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Enrico Dandolo, the Ruthless Crusader
By K. Lessner
Category: Medieval Europe: Historical Figures
Enrico Dandolo is believed to have been born sometime around 1107. The exact date remains a mystery. He was born into an influential noble family in Venice. Throughout his life, he held positions of influence in Venice and was involved with many of the Republic’s diplomatic missions. He was a shrewd politician, eventually becoming Doge in 1192. Always sensing opportunity, he managed to expand Venice into the dominant maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, taking for Venice a large portion of Byzantine lands. Near the end of his life, he was instrumental in establishing the Latin Empire, a deed which he is often vilified for. Whatever the circumstance, he always placed the interests of Venice before all others. His ruthless nature, ambition and sheer opportunity allowed Venice to expand and dominate trade in the Mediterranean for centuries.
The Dandolo’s themselves could trace their ancestry back to the 11th Century, some sources even claim as early as the 7th century at the election of the first Doge. The family itself remains prominent throughout Venetian history, producing for Venice many Admirals and four Doges. The Venetian Republic was eventually absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Girolamo Dandolo, the last Admiral of Venice, died in 1847 an Admiral of the Austrian Navy. It is quite clear that the Dandolo family had a significant presence throughout most, if not all, of Venetian history.
Information on Dandolo's early life is relatively obscure. Dandolo became the Patriarch of Grado in 1146. His actions at this time show him to be a man of courage. He defended his rights as the Patriarch against the Doge Pietro Polani and the rival Michiel family. This action by Dandolo led to the exile of the entire Dandolo family. Ten years later however, the Dandolos were permitted to return to Venice, having patched up their relationship with the ruling elite through a series of marriages and political concessions.
From this time on, Dandolo would accompany many diplomatic missions abroad. He accompanied Doge Vitale Michiel to Constantinople in 1171. A year later, Dandolo returned to Constantinople with the Byzantine ambassador. It is said that Dandolo so compassionately and vigorously defended Venetian interests, the Byzantine Emperor had him blinded. Indeed some historians agree with this assessment. However, Groffroi de Villehardouin, a chronicler of the fourth Crusade, wrote that Dandolo's blindness or bad sight came from a head injury. However it happened, many historians have concluded that Dandolo had a personal distain for the Byzantines, however, this is conjecture.
Following the diplomatic trip to Constantinople, Dandolo traveled to the Kingdom of Sicily as the Venetian Ambassador. He also fulfilled this same role when he traveled to Ferrara in 1191. In that time, the power of the Michiel family began to decline. The Dandolo’s began aggressively competing with the Ziani family. Eventually, the Dandolo’s were able to secure a place in the history books. Doge Orio Mastropiero retired to a monetary in 1192 whereupon Dandolo returned to Venice, and on June 1st,1192, was elected Doge, perhaps at the age of 85.
Following the diplomatic trip to Constantinople, Dandolo traveled to the Kingdom of Sicily as the Venetian Ambassador. He also fulfilled this same role when he traveled to Ferrara in 1191. In that time, the power of the Michiel family began to decline. The Dandolo’s began aggressively competing with the Ziani family. Eventually, the Dandolo’s were able to secure a place in the history books. Doge Orio Mastropiero retired to a monetary in 1192 whereupon Dandolo returned to Venice, and on June 1,1192, was elected Doge, perhaps at the age of 85.
One of his first acts as Doge was swearing the “ducal promise,” this defined the role and power of the office of the Doge. Dandolo also revised Venice’s penal code and published the first set of civil statutes. Dandolo also revised the currency of Venice, issuing the grosso or matapan, this as part of a new economic policy encouraging trade with the east. He concluded treaties with many nations, including Byzantium.
In the 1190’s, the Italian state of Pisa attempted to expand its influence into the Adriatic sea. Cities which traditionally belonged to Venice, that rose up in revolt were actively supported by the Pisans. Among the cities, Zara, Brindisi and Puglia. Zara managed to hold out until the 4th Crusade in large part because of the Pisan navy and because it came under the protection of the King of Hungary. The Pisan fleet was defeated by the Venetian fleet when it blockaded Brinidisi and Puglia in 1199. However, Dandolo’s most profound activity as Doge occurred during the Fourth Crusade.
A Crusade had been in the planning stage since 1199. Originally conceived of by Count Tibald of Champagne who died in 1201, whereupon Boniface of Montferrat succeeded Tibald as the Crusade leader. Pope Innocent III, who was elected Pope in 1198, gave the Crusade his blessing. The original plan of the Crusaders was to land an army in Egypt. However, Venice had a trade relationship with Egypt and did not wish for this relationship to be threatened. The Crusaders arrived in Venice and contracted the Venetians (who overcharged) for a fleet three times larger than was necessary. The Crusader army itself arrived in 1202 and was smaller than expected. The Crusaders now had no way to pay off the debt. Seeing an opportunity, Dandolo convinced the Crusaders to assist Venice to in conquering the city of Zara which was now under Hungarian control (and thus a Christian city). Dandolo, who was in his mid-nineties, accompanied the fleet.
Zara fell in November of 1202. Despite the plunder and economic gain of Zara, the wealth gained was still insufficient for the Crusaders to break free from their debt. Furthermore, Boniface received a letter from the Pope condemning the attack and excommunicating the Venetians. However, Boniface refused to publish the letter. The Crusaders needed a way out.
Isaac II of Byzantium was deposed by his brother Alexius III in 1195. Isaac’s son, who would later be known as Alexius IV, made his way to the Kingdom of Swabia in order to gain support to restore his father to the throne. Alexius IV made contact with the Crusaders in Zara, where the fleet was staying for the winter. Alexius IV conspired with the Crusaders, offering them an army of ten thousand soldiers and two hundred thousand marks. The Crusaders were originally eighty thousand marks in debt, such a large amount of wealth was too hard to pass up. The Crusaders decided to set sail for Constantinople to restore Isaac II throne. Unfortunately, the Pope knew in advance of the plan to divert the Crusade to Constantinople. The Pope sent another letter to Boniface. In it, he forbade any attack on Constantinople and ordered his earlier letter published immediately. However, the Crusader fleet had left Zara before the letter could arrive.
The Crusader fleet entered the Bosporus early in 1203 and camped across the straights from Constantinople. Though the Byzantines had a fleet, it was in no shape to fight the Venetian fleet. The Emperor’s brother-in-law, the Admiral of the Byzantine fleet, grew rich selling off the equipment of the Byzantine navy, reducing it to a horrible and unprepared state.
First, the Crusaders sent an emissary into the city in an attempt to proclaim Isaac II as Emperor. However, peaceful attempts to restore Isaac failed. The Crusader fleet then landed its army at Galata, a suburb across the Golden Horn harbor, the inlet to Constantinople. The Fleet could not enter the Golden Horn due to an immense fifteen hundred foot iron chain which was protected by a tower. However, the Byzantines launched a botched attack against the Crusader camp, which saw the Crusaders gain control of the tower. It was then that the Venetian fleet entered the harbor and scaled up the city walls. Emperor Alexius III fled the city across the Bosporus. Alexius III’s own people turned around and proclaimed Isaac II and his son Alexius IV the Co-Emperor’s of Byzantium. Isaac II however was in a depleted mental capacity and not fit to rule, this forced his son to handle the Empire’s affairs.
Alexius IV was unable to pay off his debt to the Crusaders and finally he and his father were deposed by the Byzantine’s themselves who then turned hostile toward the Crusaders. This forced the Crusaders to take matters into their own hands. Here, Dandolo exceeded his capacity as a mere contractor for transporting an army to its destination. It was decided by a council of Venetians and Crusaders that in the new order, which would replace the Byzantine Empire, six Venetians and six Crusaders would choose an Emperor and that if the Crusaders were elected to the Emperorship, the Venetians would appoint a Patriarch and visa versa. Though an old man, Dandolo preferred to be in the forefront of the fighting. Armed with the gonfalon of St. Marks, Dandolo stood at the bow of his galley encouraging his men as they made their landing. The Crusaders finally gained complete control over Constantinople on April 13th, 1204. In the following days, the Crusaders pillaged the city. Priceless relics were carted off to Venice never to be returned. The Crusaders then turned their attention to establishing a new order in Byzantium.
Though a candidate, Dandolo had no interest is becoming Emperor and he distrusted Boniface. With Dandolo’s support, Count Baldwin of Flanders became the Emperor of the new Latin Empire in 1204. Dandolo took the title “lord of the fourth part and a half of the whole empire of Romania” which corresponded roughly to the amount of Byzantine lands gained by the Venetians. Indeed, Dandolo was more interested in the land he could gain for Venice. Among the new lands gained were Crete, Albania and Islands in the Aegean Sea which were consolidated into the Duchy of the Archipelago. Dandolo also ensured that Venice gained dominant trading rights in important harbors along Mediterranean trade routs. After the 4th Crusade, Venice became the dominant Maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Soon after his ascension to the throne of the Latin Empire, Baldwin faced a new threat. Much of the Byzantine Aristocracy in Thrace was in revolt against their new Emperor. These same Aristocrats called upon Czar Kaloyan of Bulgaria to come to their aid. Originally, the Czar offered the crusaders an alliance only to have it turned down. Worried that his Kingdom was next, Kaloyan invaded Thrace. Accompanying his army were fourteen thousand Cumans, Turkic Pagan soldiers. Like the Emperor Vallens over 800 years earlier at Adrianople against the Goths, Baldwin’s army would suffer a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Bulgarian army. After subduing rebel cities, the Crusader army arrived at Adrianople and began the siege. Dandolo himself was present. The Bulgarians managed to sneak their entire army very close to the Crusader camp. The following day, a small skirmish occurred between the Cuman cavalry and the Crusader army. The Crusaders were soundly defeated. The next day, fighting was intense, however, the Bulgarians prevailed, much credit owed to their Pagan allies. The Emperor was taken alive, Dandolo now took command of the remnants of the army. Through his strength of personality, he managed to lead the defeated army back to Constantinople.
The Latin Empire lost it’s first Emperor within a year. For the following 60 years the Latin Empire struggled to maintain its existence. In Byzantium’s stead, successor states were established, in Asia Minor the Empire of Nicea and the Empire of Trebizond, in Greece the Despotate of Epirus. However, none grew more prominent than Nicea. In 1261, the Empire of Nicea retook Constantinople without bloodshed. The Crusader garrison was away at sea pillaging Greek islands. This allowed a small unit of Nicean soldiers (perhaps a few dozen) to infiltrate the city and claim it for the Emperor of Nicea. The Emperor of Nicea, Michael VIII, rushed to Constantinople and reclaimed the city.
Though Constantinople was reclaimed, and the Latin Empire destroyed, Byzantium was never quite the same. The Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, had the same interest of keeping the Muslims in Asia Minor out of Europe. Constantinople, the most heavily fortified city in the world and at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, was perfect for defending Europe from the Muslims. However, the Crusader’s greed led them to temporarily destroy the Byzantine Empire and this caused it irreparable harm. After Byzantium was reestablished, it was but a shadow of its former self. Two hundred years after retaking Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire was finally overran by the Ottoman Turks.
Whatever the consequence was for Byzantium, Venice flourished. Dandolo’s foreign policy ensured Venice gained exclusive trading rights throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Historians often refer to him as the “founder of the Venetian Colonial Empire.” When Dandolo first came to power, Venice was troubled with problems. He resolved the domestic matters plaguing Venice and used the opportunity of the Fourth Crusade to expand Venetian influence throughout the Mediterranean. However, his own role in the downfall of Byzantium only hastened Constantinople’s fall to the Muslims.
Dandolo himself, exhausted from the campaign in 1205, died in Constantinople, comfortably in bed. This in stark contrast with Boniface, the leader of the Crusade and Baldwin, the first Latin Emperor. Both Boniface and Baldwin were captured by the Bulgarians and executed. These three men, the framework for the Latin Empire, were dead within 4 years of it’s conception.
Dandolo was buried in the Haiga Sophia, his grave encased in a marble tomb. Some accounts claim the tomb was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks, others claim it was destroyed by the Niceans. Though the tomb itself was destroyed, Dandolo’s grave can still be found inside the Haiga Sophia. Many articles often portray Dandolo hijacking the Crusade. However, one should remember that though Dandolo did divert the Crusade to Zara, it was Alexius IV who made contact with the crusader fleet and it would never have diverted to Constantinople without him. When Alexius IV arrived in the Crusader camp, Dandolo saw another opportunity for Venice and pursued it. Despite his ruthlessness, he saw to it that Venice’s interests took precedence above all others.
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