John IV of Trebizond

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John IV Megas Komnenos
Reign 1429-1459
Successor David Megas Komnenos
Issue Alexios, Theodora, Eudokia
Father Alexios IV of Trebizond
Mother Theodora Kantakouzene
Born c. 1403
Died 1459

John IV Megas Komnenos (Greek: Ιωάννης Δ΄ Μέγας Κομνηνός, Iōannēs IV Megas Komnēnos), (c. 1403 – 1459) was Emperor of Trebizond from 1429 to 1459. He was a son of Emperor Alexios IV of Trebizond and Theodora Kantakouzene.

Early life[edit]

John had been designated despotes, or heir apparent, by his father as early as 1417, but had come into conflict with his parents. According to a passage considered to be an interpolation in the history of Laonikos Chalkokondyles, he accused his mother Theodora of having an affair with an unnamed protovestarios, whom he killed, then held his parents captive in the citadel until the palace staff released them. John then fled to Georgia.[1] As a result, his brother Alexander was designated despotes in his place.

In Georgia John married Bagrationi, a daughter of King Alexander I but could not obtain sufficient support to establish himself in Trebizond. A Genoese document dated November 8, 1427 orders the consul at Caffa in the Crimea to keep on good terms with the Emperor of Trebizond for news of John arriving at Caffa had reached Genoa. Here he managed to charter a large galley and its crew, which he brought to Trebizond in 1429. Although his father Alexios IV marched out against him, John managed to win the support of a section of the aristocracy known as the Kabasitai, who allowed John's agents to murder his father while he was sleeping in his tent.[2] John was recognized as emperor in Trebizond some time before 28 October 1429, the date of the first document that mentions him on the throne.[3] His brother Alexander was afterwards exiled to Constantinople, where the Spanish Ambassador Pero Tafur met him eight years later. Tafur provides a detail at variance with the account of Pseudo-Chalkokondyles, for he states John became emperor with help of the Turkish Sultan.[4]


John IV began his reign by punishing the physical murderers of his father, then burying his father in state in the Metropolitan church. His reign was dominated by ongoing attempts to defend Trebizond from its Turkmen neighbors and the increasingly aggressive Ottoman Empire to the west.

In 1442 the Ottoman Sultan Murad II sent out a fleet to plunder the shores and to attempt to capture the city. This expedition did not seriously effect Trebizond itself, but attacked Trebizond's dependencies in the Crimea and was partly destroyed by a storm on its return journey. The Ottomans did not make another attack on the Empire of Trebizond until the reign of the next Sultan, Mehmed II.[5] In February 1451 the Byzantine diplomat George Sphrantzes arrived in Trebizond seeking a bride for his Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. This incident is notable for the anecdote it relates about John, who gleefully related to Sphrantzes the news of the death of the Ottoman sultan Murad II, which John gleefully related. He told Sphrantzes how great it was that now his empire could last longer and be blessed because of the youth of Mehmed II. Sphrantzes, however, was taken aback and explained to him that Mehmed's youth and seeming friendship to the new emperor Constantine XI were only ploys, and that under John's brother-in-law John VIII the empire had been deeply in debt, but now his new emperor was trying to change that.[6]

His conversation with Sphrantzes should well have served to John IV the new peril which had come forth. After the Fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II in 1453, Trebizond and the Morea were left as the last remnants of the Byzantine imperial tradition. Mehmed II immediately summoned John to pay tribute in Constantinople and imposed heavy tolls on Trapezuntine and Venetian shipping through the straits. John apparently failed to cooperate, and in 1456 the Sultan dispatched his governor of Amasya to attack Trebizond by both land and sea.[7]

The fall of his capital seeming imminent, John at long last made his submission and agreed to pay an annual tribute of 2,000 gold pieces. He sent his brother David to ratify the treaty before Mehmed II himself, which he did in 1458, but the tribute was raised to 3,000 gold pieces.[8] Aware of the Ottoman advance against the remaining Byzantine possessions in Greece, John attempted to bolster his position by resorting to marital alliances with neighboring princes. So he married off one of his daughters to Uzun Hasan of the Ak Koyunlu, and another daughter (or perhaps sister) to the Italian lord of Syros, Niccolò Crispo.

In the increasingly desperate situation of Trebizond, John IV came to favor the idea of obtaining Western support by effecting a union with the Roman Catholic Church. As early as 1434 he responded to the letters of Pope Eugenius IV (in marked contrast to earlier emperors of Trebizond, who had ignored papal missives). In the late 1430s the Metropolitan of Trebizond joined the Byzantine clergy at the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence.[9]

However, these approaches to the Papacy were not marked by harmonious relations with the most important Western power concerned with Trebizond, the Republic of Genoa. Although John owed his throne to a Genoese crew, he repeatedly failed to reimburse the Genoese for debts owed to them in 1431, and in 1441 refused to provide reparations for having ordered the seizure and pillage of a Genoese ship in 1435. Further diplomatic initiatives by Genoa failed in 1443, and in 1447 the Genoese of Caffa advanced on Trebizond with their fleet, threatening to set up an embargo. The disputes were never fully settled and seriously injured commerce in the Black Sea.[10]

John's hostile attitude towards Genoa was explained by one contemporary, the Spanish traveller Pero Tafur, as a fear of a potential Byzantine-Genoese alliance that could place his brother Alexander on the throne of Trebizond. Alexander had fled Trebizond for the Byzantine court in 1429 and had eventually married Maria Gattilusio, the daughter of the Genoese lord of Lesbos. The apprehensiveness towards Genoa was contrasted by friendlier relations with Venice, although the Venetians never recovered their former influence in the Black Sea.[11]

At some point in his reign, John was faced with an attack by the ruler of Ardabil, Shaykh Junayd, who marched upon Trebziond: proposed dates range from the 1430s (E. Janssens) through the 1440s (von Hammer, Finlay, and Miller) to 1456 (Shukurov) or 1456-58 (Bryer).[12] John assembled his land and naval forces, then assisted by his pansebastos salied forth to meet the Shaikh. The two armies met at Kapanion. John had planned to attack Junayd from both land and sea; however, a strong wind prevented the sailors from landing and the Sheikh's men successfully counteracted, killing the pansebastos and scattering the army. John escaped by means of his fleet, and made it back to Trebizond. Shaykh Junayd soon arrived before the walls of Trebizond, but after three days he found the walls impregnable and marched his army south to ravage the district of Mesochaldion.[11]

John died some time before 22 April 1459, when his brother David is first attested as emperor of Trebizond.

Marriage and children[edit]

John IV was married twice, first to an unnamed daughter of King Alexander I of Georgia,[13] then prior to November 1437 he married the daughter of a Turkish sultan.[4] According to the Europäische Stammtafeln, his second wife was the daughter of Dawlat Berdi Khan of the Crimean Turks, although no basis for this identification is given. He is comonly said to have as many as three children—a son and either one or two daughters.[14] However, Kuršanskis has shown that John had only one offspring—Theodora Megale Komnene.[15]

  • Alexios (1455–1463), beheaded at Constantinople. Kuršanskis has argued that Alexios should be seen as the son of John's brother Alexander.
  • Theodora Megale Komnene, better known by her Mongol appellation "Despina Hatun", who married Uzun Hasan of Ak Koyunlu.
  • Eudokia (Valenza), who married Niccolò Crispo, lord of Syros; but she may have been a sister of John IV. Kuršanskis has shown this woman never existed.


  1. ^ Laonikos, Histories II.219.12-222.21; discussed in Anthony Kaldellis, "The Interprestations in the Histories of Laonikos Chalkokondyles", Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 52 (2012), pp. 260-262
  2. ^ William Miller, Trebizond: The last Greek Empire of the Byzantine Era: 1204-1461, 1926 (Chicago: Argonaut, 1969), pp. 81f
  3. ^ Miller, Trebizond, p. 83
  4. ^ a b A. Vasiliev, "Tero Tafur, a Spanish Traveler of the XVth Century and His Visit to Constantinople, Trebizond, and Italy," Byzantion, 7 (1932), p. 98
  5. ^ Miller, Trebizond, p. 85
  6. ^ Sphranzes, ch. 30. translated in Marios Philippides, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes, 1401-1477 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1980), pp. 58ff
  7. ^ Miller, Trebizond, pp. 85-87
  8. ^ Miller, Trebizond, p. 87
  9. ^ Miller, Trebizond, pp. 89-91
  10. ^ Miller, Trebizond, pp. 91ff
  11. ^ a b Miller, Trebizond, pp. 83f
  12. ^ Discussed in Rustam Shukurov, "The campaign of Shaykh Djunayd Safawi against Trebizond (1456 AD/860 AH)", Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 17 (1993), pp. 127-140.
  13. ^ Cyril Toumanoff, "The Fifteenth-century Bagratids and the Institution of Collegial Sovereignty in Georgia", Traditio, 7 (1949-1951), pp. 182ff
  14. ^ For example, see George Finlay, The History of Greece and the Empire of Trebizond, (1204-1461) (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1877), p. 508
  15. ^ Kuršanskis Michel. "La descendance d'Alexis IV, empereur de Trébizonde. Contribution à la prosopographie des Grands Comnènes", Revue des études byzantines, 37 (1979), pp. 239-247


External links[edit]

John IV of Trebizond
Komnenid dynasty
Born: c. 1403 Died: 1459
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Alexios IV
Emperor of Trebizond
Succeeded by