Today in History: July 17-19

The army of the Fourth Crusade sacks Constantinople for the first time, Arab-Berber invaders defeat the Visigothic king of Spain, and more

Hello friends! Foreign Exchanges is taking a few days off but will be back to normal programming soon! In the meantime here are a few notable anniversaries for the past few days along with a reminder to please check out my new podcast with Daniel Bessner, American Prestige! We’re available on Apple Podcasts and elsewhere so please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and for those who are willing and able to support the podcast please check us out over at Patreon! Last but not least, if you’re not on FX’s email list please consider signing up for that too:


July 17, 1203: In what could be considered a dry run of their later conquest of the city, the armies of the Fourth Crusade attack Constantinople and force the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios III Angelos, to flee into exile. The Crusaders had been enticed by Alexios’ nephew, also named Alexios, with promises of financial support if they put him upon the throne. A couple of things then went very wrong. First, the people of Constantinople restored the younger Alexios’ father, Isaac II, to the throne contrary to the Crusaders’ wishes (and despite the fact that Alexios III had blinded Isaac when he took power). Second, the now co-emperor Alexios IV found himself unable to make good on his financial promises, and his costly attempts to do so drew outrage from Constantinople’s residents. When Isaac died in January 1204 the people revolted and overthrew Alexios IV, prompting the Crusaders to launch another, substantially more consequential, assault on the city.

July 17, 1936: The Spanish military, led by a cadre of nationalist officers including Francisco Franco, begins a coup against Spain’s Popular Front government starting in Morocco, the Canary Islands, and the Balearic Islands. The intent was to secure those outlying areas before swiftly moving into Spain proper to oust the government the following day, but the effort quickly stalled and the result instead was the Spanish Civil War. Franco and the Nationalists ultimately won but only after hundreds of thousands were killed.

July 17, 1945: Leaders of the three Allied nations—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Harry Truman—meet in Postdam to hash out details concerning the end of World War II in Europe. On August 1 the three leaders, Churchill having been replaced by Clement Attlee in the interim because of the Labour Party’s victory in the UK’s July 5 election, released the “Potsdam Agreement,” which mostly set out terms for the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Germany.

July 17, 1968: In a bloodless coup sometimes called the “17 July Revolution,” the Iraqi Baath Party ousts President Abdul Rahman Arif and takes power under its leader, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. To this day the circumstances surrounding the coup remain murky, but the result is not—the Baathists controlled Iraq until the US invasion in 2003 ousted them. Bakr himself hung around until 1979, all the while slowly losing authority to his deputy, Saddam Hussein, until Hussein forced him out and assumed the presidency himself.

July 18, 1195: The Battle of Alarcos

July 18, 1290: English King Edward I (or Edward “Longshanks”) issues his Edict of Expulsion, forcing an estimated 16,000 Jews out of England. Edward, financially broken by wars on the Continent, cut a deal with English nobles in which he traded the expulsion of the Jews for the right to levy new taxes (the chance to seize abandoned Jewish property must also have appealed to him). But he was also building on a long tradition of English anti-semitism, much of it the product of his father’s reign. Anti-semitism had steadily risen throughout England since the Norman conquest and the expulsion was the culmination of a series of insults that began with Henry III’s 1218 “Edict of the Badge” that required Jews in the kingdom to wear badges that marked them as Jews. Henry, who viewed himself as the new Edward the Confessor, had a particular hatred for England’s Jewish community that manifested in punitive taxation and in the 1253 Statute of Jewry and 1275 Statute of the Jewry, which intensified the segregation of Jews from the rest of English society and finally outlawed the lending of money at interest, one of the few economic niches available to Jews in the kingdom. The edict’s ban on Jews living in England lasted until Oliver Cromwell lifted it in 1657.

July 19, 64: The Great Fire of Rome ignites in the area around the Circus Maximus under uncertain circumstances. The conflagration would continue to rage for six days before subsiding, only to reignite and rage for another three days. The actual circumstances behind the fire have been lost in a vast ocean of legends and rumors. Chief among these is the story that Emperor Nero blamed the fire on Christians and under that pretense launched the first imperial persecution of the nascent religious sect. But the sources connecting Nero’s persecution to the fire are murky at best and recent scholarship has come to question whether Nero launched any Christian persecution at all.

Nero’s Torches, an 1876 work by Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzki, depicts Christian martyrs being burned on Nero’s orders for their supposed role in causing the fire (Wikimedia Commons)

Related to the Christian persecution story is the narrative that has Nero himself ordering the fire in order to destroy Rome and rebuild it to his own tastes (in this narrative he uses the Christians as a scapegoat to escape his own culpability). That story may stem from the speed with which Nero moved to take control of the rebuilding effort, which suggested that he was taking advantage of the disaster. As emperor Nero could have ordered at least most of the rebuild without the need to set the fire, so this scenario also seems dubious. The fire likely started accidentally and spread quickly due to high winds and the close proximity of the commercial buildings surrounding the Circus, while efforts to fight the blaze may have been hampered by looters (whose involvement could have fueled speculation about an intentional cause).

July 19, 711: The Battle of Guadalete

July 19, 1864: The Third Battle of Nanjing ends with a decisive Qing victory and the final eradication of the rebel Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The battle, which ended after the death of rebel leader Hong Xiuquan and saw the Taiping forces lose perhaps as many as 100,000 men (double that if you include losses incurred over the course of the entire siege, which began in March), was the last major engagement of the Taiping Rebellion.