Holy War

February 17, 2008

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Venice, the greatest city in the world, as far as I am concerned. A city grown on trade, ready armies and ready cash, always on the qui vivre for a good opportunity. When the army of the Fourth Crusade found itself through inept planning camped on the Adriatic with no means to transport itself across the water to the Holy Land, the Venetians were ready. As Gibbon recounts with his usual dryness,

“The maritime states of Italy were alone possessed of the means of transporting the holy warriors with their arms and horses; and the six deputies proceeded to Venice, to solicit, on motives of piety or interest, the aid of that powerful republic.”

There was, still, the problem of payment for these services, and the armies were short of money. Gibbon continues,

“The obstacle was removed by the policy and patriotism of the doge, who proposed to the barons that, if they would join their arms in reducing some revolted cities of Dalmatia, he would expose his person in the holy war, and obtain from the republic a long indulgence, till some wealthy conquest should afford the means of satisfying the debt. After much scruple and hesitation [the cities were Christian, not infidel], they chose rather to accept the offer than to relinquish the enterprise.So great an affront to Christian principles could not go unpunished: The pope excommunicated the assembled host.

That is, the Venetians said, “Let’s make a deal.” They got the holy rollers to subdue some rebellious (Christian) possessions of their empire, and they helped move the Crusade along. They did get a bit sidetracked – there was more loot to be had in Constantinople than Jerusalem, nevermind that it was a Christian empire all its own. It wasn’t Catholic!

You can read the whole sordid story in the Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade by Villehardouin. It seems to me to be somehow emblematic of certain recurring themes in human history: greed, cynicism, the perversion of high ideals and the tragedies that brings, and of course, as the great Flaubert would say, stupidity.


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