If history is destined to repeat itself in an inexorable cycle until the end of time, then the little known fate of Helena, the last Empress of Trapezous becomes ever the more so tragic. Her story, taking place during a regime change, is one of family devotion, fidelity to a moral cause and a heroic, if somewhat ignominious end, comes as a surprisingly direct parallel to that of the ancient myth of Antigone, as immortalised by Sophocles.
This particular Sophoclean tragedy revolves around the great medieval city of Trapezous in the Pontus region of Asia Minor. The sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders in 1204 had caused the dissolution of the great Byzantine Empire into the Despotate of Epirus, the Empire of Nicaea, while a few descendants of the Imperial Komnenos fled to Trapezous and set up an Empire there. Yet Trapezous was the capital of an Empire that existed more in a constitutional than a geographical sense. Territorially it consisted of a long strip coast along the southern shore of the Black Sea, protected from central Anatolia by the barrier of the Pontic mountains. Its wealth and influence were far from commensurate with its size and population. By the year 1400, its rulers had called themselves Emperors for two hundred years. They were Greek by language, Byzantine by culture and tradition and Orthodox by faith. The true Emperors in Constantinople may have not permitted them to refer to themselves as Emperors of the Romans, yet their ambition was limitless, styling themselves as Emperors of Anatolia and adopting the title Grand Komnenoi.
This microcosm of a Byzantine Empire on the Black Sea was constantly threatened by its powerful and unpredictable neighbours, the Mongols and the Turks in the interior of Asia Minor. The Grand Komnenoi survived and prospered partly by making timely submissions or payments of tribute to their enemies and partly by arranging well-planned marriage alliances with their leaders, whether Christian or Muslim. Many of the Emperors of Trapezous were blessed with a multitude of marriageable daughters and the beauty of the ladies of Trapezous was as legendary as the richness of their dowries. Several of them were destined to keep the barbarian droves away by marrying local Turkic Emirs, especially the chieftains of the nomad Turcoman tribes of the Ak-koyunlu and Kara-koyunlu, the hordes of the white and black sheep. Some of the Emperors however, maintained the link with the real Byzantine world by marrying ladies of the imperial families of Palaiologos and Cantacuzenos. Alexios III Grand Komnenos, who died in 1390, married Theodora Cantacuzene. Another Theodora Cantacuzene married Alexios IV Grand Komnenos in 1395. It was from this marriage that the last two Emperors of Trapezous were born.
Theodora Cantacuzene presented her husband with three sons and three daughters, one of whom married the Emperor of Constantinople, John VIII. Her first son succeeded his father as Emperor of Trapezous as John IV in 1429. Her second son David became Emperor when his brother died in 1458. The Grand Komnenos David was the last of the line, reigning for only three years. The days of Trapezous were numbered. Constantinople had fallen to the Turks five years before. In 1459 the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II put an end to what was left of Christian Serbia in 1460 he extinguished the last Byzantine light in Greece by capturing Mistra and the Despotate of Morea in the Peloponnese. The Emperor John IV had sensed his empire was next on the Sultan’s list for extinction. He planned a series of alliances with his neighbours to form a coalition of forces strong enough to defeat the Turks, such as Uzun Hasan, the Lord of the Ak-koyunlu in Diyarbakir. His brother David dreamed of enlarging and strengthening the coalition by interesting the Western power in the fate of Trapezous such as Bishop of Rome Pius II and Duke Phillip of Burgundy.
Like his father and grandfather before him David sought to enhance his prestige by marring into the Cantacuzenos family. He had been married before, to a daughter of the Prince of Gothia in the Crimea. The date of his marriage to Helena Cantacuzene is not recorded. Judging from the number of children she is said to have born him it must have occurred at about 1440. Highlighting the extreme permeation of Byzantium in the West the marriage proposal came from Serbia, where Helena’s brother George Palaiologos Cantacuzenos had settled. George Brankovic, the Despot of Serbia, had first been married to Emperor David’s sister.
The known facts of Helena’s brief stint as Empress of Trapezous are few and derive only from chroniclers who lived after her death and boasted some ancestral relationship with her family. The major account of the last years of Helena’s life are recounted by Theodore Spanoudes in his history of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, produced in Italy in 1538. If his tales are true, the Empress Helena earned more fame in her death than ever she had in her life.
It was in 1460 that the Sultan Mehmet decided that the moment had come to incorporate into his lands the last vestige of Byzantium by conquering Trapezous. The Emperor was a weak and foolish man. He provoked the Sultan into fury by refusing to pay him the tribute his late brother owed to him. The conquest of Trapezous was a major military operation conducted by sea and land with enormous number of troops and ships. Just before the siege began, David sent Helena to stay with his friend and relative the Lord Guria in Georgia. His most potent ally was Uzun Hasan also provoked the Sultans wrath. He thought it prudent to cease assisting David and David, seeing the Trapezous was isolated, handed over the keys of the city on the 25th August 1461. The Byzantine Christian Empire of Trapezous was no more. It’s last Emperor and his Empress Helena with their children were shipped to Constantinople to await the Sultans pleasure when he returned to his capital.
The number of Helena’s children is variously recorded by the sources some give it as eight and one daughter. Others, more convincingly write of three sons and one daughter namely Basil, Manuel, George and Anna. When the Sultan returned to Constantinople he had them all moved to Adrianople and settled them there in relative comfort supported by landed estates in the capital Strymon valley near Serres. It is conceivable that he expected his step mother Mara Komnene Brankovic, who lived in the same area and was their relative to keep an eye on them. Two year later however David was accused of complicity in a plot against the Sultan and was imprisoned along with Helena and their children.
Mehmet then concluded that the best way to ensure that that the line of the last Byzantine claimants to the title of Emperor would not be perpetuated was to be rid of all the male members of the family of the Grand Komnenoi. They were moved to the prison of Yedi Kule in Constantinople and there, on first November 1463, the emperor David with his three sons, his nephew and his brother in-law were executed. Helena was allowed to survive. She refused to do so. The story of her tragic end appears only in the chronicle of Spanoudes. It may be over dramatized but it may well be true. Spanoudes himself was proud to be a Cantacuzenos and related to Helena, describing her as being a sister of his grandmother. He himself wrote that he had learnt of Helena’s story from Mara Brankovic, of whom he was a grand nephew. After their execution, Mehmet ordered that the corpses of David and his children should be thrown outside the walls of the city and left unburied to become prey for the dogs and the crows. He confiscated David’s property and commanded Helena to pay him the sum of 15,000 ducats within the space of three days or suffer the same fate as her husband.
Her retainers in Constantinople contrived to find the money within 24 hours. She had no desire to remain in this world. But she had one last Christian duty to perform. She put on sackcloth she who had been used to regal robes, refused to eat and built herself a hovel covered with straw in which she slept beside the bodies of her husband and sons outside the city walls. The Sultan had decreed that they should not be buried. Helena outwitted him. Secretly she found a spade and with her own delicate hands dug a trench inside her hut. All day she defended the corpses against animals and at night took them one by one and gave them a Christian burial. As Spanoudes writes “Thus did God give her the grace to bury her husband and her sons and a few days later she died.” It is tragically appropriate that the last lady to bear the Byzantine title of Empress should have ended her days like Antigone.
Sultan Mehmet did his work well. The imperial house of the Grand Komnenoi which had ruled Trapezous for more than 250 years was exterminated. In a single had in 1463 Helena had lost her husband and her three surviving sons, Basil, Manuel and George as well as her brother in law Alexander and her nephew Alexios. It is no wonder that she had lost her will to live. But she would not die until she had performed the last rights of a dutiful widow and mother. Some say that she retreated into monastic seclusion before willingly surrendering her sole. The one survivor of her family was her daughter Anna. She was given as a wife to Zaganos Pasha, one of the Sultan’s viziers. He got rid of her when she refused to disown Christianity and become a Muslim. Helena’s line was carried on through her niece Theodora who had married Uzun Hasan. Her grandson was Ismail, the first of the Safavid Shahs of Persia whose descendants ruled until 1736.
The imperial family of Grand Komnenos of Trapezous came to its bitter end with the massacre of the Emperor David and his offspring in 1463 and the death of his Empress Helena. The great Empire of Trapezous lies largely forgotten, wreathed in the shrouds of time, with modern Greek historians tending to skim by those ‘alternative’ avenues within the labyrinth of Greek history that provide it with so much of its fundamental essence. Even more so tragic then but possibly fitting, is that Helena’s sacrifice should, despite the best efforts of Spanoudes, be largely unknown and unrecognized by the Greek people, so that not only her death but also her posterity are lonely and fringed with irony. There never arose another Sophocles to add poetry to Helena’s tragic story and immortalise it in our hearts and minds. Nevertheless, for the few who are initiated into her final passions, her story cannot but move and provoke the reader. Rest in peace then Empress Helena, obscure in history with no influence on anyone, save perhaps the souls of the Komnenoi and the entire Pontic people.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 and 17 November 2012