Detail of fresco depicting Serbian Emperor Stefan Dušan. Painted in the mid-14th century. Restorated (coloured). Lesnovo Monastery, Republic of Macedonia.
Serbian Empire, 1355
Serbia had the Adriatic Sea to the west, Hungary to the north and Bulgaria to the east. Stefan divided his principality between his five sons when he died and their mother acted as their go-between. But the barons killed Gojislav; Domanek and Saganek fought; and Radoslav murdered Domanek. Mihailo was appointed Knez in 1050 and he married Kōnstantinos IX’s niece to make peace with the Byzantine Empire. Bulgaria asked Mihailo I to help him attack the Byzantines, following their defeat by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. They even gave the Bulgarian throne to his young son Bodin (who was renamed Petar III) to secure the alliance. But Petar was captured in 1073 and the Byzantine general who was released to rescue him defected.
Mihailo improved relations with the west and he was granted a royal title in 1077 while Duklja became a kingdom. Venetian sailors rescued Bodin and his first act was to support the Byzantine attack on the Normans at Durazzo in 1081. His second was to do nothing when the Normans seized the city. He married the daughter of a Norman nobleman and backed Pope Urban to get Rome’s support but Queen Jakvinta executed, murdered and exiled all claimants to the throne, plunging Duklja into a civil war. The Byzantines recaptured Durazzo, defeated the Pecheneg hordes and then turned on the Serbians in 1090.
Vukan, Grand Prince of Rascia, defeated the first invading Byzantine army but asked for peace when a larger army approached. Emperor Alexios had to accept because the Cumans were raiding his lands. Vukan broke the treaty when he seized Byzantine territory and then offered his son Uroš as hostage when Alexios retaliated. Vukan the Great invaded Macedonia as Alexios faced the First Crusade and invaded Byzantine territory when the Normans attacked the Byzantines in 1106. This time he was defeated and finally had to submit to Alexios; he died in 1112.
Vukan’s nephew, Uroš I, was immediately attacked by the Byzantines so he married his daughter, Jelena, to the blind Béla II to get Hungarian help. Her first act was to execute the sixty barons who had supported the blinding of her husband.
Uroš II was crowned grand prince in 1145 and his brother Beloš brought a Hungarian army to help him defend Serbia. The Byzantines defeated their combined army at the Battle of Tara River in 1150, and while Uroš II swore loyalty to Byzantine Emperor Manouēl I, the emperor abandoned his fight against the Normans in Sicily and concentrated on Hungary. Desa was made co-ruler in 1153 but he ousted Uroš because he refused to be a Byzantine vassal. Emperor Manouēl re-instated Uroš but soon grew tired of him. He appointed his brother Beloš in 1162 but he gave the crown to Desa and returned to Croatia to rule. Emperor Manouēl then appointed Stephen IV, but Beloš took him prisoner and sent him to the Byzantines. The emperor forced Desa to meet him, making him swear humiliating public oaths over his diplomacy with Hungary. He then appointed Tihomir and his brothers as rulers of Serbia in 1162. But one of them, Nemanja, rebelled and deposed the others in 1166, taking the throne for himself.
The emperor wanted Tihomir back on the Serbian throne because he was the weakest leader, so he gave him an army. But Nemanja defeated Tihomir at Pantino and Tihomir was drowned in the River Sitnica. His brothers were captured but they were given land after promising to keep the peace. Nemanja maintained his anti-Byzantine stance by joining the coalition with the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary and Venice in 1172. Unfortunately, Venice left the alliance when an epidemic devastated its fleet and then István II died, leaving the Hungarian throne to the pro-Byzantine Béla III. Emperor Manouēl’s troops defeated the Serbian army and Nemanja was forced to hand his sword over and was taken to Constantinople as a slave.
Nemanja befriended Manouēl and he was recognised as Serbia’s Grand Zupan after vowing never to attack the Byzantine Empire again. Instead he concentrated on dealing with the Bogomil heresy until Manouēl died in 1180. He then allied with Béla III of Bulgaria and advanced to Byzantine-held Sofia until a rebellion forced the Bulgarians to withdraw, leaving the Serbians to fight on alone. Nemanja invited the Third Crusade to stay in Serbia in 1188 but Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa rejected his plan and attacked the Byzantines instead. Both Nemanja and Béla followed the Crusaders until Friedrich made peace with Isaakios II. The Byzantines attacked Serbia as soon as the Crusaders left for the Holy Land. The Byzantines forced Nemanja to relinquish his conquests, recognise Byzantine rule. Emperor Isaakios II also made Nemanja marry his son to the Byzantine Princess Eudokia to split the Serbs from the Bulgarians.
Nemanja became a monk in 1196. He favoured his second son, Stefan, but his first son, Vukan, pledged allegiance to Emeric and seized the throne with Hungarian help. Kaloyan of Bulgaria retaliated by conquering the eastern part of Serbia before Stefan could retake the Serbian throne in 1204. Boril succeeded Kaloyan and while his brother, Strez, took refuge in the Serbian court, Stefan refused money to help him retake the Bulgarian throne. Instead Stefan reclaimed lost Serbian territories while the Latin Empire attacked the Bulgarians.
Stefan the First-Crowned received a crown from Pope Honourius III in 1217, making him the first Serbian king acknowledged by Rome. Although Radoslav succeeded him in 1228, he was rejected because his mother, Eudokia, had been exiled for adultery; a rebellion forced him to retire to a monastery five years later. Vladislav was married to Belošlava, daughter of Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, but both their countries were ransacked by the Mongols in 1242. Ivan was killed and his successor, Kaliman, made Bulgaria a Mongol vassal. The move ruined Vladislav’s reputation and the nobles replaced him with his brother.
The development of silver mines made Uroš I the Great so rich he invaded Hungary in 1268. But he was captured and had to hand over all his wealth to pay the ransom. Uroš was also forced to marry his eldest son, Dragutin, to Katalin, daughter of the Hungarian heir, and he was outraged when his younger brother was named heir. Uroš was given a Hungarian army to defeat the Serbs at the Battle of Gacko in 1276 and forced his father to retire to a monastery.
Dragutin broke his leg while out hunting and he had to pass the throne to his brother Uroš II (also called Milutin) when he fell ill in 1282 but he continued to rule Syrmia until he died. Meanwhile, Uroš captured parts of Macedonia and Albania from the Byzantines but Emperor Mikhaēl VIII died before he could counterattack. Instead it was the Bulgarians who attacked Serbia first. Although Dragutin and Uroš defeated them, a Bulgarian boyar convinced the Mongols to attack Serbia and Uroš had to hand his son Dečanski over to the Golden Horde as a hostage to stop them.
Uroš made peace with the Byzantine Empire in 1299 and helped them defeat the Ottomans on the Gallipoli Peninsula. When Dragutin died in 1314, Dečanski rebelled when Uroš took control of his father’s lands. Decanski was exiled to Constantinople and partially blinded, while his younger brother Kōnstantinos was made heir. Dečanski soon returned from exile and was pardoned but his brother refused to submit. Uroš II died in 1321 and Vladislav II was freed to rule Syrmia with Hungarian help. Kōnstantinos was captured in battle in 1322. According to some stories, he may have been nailed to a tree and cut in half; it is known for certain that his skull was turned into a wine goblet for the new king Uroš III (the same name Dečanski had taken).
Uroš III was challenged by his cousin Vladislav II, but Vadislav was defeated in battle in 1324 and forced to flee, despite Hungarian support. Uroš was angered to hear Mihail Asen III of Bulgaria had divorced his sister Anna so he could marry the Byzantine princess Theōdora. The Bulgarians and the Byzantines then invaded Serbia in 1330 but Mihail was killed at the Battle of Velbazhd and Andronikos III withdrew. Despite driving off the invaders, Uroš’s advisers convinced his son (also Uroš) to imprison and strangle his father in 1331.
Ivan Aleksandǎr of Bulgaria married his sister, Jelena, to Uroš IV to secure a peace but Serbia continued to raid Byzantine. Lajos the Great’s huge army caused him most trouble when it invaded and defeated him in the Šumajida region in 1336. Uroš struck back by defeating both the Croatian and Hungarian armies and then exploited a Byzantine civil war, conquering most of their Balkan territory by 1342. The Byzantines retaliated, defeating the Serbs with Ottoman help, at the Battle of Stephaniana in 1344. Uroš, or Dušan the Mighty as he was known, fought back by conquering Byzantine lands and attacking Bosnia. Uroš was excommunicated by Constantinople when he took over the kingdom’s churches and he died in 1355, possibly from poison.
Uroš V was a weak ruler who depended on his mother, Jelena, and his advisers. His uncle Simeon (renamed Siniša) made an unsuccessful attempt to seize the throne in 1356 and the empire fragmented as Serbia’s nobles assumed control. Vukašin was made co-ruler in 1365 but he and most of the Serbian nobility were defeated and killed by the Ottomans at the Battle of Maritsa in 1371. Uroš died childless soon after. The surviving Serbian nobles refused to recognise Marko as their ruler and when Nikola Altomanović emerged as the most powerful noble, Prince Lazar and Tvrtko of Bosnia worked together to capture and blind him in 1373. Although Tvrtko became titular king, Serbia’s nobility stopped Lazar reunifying the kingdom.
Lajos I of Hungary died in 1382 and both Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad were killed at the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389. Serbia was left with too few men to defend its lands and Lazar’s brothers, Andrijas and Dmitar, fled to Hungary with the countries treasury before the kingdom became an Ottoman vassal. The surviving Serbian nobles joined the Bayazid invasion of Wallachia only to be defeated and killed at the Battle of Rovine in 1395.
Stefan the Tall’s Serbian army fought alongside the Ottomans when they defeated Zgismond’s Catholic alliance at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. However, Bayezid’s empire began to collapse when the Timurs invaded from the east and they were defeated at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Stefan had fought well and Bayezid granted him the title of Despot. But Stefan accepted Hungarian suzerainty after his nephew Ðurađ Branković and Bayezid’s son, Suleyman, defeated him at the Battle of Tripolje in 1402.
Zgismond died suddenly in 1427, leaving no children, and the throne went to Ðurađ. The Ottomans captured Thessalonica in 1430, and while Ðurađ paid a ransom to rescue the area’s people, he could not afford the annual tribute and had to hand over his son as a hostage. He fled to Hungary when the Ottomans invaded in 1439 but two years later he was back in Serbia, trying to raise an army.
Ðurađ played an important part in the 1444 Peace of Szeged between Hungary and the Ottomans. He married his daughter, Mara, to Sultan Murad II and gave János Hunyadi lands and in return was allowed to rule Serbia. The truce did not last long and Ðurađ distanced himself from Hungary when it allied with Poland and attacked the Ottomans. Their Crusade ended with an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Varna in 1444. Hunyadi was again defeated by Murad II’s forces at Kosovo in 1448 but he beat Mehmet II at the Siege of Belgrade in July 1456, allowing Ðurađ to reoccupy Serbia before he died.
Lazar’s older brothers, Grgur and Stefan, had been blinded in 1441 for plotting against Murad II. Lazar exiled them both and then poisoned his mother to secure his position. He offered to be an Ottoman despot in 1457 but died the following year. The blinded Stefan became co-ruler with Lazar’s widow, but Jelena married her young daughter Maria to Tomašević, Prince of Bosnia, to hold onto the power.
Mátyás Corvinus of Hungary and Tomaš of Bosnia dethroned Stefan in 1459. Two months later, Tomašević surrendered the Serbian throne to the Ottomans and fled to his father’s court where he became the Ban of Bosnia in 1461. Mehmed the Conqueror invaded Bosnia after he refused to pay tribute to the Ottomans; he captured and beheaded Stephen.