Battle of Halmyros
|Battle of Halmyros|
|Catalan Company||Duchy of Athens|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Walter of Brienne †|
|2,000 cavalry and 4,000 foot||
700 knights and 24,000 infantry (Muntaner);|
6,400 cavalry and 8,000 infantry (Gregoras);
2,000 cavalry, 4,000 infantry (Chronicle of the Morea)
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown||Almost total loss of cavalry, including almost all of the Frankish knights; very heavy losses in infantry|
The Battle of Halmyros, known by older scholars as the Battle of the Cephissus or Battle of Orchomenos, was fought on 15 March 1311 between the forces of the Frankish Duchy of Athens and its vassals under Walter of Brienne and the mercenaries of the Catalan Company, resulting in a devastating victory for the Catalans.
Engaged in conflict with their original employers, the Byzantine Empire, the Catalan Company had traversed the southern Balkans and arrived in southern Greece in 1309. The new Duke of Athens, Walter of Brienne, hired them to attack the Greek ruler of neighbouring Thessaly. Although the Catalans conquered much of the region for him, Walter refused to pay them the salaries owed, and prepared to forcibly expel them from their gains. The two armies met at Halmyros in southern Thessaly (or at the Boeotic Cephissus, near Orchomenos, according to an earlier interpretation). The Catalans were considerably outnumbered and weakened by the reluctance of their Turkish auxiliaries to fight. The Company did have the advantage of selecting the battleground, positioning themselves behind marshy terrain, which they further inundated with water. On the Athenian side, many of the most important lords of Frankish Greece were present and Walter, a prideful man and confident in the prowess of his heavy cavalry, proceeded to charge headlong against the Catalan line. The marsh impeded the Frankish attack and the Catalan infantry stood firm. The Turks, seeing that battle was joined in earnest, re-joined the Company, and the Frankish army was routed; Walter and almost the entire knighthood of his realm fell in the field. As a result of the battle, the leaderless Duchy of Athens was taken over by the Catalans, who ruled that part of Greece until the 1380s.
In 1309, the Burgundian noble Walter of Brienne was selected as the Duke of Athens in Frankish Greece after the death of Guy II de la Roche. At that time the Greek world was in turmoil owing to the actions of the Catalan Company. These were a group of mercenaries, veterans of the War of the Sicilian Vespers, originally hired by the Byzantine Empire against the Turks in Asia Minor. Soon, however, mutual suspicion and quarrels brought about an open conflict; evicted from their base in Gallipoli in 1307, the Catalans marched west through Thrace and Macedonia, until, pressed by Byzantine troops under Chandrenos, they entered Thessaly in early 1309.
The arrival of the marauding Company, some 8,000 strong, in Thessaly caused concern to the region's Greek ruler, John II Doukas. Having just availed himself of the death of Guy II to throw off the tutelage of the Dukes of Athens, John turned to Byzantium and the other Greek principality, the state of Epirus, for aid. Defeated by the Greeks, the Catalans agreed to pass peacefully through Thessaly to the south, towards the Frankish principalities of southern Greece. Walter of Brienne, who in his youth had fought against the Catalans in Italy, spoke Catalan and had gained the Catalans' respect, now hired the Company for six months against the Greeks, at a high price: four ounces of gold for every heavy cavalryman, two for every light cavalryman and one for every infantryman, with two months' payment in advance. Turning back, the Catalans captured the town of Domokos and some thirty other fortresses, and plundered the rich plain of Thessaly, forcing the Greek states to come to terms with Walter.
The Catalans gave Walter a remarkable success, which brought him accolades and financial rewards from Pope Clement V, but the Duke now declined to fulfil his end of the deal and pay the remaining four months' pay. Instead, Walter picked the best 200 horsemen and 300 Almogavar infantry from the Company, paid them their arrears and gave them land so that they would remain in his service, while ordering the rest to hand over their conquests and depart his lands. In response, the Catalans offered to recognize him as their lord if they were allowed to keep some of the land they had taken to establish themselves, but Walter rejected their proposal and began preparations to expel them by force. To this purpose, the Duke of Athens assembled a large army, comprising his own feudatories—among them the most prominent were Albert Pallavicini, Margrave of Bodonitsa, Thomas III d'Autremencourt, Lord of Salona and Marshal of Achaea, and the barons of Euboea, Boniface of Verona, George I Ghisi and John of Maisy—as well as reinforcements sent from the other principalities of Frankish Greece.
Three sources report in some detail on the events before and during the battle, all of them drawing on first-hand Catalan accounts and reflecting the Catalan point of view: the near-contemporary chronicle of Ramon Muntaner, the Aragonese version of the Chronicle of the Morea, and the account found in the history of the Byzantine writer Nikephoros Gregoras (ca. 1359). According to the Chronicle of the Morea, the Catalan army comprised 2,000 cavalry and 4,000 infantry, at least 1,100 of whom were Turkish prisoners captured during their previous campaigns, and whose skill as archers they had come to value. Many of these Turks had even converted to Christianity. The sources differ on the size of Walter's army: Gregoras reports 6,400 cavalry and 8,000 infantry, the Aragonese version of the Chronicle of the Morea puts it at more than 2,000 cavalry and 4,000 infantry, while Ramon Muntaner asserts that it comprised 700 knights and 24,000 infantry, mostly native Greeks. Modern scholars consider these numbers to be clearly exaggerated, but they do suggest that the Athenian army had numerical superiority over the Catalans.
Ramon Muntaner and Gregoras place the site of the battle at the Boeotic Cephissus, which resulted in the identification of the battle with that locality in older literature, including the standard history of Frankish Greece by William Miller, but also repeated in more recent works. The Chronicle of the Morea on the other hand places the battle at "Halmyros", apparently the town of the same name in southern Thessaly. William Miller rejected this identification on the basis of the topography described by Muntaner, but the discovery of a 1327 letter by the Venetian statesman Marino Sanudo, which was not published until 1940 and which also places the battle at Halmyros, has altered the scholarly consensus, and Halmyros is now the commonly accepted site of the battle.
Faced with a numerically superior, but less experienced enemy, the Company assumed a defensive position, taking care to select a battleground that favoured them. They chose a naturally strong position, protected by a swamp which, according to Gregoras, they further enhanced by digging trenches and inundating them with water diverted from the nearby river. The Catalans themselves took up positions on dry ground behind the swamp, arranging themselves in a solid line, but the sources give no further details as to their exact disposition. The Athenian army on the other hand assembled at Lamia. On 10 March 1311, Walter of Brienne composed his testament there and led his army forth. On the eve of battle, the 500 Catalans in the Duke's service, stricken by conscience, went to him and asked for leave to rejoin their old comrades-in-arms, saying that they would rather die than fight against them. Walter reportedly gave them permission to leave, replying that they were welcome to die with the others. At the same time, however, the Catalans' Turkish auxiliaries took up a separate position nearby, thinking the quarrel was a pretext arranged by the Company and the Duke of Athens to exterminate them.
Walter was reputed for his bravery, bordering on recklessness, and was confident of success, as evidenced by his haughty reply to the 500 mercenaries. Walter's pride and arrogance, combined with his numerical advantage and his innate belief in the superiority of heavy noble cavalry over infantry, led him to fatally underestimate his opponent and order a charge across even such an adverse terrain. Impatient for action, according to Muntaner Walter formed a cavalry line of 200 Frankish knights "with golden spurs", followed by the infantry, and placed himself with his banner in the vanguard. The Frankish attack failed, but the reason is unclear; Muntaner's description is short and provides no details, while Gregoras states that the heavy Frankish cavalry got completely stuck in the mud, with the Almogavars, lightly armed with swords and darts, dispatching the knights, encumbered by their heavy armour. This is the commonly accepted version among scholars as well. The Chronicle of the Morea on the other hand implies that the battle was hard-fought, which as military historian Kelly DeVries notes seems to contradict Gregoras, and that the marsh possibly simply reduced the impact of the charge instead of bogging it down entirely. What is clear is that the Catalans held, and that the Duke and most of his men fell. As the two lines clashed, the Turkish auxiliaries, reassured that this was not a ruse, descended from their camp upon the Athenian army, panicking and routing what remained of it.
Gregoras reports that 6,400 cavalrymen and 8,000 infantrymen fell in the battle, the same number he gives for Walter's forces. According to Muntaner, 20,000 infantrymen were killed, and only two of the seven hundred knights survived the battle, Roger Deslaur and Boniface of Verona. Like the numbers for the overall number of troops involved in the battle, these numbers are unverifiable and probably exaggerated, but they are nevertheless indicative of the scale of the Athenian defeat. In addition, other senior members of the Frankish nobility are known to have survived: Nicholas Sanudo, later Duke of the Archipelago, managed to escape the battlefield, and a few others such as Antoine le Flamenc, who is known to have participated in and survived the battle, were probably captured and later ransomed. Walter's head was severed by the Catalans, and many years later was taken to Lecce in Italy, where his son buried him in the Church of Santa Croce.
According to DeVries, the battle was "significant and perhaps even could be defined as decisive". Almost the entire Frankish elite of Athens and its vassal states lay dead in the field, and when the Catalans moved onto the lands of the Duchy, there was scant resistance: the Greek inhabitants of Livadeia immediately and willingly surrendered their strongly fortified town, for which they were rewarded with the rights of Frankish citizens; Thebes, the capital of the Duchy, was abandoned by many of its inhabitants, who fled to the Venetian stronghold of Negroponte, and plundered by the Catalan troops; and finally Athens itself was surrendered to the victors by Walter's widow, Joanna of Châtillon. The entirety of Attica and Boeotia passed peacefully into the hands of the Catalans, and only the lordship of Argos and Nauplia in the Peloponnese remained in the hands of Brienne loyalists. The Catalans' Turkish allies however refused the offer to settle in the Duchy, and instead, taking their share of the booty, departed to return to Asia Minor, only to be attacked and almost annihilated by the joint forces of the Byzantines and the Genoese as they were trying to cross the Dardanelles a few months later.
Lacking a leader of stature, the Catalan Company turned to their two distinguished captives: at first they asked Boniface of Verona, whom they knew and respected, to lead them, but after he declined, they chose Roger Deslaur instead. Deslaur proved unequal to the task, however, and the hostility of Venice and the other Frankish states compelled the Catalans to seek a powerful protector. Thus they turned to Frederick II of Sicily, who appointed his son Manfred as Duke of Athens. In reality, the Duchy was governed by a succession of vicars-general appointed by the Aragonese Crown, often cadet members of the Aragonese royal family. The most successful of the vicars-general, Alfonso Fadrique, expanded the Duchy into Thessaly, establishing the Duchy of Neopatras in 1319. The Catalans consolidated their rule and survived a Briennist attempt to recover the Duchy in 1331–32. In the 1360s, the twin duchies were plagued by internal strife, including a quasi-war with Venice, and increasingly felt the threat of the Ottoman Turks, but another Briennist attempt to launch a campaign against them in 1370–71 came to naught. It was not until 1379–80 that Catalan rule faced its first major setback, when the Navarrese Company conquered Thebes and much of Boeotia. Finally, in 1386–88, the ambitious lord of Corinth, Nerio I Acciaioli, captured Athens and claimed the Duchy for himself from the Crown of Aragon. With his capture of Neopatras in 1390, the era of Catalan rule in Greece came to an end.
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