George Akropolites, Warfare in 13th century Byzantium

The History of George Akropolites is one of main sources for the Byzantine world in the 13th century.  George Akropolites (c.1217-1282) was an important civil servant of the Byzantine emperors of Nicaea, and was involved in many of the important political events between 1244 and his death in 1282.  He is also notable for his historical work, the History, which relates events in the Byzantine world from the fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 to the Greek recovery of the city in 1261.  Warfare is a major theme of his work, and Akropolites took part in several campaigns.  In 1256 he was made priator, a position which made him responsible for the Nicaean armies based in western Macedonia.  He is often the only source available for particular battles, and gives detailed descriptions of campaigns and other events.

The section below is chapters 68, 70, 71 and 72 of the History, which describes a major outbreak of hostilities between the Nicaean emperor Theodore II, and his rival Michael II, Despot of Epiros in the year 1257.  George Akropolites was based in the fortress town of Prilep (now a town in southern Macedonia), which was besieged by Epirots.  Although Michael II’s son is killed in the battle of Vodena (chapter 71), the Despot of Epiros is able to capture Prilep and George becomes a captive.  It would be another two years before he was freed by Michael Palaiologos.

68. When I arrived there an altogether terrible report came to my ears. The report was that Constantine Chabaron, who had received the governorship of Albanon from the emperor, was won over to the side of the despot Michael through the contrivances of Michael’s wife’s sister, Maria.  She had had a husband, Sphrantzes by name, but she was a widow at the time. She pursued Chabaron with wiles and baited his mind with love letters – he was silly in such matters even though otherwise a good soldier – and he was caught in her snares. From that point on, Michael embarked on a course of open rebellion.  I learned about the drama while I was at Prilep. With all haste, then, I dispatched a letter to Michael Laskaris, revealing to him through this the events that had taken place, and I wrote that he should go to Pelagonia, so that after I also had arrived there and we had come together, we might deliberate about the matters at hand. We both met, then, in Pelagonia together with the skouterios Xyleas. We assumed him to be a military man, as well as Roman-minded;  for the emperor Theodore also had a great regard for him thinking that he boasted military experience and possessed the utmost goodwill with regard to him and Roman affairs.

When we met we decided on the following: Michael Laskaris would take his entire army, both the Roman and the Scythian contingents, leave the lands around Berroia – for it was there that he was encamped – set out for Pelagonia and take up a position there. Likewise the skouterios Xyleas was to take his entire military corps (that was quite a large number) and join with Michael Laskaris and together they were to take up a position in the region of Pelagonia. The place was advantageous with regard to the warfare with the despot Michael and with the Serbs, for we learned that they [the latter] also had made an agreement with Michael.  And so I left them, they having undertaken to carry out the things that had been determined, while I went to Ochrid with my attendant retinue to see if might somehow be able to straighten out the affairs of the Albanians.  But before that I managed to dispatch Isaac Nestongos, the epi tes basilikes trapezes, to Albanon, giving him an order which included, as was customary, a summary of the duties of his command. It was assigned to me and I was given licence to do the following: to replace, as I wished, the tax collectors and administrators of fiscal affairs, commanders of armies and those who held command of regions.

I chose to go to Albanon for the sake of correcting the situation in the area and to learn what the epi tes basilikes trapezes had done. When I arrived, I led away the epi tes trapezes from Albanon to the best of my strength. For the Albanian people had just put the final touches on the revolt; they had all gone over to the renegade despot Michael. When I myself saw everything in turmoil, I left Debre, for I had stayed there longer than I needed and I was encircled by the enemy, and with a moderate number of men who served me with weapons, I arrived at Ochrid. There I left the epi tes trapezes to guard the fortress, passed through Prespa and the place actually called Siderokastron, putting in at Prilep. I thought that I had sailed into a harbour protected from waves.

But there were obstacles for me and for our men there. The rebel Michael had laid hold of the surrounding territories and fortresses; one only, Prilep, was wanting and he was pressing, as much as was in his power, to bring Prilep under him. In this way it would be possible for him to rule over the surrounding area securely. So, not long after, the renegade Michael made his first attack on us with his entire army, and he made attempts on the town by military means. But it was secure and not easily taken; he was relying rather on the plots of the inhabitants. However, on that occasion he was beaten off and, taking his army, he turned back and prowled about in the surrounding places, while we were shut up in the town of Prilep and became confined as if in a prison. This is how our affairs turned out. Now let my narrative deal with events in the east.

70. Not very many days had yet gone by and, since the emperor realized that affairs in the west were in great disorder and that most of the territory had been taken by the rebel Michael and it was necessary for a general to be sent with any army in counter-attack, he chose the said Michael Komnenos, giving him also an army from Macedonia which was very small in size and worthless in quality.  But Michael Komnenos could not object to the orders he had been given and so, taking that paltry and unwarlike army, he went to Thessalonike and from there, after crossing the Vardar, which the ancients call the Naxeios, he joined Michael Laskaris. When they had deliberated, they proceeded against Berroia, not in order to fight against it, for it was not possible for them to do such a thing, but to plunder the surrounding area. And they plundered a great deal, for their followers carried off a quantity of animals whose number is not easily counted.

While they were doing these things, the ruler of the Serbs – they are a race which violates treaties and never shows gratitude to those who have been good to it, but for a small gain they cast aside and trample on the cup of friendship – learning of the rebellion of the renegade Michael, assembled an army numbering in the thousands and sent it against the Roman lands. Passing by Kytzavis, they plundered the area around Prilep. The skouterios Xyleas, who was near the town with the army which was under his command, saw that the army of Serbs was plundering the land and setting fires everywhere. He was a man ignorant in matters of war and with no military experience at all, for he did not have spies at a distance so as to learn from afar of the advance of the enemy, nor did he know how to array an army in battle order.  He released each man to rush against the Serbs as he wished. Since their battle order had been broken up and they were few, they fell into the grip of the Serbs, who were more in number, and they were caught.  Some were put to the sword, others were taken alive and carried off as captives.  Later when Xylaes himself, the skouterios, charged against the Serbs with the remaining soldiers, he barely escaped with his life, crossing mountains, hills and precipitous places, pursued by the enemy,  Thus the army at Prilep was destroyed in this way and we were shut up in the town of Prilep, as if incarcerated.

71. This is what happened to the men connected with Michael Komnenos Palaiologos and Michael Laskaris. When they had gained booty in Berroia, they encamped in the region of Vodena, which was level and useful for the feeding of horses. The renegade Michael, the despot (having exact information about the Roman army, how many it numbered and that all except for a small part of it was useless and worthless), selected men from his entire army and, separating the best from the rest – they came to 500 in number – he appointed his illegitimate son Theodore general, and sent them against the Roman army.

At that time Manuel Lapardas had been sent by the emperor with a rough mob of an army to meet with the commanders at hand, and he reproached them for having gone ahead and plundered, leaving him without a share of the profits. The commanders of the army were talking together about these matters while the rabble army under Manuel Lapardas, most of whom were riding mares and had them loaded down with provisions, took the road that passes by the town of Vodena, without the knowledge of the other commmanders, so that, arriving before the others, they also might take booty. But the army sent by the renegade Michael to make war on the Romans encounntered them in a pass in the mountains of Vodena. When these men, brave soldiers who rode stately horses and were clad in full armour, encountered manikins who were without arms, low-born, and riding mares, they defeated them all instantly. Some of them fled and went to Michael Komnenos, reporting to him what had happened. But he was not disturbed by the unexpected news, for he was strong in arm, brave in disposition, and tried in battle; he had been trained in many previous wars.  He armed himself, taking a spear and the military detachment which was under Michael Laskaris and which came from Paphlagonia (this alone was better than the others and capable of fighting, numbering 500 men) and set out against the enemy. Michael Laskaris, who, as was his habit, had not put on a full breastplate but only a half breastplate so that he might easily flee, was on the sidelines of the battle and was watching the action.  Michael Komnenos, however, encountering the first person who came against him, hurled his spear and threw him from his saddle. It was the previously mentioned illegitimate son of the renegade Michael, Theodore. When he had picked himself up from the fall, he ran towards Michael Komnenos and entreated him not to have him put to death. But Komnenos did not recognize him and he did not know who he was. He therefore handed him over to a Turk and he killed him. Then, the Paphlagonians accompanying him engaged in close combat with the others, man to man, and the renegade Michael’s men were routed at the end of the battle, while those of Michael Komnenos checked them, taking captive more than 20 of the elite men and putting many others to the sword. But Michael Komnenos’ men were not able to drive them away because they were very few in number since, as we said, the soldiers who had left earlier had already been destroyed and had scattered. And so the business turned out unfortunately for them, as it did for those at Prilep.

As Michael Komnenos, Michael Laskaris, and the generals with them were compelled by us to come to Prilep and meet with us, they came whether they wanted to or not.  They stayed with us a few days, but since they did not have the force to engage in close combat and fight the renegade Michael, leaving us, they returned. For they perceived the treachery of the inhabitants and they witnessed consciously the doubtful loyalty of those who had been assigned to guard the town.  Then I was left behind in Prilep with those who were there to guard the town. This is what the ruler had ordered me to do.

72. The renegade Michael attacked us a second time. Since there was a cessation of hostilities and he discovered that the imperial forces did not have the strength to fight him in close combat, he surrounded the town with a guard and set up siege towers. The people inside, those who were with us, thought like him. He made a first attempt, and arming his entire army, he assaulted the town, using archers and slingers who were good shots. In addition, they brought ladders so that they might clamber up around the town with the ladders. But that time they were routed and many of them were killed, struck by stones and arrows, and for some days they were quiet. However, those within, our men, set them going again and there was a more vehement assault on the town and a similar repulse. The enemy were not able to do anything much; they suffered more damage than they themselves caused. Danger struck even a third time, and the same things happened again. At least then the enemy quietened down and withdrew in peace. They did not even dare approach. For when they did come near they suffered more than they inflicted. However, some people who were afflicted with disloyalty thought they would achieve their own ends in the course of the battle. It would be a source of wonder to anyone who heard that the enemy were defeated by one man who had not more than 40 servants and who took heart in faith and truth alone.  Since those who had deliberated against us could not achieve their ends by battle and confusion, they concocted the evil quietly. They found an excuse in the management of the provisions for the army that had been drawn up to defend the city. They led the men from the battlements, taking them to the granary. The men who had planned this beforehand opened the gates unopposed and the town of Prilep was taken in this way, not by the excellence of the enemy soldiers, nor because of the place’s lack of fortifications, but because of the foolishness and disloyalty of the garrison. We also were taken captive and became prisoner. Nor did the fortress of the upper city help us, for it was a mass of rock, attainable by a 10-rung ladder if enemy fighters were to attack. Our men who harboured hostile thoughts wanted to attack us at night in order to kill us and also take our possessions. But I saw this and we protected ourselves as best we could at the time, and when daylight shone I made an agreement with the renegade Michael. He gave oaths to us that we would come safely to the emperor’s territory from his regions, free of harm and with our possessions, while we released to him that small fortress.  But his oaths were false; he perjured himself. He kept us in bonds and moved us from territory to territory in fetters.

When the emperor Theodore heard about these events, he had suspicions concerning me – not  rightly – but following human reasoning, he had his suspicions. For he had learned that the best of his generals in the west, in whom he had a great deal of confidence, had become subject to the renegade Michael, some even before the possession of the fortresses, namely the skouteriosXyleas, Manuel Ramatas, Poulachas, and some others who were with them; still others had surrendered after possession of the fortresses, that is, the epi tes trapezes Isaac Nestongos whom I had appointed to govern Ochrid, as I related earlier; not a few others of the distinguished and renowned men had willingly subjected themselves to the renegade. He had fears with respect to me lest I also do the same. What had just been done to me by him had also disturbed his reasoning. Those who knew me better insisted that I would never act in that way. But when a long time had passed and he learned from those coming forward that I was a prisoner and was confined in gaol and was bound by shackles and handcuffs, he was content with this state and was better disposed towards me. He issued decrees concerning my properties, stating that no one should dare set foot on them at any time and cause damage. This is how things were; affairs turned out in this way for the emperor Theodore.

This section is from George Akropolites: The History, Introduction, translation and commentary, by Ruth Macrides (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

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