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History of the Byzantine empire
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The last rulers of the Empire of Nicaea were the son and grandson of John Vatatzes, Theodore II Lascaris (1254-1258) and John IV Lascaris (1258-1261). Theodore, thirty-three years old, “seated, according to custom, on a shield,” was proclaimed emperor with the consent of the troops and nobility.
In spite of his weak health, Theodore, before ascending the throne, had devoted all his time to studies and literature. His enlightened father had done his best, and Theodore’s education had been carefully supervised by the best scholars of the epoch, with Nicephorus Blemmydes and George Acropolita at their head.
On his accession to the throne, Theodore II, like his father, displayed the energetic political activity which made him sometimes forget his studies, even his favorite philosophy. Realizing the importance of external political relations, he turned his chief attention to the forming of a powerful army. Theodore wrote: “I have one truth, one goal, one desire — to gather together the flock of God and protect it from hostile wolves.” Believing that the Greeks had to rely on their own strength and not on foreign alliances or on foreign mercenaries, Theodore, perhaps, was almost the only “Byzantine” Emperor who paid attention to the “hellenization” of the army, contrary to the established custom of making use of the mercenary troops of foreign peoples.
In 1258, the young Emperor breathed his last in the prime of life (36 years old), having before death exchanged his imperial robes for those of a monk. He left to his successor the vast conquests of John Vatatzes intact. This active and philosophically educated Emperor lived and worked in the belief that history would pass judgment upon him. In one of his letters he said: “The judgment of history will be passed by the generations to come.” The special historian of the time of Theodore II, not without some exaggeration, wrote: “Theodore died very young; otherwise Hellenism might have hoped for better days under the wise rule of the Emperor who had exerted all his energy in order to found the Greek Empire upon a solid and steady basis.” But this ambition of Theodore remained a theory. In reality the mercenary troops representing different nationalities took an important part in the life of the Empire of Nicaea in general, and during Theodore’s reign in particular.
In external activity, Theodore undertook two hard Bulgarian campaigns. On the news of Vatatzes’ death the Bulgarian tsar, Michael Asen, seized the opportunity to recover the provinces lost under Vatatzes, and it was feared that all the latter’s European conquests might again become Bulgarian. In spite of many difficulties and the cowardice and treachery of his generals, however, the two Bulgarian campaigns ended successfully for Theodore, and, through the mediation of the Russian prince Rostislav, Michael Asen’s father-in-law, a treaty was made. Bulgarians and Greeks received their former frontiers, and one Bulgarian fortress was even ceded to Theodore.
Theodore’s relations to the Despot of Epirus in connection with the proposed marriage between the despot’s son and Theodore’s daughter, resulted in Theodore’s receiving the important seaport Dyrrachium (Durazzo), on the Adriatic, and the fortress Serbia (Servia), near the confines of Epirus and Bulgaria. Dyrrachium “was the western outpost of the Nicene Empire, and necessarily a thorn in the side of the despots of Epirus.”
In Asia Minor, the Seljuq Turks were seriously menaced by the Mongols, who succeeded in making the sultan their tributary. The situation was delicate and complicated, because Theodore had, though undecidedly, supported the sultan in his struggle against the Mongols, and the sultan, “having the heart of a shy deer,” took refuge as a fugitive with Theodore. But a military conflict between Nicaea and the Mongols was avoided, and a Mongol embassy was sent to Theodore. The reception which took place, probably at Magnesia, was exceptionally brilliant and imposing; Theodore’s chief idea was to impress the Tartars, of whom he was afraid. The Emperor received the ambassadors, seated on a lofty throne, sword in hand. Byzantine historians gave a detailed account of the reception.
A recent historian remarked that Theodore “was, in a word, a mass of nerves, an ‘interesting case’ for a modern mental specialist,” and his “brief reign of less than four years did not enable him to make a great mark upon the history of his time.” Finally, it has been said lately that “in Theodore was particularly felt what may be called enlightened absolutism.” Of course, Theodore’s reign was too short for definite judgment to be passed on its significance. But in the history of Nicaea his name will always be honorably remembered for his continuance of his father’s successful external policy and for his own breadth of learning.
Theodore’s only son and successor, who was not quite eight years old, John IV (1258-61) could not, even with the help of the appointed regent, George Muzalon, master the complicated affairs of the Empire. At this time the crafty and ambitious Michael Palaeologus, John Vatatzes’ relative, “a restless intriguer and an infamous hypocrite, but an able officer,” played a decisive role. Several times suspected of plots and treason by Vatatzes and Theodore II, and occupying, nevertheless, high offices, he had in times of danger successfully withdrawn and even fled for a time to the court of the Sultan of Iconium. Stormy times demanded a strong rule. Michael Palaeologus profited skillfully by circumstances and, in 1259, was crowned emperor.
The chief external danger to the Balkan possessions of the Empire of Nicaea arose from the Despot of Epirus, who succeeded in forming an alliance against the Empire consisting of the despot himself, the king of Sicily, Manfred, a relative of the despot and the natural son of Frederick II, and the prince of Achaia, William de Villehardouin. Michael Palaeologus gained some military success against the coalition, and the decisive battle was fought in 1259 in western Macedonia, in the plain of Pelagonia, near the city of Castoria. Turks, Cumans, and Slavs, as well as Greeks, fought in Michael’s army. The battle of Pelagonia or Castoria ended in the complete defeat of the allies. The prince of Achaia was captured. The well-armed troops of the western knights fled before the light-armed Bithynian, Slavonic, and eastern troops. “Perhaps it was the first time that Turks fought against Greeks on Greek soil, and on this occasion in Greek service.” A contemporary, George Acropolita, gave this judgment of the event: “Under imperial advice our troops have got so great a victory that the fame of it has passed over all the ends of the earth; of such victories the sun has seen but few.” In his autobiography, which is preserved, Michael Palaeologus writes concerning this battle: “Along with them [with the traitors to the Roman state, i.e., the Despot of Epirus and his associates] and their allies, who had as their leader the Prince of Achaia, whom have I vanquished? Alamans, Sicilians, and Italians who came from Apulia, the land of the Iapygians and Brundusium, from Bithynia, Euboea, and the Peloponnesus.”
The battle of Castoria had a decisive significance for the restoration of the Byzantine Empire. The dominions of the Despot of Epirus were reduced to his hereditary land in Epirus. The Latin Empire could not rely on the defeated Principality of Achaia, and was itself under the direction of the feeble and apathetic Baldwin II.
Meanwhile, in order to make still more sure the success of the final attack on Constantinople, Michael Palaeologus concluded a treaty with the Genoese. The commercial interests of Genoa and Venice conflicted everywhere in the Levant. After the Fourth Crusade and the formation of the Latin Empire, Venice had gained quite exceptional trade power in the Latin dominions of the Levant, and Genoa could not reconcile herself to this state of affairs. Realizing this, Michael came to an agreement with the Genoese; although they knew that an understanding with the schismatic Greeks would evoke the severe censure of the pope and the West in general, they were so desirous of driving out their Venetian rivals from the East that they concluded the treaty with Michael.
In March, 1261, at Nymphaeum, was signed the very important treaty which granted to the Genoese the commercial supremacy in the Levant so long enjoyed by the Venetians. This was a real offensive and defensive alliance against Venice. Free trade forever was granted the Genoese throughout the present and future provinces of the Empire. Very important grants at Constantinople and in the islands of Crete and Euboea, if Michael “by the mercy of God” should recover them, were included in the treaty; Smyrna, “a city fit for commercial use, having a good port and abounding in all goods,” was assigned to the absolute control of the Genoese; commercial stations with churches and consuls were to be established in the islands of Chios and Lesbos, and in some other places; the Black Sea (majus mare) was to be closed to all foreign merchants except the Genoese and Pisans, the faithful subjects of Michael. On their side the Genoese pledged themselves to grant free trade to the Emperor’s subjects, and to support him with their fleet, provided that the ships were not employed against the pope and the friends of Genoa. The Genoese fleet was extremely important in Michael Palaeologus’ plans to reconquer Constantinople. This treaty was ratified at Genoa a few days before Constantinople was taken by Michael’s troops. This was a brilliant victory for Genoa which, after Saladin’s victories in Syria, had suffered grievous losses. It was a new page in their economic history. “The vigor of the thirteenth century colonial life offers a sharp contrast with the halting, tentative character of that of the twelfth. Naturally this is the result of wide experience, of better organization, and especially of the amazing developments of trade.”
On July 25,1261, without striking a blow, the troops of Michael took possession of Constantinople. Michael himself was at that time in Asia Minor, where he received the news that Constantinople had been taken. He set out immediately and at the beginning of August entered the city, cheerfully greeted by the populace; shortly after, his second coronation was performed in St. Sophia. Baldwin II fled to Euboea (Negroponte). The Latin patriarch and the chief members of the Catholic clergy had time enough to leave the city before it was taken. By Michael’s order, the unfortunate John IV Lascaris was blinded. Michael Palaeologus became the restorer of the Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII, the founder of the last Byzantine dynasty of the Palaeologi, by his success in taking advantage of what had been prepared by the emperors of Nicaea. The capital was transferred from Nicaea to Constantinople.
The fugitive Baldwin proceeded from Euboea to Thebes and Athens. There, “on the venerable rock of Athens was played the last pitiful scene in the brief drama of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Then Baldwin sailed from the Peiraeus for Monemvasia; and leaving behind him not a few of his noble retinue in the Morea, set out for Europe, to solicit aid for his lost cause and to play the sorry part of an emperor in exile.”
Thus, the Latin Empire, in the severe judgment of a German historian, Gregorovius, “a creation of western European crusading knights, of the selfish trade-policy of the Venetians, and of the hierarchic idea of the papacy, fell after a miserable existence of fifty-seven years, leaving behind it no other trace than destruction and anarchy. That deformed chivalrous feudal state of the Latins belongs to the most worthless phenomena of history. The sophistical maxim of the German philosopher who asserted that all that exists is rational, becomes here merely an absurdity.” Another German historian remarked: “The Latin ignominy belongs to the past.”
While Western sources, almost without exception, confine themselves to the mere mention of the taking of Constantinople by Michael and of the expulsion of the Franks, Greek sources express great joy on this occasion. George Acropolita, for example, wrote: “Because of this fact all the Roman people were then in merriment, great cheerfulness, and inexpressible joy; there was no one who did not rejoice and exult.” Still a discordant note sounded in the words of a high official under Michael Paleologus, a teacher, commentator of Homer, and jurist, Senakherim, who after the taking of Constantinople by the Greeks exclaimed: “What do I hear! This has been reserved to our days! What have we done that we should live through and see such disasters? For the rest, no one can hope for good, since the Romans walk again in the city!”
In summary, most scholars view with condemnation the behavior of the Latins during their domination of Constantinople. Indeed, considering the sack of the capital by the crusaders, the “dispersal” of its numberless treasures throughout Europe, and the oppression of the Greek Orthodox Church, the hostile attitude of contemporary Greek sources and of most modern writers is understandable. Recently, however, a voice has been raised in extenuation of the Latins, that of an eminent American professor, E. H. Swift, who has dealt with the behavior of the Latins in regard to the famous and unique building of the “Great Church” of Saint Sophia.
In 1907 E. M. Antoniades, the Greek author of a detailed monograph on St. Sophia, wrote: “The fifty-seven years of the Latin occupation constituted the worst and most dangerous period of the entire history of the church, which was saved only by the recovery of the city by the Greeks in 1261.” Professor Swift questioned this opinion. He believed that it may be inferred from a number of historical sources as well as from archeological evidence observable in the building as it stands today that quite the opposite seems to be the case. A number of earthquakes before 1204 had rendered the structural condition of the church extremely precarious before the crusaders took possession of it. Since they found it in a dangerously weakened state, they shortly took adequate measure to assure the stability of their newly acquired cathedral, repairing it in various ways, particularly by the erection of buttresses. So, Swift concluded, “the Latins were not as black as they usually are painted, but rather … became in fact the saviours of one of the greatest monuments of the Greek architectural genius.” Swift’s observation is an interesting contribution to the history of the building, and it is quite likely that the crusaders contributed appreciably to the preservation of this unique structure. But the fact remains well established that they mercilessly robbed the interior of St. Sophia.