Athens has had a very long and, mostly, illustrious history. Athens is best known for its classical period between the 6th and 4th centuries BC where such great figures as Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Kimon (Cimon), Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aristotle etc. flourished.
Athens fell in glory after being conquered by Phillip of Macedon, then the Romans and under the Byzantine and later empires until the new Kingdom of Greece in the late 19th century where it became the capital of the new state. Typically, the post-Roman states most people think of as having control of Athens are the Byzantine and Ottoman ones. Very few think of the Crusader States that were created after the break-up of the once mighty Byzantine Empire after the 4th Crusade.
One of the many states that were created as a result of the 4th Crusade was the Duchy of Athens that existed from approximately 1205 through 1458, when it came under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
During its 2 century life, the duchy changed hands many times and comprised of the provinces of Attica (containing Athens) and Beotia (containing Thebes). It was first claimed Otto de la Roche,a Burgundian minor noble from the Franche-Comté commune of Rigney, Doubs in France.
Athens was originally a vassal state of the Kingdom of Thessalonica, but after Thessalonica was captured in 1224 by Theodore, the Despot of Epirus, the duchy became a vassal of the Principality of Achaea. The Duchy occupied the Attic peninsula and extended partially into Thessaly, sharing an undefined border with Thessalonica and then Epirus. It did not hold the islands of the Aegean Sea, which were Venetian territories, but exercised influence over the Latin Lordship of Negroponte.
Otto held his lands as a vassal of the Kingdom of Thessalonica and was grand seignior of Athens. Three years later, in 1208, he claimed the title of Duke though the title did not become official until 1260. He and his close ally, Geoffrey I of Villehardouin, Prince of Achaea where fiercely loyal to the Latin Emperor Baldwin I of Constantinople. The two allies went on to increase their possessions in Greece and conquered Acrocorinth in 1209, Argos in 1210, and Nafplion in 1211. During Otto’s reign, he converted the Parthenon into a Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady. Otto himself resided in the Athenian Acropolis until his return to Burgundy in 1225 where he eventually died in 1238.
When Otto left Athens, he named his nephew Guy I de la Roche as Duke of Athens. By this time, in 1225, paid hommage to the Latin Emperor only, as the Kingdom of Thessalonica had fallen in 1224. The image above is of Guy’s arms blazoned Quatre points d’hermine, équipolés à cinq de gueules. During Guy’s tenure, the duchy prospered mainly due to the silk trade centered in Thebes and in 1240 gave half the lordship of the city to his brother in law Bela of St. Omer. In the later years of his lordship, he ran into several problem and almost lost his lands to William of Achaea in 1258. He eventually had to travel to France to face King Louis IX but managed to get official recognition of his title of “Duke”. By the time he returned to Athens, Constantinople had returned to the hands of the Byzantines and William of Achaea had fallen to Michael VII Palaiologos. Guy finally died in 1263 and was succeeded by his son John I de la Roche.
John, as opposed to his predecessors, was fluent in Greek and had a deep respect for Greek culture. He is most known for saying in 1275 while facing the Byzantines at Thermopylae “Great are their numbers but few among them are true men”, paraphrasing Herodotus who wrote of the Persians when telling of the the famous battle at the same location “the Persian are great in their numbers but true men are far and few”. John died in 1280 and was succeeded by his brother William I de la Roche.
William managed to reverse the losses of his late brother and extended his control all the way to Lamia, Argos and Nafplion. William managed to secure an alliance with the Duchy of Neopatria by marrying Helena Angelina Comnenou, daughter of the Duke Ioannis Angelos Comnenos. In 1285, after the imprisonment of Charles II of Naples, Prince of Achaea, William was named bailiff and vicar-general of the principality. He managed to defend Messenia against the Byzantine Empire and managed to become the most powerful Frankish lord in Greece. In 1287, William dies and is succeeded by his son Guy II de la Roche, a minor at the time.
Guy II, had a very adventurous life as Duke of Athens participating in numerous battles and it is said he was a good a just governor of his lands. Guy II died at a young age of 28 and with him, the De la Roche dynasty ended its hold of the dukedom.
Walter V of Brienne succeeded Guy II as Duke of Athens. Walter was born in Brienne-le-Château, Aube, Champagne, France. He was the son of Hugh de Candie des Brienne, known as Hugh of Brienne, Count of Brienne and Lecce, and Isabella de la Roche, daughter of Guy I of la Roche. He was the heir of the Brienne claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and of Cyprus, as well as to Taranto and Sicily. In 1296 he inherited the County of Brienne, Conversano and Lecce. After succeeding into the Duchy of Athens, he found himself at odds with the Despot of Epirus, the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos and the Lord of Vlachia leading him to hire the Catalan Company of mercenaries to support him. Though successful at this, the mercenaries turned on their former master and conquered Athens while Walter died in the decisive Battle of Halmyros in 1311.
Walter’s death and subsequent conquest of Athens by the Catalan Company, created a long dispute on who really can claim the Duchy. The Brienne family continued to claim the title however they were not universally recognized as such. The Brienne line of claimants descended through Isabella of Brienne to Walter IV of Enghien to Louis of Enghien to Marguerite of Enghien. The Enghien arms are displayed above and blazoned: gyronny of eight Argent and sable crusilly Or.
Marguerite married John of Luxembourg and through their son Peter of Luxembourg were the ancestors of Mary, Queen of Scots, Henri IV of France, Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Princess Diana of Wales, and Prince Charles of Wales.
Returning to the Catalan Company, after their victory they named Roger Deslaur as their leader and Duke of Athens. However, Roger proved to be an ineffective leader and was unable to maintain the conquests of the Company.
In 1312, the Catalan Company appealed to Frederick III of Sicily to take over the duchy and he complied by appointing his second born son, Manfred of Sicily as Duke of Athens and Neopatria. The arms seen above are those of the Aragonese Kings of Sicily under which the Duchy of Athens came.
Manfred, though, was very young and died at age 12 never having set foot in Athens. He was represented by his illegitimate elder brother Don Alfonso Fadrique who was appointed Vicar General by his father Frederick.
When Manfred died in 1317, his younger brother William II of Athens succeeded him. In 1337 he received the Principality of Taranto from his Father and died in 1338.
Giovanni d’Aragona was Frederick III’s fourth son and inherited the duchy of Athens after his older brother Manfred died in 1338. He was the most powerful noble in Sicily and his formal titles were: infante, duke of Randazzo, Athens, and Neopatria, Count of Malta and regent of Sicily. Giovanni died during the plague in 1348.
Giovanni’s son Frederick succeeded him as duke of Athens and Neopatria as well as Count of Malta as Frederick I of Athens. Frederick was the first duke after a long period of years to actually visit his duchy but, died young in 1355.
Frederick in turn was succeeded by his cousin of the same name, Frederick III, King of Sicily. also known as “the Simple”. This Frederick managed to handle the the enmity between Sicily and Naples as well as the Pope and come to peacful terms with both of them. However, he did not govern Athens directly and appointed his uncle Roland (or Orlando) of Sicily. With his wife Constança of Aragon, he had an only child, Mary of Sicily. Upon Frederick’s death in 1377, Mary inherited all the titles of her father.
Though Mary had inherited the duchy from her father, it was her husband, Martin I of the house of Aragon, that actually ruled over Athens, as well as the much greater kingdom of Sicily. Martin reigned until his death in 1409 when the title transferred to his son, Martin II.
Interestingly, in the 1380′s a Florentine family, the Acciaiuoli come to prominence and through their contacts in the Navarrese Company and the royal court of Naples (Sicily’s nemesis at the time), they manage to conquer the Duchy of Athens and claim the title of Duke of Athens. The first of the family to do so was Nerio I and the family’s arms are displayed above. The blazon is Argent a lion Azure armed and langued Gules. Curiously, the blazon changes and has the lion charged with a fleur-de-lys Or or an escutcheon Or or an eagle displayed Sable; all these variations are found in Rietstap’s armorial.
Amazingly, Nerio chose to will the duchy to the Republic of Venice rather than his son Antonio. In any case, Antonio was Duke from his father’s death in 1394 and just for six months until 1395. For the next 7 years, Venice controlled Athens and there wasn’t much Antonio could do. He did manage to reclaim the duchy in 1402 and ruled until 1435. Being a Florentine, he wanted to make his capital a place of art and culture and made great strides to that effect. However, the Aragonese house decided to reassert their claim to the duchy in 1422 and tried to oust Antonio.
The Acciaiuoli family continued to rule the duchy until its final conquest by the Ottomans in 1458 when the Duchy of Athens became extinct for all intents and purposes. The last Acciaiuoli to hold the title of Duke of Athens was Francesco II who finally was executed by the Turks in 1460.
If you’re still reading this post, it would be natural to think that once the Turks conquered Athens almost 600 years ago, the story would end there. How wrong you would be!
The arms above are the greater arms of the King of Spain, currently Juan Carlos I. As you will notice in the first quarter, you will see the arms of the kingdom of Two Sicilies as HM Juan Carlos is claimant to the titles of the House of Aragon. As such, the current king of Spain is the current pretender to the Duchy of Athens!
What makes it even more intriguing is that the king of Spain is married to Sophia, the sister of the last king of Greece, Constantine II of Greece.
Another interesting twist is that members of the De La Roche family, the first Dukes of Athens, are said to have remained in Attica all these centuries, became hellenized and still live there today. It is claimed that the family name changed to Rosis, Rosas, Rokas and today it is known as Papavasileiou (Παπαβασιλείου), however I do not know how valid this claim is.