Turkic immigrants in the Eastern Roman State during the first half of the 14th cen.

Turkic allies and mercenaries from Anatolia were employed in the 1320s–40s by the Byzantines mostly in internecine clashes and only episodically to repel external threats posed by the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and such. The first instance found in the sources of the employment of Anatolian Turks in internal strife goes back to 1322 when Andronikos II sent Turkic troops along with the Byzantine army against his grandson Andronikos III. It is unknown who these Turks were, whether they were from the Karasi emirate, from Saruhan, from the Ottoman emirate, or just an independent mercenary company. From this time, Turkic troops constantly participated in the Byzantine civil war, in the clashes between Andronikos II and Andronikos III in 1321–28, in the war between John VI Kantakouzenos and Anna of Savoy’s Constantinopolitan party in 1341–47, as well as in the strife between Kantakouzenos and John V Palaiologos in 1352–54. Northwestern Anatolia was considered by the Byzantine contesting parties to be a reservoir of cheap military force. Often the sources qualified them simply as “Persians” without any detail of their origin.


The relationship between John Kantakouzenos and the Aydın emir Umur-bek (1334–48) was one of intimate friends. In 1336, in Albania, Aydın allies participated in Byzantine military campaigns for the first time. Andronikos III’s campaign against the rebellious Albanians was successful and the winners took possession of rich booty. According to Kantakouzenos, the Greeks did not enslave the Albanians because they were Christians; they were unable, however, to prevent the allied Turks from seizing the Albanians as slaves.

Andronikos III bought some Albanian slaves from the Turks as a humane gesture. In 1337 or 1338, Umur-bek’s fleet possibly passed through the Straits to the Black Sea and, at the request of the Byzantines, attacked the Golden Horde’s territory. In winter 1342/43, Umur-bek responded to Kantakouzenos’ call for help and, going up the River Maritsa in ships, lifted the Bulgarian siege of Didymoteichon, where Kantakouzenos’ wife was. The Turks, however, returned to Smyrna because of the severe cold. A few weeks later, in spring 1343, the Aydın fleet appeared by Thessalonike and the Turks participated in Kantakouzenos’ campaign in Thrace, remaining at Kantakouzenos’ service until the late spring of 1344. From the spring to summer of 1345 Umur-bek took part in Kantakouzenos’ operations against Bulgaria, which ended on 7 July 1345 with the crushing victory of the allies over Momchil by Peritheorion. Later Umur-bek, being engaged in the struggle against Smyrniote crusaders, was unable to participate in the wars of Kantakouzenos but continued to send troops. It was the help of Umur-bek that allowed Kantakouzenos to avoid a crushing defeat in 1341–43. The key role of Umur-bek’s troops in the Byzantine civil war was clearly noted by contemporaries, and Kantakouzenos’ enemies unsuccessfully tried to bribe Umur-bek to their side.

Umur-bek was far from being the only Turkic ally in the civil war. In 1341, Kantakouzenos made an alliance with the emir of Germiyan, aimed against either the emirate of Saruhan or Karasi. Later he used the services of Sulaymān of the Karasi emirate, whom Kantakouzenos’ enemies also tried unsuccessfully to bribe. The Saruhan Turks also became allies of Kantakouzenos during Umur-bek’s last campaign in Thrace. The most effective supporters of Kantakouzenos, however, were the Turks of the Ottoman emirate who secured him the victory in the last stage of the civil war in 1346–47.

These Turkic allies were widely used by Kantakouzenos’ adversaries. In spring 1343, at Apokaukos’ disposal were twenty-two Turkish ships under the command of
Ἁρµόπακις/Khurmā-bek, which helped him gain a foothold in Zealot Thessalonike. Also in 1343, Turkic troops hired by Constantinople operated against Kantakouzenos in Berroia; however, informed of the approaching Turks of Umur-bek, they retreated. In 1347, the empress Anna of Savoy hired Saruhan Turks, who devastated the Bulgarian and Byzantine territories, taking booty, and then advanced on Constantinople demanding payment from the empress for their services. Failing to obtain their payment, they ravaged the lands up to Selymbria. Kantakouzenos finally attracted them to his side with the help of the Aydın Turks and sent them back home. The Constantinopolitan party tried to make alliance with the Ottoman emir Orhan, but Kantakouzenos had established friendly relations with the emir; the Turks, apparently, had greater confidence in Kantakouzenos. The period of the civil wars was a disaster considering that both contesting parties irresponsibly brought Turks into the peninsula en masse.

It was not just the Turkic allies of the Greeks who stayed and waged war in Thrace and Macedonia. Beginning in the 1320s, Thrace became the object of predatory campaigns by Turkic groups from Anatolia, which were equally hostile to all contesting parties of the Byzantines. According to Gregoras, since as early as 1321 Macedonia and Thrace were periodically looted by Anatolian Turkic pirates, which prompted Andronikos II to consider raising taxes for the building of a naval fleet, increasing troops in Europe and Bithynia, as well as paying tribute to the Turks. In November 1326, Andronikos III and John Kantakouzenos repelled a Turkic raid on Thrace, about which survives an obscure report by Kantakouzenos himself. The presence of Anatolian pirates in the Hellespont is attested in 1328. It is difficult to understand which Turks were attacking Thrace at that time. The most likely possibility is the Turks of Karasi; however, it cannot be excluded that they were Saruhan or even Aydın. The last Byzantine footholds in inland Anatolia were also under threat: the Germiyan emir Yaʿqūb-bek and the Aydın emir Muḥammad besieged Philadelphia in 1322. The siege continued for a year and seven months, until Alexios Philanthropenos arrived in the city. His prestige among the Turks as an invincible enemy and a generous ally soon concluded a peace treaty, according to which Philadelphia remained in Byzantine hands in exchange for tribute to the Germiyan emir.

The Karasi Turks were the most active in the raids on Thrace. In 1335 or 1336, Gregoras laments the poverty of Thrace and Macedonia because of the frequent incursions of the Turks and Bulgarians. In 1337, he refers twice to the raids of the Karasi Turks as constant and in 1339 he describes Turkic incursions on Thrace as a usual event, of which he “does not want to repeat all the time.” Talking about the pirate raid of 1340, Gregoras notes that the whole of Thrace up to the Bulgarian border for the Romans turned into “deserted and impassable [land]”, while the Turks day and night were taking the loot to Asia. For the beginning of 1341, both Gregoras and Kantakouzenos mention another naval incursion on Thrace, again describing these raids as normal. Kantakouzenos calls plundered Thrace σκυθικὴ ἐρηµία, “a Scythian wilderness”. In the Byzantine sources of the time ἐρηµία (and Gregoras’ adjective ἔρηµος) was the equivalent of the Turkic uc “borderland”, where Akritic models of behavior were operative. Thus the central and most populated provinces of the empire in the Balkans turned into a sort of no-man’s land. In the first half of August 1341, Chersonesos Thracica underwent a double attack from Karasi Turks, who were first defeated by Kantakouzenos but returned with reinforcements. When this second army was defeated, the emir of Karasi made peace with Kantakouzenos and retreated. At the end of 1341, another incursion into Thrace by the Turks occurred, who in addition to the usual looting exterminated the remnants of Bulgarian troops retreating from Adrianople. In all probability, some of the raids, which are not directly identified by the sources as those of the Karasi Turks, can be attributed to the Saruhan Turks. Kantakouzenos mentions that in 1341 he managed to stop a Saruhan raid after Apokaukos’ fleet unsuccessfully attempted to repel it. Incursions by the Turks of Karasi and Saruhan continued. Gregoras and Kantakouzenos, not intending to record all similar attacks systematically, still managed to report on Turkic raids in 1345 and June– July 1348, while in January 1351 Kantakouzenos again characterized Turkic intrusions into Thrace up to the Bulgarian border as regular.

Another peculiarity of the intricate situation that had developed in the Thracian no-man’s land was that the Turkic pirate companies plundering Byzantine lands could have been former and future allies of Greek political actors. For instance, Kantakouzenos, relating the plundering raid of the Turks in 1348 and his attempts to negotiate with them, noted that these Turks once had been his allies: “since he [Kantakouzenos] was not unknown to them and fought many times together with [them] during the civil war.” Further, Kantakouzenos reports about reckless actions of his son-in-law Nikephoros, who at the moment of negotiations attacked the Turks. Kantakouzenos saved the crowd around him by ordering them to run to their camp, while he himself stopped the pursuing Greeks and reprimanded Nikephoros; due to Kantakouzenos’ intervention, the Turks lost as few as nine men and one commander (στρατηγός). This simple story is indicative. Former allies turned adversaries on the battlefield, but this did not mean that the communication channels between them had been interrupted and that in the future they would not have been on the same side again. This episode is reminiscent of the borderland ethos, where friendship and enmity were relative categories.

As noted earlier, often it is impossible to determine the state or even the geographical identity of the raiding Turks. Both Kantakouzenos and Gregoras often call them simply “Persians” without any specification. It is probable that some of these Turks did not have constant affiliation with a particular emirate, but instead represented combined gangs of fighters led by a “strong man”, similar to the Catalan companies. This is, most likely, the reason why our sources are unable to define them more precisely. Gregoras noted about the raids of two Turkic companies on Thrace and eastern Macedonia (1348): “some Persian army of independent men living like brigands who gathered together from different places”. An example of similar company of “independent robbers” was represented by the Turks of Tzympe (a town near Branchialion/Bolayır) who around 1352 had been settled there by Kantakouzenos as a collective pronoia holder. Initially, the number of Turks in Tzympe probably did not exceed 500. In the capacity of collective pronoiars, the Turks of Tzympe probably received income in the form of taxes from designated territories and participated in military operations at the request of Kantakouzenos. Some raids on the Byzantine Balkans in the first half of the fourteenth century may have been made by similar independent freebooting companies that came together only for predatory raiding. In Oriental terms, these gangs of soldiers of fortune who lived on the booty taken in their raids were called ghāzī “warrior, conqueror, raider, soldier of fortune”). The meaning “warrior for the Faith” for ghāzī only appeared later. Ghāzī soldiers had been known in Central Asia since as early as Samanid times in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Similar bands of ghāzī mercenaries are found on the Byzantine-Arab borderlands in the ʿUmayyad era. In Anatolia and Syria, in the eleventh throughthe fourteenth centuries, ghāzī-warriors (mostly nomadic Turkmens) acquired greater importance than ever before. Going back to the fourteenth century, the Byzantine authorities could rarely have reached an agreement with these Turkic freebooters because they constituted temporary groups who did not identify themselves as any sustainable community.

The incursions of Anatolian Turks, an extreme disaster for both Byzantine authorities and the rural population, commenced in the beginning of the 1320s and continued during the subsequent thirty years until the appearance of the Ottomans in Thrace in 1354. After 1354 and until the 1370s, the activity of the Turkic independent brigand companies gradually decreased. As early as 1965, Irène Beldiceanu suggested that by the middle of the fourteenth century Thrace was under the control of independent Turkic commanders rather than the centralized Ottoman power. Around 1376/77, the Ottoman emir Murad I established his direct leadership over these independent beys.


No less devastating raids were visited on Thrace by the “Scythians” of the Golden Horde, that is, Turks and Mongols, most of whom were probably also independent freebooters. They were often accompanied by Bulgarians, who had maintained close links with the Cumans and later the Turko-Mongols of the Golden Horde for more than a century. The “Scythian” raids on Byzantium started as early as 1264/65 when the Golden Horde troops liberated ʿIzz al-Dīn Kaykāwus II from Ainos. In 1271, “Scythians” in alliance with the Bulgarians plundered Thrace. Owing to the growing chaos in Thrace in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, incursions from the Golden Horde increased. In 1320, twice in 1321, April 1323, and from the end of 1323 throughout the beginning of 1324 their plundering campaigns were aimed at the fertile Thracian valleys. In the beginning of 1337, the Scythians, approaching Thrace from the Danube, encountered the Anatolian Turkic freebooters. To the great surprise of the Greeks, the “Scythians”, descending on the “Persians” like “dogs on a deadbody” (ὥσπερ κύνες τεθνηκότι σώµατι … ἐπεισπίπτοντες), slaughtered many of them. The “Scythians” remained in Thrace during the subsequent fifty days and continued plundering. As Gregoras noted, it was an unusually long duration for a brigand incursion. Tatar raids continued at least until 1341, when Kantakouzenos rebuilt the important strategic fortress Arkadiopolis, which was located in central Thrace and served to defend the province and ultimately Constantinople from the hostile incursions from the north. In the spring of the same year, Demetrios Kydones was sent by the emperor to Uzbek-khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde, with a commission to put an end to the Tatar raids.

The impotence of the Byzantine authorities to deal with these raids is apparent since the Byzantines received information about impending raids from their informants. Formerly verdant lands turned into a “Scythian wilderness”. The ruin of Thrace and the cessation of imports from the Black Sea because of the Genoese-Mongol war in 1343 led to an acute shortage of grain in Constantinople and the surrounding area; the shortage was filled by supplies from northeastern Anatolia.

The early history of Byzantine-Ottoman relations was identical to that of the Turkic allies. The Ottomans were involved in Byzantine civil strife by all political parties. The first peaceful contacts with the Ottomans had occurred at the time of the Ottoman conquest of Bithynia, soon after the defeat of the Greeks by Pelekanon and Philokrene in 1329. In 1333, Andronikos III, having known about the fall of Nicaea and the siege of Nikomedeia by the Ottomans, led his army to aid the city. The Ottoman emir Orhan then sought peace with the emperor. The conditions of the peace treaty were exceptionally profitable for Orhan (more profitable than Kantakouzenos reported). For security guarantees for Nikomedeia and other cities of Mesothynia, the Byzantines had to pay 12,000 hyperpyra annually; the money was collected from Mesothynia’s residents.

In the late summer of 1337, the Turks of Orhan undertook a sea raid against Thrace, which ended in complete failure. Constantinople had been warned that the Turks of Orhan were going to land in the immediate neighborhood of Constantinople, which had not yet been pillaged and had many desirable goods. Andronikos III had at his disposal virtually no troops but decided to oppose the enemy. The emperor, with three ships, attacked the enemy at sea, captured fourteen ships, and forced a retreat. The grand domestic John Kantakouzenos with a group of only 70 horsemen attacked the Turks on land and initiated a great slaughter: up to 1,000 were killed and approximately 300 taken prisoner. No Byzantine soldiers were killed but they lost many warhorses, which were the main target of infantry in cavalry clashes. This victory – even now, but also at the time – seems incredible and obviously inspired by Divine Providence. The Ottomans, however, were determined to further expand their territories at the expense of the Byzantines. In 1338, Orhan seized Nikomedeia, completing the conquest of the key strategic strongholds of the Greeks in Bithynia, as the ancient military road to Constantinople from Anatolia passed through Nikomedeia and was open to the Ottoman Turks.

It was only after the death of Andronikos III in 1341 that Kantakouzenos managed to conclude a peace agreement with Orhan; the details are unknown. The treaty was concluded in winter of 1344/45 through the mediation of the Ottoman emissary eunuch Ḥājī (Hacı, Χατζής). Kantakouzenos, having known about Anna of Savoy’s attempts to persuade the Turks to her side, contacted Orhan; Orhan chose to deal with Kantakouzenos. Kantakouzenos is short on details, but notes that the Turkic troops arrived immediately and helped to subdue the Black Sea coast up to Sozopolis. From that time onward, Ottoman military aid to Kantakouzenos was constant. With the help of Orhan’s soldiers, Kantakouzenos also managed to inflict a decisive defeat on his political opponents. The marriage of the emir Orhan and Theodora, daughter of Kantakouzenos, early in the summer of 1346, sealed the agreement with the Ottoman Turks.

The military alliance with Orhan resulted in the constant presence of Turkic troops on the European territories of Byzantium. From 1348, the Turks began to pursue more and more independent policy in Thrace, less often with Byzantine interests. Alienation was growing between Kantakouzenos and Orhan, the causes of which can only be guessed (its initiator was probably Kantakouzenos who did not receive the assistance he expected from the Turks). Kantakouzenos’ main weapon turned against him. In his wars against John V Palaiologos and Stephen Dušan, John VI Kantakouzenos utilized the Turks in domestic politics even more extensively, an innovation that had truly disastrous consequences.

At the beginning of the war against John V Palaiologos (1352), John VI Kantakouzenos settled about 500 Turkish soldiers and their families in Tzympe (north of Gallipoli) as  collective pronoiars in order to have mercenary troops at hand. In the course of the civil war, Orhan’s son Süleyman crossed from Asia to Chersonesos Thracica proclaiming these lands as “his own colony and his father’s land”. Kantakouzenos, who had promoted the massive settlement of the Turks in Europe, tried to buy Tzympe from the Turks for 10,000 hyperpyra.

In March 1354, after a severe earthquake in southern Thrace, Tzympe’s Turks began to occupy the devastated towns, while Süleyman suddenly invaded Thrace and took Gallipoli, a key strategic point in the Straits. Kantakouzenos tried to negotiate; however, Orhan argued that the occupation of Gallipoli was Süleyman’s personal initiative. Nonetheless, Orhan promised to settle the problem with his son for 40,000 hyperpyra. The emperor and emir agreed to meet in Nikomedeia to finalize the deal. Kantakouzenos, having arrived in Nikomedeia at the appointed time, waited in vain for Orhan, who did not arrive and reported being ill. By 1355, the Ottomans had taken under their control the entire coast of the Propontis up to Constantinople.

The Byzantines clearly realized the scale of this failure of foreign policy. The settling of Ottomans in Thrace, along with their overt shift to independent policy in the Balkans, promised the imminent end of the empire. The news on the seizure of Gallipoli created a panic in Constantinople. According to Demetrios Kydones, people from Constantinople (probably its wealthier part) fled in fear to Italy and even Spain.

During the long period of the civil wars until the Ottoman conquest of Gallipoli in 1354, the predominant type of Turkic immigrant in Byzantine lands was soldiers serving in the Byzantine army and settling eventually in Thrace and Macedonia. Among them were some high-status Byzantines of Turkic origin. A certain Ἀµζᾶς (Ḥamza), a confidant of Alexios Apokaukos, in 1344, defected to the side of John Kantakouzenos and reported the impending conspiracy against him. Ἀµζᾶς /Ḥamza was an Anatolian Turk; his Muslim Arabic name testifies to his Anatolian origin (ἐκ Περσῶν γὰρ Ἀµζᾶς τὸ γένος ἦν).

In April 1346, Michael Abrampakes (Ibrāhīm-bek) became the governor (κεφαλή) of Serres on behalf of the Serbian king Stephen Dušan. Judging by his name, it is possible that he was the son or grandson of the well-known protohierakarios Ἀβράμπαξ who lived in the age of Andronikos II. Stephen Dušan relied on the former Greek administration in lands recently conquered from the Byzantines and hired many Byzantine military and civil officers. Μιχαὴλ Ἀβραμπάκης was probably one of these former Byzantine officers, as testified by the Byzantine anthroponymical pattern of his name and also the Anatolian origin of the sobriquet Ἀβραμπάκης. If not a descendant of protohierakarios Ἀβράμπαξ, he might well have been a mercenary or an allied Turk from the civil war, baptized and naturalized in Byzantium.

In the course of military clashes, Byzantines seized Turkic prisoners of war who, traditionally, were made slaves. Some indications survive in the narrative sources on enslavement of the Turks in that period. However, unlike the previous decades, the proportion of slaves in comparison to naturalized Turkic warriors became insignificant. For the years 1324–54, Oriental names are found in the documentary sources of the Athos monasteries, the majority of which belonged to persons of humble origin living in Macedonia.

After 1354, the Ottoman Turks rapidly advanced in the Balkans. By the second half of the 1360s the Ottomans occupied Thrace, and by the early 1380s Macedonia, except Thessalonike, which fell under their rule only in 1387. It is significant that Kantakouzenos’ time was the last period in Byzantine history marked by the presence on Byzantine territory of a large group of Byzantine Turks. Byzantium’s territorial losses in the second half of the fourteenth century paradoxically led to a sharp reduction in the flow of Turks into Byzantine society. Byzantine service had lost its appeal to Turkic mercenaries and other immigrants due to the lack of sufficient land resources of the state, which meant not only the collapse of the pronoia system as payment for military service, but the catastrophic depletion of the Byzantine treasury. Due to the Ottoman conquests, Turks in the Balkans were becoming the subjects of a highly successful and rapidly growing Ottoman sultanate, and did not require the graces of the Christian rulers. Turks continued to serve under the banner of the Byzantine empire in the ongoing internecine wars between rival members of the Palaiologan house. However, they were not so much naturalized immigrants as foreign allies, subjects of the sultan, who came by his will to the aid of the Byzantine emperor or a candidate for the Byzantine throne. The number of the first-generation Turks in the service of the Byzantines was sharply reduced.

(Source: “The Byzantine Turks, 1204-1461”, by Rustam Shukurov)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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