The Despotate of Epirus: A Brief Overview
The Despotate of Epirus: A Brief Overview

By Evangelos Zarkadas | University of Maine, Independent Scholar

Historical Overview

The Despotate of Epirus was one of the three independent Greek successor states (along the Empire of Nicaea and Trebizond), which were established within the borders of the fragmented Byzantine Empire after the fall of Constantinople in 1204 to the forces of the Fourth Crusade. The Despotate of Epirus, located in northwestern Greece, was situated in a mountainous area located between the Pindos Mountain range in the east and the Ionian Sea in the west. This geographical situation facilitated a degree of political separatism and independence from Constantinople and other political forces until the Ottoman conquest of the 15th century. When “Epirus” is mentioned there is a distinction between the old Epirus in the south, which consisted of Aitolia, Akarnania, Thesprotia and Ioannina, which were mainly Greek-speaking areas, and new Epirus in the north, Dyrrachium, and the western sections of Via Egnatia, which were mainly of Albanian descent and culture (as discussed further later).

The power vacuum that was established in the region shortly after 1204 was exploited by local and foreign forces, with the most prominent example of Michael I Komenos Doukas (r. 1230-66/68) who ended up being the most successful political figure in the region and the founder of the state of Epirus in 1204. Ruling from the city of Arta, he quickly brought the surrounding regions throughout northwestern Greece and major parts of Thessaly on the east under his control. Michael never bore a title as a ruler, while there are no records from his rule that have survived. When he was murdered in 1214, his brother Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1215-30) succeeded him as the ruler of Epirus. Theodore extended the state of Epirus to the north and east, while in 1224 he captured the city of Thessalonica. He was self-proclaimed emperor in 1225-26, and by 1227 he was crowned by archbishop Chomatenos (the archbishop that he had appointed) as emperor at Thessalonica. His coronation and his political interests beyond a regional empire directly challenged the emperors of Nicaea who claimed legitimacy as the true heirs to the imperial throne of the empire.

Emperor Theodore was captured and blinded by the Bulgarian ruler John Asen II (r. 1218-41) in 1230, while the state of Epirus survived in the region of Thessalonica under Thedodore’s brother, Despot Manuel Angelos (r. 1230-37). In 1237, Theodore returned from Bulgaria, deposed Manuel, and placed his son John as emperor at Thessalonica. In 1242, John abdicated the throne and title to emperor John III Batatzes (r. 1222-54) from Nicaea, and he assumed the title of despot. In 1246, under despot Demetrios Angelos Doukas (r. 1244-46), Epirus lost the city of Thessalonica when it was captured and incorporated into the Nicaean Empire.

The following ruler was Michael II Komnenos from ca. 1230-66/8, an illegitimate son of Michael I who ruled from the island of Corfu, and where under his leadership the rivalry between Epirus and Nicaea was reawakened. Michael II spread his control and power from Corfu to the mainland with his center being once again in Arta. There, from ca.1232 he ruled independently under the support of the prince of Achaia, Geoffrey II Villehardouin (r. 1229-46) and King Manfred of Sicily (r. 1258-66). The fear of a powerful Epirus with the connections and support from western forces led to a war between these three allied powers against the Empire of Nicaea. The alliance of the three lasted only until 1259, when with the battle at Pelagonia and the victory of the Nicaean forces under Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259-61), the armies of Nicaea extended their control over much of Epirus, with Michael II exiled in Cephalonia. This occupation was short and soon Michael II’s sons were able to recapture their mainland holdings. In addition to this defeat, the Nicaean rulers were able to secure their claims as the legitimate rulers of the empire by capturing Constantinople in 1261 and thus securing their right and title of Emperor of the Romans.

From 1264 until 1318, Epirus was ruled by independent despots, while there was a relative time of peace between Epirus and the restored Byzantine Empire, with the emperor’s hopes that the rulers of Epirus would forget their independence claims and return to the imperial fold. Thus far, all previous rulers of Epirus were viewed as rebels by the Nicaean rulers, while the Epirots themselves were not willing to let go of their independence and rejoin the empire. They instead went through extensive alliances with western Frankish and Latin forces and had to deal with foreign invasions and power struggles over the area. The last direct descendant of the family of Komnenos Doukas Angelos, which had created the Despotate of Epiros, was Despot Thomas (r. 1297-1318). Thomas was murdered in 1318 by his nephew Nicholas Orsini of Cephalonia, and his death signaled the end of a line of Byzantine descended rulers in Epirus. The despotate remained independent from Constantinople after that for many years, but its rulers would come from western European backgrounds.

Beginning in 1318, Epirus was ruled by the Italian Orsini family until ca. 1337, when local Epirot rulers with basilissa Anna and her son Nikephoros acting as leading political figures, tried to forge alliances with the Byzantine Empire. To their success, the lands of the despotate became parts of the Byzantine Empire under emperor Kantakouzenos by 1340.

With the second Byzantine civil war (1341-47), Serbians and other foreign powers saw the opportunity to exploit the circumstances to their own advantage. Stephen Dušan of Serbia (r. 1346-55) in a series of conquests over northern Greece, was crowned in 1346 as ‘emperor of the Serbs and Romans’. By 1348, he had successfully conquered Epirus, and he had divided his Greek land possessions for two figures. Thessaly went to Gregory Preljub, and Epirus to Dušan’s half-brother Symeon Uroš. At this point in Epirus, from 1359 to 1384, there were two major powers, the Serbian Despotate of Ioannina and the Albanian Despotate of Arta. An important figure from this period was ruler Thomas Komnenos Palaiologos or also known as Preljubović (son of Gregory Preljub), who ruled from Ioannina from 1366-84. Thomas was able to expand Serbian control over northern and southern Epirus against the Albanian forces, while after his death in 1384, his widow, the Byzantine Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina, remarried the Italian nobleman Esau Buondelmonti and brought back an Italian restoration of the despotate. Esau ruled as Despote until 1411 when the despotate came under the house of the Italian family of Tocco that were able to hold the despotate until the subsequent conquest of Epirus by the Ottomans between 1430 and 1449.



Key Issues and Debates

Out of the many issues and debates around the study of the Despotate of Epirus, this section briefly outlines three major points of discussion: 1. the lack of sources, 2. the question of the ethnic makeup of Epirus, and 3. the identity of Epirus after 1204.

First, one of the most significant issues around the study of the Despotate of Epirus in Late Byzantium is that of the lack of surviving sources, especially written ones from the despotate. Donald Nicol was one of the first scholars to point this issue out in his 1984 book The Despotate of Epiros 1267-1479. The major issue for the modern historian of Epirus, according to Nicol, was that not many documents survived that illuminate the administrative, social, or economic life of the despotate. Most written sources about the despotate come from Byzantine historians from Constantinople such as George Pachymeres (ca. 1242-1310), Nikephoros Gregoras (ca. 1295-1360), and John VI Kantakouzenos (ca. 1292-1383), who wrote about the Epirots as rebellious provincials. No historians’ work exists that provides the story from the side of the Epirots, besides the late 14th and 15th century chronicles of Tocco and Ioannina that provide informative details about the despotate, but which are also seen by today’s scholars as the works of local patriots that cared about the positive outlook of the despotate. Documents that refer to the administration of Epirus derive primarily from imperial chrysobulls between secular and ecclesiastical powers such as the chrysobull of Kanina in 1307, and the chrysobulls of Ioannina in 1319 and 1321.

Beyond the written sources, modern scholars have engaged in research through a diverse collection of art and archaeology including surviving inscriptions on sites, seals, and hagiographic texts. Leonela Fundić in her 2013 study “Art and Political Ideology in the State of Epiros During the Reign of Theodore Doukas (r. 1215-30),” looked at art through church dedications, frescoes, coins, and inscriptions, to better understand and analyze the political ideology and identity of the despotate. According to Fundić, artistic production in the despotate has been a poorly understood issue by the field. She sets out to reconstruct the political context of Epirot art during the period of Michael I and Theodore Komnenos Doukas, while also looking at art making in the despotate as an effective political instrument for the galvanization of new political ideologies and identities after 1204.

The use of artistic and archaeological sources has added new levels of analysis on top of what the literary sources are able to tell us about the despotate and have allowed for a deeper on-the-ground understanding of socio-economic and political issues. For example, Fundić points out the use of artistic patronage such as inscriptions that claim that the title of “Emperor of the Romans” belonged to the Doukas ruling family. This was done to support the political ambitions of the rulers of Epirus in their attempts to claim imperial succession after 1204.

Additionally, the other major issue about the study of the despotate is the limited information and knowledge about the medieval provincial Byzantine society of Epirus. Many scholars of art history, archaeology, and beyond, such as Katerina Kontopanagou in “Donor Portraits in the State of Epirus” (2016), continue to explore new ways in which the study of artistic sources can answer parts of larger questions from the life of the despotate. This includes the functions and classification of the Epirot aristocracy through wall paintings in churches. The visual sources can also add more nuance to the questions of self-awareness, values, and ideology of the provincial life and political presence in the despotate. Such scholars understand the limitations of the literacy sources while studying Epirus, and they have employed new methods and source acquisition to be able to piece together new findings about the despotate, its people, and its social structure. Another bright example of this practice can also be seen in the work of Christos Stavrakos and his recent article titled “Donors, Patrons, and Benefactors in Medieval Epirus Between the Great Empires” (2021) where he primarily uses monuments and archaeological findings to study the development of the Despotate throughout the 14th and early 15th centuries and their various historical developments. The periods that he chose to study are largely based on sources such as monuments and archaeological findings, and he uses an array of glazed ceramics, and donor portraits through frescos found in churches and monasteries in order to piece together the historical narrative of 14th-16th centuries Epirus.

Second, in the last few decades there has been an increasing interest in the study of ethnicity throughout the existence of the Byzantine Empire and most interestingly during the late Byzantine Empire after 1204; when Byzantine Roman identity faced new challenges and alterations. Brendan Osswald has been one of the most recent scholars to look at identity and ethnicity in medieval Epirus. In his 2018 study “The Ethnic Composition of Medieval Epirus,” Osswald looks at the ethnic diversity and the relationship between ethnic/national groups that lived in Epirus such as the Vlachs, Albanians, Serbs, but also the local and the Greek refugees in the area after 1204.

The make-up of the Despotate of Epirus was that of a diverse mosaic of many ethnic groups that assimilated in one way or another within the physical and political borders. For example, during the 14th and 15th centuries, Epirus was faced with migrations of Albanian and Serbian groups that lived throughout Epirus and most of the times in their own isolated localities. In contrast, throughout the 12th and 13th centuries there was a great influx of Greek refugees from the east. Many of these refugees concentrated in the city of Ioannina, which became quite different from the capital city of Arta. During the 14th century, the cities of Ioannina and Arta represented two different political fields. Ioannina wanted reunification with the Byzantine Empire while Arta wanted to remain independent.

In a political setting of perpetual conflict, Osswald surveyed the ethnic makeup of Epirus while at the same time raised the question of how much were the Romans (Greeks) of Epirus influenced socio-politically by the Byzantine elite from the east? His conclusion was that Byzantine elite presence was not dominant, but rather the elites of Epirus were informed by local and personal political opinions. Lastly, although the analysis of ethnic groups and political loyalties is important, the issue of sources and their political and social interests that they convey is a larger issue that scholars have been trying to analyze in order to understand how medieval Epirus functioned.

Third, beyond the ethnic makeup of Epirus, scholars have analyzed the identity stance of the rulers of Epirus, but also the political identity of the despotate. The rulers of the despotate attempted to protect their power from their Latin enemies, but at the same time maintain their independence from the rest of the Byzantine world. What scholars have argued is that Epirus was in a very special position between the west and the east. The identity of the rulers and of the despotate remained that of the Byzantine Orthodox sphere. Visual sources show an area where loyalty was fluid, sometimes adhering to the Latin allies and at others to the Byzantine customs. More recently, the interest for the study of space and its relationship with identity, introduced new ways of looking at the new identities that emerged after 1204 in Epirus, and which adhered to that special middle group that the despotate held for many years between west and east.

In conclusion, some of the possible future avenues of research into the despotate include the furthering of the use and analysis of more frescos, paintings, archaeological findings, and inscriptions from churches and monasteries that have not yet been mapped out or considered widely by the field. Furthering the available sources will only create a more complete account and understanding of the despotate, its people, and its history. The other two avenues include the further study and consideration of ethnic identity, but also social/political/religious identity as a primary tool of analysis in order to study the people of Epirus and those that composed the political sphere of the despotate, and lastly using spatial and temporal tools of analysis in order to provide certain answers for the various questions about the functioning of the despotate as a geographical entity. It is certain that the ever-expanding field of mapping and spatial analysis has only started to look upon the area of Epirus in the Middle Ages, while more research on this kind is necessary in order to understand the history of the despotate with the new available sources that are provided to us via these new technologies.



Further Reading

Fundić, Leonela. “Art and Political Ideology in the State of Epiros during the Reign of Theodore Doukas (r. 1215-1230).” Byzantina Symmeikta 23 (2013): 217–50. https://doi.org/10.12681/byzsym.1100.

A really interesting study on the reconstruction of the political context of art-making in Epiros and the use and analysis of artistic and archaeological finds. Furthermore, it is an important work because it examines a diverse range of sources from church dedications to coins and inscriptions.

Nicol, Donald M. The Despotate of Epiros: 1267-1479. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

This is the first and most comprehensive history of the Despotate of Epirus from the 12th to the 15th centuries.

Osswald, Brendan. “The Ethnic Composition of Medieval Epirus.” Imagining frontiers, contesting identities, 2007. https://hal-univ-tlse2.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02083128.

This is one of the few recent comprehensive analyses of the ethnic makeup of medieval Epirus. It does a great job analyzing the impact of the Greek influx after 1204 and how that affected the identities of the Epirots, but also the multiethnic elements and conflicts within the various ethnic groups that lived there.

Smarnakis, Ioannis. “Political Power, Space, And Identities in the State of Epiros (1205-1318).” Essay. In The Routledge Handbook on Identity in Byzantium, edited by Michael Edward Stewart, David Alan Parnell, and Conor Whately, 300–311. New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.

The most recent article published on the Despotate of Epirus this year (2022) that talks about the relationship between political power, space, and identities in Epirus during the 13th century. It is also unique because it uses the frameworks of space and identity, which are elements that have not been widely studied for the history of the despotate.

Stavrakos, Christos. "12 Donors, Patrons, and Benefactors in Medieval Epirus Between the Great Empires: A Society in Change or Continuity?" In Eclecticism in Late Medieval Visual Culture at the Crossroads of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Traditions, edited by Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan, 291-314. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110695618-014.

In this recent article Stavrakos uses primarily archaeological evidence such as frescos and glazed ceramics, to explain and analyze sociopolitical developments throughout the lifespan of the despotate, and especially during a period where there is few to none of any other source material.


This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.


Citation:
Evangelos Zarkadas, "The Despotate of Epirus: A Brief Overview," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed October 14, 2023, https://mappingeasterneurope.princeton.edu.