The consequences of the 4th Crusade and the creation of the Despotate of Epirus
The 4th Crusade was a hard blow for the already declined Roman Empire which begun falling apart, shortly after the fall of Constantinople, its religious, cultural and administrative center. A dark and unknown future was awaiting the inhabitants of the areas of the former Empire as the crusaders were marching unstoppable towards every corner and the local lords were unable to provide any serious resistance. The Roman Empire in fact, had been theoretically divided as early as of March 1204, one month before the Fall of Constantinople, with a treaty known as ‘Partitio terrarium imperii Romaniae’, between the Venetians and the Crusaders. With the coronation of Baldwin of Flanders as Emperor, in May 1204 the Latin Empire of Constantinople was born. Boniface of Montferrat, theoretically the leader of the crusade was handed the title of King, of a large state in Macedonia, with its capital in Thessalonica. In the meantime, a great deal of small duchies and principalities were created in the Greek mainland. Each of the nobles though, had to gain the lands attributed to him by force, as the local Byzantine lords were still resisting. In most of these areas the resistance they faced was weak. However, in Nicaea, Epirus and Trebizond, three states were created and they eventually came to be the strongholds of the Orthodox Greeks against the marching until then crusaders. Soon, Nicaea and Epirus began a race for the recapture of Constantinople.
After the fall of Constantinople, Michael Komnenos Dukas (son of sevastokrator John Dukas, grandson of Alexius I Komnenos) had placed himself under the command of Boniface of Montferrat. Soon though, he found refuge in northwestern Greece, where he rallied the local resistance against the crusaders. There, he created the state of Epirus, which, according to the treaty for the division of the Byzantine Empire had been handed to the Venetians. In the beginning, he acknowledged the Venetian supervision with a treaty, signed in 1210 but his intentions changed shortly afterwards. Exploiting the geographical isolation of Epirus and thanks to his diplomatic and military abilities, he managed not only to secure the existence of his state, but also to expand his dominion. Until 1215, he had completed the conquests of Thessaly from the crusaders, of Dyrrachium and Kerkyra (Corfu) from the Venetians and of Scodra from the Serbs. Even the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica was threatened.
The rise of Theodore Komnenos Dukas and his first military successes.
The death of Michael in 1215 –he was murdered in Veration by a servant while sleeping- did not cause instability problems. He was succeeded by his brother, Theodore Komnenos Dukas. Not much is known about his past. It seems that just before the Fall of Constantinople he placed himself under the command of Theodore I Laskaris and accompanied him in Asia Minor. There, he helped Theodore strengthen his power in the first years of the Empire of Nicaea, when its very existence was in risk. Soon, he was called by his brother to come to Epirus and Theodore of Nicaea gave his permission. There, he was ordered to defend the last remaining Byzantine lands in Peloponnese. The pressure of Geoffrey of Villehardouin and Otto de la Roche though was too hard and in 1212, Theodore was forced to surrender them the fortresses of Acrocorinth, Nafplion and Argos.
From 1215 and on, the new powerful man of Epirus continued his predecessor's work in the best way. His first aim was to recapture the second most populous city of the former Byzantine Empire, Thessalonica. From a strategic point of view he was planning to encircle the Lombard Kingdom, before he tried to siege the city which was protected by a large wall. With a quick campaign, he managed to conquer several cities and forts of strategic importance such as Ochrid, Pelagonia and Prilep, which belonged to the Second Bulgarian Empire.
After Henry's death in 1216, the barons elected as emperor his brother-in-law, Peter de Courtenay, who had married Yolande, the sister of Baldwin and Henry. At the time of his election he was with his wife in France. Having received the news of the election, he set out with her for Constantinople by way of Rome, where Pope Honorius III crowned Peter with the imperial crown. The ceremony was not held in St. Peter’s, where the Western Emperors, beginning with Charlemagne and Otto I, had been crowned, but in San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, wishing to emphasize the fact that the Empire of Romania in the East was not the Empire of Rome in the West. It was a clear indication of the lesser prestige held by the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, compared to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
From Italy Peter sent his wife, Yolande, by sea to Constantinople; he and his troops, numbering 160 knights and 5500 infantry, sailed across the Adriatic and landed near Dyrrachium, hoping to reach the capital by land. In order to confront this threat, Theodore used contingents of light infantry. He ambushed Peter in the mountains between Dyrrachium and Ochrid, defeated him and captured him. The sources are not clear about Peter’s future. He probably died in Byzantine captivity. Meanwhile, the widow of Peter, Yolande, who had reached Constantinople, governed the Empire for the two years before her death (1217-19). The death of Peter de Courtenay must be regarded as the first attack of the Despotate of Epirus, that is to say, of the western Hellenic center, upon the Latin newcomers to the Balkan Peninsula. Latin sources used the news of Peter’s death as a good justification to point out the brutal and uncivilized nature of the new Epirote Despot. However, the involvement of Theodore in Peter’s death is not only unproven but doubtful as well. The Epirote Despot could have used the captured Latin Emperor as a means of diplomatic pressure towards the West and the Latin Empire or he could have asked for a large ransom that the West could have definitely afforded. Whatever the cause of Peter’s death, Theodore preceded with his plans.
The conquest of Thessalonica
He then turned his attention to the North, towards the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica whose King, Boniface of Montferrat, had been killed in 1207 in a battle against the Bulgarians. After his death, troubles and strife raged in the kingdom. As long as the energetic Latin Emperor, Henry, was alive, he could defend Thessalonica against its two most menacing foes, Bulgaria and Epirus. But after the death of Henry and of the new Latin Emperor, Peter de Courtenay, the Kingdom of Thessalonica was unable to resist the aggressive policy of Theodore of Epirus. By 1223 the encirclement of the city was complete and the fall of the city to the Epirotes was a matter of time. The siege of Thessalonica was thus started with the best odds. The only reinforcements for the city came in the form of a small unit which arrived from the sea. The “crusade” which Pope Honorius had declared was delayed.
In December of 1224, the garrison of Thessalonica was forced to surrender, after two years of siege, which could have been avoided if Theodore had also encircled the city from the sea. It's worth mentioning that after the surrender of the city, Theodore treated the garrison and the clergy with kindness and respect, something that even the Pope commented on positively.
The coronation of Theodore as Emperor of the Romans
In the summer of 1225, news reached Theodore that the ‘crusade’ of Pope Honorius III had begun. Italian forces, led by Guilleme of Monferance landed on Almyros, in Thessaly with the aim to march against Thessalonica itself. However, the threat was soon gone, when Guilleme of Monferance as well as a large number of his force died of dysentery.
Theodore Komnenos Dukas was now free to realize his aspirations and be proclaimed Emperor of the Romans in Thessalonica. Indeed, the large city, due to its history, prestige and of its size was suited not only as the capital of the Epirote state but also as the seat of the Emperor. The council and the nobility was moved to Thessalonica and the role of the former capital, Arta, was downgraded.
The question of who should crown Theodore at Thessalonica was next raised. The metropolitan of Thessalonica declined the honor, unwilling to violate the rights of the Greek patriarch, who was then living at Nicaea and had already crowned John Vatatzes. Accordingly Theodore turned to another hierarch, who was independent of the Orthodox patriarch of Nicaea, namely, to the autocephalous (independent of archiepiscopal or patriarchal jurisdiction) archbishop of Ochrida and of “all Bulgaria,” Demetrius Chomatenus (Chomatianos), whose works, the letters in particular, have great interest for the history of the epoch. He crowned and anointed Theodore who “put on the purple robe and began to wear the red shoes,” distinctive marks of the Byzantine basileus. One of the letters of Demetrius Chomatenus shows that the coronation and anointment of Theodore of Epirus was performed “with the general consent of the members of the senate, who were in the west (that is, on the territory of the state of Thessalonica and Epirus), of the clergy, and of all the large army. Another document testifies that the coronation and anointment were performed with the consent of all the bishops who lived “in that western part.” Finally, Theodore himself signed his edicts (chrysobulls) with the full title of the Byzantine Emperor: “Theodore in Christ God Basileus and Autocrat of the Romans, Ducas.”
Basically, after the coronation of Theodore in Thessalonica, there were four Empires in the areas of the former Roman Empire: the Latin Empire of Constantinople and the Empires of Nicaea, Trebizond and Thessalonica. It's also worth mentioning that the Bulgarian Tsar had Imperial ambitions as well and he wished to create a Greco-Bulgarian Empire with Constantinople as his capital. The Emperors of the Greek Empires were basing their legitimacy in more or less the same ideologies. But only the recapture of Constantinople would be the undeniable criterion of legitimacy of the Imperial title of the leader who would manage to be crowned in Hagia Sophia.
The plans against Constantinople and the Battle of Klokotnitsa
Theodore was well informed and begun creating his plans for the campaign against Constantinople. The Latin Empire was in decline and it was a matter of time before it would fall to one of its powerful neighbors. The Epirote leader wouldn't waste the chance. After his coronation, he marched against Eastern Macedonia and South Thrace. He captured Christopolis, Volero, Xantheia, Mosynopolis, Gratianopolis and Didimoteichon. From there it was strategically logical to move north, to Adrianople, which controls the entrance to the Thracian plains from the northwest and which was in addition the last important stronghold before Constantinople itself.
In Adrianople, an incident representing of the rising ideological conflict between Epirus and Nicaea as about to happen. When the Epirote Army arrived in the city, it found the city having surrendered to a force which was sent by Emperor Johhn III Vatatzes of Nicaea. The latter wished to create a foothold in Europe in order to become able to lay a siege on Constantinople. In addition, his interest for Adrianople was due to the fact that the city was the birthplace of the Vatatzes family. In the end, thanks to his fame as the liberator of Greek populations and by giving promises to the citizens, he managed to convince them to accept him as their overlord and send the Nicaeans away. Adrianople changed hands without a shed of blood, while the men of the expeditionary force of Nicaea received assurance for their safety. Everything was going smoothly during their department, until the leader of the expeditionary force, Ioannes Komnenos Kammitzes met with Theodore. He didn't dismount his horse in order to kneel before him according to the protocol. This fact was equal to a blatant dispute of Theodore’s Imperial authority and caused tension – the insulted Emperor almost went on to hit Kammitzes in defiance of his promise. It's worth mentioning that after his return to Nicaea, Kammitzeis was rewarded by John III Vatatzes.
Theodore was planning to strike the capital of the Bulgarian Kingdom, Turnovo. The Bulgarian Tsar immediately set out to face the enemy. The two armies met in Klokotnitsa, on the road towards Phillipopolis. The Epirote Army was had the numerical advantage and Theodore also had with him a mercenary Italian contingent. Ivan Asen II was basing his hopes mainly on the 1000 Cuman light cavalry that he managed to gather. Then, the invincible until then Theodore made a critical mistake. He underestimated his enemy and fought against him in open plains, even though the experience gained during the Komnenian era, had showed that the nomadic armies should be dealt with indirect strategies.
The battle which took place in 1230 AD had catastrophic consequences for the Epirotes. Unfortunately we don't possess a detailed account of the battle. However, by knowing the the tactics of the Cumans we may guess that Theodore, hunted down the Bulgarian and Cuman forces which, pretending to retreat, turned back and slaughtered the disorganized Epirotes with rains of arrows. After suffering huge casualties the Epirote army surrendered. Theodore and his officers were captured while the soldiers were allowed to return to their homes. Ivan Asen II showed respect towards Theodore, who remained prisoner of the now powerful Bulgarian Tsar.
The consequences of the Battle of Klokotnitsa
Shortly after his victory, Ivan conquered most of the Empire of Thessalonica. In a .. of few months, he annexed Thrace and a large area of Macedonia, capturing important cities such as Adrianople, Serres, Ochrid and even Dyrrachium. His dominion stretched from the coasts of the Black Sea to the Adriatic Sea and from Thessaly to Albania, in Greek, Albanian and Serbian lands..... Not all the Greek lands were conquered though. Thessalonica and its outskirts passed to Manuel Komnenos Dukas, brother of Theodore, whom Ivan Asen II allowed to return to the city and ...control of the areas that were still under Greek possession. In fact the Empire of Thessalonica was now a Bulgarian protectorate. Despite that, Manuel was proclaimed Emperor. In Epirus, Michael II Komnenos Dukas had been installed as governor since 1231 AD with the consent of his uncle Manuel. Michael would later imitate the Imperial ambitions of Theodore and pose a new danger for the Empire of Nicaea but to no avail.
Theodore remained in captivity for seven years and was unable to accept his defeat and fall. Thus, he plotted and tried to overthrow the Bulgarian Tsar. When the plot was discovered, he was punished with the penalty of blinding. He was finally set free in 1237 by Ivan Asen II, who after his wife's death, married Theodore's daughter, Irene who was famed for her beauty. His freedom though was probably attributed to political reasons. Theodore's ambitions were not dead. The aged lion as he was called, continued to influence things in the Balkans for the next ten years. He died some time after 1252, imprisoned in Nicaea, where he had gone after an invitation by John III Vatatzes and after he had been struck by another sad event, the annexation of Thessalonica by the Empire of Nicaea, in 1246 AD.
The alternative scenarios as to what could have happened if Emperor Theodore marched against Constantinople or if he won the battle of Klokotnitsa are many and very interesting. The decline of the Latin Empire was evident and its doubtful if it could withstand an attack of the Epirote forces but even then, the question remains: what would the Bulgarians and the Nicaeans, the other two contenders for Constantinople do, in case Theodore besieged it?
As a matter of fact though, the Latin Empire was handed a few more years of life, due to the inability of the Epirotes and Nicaeans to support each other. The ideological and political differences managed to divide the Greek medieval world until the defeat of Theodore in Klokotnitsa and the immediate fall of his Empire, shortly afterwards. From that point on, John III Vatatzes and his successors, with a steady policy managed to weaken the Latins and Bulgarians and at the end conquered the ultimate prize, Constantinople.
History of the Byzantine Empire - A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Kingdom of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus (1204-1261), 1898 - Antonius Miliaraces (Greek)
Concerning the Despotate of Epirus, 1895 - John Romanus (Greek)
The rise and fall of Theodore Komnenos Dukas (1215-1230), Article on the Magazine "Military History", 2006 - Hlias Nesseris