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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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Beginnings of the Empire of Nicaea and the Lascarids.

        In the Empire of Nicaea the idea of Greek national unification and reconstruction of the Byzantine state was formed and strengthened, and it was from this empire that Michael Palaeologus came, the leader who in 1261 took possession of Constantinople and restored, though to much less than its former extent, the Byzantine Empire. For a time it might have been thought that the task of the restoration of the Greek empire would be reserved for another Greek center, the Despotat of Epirus; but for many reasons the despots of Epirus were forced to yield to the increasing importance of Nicaea and to give up the leading role in the Christian East. The third Greek center, the Empire of Trebizond, lay too far away to be able to play the leading part in the process of the unification of the Greeks; therefore the history of Trebizond has its own special interest, political as well as cultural and economic, and deserves a particular investigation of its own.

        The founder of the Empire of Nicaea, “an Empire in exile,” was Theodore Lascaris, a man about thirty years old, related to the house of the Angeli through his wife Anna, daughter of the former Emperor Alexius III, and to the house of the Comneni through Alexius III. The origin of the Lascarids and the name of Theodore’s native city are not known. Under Alexius III he held military command and fought energetically against the crusaders.[2] In all likelihood he had been regarded as a possible emperor of Byzantium by the Constantinopolitan clergy after the flight of Alexius Ducas Murzuphlus (Mourtzouphlos) and up to the very moment of the taking of the capital by the crusaders; but at that time he fled to Asia Minor. There also sought shelter from the invasion of the crusaders numerous representatives of the Byzantine civil and military nobility, some prominent members of the church, and some other fugitives who did not wish to be under the yoke of the foreign power. The last Greek patriarch of Constantinople, John Camaterus, however, left the capital for Bulgaria and refused to come to Nicaea on Theodore’s invitation. The metropolitan of Athens, Michael Acominatus, who had withdrawn into exile before the invading Latins, wrote a letter in which he recommended to the favorable attention of Theodore Lascaris a certain Euboean. He wrote that the latter had gone secretly to Nicaea, preferring the life of an exile at the palace of a Greek (Romaic) state to a stay in his native country oppressed by the foreigners; in the same letter Michael emphasized the fact that, if the Euboean found shelter at Nicaea, it would greatly impress the whole population of Greece who “would regard Theodore as a single universal liberator,” that is to say, a liberator of the whole of Romania.[3]

        After the death of Theodore Lascaris, who ruled from 1204 to 1222, there reigned his son-in-law, his daughter Irene’s husband, John III Ducas Vatatzes (1222-1254),[4] the most talented and energetic emperor of Nicaea. After his death the throne was in the-power, first of his own son Theodore II (1254-1258), and then of his grandson John IV (1258-1261), who was a minor during his reign. The latter was dethroned by Michael Palaeologus, the restorer of the Byzantine Empire.

        The situation of the new state in Bithynia was extremely dangerous: from the east it was threatened by the powerful sultan of Iconium, who occupied the whole interior of Asia Minor and was also master of a part of the Mediterranean shore in the south and of a part of the Black Sea coast in the north; from the west the state of Nicaea was pushed back by the Latin Empire, which set as one of its chief goals the destruction of the new state of Nicaea. A complicated and difficult task devolved upon Theodore Lascaris, who ruled for about the first four years with the title not of emperor, but of despot. Within the country anarchy prevailed; in several parts of the state there arose independent rulers; the city of Nicaea shut its gates to Theodore.

        Meanwhile, the Latin knights who had established themselves at Constantinople determined, in the same year, 1204, to conquer Asia Minor. Their military operations there were very successful. It seemed to the Greeks of Asia Minor that all was lost. Villehardouin said, “the people of the country took the part of the Franks and began to pay them tributes.”[5] At this critical moment for the new state came the sudden news that the Latin emperor, Baldwin, had been captured by the Bulgars.

        Since 1196 there had sat upon the Bulgarian throne Kalojan (John, Johannitsa), who, during the time of the Angeli, had been a terrible enemy of Byzantium. The Latin state established in the Balkan peninsula complicated the situation exceedingly. It was absolutely clear that the crusaders and Bulgars would have to raise the question of dominion in the Balkan peninsula. The relations between them became at once very strained, for the crusaders had reacted insultingly to Kalojan’s friendly propositions, giving him to understand that he could not regard the Latin emperor as his equal, but must look up to him as a serf looks up to his master; and the Latins warned Kalojan that if he failed in respect, the crusaders would conquer Bulgaria by force of arms and reduce him to his former servile state.[6]

        Having thus provoked the anger of the Bulgarian king, the Latins at the same time also irritated the Greek population of Thrace and Macedonia by insulting Greek religious beliefs and rites. The secret relations of the Greeks with King Kalojan prepared in the Balkan peninsula an insurrection in favor of the Bulgars.[7] It may be supposed that the former patriarch of Constantinople, John Camaterus, who is known to have lived in Bulgaria, played an important part in the formation of the Byzantine-Bulgarian alliance in 1204-5.[8] This alliance, Th. Uspensky said, “put an end to Kalojan’s hesitations and fixed the plan of his future actions. To come out as a protector of orthodoxy and of the Greco-Bulgarian population against the Catholic Latin predominance and therewith to take upon himself the task of reviving the weakened imperial power in Byzantium became thereafter the chief motive of Kalojan’s undertakings against the crusaders.”[9] The tsar of Bulgaria longed for the crown of the Byzantine basileus.

        The Greco-Bulgarian insurrection which had broken out in the Balkan peninsula, compelled the crusaders to recall to Europe the troops that had been sent to Asia Minor to fight against Theodore Lascaris. In the battle of Hadrianople, on the fifteenth of April, 1205, Kalojan, supported by the Cuman (Polovtzi) cavalry in his army, dealt a decisive defeat to the crusaders. In this battle fell the flower of Western chivalry, and the Emperor Baldwin himself was taken prisoner by the Bulgars. The fate of the captured emperor is not known; but, apparently, by order of the Bulgarian king, Baldwin was slain in some manner.[10] Because of the lack of information on Baldwin’s end, his brother Henry was elected regent of the Latin Empire for the time of Baldwin’s absence. More than eight hundred years before, in 378, another Roman emperor, Valens, had been killed near Hadrianople in his conflict with the Goths.

        The old doge, Enrico Dandolo, who had also taken part in the battle and conducted the hard night retreat of the remains of the defeated troops, died shortly after this disaster and was buried in St. Sophia. As a widespread tradition states, his corpse remained there till the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, when the Sultan Muhammed II commanded the body of the Venetian hero to be destroyed.[11]

        The defeat of Hadrianople placed the crusaders in a desperate situation. It was a blow to the Latin Empire that, at the very beginning of its political existence, undermined its whole future. “The dominion of the Franks over Romania ended on this terrible day,”[12] declared Gelzer, and it is true that “the destiny of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, for a certain period of time, was entirely in the hands of the Bulgarian king.”[13]

        The battle of Hadrianople had the greatest significance both for the Bulgarian kingdom and for the Empire of Nicaea. The Greeks of Macedonia and Thrace, lacking a national center in Europe and not foreseeing Nicaea’s future significance in that connection, considered it possible to come to an agreement and to make common cause with the Bulgars against the Latins; the best possible opportunity was open to Kalojan to carry out his ambitious plan, namely, to establish on the site of the hostile Frankish realm a great Greco-Slavonic state in the Balkan peninsula with its center at Constantinople. But, as V. G. Vasilievsky wrote, “the Slavonic rulers could not succeed in making a representative of the Greco-Slavonic world play an imperial world role. Ka-lojan’s ambition to found a Greco-Bulgarian kingdom in the Balkan peninsula, with the capital at Constantinople, remained in the realm of dreams.”[14]

        Meanwhile, the unnatural Greco-Bulgarian friendly understanding, which had brought about the victory of Hadrianople, promptly broke down, as soon as the Balkan Greek patriots saw in the sovereign of Nicaea a possible liberator from the Latin conquerors and a spokesman for their national expectations and hopes. In the Balkan peninsula there appeared clearly expressed anti-Bulgarian tendencies, against which the king of Bulgaria opened a merciless and destructive war. According to the statement of a contemporary source, Kalojan was avenging the evils which the Emperor Basil II had inflicted upon the Bulgars. The latter had been given the name of the “slayer of Bulgars” (Bulgaroctonus); Kalojan proudly styled himself the “slayer of Romans” (Romaioctonus, Romaioktonos). The Greeks surnamed him “Dog-John” (in Greek Skyloioannes);[15] in his letter a Latin emperor calls him a “great destroyer of Greece” (magnus populator Graeciae).[16]

        “Here manifested itself,” stated a Bulgarian historian, “the purely Bulgarian national tendency, which guided the imperialistic policy of the King Kalojan against the Greek element, this sworn enemy of Bulgarian national independence, even in the moment of the alliance with the Greek cities of Thrace against the Latin Empire.”[17]

        The bloody campaign of John in Thrace and Macedonia ended fatally for him. At the siege of Thessalonica (1207) he died a violent death. A Greek legend inserted into the tales of the miracles of the martyr St. Demetrius, which exist in Greek and Slavonic versions, as well as in the old Russian chronographies, speaks of him as an enemy of the Orthodox church, stricken down by the saintly patron of the city. Thus the king of Bulgaria was unable to take advantage of circumstances which were very favorable to him after the victory of Hadrianople. In his person, Nikov said, there “disappeared from the historical stage one of the greatest diplomatists Bulgaria had ever borne.”[18]

        But on the other hand, the battle of Hadrianople, which had destroyed the strength of the Frankish dominion at Constantinople, saved the Empire of Nicaea from ruin and gave it hope for a new life. Theodore Lascaris, who had escaped the danger from his western neighbor, set to work actively to organize his state. First of all, when Theodore had succeeded in establishing himself firmly at Nicaea, the question was raised of proclaiming him emperor instead of despot. As the Greek patriarch of Constantinople, who after the Frankish invasion had withdrawn to Bulgaria, refused to come to Nicaea, a new patriarch, Michael Autoreanus, was elected there in 1208; he had his residence at Nicaea and crowned Theodore Emperor in the same year, 1208.[19]

        This event of 1208 had very great significance for the subsequent history of the state of Nicaea: Nicaea became the center of the Empire, as well as of the Church. By the side of the shaken Latin Empire there grew up this second empire which gradually unified a rather considerable territory in Asia Minor, and by little and little drew the attention and hopes of the European Greeks. In the treaty concluded about 1220 between Theodore Lascaris and the Venetian representative at Constantinople (podestá) the official title of the former, apparently acknowledged by Venice, was: “Theodorus, in Christo Deo fidelis Imperator et moderator Romeorum et semper augustus, Comnenus Lascarus.”[20] The formation of a new empire caused strained relations with the Empire of Constantinople; the two empires established on the ruins of the single Byzantine Empire could not live on friendly and peaceful terms.

        Nicaea, located about forty English miles from Constantinople, became the capital of the new empire. Its position at the intersection of five or six roads, gave it a special political importance. Nicaea had achieved fame in Byzantine history as the site of two ecumenical councils, and its inhabitants boasted of the powerful walls, towers, and gates erected in the Middle Ages. These are still well preserved today. A short time before the First Crusade Nicaea had succumbed to the Seljuq Turks, but the crusaders who had taken the city away from them had been compelled, to their great discontent, to return it to Alexius Comnenus. Magnificent palaces and numerous churches and monasteries, of which now not a trace remains, adorned medieval Nicaea.[21] Speaking of Nicaea and recalling the First Ecumenical Council, an Arabian traveler of the twelfth century, al-Harawy (el-Herewy) wrote: “In the church of this city one may see the image of the Messiah and the portraits of the Fathers enthroned on their seats. This church is the object of particular reverence.”[22] The Byzantine and western historians of the thirteenth century point out the vast extent and wealth of Nicaea.[23] A writer of the thirteenth century, Nicephorus Blemmydes, spoke of Nicaea in one of his poems: “Nicaea, a city with wide streets, full of people, well-walled, proud of what it encloses, being the most excellent mark of imperial sympathy.”[24] Finally, in the literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are preserved two panegyrics of Nicaea. The author of one of them, Emperor Theodore II Lascaris, addressed Nicaea: “Thou hast surpassed all the cities, since the Romaeic state, many times divided and crushed by foreign troops … has been founded, established, and strengthened only in thee.”[25] The second panegyric was written by a very well-known statesman of the fourteenth century, a diplomat, politician and administrator, theologian, astronomer, poet, and artist, Theodore Metochites,[26] whose name is associated with the famous mosaics of the Constantinople monastery Chora (now the mosque Kahrieh Jami), which have been preserved to the present time.

        Of the monuments of the Middle Ages to be found in the miserable present-day Turkish city of Isnik (the distorted name of Nicaea) before the First World War, one might have pointed out, in addition to the city walls, the modest small church of the Assumption. This dated probably from the ninth century, and had fine mosaics, important for the study of Byzantine art.[27] But during World War I Nicaea was bombarded, and no single house was left untouched. The Church of the Assumption suffered particularly; during the bombardment it was destroyed, and only the western arch under the dome and the southern part of the narthex have been preserved. The other famous church of Nicaea, the cathedral of Sophia, is also in a deplorable state.[28]

An interesting document has been preserved which shows, to a certain extent, Theodore Lascaris’ conception of imperial power. It is called Silentium (Σελεντιον, σιλεντιον), the name given at the time of Byzantium to the public imperial speeches delivered by the Emperors in the palace in the presence of the noblest persons of the Empire at the beginning of Lent, The Silentium is regarded as the throne speech of Theodore Lascaris delivered in 1208, immediately after his coronation.[29] It was written by his contemporary, the very well-known historian Nicetas Choniates, who, after the sack of Constantinople by the Latins, had found a secure refuge at Nicaea. This rhetorically written speech shows that Theodore, like a Byzantine basileus, considered that his power was granted to him by God. “My Imperial Majesty has been placed by heaven as a father over the universal Roman state; the Will of God has laid upon me the power…” God had granted Theodore for his zeal “the annointment and power of David.” The unity of the Empire meant also unity in the church. “There shall be one fold and one shepherd,” Theodore declared at the end of the Silentium.[30] It is true that this speech does not belong to the pen of the Emperor himself, but it reflects the prevailing opinion of the best-born and best-educated people of the Empire of Nicaea, an opinion based on solid grounds, after Theodore Lascaris, united by ties of parentage with the Angeli and Comneni, became the “Roman basilens” at Nicaea and realized that he continued the line of the Byzantine emperors.

 

 




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