This King Founded a Short-Lived Empire During the Middle Ages

This King Founded a Short-Lived Empire During the Middle Ages

Patrick Lynch - April 12, 2017

Stefan Dusan, also known as Stefan Uros IV, is one of the most important people in Serbian history. He was the King of Serbia from 1331 to 1346 and he founded the short-lived Serbian Dynasty in 1346. He ruled as the Emperor of the Serbs, Greeks, and Albanians until his death in 1355. Although he was an exceptional commander, much of Dusan’s success was based on opportunism. He displayed an uncanny ability to take advantage of a situation when it presented itself.

The Early Years

Dusan was born in 1308 and was the son of Stefan Uros III and grandson of the reigning monarch Stefan Uros II. When Dusan was a boy, his father rebelled against the king and suffered as the Uros II blinded him and exiled him to Constantinople. Dusan moved to the capital of the Byzantine Empire and learned the ways of its government which helped him in later life.

Uros II apparently forgave his son, and the family returned to Serbia in 1320. The monarch died the following year, and Dusan’s father demonstrated that he wasn’t blind after all because he found a miracle cure. As a result, he enjoyed the support of the nobility, defeated pretenders to the throne, and became king in 1322. For his part, Dusan was named heir apparent and would rule upon the death of his father.

As the governor of Serbia’s Maritime Provinces, Dusan gained valuable military experience and showed his skills by helping his father win a decisive battle over the Bulgarians at Velbuzd in 1330. His father’s decision not to attack the Byzantine Empire after this significant win alienated many of the nobles. Perhaps they pressurized Dusan, because he quarreled with his father and deposed him in 1331.

This King Founded a Short-Lived Empire During the Middle Ages
Dusan’s Empire. Serbia

King of Serbia

After handling revolts in Zeta in 1332, Dusan turned his attention to the Byzantine Empire and began a conflict with it in 1334. After reaching the gates of Salonica, he made peace with Byzantine Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus in August 1334. Dusan also had to deal with marauding Hungarians, and while he suffered defeat to a huge army at Sumadija in 1336, he launched a brilliant cavalry attack as the enemy advanced and expelled the Hungarians. As a result of this conflict, the Hungarians lost Belgrade and Macva to their rivals.

When Andronicus III died in 1341, it resulted in a six-year Byzantine Civil War. Once again, Dusan arrived at the gates of Salonica and created an unexpected alliance with the deceased emperor’s general, John Cantacuzenus, who revolted against the new Emperor, John V Palaeologus. With the aid of Dusan, Cantacuzenus declared himself emperor but the alliance fell apart in 1343, and the one-time allies became bitter enemies.

Dusan conquered all of Macedonia barring Thessaloniki and all of Albania except Drac. He also took Seres in 1345 and by the end of that year, he declared himself the Emperor of the Serbs, Greeks, and Albanians. Dusan was crowned emperor at a ceremony in Skopje in Easter 1346.

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This King Founded a Short-Lived Empire During the Middle Ages
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The Beginning of the Serbian Empire

Dusan was in no mood to sit back and relax once he became Emperor and he asked the Venetians to help him conquer Constantinople but help was not forthcoming. Nonetheless, he continued to take other parts of the Byzantine Empire including Thessaly and Epirus. During his reign, Dusan practically doubled the size of his original kingdom. Remarkably, he achieved this level of conquest without fighting a single field battle. Instead, he preferred to lay siege to cities and was extremely successful in fighting siege warfare.

As well as expanding his empire, the emperor found time to create Dusan’s Code in 1349. It is a compilation of several legal systems and is classified as an early constitution by some historians. Dusan added a second set of articles in 1353 or 1354. It was one part of a comprehensive three-part document. Some scholars believe the emperor created the new set of rules to cover things not mentioned in the first two parts; the Syntagma Canonum and the Law of Justinian.

The first two parts covered criminal and civil war extremely comprehensively, so Dusan’s Code mainly concerns legal procedures and public law. It also contains more information on actual punishments. The Code is clearly influenced by Byzantine law.

Dusan attacked Bosnia in 1350 in a bid to reclaim the lost city of Hum, but he was forced to return to Macedonia after Cantacuzenus’ supporters in Greek cities prevented him from conquering Herzegovina. His main ambition was to conquer a number of territories in the East and become the head of a huge army designed to drive the Muslim Turks out of Europe, but he never had the opportunity.

This King Founded a Short-Lived Empire During the Middle Ages
Monument to Dusan in Skopje. Pinterest

Death & Breakup of the Serbian Empire

In 1355, Dusan began extensive military operations and assembled a massive 80,000 man army. He marched towards Constantinople and captured Adrianople. However, the great leader died suddenly when his army was just 40 kilometers from the Byzantine capital. His men returned home with the body of the man who made Serbia a great power. It is one of history’s tantalizing questions: Would he have managed to take Constantinople?

The Byzantine capital was incredibly durable, but Dusan was a master of siege warfare. Had he conquered Constantinople, how would it have changed history? Could he have repelled the Ottomans and prevented them from forming their empire?

Dusan was succeeded by his son, Stefan Uros V, aptly known as ‘the weak.’ As the Ottomans spread into Europe and conquered Byzantine Thrace and several Balkan states, Stefan V was unable to prevent the fragmentation of the Serbian Empire founded by his father. At the Battle of Maritsa in 1371, the Ottomans defeated a Serbian army that was vastly superior in number.

Stefan V died soon afterward and since he had no heir, the empire’s provincial lords began feuding with one another. Serbia fell under Ottoman rule soon after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Both sides sustained huge losses during the battle, but the high casualty rate crippled the numerically inferior Serbs. Dusan’s empire fell, but his achievements will never be forgotten.

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