Battle of Halmyros, a battle between the lightly armed but battle-hardened Almogavars of the infamous Catalan Company and the French Knights of the Duchy of Athens. By Darren Tan
It still appears that Latin armies in northern Greece were generally outnumbered, and certainly too thinly spread out to defend both this region and the frontier with Nicaea at the same time. When in 1205 Kalojan of Bulgaria (1197-1207) invaded Frankish territories and encouraged the Greek population of Thrace to rebel, the Latin emperor Baldwin had to persuade his brother Henry to abandon ‘all that he had conquered’ in Asia Minor to cross the Bosphoros and help to defend the empire’s European borders. Even these drastic measures failed to prevent Kalojan and his Greek allies from occupying virtually all of Thrace. Consequently, even if we dismiss Villehardouin’s exaggerated claim that there were an additional 14,000 Cumans alongside all the other troops in Kalojan’s army, we must surely agree with his general conclusion that the Latin emperor ‘could not raise enough troops to defend his territories’. These events also confirm that, apart from having to cope with their external enemies, Latin settlers were heavily outnumbered by a potentially hostile native population. Indeed, during Kalojan’s invasion some Franks continued to fear for their lives even after they had found shelter inside Tchorlu, a fortified city to the west of Constantinople, ‘because they doubted the people of the town’.
It was not the overwhelming superiority of any one opponent but the number of different enemies, the unreliability of the local people and the sheer size of the territories which needed to be defended that contributed to the early demise of the Latin states in northern Greece. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the crusader states set up in south-western Greece and on the Aegean islands survived much longer. The duchy of Athens, the principality of Achaia and the Venetian colonies were all smaller in size and were protected by seas, mountains or other natural features such as the isthmus of Corinth. Moreover, the further Latin conquerors travelled from Constantinople, the more they benefited from the increasing regionalism which had been apparent within the Byzantine empire since before the Fourth Crusade. When Boniface of Montferrat, the man who established the kingdom of Thessaly, undertook his conquest of northern Greece in 1204, he received a warm welcome from some locals who regarded Constantinople as a distant and corrupt absorber of taxes, and consequently felt that it was best simply to come to terms with the Latins. Similarly, when the Franks reached the Peloponnese local Greek lords (‘archons’) were often allowed to keep their incomes provided that they recognised their new Frankish masters. By contrast, the volatile political situation in Constantinople itself before and during the Fourth Crusade, followed by the flight of many leading Greeks to Nicaea or elsewhere, left little room for a quiet transition of power in northern Greece.
The relative stability which existed in south-western Greece during the first half of the thirteenth century ensured that the rulers of Achaia were more prosperous and enjoyed greater military power than their Latin neighbours in Thessaloniki and Constantinople. The total number of knights settled in the region has been estimated at between five and six hundred, and according to one rather romanticised source Prince Geoffrey II of Villehardouin (1228-46) kept eighty knights just at his own court. These figures are confirmed by the Chronicle of Morea, if we can believe its claim that, at the battle of Tagliacozzo (1268), Geoffrey’s successor William II (1246-78) fought alongside his overlord Charles of Anjou with 400 cavalry brought from Achaia. This implies that, even though it was smaller, the military strength of Achaia was almost equal to that of the original Latin empire, and that its rulers had enough resources to intervene in conflicts beyond the Peloponnese. Indeed, in 1236 Geoffrey II of Villehardouin sent help to Constantinople whilst it was being besieged by the Bulgarians and the Greeks of Nicaea. In 1249 Geoffrey’s brother William II joined Louis IX’s crusade against Egypt with a fleet of twenty-four Achaian ships. This episode took place at roughly the same time as the Latin empress of Constantinople made a desperate plea to Louis for 300 knights to help her and her husband defend their capital, and therefore highlights the contrast in military strength between the Franks of Achaia and those of northern Greece.
The military strength of the principality of Achaia should not be overestimated, however, for it still took the Villehardouins many decades to subjugate the Peloponnese fully, and they did not capture the impregnable Greek outpost of Monemvasia, situated in the south-east corner of the principality, until 1249. Moreover, the days of sending troops to foreign conflicts came to an end after the 12605, when Monemvasia, Mistra and Old Mania were returned to the Greeks and subsequently used by them to reconquer the entire Frankish Morea. It is difficult to calculate the number of troops involved in this conflict, but the fact that it took the Greeks until the early fifteenth century to recover all of the Peloponnese suggests that local armies were fairly equally balanced. It has been estimated that even during the reign of Michael VIII (1259-82), which marked the zenith of late Byzantine power, major Greek campaign armies never contained more than 10,000 soldiers, and that most were much smaller. Bearing in mind that there never seem to have been more than five or six hundred western knights settled in Achaia, it seems unlikely that local clashes between Latin forces and the Greeks of Mistra ever involved more than a few hundred horsemen. When the Chronicle of Morea claimed that in 1262 300 Franks defeated a Byzantine force of 15,000 men, it may have given a reasonably accurate estimate for the Frankish army but must surely have exaggerated the scale of the Greek expedition. The Franks must have been less outnumbered than this, but the fact that the Greeks probably had a slight rather than an overwhelming advantage meant that the conflict dragged on for many decades. As the Franks gradually retreated toward the north and west of the principality, the land which they conceded was often devastated by regular yet indecisive fighting.
The inability of any one ruler to deal a swift death blow to his opponents also seems to have characterised the fighting further north. During the first half of the thirteenth century the Greeks of Epiros quickly recaptured Thessaloniki and wiped out many Latin conquests which had been made in Thessaly, but they were unable to overrun the duchy of Athens. Epiros eventually became a frequent ally of the Latins against the Greeks of Nicaea, who were themselves only successful in weakening rather than destroying Epiros and Athens. The exact details of this fighting are either poorly recorded or heavily exaggerated. The papal correspondence of Honorius III (1216-27) and Gregory IX (1227-41) indicates that during the 1220s the Greeks of Epiros attacked Boudonitza and Salona on the northern fringes of the duchy of Athens, and that by 1235 they had even reached Thebes. No details are given regarding the strength and nature of the opposing forces, although the concern caused by these events at the papal court is probably in itself indicative of Epirote superiority on the battlefield. By the second half of the thirteenth century, it is clear that this of the fighting are still impossible to come by. Thus in 1292 the Chronicle of Morea stated that the Epirote city of loannina was besieged by a Byzantine (formerly Nicaean) force of 30,000 infantry and 14,000 cavalry, but that this entire expedition retreated in panic when Florent of Hainault, prince of Achaia (1289-97) and ally of Epiros, approached with an army which probably only contained four or five hundred men! Once again, the Byzantine figures should clearly be disregarded, for the number of western knights living in this region suggests that most clashes between Greeks and Latins cannot have involved more than a few hundred horsemen, and perhaps only a couple of thousand men in total. Indeed, it has been suggested that during the entire late Byzantine period most Greek campaigns ‘probably involved hundreds rather than thousands of troops’.
Whilst the Nicaean Greeks eventually succeeded in conquering Achaia, we have seen that it was the Catalans who finished off the Frankish duchy of Athens. The ruthlessness with which they did so suggests that they were unusually well-trained and aggressive soldiers. According to the chronicler Muntaner the Catalan company consisted of 2500 cavalry plus 4000 Almogavers (light infantry) and 1000 other footsoldiers These figures seem high, although the total of around 2500 horsemen was also given by another source. On the other hand, Muntaner claimed that, when they defeated Duke Gautier I of Athens in March 1311, the Catalans overcame a Frankish army containing 30,000 infantry, plus 700 knights of whom all but two were killed. Even if all the lords of Athens and Achaia had turned up, these are impossibly high totals and unfortunately cast doubt on the other troop numbers given by this chronicler. The decisiveness of the Frankish defeat does at least suggest that Gautier had underestimated both the fighting skill and the size of the Catalan foe, even if the total number of combatants involved in this encounter was greatly exaggerated.
The Catalans also participated in another form of warfare which affected much of the Aegean area during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: piracy and raiding. Even before they arrived in the duchy of Athens the Catalans had a terrible reputation for such activities in Byzantine Greece, where ‘there was not a town or city that was not looted and burnt’ by them. From the mid fourteenth century onwards the Turks became an even greater threat, causing so much destruction that by the 1380s some Aegean islands had been completely abandoned by their original inhabitants. Even as early as 1358 a document recording the transfer of Corinth castle to the Florentine lord Niccolo Acciajuoli makes it clear that the Turks were having a devastating effect on the region: one of Niccolo’s primary duties was to persuade people to return to the area around Corinth, which had been overrun so many times by Greek, Catalan or Turkish raiders that superiority had largely disappeared in the face of Nicaean pressure, which forced Epiros to seek the friendship rather than the enmity of the Latins. Accurate details homelessness and starvation had forced entire communities to flee. In the thirteenth century there may not have been quite as much destruction, but piratical attacks, such as that carried out during the 1280s against Bartolomeo Ghisi, the Venetian lord of Tinos and Mikonos, nevertheless represented a common threat for the inhabitants of islands and coastal regions. There were also many clashes between Venetian and Genoese naval forces which had either been sent out by their respective cities or were operating independently in a semi-piratical manner. When the Venetians occupied Corfu and Crete in the years after the Fourth Crusade, they first had to get rid of Genoese privateers based on these islands.
The behaviour of the Catalans and the constant rivalry between Venice and Genoa also remind us that far from being united in their struggles against the Greeks or Turks, Latin settlers in the Aegean area were frequently embroiled in their own internal disputes. Warfare of this kind squandered precious resources and resulted in yet more suffering for those who already had to cope with the threat of piracy, looting and brigandage. Between 1255 and 1258, for example, Duke Guy de la Roche of Athens (1225-63), aided by his Venetian allies, fought a bitter civil war against William II of Villehardouin in a dispute over land on Euboea. William eventually won this conflict by systematically ravaging Guy’s lands until he surrendered; but, although this tactic worked, it must have caused untold suffering for the peasants and farmers who lived in the affected areas. Considering that most of these unfortunate rural inhabitants were Greek, it is hardly surprising to find that fighting also broke out occasionally between western newcomers and local natives, who sometimes had to put up with other forms of maltreatment such as unbearably high taxes. 36 Incidents of this kind must have been particularly unnerving as Latin settlers formed such a tiny section of the overall population. On Chios, for example, it has been estimated that there were 10,000 Greeks being ruled by a mere one to two thousand Genoese toward the end of the fourteenth century. Villehardouin claimed that, during the initial Frankish siege of Constantinople in 1203, the city’s inhabitants outnumbered their attackers by as much as two hundred to one, and that the crusaders were consequently reluctant to enter Constantinople even after they had seized the city walls. Such statistics help to explain why Latin conquerors in Achaia and elsewhere often tried to be as conciliatory as possible toward local Greek landholders.
One final form of combat which needs to be mentioned is that of naval warfare. Generally speaking, the Latins possessed far greater naval power than the Greeks; a factor which proved vital to the continued existence of some of the crusader states. In 1235 and 1236, when Constantinople was besieged by the combined forces of John Asen II of Bulgaria (1218-41) and John III Vatatzes of Nicaea (1222-54), the Venetians were able to break the naval blockades around the city and effectively save the Latin empire from destruction. Apart from the Italian city states, other Latin powers also had warships available to them. In 1236 many vessels from Achaia assisted in the relief of Constantinople and William II of Villehardouin later contributed a fleet of twenty-four ships to the crusade of St Louis. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Catalans also brought their own fleet to the Aegean, using it in countless raids along the coasts of northern Greece. In 1305, for instance, after the Catalans had fallen out with their former employer Andronikos II, they sent five galleys out from their temporary headquarters at Gallipoli to attack neighbouring Byzantine targets.
The financial, administrative and political problems of the late Byzantine state often prevented the Greeks from raising adequate naval forces to deal with such aggressors. During the 1280s, for example, Andronikos II reduced the size of the Byzantine fleet in order to cut costs. However, it would be misleading to assume that the Greeks were entirely overawed at sea, for at times, and in particular during the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259-82), the Byzantine authorities were able to build up naval forces by relying on mercenaries. Thus in the 1270s Michael VIII employed the Latin pirate Giovanni de lo Cavo to act as his admiral in the Aegean. Latin seamen also did not have matters entirely their own way because of the growing threat of the Turks. Even the ruthless Catalans had to be aware of this danger, for during the winter of 1303-4 they sent their fleet to a secure winter anchorage at Chios ‘because the Turks, with barques, ravage all [the Aegean] islands’.
This summary of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century warfare around the Aegean makes it clear that there were many motives for the Latins who lived there to construct or occupy castles. Although exact troop numbers are almost impossible to establish, most of the Greek or Latin armies active in the region only contained between one and five hundred horsemen. Even when additional foot soldiers accompanied them, campaigns were rarely undertaken by more than one or two thousand men. Consequently the Latins who settled in Greece after the Fourth Crusade were not as heavily outnumbered by individual opponents as some of the contemporary chroniclers would lead us to believe. There were, however, ultimately too few Latins living in northern Greece to halt the combined attacks of many different Nicaean, Epirote, Cuman and Bulgarian armies. The fall of the duchy of Athens in 1311 suggests that Frankish settlement was so fragile that a single defeat in a pitched battle could seal the fate of an entire crusader state. Eventually the Franks proved equally incapable of halting the gradual loss of Achaia after the Greek acquisition of Mistra in 1262. In addition, the Aegean was almost constantly affected by some form of localised raiding, rebellion or piracy. While this did not necessarily threaten national security in the short term, it ultimately ground down the economic and military strength of states such as Achaia. In short, this was an extremely insecure world, and in order to protect themselves against it Latins needed fortifications to make up for their lack of troops and to defend their property against the constant threat of enemy attack