Post-classical history

Constantinople, Latin Empire of

An empire under Latin (Frankish) domination, established in April 1204 after the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire by the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). The territory of the Latin Empire was much smaller than that of Byzantium: at its greatest extent it comprised the city of Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), Thrace, eastern Macedonia, and northwest Asia Minor, although the Latin emperor was often, at least in theory, recognized as the suzerain of the other Frankish states in Greece.

The empire had been effectively reduced to Constantinople and its environs when on 25 July 1261 the city was recaptured by the Byzantine troops of the Nicaean emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Emperor Baldwin II fled to the West and the empire came to an end, although various titular emperors continued to maintain claims until 1382.

Establishment and Early History (1204-1216)

The Latin Empire of Constantinople was the direct result of the deviation of the Fourth Crusade. While encamped before the walls of Constantinople in March 1204, the Frankish crusaders and the Venetians agreed between themselves to replace the Byzantine emperor with a Latin one, and after the capture of the city, Count Baldwin IX of Flanders (VI of Hainaut) was crowned emperor (as Baldwin I) in the Church of Hagia Sophia on 16 May 1204. Baldwin I’s first task was to safeguard the empire against the Greek and Vlacho-Bul- garian alliance in Thrace. On 14 April 1205, a battle took place near Adrianople (mod. Edirne, Turkey), where Tsar Kaloyan (Johannitsa), who had received the pope’s blessing for his Vlacho-Bulgarian Empire, defeated Baldwin’s army, which retreated toward Constantinople. Baldwin was taken prisoner and died in captivity. Later, in 1225, a “false Baldwin” turned up in Flanders, but was recognized as a minstrel called Bertrand de Rais and executed on orders of Johanna of Constantinople, Baldwin’s daughter.

Baldwin’s brother Henry of Flanders became regent of the empire and was crowned emperor on 20 August 1206. He was the only “great” emperor of Latin Constantinople. On the military front, he broke the Greco-Bulgarian alliance by ceding, by the end of 1205, Apros to the Greek Theodoros Branas, who also received Adrianople from the Venetians. After Kaloyan’s death (1207), his empire disintegrated. His young nephew, John Asen, fled to Russia, and three princes claimed the succession: Slav (Esclav), a member of the royal family (in the Rhodope Mountains); Strez, another relative (in the Vardar Valley); and Boril, a son of Kaloyan’s sister (in Turnovo). Using diplomacy as well as military means, Henry met the internal and external dangers of his empire. In February 1207 he married Agnes, daughter of Boniface of Montferrat, king of Thessalonica. Around September 1208, he gave his natural daughter in marriage to the Bulgarian prince Slav, and his brother, Eustace of Flanders, took as wife a daughter of Michael of Epiros in June/July 1209.

Henry supported David Komnenos, the co-emperor of Trebizond, against Theodore I Laskaris, emperor of Nicaea, and four Latin military expeditions (1206-1207) strengthened the Latin position in the eastern part of the empire. By 1211 Boril and Theodore Laskaris once again were able to attack the Latin Empire. Boril first retreated deep into Bulgaria and was then defeated by Eustace and Slav. Strez was also defeated by Eustace, and on 15 October 1211, Henry won a victory over Theodore Laskaris. After the early death of his wife Agnes, Henry himself married the daughter of the new Bulgarian tsar, Boril (c. 1212).

Emperor Henry also normalized relations with the principality of Achaia in June 1209, thus putting an end to the confusion of suzerainty over the Frankish Morea. Geoffrey I of Villehardouin, prince of Achaia, became the vassal of Henry, but Venetian rights were preserved. Understanding that the empire could neither prosper nor even function without the support of the Greek population, Henry tried to accommodate Greek aspirations, especially religious ones, by instigating dialogue between the Latin and Greek Orthodox churches. Although these negotiations proved unsuccessful, Henry gained the respect of his Greek subjects. His biggest challenge, however, came from the Lombards of the kingdom of Thessalonica. After Boniface’s death (in 1207), the Lombard regent of the kingdom, Count Oberto of Bian- drate, was unwilling to recognize the suzerainty of the emperor and planned to unite Thessalonica with the Italian territory of William of Montferrat, Boniface’s brother, thereby hoping that William would supplant Henry as emperor. Henry, however, supported by Maria (Margaret) of Hungary, widow of Boniface, crowned her son Demetrios as king of Thessalonica on 6 January 1209, and subdued the Lombards. To keep enough manpower in the country, he wisely restored the rebellious Lombards to their fiefs, generally winning their loyalty. During the last years of Henry’s reign (1214-1216), the political landscape again altered: Michael of Epiros was murdered and succeeded by his brother Theodore (1214-1230), who was an ally of Theodore Laskaris and gave his niece in marriage to Slav (whose wife, Henry’s daughter, had died). When Henry suddenly died on 11 June 1216 in Thessalonica, he left a relatively well- organized empire.

The Latin Empire of Constantinople, c. 1215

The Latin Empire of Constantinople, c. 1215

Decline and End, 1216-1261

The sudden and unforeseen death of Emperor Henry was the catalyst for a series of catastrophes for the Latin Empire. While the Fleming Conon of Béthune proved to be an able regent, the same cannot be said about Henry’s successors. Emperor Peter of Courtenay, husband of Yolande of Flanders (Henry’s sister), unwisely decided to travel from the West to Durazzo (mod. Durrës, Albania) and go from there to Constantinople by land. He was ambushed by Michael of Epiros in 1217 and died in captivity. Yolande died in Constantinople in October 1219 and was succeeded by her second son, Robert of Courtenay (1221-1228), who was crowned emperor in Constantinople on 25 March 1221. He left the city after an unfortunate love affair and secret marriage with a French lady and died in the Morea in 1228.

The empire was by now in full crisis. In 1224, the Nicaean emperor John III Vatatzes had heavily defeated the Latins at Poimaninon and imposed humiliating conditions on the Latin Empire. In the west, Theodore, despot of Epiros, had extended his power, and in 1222 Thessalonica fell to the Epirote, who had himself crowned emperor. After Robert’s death, the Frankish barons of Constantinople offered the throne to John of Brienne (former king of Jerusalem), whose daughter was to marry the future Baldwin II, Robert’s young brother. John’s election had alienated the Bulgarian tsar, Ivan Asen II, who had hoped that the crown would be offered to him. John of Brienne arrived in Constantinople during the summer of 1231, but waited until 1233 before attacking John Vatatzes. Once again, the political landscape had altered: in 1230, Theodore of Epiros-Thessalonica had broken his alliance with Asen and invaded Bulgaria, but was defeated and captured. His brother Manuel, who was Asen’s son-in-law, now ruled over Thessalonica (1230-1236). Between 1232 and 1235, Asen tried to build up a coalition of Orthodox nations to recover Constantinople, and in 1235 his daughter was engaged to the future Theodore II Laskaris. But Asen’s policy was unstable, and he again allied himself with the Franks, only to change camps once more after the sudden death of his wife. After his death (in 1241), Bulgaria suffered from internal weakness.

Succession to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204-1261

Succession to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204-1261

After the death of John of Brienne (1237), Baldwin II returned in July 1239 from the Low Countries with a small army to Constantinople, made an alliance with the Cumans, and was crowned emperor in 1240. He spent several years in the West trying to find financial and military support for his impoverished and collapsing empire. He signed a truce with John Vatatzes (June 1241) for a period of two years, which was renewed for another year in 1244.

The military situation of the empire became untenable after the deaths of John Vatatzes of Nicaea (1254) and his successor Theodore II Laskaris (1258). The usurper Michael VIII Palaiologos became emperor of Nicaea, and his troops heavily defeated the Franks of the principality of Achaia at the battle of Pelagonia (1259). In July 1261 Michael Palaio- logos agreed to a truce, but on 25 July, his general Alexios Strategopoulos took Constantinople by surprise, thus putting a de facto end to the existence of the Latin Empire. Emperor Baldwin II fled to Italy. By the Treaties of Viterbo (24 and 27 May 1267), he ceded the suzerainty of the Frankish Peloponnese and other Latin regions to Charles I of Anjou, king of Naples. Baldwin died in Sicily in October 1273. His reign in Constantinople had been marked by poverty: he was even obliged to mortgage his own son, Philip, to Venetian merchants in 1258. In exile Baldwin II and Philip of Courtenay maintained their claims as titular emperors, which passed to the dynasties of Valois and Taranto. They were extinguished with the death of Philip’s great-great-grandson James of Baux (1285).

Constitution of the Empire

The Pact of March 1204 between the Venetian republic and the crusader leaders Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin IX of Flanders, Louis of Blois, and Hugh of Saint-Pol formed the basis on which the empire’s institutions were built. It foresaw the partition of the Byzantine Empire, regulated the election of a Latin emperor, legalized feudalism as the empire’s institutional form, and also defined and described the powers, duties, and rights of the emperor, the Venetians, and the crusaders who would settle in the empire, as well as the relationship between them. It also defined the status of the church, mandating the election of a Latin patriarch of Constantinople and the partition of ecclesiastical property. Evidently this agreement, signed before the capture of Constantinople in March 1204, created a number of problems. Its details therefore needed to be revised or completed with a series of other agreements, which together can be considered as the “constitutional charters” of the empire. These other documents are the Partitio Romaniae and the Convention of October 1205.

The Partitio Romaniae, a document resulting from the work of a committee of partitores (officials charged with the partition of the Byzantine Empire) who finalized their work around September 1204, divided the empire into sections assigned variously to the emperor, the other crusaders, and the Venetians, leaving some parts around Thessalonica open, most probably for Boniface, marquis of Montferrat. The latter had been the unsuccessful contender for the throne, and after some strife between the marquis and Baldwin I, it was agreed that the marquis would become ruler of Thessalonica. The Partitio’s divisions, however, were often more of theoretical than of practical value. Many of the defined and subdivided lands were in Greek hands and would never be occupied by the Latins after 1204. Moreover, the Venetians were only interested in ports or places that were of interest for their trade empire. Therefore, Venice had no problem in granting Adrianople to Theodore Branas, and was pleased with the suzerainty arrangement regarding the Peloponnese, agreed to in June 1209 by Prince Geoffrey I of Villehardouin and the Venetian envoy Raphael Geno through the mediation of Henry’s ambassadors, Conon of Béthune and Guy of Henruel.

In many cases the barons would have to conquer their fiefs themselves. Thus, Louis of Blois became duke of Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey), Henry of Flanders received Adramyt- tion (mod. Edremit, Turkey) in Asia Minor, and Peter of Bra- cieux was given a “kingdom” elsewhere in Asia Minor; all of these lands were still in Greek hands when they were assigned. Probably, the Partitio also resulted in the creation of a register of fiefs, much the same as that which existed in the principality of Achaia. Fiefs were distributed to the barons in accordance with the number of their troops and their wealth (which could of course produce troops). In their work the partitores made use of Byzantine documents related to tax and properties.

The third “constitutional charter” was the Convention of October 1205 between Henry of Flanders and Marino Zeno, representative of the republic of Venice. It refined the clauses of the Pact of March 1204, mainly with regard to the service that was due from the empire’s barons and knights to the emperor, and to relations between Venetians and Franks within the empire. Moreover, a pact known as the Forma Iustitiae was signed in March 1207 that regulated judicial relations between Venetians and Franks. The ecclesiastical regulations of the Pact of March 1204 were not entirely welcomed by Pope Innocent III, who had grudgingly agreed to the election of a Venetian, Thomas Morosini, as Latin patriarch, but who also insisted on a new deal regarding church property. This question was settled by a series of agreements: the convention of Patriarch Thomas Morosini and the papal legate, Benedict of St. Suzanne, with Henry of Flanders (17 March 1206), another settlement accepted at the parliament of Ravennika (2 May 1210) regarding the church in Thessalonica and Greece south of this kingdom, and finally a settlement reached in December 1219, during the regency of Conon of Béthune. These agreements restored—at least partly—the property of the church, defined its status, and regulated problematic issues, such as tithes and the acrosti- chon (Byzantine property tax).

Government and Institutions

As a result of the “constitutional” conventions, the Latin emperor was forced into a condominium with the Venetians. This political reality was illustrated by the titles taken by Venetian representatives: Doge Dandolo was Imperii quarte partis et dimidie dominator (ruler of a quarter and a half of the empire) and later each Venetian podestà (plenipotentiary representative of the doge in Constantinople) was vicedom- inator (vice-ruler) in similar fashion. The political history reflects the complications of this Frankish-Venetian condominium and the tensions between the different ethnic and political groups within the ranks of the Franks. The resulting tensions inevitably contributed to the decline of the empire, especially when, after the deaths of Baldwin I and Henry, weak emperors occupied the throne. Each emperor was obliged to swear on oath that he would respect the fundamental charters and the rights and privileges of the Venetians. Venetian policy did not necessarily coincide with the empire’s interests, and each podestà was inclined to follow his own line, and (independently of the emperors) often contracted his own trade and political agreements with other states, for example, with the empire of Nicaea and the Saljûq sultanate of Rûm. It was thus clear that from the foundation of the empire, there was a de facto division of interests between Venice and the Frankish rulers of Constantinople. The Venetians regarded their “quarter and a half” of the empire as part of the Venetian Empire, where trade and commerce were first priorities. This meant that trade and commerce were mainly in Venetian hands, as was sea transport, although Italians of non-Venetian origin were active in the islands and, as was the case with the Lombards, in the kingdom of Thessalonica.

Impasses or interregnums after the death of each emperor gave rise to the appointment of regents. Only Henry of Flanders had the title of moderator Imperii (regent of the empire) until he was crowned emperor. The other regents were known as bajuli (baillis): Conon of Béthune was appointed after the deaths of Henry (1216) and Yolande (1219); after Robert of Courtenay died in 1228, his sister Marie of Courtenay was in charge; and after John of Brienne’s death (1237), the regency was exercised by Anselm of Cayeux and then Narjot of Toucy. When he traveled, Baldwin II left the regency to Philip of Toucy. The regents, whether known as bajulus or moderator, signed pacts, agreements, and truces with the same authority as the emperors. Surviving documents attest that Conon of Béthune had (like the emperors) to give an oath to the Venetians, guaranteeing their privileges. Perhaps the other regents had to do the same. The case of John of Brienne deserves special mention: the agreements of Perugia in March/April 1231 gave him full rights as emperor, but recognized the dynastic rights of Baldwin II, who had married his daughter and was to be his successor. In fact, the “constitutional laws” had not stipulated any dynastic rights of the imperial family, but the divisions of the Partitio Romaniae, together with the hereditary rights that were provided in these charters, made it quite impossible to disregard the imperial dynasty, thus limiting the choice of the barons at every succession to the members of the Courtenay family.

The Convention of March 1204 and the other “constitutional charters,” as well as imperial documents and correspondence, give us insight into the institutions of the new empire. A number of councils and committees were created, some ephemeral, others more permanent. To the first category belong the electors of the new emperor, the partitores who were responsible for the division of the empire and distribution of fiefs, honors, and titles, and the mixed committees that arranged the partition of church property. The second category consisted of the council of the empire, which was sometimes only indicated by the collective expression “the barons (of the empire)” and the private ad hoc councils of each individual emperor. The existence of a chancery with its chancellor and staff is known from the very beginning of the empire and grew out of Baldwin I’s own Flemish secretaries who accompanied him on the crusade.

Judicial institutions were based on the Western, mainly French, feudal system, and there was little noticeable legal development in the empire. The well-known Assizes of Romania did not result from legal practice in the empire, but took shape in the principality of Achaia, where written legal documents since the beginning of the thirteenth century hadgradually developed into a law code (probably at the beginning of the fourteenth century).

The military organization of the empire was left to the emperor, whose successes or failures in war were highly dependent on his own personality and abilities: while Henry could impose his will on many unruly vassals, his successors were unable to do so. The army of the empire consisted of the Frankish and Venetian vassals, whose service duties were limited by the “constitutional charters” as well as by the fact that the barons were almost continuously besieged by Greek insurgents, so that a general mobilization was not a practical possibility. Only Henry of Flanders seems to have made use of Greek troops (as did the princes of Achaia). Consequently, the use of diplomatic weapons such as dynastic and political marriages had to play an important role in the defense of the empire. This system, which Henry used to the benefit of the empire, was continued after his death, but not with the same insight and success. Empress Yolanda married her daughter Marie of Courtenay to Theodore I Laskaris of Nicaea and another daughter, Agnes, to Geoffrey II, prince of Achaia. The planned marriage between Robert of Courtenay and Theodore Laskaris’s daughter Eudokia was not realized. More fatal was the marriage of Baldwin II to Marie of Brienne, because of the election of John of Brienne. Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, a rival candidate for the throne, had other plans for the young Baldwin and was willing to offer him the hand of his daughter Helena, who, finally, was betrothed to the young Theodore (II) Laskaris of Nicaea.

As the Latin Empire was not only a new creation, but also the continuation of the Byzantine Empire, one might expect some Byzantine influence on its court institutions and customs, and this was the case to a limited extent. Thus, next to the Western feudal titles and dignities of seneschal, constable, marshal, and butler, some Byzantine titles occur: Conon of Béthune received the titles of protovestiarios and sebastokrator, Doge Dandolo became despot of Romania, and the title of Caesar was given to Theodore Branas and later to Narjot of Toucy (1228) and most probably to his son, Philip of Toucy. Emperor Henry made Navigaioso Philocalo megasdoux (great duke) in 1206 or 1207. Emperor Baldwin II, born in Constantinople, became porphyrogennetos (literally “born in the purple,” i.e., the son of a ruling emperor).


The coexistence of Latins and Byzantines, and within these groups Venetians and Franks of different nations on the one hand, and Greeks, Bulgarians, and Vlachs, on the other hand, was the key to peace and prosperity in the Latin territories of the empire. Only Emperor Henry seems to have fully recognized the necessity of such a symbiosis and to have conscientiously aimed at creating it. This is illustrated by his insistence on ecclesiastical dialogue, his firm but subtle policy toward the Lombards of Thessalonica, his diplomatic marriage arrangements, and the employment of Greek and other “native” troops and of Greek functionaries in his administration. Moreover, the Greeks seem to have enjoyed the application of their own laws and administrative system, not only in Thessalonica (as attested by a lawsuit in 1213), but almost certainly everywhere in the empire. Henry’s death did not immediately entail a change of policy. Indeed the ecclesiastical agreement of 1219 shows some understanding for the Greek Orthodox subjects regarding tithes and the acrostichon. Even Emperor Baldwin II seems to have been aware of the necessity of employing Greeks, since he was castigated by Blanche of Castile for employing Greek advisers. But rulers like Baldwin II were far too weak to impose their own policies.

Latin Emperors and Empresses of Constantinople

Baldwin I (of Flanders)


Henry of Flanders


Peter of Courtenay


Yolande of Courtenay


Robert of Courtenay


Baldwin II of Courtenay (d. 1273)


John of Brienne


Titular Emperors and Empresses

Philip of Courtenay


Catherine of Courtenay


Catharine of Valois


Robert of Taranto


James of Baux


The decline of the empire’s military power and administration after Henry’s death inevitably led to financial penury and impoverishment, not only of the rural population, but also of the capital itself, where Baldwin II was obliged to sell the lead of the roofs in order to finance his bills. This poverty contrasted sharply with the welfare of the Venetian traders. Such a climate was not conducive to any promotion of arts in the empire.


The manpower of the Latin Empire was extremely limited by the fact that the Frankish states in Outremer had the same needs. Therefore, the creation and existence of the Latin Empire weakened the Frankish presence and manpower in the East. It also awakened Greek nationalism, especially since the rulers of the Byzantine successor states after 1204 were national Greek princes, ruling an indigenous, homogenous Greek population. The empire’s existence did not help the Christian cause versus the progress of Islam either: its existence caused the total breakdown of the traditional Byzantine political structures, as well as of commerce and agriculture, and left Constantinople and many other cities in ruins. It not only was unable to replace the Byzantine civilization as a Christian bulwark, but actually destroyed that bulwark. It thus contributed to the weakening of the Christian cause in Palestine and Syria and finally paved the way for the eventual disappearance of the Byzantine Empire.

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