Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Frankish states in the Aegean

Is known that in the beginning of the 13th cent Macedonia (Epirus,Thessalonike and Thrace as called during that time) was under the Frankish Control.

Even the seemingly straightforward task of listing the Frankish states in the Aegean which were established after the partition of the Byzantine empire in 1204 is not as easy as at first it might appear. For convenience I have enumerated the six territories which had some form of settled political organisation by 1210.

They were the Latin empire of Constantinople, the kingdom of Thessalonika, the lordship or megaskyrate (later duchy) of Athens and Thebes, the duchy of the Archipelago, the triarchies of the island of Euboea or Negroponte, and the principality of Achaia. In addition to these six, there were numerous family holdings like the counties of Boudonitza and Salona, which were usually dependent upon the lords of Athens and Thebes, and a variety of Italian lords installed on islands in the Cyclades, Sporades and Ionian Group who were dependent on Venice or the duke of the Archipelago on Naxos. There were in excess of 30 different dynasties of such lordlings during the period of Frankish control in the Aegean. Finally, there were a few strictly colonial territories administered by officials sent out from Venice or Genoa for fixed annual or biennial tours of duty, and taking their direction from and responsible to the home government. In this group were the two castellans of Modon and Coron, the duke of Crete, and after 1346 the representatives of the Genoese chartered company or mahona on Chios.

No short account can be entirely satisfactory, especially in a subject which sits uneasily on the edge of two great historical fields of study, the history of Byzantium and the history of the crusades. Does it belong to both or neither? Was the cultural contribution and social reaction of the Franks in the Aegean entirely negative or can positive and original responses to unique problems be identified? My own approach is to see the Frankish states as both an important part of the war against Islam and the succouring of the Holy Land and as a unique experiment in the conquest and settlement of lands which possessed their own rich cultural heritage. However, as archaeological and historical research proliferate, there is a need for an up-to-date account which provides the student with the developments and shifts in emphasis since William Miller produced his fine study, The Latins in the Levant, in 1908.

The Aegean world had an existence in the geographical terminology of the thirteenth century as 'Romania' or the 'imperium Constantinopole' and its component parts of Graecia, la tere d'Ebire (Epiros), Vlachia and la Turkie were identifiable if not precisely defined in the chronicles and letters of the time. Venetian writers of the fourteenth century frequently referred to Negroponte (Euboea), Crete, and the Peloponnese as forming part of 'Romania Bassa'. There was apparently no equivalent reference to the lands between the Isthmus of Corinth and the Bosphorus as Upper Romania.

The states founded by western Europeans in the Aegean began and ended with conquest. This gives some indication of the dogged and determined opposition of the Byzantines and of the lack of stability enjoyed by the Latin states. Their genesis was the conquest of Constantinople by the forces of the Fourth Crusade on 12 April 1204. Their end came at various points from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries -- Thessalonika captured by Theodore Komnenos Doukas in December 1224,

Constantinople retaken by the Byzantines on 25 July 1261, Patras, the last outpost of the Frankish Morea, recovered by the Greek despot of the Morea in 1430, and the duchy of Athens conquered by the Turks in 1450. The Venetian and Genoese colonies survived into the early modern period but these too were eventually conquered by the Turks -- Negroponte in 1470, Modon and Coron in 1500, Chios in 1566 and Crete in 1669, after the 24-year siege of Candia. The ragged nature of these beginnings and endings not only reflects the fragmented nature of the Frankish Aegean but also demonstrates that if some of the new crusader states were politically and economically unviable from the outset, the majority clearly had a fair chance of survival.

The Latin empire claimed suzerainty over the whole of the Latin Aegean, known collectively as Romania. In practice it was seldom exercised outside Thrace and more usually confined to the city of Constantinople and its hinterland. The weakness of the empire was due to a variety of factors. The greatest of these was poverty. Militarily unable to expand its frontiers or to establish any lasting peace with its enemies, its rulers could not exploit the resources of their new realm and instead became dependent on financial and military support from the west. In particular this included that of the pope and the king of France, eked out with loans from Venice and a variety of stop-gap measures involving the sale of relics and even the lead from their palace roofs. In turn this meant that its rulers were never entirely masters in their own house and never attained that status in the west to which their rank of emperor might have entitled them. With the exception of the emperor Henry ( 1206-16), the Latin emperors were a poor lot celebrated more for incompetence than strong military leadership. Henry was the only emperor to campaign in Greece and to enforce his overlordship there.

The final year of his reign has been dubbed the apogee of the Latin empire. For the rest, their suzerainty consisted in underpinning the Latin claim to the Aegean, a role which they could exercise as well in exile in Italy as they could in Constantinople. Their poverty was exacerbated by the needs of defence. In 1205-7 the Vlacho-Bulgarians under Kalojan came near to overwhelming them, and again in the 1230s the Bulgarians seemed set fair to dominate Thrace and take Constantinople. The Greeks in Epiros and in Nicaea maintained pressure on both Constantinople and Thessalonika, driven by their desire to recapture the ancient capital of Byzantium. Thessalonika fell to Theodore Doukas, the despot of Epiros, in 1224, although it was lost in turn to John III Vatatzes of Nicaea in 1246. Thereafter the Latins became resigned to the loss of Constantinople. When the city fell to the Greeks in July 1261 its loss was barely noted in western Europe.

In March 1204 the leadership of the French and Venetian crusaders had laid down guidelines for the disposal of the lands and offices of the Byzantine empire in the event that their attack on Constantinople should prove successful. By the act of partition of September 1204, some effect was given to this earlier arrangement. The Latin emperor Baldwin received one-quarter of the former Byzantine territory and the Venetians and the French three-eighths each. This land had to be conquered and in this process the neat demarcations of the partition became overridden. Boniface of Montferrat, the unsuccessful candidate for the imperial throne, gained lands around Thessalonika not registered in the partition and proceeded to direct the distribution of territory in Thrace and Boeotia which formed part of the French crusaders' condominium. The Venetians for their part received more territory than they could readily occupy. They had acquired the harbour towns of Modon and Coron in Messenia by 1209 and their colonisation of Crete began in 1211. These territories formed colonial possessions with officials sent out by and accountable to the Venetian senate. With regard to the Aegean islands, the Venetians sought to conquer and control these through the sons of their own wealthy families. One such nobleman, Marco Sanudo, conquered the Cycladic islands in 1207. Surprisingly he sought out the suzerainty of the emperor in order to establish his and his descendants claim to the Archipelago and to secure a measure of independence from Venice.

Of the French territories in Greece, the principality of the Morea was the best-documented, the richest and the most secure, cut off from the Greeks of Epiros by the Gulf of Corinth and shielded by the lordship of Athens. By 1210 the Frankish lords of Athens and Thebes had to cope with the Epirote reconquest of southern Thessaly and the temporary loss of Salona. From both these areas raids were launched on their lands culminating in a series of attacks on Thebes itself in the mid-1230s. In general until 1261 the leadership of the Franks in Greece was both active and competent. They clearly felt sufficiently secure to allow themselves to indulge in a destructive civil war in 1255-58. Thereafter, with the loss of Constantinople in 1261 and the recovery of the Peloponnesian towns of Mistra, Maina and Monemvasia by the Byzantines in 1262, the Latins in Greece lost both their security and the initiative. The defensive stance which they were now forced to adopt and which they maintained until their final loss of political control in the mid-fifteenth century involved them in seeking the military help from rulers of the west Mediterranean. The price to be paid was the acknowledgement of the suzerainty of these rulers, often expressed by marriage ties and the transfer of titles. The original Frankish ruling families had died out by 1314 and nominal rule now resided with kings in Naples, Trani and Barcelona.

The able and the ambitious like the Fadriques, the Foucherolles, the Orsini and the Acciaioli could carve out substantial lands and positions for themselves as officials of these absentee rulers. In the Aegean Catalans, Turks, Hospitallers and Venetians now took a leading role fighting and intriguing against each other either on their own account or as part of some holy war. The Aegean had become a fully integrated part of the Mediterranean world and the frontier of Christendom against the Turk.

  1. The Franks in the Aegean, 1204-1500 by Peter Lock, pages 5-8
  2. R. L. Wolff, "'Romania: The Latin Empire of Constantinople'" Speculum 23 ( 1948), 1-34

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