Despot of Epirus

The Despot of Epirus was the ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, one of the successor states of the Byzantine Empire in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. The name "Despotate of Epirus" and the title "Despot of Epirus" are modern historiographical names, and were not in use by the despots themselves. In the Byzantine Empire, the title of despot (Greek: δεσπότης, romanizeddespótēs) was a prestigious court title and did not designate rule over some specific territory. Though several of the early Greek rulers of the Epirote realm did use the title of despot, it was never in reference to the lands they governed, but instead in reference to their position in the imperial hierarchy.

Despot of Epirus
Final holder:
Leonardo III Tocco
1448 – 1479
First monarchMichael I Komnenos Doukas
Last monarchLeonardo III Tocco
Antonio Tocco
(fall of the Despotate)
(last use of title)

It was only with Epirus falling into the hands of foreign dynasties that the title of despot became applied not to the imperial hierarchy, but to the territory, sometimes to the dismay of the local population. "Despot of Epirus" is not recorded in contemporary documents for the rulers of foreign origin, but several other versions are, such as Despot of Arta and Despot of Ioannina, the two capitals of the despotate at different points in time. Some rulers used the version Despot of Romania (Romania essentially meaning "the territories of the Roman Empire", i.e. Byzantium) or Despot of the Romans (claiming rulership over the Romans, i.e. the Byzantines/Greeks).

The final Despot of Epirus was Leonardo III Tocco, who ruled from 1448 to 1479, when the remnants of the despotate were conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Leonardo escaped into exile and his descendants continued to claim the title until 1642, when the titular despot Antonio Tocco abandoned it and instead claimed the title of Prince of Achaea.


In the Late Byzantine Empire, the title of despot (Greek: δεσπότης, romanizeddespótēs) was a prestigious and elevated court title. It was not used as a ruling title in regards to any specific landed possession.[1] As such, referring to the rulers of the Despotate of Epirus (a non-contemporary term for the state) as "Despots of Epirus" is technically incorrect.[2] The title only became associated with certain territories as the practice of emperors granting the title to princes and granting them semi-authonomous appanages to govern became regularized.[3][4][5] Furthermore, not all rulers of Epirus bore the title. The founder of the Epirote realm, Michael I Komnenos Doukas, never used the title and neither did his successor Theodore Komnenos Doukas, who actually crowned himself emperor (basileus) at Thessalonica c. 1225. The first ruler of Epirus to receive the title of despot was Michael II, from his uncle Manuel of Thessalonica in the 1230s, and then again, as a sign of submission and vassalage, from the Nicaean emperor John III Vatatzes.[6][7]

Use of a version of the title despot actually associated with territory began under the rule of the Orsini family, following the extinction of the original Komnenos Doukas dynasty. Of Italian descent, the Orsini rulers rendered their title as Despotus Romaniae ("Despot of Romania"). Epirus was a part of Romania (not meaning the modern country, but essentially "the territories of the Roman Empire", i.e. Byzantium).[1] Thomas II Preljubović, who was granted Epirus by its previous ruler, claimant Serbian emperor Simeon Uroš, was granted the dignity of despot by Simeon and titled himself as the "Despot of Ioannina" to designate his rule over his capital Ioannina and all of Epirus.[8]

Upon becoming the ruler of Ioannina in 1411, Carlo I Tocco assumed the title of despot, either as a reference to the Komnenos Doukas and Orsini despots, or to the title assumed by Thomas II Preljubović. The locals insisted that Carlo seek recognition of that title from the Byzantine emperor, and after having sent his brother Leonardo to Constantinople, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos formally recognized him as despot.[8] To Carlo, the title of despot meant that he could claim rulership over all of Epirus, not just Ioannina; he notably captured Arta, capital under the Komnenos Doukas and Orsini, in 1416. To the Byzantines in Constantinople, the granting of the title served more to buffer the lack of actual imperial control in the region, only being a nominal reference to the power previously exercised in Epirus by Greek despots.[9] From 1418 onwards, Carlo rendered his title in Latin as Despotus Romaniae, as the Orsini despots had done before him.[1] This title had also been used by Centurione II Zaccaria, Prince of Achaea, and Carlo might have assumed it in 1418 not as a reference to previous rulers of Epirus, but essentially as a usurpation of Centurione's (his former feudal overlord) title after the Prince of Achaea had suffered devastating losses of territory to the Byzantines in that same year. Epirote sources write that the title Despotus Romaniae was confirmed by Manuel II, but contemporary Byzantine sources are silent on the matter.[10] Documents from Ioannia and Arta give Carlo the full title Dominus Carolus Dei Gratia despotus Romaniae ("Lord Carlo, by the grace of God, Despot of Romania").[11]

Carlo also sometimes used the version Despotus Romeorum ("Despot of the Romans", i.e. the Byzantines/Greeks) from 1418 onwards. This version of the title had even more dangerous implications for Constantinople, as it implied rulership over the Byzantine people themselves rather than territory they considered part of their empire. To the Byzantines, such power could only legally be exercised by the emperor.[12] Carlo I's successor, Carlo II Tocco, used the title "Despot of Arta", which connected him to the old capital of the Epirote realm rather than to the territory of the Byzantine Empire at large. Even then, "Despot of Arta" was no more acceptable to the Byzantines than "Despot of Romania" as it was still in relation to a specific territory, rather than on the position of a despot relative to the emperor in court hierarchy.[13] This title was also used by Carlo II's successor, Leonardo III Tocco.[14] Later members of the Tocco family, pretenders to the title, used both "Despot of Romania" and "Despot of Arta"; a 1697 Italian text titles the despots of the Tocco family as Despoti de Romanìa, & del'Arta ("Despots of Romania and of Arta").[15]

List of despots of Epirus, 1205–1479Edit

Komnenos Doukas dynasty (1205–1318)Edit

Image Name Reign Succession & notes Ref
  Michael I Komnenos Doukas
Μιχαήλ Κομνηνός Δούκας
(Michaēl Komnēnos Doukas)
1205–1215 Cousin of Byzantine emperors Isaac II Angelos and Alexios III Angelos, established himself as ruler of Epirus in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade's sack and capture of Constantinople. [16]
  Theodore Komnenos Doukas
Θεόδωρος Κομνηνὸς Δούκας
(Theodōros Komnēnos Doukas)
1215–1230 Half-brother of Michael I Komnenos Doukas. Aimed to capture Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire, being proclaimed emperor at Thessalonica in 1224. [16]
  Michael II Komnenos Doukas
Μιχαήλ Κομνηνός Δούκας
(Michaēl Komnēnos Doukas)
1230–1271 Illegitimate son of Michael I Komnenos Doukas. Proclaimed himself the ruler of Epirus in the aftermath of Theodore's defeat at the Battle of Klokotnitsa. [16]
Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas
Νικηφόρος Κομνηνός Δούκας
(Nikēphoros Komnēnos Doukas)
1271–1297 Son of Michael II Komnenos Doukas. [16]
Thomas I Komnenos Doukas
Θωμάς Κομνηνός Δούκας
(Thōmas Komnēnos Doukas)
1297–1318 Son of Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas. Murdered by his nephew, Nicholas Orsini. [16]

Orsini dynasty (1318–1359)Edit

Image Name Reign Succession & notes Ref
  Nicholas Orsini
Νικόλαος Ορσίνι
(Nikolaos Orsini)
1318–1323 Grandson of Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas and husband of the widow of Thomas I Komnenos Doukas. Killed by his brother, John Orsini. [16]
John II Orsini
Ἰωάννης Κομνηνός Δούκας
(Iōannēs Komnēnos Doukas)[n 1]
1323–1335 Grandson of Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas. Killed by his wife, Anna Palaiologina. [16]
Nikephoros II Orsini
Νικηφόρος Δούκας
(Nikēphoros Doukas)
(first reign)
1335–1338/1340 Son of John Orsini, ruled under the regency of his mother Anna Palaiologina. [16]
1338/1340–1348: The Byzantine Empire under Andronikos III Palaiologos recaptures Epirus in 1338; it is briefly restored to independence with the help of Catherine I, titular Latin Empress, before being recaptured by the Byzantines again in 1340.[16] John Angelos serves as governor.[17]
1348–1356: The Serbian Empire under Stefan Dušan conquers Epirus; Simeon Uroš, Stefan's half-brother, is appointed governor.[18]
Nikephoros II Orsini
Νικηφόρος Δούκας
(Nikēphoros Doukas)
(second reign)
1356–1359 Returned to the Epirote throne through retaking Epirus from the Serbian Empire. Died in battle against an Albanian revolt. [16]

Nemanjić dynasty (1359–1385)Edit

Image Name Reign Succession & notes Ref
  Simeon Uroš
Симеон Урош, Συμεών Ούρεσης Παλαιολόγος
(Simeon Uroš, Simeon Ouresēs Palaiologos)
1359–1366 Claimant Serbian emperor; established himself as the ruler of Epirus and Thessaly. Married Thomais Orsini, daughter of John Orsini. Previously Serbian governor of Epirus. [19]
  Thomas II Preljubović
Тома Прељубовић, Θωμάς Κομνηνός Παλαιολόγος
(Toma Preljubović, Thōmas Komnēnos Palaiologos)
1366–1384 Married to Maria Angelina, daughter of Simeon Uroš. Made ruler of the city Ioannina and other parts of Epirus by Simeon. [21]
  Maria Angelina
Μαρία Αγγελίνα Δούκαινα Παλαιολογίνα
(Maria Angelina Doukaina Palaiologina)
1384–1385 Daughter of Simeon Uroš and widow of Thomas II Preljubović. Proclaimed ruler by the populace of Ioannina. Assumed the title basilissa ("empress"). [21]

Buondelmonti dynasty (1385–1411)Edit

Image Name Reign Succession & notes Ref
Esau de' Buondelmonti
Ησαύ Μπουοντελμόντι
(Esau Bouontelmonti)
1385–1411 Second husband of Maria Angelina. The two were married on the suggestion of John Uroš, Maria's brother. [24]
Giorgio de' Buondelmonti
Γεώργιος Μπουοντελμόντι
(Geōrgios Bouontelmonti)
1411 Son of Esau de' Buondelmonti by Jevdokija Balšić. Briefly ruler of Ioannina under the regency of his mother, who was unpopular. Deposed by the local nobility in favour of Carlo I Tocco. [26]

Tocco dynasty (1411–1479)Edit

Image Name Reign Succession & notes Ref
Carlo I Tocco
Κάρολος Τόκκος
(Karolos Tokkos)
1411–1429 Son of Maddalena de' Buondelmonti, sister of Esau de' Buondelmonti. Invited to become the new ruler of Ioannina after the locals deposed Giorgio de' Buondelmonti. [27]
Carlo II Tocco
Κάρολος Τόκκος
(Karolos Tokkos)
1429–1448 Nephew and legitimate heir of Carlo I Tocco. Warred with the illegitimate sons of Carlo I Tocco, who tried to claim the despotate. Carlo II's reign saw the loss of most mainland territories to the Ottomans. [28]
  Leonardo III Tocco
Λεονάρδος Τόκκος
(Leonardos Tokkos)[n 2]
1448–1479 Son of Carlo II Tocco. Inherited the despotate as a minor, ruling under the regency of four of his tutors during his early years as despot. Fled to Naples when his final territories were conquered by the Ottomans in 1479. [29]

Titular despots of Epirus, 1479–1642Edit

Image Name Claim Succession & notes Ref
  Leonardo III Tocco 1479 – c. 1503
(previously ruling despot 1448–1479)
Lived in exile in Rome and in Naples after the fall of the despotate. Received valuable fiefs in southern Italy but had lost them by the time of his death. [30]
Carlo III Tocco c. 1503 – 1518 Son of Leonardo III Tocco and Milica Branković, granddaughter of Thomas Palaiologos. [30]
Leonardo IV Tocco 1518–1564 Son of Carlo III Tocco. [30]
Francesco Tocco 1564–1596 Son of Leonardo IV Tocco. [33]
Leonardo V Tocco 1596–1641 Son of Francesco Tocco. [34]
Antonio Tocco 1641–1642 Son of Leonardo V Tocco. In 1642, Antonio substituted his title for the title Prince of Achaea. The change in title was confirmed by Philip IV of Spain. He continued to live in exile under the new title, dying in 1678. [15]

With Antonio Tocco's abandonment of the title in the 17th century, the Tocco family ceased to use the title Despot of Epirus. Antonio's male-line descendants instead continued the use of the title Prince of Achaea.[36] The change in titulature might be attributable to the Tocchi being the most senior descendants of Thomas Palaiologos, Despot of the Morea,[37] following the extinction of his last certain male-line descendants in the 16th century.[38] Thomas Palaiologos had married the heiress of Centurione II Zaccaria, the last Prince of Achaea, and had inherited the territories of the principality upon Centurione's death in 1432.[37][39]


  1. ^ John II's regnal number derives from John I Orsini, who was not the ruler of Epirus but Count Palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos.
  2. ^ Leonardo III's regnal number derives from Leonardo I and Leonardo II Tocco, who were not rulers of Epirus but Count Palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos and Lord of Zakynthos, respectively.


  1. ^ a b c Zečević 2014, p. 91.
  2. ^ Fine 1994, p. 69.
  3. ^ Soustal & Koder 1981, pp. 38–39.
  4. ^ ODB, pp. 614, 716.
  5. ^ Stiernon 1959, pp. 122–126.
  6. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 68–69.
  7. ^ ODB, p. 716.
  8. ^ a b Zečević 2014, p. 81.
  9. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 82.
  10. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 92.
  11. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 100.
  12. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 97.
  13. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 116.
  14. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 126.
  15. ^ a b Gizzi 1697, p. 53.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Goodyear 2020.
  17. ^ Nicol 1984, pp. 114–121, 124.
  18. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 347.
  19. ^ Fine 1994, p. 350.
  20. ^ Nicol 1984, p. 133.
  21. ^ a b Talbot 2004, p. 51.
  22. ^ Nicol 1984, p. 143.
  23. ^ Nicol 1984, pp. 157, 353–354.
  24. ^ Fine 1994, p. 354.
  25. ^ Nicol 1984, pp. 353–354.
  26. ^ a b Zečević 2014, p. 80.
  27. ^ ODB, p. 2090.
  28. ^ Zečević 2014, pp. 98, 111.
  29. ^ Zečević 2014, p. 123.
  30. ^ a b c Miller 1921, p. 513.
  31. ^ Nicol 1968, p. 224.
  32. ^ Shamà 2013, p. 42.
  33. ^ Shamà 2013, pp. 45–46.
  34. ^ Shamà 2013, pp. 48–49.
  35. ^ Shamà 2013, p. 52.
  36. ^ a b Miller 1908, p. 488.
  37. ^ a b Miller 1908, p. 489.
  38. ^ Nicol 1992, p. 116.
  39. ^ Nicol 1992, p. 12.


Web sourcesEdit