It is now about the anniversary of an horrific atrocity that most of the world has forgotten, a brutal killing spree known as the Massacre of the Latins. This occurred in April of 1182 in Constantinople, the first city of the Byzantine Empire. At the time, the Italian city-states were powerful forces in the Mediterranean and Italian cities such as Venice, Genoa and Pisa had their own territorial concessions in Constantinople to serve their networks of commerce. Italian states dominated the trade and shipping of the region during that time and, particularly for cities like Venice and Genoa, often served as navies-for-hire in the employ of the Byzantine Emperors. However, there was a great deal of jealousy and mistrust of the "Latins" (as all Roman Catholics were called in the east but in this case they were almost entirely Italian) on the part of the Byzantines and it was not uncommon for the various Byzantine emperors to play the Italian city-states off against each other. There was also always plenty of plots and intrigues within the Byzantine court as men fought for the throne and each faction would usually have the support of one Italian state that would be employed against the others on promises of preferential treatment when that particular contestant for the throne became emperor.
Empress Maria of Antioch
By 1180 the Emperor Manuel I died. He had opposed Venice and so favored Genoa and Pisa but after his death his widow Maria of Antioch (a princess from a French family in the Catholic crusader states) ruled as regent for his infant son Alexios II and she had a pro-Italian, pro-Catholic policy. That was not tolerated for long and in April of 1182 she was overthrown by Andronikos I who came to power on a wave of anti-Italian xenophobia. Byzantine mobs charged into the Italian concessions and began massacring everyone in sight. The new Emperor did nothing at all to stop them or to restore order and the result was butchery on an unimaginable scale. Some of the Italians, sensing the danger, managed to escape before the attack but the vast majority of the 60,000 were trapped and helpless in the face of the Byzantine rampage. Men, women and children were killed in horrific fashion. Homes were destroyed, Catholic churches desecrated, even charitable houses were looted. Priests were tortured and murdered, women and girls were raped and the papal legate was decapitated and had his head tied to a dog and chased through the streets. Sick and dying people were stabbed to death in their hospital beds. It was savagery on an unbelievable scale. Those who were not killed in the bloodbath were sold into slavery to the Muslim Turks. They may well have envied the dead. The boys might have been forced into any number of forms of servitude, the men as well, perhaps serving as galley slaves, the women and girls had it worst of all, many forced into sexual slavery in the harems of the powerful.
The death of Andronikos I
It is little comfort that, eventually, Andronikos I is deposed and delivered up to mob justice and killed by his own people, including a few Latins who had, by that time, returned. There can be little sympathy for someone with the blood of tens of thousands of helpless men, women and children on his hands. He also, after overthrowing Maria of Antioch, forced her own son to sign the order for her execution. It is important to remember such an atrocity in order to understand the depth of division that has existed between the Catholic west and the Orthodox east, particularly as it is so often glossed over. Whereas the undoubted outrages of the Fourth Crusade are well known to history, the Massacre of the Latins that came first is seldom mentioned at all. It is also worth noting that, whereas Pope St John Paul II apologized, on behalf of the Catholic west, for the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, the Ecumenical Patriarch, nor any other Orthodox leader, has ever acknowledged or issued a similar apology for the Massacre of the Latins. Little wonder then that efforts at reunification and Christian solidarity have yet to find success.