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History of the Byzantine empire
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For the further destiny of the Empire of Nicaea the history of the Despotat of Epirus was extremely important. Epirus was the second Greek center, where, under certain conditions, might have been concentrated the interests of the western Greek patriots and from which might have come the idea of the restoration of the Byzantine Empire, The two Greek states, Epirus and Nicaea, which could not come to a satisfactory compromise in their rivalry to bring about Hellenic unification, were unavoidably to struggle to restore Byzantium.
The founder of the Despotat of Epirus in 1204 was Michael I Angelus. The family of the Epirotic Angeli was related to the families of the Comneni and Ducae, and therefore the names of the rulers of Epirus are sometimes accompanied by a long dynastic title “Angelus Comnenus Ducas.” Originally the possessions of the Despotat of Epirus had extended from Dyrrachium (Durazzo) in the north to the Gulf of Corinth in the south; that is to say, they had occupied the territory of ancient Epirus, Acarnania, and Aetolia. The city of Arta became the capital of the new state.
The history of the Despotat of Epirus in the thirteenth century is not yet thoroughly investigated and the sources are far from complete; for this reason, many questions still remain debatable and dark. Much light has been thrown upon the history of the Despotat by the letters of John Apocaucus (Apokaukos), the metropolitan of Naupactus (Lepanto), which were published at the end of the nineteenth century by V. G. Vasilievsky.
In its internal administration the Despotat did not differ from the system in use before 1204, when its territory had formed a province of the Byzantine Empire; the name of the form of government changed, but the people continued to live on the basis of the Byzantine administration. Surrounded on all sides by the Latin and Slavonic states, on the east by the feudal Kingdom of Thessalonica, on the northeast by the Bulgarian Kingdom, and on the west by the possessions of Venice which threatened the coast of Epirus, the Despotat was obliged to develop a strong military power that might, in case of need, offer an adequate resistance to external foes. The mountainous and inaccessible nature of the country also served as a great support. The despot Michael I considered himself an absolutely independent ruler and did not recognize any superiority or leadership on the part of Theodore Lascaris of Nicaea, The church in the Despotat was also independent, and Michael I commanded the bishops to be ordained by the local metropolitans.
The original task of the Despot of Epirus was to preserve Hellenism in the western districts of Greece from absorption by the neighboring Franks and Bulgars. Broader aims, which led the Despotat far beyond the n\arrow limits of its own interests, appeared and developed later.
During the reign of Theodore Lascaris Nicaea seems to have had no conflicts with the Despotat. With the ascension of John Vatatzes to the throne, circumstances changed. At that time the brother of the slain Michael, Theodore, sat on the throne of Epirus. His name is connected with the idea of the expansion of his state at the expense of the Latins and Bulgars.
In his brother’s lifetime the new despot, Theodore Angelus, had stayed at the court of the Emperor of Nicaea. When the late Michael I had begged Theodore Lascaris to let his brother go back to Epirus to help the despot in ruling the state, the Emperor of Nicaea granted Michael’s request, having previously exacted from Theodore of Epirus an oath of allegiance to him as emperor as well as to his successors. Theodore Lascaris’ apprehensions proved well grounded. When Theodore Angelus had become the Despot of Epirus, he paid no attention to the oath he had taken to the Emperor of Nicaea, and when he judged it advisable, he opened hostilities against Nicaea.
The first act that drew attention to Theodore Angelus was his capture of the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Peter de Courtenay, count of Auxerre. After Henry’s death (1216), the barons elected as emperor his brother-in-law, Peter de Courtenay, who had married Yolande, the sister of Baldwin and Henry. At the time of his election he was with his wife in France. Having received the news of the election, he set out with her for Constantinople by way of Rome, where Pope Honorius III crowned Peter with the imperial crown, not in St. Peter’s, but in San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, wishing to emphasize the fact that the Empire of Romania in the East was not the Empire of Rome in the West, — a distinction which might have been obscured if the coronation of an eastern emperor had taken place in St. Peter’s, where the western emperors, beginning with Charlemagne and Otto I, had been crowned. From Italy Peter sent his wife, Yolande, by sea to Constantinople; he and his troops sailed across the Adriatic and landed near Dyrrachium, hoping to reach the capital by land. But Theodore Angelus attacked him from an ambush in the mountains of Epirus, and defeated and captured the greater part of Peter’s troops. The Emperor himself, according to one source, fell in battle; according to another, was seized by Theodore and died in Greek captivity. V. G. Vasilievsky said, this “deed of Theodore absolutely in Greek-Byzantine taste” produced a particularly strong impression on the West, where the chroniclers painted in the very darkest colors Theodore’s savagery and cruelty. The fate of Peter de Courtenay, like that of the first Latin Emperor, Baldwin, is veiled in mystery; in all likelihood, Peter died in prison. Meanwhile, the widow of Peter, Yolande, who had reached Constantinople, governed the Empire for the two years before her death (1217-19). The death of Peter de Courtenay must be regarded as the first attack of the Despotat of Epirus, that is to say, of the western Hellenic center, upon the Latin newcomers to the Balkan peninsula.
But the anti-Latin policy of Theodore Angelus did not stop there. Soon afterwards there arose the question of the Kingdom of Thessalonica (Salonika) whose king, Boniface of Montferrat, had been killed in 1207 in a fight with the Bulgars. After his death troubles and strife raged in the kingdom. As long as the energetic Latin Emperor, Henry, was alive, he could defend Thessalonica against its two most menacing foes, Bulgaria and Epirus. But after the death of Henry and of the new Latin Emperor, Peter de Courtenay, the Kindom of Thessalonica was unable to resist the aggressive policy of Theodore of Epirus.
Theodore made war against the neighboring Latin kingdom, won the victory and in 1222, without great effort, took possession of Thessalonica, the second city in importance of the former Byzantine Empire and the first fief of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. “Thus, after only eighteen years of existence, this ephemeral Lombard kingdom fell ingloriously — the first of the creations of the Fourth Crusade to succumb.” Having seized Thessalonica and extended his dominions from the Adriatic to the Aegean, Theodore judged it his right to assume the imperial crown, that is to say, to become emperor of the Romans. This meant that he refused to recognize the title of John Vatatzes, who had just ascended the throne of Nicaea (1222). From the viewpoint of Theodore of Epirus, he himself, as a representative of the glorious families of the Angeli, Comneni, and Ducae, had a great advantage over John Vatatzes, a man of no very noble origin, who had mounted the throne only because he was Theodore Lascaris’ son-in-law.
The question of who should crown Theodore at Thessalonica was next raised. The metropolitan of Thessalonica declined the honor, unwilling to violate the rights of the Greek patriarch, who was then living at Nicaea and had already crowned John Vatatzes. Accordingly Theodore turned to another hierarch, who was independent of the Orthodox patriarch of Nicaea, namely, to the autocephalous (independent of archiepiscopal or patriarchal jurisdiction) archbishop of Ochrida (Achrida) and of “all Bulgaria,” Demetrius Chomatenus (Chomatianos), whose works, the letters in particular, have great interest for the history of the epoch. He crowned and anointed Theodore who “put on the purple robe and began to wear the red shoes,” distinctive marks of the Byzantine basileus. One of the letters of Demetrius Chomatenus shows that the coronation and anointment of Theodore of Epirus was performed “with the general consent of the members of the senate, who were in the west (that is, on the territory of the state of Thessalonica and Epirus), of the clergy, and of all the large army.” Another document testifies that the coronation and anointment were performed with the consent of all the bishops who lived “in that western part.” Finally, Theodore himself signed his edicts (chrysobulls) with the full title of the Byzantine Emperor: “Theodore in Christ God Basileus and Autocrat of the Romans, Ducas.”
Interesting and fresh information on this subject is contained in the precious collection of the letters of the above-mentioned metropolitan of Naupactus, John Apocaucus. From his correspondence, wrote V. G. Vasilievsky, “we learn for the first time what an active part in the Epirotic movement was taken by the Greek clergy and especially by the Greek bishops. The proclamation of Theodore Angelus as the Emperor of the Romans was considered very seriously; Thessalonica, which had passed over into his hands, was contrasted with Nicaea; Constantinople was openly indicated to him as the nearest goal of his ambition and as an assured gain; in speech, thought, and writing, it was the common opinion that he was destined to enter St. Sophia and occupy there the place of the Orthodox Roman emperors where the Latin newcomers were sitting illegally. The realization of such dreams did not lie beyond the limits of possibility; it would be even easier to take Constantinople from Thessalonica than from Nicaea.”
The proclamation of Theodore’s coronation as the Emperor of Thessalonica and his anointment by the archbishop Demetrius Chomatenus must have brought about a political rupture between Thessalonica and Nicaea as well as an ecclesiastical rupture between the western Greek hierarchs and the patriarchate of Nicaea, which was called the patriarchate of Constantinople.
In the course of a rather long period after the fall of the Latin kingdom of Thessalonica, several western European princes related to the family of Montferrat continued to use in the West the extinct title of king of Thessalonica. They were the so-called “titulary” kings of Thessalonica, as, after the fall of the Latin Empire in 1261, there were to be “titulary” Latin emperors in western Europe.
Thus, from 1222, when the Empire of Thessalonica was proclaimed and refused to recognize the Empire of Nicaea, there were in the Christian East three empires: the two Greek Empires of Thessalonica and of Nicaea, and the Latin Empire in Constantinople which was becoming weaker every year. The further history of the thirteenth century is concerned with the relations between these empires, in whose destinies the Bulgarian Kingdom of John Asen II was the decisive factor.