Albania - Scanderbeg


Sign up for the email list to get extra information on the podcast and free bonus episodes!

The story of Albania and how Scanderbeg united and defended his lands against outside conquest during the 15th Century.

Pictures are below, links to the other podcasts are below that, and at the very bottom is the transcript.

            Map of Albania at this time 

Albania mid XVth century AD

Portrait of Scanderbeg                                                                               Scanderbeg's family crest

Skanderbeg, De Romanorum Magistratibus
Coa Kastrioti Family

Other Podcasts that cover Scanderbeg linked in their names

Wonderer's History Podcast - Scanderbeg Episode

Anthology of Heroes PodcastScanderbeg Episode

The Bulgarian History Podcast:

Episode 60-66 - he is a part of the story

Episode 67 is a recap of his life

Episode 68-69 tell the story of the fall of Albania after he died

We Talk About Dead People:

Scanderbeg - A.K. Brackob
Independence Day The Movie for their audio clip


TIME 00:00 - Albania is a country in southeastern Europe, an area called the Balkans. If you know about the early Roman Empire, Albania was in the area called "Illyria" and "Epirus". If you are not too familiar with that then you probably know Italy and Greece; it's kind of in between those two geographically.

The western border of Albania is the Adriatic Sea(that sliver of water on the right side of Italy's boot) and it is the closest location to Italy on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. On the northern and eastern sides of Albania you will find mountains, mountains and lots more mountains. In lower central and southern Albania you'll find flatter territory. Depending on where you are in Albania the average summer temperature could be 30 degrees Fahrenheit or 71 degrees. If you are from the states you could probably think about it as similar to the west coast. Beaches and moderate temperatures to the left and mountains and cold temperatures to the right, except all of this in a package about the size of the state of Maryland.

TIME 01:33 - The hero we talk about today is a name you will find all over Albania, there are monuments named after him there are parks, fields, universities, museums, there's even a mountain named after him. And if you go to Rome you can find a palace named after him! To figure out why... we need to venture way back to the 1400s. Albania was not a country as we would see it, it had been ruled by, first the Romans and then the "Eastern Romans" what we usually call the Byzantines from the 2nd century BC. But by the 14th Century it had become a group of small principalities loosely affiliated with the Byzantines. And by the 15th Centruy those became vassals of the up and coming Ottoman Empire (the Muslim Empire that would rule the majority of the Mediterranean for the better part of 600 years).

At this time in history when a people were defeated they were sometimes made into vassals rather than absorbed directly into an empire. A vassal is basically a forced alliance where the vassal promises to obey the boss and pay some money to the boss empire on a consistent basis. When vassals misbehaved they often had to send the noble's(aristocracy) sons to the boss empire to ensure their compliance.

Well I can tell you, the Albanians were very independence minded(their government had been family relationships a little closer to clans than principalities or nations) and they did not enjoy being vassals and so very quickly were forced to send hostages (their sons) to the Ottoman Capital to ensure their compliance. One of those noble's sons was named George Castrioti but for our purposes we will call him by his more famous name Scanderbeg(which translate into Lord Alexander). He, and others like him, would be educated by the Ottomans in how to fight and lead as they would do that in the Ottomans armies. (Now, there is a recent book out now that contradicts some of this account of him being sent as a hostage but it's not really sure and mainly this podcast is about what people think so I'm going to go with the traditional story especially because this podcast is about national heroes and every Albanian knows he was an ottoman hostage.)

TIME 04:07 - So anyways, that's what Scanderbeg did growing up and seemed to be a loyal subject until one day in 1444 when the Ottoman army he was a part of was defeated and he fled with some other Albanians back to Albania. He promptly obtained a forged document saying he was to be the commander of the most important fortification in Albania (kruje). From there he took some other smaller forts in the area, raised his family crest(later to become Albania's national flag) and declared independence with a stirring speech that I think is worth listening to (it's not overly long). Here it is as quoted by AK Brackob in his Skanderbeg biography:

"We will not go quietly into the night, we will not vanish without a fight, we're going to live on, we're going to survive"
Wait, wait, wait sorry that's the wrong speech, here's the actual speech:

"It is not I who has given you this nation and superiority. It is not I who has given you this city. It is you who have given them unto me. It was not I who put arms into your hands. I found you ready in arms. I found you everywhere bearing the signs of liberty in your hearts, in your faces, in your swords, and in your lances. And, as most loyal teachers and guardians ordained by my father, you have put the scepter in my hands with no less faith and diligence than as if you had kept and preserved it especially for me even until this day. And you have brought me by your effort and careful care into my ancestral possession without shedding any blood. Now, therefore, in the name of God, lead on and conduct me into the recovery of the rest of our country, which yet remains in the hands and possession of the enemy. The greatest part and,in a manner, the whole task you have accomplished: Croya is recovered. And this territory therefore is wholly under our care. The Dibrans and all the people are now united with us. The name of the enemy banished from this part of our country. Only the towns and strongholds are still in enemy hands.... Let us then march on and advance our standards speedily. Let us take unto us the courage of victors. Fortune shall favor our endeavors...."

TIME 06:22 - Soon after, there was a meeting of the Albanian nobles and the "League of Lezhe" was agreed to as a path to resist the Ottomans. This was originally supposed to be a kind of league of equals but Scanderbeg was always viewed as the leader and was convinced that Albania needed to move from loosely affiliated principalities that fought with each other about as much as they fought with the Ottomans to a more centralized modern type state(which at that time was a kingdom). He set to work on that front trying to consolidate as much power as he could into a centralized system that he was sure was the only way to get the resources needed to combat the Ottomans.

He knew that if he was trying to consolidate power away from the aristocracy he would have to get the people on his side. So like many a ruler before him he did that. he would not allow more than one man from each household to be drafted into the military so as not to cripple regular families. He also dressed in normal clothes and ate the regular food the soldiers ate. This is one of the important parts of his story, the people love him because he was just like them.

So to sum it up he was held captive by the Ottomans in a vassal relationship that was so common at that time and escaped after a failed battle. Went into Albania and obtained the strongest fortress there by some subterfuge and began to stir up the people to rebel against the Ottomans. Now let's take a look at how that went.

TIME 08:02 - On to the stuff that made him a legend, Now we are not going to talk about all of it because there were a lot of battles and we don't want to be here for 3 hours I don't think.
The first battle came soon after the events we talked about in the last few minutes. They came at Albania with a force of 30,000-40,000 troops. This first battle happened at Torvioll in 1444; and the Albanians were heavily outnumbered. They got word of the approaching force early on and Scanderbeg was able to choose this location because of it's tight confines; hoping to minimize the impact of the enemy's numbers. He also had his cavalry hide on the extreme left and right of the field. He used these to execute a delayed double envelopment. When the enemy came forward to engage his main army, the cavalry on the right swooped down on the back of the enemy's lines. When the Ottoman reserves turned to face and stop that attack, the cavalry hidden on the other side of the field swooped down into the back of those reserves. In so doing they were able to dominate the reserves and then turn and hit the main line from the back. You can probably guess how that went... all the ottomans died or fled. Now this was a pretty classic Ottoman tactic, it's difficult to believe that an Ottoman commander could have fallen for it. You can only think that they weren't taking this too seriously.

The next battle was at Mokra in 1445, please excuse my names, I'm doing this on all the countries in the world and I just don't have the will-power to learn all those pronunciations, sorry. It was against a smaller army of around 9,000 troops which was sent to play defense but the general seemed to think he would be able to take some initiative and kind of mop-up the Albanians. Scanderbeg quickly found out about it and his army used their knowledge of the terrain in the area to find a perfect ambush site in the mountains from whence they were able to quickly route the opposing army.

The third battle involved a larger force of around 15,000 cavalry sent to raid Albania, it was meant to burn and pillage the area but not really engage and army in a battle. The commander split up his forces with one group doing the burning and another guarding their supplies at a fortified position. Scanderbeg's forces found out about this and snuck around to the fortified position which was not expecting an attack. The camp was attacked and 5,000 Ottomans were said to have died along with all the supplies going to the Albanians. This caused the rest of the army to fall back.

By now you're probably thinkg, how did he know about every attack!? Well he was committed to having intelligence the principle "know your enemy" not only did he learn about their battle tactics from his time with them but he also made friends among them and he seemed to have set up a well-coordinated system of spies among the Ottoman ranks. Not only did he do that with the Ottomans but he also set up a well-coordinated warning network among the people of Albania where they could quickly get information from any part of North and central Albania to the army. This desire to have information dominance, you know if you are playing an RTS game and you can kind of see everything and have no cloud of war, it's so much easier to play the field. He knew what was going on and was pretty well able to parry attacks as they came.This perpetual state of "information dominance" and strong knowledge of the terrain combined well with his ability to exploit that knowledge.

TIME 13:00 - The fourth battle, in 1448, saw a force of 80,000 or so led by the Sultan Murad II, the Sultan's army which was the cream of the Ottoman crop. They decided to attack the fortress at Svetigrad, which was blocking one of the few passages through the mountains... Murad was unable to attack it successfully because of the prime position it had been built on but was able to keep his army from being routed by one of Scanderbeg's ambushes as they were besieging the fortress. Eventually he was able to induce their surrender after cutting off the fortress's water supply. While the Ottomans won this battle it cost them a lot of time and troops, it's estimated upwards of 20,000 troops were lost, because of the perfect location and defensive preparations done by Scanderbeg and his troops. Even though they had inflicted a lot of losses on the Ottomans, this was an important win for the Ottomans as it opened a new passageway into Albania, rather than only being able to attack through the south they could now come in from the north as well.

After this the Ottomans continued to launch attack after attack and Scanderbeg managed to go almost undefeated in those attacks, Almost never engaging in a regular pitched battle because of his constantly being outnumbered. All in all, I counted up 22 large scale battles, over 25 years, with a total of at least 600,000 combined Ottomans. And Scanderbeg and the Albanians faced off against those troops, with forces that were perpetually at least twice as small as his opponents.

TIME 15:55 - His most famous battle, in 1457 was the battle of Albulena where he faced off against Albanian-Ottoman generals leading two armies totaling 50-80,000 Ottoman soldiers. This large advantage in numbers combined with the enemy generals knowing the countryside forced Scandergeb to rethink his normal ambush plan. So instead he settled in for a long-con, he told his generals to march off in different directions and hide in the mountains around Albania, and not to come down for any reason until his signal was given. The Ottoman generals were confused and so wary of Scanderbeg's tricks by this time that they were not willing to even siege Kruje while they were unsure of the Albanian army's whereabouts.

Because of Scanderbeg's rapport with the regular people, the peasants living in Albania stayed loyal to Scanderbeg and would not rat out his forces' positions. Slowly the Ottoman armies began to lose their discipline as they had not seen any enemy soldiers for almost 6 months. When they had reached Scanderbeg's desired laxidazicalness he gave the signal to reassemble the army and launched a 3-pronged surprise assault on their camp. Although the Ottomans outnumbered the Albanians by at least 4-to-1 and other estimates say 10-to-1 this camp they assaulted was terrified by the unexpected and ferocious attack. They held out for a time but were eventually surrounded and the Albanians were able to capture one of the enemy leaders and kill or capture at least 30,000 men some estimates say 45,000. In any case the reports say that a full half of the enemy army was wiped out.

TIME 18:03 - After this, he continued fighting for his nation's life until he caught Malaria and died from it in 1468, at age 62. He had been leading this stubborn defense of his homeland since 1443(25 years) and had fought two different Sultans, Murad II and then his son Mehmed II. During all this he was promised aid from many different European nations and the pope but often was given little. He once signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans only to be pushed into a crusade which, after he attacked the Ottomans, fell apart before leaving Italy. He attacked the Ottomans but the pope died before the Italian forces came to help his attack. Albania did receive some help but it was never enough to really give them a chance to do anything except hold out and try to wait for more aid.

TIME 19:04 - One of the most important impacts of all this was that it delayed the Ottomans from invading Italy (remember Albania is only about 50 miles from Italy across the Adriatic). Albania was the location that the Ottomans wanted to ship off from to get into Italy. Once the Ottomans did finally land in Italy, a few years after Scanderbeg's death, Sultan Mehmed II(Mehmed the Conqueror) died just after the first campaign season. Mehmed's death caused a shortish civil war and by the time everything settled down the city the Ottomans had taken in Italy had been retaken. The new sultan was more an organizer than a warrior so the Italian campaign was scrapped in favor of a campaign of shoring up his father's conquests. If the Ottomans had been able to take Albania and get it pacified 10, 15, or 25 years earlier it would have given Mehmed, and/or his father before him much more time to launch a sustained Italian campaign and that might have changed the face of Europe.

A second impact was the drawing together of the Albanian national identity. No longer were they this group of different people's government by family clans. Even today, Albanians look to their national identity more than ethnicity, religion, or anything else and see Scanderbeg as a kind of ancient founding father. Remember their national flag is his family's coat of arms even though they didn't become a nation again until the 20th century.

There were many other things that happened during Scanderbeg's reign but I don't want to bore you by going too long. If you want more info on him please shoot me an email at or you can chat with me on the chatbox at the podcast website.

There are also a few episodes on Scanderbeg in a few different places. There's a podcast that I got good information from called the "Bulgarian History Podcast" it has a few podcasts that he is a part of and then one that's fully focused on his life. So I'd definitely recommend that one. There's also a newer podcast I just found not too long ago called the Anthology of Heroes that does a podcast on Scanderbeg. So I'd definitely check both of those out if you are interested in heading more about his life.

At the end of each episode I'll have a sort of "my thoughts on what I learned from this person" as well as some stuff I couldn't fit in the main episode. If you are just here for the history then head on out. Otherwise I'll be happy to keep talking if you want to listen.

What did I learn from all this?

1. Have good intel in whatever situation you want to win in, whether it's in the office or a battlefield or just fighting yourself you need to know your enemy and know yourself(thanks Sun Tzu). Scanderbeg was a master at knowing his own and his enemies strengths and weaknesses and was able to leverage this information using the second thing I learned.

2. He thought outside the box and didn't feel the need to stick to tradition. His country was a loose confederation of lords and families and he turned it into a centralized modern state for the time by appealing to the peasants rather than the lords. That's quite a change... Armies should "face each other in battle like real men" but he was willing to live off ambushes and deception. He played the hand he was dealt expertly, maybe better than anyone else could have. Whether you are opening a startup or trying to get noticed at a big company you've got to be willing to think outside the box to solve problems. If you can do this you will be able to solve problems others cannot and you will make progress in whatever you do.

Last thing I've got is this list of his major battles, which you really don't need to listen to unless you are a glutton for butchered names and troop numbers. I'm not even going to say which side because you'll know the outnumbered one was the Albanians and a victory means albanian victory.

in 1444 Torvioll - 40,000 vs 10k - Victory

Mokra - 9,000-15k vs 3,500 - Victory

Otonete 15,000 vs 5,000 - Decisive Victory

in 1448 Svetigrad 80,000 vs 10,000 - Loss - Fort taken but maybe 20,000 Ottomans killed

Oranik - 15k vs 6k - Victory

1st Kruje 80k-100k vs 10k - Decisive Victory eventually

Modric and Mecad 25k vs 10k - Victory

in 1453 Polog - 14k vs an unkown number - Victory

Berat 28k vs 15k - didn't take the fort but inflicted heavy casualties

2nd Oranik -15k vs 10k - Victory

Albulena - 50k-80k vs 10k - Overhwelming victory (half the enemy dead/captured

2nd Mokra 23k vs 8k - Victory

in 1463 - 2nd Macedonian Campaign 40k vs unkown number - Decisive Victory

Ohrid 14k vs 10k - Decisive Victory - Over 2/3 enemy force killed or captured

in 1465 Vaikal uncertain vs 5k- Victory

2nd mecad uncertain - Victory

2nd vaikal and kashari 40k in 2 armies vs 10k - Victory

2nd kruje(50k) - 30k-100k vs 13k - Victory

in 1467 3rd kruje(20k) - unknown but very large again vs small - Victory

That's all she wrote! Thanks again for listening! if you want

to talk more about this or have questions. I'm always happy to discuss these things.

For each Founder I will have an intro episode that introduces the different podcast episodes, one or more that I do and then others that are on the same person. I'll have clips from each of these episodes to give you a taste of what they are like and link's to the episodes if you want to go check them out! I'm going to do these in order of length starting with the shortest and moving to the longest/series.

Wonderer's History Podcast - a 15-minute podcast that gives a little less battle info, but still has the big ones, and

goes into Skanderbeg's history, some more on the allies and european enemies of skanderbeg. Wonderer's podcast is arranged as a series of episodes that basically covers all of mediterranean history in the 16th Century.

Founders of Nations - This is the one I do, it's a 30-minute podcast that focuses mostly on his military prowess and what we can learn from Scanderbeg.

Anthology of Heroes - A 45-minute episode that has a lot of good details as well as some quotes from Scanderbeg. This "Anthology of Heroes" podcast is going through the countries A-Z looking at the most interesting person in each country.

Bulgarian History Podcast has a few seasons on the Ottoman Empire and around 10 30-minutes episodes that cover the period during Scanderbeg's rebellion including one summary episode(Episode 67) on Scanderbeg. That's the episode we'll sample. This podcast is focused, as it's name says, on Bulgarian History but does a great job looking at the Balkans in general

We Talk about Dead People - A 2-hour episode that goes into a LOT of details. The first hour is pretty much just a review of everything leading up to his taking power. This definitely is pretty biased against the Ottomans, they are portrayed as pretty barbaric compared to other people I wouldn't take too much from that, there were lots of people acting like the Ottomans were at this time. They do do a good job on Scanderbeg's info though. This podcast is basically like listening to a rock morning radio show but about historical events so be ready for silliness and steady cursing.