Annals of Trebizond IV, Facts and Fictions
The long reign of Alexios III (1349-90) marks the beginning of the end of the Empire of Trebizond. Alexios, as the result of a palace coup, came to the throne as a boy of 11, and his youth and inexperience were an invitation to challenges of every sort: warlords in the provinces, his own counselors and bureaucrats, and even from within the church. The Trapezuntine elite was dominated by factions loyal either to Constantinople or to the more locally centered provincial aristocracy. The feud between the Genoese and Venetians broke out again, when the latter were once again granted a trading station. To make matters worse, the Empire was raided repeatedly by Turkmen and Georgians. The last straw was entrance of Ottoman Turks who would eventually dominate the entire Middle East.
Fortunately, the Empire was not entirely without resources. Their wine was good and plentiful, and their location made them a convenient trading depot for trade between Europe and the East. Perhaps most the greatest asset was the beauty of the women in the royal family for whom marriages were arranged not only with Georgian and Turkmen tribal leaders but even with the Emperor in Constantinople. Today, if Trebizond is remembered at all by students of history, it is usually the beautiful marriageable princesses who are mentioned first.
Since an inexperienced boy was incapable of exercising power, the happy task fell to the lot of the Grand-Duke Niketas, who had plagued the reign of Alexios’ predecessor Michael. Indeed, when Niketas’ supporters forced Michael to release the Grand-Duke from prison, it sealed his doom. Niketas, who strengthened his position by a strategic marriage alliance, forced Michael to abdicate. Niketas did not have his own way in everything, since he had powerful rivals who were even able to arrest him until a popular insurrection caused him to be released: The Grand-Duke—the people’s friend! Later in Alexios III’s reign, Niketas himself led an insurrection that ultimately failed. When the old conspirator finally died in captivity five years later, the Emperor—whether out of weakness of intellect or loyalty to once-faithful friend—marched in the funeral procession.
There is so much we should like to know about Trebizond in the last century of its existence. Unfortunately, the sources are very poor. The nearest thing to a reliable source is the dull account given by Michael Panaretos, a well-placed contemporary. Of the other witnesses to the time, we have scattered references from foreign visitors and an occasional imperial edict to lighten up the darkness. What to make of the fables and legends offered by that most obscure of Byzantine “historical works”—the Χρόνικα (Chronica) of the suspiciously named Pseudophanes of Kenchrina—it is impossible to say. The author, who composed his chronicles about 1460, in other words, just after the fall of the Empire, is the most Byzantine of Byzantines, forever imaging plots within plots, posing as a charitable Christian while at the same time poisoning his readers’ minds against court officials whose greater glory had kept him in the shade. Part Uriah Heep, part John Bircher, Pseudophanes writes the dullest prose—inevitably about himself and his family’s affairs and their endlessly repeated vacation trips to some island off the coast of Georgia—in the long dull history of Byzantine letters.
One of the biggest crises with which the Emperor had to deal was a coup attempt in which the Metropolitan Niphon was involved. Niphon, if we can believe the sources was an intriguing cleric. and, while glib in conversation, not educated or even really literate. Pseudophanes’ Chronicles, if we can put any credit in them, accuses him of conspiring with the Vatican and of egging on the Georgian serfs to rise up in rebellion in order to gain their rights. With powerful support in Rome, Constantinople, and Georgia, Niphon was able to blacken the reputation of Alexios, whose every movement was subjected to misconstruction. Although a man of the cloth and opposed to violence, Niphon was also allied with a strange religious sect that called for endless war to liberate Palaestine from Muslim rule and—this is where it is hard to believe our author—reestablish it as a Jewish kingdom. The rumor was that he was taken bribes from rich Jewish moneylenders.
Even for a plotter like Niphon, this seems wildly improbable, and, the fact is Pseudophanes had never met Niphon, since he came to the court long after Niphon had been expelled from his offices and put under arrest. His story of Niphon’s conversion to Rome is even more ridiculous, since there is no evidence that the metropolitan believed in anything but his own self-advancement. At the height of the plot, Alexios is supposed to have been conversing with Frankish envoys, and remembering a story he had heard about Ultima Thule, quoted their king Oikokratos who had asked his protospatharios: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent monk?”