Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-One

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The Unwanted Throne

Between 1204 and 1225, the Latin Empire at Constantinople is challenged by three Greek empires, plus Bulgaria

AS SMOKE ROSE from the sacked buildings of Constantinople, the Count of Flanders ascended his new throne as Emperor. There he sat, in Constantine’s old place, with scepter in hand, dressed in silk and jewels, presiding over “great rejoicings,” over “feastings and ceremonies,” over the old empire of the Greeks: now, the empire of the Latins in the east.1

He did not rule all of Byzantium, though. In March, just before the final assault on the city, the Crusader leaders and the Venetian doge had agreed that conquered land (and any loot worth more than “five sous,” perhaps equivalent to $100) would be divided up fairly between the Venetians and the Crusaders. After Baldwin’s coronation, the division was made official in a signed treaty, the Partitio Romaniae. Baldwin I was given the entire Crusader share of Constantinople itself, which worked out to five-eighths of the city, plus Thrace, the northwest of Asia Minor, and a few outlying islands: the center of the empire. The Venetians took three-eighths of the city of Constantinople for their own, plus the scattering of islands between Venice and the Dardanelles: seafaring possessions, for a seafaring people.

And a third realm was created especially for the French Crusader Boniface, Marquis of Monferrat, who had been the other leading candidate to be elected emperor. “Each enjoyed the support and approval of many persons,” writes Gunther of Pairis, “and . . . one could not easily be preferred over the other.” Baldwin’s election had been by a slim margin, and the Crusaders were afraid that, in a fit of pique, he might go home and take his soldiers with him. So he was given a consolation prize: a principality of his own centered at Thessalonica, subject to Baldwin of Constantinople, but essentially Boniface’s to run as he pleased.2

Another complication threatened Baldwin’s authority. There were two ex-emperors still wandering around Byzantium: Alexius III, the uncle of young (now dead) Alexius, who had precipitated the whole Crusade by stealing the throne from Isaac Angelus, and who had fled in July 1203 as the Crusaders approached; and the usurping Mourtzouphlus, who had murdered young Alexius and had escaped from Constantinople on the night of April 12.

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31.1 The Successors of Byzantium

Mourtzouphlus, after hanging around Constantinople for a few months (“not yet removed more than four days’ journey,” says the Crusader Geoffrey de Villehardouin, who wrote an eyewitness account of the first years of the Latin Empire), had attempted to join forces with his predecessor; but Alexius III, welcoming him with deceptive friendship, had ordered Mourtzouphlus seized and blinded in the middle of the night. Not long after, Mourtzouphlus escaped and was captured by Baldwin’s men as he stumbled sightless through the countryside.

Mourtzouphlus was a king killer, a traitor; Baldwin and his nobles decided to make an example of the man who had dared to lift his hand against God-appointed authority. “There was in Constantinople,” writes Villehardouin, “a column, one of the highest . . . ever seen; and Mourtzouphlus [was] taken to the top of that column and made to leap down, in the sight of all the people, because it was fit that an act of justice so notable should be seen of the whole world. . . . [A]nd when he came to the earth he was all shattered and broken.” A few weeks later, Boniface found the other ex-emperor hiding in Thessalonica and imprisoned him.3

But Baldwin’s rule remained precarious.

Just because Constantinople was under Crusader control did not mean that the rest of Byzantium was ready to fall meekly into line behind Baldwin I. To the people of the eastern empire, the western Crusaders were aliens: “Latins” instead of “Greeks,” speakers of alien tongues, holding allegiance to a different Church.* Since 1054, the Christians in the east had recognized the bishop of Constantinople, the Patriarch, as their head, but the new Latin emperor was loyal to the far-distant pope in Rome. At the time of the Crusader takeover, a Venetian “Patriarch” had been appointed by the victors to replace the native head of the eastern church, bringing it back under the authority of the pope; and the Greek bishops had been forced to swear obedience to Rome.4

This only deepened the eastern resentment of the western interlopers; and within the year, three relations of the deposed royal house had challenged the new Latin emperor.

Alexius Comnenus, the twenty-two-year-old grandson of the much-tormented Andronicus (publicly and violently murdered by Constantinople’s people in 1185), had already proclaimed himself emperor at Trebizond, on the shores of the Black Sea. Late in 1204, Alexius III’s son-in-law, an experienced soldier named Theodore Lascaris, raised a rebellion against the Latin Emperor with the city of Nicaea as his headquarters. And early in 1205 Alexius III’s young cousin Michael declared himself ruler over the northwestern Greek region known as Epirus.

Now there were three “Greek” states—the Empire of Trebizond, the Empire of Nicaea, and the Despotate of Epirus*—each one ruled by Byzantine royalty, each king claiming to be the rightful successor to the Byzantine crown and the loyal protector of the Greek Orthodox Church. “And thenceforth,” Villehardouin tells us, “from day to day, did evil tidings begin to come to [Constantinople], that everywhere the Greeks were rising, and that wherever the Greeks found Franks occupying the land, they killed them. . . . Then the Emperor Baldwin and the Doge of Venice . . . took counsel together, for they saw they were losing the whole land.”5

WEST OF CONSTANTINOPLE lay the lands of the old Bulgarian empire, a kingdom established in the seventh century and then swallowed by Byzantium in the first decades of the eleventh. In the chaos surrounding the murder of the emperor Andronicus, three Bulgarian brothers (“descended from the family of the former kings,” according to a contemporary account) had raised a private army and declared Bulgaria free again. Their “empire” consisted only of a small patch of land on the southern banks of the Danube, and within a decade the older two brothers, Peter and Asen, had been assassinated by other Bulgarian rivals.6

But the third brother, Kaloyan, had clung to power. He had fought his way into Thrace, and in 1204 had talked Innocent III into crowning him basileus, Emperor of the Bulgarians.

Byzantium had been the enemy of Bulgaria, and now the Latin Empire had succeeded to that position. As the Greeks revolted, Kaloyan came eastward to join them against Baldwin’s rule.

In April 1205, Baldwin I left Constantinople at the head of a Crusader army and marched west towards the rebellious city of Adrianople. Kaloyan was approaching from the other direction, intending (says Villehardouin) to “succour Adrianople with a very great host . . . full fourteen thousand . . . who had never been baptized.”7

When the armies met, on the plain outside Adrianople, the Crusaders were badly outmaneuvered by the lightly armed, mobile Bulgarian army. A score of Crusader knights were taken prisoner; many more were killed on the field. Baldwin I himself was captured and hauled off into obscurity. His exact fate was never known, although the Constantinople native George Akropolites, born a generation later, passes on the rumor that Kaloyan himself killed Baldwin and turned his skull into a goblet (“after it had been cleaned of all its contents and decorated all around with ornament”).8

With its emperor dead and its leaders in chains, the Latin army retreated from Adrianople. The Latin moment of dominance, the chance to seize the power of the old Byzantine empire, had passed by.

Over the next two decades, power seeped away from Constantinople; first slowly, and then in a torrent.

Baldwin’s brother Henry, a vigorous and competent military man in his early thirties, was crowned the second ruler of the Latin Empire. He fought back successfully against the aggressive attempts of Theodore Lascaris of Nicaea to expand his lands, finally forcing the Nicaeans to sign a temporary truce with Constantinople. In 1208, he managed to drive Kaloyan’s nephew and successor Boril back, capturing the southern Bulgarian city of Philippoupolis and making it part of the Latin Empire. And three years later, Henry forced young Michael, ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, to sign a peace treaty with Constantinople.

But at Henry’s death in 1216, the crown of Constantinople was tossed into the air. His brother-in-law Peter claimed the throne; but Peter was in Western Francia, and as he journeyed towards his new capital city, he was waylaid. Young Michael of Epirus had died the year before; the Despotate was now ruled by his ambitious half brother, Theodore Comnenus Ducas. Theodore hoped to challenge the Latin Empire for control of the lands near the Black Sea, and when he learned that the new Latin Emperor was attempting to pass through his lands on the way to Constantinople, he ordered Peter taken prisoner.

Like Baldwin in the hands of the Bulgarians, Peter disappeared into the shadows; no one knew how or where he died. His wife Yolanda, who had traveled ahead of her husband, ruled as his regent (the “Latin Empress Consort of Constantinople”) until her own death in 1219, aged forty-four, mother of ten.

No one wanted to be the next emperor.

The shrunken, leaderless, beleaguered Latin Empire was no longer the prize it had once been. For nine hundred years, since Constantine had chosen the city on the Bosphorus as his own, Constantinople had been a glittering treasure: besieged, desired, aspired to. Now no one could be found to take its throne. Yolanda and Peter’s oldest son, Philip, was happily ensconced in Western Francia and refused to leave it. The title was offered instead to the couple’s second son, Robert of Courtenay; and after two years of stalling and delay, he finally accepted. He arrived at his new kingdom in 1221, to an underwhelmed subject population: “Robert dealt with affairs rather feebly,” says George Akropolites.9

Meanwhile, over in the Empire of Nicaea, Theodore Lascaris was prospering. He had fought off an attack from the Sultanate of Rum, and in the climactic struggle had himself met the sultan on the battlefield, and killed him with his own sword. He also had added Paphlagonia to his dominions and annexed part of the Empire of Trebizond, enlarging Nicaea further. The senior churchman in his empire, the Patriarch of Nicaea, had begun to act as the head of the Greek church, taking it on himself to consecrate the Archbishop of Serbia with his own hands (the prerogative of pope or patriarch). What remained of Greek culture seemed, more and more, to be centered in Nicaea. It was, in the words of the contemporary Greek monk Michael Acominatus, a new “capital, hurled by the barbarian inundation, out of the walls of Byzantium to the shores of Asia,” a “miserable fragment” that had survived and prospered thanks to Theodore Lascaris himself. “You ought to be called forever the new builder and peopler of the city of Constantine,” Acominatus wrote, “. . . a savior and universal liberator . . . No one of the emperors who reigned over Constantinople I consider equal to you.”10

In 1222, the year after the ineffectual Robert’s arrival in Constantinople, Theodore Lascaris died, not yet aged fifty. He left the enlarged Empire of Nicaea to his son-in-law John III Vatatzes.

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31.1 Coin of John III, showing the seated Christ on one side and John with the Virgin Mary on the other.
Credit: © 2012 PBJI Ancient Coins

Like Henry of Constantinople, John was an energetic and competent soldier, a good strategist, and an ambitious man. In 1224, he captured most of the Latin Empire’s land south of the Sea of Marmara; and by 1225, Robert was begging him for a peace. The treaty the two emperors swore out left nothing to Robert but the city of Constantinople itself.

John III had barely begun his conquests; in the decades to come, he would fight against Epirus and Thessalonica as well as the Latin Empire. But like his father-in-law, he did so in the name of the true Constantinople. The coins he minted for himself showed, clearly, his place in the cosmos; on one side, the seated figure of Christ; on the other, John III and the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, clasping hands over the scepter of Nicaea.11

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*The split between the western and eastern branches of the Christian church is covered in Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 584–595.

*Despot was the title often given, in Byzantium, to a high official who was also heir presumptive to the imperial throne; a despotate was the land ruled by the heir.

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