Stefan Uros IV Dusan, known as Dusan the Mighty (26 July 1308 – 20 December 1355), was the King of Serbia from 8 September 1331 and Tsar (or Emperor) and autocrat of the Serbs and Greeks (or Romans) from 16 April 1346 until his death. Dusan conquered a large part of southeast Europe, becoming one of the most powerful monarchs of the era. Under Dusan’s rule, Serbia was the major power in the Balkans, and an Eastern Orthodox multi-ethnic and multi-lingual empire that stretched from the Danube in the north to the Gulf of Corinth in the south, with its capital in Skopje. He enacted the constitution of the Serbian Empire, known as Dusan’s Code, the most important literary work of medieval Serbia.
Dusan promoted the Serbian Church from an archbishopric to a Patriarchate, finished the construction of the Visoki Decani monastery (a UNESCO site), and founded the Saint Archangels Monastery, among others. Under his rule Serbia reached its territorial, political, economic, and cultural peak.
In 1314, Serbian King Stefan Milutin quarrelled with his son, Stefan Decanski. Milutin sent Decanski to Constantinople to have him blinded, though he was never totally blinded. Decanski wrote to Danilo, the Bishop of Hum, asking him to intervene with his father. Danilo wrote to Archbishop Nicodemus of Serbia, who spoke with Milutin and persuaded him to recall his son. In 1320 Decanski was permitted to return to Serbia and was given the appanage of Budimlje (modern Berane), while his half-brother, Stefan Konstantin, held the province of Zeta.
Milutin became ill and died on 29 October 1321, and Konstantin was crowned king. Civil war erupted immediately, as Decanski and his cousin, Stefan Vladislav II, claimed the throne. Konstantin refused to submit to Decanski, who then invaded Zeta, defeating and killing Konstantin. Decanski was crowned king on 6 January 1322 by Nicodemus, and his son, Stefan Dusan, was crowned “young king”. Decanski later granted Zeta to Dusan, indicating him as the intended heir. In the meantime, Vladislav II mobilized local support from Rudnik, the former appanage of his father, Stefan Dragutin. Vladislav proclaimed himself king, and he was supported by the Hungarians, consolidating control over his lands and preparing for battle with Decanski. As was the case with their fathers, Serbia was divided by the two independent rulers; in 1322 and 1323 Ragusan merchants freely visited both lands.
In 1323, war broke out between Decanski and Vladislav. Rudnik had fallen to Decanski by the end of 1323, and Vladislav appeared to have fled north. Vladislav was defeated in battle in late 1324 and fled to Hungary, leaving the Serbian throne to Decanski as undisputed “king of All Serbian and Maritime lands”.
Dusan was the eldest son of King Stefan Decanski and Theodora Smilets, the daughter of emperor Smilets of Bulgaria. He was born circa 1308 in Serbia, but with the exile of his father in 1314, the family lived in Constantinople until 1320, when his father was allowed to return. In Constantinople he learned Greek, gained an understanding of Byzantine life and culture, and became acquainted with the Byzantine Empire. He took a lot interest in arts of war; in his youth he fought exceptionally in two battles: in 1329 he defeated the ban Stephen II Kotromanic during the War of Hum, and in 1330 the Bulgarian emperor Michael III Shishman in the Battle of Velbuzd. Decanski appointed his nephew Ivan Stephen (through Anna Neda) to the throne of Bulgaria in August 1330.
Decanski’s decision not to attack the Byzantines after the victory at Velbuzd, when he had an opportunity, resulted in the alienation of many nobles, who sought to expand to the south. By January or February 1331, Dusan was quarrelling with his father, perhaps pressured by the nobility. According to contemporary pro-Dusan sources, advisors turned Decanski against his son, and he decided to seize and exclude Dusan from his inheritance. Decanski sent an army into Zeta against his son; the army ravaged Skadar (modern Shkodër), but Dusan had crossed the Bojana river. A brief period of anarchy took place in parts of Serbia before father and son concluded peace in April 1331. Three months later, Decanski ordered Dusan to meet him. Dusan feared for his life and his advisors persuaded him to resist, so Dusan marched from Skadar to Nerodimlje, where he besieged his father. Decanski fled, and Dusan captured the treasury and family. He then pursued his father, catching up with him at Petrich. On 21 August 1331 Decanski surrendered, and on the advice or insistence of Dusan’s advisors, he was imprisoned. Dusan was crowned King of All Serbian and Maritime lands in the first week of September.
The civil war had prevented Serbia from aiding Ivan Stephen and Anna Neda in Bulgaria, who were deposed in March 1331, taking refuge in the mountains. Emperor Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria feared Serbia, as the situation there had settled, and he immediately sought peace with Dusan. As Dusan wanted to move against richer Byzantium, the two made peace and an alliance in December 1331. It was sealed with the marriage of Dusan and Helena of Bulgaria, Empress of Serbia, the sister of Tsar Ivan Alexander.
Contemporary writers described Dusan as unusually tall and strong, “the tallest man of his time”, very handsome, and a rare leader full of dynamism, quick intelligence, and strength, bearing “a kingly presence”. According to contemporary depictions, he had dark hair and brown eyes; in adult age he grew a beard and longer hair.
Serbia made some raids into the Macedonia region in late 1331, but a planned major attack on Byzantium was delayed as Dusan had to suppress revolts in Zeta in 1332. Dusan’s ingratitude toward those who had aided his rise – the Zeta nobility may have been neglected their promised reward and greater influence — may have been the cause of the rebellion, which was suppressed in the course of the same year.
Dusan began to fight against the Byzantine Empire in 1334, and warfare continued with interruptions of various duration until his death in 1355. Twice he became involved in larger conflicts with the Hungarians, but these clashes were mostly defensive. Dusan’s armies were initially defeated by Charles I of Hungary’s 80,000-strong royal armies in Sumadija in 1336. As the Hungarians advanced south towards a hostile terrain, Dusan’s cavalry launched several attacks in the narrow open fields, resulting in a rout of Hungarian troops, which retreated to the north of Danube. Charles I was wounded by an arrow but survived. As a result, the Hungarians lost Macva and Belgrade. Dusan then focused his attention on the internal affairs of his country, writing, in 1349, the first statute book of the Serbs.
To the west, Dusan scored victories over Hungarian leader Louis the Great that gave him eastern half of modern Bosnia, and his coins were minted at Kotor. Dusan was also successful against Louis’ vassals: he defeated the armies of the Croatian ban and the forces of Hungarian voivodes. He was at peace with Tsar Ivan Alexander Bulgaria, who even helped him on several occasions, and he is said to have visited Ivan Alexander at his capital. Serbia became temporarily dominant state between 1331 and 1365.
Dusan exploited the civil war in the Byzantine Empire between the regent of the minor Emperor John V Palaiologos, Anna of Savoy, and his father’s general John Kantakouzenos. Dusan and Ivan Alexander picked opposite sides in the conflict but remained at peace with each other, taking advantage of the Byzantine civil war to secure gains for themselves.
Dusan’s systematic offensive began in 1342, and in the end he conquered all Byzantine territories in the western Balkans as far as Kavala, except for the Peloponnesus and Thessaloniki, which he could not besiege due to his small fleet. There has been speculation that Dusan’s ultimate goal was no less than to conquer Constantinople and replace the declining Byzantine Empire with a united Orthodox Greco-Serbian Empire under his control. In May 1344, his commander Preljub was stopped at Stephaniana by a Turkic force of 3,100. The Turks won the battle, but the victory was not enough to thwart the Serbian conquest of Macedonia. Faced with Dusan’s aggression, the Byzantines sought allies in the Ottoman Turks, whom they brought into Europe for the first time.
In 1343, Dusan added “of Romans (Greeks)” to his self-styled title “King of Serbia, Albania and the coast”. In 1345 he began calling himself tsar, equivalent of Emperor, as attested in charters to two athonite monasteries, one from November 1345 and the other from January 1346, and around Christmas 1345 at a council meeting in Serres, which was conquered on 25 September 1345, he proclaimed himself “Tsar of the Serbs and Romans” (Romans is equivalent to Greeks in Serbian documents).
Imperial coronation and autocephaly of the Serbian church
On 16 April 1346 (Easter), Dusan convoked a huge assembly at Skopje (former capital of Bulgaria between 992 and 1015), attended by the Serbian Archbishop Joanikije II, the Archbishop of Ohrid Nikolas I, the Bulgarian Patriarch Simeon, and various religious leaders of Mount Athos. The assembly and clerics agreed upon, and then ceremonially performed, the raising of the autocephalous Serbian Archbishopric to the status of Serbian Patriarchate. The Archbishop from then on was titled Serbian Patriarch, although some documents called him Patriarch of Serbs and Greeks, with the seat at the Monastery of Pec. The first Serbian Patriarch Joanikije II solemnly crowned Dusan as “Emperor and autocrat of Serbs and Romans”. Dusan had his son Uros crowned King of Serbs and Greeks, giving him nominal rule over the Serbian lands, and although Dusan was governing the whole state, he had special responsibility for the Roman (Byzantine) lands.
A further increase in the Byzantinization of the Serbian court followed, particularly in court ceremonial and titles. As Emperor, Dusan could grant titles only possible as an Emperor. In the years that followed, Dusan’s half-brother Simeon Uros and brother-in-law Jovan Asen became despots. Jovan Oliver already had the despot title, granted to him by Andronikos III. His brother-in-law Dejan Dragas and Branko Mladenovic were granted the title of sebastocrator. The military commanders (voivodes) Preljub and Vojihna received the title of caesar. The raising of the Serbian Patriarch resulted in the same spirit as bishoprics became metropolitans, as for example the Metropolitanate of Skopje.
Serbian Patriarchate took over sovereignty on Mt. Athos and the Greek eparchies under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, while the Archbishopric of Ohrid remained autocephalous. For those acts he was excommunicated by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1350.
Epirus and Thessaly
In 1347, Dusan conquered Epirus, Aetolia and Acarnania, appointing his half-brother, despot Simeon Uros as governor of those provinces. In 1348, Dusan also conquered Thessaly, appointing Preljub as governor. In eastern regions of Macedonia, he appointed Vojihna as governor of Drama. Once Dusan conquered Byzantine possessions in western regions, he sought to obtain Constantinople. To acquire the city, he needed a fleet. Knowing that fleets of southern Serbian Dalmatian towns were not strong enough to overcome Constantinople, he opened negotiations with Venice, with which he maintained fairly good relations. Venice feared a reduction of privileges in the Empire if Serbs became the masters of Constantinople over the weakened Byzantines. But if the Venetians had allied with Serbia, Dusan would have examined existing privileges. Once he became master of all Byzantine lands (especially Thessalonica and Constantinople) the Venetians would have gained privileges. But Venice chose to avoid a military alliance. While Dusan sought Venetian aid against Byzantium, the Venetians sought Serbian support in the struggle against the Hungarians over Dalmatia. When sensing that Serbian aid would result in a Venetian obligation to Serbia, Venice politely turned down Dusan’s offers of help.
While Dusan launched the Bosnian campaign (absent the Serbian troops in Macedonia and Thessaly), Kantakouzenos tried to regain lands Byzantium had lost. In his support, the Constantinopolitan patriarch Kallistos excommunicated Dusan in order to discourage the Greek population in Dusan’s Greek provinces from supporting the Serbian administration and thereby assist the Kantakouzenos campaign. The excommunication did not stop Dusan’s relations with Mount Athos, which still addressed him as Emperor, though rather as Emperor of Serbs than Emperor of Serbs and Greeks.
Kantakouzenos raised a small army and took the Chalcidice peninsula, then Veria and Voden. Veria was the richest town in the Bottiaea region. Dusan had earlier replaced many Greeks with Serbs, including a Serb garrison. However, the remaining locals were able to open the gates for Kantakouzenos in 1350. Voden resisted Kantakouzenos but was taken by assault. Kantakouzenos then marched toward Thessaly but was stopped at Servia by Caesar Preljub and his army of 500 men. The Byzantine force retired to Veria, and the aiding Turk contingent went off plundering, reaching Skopje. Once news of the Byzantine campaign reached Dusan in Hum, he quickly reassembled his forces from Bosnia and Hum and marched for Thessaly.
War with the Bosnian principality
Dusan evidently wanted to expand his rule over the provinces that had earlier been in the hands of Serbia, such as Hum, which was annexed by the Hungarian protégé and Bosnian Ban Stephen II Kotromanic in 1326. In 1329, Ban Stephen II launched an attack on Lord Vitomir, who held Travunia and Konavle. The Bosnian army was defeated at Pribojska Banja by Dusan, when he was still Young King. The Ban soon took over Nevesinje and the rest of Bosnia. Petar Toljenovic, the Lord of “seaside Hum” and a distant relative of Dusan, sparked a rebellion against the new ruler, but he was soon captured and died in prison.
In 1350, Dusan attacked Bosnia, seeking to regain the previously lost land of Hum and stop raids on his tributaries at Konavle. Venice sought a settlement between the two but failed. In October he invaded Hum, with an army said to be of 80,000 men, and successfully occupied part of the disputed territory. Dusan had secretly been in contact with various Bosnian nobles, offering them bribes for support. Many nobles, chiefly of Hum, were ready to betray the Ban. The Bosnian Ban avoided any major confrontation and did not meet Dusan in battle; he instead retired to the mountains and made small hit-and-run actions. Most of Bosnia’s fortresses held out, but some nobles submitted to Dusan. The Serbs ravaged much of the countryside. With one army they reached Duvno and Cetina; another reached Krka, on which lay Knin (modern Croatia); and another took Imotski and Novi, where they left garrisons and entered Hum. From this position of strength, Dusan tried to negotiate peace with the Ban, sealing it by the marriage of Dusan’s son Uros with Stephen’s daughter Elizabeth, who would receive Hum as her dowry – restoring it to Serbia. The Ban was not willing to consider this proposal.
Dusan may have also launched the campaign in order to aid his sister, Jelena, who married Mladen III Subic of Omis, Klis and Skradin, in 1347. Mladen died from Black
Death (bubonic plague) in 1348, and Jelena sought to maintain the rule of the cities for herself and her son. She was challenged by Hungary and Venice, so the dispatch of Serbian troops to western Hum and Croatia may have been for her aid, as operations in this region were unlikely to help Dusan conquer Hum. If Dusan had intended to aid Jelena, rising trouble in the East precluded this. Pope Clement VI in 1335 addresses to King Stefan Dusan and request him to stop the persecution and that to the bishop of Kotor which is responsible for Roman Catholic Diocese of Trebinje return monasteries, churches, islands and villages, which some kings of Raska before him overtook.
Dusan had grand intentions to hold Belgrade, Macva and Hum, conquer Durrës, Phillipopolis, Adrianople, Thessalonica, and Constantinople, and to place himself at the head of a grand crusading army to drive the Muslim Turks from Europe. His premature death created a large power vacuum in the Balkans, which ultimately enabled Turkish invasion and Turkish rule until the early 20th century. While mounting a crusade against the Turks, he fell ill (possibly poisoned) and died of a fever at Devoll on 20 December 1355. He was buried in his foundation, the Monastery of the Holy Archangels near Prizren.
His empire slowly crumbled. His son and successor Stefan Uros V could not keep the integrity of the Empire intact for long, as several feudal families immensely increased their power, though nominally acknowledging Uros V as Emperor. Simeon Uros, Dusan’s half-brother, had proclaimed himself Emperor after the death of Dusan, ruling a large area of Thessaly and Epirus, which he had received from Dusan earlier.
Today Dusan’s remains are in the Church of Saint Mark in Belgrade. Dusan is the only monarch of the Nemanjic dynasty who has not been canonised as a saint.
The most lasting monument to Dusan’s reign was a law code. For the purposes of Dusan’s Code, a wealth of charters were published, and some great foreign works of law were translated to Serbian; however, the third section of the Code was new and distinctively Serbian, albeit with Byzantine influence and attention to a long legal tradition in Serbia. Dusan explained the purpose of his Code in one of in his charters; he intimated that its aims were spiritual and that the code would help his people to save themselves for the afterlife. The Code was proclaimed on 21 May 1349 in Skopje, and contained 155 clauses, while 66 further clauses were added at Serres in 1353 or 1354. The authors of the code are not known, but they were probably members of the court who specialised in law.
Dusan’s Code proclaims on subjects both secular and ecclesiastic, the more so because Serbia had recently achieved full ecclesiastic autonomy as an independent Orthodox Church under a Patriarchate. The first 38 clauses relate to the church and they deal with issues that the Medieval Serbian Church faced, while the next 25 clauses relate to the nobility. Civil law is largely excluded, since it was covered in earlier documents, namely
Saint Sava’s Nomokamon and in Corpus Juris Civilis. Dusan’s Code originally dealt with criminal law, with heavy emphasis on the concept of lawfulness, which was mostly taken directly from Byzantine law.
The original manuscript of Dusan’s Code does not survive. The Code continued as a de facto constitution under the rule of Dusan’s son, Stefan Uros V, and after the fall of the Serbian Empire in 1371, it was used in all the successor provinces. It was officially used in the successor state, Serbian Despotate, until its annexation by the Ottoman Empire in 1459. The Code was used as a reference for Serbian communities under Turkish rule, which exercised considerable legal autonomy in civil cases. The Code was also used in the Serbian autonomous areas under the Republic of Venice, like Grbalj and Pastrovici. It also served as the base of the Kanun of Albanian prince Leka Dukagjini (1410–1481), a set of customary laws in northern Albania that existed until the 20th century.
Serbian tactics favoured wedge shaped heavy cavalry attacks with horse archers on the flanks. Many foreign mercenaries were in the Serbian army in the 14th century, mostly German knights and Catalan halberdiers. Dusan had his personal mercenary guard on his disposal, consisting of German knights lead by Palman, commander of the Serbian “Alemannic Guard”, who upon crossing Serbia to Jerusalem in 1331, became leader of all mercenaries in the Serbian army. The main strength of the Serbian army were their heavy cavalry, feared for their ferocious charge and staying power. The Serbian expansion in the former territory of Byzantine Empire proceeded without a single major battle, it was based on besieging Greek fortifications.
Name, epithets and titles
He was titled Young King as heir apparent on 6 January 1322 and was entitled the rule of Zeta; thus he ruled as “King of Zeta”. In 1331 he succeeded his father as “King of all Serbian and Maritime Lands”. In 1343 his title was “King of Serbia, Greeks, Albania and the coast”. In 1345 he began calling himself tsar, Emperor, and in 1345 he proclaimed himself “Emperor of Serbs and Romans (Greeks)”. On 16 April 1346 he was crowned Emperor of Serbs and Greeks. This title was soon enlarged into “Emperor and Autocrat of the Serbs and Greeks, the Bulgarians and Albanians”.
His epithet Silni is translated as the Mighty, but also the Great, the Powerful or the Strong.
Stefan Dusan was the most powerful Serbian ruler in the Middle Ages and remains a folk hero to Serbs. Dusan, a contemporary of England’s Edward III, is regarded with the same reverence as the Bulgarians feel for Tsar Simeon, the Poles for Sigismund I the Old, and the Czechs for Charles IV. Some historians consider him the most powerful ruler in Europe during the 14th century. His state encompassed a large territory and was a rival to the regional powers of Hungary and Byzantium.