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8-08-2015, 00:19

The achievements of a byzantine government in exile

What, then, was the historical importance of the period of exile?27 Later generations remembered it as a heroic period. In retrospect it seemed a time of hope, when the body politic was purged of the corruption that characterised Byzantium before 1204, when imperial autocracy was curbed and a more equitable society came into being. The emperor was no longer above society but responsible to it. The historian George Pachymeres illustrated this with a single anecdote. Emperor John Vatatzes caught his son Theodore Laskaris out hunting dressed in cloth of gold. He rebuked the young prince: ‘Did he not realise that these vestments of gold and silk were the “blood of the Romans” and should be employed for their benefit, because they were their property?’ They were not to be wasted on frivolous pursuits.28 Public utility was the justification for imperial authority. Expulsion from Constantinople compelled a reassessment of the limits of imperial authority. Without the validation of the capital emperors needed the moral support of the orthodox church more than ever. This was symbolised by the introduction during the period of exile of the patriarch’s anointing with myrrh as a regular feature of the coronation ordo. Its meaning was made clear by Patriarch Joseph I (1266–75, 1282–3). In his will he refused to accord Michael VIII Palaiologos the epithet ‘holy’, much to the latter’s indignation. The emperor insisted that it was his by virtue of his unction with myrrh. The patriarch was dismissing him as unworthy of the imperial office. In other words, the rite of unction conferred moral authority on the emperor, but it also left the emperor more vulnerable to ecclesiastical censure29 – a situation reminiscent of experiences in the west over several centuries. During the period of exile orthodox patriarchs continued to pay lip service to imperial tutelage. Germanos II’s defence of the rights of the patriarchate over the church in Epiros was couched in the traditional terms of ‘one church, one empire’. But George Bardanes, the spokesman for the people of Epiros, was far more realistic. He made it clear that the church in Epiros would gladly recognise the authority of the patriarch at Nicaea, but not that of the emperor.He did not understand why imperial authority was necessary to a unit based on common adherence to the orthodox faith. Why was co-existence not possible? ‘Let each come to an understanding on these terms and “let each enjoy the Sparta which it has been allotted”, not stupidly gazing on the ends of the earth, but being satisfied with one’s own territory, fearing God, and honouring in a spirit of brotherly love the appropriate ruler.’30 It seemed a reasonable plea: the unity of the Byzantine world after 1204 was essentially religious and cultural and no longer dependent upon imperial authority. Political unity was irrelevant or would have to wait until Constantinople was recovered. It was a point of view that also had its adherents at the Nicaean court. Its leading intellectual and theologian Nikephoros Blemmydes defended the political independence of the Greek ruler of Rhodes; the only unity that mattered was that provided by orthodoxy. He was outraged when in 1256 Theodore II Laskaris compelled the patriarch of the day to place the territories of Michael II of Epiros under interdict.31 This was blatant exploitation of ecclesiastical power for political purposes. In a quite different way Theodore II Laskaris also recognised the divisions of the Byzantine world that exile had fixed. He dedicated his victories in Europe to ‘our Holy Mother Anatolia’.32 The fall of Constantinople necessitated a reassessment of Byzantine identity. It could hardly be otherwise, since it was so closely bound up with the imperial and universalist pretensions of the capital. In exile the core of the Byzantine identity remained orthodoxy, but it was given a more obviously nationalist twist. In the past, the Byzantines had defined themselves against Hellenes (or pagans) and Jews, and occasionally against Armenians. From the time of the First Crusade the Latins featured more prominently, but it was only after 1204 that they became the ‘other’ against which the Byzantines measured themselves. This was a negative shift.More positive was the re-evaluation of the meaning of Hellene. It came to be identified with the cultural legacy of classical Greece, stripped of its pagan connotation. This had begun before 1204, but it only received coherent expression after the fall of Constantinople. It is set out most clearly in a letter of Emperor John III Vatatzes to Pope Gregory IX (1227–41). He claimed that his imperial authority had a double validity. On the one hand, it could be traced back to Constantine the Great and, on the other, it was founded in Hellenic wisdom. Orthodoxy and imperial authority fused with a cultural tradition to produce a shift in the Byzantine identity.33 This shift inspired the achievements of Byzantine scholars during the period of exile. They were able to recover the intellectual heritage of Byzantium which was threatened by the fall of Constantinople to the Latins. John Vatatzes organised a palace school, which preserved the traditions of higher education.34 But the most eloquent testimony to Hellenic wisdom’s power to inspire comes in the shape of the autobiography of the future patriarch Gregory of Cyprus. He describes how bitterly he resented the Latin conquerors of his native island. They made it virtually impossible for him to get a proper education. Hearing of the fame of Nicaea as a centre of Hellenic education, he ran away from home and made his way to Nicaea. Whatever his disappointments, he treats his search forHellenic illumination as a form of conversion.35 Cultivation of Hellenic wisdom defined the Byzantine elite culturally against the Latins. In 1254 there was a disputation betweenNicaean scholars and members of a Hohenstaufen embassy. Theodore II Laskaris presided. He adjudged victory to theNicaeans and thought it reflected great credit on the Hellenes. Consciousness of a Hellenic past became an integral part of the Byzantine identity, but its expression was the preserve of an intellectual elite. There was surprisingly little friction between Hellenism and orthodoxy despite their apparent incompatibility. Patriarch Germanos II could compare John Vatatzes’ victories over the Latins toMarathon and Salamis. This illustrates how Hellenism gave orthodoxy during the period of exile a more obviously Greek complexion. The orthodox patriarchate did not hesitate to abandon its rights over the orthodox church in both Serbia and Bulgaria and came close to doing so in Russia. This was in contrast to the stubborn and eventually successful defence of its authority over the church in Epiros. Whatever claims Patriarch Germanos may have continued to make to universal authority, his stance over the Epirot church indicates a more obviously nationalist understanding of orthodoxy: it was the faith of the Greeks. Although the recovery of Constantinople from the hated Latins was always the goal, Constantinople itself became less and less relevant to the sense of identity that evolved during the period of exile. Political loyalties became more localised. A sense of common purpose was provided by the orthodox church and of cultural unity by theHellenic tradition.At the same time a rather different structure of government and society was crystallising. Many of its features can be traced back before 1204, but they were held in check by the power and tradition of Constantinople. Its fall produced of necessity a simplification of the machinery of government. Even the tradition ofRoman lawweakened, allowing the introduction of the ordeal.36 There was a devolution of authority. This took the form of a marked growth of immunities and pronoiai, but it can also be seen in the widespread grant of urban privileges. Power became increasingly localised. Michael VIII ignored these changes at his peril. He was proud to be hailed as the ‘new Constantine’, but his autocratic style of government created many difficulties.37 His attempt to restore the old ideological and institutional foundations of the Byzantine empire went counter to the changes that had occurred during the period of exile. The restored Byzantine empire was not able to escape the legacy of exile. It remained a conglomeration of independent or semi-independent political units. Except very briefly, Epiros was never persuaded to return under the direct authority of Constantinople, while AsiaMinor was never reconciled to Palaiologan rule. Still more seriously, Michael VIII’s efforts to impose union with the Latin church alienated all sections of orthodox society. This reflected a shift in attitudes that occurred over the period of exile. An emperor could no longer use the orthodox faith as a diplomatic bargaining counter with the Latin west without provoking bitter opposition. The church could now count on popular support. This had not been the case before 1204. Michael VIII’s attempt to restore imperial authority to its former eminence only left Byzantine society hopelessly divided. To bewail the recovery of Constantinople, as one Nicaean official did in the summer of 1261, was to show uncanny prescience.38

 

 

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