Enrico Dandolo had an ax to grind. At first, it seemed like he had a pretty good life. He was born in the early 12th century to an influential Venetian noble family. His father was Vitale Dandolo, who was a famous jurist and diplomat. His uncle, another Enrico Dandolo, was the patriarch of Grado, the highest ranking churchman in Venice. Young Enrico followed in his father’s footsteps and went on many diplomatic for the Republic. He was a shrewd politician and survived a disastrous mission Constantinople in 1171. The Byzantine Empire was the biggest kid on the block, and had seized the goods of thousands of Venetians living in the Empire and threw the people in prison. The initial mission was a complete mess, and ended up with the Doge being killed by a mob. Dandolo survived and made many diplomatic trips to Constantinople, Ferrara and Sicily. It is said one trip to Constantinople, Enrico lost his sight. One story says that he so vigorously defended the rights of the Venetians living in Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor had him blinded. However, Groffroi de Villehardouin, a chronicler of the fourth Crusade, reports Dandolo lost his sight from a blow to the head. However, he lost his sight, it did not quench his ambition or his ability, and stoked a growing hatred for the Byzantine Empire.
At a time when most men were settling down, Dandolo began his rise to power. He became the forty-first Doge of Venice on June 1, 1192. He was 84 years old and blind to boot. However, he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels. He had a score to settle with Byzantium. By the end of the 12th century, there had been three crusades to retake the holy land with varying degrees of success. The Third Crusade had just ended with the Treaty of Jaffa, which left the city of Jerusalem under Muslim control. No one much liked that. The Saladin died, and his successors looked easier to beat. So in 1198, Pope Innocent III immediately began calling for a new crusade to free Jerusalem. Unfortunately, no one was much interested as literally everyone in Europe was busy with something else.
Finally in 1202, the army of mostly French recruits, marched to Venice, who had agreed to provide them with transport to Cairo. Slight problem, no one had any money to pay the Venetians. This turned into a huge problem for Venice as they had sunk all their ready cash in building a fleet for the crusaders, which put their shipbuilding economy on hold. Plus there were 12,000 soldiers wandering around with no money and bored out of their minds. That wasn’t going to end well. A deal was struck. The crusaders could go to Cairo, if they captured the port of Zara on the Dalmatian coast for Venice on the way. Zara was a Christian city, but no matter. They would get some cash plus revenge for the Dalmatians not aligning themselves with Venice, the crusaders would get where they needed to go. Win win. Not exactly in the eyes of Pope Innocent III, who put tried to put the kibosh on the plan by threatening to excommunicate everyone if they went through with it. Everyone kind of forgot to tell the rank and file that, and they took Zara anyway.
So, now that Dandolo was officially excommunicated he was now free to do exactly what he wanted, and he smelled profit and revenge. While all this was going on,
there was a power struggle in Constantinople. Isaac II lost the throne and his brother was crowned as Alexios III. Isaac’s son, another Alexios, was not keen on losing his inheritance, and cast about for allies and found one Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo had the crusader army sale not for Cairo, but for Constantinople with Isaac’s son in tow. He was to be proclaimed basileus for the tidy sum of 236,000 silver marks. Yet another problem- Isaac’s son did not have that kind of money. Alexios decided to keep that to himself as the crusader army and Venetian ships attacked Constantinople. They almost lost, but eventually Alexios III lost his nerve and fled. Young Alexios was crowned Alexios IV as co-emperor with his old father, Isaac II. It was time to pay up, but Alexios decided to try to to skip out on the debt.
When the Venetians found out they were pissed. They refused to leave the city until they got every cent, and eventually the crusader army and the citizens of Constantinople were brawling in the city streets. The citizens were fed up and brought in a new basileus, yet another Alexios who became Alexios V. This Alexios was very anti-Latin, as the crusaders and Venetians were called. Dandolo knew they weren’t going to get any money from him, so they declared him a usurper and let the crusader army loose on the great city of Constantinople. Not exactly what Pope Innocent had in mind, but he eventually got his cut so he let it slide.
The city fell to the crusader army on April 13, 1204 and it is estimated that 900,000 silver marks was looted out of Constantinople. Jerusalem wasn’t conquered and the Muslims were never engaged in one battle. The only people who fought were Christians against Christians, which greatly belittled the worth of the Pope’s word. Innocent fought that battle for years after. However, everyone made their money and Dandolo got his revenge. However, the price for his revenge was quite high. The Byzantine Empire had been the bulwark against the Muslims for years and this little escapade had weakened it significantly. There was a series of “Latin” rulers, but within sixty years the Greeks were back in charge. However, it never recovered and became an easy mark for the Ottoman Empire.