Fall of Constantinople

Geoffrey's Crusade 3: One Alexius After Another

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1204

Fair to say, that it’s often a good thing to keep one’s promises, maybe even more often than often. Perhaps usually, or mostly. It’s generally good to stick to agreements one has made, some would say necessary and always. If you have given your word or put your name down on paper, then you must see things through exactly as you had said you would. But this current series is not a great argument for that type of honesty, if that’s the right word.

The story of the Fourth Crusade has been presented in a variety of unflattering ways: as a kind of ultimate expression of the cynicism of the entire crusading project as being one of naked greed rather than religious enthusiasm, or as the work of a single nefarious power bending the course of events to their will. Was it the case that the Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, was the masterful manipulator, taking the crusaders for everything they had and more and steering violence away from his city’s trading interests in Egypt? Or was Philip of Swabia the smoking man in the back room? Was it his it his personal goals or, to a lesser extent, those of Boniface of Montferrat that had steered events from their original course? Was the pope himself to blame, for summoning up a crusade and then tapping its resources to other ends?

One theme that has struck me in putting together this series is the potentially dooming nature of a handshake, the way agreements made in this story seem cursed to develop a kind of horrifying momentum of their own, and to carry their participants along with them. The way the ominous music seems to pick up the moment terms are set and, without discounting human agency too much in all of this, the scales start to tip towards disaster, unless you were of the Ayyubid Sultanate that is.     

Hello, and welcome. I'm Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get properly started: rating, reviewing, subscribing, and spreading the word is how we keep our walls intact and even our suburbs free of fire. And by signing up for the Human Circus Patreon, for as little as $1 a month, you ensure a sustainably defended city, no matter what mangonels or boating peoples may be brought against it. On that note, big thank-yous go out to new patrons Malte, Derrick, Aaron, and Neil. Thank you all very much for your support! And now, back to our story.

When last we spoke, Emperor Alexius was scuttling out the gates under cover of darkness, as July 17th of 1203 became July 18th. Inside Constantinople, the people of the palace awoke to their lack of emperor and were thrown into confusion. There were some who would have been bound to the now departed Alexius and would have feared what was to come.  Others would have seen opportunity in this power vacuum, an invitation to advance themselves, maybe even to the highest of steps. The rest would simply have worried, for their city and themselves, for what would happen now, with the Latins at their gates.

From Niketas, we know that the eunuch Constantine, minister of the imperial treasuries, was one to take matters in hand, that he measured support for what was to come, and we can imagine the whispered conferences in the gardens and corridors. Probably there were many such plans being made, many would-be-emperors flickering into being and then sputtering out, tantalizingly close to power.

Constantine solidified a faction within the palace. He assembled the ax-bearers of the Varangian guard and had the empress and all her relations seized. Then, when all was ready, he called for Isaac, the former emperor. He who had been blinded through his brother’s treachery was freed from imprisonment and dressed in magnificent clothes. He was led back to the imperial throne, and word was sent to his son.

In the camp, the news was met with joyous celebration, for the way which had seemed so hard now looked as if it had been made easy overnight. Robert speaks of “great rejoicing and much pomp,” but in Geoffrey it is tempered with something else, with the crusaders rushing to their arms and armour as the news first arrived, having little faith in its source and every reason to suspect it as but cover for another attack; then, as more messengers came out of the city, with the crusaders sending in envoys to let it be known that they would not be sending in Alexius until his father guaranteed that his promises would be honoured. And the promises were big, expensive ones, crushingly so, and like those the French lords had made with Venice, they were going to be impossible to keep.

But that was all for the future. For now, the mood was still celebratory. Envoys entered Constantinople, and of course, Geoffrey was among them. They dismounted before the gates and then walked in, unopposed but passing through a corridor of Varangian guard that flanked them all the way to the palace, and to the overwhelming spectacle of the Byzantine emperor and a great press of the city’s highest men and women in all their adornments. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, they spoke to the emperor in a more private setting and made known their demands and their agreement with his son. And what was that agreement, he asked. And they told him.

His son as emperor. Obedience to Rome. 200,000 silver marks. A year’s supply of food. 10,000 men for the cause. A standing force of 500 knights in the Holy Land. “Such is the covenant that your son made with us,” they said, “and it was confirmed by oath, and charters with seals appended, and by King Philip of Germany who has your daughter to wife. This covenant we desire you to confirm."

“Oh,” he might have replied, darkness slipping a little into even the brightness of a day which had begun with being given both his freedom and the imperial crown. It was an onerous agreement, he pointed out, and maybe he thought a little as Niketas would, that his son had been a, quote, “witless lad ignorant of affairs of state,” and had not “comprehended any of the issues at stake.” However, he reassured the envoys that what had been agreed would be respected, and he confirmed it with oaths and with sealed charters.

And all was wonderful, for a while. The lords of the crusading army rode in with Alexius and saw him seated on a golden throne alongside that of his father as co-emperor, and they joined the citizenry of the city in honouring both. “The joy,” in Geoffrey’s words, “was great inside Constantinople; and also without, among the host of the pilgrims, because of the honour and victory that God had given them.”

The joy was great. But the host would not be putting down roots inside the walls, according to Robert because they could in no way trust the traitors of the city. Maybe that was an assessment stained by what was to come though. Geoffrey has the request put in by the emperors themselves, that the crusaders camp across the straight and away from any quarrels that might kick off between the recent combatants.  

The host, well provisioned now, would visit the city by barge, and marvel at its astounding wealth, its many great palaces and grand churches, and its relics beyond count. Some of the barons were there with Alexius when he greeted with honour the King of Nubia, “a king,” Robert tells us, “whose flesh was all black, and [who] had a cross in the middle of his forehead, which had been made with hot iron ... burnt into the skin.” They heard him relate, through an interpreter, that his land was 100 days journey beyond Jerusalem, where he had gone on pilgrimage. 60 men had begun the trip, and, for reasons that are not given, only 10 had survived that 100 day journey, and only 2 were now left with him in Constantinople, where he stayed in a rich abbey. He still planned to journey on to Rome, he said, to Santiago de Compostela, and, if he still lived, back to Jerusalem, and there to die. The barons listened, and they looked with wonder. 

The crusaders also received a visit from a Sultan of Konya seeking aid against his brother who had taken what was his. This was actually the former Seljuk Sultan of Rum, Kaykhusraw I, who had lost out to his brother in 1196, and lived in Constantinople ever since. He would eventually regain the throne, but not with the help of these crusaders, who decided, upon consideration, that they were engaged enough already with the emperors. 

They had been fed and they had been paid, in part at least, and for now they were content, or some of them were. Others thought it was surely time for them to be moving along towards their real goal. This had not, after all, been sold to them as a Crusade on Constantinople when they first made to gather in Venice. Still, Alexius begged their patience, their continued presence, and their force of arms, promising to pay their costs and those of the Venetians if they would remain on through March. Alexius argued that he could not entirely fulfill their covenant right then and there, and besides, if they were to leave, all that they had done for him, substantial as it was, would be for nothing. He was hated by his people because of them, he said. As things stood, the moment they were gone he was sure to be killed and the land they had taken for him lost. That, as the crusader leadership well knew, would also mean the loss of his promised help and his submission to Rome. And they had, after all, agreed to help him win his throne. Could that task really be considered done?

Not all were at all happy about it, but the crusaders stayed to see things through. 

Some half of the men accompanied the young emperor as he moved against his uncle, the other Alexius. And Boniface, Hugh, Henry, and many other barons went with them. For months they campaigned, Robert tells us, conquering 20 cities and 40 castles, doing well for themselves, and helping to win Alexius control over elements of an empire without which he was never going to muster the resources to repay his debts. 

They returned on November the 11th, the crusaders received joyfully by their comrades, and Alexius given the triumphal treatment by his courtly followers, moderate though his victories had been. But things had not gone so well while they were away. There had been fighting in the city, and terrible fires too. 

On August the 19th, a mob had stormed into the quarters of the city that were home to Italians, often Italians who had grown up in the city and, in the case of the Pisans, had just recently been on the walls defending it against the crusaders. Rage and resentment against foreigners spilled over, harming even those who had made their city strong, and destroying churches, shops, homes, and people. 

Then, days later, had come the fire. Geoffrey hadn’t been sure who had done the malicious deed, but Niketas was not in any doubt. Pisans of the city had crossed the water and befriended their Venetian former-adversaries and, together with some of the French contingent, entered Constantinople at night by fishing boats. It was a kind of raid, or perhaps something less organized than that, on the Muslim quarter of the city, a target for those frustrated in their desire to fight Muslims in the Holy Land. There, they had stolen what they could and torched a mosque. They had fought with the locals, and with the Muslims’ neighbours who had rushed to their defence, not as many as should have, Niketas says, but it was enough to drive the attackers back. They’d done as the Venetians had done then, and deliberately used fire as a barricade to cover their retreat. And it had spread beyond all possible expectations. 

I’ll quote Niketas here in his description of what happened, and it is worth noting here that his house was also damaged in the fire. For him this was no abstract event.

He writes:

It was a novel sight, defying the power of description… the fires ignited at this time proved all the others to be but sparks. The flames divided, took many different directions and then came together again, meandering like a river of fire. Porticoes collapsed, the elegant structures of the agorae toppled, and huge columns went up in smoke like so much brushwood. Nothing could stand before those flames. Even more extraordinary was the fact that burning embers detached themselves from this roaring and raging fire and consumed buildings at a great distance. Shooting out at intervals, the embers darted through the sky, leaving a region untouched by the blaze, and then destroying it when they turned back and fell upon it.

… the fire, advancing gradually and leaping over the walls … ravaged the dwellings beyond, and flying embers burned a ship sailing by. The so called Porticoes of Domninos were also reduced to ashes… The Forum of Constantine and everything between the northern and southern extremities were similarly destroyed. Not even the Hippodrome was spared, but the whole section towards the Demes as well as everything leading down to the harbour of Sophia was engulfed in flames.

… Woe is me! How great was the loss of those magnificent, most beautiful palaces filled with every kind of delight, abounding in riches, and envied by all.

In a moment, we’ll follow events in the city after the fire. First though, a word from Noah who is the host of the excellent History of Vikings podcast, another Recorded History network show that I can happily recommend.

...

The Latins of the city, didn’t wait around to see where the blame for the fires would be laid. This place had been their home, but many of their homes had been levelled, and now “some fifteen thousand, small and great,” as Geoffrey has it, had taken their families and what possessions they could. 

And this was probably quite sensible of them. Tensions clearly had been on the rise. There had been the recent fighting and the fire, the bad feelings naturally brought about by invading forces involving themselves in imperial politics, the prospect of submitting to Rome, the unease at the emperors’ ongoing failure to entirely fulfil their end of the deal, and then there was what had been done to make those initial payments. 

Uncle Alexius had not left the treasury in good health when he’d fled in the night. Heavy taxes had been necessary to pay the crusaders, and then, as if that didn’t do enough to turn the populace against young Alexius, the next step surely would. With little ready money at hand, the churches were plundered. Niketas wrote of vessels seized and melted down for common coin, icons hacked at with axes, anything of value extracted by force, and then, even more bitter, the crusaders selling their gains or else spending them as but profane metals. It was enraging. Some in the city said the fire had been a punishment, for they had prized their own possessions but neglected God’s treasures, but what anger they did not reserve for themselves, they directed towards the Latins and their own rulers.

Niketas clearly loathed both emperors, spoke of them “pray[ing] for the end of all things, these firebrands of the country, flaming in visage, thus personifying the angel of evil,” and he gives us quite a picture of their days in power. Alexius took to spending his time in the camps of “the barbarians,” whiling away the days with drinking and with dice, his entourage jokingly replacing the “gold-inlaid and bejeweled diadem on his head” with a “shaggy woollen headdress.” Isaac, meanwhile, muttered darkly against the blunderings and excesses of his son. Angered at his authority and prestige slipping away in favour of Alexius, he spoke of his son’s lack of self-control, his ill-formed character, and his general uselessness. And he turned increasingly to oracles, divination, and astrology, swallowing all he heard, and believing himself destined to become ruler of a united east and west, a universal lord, a god-man, and with his sight restored. He was prey to streams of monks who drank from his banquet table and prophesied freely as to his returned strength. Or so Niketas tells us. 

The Byzantine chronicler also shows us the irredeemably greedy crusaders, laughing at the foolishness of their imperial host, and returning again and again to snatch yet more treasures, their gluttony for gold impossible to satisfy now they had a taste for it. But from Geoffrey it’s a distinctly different picture. The treasure came in but a trickle, always delayed, and never even approaching the amount promised, until at last the payments ceased, and not even the pleadings of Boniface, who had done so much for Alexius, could turn the tap back on. 

We should appreciate that Alexius found himself here in a difficult position, an untenable one really. Maybe his head genuinely had swollen while in office, and maybe his recent military successes had convinced him he no longer had need of his former friends. Or maybe his situation was impossible. His Latin allies wanted their money among other things, but even if he could juice his people sufficiently, they were very likely to kill him for the squeezing. Doing away with emperors was not so normatively out of the question as he would have liked, and there was besides a prevailing attitude that nothing at all should be given to the crusaders, even if they could. As for submitting to Rome, that was quite out of the question. In this light, it's easy to see how Alexius may felt unable to do more than placate those outside the city with pleas for time while trying to anticipate the plots of those inside its walls.

Outside, a parliament was held, of the crusading lords and the Venetian doge, and it was decided that one last effort would be made to see the agreement peacefully resolved. A few good envoys would be sent to present their case and deliver their ultimatum, to make clear that if the emperor would not willingly give what was theirs, then their allegiance to him was at an end and they would have it by other means. As was ever the case when important matters were to be discussed, Geoffrey was one of those good envoys. 

Three for the French host and three for the Venetians armed themselves, mounted up, and went into the city, in some fear for their lives. At the palace, they left their horses and were brought to a room where the two emperors sat on a pair of thrones, many of their nobility about them. It was not Geoffrey who then spoke, but another, who was chosen for wisdom and eloquence. This was what he said:

Sire, we have come to thee on the part of the barons of the host and of the Doge of Venice. They would put thee in mind of the great service they have done to thee-a service known to the people and manifest to all men. Thou hast sworn, thou and thy father, to fulfil the promised covenants, and they have your charters in hand. But you have not fulfilled those covenants well, as you should have done. Many times have they called upon you to do so, and now again we call upon you, in the presence of all your barons, to fulfil the covenants that are between you and them. Should you do so, it shall be well. If not, be it known to you that from this day forth they will not hold you as lord or friend, but will endeavour to obtain their due by all the means in their Power. And of this they now give you warning, seeing that they would not injure you, nor any one, without first defiance given; for never have they acted treacherously, nor in their land is it customary to do so. You have heard what we have said. It is for you to take counsel thereon according to your pleasure.

And did all of this enamour the envoys to their Byzantine hosts? Shockingly, it did not. All present were appalled. They were “amazed and outraged,” that these outsiders would speak to their emperors so, and in their own hall too. Dark were the looks they now gave Geoffrey and his companions in the clamour that erupted. But they did not attack. 

The envoys made their very uncomfortable way back to the safety of the encampment, feeling, I’m sure, the prickling sensation at their backs that might turn to swords or arrows at any moment, listening for the shouted orders that they be taken or killed on the spot, and looking warily at the angry locals who might as easily form a mob, no matter their leaders’ intentions. They passed through the gates with relief and then out of the range of the walls and to safety, where they informed the leadership of what had transpired. 

Robert tells us that after the emperors made this last refusal to pay what was owed, Dandolo made one last attempt to speak with Alexius. “What thinkest thou to do?” he asked of the young emperor. “Wilt thou not hold at all to our agreement, nor fulfill any more of them?” And when Alexius answer that he would not fulfil any more than he already had, the doge responded with anger. “Wilt not?” he snapped. “Naughty lad. We have raised thee off the dunghill, and on the dunghill will we cast thee back again!”  

The way forward now was clear, and the crusaders were, again, going to be attacking the city of Constantinople. But in whose interest was it for them to do such a thing? Not that of the people of the city. Nor, in large part, the crusaders. Only, it has been argued, in that of the Venetians whose doge, now hit on a much more ambitious goal than throwing in against the Ayyubids: a creature of the Venetians on the imperial throne. 

It's a point with some merit, but to accept this “Dandolo as puppet master” is to reduce the other powers involved to homogenous units each having but one mind and will. There would have been plenty of people within the city who would have been quite pleased with what this crisis was doing to the emperors - we’ll be meeting one soon now - and likewise there would have been many outside of those walls who started to think about carving out something here for themselves, just a little further north than they might have planned back in France. For the more ambitious on both sides, the imperial throne was in play, and renewed warfare a pretty attractive proposition. 

That winter, as 1203 turned to 1204, skirmishes between the two sides were frequent, with Geoffrey claiming that his side’s casualties were always the lesser and Niketas saying that the results were much more mixed. No longer supplied by the emperor, the attacking forces scoured the countryside for food, and pillaged and burned churches, homes, and palaces. Still, Robert tells us, there was a great shortage of supplies, that wine sold for 12-15 shillings, a hen 12, and an egg for 2. Only of biscuit was there no such lack. Of that they had enough for the season.

The most dramatic blow of the conflict never really landed. “A great treachery,” Robert called it, but one that could have done irreparable damage to the crusaders. The plan took darkness; it took the right wind; it took, by Geoffrey’s count, seven ships. Those ships were filled with the driest of wood and pieces of pig fat, set alight, and sent across the straight, the wind carrying them towards the Venetian fleet. And they’d do it again two weeks later, the beginning of January, this time with more ships and their prows chained together. Both nights, the alarm was raised in time.

Geoffrey describes the heroism of the Venetian sailors in dealing with the threat, which he specifically notes that he witnessed. How from galleys and smaller boats they hooked the flaming ships and laboured to steer them away. How those not busy on the water formed up on land, thinking themselves about to be attacked. How the people of the city had come down to the shore in numbers without end to watch the drama unfold, “their cries ... so great that it seemed as if the earth and sea would melt together.” And if the noise and heat, the chaos, were not enough to deal with, these spectators put to boats themselves and peppered the Venetians with arrows as they worked. Still, in all this confusion, the Venetians managed to maneuver the weaponized ships into the current, and the sun would rise over those burning wrecks being carried away without harm, save for one Pisan ship and those wounded by arrows.

This would seem to be a bit of last effort on the part of our emperors. If Niketas is to be believed, they had hardly involved themselves in the defence of they city at all anyways. Alexius in particular may not have wanted to act in violence against his former protectors, especially Boniface, who he had been closest to, or maybe the two had simply lost their grip on the levers of power. Either way, power was about to be wrenched away from them entirely, and in Byzantine politics, there were no easy retirements.

But first, a quick pause.

In the final days of January, 1204, opposition to the emperors came to a boil. Everyone knew that they had to go, but the question remained as to what was to be done. Senators, clergy, and other leading citizens came together in the Hagia Sophia. Niketas was there, and looked on, sickened by what he saw. All were of the same mind, but at a loss as to who they should nominate as their new leader. They knew full well, Niketas says, that whoever it was would quickly be killed. And he himself kept his silence; he knew the faults of men, he said, and allowed bitter tears to roll down in his face, for he foresaw that nothing good was to come for his people. 

The congregation cast about for someone to take up the leadership, apparently so desperate to do so that they tried to press it on anyone of nobility who would have it. But none would. One nominee even took on the costume of a monk to escape their attention, Finally, on the third day of this, the title was given to a young man named Nicholas, against his will. And you might be wondering what Alexius was doing during all of this. He was not so isolated that he had not heard of what was happening. He sent one last time for the help of Boniface, arranging, Niketas says, to have crusaders brought into the palace to secure his safety, but his chamberlain acted first. 

This man has been in and around the story for a while now, and his name, most inconveniently, was also Alexius. This was the new, new Alexius, but he’s often known by the name Mourtzouphlos, a reference to his heavy eyebrows which met in the middle. Mourtzouphlos was descended from the Komnenian emperors who had dominated the 12th century, and he had been imprisoned under the old, old Alexius and then freed by Isaac in what reads as one of the earliest acts in Isaac’s second go as emperor. He was credited with showing leadership and bravery in opposing the Latins over the winter of 1203-1204, and even by Niketas who pretty clearly had no love for the man that, though not part of this story, had him pushed him from office. And then, when an opening presented itself, Mourtzouphlos took it. 

He shook Alexius awake with news that his people had risen up; they were coming to kill him. And this wasn’t a rushed act of rashness on his part. He’d already set the table. He’d been the one to transmit Alexius’ request to Boniface, and he’d used it against his emperor. None of the nobility who he’d shared it with would defend Alexius now. He’d won over the eunuch in charge of the treasuries, a weak man fond of ill-gotten gains if Niketas is anything to go by, and he’d lined up the Varangian Guard too. So all was ready when he convinced a sleep-befuddled Alexius that everyone from blood-relations to the ax-wielders were at his doors, making a furious assault and wanting nothing more than to tear him to pieces with their hands. The emperor quickly agreed to be covered with a long robe, and led away “to safety” by a little-known side entrance.

A grateful Alexius is to have softly sung from the Book of Psalms, “For in the day of mine afflictions he hid me in his tabernacle; he sheltered me in the secret of his tabernacle.” But then, as the reality of his situation became clear, “His lips are deceitful in his heart, and evil has he spoken in his heart,” and then, his legs in chains, “To me spoke peaceably but imagined deceits in their anger.” 

He was poisoned, three times Geoffrey says, “but it did not please God that he should thus die, so he was then strangled,” the whole process an indication, I think, that Mourtzouphlos still had reason to care about appearances, that he didn’t feel able to simply throttle the emperor in his chamber and get away with it. And some writers have Alexius lingering on a little more, the strangling occurring only after other events had taken place, and the subtler attempts had failed. Geoffrey also notes that Isaac took ill from fear around this time, and of his illnesses died, but it’s very possible that he was poisoned too. Either way, they were out, and the new Alexius was in, and acclaimed as emperor in the palace while poor Nicholas, he who’d had the title forced upon him the church, was taken and his head cut off. The reign of Alexius V had begun. 

In him, the city now had a much more vigorous defender, and they were going to need it. Maybe their assailants didn’t require another reason to attack, but they could certainly feel they had the moral high ground now. They weren’t attacking a former ally. Now it was a treacherous usurper, a murderer who had unseated what they had put in place, no matter that they had intended to do much the same. During winter, they had been cut off from assistance, supplies, and the promise of help to come in the Holy Land, and the prospects for actually getting to that place were looking particularly bleak. The clergy, including those who spoke for the pope, made it known that “any one guilty of such a murder [as Alexius V was] had no right to hold lands, and that those who consented thereto were abettors of the murder; and beyond all this, that the [people of the city] had withdrawn themselves from obedience to Rome.” The war was just, and those involved would enjoy the indulgences of crusade. 

However, some of the crusaders were going to need to take action in order to keep themselves in it. Food was in short supply and large numbers of horses had already been sacrificed. Foraging and raiding were dangerous necessities. Robert tells us, for example, that Henry, brother to Count Baldwin of Flanders, found himself in need of resources and, with a small body of men, went at night to a nearby city. He seized animals, food, and clothing, and dispatched it all by boat before heading back, but Alexius was waiting for him.

This was not an emperor in the mould of the former Alexius or his father. He was not waiting in his palace. Alexius V had heard word of Henry’s little outing and had arranged to ambush him on the return trip, at the entrance to a wood. But in the skirmish that followed, it was not Henry and his men who broke; it was the emperor’s. A wounded Alexius fled for his life with the crusaders in hot pursuit, losing his standard and his cloak in process. Worse, his patriarch had been struck a heavy blow on the head and lost the icon of Mary which accompanied an emperor when going to battle, a sign, Robert thought, that he had not the right to carry it. With those rich prizes, the crusaders were content, and they would parade before the walls of Constantinople with these tokens of their dominance, effectively disproving the boasts of victory that Alexius had spouted upon his return.

And maybe it was this victory that filled them with such confidence. They gathered to make plans, maybe also on how to actually take Constantinople, but that’s not what Geoffrey and Robert emphasized. The bulk of the meeting seems to have been concerned with what they would do after they took it. This was how the loot was to be divided. That was who should rule what land. This was how emperor and patriarch ought to be selected. They concluded that all would stay to serve the new emperor until the spring of 1205, and they swore on all of this on holy relics. 

They had it all worked out, but they were actually going to need to take the city first. The initial large-scale attacks that Geoffrey and Robert mention, occurred in early April. They were “a marvellous sight,” and they were concentrated on the harbour walls where the Venetians had before had some success. But they didn’t work. The ships brought their sky bridges against the walls and towers, but the wind on that day made it difficult to bring them close enough. Stones and other missiles from  the walls shattered the attackers’ siege engines or caused those by them to flee. Geoffrey even admitted that they lost more on that day than did the defenders, who, to quote Robert, “began ... to hoot and to shout right lustily; and they went up upon the walls and let down their breeches and showed them their buttocks.”  

Alexius had not wasted his time since taking power. Reinforcements had been brought into the city. Ditches had been dug near the base of the walls, making it difficult to bring siege engines against them. The walls and towers had been strengthened and were better protected than before, with wooden towers projecting over and out from the stone ones, so that the Venetian sky bridges no longer enjoyed the advantage of height. Venetian prisoners had been tortured to death in sight of their comrades. From his hilltop command position, overlooking events, Alexius  had his silver trumpets sounded and spoke boastfully to his people of his great success. The crusaders needed to reconsider. 

Some would have been just as happy to let the waters carry them away to the sea. Some wanted to approach the city at a different point, further along the walls where the defences were less formidable, but as the Venetians pointed out, the currents there would make this difficult. Instead, the doge or one of his men suggested the attacking ships be lashed together in pairs, so that two should be able to reach each tower, for at a one-to-one ratio, the men in the towers had enjoyed the advantage. They would take the weekend to refit, repair, and rest, and on Monday they would attack again.

They were downcast after their failure, and that Sunday, sermons were spoken throughout the camp, reassuring one large gathering after another that their cause was righteous, that their enemies were faithless traitors who were disobedient to Rome and God and had murdered their lord. They were, in the unfortunate terms that Robert puts it, “worse than Jews.” To attack them then “was no sin, but rather was it a good work and of great merit.” The crusaders, in other words, could go happily to battle in the knowledge that they were on the side of the good, and would prevail. They made their confessions, drove out the sex workers from their encampment, and made ready for the next day.

Again, the ships were brought close to the towers, and arrows and Greek fire launched up, but the fire took no hold on the tower’s leather coverings. From the wall, stones came hurtling down, but the Venetians had prepared for this and their ships were well protected by shelters of timber and vine. It was a stalemate. And Robert tells us how it was broken. 

He says that one particular ship, that of the Bishop of Soissons, was brought by the waves against a tower, and from it a Venetian managed to pull himself inside. But it was, then as ever, not necessarily the best thing to be the first off the boat, and he was promptly cut to pieces by the swords and axes of those within. However, the second man in the tower was a different matter. He dragged himself in, and, as had just happened, they fell on him, chopping away, but, being a fully armoured knight, he did not succumb. He rose to his feet like some 13th-century terminator. He drew his sword. And the astonished defenders ran. They fled down to the story below, which caused the fighters there to turn and run themselves. They didn’t know it was one armoured man upstairs, only that their comrades were in panicked flight, and the tower emptied out even as more attackers managed to make their way in at the top. 

A second tower was taken, and then more, but the men who had taken the towers weren’t willing to leave them. Despite their successes, they were still surrounded by their enemies, on the walls and below, and they had nowhere to go. 

That was when Peter of Amiens had seen their predicament, had come to shore with his men, and had spied an opportunity. There was a disused side-door, no longer a door really, just the walled up space where it once had been. That was where he attacked. 

He and his men hacked away with sword and axe, timber, bar, and pick, others behind them holding up shields against the efforts of those on the walls above. It was “a miracle of God that they were not all destroyed,” Robert says, and it sounds like it too, what with the bolts and great stones hurled down upon them in such quantities that it threatened to bury them, not to mention the pots of boiling pitch and Greek fire. Amazingly, in all that chaos, they cut a way through, they peered in, they found so many people on the other side that it seemed as if the entire world was there assembled. And they did not want to go in. 

But Robert’s brother Aleaume did. He’d been at the forefront of much of the fighting, and this was no exception. Robert told him not to go in. He insisted. When his brother still got down on hands and feet, he actually grabbed at his feet to pull him back. None of this stopped Aleaume though. He went on through, drew his blade, and if his brother is to be believed here, rushed at the first people he saw, driving them from the opening before calling on his friends outside to join him. 

And the emperor was close, close enough make a great show of spurring his horse at them in “don’t hold me back”/”DO hold me back” sort way, and then fleeing to safety within the city. 

Niketas’ account of all of this is surprisingly similar, of a pair of knights first leaping into one of the towers and frightening off the auxiliaries within. And of Peter and his men cutting their way through a gate and then scattering the would-be defenders, but he doesn’t credit Robert’s brother with this feat; it was the terrifying sight of Peter, unusually tall and wearing a helm that was shaped like a fortified city. To quote Niketas, “The noblemen about the emperor and the rest of the troops were unable to gaze upon the front of the helm of a single knight so terrible in form and spectacular in size and took to their customary flight as the efficacious medicine of salvation.” The attackers would not turn and run. So their opponents did.

The crusaders were now inside. They’d made their way in at three separate gates. The walls had been abandoned, and Niketas tells us that they “ran everywhere and drew the sword against every age and sex.” Constantinople lay open before them, it’s people no longer organized against them, but rather scattered, seeing to their own families, their own possessions, some burying what was valuable to them, others simply fleeing the city, for their assailants had never even hoped to surround it. 

The attackers were weary from fighting though. The day had been long, and they had no wish to be ambushed in the narrow streets. Better, they thought, to wait until the morning, to assemble again, and to offer battle in the open squares. So that’s what they did, taking food, and then passing the night there, just inside the walls. Passing the night in a state of some nervous excitement, I imagine, with every expectation that the day ahead would be a hard one, for many perhaps a final one.

Those who did manage to get some sleep, woke to yet more flames in the morning. Around the quarters of Boniface, certain people - Geoffrey claims not to know who. Others have since pointed to the men of a certain German count - had set defensive fires between themselves and the threat of attack, and once more, for the third time since the arrival of the Crusaders, Constantinople was burning. It had lost more houses, Geoffrey says, “than there [were] houses in any three of the greatest cities in the kingdom of France.” The city had suffered much. And it’s emperor, not for the first time, had had enough. 

When the crusaders assembled that morning, they found that there was to be no further fight, for Alexius V was gone. He had made a big show of readying to attack them the night before, but had then ridden in fear straight on out the Golden Gate, or so Geoffrey tells us. Niketas gives us a slightly different picture though. The emperor had gone about the city, making every effort to rally his people, but to no avail. They were done. He saw no need to wait around for whatever fate the Latins would assign him, so he slipped away on a small fishing boat, taking various imperial family members with him. A successor had been found immediately, but his efforts to muster some defence had also failed. So, unopposed, the crusading lords picked their palaces. 

As Geoffrey tells us, “Every one took quarters where he pleased and of lodgings there was no stint ... and greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them-for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury.” But Robert grumbles that the rich and powerful of the host, “straightway began ... to deal treacherously with the lowly folk and to show them bad faith and ill comradeship.” And Niketas, of course, has a rather darker view of the proceedings. 

The populace, he says, moved by the hope of propitiating [the attackers], had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But [the crusaders’] disposition was not at all affected by what they saw, nor did their lips break into the slightest smile, nor did the unexpected spectacle transform their grim and frenzied glance and fury into a semblance of cheerfulness. Instead, they plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God; the rest fortified themselves all around with defensive weapons as their horses were roused at the sound of the war trumpet.

What then, Niketas continued, should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men?

For us those things will have to wait. I’ll be back next episode with the story of the sack of Constantinople, the looting, and one particular story, a travel story of sorts, that emerged from it. Thanks for listening, everybody. I’ll talk to you then. 

Sources:  

  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of TheFourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: TheHistory Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That TookConstantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise ofVenice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.


Marco and the Polos 1: From Venice to the World

Polos Leave Constantinople

Certain historical figures are so steeped in layers of legend that they start to lose focus in our eyes, and we almost need to remind ourselves that yes, this was a real person. For me, and I suspect for many people, the character we’re getting into today is one of those figures, an almost fantastical being existing in the strange in-between of myth, history, and poetry, and this illusory element isn’t helped by his cultural appearances, his destination in Coleridge’s opiated dream, his tall tales of the empire in Italo Calvino’s novel, his adventures in a Netflix series, and so on. To one degree or another they swing wildly away from any attempt at historical accuracy, but they remain tethered to Kublai Khan and his Mongol Empire, giving our character’s life a surreal quality, that of a fable, but one grounded in this very real 13th century.

And if you are skeptical about his story, then your reaction is not unlike that of his contemporaries. There’s an anecdote of his death bed, where a friend brings him one of the manuscripts and urges him to set the record straight, to speak out against some of the book’s more incredible statements. However, far from offering any retraction, he’s supposed to have replied that on the contrary he had not told half of what he’d seen.

Of course, we’re talking about Marco Polo here, the 13th century Venetian traveller, merchant, ambassador, adventurer, administrator, and many other roles too, both more and less likely. And yes, he was indeed a real person. 

Hello and Welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. I should start out today with an apology for the lateness of this episode. As you can probably still hear in my voice, I’ve had a head cold which won’t go away. I’ve been waiting until its gone to record, but for now I’ve given up on the gone part, so we’ll see how this goes.

I also have an announcement to make, that I’ve found a new home since I last recorded. That’s a new hosting service, which shouldn’t affect you at all, but also a new podcast network. Human Circus is now part of the recordedhistory.net podcast network. It’s full of great shows, which I can happily recommend, and I’m very excited to be joining them all there. One change which you will notice is that ads will start to appear on the show. Sometimes that will be for the other podcasts on the network and sometimes for sponsors’ products. I realize that, given the choice, you’d probably opt for no-ads in your podcast listening, but these sponsors are going to help make the whole project more sustainable for me and also help me make improvements to the show, so I ask you to bear with them, and me. Now, announcements out of the way, let’s get to the story. 

If you look at the title of this episode, you’ll see I’m starting a new series, focusing on the travels of Marco Polo, but we’re not starting from scratch here. The previous run of 7 episodes, To See the Mongols, led up to this point, tracing exchanges between Mongols and Western Europeans and wrapping up by looking at the rise of Kublai Khan. So if you haven’t listened to those yet, they do give a lot of good background and context for this series and you may want to hear them first.

Today, we won’t be seeing much of Marco himself, just a glimpse of him at the end. Instead, we’re going to set the scene with a look at his city of Venice and its role in Mediterranean competition and Eurasian trade; and we’re going to look at the first Polos’ meeting with Kublai Khan, that of Niccolo and Maffeo. This is the prelude.

The story of the Polos could begin at many points. You could go with the origins of Venice as a 6th century safe haven for those escaping invasion in the lagoons, but that would be crazy. You could look at the centuries of allegiance to the Byzantine Empire culminating in the Golden Bull of 1082 which allowed special trading rights and exemptions, most importantly with regards to trade in Constantinople. You could follow the early crusades, and the Venetians response to them, slow, by some tellings, to sabotage their trading success in the eastern Mediterranean until they sensed the possibility of success, and then plunging in to earn privileges and advantages in the resultant crusader kingdoms. All of those would make sense, but not wanting to turn this into an extended history of Venice podcast, I’m going to start with the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the beginning of the 13th century.

Now, sometimes it’s easy to lose any sense of time in historical events. You hear a story, and it becomes a little bubble in your consciousness, adrift from any connection to all the other little bubbles bobbling about in there. So let’s try to raft some of those bubbles together. Today, we’re starting in 1204 and then jumping forward to the main storyline starting around 1260. What do those dates mean? What else is happening? What can we tie this particular bubble to?

Well, the first years of the 13th century gave us the rise of Genghis to become great khan of the Mongols, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and also that of the University of Cambridge. And in 1215,  on the 15th of June, the Magna Carta was signed. In the second half of the century, when our story will be taking place, we get the University of Paris, the birth of Dante Alighieri, the work of Thomas Aquinas, King Edward’s struggles with Scotland and with William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. There’s more of course; there always is, but hopefully there’s something there for you to hang this story next to. Now, let’s get back to 1204.

In that year, Constantinople had fallen to the fourth crusade, with Venice taking a role that has been depicted as opportunistic, morally malleable to the moment one might say, even villainous some have said. Others have painted a more complex picture in which the Venetians and their doge appear less Machiavellian, and more just playing the cards they were dealt. It’s a great story in itself, and I’m going to put that aside as part of a near-future topic.

For now, know that Venetian involvement had secured the city a significant share of the spoils. That meant countless works of Byzantine art and treasure, the great bronze horses of the hippodrome, statues of the old Roman tetrarchs, and the 50,000 silver marks still owed for the fleet they had supplied, but it also meant a full 3/8s of the city and its empire. The Venetian leader, Enrico Dandolo, managed to arrange for right of conquest to a run of coastal territory and ports that connected his city to the Black Sea: the coast of western Greece, the Ionian islands, the Peloponnese, Naxos, Adrianople, Gallipoli, and control of key harbour districts of the imperial capital itself, to which he added the island of Crete, purchased for a thousand marks. He negotiated all of this and also the exclusion of Genoa and Pisa, their Italian rivals in trade and more fatal forms of competition. The exclusion was part of a long running, bitter back and forth, a sometimes bloody contest for the riches which the Mediterranean and its ports could provide. And this latest move placed Venice in an excellent position.

The lagoon city had problems certainly. It now had an empire of sorts to administer to, and Crete alone was going to cost it years of fighting with the Genoans. But it also had opportunities. Whether on through the Red Sea by way of its trading relationships in Egypt for which it had received a papal dispensation, from the Crusader Kingdoms and east to the Persian Gulf, or overland from Constantinople and the Black Sea ports, Venice was now admirably situated for business in the goods of the east, of Central Asia, China, and India. It’s the last of the three routes, the overland one, that we’re concerned with today, and that was deeply impacted by the rise of the Mongol Empire. 

Linking China and India with the Mediterranean was hardly a new invention; Seneca, the first century Roman, had bitterly complained of the popularity of Chinese silk in his time, and money and goods had flowed back the other way too. However, if you’ve listened to my last run of episodes, and you should, you’ve seen the degree to which western Europeans friars of the 13th century felt themselves to be entering a new and strange world, one which Alexander the Great had sealed away with walls of biblical proportions and which may or may not have contained dog-headed men. At least one Roman embassy is said to have actually visited China, yet a millennium later, we have these Franciscans taking their plunge into total darkness. What had happened?

The short answer is that Western Europe had largely retracted from the broader Eurasian trade system. And this is not to say that “the Silk Road,” as these routes are popularly known, went unused. Jewish Rhadanite traders had travelled those paths, and as the Islamic caliphates had stretched from Spain to the Indus River, so had Muslims.  But Latin Christendom had become detached from all of this in the periods between the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire and the Crusades. Now, with much of Asia unified under a Mongol Empire and a reignited European taste for what the east had to offer, Venetians and others would join them and re-engage in the trade from the Mediterranean, and through it from the cloth-producing markets of the north, to India, to China, to the quote/unquote “spice islands,” and elsewhere.

This moment of relative unity that allowed them to ease into transcontinental business has been called the Pax Mongolica, a reference to the idea of the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” that had stabilized the realms within its ambit and allowed for the kind of easy exchange of goods and ideas that could only occur under such conditions. Of course, it may also bring to mind the words that Tacitus had put in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain, that the Romans had made a desert and then called it peace. And there’s some truth to that here. The Mongols had done their fair share of desert-making as their conquests had forged a vast empire. But leaving aside how they had gone about it, the Mongols had, for a moment, made one what had been many, or at least they very briefly had. Mongol Peace is a bit of a misleading term, as by this point the Mongol khanates are already fighting each other. Still, for mile after mile, you travelled under Mongol authority.

And this is credited as having had an enormous impact. People, goods, and ideas could move more easily under this semi-unified rule. They were subject, broadly, to one set of laws and stable tribute gatherers, not ambushed figuratively and physically by this bandit lord’s men and that local king’s extortionate demands. Of course, there was still danger. As we saw in the preceding episodes, the natural environment itself could be terminally daunting, and the threat of physical violence was clearly not entirely banished from the situation. Demons and less supernatural sources of death still lurked in the shadows of possibility. Mongol force had not entirely tamed all within its domains, and in the conquered territories of the empire we find those who still held out; Friar William mentions Alans in the Caucasus and also those who had escaped Mongol service and now clawed out a living through raids and brigandry. But it was still easier. 

There was a system of law that discouraged local warfare and theft, an ability to anticipate to some degree the costs one would accrue in travel, and a saving in securing and protecting the goods in transit. I think a lot of people probably imagine the Mongol-controlled steppes as a land where you were promptly shot on sight by ruthless, mounted archers, but as should be becoming pretty clear, religious figures, ambassadors, and, most importantly for us, merchants, were generally able to move through it without experiencing such misfortune.

Venice was one of the powers which was going to be doing well out of this. The city’s merchants had been doing very well in fact, trading, among other things, in cloth, spices, and slaves, and this Pax Mongolica, however misleading that “Pax” part may be, opened new possibilities, many of which could be found in Constantinople. 

In that city, they had the deck stacked pretty well in their favour. I mean, it’s true that much of the local populace likely hated them. The Venetians were inseparably associated with the bloodshed of the 4th Crusade, and events in which Constantinoplites had been violently juiced by their rulers to pay off the crusaders and seen significant sections of their city, significant numbers of their homes I should say, burned in massive fires for which Venetians were in no small part to blame. So there was that. But they very much had the run of the city. In the port they had six jetties, they had churches, and they had two large fondachi, the facilities which catered to travellers and merchants with warehouse space, an inn, and a central courtyard to receive caravans of goods. They had a governor, or podesta, making trade agreements on their behalf, and they were propping up a faltering Latin Emperor whose barons even pawned the crown of thorns, supposedly THE crown of thorns, to them in desperation. They shipped silk, spices, slaves, wood, and riches home to Venice. They had the run of the city and the gateway to the Black Sea, but it couldn’t last forever. 

Venice could not support such an unsustainable regime indefinitely. The Latin Empire Of Constantinople increasingly lacked the approval of the locals, was weak from the start both militarily and financially, and was soon hemmed in on land by Nicaea, one of the Byzantine states that had survived exile from the imperial capital, and at sea by the Genoans, who wanted back in. The end couldn’t be long, and in July of 1261, it came. The forces of Michael Palaiologos, who’d schemed and fought his way to Nicaean dominance, reclaimed Constantinople as Byzantine, not with the assistance of Genoan naval pressure, but simply by way of a poorly secured section of the walls. No prolonged siege was required, just the timely presence of Michael’s general who acquired two vital pieces information: one, that the Venetian fleet and much of the Latin garrison were away raiding in the Black Sea and two, that there was a convenient passage by which his men might enter the city quietly, open a gate, and secure large portions of its walls by dawn. And so it went. The Latin Emperor Baldwin II awoke to an unpleasant surprise and was forced to escape in such a hurry that he left his sceptre and crown behind him, and the city’s Venetians rushed to follow. But two of Venice’s most famous men had already left the city.        

Two of the sons of Andrea Polo da San Felice, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, had been carrying on their business in Constantinople since around 1254. We read that “these respectable and well informed men, [had] embarked in a ship of their own, with a rich a varied cargo of merchandise.” The third brother in this fraterna compagnia, Marco but not that Marco, remained behind in Venice, likely to continue to conduct the merchant family’s transactions in his brothers’ absence. It was a standard enough business arrangement and made sense when partners would be gone for seasons or years at a time. In this case, the partners were going to be gone a little longer even than that. 

Niccolo and Maffeo apparently spent their time in the then still Latin imperial city trading their varied cargo for “fine and costly jewels,” and just how much time they spent doing this is totally unclear. Dates generally in this part of the story are speculation and the tying together of known events, so you’ll see the brothers Polo leaving Venice anytime between 1250 and 1255 and in some sources staying until as late as 1269; this last date is clearly incorrect though as they are to have left when the Latin Emperor still reigned and that puts a cap of 1261 on things. I’m going to follow historians such as Peter Jackson, who I relied on frequently in the Mongols series, and say that they departed Constantinople in 1260. They did so then, safely ahead of the Byzantine recapture of the city, but they may have been pushed to go by the increasing threat of political and economic instability, may have sensed the inevitability of coming change. It’s fairly likely that they did, and that this led them to convert their stock to the gems which of course carried the benefit of being highly portable and easily sewn away into their clothing. Across the Black Sea they went, bound for the city of Soldaia, a trading centre on the Crimean Peninsula from which foods, furs, and slaves passed on into Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. 

It was much the same itinerary we saw Friar William follow, and William had mentioned meeting many merchants in the city from Constantinople. The Polos themselves had a trading house there, so they weren’t strangers to Soldaia, but, as with William, they wouldn’t be staying in they city. Maybe they had not found business to their liking on arrival; perhaps the demand for their jewels was not what they’d thought it would be or the competition too fierce for profits to match their desires. More likely though, it had been their plan all along to strike out overland from the Black Sea port. They would have heard, certainly, from their time in Constantinople, that the Mongol rulers had a tremendous appetite for gems both as luxury goods and as currency, and that they could expect to find ready buyers for what they carried. Whether by necessity or, more likely, by prior intent, they went east.

Their mode of travel now was the horse, The Travels of Marco Polo tells us, but it tells us little else. As we’ll see when we get deeper into the text in the next episode, it really isn’t a travel narrative and is often a frustrating read from which to try to piece together any kind of coherent story. And this is still just the prologue to Marco’s journey proper which we’re dealing with. We need to look elsewhere then for the details on what the road may have been like.   

They would have travelled northeast until they reached Tana, where the Don River meets the northeast corner of the Sea of Azov. There we can pick up the thread of Florentine trader Francis Balducci Pegolotti, who would write about the route nearly a century later in his Merchant’s Handbook. He describes the road from Tana to the Volga River as 25 days by ox-wagon or 10-12 by horse-wagon, and then from there up to Sarai by river. Salt-fish and flour you’d need to set out with, enough to last, but you could buy meat along the way. Pegolotti reckoned it to be the most dangerous stretch of the whole long road to China, though if you had 60 men in your company, you’d still “go as safely as if you were in your own house,” but even more than armed men, he emphasizes the absolute need to hire a good guide and interpreter before leaving Tana. It was foolish to imagine you might save money on a translator of lesser skill and expense, for you’d surely end paying much more than what you’d saved at every step and possibly find yourself in real danger.

What arrangements the Polos made, we do not know. We do know that they had several Christian servants who they had brought with them from Venice, and would be with them for the duration of the trip, and we know that they made it. They made it to Sarai, and they made it to Berke Khan. And we should quickly cover who this was. 

This was a grandson of Genghis Khan by way of Jochi, Genghis’ eldest son though perhaps not his biological son. Berke was by this time khan of the Golden Horde, the Jochid domain that Batu Khan had carved out and which stretched from central Ukraine to Eastern Kazakhstan.

Maffeo and Niccolo reached the Jochid khan at an interesting time, but then, as I’ve said before, it was really always an interesting time in the Mongol empire. In this case, Mongke, the great khan, had died, and there was a civil war, the Toluid Civil War between his brothers, to decide who would replace him, with Berke supporting the claim of the traditionalist youngest brother against that of the eventual victor, Kublai. More regionally, the years building up to the Venetians’ arrival had seen hostilities brewing between Berke and his neighbour to the south, his cousin Hulagu Khan, whose Ilkhanate now stretched across Persia, much of Anatolia, and northern Syria. Hulagu had committed various acts of mass violence against Berke’s Muslim co-religionists; most notably he had sacked Baghdad and killed its Abbasid Caliph; he may also have been responsible for the deaths of up to three Jochid princes who’d died under unclear circumstances as part of his campaign; and finally, he’d occupied land in northwestern Iran and around the Caucasus that had been part of the Jochid Mongols’ territory. Balanced against all of this, “he’s my cousin” started to looked pretty inconsequential.

For what it’s worth, chroniclers tend to favour religion as Berke’s primary motivator for going to war again his relative, but he had financial reasons for doing so too. Because Hulagu had cut him out of the immensely profitable trade routes running through Iran, Berke and his successors, while continuing to fight for that territory, were going to need to look elsewhere. And this would actually lead to Golden Horde khans really elevating trade through the Black Sea, something which had previously gone largely ignored. What had once been a distant second was now by necessity their first option in trade, and this pivot towards the Black Sea could have already been taking shape in Berke’s mind as the Polos arrived.

They would have found him holding court at either Sarai or Bolgar along the Volga River. The former was by then a walled palace surrounded by tents and pavilions and complete with markets, religious buildings, and public baths, while the latter was something more established, a centuries old urban centre that had been the capital of the Volga Bulgars and was taken by the Mongols in 1237. 

And again our source is pretty sparse here, with none of the details with which the Franciscans had coloured their encounters with the khans. It mentions Berke giving them a warm reception, and it mentions an exchange of sorts. Apparently, the Polos laid some of their stock in jewels before the khan and seeing how much they pleased him, made him a generous present of the lot. And Berke, pleased indeed and unwilling to be shown up as less generous, ordered them given double the jewels’ value and “several rich presents” too. It’s an interesting moment. Perhaps we are meant to admire the merchants’ daring success here, the immense profits of their largesse, but clearly they had not come so far with the fruits of their trading in Constantinople to hand them over without expectation of reward. This was a predictable mode of transaction which, with the one participant being royalty, was performed as an exchange of gifts. These Venetians were not the Franciscans of earlier decades, navigating unknown waters, and they had surely picked up, in Constantinople and Soldaia, from the readily available body of knowledge on dealing with Mongol royalty. 

Whatever their expectations, the Venetians seem to have done well out of it, but for reasons we don’t know, they didn’t take their winnings and turn for home. They apparently stayed on for a year in the khan’s domains, but doing what? Were they trading this entire time, had the khan requested they stay, or were they simply really, really enamoured with life at Berke’s court?      

Whatever kept them, they waited too long. They waited until Constantinople had fallen back into Byzantine hands, cutting off their return, with Venetian merchants blinded or otherwise maimed in the violent aftermath; they waited until open war between Berke and Hulagu blocked the possibility of passing down between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea and to the city of Tabriz; and rather than wait any longer, they chose to  embark on an absurdly long detour. They were going to try and circle round to the north of the Caspian Sea, pass down well to the east of it into what’s now Uzbekistan, and then make a sweeping turn south toward Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and west for the Mediterranean. It’s probably for the best that it didn’t come to that. 

As it was, their jumping off point was Ukek, midway between Sarai and Bolgar, and it was a substantial hike to their destination, the city of Bukhara, a grinding 2,300 km according to Google Maps, which doesn’t offer a horse option but estimates it to be a 473 hour walk. Of this epic trek, the text has only this to say: that at one stretch they crossed a desert for 17 days and that they found there “neither town, castle, nor any substantial dwelling, but only [Mongols] with their herds, dwelling in tents on the plain.” It’s been pointed out that this was an old caravan route and that, contrary to claims of having seen nothing but tenting Mongols, they must have passed through substantial commercial centres like Urgench and Khiva along the way. The text does say they took an “unfrequented route,” -they were carrying a great deal of wealth and likely fearful of being caught up in fighting or attacked by thieves- so maybe they avoided these centres, but that doesn’t seem likely. Their survival doesn’t seem likely, if that was the case. It’s more probable that this was just another missing element in the text. This wasn’t after all their story, and storytelling was not the strength of the text.

In Bukhara, the brothers found an ancient city and an important centre of trade and religion, but one that had fallen on hard times and had more to come quite shortly. Genghis Khan and his army had arrived in 1220, and the garrison had left. With little other choice, Bukhara had surrendered; its people were taken out of the city, and the Mongols stormed in. They took everything they could, killed everyone that they found still within the walls, and left a burning ruin in their wake. One chronicler tells us that Genghis “contented himself with slaughtering and looting once only, and did not go to the extreme of a general massacre.” The useful artisans and women were enslaved, the young men enlisted to be driven up against the walls of the next city and soak up the casualties. Everyone seems to have been taken, slain, or scattered, but then we read of a rebellion in the area in 1238 and new slaughter, and still the city seems then to have been reestablished. Sorghaghtani Beki, an immensely powerful and capable administrator, and mother of Kublai and Hulagu, had overseen Bukhara’s rebirth, financing an important madrassa there among other projects. 

Though there would be more violence ahead, for now the city was again on the upswing, helped by its position along well travelled and long established trade routes. However, as Niccolo and Maffeo arrived it was also caught in the middle of a war. Its connection to continental trade was strangled off, and so was the Venetians’ progress. They were stuck in that city for three years, and we really don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they took part successfully in the local trade that still continued; maybe they took advantage of the opportunity to absorb knowledge and language from the diverse array of people that had repopulated this centre of trade, the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Chinese, and more. Maybe they simply settled into the everyday life of a trading city on the tense knife-edge of being swallowed up in civil war.

However they occupied their time, they were eventually offered a curious escape route, not a door opening back to their home in the west, but further east and further in. Some men had come to town, were passing through actually, and they happened to hear of these two Venetians who were living there. They were envoys of Hulagu, the khan of Persia, and they were on their way to the court of Kublai Khan, ostensibly still great khan of all the Mongols, though the empire was cracking apart at its dynastic seams. Would the brothers like to join them?  They could promise safe and secure passage, an honourable reception, and a khan who would be most interested to meet them. Between that and being stuck in Bukhara, it was not a hard choice. Would they like to come? Certainly, they would. 

Again, we’re given little detail as to the journey, but this time we’re given a reason up front. The brothers witnessed “many things worthy of admiration” in the area, but those are to be saved for later, for Marco Polo’s telling. Fair enough then. I’ll do the same. But I will comment on the time this is supposed to have taken them, a full year from Bukhara to Kublai’s court, on account, apparently, of the extreme weather, the snows and flooded rivers. Having just followed the journeys of elderly and overweight friars making the full trip from Constantinople or Hungary to the Karakorum region in less time, this seems a little weak on the Polos’ part. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on them though. Maybe even in the envoys’ company, war still slowed their advance; maybe the envoys had business along the way somehow pressing enough to delay them in their dealings with Kublai; or maybe the weather really was particularly bad; they were going through some pretty punishing terrain after all. And maybe it wasn’t really a full year. 

However long it took, it’s worth noting that even in this time of strife, they were able to make the journey at all. They’d been stranded in Bukhara for three years, but a traveller with the title and tablet of a khan’s envoy could still freely move about in safety, likely by way of the system of relay stations that dotted the empire and facilitated rapid travel for those on official business.  Whether one year or not, these envoys delivered them to Kublai Khan just as they had promised.

And I’ve been following friars over the long roads to the Mongols for 7 or 8 episodes now, so I fear I may be becoming a little blasé about meeting the Mongol khans. Make no mistake though; this was quite a big deal. According to the book, this was an enormous deal and Kublai Khan had never seen a, quote, “Latin” before. That does seem a little suspect. Mongke Khan’s camp had been brimming with all manner of European artisans, slaves, and soldiers. Still, this was a milestone, a new kind of encounter, certainly the first Venetian merchants that we know of making the trip and meeting the great khan of the great Mongol Empire and the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty in what was to be his summer palace. 

We don’t have a great deal of information about the meeting, of course, but with what we do have, we can contrast the Venetians’ experience with those of the friars who came before them. Those Franciscans had been successful in gathering information about these barely known horse-people but had been repeatedly frustrated in efforts at making any kind of spiritual or diplomatic headway among them and had generally come away with more threats than promises to carry home. 

Kublai Khan greeted these guests warmly, “with great honour and hospitality,” and then, as previous khans had of their visitors, closely questioned the Venetians on the European emperors, quote, “how they maintained their dignity, and administered justice in their dominions; and how they went forth to battle, and so forth. And then he asked the like questions about the kings and princes and other potentates.” The Mongols seem always to have been seeking to learn and ready to take opportunities to discover what they could of far-off lands, peoples, and their rulers, from interviews like this right up to the reconnaissance which preceded their invasions. 

Next, we read that:

...he inquired about the Pope and the Church and about all that is done at Rome, and all the customs of the Latins. And the two brothers told him the truth in all its particulars, with order and good sense, like sensible men as they were; and this they were able to do as they knew the [Mongol] language well.

Now there are a few things to note here. First, that they had learned the language during their long travels, maybe in Bukhara. It was an enormous advantage over early visitors to the steppes, men like Friar William who had eventually picked up only enough to realize that he could not at all trust his translator and had struggled horribly as a result of these limitations. However, those previous travellers had generally had a bit of a different attitude towards sharing information with the Mongols. They had also answered questions about who the most powerful men in Europe were, but they had been very aware that the people they were speaking to may very well soon be coming over the plains and through the mountains to use any information they were given against them. Previous travellers had also usually found excuses to not return with Mongol ambassadors, recognizing that these were potential spies and scouts they would be bringing home with them. Not so with the Polos. They seem to have been only too happy, when Kublai requested it, to accompany one of his men back to Rome. Maybe this  was because the idea of Kublai taking action against Christian Europe was no longer really a live threat. 

While previous messages from the Mongols had offered only promises of invasion if the pope and all his kings did not promptly offer their submission, the tone here was dramatically different. This was a khan whose efforts were entirely focussed on China and whose western domains were really no longer actually under his control; Berke Khan’s Golden Horde was independent, and Hulagu’s Ilkhanate recognized Kublai’s official supremacy but not really his governance and was in any case entirely caught up in fighting the Golden Horde and the Mamluks. So for Kublai, Europe was much further away than it had been for his predecessors. It was quite out of mind, as a prospective conquest at least. So what did Kublai Khan want?

What he wanted was holy oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a curious request, but not one that necessarily indicated any interest in converting. What he was asking for was, aside from anything else, a token of spiritual power and prestige to be delivered to him by a foreign religious leader; it was, as such, an instrument, among many I’m sure, which could demonstrate his greatness and the power and reach of his empire. I’m thinking here of the way the gifts from King Louis of France, of a specially made chapel tent and various books and relics, had been used 20 years earlier, how they were displayed to visiting leaders and ambassadors in a way which said “look how the Franks have offered their submission; look how all the world’s powers bow before me.” I think the holy oil might be put to similar use.

Kublai may have also wanted the oil for quite a different kind of power. This was after all a holy object, held to be so by the Christian world, and as we saw in the last series, Mongols were often quote syncretic about these things. Spiritual power was, after all, spiritual power. So long as it worked, they weren’t necessarily picky. 

He also wanted people. Specifically, he wanted the pope to send him 100 well-educated Christians, well-suited to argument and to disproving the words of the “idolaters” and other folk. If they could accomplish this, it was claimed, then he and all his people would become Christians, but again, I don’t think conversion was ever on the menu.

It’s quite conceivable that these promises simply made their way into the story by way of its Christian transcribers, an issue I’ll return to in later episodes, but, that aside, the possibility of a Christian Mongol khan had been dangled about before, with little to show for it. Moreover, Kublai had long relied heavily on the Buddhist and Daoist advisors who were very close to him, and it’s unlikely he would reject them and potentially damage his rule in China. Instead, I think it’s more probable that Kublai wanted the Latin Christians as a balancing force. He’d witnessed firsthand in Northern China the violently disruptive effects of religious conflict and had been called on then to facilitate a fierce debate to decide the issue. These 100 of the pope’s men could be brought in to counteract the dominance of Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists in his counsel and administration, or they might be put to use as officials in conquered regions to deflect local resentment from the Mongols themselves. Religious or otherwise, a purpose could always be found for 100 well-educated individuals.  

And with that, the Venetians had their commission, and they’d be given something to aid them in carrying it out: a golden tablet granting the bearers rights to make use of the system of imperial stations for shelter and fresh horses, and to call on local governors to escort them and on cities and towns to provide provisions. They’d taken the long way to Kublai, but the way home should have been much smoother with that golden tablet in hand.

Yet all does not seem to have gone smoothly. Their Mongol ambassador companion fell ill, quickly and seriously, and had to be left behind, and again weather seems to have caused delay to an unreasonable degree. This time it was said to be three years, owing to the “extreme cold, the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers,” and they probably weren’t three years; likely the time span here is just meant to convey the great difficulty of their travels, the grand nature of their feat. But however long it took them, the reached Layas in Lesser Armenia, about as far east as you can go on the south coast of Anatolia before the land curves south.

From Layas they were sailing for the crusader city of Acre, arriving in April of 1269, or 70, or 72, or 60, depending on the manuscript. And immediately they received bad news in regards to their Mongol-commissioned errand, that mission to deliver a letter to the pope and secure holy water and a full 100-strong complement of his best Christian minds. It turned out that the pope was dead. This was pretty fresh news, working from the 1269 arrival date. Pope Clement IV had died recently, in November of 1268. What were they to do? They weren’t going to be making the return journey to Kublai just yet, not if they were to complete their business with the pope. They were going to need to wait for a new one to materialize. That’s what the papal legate in Acre, Teobaldo Visconti, apparently urged them to do, and that’s what they did. They, quote, “determined upon employing the interval in a visit to their families in Venice,” which was very sweet of them. 

As it turned out, they wouldn’t be in and out the door. This would be the longest papal interregnum on record, an excruciating electoral ordeal, in which the cardinals were physically locked up in a building to motivate the decision making process. Niccolo and Maffeo didn’t yet know that though. 

They arrived in Venice to find that while they had been away time had passed there also. Niccolo had left a wife, and he returned to find her dead. He’d surely heard while in Constantinople that his son had been born, but he returned to find that baby-Marco was already a young man of around 15 years old.

And that’s where we’ll leave Marco Polo and his family for today. With my next few episodes, we’ll get into the travels of Marco himself. We’ll pick up his story as he joins Niccolo and Maffeo on their return journey. We’ll get into the long quest to separate fact from fiction, and we’ll get into the story of the books themselves. I’ll talk to you then.

Sources:

  • The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian, translated by Willam Marsden, edited by Thomas Wright. George Bell & Sons, 1907.

  • The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by Peter Jackson. The Hakluyt Society, 1990.

  • Cathay and the Way Thither, Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, Vol. III, translated and edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. London, 1916.

  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. Oxford University Press, 1989.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City. Chatto & Windus, 2009.

  • Ciociltan, Virgil. The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. Brill Academic, 2012.

  • Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. Yale University Press, 1999.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Olschki, Leonardo. Marco Polo's Asia. University of California Press, 1960.