Complications of empire
The Latin Empire centered on Constantinople was retaken in 1261 by the Byzantine Greeks, who had set up an Empire in exile in Asia Minor. Over the next two centuries the remaining crusader realms (all on territory that is now part of Greece) fell one by one. (If you skipped the Fourth Crusade and would like to see a map of the geopolitical changes that it brought about, click the button below.
The conquerors of the crusader realms were Greeks, loyal to the Byzantine emperor, whose titles were respectively the Despot of Epirus and the Despot of Morea—another name for the Peloponnesus. (Obviously, despot meant something rather different to them, something more like ‘lord’ or ‘master,’ than it does to us. In modern Greek [δεσπότης], its primary meaning is ‘bishop.’)

The last Latin realm to fall was a mere stub of the Principality of Achaia, finally absorbed in 1432—after a century and a half of progressive nibbling—by the Despotate of the Morea (i.e., the Peloponnesus). Byzantium itself had only 19 years left; the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, and eight years later they overran the despotates, completing the extinction of Greek independence.

The Empire never recovered from the Fourth Crusade. Although the Byzantines retook their capital, Constantinople was from that point onward at the mercy of the Genoese, who built or occupied forts near the city that gave them complete control of its trade. When the Byzantines tried to build themselves a fleet, the Genoese sailed into Constantinople’s harbor, the Golden Horn, and sank it. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks had arrived in Asia Minor and were putting greater and greater pressure on Byzantine defenses.
Turks taking Constantinople, 1453
It’s fair to say that the Latin conquest of Constantinople had a lot to do with the conquest of what had once been the richest and most powerful of Christian cities by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During the final siege, both Genoa and Venice contributed forces to the defense, but they were too little, too late. When the balance of the years from 1204 to 1453 is added up, those two Italian city states bear a good part of the ultimate responsibility for the catastrophe.

The picture above is from a Turkish source for a change: the recently opened Panorama 1453 Museum in Istanbul (where, needless to say, the Ottoman conquest of the city is not regarded as a catastrophe). As you can see, one important difference between this attack and the one in 1204 is that artillery had entered the picture. The Turks had it and the Byzantines didn’t; their ancient walls were no match for the new technology.

The sea-based Venetians had managed to hold onto their territorial gains—all of which were islands or seaports—with greater success than the land-based crusaders, and after the fall of Constantinople they still held most of them. Crete, for which they paid cash in 1204, had the potential to bring them the greatest economic return. But first they had to take possession. They didn’t achieve this goal immediately; before they could move in they had to dislodge the Genoese, who had established a trading presence in Crete and were not inclined to surrender the island to their chief rivals.
Venetian map of Crete (15th–16th century?)
It took until 1211 or 1212 for Venice to make itself master of this new island domain, but although more than four centuries of Venetian rule were to follow, most of the Venetian presence remained concentrated in Crete’s three largest cities, all on the north coast: Canea (Chaniá), Retimo (Réthymno), and Candia (Chándakas, now Iráklio)—the first two in the west and the second only a little way east of the center. These cities are where the greatest evidence of Venetian occupation is visible today, in the massive defenses and the many fine buildings (plus the odd fountain or statue) that they left behind. East of Iráklio, the Venetians also built strongholds in Áyios Nikólaos and Sitía on the north coast and Ierápetra on the south, where smaller numbers settled. Sitía, a port active in Cretan trade with the Middle East, was the largest of these three eastern cities, although the other two have outgrown it since. On this Venetian map—for which I don’t have a date, but it’s clearly no later than the 16th century—you can clearly see the four principle cities, Canea, Retimo, Candia, and Sitia, from left to right along the north coast.
Map of Venetian Crete (17th–18th century?)
The island was at first divided into six districts, a deliberate echo of the six municipal districts of Venice, but at some early point these were reduced to four: Chaniá, Réthymno, Iráklio, and Lasíthi, the last including Sitía, Áyios Nikólaos, and Ierápetra. Those four districts are still the regional units (prior to 2011 called prefectures) into which Crete is divided, and the six cities are still the largest in Crete (Iráklio, Chaniá, Réthymno, Áyios Nikólaos, Ierápetra, and Sitía in descending order of population). The Greek name of the eastern district, Lasíthi, comes from La Sitía—preceding a city name with a definite article seems to have been a common Italian usage. This map may well have been published after the Turks had taken Crete away from the Venetians. That happened in the mid-17th century, at a time when publishing an atlas was still a major undertaking, so that most published maps are later than this change. It hardly matters, though, because the publishers weren't prepared to deal with the Turkish language or the Arabic alphabet, in which it was written at that time. So they went on printing the Venetian (or Latin) names for everything. Although the map is hard to read in this resolution, it does show clearly the four Venetian districts, whose boundaries the Turks seem to have maintained. (You can also see the boundaries, at least in part, on the older map above. It belongs to an earlier stage of cartographic science, and doesn't get the shape of the island quite right either.)

The Venetians conceived Crete as a colony, to be administered exclusively for the benefit of the Serenissima Republica. Many enterprising colonists arrived, some belonging to Venice’s noblest families, and these received large grants of the best agricultural land, in standard feudal fashion. But Venice itself had never been a feudal society. The city comprised so little land that land never became the basis of wealth or power, as it always was in the European societies that are generally considered feudal.

Political problems of a kind familiar in countries like England and France, but foreign to Venetian experience, soon arose in Crete. Landowners naturally enough came to see their estates as existing for their own economic benefit, rather than that of the state. Crete’s appointed governors—the Duke of Crete in Candia and the Rectors of Canea (Chaniá) and Retimo (Réthymno), as well as lesser colonial officials—were chosen in Venice and sent out to Crete. They were accountable to the Venetian Senate, not to Venetian magnates in Crete. These two power centers, one colonial and the other local, were often at loggerheads.
Malvasia grapes on the vine
For example, Venice wanted Crete to be its breadbasket. Lacking its own agricultural land, the Republic had always had to buy its wheat, apart from what it was able to extort from its Dalmatian possessions (many of which clung to rocky shores little better suited to farming than Venice itself). Venice needed wheat not only to keep its citizens in bread and pasta, but also to produce the double-baked hardtack biscuits that fed the crews of its all-important fleet. In buying Crete after the Fourth Crusade, Venice acquired the largest and most fertile of eastern Mediterranean islands. But by the 15th century, those who owned or worked the Cretan farmlands were much more interested in producing wine than wheat. The sweet wine called malvasia had become wildly popular not only throughout Europe, but also in the Near East, where despite the Islamic prohibition against wine it found a good-sized market—perhaps largely among the Christians who still dwelt there in considerable numbers.
The Venetian colony’s rulers made efforts to keep up wheat production; they sent out agents to check on what farmers were doing, and issued orders that were generally ignored. They imposed a heavy tax on wine exports, but even this didn’t motivate landowners to be more cooperative. The landowners’ motivation might have been stronger if there had not been a law forbidding them to sell wheat to anyone but the Most Serene Republic—at a nice low price dictated by the buyer.

But Crete had more than two political layers. Besides the one made up of rulers and functionaries from Venice and the other of Venetian landholders, there were the native Greeks, some of them members of the island’s previous ruling class, whose estates had been given to Venetians. Others were workers—in the cities, a mixture of Greeks, Venetians, and others, and in the rest of the country, nearly all Greek. Every party had its own interests, passions, and loyalties.

Venice’s official policy was to maintain ethnic purity, at least at the social levels of respectable society. The Republic wanted its colonists to remain (in the Venetian formula) “blood of our blood and bone of our bone.” This, it was hoped, would prevent the settlers from going native and ensure that they stayed closely bound to Venice and its interests. But that end was hard to achieve, for more reasons than economics. Members of many Venetian families intermarried with the clans of dispossessed Greek magnates, and there was intermarriage on lower social levels as well. As time went on many colonists began to use the Greek language and think in Greek ways. Quite a few even learned to prefer Orthodox to Latin Christianity.

It’s hard not to see a similarity to what was going on in another colonized country, Ireland, during the same centuries. English settlers on all social levels were intermarrying with the natives and taking on their language and customs, to such a point that one overwrought government paper described the worst offenders as having become “hiberniis ipsis hiberniores” [‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’].
Frangokástello, the 'Frankish fortress'
Perhaps it’s needless to point out that, in Crete, the poorest of the native Greeks got little benefit from such cultural exchanges. The Venetians looked on them as mere serfs, and the serfs returned their masters about as much affection as you’d expect. Although workers and peasants had little reason to expect that restoring Greek rule would improve their economic status, they took part in every one of the frequent uprisings against the colonial rulers—even though these were often led by their former Greek masters, mainly interested in reclaiming their own lands and privileged positions. Greek-speaking Cretans, high or low, didn’t love being ruled by Italian-speaking “Franks.” (Ever since the earliest crusades, that has been the common term not only in the Islamic world, but all over the eastern Mediterranean, for Western Europeans or Roman Catholics—the two terms, originally, having been synonymous. This ruined Venetian fortress on the southwest Cretan coast of Sphakiá is still called Frangokástello.)

When they weren’t actually rebelling, however, many Greeks made efforts to join the Venetians’ military occupation forces, for which there were definite economic rewards. The best farmlands around Candia (Iráklio), for instance, were reserved for members of military units, and although Greeks weren’t supposed to be recruited, many of them managed to get into the ranks somehow. In outlying areas, the local Venetian magnates did recruit or draft Greeks for a kind of militia duty. Officials wrote of these recruits with great contempt, describing them as the worst sort of incompetents and malingerers. Meaning, one supposes, that the Cretan peasants neglected—for reasons the officials could never work out—to internalize the goals, ideals, and values of their masters. The rascals were only in it for the money… or in some cases only because their landlords had signed them up for involuntary service.