The Roman Empire (“Byzantium”) under severe political crisis (late 12th-early 13th c.) – War at every front

In the late twelfth-early thirteenth century, the Byzantine Empire experienced one of the most complicated periods in its millennial history. Its foreign relations were particularly difficult.

In the West, Emperor Henry VI threatened the Empire and demanded that it cede to him the territories from Dyrrhachium to Thessaloniki. The Venetians also laid claim to parts of the Byzantine territories. Cyprus fell away from the Empire, and relations with Pope Innocent III worsened every year. In the East, Byzantium waged a fierce war with the Sultanate of Iconium. That war was initiated by the ill-considered foreign-policy of Alexios III.

Meanwhile, a critical situation also existed near the Balkan borders of the Empire. In 1180, Serbia ceased to recognize the authority of Byzantium. Soon its ruler, Stefan Nemanja (1168-1196) adopted a more aggressive policy and occupied Southern Dalmatia. He secured the support of the Hungarian king Bela III (1173-1196), who in 1181 seized Croatia, Northern Dalmatia and the Syrmia region from the Empire.

In 1186, the Asen brothers initiated an uprising for the liberation of Bulgaria. This led to a number of Bulgarian-Byzantine wars. During his reign, Isaac II commanded four campaigns against the Bulgarians, personally leading his troops. The fourth campaign that began in the summer of 1190 was, however, catastrophic for the Byzantines. The Bulgarians trapped the emperor’s army in a narrow passage in the Trevna Mountains and almost completely destroyed it.

Emperor Frederick 1 Barbarossa posed another serious threat to the Byzantine Empire in 1189 when, as a member of the Third Crusade, he marched with his army across the Balkan Peninsula towards Constantinople. The rulers of Serbia and Bulgaria tried to avail themselves of the opportunity to achieve their full independence with the help of the German sovereign.

The new Byzantine emperor, Alexios III, sought to settle the Balkan controversies peacefully and initiated negotiations with the Bulgarians. The latter, however, laid down conditions that the Empire could not accept. After that, the Byzantines resorted to plots and murders: their intrigues resulted in the assassination of the two elder Asen brothers Ivan and Peter, the self-declared tsars and co-rulers.

Kaloyan / Ivan II (1197-1207) succeeded his elder brothers. In 1199 he resumed the war with the Greek emperor since his power had weakened again owing to internal revolts. In 1201, Kaloyan seized Constanta and then Varna and actively participated in raids against Thrace and Macedonia, devastating those Byzantine provinces.

In the meantime, a Bulgarian boyar named Dobromir Chrysos led an anti- Byzantine revolt in Macedonia. Chrysos had been the Byzantine governor in the Strumica region. In the mid-1190s, however, he refused to recognize the power of the Empire and created a small independent principality with its center at Prosek (the southern part of contemporary Vardar Macedonia). He secured the support of the Byzantine commander Manuel Kamytzes who had deserted Alexios III. Soon they were joined by another defector, the Byzantine governor of the Rhodope region, John Spiridonaki who had declared himself an independent sovereign. Kaloyan supported them all. After Dobromir Chrysos attacked and seized Bitol and Prilep his troops entered Thessaly and the Peloponnese.

In his struggle against the Empire, Kaloyan was extremely cruel and attempted to completely exterminate all the Greeks living on Bulgarian lands. According to Niketas Choniates, after Kaloyan captured Varna, “he threw all the captives in a ditch and, covering it up with earth, buried them alive in one common grave”.

Alexius III, Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans

The situation worsened at the end of the twelfth century when the Bulgarians and the Cumans formed an anti-Byzantine alliance. According to their agreement in 1186 the Cumans received the opportunity not only to conduct unimpeded raids against the Byzantine lands, but also to implement mass resettlement into the Lower Danube territories. As a result, a new region under their control known as Danubian Cumania came into existence in Eastern Europe.

The new Bulgarian-Byzantine wars, in which the Cumans actively participated, were waged in the early 1190s. In the early spring of 1190, the Cumans crossed the Danube and forced Isaac II to leave Northern Bulgaria and to retreat beyond the Balkan Mountains. All his attempts to counterattack were in vain. At a later date, in the confrontation at the Morava in the vicinity of Philippopolis, it seemed that the Byzantines had gained success.

However, the success was unstable. As Choniates notes, the attacks of the Bulgarians and the Cumans against the Byzantine lands continued ceaselessly. All the attempts of the Empire to restrain their aggression failed. Around 1195, Alexios Gidos and Basileios Vatatzes were defeated near Arcadiopolis. The following year, Sebastokrator Isaac Komnenos was defeated and captured at Serres.

During the reign of Alexios III, the attacks of the Cumans and the Bulgarians against the Empire assumed disastrous proportions so much so that the enemy began to threaten the very capital itself.

Niketas Choniates reports that “several times every year” the Greeks suffered the invasions of the barbarians, who took many captive and sold them into slavery. The lands of Thrace and Macedonia were turned into a desert that extended as far as the Hem (the Balkan Mountains). The campaign against the Bulgarians, that the emperor planned, was delayed repeatedly, while the Bulgarians together with the Cumans devastated “the best regions” and withdrew, “having encountered no resistance”.

[Source: “The Alliance between Byzantium and Rus’ Before the Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204”, by Alexander V. Maiorov (2015)]

Niketas Choniates, from a medieval manuscript

NovoScriptorium: We will not tire to repeat that there had never been a “Byzantine” Empire in History; only the Roman Empire, continuing its existence in the Eastern territories of the older, greater Empire. Additionally, the use of the term “Greek/Greeks” by the author of the presented paper is not accurate. We may only speak of “Greek-speaking Romans“. Nobody, and especially the Emperor himself, was calling himself “a Greek” in the Imperial territories; they would -all of them, from the last shepherd and farmer to the Emperor- only proudly call themselves “a Roman“.

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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