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The Despotate Of Epirus

Το Δεσποτάτο της Ηπείρου

Andronicus III and John Cantacuzenus 

The histories they wrote tell more of politics and personalities than of the underlying social and economic tensions in their society that were to find expression in a series of civil wars. Trouble broke out in 1320 when Andronicus II, purely for family reasons, disinherited his grandson Andronicus III. The cause of the young emperor was taken up by his friends, and there was periodic warfare from 1321 to 1328, when the older Andronicus had to yield the throne. It was in some ways a victory for the younger generation of the aristocracy, of whom the leading light was John Cantacuzenus. It was he who guided the empire’s policies during the reign of Andronicus III (1328–41). 

They were men of greater drive and determination, but the years of fighting had made recovery still more difficult and had given new chances to their enemies. In 1329 they fought and lost a battle at Pelekanon (near Nicomedia) against Osman’s son, Orhan, whose Turkish warriors went on to capture Nicaea in 1331 and Nicomedia in 1337. Northwestern Anatolia, once the heart of the empire, was now lost. There seemed no alternative but to accept the fact and to come to terms with the Ottomans and the other Turkish emirs. By so doing, Andronicus III and Cantacuzenus were able to call on the services of almost limitless numbers of Turkish soldiers to fight for them against their other enemies: the Italians in the Aegean islands and the Serbs and the Bulgars in Macedonia and Thrace. 

The power of Serbia, which Andronicus II had managed to control by diplomatic means, grew alarmingly after the accession of Stefan Dušan to the Serbian throne in 1331. Dušan exploited to the full the numerous embarrassments of the Byzantines and in 1346 announced his ambitions by having himself crowned as emperor of the Serbs and Greeks. The greatest practical achievement of Andronicus III was the restoration to Byzantine rule of the long-separated provinces of Epirus and Thessaly. 

When Andronicus III died in 1341, civil war broke out for a second time. The contestants on that occasion were John Cantacuzenus, who had expected to act as regent for the boy-heir John V, and his political rivals led by his former partisan Alexius Apocaucus, the patriarch John Calecas, and the empress mother Anne of Savoy, who held power in Constantinople. Cantacuzenus, befriended and then rejected by Dušan of Serbia, was crowned as Emperor John VI in Thrace in 1346; and, with the help of Turkish troops, he fought his way to victory in the following year. Like Romanus Lecapenus, he protested that he was no more than the protector of the legitimate heir to the throne, John V Palaeologus. His brief reign, from 1347 to 1354, might have turned the tide of Byzantine misfortunes had not the second civil war provoked unprecedented social and political consequences. In the cities of Thrace and Macedonia the people vented their dissatisfaction with the ruling aristocracy by revolution. It was directed mainly against Cantacuzenus and the class that he represented.

The movement was most memorable and lasting in Thessalonica, where a faction known as the Zealots seized power in a coup d’état and governed the city as an almost independent commune until 1350.