When we think about Greek empires we tend to think of the achievements of Alexander, Ptolemy, the Spartans, Corinth or the Byzantine Empire. Who can begrudge the heroic defiance of Constantine in 1453 or the last stand of Leonidas as their respective territories were challenged? Heroism, glory, romance, passion.
Image credit: Wikipedia
We tend, however, to forget that they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Hellenic kingdoms, territories, principalities, empires, call them what you want.
How many of us have ever heard of the Principality of Theodoro (Crimea) which came to an end in 1475, or the Bactrian Empire which ruled parts of India until 20 AD?
How many have heard of the brave Byzantine outpost of Ceuta (on the tip of Morocco) which was captured by Arabs in 711AD or for that matter the Despotate of Epirus? You are not alone in saying no. In fact, I myself have only come across them via accidental research or should I say, an act of boredom that led to research on forgotten Greek territories.
Their fate can be seen in the context of the Chinese Panda which can symbolise that of a number of Greek achievements which threaten to be extinguished outside of their natural habitat. For you see the Greek world has done its best to collectively ignore some of its most astonishing outposts and empirical achievements.
Most likely, the fact that they were neither sexy nor had a sense of storytelling narratives that would suit a Hollywood film, ensures that they have become condemned to the passages of time. However, just like the Panda, people like you and I can take an interest to help them survive long in to the future.
Epiros in Greece and Albania
I was travelling through ‘Northern Epirus’ over a decade ago when I came across many of the 100 villages and towns that speak Greek or have significant Hellenic heritage. Big deal I hear you say…. these places are in Albania, not Greece!
The Greeks have been going to, and living in, that area for thousands of years. In fact, Southern Albanian is part of the ancient and Byzantine region known as Epiros. It is the birthplace of Olympia, Alexander the Great’s mother and Pyrrhos, whose hard fought, epic victories over the Romans inspired the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory.’ Many great Hellenic cities of antiquity are located on the northern coast of Albania, including Epidamnos (modern day Durres) and Appollonia.
Since the state of Albania officially came into existence over 100 years ago, the territory of Southern Albania has been disputed by Greeks and Albanians. Like most states that share borders with Greece, boundary lines are often in dispute courtesy of the strange interpretations by the foreign powers that unfairly redrew all boundaries in the Balkans in the Twentieth Century.
The Greek minority equates to approximately 250 000 people and I spent a few days traversing some of these incredible places. You are welcomed with Greek signage and you hear them speak Greek, it is a surreal experience. I witnessed people kicking a ball pretending to be playing for Olympiacos.
To the south of the border is the Greek state of Epiros. I have made friends there in recent times, spending time in the pretty capital of Ioannina in 2011 and 2014 to visit my friends Niko and Irene.
Epiros, like Makedonia, is an ancient Greek kingdom that was Hellenic; both avoided the path of being a city-state in favour of monarchy. It is one of the oldest areas in the Hellenic world.
As I drove through the windy mountainous roadways of the Greek state to meet my friends, it became apparent that Epirus was easy to defend, at least from the interior, from ancient and medieval invaders. Today, it remains very much a (picturesque) section of Greece that maintains its traditions and customs, with those same mountains doing their best to keep out undue influences from Athens and the ultra modern world.
Now, where was I before I rudely interrupted my writing about Greek empires. Oh yes, the medieval Epirote region, before the creation of Albania. At the start of the 13th Century, the Byzantine Empire was showing signs of genuine decline despite control of most of the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor and many ports across the Black Sea. Unfortunately, a dynastic dispute had greatly weakened Byzantium and it allowed the Crusaders to tragically seize Constantinople in 1204 in an act of treachery. The Crusaders were on their way to the Holy Land, took advantage of a dispute in Constantinople, and rather than act as ‘friends’ they subjugated the city when it was not prepared.
Until 1261, the city was lost to the Hellenes. This resulted in the fragmentation of Byzantium. The Empire of Trebizond emerged in the Black Sea (until 1461), the Empire of Nicaea which was the Byzantine Empire in exile situated in Asia Minor until reclaiming the capital was established and the Despotate of Epirus, created 1205.
The leader of the new Epiros fiefdom was Michael Komnenos Doukas, a member of the Byzantine Angelus family. The Despotate claimed the territory from Durazzo in the north to Patras in the Peloponnese. In 1222 Thessaloniki was reclaimed by the despot of Epirus, becoming a genuine rival of the Empire of Nicaea. Within a short period, the Despotate had conquered key areas of Makedonia and Thessaly, whilst holding out Latin invaders in the west and other would be Italian rulers.
I should point out that the Despot is essentially a Byzantine ruler that is traditionally designated by the emperor of Byzantium. In this case, the Despotate refers to the fiefdom of the Epiros ruler.
Across the Aegean and into Asia Minor, the Empire of Nicaea continued to grow militarily and became the dominant Greek power owing to its ability to fight the growing Turkish military and the Latin groups who had spread across the old Byzantine provinces. By 1265 the Despotate of Epiros had no choice other than to accept a role as official vassal to Constantinople which had been retaken by Nicaea, restoring the full Byzantine Empire.
This new subordinate role was sealed through a marriage alliance, though the region continued to operate in a semi independent fashion.
One key ingredient that had gone against the Epirotes was the Patriarch of Constantinople had fled to Nicaea in 1205 when Constantinople was occupied by Latin crusaders, providing legitimacy to Nicaea as the true leaders of the Greek world.
The Despotate of Epiros survived until the middle of the next century before it was totally absorbed by the Byzantine Empire. However, it should be noted that by around 1252, the region under their control had declined to most of the modern state of Epiros along the western coastline and a small slither of modern southern Albania. This was set to change with the arrival of non Greek players.
In 1318 an assassination of the ruler Thomas by Nicholas Orsini (his cousin) took place, resulting in a change from the founding family and 20 years of instability. In 1337 Emperor Andronikos arrived from Constantinople and restored full imperial control, appointing Theodore Synadenos as Byzantine governor.
In 1348, the Byzantine Empire fell in to a civil war, which allowed the Serbian King Stefan Dusan to invade Epiros, then in 1356 upon his death Epiros again became Despotate under the leadership of Nikephoros, lasting only until 1359. Again, the region came under the suzerain of the Serbs.
In the context of this Greek ‘empire,’ its history was not yet at end. The new leader, was half Serbian and half Greek, Symeon Oureses Palaiologos and was technically the Despot of Epiros until 1366 with territory that stretched to Thessaly and Arcanania. He ruled as the ‘Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks!’
The empire grew and included most of Albania, modern Epiros, and parts of Thessaly and central Greece.
Next up was Thomas Preljubovic Palaiologos, the grandson of Stephan Dusan and with a Greek father, he succeeded as ruler of the area from the seat of Ioannina until 1384 when Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina took control using the term of Empress. Once again here was a head of Epiros that veered from the title of Despot. In Early 1385 she married Italian Esau de’ Buondelmonti. This essentially ended the state of ‘Despotate of Epiros’ as he had no Greek lineage.
He immediately ruled what had remained of the old Epiros state and in 1386, Constantinople recognised him as vassal. The Italian rulers remained in place until the Ottomans successfully took control by around 1460. However, it had long since ceased being a Greek ruled territory, though the subjects of course were.
Having previously visited ancient and Byzantine villages in the Ukraine, Asia Minor (Turkey) and Magna Graecia (Italy), I have seen how proud the people of the Greek villages outside of Greece are of their culture and the past. Some of the proud villages, including Dervitsiani and Kakavia, display banners in the town centre that read, ‘Kallos Eirthate.’ This means welcome to our village in Greek and it is also translated into Albanian, any traveller will feel welcome when they visit. Also on the main highways, the government has posted signage in the Albanian and Greek languages.
I have not however, come across any Epirote people from either Greece or Albania who speak much about this period of history. It is one of neglect, devoid of ‘sexy’ characters and in my opinion plenty of confusion over who the rulers were; a sense of confusion reigns when you pick apart the veneer of the Despotate. It does require more research from scholars.
Irrespective, it is fascinating to note the existence of yet another Greek kingdom/territory, and in the same breath highlight that it reflects how often Greek people would fight each other. A problem that has dogged Hellenes since classical times. What the Despotate of Epiros illustrates is that there are more stories that can be uncovered if we just scratch the surface a little more; we will gain that thirst of Greek stories that are not necessarily confined to the popular Greek heroes. Epiros, the home of Olympia and Pyrrhus is a good starting point. Let’s look past the mountains that surround the history of this empire and see what else we can learn.