Peloponnesus at the end of the Middle Ages

The Morea, the Mani, the General Graitzas Paleologos and the Salmeniko

Few people have heard of the name, the Morea, which was used in the middle ages instead of the Peloponnese. It was a name supplied by the Franks/Latins in the eleventh century, lasting until the start of the War of Independence. It was likely a name reflecting a leaf. In the middle ages, it was the heartbeat of Greek culture and a final resistance to the Ottomans. As Constantinople declined, the Morea held strong and flourished.

On paper, the restored Byzantine Empire of 1261 appeared to be a strong political entity with boundaries that took in 35% of Asia Minor, the southern Balkans, some of the Aegean islands and a tributary state in Epiros. Hence the empire stretched from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, the Aegean to the Mediterranean. It was soon undermined by civil wars and the growth of the Ottoman Empire, along with mistrust of the Pope and Venice who was growing at the expense of Byzantium. The commercial growth of Venice and the decline of Constantinople ensured that the empire was not economically viable in the long term. The Venetians had too many trade concessions in Constantinople and their fleet was the biggest in the world.

Byzantium could have halted the Ottomans at the gates of Europe. Alas, the Ottomans landed troops and secured Gallipoli in 1351 as the Byzantines fought another civil war between royal rivals. This was the last chance to keep Byzantium as a preeminent power in Europe. Rather than concern themselves with foreigners, the Byzantines did what seemed to come natural to them: civil war. 1351 can be seen as the final tipping point, as there was no going back for the Turkish empire.

The Byzantine empire declined. Where there had been half a million people living in Constantinople at its peak in the sixth century AD, there were perhaps 70,000 at this stage. Impressive for a medieval city, however, not for the one-time world superpower.

As a counterbalance, an incredible situation emerged in the Peloponnese. The home of Corinth, Sparta, Argos and Patras, was now flourishing. In 1259 Michael Paleologos won against the Latin/Frankish forces; In victory he regained the Peloponnese which was known as the Morea in medieval times.

The Morea became known a place for learning, philosophy, the arts and the classics. The Byzantine cities of Monemvasia and Mystra (near Sparta) grew in stature with its impressive buildings and castles. Approximately 90% of the Morea returned to Byzantine rule.

Byzantine emperor, John VI Kantakouzenos, allowed his son Manuel Kantakouzenos to rule in the Morea from 1359. In 1383 Theodore Paleologos became Despot (ruler) of the Morea, though it was still very much part of the Byzantine Empire. Theodore recognised the more powerful, threatening Ottomans and may have paid a tributary; he also encouraged Albanian migration to help boost the

economy via cheap labour.

Between 1430-1444, virtually the entire Peloponnese was under the control of the Despot. The new rulers were brothers, Constantine, Demetrios and Thomas Paleologos.

Constantine had been the most active. He is credited with capturing Patras and building the Hexamillion (6 mile) Wall along the Isthmus at Corinth. This infuriated Sultan Murad. He watched as Constantine moved into central Greece fighting with whoever was an enemy of Byzantium. He quickly recaptured Athens and Thebes by 1444.

Frustrated, Sultan Murad attacked the Hexamilion and destroyed it in December 1446. Constantine was lucky to get away. Sixty thousand people of the Morea were taken prisoner and sold to slavery in Asia Minor. In another epoch, Constantine would have been one of the best military leaders; alas his resources were stretched despite his fighting abilities. In 1451 Constantine was crowned Byzantine Emperor in Mystras upon the death of his brother Manuel in Constantinople. He then made his way to the great city, not on a Byzantine ship, for the empire was close to being bankrupt.

He sailed on a GENOAN. A sad indication of what remained of this once great empire.

His brothers succeeded him in the Morea. Demetrios Paleologos effectively oversaw the west and Thomas Paleologos, controlled east. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire came to an effective end when Sultan Mehmet took the city after an incredibly heroic defence by Constantine who refused to

surrender to the vastly superior Ottomans.

The Morea was now an independent Greek region. The Despotate may have survived for decades more, save for one key fact. The brothers were no Constantine. Their inability to rule properly led to a joint Albanian and Greek revolt. Ironically, the brothers allowed the Ottomans to come to their assistance in 1456. Rather than learn a valuable lesson, they once again misruled, conveniently forgot to pay the Sultan the annual tribute and found ways to insult the Ottomans.

In 1460, an annoyed Mehmet mustered his troops and invaded the Morea. Demetrios was captured whilst Thomas fled to Venice. By September almost the entire Morea was in Ottoman possession. Another independent Greek territory had come to an end.

In my opinion, had better rulers been in place, the Morea would have lasted long into the next century. The Sultan was more interested in conquering the Black Sea and and the Balkans than pesky Greeks.

With the end of the Despotate of the Morea, thereby remained some Greek strongholds reminiscent of the village of Asterix and Obelix in Gaul who fictitiously held out the Romans. Though rather than a magic potion to give them strength, I think local wine was used.

As an aside, the independent Greek strongholds were Trebizond and the Pontus, taken in 1461 after a six-month siege against King David Comnenus and the Principality of Theobold, taken in December 1475.

Now let me tell you about the brave a town which held out against the Sultan . . . Located in the north-west of the Morea, the castle of Salmeniko.

The castle built around 1280, perhaps later, by Latins. A town was formed around the castle and was served by the Foinikas river, sitting by the Panachaiko mountain in Achaea.

The Salmeniko castle in the mountain is perhaps the final bonfide Byzantine Morea outpost to remain outside of Ottoman control. Commanded by Graitzas Paleologos, the garrison and many residents held the Turkish speakers at bay. The cannons were useless against the strong walls. When Ottomans had managed to end their supply of water and kept them surrounded, the residents then started lowering sponges off ropes to soak up water, until the Janissaries starting destroying the ropes. The end eventually came in July 1461, when the Sultan agreed to allow the fighters free passage. He respected their fighting qualities. Unfortunately, after he departed, his representative, a Greek, chose to ignore the directive. The first men attempting to make good on the Sultan’s promise were harassed and likely arrested. Graitzas then continued to hold the fort. Knowing that the siege would not end well, and being a fearless Paleologos like Constantine, he fought his way out. His superior fighting skills against far superior forces enabled his fighters to escape to the Venetian fortress of Lepanto; Venice also held Nafplion, Methoni and Koroni.

Paleologos was soon made a commander in the Venetian military where he continued his fight against the Ottomans. Sadly, 6000 Salmeniko residents were sold into slavery and 900 boys sent to the despicable Janissary corps.

Next up, I want to present to you the peninsula of the Mani; one of the fingers of the Peloponnese to the south, bordering Laconia. In those days many would be conquerors had difficulty reaching the area due to its high mountain ranges and inaccessible villages. The Mani had nature and geography on their side, similar to the castle of Salmeniko. The name itself means dry or treeless.

The Mani are an interesting lot. They were only converted from paganism around the ninth and tenth centuries, again owing to their isolation they were virtually forgotten by Christendom. The Mani held out against the Ottomans. Perhaps like Asterix and Obelix of Gaul!

Theoretically they paid the Sultan a tribute, however, it may have only occurred just once. You try telling a Turkish speaking tax collector to enter the wild of Mani to collect his due. It would be akin to sending you or me to a basketball court to take on Michael Jordan in his prime. The tough and proud Mani were therefore a semi autonomous region who more or less kept their customs and traditions alive despite the fall of the Morea. Technically they had a local Greek speaking Bey to oversee the Mani Peninsular who was in effect the military chief and judicial head. A Bey would incorporate his title in with his first name. Steven would be Stevenbey. And just like the despots who ruled the Morea before 1460, the Mani were generally allowed to be.

In the 1700s, the Mani became the base for the Greek bandits, known as the Klephts. The bandits fought against the Ottomans and other foreigners. In the 1800s, it was the Mani who could feel that the end was nigh for the Ottomans and under the last Bey of Mani, the energetic Petros

Mavromichalis, he declared the Greek revolution at Areopoli on March 17. The Mani were quick to take up the fight through the Klephts and other fighters who had been ready for decades.

Though this independent streak resulted in one major hiccup, assassinating Prime Minister Ioannis Kapodistrias in 1831 as they sought to resist total absorption to the new Greek entity.

One of the greatest known Mani people was Theodoros Kolokotronis who was born in the village of Ramavouni in 1770. He was from a family of Klephts. In 1822 he defeated the Ottomans under Mahmud Dramali Pasha at the Battle of Dervenakia. In 1825, he was appointed commander

of the Greek military. The last general of the Morea, Graitzas Paleologos would have been pleased with the outcome. The fact that the Greek independence was now being led by fighters and leaders from the old Morea.

Taking us back for a minute, the Morea, which the Turks had broken up into 22 provinces was the scene of an initially successful revolt against the Ottomans in 1770. This was called the Orlov revolt. The main thrust was in the Mani and Kalamata, joined by Russian forces. Uprisings took place in other parts of Greece including Crete. However, the failure of significant forces from Russia to help the Greeks and a reluctance of many Greeks to fight without the Russians, ensured that after a few skirmishes and battles were won, they were eventually supressed. And just like at the castle of Salmeniko, there were brutal reprisals. The Mani lost their semi autonomy.

This suppression temporarily placed a hold on the Greek will for freedom. Certainly the Mani possessed that desire and waited to plot for the next uprising. By the time that next uprising came, the name Morea was forgotten, and possibly along with it, names such as Salmeniko and the Paleologoi. Their fighting spirit though was never forgotten and lives on in the region.

One Comment Add yours

  1. George G says:

    Kolokotronis can hardly be described as a Maniate. His family was from the Tripoli area though he was born in NW Messina.

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