Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Latin Empire and the Empire of Nicaea


Seldom has any state dragged out fifty-seven years in such constant misery and danger as the Latin Empire experienced in the course of its inglorious existence. The whole period was one protracted death-agony, and at no date within it did there appear any reasonable prospect of recovery. Thirty thousand men can take a city, but they cannot subdue a realm Boo miles long and 400 broad. Far more than any government which has since held sway on the same spot did the Latin Empire of Romania deserve the name of "the Sick Man." It is not too much to say that but for the unequalled strength of the walls of Constantinople the new power must have ceased to exist within ten years of its establishment.

But once fortified within the ramparts of Byzantium the Franks enjoyed the inestimable advantage which their Greek predecessors had possessed: they were masters of a fortress which—as military science then stood was practically impregnable, if only it was defended with ordinary skill, and adequately guarded on the front facing the sea. As long as the Venetians kept up their naval supremacy in Eastern waters, the city was safe on that side, and even the very limited force which the Latin emperor could put into the field sufficed, when joined to the armed burghers of the Italian quarters, to defend the tremendous land wall.

From the first year of its existence the Latin Empire was marked out by unfailing signs as a power not destined to continue. The intention of its founders had been to replace the centralized despotism which they had overthrown by a great feudal state, corresponding in territorial extent to its predecessor. But within a few months it became evident that the conquest of the broad provinces which the Crusaders had distributed among themselves by anticipation, was not to be carried out. The new emperor himself was the first to discover this. He set out with his chivalry to drive from Northern Thrace the Bulgarian hordes, who had flocked down into the plains to profit by the plunder of the dismembered realm. But near Adrianople he met Joannicios, the Bulgarian king, with a vast army at his back. The Franks charged gallantly enough, but they were simply overwhelmed by numbers. The larger part of the army was cut to pieces, and Baldwin himself was taken prisoner. The Bulgarian kept him in chains for some months, and then put him to death, after he had worn the imperial crown only one year [1205].

Henry of Flanders, the brother of Baldwin, became his successor. He was an honest and able man, but he could do nothing towards conquering the provinces of Asia, pushing the Bulgarians back over the Balkans, or conciliating the subject Greek population. All his reign he had to fight on the defensive against his neighbours to the north and south. By the time that he died the empire was practically confined to a narrow slip of land along the Propontis, reaching from Gallipoli to Constantinople. Nor was the chief of the minor Latin states any better off; Boniface of Montferrat had fallen in 1207, slain in battle by the same Bulgarian hordes which had cut off the army of his suzerain Baldwin. With his death it became evident that the kingdom of Thessalonica was no more able to conquer all the old Byzantine provinces in its neighbourhood than was the empire of Constantinople. Boniface's son and heir was a mere infant; during his minority the lands of his kingdom were lopped away, one after another, by the Greek despot of Epirus, the able Theodore Angelus. At last the capital itself was retaken by the Greeks in 1222, and the kingdom of Thessalonica came to an end.

The Latin states in the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula fared somewhat better. William of Champlitte had contrived to hew out for himself a principality in the western parts of the Peloponnesus, and had organized there a small state with twelve baronies and 136 knights fees. The resistance of the natives in this district was particularly weak, and one battle sufficed to give William all the coast-plain of Elis and Messenia. Yet he did not succeed in subduing the mountaineers of the peninsula of Maina, or the coast towns of Argolis and Laconia, so that the Greeks still had some foothold in the peninsula.

Another small Latin state was set up by Otho de la Roche in Central Greece, where as "Duke of Athens" he ruled Attica and Boeotia. He treated his Greek subjects with more consideration than any of his fellow Crusaders, and was rewarded by obtaining a degree of respect and deference which was not found in any other Latin state. Though the smallest, the duchy of Athens was undoubtedly the most prosperous of the new creations of the conquest of 1204.

Meanwhile it is time to speak of the fortunes of those parts of the Eastern Empire which the Franks did not succeed in seizing when Constantinople fell. The provinces had hitherto been accustomed to accept without a murmur the ruler whom the capital obeyed. But in. I204 it was found that the centralization of the Byzantine Empire, great as it was, had not so thoroughly crushed the individuality of the provinces as to make them submit without resistance to the Latin yoke. Wherever the provincials found a leader, whether a member of one of the ex-imperial houses, or an energetic governor, or a landholder of local influence, they stood up to defend themselves. The Byzantine Empire, like some creature of low organism, showed every sign of life in its limbs, though its head had been shorn off. Wherever a centre of resistance could be found the people refused to submit to the piratical Frank, and to his yet more hated companions the priests of the Roman Church.

Of the nine or ten leaders who put themselves at the head of provincial risings three were destined to carve out kingdoms for themselves. Of these the most important was Theodore Lascaris, the last officer who had attempted to strike a blow against the Franks when Constantinople fell. He might claim some shadow of hereditary right to the imperial crown as he had married the daughter of the imbecile Alexius III., but his true title was his well-approved courage and energy. The wrecks of the old Byzantine army rallied around him, the cities of Bithynia opened their gates, and when the Latins crossed into Asia to divide up the land into baronies and knights fees, they found Theodore waiting to receive them with the sword. His defence of the strong town of Prusa, which successfully repelled Henry of Flanders, put a limit to the extension of the Frank Empire; beyond a few castles on the Bithynian coast they made no conquests. Having thus checked the invaders, Theodore had himself solemnly crowned at Nicaea, and assumed imperial state [1206].

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


Having beaten off the Latins, Theodore had to cope with another who aspired like himself to pose as the rightful heir to the imperial throne. Alexius Comnenus, a grandson of the wicked emperor Andronicus I., had betaken himself to the Eastern frontiers of the empire when Constantinople fell, and obtained possession of Trebizond and the long slip of coast-land at the southeast corner of the Black Sea, from the mouth of the Phasis to Sinope. He aspired to conquer the whole of Byzantine Asia, and sent his 299) ?> brother David Comnenus to attack Bithynia. But Theodore defended his newly won realm with success; Comnenus gained no territory from him, and was constrained to content himself with the narrow bounds of his Pontic realm, where his descendants reigned in obscurity for three hundred years as emperors of Trebizond. A greater danger beset the empire of Nicaea when the warlike sultan of the Seljouks came down from his plateau to ravage its borders. But the valour of Theodore Lascaris triumphed over this enemy also. In the battle of Antioch-on-Maeander he slew Sultan Kaikhosru with his own hand in single combat, and the Turks were beaten back with such slaughter that they left the empire alone for a generation.

Meanwhile a third Greek state had sprung into existence in the far West. Michael Angelus, a cousin of Alexius III. and Isaac II., put in a claim to their heritage, though he was disqualified by his illegitmate birth. He was recognized as ruler by the cities of Epirus, and proclaimed himself "despot" of that land. Raising an army among the warlike tribes of Albania, he maintained his position with success, and discomfited the Franks of Athens and Thessalonica when they took arms against him. He died early, but left a compact heritage to his brother Theodore, who succeeded him on the throne, and within a few years conquered the whole of the Frank kingdom of Thessalonica.

It was soon evident that there would be a trial of strength between the two Greek emperors who claimed to succeed to the rights of the dispossessed Angeli. The Latin Empire was obviously destined to fall before one of them. The only doubt was, whether the Epirot or the Nicene was to be its conqueror. This question was not settled till 1241, when the two powers met in decisive conflict.

By this time Theodore Lascari had been succeeded in Asia by his son-in-law John Ducas, and Theodore of Thessalonica by his son John Angelus. At Constantinople the succession of Latin emperors had been much more rapid. Henry of Flanders had died in 1216; he was followed by Peter of Courtenay, who was slain by the Epirots in less than a year. To him succeeded Robert his son, and when Robert died in 1228 his brother Baldwin II., reigned in his stead. The young Courtenays were both thoroughly in-capable, and saw their empire melt away from them till nothing was left beyond the walls of Constantinople itself.

John III. of Nicaea was an excellent sovereign, a very worthy heir to his gallant father-in-law. Not only was he a good soldier and an able administrator, but by constant supervision and strict frugality he had got the financial condition of his empire into a more hopeful condition—a state of things which had never been seen in Romania since the time of John Comnenus, a hundred years before. In 1230 the troops of Nicaea crossed into Europe, and drove the Franks out of Southern Thrace, while in 1235 John Ducas laid siege to Constantinople itself. But the time of its fall was not yet arrived, and when a Venetian fleet approached to succour it the Emperor was constrained to raise the siege.

Recognizing that Constantinople was not yet ripe for its fall, John Ducas resolved to measure himself with his rivals the Angeli of Thessalonica. He beat their forces out of the field, and laid siege to their capital in 141. Then John Angelus engaged to resign the title of emperor, call himself no more than "despot of Epirus," and to acknowledge himself as the vassal of the ruler of Nicaea. This satisfied Ducas for a time, but when Angelus died, four years later, he seized Thessalonica and united it to the imperial crown. The heir of the Angeli escaped to Albania and succeeded in retaining a small fraction only of his ancestral dominions [1246].

John Ducas died in 1254, leaving the throne of Nicaea to his son Theodore II., who bid fair to continue the prosperous career of his father and grandfather. He drove the Bulgarians out of Macedonia, and penned the Albanians into their hills. But he became subject to epileptic fits, and died after a reign of only four years, before he had reached the age of thirty-eight [1258].

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


This was a dreadful misfortune for the empire, for John Ducas, the son and heir of Theodore, was a child of eight years, and minorities were always disastrous to the state. We have seen in the history of previous centuries how frequently the infancy of a prince led to a violent contest for the place of regent, or even to a usurpation of the throne. The case of John IV. was no exception to the rule; the ministers of his father fought and intrigued to gain possession of the helm of affairs, till at last an able and unprincipled general, named Michael Paleologus, thrusting himself to the front, was named tutor to the Emperor, and given the title of "Despot."

Michael was as ambitious as he was unscrupulous. The place of regent was far from satisfying his ambition, and he determined to seize the throne, though he had steeped himself to the lips in oaths of loyalty to his young master. He played much the same game that Richard III. was destined to repeat in England two centuries later. He cleared away from the capital the relatives and adherents of the little prince, placed creatures of his own in their places, and conciliated the clergy by large gifts and hypocritical piety. Presently the partisans of Michael began to declaim against the dangers of a minority, and the necessity for a strong hand at the helm. After much persuasion and mock reluctance the regent was induced to allow himself to be crowned. From that moment the boy John Ducas was thrust aside and ignored: ere he had reached the age of ten his wicked guardian put out his eyes and plunged him into a dungeon, where he spent thirty years in darkness and misery.

The usurpation of Michael tempted all the enemies of the Greek Empire to take arms. The Epirot despot allied himself with the Frankish lords of Greece, and their united armies, aided by auxiliaries from Italy, invaded Macedonia; moreover the Latin emperor of Constantinople stirred up the Venetians to ravage his neighbours' borders. But in 126o the troops of Michael won, over the allied armies of the Franks and Epirots, the last great victory that a Byzantine army was ever destined to achieve. The field of Pelagonia decided the lot of the, house of Paleologus, for Michael's enemies were so crushed that they could never afterwards make head against him.

Freed from all danger from the West, Michael was now able to turn against Constantinople, and complete the reconstruction of the empire. The city was ripe for its fall, and Baldwin of Courtenay had long been awaiting his doom.

The long reign of the last Latin sovereign of Constantinople is sufficiently characterized by the fact that Baldwin spent nearly half the years of his rule outside the bounds of Romania, as he wandered from court to court in the West, striving to stir up some champion who would deliver him from the inevitable destruction impending over his realm. He gained little by his tours, his greatest success being that, in 1244, he got from St. Louis a considerable sum of ready money in acknowledgment of the liberality with which he had presented the holy king with a choice selection of relics, including the rod of Moses, the jawbone of John the Baptist, and our Lord's crown of thorns.

In 1261 Baldwin was in worse straits than ever. He was stripping off the lead of his own palace rood to sell it for a few zecchins to the Venetians, and burning the beams of his outhouses in default of money to buy fuel. His son and heir was in pawn to the Venetian banking firm of the Capelli, who had taken him as the only tangible security that could be found for a modest loan which they had advanced to the imperial exchequer. With the government in such a desperate condition there was no longer any power of resistance left in Constantinople. When the Venetian fleet, the sole remaining defence of the empire, was away at sea, the city fell before a sudden and unpremeditated attack, made by Alexius Strategopulus, commander in Thrace under the emperor Michael.

Alexius, with eight hundred regular troops and a few scores of half-armed volunteers, was admitted by treachery within the walls. Before this formidable array the heirs of the Crusaders fled in base dismay, and the Empire of Romania came to an inglorious and a well-deserved end.

Its monarch resumed his habitual mendicant tours in Western Europe, and never ceased to besiege the ears of popes and kings with demands for aid to recover his lost realm. At last Baldwin passed away: his sole memorial is the fact that he made a distressed and itinerant emperor in search of a champion, one of the stock figures in the Romances of his day. No one in Western Europe was ignorant of his tale, and he survives as the prototype of the dispossessed sovereigns of fifty legends of chivalry.