Reclaiming the Capital
“There was a time, a far distant time, when the Roman empire extended to the Adriatic, the Tigris, and the confines of Æthiopia. After the loss of the provinces, our capital itself, in these last and calamitous days, has been wrested from our hands by the barbarians of the West. From the lowest ebb the tide of prosperity has again returned in our favour; but our prosperity was that of fugitives and exiles; and when we were asked which was the country of the Romans, we indicated with a blush the climate of the globe, and the quarter of the heavens. The divine Providence has now restored to our arms the city of Constantine, the sacred seat of religion and empire; and it will depend on our valour and conduct to render this important acquisition the pledge and omen of future victories.”
– Michael VIII Palaiologos, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter LXII, Edward Gibbon (1776)
When Constantinople and its environs fell to the Latin Crusaders in 1204AD, many Byzantines fled to other parts of the Empire, and it wasn’t long before a trio of successor states had been established, centred on the regions of Epirus, Nicaea and Trebizond.
Each in their own way had a claim to being the “legitimate” Byzantine Empire. And for the next fifty-seven years they would fight both the Latins and each other in an attempt to establish supremacy.
From the beginning though, the Empire of Nicaea (as it is called by historians) had the strongest claim of all, being as it was so close to Byzantium itself and very much on the “front lines” of the war to reclaim it.
The Latins, for their part, struggled even as the momentum of their conquest brought more lands into the fold. The tide was destined to turn, and it did…
In 1261AD a general (Alexios Strategopoulos) under the command of the Emperor in Nicaea, Michael VIII Palaiologos, seized the city of Constantinople with just 600 men while the bulk of the Latin forces were away.
Thus the Byzantine Empire was restored. But it, like the capital itself, was damaged beyond repair. During the half-century of exile, what little remained of the once expansive empire had been eroded, conquered or partitioned; while the city of Constantine had been neglected and left to ruin. All that was left was a shadow…
And all the while, a new threat was growing. The Mongols, who had swept across the breadth of Asia under Genghis Khan and his successors, had smashed the old enemy of the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks. And in the aftermath of their destruction, an ambitious chieftain (or “Bey”) named Osman rose to prominence, and established what would become the Ottoman Empire.
Next part: The Final Decline and the Fall of Constantinople