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Despot (from Greek: δεσπότης, despotēs; plural δεσπότες, despotes; feminine δέσποινα, despoina; in Bulgarian and Serbian: деспот, despot; feminine деспотица, despotica), was a Byzantine court title, also granted in the states under Byzantine influence, such as the Latin Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Empire of Trebizond. In the last two hundred years or so, the term "despot" is perceived negatively, as it is associated with despotism, but the original title had no such connotations. This change of meaning is shared with other terms in different times such as "tyrant", derived from the ancient Greek word for "King", and "Dictator", originally a legally-appointed Roman magistrate.


Origin and distribution

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 despotēs meant simply "lord" and was synonymous with kyrios. As the Greek equivalent to the Latin dominus, despotēs was initially used as a form of address indicating respect.[1] 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.[2][1]

Although it was used for high-ranking nobles from the early 12th century, the title despotēs 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, at the time, heir-apparent.[2] According to 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 majority of subsequent despotes were younger sons or sons-in-law of the Byzantine Emperors, who tended to crown their eldest sons as co-emperor (symbasileus). The title despotēs was initially strictly a courtly dignity, without specific military or administrative functions or powers, in spite of enjoying the highest position of honor below the emperor.

The title of despotēs spread to the Byzantine successor states after the Fourth Crusade and was awarded by any sovereign who held the imperial title, including the emperors of the Latin Empire, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Trebizond. The title despotēs could also be awarded by an emperor to a foreign magnate for kinship or services. In the Empire of Trebizond the title was granted to the intended heir to the throne, in marked contrast to practice elsewhere.


In the period after the Fourth Crusade, certain despotes came to be associated with particular territories, such as Epirus, Morea (the Peloponnese), and Serbia. It is important to stress however that the derivative term "Despotate" employed for these territories is technically inaccurate, as the title of despotēs was neither hereditary, nor intrinsic to a particular territorial jurisdiction, with the partial exception of the Morea. Instead, the title was given to imperial relatives who were given to administer semi-autonomous appanages, chiefly Morea, Epirus and Thessalonica.[2] In the Morea, the virtually uninterrupted succession of despotēs is due to the practice of emperors consistently appointing their younger sons, already created despotēs, as governors of that province. In Bulgaria, the term was introduced in the 13th century, in Serbia in the mid-14th century (Jovan Oliver) and in Epirus only after the late 14th century.[2]

With the death of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI on May 29, 1453, the creation of a despotēs 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.


The Byzantine despotēs dressed in a fashion reminiscent of the attire of the Byzantine Emperor, including:

  • a mural crown (with four crenelations for imperial sons, or one for imperial sons-in-law)
  • a red or purple tunic, usually decorated with imperial eagles
  • a pair of red and purple soft boots

The insignia was modified in Bulgaria and Serbia according to local preferences.


  1. ^ a b Grierson et al (1993), p. 178
  2. ^ a b c d Kazhdan (1991), p. 614


  • Kazhdan, Alexander, ed (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6.  
  • B. Ferjančić, Despoti u Vizantiji i južnoslovenskim zemljama, Belgrade 1960.
  • I.A. Biljarski, Instituciite na srednovekovna Bălgarija. Vtoro bălgarsko carstvo (XII-XIV v.), Sofia, 1998.
  • Grierson, Philip; Bellinger, Alfred Raymond; Hendy, Michael F. (1993), Catalogue of the Byzantine coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, ISBN 978-0-88-402045-5  


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