Battle of Pelagonia

Battle of Pelagonia
Part of the Byzantine-Latin Wars and Epirote–Nicaean conflict
DateSeptember 1259
Result Decisive Nicaean victory
Principality of Achaea
Despotate of Epirus
Kingdom of Sicily
Empire of Nicaea
Commanders and leaders
William II of Achaea (POW)
Michael II of Epirus
John of Thessaly (defected)
John Palaiologos
Alexios Strategopoulos
John of Thessaly
Unknown, but more than the Nicaeans 6,000 men[1]
Casualties and losses
Heavy Unknown

The Battle of Pelagonia took place in September 1259, between the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus, Sicily and the Principality of Achaea. It was a decisive event in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean, ensuring the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople and the end of the Latin Empire in 1261, and marks the beginning of the Byzantine recovery of Greece.[2] This battle is also notable for being the last appearance of the famous Varangian Guard.[3]

The exact location of the battle remains unclear. It has been called the Battle of Kastoria,[4] after the region in western Greek Macedonia, because three Byzantine sources (i.e. Pachymeres, George Akropolites and Nikephoros Gregoras) inform us that the Epirote camp was first attacked there in a location called Boril's Wood (Βορίλλα λόγγος).[2][5] However, since the conflict also includes a siege of Prilep, it is justifiably called the Battle of Pelagonia.


The Nicaean emperor, Theodore II Laskaris, died in 1258 and was succeeded by the young John IV Laskaris, under the regency of Michael VIII Palaiologos, who was determined to restore the Byzantine Empire and recapture all of the territory it held before the Fourth Crusade. In 1259, William II Villehardouin married Anna Komnene Doukaina (also known as Agnes), daughter of Michael II of Epirus, cementing an alliance between the Despotate of Epirus and Achaea against Nicaea. They also allied with Manfred of Sicily who sent them 400 knights.[6]

Faced with a hostile coalition, Michael VIII did not tarry. Already in autumn 1258, his army crossed over into Europe, under his brother the sebastokrator John Palaiologos and the megas domestikos Alexios Strategopoulos, and wintered in Macedonia, where it was joined by local levies.[7] In spring, the Nicaeans went on the offensive, and advanced quickly westwards along the Via Egnatia, capturing Ohrid and Deavolis. Michael II of Epirus, who was encamped at Kastoria, was caught off guard by the rapidity of their advance, and when the Nicaeans crossed the pass of Vodena to face him, he was forced to hastily retreat with his troops across the Pindus mountains to the vicinity of Avlona and Bellegrada, held by his ally Manfred. In its retreat, which continued even during night, the Epirotes reportedly lost many men in the dangerous mountain passes.[8]

The Epirote ruler had lost much of his territory, but soon his Latin allies came to his aid. Manfred, preoccupied with his conflicts against the Guelphs in central Italy, did not come in person–although his presence is erroneously reported by near-contemporary sources like Nikephoros Gregoras and Matteo Spinelli—but sent 400 superbly outfitted German knights, who probably landed at Avlona to join Michael of Epirus's forces.[9] William II of Villehardouin on the other hand campaigned at the head his forces. The Greek and French versions of the Chronicle of the Morea mention troops from Achaea, the Duchy of Athens, the Triarchy of Negroponte, and the Duchy of the Archipelago under William's command, implying a general feudal levy from the Frankish states of Greece, which were vassals of the Prince of Achaea. Many of the most distinguished nobles of Frankish Greece also took part in the expedition. The Achaean host crossed the Gulf of Corinth at Naupaktos and marched to the Epirote capital of Arta, before crossing the Pindus at joining the forces of the other Frankish states at Thalassionon (possibly Elassona in northern Thessaly.[10] Michael of Epirus in turn was accompanied by his elder son Nikephoros and further aided by his bastard son John I Doukas, ruler of Thessaly, who brought with him many Vlachs from Great Vlachia.[11] The Chronicle of the Morea gives the totals of 8,000 heavily-armed and 12,000 lightly-armed troops for William's army, and 8,000 heavily-armed and 18,000 lightly-armed troops for the Epirote army, but these numbers are certainly much exaggerated.[12]

On the Nicaean side, the army comprised not only native Greek contingents from Asia, Macedonia and Thrace, but also many mercenaries; according to the Chronicle, 300 German, 1,500 Hungarian, 600 Serbian, and even Bulgarian cavalry, as well as 1,500 Turkish and 2,000 Cuman cavalry and Greek archers.[12][13] The size of the Nicaean army is nowhere reported, except for a reference in the Greek Chronicle that it comprised 27 regiments (allagia), but according to the historian Deno John Geanakoplos, "one gets a clear impression from the sources [...] that the allied forces surpassed those of Nicaea in size".[14]


The main Byzantine sources, George Akropolites, Nikephoros Gregoras, and George Pachymeres, offer considerably different accounts on the exact course of events before and during the battle,[15] while the Western sources, chiefly the Greek and French versions of the Chronicle of the Morea and the history of the Venetian Marino Sanudo Torcello in turn differ from the Byzantine sources and from each other, often with details not appearing elsewhere.[16]

All the sources agree, however, that the Nicaeans used a stratagem to deceive and divide the allies.[17] Indeed, according to Akropolites, given his army's numerical disadvantage, Michael VIII had from the outset counselled his brother to avoid an open confrontation, and rather aim at exploiting the rivalries and disunity between the allies. Like all Greeks, the Epirotes mistrusted and hated the Franks as a result of the Fourth Crusade and the oppression of the Orthodox Greeks by the Roman Catholic clergy in the Frankish states, while the Franks despised the Greeks as cowardly, devious and schismatics.[18]

Akropolites puts the location of the first clashes between the two armies in a place called Vorilla Longos.[19] Akropolites then reports that John distributed his men, leaving the heavily-armed troops to occupy strong defensive positions on the hills, while his lighter Cuman, Turkish and Greek troops harassed the allied army with hit-and-run attacks, striking at their horses when they were being watered and plundering their supply trains. Faced with this constant harassment, Akropolites reports that the morale of the Epirote army withered, and Michael II with his troops withdrew towards Prilep, while John Doukas deserted the allied cause and went over to the Nicaeans.[20][21] Gregoras, however, reports that Michael II's flight was precipitated by John Palaiologos, who sent a false deserter to the Epirote camp, claiming that the Franks had secretly agreed with Palaiologos to betray the Epirotes in exchange for money. Persuaded, the Epirote ruler immediately fled his camp with as many men as he could gather, while the rest of the Epirote army too dispersed after his flight became known.[19] Pachymeres offers a completely different version, highlighting the discord present among the allies even before they met with the Nicaean army, allegedly as the result of some Achaean knights coveting John Doukas' beautiful Vlach wife. Matters were made worse when William of Villehardouin not only did not punish his men, but also insulted John Doukas for his illegitimate birth, infuriating the latter. John Doukas then entered into contact with John Palaiologos, and after extracting promises that his father and half-brother would not be harmed, persuaded them to withdraw during night.[22] Pachymeres' account of William insulting John the bastard is further confirmed by Marino Sanudo.[23]

Whatever the true course of events, on the next morning, when the Epirote flight was discovered by their Latin allies, they too tried to withdraw, but it was too late. The Nicaeans fell upon them, and in addition, according to Pachymeres, John Doukas and his Vlachs attacked from the rear. Many Latins were killed, while most of the survivors were taken prisoner. Gregoras reports that the 400 Germans surrendered to only four Nicaeans (possibly high-ranking commanders), while the forces of William of Villehardouin scattered. The Prince himself was discovered hiding in a pile of hay (Akropolites) or a shrub (Pachymeres) near Kastoria, and some thirty of his most senior barons were likewise taken captive.[15] The Chronicle of the Morea offers a variant account, but confuses the leading personages, claiming that "Theodore Doukas" (an error for John I Doukas) was the commander of the Nicaean forces, and placing Nikephoros at the head of the Epirote army. According to the Chronicle, the Nicaean commander tried to frighten his opponents by lighting many camp fires and using cattle to simulate marching troops. The stratagem worked in so far as the Epirote troops fled, while the Latins were then defeated by the Nicaeans, among whose ranks was allegedly a German contingent under the "Duke of Karentany", usually identified with Carinthia.[24]

According to Geanakoplos, although differing in details, the various accounts can be reconciled to form a more complete picture of the battle. Certainly the crucial turning point, Michael II's flight on the eve of the battle, is easy to explain even without a Nicaean stratagem: the Epirote ruler was disquieted by the presence of such a strong Frankish army, and feared that in the event of an allied victory, he would be likely to lose his own territory to the Latins, fears which would have been confirmed with the clash between his son John Doukas and William of Villehardouin in the days leading up to the battle. Conversely, if the Nicaeans won, not only his rule, but his own life would be in danger, leading him to choose flight instead.[25]


John Palaiologos went on to capture Thebes. The Principality of Achaea, which had become the strongest Frankish state in Greece in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, was now reduced to Nicaean vassalage; the Duchy of Athens soon became the dominant Frankish state. Michael VIII took advantage of the defeat to recapture Constantinople in 1261.

In the Chronicle of the Morea, there is a problem with the document's claim that the "Duke of Carinthia" was present at the battle. The duke at the time was Ulrich III of Carinthia, but he ruled for many years after 1259, and was probably not at the battle; the writer of the Chronicle may have invented a fictitious duke as a counterbalance to William.


  1. Treadgold 1997, p. 819.
  2. 1 2 Jeffreys & Haarer 2006, Robert Mihajlovski, "The Battle of Pelagonia 1259: A New Look through the March Routes and Topography", p. 370.
  3. Geanakoplos 1959, p. 43 (including note).
  4. Geanakoplos 1953, p. 136; Wolff 1954, pp. 45–84
  5. Macrides 2007, p. 363.
  6. Ostrogorsky 1969, pp. 447–448.
  7. Geanakoplos 1959, p. 62.
  8. Geanakoplos 1959, pp. 62–63.
  9. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 121–123.
  10. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 123–124, esp. note 115.
  11. Geanakoplos 1953, p. 123.
  12. 1 2 Bartusis 1997, p. 37.
  13. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 124–125 (esp. notes 116, 117).
  14. Geanakoplos 1953, p. 125 (esp. note 119).
  15. 1 2 Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 127–129.
  16. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 130–132.
  17. Geanakoplos 1953, p. 132.
  18. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 125–127.
  19. 1 2 Geanakoplos 1953, p. 127.
  20. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 127–128.
  21. Bartusis 1997, p. 38.
  22. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 128–129.
  23. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 131–132.
  24. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 124 (note 116), 130–131.
  25. Geanakoplos 1953, pp. 132–133.


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