Despotate of Epirus
The Despotate of Epirus (Greek: Δεσποτάτο της Ηπείρου) was one of the medieval Greek successor states of the Byzantine Empire, founded in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It claimed to be the legitimate successor of the Byzantine Empire, along with the Empire of Nicaea, and the Empire of Trebizond. The term "despotate" is a misnomer, as the first rulers of Epirus did not hold the court dignity of despotes, which was in any case not a hereditary title associated with any particular jurisdiction.
The Despotate was founded in 1205 by Michael Komnenos Doukas, a cousin of the Byzantine emperors Isaac II Angelos and Alexios III Angelos. At first, Michael allied with Boniface of Montferrat, but having lost Morea (Peloponnese) to the Franks at the battle of the Olive Grove of Koundouros, he went to Epirus, where he considered himself the Byzantine governor of the old province of Nicopolis and revolted against Boniface. Epirus soon became the new home of many Greek refugees from Constantinople, Thessaly, and the Peloponnese, and Michael was described as a second Noah, rescuing men from the Latin flood. John X Kamateros, the Patriarch of Constantinople, did not consider him a legitimate successor and instead joined Theodore I Laskaris in Nicaea; Michael instead recognized the authority of Pope Innocent III over Epirus, cutting ties to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Henry of Flanders demanded that Michael submit to the Latin Empire, which he did, at least nominally, by allowing his daughter to marry Henry's brother Eustace in 1209. Michael did not honour this alliance, assuming that mountainous Epirus would be mostly impenetrable by any Latins with whom he made and broke alliances. Meanwhile, Boniface's relatives from Montferrat made claims to Epirus as well, and in 1210 Michael allied with the Venetians and attacked Boniface's Kingdom of Thessalonica. Michael was excessively cruel to his prisoners, in some cases crucifying Latin priests. Pope Innocent III excommunicated him in response. Henry relieved the city later that year and forced Michael into a renewed nominal alliance.
Michael however turned his attention to capturing other strategically important Latin-held towns, including Larisa and Dyrrhachium. He also took control of the ports on the Gulf of Corinth. In 1214 he captured Corcyra from Venice, but was assassinated later that year and was succeeded by his half-brother Theodore.
Conflict with Nicaea and Bulgaria
Theodore Komnenos Doukas immediately set out to attack Thessalonica, and fought with the Bulgarians along the way. Henry of Flanders died on the way to counterattack, and in 1217 Theodore captured his successor Peter of Courtenay, most likely executing him. The Latin Empire, however, became distracted by the growing power of Nicaea and could not stop Theodore from capturing Thessalonica in 1224. In 1225, after John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea had taken Adrianople, Theodore arrived and in turn took it from him. Theodore also allied with the Bulgarians and drove the Latins out of the Thrace. In 1227 Theodore crowned himself Byzantine emperor, although this was not recognized by most Greeks, especially not the Patriarch in Nicaea.
In 1230 Theodore broke the truce with Bulgaria, hoping to remove Ivan Asen II, who had held him back from attacking Constantinople. In the battle of Klokotnitsa (near Haskovo in Bulgaria) the Bulgarian emperor defeated, captured, and later blinded Theodore. His brother Manuel Komnenos Doukas took power in Thessalonica, while their nephew Michael II Komnenos Doukas took over Epirus. Theodore was released in 1237, overthrew his brother and set up his son John Komnenos Doukas as ruler of Thessalonica.
Nicaean and Byzantine suzerainty
Thessalonica never regained its power after the battle of Klokotnitsa. Theodore's younger son Demetrios Angelos Doukas lost Thessalonica to Nicaea in 1246 and Michael II of Epirus allied with the Latins against the Nicaeans. In 1248 John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea forced Michael to recognize him as emperor, and officially recognized him in turn as despotēs in Epirus. Vatatzes' granddaughter Maria later (in 1256) married Michael's son Nikephoros, although she died in 1258. Also in 1248 Michael's daughter Anna married William II, Prince of Achaea, and Michael decided to honour this alliance over his obligations to Vatatzes. The allies were defeated in the ensuing conflict at the Battle of Pelagonia in 1259.
Emperor Theodore II Laskaris allied with Michael II and their children, betrothed by John years before, finally married in 1256, with Theodore receiving Dyrrhachium in return. Michael did not accept this transfer of land and in 1257 revolted, defeating a Nicaean army led by George Akropolites. As Michael marched on Thessalonica, he was attacked by King Manfred of Sicily, who conquered Albania and Corcyra. However, Michael immediately allied with him by marrying his daughter Helena to him. After Theodore II died, Michael, Manuel, and William II fought the new Nicaean emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. The alliance was very unstable and in 1259 William was captured at the disastrous Battle of Pelagonia. Michael VIII went on to capture Michael II's capital of Arta, leaving Epirus with only Ioannina and Vonitsa. Arta was recovered by 1260 while Michael VIII was occupied against Constantinople.
After Michael VIII restored the empire in Constantinople in 1261 he frequently harassed Epirus, and forced Michael's son Nikephoros to marry his niece Anna Kantakouzene in 1265. Michael considered Epirus a vassal state, although Michael II and Nikephoros continued to ally with the Princes of Achaea and the Dukes of Athens. In 1267 Corcyra and much of Epirus were taken by Charles of Anjou, and in 1267/68 Michael II died. Michael VIII did not attempt to annex Epirus directly, and allowed Nikephoros I to succeed his father and deal with Charles, who captured Dyrrhachium in 1271. In 1279 Nikephoros allied with Charles against Michael VIII, agreeing to become Charles' vassal. With Charles' defeat soon after Nikephoros lost Albania to the Byzantines.
Under Andronikos II Palaiologos, son of Michael VIII, Nikephoros renewed the alliance with Constantinople. Nikephoros, however, was persuaded to ally with Charles II of Naples in 1292, although Charles was defeated by Andronikos's fleet. Nikephoros married his daughter to Charles's son Philip I of Taranto and sold much of his territory to him. After Nikephoros's death in c. 1297 Byzantine influence grew under his widow Anna, Andronikos's cousin, who ruled as regent for her young son Thomas I Komnenos Doukas. In 1306 she revolted against Philip in favour of Andronikos; the Latin inhabitants were expelled but she was forced to return some territory to Philip. In 1312 Philip abandoned his claim to Epirus and claimed the defunct Latin Empire of Constantinople instead as the inheritance of his wife Catherine II of Valois, Princess of Achaea.
Collapse of the despotate
Anna succeeded in marrying off Thomas to a daughter of Andronikos II, but Thomas was assassinated in 1318 by his cousin Nicholas Orsini, who married his widow and took control of Epirus. He was recognized as legitimate by Andronikos, but was overthrown by his brother John in 1323. John was poisoned around 1335 by his wife Anna, who became regent for their son Nikephoros II. In 1337 the new Emperor, Andronikos III Palaiologos, arrived in northern Epirus with an army partly composed of 2,000 Turks contributed by his ally Umur of Aydin. Andronikos first dealt with unrest due to attacks by Albanians and then turned his interest to the Despotate. Anna tried to negotiate but Andronikos demanded the complete surrender of the Despotate to which she finally agreed. Thus Epirus came peacefully under imperial rule.
A term of the surrender agreement was that Nikephoros would be engaged to one of the daughters of the emperor's right-hand man, John Kantakouzenos. When the time of the engagement came, Nikephoros had vanished. Andronikos learned that Nikephoros had fled to Italy, with the help of members of the Epirote aristocracy who supported an independent Epirus. He stayed in Taranto, Italy, in the court of Catherine II of Valois (Philip of Taranto's widow), the titular empress of Constantinople.
In 1339, there was a revolt supported by Catherine of Valois, who was in the Peloponnese at the time, and by Nikephoros who had returned to Epirus, based in Thomokastron. At the end of 1339 the imperial army returned to the area and next year, 1340, Andronikos III himself arrived together with John Kantakouzenos. Nikephoros was persuaded through diplomacy to recognize the authority of the emperor. He surrendered Thomokastron, married Maria Kantakouzene, the daughter of John Kantakouzenos, and received the title of panypersebastos (πανυπερσέβαστος).
The Empire soon fell into a civil war between John V Palaiologos and John VI Kantakouzenos, and Epirus was conquered by the Serbians of Stefan Dusan. Nikephoros II took advantage of the Byzantine civil war and the death of Dušan to escape and to reestablish himself in Epirus in 1356, to which he also added Thessaly. Nikephoros died putting down an Albanian revolt in 1359 and the despotate was incorporated into the successor states of the Serbian empire. With much of the country under the control of Albanian clans, the area was divided between several rulers, each claiming the title of despotes. The state tradition was carried on by the Serbian and Italian rulers of Ioannina, who solicited aid from the Ottoman Turks against the Albanians. By 1416 the Tocco family of Cephalonia, succeeded in reuniting Epirus, or at least in asserting their control over its towns. But internal dissention eased the Ottoman conquest, which proceeded with the capture of Ioannina in 1430, Arta in 1449, Angelokastron in 1460, and finally Vonitsa in 1479. With the exception of several coastal Venetian possessions, this was the end of Frankish rule in mainland Greece.
Rulers of Epirus
- Michael I Komnenos Doukas (1205-1214)
- Theodore Komnenos Doukas (1214-1230), emperor in Thessalonica from 1225 or 1227
- Michael II Komnenos Doukas (1230-1271)
- Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas (1271-1297)
- Thomas I Komnenos Doukas (1297-1318)
- Nicholas Orsini (1318-1323)
- John Orsini (1323-1335)
- Nikephoros II Orsini (1335-1337) and (1356-1359)
- Simeon Uroš Palaiologos (1359-1366), emperor (tsar) of Serbians and Greeks
- Thomas II Preljubović (1366-1384)
- Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina (1384-1385)
- Carlo I Tocco (1411-1429)
- Carlo II Tocco (1429-1448), fall of Ioannina 1430
- Leonardo Tocco (1448-1479), fall of Arta 1449 and Angelokastron 1460
- The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Donald M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1993.