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Despotate of Epirus

The Despotate of Epirus was one of the 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 Despotate was founded in by Michael Ducas, cousin of the Byzantine emperors Isaac II Angelus and Alexius III. At first Michael allied with Boniface of Montferrat, but then 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 Camaterus, the Patriarch of Constantinople, did not consider him a legitimate successor and instead accompanied Theodore I Lascaris to Nicaea; Michael instead recognized the authority of Pope Innocent III over Epirus, cutting ties to the 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. Innocent 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, Larissa, Dyrrhachium and Ohrid in particular, and ensuring he had control of the Via Egnatia, the main route to Constantinople. 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 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 Ducas 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. Asen defeated, captured, and blinded Theodore and his nephew Michael II took power in Epirus. Theodore was eventually released and ruled Thessalonica with his brother Manuel.

Nicaean and Byzantine suzerainty

Epirus never regained its power after this defeat. Michael II lost Thessalonica to Nicaea in 1246 and then allied with the Latins against them. In 1248 John Vatatzes forced Michael to recognize him as emperor, and officially recognized him in turn as despot of Epirus. Vatatzes' granddaughter Maria married Michael's son Nicephorus. 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. He was defeated in the ensuing conflict, and the old despot Theodore was again captured, this time dying in custody.

Theodore II Lascaris allied with Michael 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 Georgius Acropolita. As Michael marched on Thessalonica, he was attacked by Manfred of Sicily, who captured 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 Palaeologus. 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 the ports of Ioannina and Vonitsa. Arta was recovered by 1260 while Michael VIII was occupied against Constantinople.

Italian invasions

After Michael VIII restored the empire in Constantinople in 1261 he frequently harassed Epirus, and forced Michael's son Nicephorus to marry his niece Anna Cantacuzena in 1265. Michael considered Epirus a vassal state, although Michael II and Nicephorus continued to ally with the Princes of Achaea and the Dukes of Athens. In 1267 Corcyra and much of Epirus were captured by Charles of Anjou, and in 1271 Michael II died, although Michael VIII did not attempt to annex Epirus directly. He allowed Nicephorus to succeed him and deal with Charles, who took Dyrrhachium the same year. In 1279 Nicephorus allied with Charles against Michael VIII, agreeing to become Charles' vassal. With Charles' defeat soon after Nicephorus lost Albania to the Byzantines.

Under Andronicus II, Nicephorus renewed the alliance with Constantinople. Nicephorus, however, was convinced to ally with Charles II of Naples in 1292, although Charles was defeated by Andronicus' fleet. Nicephorus married his daughter to Charles' son Philip of Taranto and sold much of his territory to him. After Nicephorus' death in 1296 Byzantine influence grew slightly under Anna, Andronicus II's cousin, who ruled as regent for her young son Thomas. In 1306 she revolted against Philip in favour of Andronicus; 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 instead.

Collapse of the despotate

Anna succeeded in marrying Thomas to a daughter of Andronicus II, but Thomas was assassinated in 1318 by Nicholas Orsini, who married his widow and took control of the despotate. He was recognized as legitimate by Andronicus, but was overthrown by his brother John in 1323. John was poisoned around 1335 by his wife Anna who became regent for Nicephorus II. In 1337 Andronicus III, arriving in the area to help the Albanians fight the Ottomans, recaptured all of Epirus. However, Nicephorus II escaped to Italy where Philip of Taranto's widow Catherine of Valois put him in charge of a revolt in Epirus. The revolt was defeated and Nicephorus was married off to Maria Cantacuzenus, daughter of John VI Cantacuzenus.

The Empire soon fell into a civil war between John V Palaeologus and John VI, and Epirus fell to the Serbians. Nicephorus II was able to retake Epirus in 1356, to which he also added Thessaly. Nicephorus died putting down an Albanian revolt in 1359 and the despotate was reincorporated into the empire. It was lost again in the following decades to the Tocco family of Cephalonia, who later lost Epirus to the Ottomans.

Despots of Epirus

Ducas dynasty

Orsini dynasty

Last updated: 12-24-2004 00:46:35