Please be aware that the information contained here is out-of-character. While most characters will know bits and pieces of this history, this is intended as a player aid to help set the scene. All of this is based on the actual, historical events of the Fourth Crusade. I’ve taken a few minor liberties here and there, especially where histories conflict, but for the most part this is an accurate account of the events leading up to the Siege of Constantinople.
The Byzantium of 1203 is very much an empire in decline. The current Imperial Dynasty, the Angeloi, have managed to isolate the various regions (themes), reduce the once-proud navy to a collection of rotting hulks, and empty the treasury. Despite all this, the capital at Constantinople is still the envy of all Europe. Western rulers crave the wonders and riches of Byzantium (indeed, they are unaware that the empire is effectively penniless).
The current Emperor, Alexios III, took the throne in 1195. He did so by deposing his brother, Emperor Isaac II, putting out his eyes and throwing him in gaol. Isaac’s young son, Prince Alexios, was also imprisoned.
A few years ago, a pair of merchants in the employ of Prince Alexios’s cousin, Philip of Swabia, broke the young heir out of prison and brought him to their lord. Philip’s brother-in-law, Boniface of Montferrat, had been appointed leader of the Fourth Crusade, and the three conspired to request papal permission to use the crusader army to reclaim the throne of Byzantium for Prince Alexios. Pope Innocent III forbade them from doing so, insisting that the crusaders were not to attack Christian cities.
Chastened by the pope’s informal censure, Boniface set about mustering his crusaders to sail for Cairo. Because none of the lords who had taken the cross had access to a large enough navy to transport the crusading army, Boniface engaged the services of the Venetian navy for the task. The crusaders would meet at Venice, pool their resources to pay the Doge’s fee, and set sail. Unfortunately, some of the crusaders decided at the last minute to travel to Egypt separately and meet Boniface there. With no way to pay the Venetians, the crusaders were stuck.
It was then that the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, approached Boniface with an offer; Dandolo wanted to reclaim Zara, a Croatian settlement which had been a protectorate of Venice until it rebelled and swore itself to the King of Hungary in 1183. If the crusaders took Zara for Venice, Dandolo would consider their debt paid. Though many crusaders were disgusted with the idea of attacking fellow Catholics and abandoned the cause, Boniface agreed to the terms, and Zara was taken.
Naturally, the pope was enraged. Boniface, figuring the pope couldn’t get any more angry with him, agreed to march on Constantinople for Prince Alexios. Dandolo encouraged this decision, and even offered the support of the Venetian army in the siege to come. And so, in the summer of 1203, the crusader armies arrived outside the walls of Constantine’s City, and Emperor Alexios did little to stop them.