Warfare Frankish Greece 1204-1380 I

Frankish Greece, 1204–61

The Fourth Crusade (1202-04), consisting of a land army composed of French and Italian troops and a powerful Venetian naval fleet, had originally been planned as an offensive against Egypt. Through a combination of greed, political intrigue and mutual distrust, the expedition ended up attacking the Greeks instead. After the Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, those members of the expedition who chose to stay in Greece undertook the conquest of what remained of the Byzantine empire. This resulted in the creation of several new Latin states around the Aegean. The Latin empire itself encompassed Thrace and the northern fringes of Asia Minor, while Macedonia and parts of Thessaly formed the kingdom of Thessaloniki. Further south, Byzantine Attica and Boeotia were turned into the Frankish duchy of Athens, and below it the principality of Achaia covered the Peloponnese. Meanwhile the Venetians established a number of important trading colonies around the Aegean, particularly at Modon, Coron, Constantinople and Crete. They also dominated numerous islands which lay either directly within the Venetian sphere of influence or were colonised by individual Venetian citizens. These included Corfu, Cephalonia and Euboea, as well as the Cyclades, which formed the duchy of the Archipelago under the Sañudo dukes of Naxos. Eventually other islands came to be controlled by rival powers, most notably the Genoese, who held Chios and several neighbouring trading posts between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition, from 1306 onwards the Hospitallers subjugated Rhodes.

Leading Greeks who had fled from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade also created three new states situated on the fringes of the Byzantine world. The capital cities of these states lay at Trebizond along the Black Sea, at Nicaea in Asia Minor and at Arta in Epiros. All three of these territories, and in particular the latter two, saw themselves as the natural heirs to the Byzantine empire and consequently often clashed both with each other and with their unwelcome new Latin neighbours. To the north of Constantinople, the Franks were also threatened by the Bulgars, who had been opponents of the Byzantine empire before 1204 and now continued to launch frequent attacks into northern Greece in conjunction with an aggressive tribe of horsemen known as the Cumans.

This highly splintered political situation inevitably led to almost constant fighting in the Aegean region and ultimately resulted in the destruction of virtually all the Latin states which had been set up after 1204. The first to disappear was the ephemeral kingdom of Thessaly, whose conquest by the despots of Epiros was effectively completed with the fall of Thessaloniki in 1224. At this time the Epirote Greeks also made some significant advances against the duchy of Athens to their south. Meanwhile, the Greeks of Nicaea made good progress in the east. By the end of the 1220s the Franks had lost their possessions in Asia Minor and the Latin empire itself had been reduced to the area immediately around Constantinople, leaving the rulers of Nicaea and Epiros to fight it out for control of northern Greece. Indeed, as the Nicaean Greeks crossed the Sea of Marmara and began to advance westwards, those of Epiros became so alarmed that they formed an alliance with their former enemies, the Franks of Achaia. In 1259 this alliance was ended by the Nicaean ruler Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), who inflicted a crushing defeat on William II of Achaia (1246-78) at the battle of Pelagonia in southern Macedonia. As a result of this encounter Epirote power in northern Greece was weakened, and Prince William found himself in captivity until 1262, when Michael finally released him in exchange for the Achaian fortresses of Mistra, Old Mania and Monemvasia. These powerful castles were located in the south-eastern corner of the Peloponnese and provided Michael and his successors with a perfect bridgehead from which to reconquer Achaia from the Franks. This process continued sporadically until the 1420, when the last Latin remnants of the principality were swallowed up and incorporated into the Greek province of Mistra.

Two years after the battle of Pelagonia, the Nicaean Greeks also managed to recapture Constantinople, thereby wiping out the Latin empire. This made them masters of a newly recreated Byzantine empire stretching from western Asia Minor to Thessaly, and enabled Michael VIII and his son Andronikos II (1282-1328) to apply further pressure on the despotate of Epiros, the principality of Achaia and the duchy of Athens. While Franks in the Peloponnese struggled to contain attacks from Mistra, the 1270s witnessed the temporary conquest of Euboea by Licario of Karystos, a Veronese adventurer in Michael VII’s employ. Meanwhile, the duchy of Athens came under attack from the north, and in order to halt these advances and to strengthen his position in relation to other Greek lords in Epiros and Thessaly, Duke Gautier I of Athens (1308-11) eventually decided to seek external assistance. This led to the arrival of a ferocious band of Catalan mercenaries in central Greece. These soldiers of fortune had previously been used by Andronikos II to fight the Turks in Asia Minor, but after falling out with their former employer they had gradually moved west through the Byzantine empire, pillaging and looting as they went, before they eventually found themselves in the pay of Duke Gautier. However, after some initial successes an argument broke out between the duke and the volatile Catalans over pay, and as a result they took to the field against Gautier and his Achaian allies. This decisive encounter, traditionally known as the battle of Cephissus but actually fought at Halmyros (southern Thessaly), took place in March 1311 and led to the death of the unfortunate Gautier along with virtually all of his Athenian knights. In its wake Gautier’s lands were conquered by the Catalans, who then colonised and ruled the duchy of Athens until the late fourteenth century. During this period the Catalans acknowledged the overlordship of the kings of Aragon, who held the ducal title and ruled Athens through representatives whom they regularly sent out to Greece.

The dramatic advances made by the Greeks against the Latins had an important effect on the internal history of Achaia. Originally the Frankish rulers of this crusader state had recognised the Latin emperors as their overlords, but after Michael VIII recaptured Constantinople in 1261, and gained control over Mistra, Old Mania and Monemvasia the following year, it became essential for the Villehardouin princes of Achaia to find a powerful new suzerain who could aid them against the Greeks. During the 1260s, therefore, William II of Villehardouin (1246-78) allied himself with Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France and ruler of Naples (1266-85). As part of this alliance it was agreed that, if William did not produce a male heir, Achaia would eventually pass under Charles’s control, which was exactly what happened following William’s death in 1278. These events turned out to be a mixed blessing for the Peoloponnese, for on the one hand Charles and his Angevin descendants did provide sporadic military support for the Peloponnese (as William had hoped), but on the other relatively few of them ever visited the region, preferring instead to send royal representatives from Italy or to grant parts of Achaia to their own followers. Perhaps the most important such figure was the wealthy Florentine lord Niccolo Acciajuoli, who acquired large parts of northern Morea, including the castellany of Athens, between the 1330s and 1350s. Toward the end of the fourteenth century Niccolo’s descendants also made significant advances against the Catalans of Athens, who were detested in France and Italy because of their close links with the Aragonese, arch-enemies of the Angevins and the Avignon papacy.

The fact that the Angevin rulers of Achaia resided in Naples rather than Greece gradually had the effect of weakening central authority in the Peloponnese, so that the region’s late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century history was reduced to a series of internal clashes between various local factions. In the north the Florentine lords of Corinth, allied with a new company of Navarrese mercenaries who had arrived in the 1380s, fought against the Catalans. In the south east the Greeks of Mistra continued to advance, whilst Achaia itself sporadically found itself disputed between rival Angevin claimants. As the Turkish threat grew, the Venetians and the Hospitallers also became more involved in the politics of Latin Greece, sometimes placing entire areas under their own protection. Indeed, from the 1390s onwards, local Christian squabbles became little more than an irrelevance as the Ottoman Turks began to overrun the entire region regardless of whether it was controlled by Greeks, Italians, Franks or Iberians. By 1460 the Byzantine empire had disappeared and most of the Greek mainland had been incorporated into the Ottoman empire. During the next two centuries all remaining Christian islands in the eastern Mediterranean also fell to the Turks.

During this period the military strength of the Latins and their opponents varied considerably. The relatively short life span of the kingdom of Thessaly and the Latin empire, for example, indicates that here western settlers found themselves under extreme pressure from the very beginning. It has been estimated that the total number of cavalry, including both knights and mounted sergeants, available to the first Latin emperor, Baldwin of Flanders (1204-5), only came to between 500 and 1000 horsemen. Contemporary accounts bear this out, for in late 1204 a mere 120 knights left Constantinople, crossed the Bosphorus and began to conquer as many lands as they could from the Greeks of Nicaea. Similarly, Baldwin’s successor Henry (1206-16) campaigned against the Bulgars with a total of 400 knights in 1206, and was accompanied by 260 knights when he advanced against the Nicaean Greeks in 1211.  Initially these figures do not seem small when compared with Greek forces, for the largest reliable total given for a contemporary Nicaean army is that of 2000 cavalry (including 800 Latin mercenaries) at the battle of Antioch on the Meander, an encounter with the Seljuk Turks which took place in 1211.  It should also be noted that the advances of 1204 and Henry’s campaign of 1211 both ended in Frankish success, suggesting that Latin and Nicaean forces were evenly balanced at this time, particularly when the Greeks were also struggling with their Seljuk neighbours to the east.

To some extent the same may have applied to the Cuman and Bulgar troops who threatened the northern border of the Latin empire and the kingdom of Thessaly. In 1208, for example, a mere 2000 Latins allegedly confronted 33,000 Bulgars in northern Greece, but the fact that this encounter ended in a Frankish victory certainly casts doubt on the latter figure and suggests that the Bulgars could not possibly have enjoyed such an overwhelming numerical superiority. Similarly, the combined armies of Nicaea and Bulgaria which reached the walls of Constantinople in 1235 must have been smaller than western sources imply, otherwise they would have annihilated the 140 Latin knights who emerged from the city and successfully drove them off under the leadership of John of Brienne. Here we are confronted with the usual problem of trying to establish accurate troop numbers from medieval chroniclers who tended to exaggerate (or simply invent) the size of hostile armies. Whilst the number of western knights mentioned by these sources appears to be realistic, they also fail to provide us with any detailed information about the quality and quantity of other troops such as sergeants, infantry and archers, even though these soldiers presumably made up the bulk of Latin armies. We can only assume that an apparently miraculous victory inflicted on tens of thousands of opponents by a few hundred western knights actually represented a more equally matched contest between a Frankish army which was really somewhat larger and a Greek, Bulgar or Cuman force which must have been considerably smaller.


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