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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Arts & Letters

The End of Byzantium: A Historical Perspective


After Constantinople’s restoration to Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1261, small, petty states formed around the central Byzantine state: the principalities of the Franks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Thessalonike, and Epirus. Despite the fact that the Byzantines had fashioned their state as the successor to the Roman empire, Byzantium now centered on mainland Greece and, in many ways, looked to its Hellenism for ideological justification and legitimation. The Palaiologan dynasty ruled from 1261 to 1453. The regions around Nicaea and Thessalonike had remained faithful to the emperor, but the Latins in the Aegean and the Greek lords of Epirus and Trebizond challenged the possession of the capital. 

As the Byzantine empire had lost much of its hinterland, the regions of Nicaea and Thessalonike had to supply significant resources for Constantinople’s defense and maintenance. Many of the great landlords from Asia Minor were granted tax immunity to support the emperor, while the land’s cultivators and tenants sustained the burden of heavy taxation, which, along with currency devaluation, caused economic depression. Monies were accumulated by a few aristocrats, and land tenure became progressively feudal. The pronoia system, which was originally meant to augment the empire’s military power, now became a hereditary system in which large parcels of land were given to families. There were no longer native troops in the empire, only foreign mercenaries.

Byzantium was increasingly at the mercy of those foreigners who had a stake in the empire’s fortunes. The Byzantines relied entirely on Italian shipping and commerce to import the necessities of life into the cities, thus triggering currency devaluation. The Genoese monopolized trade in the Black Sea (corn and fish markets), while the Venetians, after the fall of Acre in 1291, also tried to establish their presence in the northern parts of the Mediterranean and, as a result, fought with the Genoese. The quarters of the Italian traders (Genoese, Venetians, and Pisans) in Constantinople helped, to a degree, to restore prosperity to the city as the merchants became more and more prominent within the life of the capital. The emperors could not ban these merchants, but attempted to curtail their expeditions and monopolies by limiting their operations by law; above all, they tried to prevent them from uniting and conspiring against the Byzantines. It was a dangerous game in which, in the end, the emperors were the losers.

As the empire lost ground, so did the emperor’s prestige. The Byzantine state was a divinely ordained institution, and its emperor — according to an ideology fully developed in the tenth century — was, in the Byzantines’ eyes, head of the Christian world. The emperor was chosen, crowned, and guarded by God. After the fall of Constantinople to the Latins, however, this myth of world supremacy was quite hard to sustain. Other kingdoms, as well as the papacy, challenged the role of the basileus. The coronation of the Serbian Stephen Dusan as emperor in 1346 was a direct challenge to the Byzantine emperor and his title. In fact, the Byzantine principle of oikonomia (economy, or compromise), allowed Emperor John V to visit foreign courts for the first time, convert to Catholicism, and pawn the crown jewels in Venice. When he went to Rome in 1369 to see Pope Urban V, he was hailed as “Emperor of the Greeks.”

Political intrigues and personal jealousies weakened defenses further. Two devastating civil wars (in 1321-1328 and 1341-1347) opened a huge chasm in the empire’s unity. The second civil war, which set John VI Kantakouzenos, regent of the empire, against John V Palaiologos, was more destructive than the first. Foreign powers (Latins, Turks, Serbs, and Bulgarians) actively intervened on the side of particular Byzantine factions, and the empire’s economy almost broke down. This war unleashed social and political forces that had been under control until then: a mob in Constantinople, for example, destroyed the immense property of aristocrat John Kantakouzenos. People outside Constantinople took the law in their hands, distrusting the landed aristocracy’s claims.

By the time the Byzantines regained Constantinople from the Latins, another momentous event had already taken place: the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1260. The Mongols’ arrival in the Near East brought thousands of Turks to Asia Minor. The Turkic tribes formed several warrior (ghazi) states that fought each other in central and western Anatolia. Their military operations were on a small scale, but the raids and plundering weakened the Byzantine system of frontier defense, which was already collapsing. The Turkic state that was eventually victorious was led by Osman, who gave his name to the entire entity (Ottoman).

At first, the Byzantines were unaware of the problem of the Turks, but, by 1320, so many cities in Asia Minor had been devastated that the danger was all too clear. The Byzantines wavered between an alliance with the Osmanlis and a coalition with the West. Given the principle of oikonomia, and to avoid a greater evil, several emperors felt that one way to gain the West’s support was to request, in 1274 and again in 1439, the union of the churches.

Other forces within Byzantium objected categorically to making concessions to the Latins. In a state in which theology and politics were inextricably connected, hesychasm — a monastic movement — became an issue dividing political factions because of the civil wars. The hesychasts concentrated upon perfecting their method of prayer, which, in hesychia (stillness), gave the dedicated mystic a greater awareness of the “divine light.” Like the most vocal proponent of the movement, Gregory Palamas, most hesychasts were monks who believed in ascetic practice and poverty. Palamas’s doctrine was incorporated into the generally accepted teachings of the Orthodox church, which canonized him in 1368. 

The territory left to the Byzantines by 1347 was made up of isolated towns and provinces. The Black Death of 1347-1348 added to the hopelessness and apathy experienced by the Byzantines after two civil wars. The aristocrats’ victory, in conjunction with the Black Death, created a fatalistic despondency among the population. Moreover, an earthquake in Thrace in March 1354 devastated the land and allowed large numbers of Ottoman Turks to cross the Hellespont, thus gaining their first foothold in Europe in the region’s deserted villages and towns, particularly in Gallipoli. This was a severe blow to the Byzantines, who became vassals of the Ottoman sultan and allies of the Turks. Turkish conquest moved in one century from Gallipoli (the first town in Europe to be captured by the Ottomans, in 1354) through the Balkans and on, finally, to Constantinople. Militarily impotent and diplomatically weak, the Byzantines, nevertheless, fought every inch of the way.

In the event, the horizon seemed dark indeed. The last decades of the empire were years of anxiety and fear: the latter because of the approaching Ottoman threat and the former resulting from worry over the security of one’s family and home. This sense of helplessness was, finally, magnified by trepidation over conversion to Islam, which, undoubtedly, had a price, either in this world (if one returned to Christendom) or — even worse for devout Christians — in the next. Depending on their personal convictions, family situation, and interests, the empire and its rulers wavered between an alliance with the West or with the Turks. Two crusades were planned in the fourteenth century; the first, led by Marino Sanudo Torsello (1332-1334), formed a maritime league of Western powers (the pope, the Venetians, France, the Genoese, the Knights of Saint John) against the Ottomans. The second crusade, initiated by John V Palaiologos, is known as the Hungarian Crusade: nothing came of it. By the end of the fourteenth century, however, the expansion of the Ottoman state into the Balkans combined with renewed interest in Greek culture and the classics to change the climate in Europe. When the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II, visited Charles VI in Paris in 1400, he was received with far greater honors than his father, John V. A few years later, an embassy led by Manuel Chrysoloras (who had been appointed to teach Greek in Florence in 1396), gave an illuminated manuscript of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite to the royal church of St. Denis in Paris, showing the obvious importance attached to such an artifact by the French. Within Byzantium, there was also a large faction that believed in the ultimate efficacy and spiritual power of the Orthodox church, and it pushed to reassert and strengthen Orthodox belief and the traditional cult. So, polemics against both Islam/Turks and the Catholic-Orthodox union became stabilizing forms for Greek society.

Nevertheless, after the siege of Constantinople (1422) and Thessalonike’s fall to the Ottomans (1430), the climate seemed ripe for a final attempt at reconciliation between East and West. A council to unite the churches was called in Ferrara, then moved to Florence in 1439. Even as the Ottomans were at Constantinople’s gates, most Byzantines were against any concession to the Western church (Bessarion of Trebizond was one of the few to advocate union). The council of Ferrara-Florence tried to address the following: the procession of the Holy Spirit, the primacy of the see of Rome, the use of unleavened bread in the sacrament, and purgatory. The two last issues were dropped and, after a compromise was reached in July 1439, the union of the churches was proclaimed. Upon the delegates’ return to Constantinople, however, it was clear that, as far as the people were concerned, the Union of Florence was a shameful thing, and it was difficult to find a unionist patriarch to support it. (Bessarion, disappointed, left Constantinople for Florence in 1440, became a cardinal, and left all his books to Venice.)

The nominal union of the churches did not prevent Constantinople from falling to the Ottomans in 1453. Emperor Constantine IX (1448-1453) faced the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II Fatih (the Conqueror), who was intelligent, perceptive, and learned in philosophy, science, languages, war, and administration. His objective was Constantinople’s fall. Despite the construction of a great land wall (four miles in length, from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn) and other heroic defenses, Constantinople was cut off from the rest of Europe by sea and land, and its walls were bombarded. As supplies dwindled, the defenders turned their hopes to the sacred icons and relics that they paraded through the city. The night before the attack, the people crowded into Hagia Sophia. On the final day, May 29, the janissaries managed to overwhelm the Genoese defenders and entered the city at the gate of Kerkoporta. After the traditional three-day plunder, in which many of Constantinople’s treasures were destroyed, the city’s Greek population was integrated into a millet (a community) under their own leader, who would be answerable to the sultan for their collective conduct. The patriarch of Constantinople, Georgios Scholarios (the monk Gennadios), was chosen for this position — and became the successor of the Byzantine emperors.

An entirely new chapter in the history of the city began with the advent of the Ottomans. In 1453, Mehmed made Constantinople the new capital of the Ottoman empire: the city was adorned with new palaces, mosques, and treasures. It soon became an exotic place to be visited by European scholars, who eventually ascribed the term “Byzantine” to its past Greek civilization.

Morea, and especially its capital, Mistra, was Byzantium’s last outpost, while Trebizond lasted a while longer. The culture that flourished in Mistra was a blend of monastic asceticism and medieval humanism. Men of letters and monks came from Constantinople and Thessalonike. Works of classical antiquity, and Christian theological and historical works, were transcribed in the libraries. Artists and architects also congregated at Mistra. The wall paintings at the churches of Peribleptos and Pantanassa are among the most striking examples of late Byzantine art. They show a traditional Constantinopolitan style with new liveliness and attention to realistic detail; they also reveal a mystical and ethereal quality that bespeaks something of hesychasm’s spirit. At the same time, the attention paid to the landscape, realistic details, and coloring is rather innovative and might betray Italian influence, as seen in icons from Venetian Crete.

The most arresting personality among Mistra’s intellectuals, and its most original scholar, was George Gemistos Plethon, a Platonist and the intellectual successor to Theodore Metochites, who lived at the turn of the fourteenth century and is connected with the decoration of the Chora monastery (now Kariye Camii Museum) in Constantinople. The Byzantines were, for Plethon, the descendants of the ancient Hellenes; and he used the term “Hellene,” which in the Middle Ages traditionally referred to pagans, in its ancient form to designate the Byzantine Greek-speaking Orthodox. While Plethon devised elaborate schemes of state reform and defense of the Morea, these were unorthodox views that constituted a type of anomia toward the traditional Byzantine order of society and were often associated with the older, pagan stage of development of Greek-speaking people. As such, it is hard to tell if elements of continuity from late antiquity inhered in them or if they were new developments.

After 1453, the nostalgia felt by the Byzantine diaspora was promoted by the Orthodox faith: in its liturgy, in its icons, and in the monasteries of Mount Athos, Meteora, and Mount Sinai. Expatriate communities arose in Venice and, later, in other parts of Europe and the Middle East, where they maintained the Orthodox faith and helped to disseminate the Greek language and the classics (as in the case of Aldus Manutius, and his press, in Venice). Byzantine historians knew what the problems had been, but they beseeched God for an answer as to why these problems had led to such a definitive result. While they could not stomach the Westerners, they could not live without them. Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) showed that, in the end, the West could not live without Byzantium either.

Maria Georgopoulou is associate professor in the history of art at Yale University, where she has taught since 1992. She has contributed to both catalogues of the exhibitions of Byzantine art organized in the last decade by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Glory of Byzantium (1997) and Byzantium: Faith and Power. Dr. Georgopoulou is the author of Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism and founder of the program for Hellenic studies at Yale University.
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