Darren Buxbaum's Catalan Almughavars

CATALAN COMPANY (1302-1388 AD)
(DBA IV/60)

By David Kuijt and Chris Brantley

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The Grand Catalan Company may have been the first true mercenary company in Western Europe, long before the Italian Condottas and the infamous Free Company of Sir John Hawkwood.

The Catalan Company was raised in 1281 to fight as mercenaries in the War of the Sicilian Vespers, where the Angevin and Aragonese dynasties fought over the Kingdom of Sicily. When the war ended 20 years later, its commander was Rutger von Blum, better known as Roger de Flor. De Flor was originally a Templar sergeant. At the fall of Acre in 1291 he became rich using one of the Templar galleys to shuttle fugitives from Acre to Cyprus for enormous fees; later he was a pirate before he joined the Catalan Company and worked his way up to command it.

When peace broke out in Sicily, the Catalan Company was no longer needed and Sicily was strongly interested in seeing the last of them. De Flor negotiated a deal with the Byzantine Emperor, Andronikos II, who desperately needed mercenaries to fight the Turks after the Byzantine defeat at Nicomedia in July 1302.

The Company arrived at Constantinople in September 1303. They had no sooner arrived in Constantinople than they got involved in a bloody melee in the street with the local Genoese community. Soon afterwards they were shipped to Anatolia to relieve Philadelphia, a Byzantine city entirely surrounded by the Turks for some years. A large force of Alan cavalry (survivors of Nicomedia) were sent with them but didn't stay long. In short order there was a falling out between the Catalans and the Alans, and a sharp skirmish in which the Alans suffered 300 casualties including the son of their chieftain. Afterwards all but 1000 of the Alans left.

The Catalans then conducted a raiding campaign throughout the Turkish-held lands in Byzantine Nicaea, landing at Cyzicus in 1303 and striking south to Philadelphia, passing through Sardis, Magnesia, and Ephesus before recrossing the Straights of Bosphorus to land at Neapolis in Gallipoli. By this point, the Catalans, who had recruited nearly 3000 Turkic horse into their ranks, were considered by the Byzantines to be little better than brigands and freebooters. The successes had inflated the already arrogant De Flor, leading him to entertain plans of a setting up his own version of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. Needless to say, this put him at odds with the Byzantine Emperor, and eventually led to De Flor's assassination in an Alan ambush in April1305 and the subsequent Byzantine massacre of the  Catalonian and Aragonese populations in Constantinople. Command of the Catalan company fell on Ramón Muntaner. Further losses occurred in conflict with the Genoese soon after, but Catalan and Aragonese reinforcements, plus the addition of disaffected Turkish and Turkopouli deserters from the Byzantine army kept the Catalan Company in existence.

The Byzantine emperor then attempted to stop the Catalans (who were by then reduced to 206 horse and 1256 horse) at Apros in July 1305, but was defeated after his Alan allies, fearful of Catalan wrath at the loss of de Flor, deserted the Byzantine army in the field. The Catalans then advanced to Rhaidestos, which became a center of operations for an ineffectual blockade of Constantinople and devastating raids throughout Thrace and Macedonia for approximately two years (1306-1307 AD).

By 1308, internal dissension and a stepped-up Byzantine resistance forced the Catalans to move into Thessaly in Northern Greece. Using Salonica as a center of operations, they raided that region and ravaged the rich Eastern Orthodox monasteries at Mt. Athos. 

In 1309, Frederick III of Sicily sent the Infante Ferran of Mallorca to Gallipoli to assume the captaincy of the company.  Bernat de Rocafort opposed the Infante and his supporters within the company, forcing their departure. It was at this time that Ramón Muntaner left the company to take service with the Infante, and later wrote his chronicles which are the primary source of information on the Company's early history.  Bernat de Rocafort offered the Company's services to Charles of Valois in support of his claims to the Byzantine Empire, but Charles found de Rocafort to be a tyrant and had him seized and imprisoned in Naples, where he died of hunger the same year.   

In 1310, the Catalans found a new employer, Walter de Brienne, the Duke of Athens and one of the prominent leaders of the so-called Romanian Frankish "Latin Empire." They captured over thirty castles for the Duke, but when peace was concluded in 1311 de Brienne attempted to dismiss them without pay, and answered their demands with insults. This led to rebellion and open battle. On 15 March 1311, the Catalans laid a trap for the Duke at Halmyros by the River Kephissos.  The Catalan arrayed for battle behind a newly flooded field. Walter and his Frankish knights charged unknowingly into the mire where they were set upon by the light footed almugavars. The Duke and a huge proportion of his knights were slaughtered, leaving the Catalans masters of his Duchy.

The Catalan Company asked the royal house of Catalonia-Aragon to provide them with a figurehead ruler; during the next seventy years they were "ruled" by a succession of eight absentee Dukes, none of which seem to have ever set foot in Athens. Having seized their own country, the Catalans gradually expanded their holdings into Thessaly, and held their Duchies of Athens and Neustria for nearly eighty years.

In 1379 another free company from the Iberian peninsula, the Navarrese Company, moved on from its efforts to conquer Albania and attacked the Catalan Duchy of Athens in concert with a Florentine force. In 1388 a a Florentine army defeated the Catalans in a decisive battle at Kaledes (a.k.a. Peritheorion or Anastasioupolis), at the far end of Lake Vistonis on the road from Xanthi to Komotini. Following this defeat and the subsequent loss of their Duchy, the Catalan Grand Company disbanded.

Enemies

The Catalan Grand Company had a habit of making enemies of its friends and friends of its enemies, which included the Alans (II/58), the Latin Kingdoms (IV/32), the Byzantines (IV/33, IV/50, IV/51ab), the Navarrese Company (IV/39c), the Anatolian Turks (IV/49), the Ottomans (IV/55ab) and the Genoese and Florentines (IV/61).  The Catalans can make Big Battle alliance with the Alans (II/58).

Army Composition

1x 3Kn (Gen) Aragonese Knights, typical Spanish knights of the early 14th century. After the conquest of Athens, some of them might be feudal retainers of the deposed Romanian Franks.
1x 2LH Aragonese Jinetes (javelin and shield) throughout the period.
6x 3Aux Catalan Almughavars, who fought with a long spear, several javelins, and a big sword, but no shield. Very fierce.
2x 2LH or 4Ax Light Horse are Alans only briefly (1303 AD), thereafter use Turks (bow and shield) or Turcopoles (similar to the Turks, without turbans) after 1305. After 1380, replace the Turks with Albanian LH.  Ax are Catalan Almughavars.
2x 2Ps Catalan crossbow (and/or Greek native archers after 1311 AD)

Tactics

Despite its historical success, the Catalan Company appears to be a difficult army to master tactically. With 1-3 elements of Light Horse and 6-8 elements of Auxilia, the Catalan Company seems decidedly overmatched against heavier historical opponents: the Alans with their Blades, the Romanian Franks with their Knights, and the Later Byzantines/Early Ottomans with their Cavalry.

The key for the Catalan Commander is effective use of the Auxilia, the fearsome Catalan Almughavars. In accounts of the Catalan Company's actions, it is invariably the Almughavars who are given credit for carrying the tide of battle. How to accomplish that in DBA terms?  Effective use of bad going terrain. However, with an Aggression factor of 4, they will seldom obtain the benefit of terrain placement.  Rough terrain also diminishes the value of the Catalan Light Horse and Knights.

It is tempting to conclude that the reason this army performed well historically is because it avoided battle and used mobility and speed in a raiding strategy to stay one step ahead of its opponents. However, in most of its battles the Catalans appear to have been outnumbered. In particular they defeated a much larger Byzantine army at Apros, as well as the Romanian Franks (Duchy of Athens) at Kephissos in pitched battles. They did so, in part, because they were leaner and meaner than their "soft" opponents, a matter of troop quality or morale not reflected in the DBA game system.

Camp

Big piles of loot are certainly appropriate.  A medieval style camp with both European and Turkic-style tents would reflect the mixed composition of the company in Byzantine service. Since they often operated using a city or town as a base of operations for raiding throughout a district, a small section of city walls, dwellings, orchards, or similar built up areas also make good subjects.

Miniatures

Here are figure recommendations for the Catalan Grand Company, primarily from Essex 15mm ranges.  Essex also provides a Catalan army pack:

  • Auxilia: Essex XMED7 (Almughavars) are excellent; there are only two figure variations in a pack. Irregular HR38 (Almugavar infantry) mix well with them, they also have two figure variations. If you want a little more variety, Essex MID65 (shieldless javelin) aren't bad, although not as good as the previous two codes mentioned.
  • Knights: Essex MID80-83A are particularly Spanish with distinctive shields and helmets. Note that the Catalan Company were mercenaries, coming off a long war in Sicily; as such they would not have had top-of-the-line flashy helmets and equipment. As such, in their first phase (before the conquest of Athens in 1311) they might be equipped as Spanish knights of the last half of the 13th century. Essex's Later Spanish (Mid99-103) also serve for the later period.
  • Aragonese Light Horse:  Essex MID84 light horse (ginetes) would probably be fine. Irregular HR38 Genitor figures would be perfectly appropriate.
  • Turkish Light Horse: Any of Essex RNO25-28 would be fine.
  • Albanian Light Horse: Essex EMED57 (Albanian light cavalry) are listed as the LH figures for the Essex Scanderberg Albanian army; without seeing them I'd guess that they are probably appropriate figures for 14th century Albanian LH.

Other Resources

Unfortunately, relatively little is available on the Catalan Grand Company on-line or in print. The following out-of-print resources may be available for reference in library collections or through used booksellers:

  • "Catalan Domination of Athens, 1311-1388," by Kenneth Meyer Setton.

  • "The Rise of the Aragonese-Catalan Empire, 1200-1350," by Jerome Lee Shneidman

  • "The Problem of a Catalan Mediterranean Empire, 1229-1327," by J. N. Hillgarth

For discussion of the operations of the Catalan Company in Nicaea, Thrace and Macedonian, consult histories of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Andronikos II (a.k.a. Andronicus II).  The other primary source is Ramon Muntaner's Chronica (here as translated by Lady Goodenough).


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Except where indicated, the Catalan images are
from the collection of David Kuijt.

Comments, questions or suggested additions to this page
can be sent to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Last Updated: 4 Nov. 2004