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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Empire of Nicaea (1204-1261)

The role of Bulgaria in the Christian East under Tsar John Asen II 


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John Asen II (1218-1241), the greatest of the Asens, was the son of John Asen I. Though not himself a conqueror, to quote the well-known historian Jirecek, he expanded the boundaries of the kingdom which he had received in a disorganized state, to limits that it had not reached for several centuries and which it never achieved afterward. Tolerant in religious matters, well educated, and clement, he left a good name not only among the Bulgars, but also among the Greeks. A Greek historian of the thirteenth century, George Acropolita, wrote of him: All considered him a wonderful and happy man because he did not resort to the sword in his dealings with his subjects and did not stain himself with the murders of Romans, like the Bulgarian kings who had preceded him. Therefore he was beloved not only by the Bulgars, but also by the Romans and other peoples.

In the history of Byzantium, John Asen II was very important as the representative of the idea of the Great Bulgarian Kingdom which, it seemed, should unify the whole Orthodox population of the Balkan peninsula and establish its capital at Tsargrad (Constantinople). Such plans, undoubtedly, were opposed to the vital interests of both Greek empires and must have brought about hostilities. But the course of events seemed to facilitate the realization of the Bulgarian tsar's plans.

On the death of the Latin Emperor, Robert de Courtenay (1228), the throne was supposed to pass to his brother, Baldwin II, a boy of eleven. The question of regency arose. Some proposed as a regent John Asen, who was related to Baldwin; and to strengthen the ties of friendship between the two countries, the betrothal of Baldwin to Asen's daughter was suggested. Realizing all the advantages of the proposed agreement and hoping to capture Constantinople without bloodshed, Asen accepted the proposition and promised Baldwin that he would free the lands occupied by his enemies, especially Theodore of Epirus. The Latin knights and clergy, however, stubbornly resisted the candidature of a deadly foe of the Latin Empire and insisted upon the election as regent of the Empire a Frenchman, the titulary king of Jerusalem, who at that time was in western Europe, John of Brienne, a man of eighty. Thus Asen's first chance of taking Constantinople ended in failure.

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