John Cantacuzenus, “History”, The War of Galata (1348)


One of the most important figures in the history of fourteenth century Byzantium was John Cantacuzenus, a military commander under Andronicus III, who then rebelled against the regency government of Anna of Savoy, and himself emperor from 1347 to 1354.  Furthermore, John also wrote a history of this period, including his own reign, one of the very few chronicles to be written by a medieval ruler (he refers to himself in the third person).  Although biased in favour of himself, John’s account is a very important source for the internal and external threats faced by the Byzantine empire.  In the section translated below, two conflicts are reported: the first takes place in the early summer of 1348, when the Emperor was planning a campaign against Serbia, but had to disband his forces before hearing of Turkish raids in Thrace.  The second conflict involves the Genoese colony of Galata, which lies just outside of Constantinople.  The Genoese demanded to have their colony’s boundaries and their fortifications extended, but were refused by the emperor.  This would lead to hostilities between the Genoese and the Byzantines (who are called Romans).


 22. The Agreement between the Emperor and Dobrotica who Surrendered the City of Medeia to Him.

The emperor took his son-in-law, the emperor, along on campaign against Medeia, a city on the Pontic coast whose ruler, Dobrotica, was appointed by the empress Anna during the war.  Rather than submit to the emperor Cantacuzenus after peace had been established between the emperors, he gathered a large gang of bandits around him and pillaged the surrounding cities and caused quite extensive damage.  The emperor, weighed down by other more pressing concerns, at first overlooked him, but, when the raids from Medeia continued to cause great damage, the emperor first sent a force both by land and by sea and besieged the city.  Then, after leaving the despot Manuel, his son, as ruler in Byzantium and ordering galleys to be constructed with Fazzolati, the protostrator, in charge of the work – for the emperor saw that the Roman dominion was in great need of naval power – he himself marched out, taking the young emperor with him. When they came to Medeia, the emperor spoke to Dobrotica about submitting to him send surrendering the city. When Dobrotica saw that he would not be able to oppose the emperor in battle, he came to an agreement and handed over the city to him. Since the emperor considered Dobrotica worthy of care and goodwill, he ranked him among the more illustrious air the Romans.

Upon occupying Medeia, Cantacuzenus commanded the young emperor to return home again and dismissed much of the arty to the cities. With a fern men he advanced on Adrianople on account of certain public concerns. While he was an the road it was reported to him that an army of mounted Persians, numbering a little less than two thousand picked troops, had crossed over at the Hellespont and had turned to plundering the cities of Thrace. The emperor was immediately upset by the dismissal of the army, since insufficient time precluded his summoning it again. He was afraid that, while he was spending time in collecting an army, the Persians would take their booty and cross again to Asia and he would arrive too late.  Constrained by the necessities of the situation, he moved against them with the men he had and on the next day drew close to the Persians who had camped opposite the mountain of Lipix.

The Persians happened to have encamped on rough ground and knew nothing about the emperor and how he was nearby, desirous of combat. The emperor thought he ought not lead his heavily-armed horsemen with the archers and light-armed soldiers into this difficult ground and into places, cut by ditches and narrow passes, to engage in battle. In addition to the barbarians’ superior numbers, the rough ground would contribute considerably to their victory. For this reason he ordered the army to assemble in a shaded place, capable of concealing them and took every precaution that it would not be clear to the barbarians what was happening. And thus they passed the remainder of the day without being discovered by the barbarians encamped opposite them. When the sun had set, the barbarians rose up from their camp and marched out to plunder at will.  The emperor with his army set out at a slow pace for the entire night, taking every precaution not to be discovered.

23. The Encounter and Victory of the Emperor over the Persians.

It happened that on the following day both camps were near the city of Mesene.  At their encounter the Romans conquered by storm. They also killed most of the barbarians and captured many alive.  One of the two generals, named Kara Mehmet, fell during the battle.   The other, Mar Atoumanus, with those few who had escaped death for the moment, dismounted and retreated to a certain hill.  By standing their ground and shooting many arrows they kept the Romans away from the hill and wounded many soldiers and horses.  After commanding his troops to pull back from the battle, the emperor himself from close at hand commanded the Persians to approach without suspecting any deceit.  He was familiar to them since many times they had marched with him during the civil war.  They said that they were of such a wind that they would die in arms in their own defence and would not give up hopes of being saved. They would not exchange disgraceful and ignoble servitude for a brave death in battle.  However, when he called them and commanded them to take courage since they would suffer no disgrace and entrust themselves willingly to him, they immediately submitted, and standing around with him alone in their midst, they prostrated themselves and embraced his feet.

While he was talking with the Persians and chiding them that, though his friends, they had senselessly marched against his empire, Nikephoros, the despot and son-in-law of the emperor, and some other noble youths brought the emperor very close to danger through their disorder and thoughtlessness. For they suddenly attacked the Persians who were standing around and attempted to kill them.  Though they had laid aside their swords, they could have easily killed the emperor, if they had wanted, since he was in their midst and surrounded by them. Because they thought that this attack was the result, not of the plan of the emperor, but of the disorder of the soldiers, as in fact it was, they did him no injustice. When the emperor saw that they were being slaughtered, he ordered them in Persian to run up the hill again and save themselves. For he was not completely ignorant of their language. They ran up again and readied themselves for battle after nine men and a general had fallen in the attack.  In anger, the emperor separated his son-in-law and the soldiers from the Persians and punished them for their lack of discipline. Offering gifts to the Persians who were left on the hill, he sent them home free since he considered it unworthy behavior not to save those who had unconditionally entrusted their safety to him.

24. The Victory of the Emperor’s Son, Matthew, over the Persians.

About the same time Matthew, his son, who governed the cities of Chalcidice, won a victory over another Persian army of infantry. He met and defeated this rather large array, which had crossed over in ships to pillage the territories there. Some he killed during the battle and others he took alive so that not a one remained.  He, too, chanced to come very close to danger during this battle. Without control he rushed enthusiastically after the enemy, and, while he was charging forward and wheeling about to slaughter, his horse tripped and he was hurled from it. With the barbarians surrounding him, he defended himself on foot, and striking with his sword, he cut off the head of the one who was the very closest to him.  Me others were afraid and fled, while his own soldiers led out another horse. Unhurt he mounted and brought a perfect victory to completion.  Immediately he sent men to his father, the emperor, to announce the victory. The emperor was doing the same thing for his son. By chance the messengers of the triumphs met one another in the middle of their journeys.

When the emperor vent to Didymoteichus from Mesene after his victory, he fell ill for an entire year from a disease of the kidneys, although he had suffered nothing chronic all his life until this disease.  He was, however, bothered by the tertian fever every seventh or eighth year, but in the third cycle it left him immediately. For a while before the battle his kidneys had pained him, but right after the battle the disease pressed upon him furiously.  It seemed that he himself contributed substantially to bringing on the affliction.  For at the time of the battle he was running with sweat from the toil of the conflict and, moreover, since it was the season of stifling summer, he took off his armor when he happened upon a mild wind, cooler than what was suitable.  This he suspected was the principal cause of the illness. The emperor was definitely ill and no doctors’ art was sufficient although the doctors reputed to be most esteemed were present there until the disease abated by itself in the course of another year. The doctors were unable to understand whence the disease had its origins or why it terminated. He was fed as usual, unimpaired by the pain in his kidney, and irritated by wasting time in bed, he mounted a horse quite a few times though with difficulty and pain.

[24a. The War with Galata.]

During the time that the emperor was ill in Didymoteichus, the war with the Latins of Galata flared up.  It took its origin from the following source.  These people were hostile to the Romans and always plotting; they were most ready to break oaths if they regarded any undertaking as possible.  In fact while the young Andronicus was still alive, they gained possession of Phokaia and Mitylene in violation of their oaths even though they were able to profit nothing from their treachery. Righty, they were driven out with the disgrace which they deserved. After Andronicus’ death, when the Romans were involved in the civil war, they attacked and conquered Chios without a thought of the oaths and pacts with the empress Anna. Later, when there was peace and the emperor Cantacuzenus had mastered the situation, they came forward and asked the emperor to yield to them the piece of land above their fortification, offering the excuse that they were about to enclose an area larger than their fort which was insufficient to house them, whereas in fact they wished to surround this land with walls so that it would not be easy to besiege them. Since this place was so steep that it hung above their heads, it would be the source of much injury, if ever it happened that war broke out with the Romans. In fact they were planning nothing trivial but they wanted to control the sea and, as though the sea belonged to them, to prevent the Romans from sailing. For they saw that the Romans, at that time more than any other, were turning their attention to the sea and possessed merchant ships and quite a few other cargo carriers, since the emperor Cantacuzenus had taken great interest in this. They suspected that the emperor would not tolerate their plans.  Therefore, before they revealed what they had in mind, they wanted to take over beforehand the places which they viewed with suspicion and from which they thought they could be harmed.

The emperor was not ignorant of their intention, but he prepared ships so that, if it were necessary to fight, the Romans would be ready, and he altogether forbade the surrendering of this piece of land to the Genoese. He knew that they kept away from foolish plots rather because of fear than because of goodwill or respect for oaths. For this reason the other Latins compare this race to asses. For, if the driver of an ass is ever unable to lay on heavy blows, the ass does not walk straight along the road but turns aside and carelessly diverts his attention from the journey because the driver is powerless. These people too, unless they have some fear of suffering hanging over them, will never want to do what they must for any other reason. Since the emperor knew their treachery, he did not hand over the piece of land. When the Genoese saw the galleys being prepared and were as much annoyed by their failure to obtain the land as by the multitude of merchant ships which the Romans possessed, they decided to begin a war in order both to keep the Romans from the sea and to fortify the piece of land, if they could, against the emperor’s will. They collected unhewn rocks under some other pretext, and procured other materials in secret.

When the emperor was known to be sick in Didymoteichus, they thought that the time was most opportune for their attempt. First, by night they suddenly attacked the Roman dwellings on the opposite shore and set fire to all the houses. On the next day they armed their own galleys which had been readied and as many light boats and fast-sailing ones as they had, and burned the houses outside the walls of Byzantium along the sea. They also captured some transports while others they burned. They burned all the galleys which had been prepared except three which, under the orders of the emperor’s son, the Byzantines took from the place called Kosmidion where they were being readied, since the destruction was encompassing everything. Leading them across the river which flows by the place called Pissa, they dragged them up onto dry land and, placing a guard on either side, they watched over them.

Thus the Latins clearly were the cause of the war against the Romans, and now that they had gained control of the sea, they sailed up and down along the coasts, causing destruction and consigning everything to the flames. They also sallied forth together and first fortified the hill, raising a tower on its summit. Both men and women displayed equally every eagerness. Even the most distinguished did not consider it beneath them to take part with the others in the construction. After marking out the rest of the land, they then fortified it with a wall as far as the material would go, raising the wall to a height they thought sufficient. They contrived every other means of safety from their resources. To the extent they were unable to construct a wall because of a lack of material, they enclosed the ground with great palisades and stakes so that in a short time the whole area was surrounded. When the emperor learned of the outrages of the men from Galata, he was quite distressed because he suffered such things at the hands of the Latins who dwelled in the land of the Romans and ought rightly to serve them punctiliously. Despite his condition and although he still suffered from the disease, he came to Byzantium.

25. The Request of the People of Byzantium to the Emperor.

Immediately the people of Byzantium, especially businessmen and factory workers, gathered at the palace and asked the emperor not to overlook them, suffering unbearable and contemptuous treatment at the hands of the Latins, but to arm galleys and seek punishment for these outrages.  They said that they were ready to offer money for the war according to each man’s resources, since the destruction wrought by the Latins had affected them more than any of the other citizens. The ships, property, and houses which had been burned were nearly all theirs.

The emperor first blamed them for their untimely enthusiasm. Money should have been contributed enthusiastically, when he himself bad recommended. Then the Latins would not have attempted such things. Even before it had happened, he had foreseen this from his varied experience in affairs, and he had advised what he thought would be of the greatest usefulness later on. Nevertheless, since he thought that it was best to prepare for war, he commanded the Byzantines to contribute and placed Constantine Tarchaneiotes in charge of the collection while he turned his attention to preparing galleys.  Since the Galatans held the sea and it was most difficult to import wood by sea fit for ship building, he commanded the Byzantines to bring the wood in by oxen and mule from the mountains opposite Sergentzion. The wood was brought in with a great deal of difficulty and hard work and the galleys were constructed at the docks in the Heptaskalon.

26. The War with the Men of Galata and how the Defeat of the Imperial Galleys Took Place.

The Latins in Galata hoped that, when the emperor arrived, he would immediately abandon the war against them, would yield everything to them which they wanted, and would come to an accord, leaving them rulers of the sea. When nothing turned out as they expected, but rather they saw the emperor constructing ships and preparing for battle, they changed their course and sent an embassy to open discussions concerning peace. The emperor berated them for their treachery and ill will, that they had acted so unfairly, and unjustly had begun such destruction, though they had suffered no injustice either earlier or later at his hands nor had brought forth any pretext for war.  Then he commanded them to leave the place they had fortified and to level the walls.  On these terms he would offer them a treaty and a peace including indemnity for the things they damaged during the war. They paid practically no attention to him, but said that the emperor had to hand over to them the area which had been fortified or they would attend to none of their obligations.  Immediately the war was stepped up and the Galatans sailed around destroying those whom they encountered.  When they had made the sea unnavigable for the Romans, they placed upon a transport of huge tonnage a siege engine by means of which a stone could be thrown of such a weight that a healthy man might pick it up.  Then pulling along the transport with a galley, they hurled stones everywhere inside the city, but they caused no damage.

Since the emperor was unable immediately to oppose them by sea because he had no galleys, he sent an army by land and ordered that frequent attacks be made. These caused as much damage as possible. He was not, however, completely unmindful of the sea, but set up giant-sized machines, designed to hurl rocks, and ordered that stones be launched from Byzantium against Galata. They reached across and destroyed many houses, especially those along the sea, and the stones did considerable damage to the transports of the Latins. These catapults sank the transport carrying the war machine so that the sailors barely fled the danger.  The Latins, on their part, sent two embassies, and then a third one, for peace, but the emperor would not be content unless they leveled the walls and left the fort.

While quite same time was spent in these matters and while the galleys were being constructed, the emperor selected sailors and heavily-armed soldiers and readied all else for battle. He appointed as generals the protostrator Fazzolati over the three galleys along the Pissa, and Tzamplakon, the megadux, over those built in the Reptaskalon.  In a spirit of rivalry the megadux desired that his ships perform more impressively since they were the largest in size. He set wooden towers on them and roofed over the rowers. He made the galleys twice as large and placed on board a great number of heavily-armed troops and light-armed soldiers. This caused a great deal of harm during the battle as will be related a little later.

On the day before the galleys were going to be brought out from the dock, a transport was sighted sailing from Genoa and carrying, it was said, great riches. When the winds stopped and conditions kept the ship from sailing, she anchored near the Island of the Princes. At night two imperial galleys with the same number of single-tiered ships put to sea. When they attacked the transport and those inside put up a strong defence, the men from the galleys hurled fire and thus won the engagement. They boarded the transport and killed quite a few of the defenders and were soon masters of the situation.  But when vague rumors reached the galleys that Latin galleys were sailing from Galata, the Byzantines turned to flight, leaving a little less than fifty of their own men on the transport. The rumors were completely false. When the Romans left on the transport discovered that their galleys had sailed away and that they were helpless, they came to terms with the Latins who had already been conquered by force.  Then they made an agreement so that they extinguished together the blaze aboard the ship in order that they themselves might not be destroyed. They also agreed that if, on the following day, the Romans were to sail out and gain control of the transport, the Romans who had been left behind would intercede with their leaders and save the Latins along with themselves. However, if the Latins sailed out and took over the transport, the Latins aboard ship agreed to do the same thing for the Romans. This was in fact what happened dust at dawn. Since all the imperial galleys were not fitted out, the Latins set sail and towed in the half-burnt transport. But those Latins on the ship saved the Romans according to the oaths.

When all the imperial galleys had been thoroughly readied, they set out from the dockyard, fittingly equipped and inferior to none of the fleets mustered by the Romans in many years, both in numbers of heavily-armed troops and in the splendor and scale of the preparations. Quite a few single-tiered vessels, both fast-sailing vessels and small boats carrying heavily-armed soldiers, accompanied the fleet, and all joined in the expedition eagerly because of their hatred of the Latins.  The Latins, struck by the size of the armada, considered everything other than engaging in a sea battle with the imperial galleys.  They waited at anchor in front of their fortifications with their own galleys filled as if they were about to ram the attacking imperial boats, but they were prepared in such a way that they would pull up the galleys onto the beach with small cords if they saw the imperial boats attacking and would defend themselves from the walls.  They were men with but the faintest hopes of being saved inside the walls. After the imperial galleys had sailed out from the dockyard, they passed the night somewhere near by since the commanders intended that on the following day, when they were united with the three ships of Fazzolati, they would attack by sea.  Fazzolati himself had armed his galleys and had readied himself to set out on the next day.  The emperor sent many good cavalry with his son, the despot, so that they would attack from the land when the galleys began to fight.

When it was daylight, the galleys which had put to sea from the dockyard were already at the gate of Eugenius while those with the protostrator Fazzolati had also set out from the river and were pressing on to be with the others in the same place. God directed all and fairly weighed the Romans in all things and, as it seems, took vengeance to the full for their many other sins by allowing them to be defeated by a much inferior force.  Suddenly an unexpected wind fell upon them and upset the first three galleys on which the wooden towers stood.  The rest of the men with their armor fell from the other ships into the sea, sailors as well as heavily-armed soldiers, and in one instant all the boats appeared empty of seamen. At the same time the men whom Pazzolati commanded fell from the decks into the sea so that there was a general destruction of sailors as well as of heavily-armed soldiers. Many in fact were saved since the capsizing occurred close to land, but a little less than two hundred died in the water. From among those assigned to Tzamplakon, the megadux, Manuel Philanthropinos died, the commander of the admiral’s ship, a man noble in strength and especially enjoying the good will of the emperor.  The Latins in Galata put to sea with revived courage and, taking the galleys in tow, pulled them up onto the beach. No one prevented them or defended the ships, so that they had a bloodless victory.

The land army with the emperor’s son wished to execute their task since they thought that the naval force would attack from the sea, but, when they saw the empty Roman ships pulled up on the beach, they also retreated. When the emperor saw such a large force, destroyed for no reason, he first bemoaned such misfortune for the Romans, since he knew that an offense against God was the cause of such evils, but thereafter was unyielding in his purpose and did not falter because of the defeat. Rather he immediately commanded them to set out and cut wood in order to prepare galleys once more, and he put in charge men responsible for the work.

The men in Galata considered that day most fortunate on which they had overcome such a multitude of enemy ships, when they had themselves contributed nothing to the defeat. They feasted not only in honor of their victory but also in honor of their salvation since all their hopes for salvation had been very slim.  On the following day they fitted out all their own galleys by crowning them in honor of the victory and by decorating them fittingly.  They sailed opposite the palace, trailing along in dishonor the conquered imperial banners as was the custom.  They thought that the emperor, defeated in his purpose by the failure, would immediately renounce the war and yield to peace by handing over the piece of land.  When he responded to them not at all as they hoped, and they learned that the emperor was again preparing to construct galleys, they sent an embassy and opened discussions concerning peace. First, they tested the emperor to see if he would surrender to them the piece of land. When they saw that he was in no way frightened nor defeated in his purpose, but that he considered this misfortune as the price of acme other sins and held on firmly to his former resolve, and even if he should suffer countless defeats, he would not be willing to surrender the land, and when they saw that he was rather moved to anger at the defeat and was more eager for preparations as though dust now he had for the first time undertaken the war, they were afraid that their love of strife would end in disaster for them and agreed to leave the land.

27. How the Latins in Galata Surrendered the Land which They Had Seized.

The peace was made under the conditions that they surrender to the emperor and retreat to their former circumscription. When the treaties had been concluded they handed over the new fortification to the despot, the emperor’s son, who arrived with the army.  Then the emperor, sending for the best men among the Latins, spoke with them softly and gently and himself willingly granted the piece of land. For he told them he fought not for such a worthless piece of land, but for the rights belonging to the empire of the Romans. It was certainly foolish for them, foreigners who had formerly received many benefits from the emperors of the Romans and who rightly held the rank of servants, to treat the empire shamefully and wish to take from it something against the emperor’s will. He said it was for this reason that he had made his decision rather than for the possession of the land and that he had in mind to fight continuously until he destroyed them if they should not wish to do what was just. Since they had departed from their hostile ways and left what they had seized, he said that he would not be so small-minded as to deprive them of what they clung to in such a fashion and considered very important. Immediately he commanded his son to lead out the army and hand over the territory to the Galatans. They, on their part, greatly thanked and praised the emperor and, when the emperor’s son was about to surrender the piece of land according to his father’s edict, they went up to him and again praised the emperor and surrounded the imperial banner with such gold which the soldiers had seized up at the despot’s command for their amusement and pleasure.  Thus the war began and ended.


This text is from The History of John Cantacuzenus (Book IV): Text, Translation and Commentary, by Timothy S. Miller (Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1975).  We thank Professor Miller for his permission to republish this section.


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