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Crusader Athens History

Adapted from Athens: The First Six Thousand Years

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Crusader Athens (AD 1205 - 1456)

In 1204 a crusader expedition which was supposedly destined for Egypt to fight the Saracens and recover the Holy Land was diverted to Constantinople. The crusaders had not the money to pay the Venetians for their passage, and the Venetians, who longed to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, diverted the expedition to Constantinople. The City was sacked, and the Venetians were paid with the booty. Instead of continuing with the Crusade, the Crusaders then decided to divide the empire among themselves as feudal fiefdoms.

All of Greece north of the Isthmus fell to Boniface III, Marquis of Montferrat, who held it as “King of Thessaloniki”. In 1205 he arrived in Athens, where archbishop Michael Akominatos handed over to him the Acropolis, probably relieved to be protected from the depredations of Sgouros. In accordance with Western feudal custom, he parcelled out much if his lands to subordinates, in return for their support. Attica, together with Megara, Boeotia and Locris, Boniface gave into the hands of a Burgundian knight, Othon de la Roche. ” When the Burgundians arrived in Athens, they promptly plundered the cathedral treasury and library. Otho assumed the title “Grand Seigneur of Athens and Thebes, and took up residence in Thebes, installing a governor on the Acropolis.

The Franks formed a ruling aristocracy, and initially they did not mix with the conquered population, who were, in the main, probably reduced to serfdom. Under Othon’s rule Athens prospered, but the citizens probably enjoyed little of this, as trading privileges were granted to Venetian and Genoese merchants.Pope Innocent III sent a Latin archbishop, Berard, to replace Michael Akominatos, and Latin bishops to replace the other Orthodox bishops. The Latin rite of the West replaced the Greek rite in their churches. All the monasteries were placed under the control of the Catholic Archbishop.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century Walter de la Roche invited the company of Catalans hmercenaries to help rid him of his enemies. Walter offered to employ them for six months. He paid them two months wages in advance, and for the next six months they fought very successfully on his behalf. Then they demanded the remaining four months’ wages due to them, and refused to hand over some castles they had taken in southern Thessaly, pleading that they had nowhere else to go. Walter reluctantly paid some five hundred of them, and then ordered the rest to go away. They would not.In 1311, Walter summoned all the French knights in Greece to his aid to rid the peninsula of the Catalan menace, and attacked them in Boeotia. The Catalans chose to confront the French in the Kopaic marshes. There the heavily armoured French knights sank in the mud and were massacred. Of seven hundred, only four are known to have escaped with their lives. Duke Walter himself was slain and beheaded.

Athens lay open to the mercenaries, who occupied it without opposition. For the next sixty years, as part of “the duchy of Athens and Neopatras”, Athens was theoretically governed from Sicily by a succession of dukes, not a single one of whom ever actually saw the Acropolis. Each governed through vicars-general. Then Nerio Acciajuoli, a Florentine adventurer who had become lord of Corinth and Megara, decided to add Athens to his dominions.

In 1388 he captured the city, and the King of Naples conferred upon him the title of duke. His successor Antonio paid tribute both to the Venetians and the Turks, and so preserved his (relative) independence for many years. His successor, Nerio II may have erected the tall “Frankish Tower” in front of the Propylaea, opposite the Temple of Athena Nike. On a turret on top of this tall structure, beacon fires visible from Acrocorinth could be lit to give warning of corsairs in the Saronic Gulf. He built a villa by the Illissos at the spring of Kallirhoe, and took over a nearby chapel built on the site of a temple to Triptolemos, later known as Our Lady on the Rocks, for the personal use of the ducal family. 

There seems to have been no antagonism between the Greeks and the small Florentine community, which boasted names like Medici and Machiavelli, for Florentine rule was infinitely preferable to Burgundian, Catalan, Venetian or Turkish.

When Nerio died, his widow and Pietro Almerio, the Venetian governor of Nauplia, her new husband, seized the dukedom, the Athenians complained to the Sultan. He replaced Almerio by Franco Acciajuoli, a nephew of Nerio. Franco banished his aunt to Megara and then had her murdered, whereupon it was the turn of Pietro to complain to the Turks. Sultan Mehmet ordered Omer Pasha to march against Athens. Desperately, Franco and some of the leading citizens tried to offer their city to various western rulers if they would come to their aid. But when Omer himself offered Thebes and Boeotia to Franco as compensation for surrendering the city, and the Sultan confirmed it, he gave it up. Ominously, a comet appeared in the sky on 29th May 1456, and remained for several days. In June, Omer Pasha entered Athens at the head of a Turkish army.