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The Empire of Trebizond: Byzantine Offshoot of Great Power and Wealth

The Empire of Trebizond: Byzantine Offshoot of Great Power and Wealth

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The fascinating and exotic history of the Empire of Trebizond, which existed between the 13th and 15th centuries AD, is a great story. This empire occupied the southern coast of the Black Sea, and was formed following the sacking of Byzantine Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD. When Constantinople fell to the Latins, the Empire of Trebizond became one of the independent states or offshoots of the Byzantine Empire. Although the Byzantine Empire was later restored, after the recapture of Constantinople, the Empire of Trebizond was able to maintain its independence. It was the longest lasting Byzantine successor state and, believe it or not, outlasted the restored Byzantine Empire.

The Ayasofya mosque and bell tower (originally the Byzantine Hagia Sophia church of Trebizond) an ancient surviving structure in Trabzon, Turkey, the illustrious and powerful capital of the Empire of Trebizond.  (Alizada Studios / Adobe Stock)

The Ayasofya mosque and bell tower (originally the Byzantine Hagia Sophia church of Trebizond) an ancient surviving structure in Trabzon, Turkey, the illustrious and powerful capital of the Empire of Trebizond.  (Alizada Studios / Adobe Stock)

The Empire of Trebizond Rises After The Fourth Crusade

The foundation of the Empire of Trebizond (also known as the Trapezuntine Empire) is closely tied to the Fourth Crusade. Following the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 AD, and the subsequent failure of the Third Crusade in capturing the holy city, the Fourth Crusade was promoted by Innocent III, who became pope in 1198 AD.

Like the preceding crusade, the original aim of the Fourth Crusade was to capture Jerusalem. This time, however, the strategy of the crusaders was to first conquer Egypt, the heart of the most powerful Muslim state in the Levant, the Ayyubid Sultanate, before marching on the Holy Land. The capture of Egypt would not only eliminate the most formidable Muslim power in the region, but would also provide the crusaders with the resources they needed to hold Jerusalem in the long run.

For this strategy to succeed, the crusaders required ships to transport their army to the mouth of the Nile River. Therefore, they turned to the foremost maritime power in 13th century AD Christendom, the Republic of Venice, for help. At that time, the Venetians were led by Doge Enrico Dandolo. Although the doge was over 90 years old and blind, his mind was still extremely sharp. 

Dandolo saw the Fourth Crusade request as an opportunity that would benefit Venice greatly. In addition to reaping the spiritual rewards associated with the crusades, this venture would also ensure that prime trading privileges in Alexandria, one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, would be given to the Venetians. Thus, motivated by the prospect of spiritual and material gains, Dandolo was keen to seal a deal with the crusaders.

A deal between the Venetians and the crusaders was struck in April 1201 AD. In return for ships and provisions, the crusaders, perhaps overly optimistic, promised to return to Venice in a year’s time with an army of 33500 men, and 85000 marks. To uphold their end of the bargain, the Venetians had to shut down all their entire commercial operations for a year. Apart from ships that carried the troops, ships for the transport of horses, and galleys (to protect the transport ships from hostile vessels) had to be built as well. The crusaders, on the other hand, failed to keep their promise, as it became clear in the summer of 1202 AD that the promised army would not materialize. Instead of 33500 men, only about 12000 arrived in Venice.

The Fourth Crusade and foundation of the Latin Empire (1202-1204 AD), which gave rise to the Empire of Trebizond. (Kandi / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Fourth Crusade and foundation of the Latin Empire (1202-1204 AD), which gave rise to the Empire of Trebizond. (Kandi / CC BY-SA 4.0)

This presented a huge problem for both the crusaders and the Venetians. For the former, it was impossible to collect enough money for the Venetians, whereas for the latter, it seems that their investment was lost even before the expedition began. The shrewd Dandolo, however, came up with a solution – he would defer the payment in exchange for military aid against the port of Zara.

The port was once under Venetian rule, but had recently freed itself, and went over to the Hungarians. Although it would not be much of a problem for the crusaders to take the port by force, the Hungarian king had taken the cross, which meant that his lands were now under the protection of the Pope. Therefore, it would be wrong for the crusaders to attack Zara.

The leaders of the crusade had to choose between the threat of excommunication by the Pope, and the threat of not sailing at all from the Venetians. Whilst some wanted no part in the attack on Zara, the majority felt that the latter was the greater of the two evils and, ultimately, they decided to comply with the demands of the Venetians.

It was at Zara that the crusaders received envoys from Alexius Angelos, a claimant to the Byzantine throne. Alexius wanted the crusaders to help him gain the throne and promised magnificent gifts in return, including a large sum of money, troops, provisions, and the recognition of Rome’s authority by the Orthodox Church. Once again, there were those who were not inclined to attack fellow Christians. In the end, however, the view that a friendly emperor on the Byzantine throne would greatly support their cause prevailed, and the crusaders headed for Constantinople.

The crusaders entering Constantinople after it fell to the Latins in 1204 AD. (Eugène Delacroix / Public domain)

The crusaders entering Constantinople after it fell to the Latins in 1204 AD. (Eugène Delacroix / Public domain)

In June 1203 AD, the crusaders arrived in Constantinople, and by the end of July succeeded in taking the city. Alexius was crowned emperor on the 1st of August 1203 AD, but his reign was unstable right from the beginning. On the 8th of February 1204 AD, the emperor was murdered, and the Byzantines tried to expel the crusaders from Constantinople. By the middle of April 1204 AD, the Byzantines were defeated, and Constantinople fell to the Latins.

Baldwin IX, the Count of Flanders, was elected as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople. Despite the loss of Constantinople, the Byzantines were not completely defeated, and three prominent successor states were formed. Each of these states claimed to be the true successor of the Byzantines, and their ultimate goal was to recapture Constantinople. This was achieved by the Byzantine Empire of Nicaea in 1261 AD.

The coat of arms of the Empire of Trebizond. (Samhanin / CC BY 3.0)

The coat of arms of the Empire of Trebizond. (Samhanin / CC BY 3.0)

The Founding Family Of The Empire of Trebizond

Apart from the Empire of Nicaea, the two other notable successor states of the Byzantine Empire were the Despotate of Epirus and the Empire of Trebizond. The former was centered on the historical region of Epirus and was established by a branch of the Angelos family. The rulers of Trebizond, on the other hand, were known as the “Megaloi Komnenoi” (Grand Komnenoi) and belonged to the Komnenos family. This was a powerful family whose members occupied the Byzantine throne from 1081 to 1185 AD. The founders of the Empire of Trebizond, Alexios I, and his brother, David, were in fact the grandsons of Andronikos I, the last ruler of the Byzantine Empire from the Komnenos dynasty.

The origins of the Empire of Trebizond may have predated the fall of Constantinople in 1204 AD. In 1185 AD, Andronikos I was deposed and killed. His son, Manuel, was blinded, and possibly died of his injuries. Rusudan, the wife of Manuel, fled from Constantinople with her two sons, Alexios and David, to avoid persecution from the new emperor.

It is not entirely clear, however, as to where Rusudan and her children went after leaving Constantinople. One view is that they went to Georgia, as Rusudan’s father was the King of Georgia. Another view is that they fled to the southern coast of the Black Sea known as Paphlagonia, a coastal region that was the power base of the Komnenoi. There is some evidence to suggest that a semi-autonomous state was already established on the southern Black Sea coast before 1204 AD. For instance, at the end of the 11th century AD, the Trapezuntines were already minting their own coins, despite still being, in theory, part of the Byzantine Empire.

In any case, when Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade, Alexios and David adopted the traditional Byzantine title “Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans.” This meant that the rulers of Trebizond were claiming to be the successors of the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire. The Byzantines, incidentally, had long claimed to be the heirs of the Roman Empire, and therefore the Trapezuntine emperors were merely continuing the tradition of their predecessors.

Trebizond began striking its own coins at the end of the eleventh century, despite being theoretically still part of the Byzantine Empire. Here, a silver asper of John I Komnenos, Emperor of Trebizond (1235-1238) (The Barber’s Trapezuntine Collection / Barber Institute)

Trebizond began striking its own coins at the end of the eleventh century, despite being theoretically still part of the Byzantine Empire. Here, a silver asper of John I Komnenos, Emperor of Trebizond (1235-1238) (The Barber’s Trapezuntine Collection / Barber Institute)

Was The Empire Of Trebizond A True Empire?

The use of the title “Emperor” by the rulers of Trebizond was not a problem so long as Constantinople remained in Latin hands. When the city was recaptured in 1261 AD by Michael VIII Palaiologos, the ruler of Nicaea, this title became somewhat problematic. It took the restored Byzantine Empire and the Empire of Trebizond 21 years to resolve this thorny issue.

In 1281 AD, the Trapezuntine emperor, John II Komnenos, removed his imperial regalia before the walls of Constantinople, and married Eudokia Palaiologina, a daughter of Michael VIII, who was now the Byzantine Emperor. In return for John’s submission, the ruler of Trebizond was given the title “Emperor and Autocrat of the entire East, of the Iberians and the Transmarine Provinces.” This would be the title used by all subsequent Trapezuntine rulers until the empire’s end in the 15th century AD.

When the Empire of Trebizond was established, its rulers controlled the southern coast of the Black Sea from Sinope in the west to Soterioupolis in the east. This corresponds roughly to the modern Turkish provinces of Sinop, Ordu, Giresun, Trabzon, Bayburt, Gümüşhane, Rise, and Artvin. The first years of the empire saw a rapid expansion westward under David’s military leadership. Thanks to the victories won by David, the Empire of Trebizond found itself on the border of the Empire of Nicaea. 

These territorial gains, however, were short lived, as the lands to the west of Sinope were conquered by the Nicaeans in 1206 AD. The Trapezuntines were unable to hold on to Sinope for long either, as it was captured by the Turks in 1214 AD. According to some scholars, during the 13th century AD, the Empire of Trebizond was in control of the “Transmarine Provinces” or “Perateia,” which consisted of Cherson and Kerch, on the southern and eastern parts of the Crimean Peninsula, respectively.

The Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastry in the Macka district of Trabzon Province, Turkey, reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the existence of the Empire of Trebizond. (MBAYSAN / Adobe Stock)

The Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastry in the Macka district of Trabzon Province, Turkey, reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the existence of the Empire of Trebizond. (MBAYSAN / Adobe Stock)

Keeping the Empire Of Trebizond Alive

Even though the Empire of Trebizond was not very large and had many enemies who were keen to seize its territories, it was able to survive and prosper during the 13th century AD. The empire owed its survival and prosperity to several factors. For a start, the Pontic Mountains to the south of the empire made it difficult for invaders to attack from that direction, whilst marriage diplomacy helped the Trapezuntine emperors gain allies amongst their neighbors. In addition, the city of Trebizond prospered and grew wealthy due to its strategic position on key Middle Age trade routes. This was especially so from 1258 AD onwards, when the city became the western terminus of the Silk Road, following the destruction of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan.      

The Empire of Trebizond reached its zenith during the reign of Alexios II, who ruled from 1297 to 1330 AD. One of the projects of Alexios’ reign was the building of new walls for the protection of Trebizond. Much of the city was exposed to attacks from hostile forces, and the Turks had launched attacks on Trebizond from time to time since 1223 AD. Therefore, Alexios II decided to build new walls to protect the harbor and the lower city. The walls were later strengthened in 1378 AD. It has been suggested that, considering the resources spent on the construction of the walls, the Trapezuntine emperors were hoping to make their city look like Constantinople as much as possible. Today, however, the walls of Trebizond are crumbling, and the sections that have survived are now threatened by modern development.

The fortification plans for medieval Trebizond (modern Trabzon, Turkey). The walls and sites marked in red are still in existence today. (NeoRetro / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The fortification plans for medieval Trebizond (modern Trabzon, Turkey). The walls and sites marked in red are still in existence today. (NeoRetro / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Empire of Trebizond began to decline after the reign of Alexios II. The Turks, who had threatened the empire since its foundation, were growing in strength. In 1402 AD, the Ottoman Turks were defeated by the Timurids at the Battle of Ancyra. The Trapezuntine emperor, Manuel III, benefitted from this victory, as he was an ally of Timur. Nevertheless, the Ottomans soon recovered, and threatened Trebizond once more.

In 1442 AD, the Ottoman sultan, Murad II, attempted to capture Trebizond by attacking the city from the sea. Although the invasion was repulsed, the Ottomans made another attack on Trebizond in 1456 AD. This too was repulsed but many Trapezuntine prisoners were taken and a heavy tribute was exacted. Incidentally, between these two attacks, the Byzantine Empire had fallen, as Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 AD.

The penultimate Trapezuntine ruler, John IV, recognized the threat of the Ottomans. Fearing that Trebizond would suffer the same fate as Constantinople, he forged various alliances for the defense of his empire. When he died in 1459 AD, the throne went to his brother, David, whose wild schemes, including an alliance with Western rulers for the reconquest of Jerusalem, eventually provoked the Ottomans to launch their final assault on Trebizond.

On the 15th of August 1461, David surrendered to Mehmed II, a month after Trebizond was placed under siege by the Ottomans. Thus, the Empire of Trebizond, one of the last Greek claimants to the Roman Empire, came to an end.

Today, traces of the Empire of Trebizond, and the Byzantine period that preceded it, can still be seen in the modern city of Trabzon (Trebizond). The most notable of these are its ancient walls and its many Orthodox churches (some of which have since been converted into mosques, like the Ayasofya mosque pictured above).

Apart from the fact that the Empire of Trebizond outlived Constantinople by almost a decade, it is also known for being the last independent Greek state (until the Greek War of Independence in 1830 AD), a center of Christianity, and for its contacts with Western Europe, even whilst under Ottoman rule.

Top image: The Ayasofya mosque and bell tower (originally the Byzantine Hagia Sophia church of Trebizond) an ancient surviving structure in Trabzon, Turkey, the illustrious and powerful capital of the Empire of Trebizond.   Source:  Ilhan Balta/Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

References 

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