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Zealots of Thessalonica

The Zealots (Greek: Ζηλωταί) were an anti-aristocratic political group with social demands that dominated political developments in Thessalonica from 1342 until 1350. The contemporary sources, notably anti-Zealot in sympathies, provide little information on the Zealots' government of Thessalonica. The Zealots managed to establish effective civic self-government for eight years. They confiscated the property of the aristocracy, and redistributed their wealth. However, it is hard to know whether the Zealots actually had a program for social reform. One possible explanation would be that as the city was in a constant state of siege, a sense of somewhat egalitarian society may have developed.


  • Background 1
  • Rise of the Zealots 2
  • Apokaukos' coup, reaction and terror 3
  • End 4
  • Citations 5
  • Sources 6


At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Byzantine Empire went into dramatic decline. There was a major civil war in the 1320s, accompanied with invasions from almost all sides. As the Empire became weaker and more impoverished, the misery of the great masses in the countryside and in the cities became almost unbearable. Both in the country and in the towns all wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small aristocratic class, and against them was directed the bitterness of the destitute masses.

The leader of the all-powerful aristocratic class was John Kantakouzenos, who after the death of Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos was the effective regent for the latter's infant son, John V. A faction in Constantinople, formed around the powerful megas doux Alexios Apokaukos, plotted against him, and managed to enlist the support of dowager empress Anna of Savoy and the Patriarch John Kalekas. The conflict between the new regency and Kantakouzenos broke out openly in October 1341.

This political and dynastic dispute was quickly transformed into a class-based, social conflict: while the aristocratic land-holders of Macedonia and Thrace, and the propertied classes in general supported Kantakouzenos, the lower and middle classes, both in the countryside and the cities, supported the Regency.[1][2] In addition, contemporary Byzantine society was also divided on religious issues, between the mysticist Hesychasts or Palamites and the intellectuals or Barlaamites, who preferred to pursue the study of philosophy and cherished the inheritance of Ancient Greece.[3]

Rise of the Zealots

Thessalonica at the time was the second most important city of the Empire after Constantinople itself. Wealthy and at least as populous as the capital, its people had already resented control from the far-off capital,[4] and had already once rebelled against the Constantinople-appointed governor: in the first Palaiologan civil war, in 1322, they had ousted the despotēs Constantine Palaiologos in favour of Andronikos III and his lieutenant, John Kantakouzenos.[5] When the second civil war broke out, control of the city was of great importance to both camps, and Kantakouzenos' aristocratic supporters, led by its governor Theodore Synadenos, tried to deliver it to him. The common people of the city however, led by the dockworkers and sailors, reacted, ousted them and took control of the city.[6] Apokaukos himself arrived shortly after at the head of a fleet, and installed his son, the megas primikērios John Apokaukos, as its nominal governor.[7] Real power in the city however rested with the Zealots' leader, a Michael Palaiologos, who jointly with John held the title of archōn. A council (boulē) was also established, but its composition and role is unclear.[6]

Although the Zealots, throughout their existence, continued to recognize the legitimate Emperor John V Palaiologos, the city was effectively run as a commune and a people's republic. Under the new regime, the possessions of the aristocracy were confiscated. The Zealots, who were regarded in conservative ecclesiastical circles as disciples of Barlaam of Calabria and Gregory Acindynus, were also violently opposed to the Hesychasts, who supported Kantakouzenos. The political Zealots were therefore enemies of the church Zealots.[8]

Michael and Andreas Palaiologos were the leaders of the revolt. Despite efforts to identify them however, they do not fit in any way into the known Palaiologan family tree, and we do not even know their relationship to each other: they may, indeed, simply have come from some sort of client family or families who took the dynastic name by extension. But one point does remain unavoidable: the so-called “revolutionaries” did consistently identify themselves with Palaiologan legitimacy.[9]

Apokaukos' coup, reaction and terror

During the next years, the city successfully resisted attempts of Kantakouzenos to capture the city with the aid of his allies, the Seljuk Emir Umur and Stefan Dusan of Serbia.[10] As the tide of the civil war gradually turned toward Kantakouzenos however, John Apokaukos began plotting against the Zealots. He contacted the remnants of the pro-Kantakouzenian aristocracy, and after having Michael Palaiologos killed, assumed power himself.[6] After learning of his father's murder in Constantinople in June 1345, Apokaukos decided to hand the city over to Kantakouzenos, but the city mob, led by Andreas Palaiologos, another leader of the Longshoremen (parathalassioi), rose up against him. Apokaukos and about a hundred of the leading aristocrats were lynched, and everyone even suspected of "Kantakouzenism" was liable to be killed and his house and property plundered.[6]


In 1347 Kantakouzenos and the emperor John V reconciled, but the Zealots ignored the orders from the capital, such as the appointment of Gregory Palamas as its archbishop. The city remained isolated from the outside world, suffered from the Black Death, and was further subject to the continued threat of Stefan Dushan.[6] The situation became increasingly desperate, and there was even talk of surrendering the city to the protection of foreign, namely Serbian, rule. This however was unacceptable to many Thessalonians, including the other archon, Alexios Laskaris Metochites.[11] At the end of 1349, the Zealots were defeated, and Andreas Palaiologos fled to Mount Athos. Negotiations followed, and in 1350, Kantakouzenos, accompanied by Emperor John Palaiologos and Palamas, made a triumphal entry into the city.[11][12]


  1. ^ Bartusis (1997), p. 95
  2. ^ Nicol (1993), p. 193
  3. ^ Lowry & Gordon (1998), p. 411
  4. ^ Runciman (1970), p. 27
  5. ^ Barker (2002), p. 16
  6. ^ a b c d e Barker (2002), p. 17
  7. ^ Nicol (1993), p. 195
  8. ^ Monachos website: Historical appendices on Gregory Palamas
  9. ^ Barker (2002), p. 20
  10. ^ Bartusis (1997), pp. 95-96
  11. ^ a b Barker (2002), p. 18
  12. ^ Saint Gregory Palamas the Hagiorite


  • Barker, John W. (2002). "Late Byzantine Thessalonike: A Second City’s Challenges and Responses" (PDF). Dumbarton Oaks Papers (57). Retrieved 2008-11-07. 
  • Bartusis, Mark C. (1997). The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society 1204–1453. University of Pennsylvania Press.  
  • Lowry, S. Todd; Gordon, Barry L.J. (1998). Ancient and Medieval Economic Ideas and Concepts of Social Justice. Brill.  
  • Nicol, Donald MacGillivray (1993). The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261–1453. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Nicol, Donald MacGillivray (1996). The Reluctant Emperor: A Biography of John Cantacuzene, Byzantine Emperor and Monk, C. 1295–1383. Cambridge University Press.  
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