The tragedy of the Hellenic Republic can best be encapsulated by an empire that for a brief period shone brightly, while fighting fellow Hellenes and circling vultures. The Hellenic world since the 1100s has seen many internal wars rather than concentrate on important matters such as the growing Seljuk/Ottoman power and the sustained Bulgarian threat. Such was the malaise and mind set of Hellenes that even in recent times they were plagued with internal problems, notably the treacherous Venizelos vs King disputes, Civil War of 1946 – 1949, the Junta 1967 – 1974.
The Empire of Nicaea, as I will explain, came about from treacherous circumstances in 1204 and would spend the next few decades fighting fellow Hellenes before reclaiming Constantinople in 1261, thus reunifying the fragmented Byzantine Empire.
In 1185, Byzantium was the biggest power in the world, just. Their currency and gold standard was the equivalent of the American Dollar. Their territory straddled two continents and oceans. Their military, though in decline remained a potent force. If you visit Asia Minor, Athens, Peloponnese, Bulgaria for example, you can find many Byzantine churches from this era, indicative of Byzantine wealth and influence. Most importantly, there had been a massive interest in the classics during the century before with Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and Xenephon gaining attention. At this point, the Angeloi Clan came to power and proved to be some of the most incompetent in world history.
The navy was allowed to wither to thirty galleys. A series of ill fated battles took place against Bulgarians and Normans, while simultaneously causing tensions with the Crusaders of 1190 who crossed their territory on their way to the Holy Land. This was an era with a series of emperors being deposed, leaving the leadership of the Empire vulnerable.
With the Fourth Crusade called to fight Egypt, Crusaders made a stop at Constantinople, against the express wishes of Pope Innocent. Boniface of Montferrat and Philip of Swabia were in charge of these foul looking Crusaders. Their brother in law happened to be Alexios Angelos, one of the deposed emperors’ sons. He offered a significant amount of silver and reunification of the Orthodox Church with Rome if they provided him with support.
Against a large Crusading fleet, the emperor Alexios III panicked and fled, allowing Alexios to be installed ruler along with his father, former emperor, Isaac. Unable to keep their promises to the Crusaders, they were in turn deposed by Alexios V and by 13 April, 1204, Constantinople was given over to the Latin ratbags.
The pillaging and destruction that followed was immense. Civilisation was thrown to the wolves when the Crusaders set about systematically destroying the structure and wealth of the city that had kept Barbarians as well as Arab, Persian and Seljuk invaders out of Europe. Their ransacking was possibly the worst atrocity ever committed against such a large city, the biggest in the world. By weakening the city, Europe and the Balkans in particular stood little chance when the Ottomans eventually invaded the continent.
The loss of Constantinople allowed three Greek empires to emerge. Trebizond on the Pontus of the Black Sea and the Despotate of Epiros. The other became Nicaea in Asia Minor.
Theodore Lascaris was proclaimed emperor of Byzantium as the Crusaders unleashed their fateful destruction. He fled to Nicaea. Of all the Byzantine splinter empires, this was the most legitimate in the sense the Emperor had been proclaimed in Constantinople.
Lascaris struggled initially militarily, defeated by Henry of Flanders in Prusa (modern Bursa). However, in true Hellenic style he bounced back with a series of victories that took most of North West Asia Minor. Some of the great cities in the empire included Smyrna and Philadelphia (the last Anatolian city to fall to Ottomans, 1390). Nicaea itself was a wealthy city with well designed roads and had become a gateway for international commerce and merchants, sixty kilometres from Constantinople.
It took six years for Lascaris to proclaim himself as emperor of Nicaea. When he did, it was to deliver the path to Constantinople as he built up the military and strength of his empire in ‘exile.’ In 1211 he defeated the Suljuk Turks, only to be defeated shortly after by Latin traitors. He died in 1222 having succeeded in marking out his empire and naming a Patriarch of Constantinople, in exile.
His son-in-law John III Ducas Vatatzes succeeded him and defeated the Latins and some traitorous Hellenic royals in battle at Poimanenon. This was a milestone result as he gained the Latin Asian possession.
Until the invasion of Anatolia by the Mongols two decades later, Vatatzes concerned himself with making inroads wherever possible at the expense of the Latin enemies, and keeping watch over the Seljuks. An aborted attempt on Constantinople was made in 1235, ending when partners Bulgaria withdrew; paid off with stolen Byzantine gold.
The Mongols in 1242 comprehensively defeated the Seljuks, allowing Vatatzes to annihilate the Bulgarians in 1246, regaining Macedonia and most of Thrace. He died in 1254, succeeded by his son Theodore II Lascaris who held the empire competently until passing in 1258.
Succeeded by the infant John IV Lascaris, Nicaea was now within touching distance of reunifying the Byzantine Empire against a rapidly declining Latin resistance. The general Michael Paleologos was named regent for the new Emperor and in 1259 defeated an invasion of Manfred, the Epirotans and Latin forces.
1261 proved to be one of the great years for Hellenic history. The city of Constantinople was recaptured almost by accident, restoring the full empire of Byzantium. Michael had sent his able general Alexios Strategopoulos on a reconnaissance mission to prepare for a siege. His men discovered that the Latin garrison had foolishly been sent out to besiege another city in the Black Sea. With the support of allies in the city including the Genoans, his forces were let in on 25 July, resulting in a massacre of Venetian military and government officials as a reprisal for 1204.
When Michael returned triumphantly on 15 August, it was the end of the Empire of Nicaea. There have been few empires in history that have ‘retired’ gracefully and in such a winning manner. Not even the mighty Sparta could have achieved such a fitting end. If you discount the Alexandrian empire, which was broken up by the Diadochi, this is the only Hellenic empire to have succeeded in doubling its territory by the end of its lifespan.
However, the great achievement of Nicaea can be examined in the context of Epirotan Pyrrhus as a somewhat hollow victory. Constantinople had been stripped of its wealth and lost a large chunk of its population. The damage inflicted by fellow “Christians” to a city that was the bulwark against Seljuk/Ottomans was too great to completely repair. The ungrateful West never appreciated the role Constantinople played to keep ferocious invaders out of Europe. Therefore, despite the brilliance of Nicaea in Hellenic history, the end of Byzantine glory was on the horizon.
Another interesting aspect of Nicaea is the way it tapped into Hellenism. The concept of Hellenism and nationalism had emerged in the 1100s; now the empire was using this as a rallying call based around the Greek language and Orthodox religion. Lascaris had likened the battle against Seljuk forces as that of Christianity vs Islam, possibly the first time that Byzantine Hellenes had felt that way.
Historians from the era, including Choniates, compare Suljuk commanders with Xerxes and the Persians visa vis the great ancient battles. Theodore II Lascaris went further, comparing Alexander the Great and the victories of his father Vatatzes. The path to Hellenic nationalism was being set in an empire that resided in Asia Minor. It is a pity that along the way, Hellenic empires simply fought each other. A sad pointer to what was to come when the Byzantine Empire was reunified and crumbled.
Europe and Germany, you owe us more than just money, you owe us for the protection afforded by Byzantium and Nicaea for centuries.