12 December 2009

The Singular Stratiote

These marvellous striped stockings, much gimped, are all that remain of the figure of a stratiote in a Cretan fresco of military saints, but they suggest something of the multivalent world of the stratioti. The name comes from the Greek word stratiotis, one obligated to military service, and in this period it was supplemented by the Italian notion that it meant something like "on the road." Marino Sanudo described them in the 1480s:

These stratioti are Turks, Greeks, and Albanians living in the Morea, men of great spirit, ready to put themselves in every danger. They ride their horses with great swiftness, cutting down and laying everything to waste. They are by nature rapacious and much given to looting and to the deaths of men, against whom they use great cruelty. They carry shield, sword and lance with a pennant at the tip of the lance, and an iron mattock at their side. Few wear a cuirass, and the rest only their coats of bombazine1 sewn in their fashion. Their horses are large, good workers, fast on the hoof, and always carry the head high. They eat grain and straw. These people are much experienced in war . . . and their city wall is the sword and the lance.
OK, that sounds a bit like the Spartans claim for themselves, but the stratioti were -- given that this is a fallen world and much happens that we would prefer did not -- the stratioti were pretty magnificent.  Those Sanudo writes about had been imported from Modon, Corone, and Nauplion in 1482 for the Ferrara war.  There had been days of arguing and a near-revolt against Minio over the pay scales offered, and then as soon as they were off-loaded from their barges on the Brenta canal, most were massacred in a charge by Federigo de Montefeltro and his steel-armed warriors.  The stratioti were having no more of this, so they refused to fight until they had a commander of their own -- "not one of those Italians " -- and announced they would take no prisoners. The general practice was to try to capture individuals for whom they could collect ransom.  Meanwhile they engaged in a little looting while the Venetians decided what to do. Minio arrived back in Venice from Nauplion just in time to be appointed their commander -- he seems to have been thought the only person likely to be able to control them, and was commended for their military success.  But the Ferrarese and their allies were frightened of losing their heads or, if not killed, their ears, and the stratioti's reputation possibly accomplished more for them in Italy than actual fighting.

 Venice had been hiring stratioti here and there in Greece for about 60 years, but their first real use came early in the 1464-1478 war when four-fifths of the fanti Sigismundo Malatesta had brought from Italy died of plague. Stratioti cost considerably less, they supplied their own horses, they knew the mountain routes that had to be negotiated as the Venetian troops dodged and tracked the Turkish.  And, as Barbarigo wrote, "These peasants are better fighters than the Italians." Barbarigo was supposed to oversee Malatesta and coordinate the war efforts, including food, pay, hiring and firing.

This war had very little commitment back home, and much of Barbarigo's wonderful letters are concerned with trying to get food for his troops, pay for his troops, straw for their horses.  Very little of anything was being sent out, and he had before him the example of stratioti in country, too long without pay, who had decapitated their Italian captain. Then he had trouble finding aides who could speak and write Greek to deal with them, and he was on short rations himself.  He had to send half of his stratioti up to Nauplion territory, because Modon and Corone territories could only feed 150 horses each.  Meanwhile, the stratioti were selling off their future wages at one-quarter of their worth to get a little money for a little food.  Most of them were without shoes, and many of were sick from malnutrition and malaria. Then there were the occasional raids that acquired a couple of thousand sheep and goats, and half of them had to be slaughtered and abandoned because the band of 40 or 70 stratioti couldn't manage them across the mountain passes fast enough ahead of the Turks.

Stratioti are rarely singular.  They are almost always mentioned in groups, though two were assigned to take the Anonymous Naupliote from Mouchli to Argos.  They fight in bands, almost always family-related groups, usually between eighteen and thirty males of all ages, but on occasion as many as 500.  We have very few names of individual stratioti, but we have many of names of kapitanioi, or capi -- Krokondeilos and Emmanuel Kladas, Michali Rallis, Thodoro Bua, Petro Bua, Bozike, Blessi, Theodoros Palaiologos, Demetrios Palaiogos (related, but not imperial), and towns all over Greece have names familiar from stratioti  in the 15th Century -- Gerbesi, Manessi, Zonga. Venice rewarded the kapitanioi and gave them lengths of red or black cloth on occasion when there wasn't money, and generally provided widows' pensions, daughters' dowries, and hired the sons.  The stratioti were so much food for the birds and the dogs.

The original theory, and the practice that the Venetians tried to maintain as much as possible, was that they received land to farm in lieu of pay, they took along their own provisions, provided their own equipment, and could have whatever they could get in loot.  Stratioti could easily become bandits when there was no war on, and in most accounts of war in the Morea -- when not actually facing an organized Ottoman force -- it is very difficult to say why a particular action is war rather than banditry.

However, the realities of the Ottoman war meant that Venice needed to hire troops from the Albanian clans who moved their herds and huts from mountain to mountain and had little or no local allegiances or concern for Venetian discipline.  In both Minio and Barbarigo there seems to be an exasperated equivalence that stratioti = good, Albanians = bad, but stratioti were as often Albanians (from earlier periods of immigration) as Greek, and were perfectly capable of rebellion.  Minio calls them all "zente desregulata -- lawless people."

Still, these were ferociously loyal men, fighting, hanging on after months of not being paid, sometimes performing amazingly heroic actions.  Sometimes, after not being paid for a very long time, bands would go off to fight for the Turks for a while instead of against them.  Sometimes, desperate for food, a group would make a private peace so they could tend to their crops for a season.  And once a group of stratioti, furious at the Ottoman-Venetian peace settlement, declared their own six-month war against the Turks. One can only imagine how difficult their lives must have been to prefer unpaid service under the Venetians to quiet herding on one of the Morea's beautiful upland pastures.

They are raggedy men -- the stockings in the picture, and the red shoes, were probably sold a few months later so their owner could buy food.  The image I cary of stratioti is a scene repeated over and over in the various reports: a crowd of hungry men barefoot in the dust of the plateia at Nauplion -- now paved with marble and place lined with Rossini-esque buildings and cafes and Venetian lions and a couple of repurposed mosques -- crying "Pan! Pan!"  Bread.


  1. Great post, thank you.

    I grew up in a corner house in Zakynthos. In the narrow pedestrianised street, three doors from ours, lived the Bozikis. The old man had a coffee shop and he was a tall man. All his sons - he had no daughters - were tall and looked like him. I sometimes imagine the Boziki brothers of the Kladas revolt looked like them.
    In the wider street and exactly opposite us was a little taverna and grocery shop. It belonged to the Bastas who lived above it. One Petros Bastas was a stradiot in the first half of the 16th century in Zakynthos but their family name is famed because of this man:
    Three doors to the right of the taverna lived the Sklivas. The head of the household was a carpenter I think. Nasa Patapiou has written a very interesting article on the Sklivas of Famagusta, their fate after the siege of 1571 and their beautifully named daughter Balsamina.
    On our side of the street, a few doors to the right lived the Psaris, who owned a shop selling cloth, and at the end of the street the Pet(t)as, who had a petrol station at the seafront.
    I have found the family names of many neighbours, schoolfriends and fellow Zakynthians in this site:
    and in this one:
    My own family name is there too.

    There is a complete list of stradioti active in Zakynthos in 1539, according to L. Zoes. They were serving under Demetrios Palaiologos, son of Theodoros. There were most likely many others, serving away from the island at the time, but the list is of the Stratia or Compagnia Greca of Zante and they are not included. I have not found it anywhere on the net, so here it is.

    Nikolaos Augoustinos, Demetrios Arvanitis, Georgios Varyzamas, Ioannis Visvardis, Pavlos Visvardis, Frangiskos Vitsis (Vitsos), Nikolaos Vorisis, Michail Vozikis (Boziki), Ioannis Voulgaris, Andreas Voulgaris, Ioannis Giatras, Andreas Grasountas, Petros Doxaras, Andreas Dorizas, Dimos Zavradinos, Nikolaos Zivas, Andreas Zougras, Petros Thodosis (Theodosis), Stamelos Thodosis, Vernardos Kaitsas (Caicha), Stamatis Kaitsas, Voivodas Kataivatis, Georgios Katramis, Petros Koklas, Markos Kokkinis, Nikolaos Komis, Georgios Kortesis, Dimos Koutsis, Kotsos Koutsis, Pavlos Kostis, Petros Kostis, Pavlos Lagoutsis, Loukas Lalosis, Theodoros Lalotis, Theodoros Lampetis (Labeti), Petros Lampetis, Georgios K. Lykouressis, Dimitrios Lykouressis, Domenikos Lykouressis, Ioannis Lykouressis, Kontos Lykouressis, Loumas, Ioannis Louhas, Goulielmos Malandrinos, Georgios Marinos, Matarangas, Nikolaos Mavropoulos, Stamatis Morfis, Petros Mpastas (Basta), Filippos Mpelousis (Belussi), Lampros Mpofardios, Michail Mpourlessas, Georgios Xenos, Panagiotis Panas, Petros Patihas, Dimos Petas, Lazaros Petas, Nikolaos Pinakas, Dimitrios Platypodis, Nikolaos Polyzitaris, Dimos Pomonis, Andreas Raftis, Petros Papsomanikis, Andreas Renesis, Antonios Renesis, Dimitrios Sidirokastritis, Vasilios Soulis, Georgios Soulis, Spaniolis Soulis, Dimos Sourmpis, Ioannis Stravogenis, Georgios Strouzas, Andreas Tousas, Ioannis Faseos, Ioannis Foinikis (Phoenicis), Nikolaos Fourtounis, Emmanouil Frangopoulos, Andreas Haikalis (Chaikali), Gkinis Haikalis, Kotsos Haikalis, Markos Haikalis, Stamatis Haikalis, Georgios Haraktinos, Antonios Helmis (Chelmi), Dimitrios Psaris.

    Most of these surnames, Greek, Hellenised Albanian and a few Hellenised Italian are still very common on the island today.

    Best regards

  2. By 1539 Venice was willing to surrender Nauplion & Monemvasia for peace. It looks rather as if they were securing stratiote bands in the west to have for future use. Theodoros and then Demetrios Palaiologos held a fief at Thermissi thought we know nothing about it other than that they mostly acted independent of Venetian authority. So maybe keeping them employed & out of the area had its uses.

    You are fortunate with the list of names. There is no such single list of names from Nauplion, though I do have the names of several who were pardoned in the Kladas affair. The better records seem to be later in date than the period I work on.

  3. I put up the list knowing it probably wouldn't be of any help to you, only hoping it may be of interest to someone who, like me, is curious about the stradioti in general. By the way I misspelled one of the names, it is Rapsomanikis and not Papsomanikis.

    You may be right about the Palaiologoi but they seem to have established links with Zakynthos very early on. Theodoros was already on the island on 4 August 1483 and he kept coming and going till the end of his life. He had been given land, including the tiny but beautiful island of Marathonisi.
    According to Ntinos Konomos he was assisted by his brother George while another brother called Matthew (Matthaios) had become the abbott of the monastery of Anafonitria. Personally I find dealing with the Palaiologoi very confusing.

    Best regards

  4. I have a file for my book called Too-many-Palaiologoi. Anyone who ever married someone remotely related to them took on the name, & I suspect that as the use of first-name/last-name in the Italian style became more common, they went with Palaiologos as having more chic, & it probably paid better. A Theodoros got a fief at Thermissi in 1479, & after that I am not sure about anything.

  5. Your file may be just enough to get you proclaimed the founder of Paleologology, a field that could surpass Paleontology in complexity!

    I think the most curious case must be that of Christopher Columbus who, rather than borrow the prestigious Paleologos, picked the nickname of his boss, partner in crime and perhaps relative Georges Paleologue de Bissipat aka Georges le Grec aka Zorzi Greco aka Colombo il Giovane.

    Best regards,

  6. I had no idea? Can you give me a citation for that? You did see the earlier blog here on Columbus, Pirate?

  7. Yes I did see Columbus, Pirate. I did not post there because I am not convinced Columbus took part in that engagement. The date of that naval battle is not consistent with Columbus' coming to Portugal. His son appears to confuse that battle with an earlier one that took place in 1476 in the same location and again involved Colombo the Younger (de Bissipat) as well as Colombo the Older (de Cassenove). Only that one was not fought against Venetians but Genoese, which would make Columbus a traitor as well as a pirate. I do not discount the possibility that good old Chris took part in both attacks. After all his son said "his coming to Spain" which may mean "his coming to Castille" rather than to Portugal. There seems to be a lot of confusion between the two battles in any case.
    What I said here about Columbus' name is only valid if we choose to accept his son's assertion that Colombo the Younger (de Bissipat) was "a renowned man of his name and family". Whether de Bissipat was a Palaiologos or a fake is another relevant question. I am not particularly well versed in Columbus' history but I can see that both the notion that he fought on the side of the French as well as the widely accepted version that he was on a Genoese vessel in the 1476 engagement are problematic. In the latter case we would have to accept that a man who was registered as a young cloth-weaver in 1472 Genoa married into Portuguese nobility a couple of years after arriving at Lisbon in 1476 and while owning property worth a little more than 100 florins. The subject is far too complicated to discuss here but it may merit a mention in your Palaiologoi file.

  8. I have now posted some belated comments in Columbus, Pirate.

    Best regards,


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