this Crusade is that, rather than a conflict between Christian and Muslim Arabs, it pitted Christian against Christian, as mutinous Crusader forces from the western or Latin church turned their attention on the eastern city of Constantinople, drawn, in part, by the booty to be looted from its famous riches.
With the help of a Venetian army, the Latins set up camp across the Golden Horn in Galata but, after an initial assault, were driven back by bad weather. On 12th April they launched another attack, this time breaching the city walls by burrowing holes just big enough for single soldiers to crawl through. For three days the Latins looted the city, destroying its Library and melting down its golden treasures to cart away. Thousands were killed or raped, churches were stripped of their holy treasures.
In the following poem, my clerk- narrator is fictional but the incidents he describes are based on contemporary eye-witness accounts, including the rather ignominious departure of the city’s aristocracy. And yet they, like my anonymous clerk, were probably responsible for saving many great works of literature from the city, taking them away with them to Nicaea and Epirus where the Byzantines established new empire states.
The Clerk’s Crusade
(Constantinople, 12th April 1204)
The first thing we noticed was mortar
crumbling, sand trickling from a stone.
Even rats, the Captain shrugged, get restless
under siege, gnawed by our same hunger.
The guards returned to their next throw
of dice. And I slunk back to Library desk.
We could not know, did not even guess
our city was already falling, already ash.
Next day we all saw it, the slab shift
and slowly tilt. We stood transfixed
as a single block of wall rolled back
and chasm opened where it collapsed;
ten withered fingers gripped the edge,
then Crusader helmet on Crusader head.
Our captain gave orders. On cue we fled.
That night Byzantium was melted down.
Everything they could move, they took.
All else was toppled into steaming pots,
vast statues shrunk to stumps of bronze,
for each piece of tessera, another life lost.
Myself, I looted what they overlooked.
As Latin bishops stripped our churches
of jewels, I stuffed my splattered jerkin
with a few foxed and battered books:
Photius’s Lexicon, Lucian, Athenaeus.
Here was no Holy War but Christian
against Christian, West against East.
Better the Saracens. They had belief.
I ran back through the streets, slipping
on spilt blood, fresh excrement, filth.
Far off, a woman sobbed, out of reach.
By the tower, the gates were sticking,
stemmed by mounds of rotting corpses
stacked up behind like seasoned meat.
So I squeezed out through the breach,
a conqueror in reverse. For in Nicaea
or the monasteries of Thessalonica,
we would soon found another empire.
Our nobles, too, crept away like thieves
as the Latins jeered, waving inkpots,
quills – the weapons not of warriors
but meek scholars, they hissed.
Let them mock.
Where they had cruelty, we had culture.
Where they had greed, we had Greek.