Despot (court title)
Despot (from Greek: δεσπότης, despotēs, "lord, master"; in Bulgarian and Serbian: деспот, despot), was a senior Byzantine court title that was bestowed on the sons or sons-in-law of reigning emperors, and initially denoted the heir-apparent. From Byzantium it spread throughout the late medieval Balkans, and was also granted in the states under Byzantine influence, such as the Latin Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Empire of Trebizond. It gave rise to several principalities termed "despotates" which were ruled either as independent states or as appanages by princes bearing the title of despot. The most prominent of these were Epirus, the Morea and Serbia. In English, the feminine form of the title is despotess (Greek δεσπότισσα, despotissa; Serbian and Bulgarian деспотица, despotitsa), but the transliterated Greek form despoina (δέσποινα) is also commonly used.
The term must not be confused with its modern usage, which refers to despotism, a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. The semantic shift undergone by the term is mirrored by tyrant, an ancient Greek word that originally bore no negative connotation, and the Latin dictator.
Origin and distribution
The original Greek term δεσπότης (despotēs) meant simply "lord" and was synonymous with κύριος (kyrios). As the Greek equivalent to the Latin dominus, despotēs was initially used as a form of address indicating respect. As such it was applied to any person of rank, but in a more specific sense to God, bishops and the patriarchs, and primarily the Roman and Byzantine Emperors, occasionally used in formal settings, for example on coins (since Leo III the Isaurian) or formal documents.
Although it was used for high-ranking nobles from the early 12th century, the title of despot began being used as a specific court title by Manuel I Komnenos, who conferred it in 1163 to the future King Béla III of Hungary, the Emperor's son-in-law and, until the birth of Alexios II in 1169, heir-apparent. According to historian Gyula Moravcsik this title was a simple translation of Béla's Hungarian title úr, but other historians believe it comes from the old Roman title dominus.
The title of despot was the highest title in the Byzantine Empire during the last two centuries of its existence, being awarded to the younger sons of emperors (the eldest sons were usually crowned as co-emperors, symbasileis) as well as to the emperor's sons-in-law (gambroi). The title entailed extensive honours and privileges, including the control of large estates – the domains of Michael VIII's brother John Palaiologos included the islands of Lesbos and Rhodes – to finance their extensive households. Like the junior titles of sebastokrator and Caesar however, the title of despot was strictly a courtly dignity, without specific military or administrative functions or powers.
From the mid-14th century on, various territories were given to imperial princes with the rank of despot to rule as semi-autonomous appanages, some of which have become widely known as "despotates" (sing. δεσποτάτον in Greek); chiefly the Despotate of Epirus and the Despotate of the Morea. It is important to stress that the term "despotate" is technically inaccurate: the title of despot, like every other Byzantine dignity, was not hereditary nor intrinsic to a specific territory. Even in the so-called "despotates", a son of a despot could not hold the title unless it was conferred anew by the emperor. In normal Byzantine usage, a clear distinction was drawn between the personal dignity of despot and any other offices or attributes of its holder. Thus John II Orsini is qualified as "the ruler of Acarnania, the despot John" rather than "the despot of Acarnania" by John VI Kantakouzenos. Nevertheless, the close association of title and territory began already from the late 13th century and became widespread from the mid-14th century, as a steady succession of despots began to rule over the same territory.
The use of the title spread also to the other countries of the Balkans. The Latin Empire used it to honour Alexius Slav, and it was introduced in Bulgaria to placate the powerful magnate (and later Tsar) George Terter in 1279/80. During the Serbian Empire it was widely awarded among the various Serbian magnates, with Jovan Oliver being the first holder, and it was held by lesser principalities as well, including the self-proclaimed Albanian despots of Arta. In the 15th century, the Venetian governors of Corfu were also styled as despots.
With the death of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI on May 29, 1453, the creation of a despot became irregular. The title was granted by Pope Paul II to Andreas Palaiologos, heir to the Byzantine throne in 1465, and by the king of Hungary to the heirs of the Serbian Despotate.
Although the term originally had no negative or pejorative overtones, by the time of the Christian Reformation it began to take on authoritarian attributes and in that sense was synonymous with tyranny. It was used this way by the American Colonies against the British Parliament during the American Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson is noted for using despot exactly in that fashion.
According to the mid-14th century Book of Offices of Pseudo-Kodinos and the descriptions given by the historian George Pachymeres, the despot's insignia were characterised by the colours purple and white and the rich decoration in pearls. In detail, the insignia were:
- A brimmed hat called skiadion studded with pearls, with a neck-cover with the owner's name embroidered in gold and pendants "similar to those of the emperor". The skiadion was an everyday headgear, but it was forbidden to despots who had not reached adolescence to wear it indoors. For ceremonies and festivities, the despot bore the domed skaranikon, decorated with gold metalword, precious stones and pearls.
- A red tunic similar to the emperor's, with gold embroideries of the rizai style but without military insignia, and a red cloak (tamparion) with broad stripes. For festive occasions, the long kaftan-like kabbadion was worn, of red or purple colour and decorated with pearls.
- A pair of purple and white soft boots, decorated with imperial eagles made of pearls on the instep. The spurs were also bi-coloured, purple and white. In a few cases were emperors wished to show special favour to a son (Constantine Palaiologos under Michael VIII Palaiologos and Matthew Kantakouzenos under John VI Kantakouzenos), red boots like the emperor's were substituted, elevating its holder to an undefined quasi-imperial rank "above the despots" (ὑπὲρ δεσπότας).
- The despot's saddle and horse furniture were similar to that of the emperor, likewise in purple and white, decorated with pearl eagles. The coating of the saddle and the despot's tent were white with small red eagles.
The despot also had the right to sign his letters with an ink of a dark red colour (the emperor's was bright red).
The insignia was modified in Bulgaria and Serbia according to local preferences.
List of known holders
Despots of non-Byzantine states Latin Empire/Papacy Bulgaria Serbian Empire and successor states Name Tenure Conferred by Notes Refs Béla III of Hungary 1163–1169 Manuel I Komnenos Son-in-law and heir-apparent until 1169, thereafter demoted to Caesar  Theodore Vatatzes unknown Manuel I Komnenos Married to Manuel I's sister Eudokia. His holding of the title is attested only in the seal of his son.  Alexios Palaiologos 1200–1203 Alexios III Angelos Son-in-law and heir-apparent of Alexios III, second husband of Irene Angelina. Maternal grandfather of Michael VIII  Theodore I Laskaris 1203–1208 Alexios III Angelos Son-in-law of Alexios III, he was probably granted the title of despot after the death of Alexios Palaiologos. He founded the Empire of Nicaea and was proclaimed emperor in 1205, although he was not crowned until 1208 and was still formally despot until then.  Leo Sgouros 1203/1204–1208 Alexios III Angelos Lord of southern Greece, after Alexios III was evicted from Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade he married Eudokia Angelina at Corinth and was named despot and heir-apparent by the exiled emperor  John Chamaretos 1208 – unknown Alexios III Angelos Lord of Laconia, mentioned as despot in a latter from 1222. He was possibly awarded the title by Alexios III after Leo Sgouros' death  Alexius Slav 1208 – after 1222 Henry of Flanders (Latin Emperor) Bulgarian ruler of the Rhodopes  Andronikos Palaiologos 1216 – unknown Theodore I Laskaris Son-in-law and heir-apparent of Theodore I. Very little is known about him with certainty. He married Irene Laskarina and was raised to despot, but died soon after.  Manuel Komnenos Doukas 1225/1227–1230 Theodore Komnenos Doukas Brother of Theodore, he was raised to the rank of despot after Theodore crowned himself emperor. As heir to Theodore and ruler of Thessalonica, Manuel held the title of emperor (basileus) after 1230  Constantine Komnenos Doukas 1225/1227 – unknown Theodore Komnenos Doukas Brother of Theodore, he was raised to the rank of despot after Theodore crowned himself emperor.  John Komnenos Doukas 1242–1244 John III Vatatzes Ruler of Thessalonica, he abandoned the imperial title and acknowledged the suzerainty of Nicaea in 1242, being rewarded with the title of despot.  Demetrios Komnenos Doukas 1244–1246 John III Vatatzes Inherited rule of Thessalonica from his brother John and was conferred like him with the title of despot. Deposed by John III in 1246.  Michael II Komnenos Doukas before 1246–1267/1268 John III Vatatzes Nephew of Manuel, ruler of Epirus  Nikephoros I Komnenos Doukas before 1248/1250–1297 John III Vatatzes Son and heir of Michael II of Epirus, he was awarded the title on his betrothal to Maria, the daughter of John III. He ruled Epirus from his father's death in 1267/1268.  Michael VIII Palaiologos 1258–1259 John IV Laskaris Leader of the nobles, he was declared regent after the murder of George Mouzalon and raised first to megas doux and then, within weeks, to despot. He was crowned emperor on 1 January 1259.  Jacob Svetoslav before 1261–1275/1277 possibly Constantine Tikh (Bulgarian Emperor) Powerful magnate and autonomous lord of Sofia, he was probably named despot by a Bulgarian ruler rather than a Nicaean emperor  John Palaiologos 1259 – ca. 1273/1275 Michael VIII Palaiologos Brother of Michael VIII, he was elevated to the rank of despot following his victory at the Battle of Pelagonia. He renounced the insignia and privileges of a despot, but not the title itself, after his defeat at the Battle of Neopatras in 1273/1275, and died shortly after.  Demetrios/Michael Komnenos Doukas unknown Michael VIII Palaiologos Third son of Michael II of Epirus, he married Anna, one of the daughters of Michael VIII, and was named Despot.  Constantine Doukas Palaiologos unknown Michael VIII Palaiologos Third son of Michael VIII, he is attested as a Despot in seals.  George I of Bulgaria 1278/1279–1292 Michael VIII Palaiologos Powerful magnate, he was given the title of despot along with the hand of the sister of Tsar Ivan Asen III to win him over in the face of the uprising of Ivaylo. George later deposed Ivan Asen and became Tsar himself.  John II of Trebizond 1282–1297 Michael VIII Palaiologos Emperor of Trebizond, he was persuaded to renounce his own claim to be "Emperor of the Romans" and accept the title of despot and the hand of Michael VIII's daughter Eudokia. John visited Constantinople in 1282, when the title was conferred and the marriage with Eudokia took place. He nevertheless retained the imperial title in an altered form.  Thomas I Komnenos Doukas 1290–1318 Andronikos II Palaiologos Only son and heir of Nikephoros I of Epirus  Philip I, Prince of Taranto 1297–1313, 1330–1332 Self-awarded (Titular Latin Emperor, Prince of Achaea, etc) Husband of Thamar, the sister of Thomas I of Epirus. On Thomas's death he claimed the title "Despot of Romania" on behalf of his wife. Ceded his claim to his sons Charles (died 1315) and Philip (died 1330).  Constantine Palaiologos 1292–1320s Andronikos II Palaiologos Second son of Andronikos II, he was named despot on his marriage to the daughter of Theodore Mouzalon  John Palaiologos 1294 – unknown Andronikos II Palaiologos Third son of Andronikos II, he was named despot on 22 May 1294  Alexios II of Trebizond ca. 1297–1330 Andronikos II Palaiologos Son and successor of John II of Trebizond, he was persuaded to renounce his own claim to be "Emperor of the Romans" and accept the title of despot and the hand of Michael VIII's daughter Eudokia. John visited Constantinople in 1282, when the title was conferred and the marriage with Eudokia took place.  Theodore Palaiologos unknown Andronikos II Palaiologos Fourth son of Andronikos II, named despot at an unknown date, from 1305 Marquess of Montferrat  Demetrios Palaiologos unknown Andronikos II Palaiologos Fifth son of Andronikos II, named despot at an unknown date  Manuel Palaiologos unknown – 1320 Andronikos II Palaiologos Second son of Michael IX Palaiologos, named despot at an unknown date, killed by mistake by his brother Andronikos III Palaiologos  Michael Shishman of Bulgaria before 1313–1322/1323 Theodore Svetoslav (Bulgarian Emperor) Autonomous lord of Vidin, named despot at or soon after his father Shishman of Vidin's death. Became Tsar of Bulgaria in 1322/1333.  Belaur 1323 – ca. 1331 Michael Shishman (Bulgarian Emperor) Half-brother of Michael Shishman, he succeeded him as autonomous lord of Vidin with the rank of despot. He resisted the rule of Ivan Alexander and was forced to flee into exile  Michael Shishman Vidinski unknown Ivan Alexander (Bulgarian Emperor) Younger son of Tsar Michael Shishman of Michael Shishman, he probably succeeded Belaur as autonomous lord of Vidin with the rank of despot.  Jovan Oliver 1334–1356 Andronikos III Palaiologos Autonomous Serbian magnate, named despot by Andronikos III after the Byzantine-Serbian peace agreement of 1334  Michael Palaiologos before 1341 – unknown Andronikos III Palaiologos Second son of Andronikos III, named despot at a very young age date  Momchil 1343/44–1345 Anna of Savoy Bulgarian ruler of the Rhodopes, awarded the title by the Empress-regent during the Byzantine civil war of 1341–1347, in order to detach him from John VI Kantakouzenos, who titled him sebastokrator. Effectively independent until defeated and killed by Kantakouzenos' army.  Simeon Uroš 1345/1346–1363 Stephen Uroš IV Dušan (Serbian Emperor) Half-brother of Stephen Dušan, he was named despot probably after Dušan's coronation as emperor. Governor of Epirus, he proclaimed himself Tsar in 1356 and tried to seize control of Serbia but failed. Ruler of Thessaly and most of Epirus from 1359 until his death ca. 1370  John Komnenos Asen 1345/1346–1363 Stephen Uroš IV Dušan (Serbian Emperor) Brother-in-law of Stephen Dušan, he was named despot probably after Dušan's coronation as emperor. Ruler of the Principality of Valona until his death  Manuel Kantakouzenos 1347–1380 John VI Kantakouzenos Second son of John VI, named despot after the Byzantine civil war of 1341–1347, first "Despot of the Morea" from 1349 until his death  Nikephoros II Orsini 1347–1359 John VI Kantakouzenos Son-in-law of John VI, named despot after the Byzantine civil war of 1341–1347, ruler of Epirus in 1335–1338 and 1356–1359  Manuel Komnenos Raoul Asanes before 1358 – unknown John VI Kantakouzenos Brother-in-law of John VI Kantakouzenos, named first sebastokrator by him and despot at an unknown date  John Kantakouzenos 1357 – unknown John V Palaiologos Eldest son of Matthew Kantakouzenos, named despot on his father's abdication of his imperial title  Gjin Bua Shpata ca. 1360/1365–1399/1400 Simeon Uroš Palaiologos (Titular Serbian Emperor) Albanian clan leader, in the early 1360s he was recognized as Despot and ruler of Aetolia (the "Despotate of Angelokastron") by the titular Serbian Emperor and ruler of Thessaly Simeon Uroš. He was de facto independent, and in 1374 annexed the Despotate of Arta and launched repeated unsuccessful attacks against Ioannina.  Pjeter Losha ca. 1360/1365–1374 Simeon Uroš Palaiologos (Titular Serbian Emperor) Albanian clan leader, in the early 1360s he was recognized as Despot and ruler of Acarnania (the "Despotate of Arta") by the titular Serbian Emperor and ruler of Thessaly Simeon Uroš. He was de facto independent however, and attacked Thomas Preljubović at Ioannina, before coming to terms with him. He died of the plague in 1373/1374.  Vukašin Mrnjavčević 1364–1365 Stephen Uroš V (Serbian Emperor) One of the most powerful Serian magnates under Stephen Dušan, he was named despot in 1364 and then king and co-ruler by the emperor Stephen Uroš V. He became de facto independent by 1368, and was killed by the Ottomans in the Battle of Maritsa in 1371.  Jovan Uglješa 1365–1371 Stephen Uroš V (Serbian Emperor) Brother of Vukašin Mrnjavčević, he was named despot in succession to his brother and became ruler of Serres alongside Dušan's widow Helena. From ca. 1368 he was a de facto independent ruler until his death in the Battle of Maritsa.  Jovan Dragaš 1365 – ca. 1378 Stephen Uroš V (Serbian Emperor) Cousin of Stephen Uroš V and nephew of Stephen IV Dušan, with his brother Constantine Dragaš he governed northeastern Macedonia (the "Despotate of Velbazhd"). From the Battle of Maritsa on he was an Ottoman vassal.  Theodore Palaiologos before 1376–1407 John V Palaiologos Third son of John V, from 1383 until his death "Despot of Lacedaemon"  Thomas II Preljubović 1382–1384 John V Palaiologos Son of Gregory Preljub, he was given the rule of Ioannina and its region by his father-in-law Simeon Uroš in 1367. The title of Despot was not formally conferred by the Byzantine Emperor until 1382 however.  Michael Palaiologos unknown John V Palaiologos Fourth son of John V, very little is known about his life  Stefan Lazarević 1402–1427 Manuel II Palaiologos Ruler of Serbia as an Ottoman vassal. He was awarded the title of despot during a visit to Constantinople in 1402. Autonomus ruler of the "Serbian Despotate" until his death in 1427  Theodore Palaiologos 1406/1407–1448 Manuel II Palaiologos Second son of Manuel II, Despot in the Morea from 1407, and in Selymbria from 1443 to his death  Andronikos Palaiologos 1409 – ca. 1424 Manuel II Palaiologos Third son of Manuel II, Despot in Thessalonica from 1409 until 1423 (styled "Despot of Thessaly" by Doukas), shortly thereafter he entered a monastery  John Palaiologos unknown Manuel II Palaiologos Son of Andronikos, Despot of Thessalonica. He is mentioned as holding the title in 1419.  Constantine XI Palaiologos unknown – 1449 Manuel II Palaiologos Fourth son of Manuel II and last Byzantine emperor. Despot in Selymbria until 1443, thereafter co-Despot in the Morea until 1449, when he succeeded to the Byzantine throne  Demetrios Palaiologos 1425–1460 Manuel II Palaiologos Fifth son of Manuel II, Despot in Lemnos from 1425 to 1449, in Mesembria from 1440, co-Despot in the Morea from 1449 until the Ottoman conquest in 1460  Thomas Palaiologos 1428–1460 John VIII Palaiologos Sixth son of Manuel II, co-Despot in the Morea from 1428 until the Ottoman conquest in 1460. According to Sphrantzes, however, he was not titled Despot until 1449, when his brother Constantine became emperor.  Đurađ Branković 1429–1456 Manuel II Palaiologos Successor of Stefan Lazarević as ruler of Serbia from 1427, he received the title of despot in 1429. An Ottoman vassal from 1428.  Lazar Branković 1440s–1458 Manuel II Palaiologos Son and successor of Đurađ Branković, he received the title of Despot during his father's reign.  Manuel Kantakouzenos 1453 leader of popular revolt Grandson of Demetrios I Kantakouzenos, he was acclaimed as leader and despot of the Morea by the local Albanian and Greek inhabitants during the failed Morea revolt of 1453–1454. He was soon eclipsed by Giovanni Asen Zaccaria.  Stephen Tomašević April–June 1459 unknown Prince of Bosnia, he became the last independent Serbian ruler after his marriage to Helena-Maria, the daughter of Lazar Branković. He assumed the title of despot (or perhaps was awarded it by Lazar's widow, the Byzantine princess Helena Palaiologina). His capital Smederevo was conquered by the Ottomans a few months later.  Andreas Palaiologos unknown – 1465 Pope Pius II (?) Eldest son of Thomas Palaiologos and heir of the Palaiologan line. According to Sphrantzes, he was awarded the title of Despot by the Pope, but R. Guilland suggested that he may have already received the title before 1460. Claimant to the Byzantine throne from 1465 to 1494. 
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