The Towers of Trebizond, Arta, Nicaea and Thessalonike

A colossus in height and clearing the air, it strives somehow to reach even the sky… the shape of the tower, namely the shape of a delicate honey-comb; a hexagon raises its most beautiful shape to the stars and to the beauties of the firmament. To us God gave a tower of strength… a towered fortification of beauty, a tower of ineffable joy.

John Geometres, poem on a tower, post 989

By 12 April 1204, the greatest city in Christendom was full of smouldering ruins; its palaces and the great houses of its leading families had been pillaged, their hangings and glorious wardrobes torched, their roofs gutted by fire. Entire libraries and archives of documents within, if not already burned, were exposed to rain and would become food for insects and rodents. Many of the revealing small objects of daily life, from tools to kitchenware, icon corners and prayer books, accumulated over hundreds of years, were smashed and broken. Some of the booty taken by the conquerors now survives in western treasuries, but many fine Byzantine objects were lost in 1204. How many, we don’t know, and whether even more would have been lost later to other enemies is beside the point – the destruction took place there and then.

Those days in April 1204 have recently been subjected to intensive re-examination as scholars all over the world noted the 800th anniversary of the sack of Constantinople. Pope John Paul II apologized for the event, which provided an occasion to take stock of the attitudes of modern historians to Byzantium. Despite the obvious presence of Byzantium in the medieval West, there is still a widespread ignorance of the empire’s contribution to European development as the force which checked the expansion of Islam into the Balkans and the protective shield behind which the fragmented western kingdoms developed the notion of Europe. This still influences some western debate about the Fourth Crusade, which relies on a stereotype of Byzantium as a grey, dead zone: a series of emperors and battles for over a thousand years and little more. Byzantinists may be to blame for writing complicated histories which fail to bring to life the inner dynamic of the empire. In turn, specialists of western medieval history cling to this dull picture. It is all too easy to fall back on the initial Enlightenment view of the empire as a moribund state, peculiar unto itself, and not worthy of closer attention.

One source of this stereotype, although this is very difficult to document, seems to be the very storming and destruction of the Byzantine capital in 1204. In part, the empire brought the attack upon itself. Emperor Alexios IV and his advisers were extraordinarily stupid and complacent to allow a fully equipped siege army to remain camped outside its gates, neither paying off the crusaders as they had been promised, nor attacking and destroying them. The doge’s detailed knowledge of the sea walls contributed to the successful assault, but the Venetians had learnt the skills of diplomacy and the savage combination of trade and force from Byzantium. Venice was partly a product of the empire, as well as its competitor. After the capture of the city, when the crusaders divided up the empire, Venice claimed the largest part. Pope Innocent III sent western clerics to occupy the lands now brought under the authority of the Church of Rome, and forced orthodox bishops and monks into exile.

But now the Christian West had to explain to itself and to justify the philistine massacre and destruction of the finest city in Christendom. How could the forces dedicated to fighting the Muslim infidel have burned the icons and desecrated the churches of the greatest Christian metropolis? Only because Byzantium deserved it! The Byzantine empire had to be seen as treacherous, doomed, effeminate, somehow repugnant, and disobedient to Rome. The outcome of the Fourth Crusade also confirmed to Pope Innocent and his successors, and to western rulers and monks who had participated in the crusades, that the Greeks were essentially crafty and treacherous. They always used diplomacy to conceal their weakness, and when forced to fight they proved cowardly. The Byzantine system of imperial government was also considered unstable, because it permitted a rebel to become emperor and an unsuccessful ruler to be deposed and blinded. This appeared weak to the nascent monarchies of Europe, where rulers were trying to strengthen their authority. Condemnation of its ancient political system went hand in hand with admiration for its relics, gold and silver objects, icons and silks, which deserved better homes than Byzantium. In this way, the crusaders justified their own pillage and looting. The negative stereotype of the term ‘Byzantine’, as if it characterizes a culture which does not deserve to exist, stretches back to the bad faith of the sack of 1204.

The devastation was such that Byzantium might never have recovered. Where many states would have succumbed to such a blow to the heart, occupied for fully half a century, Byzantium in fact reemerged in a plurality of new forms in different centres. Thanks to the inner vitality of its civilization, the empire was to last another 250 years.

This is one of the most surprising things I discovered in writing this book. I fully expected that Constantinople itself would play a central role, as a fabulous and exceptional city with its buildings and its trade. What I had not expected was how often I would be recording the compelling inventiveness and novelty of the broader aspects of Byzantine civilization, from its government and religion to its military and intellectual skills. It had the ability to develop a secret, sea-borne explosive artillery and keep the secret for centuries. It could generate and survive a profoundly divisive argument over the role of icons, identity and religious belief. When Latin Christendom and the Muslim East insisted on keeping the Holy Book in its sacred languages of Latin and Arabic, Byzantium had the audacity to translate the Greek Bible into a written language which its own scholars had invented in order to facilitate the conversion of the Slavs. It had the discipline to mint and maintain a stable coinage for over seven hundred years. It had the ingenuity to develop royal forms of power while maintaining Roman administration. Time and again, the extraordinary combination of Roman, pagan, Christian and Greek inheritances gave it the capacity to recover from adversities rather than to disappear, leaving only a trace of its achievements. The Byzantium that gainsays the generally accepted stereotype is this lively, inventive society, passionately believing in itself.

The test of this argument, that the greatness of the metropolis was sustained by the profound resources of the civilization of which it was the head, came at the moment when Byzantium was decapitated and the hinterland had to respond to its capture and takeover by foreign forces. What happened after 1204, when westerners set up a Latin empire at its centre and occupied its palace for fifty-seven years, should reveal the essential elements of the rest of Byzantine society. And what happened is that mini-Byzantine empires sprang up and Byzantium re-emerged in a plurality of cities, accompanied by an outpouring of Byzantine artistic activity.

In Trebizond on the eastern border, two Komnenos brothers established an empire which was far more than a city-state and continued to rule itself from 1204 to 1461. In the far west, 2,000km away in western Greece, Epiros became the centre of another Byzantine power, based on the cities of Arta and Thessalonike, the most active port in the empire, and declared itself to be the true heir of Byzantium. And closer to the walls of Constantinople, across the Sea of Marmara, another empire, based on Nicaea and staffed by refugees from Constantinople, enjoyed a magnificent revival. Even areas which remained permanently under Venetian rule, as Crete did until the Turks captured it in 1669, never lost their Byzantine character, which was indelibly embedded in the Greek language and religion, and is manifested in new frescoes, icons, histories and poems. The strengths and landscapes of different responses to the loss of Constantinople all confirm the depth of the educational, administrative, cultural and military capacities of Byzantium’s traditions and their ability to respond to challenges, The stereotype of a monolithic, bureaucratic, feeble, corrupt, over-complicated and ineffective empire seems completely false.

During the last two decades of the twelfth century, provincial uprisings had already occurred, reflecting a growing antagonism towards the ruling centre of Constantinople. The usurpation of Andronikos Komnenos in 1182 and the murder of his nephew, the young emperor Alexios II, appear to have been the signal for Balkan revolts – in Serbia Stefan Nemanja extended his power, founding an independent dynasty which would rule until 1371, while in Bulgaria two brothers, Asen and Peter, broke away from Byzantium and established a new capital at Trnovo. A sense of frustration in outlying areas at paying heavy taxes to Constantinople and receiving nothing in exchange is evident in the complaints of Michael Choniates, Metropolitan of Athens (1180–1205):

What do you lack? Not the wheat-bearing plains of Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly, which are farmed by us; nor the wine of Euboea, Ptelion, Chios and Rhodes, pressed by us; nor the fine garments woven by our Theban and Corinthian fingers, nor all our wealth, which flows, as many rivers flow into one sea, to the Queen City.

This disaffection was mirrored on Cyprus, which rebelled in 1185 and gave Richard I of England (‘the Lionheart’) a pretext for his conquest of the island during the Third Crusade. (Later he sold it to Guy de Lusignan, the ex-king of Jerusalem.) Similarly, within Byzantium independent leaders emerged in control of their own cities: at Philadelphia in western Asia Minor, Theodore Mankaphas minted his own coins. In Greece, Leo Sgouros made the castle of Acrocorinth his centre, and an unidentified ruler took control of Methone, on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese. These local leaders (archons) claimed quasi-imperial authority and disrupted central government from Constantinople.

The events of 1204 sealed the splintering of imperial authority: the Komnenos brothers in Trebizond, Michael Komnenos Doukas in Arta and Theodore Laskaris in Nicaea strengthened a regional partition of Byzantium. Ignoring all these developments, Alexios III Angelos continued to consider himself emperor in absentia. He allied himself with Leo Sgouros, and died fighting against Laskaris in Asia Minor in 1211/12. Some crusaders who had participated in the sack of April 1204 returned home with their booty, but others set out to lay claim to the territories distributed by the Partitio terrarum Imperii Romaniae. As western knights jostled with local archons to conquer lands for themselves, all the provinces of the empire were affected by political turmoil. From Constantinople, Boniface of Montferrat led a crusader group towards Thessalonike, which the Latin Emperor Baldwin had allotted to him; members of the de la Roche family made their way to Thebes and Athens, and Geoffrey Villehardouin, nephew of the historian, and William of Champlitte continued south to set up their own principality of Achaia in the Peloponnese. They all met resistance organized by the ex-emperor Alexios III, other dissatisfied Byzantine leaders and Bulgars. Meanwhile, the Venetians established their control over numerous ports in the Aegean, to which they added Crete, bought from Boniface, who had no naval means of conquering it. These maritime centres formed the core of their commercial empire in the eastern Mediterranean down to the seventeenth century.

The fragmentation of imperial territory could have positive results locally, as all the pretenders to Byzantine imperial power established courts, which required administrators, rhetors, teachers, artists and generals to support their claims. Thanks to the educational systems in each centre, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy of highly educated bishops, the new courts emerged well staffed. The rulers of Trebizond, Arta and Nicaea all invested in buildings, law, agriculture and trade, promoting development and patronizing art in new churches and monasteries. In their rivalry to represent Byzantium, the new centres drew on a wealth of regional skills, and competed using local propaganda brilliantly expressed by their historians and intellectuals, sermons written by their churchmen and imperial-style buildings constructed and decorated by local workmen.

The plethora of successor states also had to confront another consequence of 1204: the opportunity, eagerly seized by Pope Innocent III and his successors, to bring the Eastern Church under his control, as agreed by Alexios IV Angelos at Zara. Latin bishops were immediately appointed to all the major sees in Byzantium controlled by the crusaders; Dominican, Franciscan and Cistercian friars were sent out to occupy monasteries, which became centres for the conversion of the Greek Orthodox to Latin Christianity. Byzantium was thereby invaded a second time by a religious force, determined to show the Greeks the errors of their theology. But this attempt at spiritual conquest was largely unsuccessful. The inhabitants of the empire remained loyal to their own clergy, even when their bishops were forced into exile. Byzantium resisted and maintained its cultural heritage, even in those far-flung regions never recovered by the rulers of Constantinople.

In Cyprus, for instance, Orthodox churches with frescoes, mosaics and icons remained a dominant feature of the island, although the late medieval and early modern history of the island is marked by its foreign occupiers: crusaders, Franks, Venetians and Ottomans. Beside the soaring Gothic cathedral of Famagousta, the monastery of Bellapais and the castles of St Hilarion, Kyrenia and Saranda Kolonnes, local Byzantine traditions were adapted and developed. Similarly, in central and southern Greece arched windows adorn the Gothic churches and monasteries rebuilt by western friars at Daphni and Andravida (plate 34); western-style castles at Karytaina and Mistras, and Frankish towers dotted through central Greece, reflect western building techniques. The acropolis of Athens was transformed into a fortified castle, enclosing the palace celebrated in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as the idyllic home of Duke Theseus. But it remained Greek, not Latin.

This mixed society of Greeks and Latins, Byzantines and crusaders, is wonderfully illustrated in the Chronicle of the Morea, an epic of the conquest of the Peloponnese written in the early fourteenth century. The name ‘Morea’ may reflect the ubiquitous cultivation of the mulberry, morea or murus, an essential ingredient in the production of silk. The Chronicle in verse survives in Old French, Aragonese, Italian and demotic Greek versions, reflecting the polyglot population. Intermarriage created gasmoules, half-Greek half-Latin, whose rights and status were regulated by the Assizes of Romania, modelled on the law book of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Although a western type of feudal rule was imposed by the conquerors, the Byzantine character of the regions is very clear in the surviving monuments, especially village churches decorated with frescoes and icons in traditional style. While new provincial centres encouraged this growth, it was fired by local loyalty to the Orthodox Church, which embodied Byzantine traditions beyond the purely religious.


Of these new centres, Trebizond, at the southeast corner of the Black Sea, is especially notable because it became the centre of a flourishing independent empire which lasted for over 250 years, from 1204 to 1461. During the Seljuk inroads of the eleventh century, a local notable, Theodore Gabras, fought and negotiated to make it relatively independent from Constantinople. In 1204, two grandsons of Emperor Andronikos I (1182–5) gained control of it with the help of Queen Tamar of Georgia. Drawing on its traditions of autonomy, as well as its natural resources, David and Alexios Komnenos made Trebizond a new capital city. It became an international centre of Black sea trade, partly because it controlled the western end of one of the most important overland routes from the Far East, and thus raised income from commercial taxes. Trebizond also derived considerable wealth from silver mines in the Pontic Alps, which form a natural defence to the south.

The alliterative title of Rose Macaulay’s novel The Towers of Trebizond is based on romantic views of the picturesque Black Sea port, with its grand citadel rising above the sea, its magnificent churches and monasteries, including one dedicated to St Eugenios, the city’s patron saint. The towers were largely rebuilt in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the emperors, who also constructed their palace on the citadel that offers wonderful views out over the Black Sea. They adopted the title of Grand Komnenoi to bolster their political claims as successors to the rulers of Byzantium, and followed the same philanthropic traditions of building churches as well as monasteries. In the mid-thirteenth century, Manuel I founded the monastery of St Sophia, extensively rebuilt later, which preserves outstanding frescoes and carved external decoration. In both the sphere of administration and international trade, the institutions of the empire of Trebizond were modelled closely on Constantinople’s. Genoese and Venetian merchants were granted privileges and allowed quarters close to the harbour, which was also used by numerous Caucasian and Russian traders.

Trebizond was always appreciated as a spectacularly beautiful site. In the eleventh century, the local scholar John Xiphilinos (later Patriarch of Constantinople) wrote an account of the martyrdom of Eugenios and recorded his miracles, which include the curing of several Scythian soldiers (Varangians). Later the local sacristan, John Loukites, rewrote the miracles with interesting new details; he describes the saint as ‘the great attraction and the glorious name of all the East and of golden Trebizond’. But the most important descriptions of Trebizond occur in two famous speeches: by John Bessarion, who was born in the city in about 1400 and later became a cardinal of the Catholic Church; and by the cleric John Eugenikos, who visited it to pay tribute to his father’s birthplace in the mid-fifteenth century. These are rhetorical works of praise, which follow an established genre (ekphrasis) and include many set elements, but they reveal much about the life of the city. Bessarion praises it as the ‘marketplace of the world’, with strong fortifications and a fine palace, while Eugenikos notes particularly its beautiful setting and fertile agriculture. Together they provide a rich and contrasting picture of a justly famous city.

Due to its frontier position, Trebizond served as a conduit for ideas as well as goods from the Muslim Caliphate and lands farther east. In the 1290s, Gregory Chioniades, a Greek monk, travelled via Trebizond to Tabriz, capital of the Mongol Ilkhans (in modern Iran), to learn more about Arabic astronomy with a famous scholar called Shams Bukhari. His long period of study there resulted in the translation of key Arabic texts on astronomy and the astrolabe, one of the few instances of Byzantium accepting the superior scholarship of a foreign culture. After his return, Chioniades was appointed to teach both astronomy and medical science in Constantinople, using his substantial library of scientific and medical writings. The significance of his translations into Greek was recognized much later by Copernicus, who used them in his work on planetary models. In 1305, he was sent back to Tabriz as bishop, and served the Christian community of the Ilkhanate for about five years before retiring to a monastery in Trebizond where he died in about 1320.

By judicious diplomatic and marriage alliances with Turkish, Mongol and Georgian rulers, the Grand Komnenoi sustained Byzantine rule until 1461, when their capital finally succumbed to the Ottomans. Thanks to the extensive research of Anthony Bryer, we can see how they made an excellent case for ‘small is beautiful’ in imperial terms. Gradually, Trebizond became Trabzon but many of its Byzantine characteristics lived on, notably the monasteries in the Pontic Alps, such as the foundation of Soumela, which survived to the early twentieth century. Isolated communities preserved a dialect of Pontic Greek and the art of playing the one-string lyra. Today, Trabzon remains a most impressive city perched above the Black Sea, and it secures some of its wealth through the sale of local hazelnuts to Cadbury’s of Birmingham, England, to be made into fruit and nut chocolate bars.


In 1205, another rival empire was set up by Michael Komnenos Doukas in Epiros, hugging the Adriatic coast on the western edge of Greece. He was a cousin of the Byzantine Emperors Isaac II Angelos and Alexios III, but inherited from his father John the names of Komnenos and Doukas, which allowed him to claim membership of those more distinguished clans. After serving briefly in Boniface of Montferrat’s Latin forces, Michael fled to Arta in western Greece, where he organized local resistance to the crusaders. In ten years he succeeded in taking control of the coastland from the Gulf of Corinth north to the Albanian border, as well as Kerkyra (Corfu) and land as far east as Larissa in central Thessaly. This small state, based on the capital, Arta, was isolated from the rest of Greece by the Pindos Mountains. It was oriented mainly to the west and encouraged the exploitation of its rich agricultural produce by local and foreign merchants. Michael’s illegitimate son Michael II Komnenos Doukas adopted the title ofdespotes (lord) in 1249, which later historians used to identify his state as the Despotate of Epiros.

In 1215, Theodore Komnenos Doukas succeeded his half-brother Michael I. He regained Ohrid and defeated and captured the Latin emperor, Peter of Courtney. By 1224 he had control of Thessalonike and went on to capture Adrianople (modern Edirne), only a couple of days’ march from Constantinople. When he was crowned emperor (basileus) in the cathedral of Thessalonike by the senior metropolitan, Demetrios Chomatenos of Ohrid in around 1225/7, he made good his claim to inherit the mantle of Byzantium. For nearly twenty years, Theodore ruled the second city of the empire as well as the Despotate of Epiros. He was succeeded by Michael II Komnenos Doukas, who consolidated the independence of the Despotate. From their capital at Arta, despots ruled until 1318 and embellished their territory with elegant monuments.

It was difficult for these rival states to attain a dominant position: their small scale meant that they had to form alliances even with their enemies. In Greece, this involved dealing with crusader leaders and western powers hungry for a foothold. As a result, the history of western Byzantium after 1204 is one of constant rivalry, realignment of forces, pitched battles and self-destructive murders perpetuating division. Ambitious western rulers, such as Charles of Anjou – king of Naples and Sicily (1265–85) – or the Italian families of Tocco and Acciajuoli, and mercenary groups like the Catalan and Aragonese Companies, intervened in the political ferment, both as allies and opponents of the crusading kingdoms and Byzantine successor states.

Nonetheless, the despots of Epiros created a capital city at Arta with a court and administration based on Byzantine models. They used their imperial patronage to attract artists and scholars and founded monasteries and churches. With their encouragement, archbishops like John Apokaukos and Demetrios Chomatenos applied Byzantine law in their own courts and extended Constantinopolitan practices to ecclesiastical administration. As I noted in chapter 7, the records of their legal decisions make unusually interesting reading and reveal a humane concern to improve unsatisfactory arrangements. While Michael II built a major church at Arta dedicated to the Virgin (which is now known as Kato Panagia, the lower church), his wife Theodora constructed a monastery and was buried in the narthex which she had added in about 1270. She is recognized as a saint and her Life records her pious activities. Her son Nikephoros was also a patron of the arts. In around 1290, he founded the most outstanding Byzantine monument of the despotate: the church of the Panagia Paregoretissa (the All-Holy Virgin of Comfort, plates 35 and 36). This tall, five-domed structure rises through three storeys supported on tiers of columns to the central dome with a mosaic of Christ Pantokrator. Marble revetment faces the walls up to the gallery level. While some of the relief carving reflects a western, Romanesque style, the impact of the interior is undoubtedly Byzantine.


The empire established at Nicaea was different. It remained in every sense closest to Constantinople, a short boat ride and day’s march away. Nicaea was a well-fortified, ancient foundation, with a famous and prestigious history as the site of two oecumenical councils, and all the urban monuments necessary to a capital city. From the beginning, it was dominated by exiles from the capital and sustained the most imperial pretensions. Theodore Laskaris had married Anna, a daughter of Alexios III Angelos, and transported whatever could be salvaged of the imperial system of government from Constantinople to Nicaea. When Patriarch John Kamateros refused to move to Nicaea, Theodore persuaded a suitably qualified cleric, Michael Autoreianos, to become Orthodox patriarch in exile. And in 1208, Autoreianos performed an imperial coronation which made Theodore the first Byzantine emperor acclaimed in the successor states.

Before he became its ruler in 1254, the first Theodore’s grandson and namesake composed a eulogy of the city, which he delivered in the presence of his father, John III Vatatzes, and the citizens. He stresses that

the city of you Nicaeans now… crowns your heads with the purple of grandeur and truth… And in return being well endowed by you with majesty it is indeed a city among cities, since it contains inhabitants made illustrious by learning rather than by wealth and a great army… [Nicaea] is the queen of all cities and has, on account of its learning, the truly supreme rank.

Drawing attention to the physical beauty of the site, the riches of its agricultural land and lake, vineyards and supplies of water, he claims that these can satisfy any lover of food or luxury, while the city’s education pours forth over the surrounding fields, making even the country people wise.

This appreciation of the civilizing role of a city is a commonplace, but Theodore emphasizes the benefits of Nicaea’s learning to raise it above ancient Babylon, the cities of India and even Athens. In 1290, the set rules of eulogy were more closely followed in a later oration composed by Theodore Metochites for the visit of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos. The future civil servant draws attention to the fine situation of Nicaea and its lake, and ‘the plentiful enjoyment of baths, with a charm that adds luxury to utility’, the common shelters for those suffering in illness joined to poverty, including those stricken by the sacred disease (epilepsy). He gives more detailed descriptions of the churches, monasteries, walls and houses, reminding Andronikos that Nicaea contains

reverend treasures of beauty, the illustrious monuments of the wisdom of our times, the fruits of it, its brilliant and superb rites, the holy places of meditation for those who have chosen to withdraw from material things and to give their time only to God.

While Constantinople was occupied by the Latins, the emperors in Nicaea created a viable imperial structure in western Asia Minor and developed the region’s agricultural potential to enhance its economic capacity to survive alone. During his long reign (1224–54), Emperor John III Vatatzes was able to ban the import of foreign goods and food supplies because Nicaea could provide all basic needs. Numerous foundations contributed to this agricultural development, which is documented in the records of the monastery dedicated to the Virgin Lembiotissa near Smyrna (modern Izmir). Judicious alliances with the Genoese, who were the first Italian community to gain a foothold in the lucrative Black Sea commerce, brought an increased investment in international trade. The emperor preferred to live at Nymphaion, where the mint and treasury were sited, and moved his court there in the 1230s, but the patriarch remained at Nicaea.

In addition to campaigning vigorously against Latins, Turks and the forces of Epiros and Thessalonike, emperors of Nicaea and their patriarchs took an active part in the negotiations for church union. Numerous embassies, often led by western friars, passed through Nicaea and Constantinople for discussions, which involved Elias of Cortona and John of Parma, both general masters of the Franciscan order. In 1249/50, a papal delegation led by John debated the key issue of the filioque (see chapter 4 for discussion of the procession of the Holy Spirit) at the court of Nymphaion. Nikephoros Blemmydes, a thirteenth-century theologian, represented the Byzantine side. Some of these westerners had broader interests: the Flemish Dominican William of Moerbeke was particularly interested in ancient Greek philosophy. He collected manuscripts, requested help in learning Greek, visited Nicaea and Thebes in 1260, and made translations of Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals, works of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Proclus, Archimedes and Galen. As papal legate, in 1274 he worked for the reunion of the churches and in 1278 was appointed Latin Archbishop of Corinth. His Latin translations were based on such a strict word-by-word method (called kata poda, ‘by foot’, or ‘step by step’) that they can help in reconstituting the original Greek of texts now lost or only partially preserved.

To the Byzantines the friars seemed unlike other westerners. They were imbued with Christian ideals such as poverty and humility, and unlike the crusading clergy they did not take part in fighting. Byzantine disapproval of armed western clergy had stoked anti-Latin feeling after 1204 and also reinvigorated orthodox opposition. But the educated friars seemed anxious to engage with Greek theology, rather than condemn it outright, and many debates conducted at Nicaea set the stage for later attempts at church union. Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV supported exploratory talks, though they refused to authorize another universal council. And Emperors John III and Theodore II both played major roles in directing and presiding over the negotiations. In his letter to Pope Alexander IV (1254–61), Patriarch Arsenios of Nicaea (1254–60, later Patriarch of Constantinople, 1261–65), emphasized the utterly crucial role of the emperor: no question concerning a possible reunion of the churches could be raised without his participation. The danger of this position, which was strengthened by the Nicaean experience, was that the emperor would usurp patriarchal functions and thus overturn the delicate balance between civil and ecclesiastical powers.

After the Latin occupation of 1204, Byzantium was never the same and anti-western sentiment expanded, intensifying memories of the sack. On the other side, the embattled Latin Empire of Constantinople never had sufficient manpower to create a flourishing society. Like other western enclaves in the Near East, it made constant appeals to the West for armed knights to assist in its defence. The Venetians sustained its trade, Franciscan and Dominican friars converted Byzantine churches to western use, and the dynasty established by Baldwin of Flanders made judicious marriages with other powers in attempts to increase its strength. Christian rivalry of course also reduced the possibility of a reunion of the churches. Orthodox loyalty resisted all western attempts to secure ‘the submission of the church of Constantinople to the church of Rome’, and this refusal then became the stumbling block to further crusading cooperation against the Turks. This complex relationship was in its infancy in the summer of 1261, when the naval commander of Nicaea had the good fortune to learn that the entire Venetian fleet had gone on campaign in the Black Sea, leaving Constantinople undefended. He immediately took possession of the capital in the name of Michael Palaiologos, protector of the boy emperor John IV Laskaris, who became the first Greek ruler to re-occupy the heart of Byzantium.

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