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History of the Byzantine empire
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John Asen II (1218-1241), the greatest of the Asens, was the son of John Asen I. “Though not himself a conqueror,” to quote the well-known historian Jireček, “he expanded the boundaries of the kingdom which he had received in a disorganized state, to limits that it had not reached for several centuries and which it never achieved afterward.” Tolerant in religious matters, well educated, and clement, he left a good name not only among the Bulgars, but also among the Greeks, A Greek historian of the thirteenth century, George Acropolita, wrote of him: “All considered him a wonderful and happy man because he did not resort to the sword in his dealings with his subjects and did not stain himself with the murders of Romans, like the Bulgarian kings who had preceded him. Therefore he was beloved not only by the Bulgars, but also by the Romans and other peoples.”
In the history of Byzantium, John Asen II was very important as the representative of the idea of the Great Bulgarian Kingdom which, it seemed, should unify the whole Orthodox population of the Balkan peninsula and establish its capital at Tsargrad (Constantinople). Such plans, undoubtedly, were opposed to the vital interests of both Greek empires and must have brought about hostilities. But the course of events seemed to facilitate the realization of the Bulgarian tsar’s plans.
On the death of the Latin Emperor, Robert de Courtenay (1228), the throne was supposed to pass to his brother, Baldwin II, a boy of eleven. The question of regency arose. Some proposed as a regent John Asen, who was related to Baldwin; and to strengthen the ties of friendship between the two countries, the betrothal of Baldwin to Asen’s daughter was suggested. Realizing all the advantages of the proposed agreement and hoping to capture Constantinople without bloodshed, Asen accepted the proposition and promised Baldwin that he would free the lands occupied by his enemies, especially Theodore of Epirus. The Latin knights and clergy, however, stubbornly resisted the candidature of a deadly foe of the Latin Empire and insisted upon the election as regent of the Empire a Frenchman, the “titulary” king of Jerusalem, who at that time was in western Europe, John of Brienne, a man of eighty. Thus Asen’s first chance of taking Constantinople ended in failure.
After the capture of Hadrianople, the chief role in the Balkan peninsula was played by Theodore of Epirus, Emperor of Thessalonica, who concluded an alliance with Asen. But their friendly relations did not last long. The plan concerning John Asen’s regency in Constantinople aroused serious suspicions in Theodore. He treacherously broke his alliance with Asen and opened hostilities against the Bulgars. The decisive battle was fought in 1230 at a place called Klokotinitza (Clocotimtza), now Semidje, between Hadrianople and Philippopolis, and ended in a complete victory for John Asen, who was vigorously supported by the Cuman cavalry. Theodore Angelus was captured. At first mildly treated, he plotted later against Asen’s life and, on the discovery of his plot, was blinded.
The battle of Klokotinitza, in 1230, was one of the turning points in the history of the Christian East in the thirteenth century. It destroyed the western Greek Empire and the western Greek center, which seemed to be on the point of restoring the Byzantine Empire. The short-lived western empire (1222-1230) practically ceased to exist, and Manuel, the brother of Theodore Angelus, who was taken prisoner, ruled Thessalonica thereafter, some historians think, not with the title of emperor but with that of despot. But this is doubtful: he continued to sign his decrees with red ink, as befitted the imperial dignity, and called himself in the documents emperor. In the further history of the thirteenth century, Thessalonica and Epirus, two separate dominions, played no role of any importance. From that time on, the struggle for Constantinople was carried on, not between three rivals, but two: John Vatatzes and John Asen.
After the victory over Theodore of Epirus, the tsar of Bulgaria occupied Hadrianople without a struggle, as well as almost the whole of Macedonia and Albania as far as Dyrrachium (Durazzo). Thessalonica, Thessaly, and Epirus remained in the hands of the Greeks.
In an inscription on a white marble column in the Church of the Forty Martyrs at Trnovo (Bulgaria), the tsar of Bulgaria told of the results of his victory in this inflated style; “I, John Asen, in Christ God the faithful Tsar and Autocrat of the Bulgars, son of the old Tsar Asen … set forth on a march upon Romania and defeated the Greek troops, and I have captured the Emperor himself, Theodore Comnenus, with all his boyars [nobles], and taken all the countries from Hadrianople to Durazzo, the Greek territory, as well as the Albanian and Serbian territories. The Latins [Franks] have kept only the cities round Tsargrad itself, but even they have become subject to the power of my Majesty, for they have no king but myself, and only thanks to me have they continued their existence.” From a charter granted by Asen at the same time to the Ragusan merchants concerning the freedom of their commerce in his realm, it is shown that the whole of European Turkey except Constantinople, as it was before World War I, almost all Serbia, and all Bulgaria was under Asen’s influence.
The Greco-Bulgarian alliance. — Next, John Asen, irritated by his failure to obtain the regency at Constantinople, took the lead in an alliance of the Orthodox rulers of the East, composed of Asen himself, John Vatatzes of Nicaea, and Manuel of Thessalonica. This new union was directed against the Latins. One cannot help seeing in the formation of this alliance a dangerous step for the interests of the Bulgars in the Balkan peninsula. Thereby, as V. G. Vasilievsky correctly stated, Asen, the soul of the coalition, “contributed to the friendly understanding between Manuel of Thessalonica and the Emperor of Nicaea, between the European and Asiatic Greeks, and opened the way to the Nicene master to extend his influence in the former Empire of Thessalonica and even in Asen’s own dominions. The restoration of the orthodox Eastern Empire was partly decided by this rapprochement.” An important result of this alliance for the internal history of Bulgaria was the recognition there of the autocephalous Bulgarian patriarchate, which was established with the consent of the Nicene and other eastern patriarchs.
The capital of the Latin Empire, surrounded on all sides by enemies, was again in a very dangerous position, which was well realized by contemporaries. The aim of the offensive alliance against the Latins was the complete destruction of Latin domination, the expulsion of the Latins from Constantinople, and the division of their possessions between the allies. The troops of Asen and Vatatzes besieged Constantinople in 1235, by land and sea, but were compelled to withdraw without definite results. In his letter appealing to the West for help for the Emperor of Constantinople, the alarmed Pope Gregory IX declared that “Vatatzes and Asen, schismatics, who had recently concluded an alliance of impiety, had invaded with numerous Greek troops the land of our dearest son in Christ, the Emperor of Constantinople.” Driven to despair, Baldwin II, the last Latin Emperor, left Constantinople and traveled through western Europe, begging rulers for help for the Empire in men and money.
For the time Constantinople was saved. One cause for the stopping of the advance of the Orthodox alliance was the gradual withdrawal of John Asen himself, who realized that in the Empire of Nicaea he had a more dangerous enemy than in the dying and weakened Latin Empire. Accordingly the king of Bulgaria changed his policy and came out as a defender of the Latin Emperor. Simultaneously with this change of political combinations, Asen took steps towards reconciliation with the papal throne, announcing his faithfulness to the Catholic church and asking the pope to send a legate for negotiations. Thus the short Greco-Bulgarian alliance of the fourth decade of the thirteenth century came to its end.