The Catalan Grand Company were a soldier company of Spanish mercenaries hired by Andronikos II. They were supposed to halt the Ottoman expansion in what little was left of Byzantine Asia Minor; instead, they wreaked havoc on Byzantine territories from 1304–1309.
Estimates of their numbers vary; they may have been as few as 2,000. Despite some initial success, relations with Andronikos II soon broke down, and in 1305 their leader Roger de Flor was assassinated. After this, the Catalans went on a rampage that eventually led them into Thrace and Macedonia, where they besieged monasteries on Mount Athos, devastated Chalkidike, and unsuccessfully besieged Thessalonike by land and sea. In 1309 they attacked Latin territories farther south, and in 1311 they took control of Athens, creating the Catalan duchy of Athens and Thebes, which lasted until 1388. The Catalan Grand Company was hardly unique as a fighting band. The Navarrese Company took over the Principality of Achaia in 1381. In 15th-century Italy such companies, led by professional generals (condottieri), were often employed by citystates, and just as often out of control.
(Source: «Historical Dictionary of Byzantium», by John H. Rosser)
The main source regarding the presence of the Aragonese and the Catalans in the East is without doubt the Chronicle of Ramón Muntaner, from Girona, which he composed during 1325-1328. In the Chronicle they are narrated the reigns of the four most important rulers of the Crown of Aragon, Jaume I (1213-1276), Pere III (1276-1285), Alfons III (1285-1291) and Jaume II (1291-1327).
Barcelona stood out as the driving force for the Crown of Aragon during the reign of King Jaume I and along with cities, such as Tortosa, Lleida, Girona and the island of Mallorca, thrived. Indeed, Aragon managed to compete with traditional naval powers, such as Genoa, Venice and Tuscany, for the trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, Jaume I supported the trade greatly, by introducing certain laws, and by creating a proper fleet as well, putting to an end the dependence on the Italian naval powers. From the 13th century and onwards, the term «Catalan made its appearance to the European maritime trade».
The Wars of the Vespers (1282-1302) that broke out between the Angevins and the Aragonese were terminated by the Peace of Caltabellota in 1302, and found the latters as winners, by annexing the Kingdom of Sicily. That treaty paved the way for future expansion, and also brought to the byzantine lands the fearsome Almogavars of the Catalan Company.
It has been generally admitted that, the Catalan Company was a product of the Peace of Caltabellota. The leader of that mercenary band was a corsair of German origin and former member of the Templars, Frey Roger de Flor. With the end of the Wars of the Vespers, the Company had to find a new field of action in order to ensure its economic survival. The Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos offered that opportunity by hiring de Flor’s mercenaries, with the aim of dealing with the Turkish emirates of Anatolia, and mainly the Ottomans. Andronikos in return of de Flor’s services would offer before hand the wages of the first four months, the title of Megas Doukas (Grand Duke), to wit, the role of the supreme admiral of the imperial fleet, and the hand of his 16-year old niece and daughter of the King of Bulgaria, Maria. In addition, as it is said, the leader of the Catalan Company took the name Michael Palaiologos Komnenos. Thus, began the wandering of the Catalan Company in the East.
In September 1303, Roger de Flor arrived to Constantinople with thirty six ships, eight of them belonged to him, accompanied by 1,500 mounted knights, 1,000 foot soldiers and 4,000 Almogavars. During the wedding ceremony, the Almogavars were provoked by the Genoese of Galata and skirmished. Approximately, 3,000 Genoese were killed, and according to Muntaner, emperor Andronikos said with satisfaction that, «now the Genoese, who have behaved with such arrogance, have found their match; and the Catalans were quite right, it was the fault of the Genoese». Then, de Flor’s troops passed to Cyzicus, while the Turks were in ignorance of these events. The following day of their arrival, the Catalans defeated an ottoman army and sent a great amount of their spoils to the imperial family. However, co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos, as Muntaner believed, gazed with envy that success.
De Flor wintered in Constantinople, while his men were hosted by the citizens of Cyzicus. The generally admitted troublesome coexistence between Catalans and Byzantines in Cyzicus it is not depicted so clear in Muntaner’s work, nevertheless, de Flor himself compensated the Byzantines for the wrongdoings of his men. During their stay in Cyzicus, the Catalans clashed with the Alans, with which they were going to march against the Turks, and as a result, the son of Georgios, the leader of the Alans, was killed.
In April 1304 the Catalan Company began its march through Anatolia, in the duration of which the Catalans defeated many Turkish contingents, they lifted the siege of Philadelphia from the Turks, and then passed from Nymphaion and Magnesia fighting the Turks successfully again.
During the same time, arrived to Constantinople Bernat de Rocafort, one of the most capable captains of the Catalan Company. His reinforcements were numbering 100 mounted warriors and 1,000 Almogavars. The two contingents met in Ephesus and mistreated the local population. The reinforced Catalan army on 15th of August 1304 decimated a Turkish army, approximately 30,000 men strong according to Muntaner, in a narrow passing on the Taurus mountain, named Iron Gate, on the borders of Anatolia and Cilicia. De Flor returned to Magnesia where the local populace had killed the Catalan garrison of the city and stole his treasures he had kept there himself. The Almogavars defeated both the Alans and the rioting Byzantines and punished them terribly.
Simultaneously, Andronikos inofrmed de Flor, via emissaries, that he must return to Constantinople and aid him with his struggle against the new aspiring king of Bulgaria. The Catalan Company settled to Gallipoli in order to get prepared for the upcoming expedition against the Bulgars, in cooperation with the forces of co-emperor Michael. As Muntaner narrates, when the Bulgarian king heard of the arrival of the Almogavars, he immediately complied with the demands of the emperor.
De Flor asked for the payment of the rest of the wages of the Company, however emperor Andronikos paid only a part of the whole amount and additionally he used impure coin for the payment, and consequently the Almogavars begrudged. At the same time, Berenguer de Entença arrived in Gallipoli on October, with 300 horsemenand 1,000 Almogavars and then he was invited to Constantinople by the leader of the Company. Entença was given the title of Megas Doukas (Grand Duke), while de Flor that of Kaisar (Caesar). However, during that time, that title was solely honorary. After wintering in Gallipoli, the leader of the Company returned to the Queen of Cities. There, he agreed with the emperor to launch an expedition to Anatolia, where he would be rewarded with fiefs, and received the wages of six months in impure coin, as it was mentioned above. In spring 1305, before his departure for Anatolia, de Flor visited co-emperor Michael in Adrianople. There he was murdered along with 300 Almogavars, by the leader of the Alans, Georgios and, presumably, with the approval of Michael and Andronikos.
The byzantine army bolstered by Alan and Turkopole mercenaries attacked Gallipoli, so as to get rid of the Company. Now Entença is the new leader, who betook to Constantinople in order to talk to the emperor. Andronikos was persuaded by the Genoese of Galata to kill the Catalans that were in the capital and imprisoned Entença, who was sent as a captive to Genoa. Muntaner and Rocafort stayed in Gallipoli, and the latter took over the leadership of the Catalan Company. The besieged Almogavars, as Muntaner narrates in a quite patriotic tone, defeated the numerically superior byzantine forces. Then, with the addition of Turk mercenaries, Rocafort faced Michael victoriously in Apros, in summer 1305. Having survived initially, the Catalan Company regrouped in Gallipoli, preparing its merciless counterattack, known as Catalan Vengeance.
Rocafort carried out numerous raids across the thracian country and then attacked Rhaedestus, where some envoys of the Catalan Company were killed. The Almogavars put to the sword the majority of the inhabitants as a retaliation for their dead brothers. Muntaner stayed as a governor in Gallipoli, while Rocafort settled in Rhaedestus. A third part of the Catalan Company leaded by Ferran Ximeno de Arenos attacked Madytos, where they settled in.
The main force of the Catalan Company marched against the Alans who were located at the Kingdom of Bulgaria, after the events of Adrianople. The Almogavars defeated them and avenged the death Roger de Flor by killing the leader of the Alans and responsible for de Flor’s assassination, Georgios. Meanwhile, Muntaner with few forces on his disposal, defended bravely and victoriously the city of Gallipoli from the attack of the Genoese in July 1305. The raids in Macedonia and Thrace continued, with Constantinople, Thessalonica, Adrianople and Christopolis being the only cities to escape from the rage of the Catalans. At the same time, the Turks reconquered Anatolia, while Emperor Andonikos was weakened even more by losing roughly 2,000 Turk mercenaries, who defected to the Company.
The imprisoned Entença was set free by the Genoese after the interference by King Jaume II of Aragon and in 1307 reunited with the rest members of the Catalan Company, adding 5,000 Almogavars on its force. There was a disagreement between Rocafort and Entença regarding the leadership of the Company. The solution was given by the King of Sicily, Fadrique II, who sent in March his nephew and heir (Infante) of Mallorca, Ferran, to assume the leadership of the Catalan Company in hisname.
Entença, Muntaner and Ximeno accepted the king’s proposal, while Rocafort swore fealty only to Ferran and not to King Fadrique. The surrounding region was completely desolated during the five years of Catalan-Aragonese presence, and Rocafort suggested to move towards the Kingdom of Thessalonica. Gallipoli and Madytos were razed by Muntaner, who departed with thirty six ships for Christopolis and the Catalan Company marched towards Thessalonica.
During their journey, there was a misunderstanding between the Catalan-Aragonese forces that leaded to the suspicious death of Entença by Rocafort’s soldiers. After that incident, Ferran and Muntaner left the Company, while Ximeno offered his service to the Emperor Andronikos and took the title of Megas Doukas.
Rocafort, being the leader of the Almogavars, the Turk and the Turkopole mercenaries, settled in Kassandria, where he desolated the region with constant raids, as it happened in the Thracian peninsula before. Ferran and Muntaner were arrested at Euboea by the Venetians on behalf of the Duke of Athens Guy II de La Roche and the King of France, Charles de Valois. Muntaner returned to the Company along with Thibaut de Cepoy, who took on the leadership of the Catalan Company in the name of the King of France, and with the aim of reestablishing the Latin Empire of Constantinople, as Marcos comments. Rocafort, who was aspiring to take the throneof the Kingdom of Thessalonica, he was still in fact the leader of the army. As a consequence Cepoy arrested him and sent him to the King of Naples, Robert d’ Anjou, where he died imprisoned in 1309.
Under the new leadership, the Catalan Company departed in 1309 for Thessaly in order to find new resources. In September, Cepoy left the Company, indignant by the thieving attitude of the Catalans. Then, the new Duke of Athens, Gautier V de Brienne hired the Iberian and Turk mercenaries in order to face the Lord of Wallachia (Thessaly), Ioannis II Angelos. In six months, the duke managed to reconquer many lands and bolster his position. Later on, he tried to split the Company, by appointing 500 Almogavars as his bodyguards and gave them lands. The rest of the army asked from the duke to pay them the salaries of the four last months out of the total six that they were under his service. De Brienne refused and the Almogavars ransacked Thessaly in order to survive. Being annoyed the Burgundian duke, was preparing to fight them. The decisive battle was given in 15 March 1311 near river Cephissus in Thebes. Again the Almogavars, aided by their 500 companions who initially sided with de Brienne, vanquished the numerically superior Franks. In that way, the Catalans took control of the Duchy of Athens.
(Source: “The Catalan-aragonese presence in the Eastern Mediterranean (13th-14th c.)”, by Ioannis Moraitis)
Despite the name by which it is known, the Catalan Company had a complex ethnic composition from the time of its foundation. Moreover, its composition changed continuously with the addition or departure of individuals or groups in the course of the years 1303–11.
The Catalan Muntaner claims that the men who joined Roger the Flor in 1303 were all of Catalan or Aragonese origin. This must have been the case of those who formed the core of the Company.
Most of these Catalans and Aragonese presumably had lived in Sicily after its conquest by Peter III in 1282 and had fought in the service of the Aragonese kings of the island during the following 20 years. Some of them left Messina with their sons presumably born on the island, like Peric de Na Clara, whose two adult sons accompanied him.
Other men came directly from Aragon and Catalonia, like the mercenaries headed by Entença who joined the Company in Gallipoli in 1306, or those mentioned in the letters of Charles of Valois in which he asked James II of Aragon to convince “the men of your kingdom” to acknowledge his lordship.
In addition, among the original members of the Company there were mercenaries who had fought on the side of the Angevin kings of Sicily. Less biased than Muntaner, Giovanni Villani reports that Italians sailed with Roger de Flor from Messina to Constantinople in 1303.
The Byzantine historians dealing with the Company refer to Catalans, Aragonese, Italians, Sicilians, Latins, and sometimes to Franks. Greeks from Anatolia were also included in the Company, and Greek archers captured by the Company in Thrace, Macedonia or Thessaly fought in its ranks and fulfilled an important role in the battle of Halmyros.
Wives, mistresses and children, most presumably Sicilian, left Messina in 1303 with the men. It is likely that some Greek women from the territories crossed by the Company joined it over the years.
Aydin Turks crossed over from Anatolia with wives and children and joined the Company at Gallipoli in May 1305, after concluding an agreement with its leader, Entença. They promised the Company one fifth of the booty they would collect.
A second Turkish detachment, composed of Turks and tourkopouloi, deserted the Byzantine army and joined the Company in June or July. The Turks remained with the Company in the following years and in 1311 participated in the battle of Halmyros.
The Company offered them land after its conquest of the duchy of Athens, yet they refused to accept it and moved back to Thessaly. The members of the first detachment, who intended to return to Anatolia with their families, were either massacred or caught by the Genoese and sold as slaves. Another contingent of 1,500 Turks entered the service of King Stephen Uros II Milutin of Serbia, yet revolted against him in 1312 and were crushed by his forces. The Venetian Marino Sanudo Torsello, who stayed in Negroponte in 1311, provides crucial evidence regarding the Turkish detachments in that period, although his figure of around 1,800 horsemen with the Company in 1311 seems to be inflated. A few years later he met some Turks who wished to rejoin the Company.
Letters of Pope Clement V and King James II of Aragon from the years 1312–14 confirm the heterogeneous composition of the Company at the time of its arrival in the Duchy of Athens. The Company, nevertheless, retained its Catalan character. Catalans appear to have been the largest group within its ranks and their language was in common use.
(Source: “The Catalan Company in the East: The Evolution of an Itinerant Army (1303–1311)”, by David Jacoby)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus