Alexios III Grand Komnenos was born on October 5, 1338.1 His real name was John; however, after his rise to the throne he was renamed Alexios, in honour of his grandfather Alexios II Grand Komnenos. He was the second son of Emperor Basil Grand Komnenos (1332-1340) and of Irene of Trebizond, a member of an aristocratic family of Trebizond. He was also the brother of Alexios Komnenos, Theodora Grand Komnene and Maria Grand Komnene. He married Theodora Kantakouzene Komnene, the niece of the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (1348/1354-1357), and had seven children: Anna, Basil, the future Emperor Manuel III Grand Komnenos (1390-1417), Eudokia and three more daughters, whose names are not known. He also had an illegitimate son, Andronikos. His wedding to Theodora Kantakouzene took place on 28 September 1351 in the katholikon of the monastery of St Eugenios.
On January 21, 1350 John became emperor under the name Alexios III, having returned to Trebizond from Constantinople after a long period of exile.2 He died on 20 March 1390.
During his reign Alexios III Grand Komnenos was confronted with the internal conflict and the civil wars between the aristocratic families of Trebizond, tormenting the Empire since the reign of Irene Palaiologina (1340-1341), first wife of Alexios’ father, Basil Grand Komnenos (1332-1340). Alexios was unable to overpower the two fighting groups and chose to approach each of them in turn, depending on the circumstances, while often arresting members of the opposing family.
He also encountered the external threats that were the result of the rivalry between the Venetian and the Genoese merchants, as well as the attacks of the Turcomans on the lands of the Empire.
Alexios III was also a great patron of the school of higher education in Trebizond and of many churches and monasteries of the area. He also restored the walls of the city and of many regional fortresses.
2. The rise to the throne
The Trapezuntine aristocracy was represented mainly by two families, the Scholarios, with their Constantinopolitan alliances, and the native Amytzantarios family. After the death of Basil Grand Komnenos (1332-1340) on April 6, 1340, the two families took advantage of the void in power and the lack of a legitimate heir; what is more, Basil’s first legal wife, Irene Palaiologina (1340-1341) was having difficulty to enforce her authority. Other families, such as Kabasitai, Meizomates, Doranitai and Tzanichites were also involved in the internal conflict.
In August 1340, John – the future Alexios III Grand Komnenos – together with his mother and older brother were sent in exile to Constantinople. On December 22, 1349, after Michael Grand Komnenos (1344-1349) abdicated the throne,3 Alexios and his mother Irene of Trebizond returned to Trebizond, aiming to claim the Trebizondian throne peacefully, with the support of John VI Kantakouzenos. Alexios was admitted into the city by the people and the noblemen and was crowned on January the 21 of the following year in the katholikon of the monastery of St Eugenios. After his enthronement he forced Michael Grand Komnenos to become a monk in the rock-cut monastery of St Sabbas.
3. Internal affairs
3.1. Revolts – conspiracies
From the very first year of his reign, Alexios III Grand Komnenos attempted to contain the political unrest, caused by the animosity between the aristocratic families of Trebizond; he often allied himself with one or the other family or pursued their members. In June 13504 he arrested the megas stratopedarches_Theodore Doranites, also called Pilelis, and the protovestiarios_Constantine Doranites, as well as other members of the same family. They were incarcerated for a short period of time in a prison especially arranged for members of the aristocracy. However, his actions did not dissuade the ambitious aristocracy, who kept conspiring against the emperor.
In January 1351, Leo Kabasites organised a conspiracy against Alexios III. The emperor arrested Kabasites and replaced him with Pileles, who had been freed in the meantime. Shortly afterwards Pilelis revolted once again, occupying Trebizond’s acropolis, known as the castle of Koulas; he even captured the megas doux_Niketas Scholares. However, this new attempt met an unsuccessful end, since it was not backed up by the people. The conspirators were arrested and imprisoned in the castle of Kegchrinas; a year later, in 1352, they were executed. At that time, the emperor, feeling insecure due to the continuous revolts, moved to Tripolis.
In September 1351 Alexios III’s mother was placed in charge of a mission against Constantine Doranites in Limnia, while in April 1352 the emperor’s relations with the pinkernes John Tzanichites were restored; only a few months earlier, in January,5 Tzanichites had occupied the fortress of Tzanicha. In May 1355 the emperor marched against the megas douxNiketas Scholares. Scholares had assisted the emperor against the Doranites earlier, but he had gathered his own powerful forces after the events of June 1350 and eventually revolted in June 1354, occupying Cerasous. Niketas Scholares also attempted to attack the city of Trebizond by sea, helped by his son and the protovestiarios Basil Choupakis. In May 1355 Alexios III Grand Komnenos took over Cerasous, however he was not able to capture the rebels, who fled to the castle of Kegchrinas. At the same time Michael Grand Komnenos (1344-1349) made an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the throne. In October 1356 the emperor ordered the megas domestikos Meizomates and the megas stratopedarches Michael Sampson to march against Kegchrinas and capture Scholares and his followers.
The strain in the relations between the emperor and the aristocracy was evident when the Kabasitai and George Scholares attempted to murder Alexios III Grand Komnenos at the river of St Gregory in Katabatos, on October 27, 1363.6 The Kabazites were captured but George Scholares escaped to Amisos; the bishop of Trebizond Nephon was confined to the monastery of Soumela, as an accomplice to the conspiracy.
In 1371, Alexios III issued a chrysobull, which returned to George Doranites the revenues of the village Chorobe; it was an attempt to make amends and indicate that he wished to put an end to the civil strife.
3.2. Imperial patronage
Alexios III Grand Komnenos was the benefactor of many churches and monasteries in the area of Pontos and in mainland Greece. In 1362 he restored and decorated with frescoes the church of St Phokas, the katholikon of the Kordyle monastery, which he himself had founded. In the period 1360-1365 he restored the Soumela monastery, while in 1364 he issued a chrysobull according to the monastery benefits, people who could live and work as paroikoi and estates. He also donated an icon of the Virgin Mary, in the iconographic type of the Unfading Rose (Rhodon to Amaranton).7 In 1365 he issued a chrysobull donating estates to the monastery of St George Choutouras,8 while in 1374 he founded the monastery of St Dionysios on Mount Athos. The monk Dionysios provided financial support for the construction of the monastery on behalf of the Emperor Alexios III, along with the annual sum of 1000 silver coins. In 1376, Alexios decorated with frescoes the katholikon of the monastery of Panagia Theoskepastos, possibly after the death of his son Andronikos and his burial there. In 1378 he constructed the monastery of St Laurentios in Pelion and in 1386 he gave privileges to the monastery of Vazelon by chrysobull. Representations of Alexios III adorn the katholikon of the monastery of Soumela, of the monastery of St. Eugenios and the narthex of the church of the monastery of Panagia Theoskepastos.
During the reign of Alexios III Komnenos the school of higher education in Trebizond prospered, under the personal interest and benefaction of the emperor himself. Under Alexios III, the Empire of Trebizond in general went through a period of prosperity and fruition, especially after the end of the internal strife and the successful eradication of external threats.
4. Alexios III confronted by the Turcomans
Alexios III Grand Komnenos made consistent and arduous efforts to regain the areas of the Empire occupied by the Turcoman emirs, but also to secure the Empire’s borders against the attacks of its neighbours, who constantly threatened it during his reign.
In August 1355 Sorogaina was freed by the duke of Chaldia, John Kabasites. On November 27, 1356 and again during 1373, the emperor unsuccessfully marched against Cheriane. On November 11, 1357 the Empire of Trebizond was attacked by Ibrahim Haçi emir in the area of Palaiomatzouka. In 1360, while the emperor was constructing the castle of Koukos in Chaldia, he was attacked by the Turcoman emir, Hoça Latif, who forced him to stop the construction. Hoça Latif unsuccessfully turned against Matzouka the following year. In October 1361 the Turcoman Ahi Aynapak attacked the fortress of Golache and laid siege to it without success; the castle finally fell to the Turcomans in 1369.
In 1370 Alexios III Grand Komnenos defeated the Turkomans in the area of Marmara, while making arduous efforts to retain power in Limnia and to repel the Turkoman attacks. In February 1380 he successfully marched against the Tziapnid Turks with both military and naval forces. Still, Alexios III was failing to prevail over his Muslim neighbours, so he turned to marriage alliances as the fundament of his external policy.
5. Marriage alliances
5.1. Marriage alliances with Muslim rulers
Trying to keep at bay the Turcoman rulers and their aspirations against the Empire of Trebizond, Alexios III Grand Komnenos developed an external policy, based on marriage alliances between the female members of the dynasty of the Grand Komnenoi and the heirs of the Turcoman emirates. Through this diplomatic route, Alexios III managed to gain territorial security for his Empire but also to ensure that the trade routes remained open in the area of the Pontos, especially the towns of Paipert and Keltzene, while the ports remained under his control.
The first intermarriage took place in 1352, between the Amiot emir beğ and Alexios’ sister, Maria Grand Komnene.9 The second marriage, in 1358, was between Ibrahim Haçi emir and Theodora Grand Komnene, sister of Alexios, after the Turcoman ruler’s attack in Palaiomatzouka, in an effort to prevent a new attack. On 8 October 1379 the emir of Limnia Taccedin married Eudokia Grand Komnene, daughter of Alexios III,10 in exchange for the area of Limnia; Limnia was finally lost to the Kepnites in 1380. At some point after 1380 the Turcoman ruler of Paipert and Keltzene Muthharten married a daughter or Alexios III, and another daughter of his married Osman Karayuluk, son of Maria Grand Komnene and Kutlu beğ. It is also possible that a daughter of Alexios III married the emir of Chalybia, Suleyman Haçi emir.11
5.2. Marriage alliances with Christian rulers
Alexios III Grand Komnenos applied the same policy of marriage alliances in his diplomatic communication with Christian rulers, aiming to preserve good relations and alliances. His widowed sister Theodora married the Byzantine Emperor John V Palaiologos (1355-1376),12 while his daughter Anna was married to the king of Iberia (Georgia) Bagrat V (1360-1395) in 1367. His son Manuel III Grand Komnenos was married to Koulkanhad, daughter of the king of Georgia David VII (1318-1360).13 Their marriage took place on September 6, 1377 and Alexios III was stephanokrator (he held the marriage wreaths over the heads of the newlyweds).
6. Alexios III confronted with the expansionary policy of Genoa and Venice
The rivalry between Venetian and Genoese merchants, which sometimes resulted in confrontations between them, was one of the most crucial external threats to the Empire, the two rivals often moving their hostilities on trapezuntine territories,14 as well as posing an economic threat.
In 1364 Venice sent William Michael to Alexios III demanding the concession of an area for their commercial quarter; with a chrysobull issued on the same year, they were granted the quarter between the area ‘of St Theodore Gabras’ and the coast, at the eastern suburbs of Trebizond.15 This move was a blow to the near monopoly of Genoa in the Black Sea and brought an immediate reaction from the Genoese merchants, who, at the time, had their quarter in the area between Leontokastron and Kaneta; one of the most violent reactions was a conflict during a feast in the main square of the city (meytan).16 In 1367, with a second chrysobull, Alexios III issued the Venetians with new commercial privileges and duty reductions; they were also allowed to expand their quarter into the city of Trebizond and build their own castle. Alexios III even promised to cover the expenses for the construction of an enclosure and a tower. However, this castle remained unfinished, since in 1368 Venice failed to send the necessary funds for its completion. This renewal of good relations between the Empire of Trebizond and Venice was proved superficial, as shows the hostility between the natives and the Venetians; it was further intensified by Alexios III’s efforts to impose his authority upon the Venetian merchants and his later recall of the privileges given to them by the chrysobulls of 1364 and 1367. The Venetians were further aggravated by new taxation, resulting to debts and financial losses, caused by their competition with the local traders. They repeatedly sent letters to the emperor demanding compensation and in November 1375 they organised a campaign aiming to dethrone him, led by Marco Giustiniani da S. Polo. In the end, military action against Alexios III was prevented in favour of peaceful negotiations, where the leaders of the campaign demanded compensation for the Venetians’ losses and reduction of taxes. The new treaty, signed between the emperor and the Venetian merchants, also provided that the emperor’s debt to Venice would be reduced by half.17