Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Catalan Company - Byzantine Mercenaries

Catalan mercenaries entering Constantinople

The Empire at 1300

In 1204 Constantinople fell to an attack by the Christian army of the Fourth Crusade. The empire was apportioned between Venice and the crusade's leaders, and the Latin Empire of Constantinople was established.  Numerous Greek states sprang up in Byzantine lands each having a claim to the throne.

The Palaiologoi dynasty of the Empire of Nicaea was the strongest of the contenders.  In 1261, while the bulk of the Latin Empire's military forces were absent from Constantinople, Byzantine General Alexios Strategopoulos used the opportunity to seize the city with 600 troops. Thrace, Macedonia and Thessalonica had already been taken by Nicaea in 1246.

The Empire was now restored under Michael VIII Palaiologos.

The Nicaean Empire had been successful in holding its own against its Latin and Seljuk Turk opponents.  But because most of Anatolia was lost to Islam, the restored Empire was chronically short of money, food and men for the army.
Roger de Flor
Leader of the Catalan Company

With a smaller and smaller population base to draw upon, hiring mercenaries became the only answer.

The Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos hired the 6,500 strong "Catalan Company" of Almogavars, led by Roger de Flor.

The Catalan Company

The origin of the Catalan Company goes back to the Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula.

The Almogavars  -  Their name is the transformation into Catalan of an Arab word, al-mogauar, which means “one who devastates”.

They were mountain shepherds from the Pyrenees mountains of Northern Spain or forest-dwellers. These were the men who carried war to the Arab taïfa, a war made up of raids, pillaging and unstable frontiers.

Because of the wars of the Reconquista the Christian shepherds of the Pyrenean valleys were left unable to use the valleys in winter because they had been occupied. In order to continue to survive, these shepherds had to organize themselves into bands of outlaws and penetrate the enemy domain in search of what their people needed to survive. During these raids, which usually lasted only a few days, the Almogavars could live off the land and sleep in the open.

They were remarkable in that they were both fierce and disciplined in combat (outside combat, not so much).  They could move fast through very rugged terrain, attack a Muslim settlement, and then flee before reinforcements arrived.  Although they could stand against heavy cavalry, they proved very effective troops in running down the lighter Berber-style horsemen of the Iberian Muslim kingdoms.

The average Almughavar wore little to no armor, growing his hair and beards long.  He carried a spear, 2 heavy javelins (called azconas), and short stabbing sword.  They were the literal descendents of the Iberians that followed Hannibal into Rome, their weapons unchanged since the Romans copied them (naming them Pila and Gladius Hispaniensis).

After many generations of leading this new kind of life that they had been pushed into by the invaders, it seems clear that a genuine warrior spirit formed in these shepherd communities, so that they ended up not knowing how to live by any other means than making war. In addition, it was much easier to make a living through attacks lasting a few days than by working hard for the whole year.

The Catalan Company may have been the first true mercenary company in Western Europe.

The Catalan Company was raised in 1281 to fight as mercenaries in the War of the Sicilian Vespers, where the Angevin and Aragonese dynasties fought over the Kingdom of Sicily. When the war ended 20 years later its commander was Rutger von Blum, better known as Roger de Flor.

De Flor was originally a Templar sergeant. At the fall of Acre in 1291 he became rich using one of the Templar galleys to shuttle fugitives from Acre to Cyprus for enormous fees; later he was a pirate before he joined the Catalan Company and worked his way up to command it.

An Ottoman Cavalry Charge

An Ottoman Turk Victory

The Battle of Bapheus occurred on 27 July 1302 between a Muslim Ottoman army under Osman I and a Byzantine army under George Mouzalon. The battle ended in a crucial Ottoman victory, cementing the Ottoman state and heralding the final capture of Byzantine Bithynia by the Turks.

Bapheus was the first major victory for the nascent Ottoman emirate, and of major significance for its future expansion: the Byzantines effectively lost control of the countryside of Bithynia, withdrawing to their forts, which, isolated, fell one by one.

The Byzantine defeat also sparked a massive exodus of the Christian population from the area into the European parts of the Empire, further altering the region’s demographic balance. Coupled with the disaster of Magnesia, which allowed the Turks to reach and establish themselves on the coasts of the Aegean Sea, Bapheus thus heralded the final loss of Asia Minor for Byzantium.

The  Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus had to do something about the rising threat of the Ottoman Turks.

When peace broke out in Sicily the Catalan Company was surplus, and Sicily was strongly interested in seeing the last of them. De Flor negotiated a good deal with the Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II, who desperately needed mercenaries to fight the Turks after the Byzantine at Nicomedia in July 1302.

Roger de Flor's offer was accepted by both Byzantium and by the Aragonese, rulers in Sicily and southern Italy, who were quite eager to rid themselves of unemployed and unruly soldiers. Roger de Flor departed with 39 galleys and transports carrying around 1,500 knights and 4,000 Almogavars infantry.

Emperor Andronikos II
The Emperor on a wall fresco in a monastery in Serres.  He was acclaimed co-emperor in 1261, after his father Michael VIII recovered Constantinople from the Latin Empire, but he was crowned only in 1272.  Was sole emperor from 1282.  The Emperor hired 6,500 Catalan mercenaries under Roger de Flor to campaign against the Turks.

The Catalan Company campaigned against the Turks in western Anatolia
in an attempt to recover the lands for the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Company arrived at Constantinople in September 1303 and were truly welcome by the Greeks. They had no sooner arrived in Constantinople than they got involved in a bloody melee in the street with the local Genoese community.

Roger de Flor married the niece of Andronicus, daughter of the Tsar of Bulgaria, and was named Grand Duke (head of the fleet).  Roger was created Caesar, perhaps in December 1304.

Soon afterwards Andronikos asked the Catalans to go to Anatolia to reinforce Philadelphia, a Byzantine city entirely surrounded by the Turks for some years. In less than 8 days, Roger de Flor and his army destroyed the Turkish site and left nobody alive older than 10 years old. In the next 3 years the Catalans cleaned Greece from Turkish presence and Andronic was celebrating he had recovered full power on his territory.

Michael IX Palaiologos, son of Andronikos II, took over the Byzantium empire at his father's death, so Roger was concerned his lack of character and experience would cause the Turkish to be back to Greece; thus, he claimed to become Ceasar of Byzantium to be able to protect the Cristian territory from the Ottomans. 

But the new emperor did not like it, he was fearful and envious of the power of the Almogàvers. Due to the victories and successes along the years, the Greek population started to praise Roger de Flor, now duke of Byzantium. So the young emperor felt threaten by the Catalan general's popularity, as they were heroes who had freed them from the Turkish. So he planned to betray the Catalans.

From the Byzantine point of view, the Company in Anatolia may have defeated the Turks, but it also engaged in widespread violence and looting of the Byzantine inhabitants. By this point, the Catalans, who had recruited nearly 3000 Turkic horse into their ranks, were considered by the Byzantines to be little better than brigands and freebooters. The successes had inflated the already arrogant De Flor, leading him to entertain plans of establishing his own dominion in Anatolia.

Before leaving for a new campaign in the region of Anatolia, Roger de Flor and some of his best men were invited to the court for a farewell dinner. There they were brutally assassinated: the Emperor had contracted Albanese assassins to kill them.

Roger was slain along with 300 cavalry and 1,000 infantry by the Alans, another group of mercenaries at the service of the Emperor.

The emperor later attacked Gallipoli attempting to conquer the city from the remnants of the Company under the command of Berenguer d'Entença who had arrived with 9 Catalan galleys. The attack was unsuccessful, but it largely decimated the Company. Berenguer d'Entença was captured by the Genoese shortly after, and later liberated. The Company had only 206 horsemen, 1,256 foot soldiers left and no clear leader when Emperor Michael attacked, trusting in his numerical superiority, only to be defeated in Battle of Apros in July 1305.

Consisting primarily of Almogavars, Catalan soldiers from the
Pyrennes Mountains between Spain and France, they were
lightly armed but hardened in the wars.

Thus began the Catalan Vengeance.  For two years, the Catalan Company raided and ravaged the regions of Thrace and Macedonia for the next two years, including an attack on Mount Athos. They sacked Rodosto, brutally hacking apart every man, woman, and child in revenge for what was done to their brothers and their leader.  Although they had no siege works and so could not sack the walled cities, no Greek army could stand against them. 

The Emperor was forced to watch as the Catalans burnt the undefended outskirts of Constantinople.  So thorough was their domination that the two year pillage of Thrace ended not because they were forced out, but because there simply was not enough places that they could pillage for food.

The Catalan Company in Athens

In 1310, Gautier or Walter V of Brienne, Duke of Athens, hired the Catalan Company to fight the Byzantine Greeks encroaching on his territory.
Coat of arms of the
Aragonese Kings

After the Company had successfully reduced his enemies, he attempted to expel the Company from Athens with their pay in arrears. The Company refusing this, Walter marched out with a strong force of French knights from Athens, the Morea and Naples and Greek foot from Athens. Walter’s army met the Catalans at the Battle of Cephissus (or Halmiros or Orchomenos).

On the 15 March 1311 an army of 700 Frankish Knights, 2,300 cavalry and 12,000 foot soldiers led by Walter V of Brienne, met the Catalan Company of 3,000 of which 500 cavalry. There was also a contingent of 2,000 Turks standing by, to take the side of the winners.

The day before the battle, the Company flooded the battle field with the waters of Cephissus (Kiffissos) river, and made it very difficult for the heavy knights’ cavalry to move, thus becoming prey to the agile and light  cavalry of the Company.

The Catalans won a devastating victory, killing Walter and almost all of his cavalry, and seizing his Duchy of Athens, excepting only the Lordship of Argos and Nauplia.

The battle marks the beginning of the Catalan domination of Athens (1311-1388).

In 1312, the Catalan Company appealed to Frederick III of Sicily to take over the duchy and he complied by appointing his second born son, Manfred of Sicily as Duke of Athens and Neopatria. The arms seen above are those of the Aragonese Kings of Sicily under which the Duchy of Athens came. (The Duchy of Athens)

The Catalan rule was to last until 1388–1390 when they were defeated by the Navarrese Company under Pedro de San Superano, Juan de Urtubia, and allied with the Florentines under Nerio I Acciaioli of Corinth. His descendants controlled them until 1456 when they were conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

By that time, like many military enterprises, the Great Company had faded out of history.

Re-enactors dressed up as Almogavars in modern Catalonia
where they remain popular figures.
Read more: Enworld.org/forum
Description of an Almogavar
"These people who are called Almogavars live for nothing more than the profession of arms. They don't live in the cities or the villages, but rather in the mountains and forests, and fight every day against the Saracens: and enter the Saracens' land for a day or two, pillaging and taking Saracens captive; and that is how they live. And they endure harsh living conditions which others could not endure. They could well spend two days without eating if necessary, eating herbs of the fields with no problem.
And the adalids (leaders) who lead them know the country and roads. And they do not wear more than a tunic or shirt, be it summer or winter, and they wear leather breeches on their legs and leather sandals on their feet. And they wear a good knife and a good shoulder strap and a flint steel in their belt. And they each carry a good lance and two spears, as well as a leather shoulder bag, where they carry their food. And they are very strong and very quick, for escape and for pursuit, and they are Catalans and Aragonese and Saracens."
Libre del rei en Pere e dels seus antecessors passats, cap. LXXIX.

(Michael IX Palaiologos)      (Roger de Flor)      (The Palaiologos Dynasty)

(Almogavar Warriors)      (Andronicus II Palaeologus)     

(umiacs.umd.edu)      (Catalan Campaign in Asia Minor)      (Catalan Company)

(Panathinaeos)      (Burnpit legion)      (djxcatalonia)


JC said...

I love this blog, its very good, i hope you continue with the publicatons. But the design of the web could be better for a topic like this.

Greetings! Excellent Blog

Anonymous said...

Those catalan fighters better treated will be a major asset for the Empire .
As always byzantine quarels did the best to undermine their chances for survival .
Mistep one , one more .

Anonymous said...

even today theyre name fly over the stands of camp nou Barcelona soccer field

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Danny Holla said...

Fascinating. The Spaniards were great warriors in history. Arguably the best for a few centuries, even the Ottomans feared them.