Empire of Trebizond

From New World Encyclopedia
The states carved from the Byzantine Empire after 1204. Trebizond is Northeast of the Seljuk sultanate.

The Empire of Trebizond (Greek: Βασίλειον τής Τραπεζούντας) was a Byzantine Greek successor state of the Byzantine Empire founded in 1204 as a result of the capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. Queen Tamar of Georgia provided troops to her nephew Alexius I, who conquered the Pontic Greek cities of Trebizond, Sinope and Paphlagonia. It is often known as "the last Greek Empire." Until it was defeated by the Ottomans in 1461, it represented the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire as well as continuity with the world of Ancient Greece, outliving the Byzantine Empire, which Fall of Constantinople fell in 1453.

After the demise of the Empire of Trebizond, there would not be an independent Greek entity until the modern nation-state of Greece was founded in 1830. Trebizond, while it lasted, was a center of Greek culture and, through trading and diplomatic contacts especially with Venice, played an important role in helping to preserve and pass on the learning of Ancient Greek, often neglected in Western Europe where Latin texts took priority over Greek. Yet many of the values and much of the political thought and philosophy of the West derives from the Greek tradition. Empires come and go but that which enhances and enriches human life endures, passed on from empire to empire, from epoch to epoch through such catalysts and conduits as the Empire of the Trebizond. The name of this polity is less well known than that of the Byzantine Empire but when the Byzantine empire lay in ruins, and the Frankish conquerors' were destroying its legacy, Trebizond played a crucial role in preserving that wisdom and learning.


When Constantinople fell in the Fourth Crusade in 1204 to the Western European and Venetian Crusaders, the Empire of Trebizond was one of the three smaller Greek states that emerged from the wreckage, along with the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus. Constantinople itself remained in Western hands until 1261 as the Latin Empire under Baldwin IX, the Count of Flanders. The Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261 under Michael VIII Palaiologos. The Crusaders had turned aside from their march to Jerusalem supposedly to help restore the son of the deposed Byzantine emperor, Isaac II Angelos. They took the city, pillaged it for three days then installed Baldwin as Emperor; Crete went to Venice. Baldwin controlled about Alexius, a grandson three-eighths of the former empire. The three "successor states," one of which was the Trebizond Empire, were set up in the remaining five-eighths. Trebizond was founded when the Alexios, grandson of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus I Comnenus, made Trebizond his capital and asserted a claim to be the legitimate successor of the Byzantine Empire. Alexio's grandfather, Andronicus I, had been deposed and killed in 1185. He was the last Commenian to rule in Constantinople. His son Manuel was blinded and may have died of his injuries. The sources agree that Rusudan, the wife of Manuel and the mother of Alexios and David, fled Constantinople with her children, to escape persecution by Isaac II Angelus, Andronicus' successor. It is unclear whether Rusudan fled to Georgia (her father was King of Georgia) or to the southern coast of the Black Sea where the Comnenus family had its origins. There is some evidence that the Comnenian heirs had set up a semi-independent state centered on Trebizond before 1204.

The rulers of Trebizond called themselves Grand Comnenus and at first claimed the traditional Byzantine title of "Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans." At this period, three polities were claiming to be the successor of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire in the West and the neighboring Latin and Trebizond Empires in the East. They also continued the rule of the Commenius family. After reaching an agreement with the restored Byzantine Empire in 1282, the official title of the ruler of Trebizond was changed to "Emperor and Autocrat of the entire East, of the Iberians and the Transmarine Provinces" and remained such until the empire's end in 1461. The state is sometimes called the Comnenian empire because the ruling dynasty descended from Alexius I Comnenus.

Trebizond initially controlled a contiguous area on the southern Black Sea coast between Soterioupolis and Sinope, comprising the modern Turkish provinces of Sinop, Ordu, Giresun, Trabzon, Bayburt, Gümüşhane, Rise and Artvin. In the thirteenth century, the empire controlled Perateia which included Cherson and Kerch on the Crimean peninsula. David Comnenus expanded rapidly to the west, occupying first Sinope, then Paphlagonia and Heraclea Pontica until his territory bordered the Empire of Nicaea founded by Theodore I Lascaris. The territories west of Sinope were lost to the Empire of Nicaea by 1206. Sinope itself fell to the Seljuks in 1214.


Tenth century Trebizond Gospel after the 4th Crusade.

While Epirus effectively disintegrated in the fourteenth century, and the Nicaean Empire succeeded in retaking Constantinople and extinguishing the feeble Latin Empire, only to be conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire, Trebizond managed to outlive its competitors in Epirus and Nicaea.

Trebizond was in continual conflict with the Sultanate of Iconium and later with the Ottoman Turks, as well as Byzantium, the Italian republics, and especially the Genoese. It was an empire more in title than in fact, surviving by playing its rivals against each other, and offering the daughters of its rulers for marriage with generous dowries, especially with the Turkmen rulers of inland Anatolia.

The destruction of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan in 1258 made Trebizond the western terminus of the Silk Road. The city grew to tremendous wealth on the Silk Road trade under the protection of the Mongols. Marco Polo returned to Europe by way of Trebizond in 1295. Under the rule of Alexius III (1349–1390) the city was one of the world's leading trade centers and was renowned for its great wealth and artistic accomplishment. There was a Venetian trading post there.

Climax and civil war

The small Empire of Trebizond had been most successful in asserting itself at its very start, under the leadership of Alexius I (1204–1222) and especially his younger brother David Comnenus, who died in battle in 1214. Alexius' second son Manuel I (1238–1263) had preserved internal security and acquired the reputation of a great commander, but the empire was already losing outlying provinces to the Turkmen, and found itself forced to pay tribute to the Seljuks of Rum and then to the Mongols of Persia, a sign of things to come. The troubled reign of John II (1280–1297) included a reconciliation with the Byzantine Empire and the end of Trapezuntine claims to Constantinople. Trebizond reached its greatest wealth and influence during the long reign of Alexius II (1297–1330). Trebizond suffered a period of repeated imperial depositions and assassinations from the end of Alexius' reign until the first years of Alexius III, ending in 1355. The empire never fully recovered its internal cohesion, commercial supremacy or territory.

Decline and fall

Manuel III (1390–1417), who succeeded his father Alexius III as emperor, allied himself with Timur, and benefited from Timur's defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Ancyra in 1402. His son Alexius IV (1417–1429) married two of his daughters to Jihan Shah, khan of the Kara Koyunlu, and to Ali Beg, khan of the Ak Koyunlu; while his eldest daughter Maria became the third wife of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Pero Tafur, who visited the city in 1437, reported that Trebizond had less than 4,000 troops.

John IV (1429–1459) could not help but see his Empire would soon share the same fate as Constantinople. The Ottoman Sultan Murad II first attempted to take the capital by sea in 1442, but high surf made the landings difficult and the attempt was repulsed. While Mehmed II was away laying siege to Belgrade in 1456, the Ottoman governor of Amasya attacked Trebizond, and although defeated, took many prisoners and extracted a heavy tribute.

John IV prepared for the eventual assault by forging alliances. He gave his daughter to the son of his brother-in-law, Uzun Hasan, khan of the Ak Koyunlu, in return for his promise to defend Trebizond. He also secured promises of help from the Turkish emirs of Sinope and Karamania, and from the king and princes of Georgia.

After John's death in 1459, his brother David came to power and misused these alliances. David intrigued with various European powers for help against the Ottomans, speaking of wild schemes that included the re-conquest of Jerusalem, which had fallen to Saladin in 1187, ending Frankish rule (from 1099). Mehmed II eventually heard of these intrigues, and was further provoked to action by David's demand that Mehmed remit the tribute imposed on his brother.

Mehmed's response came in the summer of 1461. He led a sizeable army from Bursa, first to Sinope whose emir quickly surrendered, then south across Armenia to neutralize Uzun Hasan. Having isolated Trebizond, Mehmed quickly swept down upon it before the inhabitants knew he was coming, and placed it under siege. The city held out for a month before the emperor David surrendered on August 15, 1461.


With the fall of Trebizond, one of the last territories of the Roman Empire was extinguished. There would not be an independent Greek state until 1830, following the anti-Ottoman Greek War of Independence. Although the Ottomans settled Turks in the Trebizond area, it remained a strong center of Christianity with a community of Greek and Armenian traders, who even in Ottoman times enjoyed diplomatic relations with some West European states. Situated in an ideal location on the Black Sea, the area and the city of Trabzon remained an important port and mercantile center. Today, the city of Trabzon is capital of Trabzon Province. The Empire of Trebizond represented continuity between the classical world and those epochs of history that followed. Through the Republic of Venice and its own diplomatic missions, it maintained contact with the European space, helping to ensure that the learning and knowledge of the old world were preserved and handed on for use by subsequent generations in future epochs.

Dynasty of the Empire of Trebizond (reverse order)

Name From To
David Megas Komnenos 1459 1461
Ioannis IV Megas Komnenos 1429 1459
Alexios IV Megas Komnenos 1416 1429
Manuel III Megas Komnenos 1390 1416
Alexios III Megas Komnenos 1349 1390
Michael Megas Komnenos 1344 1349
Ioannis III Megas Komnenos 1342 1344
Anna Megale Komnene 1341 1342
Irene Palaiologina 1340 1341
Basilios Megas Komnenos 1332 1340
Manuel II Megas Komnenos 1332 1332
Andronikos III Megas Komnenos 1330 1332
Alexios II Megas Komnenos 1297 1330
Ioannis II Megas Komnenos (restored) 1285 1297
Theodora Megale Komnene 1284 1285
Ioannis II Megas Komnenos 1280 1284
Georgios Megas Komnenos 1266 1280
Andronikos II Megas Komnenos 1263 1266
Manuel I Megas Komnenos 1238 1263
Ioannis I Megas Komnenos 1235 1238
Andronikos I Gidos 1222 1235
Alexios I Megas Komnenos 1204 1222

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bryer, Anthony. 1980. The Empire of Trebizond and the Pontos. London, UK: Variorum Reprints. ISBN 9780860780625
  • Dunnett, Dorothy. 1988. The spring of the ram. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780394564371
  • Eastmond, Antony. 2004. Art and identity in thirteenth-century Byzantium: Hagia Sophia and the empire of Trebizond. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman monographs, v. 10. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Ashgate/Variorum. ISBN 9780754635758
  • Karpov, S. P. 1978. The Empire of Trebizond and Venice in 1374-75: (a chrysobull redated). Birmingham, UK: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham. ISBN 9780704402959.
  • Miller, William. 1969. Trebizond; the last Greek empire of the Byzantine era, 1204-1461. Chicago, IL: Argonaut.


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