Going with 2. Too tired to respond to questions. Will in the morning.
Part XXX: The Brief Reign of Nikephoros I (1506-1507)
The sudden abdication of Alexandros II in 1506 sent Trapezous and the Trapezuntine court reeling. The aftokrator had presided over more than two decades of stability during a period of intense court politics and foreign diplomacy after the siege of 1485, and many believed that he would continue doing so for another decade, at least. As such, none but the most paranoid and cautious of the courtly schemers had made plans for the aftokrator’s surprise abdication, and even fewer of these had considered that it would be neither of his sons who took his place but instead an obscure nephew. The coming times would be interesting, and not just in the Chinese sense….
Of course, when unexpected events strike, those who are best in a position to exploit them are those who had already made contingency plans for them. In the above mentioned case, the only court figure who had considered the possibility of Nikephoros ascending to the throne--as well as every other male member of the Imperial family, and then some--was a woman named Anastasia Katsarina. Katsarina had been born into the ranks of a minor merchant family from Sinope in 1472, shortly after the return of Trapezuntine control. Unfortunately, the Katsaroi had been bankrupted when their entire mercantile fleet (an old cog and a small galley; they were a minor trading family, after all) was burned in the Ottoman attack on Sinope in 1485. The Katsaroi had then picked up stakes and moved to Trapezous, where it was hoped that a revival in the family fortunes would occur. It did, in a way, because in the 1490s, Anastasia became a hetaira in the Imperial court. This brought her into close proximity (heh) with a number of prominent noblemen, and within a few months she had turned to the far riskier but far more profitable business of information dealing. Throughout the 1490s, she was able to construct a network of informants--mostly prostitutes and servants, but also a handful of impoverished nobles and aides--throughout the court, which allowed her to gather information on the goings-on of the darker corners of the palace practically at will. An anonymous poet noted around 1498 that “Upon an agreement being made in secret, three parties know of it; the former two being those who conducted it and the third being the Universal Spider.” This, of course, made her both a loose end to be tied up and an indispensable information (and thus power) broker to many courtesans, often at the same time, and so Katsarina was forced to have contingency plans for any occurance to keep her head upon her shoulders. This eventually paid off with the sudden accession of Nikephoros I, for which she was the only figure prepared to shift to make the best of this new ruler.
It is often said, and probably true, that Anastasia Katsarina was more prepared for the beginning of Nikephoros’ reign than Nikephoros was. The aftokrator’s nephew was on a hunting trip in the Pontic mountains when Alexandros abdicated, and it took several days for a dispatch from Trapezous to track down the aftokrator at an isolated hunting lodge in the eastern foothills. Upon being informed that he was now the aftokrator, Nikephoros initially dismissed it as a failed joke, and told the courier that he should be more careful and not deliver treasonous messages. After several hours, he was finally convinced to at least return to Trapezous and, upon returning to the capital, was shocked to be greeted by a cheering crowd, who hailed him as Nikephoros I. Supposedly in a state of shock, Nikephoros was crowned as aftokrator that afternoon by Basileios II, the Patriarch of Pontos, in the Trapezuntine Agia Sophia, and retired to his chambers in an isolated wing of the palace to mull things over.
Nikephoros, it is important to understand, was far from a good candidate for the throne. He was a quiet and unambitious man, a member of the Imperial bureaucracy who occasionally went out for hunts with his cousins but otherwise was effectively a non-entity as dynastic matters were concerned. In 1494 he had married a Lazic woman named Eirene of Oph, a quiet and timid woman, whom he appears to have married out of love, an exceedingly rare occurrence for a nobleman during the Renaissance. The marriage had produced only a single daughter, Alexeia (b.1498) and several unfortunate stillborn pregnancies. Most importantly, Nikephoros, outside of his surname, had no connections to the traditional aristocracy whatsoever, which made his rule tenuous at best and doomed to failure at worst.
After a great deal of consideration, it finally dawned upon Nikephoros that he was now the aftokrator, and that even if he abdicated now then there would still be a target on his back because he was one of the scarce few who had managed to sit upon the throne that so many lusted after. However, he never made the change in character, the adoption of the certain ruthlessness that is needed to stay in power once you have gained it. His first mistake was to refuse to treat with Katsarina, even after his advisors hastily informed him of the great deal of power she held in court. In Nikephoros’ mind, it would be wrong for him, a married man, to have anything to do with a courtesan such as her, and so he willingly cut himself off from a potentially vital source of support. His second, and most egregious, mistake was to allow Alexandros’ sons to go free. Nikephoros, it appears, felt guilty for displacing the two poor men from what he considered to be their birthright, and so refused to heap the further misfortune of imprisonment or blinding upon them. This flew in the face of both common sense and the special unspoken rules of Byzantine and Byzantine-derived courts, which stated quite plainly that any rival claimants needed to be done away with, be it by blinding, tonsuring, imprisonment or straight murder, as quickly as possible. Nikephoros either could not bring himself to do this or believed that they simply didn’t pose a threat; After all, Alexios was, to all appearances, insane, and Romanos was almost comically indecisive.
After taking office, the new emperor went about continuing the policies of Alexandros, especially in regards to foreign alliances. He spent most of his time focused on diplomacy, by which he neglected the eternally festering court and its politics, as well as the feelings of the army and the bandons, by which he might have been able to preserve his rule indefinitely. Remember, the survival of any Trapezuntine regime rested upon three pillars--the army, the church and the court. The church, for the most part, backed the deeply pious Nikephoros, and had the aftokrator been able to rally the army to his cause, he could have easily clung to power for much longer than he truly did. That Nikephoros barely altered the policies of his predecessor leads to the obvious conclusion that he was an empty shirt, albeit one with the presence of mind not to abandon a well-function system on a whim. This view of him is furthered by his lack of decisive action against the schemers and intriguers of the Trapezuntine court. Alexandros had allowed the managed chaos to exist, because he viewed it as a way to knock down any budding rivals through clandestine means. Nikephoros, it appears, allowed it it continue to exist for no apparent reason. All in all, it seems that Nikephoros was an unimaginative but decent ruler, the sort of monarch whose reign would be glossed over in most history books barring some unforeseen disaster.
The surprise ascension of Nikephoros had left the court divided into two factions. The first had banked heavily on the ascension of Alexios following his father’s death or abdication, and so they had a great deal of invested interest in installing him upon the Imperial throne. The second party were those who were willing to work with Nikephoros, seeing an opportunity to increase their own power at the expense of a weak monarch. The leader of this second faction was one Konstantinos Romanou, and exiled westerner who had managed to work his way up into the nobility with a great deal of murder and blackmail. Romanou had managed to set himself up as an information broker similar to Katsarina. Her spurning by the aftokrator in mid-1506 had placed the ‘Universal Spider’ decisively in the former camp, and so throughout 1506 and into 1507 the two intriguers and their many supporters were having it out in the darkened halls of the palace. Nikephoros, of course, remained willfully ignorant of all of this, because he believed that if he became aware of a murder plot or something similar and failed to stop it, no matter the realpolitik impacts of it, it would count against his soul on God’s ledger. A noble belief, to be sure, but the kind of belief held by nobles.
These events culminated in August 1507. Alexios Katsaros, Katsarina’s half-brother, was a merchant of middling repute in Trapezous, having succeeded in reviving the Katsaros family name in the mercantile currents of the Black Sea. One night, shortly after one of Romanou’s chief lieutenants had been poisoned, a small group of mercenaries broke into Katsaros’ home. They abducted the poor merchant and tortured him for several days, trying to discover some incriminating evidence they could use against his sister. To his credit, Katsaros refused to give up anything for several days of agony, but finally broke down and confessed that his sibling had been involved in a plot against the aftokrator’s life. This was false, but by that point the poor wretch was willing to say anything to get the pain to stop. This information was relegated to Romanou, who at once set out to inform Nikephoros, who was at that time at a hunting lodge in the western mountains. However, Katsarina was also informed of her brother’s death and, furious, made plans for Romanou himself to be axed. A few nights later, Romanou and his retinue arrived in an inn near Sinope. They went to bed suspecting nothing, only for the building itself to explode less than an hour after their arrival. This was attributed to a great deal of manure stored in the building’s basement, and Romanou’s death was written off as an unfortunate accident. Katsarina was now the uncontested power broker of the court.
Alexios, throughout all of this, had remained in court, seemingly ignoring the potential danger to his own life and freedom. As before, he remained primarily engaged in riding out in the wilds beyond the city, with his social experiences consisting mostly of talking to himself and occasionally having violent seizures, neither of which were traits that made him an ideal ruler. However, there were a great number of noblemen who had invested a great deal of time and money into winning them to their side and so there was still a potential candidacy for him. There were also some hardliners who believed that the throne was his by right, as Alexandros had ignored centuries of succession precedents to cover up for his own failings in neglecting the rearing of his heirs. However, support for his cause was limited by the general public opinion being that he was crazy. This was not true, Alexios was (mostly) fine. He genuinely disliked human contact, but the general insanity, such as randomly convulsing or having nervous breakdowns upon being exposed to certain types of fruit, were all an act. Alexios was fully aware that he was a loose end that would be tied up even a semi-competent ruler, and as such he had adopted the mannerisms of a lunatic so as to not appear threatening. Even as Nikephoros seemed to ignore him, Alexios retained this healthy dose of paranoia and kept up the act. However, he also maintained his own network of spies and informants, albeit under the guise of his secretary, Andronikos Ralleis Kantakouzenos, and as such remained quite aware of ongoing trends in the court. He used this to maneuver himself into a position to advance his claim to the throne, in spite of his outward appearance of retardation.
In November 1507, Alexios spoke to Katsarina, a momentous occasion for such a reclusive man. A few weeks previous, Nikephoros had finally stirred from his stupor, and had ordered the arrest of a priest named Basileios Davidopoulos for insulting the monarchy. Basileios had been the only one of Alexios’ childhood tutors to show even an ounce of kindness to the poor boy, Alexios had clung to him dearly. He had been the closest thing to a mentor and advocate for the prince in court, and when Nikephoros had repeated the common insult that Alexios liked horses, Davidopoulos flew into a rage and snapped at him, for which he was arrested. His ward was quite angry at this, but also feared that this would lead to Nikephoros arresting him. Katsarina was more than a little shocked to have the prince, who normally spoke through intermediaries due to his hatred for human contact, speak to her directly, but was willing to listen to his proposition. As Alexios said, the two had a shared interest in getting him upon the throne. Alexios’ interest is quite obvious, but Katsarina’s is slightly less so. Alexios had correctly guessed that her ultimate desire was to keep a firm grip on power, for which she would need to be an active member of the sitting regime or at the very least tied to it in such a way that she could not easily be foisted out. For a woman in this time period, the only position that she could aim for that wouldn’t leave her as disposable (at least in the Orthodox world) was as aftokratorissa, the wife of the sitting ruler. Alexios promised that if Katsarina leveraged her considerable network to help him get into power, they would marry, thus securing her her desired hold on power and Alexios his desired support of the court. Neither of them found the other especially attractive or even pleasant to be around, but the proposed power-sharing agreement was acceptable to the both of them. And so, the plot against Nikephoros began in earnest.
Of course, it isn’t exactly easy to stage a coup, and before Nikephoros could be dethroned a great deal of planning was needed. The court was fairly solidly under Katsarina’s control, but the court alone was not enough to overthrow a sitting monarch. The church was firmly in Nikephoros’ corner, and this left the army as the final potential column that could be knocked out from under the sitting regime. The army had remained uninvolved in court politics during Alexandros II’s long reign, but many of them had expressed discontent with the abdication of their veteran commander in favor of a literal who. Nikephoros had since done little to earn their loyalty, having refused to call out the bandons to defend the frontier from Turkmen raiders in 1507. As such, while many of them were skeptical of giving Alexios power over anything, several of the higher-ranking officers were willing to help install a new aftokrator. Chief among these was Mikhael Kantakouzenos Philanthropenos, who was on the verge of retiring at the age of seventy-three. Alexios chose to reveal his ruse to Philanthropenos, which proved to be all that was needed to convince him to join his cause. With Philanthropenos would surely come a sizeable chunk of the army, as he was well-respected as a wise and capable commander.
However, they couldn’t just march on the capital. The eleutheroi had, just as Alexandros I had intended, remained completely apolitical and fiercely loyal to the throne. Any Trapezuntine rebels would have to fight through them to get through the aftokrator, in which case they could very easily be defeated. Instead, they needed to attack Nikephoros while he was without the protection of his guards. This opportunity came in the autumn of 1507. Nikephoros had remained completely unaware of the brewing plot against him, and so when in October 1507 word began to spread across the court of a legendary, almost mythical, really, albino stag spotted near Kapnanion, he at once rushed out to go hunting. He traveled only with a handful of eleutheroi and his usual hunting companions. On 26 November , Nikephoros and his party rode into the interior along a narrow, winding road. Here, Alexios, Philanthropenos and three Alexian bandons were lying and wait, and as soon as Nikephoros and his party passed by them, they rushed out and fell upon them. Taken by surprise, the eleutheroi were quickly overwhelmed, and Nikephoros was summarily executed. Alexios and Philanthropenos then marched back to Trapezous, with Nikephoros’ head on a pike.
With their nominal leader’s head no longer attached to his body, the eleutheroi accepted the coup as a fait accompli and allowed Alexios to enter the capital. The church, of course, protested, but it’s not like they had an army to resist, and after a few hours of soldiers drilling outside of the Hagia Sophia, Patriarch Basileios II reluctantly followed the guardsmen’s lead. On 1 December, 1507, Alexios Alexandropoulos Megas Komnenos was crowned as Alexios V of the Trapezuntine Empire. A few hours later, Alexios V married Anastasia Katsarina, who was then invested as co-empress. Alexios then had a dozen people arrested and executed for treason, including Martha, and several dozen more blinded and exiled, including his own brother and two cousins. This was both incredibly ironic for a blatant usurper as well as an ominous hint of the shape of things to come.
 This is a nice way of saying courtesan, which in turn is a nice way of saying prostitute.
 The Greek form of this is ‘O Katholikos Arakhne’, or in its Anglicized version, ‘The Catholic Arachnae’. I just find that amusing.
 ‘Nephew’ was a term bestowed upon all male relatives of the sitting emperor to within four degrees of affinity, regardless of their actual relation. In truth, Nikephoros was a distant cousin of Alexandros II.
 Oph is actually home to the largest Greek-speaking population in Turkey in OTL.