Byzantine Alternate History Chapter X- The 2nd Bulgarian Empire Captures Constantinople, 1235

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 13th Century AD. This story will begin with real events that happened in real history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- 12th Century

It was Constantinople’s darkest hour- even perhaps, than that, two and a half centuries later, which was to see the city’s final fall to the Ottoman sultan.” -John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, on the 4th Crusade’s 1204 Sack of Constantinople


Welcome to the 10th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger! Last time in chapter IX of this 12-part series, I went over the events of the 12th century to identify what led to bringing the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire to its knees and what could be done to avoid such a fate which would take place in 1204 wherein the Byzantine capital Constantinople would be sacked by the army of the 4th Crusade thus leading to the fracturing and temporary loss of the Byzantine Empire in an instant. The previous chapter ended with the 12th century ending and 13th century beginning with all things in favor of the Byzantines with their alliance with Republic of Venice resuming and all threats to the empire systematically eliminated, therefore no catastrophic sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204. However, since the chapters of this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, this chapter will begin with the events of real history taking place, therefore the events of the 12th century still led Byzantium to a downward spiral that will culminate in 1204 when Constantinople itself gets attacked and captured by the army of the 4th Crusade assisted by the Republic of Venice. Before beginning the chapter, I just have to say that now being at chapter X, I have realized that I have now gone a very long way as this chapter is going to be the first part in the last leg of this 12-part series wherein we now move on to the late Byzantine era. Now, the 13th century would already begin terribly for Byzantium due to the corruption and ineptness of its ruling dynasty, the Angelos Dynasty that rose to power in 1185 when the nobleman Isaac II Angelos overthrew the previous Komnenos Dynasty and established his own and in his reign, the empire drastically fell into a chaotic period particularly seen when the Bulgarians who have been under Byzantine rule for almost 200 years rebelled and declared independence creating the 2nd Bulgarian Empire that would be there to stay. Though Isaac II was aware that his empire was in great trouble wherein a lot of these problems were actually caused by his own corrupt policies, he never succeeded in restoring order to his empire as in 1195 he was overthrown and blinded by his jealous older brother Alexios III Angelos who as the new emperor proved to be even more of an incompetent disaster than his younger brother. In the meantime, as political instability was brewing in the Byzantine Empire, over in Western Europe a new Crusade was called for by the new pope Innocent III in 1198 who once more convinced the nobles of Europe to take up arms and again depart for the Holy Land and recapture the holy city of Jerusalem which in 1187 fell back to Muslim rule as the 3rd Crusade in the 1190s also failed to recapture Jerusalem. Things would however only get worse for the Byzantines when both the Republic of Venice and the deposed son of Isaac II which was Alexios IV Angelos got involved in the 4th Crusade as Venice here under its ruler or doge Enrico Dandolo being Byzantium’s mortal enemy at this time was the one to provide ships to transport the Crusaders to the Holy Land while the arrival of Alexios IV who sought for help from the new Crusade to put his father back in power as well as himself would cause the Crusade to divert to Constantinople. Though Alexios IV was successfully put in power as well as his father, it came at a great price as Alexios IV was to offer a large debt to the Crusaders which he promised but could never fulfil, thus what resulted from this was a great disaster so unimaginable. In 1204, with Alexios IV and his father killed in a local Byzantine coup in Constantinople, the Crusaders and Venetians with a great desire for revenge and tired of waiting to be paid while camped outside Constantinople attacked it overwhelming the defending Byzantine forces and on April 12 of 1204, the Byzantine capital Constantinople itself fell to the army of the 4th Crusade followed by a brutal sacking, burning, and looting of the city that went on for days making this one of the greatest crimes committed against humanity.

Seal of the Latin Empire, established in Constantinople, 1204

At the end, the 4th Crusade never made it to their objective which was the Holy Land and instead took over Constantinople establishing their own Latin Empire in it, thus ending the Byzantine Empire at least temporarily. The leaders of the 4th Crusade including the Republic of Venice then carved up the fallen Byzantine Empire among themselves establishing their own Latin (Western European) states in what was Byzantine territory, in which all of these states including the Latin Empire of Constantinople collectively would be known as the Frankokratia or “Rule of the Franks” in Greek. The Byzantines however would manage to survive the fall of their capital in 1204 and due to the imperial family growing large as with the previous ruling Komnenos Dynasty intermarrying with a large number of the noble families of Byzantium, these noble families all related to each other would establish their own Byzantine Greek successor states in the remains of the old Empire. The 3 major Byzantine successor states established after 1204 included the small Empire of Trebizond in the far eastern corner of the Black Sea founded by the direct descendants of the Komnenos Dynasty, the Empire of Nicaea in Western Asia Minor not far from Constantinople founded by the Byzantine noble Theodore I Laskaris, and the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece founded by the relatives of the previous Angelos Dynasty. Out of the 3 Byzantine successor states, it was the Empire of Nicaea that grew to be the most successful among them that in only a span of a few decades, they would become the most powerful state in the area, although with a great amount of difficulty as most of the 13th century would see the lands of Greece, Thrace, the Balkans, and Asia Minor turn into a total warzone with Empire of Nicaea, Latin Empire, Despotate of Epirus, Seljuks of Asia Minor, 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and occasionally the new Serbian Kingdom at a constant war with each other over who would be the most dominant power of the area. Long story short, the Empire of Nicaea under the strong leadership of its emperors Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221) and his successor John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) turned out to be the most successful of these new states and true enough the legitimate successor of Byzantium, while the Latin Empire based in Constantinople did not last long as the Latin rulers that ruled it true enough never had any long-term vision to build an empire as they just captured Constantinople unexpectedly in 1204 only intending to loot it, thus the Latin Empire of Constantinople having weak rulers with a lack of vision and being neglected by Western Europe would only last for 57 years. It is then known in real history that even though the Byzantines lost Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204, the Byzantine Empire was only gone for 57 years as in 1261 the forces of the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea by surprise recaptured Constantinople from the Latins thus ending the 57-year Latin occupation of Constantinople and re-establishing the Byzantine Empire, although the new Byzantium would no longer be what it was before 1204 as the damage caused by the Crusaders’ invasion turned out to be beyond repair. Now, during this 57 year period between 1204 and 1261, the Byzantines being the Empire of Nicaea here could have actually taken back Constantinople before 1261 considering how powerful the Byzantine Empire of Nicaea turned out to be and how the Latin Empire at Constantinople turned out to be a failed state, and true enough there was one such event in 1235 wherein the forces of the Empire of Nicaea led by their emperor John III Vatatzes together with his ally then the 2nd Bulgarian Empire with their forces led by their ruler or tsar Ivan Asen II could have taken back Constantinople. However, the siege of Constantinople by both John III of Nicaea and Ivan II of Bulgaria failed as mistrust erupted between both rulers over the question on which of them would take Constantinople, while the walls of Constantinople still proved to be too impossible to breach as the Latins despite being outnumbered defended the city so bravely, therefore the Latins continued to hold onto Constantinople until they eventually lost it back to the Byzantines in 1261. Now the big question here is that if the siege of 1235 was a success with the Bulgarians being the ones to take over Constantinople, how would things turn out to be and would the Bulgarians hold the Byzantine capital for long?

Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this story is set in the 13th century after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

Map of the Division of the Byzantine Empire after 1204 with the respective flags and seals of post and pre-1204 states
The 4th Crusade and the Venetian fleet attack Constantinople, 1203-1204

Now the 13th century was true enough a very tragic, chaotic, and bloody time in the history of the Byzantine Empire as it saw a very unique scenario of the empire disappearing for a full 57 years from 1204 to 1261 and its capital Constantinople occupied and desecrated by western invaders which were ironically the Crusaders who were supposed to be holy warriors, but the 13th century too saw the Byzantine Empire rise up from the ashes and be restored while it also featured some of the most colorful characters in Byzantine history. However, even though Byzantium was restored it would no longer be a significant power anymore despite having 2 more centuries left to live on, therefore the 13th century was really the beginning of the end for Byzantium. This chapter will therefore be a very unique one in this series as this will be the only one where the main story which is Byzantium does not exist but rather the main story will be on the Empire of Nicaea which was the exiled Byzantine Empire from 1204 to 1261. On the other hand, the 13th century no matter how tragic it was for Byzantium was also a very interesting period as this was the time Byzantium being in exile as the Empire of Nicaea rediscovered its Ancient Greek roots thus beginning the birth of Byzantium’s Greek national identity, therefore this 57-year period gave the Byzantines the time to reinvent themselves as when their empire was restored in 1261, they became fully aware they were a Greek power compared to before 1204 when they saw themselves as more or less a multiethnic empire. The 13th century has fascinated me so much as well that in the recent special edition article I made in ranking the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, I ranked it at #4 while at same time, most of my Byzantine era Lego films that I made for my Youtube channel No Budget Films are set in the 13th century covering the events of the 4th Crusade in 1204, the Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople in 1261, and the final Byzantine-Latin conflict and the Sicilian Vespers Rebellion in 1282, while recently I have also produced and narrated a 3-part audio epic series on the 57 years of the Byzantine Empire in exile for my channel as well, though I’ll save the mentions of my 13th century Lego films and audio epics for later wherein I’ll link all of them, though this article too will feature some of the 13th century’s characters in Lego from my previous films.

Logo of my channel- No Budget Films

Now when writing this chapter for my 12-part Byzantine Alternate History fan fiction series, I have once again come across the century in the history of Byzantium that I have put a lot of attention to in my films, but this time I will be writing about the 13th century in a much different perspective as rather than just retelling history like I did in my channel, I am going to alter it this time by coming up with an entirely fictional scenario of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire taking over Constantinople in 1235, which in fact they almost did. As a matter of fact, the whole what if scenario of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of Tsar Ivan Asen II taking over Constantinople in 1235 was one of the reasons that led me to create this entire 12-part Byzantine Alternate History series as well as the what if for chapter I of this series. Both of these what if scenarios were then what led me to create this series while the other ones covered in the past 8 chapters were just thought of along the way, therefore since I have thought about writing this what if scenario of Bulgaria taking over Constantinople for a very long time now even before conceptualizing this series, this chapter is going to be a very special one. Now the time jump from the previous chapter to this one will be quite a short one as in fact some of the same characters from the last one, mainly the Angelos emperors will return here, although the largest difference in this one is that the events will start off with what actually happened in real history, therefore this chapter will begin with the Angelos emperors beginning with its founder Isaac II as an incompetent emperor in which he was remembered as such, while the rulers of his dynasty that followed him which were his older brother and son were in fact even worse than he was. This chapter will then show that the Byzantine Empire drastically changed from how it was in the previous 12th century as mentioned previously when it saw itself as the dominant power in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean under the rule of 3 consecutive strong emperors from the Komnenos Dynasty which were Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), John II (r. 1118-1143), and Manuel I (r. 1143-1180) to becoming a shameful shadow of its former self that had to suffer the humiliation of falling to the 4th Crusade in 1204, and the bridge between this time of greatness to a humiliating fate in 1204 would be the less than 20-year rule of the incompetent Angelos Dynasty (1185-1204). The fateful event of the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204 was hinted a number of times in the previous chapter but never did happen due to the plotline of the previous chapter being on how to avoid the fateful 4th Crusade from sacking Constantinople and also that the previous chapter was only limited to the 12th century, however in this chapter this fateful event of 1204 will come and go as well, as here for this chapter on the other hand, the main plotline will be on what happened after Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204. The climax for this story will then take place in the year 1235 when the exiled Byzantines as the Empire of Nicaea under Emperor John III Vatatzes allied with the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II had gained the upper hand and therefore were able to turn the tide of war and finally attempt to recapture Constantinople from the dying Latin Empire established there in 1204 with a very action-packed siege with some trickery involved. The twist then will be that in 1235, the allied Byzantines of Nicaea and Bulgarians would capture Constantinople ending the rule of the Latin Empire earlier than it was in real history, except that with an act of betrayal, Constantinople would instead fall under the rule of the Bulgarian Empire, although possibly not for long as in real history as well the Bulgarian Empire of Ivan Asen II too may have just seemed like a dominant power for a time as after Ivan’s death in 1241 the power of the Bulgarians declined, therefore allowing the exiled Byzantines in Nicaea to continue rising in power and influence. Eventually, the Byzantines also as the Empire of Nicaea under another emperor which was Michael VIII Palaiologos successfully recaptured Constantinople in 1261, and here begins the story of the restored Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologos Dynasty founded by Michael VIII which would rule the empire until its final end in 1453. This chapter however will no longer cover the latter part of the 13th century with the restored Byzantium under the Palaiologos Dynasty, but would instead only end in 1261, the same year Byzantium was restored in real history, although for an extra twist this story before getting to 1261 will actually have a secret ending that is true enough only fictional. On the other hand, since this topic of the lesser known 1235 Byzantine-Bulgarian Siege of Constantinople has fascinated me a lot, I also had the pleasure of writing an article for the Byzantine Real History site on this topic except this one is about what really happened in real history wherein this attempt to capture Constantinople from the Latins had failed, read the article linked below:

13th Century Lego films and Videos from my channel, No Budget Films:           

Louis de Blois: The Hidden History of the Crusade (2017)

Summer of 1261: A Byzantine Epic (2019)

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic (2020)

The 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile Part I (2020)

The 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile Part II (2020)

The 57 Years: Byzantium in Exile Part III (2020)

To set the stage for the confusing 13th century this chapter is set in, we will begin discussing in detail the catastrophic 4th Crusade in 1204 and its aftermath. The confusing part then happens after 1204 with the remains of the Byzantine Empire divided into various Latin powers established by the leaders of the 4th Crusade and Greek ones established by the surviving Byzantine nobility, though the trickiest part is about which of the 3 Byzantine successor states after 1204 which were the Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and Despotate of Epirus was the legitimate successor of the former Byzantine Empire itself.

Flag of the Empire of Nicaea (Byzantine Empire in exile, 1204-1261)

At the end however, it was really the Empire of Nicaea that proved to be the actual successor of the old Byzantine Empire as it turned out to be the largest and most successful of the 3 successor states, while it also was the one that from the very beginning was plainly existing in order to recover Constantinople one day, and true enough it was the one to recapture Constantinople and reestablish the Byzantine Empire in 1261 after eliminating all its obstacles. The Empire of Nicaea on the other was able to not only survive but grow thanks to the vision and persistence of its founder Emperor Theodore I Laskaris and his successor and son-in-law John III Vatatzes, and the second one John III would be the lead character of this story who happens to be one of Byzantium’s most underrated greatest emperors being a very rare example of a Byzantine ruler who was basically a Renaissance man, both a strong military man as well as very popular and in fact even well-loved by his subjects as he brought in an age of economic growth and military superiority despite his empire being one in exile, and in his 32-year reign, the Empire of Nicaea became a thriving one even when it all seemed like everything was lost.

John III emperor
John III Doukas Vatatzes, Byzantine emperor in Nicaea (r. 1222-1254), art by myself

At the same time, John III was one ruler with a great legacy as he started the Greek cultural revival among the Byzantine people in exile thus giving them a new sense of purpose, which therefore makes him be remembered as the “Father of the Greeks”. Although John III in real history died in 1254 just 7 years before Constantinople was recovered from the Latins therefore never seeing Constantinople being Byzantine again, he at least paved the way for the ultimate reconquest of 1261 by annexing the territory of the Empire of Nicaea into Europe, recovering the city of Thessaloniki, surrounding the Latins to Constantinople, and establishing good relations with neighboring powers in order to expand his empire at peace. In the meantime, as John III was expanding the exiled Byzantine Empire in order to recapture Constantinople, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire to the north was exactly doing the same thing given that Constantinople had fallen to the 4th Crusade which then gave the opportunity for the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire as well as its neighbor the Serbian Kingdom to expand, and for Bulgaria even more considering they had an ambitious ruler which was Ivan Asen II who was in fact intent to capture Constantinople for the Bulgarians, wherein here in this story he would in fact even make it the Bulgarian Empire’s new capital. All while the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and even the other Byzantine successor Despotate of Epirus was at a race with each other on whoever of them is first to capture Constantinople, the Latin Empire ruling from Constantinople was the one in trouble even if they have been around for just a very short time, and as you will see whether the Byzantines and Bulgarians together took back Constantinople in 1235 or not, the Latin Empire either way at the end turned out to be a failed state that was barely able to sustain itself, and that if Constantinople’s powerful centuries old walls could have been breached, then the Latin Empire would have just faded away in an instant, and true enough the Latin Empire ended that way in 1261 when a small Byzantine force found a secret way into the walls and at the dead of night regained their old capital. Now with all these happenings in the 13th century, especially with the Bulgarians, exiled Byzantines, and Latins in conflict with each other, you would see exactly the stereotypes of each other more and more evident with the Byzantines as wise and diplomatic but also scheming, the Bulgarians as unpredictable and savage, and the Latins as basically greedy and nothing much.

Flag of the Mongol Empire, the story of the 13th century

At the same time, a much larger threat far more powerful than any of these said powers was to arise from the far east of Asia, and this was the rapidly growing Mongol Empire, and true enough the 13th century too would be commonly remembered as the century of the Mongol Empire as it was here when the Mongols first came into the picture and expanded so vastly creating an empire that stretched from China all the way to Eastern Europe covering China, Russia, Persia, Central Asia, Asia Minor, and parts of the Balkans, and due to the rapid expansion of the Mongols, the Seljuk Empire of Asia Minor that had been for almost 2 centuries a threat to the Byzantines ever since their conquest of Asia Minor after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 as mentioned in chapter VIII of this series would be devastated and brought to its knees by the Mongols and so would the 2nd Bulgarian Empire after Ivan Asen II’s death in 1241. The exiled Byzantines however would be the ones lucky as they were spared from the expansion of the Mongols, and with their neighbors being the Seljuks in the east and the Bulgarians in the north devastated by the deadly attacks of the Mongols, the exiled Byzantines would grow and prosper, thus the Mongols can be the ones to thank for allowing the Byzantines to rise up again from the ashes and once more take back their capital. Now the larger stories of the 13th century which is that of the rise of the Mongol Empire and of the kingdoms of Western Europe is a whole different story altogether as this chapter’s story to be more straightforward is to be limited only to the story of the Byzantines and their road to recovery, although both the Mongols and the powers of Western Europe too will have a small part here. Before beginning, I would like to thank the Youtube channel Kings and Generals for providing detailed information on the 4th Crusade and the events that followed it which they covered in their recent videos, while I would also like to thank the artists (Ediacar, Spatharokandidatos, AlexiosI, Byzantinelegacy, HistoryGold777, Amelianvs, Giuseppe Rava, Kzvasilski, TimbukDrew, Slawomir P, Simulyaton, and FaisalHashemi) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the very complex 13th century.

Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (yellow), after 1261
Map of the Mongol Empire at its greatest extent, late 13th century

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- Preventing the 4th Crusade in the 12th Century

Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History (My Personal Best to Least)

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part II (1000-1461)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Lesser Known and Would be Byzantine Emperors (695-1453)

All Sieges of Constantinople

War of the Sicilian Vespers: A Byzantine Epic- Everything About the Film

A Brief History of the 9 Rulers of the Failed Latin Empire (from History Collection)


The Leading Characters: 

John III Doukas Vatatzes- Byzantine emperor of Nicaea (1222-1254)

Ivan Asen II- Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1218-1241)

Theodore Komnenos Doukas- Despot of Epirus (1215-1230)

Jean de Brienne- Senior emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople 

Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes- Son and successor of John III 

Elena Asenina- Wife of Theodore II, daughter of Ivan Asen II

Baldwin II Courtenay- Junior emperor of the Latin Empire in Constantinople

Michael II Angelos- Despot of Epirus, successor of Theodore Komnenos Doukas  

Andronikos Palaiologos- Grand General (Megas Domestikos) of the Empire of Nicaea 

George Mouzalon- General of the Empire of Nicaea

Michael Palaiologos- General of the Empire of Nicaea, son of Andronikos

Alexios Strategopoulos- General of the Empire of Nicaea

Background Guide: Byzantine (Nicaea/ Epirus) characters (blue), Bulgarians (green), Latins (gold). 

The Background- The 4th Crusade, 1204          


In 1195, the incompetent ruling Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos who had been in power for almost 10 years set off on a military campaign to finally defeat the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire which had formed 10 years earlier when the Bulgarians once under the rule of the Byzantine Empire rose up against Byzantine authorities declaring themselves independent due to the corrupt tax policies imposed on them by the emperor Isaac II.

Isaac II
Isaac II Angelos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1185-1195), art by myself

The Bulgarian subjects of the Byzantine Empire no longer wanting to pay taxes to the corrupt imperial court of Constantinople and wanting to be free of Byzantine imperial influence and returning to their old Bulgarian roots rebelled under two Bulgarian boyars or nobles named Asen who became Ivan I and Theodor who became Peter II when declaring themselves as the new rulers or tsars of the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire also known as the “Vlach-Bulgarian Empire”, as the first Bulgarian Empire was defeated and conquered by the Byzantines back in 1018 by the Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025). For the next 10 years following the Bulgarians’ declaration of independence in 1185, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos being at least aware that he caused this major problem of Bulgaria declaring independence due to his corrupt tax policies campaigned several times to crush the Bulgarian rebellion and return them once again under Byzantine imperial rule, but all attempts to do so failed. In 1195, Isaac II prepared one more campaign and this time it was to be a massive invasion of the new Bulgarian Empire to finally finish them off once and for all wherein he would be assisted by his ally the Kingdom of Hungary which would invade Bulgaria from the north, but at the end this campaign would never come to happen due to conspiracy.

Blinding of Isaac II Angelos, 1195

As Isaac II had already marched out of Constantinople to prepare his troops for battle in Thrace, he left his camp to go on a short hunting trip with his son Alexios for relief but while Isaac and his son were away, Isaac’s older brother who was also named Alexios usurped power by bribing the soldiers to proclaim him emperor, and when Isaac and his son returned to the camp, they were stopped and arrested while Isaac was blinded with a burning metal rod by orders of his older brother, thus Isaac and his son were brought to Constantinople to be imprisoned while Isaac’s older brother who had him blinded and imprisoned became Emperor Alexios III Angelos. Now the reason for why Alexios III deposed and blinded his younger brother remains mostly unclear but it can certainly be said that Alexios III was jealous that his younger brother was the one to become emperor instead of Alexios who was the older one, although Isaac II did not become emperor back in 1185 by blood but by a popular uprising against the former tyrant emperor Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) who Isaac II overthrew and the people lynched to death.

Alexios III
Alexios III Angelos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1195-1203), older brother of Isaac II, art by myself

The bigger reason however to why Alexios III usurped power from his younger brother was a well-planned conspiracy by the Byzantine nobility who began to feel that Isaac II who they initially backed in 1185 was no longer their intended puppet emperor as at first they believed Isaac II was someone easy to manipulate in order to tolerate the corruption of the nobility but as the years passed, Isaac II had after all turned out to be someone not too easy to manipulate as he did in fact act on his own decisions even if they were not made well while he had turned out to be popular with the people too, therefore the nobility wanted someone much easier to manipulate and this was Isaac’s older brother Alexios who was basically an incompetent degenerate with no interest in ruling. With Isaac II blinded and imprisoned in 1195, Alexios III now ruled as emperor and even though he really wanted the position his brother had, he only wanted to have it basically because he was the older brother and nothing more, and as emperor his rule had turned out to be far more incompetent and corrupt than that of his younger brother Isaac II thus making Isaac II’s incompetent rule look like a great one compared to Alexios III’s. As emperor, the first thing Alexios III did was to cancel Isaac II’s military campaign to finally crush the Bulgarian Empire once and for all as Alexios here needed the campaign money in order to generously bribe the aristocrats and people of the capital to back him and compensate them for blinding his brother as Isaac II was true enough still popular with the masses and him being overthrown upset them. Alexios III when ruling had shown clearly no interest in it leaving his wife Euphrosyne Kamatera and the corrupt aristocrats that backed him to run the government while Alexios himself indulged in pleasure also making the sale of government positions legal as Isaac II before him at least only tolerated it but did not make it legal. Due to Alexios III having no interest in ruling his empire, the Seljuk Turks of Asia Minor again raided Byzantium’s eastern border capturing a large amount of land while Alexios III did not seem to care much about it and in the north due to the campaign of Isaac II being cancelled, the Bulgarian tsars Ivan Asen I and Theodor-Peter had their way and resumed their raids again this time taking large amounts of Byzantine lands in Thrace for their empire, and again the emperor did not seem to care about his lands in Thrace being lost to the new Bulgarian power. In Bulgaria however, despite them gaining the upper hand against Byzantium, their tsar Ivan Asen I was assassinated in 1196 being stabbed to death by a Bulgarian boyar leaving his brother Theodor-Peter to rule alone, although Ivan Asen I here had a son also named Ivan Asen who would be the future ruler of Bulgaria but was however still too young to rule.

Henry VI, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1191-1197)

Back in Byzantium, as the incompetent and wasteful Alexios III was ruling, in the Christmas of 1196 the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI who was also the King of Germany and just recently made the King of Sicily- after the fall of the Norman Kingdom there in 1194- threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire if Alexios III did not pay a tribute of 5,000 pounds which here was an act of Henry VI avenging the blinding of Isaac II as Henry happened to be related to Isaac II in a far way with Henry’s brother the Duke of Swabia Philip being married to Isaac’s daughter Irene. Alexios III however despite his empire already in financial ruin due to all the wars with Bulgaria decided to pay this heavy tribute as he had no choice and so he had the tombs of the Byzantine emperors of the past at the Church of the Holy Apostles looted in order to find gold to pay this tribute while he also imposed a heavy tax on his people known as the Alamanikon or “German tax”. By 1197, Alexios III had raised enough funds to pay this tribute but luckily the Holy Roman emperor Henry VI died in 1197 before he could either collect the tribute or invade Byzantium, therefore there was no need to pay this tribute anymore so instead Alexios III used these funds to conclude peace again with the Seljuks in Asia Minor. Alexios III then again returned to indulging himself, appointing incompetent governors who were nothing but his favorites to administer the provinces, and allowing corrupt officials to sell of the sails and anchors of the deteriorating imperial fleet, and by being so uninterested, lazy, and even brainless as a ruler, the contemporary historian of this time Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) even mentions that Alexios III would sign any document given to him even if these documents were to agree to very stupid things such as sailing on land, plowing the sea, or even moving the mountains to the depths of the sea. In Bulgaria, their tsar Theodor-Peter in 1197 too suffered the same fate as his brother Ivan Asen I a year earlier as here Tsar Theodor-Peter was stabbed to death although under mysterious circumstances, and with both the brothers that ruled the new Bulgarian Empire dead, in 1197 they were succeeded by their younger brother Kaloyan who had turned out to be an ambitious ruler wanting to sever all Bulgaria’s ties with Byzantium and as a direct threat to the Byzantines, Kaloyan in 1198 entered into correspondence with the new pope Innocent III offering to acknowledge the supremacy of the pope and the Latin Church rather than the Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople, however Kaloyan was later only crowned as “King of Bulgaria” instead of “emperor” by a Papal Legate sent to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo.

Uprising of Theodor-Peter and Ivan Asen in Tarnovo, birth of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, 1185
Map of the expansion of the Bulgarian Rebellion and 2nd Bulgarian Empire (1185-1196)
Ivan Asen I (left, r. 1185-1196) and Theodor-Peter Asen (right, r. 1185-1197), brothers and co-founders of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire
The Byzantine Empire (purple) during the reign of Alexios III (1195-1203)

In 1198, the Italian Innocent III (originally Lotario dei Conti di Segni) was elected as pope at only 37 which was quite young for a pope although his young age also made him a very energetic and ambitious ruler, and the moment he was elected as pope, he already began making plans to launch a new Crusade to take back the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslim Ayyubid Sultanate. Now if you remember from the previous chapter, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem which was one of the 4 Crusader states of Outremer (the Levant) in 1187 fell to the new Muslim power which was the Ayyubid Sultanate when the city of Jerusalem itself was captured by this new sultanate’s founder and first ruler Saladin. Following the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, the 3rd Crusade was launched in an attempt to recover Jerusalem, however this 3rd Crusade by 1192 only partially succeeded being only able to recapture the Mediterranean coast from Saladin instead of the city of Jerusalem itself and with the armies of the 3rd Crusade at least successfully recovering the coast of Palestine, the 3rd Crusade ended with its leaders the kings of England and France returning to Europe again resuming war with each other.

Pope Innocent III, art by Slawomir P.

The new pope Innocent III however was someone who would not let the issue of not being able to recover Jerusalem pass and being the kind of pope who wanted to assert himself as the authority over the rulers of Europe, Innocent III immediately began laying plans for a massive 4th Crusade to finally take back Jerusalem now that Saladin since 1193 had died, therefore the pope sent word all across Europe encouraging nobles to take up arms and raise armies to depart for Outremer on a new Crusade. This new Crusade however would take a few years to fully come into action as the nobles called to lead it needed time to raise and prepare their armies while the more powerful kings of Europe turned out to be too busy to take part in a new Crusade as first of all the Holy Roman Empire fell into a succession crisis following the death of Emperor Henry VI in 1197, the King of England Richard I the Lionheart who led the previous 3rd Crusade had died in 1199 when at war with the King of France Philippe II his former ally in the 3rd Crusade, and now that Richard I was dead Philippe II of France in 1200 went into a full-scale war with England now ruled by Richard I’s brother John.

Map of Outremer at the time of the 3rd Crusade (1190-1192)

The pope meanwhile already came up with his plan on how to get the Crusaders to Jerusalem which was by first invading Egypt and from there the Crusader army would march north, as hearing from the previous reports of Richard I of England, Egypt was the more vulnerable part of Saladin’s Empire while it was too dangerous to attack from the coast of Palestine being much more heavily guarded. The Crusaders however had no easy way of getting to Outremer unless they got there by sea as a march by land that would pass Byzantine lands would take almost an entire year or more, while the kingdoms they came from had no powerful navies, and so they had to turn to the largest naval power of the Mediterranean at that time which was the Republic of Venice. The Crusade planned by Innocent III then only came into full force with a leader in 1201 and this leader was the Marquis of Montferrat Boniface of the Aleramici Dynasty who may have just ruled a small and insignificant state in Northern Italy, though he was still a very rich and influential noble. Meanwhile, as Venice was expecting a large Crusader army of more than 30,000 men as the Crusaders promised they would send an army of 4,500 knights, 9,000 squires, and 20,000 infantrymen while agreeing to pay Venice a total of 85,000 silver marks, the Venetians halted all their trading operations for an entire year in order to construct the most powerful fleet in the world to transport the Crusaders, considering that the Venetians had a way to mass produce ships even centuries before the Industrial era. In 1202 however, a Crusader army of only 12,000 arrived in Venice which was a lot less than expected as a large number of the knights and soldiers who were French did not trust the Crusade’s assigned leader which was the Italian Boniface, and so a lot of these French Crusaders skipped Venice and sailed to Outremer on their own through other ports in Southern France and Northern Italy. The Venetians though were angered that an army of only 12,000 arrived as they stopped their trading operations for a whole year to construct a large fleet to transport them and even worse for the Venetians, the Crusaders did not have the silver which they promised to pay Venice.

Enrico Dandolo, Doge of the Republic of Venice (r. 1192-1205)

The ruler or Doge of Venice at this time was Enrico Dandolo, who had been ruling Venice for 10 years now and was already in his 90s and blind but still very energetic and physically strong, and if you remember from the previous chapter Dandolo was one of the thousands of Venetians living in Constantinople that were arrested in 1171 when the Byzantine emperor then Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) declared war on Venice, and Dandolo here was not only arrested but blinded by the Byzantine authorities which then made Dandolo have a lifelong desire to have revenge on the Byzantines. With the arrival of only 12,000, the doge Dandolo came up with a solution for the Crusaders to pay up the amount they owed to Venice to transport them in order to continue the Crusade, which was to have these Crusaders attack the port of Zara in Croatia right across the Adriatic from Venice which was once a Venetian port but had been lost to the Kingdom of Hungary 20 years earlier in which they would use the looted wealth taken from Zara to pay up the Venetians. Most of the Crusaders either willing to push through with the long-awaited Crusade or wanting to take some wealth for themselves agreed to attack Zara even if it was under a fellow Catholic Christian kingdom which was Hungary while some did not agree with attacking fellow Christians and so those who did not agree backed out from the Crusade, though the Crusader attack on Zara was still carried out anyway. The doge Dandolo then made up his mind agreeing to set sail and join the Crusade himself despite his old age as deep inside he was intending to divert the Crusade to Constantinople and attack it out of revenge, and with Dandolo’s very encouraging speech, the army of the 4th Crusade doubled with an addition of 20,000 Venetian citizens taking up arms joining the Crusade as marines and sailors.

4th Crusade attacks and captures Zara, 1202

The Venetians and Crusader armies from different parts of Western Europe in 1202 then set sail for Zara which fell to them instantly after the Hungarian authorities of the city surrendered to them allowing the Crusaders to loot the city as long as they left its people unharmed. The pope soon enough discovered that the Crusade he planned true enough did not go out as expected as it attacked a fellow Christian city which was Zara and so the pope sent envoys to Zara with a letter threatening to excommunicate all the leaders of the 4th Crusade and Dandolo if they dare attacked Zara, however it was too late as when the Papal envoys came Zara was already sacked. The leader of the 4th Crusade Boniface of Montferrat only arrived to meet up with his men in late 1202 in Zara when it already fell to the Venetians and along with Boniface was a young Byzantine envoy which was no other than the imprisoned prince Alexios Angelos, son of the deposed and imprisoned emperor Isaac II Angelos. Now Alexios Angelos in 1201 had been smuggled out of prison in Constantinople by Pisan merchants and when smuggled out, Alexios found his way to Germany where he sought refuge in the court of his brother-in-law Philip the Duke of Swabia and there Alexios was just waiting for the right opportunity to get some military support to put himself in the Byzantine throne as well as to return his blinded and deposed father back in power, and luckily for Alexios the right opportunity came just a year later with the 4th Crusade which was already headed east. When hearing of the Crusaders’ financial struggles in paying their debts to Venice to transport them, Alexios offered to pay them 200,000 silver marks, as well as to provide them with an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to assist them in taking back Jerusalem, and most important of all to submit the Byzantine Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople to the pope’s authority all in order to help Alexios oust his uncle Alexios III from power and put he and his father back in the throne. The Crusader leaders here agreed to help young Alexios take the Byzantine throne as they could not refuse this offer as it was to pay them a lot too, but it was Dandolo who was more than ever willing to help young Alexios IV as it was to reward Venice very greatly, but it also provided Dandolo an opportunity to fulfil his dream in attacking Constantinople out of revenge before he dies of old age, while the pope when hearing that uniting the Byzantine Church with the Latin Church was part of the objective agreed to having the Crusade stop at Constantinople first, but little did the pope know that Dandolo and the other leaders were intending to sack Constantinople. In 1203, the new massive Venetian fleet with the Crusaders including Dandolo and Alexios departed Zara and set sail to Constantinople. Soon enough, the Venetian fleet with the army of the 4th Crusade arrived at the Marmara Sea before the walls of Constantinople and as the people of Constantinople were shocked seeing a massive fleet headed their way, the Crusaders on these ships too were stunned at the impressive skyline of the Byzantine capital.

Complete flag of the Republic of Venice
Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, preaching the Fourth Crusade in St Mark's Basilica, Venice
Doge Enrico Dandolo’s speech to the Venetians, 1202
4th Crusade era Venetian ship
Leaders of the 4th Crusade: Enrico Dandolo, Baldwin of Flanders, Boniface of Montferrat, and Geoffroi de Villehardouin
Map of the 4th Crusade (1202-1204), in real history
Watch this to learn more about the 4th Crusade of 1204 (Kings and Generals)

Over in Constantinople, the emperor Alexios III Angelos no matter how incompetent and inactive he was in ruling, he was still aware that the Venetian fleet with a large army was approaching and in fear of losing the throne as he knew that his nephew escaped and was now headed to put himself in power, Alexios III prepared the city’s defenses and rallied his people, although he could not do anything more as the provinces did not send reinforcement troops to defend the capital and the fleet stationed at the capital made up of only 20 ships were out of function as just mentioned earlier, a corrupt official sold off their anchors and sails.

The old Doge Enrico Dandolo sacking Constantinople, 1204
Doge Enrico Dandolo (right) and Prince Alexios Angelos (left) on a Venetian ship approaching Constantinople, 1203

Alexios III at first attempted to make peace with the Crusaders but his terms were rejected and young Alexios was then brought into the harbor of Constantinople or the Golden Horn together with the Crusade’s leader Boniface in a boat, and rather than cheering at the arrival of the young prince Alexios, the people looked and mocked him while the Venetian fleet just attacked the sea walls of Constantinople anyway. The Crusaders then formed 7 divisions to attack different parts of Constantinople’s walls led by each of the leaders with the 8th division being the Venetians and their fleet, and the first attack was on the Galata Quarter north of the Golden Horn harbor which was less defended than the main city itself but this area too was attacked first in order to gain access into the Golden Horn harbor. The Galata Quarter soon enough fell to the Crusaders and when taking over it, the Crusaders headed to the tower that controlled the chain blocking the Golden Horn harbor- which had been around since the 8th century built by Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741) to defend Constantinople from the large-scale Arab invasion of 717-718 if you remember from chapter V of this series- wherein they gained control of it and lowered the great chain allowing the Venetian fleet to storm into the Golden Horn.

4th Crusade army attack the land walls of Constantinople, 1203

The land walls on the west side of the city built back in the 5th century were however still too powerful for the Crusader army no matter how large they were to breach, although the shorter sea walls along the Golden Horn were much weaker which the Venetian marines aboard their ships exploited, thus they attacked these lower walls using siege ladders as well as the high masts of their ships in order to get through these walls. The Byzantine troops defending the walls however only numbered up to 15,000 with 5,000 of them being part of the elite Varangian Guard sworn to protect the emperor which was still an existing unit in the Byzantine army even up to this point in the 13th century, and even if the Byzantine troops were outnumbered, they at first were able to push back the invading Crusader and Venetian troops. The Venetians however gained the upper hand when Dandolo himself despite his old age jumped off his ship onto the beach along the Golden Horn’s sea walls in full armor carrying Venice’s flag which then encouraged his men to bravely fight and at the end, the Venetians were able to capture 25 of the sea wall’s towers. The Byzantines however once again tried to push back the invaders but failed when the Venetians lit a massive fire across the sea walls to prevent a counter-attack and as for the emperor Alexios III when seeing that the sea wall along the Golden Horn fell, he led a small force out of the land walls to charge at Crusaders besieging it but when Dandolo sent reinforcements to the Crusaders at the land walls, Alexios III fled in fear back into the city.

Emperor Alexios III Angelos, older brother of Isaac II

At night, Alexios III not surprisingly as the weak and cowardly emperor he was decided to abandon the city for good and flee in fear taking 1,000 pounds from the imperial treasury. The next day, as there was no more emperor as he fled the city, the people rushed into the imperial palace’s prison and there they freed Alexios III’s younger brother the former emperor Isaac II Angelos who had been locked up there for over 8 years, and when broken out from prison, the blind Isaac II who was still popular among the people was dressed in the purple imperial robes and proclaimed emperor in the same way he was back in 1185 as a young man when it was also the people of the capital that rallied under him. Isaac II however after being blinded and locked up in prison for 8 years had not only lost his sight but his sanity, physical strength, and ability to think and rule properly, therefore the Byzantine senate as well as the Crusader leaders camped outside the city only confirmed that Isaac II was to rule as co-emperor with his son Alexios, while Isaac II also received the 4th Crusade’s leaders well and confirmed his son’s promises to them.

Isaac II Angelos, returned as emperor (1203-1204)

Now that Alexios III fled the city and Isaac II was released from prison, Isaac II was crowned as emperor again together with his son now Emperor Alexios IV Angelos as co-emperors, and with Isaac being disabled from years of imprisonment, Alexios IV was to rule as the effective emperor while his father only as a puppet as Isaac was the one more popular among the people. Although the 1203 siege by the Crusader army was over, the Crusaders and Dandolo still did not leave Constantinople, therefore they set themselves up in the Galata Quarter only agreeing to leave Constantinople and set off for Outremer when Alexios IV would finally fulfil his promise of paying their debt of 200,000 silver marks and providing an army of 10,000 Byzantine troops to assist them. The problem now was that Alexios III when fleeing the city took most of treasury with him and Alexios IV himself did not have that amount of money he promised and so Alexios had to negotiate with the Crusaders to extend the period to pay his debts by another 6 months, although the Crusaders soon enough started growing so impatient being on standby for months that at one point a group of Crusaders attacked the Muslim quarter of the main city by shooting flaming arrows to it and due to the winds, a massive fire broke out it Constantinople all while Alexios IV happened to be away in Thrace hunting down his escaped uncle which at the end resulted in nothing.

Alexios IV
Alexios IV Angelos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1203-1204), son of Isaac II, art by myself

When Alexios IV returned to the capital, a large fight broke out in the main city between the local Greek inhabitants and the Latins mostly Venetian merchants, and these Latin merchants wanting to escape the troubles fled to Galata to seek refuge with the Crusaders and Venetians which then even gave them more of a reason to resume their attack on Constantinople. Alexios IV now wanting to fully pay off his debts in order to get the Crusaders away for good decided to have precious relics, church ornaments, and even religious icons melted down and turned into coins but doing such actions especially destroying icons would only make him grow more and more unpopular with the people seeing this as something equivalent to the most despised Iconoclast movement centuries ago mentioned in previous chapters of this series. At the end of 1203 and beginning of 1204, the people of Constantinople turned to rioting against Alexios IV for his stupidity in both melting down sacred icons and for agreeing to pay such a large amount of money to the Crusaders and as the weeks passed, the rioting further intensified. To deal with the angry mob, Alexios IV and his father Isaac II sent their relative the secretary Alexios Mourtzouphlos who was Alexios III’s son-in-law to negotiate with them but instead, Mourtzouphlos was proclaimed emperor by the senate, people, and Church at the square outside the Hagia Sophia cathedral and to fully to secure himself as emperor, Mourtzouphlos bribed the discontent Varangian Guards who were not paid by Alexios IV.

Alexios IV strangled to death in prison, 1204

Now having the support of the Varangians, Mourtzouphlos marched with them into the imperial palace where they dragged young Alexios IV from his bedroom to the prison and in prison, Alexios IV at only 22 was strangled to death by the Varangian Guards on Mourtzouphlos’ orders. Shortly after when the disabled Isaac II Angelos who was now more than ever traumatized from past events heard that his son was killed, he could not take it any longer, thus he died from a heart attack out of shock and sadness at age 47. With both Alexios IV and his father Isaac II dead, Mourtzouphlos then became Emperor Alexios V and as emperor he wanted to prove that he would be far more competent and decisive than the past 3 Angelos emperors and so right when his reign in January of 1204 began, Alexios V immediately had the walls along the Golden Horn that the Crusaders and Venetians destroyed rebuilt fearing that the Crusaders still camped at Galata would launch another offensive to avenge Alexios IV thus confiscating the properties of the corrupt officials linked with the Angelos emperors to finance the repairs.

Alexios V Mourtzouphlos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1204), art by Spatharokandidatos

Alexios V also tried to counter-attack the Venetian ships with Byzantine fire ships which failed, and also decided to no longer honor the debts that the late Alexios IV was to pay the Crusaders and Venice which was not completed yet as Alexios IV was killed off. Alexios V too went off to the Crusaders’ camp to confront Dandolo himself to formally cancel Alexios IV’s debts and to ask him and the Crusaders to leave for good, but when at the camp, Dandolo already set up a trap to ambush Alexios V although right before he was ambushed by the Crusader cavalry, Alexios V fled swiftly angering Dandolo. In March of 1204, Dandolo and the Crusader leaders at the Galata Quarter made the final decision to again attack Constantinople but this time to no longer install a puppet Byzantine emperor but to take the city for themselves and divide the remains of the Byzantine Empire among each other, then in April the Crusaders again laid siege to the sea walls along the Golden Horn that had just been repaired.

Medieval illustration of the 4th Crusade’s attack of Constantinople, 1203
4th Crusade, Venetian fleet attacks Constantinople’s sea walls, 1203
Defending Varangians clash with attacking Crusaders, 1203
Alexios V bribes the Varangians to proclaim him emperor, 1204

From April 9 to 12 of 1204, the Crusaders and Venetians resumed their attack on the same sea walls along the Golden Horn they attacked the previous year, except this time the Byzantine forces were much weaker and demoralized while the elite Varangian Guard again went on strike due to lack of pay and because of all this, the defending Byzantines could no longer hold out against the Crusaders.

4th Crusade army storms Constantinople’s walls, 1204

On April 12, the continuous attacks by the Crusaders created a small breach on the Golden Horn sea walls and right here at this point, Constantinople fell to the army of the 4th Crusade who then stormed into the city through this small breach. The emperor Alexios V however still tried to rally the remains of the army as well as citizens to repel the Crusaders that night but with no success as the Crusaders had already stormed into the city in the thousands and so Alexios V boarded a fishing boat and fled Constantinople the same way Alexios III did a year earlier. On the same night, another Byzantine noble which was Constantine Laskaris was crowned as emperor in the Hagia Sophia but to no success as when the Varangians who were still on strike refused to support him while the Crusaders had proceeded to looting the houses of the city, Constantine had no more chance to succeed and in the dawn of the next day he fled Constantinople to the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor which was less than a day away from the capital together with his brother Theodore Laskaris, who was also a son-in-law of the previous emperor Alexios III. With no more resistance from the Byzantine army, Constantinople was left to be pillaged for 3 days straight by the Crusaders, and with so much valuables the sacking went on day and night making this one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. The Venetians and Crusaders however came up with a plan to divide the loot equally amongst each other with half of all the spoils going to Venice, although many of the Crusaders out of greed and excitement took as much plunder they wanted from the churches, mansions, and houses of Constantinople. The knights however refrained from harming the citizens as it was part of their chivalry code to not harm civilians, though the uneducated soldiers which were the majority did not follow such rules and so they massacred as many Byzantine civilians as they saw.

Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), survivor of the 1204 Sack of Constantinople, recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

The same historian Niketas Choniates who was present here when the Crusaders stormed into Constantinople based on his experience when fleeing the city here wrote that the Crusaders savagely destroyed precious ornaments and icons, carted away important works of art, and worst of all looted the most holy site of the Hagia Sophia wherein they chopped up its altar dividing the pieces which contained previous gems among themselves and when doing so, the Crusaders allowed mules into the Hagia Sophia to cart out their loot which dropped their excrements all over the cathedral’s floor when carting the items out. Apart from all the looting and atrocities committed against the people of Constantinople, the Crusaders too seeing no great value in the Ancient Greek and Roman statues that were preserved in Constantinople melted them down to be made into coins, and eager to find more wealth to take home, the Crusaders broke into the Church of the Holy Apostles as well to rob the tombs of the past emperors which Alexios III back in 1197 had looted to pay the heavy tribute to the Holy Roman emperor, and even though most of the imperial tombs were already robbed by Alexios III, the Crusaders still looted them anyway including the tombs of the great emperors of the past like Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and Heraclius (r. 610-641) wherein they found Justinian I’s body still being intact despite being dead for already more than 6 centuries.

Crusaders loot the tomb of Emperor Justinian I in 1204, art by Amelianvs

The brutal massacres and the looting only ended 3 days later on April 15 of 1204 but by this time the pillaging and fires made half of the city’s population homeless leading to a lot of inhabitants to abandon Constantinople for good either fleeing to Kaloyan’s Bulgarian Empire or to the new states being formed by Byzantine exiles from Constantinople. The Venetians on the other hand despite hating the Byzantines still had respect for its valuable treasures and so when stealing these treasures, they at least kept them intact, and such Byzantine treasures looted by the Venetians included the bronze statue of the 4 horses above the Hippodrome which the Venetians dismantled and reassembled back in Venice at St. Mark’s which was their main cathedral, while other precious objects taken to Venice included porphyry and marble columns from the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as the colossal statue of the 5th century emperor Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) who if you remember was the lead character of chapter II of this series, although the statue of Leo I never made it to Venice but was instead washed up in the beach of Barletta in Southern Italy wherein this statue still remains up to this day.

Colossus of Barletta, Barletta, Apulia, Italy
Colossal statue of Byzantine emperor Leo I from Constantinople, now in Barletta

For the Crusaders on the other hand, they would never make it to their main objective anymore which was Jerusalem as when looting Constantinople, they felt content enough with what they took and so many returned to Europe with important relics they looted in which they enriched their cathedrals back home with them, thus a large percent of the looted relics ended up in the churches of Paris and all over France as well wherein most of these Crusaders came from. Now about the 4th Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople, the French knight Robert de Clari who was present here writes that Constantinople had an endless amount of wealth to loot while the modern-day English historian John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) says that the sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade in 1204 was “the city’s darkest hour even more than it would be a century and a half later” when Constantinople would finally fall to the Ottomans- to be covered in chapter XII of this series- SPOILER ALERT! With the 3 days of looting and violence over, the leaders of the 4th Crusade then settled down, divided Constantinople among themselves, and met together to decide on which of them would take over Constantinople as the new emperor, and the first choice was no other than the Crusade’s leader Boniface of Montferrat who now married the late Isaac II Angelos’ wife Margaret of Hungary which then made Boniface have a legitimate claim to the empire as he was in a way related to the previous Angelos Dynasty. The Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo too was offered the position of emperor wherein he could possibly move Venice’s capital to Constantinople, however Dandolo declined the offer as he was too old but he suggested that one of the Crusade’s leaders which was the Count of Flanders Baldwin IX should accept the position as the new emperor of Constantinople as he was much younger and more charismatic. Baldwin IX was then elected as Emperor Baldwin I and no longer as a Byzantine emperor but a “Latin emperor” as with Constantinople being taken over by the westerners known as the “Latins”, the territory they would rule around Constantinople would be the “Latin Empire”, although even if Dandolo declined the offer, the Latin Empire was more or less a puppet of the Republic of Venice which got the largest share of the lands once part of the Byzantine Empire divided among the Crusade’s leaders.

The 4th Crusade’s Sack of Constantinople, 1204
Crusaders looting Constantinople
Crusader army loot the streets of Constantinople, 1204
Looting of the Hagia Sophia in 1204, art by Ediacar
4 Horses from Constantinople’s Hippodrome, taken to Venice
Constantinople falls to the 4th Crusade, 1204
Watch this to learn more about what was lost when the 4th Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204 (Kings and Generals)

The Fragmentation of Byzantium (1204-1228)               


With the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204 capturing Constantinople, not only were Constantinople and its buildings in ruins but the entire geography of the Byzantine Empire as well and with no more Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, the leaders of the 4th Crusade divided what was once the Byzantine Empire among themselves, and together all newly established Latin states in Byzantine territory would be known as the Frankokratia meaning “Rule of the Franks” in Greek, as the Byzantines here still mostly referred to the Latins of Western Europe as “Franks”.

Baldwin I “Baldwin IX of Flanders”, the first Latin emperor of Constantinople (r. 1204-1205)

The state that the Latins created as their successor state to the Byzantine Empire was the Latin Empire which was based in Constantinople with one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders Baldwin I as its emperor, although this newly formed Latin Empire could barely call itself an “empire” considering that the lands Baldwin I controlled only consisted of Constantinople, its surroundings in Thrace, the Marmara Sea and its islands, and only a small portion of Northwest Asia Minor along the Marmara, while the Latin authorities of Constantinople too could barely run their empire the way the Byzantines did. In the following year 1205, the other leaders of the 4th Crusade followed in establishing their own states in the remains of Byzantine Greece, basically doing what the Crusaders did a century earlier in Outremer when forming their own 4 separate states there if you remember from the previous chapter.

Seal of the Crusader Kingdom of Thessalonica, established in 1205

These new states formed in Byzantine territory were the Kingdom of Thessalonica established by the 4th Crusade’s actual leader Boniface of Montferrat who became the first King of Thessalonica controlling the region of Macedonia with Thessaloniki as its capital, then in the Southern Greece which was the Peloponnese Peninsula a new Crusader state was founded there which was the Principality of Achaea by the Frenchmen William I de Champlitte and Geoffroi de Villehardouin who were also both leaders of their own divisions in the 4th Crusade who became the first princes of their newly established Crusader state of Achaea which would later on turn out to be the most successful of these Latin states, and in Central Greece another new Crusader state was established as well which was the Duchy of Athens by the Burgundian French knight Otto de la Roche who was again one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders. On the other hand, the Republic of Venice that transported the Crusaders to Constantinople was the one that got the largest share of territory when the old Byzantine Empire was divided as here Venice got the important islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, Negroponte (Euboea), Crete, Rhodes, Lemnos, and as well as the port of Dyyrhachion in Albania, while most other islands in the Aegean fell under the rule of the noble Venetian Sanudo family who in 1207 established the Duchy of the Archipelago consisting of these islands they acquired for helping the Republic of Venice in the 4th Crusade. As for the Byzantines, there was no way for their civilization to die out and one of the reasons for this was that if you remember from the previous chapter, the previous ruling Komnenos family created such a large extended family by marrying off their relatives to the other noble families of Byzantium, and now at the beginning of the 13th century the extended imperial family was very large that almost all the powerful nobles of this time were all related to each other thus all having a claim to restore the empire. The nobles which were the Laskaris brothers Theodore and Constantine as well as large number of the population that escaped Constantinople the exact day the Crusaders stormed in set themselves up in the rich city of Nicaea along a lake which they intended to use as their base to regroup the scattered Byzantine forces around Asia Minor and eventually one day take back Constantinople from the Crusaders, however neither of the brothers despite forming their own exiled state in Nicaea could call themselves “emperor” due to their position being not fully secured as the Latins of Constantinople too had plans to take over Nicaea and the lands around it to establish another new Crusader state there which would be the Duchy of Nicaea that would be under the rule of one of the 4th Crusade’s top generals the Frenchman Louis I de Blois who in late 1204 together with the Latin emperor Baldwin I’s brother Henry of Flanders who was also one of the 4th Crusade’s leaders crossed the Marmara into Asia Minor and defeated a Byzantine army led by the Laskaris brothers.

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Lego figure of Louis de Blois, French general of the 4th Crusade

The Laskaris brothers too were unsecure as also due to Constantinople being lost to the Crusaders, a number of Byzantine general stationed in Asia Minor and Greece controlling small holdings there seeing all was lost proclaimed themselves as emperors, such generals that did so included Leo Sgouros in the Peloponnese, as well as Theodore Mangaphas and Sabas Asidenos in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, even before Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade’s army in April of 1204, news that the large army of the 4th Crusade was camped outside Constantinople reached the far southeast corner of the Black Sea still under Byzantine rule which was Trebizond and here, fearing that Constantinople would be lost to the Crusaders which in fact did happen, Alexios and David Komnenos who were grandsons of the former Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos who was deposed and executed by his people in 1185 seized the city of Trebizond with military support from the Kingdom of Georgia to its northeast ruled by the powerful queen Tamar the Great.

Queen Tamar the Great of Georgia (r. 1184-1213)

Basically, right when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in April of 1204, the Komnenos brothers Alexios and David now having Trebizond and its surroundings as theirs proclaimed themselves co-emperors establishing their own Byzantine Empire known as the “Empire of Trebizond”, and as its rulers they referred to themselves as Megas Komnenos meaning “Grand Komnenos” to emphasize their legitimacy over all the other successor states formed by Byzantine nobles as these brothers were direct descendants of the Komnenos Dynasty and its founder Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). Another Byzantine noble to put his claim on the throne and to restore the empire was Michael Angelos, the cousin of the former emperors Isaac II and Alexios III Angelos who in 1205 established his own state in Western Greece which was quite a large one along the Ionian Sea known as the “Despotate of Epirus” with the city of Arta as its capital.

Seal of the Despotate of Epirus, founded by Michael I Angelos in 1205

Although no matter how large his state was, Michael I Angelos could not call himself an emperor or Basileus yet but instead only as Despot which was basically a ruler with absolute power but not at the same level of power as an emperor, as Michael I here did not have much legitimacy to be called an emperor, although Epirus would still turn out to be the most unharmed of the 3 new Byzantine successor states in which the others were Nicaea and Trebizond as Epirus was protected by mountains on the east which served as its border with the new Latin state of Thessalonica. In the meantime, the former Byzantine emperors Alexios III who fled Constantinople back in 1203 and Alexios V who fled right when the Crusaders stormed into the capital in 1204 were still alive, and in fact both former emperors even met up with each other in Thrace later on in 1204 but both did not get along well as both had a claim to the Byzantine throne and so Alexios V was blinded by his father-in-law Alexios III. The blinded Alexios V was later captured by the Crusader army in Thrace and brought back to Constantinople to face trial for murdering Alexios IV who was the Crusaders’ ally but Alexios V still defended his action saying that Alexios IV was the one that committed treason against his empire by inviting the Crusaders, however Alexios V was still found guilty.

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Death of Alexios V in Lego by being thrown off a column in Constantinople, 1204

In December of 1204, Alexios V was executed in a rather unusual way by being brought to the top of the Column of Theodosius I in Constantinople where Alexios V was pushed off by a Crusader soldier, thus Alexios V was thrown off the column to his death when hitting the ground. Now in early 1205, the Latin Empire’s forces added new territories in Northwest Asia Minor to the Latin Empire after Theodore Laskaris’ forces were defeated again in battle by the forces of Henry of Flanders and Louis de Blois wherein Theodore’s brother Constantine was captured and possibly even killed in battle when his forces were defeated by the Latins, as Constantine after this disappears from the historical record. In the meantime, the Byzantine nobles and people of the cities of Didymoteicho and Adrianople in Thrace now under the rule of the Latin Empire were unhappy with their new overlords and so they asked for assistance from the 2nd Bulgarian Empire and its tsar Kaloyan to the north to help them drive away their Latin overlords despite Kaloyan being at odds with the Byzantines, but with the Latins taking over Constantinople Kaloyan now feared they would invade Bulgaria next.

Kaloyan, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1197-1207)

Before Kaloyan and his Bulgarian army could arrive to assist the people of Adrianople, the people of Adrianople revolted declaring their city free from Latin rule but the Latin emperor in Constantinople Baldwin I could not let it happen and so he marched out of Constantinople with his army together with his general Louis de Blois and the very old Enrico Dandolo to besiege and take back Adrianople. Right when the Latins laid siege to Adrianople, Kaloyan and his large Bulgarian army of 40,000 appeared and charged at the Latin Crusader army. What then followed was the Battle of Adrianople in 1205, ironically on more or less the same site the Battle of Adrianople in 378 between the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) and Goths was fought in if you remember from chapter I of this series wherein the Romans in real history suffered a heavy defeat to the Goths with their emperor Valens (r. 364-378) killed in it as well. Now in this Battle of Adrianople, the Bulgarians won a decisive victory almost annihilating the Latin army where their general Louis de Blois was also killed in battle too while the Latin emperor Baldwin I was taken as a prisoner by the Bulgarians. The very old Enrico Dandolo however escaped alive back to Constantinople but just 2 months later he died there at the very old age of 97.

Baldwin’s Tower in Tarnovo, Bulgaria

As for Baldwin I, his fate is unknown but it is most likely that he died imprisoned in the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo as a tower that still stands there up to this day is known as “Baldwin’s Tower” where he was imprisoned, although the circumstances for his death later in 1205 are unclear but it is said that Baldwin had an affair with Kaloyan’s wife and out of revenge Kaloyan killed Baldwin in prison afterwards turning Baldwin’s skull into his drinking cup, a Bulgarian tradition done to rulers they defeated in battle, and if you remember from chapter VI of this series the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) in 811 suffered this same kind of fate of having his skull made into a drinking cup when defeated in battle by the Bulgarians. The crushing defeat the Latin Empire faced to the Bulgarians at Adrianople thus was the beginning of their end even if it just happened a year after the Latin Empire was established, thus this defeat would allow the Byzantines of Nicaea to now gain the upper hand.

Map of the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire into different Latin and Byzantine states after 1204
2nd Bulgarian Empire army defeats the Latin Empire’s Crusaders at the Battle of Adrianople, 1205
Latin emperor Baldwin I captured and brought to Tsar Kaloyan as a prisoner, 1205

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 between the Latin Empire and Bulgarians (Kings and Generals).

With the Latin Empire’s forces defeated at Adrianople and their emperor Baldwin I taken as a prisoner by the Bulgarians, Baldwin I’s brother Henry of Flanders in Constantinople at first took over the Latin Empire as its regent but in the following year 1206 when getting news of Baldwin’s death in prison, Henry was crowned as the second Latin emperor.

Henry of Flanders, Latin emperor (r. 1206-1216), brother of Baldwin I

Unlike Baldwin I who was plainly a warrior without much of a plan in running an empire showing little toleration to his Byzantine Greek subjects, his brother Henry was at least a much wiser ruler who was more tolerant to his Greek subjects being aware that his people the Latins were foreign occupiers in Byzantine lands. Now with the Latin Empire weakened after their defeat to the Bulgarians, the newly formed Byzantine successor state of Nicaea now was secure and so in 1205 after defeating the rebel generals in Asia Minor that established their own states there following the capture of Constantinople as well as relocating the Byzantine senate from Constantinople to Nicaea, Theodore I Laskaris was able to proclaim himself as emperor with the successor state based in Nicaea now becoming the “Empire of Nicaea”.

Theodore I Laskaris, Byzantine emperor of Nicaea (r. 1205-1221), founder of the Empire of Nicaea

To solidify his rule, Theodore I allied himself with Kaloyan and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire against the Latin emperor Henry to counter the expansion of the Latin Empire, although Henry to defend his empire allied with the other successor Byzantine Empire of Trebizond ruled by Alexios I and David Megas Komnenos. With his victory over the Latins in 1205, Kaloyan now having his way in 1207 launched an attack on the new Crusader Kingdom of Thessalonica and on the way to besieging its capital Thessaloniki, his Bulgarian forces ambushed the King of Thessalonica Boniface of Montferrat who was in fact even killed in the ambush. Kaloyan and his forces then laid siege to Thessaloniki and with Boniface dead, his very young son Demetrios with the former Byzantine empress Margaret of Hungary succeeded him as king but right when Demetrios succeeded his father, Kaloyan and his Bulgarian forces laid siege to Thessaloniki but before being able to finish the siege, Kaloyan outside the walls of Thessaloniki suddenly suffered a heart attack and dropped dead, although legend says Kaloyan suddenly dropped dead as the ghost of Thessaloniki’s patron saint St. Demetrios stabbed him to death. With Kaloyan dead, the Bulgarians abandoned their siege of Thessaloniki and without children, Kaloyan was succeeded as the Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire by his nephew Boril who was a much weaker ruler and when coming into power, Boril’s cousin Ivan Asen who was the same son of the former Bulgarian tsar and the empire’s founder Ivan Asen I who was assassinated back in 1196 now being grown up fled north to the land of the Russians possibly to the Kievan Rus’ Empire’s successor state the Principality of Kiev to seek support to seize the Bulgarian throne. In 1208, with the war between the Latin Empire and the Bulgarians still ongoing, Boril’s forces were defeated by the Latin emperor Henry allowing Henry to take over the Bulgarian city of Philippopolis while at the same time the Serbian Principality to the west of Bulgaria under its Grand Prince Stefan Nemanjic now the one growing, it took over some parts of Macedonia from the Bulgarians and the Kingdom of Thessalonica too. As for the Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor, more and more Byzantine Greek people fled to it from Latin occupied Constantinople and Thrace being unhappy under Latin rule, and one of these Byzantine Greeks that ended up in Nicaea was the same historian Niketas Choniates who then became a historian at the court of Theodore I living there until his death in 1217. In 1208 as well, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople too moved to Nicaea and it was only here with the Patriarch of Constantinople now based in Nicaea that Theodore I Laskaris was formally crowned as emperor. Theodore I then renewed his alliance with Bulgaria by making an alliance with Boril as well as with the new Despot of Epirus Michael I Angelos while the Latin emperor Henry on the other hand now fearing Theodore I would expand his empire made an additional alliance with Nicaea’s neighbor in the east which was the still surviving Seljuk Sultanate of Rum under Sultan Kaykhusraw I as Henry too had previously allied himself with the new Empire of Trebizond. In the meantime, the former emperor Alexios III Angelos was still alive now as a renegade looking for opportunities to take back the throne and between 1205 and 1211, he had been at the Latin court at Thessaloniki and with his cousin Michael I at Epirus, though in 1211 he fled to Asia Minor to seek refuge with the Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw I who Alexios III made an alliance with against Theodore I- who was Alexios’ son-in-law married to Alexios’ daughter Anna– as Alexios III did not want to recognize Theodore’s claim to the throne.

Nicaean Byzantine forces of Theodore I Laskaris clash with the forces of the Seljuks at the Battle of Antioch on the Meander, 1211

Now allied with the former emperor Alexios III and the Latin emperor Henry, the Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw marched his forces together with Latin mercenaries to the Empire of Nicaea’s territory in Asia Minor confronting Theodore I and his Byzantine army at the Battle of Antioch on the Meander River. Now in battle, the sultan and Theodore I confronted each other face-to-face wherein the sultan struck Theodore in the head with a heavy blow from his mace knocking Theodore off his horse onto the ground unconscious, but soon enough Theodore regained his consciousness and with his sword struck the sultan’s horse knocking the sultan to the ground.

The victorious Theodore I displays the decapitated head of Seljuk sultan Kaykhusraw I, 1211

With Sultan Kaykhusraw I down on the ground and Theodore recovering, Theodore’s troops rushed to the sultan and beheaded him, afterwards displaying the sultan’s head on a spear for everyone to see and at the sight of their sultan decapitated, the Seljuk army fled in fear and panic, thus the Byzantines of Nicaea won their first major victory. The Byzantines of Nicaea thus won a pyrrhic victory here as they came very close to being defeated with their emperor Theodore I almost killed and only at the end did the tide turn to the favor of the Byzantines when Theodore I was able to get back his consciousness; and now that the Seljuks were defeated, the new Seljuk sultan which was Kaykhusraw I’ son Kykaus I concluded a permanent peace with the Empire of Nicaea wherein their borders would remain unchanged. With their defeat here in 1211, the tide of the Seljuks’ advance into Asia Minor ever since they won their first major victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert back in 1071- if you remember from chapter VIII of this series- would be reversed, as here would begin the decline of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in Asia Minor. As for the former emperor Alexios III who allied himself with the Seljuks, he too was captured and brought to his son-in-law Theodore I who in return did not harm his father-in-law but instead just removed him of all his imperial titles and sent him to a monastery in Nicaea to retire for good, and later in 1211 as well Alexios III Angelos died at age 58 in the monastery he was banished to.

Nicaea, Capital of the Empire of Nicaea, temporary Byzantine capital

Winning a victory over the Seljuks and their Latin allies supplied by the Latin emperor Henry, Theodore I’s popularity rose to great levels that the Byzantine Greek people too across the Marmara in Thrace living under Latin rule also began to rebel against their Latin overlords. Emperor Henry however could not accept Theodore I and Nicaea’s victory and so in 1212, Henry with an army crossed into Asia Minor and attacked the Empire of Nicaea’s territories capturing a number of fortresses too, although Henry ended up seizing too many fortresses that he no longer had enough soldiers to station them in anymore, thus Henry turned to concluding peace with Theodore I. In 1214 then, both Theodore I of Nicaea and Henry of the Latin Empire agreed to a truce which was to also agree in formally ceding the region of Asia Minor along the south coast of the Marmara known as Troad to the Latin Empire.

Theodore I Laskaris in armor with the decapitated head of Sultan Kaykhusraw I, art by Alexios I

Since Theodore I concluded peace with the Seljuks as well, he in 1214 too allied with them in a short campaign east against the Empire of Trebizond which resulted in the Nicaean forces and their Seljuk allies capturing the region of Paphlagonia from the Empire of Trebizond. Here in 1214, the Empire of Trebizond was now only ruled by Alexios I Megas Komnenos as back in 1212 his brother David had died, and now with Paphlagonia lost to the Nicaean Empire, Alexios I realized that with his empire now reduced by a lot gave up his ambitions to restore the Byzantine Empire and instead decided to just make his empire a regional power in the Black Sea in which it would forever remain as such. Over in the Despotate of Epirus meanwhile, its ruler or despot Michael I Angelos ruled like a real despot in a cruel and tyrannical way to his subjects while he spent most his time being a violent war fanatic waging war against the Latins and Venetians in Greece, although in 1215 in Albania in the middle of his campaign to expel the Venetians from the port city of Dyrrhachion, Michael I was assassinated in his sleep by the order of his half-brother Theodore Angelos who immediately succeeded Michael as the Despot of Epirus becoming known as Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas, and now the new ruler of Epirus Theodore unlike his half-brother was a legitimate member of the Angelos Dynasty as his half-brother Michael was an illegitimate son of their father John Doukas Angelos who was the brother of the emperors Isaac II and Alexios III’s father the general Andronikos Angelos, who featured prominently in the last chapter.

Stefan Nemanjic, King of Serbia (r. 1217-1228)

The new Despot of Epirus Theodore feeling that he had every right to claim the Byzantine throne as a legitimate member of the Angelos Dynasty that once ruled it and being a great-grandson of Alexios I Komnenos too questioned Theodore I of Nicaea’s authority therefore not recognizing him as an emperor and the Empire of Nicaea as an empire, and so Despot Theodore after making an alliance with his northern neighbor the Grand Prince of Serbia Stefan Nemanjic who in 1217 became Serbia’s first king, and began making preparations to first capture Thessaloniki and then Constantinople from the Latins. The Latin emperor Henry when hearing of the Despot of Epirus beginning his campaign to march west decided to counter-attack and so in 1216 Henry left Constantinople to head west and crush the Epirote army before it reached Thessaloniki, though Henry died on the march in 1216 before reaching Epirus. With Henry’s death died the unfortunately last and only competent Latin emperor who could have at least made the Latin Empire of Constantinople an established power and as a ruler, Henry was tolerant but not weak and strong but not cruel, and with his death the Latin Empire would no longer have a ruler like that. Meanwhile back in Nicaea also in 1216, one young talented soldier in the service of Theodore I would rise to prominence as a general and this was John Doukas Vatatzes, a Byzantine Greek noble born in the city of Didymoteicho in Thrace back in 1192 who after 1204 was one of the many people that fled to the new Empire of Nicaea. Now due to his talent in battle and state administration, Theodore I who at this point still had no male heirs to succeed him considered making John Vatatzes his heir, and so Theodore married off his daughter Irene Laskarina to John.

Coat of arms of the Courtenay family of France

Back to the Latin Empire, with Henry dead without any male heirs, the Latin barons at Constantinople decided to elect Henry’s brother-in-law Peter Courtenay, a French noble and grandson of the former King of France Louis VI (r. 1108-1137) as the new Latin emperor, however Peter here was all the way in France, and when getting word that he had to travel to Constantinople to be crowned, he left France first to Rome wherein he was crowned outside the walls of Rome by the pope Honorius III– the successor of the 4th Crusade’s planner Innocent III who had died in 1216- as Latin emperor in 1217. Despite being crowned as Latin emperor, Peter never made to Constantinople as also in 1217 when arriving in the Despotate of Epirus in Greece, he was captured by Despot Theodore and imprisoned. With Peter imprisoned, the Latin barons sent word to Peter’s sons in France Philippe and Robert Courtenay to take the throne in Constantinople but both brothers refused the offer and so it was their mother Yolande of Flanders, the wife of Peter and sister of the late Latin emperors Baldwin I and Henry that came to Constantinople to rule as its regent empress before Peter could be released or her sons would arrive.

Yolande of Flanders, Latin empress (r. 1217-1219), sister of Latin emperors Baldwin I and Henry

As the regent ruler of the Latin Empire, Yolande decided to conclude peace with Theodore I’s Empire of Nicaea and so Yolande married off her daughter Marie to Theodore I as Theodore’s first wife Anna had already died, while Yolande after she arrived in Constantinople too gave birth to her youngest child with Peter which was a son and soon to be ruler of the Latin Empire who was named Baldwin after his uncle the first Latin emperor. At the same time, Pope Honorius III continued his predecessor Innocent III’s plan in launching a 5th Crusade this time to finally recapture Jerusalem from the Ayyubid Empire as the 4th Crusade failed to do so when it sacked Constantinople and took over the Byzantine Empire, and so in 1217 as well the 5th Crusade was launched consisting of a large number of European powers including France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Hungary with the same King of France Philippe II from the 3rd Crusade joining again this time as an old man, and an allied force from the Seljuks of Asia Minor too, and the one in charge of the 5th Crusade itself was Jean de Brienne, a Frenchman who since 1210 became King of Jerusalem ruling the exiled Kingdom of Jerusalem from Acre.

Pope Honorius III, successor of Innocent III

Long story short though, the Crusaders here at least made it to Egypt capturing the port of Damietta there which was the suggested route to invade Palestine to capture Jerusalem but the Crusade at the end only made it to Egypt as it failed before the Crusaders could capture the Ayyubid capital Cairo as the Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil ordered the dam blocking the Nile River broken which then flooded the Crusaders’ camp forcing the Crusaders to surrender and return home to Europe by 1221. Meanwhile in the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, its tsar Boril lost the throne in 1218 when his cousin Ivan Asen returning from the land of the Rus with military support captured the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo, thus Ivan Asen captured and blinded Boril, and thus Ivan became Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria. To consolidate his rule, Ivan Asen II did not allow the King of Hungary Andrew II who was passing Bulgaria returning to Hungary from the 5th Crusade to return home unless Andrew gave his daughter Maria in marriage to Ivan, and so Andrew agreed to this in order to return home. The supposed Latin emperor Peter Courtenay however never made it to Constantinople as in 1219 he died in prison in Epirus, possibly under the orders of Despot Theodore while Yolande also suddenly died in 1219 which was very fatal for the Latin Empire as Yolande and Peter’s only son in Constantinople Baldwin was only 2-years-old and their older son Philippe again refused though their other son Robert finally accepted the offer to be Latin emperor but it would take him some time to travel from France to Constantinople and in the meantime, the French knight Conon de Bethune who was a general of the former Latin emperor Henry was elected to rule as the regent of the empire for young Baldwin, but within only a few months Conon had died.

Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, Regent of the Latin Empire (1220-1221)

Looking for a new regent, the Latin barons turned to the cardinal from Rome Giovanni Colonna who had previously joined Peter on the trip to Constantinople but was captured in Epirus, although Cardinal Colonna managed to get released from captivity and in 1220, he was made the regent ruler of the Latin Empire but unfortunately as only a religious leader he had no government and military experience, thus things would already go all downhill here for the Latin Empire. In the Empire of Nicaea, Theodore I Laskaris then died in 1221 at 46 at least leaving behind a much more stable and thriving empire than how he had founded it with a strong government system patterned exactly on the old Byzantine government system back in Constantinople before 1204, but the major problem here was that his succession plan was disputed as his intended successor John Vatatzes was only his son-in-law and so Theodore’s younger brothers Alexios and Isaac Laskaris challenged John’s claim to the throne of Nicaea which would lead to a short civil war.

The 5th Crusade, Crusaders besiege the port of Damietta in Egypt, 1218
Ivan Asen II seizes the Bulgarian throne from his cousin Tsar Boril, 1218


At Theodore I’s death in 1221, the Empire of Nicaea went a long way from a fragile new state to a strong and functioning one that now had a true purpose which was to preserve Byzantine civilization that was thought to have been lost when the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, and one day recapture Constantinople.

Robert Courtenay, Latin emperor (r. 1221-1228)

As for the Latin Empire in Constantinople meanwhile, in 1221 as well their official emperor Robert Courtenay, the son of Peter and Yolande finally arrived from France and was crowned, thus seeing his youngest brother Baldwin for the first time while the empire’s regent Cardinal Colonna stepped down and returned to Rome. The Latin Empire Robert came to rule however was in financial straits due to the loss of great amount of territory to the Despotate of Epirus and Bulgaria while their crushing defeat to the Bulgarians back in 1205 at Adrianople significantly reduced their army, and the young emperor Robert when coming into power did not do anything to solve his empire’s problems, instead he continued to waste away his empire’s treasury using the funds to host lavish parties almost every night where he would waste away getting drunk. Now in Nicaea, John III Doukas Vatatzes at 30 was now emperor in 1222, and quite coincidentally when coming to the throne his son with his wife Irene Laskarina was born and this son was named Theodore after the empire’s founder and his maternal grandfather Theodore I.

Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea and his wife Empress Irene Laskarina

John III although was not yet secure in power as Theodore I’s younger brothers Alexios and Isaac were in clear opposition to him seeing John was a lowborn usurper as the Vatatzes family he came from was not an established noble family, and so Alexios and Isaac went to Latin held Constantinople itself to seek military assistance from their emperor Robert, and Robert not caring much about his empire and his limited army gave the Laskaris brothers troops anyway to help them beat John III in battle. The Nicaean forces led by John III himself and the brothers Alexios and Isaac Laskaris with their allied Latin Crusader army met at the Battle of Poimanenon in 1223, and in this battle taking place in an empty field with a single church, John III being a capable soldier won an easy victory over the Latin army and the Laskaris brothers, thus the brothers Alexios and Isaac who were captured were blinded under John III’s orders then sent in exile to a monastery where they would live out the rest of their days in. The defeat of the Latin army in 1223 by John III’s forces was another heavy blow to the Latin Empire as due to this defeat, the Latins lost all their territory in Asia Minor which John III annexed into the Empire of Nicaea which now by having this land gained control of the Marmara Sea, thus allowing the Byzantines of Nicaea to now cross back into Europe. With the Latin forces so severely reduced after this defeat to the Empire of Nicaea, the Latin Empire would then have no more troops to defend their neighboring Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica from the rapid advance of the Despot of Epirus Theodore Komnenos Doukas who in 1224 then laid siege to Thessaloniki.

Theodore Komnenos Doukas, Despot of Epirus (r. 1215-1230), Emperor of Thessaloniki since 1224

At the end of 1224, the Latin garrison of Thessaloniki surrendered while its king Demetrios who was now grown up fled to Italy to the court of the new Holy Roman emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, and now occupying Thessaloniki and ending the existence of the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica which was now annexed to the Despotate of Epirus, Despot Theodore proclaimed himself “Emperor of Thessalonica” only as a way to assert his authority as the legitimate successor of Byzantium in opposition to John III of Nicaea whose imperial authority was not recognized by Theodore. Now that Despot Theodore was first to be on the winning side on the race to take back Constantinople from the Latins, John III of Nicaea could not let it happen and to stop Despot Theodore from marching further east, John III gathered a large army in 1225 and crossed into Thrace through the Dardanelles strait from Asia Minor, making this the first Byzantine crossing into Europe since 1204. Afterwards, John III and his forces were successfully able to capture the city of Adrianople from the Latins with ease making this the first Byzantine conquest in Europe since the fall of their empire 2 decades earlier, thus with Adrianople falling to Nicaea, the Latin Empire was now only limited to Constantinople and its surroundings.

John III Doukas Vatatzes, Byzantine emperor of Nicaea since 1222, son-in-law of Theodore I Laskaris

The mostly Byzantine Greek people of Adrianople then cheered and welcomed John III with open arms not as a conqueror but as their liberator as finally the people of Adrianople were once again ruled by a fellow Byzantine Greek. Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria at this point concluded an alliance with Despot Theodore to counter John III’s advance into Europe and here Ivan married off his very young daughter Maria to Theodore’s brother Manuel, then in 1227 with Theodore of Epirus now the Emperor of Thessalonica gaining the upper hand, he managed to capture Adrianople from John III ending its Nicaean Byzantine rule after only 2 years, thus the path to Constantinople was fully open to Theodore. Over in Constantinople in 1227 too, Emperor Robert fearing Despot Theodore would capture Constantinople anytime soon travelled to Rome to ask for military assistance from the new pope Gregory IX who during this year became pope too following the death of Honorius III, however the new pope failed to send troops to Robert as at the same time, a large army from Europe headed on a new Crusade to again take back Jerusalem which here was the 6th Crusade led by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II despite not getting the approval of the pope to lead one.

Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman emperor (r. 1220-1250), leader of the 6th Crusade

On the way back from Rome to Constantinople, the Latin emperor Robert died in early 1228 when stopping over in the Peloponnese which was here still held by the Principality of Achaea leaving his 11-year-old brother who here was left in Constantinople as the sole Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay. As for the 6th Crusade of Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, long story short, it was a success for the Crusaders as here through diplomacy Frederick II succeeded in doing what the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Crusades failed to do which was recapturing Jerusalem, and in 1229 with Jerusalem Christian again, the Kingdom of Jerusalem based in it that fell in 1187 was restored.

John III Vatatzes’ forces defeat the Latins at the Battle of Poimanenon in 1223, art by Simulyaton
Holy Roman emperor Frederick II recaptures Jerusalem in the 6th Crusade, 1229
Map of the Byzantine successor states and the new Latin states in 1228

The Climax Part I- The emperor and the tsar besiege Constantinople (1229-1235)             


As the Latin emperor Robert Courtenay died in 1228, his younger brother Baldwin II Courtenay who here succeeded him as Latin emperor was only 11 meaning he was still not yet at the legal age to rule alone, so the Latin barons of Constantinople again had to look for a regent.

Ivan Asen II, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire since 1218

Seeing the Latin Empire’s succession was in chaos and that a regent was desperately needed, the 36-year-old Tsar Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria immediately grabbed the opportunity to claim for himself the regency of the Latin Empire, which was overall part of his plan to one day double-cross the young Latin emperor Baldwin II and take Constantinople for himself, therefore achieving the ultimate dream of the Bulgarians to put Constantinople under their empire. To claim for himself the regency of young Baldwin II and of the Latin Empire, Ivan offered his 5-year-old daughter Elena Asenina who was his daughter from his marriage to the Hungarian princess Maria to the 11-year-old Baldwin II, and so in 1229 Ivan sent his daughter Elena with an entourage of Bulgarian nobles to Constantinople to meet Baldwin II. The young Latin emperor Baldwin II then met the Bulgarian princess Elena who he was supposed to marry in Constantinople while Ivan II also proposed to the Latin barons of Constantinople that he will combine his forces with theirs on his upcoming campaigns. The Latin barons however soon enough declined Ivan II’s offer to be young Baldwin II’s regent as these Latin people from Western Europe did not trust a Bulgarian foreigner as these Latins saw the Bulgarians as a barbarian and inferior race while they also saw Ivan II as a threat whose aim to claim the regency was to abolish the Latin Empire and absorb Constantinople to Bulgaria, and so the proposed marriage between young Baldwin II and Elena never pushed through thus Elena returned to her father in Bulgaria. For the Latin barons of Constantinople, the person to be young Baldwin II’s regent had to be a fellow Latin (Western European), and not too long after they declined Ivan II’s offer they found a new candidate for the regency of the Latin Empire which was no other the 60-year-old former King of Jerusalem and leader of the the 5th Crusade Jean de Brienne as the Latin barons believed that due to Jean’s years of military experience, he could save the Latin Empire by reconquering the lands they have lost. In 1229 when Jean de Brienne was elected as Latin emperor, he was still in Italy commanding the pope’s forces against the forces of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, and when hearing about being selected as the Latin Empire’s regent Jean happily accepted it as he wanted a ruling position again as in 1225 he lost his position as King of Jerusalem to Frederick II. In the meantime, Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas of Epirus felt that his ally Ivan Asen II betrayed him when Ivan tried to claim for himself the regency of Constantinople behind Theodore’s back, and so in 1230 Despot Theodore instead of proceeding to Constantinople to capture it suddenly but confidently led his army north across the Maritsa River which was his state’s border with Bulgaria thus invading the Bulgarian Empire bringing his family along without even declaring war on Bulgaria.

Tsar Ivan Asen II at the Battle of Klokotnitsa, 1230

Ivan Asen II however quickly responded to Theodore’s invasion and personally led his Bulgarian army with an addition of 1,000 Cuman horse archer mercenaries against Theodore’s forces, and being a more successful military commander than Theodore, Ivan defeated Theodore’s Epirote forces here at the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230, and although Ivan allowed the defeated Epirote Byzantine forces to retreat safely, Despot Theodore was captured and brought before Ivan. According to the Jewish-Spanish rabi Jacob Arophe who was present here, Ivan ordered two Jews to blind Theodore as Ivan knew Theodore persecuted Jews in Epirus and to make it look like the Jews were to have their revenge, they were the ones to blind Theodore, however these Jews refused to do so and so Ivan had them thrown off a cliff, therefore Ivan blinded Theodore himself. After being blinded, Theodore was imprisoned in Bulgaria thus ending the power of the Despotate of Epirus for now, while Ivan Asen II due to his victory over Epirus rapidly expanded his empire south capturing most of Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace including the city of Adrianople from the Despotate of Epirus.

Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire

By the end of 1230, Ivan Asen II’s 2nd Bulgarian Empire having all of Bulgaria, most of Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and parts of Epirus while extending all the way to Belgrade and Dyrrhachion in the east was now the dominant power of the Balkans, and the spectacular part was that it had only been 45 years since the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was founded when Ivan’s father Ivan Asen I and uncle Theodor-Peter in 1185 rebelled against Byzantine rule and founded the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which at their time was just a very small state in the mountains of Bulgaria, and now just 45 years later Bulgaria was on its way to its second golden age of power and influence being close to what Bulgaria was at the beginning of the 10th century under the reign of their greatest ruler so far which was Tsar Simeon the Great (r. 893-927) if you remember from chapter VII of this series. The Despotate of Epirus following the capture of Despot Theodore was now the one in ruins, although Thessaloniki was spared by Ivan Asen II who instead installed Theodore’s brother Manuel who was Ivan’s son-in-law- who managed to escape while Theodore and his family were captured- as his puppet ruler of Thessaloniki being only allowed to use the title of “despot” and not “emperor”. Manuel however basically just had control of Thessaloniki as the main state of Epirus in Western Greece itself fell under the rule of Theodore’s nephew Michael II Angelos, the son of the Despotate of Epirus’ founder Michael I who was assassinated back in 1215.

John III Vatatzes’ coat of arms

At the same time as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was rapidly growing in power and influence, the same too could be said about John III Vatatzes’ Empire of Nicaea which in the 1230s started enjoying a time of peace, economic growth, and a Byzantine cultural revival as John III invested heavily in culture and part of his mission as emperor was to revive the Ancient Greek identity and culture which included art and philosophy, while his capital Nicaea too became a center of learning. John III’s son Theodore too was given the best education ever being the imperial heir, and true enough Theodore grew up to be a philosophical genius, but other than Theodore a number of other soon-to-be important people were also brought up at this time educated together with Theodore and these were the soon-to-be scholar and primary historian of the 13th century George Akropolites who was a Byzantine Greek originally born in Latin held Constantinople in 1217 sent to Nicaea, a Greek commoner from Asia Minor who was sent to Nicaea to be educated in order to be Theodore’s protector and general in the future which was George Mouzalon as well as his two brothers Theodore and Andronikos, and a young noble who already showed such ambition even at a young age which was Michael Palaiologos, the son of John III’s top general or Megas Domestikos Andronikos Palaiologos, and even though young Theodore and young Michael were 2nd cousins as both were great-grandsons of the former Byzantine emperor Alexios III Angelos, there was already a strong rivalry growing between the boys, mostly over who had more ambition to restore the empire wherein Michael clearly showed he had more. Meanwhile, John III in the 1230s and even before it succeeded in capturing the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, and later Rhodes from the Venetians, thus the Empire of Nicaea grew to be a dominant power as well which by the 1230s covered almost all of Western Asia Minor having the coasts of the Black, Marmara, and Aegean Seas, as well as a small portion of Thrace.

Ivan Asen II defeats Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas at the Battle of Klokotnitsa in Bulgaria, 1230
2nd Bulgarian Empire (orange) under Ivan Asen II by 1230

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 (Kings and Generals).

Back in Constantinople, Jean de Brienne who was to be the young emperor Baldwin II’s new regent arrived in 1231 where Jean was crowned not as regent but as senior emperor. Baldwin II however was the legitimate emperor as back in 1217 he was born in the same purple room of the imperial Blachernae Palace in Constantinople where the Byzantine imperial heirs were born in, practically making Baldwin a purple-born ruler or Porphyrogennetos, but here in 1231 with the coronation of his new regent Jean, Baldwin was demoted to junior co-emperor.

Jean de Brienne, King of Jerusalem (1210-1225), Latin emperor of Constantinople since 1231, art by myself

The agreement here was that Jean would rule as the Latin Empire’s senior emperor with Baldwin II as junior emperor until Baldwin turns 20 wherein both would rule as equal co-emperors and after Jean’s death Baldwin II would immediately succeed him, and since Jean was already old- that the historian George Akropolites even said that when seeing Jean he seemed like he was already 80 when he was in fact only in his 60s- his death was quite close. Being the Latin emperor even if it was considered the most prestigious title in the Latin east, it would not really mean anything for the old man Jean as his “empire” was basically here just Constantinople and its surroundings while the only prestigious part was that it was a title of “emperor” and Jean true enough wanted to have a title equal in rank to his rival the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II even if the title meant nothing powerful. When becoming Latin emperor, Jean set off to conquer some lands John III of Nicaea captured for his empire along the Marmara coast of Asia Minor as the Venetians in Constantinople urged their emperor Jean to have revenge on Nicaea as John III supported a rebellion among the local Greeks of Crete against their Venetian occupiers. The one growing ever more rich and powerful here was the 2nd Bulgarian Empire of Ivan Asen II, as now by capturing Northern Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace the Bulgarians now had control of the major road there being the Ancient Roman Via Egnatia which made their empire richer due to trade, but not matter how rich and powerful the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was, Ivan was still not yet content with not having Constantinople part of his empire, and since he now became an enemy of the Latins when they refused his offer to be young Baldwin II’s regent, Ivan had no choice but to turn to John III Vatatzes of Nicaea for an ally. Meanwhile, the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea also grew rich through John III’s smart economic policy but also because they had the luck of having their empire located in the fertile western regions of Asia Minor, and seeing that his empire could sustain itself without having to import anything, John III came up with a policy that was to ban the import of foreign goods into his empire, which was also a tactic to hurt the Republic of Venice which was their enemy as they made most of their money through trade in the Aegean area.

Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea, art by Byzantinelegacy

Apart from banning the import of foreign goods, John III encouraged his people to be self-sufficient by using their small plots of land to farm and produce their own goods, and John himself even set an example by having his own farm and growing his own goods, and for setting a good example in being self-sufficient John would be more and more loved by his people. In the meantime, Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria asked for an alliance with John III and so in early 1235 Ivan II went himself across the Marmara into the Empire of Nicaea itself wherein he personally met up with John III at the coastal city of Lampsacus along the Asia Minor coast of the Dardanelles strait. Here, the two rulers of the two rising empires met face-to-face and coincidentally both rulers Ivan and Ioannes had the same name as “Ivan” was the Slavic name for John while John in Greek was Ioannes, and even more both rulers- at least in this story’s case- looked similar to each other in appearance with thick dark curly hair and strong eyes, and were both more or less the same age with John III being older than Ivan by only a year.

Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, art by Kzvasilski

This meeting in Lampsacus in 1235 was then a historical one as finally for once the Byzantine Empire here being Nicaea and the Bulgarian Empire would join forces for once after centuries of being against each other, and here Ivan II basically agreed to help John III’s Empire of Nicaea expand further if John III was to allow the Bulgarian Church to have its own patriarch, and to further ally themselves Ivan’s daughter Elena who was previously supposed to marry Baldwin II here was to now be married to John III’s young son Theodore. John III then agreed to Ivan II’s terms, and what followed their meeting a few weeks later would be the extravagant wedding ceremony of John III’s 13-year-old son Theodore and Ivan II’s 11-year-old daughter Elena who had already joined her father to Lampsacus, as Ivan already before leaving had it in mind for his daughter to this time marry John III’s son. The extravagant wedding of young Theodore and young Elena would also happen in Lampsacus in 1235 and thousands would attend it including nobles, members of the Byzantine senate that relocated to Nicaea, the army, members of the Church, and commoners, and here the exiled Patriarch of Constantinople in Nicaea Germanus II married Theodore and Elena while John III and his wife Irene Laskarina who was Theodore’s mother as well as Ivan Asen II himself stood behind the couple as they were to marry each other. Now after marrying Theodore, Elena would more or less disappear from the historical record as the only other thing known about her is that she would have many children with Theodore later on, but here since this is a fan fiction story, Elena’s story would be different as here she would be the one to give off information to her father and father-in-law on the weak spots of Constantinople as they were both off to lay siege to it. Based on Elena’s memory of being in Constantinople 6 years ago in 1229 when she was sent there to meet her supposed husband Baldwin II, she would tell both her father Ivan and John III that she remembers that a part of the walls which is where the imperial Blachernae Palace is was a weak point as this part of Constantinople’s impregnable land walls being damaged by the 4th Crusade’s attack from 1203-1204 was not really repaired. Some weeks after Theodore and Elena’s wedding, both John III and Ivan II assembled their forces and captured the lands along the Asia Minor coast of the Marmara that Jean de Brienne of the Latin Empire captured 2 years earlier before setting sail across the Marmara to Thrace and marching to the Walls of Constantinople itself capturing Latin held lands in Thrace too, and in this story’s case, young Elena would be brought along to show them the weak part of the walls. Now the two armies of the Byzantines of Nicaea and the Bulgarians joined forces as well as their rulers and together John III and Ivan II looked like the perfect imperial combination with John being the stereotype of the wise and brave Byzantine emperor and Ivan being the stereotype of the ruthless and terrifying Bulgarian tsar.

Wedding of John III’s son Theodore and Ivan II’s daughter Elena Asenina in Lampsacus, 1235
Young Theodore and Elena Asenina married by Patriarch Germanus II in Lampsacus with John III and his wife Irene behind, 1235
Army of the Empire of Nicaea
Army of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire

The combined forces of the Byzantines of Nicaea and of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire led by their respective rulers John III Vatatzes and Ivan Asen II both wearing their imperial armor then arrived before the still powerful 5th century land walls or the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople with their siege engines, and right when the combined Nicaean and Bulgarian forces laid siege to the walls, the Latin emperor Jean de Brienne immediately came to it defense with the few remaining Latin Crusader troops stationed in Constantinople that it was said that he only had 160 knights with him to defend the walls, while the young co-emperor Baldwin II secured himself inside the Blachernae Palace. Now in real history, both John III and Ivan II laid siege to Constantinople in 1235 while the land walls were defended by the Latin emperor Jean de Brienne, but nothing much more is said about this siege in 1235 as the Byzantine historian Akropolites skims over this event very lightly while the sources that discuss this siege are mostly Latin ones being highly biased in favor of Jean de Brienne, and so here in this story what will be different and entirely made up to elaborate this siege would be that Ivan II had brought along his 11-year-old daughter Elena as a spy since she knew the secret of the weak spot in Constantinople’s walls. In this story, Ivan would have John and his Nicaean-Byzantine forces continue besieging the city with their catapults and other siege weapons while the defending Latins would counter-attack with their crossbows- which was a weapon more common to the Latins but less common to the Byzantines- while Ivan and his Bulgarian forces would follow his daughter to the weak spot of the walls near the Blachernae Palace.

Duchy of the Archipelago seal

In real history though, the siege of the combined forces of John III and Ivan II never succeeded as for one neither of them had any idea on how to breach such a massive wall, and even though John III was a Byzantine this was his first time ever to see Constantinople and its walls, and the other reason for why in reality they never succeeded was because the Venetian fleet from the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean led by its duke Angelo Sanudo came right in time to the defense of Constantinople which made both John III and Ivan II panic and abandon the siege for the meantime as this Venetian fleet destroyed most of John III’s ships.

Jean de Brienne, senior Latin emperor of Constantinople since 1231

However when the Venetian fleet left, both John III and Ivan II with their forces returned in late 1235 to continue the siege, however the Latin emperor Jean despite being so outnumbered was said to have defended the city so bravely for months. Both John III and Ivan II eventually fully abandoned the siege in 1236 when neither of them came so close to breaching the walls as a large reinforcement army form the Latin Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese as well as the fleets of the Italian republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa came to Latin Constantinople’s aid as true enough Jean sent word to the pope Gregory IX asking for military support, thus the pope diverted armies from Western Europe heading to the Levant to Constantinople. When neither John III nor Ivan II saw no conclusive end, Ivan II deserted his Byzantine allies mainly because the siege was becoming so difficult and if Constantinople fell to them, it would have fallen to Nicaea and not Bulgaria anyway. In this story however, before the Venetian fleet from the Aegean would come to the defense of Constantinople and the Latins in 1235, Ivan and his troops would be led by Ivan’s daughter Elena to where the weak spot of the walls were seeing it still unrepaired, and here with just a little shot from a catapult followed by some tearing down by the Bulgarian soldiers, the Bulgarians would then kill off the Latin forces in this part of the walls and afterwards rush into the Blachernae Palace killing off the soldiers guarding it, then storm right in to the palace to find Baldwin II. John III and his Byzantine forces meanwhile would be the ones to continue attacking the walls defended by Jean de Brienne who here would not easily surrender and like in real history as mentioned he would also defend the city so bravely with only 160 knights also believing that his side would soon have the upper hand as he heard the Venetian fleet that would come to their rescue was somewhere nearby. Now, the ironic thing here is that in this siege there were in fact 3 Johns involved as apart from the besiegers John III and Ivan II, the 3rd one was the defending Latin emperor Jean de Brienne as “Jean” was French for “John”.

Baldwin II Courtenay, Latin emperor in Constantinople

Anyway, as the forces of John III and Jean de Brienne are squaring off here, Ivan II together with his daughter Elena made it into the Blachernae Palace finding the 18-year-old co-emperor Baldwin hiding in fear under the dining table of the palace, and with no guards left to defend him, one of the Bulgarian soldiers would pull him out by the leg while Elena when seeing him would punch his face out of revenge for refusing to marry her 6 years earlier. Ivan would then have Baldwin brought out in chains while the Bulgarian troops would pour into the streets of Constantinople annihilating the few remaining Latin troops defending it before attacking the defending soldiers at the walls from behind. With the Bulgarians either killing off or forcing the rest of the Latin troops stationed at the walls to surrender, John III would order his army to halt in firing the siege engines while Ivan II himself would climb up one of the towers of the land walls and personally meet the defending Latin emperor Jean de Brienne showing to him Baldwin II in chains to prove that Jean’s side had lost. Ivan would here trick Jean into negotiating terms but before the negotiation at the walls would begin, Ivan would pull out his sword and stab Jean in the chest thus killing him, then afterwards Ivan would have the flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire mounted at one of the towers of Constantinople’s land walls directly across the sight of John III.

2nd Bulgarian Empire solider

At first John III would be questioning why the gate was not opened to him and his forces and even more shocking why the Bulgarian Empire’s flag was flying above the walls, and so John III would shout asking for Ivan to let him in, but for a while he would be met with no response. Eventually, Ivan together with his daughter Elena and Baldwin II in chains would come out of the gate to confront John III while Ivan would first speak directly to John where Ivan would say the he agreed for an alliance in besieging Constantinople but never agreed on who would take it and since Ivan got in first, Constantinople is now his and under the 2nd Bulgarian Empire. Ivan would then kick Baldwin to the ground and have his soldiers blind him, but as the soldiers were to point the knife to Baldwin’s eyes, John would come to realize that Ivan was nothing more but a brutal and savage double-crosser and he would attempt to stop Ivan from blinding Baldwin who had done nothing wrong, but before being able to stop the blinding, Ivan himself would push John away. Both Ivan and John wearing their imperial armor would then get into an intense fist-fight with some kicking and grabbing involved outside the walls and right in front of their respective troops.

John III Vatatzes with a sword

At the end, both Ivan and John would escape each other before either of them is knocked out or killed whereas John would tell Ivan out loud that he should have not agreed to an alliance with a lunatic which was Ivan in the first place while Ivan would push his daughter Elena over to John III giving Elena an ultimatum whether to come back to Bulgaria with him, break her marriage with Theodore, and never in her life return to Nicaea, or go back with John III to Nicaea and never set foot in Bulgaria ever again. Elena here with two tough choices would choose the latter and so she would never be allowed to set foot anywhere in the Bulgarian Empire again never being able to see her family ever again as she wanted to have experience as an empress when Theodore’s time to become emperor comes. Ivan would then successfully blind Baldwin II and then have Baldwin sent to Tarnovo to be imprisoned in the same tower Baldwin’s uncle the first Latin emperor Baldwin I who he was named after was imprisoned in by Ivan’s uncle Tsar Kaloyan. After loading the blind Baldwin II on a cart headed for Tarnovo, Ivan would return inside the walls of Constantinople closing the gate on John III thus putting a lifetime ban on John III from entering Constantinople which here in 1235 is now Bulgarian while John III and his troops together with Elena would retreat back to Nicaea in shame. John III here would at least be able to leave the area of Constantinople before the Venetian fleet from the Duchy of the Archipelago led by its duke Angelo Sanudo like in real history would arrive, but here it would be too late for the fleet to come to the rescue of the Latins when seeing several Bulgarian flags flying above the walls, and when hearing that Jean de Brienne had been killed and Baldwin being captured, Duke Angelo having no more purpose would turn back to the Aegean while Ivan’s archers would fire flaming arrows at the fleet to force them to turn back.

Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, art by HistoryGold777

The Latin Empire in this story thus ended here in 1235 with Constantinople and its surroundings now falling under the rule of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and when inspecting his recently conquered city, Ivan II would see that Constantinople was a mess as the Latin Crusaders who captured it back in 1204 did not even bother to clean up the mess they created when destroying the buildings with their siege weapons and the fire they started, while also the streets of Constantinople would be full of homeless people as the Latin occupiers never even bothered to clean it up and put order in Constantinople as their only purpose was to loot the city’s relics and riches, and true enough by 1235 the Latin Empire that in this story had been destroyed had no more funds as they had already looted and sold off too many relics to the kingdoms of Western Europe that there were no more relics to sell off. Now occupying Constantinople, Ivan Asen II would decide to make it the new capital of his Bulgarian Empire with its capital Tarnovo now only as his summer residence, and even more Ivan would move the seat of the Bulgarian patriarch to Constantinople transforming the Hagia Sophia from the Catholic church the Latins turned it into to a Bulgarian Orthodox Church, then Ivan would reside in the Blachernae Palace and worst of all call himself the true “Byzantine emperor” or Basileus of the Romans.

The 5th century land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Walls), art by myself
Army of the Latin Empire
Blachernae Palace, Imperial Residence of Constantinople

The Climax Part II- The Revenge of the Byzantines and the Rise of the Mongols (1236-1250)         


In real history, neither Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria nor John III of Nicaea succeeded in taking over Constantinople from the Latin Empire, thus the Latin Empire would continue to live on, except its end was already expected. For the Latin Empire, its senior emperor Jean de Brienne ended his reign in 1237 when he decided to retire to become a Franciscan monk as true enough Jean played a vital role in founding the Franciscan Order as a patron, while not too long after retirement, the old Jean de Brienne would die in 1237 as well. Before his retirement however, Jean married off his young daughter Marie de Brienne to the 20-year-old Baldwin II who here in 1237 became the sole emperor, however before Jean’s death Baldwin travelled to Western Europe in order to get military support while Ivan Asen II on the other hand after failing to besiege the city broke his alliance with John III of Nicaea and instead chose to ally himself with the Latins, thus Baldwin II was allowed to freely pass through Ivan II’s Bulgarian Empire when returning to Constantinople. The Latin Empire Baldwin II came to rule in 1237 was basically nothing and with its end either to the Bulgarians or to the Empire of Nicaea imminent, the inexperienced and weak Baldwin II spent most of his reign looking for solutions to raise money that he would later travel to Western Europe again to beg for funds from various rulers, and now one reason for the Latin Empire still having enough funds to live on was because Baldwin II by around 1240 pawned the relic of the Crown of Thorns which was one of the last relics left in Constantinople to the Venetians for 13,000 gold coins which later was bought by the King of France Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) who was possibly Europe’s most powerful ruler.

King Louis IX of France with the Crown of Thorns relic

In this story however, none of this would happen as by 1235 the Latin Empire had already ended with its senior emperor Jean de Brienne killed by Ivan Asen II himself and Baldwin II blinded and imprisoned in the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo, and Ivan here beating John III in taking Constantinople added Constantinople to his empire making it its new capital, although the process in fully making Constantinople the new Bulgarian capital would take years, and so a lot of the events that would happen to Ivan II in the latter part of his reign would play out the same way in this story. What would remain unchanged in this story was the rise and rapid expansion of a new threat from the far east and this here was the story of the 13th century which was that of the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan originally named Temujin in 1206, and following his death in 1227, his successors would go in different directions and rapidly expand his empire west into Central Asia, Russia, and eventually west into Eastern Europe, east to China, and south to Persia and even into Eastern Asia Minor.

Mongol warrior, 13th century

The Mongols were the type of people that would stop at nothing to expand and with the fierceness, brutality, and discipline of their warriors which were mostly cavalry archers as well as the fear they brought with all the atrocities they committed when capturing cities along the way, they grew such a massive empire and by 1237 the nomadic Cuman people of Eastern Europe in fear of the savage expansion of the Mongols would here like in real history flee into Ivan Asen II’s Bulgaria. In this story as well, Ivan II like in real history would grant the Cuman refugees crossing the Danube asylum, although in real history Ivan II after betraying John III following the failed siege would ally with Baldwin II’s Latin Empire while both Ivan II and the Latins would hire the Cumans as mercenaries for their armies too, but here with the Latin Empire gone Ivan would simply just allow the Cumans to settle in his empire.

Cuman warrior, 13th century

In this story like in real history, a plague in Bulgaria would also break out here in 1237 which would result in the deaths of Ivan’s wife the Hungarian Maria and their son who was to be Ivan’s intended heir, thus both theirs deaths which did happen in this story too would greatly devastate Ivan now feeling a lot guilt believing that the mass migration of the Cumans, the plague, and the death of his wife and son was a punishment from God for betraying a great man which was John III, as true enough Ivan II like in real history also betrayed John III in this story. In the meantime, in 1237 Ivan II in this story like in real history would also fall in love with Irene Komnene, the daughter of his prisoner the former Despot of Epirus Theodore who by this point after 7 years was still in prison, and since Ivan’s wife had died here, he would marry his hostage Irene and as a gift to her, Ivan would release her father Theodore from prison.

Ivan Asen II and Irene Komnene, daughter of Despot Theodore

Theodore after being released despite being blind would rush back to Thessaloniki where later that year he would do as he did in real history and enter the city disguised as a beggar chasing his brother Manuel who was put in charge of it by Ivan back in 1230 away, and since Theodore was no longer qualified to rule as he was blind, he would install his son John Angelos as his puppet Despot of Thessaloniki, and Theodore here despite not ruling in name would be the one running the state for his son behind him as his son John never showed interest in ruling as he chose to live life like an ascetic monk. Now Despot Theodore here would not be able to take back Epirus which he ruled first as at this point it was already under the rule of his nephew Michael II Angelos as its despot, and just like in real history Theodore’s brother Manuel here in 1239 would claim for himself Thessaly but would die in 1241 as well, and with his death Thessaly would be annexed by Despot Michael II into Epirus.

Fresco of Tsar Ivan Asen II, died in 1241

In this story, Ivan Asen II’s last years would be not so pleasant as it was in real history as the same would happen wherein the Mongols by 1240 would have already expanded into the lands once under the massive Empire of the Kievan Rus and taking over Kiev as well, thus resulting in a number of Russian nobles (boyars) to flee south across the Danube into Bulgaria leaving Ivan with the headache of having to deal with their mass migration despite Ivan in this story now having Constantinople and ruling from it. Like in real history, Ivan Asen II here would also meet his end in 1241 dying at the age of 48, though here in Constantinople which was his new capital, and like in real history he would be succeeded by his 7-year-old son Kaliman Asen I ruling from Constantinople in this story. Both in real history and in this story, the death of Ivan Asen II in 1241 would be the end of Bulgaria’s glory days, and a major factor to it was the growing pressure of the Mongols that were to now after Ivan’s death impose a heavy tribute on the Bulgarians or else Bulgaria itself would suffer the consequences of being annihilated by the Mongol army. In this story, John III in Nicaea when hearing of Ivan II’s death and the weakness the Bulgarians were in now that they are under a child ruler, he would use this to his advantage in taking back Constantinople soon enough from the Bulgarians.             

Map of the Latin states and Byzantine successor states by 1237
Latin emperor Baldwin II Courtenay in Lego (r. 1228-1261, in real history)
Latin emperor Baldwin II presents the Crown of Thorns relic to King Louis IX of France
Mongol army advancing

Back in the Empire of Nicaea, John III Vatatzes when returning in 1235 would return home with the shame of losing the race to recapture Constantinople to Ivan Asen II, though he would eventually overcome the shame by focusing on growing his empire’s economy and promoting its Greek culture.

Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea

Now just like in real history, John III’s reign would see the revival of the Greek (Hellenistic) identity in the people of Byzantium and a lot of the reasons to this was that when being exiled in Nicaea, they as people came to realize that they were a kingdom of Greeks as first of all they fled Constantinople in 1204 and regrouped together as Greek speaking people, and here in the late 1230s most people who escaped Constantinople in 1204 were in fact still alive with John III being from that generation as he was already alive though not present there when Constantinople had fallen. Now, the reasons for the revival of the Classical Greek identity for the Byzantines took place during their time in exile as the Empire of Nicaea are complex and therefore has no single answer, but a lot of it was also due to the people facing the humiliation of losing their capital needing to find a sense of purpose, and having a ruler like John III who was very fond of the Greek classics, he also encouraged them to rediscover it. John III too when not leading his troops in battle spent his reign searching for and collecting Ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, sculptures, and art, and being a well-loved ruler his people also followed his example which made them more and more aware of their Classical Greek heritage which at this time they began to see as the one they were more attached as they were in fact living in the lands the Ancient Greeks once lived in, therefore the connection of Byzantium to its Ancient Roman roots would begin to fade away, though not entirely as they would still continue to call themselves the “Roman Empire”.

Byzantine fresco of Alexander the Great

With this revival of the Greek classics ongoing in John III’s empire, John III himself would be seen by his people reconnecting to their Greek heritage as the new Alexander the Great, the legendary Ancient Greek King of Macedonia from the 4th century BC, and other than the visionary warrior emperor Alexander was, John III was also seen as a “philosopher-king” like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) as John III ruled wisely. Of course, John III would encounter a lot more challenges and losses along the way and one of the biggest ones he would face was in 1239 which was the death of his wife the empress Irene Laskarina, daughter of the Nicaean Empire’s founder Theodore I. Here in 1239 in this story just like in real history, Irene would die from a severe injury caused by a horse-riding accident a few years ago that made her unable to give birth for life that the only child she and John would have was their son Theodore, and little did she know that the accident would slowly cause her death in 1239. Irene’s death thus was greatly mourned by the people of the empire as she too was well-loved the same way her husband was, and even more she was the one who put more attention in Nicaea’s cultural revival by funding monasteries and learning centers, and for the people of the Nicaean Empire, what they admired most about Irene was her strong moral character which also encouraged them to also be like her. Now, the death of his wife would not stop John III from growing his empire and in this story when finding out Ivan Asen II had died in 1241, John would immediately resume his ambitions to take Constantinople back for the Byzantines seeing an opportunity here as now the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was at a weak position with their new ruler Ivan’s son Kaliman Asen I being only a child. John III here however would not immediately return to Constantinople’s walls and lay siege to it but instead do as he did in real history which was in prioritizing the Byzantine reconquest of Thessaloniki seeing Constantinople as the ultimate prize. In 1241 following Ivan Asen II’s death, John III being also a skilled diplomat would do as he did in real history by inviting the former Despot of Epirus and Emperor of Thessaloniki Theodore Komnenos Doukas who here had no title but was still the power behind his son John that ruled Thessaloniki to come over to the Empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor. The former despot Theodore here would like in real history also be received well by John III in Nicaea where John would treat Theodore like an uncle as Despot Theodore was much older than John, and here John and Theodore would frequently dine with each other in one of John’s seaside palaces along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, and true enough John too was someone fond of good food and in this story’s case expensive seafood which he and Theodore would enjoy eating together overlooking the sea while also drinking expensive wines. The whole point however for John III treating Theodore so well was to lure Theodore into staying in Nicaea forever and never return to Thessaloniki as a way for John to get Theodore out of the way and take Thessaloniki for himself, and true enough Theodore here in his stay in the Nicaean Empire even though treated well with all the best luxuries was more or less a prisoner as for the entire time he was there, he was not permitted to go anywhere without John III’s watching. Now this whole time spent with the former despot Theodore gave John some valuable information in capturing Thessaloniki and in 1242, John III would begin preparing his fleet and army for the invasion of Thessaloniki wherein he would take Theodore with him as an honorary prisoner.

John III Vatatzes in imperial armor on a horse

As I forgot to mention, John III too had one challenge that he had to deal with his entire life which was chronic epilepsy that he frequently suffered unexpected seizures, but this still did not stop him from marching out into battle leading and inspiring his troops himself, and in 1242 following in the footsteps of the legendary Alexander the Great who his people saw him as, John III and his grand general Andronikos Palaiologos leading a large army taking Despot Theodore as an honorary prisoner set sail across the Aegean to Thessaloniki while in Nicaea John III left his now grown up son Theodore to be in charge of it as at this point he was already training under his father to rule the empire. Without any resistance, the Nicaean fleet would arrive before the walls of Thessaloniki where the fleet of John III would lay siege to it from the sea, though soon enough the siege engines of John III would turn out to be not as effective against Thessaloniki’s walls, thus the siege would continue for months. By the end of 1242, John III camped outside Thessaloniki would receive terrible news from his son Theodore in Nicaea and this was that Mongols who for the past years have been expanding west now invaded the territory of the Seljuks in Asia Minor wherein the Mongols brutally sacked and destroyed the city of Erzurum. John III here would be forced to abandon his siege and rush back to Asia Minor fearing that the Mongols would proceed further west and attack the Empire of Nicaea itself, though he would not tell his honorary prisoner Despot Theodore the reason why he had to return. With John III rushing back to Asia Minor, Despot Theodore would then be left behind to enter Thessaloniki and negotiate with his son John, and here Thessaloniki’s ruler John being uninterested in ruling would instantly agree to surrender Thessaloniki to John III but his father would slap him telling him to man up and not give up that easily, and so Theodore’s son John Angelos would continue to rule Thessaloniki until his sudden death in 1244 while his father would continue to run the state for him from retirement in the town of Vodena near Thessaloniki. Following John Angelos’ death in 1244, his father Theodore could still not claim the rulership of Thessaloniki being blind, therefore Theodore would make his younger son Demetrios Angelos his new puppet ruler of Thessaloniki and unlike his brother John who was a simple ascetic, Demetrios was a debauched young man more interested in partying and seducing married women than ruling that he would instantly lose his popularity the moment he came to rule Thessaloniki that his people would soon demand that the much wiser John III of Nicaea should rule them. When returning to Nicaea, John III would prepare for the imminent Mongol invasion of his empire by quickly raising and training a larger army, constructing new siege engines, and having stronger quality weapons made considering that in 1243 the Mongols defeated the Seljuk forces at the Battle of Kose Dag in Eastern Asia Minor. However, John III would soon enough find out that the Mongols had left Asia Minor as their recent attacks forced the Seljuks and the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond north of them to pay tribute to them thus making the Mongols retreat back east and north, and with the Seljuk state east of the Empire of Nicaea weakened to the point of near extinction by the invasion of the Mongols, the Empire of Nicaea was the one to be lucky here, thus allowing them to further grow.

Byzantine Thessaloniki
Byzantine era Thessaloniki
Mongols defeat the Seljuks at the Battle of Kose Dag in 1243, art by Giuseppe Rava


Though the Empire of Nicaea was spared from a massive Mongol invasion, there was still a chance that the Mongols would one day attack Nicaean territory and so to further protect his empire, John III had to turn to an alliance with possibly the most powerful state of Europe of this time which was the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen.

Seal of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire

In 1245, the 53-year-old John III sealed his alliance with Frederick II by marrying Frederick’s 14-year-old daughter Anna Hohenstaufen who travelled from Italy to Nicaea and although she was married to John III, both would never have feelings for each other due to their large age gap. Anna would instead be closer to John’s now grown-up son Theodore and Theodore’s wife Elena the daughter of Ivan Asen II who was now also grown up, and together what all 3 had in common was a love for philosophy and thirst for knowledge. In 1246, just like in real history Ivan Asen II’s son and successor Kaliman Asen I would also die at only 12 except here he would die in the Bulgarian’s new capital Constantinople, thus he would be succeeded as tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire by his younger brother Michael Asen who was only 7, therefore Bulgaria here would be under the regency of its boyars again. In 1246 as well, John III would get word from the people of Thessaloniki that they are tired of being ruled by the decadent and irresponsible Demetrios Angelos and instead preferred that John take over Thessaloniki and make it part of his empire. John III here would be torn between two tough decisions whether to attack Bulgaria and take back some lands in order to take advantage of the situation of their empire in chaos due to the Mongols now raiding their northern border while a child ruler was in charge, or to answer the call of the people of Thessaloniki and overthrow their unpopular ruler Demetrios. John here in this story’s case like in real history would choose to sail back from Asia Minor to Europe to first attack Bulgarian territory taking advantage of the chaos in their empire, and in this story’s case he would prioritize this first as his goal to now finally capture Constantinople considering that the Bulgarians were now weak while their child ruler ruling from it could possibly easily surrender it. Within only 3 months in 1246, John III like in real history here would quickly capture most of Thrace and all of Northern and Eastern Macedonia from the Bulgarians, while here in this story he would again have his grand general Andronikos Palaiologos take care of Constantinople wherein Andronikos with a few soldiers would inspect Constantinople’s walls to look for ways to besiege it. John III when camping in the town of Melnik in Thrace (in today’s Bulgaria) which was one of the towns he had just recaptured from the Bulgarians, he would hear that the nobles of Thessaloniki were conspiring to overthrow their ruler Demetrios and hand him over to John.

John III Vatatzes icon

Using diplomacy this time, John III would write to Demetrios asking for him to personally come to Melnik to negotiate terms, but Demetrios when seeing the letter refused to see John III at Melnik suspecting that it was trap set up by John. With Demetrios refusing John’s terms, John with Andronikos then marched his army from Melnik to Thessaloniki wherein they would lay siege to its walls on arrival. After only a few days, the conspirators that planned to overthrow Demetrios and hand Thessaloniki over to John III opened the gates to John III’s Nicaean army, and when marching into Thessaloniki the people would cheer and welcome John III as their new ruler in open arms, similar to what the people of Adrianople did back in 1225 when John III marched in. Demetrios would then be captured and sent by John III to Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life while Demetrios’ father Theodore being in retirement and still alive would no longer care much about the events going on around him. Now with Thessaloniki, Macedonia, and Thrace under the hands of the Empire of Nicaea, John III would place Andronikos in charge of all these recently conquered lands in Europe as its governor while John III in this story’s case would then have the time to focus on once again laying siege to Constantinople and capturing it from the Bulgarians. In real history, John III was said to have laid siege to Constantinople again in 1247 or 1248 except this time with no alliance with Bulgaria and in real history it was still the Latin Empire under Baldwin II that John III was trying to recapture Constantinople from. In this story’s case, John III would lay siege to Constantinople also at this point and considering that a large portion of the Bulgarian army was away as they had to defend their northern border which was the Danube River from Mongol raids, John III here could easily capture Constantinople. In this story’s case, John III would have to temporarily abandon his siege of Constantinople in 1248 when hearing that his newly appointed governor of Thrace and Macedonia Andronikos Palaiologos had died as in real history Andronikos also died in 1248, and with Andronikos’ death John III would replace Andronikos as the governor of Thrace and Macedonia with Theodore Philes, though John III like in real history too would assign Andronikos’ eldest son Michael Palaiologos to be in charge of the towns of Serres and Melnik in Thrace. Michael Palaiologos despite taking the position of his late father Andronikos was never close to his father as Andronikos after the death of his first wife which was Michael’s mother died when Michael and his siblings were very young, Andronikos remarried and had another family of his own, therefore abandoning his children with his first wife including Michael. Michael’s tough upbringing due to having no parents to watch over him heavily influenced his cruel and ambitious personality he had when grown up, and by the time Michael was appointed as an imperial governor in 1248, he already began showing his ambition to one day take over the empire himself and take back Constantinople. Eventually, it was in fact Michael Palaiologos that did succeed in taking back Constantinople from the Latins later on in 1261, but in this story’s case John III in 1248 would finally succeed in taking back Constantinople, though in this story from the Bulgarians and not the Latins.

Michael Asen, Tsar of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire (r. 1246-1256), son of Ivan Asen II

Now the circumstances in this story’s case for why John III in 1248 was able to recapture Constantinople from the Bulgarians won’t be really explained in full detail, but it was mainly because the Bulgarian forces left defending Constantinople’s walls were outnumbered as most were in the north having to defend their Danube border against the Mongols, and so here after weeks of being under siege the Bulgarian garrison of Constantinople would open the gates to John III and his army, while the Bulgarian tsar Michael Asen who here was ruling from Constantinople would just easily surrender Constantinople to John III as Michael Asen being very young really had no interest in controlling Constantinople anyway. Michael Asen would thus be able to return to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s original capital Tarnovo unharmed only on the condition that Baldwin II who Ivan Asen II imprisoned 13 years earlier there after taking Constantinople in 1235 was to be released. It was however too late for the former Latin emperor Baldwin II in this story as during these 13 years of imprisonment in Tarnovo, he had already died possibly from starvation or disease when inside prison. Now John III then in 1248 in this story would achieve the ultimate goal of his life which was the return of Constantinople to Byzantine rule, and it is here in 1248 in this story where the Empire of Nicaea’s story ends not by dying out and fading away from history but by once again becoming the Byzantine Empire that was thought to be lost forever when the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204. The return of Constantinople to Byzantine rule thus meant the restoration of the old Byzantine Empire, although here John III would be the one to rule from Constantinople while his son Theodore would rule as co-emperor from Nicaea, and now to consolidate the return of Byzantium and its newly gained dominance over all the powers that were the successor states of pre-1204 Byzantium such as Epirus and Trebizond, as well as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, John III would turn to settling peace agreements with all of them, and with his people John III would be ever more loved.

Melnik, Bulgaria
Constantinople, returned to Byzantine rule in 1248 by John III in this story

Watch this to learn more about the road to the Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople (Kings and Generals).

The Epilogue (in real history)             


In real history, John III Vatatzes would die in 1254 still never able to recapture Constantinople from the Latins, but even if he never achieved it, he at least lived long enough to see his empire becoming the most dominant of all the post-1204 successor states seeing it grow even more powerful than the 2nd Bulgarian Empire. The biggest conquest of John III happened to be Thessaloniki, thus making the Empire of Nicaea at its largest extent and to secure his claim on Thessaloniki, John III settled peace with the Despotate of Epirus ruled by Despot Michael II Angelos to prevent Michael II from taking it back. In 1251, Despot Michael II of Epirus broke his peace agreement with John and suddenly laid siege to Thessaloniki attempting to take it back from the Empire of Nicaea but the Nicaean forces still resisted successfully defending Thessaloniki before John III’s arrival in 1252.

Michael II Angelos, Despot of Epirus (r. 1230-1268), art by Alexios I

Here, Despot Theodore now very old came out of retirement to assist his nephew Michael II against John III, thus they both fled north to capture some towns from the Nicaeans but when hearing John III in 1252 arrived to relieve Thessaloniki for Michael II’s army, both Theodore and Michael II fled into Arta, the capital of the Despotate of Epirus itself. Both Theodore and Michael II at first thought of regrouping their troops in Arta where they would launch a counter-attack against John III’s forces, but when hearing that their Albanian allies defected to John III, Michael II and Theodore abandoned their plans and decided to resume their peace with John III. Michael II after ceding back the fortresses and towns he captured back to John III would then continue to rule as the Despot of Epirus while his uncle Theodore personally met up with John III again in Vodena, the same place Theodore had been living in retirement all this time. John III despite usually showing mercy to his defeated enemies this time did not as he had gown extremely fed up with Despot Theodore’s treachery and so John III this time without any second thoughts had Despot Theodore sent to Asia Minor to be imprisoned for life, and in the following year 1253 the blind 73-year-old Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas finally died in prison somewhere in Nicaean territory in Asia Minor. In the meantime, John III’s daughter-in-law Elena Asenina who had been married to John III’s son Theodore since 1235 had died sometime in 1252 at only 28 possibly due to pregnancy complications, but at least she had 6 children with Theodore including a son named John born in 1250 who was named after both his grandfathers, John III Vatatzes and Ivan Asen II. In 1253 then, Michael Palaiologos who was appointed as the governor of Serres and Melnik in Thrace had the courage to speak about organizing a plot to overthrow John III and take over the empire, which eventually led to his imprisonment by orders of his arch-rival John III’s son Theodore. John III however showing some mercy and seeing potential in Michael agreed to release Michael from prison shortly after as long as Michael burned his hands by holding two red hot irons in front of John III to prove his loyalty. After burning his hands by holding these irons, John III released Michael, which John III in fact even rewarded Michael by marrying off his 13-year-old grandniece Theodora Vatatzaina who was the granddaughter of John III’s lesser-known brother Isaac Vatatzes to the 30-year-old Michael, while Michael too was awarded by John III with the new position of Megas Konostaulos which meant “Grand Constable”, or in other words the equivalent of a police general in Byzantium as Michael proved to be a strong military man. In the following year 1254, John III together with his son Theodore set off on another adventure, this time to travel into the lands of the Seljuks deep within Asia Minor to provide them with military aid against a possible Mongol invasion, however as John III began to age his epilepsy grew worse. John III and his son Theodore then never completed their mission as in late 1254 John III suffered a strong epileptic seizure and died at the age of 62 at the city of Nymphaion, part of Nicaean territory in Western Asia Minor. John III was then buried at a monastery he founded in that area while his death was mourned by all his people as he was the leader that they all looked up to and through his courage and great conquests despite suffering from a major challenge throughout his life which was epilepsy, he gave his people hope and inspiration in a time when they were so humiliated due to losing their capital. John III was then succeeded by his only son the 32-year-old Theodore who was present at his father’s death, and when becoming emperor Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes chose to rule with his mother’s last name “Laskaris” instead of his father’s last name “Vatatzes” to assert his legitimacy as the grandson of the Empire of Nicaea’s founder Theodore I Laskaris.

Emperor Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes of Nicaea (r. 1254-1258), son of John III

As emperor, Theodore II possessed a lot of knowledge as he grew up being a well-educated and intellectual scholar making him fond of philosophy, theology, math, science, and history rather than warfare, but he was also well-trained to run an empire by his father. Theodore II however was not as capable and masculine as his father was, as first of all the loss of his wife Elena two years earlier led him down a path of depression and growing up in the palace as the imperial heir with all the luxuries he wanted such as playing Tzykanion (Byzantine polo) made him a spoiled and entitled ruler who did not really care about anyone else’s opinions except his own, and already when coming to power in 1254 he dismissed a lot of the aristocrats from high positions in the government believing they were useless, thus replacing them with his loyal friends most of which were commoners that were educated with him like George Mouzalon who became Theodore II’s grand general or Megas Domestikos who would then be in charge of Asia Minor while Theodore was to campaign in Europe.          

Map of the Latin states and Byzantine successor states by 1255
Version 2
Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes Lego figure
Elena Asenina of Bulgaria, wife of Theodore II Lego figure, died in 1252

Though the new emperor Theodore II appeared more as a scholar than a soldier the way his father was, he still ruled energetically, and when beginning his reign he fulfilled his father’s goal in making a defensive alliance with his eastern neighbor the Seljuk sultan Kykaus II against the Mongols who were still harassing the Seljuks by invading their territory and even if the sultan Kykaus II already agreed to pay tribute to the Mongol Empire’s ruler Mongke Khan, Kykaus II still did not directly pay homage to the khan by travelling to his court, thus giving a reason for the khan to continue raiding Seljuk lands, but now with military support from the Empire of Nicaea, the Seljuks could now stand against the powerful and destructive Mongol raids.

Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes, Emperor of Nicaea

Theodore II however would already fall out with the aristocrats as his reign began not only because he favored commoners over them but also because Theodore no longer prioritized the reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins, and many of the older population of the Nicaean Empire who had seen their capital fall to the Crusaders in 1204 were still alive and at least wanted to die seeing Constantinople under Byzantine hands again, thus they were upset with their new emperor for not letting them see their dreams come true. On the other hand, Theodore II still kept it in mind to take back Constantinople one day but as of 1255 he had other problems to deal with in which one of them was the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which struck back again by invading Nicaean territory in Thrace as the Bulgarian tsar Michael Asen who was at this point already grown up took advantage of John III’s death by continuing raids on Nicaean-Byzantine territory. In early 1255, Theodore II after raising an army of peasants from Asia Minor as he believed they were more effective than foreign mercenaries crossed the Marmara into Europe for the first time in his life to repel the Bulgarian invasion of Thrace while leaving behind his top general George Mouzalon to take care of affairs in Asia Minor. Long story short, Theodore II after several months drove off the Bulgarian invaders from Thrace and Macedonia and to chase the remaining Bulgarian troops back to their empire up north, Theodore had his general which was the aristocrat Alexios Strategopoulos lead a group of the army to chase them away but in a mountain pass in the Rhodope Mountains when hearing the horns of the shepherds, Alexios mistook the sound as the horns of the Bulgarian army, thus he panicked and ordered his men to retreat dropping their equipment in the process. Now the reason for this fiasco at the Rhodope Mountains happening was also due to Alexios being an aristocrat not wanting to take orders from the anti-aristocrat emperor Theodore II, thus Alexios returned to Nicaea where together with Michael Palaiologos who had turned out to be a supporter of the aristocrats and since childhood a rival of Theodore despite being Theodore’s 2nd cousin plotted to overthrow Theodore. When returning to Nicaea in Asia Minor, Theodore discovered the plot thus he had Alexios and the other nobles that took part in it imprisoned while Michael escaping arrest escaped at the middle of the night and fled east to the Seljuk Empire to serve in the army of Sultan Kykaus II as a general dressed in Turkish military attire.

George Mouzalon, general of Theodore II Lego figure

In the following year 1256, Michael Asen resumed his raids into Nicaean territory in Thrace which forced Theodore II this time with George Mouzalon to again cross into Europe and expel the Bulgarians, but seeing he could negotiate with Michael Asen, Theodore arranged a meeting wherein both of them would agree to terms, which at the end was successful wherein the Bulgarian troops were to leave Nicaean territory in Thrace for good. This peace treaty however was very humiliating for the Bulgarians that in late 1256 Tsar Michael Asen was overthrown and stabbed to death by his cousin Kaliman Asen II who took over as the new Bulgarian tsar, although he did not have much support, therefore Michael Asen’s brother-in-law Mitso and the Russian boyar Rostislav Mikhailovich who was one of the many Russian nobles that fled into Bulgaria from the Mongols laid claim to the Bulgarian throne, although Mitso beat Rostislav here and took the throne.

Stefan Uros I, King of Serbia (r. 1243-1277)

In the meantime, Theodore II’s success against the Bulgarians made the Despot of Epirus Michael II nervous that he made an alliance with his northern neighbor the King of Serbia Stefan Uros I who had ruled Serbia since 1243 against Theodore II, but wanting to solve the conflict with Epirus through Diplomacy, Theodore II arranged for his daughter Maria to marry Michael II’s son Nikephoros at Thessaloniki. As young Nikephoros travelled to Thessaloniki with his mother Theodora, Theodore captured Theodora after Nikephoros and Maria were married, and holding Theodora hostage, Theodore II sent word to Despot Michael II that he would release Michael II’s wife Theodora only if Michael II was to cede Epirote territory which included the port of Dyrrhachion to Nicaea. Michael II then agreed in order to get his wife back, thus by the end of 1256 the Empire of Nicaea grew even larger now that it controlled the entire important trade route the Via Egnatia, and now that the Empire of Nicaea had territory north of Eprius including the port of Dyrrhachion in Albania, its territorial extent now extended west to the Ionian Sea wherein right across it was already Italy. Theodore II too just like his father John III suffered from chronic epilepsy and in 1257, Theodore’s epilepsy had grown worse and as the months passed, his health began to fail possibly also due to an additional brain tumor that his contemporary chronicler George Akropolites who was educated together with him describes that Theodore drastically lost a lot of weight that he was already reduced to a skeleton, while his failing health would further increase his depression and the instability of his temper as well as making him despise the Bulgarians more seeing them as sorcerers and poisoners. Being not able to personally command the army anymore, Theodore II had no choice but to recall the person that troubled him most which was Michael Palaiologos from his service to the Seljuk sultan in Asia Minor as someone strong was needed to command the troops in Europe against the forces of Michael II of Epirus that resumed their attacks on Theodore’s recently gained territories north of Epirus. In the meantime, Theodore II concluded peace with the Mongol ruler of Persia Khan Hulagu where both agreed that the Seljuk sultan Kykaus II was to be a vassal of Hulagu, while Theodore II at the same time concluded peace with Bulgaria in 1257 as by this point a Bulgarian boyar named Konstantin Tih claimed for himself the Bulgarian throne after assassinating Mitso but to legitimize his claim, he had to marry a member of the Asen dynasty which here was Theodore II’s other daughter Irene who at her mother Elena’s side was a granddaughter of Ivan Asen II.

Fresco of Tsar Konstantin Tih of Bulgaria (r. 1257-1277, left) with his wife Irene Laskarina (right), the daughter of Theodore II

Back with Michael Palaiologos, he had successfully defeated Michael II’s Epirote troops that had invaded Theodore II’s recently gained lands but Theodore with his health worsening grew more and more paranoid of Michael Palaiologos and so he had Michael recalled to Nicaea fearing that if Michael would have scored more victories, he would be proclaimed emperor by his troops. Back in Nicaea, Michael Palaiologos was thrown in prison as Theodore II suspected him of plotting, but this would only make things worse as with Michael leaving his campaigns, the Epirote forces once again took back the lands Theodore II just gained north of Epirus and in prison, Michael now would plot Theodore II’s death as Theodore was already sick, therefore it was the perfect time to kill him off once and for all. Theodore II eventually released Michael from prison in 1258 but later that year, Theodore’s health worsened that his death was already very near therefore he named his only son John who was only 7 here as his successor while he was to be under the regency of Theodore’s closest friend George Mouzalon until John would grow up. Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes then died on August 16 of 1258 in the imperial palace of the city of Magnesia in Western Asia Minor at the age of 36, and it is most likely that he died from his worsening health condition, although with his chronic health condition of epilepsy and the brain tumor worsening too, it would still take him a few more years to die, therefore it is also possible that Michael Palaiologos who had always been looking for ways to have revenge on Theodore for bullying him since childhood grabbed the opportunity here of Theodore being sick, thus poisoning Theodore to give him a quick death.          

Peasant army of the Empire of Nicaea, art by TimbukDrew
Meme of the chad Michael Palaiologos and the virgin Theodore II Laskaris
John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, son and successor of Theodore II Lego figure, Emperor of Nicaea (r. 1258-1261)

Just shortly after Theodore II’s death in 1258, Michael Palaiologos’ ambition to take over the empire could already be clearly seen as during Theodore’s funeral taking place in the same monastery his father John III was buried in back in 1254, the Latin mercenaries that were under Michael’s command being the empire’s police general suddenly hacked George Mouzalon who was supposed to be Theodore II’s young son John IV’s regent to death, while at the same time George’s brother Andronikos who was also loyal to Theodore II was murdered, though the other Mouzalon brother Theodore survived but was never heard from again. Following George Mouzalon’s murder, George’s wife fled to Michael’s house in Magnesia where Michael revealed to her that he was behind the plot against her husband as Michael told her to not say anything about it or she will be killed the same way. Despite his regent George Mouzalon being killed, Theodore II’s 7-year-old son John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes still succeeded to the throne in 1258 first under the regency of the Patriarch of Constantinople exiled in Nicaea which was Arsenios Autoreianos, though a large percentage of the Byzantine nobility in Nicaea as well as the senate backed Michael Palaiologos as the time they were at now was a troubled one with enemies on all sides which was mainly Epirus in the west and the potential threat of the Mongols at large making a child ruler which was John IV unable to handle this kind of situation, therefore a strong and ruthless military emperor was needed, and this here would be no other than Michael Palaiologos.

Michael Palaiologos, Regent Emperor of Nicaea (1259-1261)

To further put a claim to the throne of the Empire of Nicaea, Michael began spreading lies about the threat of the Mongols worsening as well as Epirus growing now that Epirus allied with the dying Latin Empire in Constantinople and with the new German king of Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen, the son of the late Holy Roman emperor Frederick II who had died back in 1250. On New Year’s Day of 1259, Michael Palaiologos was officially crowned by the patriarch as co-emperor though Michael was the one crowned with the imperial crown while young John IV only with an ornate headdress that was not a crown, thus from here on it was Michael Palaiologos that was to effectively rule the Empire of Nicaea and lead it to victory while John IV was only to be a puppet. Now being in charge, Michael in 1259 had the general Alexios Strategopoulos who Theodore II imprisoned back in 1255 released from prison as Alexios was needed on a massive military campaign planned by Michael. Alexios together with Michael’s younger brother John Palaiologos then set sail for Greece to clash with the forces of Michael II’s Despotate of Epirus who now allied themselves with the King of Sicily Manfred, the Latin Principality of Achaea in Southern Greece, and the same Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean still under Duke Angelo Sanudo who came to the defense of Constantinople back in 1235. The forces then clashed in the epic Battle of Pelagonia in September of 1259 somewhere in Northern Greece which at the end resulted in victory for the Nicaean forces under John Palaiologos and Alexios Strategopoulos when a large number of the Epirote forces led by Despot Michael II’s son John defected to the Nicaeans as apparently Michael Palaiologos had bribed John knowing he had issues with his father to betray his father in battle.

Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece

This battle too was also the last recorded appearance of the Varangian Guard in battle, though it resulted in the end of Latin dominance in Greece as the Prince of Achaea here which was William Villehardouin was captured by the Nicaean forces and escorted to prison by the Varangians, while the threat of the Despotate of Epirus too was neutralized. This victory then cleared all obstacles for the Empire of Nicaea allowing them to prioritize on their main objective which was the Reconquest of Constantinople, thus in 1260 Michael Palaiologos prepared for his ultimate goal and so he set off from Nicaea sailing across the Marmara again to the Walls of Constantinople. Michael here in 1260 again put Constantinople under siege but at the end, he again failed even though the Latins no longer had much of a defense as what Michael really needed here was a navy to support him. The Latin emperor Baldwin II and Michael then met wherein Michael agreed to a one-year truce with Baldwin II which really meant that Baldwin should prepare his defenses as a year later, Michael would return but this time with a full-scale invasion.

Seal of the Republic of Genoa

In early 1261, Michael made a permanent alliance with the Italian maritime Republic of Genoa which was to provide a navy to assist the Nicaean forces in recapturing Constantinople later that year as apparently at this time Genoa was at war with Venice which the Latin Empire was allied with, therefore the Genoese were more than willing to assist as they were to fight the Venetians. At the same time too, Michael sent Alexios Strategopoulos to scout the Walls of Constantinople and either look for weak spots or to ask locals for information on how to besiege the walls. Alexios however was in luck as the locals of Thrace told him that the main garrison of the Latins in Constantinople boarding a Venetian fleet left the city to raid an island in the Black Sea, thus Alexios grabbed the opportunity and before the Latin forces could return, Alexios with an army of 800 which included both Nicaean-Byzantine troops and Cuman mercenaries at the dead of night found a secret passage beneath the walls that led to a monastery inside the city.

Cuman warrior, allied forces with the Byzantines in the 1261 Reconquest

Alexios and a few men snuck beneath the walls, killed off the gate guards while they were sleeping, then opened the gate allowing his 800 men to storm in at the dead of the night. The very few Latin forces left to defend Constantinople woke up in panic seeing the Byzantines of Nicaea invade Constantinople burning the Venetian shipyards and warehouses to prevent their escape, but at the end it was all hopeless for the few Latin troops left inside. As the morning of July 25 came, the Latin emperor Baldwin II woke up and, in a panic, dropped his crown and sword but at least made it in time to board a Venetian ship headed back to France as the Venetian fleet returned from their raid at least coming in time to save those fleeing the city but too late to save the city itself, thus Baldwin II here would be the last Latin emperor. The unexpected Reconquest of Constantinople on July 25 of 1261 thus brought an end to the 57-year existence of the Latin Empire, while this was also the end of the Empire of Nicaea, although not really the end as the Empire of Nicaea simply returned to being the Byzantine Empire that was thought to be lost forever in 1204. Michael Palaiologos in his camp somewhere in Asia Minor later got word from his older sister Irene who being excited woke him up telling him Alexios with only 800 men took back Constantinople from the Latins, and although thinking of it as a joke at first as Michael himself saw the power of Constantinople’s walls a year earlier, he was true enough proven wrong as a messenger came delivering to Michael the last Latin emperor Baldwin II’s crown and sword that was left behind.

Michael VIII Palaiologos enters Constantinople in triumph, 1261

On August 15 of 1261, Michael himself entered Constantinople for the first time in his life seeing a severely damaged and depopulated city of only 35,000, and after a triumphal procession he was crowned in the Hagia Sophia by Patriarch Arsenios now restored as the Patriarch of Constantinople as the restored Byzantine emperor Michael VIII, and when being crowned Michael vowed that he would restore Byzantium to its old glory, but to achieve his goals Michael was someone who used rather dirty diplomatic means to achieve them. Now to fully consolidate his rule and his new dynasty, Michael VIII before 1261 ended had the rightful emperor the now 11-year-old John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes who was still in Nicaea blinded and afterwards imprisoned in one of the Palaiologos family’s castles in Asia Minor as Michael knew that one day young John IV may come back for revenge on Michael for possibly poisoning his father.

Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded by Michael VIII in 1261

Michael VIII Palaiologos would then rule for another 21 years until his death in 1282, and in his reign, he would do all he can to restore the Byzantine Empire now back in Constantinople to its old glory, but at the end he would never get anywhere far as the damage caused by the 4th Crusade when they sacked Constantinople back in 1204 had proved to be far beyond repair. Michael VIII too would have the legacy not only of restoring the Byzantine Empire but of founding the Palaiologos Dynasty which would be the longest reigning dynasty in Byzantine history that would rule until the end of the Byzantine Empire 2 centuries later in 1453, though the story of Michael VIII’s reign and that of his dynasty would be saved for another time.  

Michael VIII Palaiologos Lego figure
Empire of Nicaea’s forces defeat the allied forces of Epirus and the Latins at the Battle of Pelagonia in 1259, art by FaisalHashemi
Alexios Strategopoulos Lego figure
The 1261 Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi
Coronation of Michael VIII Palaiologos in the Hagia Sophia, 1261
Watch this to see the story of the 1261 Reconquest of Constantinople in Lego (No Budget Films)

The Epilogue and Secret Ending (in this story) and Conclusion             


Now in this story’s case most of the events will play out as they did in real history as mentioned previously beginning 1250, except the only difference would be that Constantinople would once again be under Byzantine hands after John III Vatatzes would take it back from the Bulgarians in 1248. The rest of the events taking place in the last years of John III’s reign would still happen which means that even though achieving the reconquest of Constantinople, John III would here do the same as he did from 1251-1252 in defending Thessaloniki from the sudden invasion of Despot Michael II Angelos of Epirus, his daughter-in-law which was his son Theodore’s wife Elena Asenina would also die in 1252, Michael II of Epirus would give up his claim on Thessaloniki while his uncle the former Despot of Epirus Theodore Komnenos Doukas would like in real history be imprisoned in Asia Minor by John III dying in 1253. Though ruling already from Constantinople, John III in 1254 would still go on an adventure wherein in this story John III would also die from his worsening epilepsy in Nymphaion at the age of 62 later in 1254, although at least John III in this story’s case would die a happy death as he had lived to see his empire’s ultimate goal of recovering Constantinople achieved as well as getting the chance to not just rule as an “Emperor of Nicaea” but as a “Byzantine emperor” from Constantinople. Theodore II Laskaris-Vatatzes here in this story would like in real history succeed his father in 1254, although Theodore II now having Constantinople thanks to his father’s capture of it from the Bulgarians in 1248 would now rule as a Byzantine emperor from Constantinople, therefore the people he was ruling now having what they for the longest time dreamt of which was the reconquest of Constantinople would no longer be upset with Theodore who in real history did not really prioritize taking back Constantinople, as here they already had it back. When ruling from Constantinople, Theodore II in 1255 would still do the same as he did in real history when campaigning against the Bulgarians in Thrace as the Bulgarian tsar Michael Asen would still raid Byzantine Thrace taking advantage of John III’s death. Like in real history, Theodore II too in this story’s case would prefer his loyal friends who were mostly commoners like George Mouzalon over the aristocracy which included Michael Palaiologos and Alexios Strategopoulos, thus Alexios would still be imprisoned while Michael would like in real history here also flee to the Seljuks to serve in their army as a general. The conquests of Theodore II in Northern Greece in 1256 would also happen in this story wherein Theodore II this time ruling from Constantinople would still turn his attention west to further expand the now restored Byzantine Empire to the Ionian Sea by capturing lands from Michael II of Epirus. At the same time, the same succession crisis in the Bulgarian Empire from 1256 to 1257 would also happen here wherein the Bulgarian throne would pass from Michael Asen to Kaliman Asen II, to Mitso, then finally to Konstantin Tih while also the marriage between the new Bulgarian tsar Konstantin Tih to Theodore’s daughter Irene would take place as well. Michael Palaiologos too in this story’s case would be recalled from his service to the Seljuks back to Byzantium to battle the Epirote forces of Michael II in 1257 wherein he would also be recalled and imprisoned by Theodore like in real history, but this here would be where things get different. Now the secret ending in this story would be that instead of Michael Palaiologos being eventually released from prison, Theodore II now tired of Michael and his schemes would show no mercy and thus blind Michael and would keep him in prison for life, thus this would fully disable Michael from seizing the throne and overthrowing the Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty like he did in real history. Theodore II however in this story would still meet the same end as he did in real history which was that of his health worsening as the months passed, although in this story due to Michael Palaiologos being blinded and imprisoned for life, Theodore II’s death would possibly not happen too sudden like in real history where in 1258 he just died less than a year after his health began to deteriorate, as here Michael would not be around to poison Theodore II. However, Theodore II would here also be too weak to personally lead his troops in battle, and without Michael Palaiologos left for the job, the job would instead be left to Theodore’s closest friend and top general George Mouzalon together with Alexios Strategopoulos who here in this story would be released from prison and would swear loyalty to Theodore II considering that the person he was more loyal to which was Michael was now out of function being blinded and imprisoned. In 1259, the Battle of Pelagonia would still take place and here it would be between the forces of the restored Byzantine Empire led by Alexios and George Mouzalon against the forces of Michael II of Epirus with his Latin allies being the Principality of Achaea in the Peloponnese and that of the Germans in Sicily, and at the end the forces of the restored Byzantium would still win, thus Epirus would be eliminated as a threat. In this story, Theodore II’s death would happen in late 1259 due to his worsening health finally giving in, though at least Theodore II in this story would die seeing not only the Byzantine Empire restored with Constantinople as its capital again but with it now being the dominant power of the area considering their victory over the rival the Despotate of Epirus earlier that year.

John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes, restored Byzantine emperor in Constantinople in this story

Obviously, since Constantinople in this story’s case is already back under Byzantine hands, the unexpected Reconquest of 1261 from the Latins would no longer take place, and as for Michael Palaiologos his real purpose in history was really in masterminding the ultimate achievement of the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, but in this story’s case with Constantinople already back under Byzantine hands before 1261, Michael though would probably still want to take the empire for himself by overthrowing the ruling Laskaris-Vatatzes Dynasty, but here with Michael already blinded and imprisoned he would never achieve it. What would happen instead here is that after Theodore II’s death in 1259, his son John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes would succeed him, therefore the Palaiologos Dynasty that would rule Byzantium for 200 years would never come to exist, but since John IV is only a child, he would rule under the regency of the general George Mouzalon, who in real history was really assigned by Theodore II to rule as regent for his son until George was hacked to death by Michael’s orders in Theodore’s funeral. In real history, John IV never made it to see Constantinople himself as Michael Palaiologos in 1261 reclaimed it wherein he took the empire for himself becoming Emperor Michael VIII who later in 1261 blinded and imprisoned young John IV, and in addition Michael VIII also took all the credit for the hard work of his predecessors the Laskaris-Vatatzes emperors. Although John IV was blinded, he still lived long beyond Michael VIII’s death in 1282 and in 1290, John IV already a 40-year-old man was finally released from 29 years of imprisonment by Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) who then allowed John IV to return to Constantinople where John would live the rest of his days peacefully in retirement until his death in 1305 at the age of 55. In this story, John IV would instead live long enough to rule on his own and like Michael VIII Palaiologos did in real history, John IV would be the one to restore the Byzantine Empire and repopulate Constantinople, however the possible what if of John IV Laskaris-Vatatzes being able to survive his blinding on ruling a long reign would be a different story altogether, although in this story’s case John IV would like in real history also die in 1305, therefore he would see the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire himself which took place with the birth of the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor in 1299 that will from there begin to grow.

Map of the restored Byzantine Empire (purple) by 1265


The 13th century was indeed a very complicated and in fact violent time in the history of the Byzantine Empire considering the unexpected fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as a whole to the 4th Crusade in 1204 and how drastically the geography of what once was part of the Byzantine Empire in Greece and Asia Minor turned out to be with the formation of so many new states there, whether they were Latin (Western European) or Byzantine Greek. The 13th century too had shown that the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire which seemed to be so invincible after surviving more than 800 years of constant challenges was overall not as invincible as it seemed as basically all it would take was an incompetent ruling dynasty being the Angelos Dynasty with a power struggle, a foolish offer which Alexios IV Angelos made to the Crusader army, and an external factor which was the 4th Crusade which at the end gradually made their way into Constantinople’s walls eventually taking over the city, thus changing the entire course of the history of Byzantium in an instant. On the other hand, the 13th century also showed that there was hope in such a dark time like this when the Byzantines had to suffer the humiliation of losing their capital and being broken apart into several successor states, and what is very inspiring here is the story of the Empire of Nicaea that persisted in this time with a singular objective which was to one day reclaim Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire when it all seemed like it was impossible. At the end of it all, despite the loss of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade, it would still seem like one day it would be back again under Byzantine hands with the pre-1204 Byzantine Empire restored considering that for one, the Latins that captured Constantinople and founded the Latin Empire in it never really had a plan to stay and establish their own empire but rather just came there to loot the city, and at the same time the Byzantines were a proud people that would never allow their city to fall and so in their time in exile, not only the Empire of Nicaea but also its rival the Despotate of Epirus, and even the 2nd Bulgarian Empire all put a claim on taking back Constantinople, and lastly it also took a great amount of luck for the Byzantines to take back Constantinople with the Latin Empire temporarily ruling from it which thus allowed the city to be taken back in one night in real history. Now, it would have just been a matter of time for Latin rule over Constantinople to end, and what only prolonged its existence up to 1261 was mainly the rivalry and constant conflicts ongoing between the Byzantine successor states of Nicaea and Epirus as well as the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, and if these conflicts between them would have not been so intense, then possibly one of these 3 powers would have been first to take back Constantinople, and in this story’s case it was Bulgaria. However, even if the Bulgarians or Epirus beat the Byzantines of Nicaea in the race to take back Constantinople, the Byzantines of Nicaea would still eventually take back Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire as ever since they formed their empire in 1204, the recovery of Constantinople was already their objective. Now for this story, instead of choosing a more popular what if in the 13th century like if Byzantium did not fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204, I chose the quite unusual what if for the 13th century which was that if the Bulgarians under Ivan Asen II were the ones to capture Constantinople instead of the Byzantines of Nicaea, as this is one very interesting possibility that could have happened in the turbulent 13th century but this topic too covered the two most interesting historical figures of 13th century Byzantine history which was the wise and strong Emperor of Nicaea John III Vatatzes and the unpredictable and cruel Bulgarian emperor Ivan Asen II, and to put these two characters together, this fan fiction of the Bulgarians taking over Constantinople in 1235 was the perfect one to write. In addition, these characters too further expand on the stereotypes that become more evident in the 13th century with the Byzantines as both wise and scheming, Bulgarians as savage and unpredictable, and the Latins as greedy and useless. The 13th century story of the Byzantine Empire too shows that things had gone such a long way as true enough the time the Byzantines were a dominant power in the Mediterranean under the Komnenos Dynasty as mentioned in the previous chapter during the 12th century was not too long ago before everything turned around in the blink of an eye 1204. However, as I said earlier that even though the Byzantines were to face this terrible tragedy of losing their capital Constantinople to the 4th Crusade, there would also be a positive side to it and this positive thing that resulted from such a tragedy was that the Byzantines being in exile as the Empire of Nicaea had the time to rediscover their Greek roots, build up an identity as a Greek power, and reinvent themselves as one.

john va
Icon of St. John III Vatatzes

Now the person to thank for all this is Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea and although as I said it would be too difficult to explain this entire Greek identity consciousness and revival, this new sense of identity would continue to define Byzantium after its restoration in 1261 now being no longer a multi-ethnic empire but a dominantly Greek kingdom. The other thing John III is to thank for is for laying the groundwork for the eventual reconquest of Constantinople, as in real history even if he did not live to see Constantinople back under Byzantine hands which only happened 7 years after his death, he at least made it a possibility that Constantinople would return to them by systematically eliminating all threats to them to allow them to achieve their ultimate goal. Overall, John III Vatatzes is one of the great but very underrated Byzantine emperors that deserves more attention especially since he basically turned an exiled empire into a strong state with a thriving economy but also gave his people as a sense of identity as Greeks which therefore makes him be remembered generations after his death as the “Father of the Greeks”, and for his merciful rule John III is in fact a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1261-1282), painting by myself

Now John III is not only the main player of 13th century Byzantine history as the other most important 13th century Byzantine historical figure was Michael VIII Palaiologos who in 1261 in real history did achieve the ultimate goal of recapturing Constantinople, and although unlike John III who was a merciful and just ruler, Michael VIII was quite the opposite as a ruthless, scheming, and to a certain extent an even tyrannical emperor as true enough he came to power and founded his dynasty by blinding John III’s grandson John IV and overthrowing John III’s dynasty which had done nothing wrong, but in fairness to Michael VIII for all his evil doings, he at least cared a lot for the empire he restored and its survival. The reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos and his style of ruling though would be a story saved for the next chapter of this series but to put it short, even if Michael VIII restored the Byzantine Empire, he would still face a lot of challenges which would include the still ongoing threat of the Mongols and another plot from the Latins to once more take back Constantinople. Over time, the Greek identity of Byzantium would be more evident as from its restoration in 1261 onwards, Byzantium would no longer become a major world power but instead a local power in the Balkans at the same level as its neighbors the Serbian Kingdom and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire with the Byzantine Empire being the Greek power. The next chapter of this series will then go back to what actually happened in real history after the Byzantine Empire was restored by Michael VIII in 1261, which however would already be the beginning of the end for the Byzantines as new external enemies namely the new power of the Ottoman Turks in Asia Minor is to arise in 1299 while more civil wars and political intrigues are to come as well to bring Byzantium down from the inside. Just like this chapter which discussed a what if of the Bulgarians taking over Constantinople when they had the chance to so, the next chapter will discuss the possible what if in the 14th century wherein this time it would be Serbia that would take over Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire if they had the chance to, a chance they in fact did seem to have in 14th century when the Byzantine Empire after a civil war was at the point of near extinction. Before finishing, I would like to say that this chapter though a very difficult one to write considering all the events happening one after the other in the 13th century, it was also a very special one to write as for a very long time I have been covering the 13th century history of Byzantium in Lego films for my channel and now it was my chance to do a fan fiction on the 13th century topics I always cover. Well, this is all for chapter X of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… thank you for your time!   

Next Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- 14th Century

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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