Author Topic: A Forgotten Realm: The Empire of Trebizond  (Read 5923 times)


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A Forgotten Realm: The Empire of Trebizond
« on: September 08, 2017, 11:18:00 PM »
A Forgotten Realm: The Empire of Trebizond
By Jubal

The Byzantine World by 1265: Trebizond can be seen on the east of the map
There’s something enticing about the very name of the Empire of Trebizond – it flows off the tongue, and conjures images of the far-away and forgotten past (images familiar to any readers of Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond). There is, however, a lot more to the late Byzantine state of Trebizond than the dreams of occasional early twentieth century travellers and romantics – whilst this fascinating realm was never very large, it lasted an impressive 250 years as a Greek-speaking post-Roman state perched on the northeastern coastline of Anatolia.

The Empire was founded by two grandsons of the deposed Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I, a mercurial character whose life mostly involved sleeping and fighting his way around and beyond the Byzantine world and whose usurpation of the throne in 1182 led to a brief, bloody three year reign that culminated in his being physically ripped apart by the Constantinopolitan mob. His two grandsons, David and Alexios, grew up in Georgia thanks to their relation to the Bagrationid royal family there, and in 1204, with the unstable reigns of the Angelos dynasty in collapse, they launched a campaign against the tottering Empire.

It’s a point of debate what David and Alexios wanted to achieve in the Empire, with scholars split between those who think a breakaway principality was the goal versus those who suspect that they hoped to use of the political turmoil to seat Alexios on the Imperial throne. Turmoil it certainly was - they must have initially intended the campaign to be against the Angeloi rulers, but whilst their campaign was underway the Latin forces of the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople, creating an unstable Catholic principality around the city and an even more unstable power vacuum in which multiple claimants vied for the throne. Either way, David spearheaded a rapid campaign along the north Anatolian coast backed up by Georgian forces, which was eventually halted by a rival Imperial claimant, Theodore Laskaris, just a few days' march from Constantinople.

Many of these early gains, which alongside almost the entire south Black Sea shore included parts of the Crimean peninsula to the north, were lost over the next two decades. The Empire stabilised its borders in its eastern heartland (the area shown on the map above), shielded from other Anatolian rulers by the imposing Pontus Mountains and existing as a long, thin strip of land that was both trapped and protected between the mountains and the sea. This, for the next two centuries, was the Trapezuntine realm, a land where a patchwork of fishing, farming, and light industries like iron production were efficiently exploited to the benefit of the Emperors whose little string of ancient coastal towns formed the last testament to their family’s once world-encompassing ambition. These towns, along with a wide array of smaller villages and monastic communities, probably mostly communicated by sea; the rugged shoreline terrain cut them off from one another by land.

The Citadel of Trebizond today (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The jewel of the Empire was of course Trebizond itself, a vital trading port and fortress that linked the Black Sea inland to Armenia and Persia. Whilst the majority of the Empire’s economy, like in almost all medieval states, lay in extracting resources from the land, Trebizond’s status as a trading centre was never forgotten by its rulers. They gained a good deal of useful revenue from regulating the city’s ports and markets, and navigated often tense relations with Italian merchants who had their own ports near the main city. The cult of Trebizond’s patron saint, Eugenios, was revived and patronised by the Trapezuntine rulers, who put the saint’s image on their silver coins in an attempt to bind their geographically fragmented realm together. So valued were these early aspers of Trebizond that imitations of the originals were being used in nearby countries even after the Trapezuntines changed their own minted coins.

Eugenios was, for inhabitants of the city, more than a distant figure of worship: the name was one of the most common to give babies born in the city, and numerous miracles attributed to the saint are recorded from during the period of the Empire. Alexios II, who ruled in the late 13th century, was later said (in a tale with echoes of Saint George) to have fought and slain a dragon with the saint’s divine help, up in the rugged mountains of the Pontus – and perhaps, for the Trapezuntines who dwelt in their high shadow, that might have seemed half plausible.

Coin of Trebizond: St Eugenios (L), Emperor John I (R) (Image: Barber Institute of Fine Arts)
In truth, dragon-slaying was far from the finesse needed from a Trapezuntine ruler. Their nearest co-religionists were the weak states of Georgia (its power shattered by the Mongols after the 1220s) and Byzantium (which never recovered to its pre-1204 glories), so the rulers of Trebizond had to play a delicate game of diplomacy with the various Turkish rulers of the Anatolian plateau. Their greatest assets were often the daughters of their house, many of whom found themselves sent to marry a suitable Turkish or Georgian prince and secure one vital alliance or another. They were consummate survivors, and though their forces and fortresses saw regular action their preferred weapons were always a bridal bed and a chest of coin. They survived the Mongol invasions, the Black Death, Timur the Lame, and over two centuries of the divided, fractious politics of northeastern Anatolia; an impressive feat for a realm so precariously balanced between land and sea.

It was after the rise of the Ottoman sultans that the days of Trebizond’s independence became truly numbered. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, Trebizond’s position was more dependent than ever on a fragile network of alliances with the remaining independent rulers of northeastern Anatolia. In 1460 the Ottoman vassal-rulers of southern Greece, members of the Byzantine Palaiologan family, had their territories annexed; in the same year, John IV of Trebizond died, leaving his carefully constructed network of alliances between Turk, Greek, and Georgian alike to his younger brother David.

These alliances, however, proved no match for Sultan Mehmet II. In 1461 he revealed his goals by terrifying the Muslim ruler of Sinope, the best sheltered port on the southern Black Sea shore, into surrendering the city. Despite Sinope’s powerful fortifications and large garrison, no ruler wanted to be besieged by a Sultan who just seven years earlier had breached Constantinople’s famed triple wall for the first time in a thousand years. Mehmed then set his mind to the most dangerous of Trebizond’s allies, Uzun Hassan, the husband of David’s niece Theodora and ruler of the Aq Qoyunlu (sometimes known as the White Sheep Turks) who dominated much of what is now Iraq, Iran, and the southern Caucasus. Mehmed offered peace talks to the Aq Qoyunlu – but on the condition that Trebizond was excluded. Hoping this would be enough to isolate Trebizond, he headed for the city.

We will never know what would have happened if David had decided to fight (or if an assassination attempt on Mehmed, which may have been Uzun Hasan’s doing, had succeeded) – hoping to save his family, he surrendered the city in August 1461 on the promise of a pension and estates in Thrace. Mehmed took 800 children to raise as new Ottoman janissaries, and relocated and split the population to prevent further rebellion. David had tragically miscalculated. As the heirs of Rome, his family were too strong a potential set of figureheads to be allowed to remain alive, and Mehmed searched for a pretext on which to have them executed. In 1463, in Constantinople - the city his ancestors had failed to capture a quarter of a millennium before - the last ruler of Trebizond was put to the sword alongside his sons.

Trebizond is little known and little-memorialised, beyond vague references in The Towers of Trebizond and in a few somewhat obscure historical novels. This may be because it's one of those places in history that almost nobody today feels a sense of ownership over, thanks to the 20th century removal of the Pontic Greeks, many of whom were forcibly resettled in northern Greece. Nonetheless, it's always fascinated me, and I wanted the chance to introduce you to it as well. It's a setting of contradictions: tiny and yet an Empire, exploiting the land and yet facing the sea, proudly Orthodox yet navigating a world of Turkish Muslim politics. Such a rich, unusual balance of place, power, and culture perhaps deserves rather more attention than it has done in the past, and to be drawn out of the dreams of century-old novelists and into the imaginations of today. So, next time you want some history to read, or some inspiration to write, remember the little Empire of Trebizond clinging to its rocky coast. Who knows - there might even be dragons in the mountains above.
« Last Edit: September 14, 2017, 03:58:00 PM by Jubal »
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