Robert of Courtenay (1221-1227): an idiot on the throne of Constantinople?

Robert of Courtenay (1221-1227): an idiot on the throne of Constantinople?

By Filip Van Tricht

Speculum, Vol.88:4 (2013)

Robert Courtenay

Introduction: Robert of Courtenay’s rule as emperor of Constantinople from 1221 until his death in 1227 has largely been neglected by modern historiography. To my knowledge not a single article, apart from entries in a few reference works, has been dedicated to his person or rule. Yet his reign is of pivotal significance for the history of the eastern Mediterranean in the thirteenth century since it witnessed the dramatic collapse of the empire of Constantinople, which until then had assumed the role of aspirant hegemon in the region. This development paved the way for the rise of both the empire of Nicaea and the empire of Thessaloniki, reducing the empire of Constantinople to the position of a merely regional player.

Among scholars who have discussed Robert’s reign – however superficially – there appears to exist a relative consensus, with few exceptions, that the misfortunes that befell the empire of Constantinople during this period are largely to be attributed to his personal and utter incompetence. In this contribution I would like to challenge that view. While it is true that during Robert’s rule the empire sustained severe territorial losses and that no adequate response was formulated to the major successes of the rival rulers of Nicaea and Epiros/Thessaloniki, I intend to show that the blame for these developments is not exclusively or even principally to be laid on Emperor Robert’s shoulders.

Through a thorough reexamination of all available sources concerning Robert’s reign, I will construct an alternative, and, I believe, more convincing, image of Robert’s emperorship. I will argue that the current view is founded on the uncritical use of a limited selection of biased chronicle passages, themselves based on one-sided information provided by a particular political faction in Constantinople. Adducing overlooked or neglected sources, I will then paint a more nuanced picture, highlighting how in the period under consideration Byzantine influences at the imperial court were strong, while Latin-Byzantine power struggles were rife.

I will start my argument with a survey of how previous authors have portrayed and assessed Robert of Courtenay’s person and reign, paying special attention to the various sources used.

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