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Despot or despotes (Greek: δεσπότης, romanizeddespótēs, "lord", "master")[1][2][n 1] 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 of the Byzantine emperor.

From Byzantium it spread throughout the late medieval Balkans and was also granted in the states under Byzantine cultural influence, such as the Latin Empire, the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Serbian Empire and its successor states (Bulgarian and Serbian: деспот, romanizeddespót), and the Empire of Trebizond. With the political fragmentation of the period, the term gave rise to several principalities termed "despotates" which were ruled either as independent states or as appanages by princes bearing the title of despot; most notably the Despotate of Epirus, the Despotate of the Morea and the Serbian Despotate.

In modern usage, the word has taken a different meaning: "despotism" is 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", a constitutionally sanctioned office of the Roman Republic. In colloquial Modern Greek, the word is often used to refer to a bishop. In English, the feminine form of the title is despotess or despotissa (from Greek: δεσπότισσα, romanizeddespótissa; Bulgarian: деспотица, romanizeddespotítsa; Serbian: деспотица/despotica), which denoted the spouse of a despot, but the transliterated traditional female equivalent of despotes, despoina (δέσποινα, déspoina, "lady of the house"), is also commonly used.

Origin and history

Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos with his family: empress Helena Dragaš (right), and three of their sons, the co-emperor John VIII and the despotes Andronikos and Theodore

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.[6] As such it was applied to any person of rank, but in a more specific sense to God,[7] 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.[6][8]

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-presumptive. According to the contemporary Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the title of despot was analogous to Bela's Hungarian title of urum, or heir-apparent.[8][9]

From this time and until the end of the Byzantine Empire, the title of despot became the highest Byzantine dignity, which placed its holders "immediately after the emperor" (Rodolphe Guilland).Balkans and was also granted in the states under Byzantine cultural influence, such as the Latin Empire, the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Serbian Empire and its successor states (Bulgarian and Serbian: деспот, romanizeddespót), and the Empire of Trebizond. With the political fragmentation of the period, the term gave rise to several principalities termed "despotates" which were ruled either as independent states or as appanages by princes bearing the title of despot; most notably the Despotate of Epirus, the Despotate of the Morea and the Serbian Despotate.

In modern usage, the word has taken a different meaning: "despotism" is 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", a constitutionally sanctioned office of the Roman Republic. In colloquial Modern Greek, the word is often used to refer to a bishop. In English, the feminine form of the title is despotess or despotissa (from Greek: δεσπότισσα, romanizeddespótissa; Bulgarian: деспотица, romanizeddespotítsa; Serbian: деспотица/despotica), which denoted the spouse of a despot, but the transliterated traditional female equivalent of despotes, despoina (δέσποινα, déspoina, "lady of the house"), is also commonly used.

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.[6] As such it was applied to any person of rank, but in a more specific sense to God,[7] 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.[6][8]

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-presumptive. According to the contemporary Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the title of despot was analogous to Bela's Hungarian title of urum, or heir-apparent.[8][9]

From this time and until the end of the Byzantine Empire, the title of despot became the highest Byzantine dignity, which placed its holders "immediately after the emperor" (Rodolphe Guilland).[10] Nevertheless, the Byzantine emperors from the Komnenoi to the Palaiologoi, as well as the Latin Emperors who claimed their succession and imitated their styles, continued to use the term despotes in its more generic sense of "lord" in their personal seals and in imperial coinage.[10][11][12] In a similar manner, the holders of the two immediately junior titles of sebastokrator and Caesar could be addressed as despota (δεσπότα).[13] The despot shared with the Caesar another appelatory epithet, eutychestatos (εὐτυχέστατος, "most fortunate") or paneutychestatos (πανευτυχέστατος, "most fortunate of all").[14]

During the last centuries of Byzantium's existence, the title was 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 for instance included the islands of 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-presumptive. According to the contemporary Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the title of despot was analogous to Bela's Hungarian title of urum, or heir-apparent.[8][9]

From this time and until the end of the Byzantine Empire, the title of despot became the highest Byzantine dignity, which placed its holders "immediately after the emperor" (Rodolphe Guilland).[10] Nevertheless, the Byzantine emperors from the Komnenoi to the Palaiologoi, as well as the Latin Emperors who claimed their succession and imitated their styles, continued to use the term despotes in its more generic sense of "lord" in their personal seals and in imperial coinage.[10][11][12] In a similar manner, the holders of the two immediately junior titles of sebastokrator and Caesar could be addressed as despota (δεσπότα).[13] The despot shared with the Caesar another appelatory epithet, eutychestatos (εὐτυχέστατος, "most fortunate") or paneutychestatos (πανευτυχέστατος, "most fortunate of all").[14]

During the last centuries of Byzantium's existence, the title was 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 for instance 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, and was not tied to any military or administrative functions or powers.[15] Women could not hold a noble title, but bore the titles of their husbands. Thus the spouse of a despot, the despotissa, had the right to bear the same insignia as he. Among the women of the court, the despotissai likewise took the first place after the empress.[16]

The use of the title spread also to the other countries of the Balkans. The Latin Empire used it to honour the Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo and the local ruler of the Rhodope region, Alexius Slav. After ca. 1219 it was regularly borne (it is not clear whether the title was awarded by the Emperor or usurped) by the Venetian podestàs in Constantinople, as the Venetian support became crucial to the Empire's survival.[17] In 1279/80, 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.[8][18] In the 15th century, the Venetian governors of Corfu were also styled as despots.[8] As the title of despot was conferred by the emperor and usually implied a degree of submission by the awardee, the Palaiologan emperors tried long to persuade the Emperors of Trebizond, who also claimed the Byzantine imperial title, to accept the title of despot instead. Only John II of Trebizond and his son Alexios II, however, accepted the title, and even they continued to use the usual imperial title of "basileus" domestically.[19]

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.

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, despotaton, in Greek); in the Byzantine world, 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 might succeed to his father's territory but could not hold the title unless it was conferred anew by the emperor.[8][20] 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 for instance John II Orsini is qualified as "the ruler of Acarnania, the despot John" rather than "the despot of Acarnania" by John VI Kantakouzenos.[21] 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.[8][22]

Insignia

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.[23] In detail, the insignia were: