‘Like a nightingale in the cage’: City sieges in the Late Byzantine vernacular Chronicle of Morea

In the early 13th century, the armies of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) deviated from their course and conquered Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. After that, Crusader leaders split the Empire and a group of Frankish knights led by Guillaume de Champlitte set to subdue the Morea (Peloponnese), in southern Greece. 

A new society, multicultural and multilingual, emerged in Latin-occupied Morea and one of its most important literary specimens is the Chronicle of Morea[1], an early 14th century composition of about 10.000 verses that provides historical information and showcases the new ethnic and political identities. The language of the text is Greek vernacular in political verse, although the author is Frankish or of mixed Frankish and Greek provenance, a gasmoulos (γασμολος).[2] The Chronicle, besides the Greek one in several manuscripts, also has a French, Italian and Aragonese version.[3] All texts are thought to have an unknown common prototype, but the Greek version has been strongly advocated as the original.[4] 

The events narrated in the Greek version refer to the period from 1204 to ca. 1292, and the focus is on the conquest of Morea by the Franks and the creation of the most significant Crusader state in Greece, the Principality of Achaea. The Chronicle’s author is an enthusiast of the Villehardouin family, that ruled the Principality for many decades, and especially Guillaume II Villehardouin who is portrayed as a noble and brave warrior, a perfect knight.

The Chronicle, being a story of conquest, emphasizes on war and its different parameters. The establishment of the Franks in the Morea followed a pattern used by the newcomers to conquest a number of strongholds and fortified cities, making sieges the core of the narrative whereas the battles mentioned are less than a handful. The Chronicle does not introduce many novelties compared to Byzantine siege tactics—known through several military manuals—or Western warfare. It is the overall tone of the Chronicle that is particular, emphasizing in every chance the deficiency of the Byzantines that come across as untrustworthy, perfidious and false Christians, an ambiguity as it seems the text was equally popular in Greek and Frankish populations of both denominations.

Monemvasia, at the time ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Map made by Frederick de Witt (1629-1706), Amsterdam 1680, Available at:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monemvasia#/media/File:De_wit_1680_monemvasia_b.jpg (Public Domain)

The author unfolds the motif of Frankish sieges beginning with Constantinople itself and the two Crusader attacks in March and April of 1204. The necessity in using both land and naval forces is obvious, especially to overcome the formidable walls of the capital. According to the Chronicle, the Venetian fleet helped the Crusader infantry and cavalry units to enter the city by extending wall ladders from the ships directly onto the walls.[5]

The Byzantine castles already existing in the Peloponnese were twelve, as the Chronicle describes,[6] and less demanding in terms of offense, but the same MO was required nevertheless. The author mentions Monemvasia, along with Acrocorinthos, Nafplio and Argos, all in the eastern coast of the peninsula, as key but impregnable castles requiring the launch of elaborate and expensive endeavors, so the less strong fortified cities of the western coast were preferred.[7]

In most cities, the fortified acropolis (κάστρον) and the lower town (χώρα) are clearly distinguished and the siege begins with attacks in the lower part. In Corinth and Argos the acropolis is not adjacent to the lower town but a natural stronghold built further up in the mountain, while Andravida, later capital of the Principality, had no walls leaving no choice for the city’s inhabitants but to set out to meet the Franks and negotiate their surrender.

Other elements of siegecraft include the encampments of the offenders vulnerable to a sudden assault, usually at night, since the defenders had better knowledge of the area. The archers also emerge as a crucial unit for the besiegers and are placed in strategic parts of the walls to enhance the obstruction of the defenders. According to the Chronicle, the archers prevent the presence of troops in the outer fortifications and consequently facilitate the storming of the walls.

City harbors are considered extremely valuable as military infrastructures, since can be used for both offensive and defensive purposes and their bad condition is a major setback. The two Peloponnesian castles that were inland, Acrocorinthos and Argos, were conquered later mainly because the Franks could not receive assistance from their fleet, in terms of logistics and military support of the infantry.

In the Chronicle we see a standardized literary expression of a city’s surrender. The Franks either begin a siege or arrive at a city full-force, the locals are intimidated by the army’s might or can’t endure the siege and offer terms. In most cases the locals were given the choice either to surrender and keep their lives and privileges, or to resist and be killed after the conquest. However, we never see a besieged city destroyed after conquest since terms are usually agreed beforehand.[8]

Monemvasia was the last castle to remain in Greek hands and suffered the longest and hardest siege of all. A three-year long land and sea blockade forced the inhabitants to surrender after starving to death. Such was the extent of famine that the people ate even the cats and the mice.[9] The conquest of Monemvasia, in 1248, allowed Guillaume II to create a powerful nexus of newly-built and pre-existing castles throughout the Messenia and Laconia regions. The castles in Laconia, including Monemvasia and Mystras, were lost after Guillaume was captivated in the battle of Pelagonia (1259) and was compelled to give them away as ransom to the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, in 1262.

The narration in the Greek version ends during Florent de Hainaut’s leadership of Achaea. Florent was married to Isabelle de Villehardouin, whom the chronicler mentions as Zampea (Ζαμπέα), daughter of Guillaume II and heiress of the principality. During his rule, Florent launched several military operations, even outside the Morea.

Florent’s most ambitious campaign was in aid to the Despot of Epirus when the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos besieged Ioannina.[10] Despite their preparation, the Byzantines could not overtake the city protected by strong walls and provisioned by the lake around it. And while the Greek version ends describing the Prince’s victories, it is interesting to mention two sieges in the French version, the siege of Kalamata in 1293 and the siege of the castle of Saint George in 1294[11]

The castles fell into Greek hands following treason. Kalamata was taken by Slav inhabitants of nearby Giannitsa while Saint George fell after a conspiracy of a local Greek merchant. Florent associated these actions with Andronikos II—with whom had a standing peace treaty—since the rebellions were instigated by his former subjects. In both cases the intruders used the dungeon as a way in by putting ladders to its walls that were adjacent to the fortifications.

The circumstances of these sieges are indicative of the hostile ambience prevailing among locals against the Franks and the longstanding mistrust of the Franks against the Greeks almost a century after Morea’s original conquest and a few decades after the Byzantines restored their foothold in the southeastern Morea[12].

In its epilogue, the Chronicle had no tales for Frankish victories.

[1]τν παρακαθίσαν| τότε τν Μονοβασίαν, ς τ κλουβ τ ηδόνι. (=…and they sieged Monemvasia like a nightingale in the cage), Chronicle of Morea, ed. by John Schmitt, H 2910. This is the original version of this essay’s title.

[2] Editions of the Greek version in The Chronicle of Morea, ed. by John Schmitt (London: Metheun, 1904, Repr. Groningen: Bouma, 1967) and Το Χρονικόν του Μορέως, ed. by Petros Kalonaros (Athens: Ekati 1940). The citations here are from the Schmitt edition. An English translation of the Greek version in Harold Lurier (ed. & trans.), Crusaders as Conquerors: The Chronicle of Morea (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964). An overall assessment of the Chronicle in Teresa Shawcross, The Chronicle of Morea: historiography in crusader Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009).

[3] The Italian version in Versione italiana inedita della Cronaca di Morea, in Chroniques Gréco-romanes inédites ou peu connues, publièes avec notes et tables gènéalogiques, ed. by Charles Hopf (Berlin 1873, repr. Athens 1961), pp. 414-468. The Aragonese version with a French translation in Libro de los fechos et conquistas del principado de la Morea compilado por comandamiento de Don Fray Johan Ferrandez de Heredia: Chronique de Morée aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles, publiée & traduite pour la première fois pour la Société de lOrient latin, ed. by Alfred Morel-Fatio (Genève 1885). The French version in Livre de la conqueste de la princée de l’Amorée, Chronique de Morée (1204-1305), ed. by Jean Longnon (Paris 1911). An English translation of the French version in The old French Chronicle of Morea. An account of Frankish Greece after the Fourth Crusade, ed. & trans. by Anne Van Arsdall and Helen Moody (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate 2015).

[4] See Michael Jeffreys, ‘The Chronicle of the Morea: priority of the Greek version’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 68 (1975), 304-350.

[5] Chronicle of Morea, H 527-550, 845-868. An almost matching description in Niketas Choniates, Historia, ed. by Jan-Louis van Dieten, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 11/1,2 (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter 1975) I, 568.88-569.1.

[6] Chronicle of Morea, H 1404-1406.

[7] Chronicle of Morea, H 1575-1602, 1651-1790.

[8] Chronicle of Morea, H 1699-1706, 1788-1790. A brief catalogue of these arrangements in Teresa Shawcross, ‘Greeks and Franks after the Fourth Crusade: Identity in the Chronicle of Morea’ in Languages of Love and Hate: Conflict, Communication, and Identity in the Medieval Mediterranean, ed. by Sarah Lambert and Helen Nicholson, International Medieval Research, 15   (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), pp. 141-57, esp. p. 149.

[9] Chronicle of Morea, H 2875 onwards. Monemvasia outlasted Acrocorinthos, despite the latter’s great advantage of having ample natural water supplies.

[10] Chronicle of Morea, H 8803.

[11] French Chronicle, ed. Longnon, § 693-746, 814-827.

[12] See in detail Shawcross, Identity, pp. 143-148.

Coexistence and conflict in Asia Minor cities during the first decades of the 14th century

By the end of the 13th century the Asia Minor territories of the Byzantine Empire were under threat by the incursion of various Turkish tribes. In 1302 the Byzantines were defeated by the early Ottomans in the battle of Bapheus. That was the first pitched battle between Byzantium and the Ottomans. In 1303 the byzantine emperor Andronikos II Paleologos hired the Great Catalan Company, a battletested group of mercenaries, to cope with the Turks in Asia Minor. The Catalans scored a few successes against the Turks but soon they broke off with the Byzantines and turned against them. Thus, during the early years of the 14th century while the Byzantine Empire was confronting the Catalan Company in the western provinces, the Turkish occupation of Asia Minor was completed. The available sources provide several but scattered information on the military operations that took place. Byzantium faced a dire state of affairs in Asia Minor since the countryside was under the complete control of the Turks and the Byzantines were kept blockaded in fortified towns such as Nicomedia and Nicaea.[1]

View of the Gate of Constantinople or the Northern Gate of Nice from outside the walls, LABORDE, Léon Emmanuel Simon Joseph. Voyage de l’Asie Mineure par Alexandre de Laborde, Becker, Hall, et L. de Laborde, rédigé et publié par Léon de Laborde, Παρίσι, Firmin Didot, 1838.

A significant degree of Turkish-Byzantine cooperation had been achieved in the city of Sardis, as the Turks had been granted a part of the city to live freely. This area was separated from the Byzantine sector with a wall. The Byzantines suspected that the Turks would change their mind and attack to fully occupy the city. As a preemptive measure they called in friendly troops. During a night the troops secretly entered the city and massacred the Turks.[2]  The byzantine emperor Andronikos II assigned the stratopedarches of the crossbowmen Sgouros and his soldiers to relieve the fortress Katoikia that was besieged by the Turks. The defenders were encouraged by the reinforcements and decided to confront the Turks in the open field. The Turks, numbering about 5,000 warriors, performed the following stratagem: they took control of the road leading to the city, where they stayed in ambush. Another part of their army attacked the Byzantines and forced them to retreat to the city walls safety via the only open escape route. But then the Turks in ambush attacked and thus the retreating Byzantines were encircled and finally defeated. As the inhabitants of Velokoma had rushed to the aid of Katoikia, the Turks took advantage of the opportunity and occupied the unguarded Velokoma.[3]

In Tripoli of ​​Meander, another case of “cooperation” between Byzantines and Turks has been recorded, which in this case led to the occupation of the city by the Turks. Due to the long lasting blockade and the lack of supplies, the Byzantines allowed merchants of turkish origin to enter and supply the city. After a short period, the Turks instead of supplies, loaded war trumpets on their animals and carried them into the city. During the night the merchants opened the gates and sounded the trumpets as a signal for the soldiers outside the walls to attack. The frightened and surprised Byzantines fled and the city was conquered.[4]

The Ottomans, despite the losses inflicted on them by the Byzantine archers, captured by force the fortress of Trikkokia, near Nicaea. They filled in the moat surrounding the wall with stones, tree trunks and soil and stormed the walls. The fall of Trikkokia was followed by a massacre of the population (1307).[5]

The ottoman chronicles outlook

The information of the Byzantine historian George Pachymeres regarding the conquest of Asia Minor and especially of Bithynia by the Turks is corroborated by some Ottoman chronicles, which preserved the related oral tradition.[6]

 (a) The Ottomans occupied Velokoma using a stratagem. They managed to put into the city some oxen loaded with big containers in which soldiers were hiding. As soon as it was night, the soldiers defeated the guards, opened the gates and the castle was occupied (it can be compared to the fall of Tripoli of Meander, as described by George Pachymeres).[7]

(b) In order to occupy a castle in the region of Nicaea, the Turks divided their army into three parts, only one of which attacked, while the other two remained hidden, one near the fort and the other in a nearby valley. After a few days of operations, the Turks pretended to abandon the siege and the Byzantines, deceived by the false information of a prisoner, left the fortress to pursue them. At this stage the Turks near the fort occupied a gate while the rest of the turkish army counterattacked. The Byzantines retreated only to find that their way back to the city was blocked. The Turks had managed to surround them (the Turkish tactic is reminiscent of the one described by George Pachymeres that led to the fall of Katoikia).[8]

(c) The strong fortifications of Bursa were not a match for the ottoman siegecraft and they opted for a long-term blockade combined with the construction of two “counter-fortresses” that completely cut-off the communications of the Byzantines.[9]  

The control of the countryside by the Turks, the blockade of the Byzantines in the fortified cities as well as the inability of Constantinople to send substantial reinforcements were the main causes that forced the Byzantines to surrender their cities in a process vividly described by the ottoman chronicles.[10] The Turks were unable to occupy the fortified cities by force while the Byzantines could not count on a relief force so a fragile model of coexistence between “besiegers” and “besieged” was established. But time worked in favor of the besiegers and sooner or later the Turks took advantage of this coexistence and made use of stratagems to occupy the fortified cities. Under these circumstances it was a matter of time for whole Asia Minor to be lost for Byzantium.

[1] Georges Pachymérès Relations Historiques, ed. Albert Failler, Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 24, 4 vols (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1984 – Paris:Institut Français d’études Byzantines, 1999), IV (1999), pp. 451-59.

[2] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 441-43.

[3] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 455-57. George Georgiades – Arnakes, Οι Πρώτοι Οθωμανοί. Συμβολή εις το πρόβλημα της πτώσεως του Ελληνισμού της Μικράς Ασίας (1282-1337), Texte und Forschungen zur Byzantinisch-Neugriechischen Philologie 41 (Athens:1947), pp. 142-43.

[4] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 475-79.

[5] Pachymérès, IV (1999), pp. 701-03.

[6] Elizabeth Α. Zachariadou, Ιστορία και Θρύλοι των Παλαιών Σουλτάνων (1300-1400) (Athens: National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, 1999), pp. 69-75.

[7] Zachariadou, pp.143-44.

[8] Zachariadou, pp.  157-58.

[9] Zachariadou, p. 152; Die altomanischen anonymen Chroniken, trans. by Friedrich Giese, 2 vols(Breslau: Selbstverlage, 1922 – Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1925), II (1925), pp. 19-20.

[10] Zachariadou, pp. 153-55, 159-60, 162-63.

Thomas Magistros’ “On Imperial Office” on military preparations

Thomas Magistros, his city and his times

The fourteenth century was a period of turbulence for the Byzantine Empire, and Thessaloniki had a great share of these troubles. The continuous wars and the internal conflicts were affecting the lives and the works of contemporary people, and intellectuals could not have been an exception to that.

Thomas Magistros is believed to have been born around the year 1275 and he died sometime after 1347. The oldest work that we know that he produced dates back to 1301, and the last mention of him is dated to 1346. Between these two dates there is not much information available about his life.[1]

On the Imperial Office[2] is a Mirror for Princes that he wrote between 1324 and 1350, at a time when was a monk, and it was addressed to the emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos. Mirrors for Princes were advisory rhetorical works compiled for princes and young kings. Although their authors had been drawing their content from the same pool of thought, they chose to use different material, changing it from one period to another so that their work could reflect the imperial ideology and the political realities of their time. This rule also applies to their mentions of war preparations and military affairs in general.[3]

In the times of Magistros, warfare, sieges, and political and social turmoil were not rare. The Byzantine scholar was native to Thessalonike: he was born and died there and the only time, which we know of, that he left the city, was to deliver an oration in Constantinople, on behalf of the general Chandrenos, who had defended his city in the past.[4] Therefore, it is safe to assume that his attitude and thoughts were heavily influenced by what he was witnessing and what he knew of his city’s recent past. And the city of Thessaloniki, despite or as a consequence of its considerable growth during that period,[5] had had a troubled history just before the time the Mirror was written, and continued to have such for some time. In 1308 the Catalan Great Company tried to conquer the city only to be stopped by its walls. Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, who unsuccessfully besieged Thessaloniki in 1334 and returned again in 1341, had the same (bad) luck. And the dangers did not only belong to the past, as the attack of the Ottomans in 1383 can attest. The city fell at their hands in 1387 as a result of this attack, only a few decades after On the Imperial Office was written.

But Thessaloniki had also had troubles coming from within the empire and even the city itself. Andronikos II and Andronikos III tried to claim it as their own from 1320 onwards, and in 1340 the city fell temporarily in the hands of the zealots.[6]

It therefore comes as no surprise that Magistros chose to include in his work advice on military affairs, not omitting, at the same time, to express his thoughts about the preparations of a city so it could withstand an enemy’s siege.

Military affairs in On the Imperial Office

In On the Imperial Office Magistros refers to military affairs several times. First, he states that he wished weapons were never invented and that the emperor should not go to a war led by his greed. On the contrary, he must do anything in his power so that the war is avoided (ζ΄, 457). However, if he wants to secure peace he must always be prepared for war. The scholar justifies his claim noting that weakness is creating enemies and if you only pursue peaceful resolution to conflicts you might draw the enemies upon you. On the contrary, however, if you are prepared and strong nobody will want to wage war on you and this way you can enjoy peace (η΄, 457). Moreover, he advises that the emperor should always be ready in both body and soul and the way to do that is to exercise for the possibility of war. He should not only keep himself prepared, but he should also have his whole army prepared and exercised (drilled) as well (η΄, 457-458). He should also maintain a strong army and navy but he should not rely on mercenaries because they are far from trustworthy. After all, quality is better than quantity, he notes, and the mercenaries are only good to add to the numbers of an army (θ΄, 460-461).

In an excerpt that speaks about justice Magistros also finds the opportunity to mention several factors which he believes that are essential for a city to be safe.  Having been built in a natural feature of the land that helps defense and being protected by walls and fortifications are prerequisites if the city is to be saved from an enemy siege. The human factor, according to the rhetor (Magistros), is equally important towards that end (στ΄, 456). He states that the soldiers should always be kept content and be offered presents because this way they will be kept motivated to train themselves in times of peace and to not lose respect in the face of the emperor. In times of war, this could prevent them from abandoning the battle even if they were injured. They should always be assured that if they lose their possessions in times of war, these will be replaced by the emperor. On top of these, what is of great importance is that they need to know that their children will be taken care of in case they fall in battle. Like the ancient Athenians before them, advises Magistros, the Byzantines must also always take of the children of those who died fighting, until they reach adulthood (ι΄, 461-463).

But strong walls and capable fighters are not enough to ensure that a city will not fall during an enemy siege, Magistros claims. Provisions should be made prior to the attack. The storages should always be kept filled in full with grain and all the other essentials, which should not be available for trade. To that end the emperor must spare no expenses, because money spent for that reason is well spent. These preparations could be life-saving for the people and they bring honour to the king. Because regardless of the cities’ moats and walls, if there are not enough supplies available to feed its population, this city will not be able to withstand a long siege. The rhetor concludes that the storage of food is as important as a strong fortification (κγ΄, 484). It is worth mentioning that this kind of advice is found very rarely in Mirrors. Apart from On the Imperial Office there is perhaps one more similar mention in a work of this genre, in Kekaumenos’ Strategikon (85. 265), something that does not come as a surprise, considering that the author of that work was probably a soldier and thus he took extra care to make long mentions of everything that was war related.


On the Imperial Office is a workthat can provide us with an insight into what an intellectual living in fourteenth-century Thessaloniki was thinking in regards to state affairs. The conflicts of his time, internal and external, and the sieges his city had to withstand had led him to make special mentions of military affairs.

First of all, he advises that a city should have strong walls. And indeed the land walls of his hometown are described as being strong. However, the sea walls failed to provide the same safety to the city.[7] The last attested repairs before the time of Magistros date to the twelfth century, and the same action was repeated a few decades after his death.[8]

The scholar also provides advice and insights regarding soldiers. He states that the emperor should take steps to ensure that they always remain loyal and they do not lose respect for him. The importance of this advice lies in the conflict between Andronikos II and Andronikos III as none of them could afford to see his soldiers joining the enemy.

Magistros also urges the emperor to take measures for the children of the soldiers that were becoming orphans as a result of the continuous wars of the period, even if his real concern is to ensure their parents that a good fate awaits their offspring if they die in battle, and therefore making them fight with more braveness. This mention is a clear indicator of a real problem that might have occurred inside the cities of the empire because of the numerous conflicts.

Last but not least, the rhetor notes that the cities’ storages should always be full of grain, to help the city in case of an enemy’s siege, which was, in his time, a recurring threat to the well-being of Thessaloniki’s citizens.

[1] Nigel Guy Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (London, Cambridge, Mass.: General Duckworth & Co. ltd. And The Medieval Academy of America, 1983), p. 247.

[2] Jacque Paul Migne, Nicephorus Callistus, Theodulos Monachus, Matthaeus Blastares [Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca], Tomus 145, (Paris, 1904), pp. 447-496.

[3] For this notion see Konstantinos Karatolios, ‘From peacemaker to warrior. Changes in the imperial education as illustrated in the eleventh-century Mirrors of Princes’, in Warfare in 11th century Byzantium, ed. by Georgios Theotokis and Marek Meško (London and New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 98-108 (pp. 98-108).

[4] Alexander Kazhdan and Alice-Mary Talbot, ‘Thomas Magistros’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2076-2077 (p. 2076).

[5] Angeliki E. Laiou, Cécile Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy, (New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 198.

[6] For these incidents see, among others, Vassiliki Nerantzi-Varmazi, ‘Η Θεσσαλονίκη εστία Κοινωνικών Αναταραχών το 14ο αιώνα’, Θεσσαλονικέων Πόλις, 2 (1997), pp. 74-81 (pp. 74-81).

[7] On the sea walls of Thessalonike, see among others Michael Vickers, ‘The Byzantine Sea Walls of Thessaloniki’, Balkan Studies, 11 (1970), pp. 261-280.

[8] Timothy E. Gregory, ‘Thessalonike’, in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, volume 3, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 2072-2074 (pp. 2072-2073).

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