The Byzantine Empire II 1204 - 1268: The Nicean Empire

  By Invictus
  Category: Byzantium

1. Exile

In 1204 the Byzantines witness some of the darkest hours in history when the Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, was captured and looted by Westerners during the Fourth Crusade. The Byzantine government in Constantinople was destroyed and the Crusaders installed their own Emperor, and created the Latin Empire of Constantinople. However, the Crusaders did not conquer the entire Byzantine Empire. Western Greece fought back and remained free from Latin control. This area of land became known as the Despotate (principality) of Epirus. Another Byzantine successor state, the Empire of Trebizond emerged on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea. But by far the most important state, the one that would later restore the Byzantine Empire, was the Empire of Nicea, located in western Asia Minor.

Since the siege of Constantinople, Theodore Lascaris had distinguished himself as an able leader. After the fall of the city he led a small band of warriors into Nicea and established himself there its ruler. Theodore's vision was to reclaim Constantinople, but almost immediately after his establishment at Nicea, he faced an onslaught led by the Latin Emperor (of Constantinople) Baldwin. The Niceans were defeated at Poimanenon, but fortunately, Baldwin was forced to withdraw to deal with the Bulgars. Theodore's defeat did not lessen his men's moral. His willpower was more than enough to secure the loyalty of his subjects. In 1208 he officially assumed the title Emperor, and began building his new empire. Theodore made the Nicean government identical to that of the former Byzantine government and thus can be called a continuation of the Byzantine Empire that had fallen in 1204.

2. Rise to Power

In 1214, the Niceans finally received recognition by the Latins with the signing of a peace treaty. Eight years later Theodore Lacaris died and the throne at Nicea was passed to his son in law, John Ducas Vatatzes. Under John Vatatze, the seat of government was moved from Nicea to Nymphaeum, although the Nicea was to remain as the actual capital where the imperial coronations took place.

Meanwhile, the Latin Empire began to rapidly decline after the death of Emperor Henry in 1216. During this period, the Greek successor states grew increasingly powerful, and soon the Latin Empire was reduced to little more than Constantinople itself. Like how the Empire of Nicea rose in Asia Minor, The Despotate of Epirus became increasingly powerful in Western Greece. In 1224 it merged with Thessalonica, a recently formed independent kingdom, and officially became an Empire with the crowning of Theodore (a different Theodore than Theodore Lascaris) as Emperor. Thus, in the land of the former Byzantine Empire, there were now four emperors, one at Constantinople, Nicea, Thessalonica, and Trebizond. To make things more complex, the struggle was no longer the Greek successor states against the Latin Empire. The Greek successor states, once forged under a single cause, became increasingly dissatisfied with one another. The decisive move was actually played by a fifth power, the Bulgars.

In 1230, the Bulgar Tsar, John Asen, invaded Thessalonica and captured the Thessalonican-Epirus Emperor, causing the Empire to disunite into their former kingdoms of Thessalonica and Epirus. John Asen then made an alliance with John Valatze, and the two forces assaulted Constantinople in 1235. The siege ended unsuccessfully when John Asen betrayed the Niceans, thinking that a new Byzantine power would be far more troublesome than the existing Latin Empire. Just as John Asen withdrew from the siege, his capital was ravaged by a severe plague. The timing of the plague was so striking that it viewed as an act of god, and soon, John Asen was compelled to make peace with John Vataze.

The elimination of the power of Thessalonica and secured peace with the Bulgars removed a major obstacle to the Niceans' quest for supremacy. In 1241 Ioannis Vatatzis (John Vatazes) tricked the king of Thessalonica into Prison. Five years later, he rode into the Despot, and after promising its capital continuation of its rights, Thessalonica surrendered without a fight. The next thing he had to deal with was Epirus. Peace was arranged in 1249 and Epirus agreed to become somewhat of a vassal to Nicea. But when potentials for possible hostilities came about, Ioannis Vatatzis decided to take action. Epirus surrendered in 1253. One year later, Ioannis Vatatzis died and was succeeded by Theodore II Lascaris. Although Ioannis Vatatzis did not live up to his dream of recapturing Constantinople, he brought the Nicean Empire to such a point that recapture of the old capital seemed to be a matter of time.

By now, the Latin Empire had declined so much that the reason for its existence until this point was because the Niceans were too distracted by
other matters to attack Constantinople. Under the reign of Theodore II, the Nicean still did not have much chance to assault
Constantinople. In 1256, a misunderstanding of terms with the Bulgars caused bitter war, in which Thessalonica was severely attacked by the Bulgarians. A young general named Michael Palaeologus was sent to deal with this dilemma. Micahel achieved reasonable success and became popular to the military. However, his growing influenced made Theodore II upset and fearing Micahael growing popularity, he had the general recalled and brought to prison. This act created and uproar and Theodore II lost credibility. In 1258, Theodore became ill and soon died. Theodore's seven-year-old son, John Lascaris was to become the next Emperor, with George Muzalon appointed as the regent (substitutes the Emperor's position when the Emperor is too young to rule). However, Muzalon was immensely unpopular, and consequently, was brutally murdered. The Nicean throne was left empty, without an able ruler.

This was the golden opportunity for Michael Palaeologus to utilize his popularity. In a few months, Michael rose from being a prisoner to the title of Grand Duke. Shortly later, in November 1258, he was crowned co-emperor. Although the young John Lascaris was to remain on the throne as co-emperor, the de facto leader was clearly Michael.

The Nicean Empire, destined to re-conquer Constantinople, was back on its feet with an able ruler. But once again, the Empire was hindered in its goal. Shortly before Michael had taken the throne, Manfred of Sicily invaded Greece and conquered Epirus. Manfred formed an alliance with various local and foreign leaders and marched toward Thessalonica. This time, luck sided with the Niceans and Manfred's alliance quickly fell apart and was deserted by his army. His remaining men, a handful of knights were easily defeated by Michael.

3. Return to Byzantium

The recapture of Constantinople neared as virtually all oppositions to the Niceans were eliminated. The capture of the city was actually accidental. In 1261, a patrolling scouting party discovered that the Latin garrison at Constantinople was absent besieging a city in the Black Sea. At night, a handful of men sneaked into the city. On July 25, 1261, the gates of Constantinople were let open and the Nicean army poured in.

The Nicean Empire is remembered today as primary rally point for the Byzantine Empire during its exile. For nearly 60 years Constantinople was in authorities of Westerners, who during their rule, achieved nothing. Michael Palaeologus rode into Constantinople on August 15, 1261, as the proud Emperor of the new Byzantine Empire. But even now, with most of the former land restored, the Byzantine Empire at best was a ghost of its former glory. The wound caused by the Forth crusade would eventually prove too great to be healed.

Theodore I Lascaris....1208-1222
Ioannis III Ducas Vatatzis....1222-1254
Theodore II Lascaris....1254-1258
Ioannis IV Lascaris.........1258-1261
Michael VIII Palaeologus..1259-1282

Note: Ioannis (John) IV Lascaris was an official but powerless co-emperor along with Michael Palaeologus. After Constantinople was recaptured in 1261, Ioannis IV was forgotten in Nicea and dethroned by default. Michael Palaeologus became the emperor of the restored Byzantine Empire until his death in 1282.


1204....(April 9) Constantinople is captured by the Crusaders. Emergence of Successor states.
1208....Theodore Lascaris becomes Emperor at Nicea. Start of the Lascrid dynasty.
1214....Peace treaty between the Nicean and Latin Empire.
1222....John Vatazes becomes Emperor in Nicea.
1224....Epirus becomes an Empire and the primary contender against Nicea.
1230....Bulgars under John Asen invade Thessalonica.
1235....Bulgars and Niceans attack Constantinople. Bulgars withdraw from siege.
1246....Vatazes captures the Despot of Thessalonica
1253....Epirus surrenders
1254....Death of Vatazes and ascension of Theodore II Lascaris
1258....Death of Theodore II Lascaris and ascension of John IV. John IV's regent Muzalon is murdered. Michael Palaeologus becomes co-emperor.
1261....(July 25) Constantinople is recaptured by a scouting party led by Alexius Strategopulus.
1261....(August 15) Michael Palaeologus enters Constantinople to and becomes the Emperor of the restored Byzantine Empire. His dynasty, the Palaeologi, remains in power until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.