Magnas Societas Catalanorum (The Catalan Company) in 14th century Byzantium

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My acquaintance with Catalunya started with the soprano Montserrat Caballet. The magnificent lady who sang in the 1982 Barcelona Olympics with Freddie Mercury. Then I discovered that Catalunya was colonised by Ancient Greeks, who settled around the Roses area. A few miles from Roses was “El Bulli”, the restaurant of Ferran Adria, another great Catalan, one of the great chefs of the world. And close to it is the ancient city of Emporion (Empuries) founded in 575 BC by Greek colonists from Phocaea with the name of Ἐμπόριον (Emporion, meaning “trading place”). It was later occupied by the Romans (Latin: Emporiæ), but in the Early Middle Ages, when its exposed coastal position left it open to marauders, the town was abandoned. I close this personal reference with Manuel Vazquez Montalban, the Catalan writer and journalist. It was not until a few days ago that I read about the Catalan Company.

Magnas Societas Catalanorum, sometimes called the Grand Company and widely known as the Catalan Company, was a free company of Almogavar mercenaries founded by Roger de Flor in the early 14th-century.

Roger de Flor
Roger de Flor

Roger de Flor

De Flor was born in 1267 in Brindisi, which was a provence of Catalonia at the time, the second son of a Brindisi’s noblewoman and German falconer named Richard von Blum (Blume means flower in German) in the service of the Hohenstaufen rulers of southern Italy.

As a boy he went to sea and became a Knight Templar.

Seal of Templar Knights
Seal of Templar Knights

When Acre in Palestine fell to the Saracens (1291), he made his fortune by blackmailing refugees. Denounced by his grand master, he fled to Genoa and became commander of a force of almogávares (Spanish mercenaries) in service to the Aragonese king of Sicily, Frederick II, who was warring with the house of Anjou.

Coat of Arms - Hohenstaufen Family
Coat of Arms – Hohenstaufen Family

The Almogavars

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

They withstood the Muslim invasions of Spain in the 7th and 8th century by heading higher into the hills and fighting raider warfare in the time honored tradition of guerrillas everywhere.  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).

Despite their barbarian appearance (and make no mistake, these were the hillbillies of the middle ages), the Alughavar understood two very modern principles of warfare:  1) there are no rules, and 2) defeat an enemy mentally first.  Almughavars routinely held their own against European heavy cavalry because they engaged in unchivalrous tactics like aiming for a man’s horse.  And before a battle, Almughavars would strike their blades against against stones, causing them to spark in the pre-dawn gloom while they chanted “Aur! Aur! Desperta Ferro!”  (“Listen! Listen! Iron, Awaken!”).

The battle cry of the Almogàvers

Aur! Aur! Desperta ferro!
Deus aia!

Veyentnos sols venir, los pobles ja flamejen:
veyentnos sols passar, son bech los corbs netejen.
La guerra y lo saqueig, no hi ha mellors plahers.
Avant, almugavers! Que avisin als fossers!
La veu del somatent nos crida ja a la guerra.
Fadigues, plujes, neus, calors resistirem,
y si’ns abat la sòn, pendrèra per llit la terra,
y si’ns rendeix la fam carn crua menjarem!

Desperta ferro! Avant! Depressa com lo llamp
cayèm sobre son camp!
Almugavers, avant! Anem allí a fer carn!
Les feres tenen fam!

Meaning:

Listen! listen! Wake up, O iron! Help us God!…Just seeing us coming the villages are already ablaze. Just seeing us passing the crows are wiping their beaks. War and plunder, there are no greater pleasures. Forward Almogavars! Let them call the gravediggers! The voice of the somatent is calling us to war. Weariness, rains, snow and heat we shall endure. And if sleep overtakes us, we will use the earth as our bed. And if we get hungry, we shall eat raw meat. Wake up, O iron! Forward! Fast as the lightning let us fall over their camp! Forward Almogavars! Let us go there to make flesh, the wild beasts are hungry!

Sicilian Vespers
Sicilian Vespers

Sicilian Vespers

On March 30, 1282, Peter III of Aragon waged war on Charles of Anjou after the Sicilian Vespers for the possession of Naples and Sicily. The Almogavars formed the most effective element of his army. Their discipline, ferocity and the force with which they hurled their javelins made them formidable against heavy cavalry of the Angevin armies. They fought against cavalry by attacking the enemies’ horses instead of the knights themselves. Once a knight was on the ground he was an easy victim of an Almogavar.

De Flor recruited Almogaver soldiers left unemployed with the Peace of Caltabellotta in 1302 by the Crown of Aragon who opposed the French dynasty of Anjou.

Andronicus II Palaeologus

The Battle of Bapheus occurred on 27 July 1302 between an 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.

In 1303 Roger de Flor and the Catalan Company were commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus and his son the co-emperor Michael IX Palaeologus to help them fight the Ottoman Turks.

Andronicus II Paleologus (1282 - 1328), fresco in the Holy Monastery of Prodromos in Serres
Andronicus II Paleologus (1282 – 1328), fresco in the Holy Monastery of Prodromos in Serres

Roger de Flor’s commission was sanctioned 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, special foot soldiers employed mainly serving the kingdom’s interests in the Mediterranean Sea, especially by the Crown of Aragon.

Roger de Flor arrived in Constantinople with the help of king Frederick III of Sicily in 1303, and married the niece of Andronicus, daughter of the Tsar of Bulgaria, and was named Grand Duke (head of the fleet).

The Catalan Company's itineraries in Anatolia and the Balkans
The Catalan Company’s itineraries in Anatolia and the Balkans

Roger de Flor campaigned with his Company in Anatolia, defeating the Turks but also engaging in widespread violence and looting of the Byzantine inhabitants. By this point, the Catalans, 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.

Roger de Flor entering Constantinople
Roger de Flor entering Constantinople

This put him at odds with the Byzantine Emperor, and the indiscipline of the Almogavars marked the end of Roger de Flor. On 30 April 1305, he was slain along with 300 cavalry and 1,000 infantry by theAlans, another group of mercenaries at the service of the Emperor. Roger had been in Adrianopolis (modern Edirne) attending a banquet offered by Emperor Michael. 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.

Thus began the Catalan Vengeance.  For two years, the Catalan Company raided and ravaged the Thracian countryside.  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.

Coat of Arms of Roger de Flor
Coat of Arms of Roger de Flor

The Battle of Gallipoli

One fascinating episode during the vengeance was the Battle of Gallipoli.  In 1306, the Catalan Company left their camp in Gallipoli and pursued the Alan force that had murdered their leader.  The 9,000 Alani were fleeing north-west to their homelands.  The Catalans caught up with them and butchered all but 300 in perhaps their most difficult battle.

Meanwhile, a contingent of Genoese mercenaries, at the Byzantine Emperor’s behest, attacked the poorly defended camp at Gallipoli.  The Company’s quartermaster, Ramon Muntaner, had at his command 7 horsemen, 133 infantry (mostly sailors and wounded Almughavars), and all the wives of the Catalan Company.  So he equipped the women and had them defend the walls under relentless Genoese crossbow barrages.  One wife refused to leave her post despite being wounded five times(!) in the face(!).  She stated that she would not surrender the honor of fighting in her husband’s place, except in death.

Finally the Genoese had run out of arrows, and the general berated them for being turned back in their assault of the walls by women.  Muntaner ordered his 6 remaining horsemen and 100 infantry to prepare to assault!  He had them discard their heavy armor now that the enemy had run out of ammunition, and opened the gates.  The surprising ferocity of their attack sent the Genoese reeling.  Their general was cut down in the first attack, and the will of the attackers was broken.  They fled and would have been cut down by the exhausted Catalans of Muntaner’s garrison were it not for a small company of Genoese reserves.

When the main body of the Catalan Company heard of the attack on their camp, they raced back and secured it.  But now the Company was at an impasse.  They had exacted what revenge they could, and the countryside was barren.  Worse, despite receiving reinforcements Spain and Sicily, the lords of these reinforcements clashed with the leaders of the Company.  The Catalan Company had begun to consume itself.  This growing rivalry persisted as the Catalan Company decided to head west, into Thessaly and down into Greece.  These struggles ended in bloodshed, and the expulsions/departure of some of the lords (including the famed Muntaner, who left more of disgust).

Erechteum and Frankish Tower on the Acropolis of Athens
Erechteum and Frankish Tower on the Acropolis of Athens

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.

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).

Coat of arms of the Aragonese Kings
Coat of arms of the Aragonese Kings

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.

Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Neopatria
Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Neopatria

The Duchy of Neopatria 

In 1318-1319 the Catalan Company, after having conquered most of the Duchy of Athens, expanded into the territories of the Despotate of Epirus in southern Thessaly, under Alfonso Frederick, the infante of the Kingdom of Sicily. The new territories were created a duchy and united with the Duchy of Athens as new possessions of the Crown of Aragon. The Duchy was divided into the captaincies of Siderokastron, Neopatria, New Patras (modern Ypati, Υπάτη), and Salona (modern Amfissa).

The Duchy of Neopatria
The Duchy of Neopatria

Part of the Duchy’s possessions in Thessaly was conquered by the Serbs of Stefan Dusan in 1337. In 1377, the title of Duke of Neopatria was assumed by Peter IV of Aragon. It was preserved among the subsidiary titles of his successors, and is still included in the full title of the Spanish monarchs.

The attacks of the Byzantine Empire progressively diminished the territory of the duchy until what was left of it fell completely into the hands of the Republic of Florence in 1390.

The Catalan Chronicle

Ramon Muntaner, one of the ringleaders of the Catalan Company’s expedition, recounted the adventures of the Almogaver army in the eastern Mediterranean in his Chronicle.

The Catalan Chronicle by Ramon Muntaner
Manuscript of the Catalan Chronicle

Ramon Muntaner (1265-1336) began to write the Crònica in 1325, at his estate of Xilvella, some sixteen years after leaving the Almogavars, and probably finished some three years later, in 1328. Muntaner’s Crònica is presented as an autobiography (in which the writer from Peralada takes on the role of counselor and political-military strategist) and, at the same time, as an historic memoir of the past of his kings (in order to justify the politics of the Crown of Aragon, the glorious past of the kingdom, and the even better future that must arrive), in which Muntaner appears as a exemplary and proud subject. (Xavier Bonillo Hoyos)

“The Catalan Chronicle is a vitally important source for warfare in northwestern Asia Minor and the eastern Balkans in the early 14th century. The author, Muntaner, was secretary and paymaster of the Catalan Company, an experienced mercenary formation that had previously fought in Sicily. His account is particularly important because, as paymaster, Muntaner had accurate daily figures at his disposal of the numbers of troops in the Company and gves plausible information about logistic problems, i.e. the acquisition of grain, other foodstuffs and fodder. The relative size of armies and their supply needs can therefore be computed from his figures with a degree of accuracy, as also casualties. There are other details often omitted from the standard accounts that deserve particular attention from Byzantinists. Firstly, the Catalans had brought their families with them to the Byzantine empire. Their ruthless fighting methods were thus a consequence of the fact that they were endeavouring to ensure the survival of a whole society that had migrated inside the frontiers of the Byzantine state. Secondly, it is apparent that the Catalan Company became the rallying point for many disaffected people who joined their fighting forces. Among them were dispossessed Greek soldiers and peasants, as well as clans of Turkish fighters from Asia Minor, who trusted the honesty of the Catalans more than that of their own political and military elites. The Catalan Company owed its successful recruitment of men to a range of grievances against the Byzantine state and its co-emperors, Andronikos II and Michael IX Palaiologos, who in Mutaner’s view had betrayed the original treaty and chrysobulls placing the Compnay under Byzantine authority. The Catalan Company was to some extent an experiment in multi-ethnic military democracy based on talent, courage and mutual need, in constrast to the divisive and grasping aristocratic politics of the Byzantine system. Third, Muntaner provides important indications about the laws of war. After Michael IX’s assassination of Catalan leader Roger de Flor, the Company challenged emperor Andronikos II to judicial combat, consisting of one, or ten, or a hundred champions on each side–the first examples of which date from the reign of the previous emperor, Michael VIII Palailogos. It is a good example of how the employment of western ‘barbarian’ mercenaries resulted in the modification (or perhaps hybridization) of the Byzantine law of war to accomodate the ‘barbarian’ systems of customary law that existed outside medieval Graeco-Roman positive and customary legal practice. “(Amazon, Dr. F. R. Trombley)  

6 COMMENTS

  1. Τα επιφάνεια του τυχοδιώκτη επικεφαλής της καταλανικής “εταιρείας” ενώπιον του αυτοκράτορα των Ρωμαίαων, αντιβασιλέα του Χριστού επί της γης, αποδομούν την υφέρπουσα σε κάποιους κύκλους εξιδανίκευση του Βυζαντίου, την ιδεολογικοποίηση του πολιτισμού του. Εδώ όμως παραμονεύει η παγίδα της αντι-ιδεολογίας που και αυτή είναι μια ιδεολογία. Ο αυτοκράτορας έπραξε εν μέσω μιας πραγματικότητας που όπως κάθε πραγματικότητα δεν αλλάζει, άσχετο αν συμμετείχε ο ίδιος και οι προκάτοχοι του στην διαμόρφωση της. Όσο δυσάρεστη κι αν φαίνεται η πραγματικότητα μόνο η ομολογία της μας βάζει καταμεσής του χρόνου, δηλαδή της αλήθειας του είναι. Η αχρονία των ιδεών και αντι-ιδεών είναι άρνηση να πάρεις τον δρόμο (αρχ. πάτο) της ύπαρξης, είναι α-πάτη.

    • Ο Βυζαντινος Στρατος πρακτικα ειχε διαλυθει την εποχη εκεινη. Ο Αυτοκρατορας επιχειρησε να ανασυνταξει την στρατιωτικη δεινοτητα του Βυζαντινου “κρατιδιου” χωρις επιτυχια.

  2. Τα επιφάνεια του τυχοδιώκτη επικεφαλής της καταλανικής “εταιρείας” ενώπιον του αυτοκράτορα των Ρωμαίαων, αντιβασιλέα του Χριστού επί της γης, αποδομούν την υφέρπουσα σε κάποιους κύκλους εξιδανίκευση του Βυζαντίου, την ιδεολογικοποίηση του πολιτισμού του. Εδώ όμως παραμονεύει η παγίδα της αντι-ιδεολογίας που και αυτή είναι μια ιδεολογία. Ο αυτοκράτορας έπραξε εν μέσω μιας πραγματικότητας που όπως κάθε πραγματικότητα δεν αλλάζει, άσχετο αν συμμετείχε ο ίδιος και οι προκάτοχοι του στην διαμόρφωση της. Όσο δυσάρεστη κι αν φαίνεται η πραγματικότητα μόνο η ομολογία της μας βάζει καταμεσής του χρόνου, δηλαδή της αλήθειας του είναι. Η αχρονία των ιδεών και αντι-ιδεών είναι άρνηση να πάρεις τον δρόμο (αρχ. πάτο) της ύπαρξης, είναι α-πάτη.

    • Ο Βυζαντινος Στρατος πρακτικα ειχε διαλυθει την εποχη εκεινη. Ο Αυτοκρατορας επιχειρησε να ανασυνταξει την στρατιωτικη δεινοτητα του Βυζαντινου “κρατιδιου” χωρις επιτυχια.

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