A tale of two realms

Main photo: The Peribleptos Monastery in Mystras (© Violeta Meleti)

The Despotate of the Morea is a Study Abroad program that allows participants to delve into the process whereby two different cultures and societies mingle and create something new. Under the Franks, the Peloponnese became a cauldron of social, ideological, and economic transformation as Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox coexisted, intermarried, fought, and traded. Byzantine efforts to reaffirm their control over the peninsula were more than a simple military endeavour. The court of the despots in Mystras was full of artists, scholars, and architects who participated in an innovative (and unexpected) cultural renaissance.

This 14-day trip will enable students to explore imperial palaces, cosmopolitan cities, maritime entrepôts, Gothic churches, and medieval castles. The program includes modules on Byzantine architecture and iconography, the social and economic history of the Peloponnese in the 13th-15th century, and the interaction between East and West at the twilight of the Byzantine Empire. We will travel through the lands of the Despotate of the Morea (the Byzantine half of the Peloponnese) and the Principality of Achaea (the Frankish half) to discover a tale of mighty import.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Byzantine city of Mystras (© Mentor in Greece)

The year 6713

In the year 6713 since the foundation of the world (or 1205 according to our calendar), a group of 100 knights and 500-foot soldiers appeared before the gates of the Peloponnese. They were up to no good, at least from the point of view of the Greek Orthodox population. Only the year before, the Crusaders had sacked Constantinople and carved the Byzantine Empire into small kingdoms and feudal dependencies distributed among their leaders. Most of them were younger sons of European nobles, men with very few prospects back home, and therefore keen on establishing their fortunes in the East. Their numbers were small but their spirits run high, while any resistance was disorganized and uncoordinated.

Aerial panoramic view of the fortified medieval castle town of Monemvasia at sunset (© Mentor in Greece)

Band of brothers

Our band of brothers were under the command of William of Champlitte and Geoffrey I of Villehardouin, two knights who had been entrusted with the task of conquering the Peloponnese on behalf of Boniface of Montferrat, King of Thessalonica. It only took them a few months to overcome Byzantine defences and establish the Principality of Achaea (or of the Morea). They divided the land into twelve baronies, took noble titles, and reorganized the administration and the church. Feudalism had arrived in Greece.

The Bourtzi tower in the Methoni castle (© Mentor in Greece)

The counterattack

But it was not to last. In 1259, William II Villehardouin, ruler of Achaea, was captured by the Byzantines. To secure his freedom, he was forced to surrender half his kingdom, including two important castles, Mystras and Monemvasia. These strongholds became the core of the Despotate of the Morea, a Byzantine province under the authority of a despot (usually a younger son of the emperor). Persistence, successful political and marital alliances, military cunning, popular support, and luck enabled the despots to expand their territories until by the early 1430s almost the entire peninsula of the Peloponnese was under their control.

A new world

At the height of its power, the Byzantine Empire could send armies consisting of tens of thousands of men across vast territories to fight for control of North Africa, Italy, or Asia Minor. In 13th century-Peloponnese, lords, bishops, knights, and soldiers fought for olive groves, villages, craggy hills, and coastal towns. The peasants, though technically owners of their land, were burdened with taxes and obligations imported from the West. Aspects of Byzantine and French law were combined to create a novel legal system. Old ports and new administrative centers rose to prominence, while the countryside was populated with castles and strongholds to control each lord’s territory.

The Castle of Koroni (© Mentor in Greece)

The two capitals

Since the Peloponnese was divided in half, there were two capitals. Mystras was built by William II of Villehardouin to control the passes through Mount Taygetos and ensure the safety of his residence in Sparta. When the Byzantines gained control of the castle, they turned it into the seat of the governor (Despot) of the Morea. They built palaces, mansions, and impressive churches, while notable scholars and artists laid the foundations for a late Byzantine renaissance. The frescoes in the Peribleptos Monastery church are an impressive example of the skills of Byzantine artists at a time when the empire was fighting for its very existence. Today Mystras is a UNESCO World Heritage site and provides visitors with the rare opportunity and thrill of walking the streets of a true Byzantine town.

The frescoes in the Peribleptos Monastery (© Mentor in Greece)

Andravida, in the northwest of the Peloponnese, was the residence of the Latin princes. The fertile plains enabled them to raise horses at a safe distance from the sea and the mountains of the interior, where the Byzantines remained rather rebellious. Unfortunately, the palaces, the hospices, and the convents are long gone; only the Gothic church of Saint Sophia partially survives.

The swamp

Glarentza was the main port for communication with Italy. It was also the site of the princely mint, and hosted numerous parliaments and assemblies of the feudal lords of the principality. In Glarentza it becomes clear that the rulers of the Peloponnese had bitten more than they could chew. The town fortifications were rather insubstantial and have almost completely vanished. The large church, a sure sign of the high hopes of the new bishops to convert the Greek Orthodox population into the Roman Catholic Church, lies in ruins, since the Byzantines were not willing to exchange their patriarch for the pope. Even the port is now a swamp.

View of Chlemoutsi fortress and village (© Mentor in Greece)

The last emperor

Chlemoutsi is the preeminent medieval Frankish castle in the Peloponnese and was built to secure the plain of Elis and Andravida, the capital of the principality. It looks solid and impressive but it was never tested during major military operations. Its main function seems to have been that of a prison for illustrious enemies of the princes. Constantine Palaeologus (the last Byzantine emperor) acquired the castle as a dowry and resided here during the military operations against Patras, the last major Frankish stronghold in the Peloponnese. Recently restored to its former glory, Chlemoutsi houses an exhibition dedicated to the Crusaders in the Morea.

The Gibraltar of the East

The Peloponnese was relatively wealthy, with an economy based on the cultivation and exportation of wine, silk, olive oil, honey, wax, and raisins. Whoever occupied the harbors could exercise a fair degree of control over the entire peninsula, so it makes perfect sense that the best of them were heavily fortified and fought over. The Byzantines transformed Monemvasia, a massive rock off the east coast of the Peloponnese, into a powerful fortress. It served as the seat of an imperial governor, center of military operations against the Franks, and eventually became a notorious pirate lair. Today it is an enchanting town full of Byzantine churches and traditional stone mansions.

Monemvasia (© Xristos Giofkos)

The Venetian Twins

Venice was only interested in coastal settlements that could help its merchants control maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean. While the Byzantines and the Franks fought for dominance, the Venetians occupied and fortified Methoni and Koroni, two towns on the southwest peninsula of the Peloponnese. Under Venetian rule, they grew to great prosperity as staging points for trade with the Levant, and as naval stations for war galleys, thus becoming known as “the chief eyes of the Republic”.

The castle of the falcon

Mani may derive its name from a Frankish castle whose location remains elusive. It is a mountainous and inaccessible region, while the Maniots have a reputation as fearless warriors. Their land remains as enchanting and captivating as it must have been eight centuries ago. The tower houses in Ano Boularioi are typical examples of local architecture and a reminder of the region’s violent past, since their main purpose was the protection of the owners from pirate raids or deadly local vendettas. The castle of Geraki (“falcon” in Greek) was built by the French baron Guy de Nivelet, halfway between Mystras and Monemvasia, to assist in the communication system between these two strongholds with the use of fire signals. It grew rapidly under the Byzantines and its numerous churches give the town a distinct medieval character.

The castle of Geraki (© Dimitris Panagiotidis)

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The Despotate of Morea - Mentor
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The Despotate of Morea – Mentor

Through guided visits to historical sites and ecclesiastical monuments we will survey a world of conflict and coexistence between East and West.

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