John IV Grand Komnenos

1. Biography

John IV Grand Komnenos or Kalogiannis was born in Trebizond around 1404/5. He was the son of Emperor Alexios IV Grand Komnenos (1417-1429) and Theodora Komnene Kantakouzene. He had two brothers, Alexander (Skandarios) and the future Emperor David Grand Komnenos (1458-1461), and four sisters, one of whom was Maria Grand Komnene, wife of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448).1 In 1417 John was made co-emperor. He fled to Georgia in 1426, after his unsuccessful attempt to dethrone his father. In 1429 he once again conspired against his father, this time successfully, and he was crowned Emperor of Trebizond; he remained to the throne until his death in 1458.

John IV Grand Komnenos was married twice: in 1426 to the daughter of Alexander (1413-1443), king of Iberia (Georgia) and to the daughter of an emir of the Turcomans, probably before 1438.2 He had a daughter, Theodora Grand Komnene, from his second marriage, who was later married to the Chan of the Akköyunlu Uzun Hasan.3

Portraits of the Emperors John IV and Alexios IV Grand Komnenoi were preserved until recently on the external east wall of the tower of the monastery of Hagia Sophia.

1.1. The conflict with Alexios IV

Some time before 1426,4 John unsuccessfully attempted to dethrone his father Alexios IV Grand Komnenos; written sources attest that he was planning his parents’ murders, but was thwarted by the people and members of the local aristocracy.5 After this attempt he fled to Georgia, where he married the daughter of the Georgian king. During his absence from Trebizond, his brother Alexander was made co-emperor in his stead.

In 1427 John turned against his father for a second time, supported by the Georgian king, as well as by the Scholarios family and the Kabasitai; these two families often played a prominent role in the political scene of Trebizond. This expedition resulted in the murder of Alexios IV by his son’s supporters.

2. Rise to the throne

Upon learning of his brother’s rise to co-emperor, John turned against his father for the second time and attempted to obtain the throne of Trebizond. In his endeavour he had the military support of the Georgian king, of members of the local aristocracy, as well as the unofficial aid of Genoa. From Georgia he went to the town of Kaffa, a Genoese colony in Crimea, where he remained for a short while, trying to gain support from Genoa. The Genoese did not wish to aid him officially but they offered him a heavily armed ship, on which John entered the harbour of St. Phokas in 1429. The families of the Kabazites and the Scholarioi rushed to John’s side, for their own reasons. According to the plan the emperor was to be arrested. However, John’s orders were not followed and Alexios IV, who was waiting his son’s military forces in Achanti, was murdered.

John entered the city of Trebizond immediately after his father’s murder and was crowned emperor. His first act was to severely punish his father’s murderers and to bury Alexios IV with suitable honours, first in the church of Panagia Theoskepastos and then in the magnificent tomb that he built in the courtyard of the church of Panagia Chrysokephalos.

3. Reign

3.1. Foreign policy

3.1.1. Turcomans

John IV Grand Komnenos became emperor of Trebizond at a time when the State was threatened by the powerful presence of the Turcomans in the area, but even more by the rapid expansion of the Ottomans in Asia Minor. Shortly after his rise to the throne, the Turcoman ruler Artabiles marched against Trebizond with his army, attempting to occupy the city of Trebizond. The imperial army, led by the pansebastos Alexander, doukas of Mesochaldion, gathered in Kordyle, while John himself was planning an attack by sea, which was thwarted by the bad weather conditions. The trapezuntine army was defeated in Kordyle6 and the Turcoman forces reached the walls of the city.7

3.1.2. Ottomans

The Ottomans proved to pose a more crucial external threat for the Empire of Trebizond. John IV’s ecclesiastical policy included diplomatic communication with the West, in hope of obtaining military support; however his efforts were fruitless, as was his attempt at alliance with certain Turcoman rulers.

In 1443 Trebizond was unsuccessfully attacked from the sea by the Ottoman Sultan Murat II (1421-1451), while a siege of the city was prevented by bad weather conditions. Shortly afterwards, in 1448, the Byzantine chronicler Georgios Frantzis was sent to Trebizond in order to complete a marriage alliance between the two courts, an alliance which would strengthen their relations and help them face the common Ottoman threat.8

However, the danger proved even bigger during the reign of Mehmed II (1444-1481) and it finally seemed impossible to intercept the Ottoman expansion in Asia Minor. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and of Peloponnese in 1456, Mehmed II turned against Trebizond. The Ottoman army, led by the ruler of Amaseia Chetir, besieged the city, plundered the port and led 2000 citizens in captivity. John was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Ottoman Sultan and to agree to pay an annual tribute of 2000 gold coins; the sum was eventually raised to 3000. The negotiations for the final signing of the treaty were conducted by the emperor’s brother, David.

Sensing the impending fall of his Empire, Emperor John IV decided to follow his predecessors’ policy of marriage alliances. He married his daughter Theodora with the ruler of the Akköyunlu Uzun Hasan, who formed the main obstacle in the Ottoman expansion in Asia Minor and Persia; John also offered him Cappadocia as a wedding gift. John IV’s death in 1458 brought an abrupt end to his efforts to stop the Ottoman advances against the Empire of Trebizond.

3.1.3. Genoese

Despite the fact that John IV had become emperor with the help of the Genoese, the Empire’s relations with Genoa remained tumultuous, as they were during his father’s reign. In 1447 Trebizondian forces, led by John IV’s brother David attacked the Genoese colonies of Crimea, causing a fierce reaction by the Genoese, who demanded compensation. In 1453 Georgios Amiroutzis was sent as an ambassador to Genoa in an unsuccessful attempt to salvage the relations of the two forces.

3.2. Ecclesiastical policy

John IV Grand Komnenos supported the official Constantinopolitan policy of promoting the Union of the Eastern and Western Churches, in an attempt to obtain help against the Ottoman threat. He proclaimed his support of the Union in several instances by personally writing to Pope Eugenios IV (1431-1447), in 1433 during the Council of Basle and in 1438/1439 through his representatives to the Council of Florence Georgios Amiroutzis and Dorotheos, bishop of Trebizond, who accompanied the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448). He attempted to gain the support of his people through his benefactions to the monasteries of Trebizond. In the first years of his reign he confirmed the right of the monastery of St Dionysios in Mount Athos to receive the annual sum of 1000 silver coins directly from the monastery of Chaldos and not from the imperial vestiarion9 and in 1432 he issued a chrysobull, giving lands and paroikoi to the monastery of Panagia of Pharos.10

4. Assessment and evaluation of his reign

Despite becoming emperor of Trebizond during its most dramatic period, John IV was hoping to relieve the Empire from the increasing threat of the Ottomans and the Turcomans, and from the economic pressures of the Genoese. He reinforced the city’s defence, constructing a tower in the outside wall. He turned for help to the East, with marriage alliance, and to the West, through his unionist policy, but without visible results, while his death brought an abrupt end to any plan of disrupting the imminent absorbance of Trebizondian territories by the Ottomans. His efforts were acknowledged by his contemporaries. In a theological treaty, the Patriarch Gennadios II Scholarios (1454-1456) presented John IV Grand Komnenos as a ‘pillar of Orthodoxy’, while the Patriarch Gregory III (1443-1450) said that imperial power – which he had usurped from his father – was bestowed upon him by God.

1. It is possible that John IV Grand Komnenos had another sister, Valencia, who married Niccol’o Crispo, duke of the Archipelagon and ruler of Santorini. This opinion is expressed by K. Varzos. See Βαρζός, Κ., "Η μοίρα των τελευταίων Μεγάλων Κομνηνών της Τραπεζούντας " Βυζαντινά 12 (1983), p. 269.

2. See Βαρζός, Κ., "Η μοίρα των τελευταίων Μεγάλων Κομνηνών της Τραπεζούντας", Βυζαντινά 12 (1983), pp. 269-289, esp. 271.

3. A previous theory that John IV Grand Komnenos had a son named Alexios has been rejected by modern scholars. Μ. Kursanskis and Κ. Βαρζός believe that John IV did not have a son and that he appointed as his heir the son of his brother Alexander, Alexios, who is also identified as Alexios V. See Βλ. Kursanskis, M., "La descendance d’Alexis IV empereur de Trébizonde. Contribution à la prosopographie des Grands Comnenes", Revue des Études Byzantines 37 (1979), pp. 239-247, esp. 243, 497, 527, and Βαρζός, Κ., "Η μοίρα των τελευταίων Μεγάλων Κομνηνών της Τραπεζούντας " Βυζαντινά 12 (1983), pp. 269-289, esp. 271.

4. See Bryer, A.,"The faithless Kabazitai and Scholarioi", στο Moffatt, A. (ed.), Maistor. Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance Studies for Robert Browning (Byzantina Australiensia 5, Canberra 1984), pp. 309-327, esp. 319-320.

5. See Bryer, A.,"The faithless Kabazitai and Scholarioi", στο Moffatt, A. (ed.), Maistor. Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance Studies for Robert Browning (Byzantina Australiensia 5, Canberra 1984), pp. 309-327, esp. 318.

6. During the battle of Kordyle the pansebastos Alexander was also killed. See Ahrweiler-Γλύκατζη, Ε., "Η Αυτοκρατορία της Τραπεζούντας", in ΙΕΕ Θ': Υστεροβυζαντινοί χρόνοι (1204-1453) (Athens 1980), pp. 324-335.

7. A fire that had broke out in Trebizond at the time led the citizens to believe that they had been betrayed, and they fled from the city. See Ahrweiler-Γλύκατζη, Ε., "Η αυτοκρατορία της Τραπεζούντας", in ΙΕΕ Θ': Υστεροβυζαντινοί χρόνοι (1204-1453) (Athens 1980), pp. 324-335.

8. A marriage alliance with the Iberian court was also sought out at the time. See Ευαγγελίδης, Τ. Ε., Ιστορία της Ποντικής Τραπεζούντας. Από τα αρχαιότατα χρόνια μέχρι σήμερα (756-1897) (Thessaloniki 1994), p. 204.

9. See Bryer, A. – Winfield, D., The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos (Dumbarton Oaks Studies 20, Washington, D.C. 1985), p. 327.

10. In this chrysobull he appears to bestow these privileges together with his father Alexios IV. See Bryer, A. – Winfield, D., The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos (Dumbarton Oaks Studies 20, Washington, D.C. 1985), p. 216.