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7-08-2015, 20:01

Embers of empire

By the time Byzantium’s defences in Bithynia in north-west AsiaMinor succumbed to theOttoman Turks, an ‘emperor of the Romans’ had once again been resident in Constantinople for some fifty years. To perceptive contemporaries, Michael VIII Palaiologos’ seizure of Constantinople from the Latins appeared ill-starred (see below, pp. 753, 804), and they would seem to have had a point. Recovery of the traditional seat of empire may have broughtMichael personal prestige, but organising its defence and everyday maintenance proved to be heavy burdens on state finances and diplomacy. His son and heir, Andronikos II (1282–1328) had neither strategic flair nor trustworthy generals to cope with affairs in Asia Minor or the repercussions of the Mongols’ inroads there (see below, p. 726), and he anyway lacked resources to fund a navy. The vicissitudes of Constantinople-based regimes, whether of Latin or Byzantine emperors, reflected the demise of the command economy which had made the City such an omnivorous centre of consumption up to 1204. Thereafter its rulers were unable to collect taxes from numerous far-flung provinces, or to orchestrate a wide range of manufacturing and trading activities to their regimes’ advantage. The City’s inherent geographical advantages now provided it with economic buoyancy, in default of overriding state power. Constantinople became a meeting-point of externally based trading enterprises, mainly Italians’. Their self-interest drove the exchanges and determined the alignment of trade routes, and they pocketed the profits.49 The reinstallation of a ‘Roman’ basileus in Constantinople in 1261 might change the dominant outsiders from Venetians to Genoese, but not the dynamics of a now almost ‘globalised’ economy: the leading Italian commercial families and enterpriseswere not amenable to control by any one territorial state, and the Constantinopolitan emperor’s ability to rake off proceeds through taxing goods or transactions was gravely impaired. Across the Golden Horn from the City, in Pera (also known as Galata), the Genoese ran their own, fortified, trading centre. The Genoese and Venetians alike were prominent in fourteenth-century Constantinopolitan court ceremonial, a mark of their involvement in the latest permutations of empire. Byzantine emperors, wherever they were now installed, would never again be able to amass resources or exercise purchasing power on a scale that made state service the main route to status and wealth. Their ability to reward and to coerce was correspondingly diminished and empire became more ‘virtual’, a matter of voluntary adherence and belief, than had been the case before 1204. But this did not put paid to the idea of empire, and in fact demographic trends, agricultural production and commercial activity seemingly continued on an upward course throughout the lands of the former empire until the mid-fourteenth century (see below, pp. 818, 820– 2). These provided material supports for a variety of political structures, under the leadership of scions of what had been imperial, or imperiallyconnected, families in Constantinople before 1204. So long as they resisted the temptation to make a name for themselves by recovering the City, they could enlist local elites, sport imperial trappings and count on a measure of popular acceptance and even armed backing in what had been outlying provinces, for example, Epiros. In addition, ambitious leaders of non-Greek-speaking Christian polities in Caucasia and the Balkans sought to legitimise and enhance the standing of their regimes, emphasising the sanctity of members of their dynasty or of other local saints and shrines close-linked with their rule. They, too, tried to make their respective realms coterminous with a church province or patriarchate. And a Greek-speaking basileus established himself in distant Trebizond and managed to stay aloof from bids for the throne in Constantinople.50 The kaleidoscopic swirl of Byzantine-born claimants to empire, splinter groups ofGreek-speaking communities, orthodox Slav nation-builders and Frankish warlords does not lend itself to neat narrative rendition. Full treatment of all the different local situations would require a volume to itself. This is one reason why the conditions of flux following Constantinople’s fall in 1204 tend to be set apart from the general history of the Byzantine empire. The chapters in Part III offer an outline of political events in the main Byzantine dominions (except Trebizond) up to the fifteenth century, but no attempt is made to replace or duplicate detailed narratives already available in English.51 Instead, chapters are devoted to some of the principal beneficiaries from the events of 1202–4: the western European conquerors and colonisers; Italian and other merchants in the Aegean; Serbian and Bulgarian rulers contending for control of the EgnatianWay and outlets to the sea; and Albanian chieftains.Quite extensive coverage is given to matters of trade, emporia and trade routes. These illustrate the volatile nature of the commerce that yielded the most spectacular wealth. Several elites, would-be imperial Greek dynasts in the Balkans, Serbian and Bulgarian potentates and Latin men-at-arms, did business with, as well as competing against, one another, making military and marriage alliances in numerous permutations. At a time when few boundaries were really closed, or power centres firmly rooted, the prospects for a regime or simply a local family could be transformed by appropriation of a prosperous port, or a new deal with the Venetians or theGenoese. If this seldom made for stable political structures, it tended to stimulate rather than stifle new trading nexuses. New axes also formed directly between the former provinces of Byzantium, and Greekspeaking traders and sailors played a significant part in developing and operating these networks, albeit on a secondary plane to westerners.52 The new conditions prompted local, lower-value commerce and offered opportunities for other forms of intercourse between Greek-speaking imperial subjects or their descendants and Latins in Aegean coastal towns. This spectacle, together with fear for their orthodox souls, may well have stimulated the movement towards extreme asceticism and a hardening of the line against the Latins discernible in some Latin-frequented commercial centres, for example fourteenth-century Thessaloniki, a city in socio-cultural ferment (see below, pp. 47, 820, 823–4, 857–8). One region that temporarily insulated itself against such cultural contamination was that of Nicaea under the Lascarid emperors, in the first half century or so following Constantinople’s fall. They eschewed lavish consumption and ruled in a style somewhat reminiscent of the soldier-emperors of the eighth century.53 Restrictions against trading with the Latins were enforced and the state’s objective was self-sufficiency.Nicaea’s mostly agrarian economy and its character of a frontier society facing the Turks made for an effective fighting force, while also sustaining a robust and variegated court culture (see below, pp. 739, 751). Under the capable generalship of Michael Palaiologos, warriors from Nicaea defeated what was, in a sense, their opposite number among the Latins, the Franks of Achaia, at the battle of Pelagonia in 1259 (see below, p. 749). The Nicaeans’ victory is the more striking for the fact that their adversaries, under the leadership of the Villehardouin family, included the best-organised among the Frankish occupiers of the Byzantine lands. The qualities of the Villehardouin regime are brought out in David Jacoby’s chapter. The Villehardouin princes’ dealings with the Italian entrepreneurs were sometimes fraught and at first they had their differences with other Frankish lordships. But they came to arrangements of mutual advantage with, for example, the Venetians, while also courting the cooperation of Greek-speaking landowning elites and leaving orthodox churches and churchmen mostly unmolested, a prudent stance given their own limited numbers. However, the demands placed on peasants were less constrained by law: most tenants on estates became legally unfree, and their disputes could now usually be heard only in seigneurial courts. They lacked access to public courts proceeding by Romano-Byzantine law, which seem to have functioned right up to 1204 (see below, pp. 772–3). The Villehardouin leadership deliberately fostered a sense of regional identity, accommodating indigenous archontes within their political culture, and members of these families fought on their side at Pelagonia. Nonetheless, the Villehardouins continued to lose ground to the Palaiologoi in the later thirteenth and earlier fourteenth centuries.54 The importance of the Peloponnese to the Palaiologoi is shownby the fact that their territories there were usually allocated to the sons of the emperor. The ‘despotate of the Morea’ is not recorded as being of much fiscal value to the Constantinopolitan government, but its long-term economic viability and the cultural vitality maintained at the despots’ court in Mistra made this more a beacon than an outpost of the orthodox Roman empire. The despotate has been described as a ‘success story’ of late Byzantium (see below, p. 860), and part of its buoyancy came from the agreements that were made with Latin powers and trading interests. Essentially, the Byzantines marketed their wheat, honey and other primary produce to Italian traders ensconced on the coast, and catered efficiently for newly established trading posts such as Clarence (Glarentza) (see below, pp. 835, 841, 845). In doing business with the westerners without losing political autonomy or doctrinal orthodoxy, the despotate improved upon the example of Nicaea, demonstrating the resilience of ‘virtual empire’. Another success-story, likewise rather undersung in relation to the empire because unchronicled by Byzantine narrative historians, is that of the heterogeneous monks ofMount Athos in this period. Copious writings flowed from the pens of ascetics who resided for a while or were trained there, for example Gregory of Sinai, Gregory Palamas, Evtimii (a future Bulgarian patriarch) and Kallistos, a future patriarch of Constantinople. They recounted the lives and miracles of one another, composed texts for use in worship, denounced the Latins or polemicised with fellow orthodox over other theological matters such as the possibility of experiencing the Divine Light, a basic tenet of the hesychasts.55 The heavenly kingdom and the means by which individuals could train themselves for exposure to the divine – through prayer, contemplation and abstinence – were of paramount concern to these monks, transcending earthly dangers and powers. Yet the Holy Mountain also acted as a focal point for orthodox potentates: the orthodox emperors in Constantinople and Trebizond, as well as Georgian, Bulgarian and Serb rulers, believed that veneration of Athonite monks in general, and patronage of individual houses in particular, offered them a means of gaining both God’s favour and their own subjects’ respect (see map 50 below, p. 873).56 If this polycentric orthodox world was riven by fierce political, territorial and ethnic rivalries, common religious beliefs, saints’ cults and axioms of church discipline maintained strands of unity. Athos and affiliated monasteries served as a ‘workshop of virtue’.57 The frequency of contacts between far-flung monasteries58 was facilitated by the proliferation of routes and affordability of travel that followed on fromthe Latins’ dominance of theAegean and theBlack Seas. The capacious ships of Italian merchants could ferry sizable parties of Rus churchmen from the lower Don to Constantinople, or on to Thessaloniki and thus the neighbourhood of Athos. And the wanderings of holy men such as Gregory of Sinai from Thessaloniki to Chios and beyond may well have been made in Italian vessels.59 Thus, paradoxically, a community of faith and spiritual role models gained in intensity and range both from the weakness of polities unable effectively to regulate sea traffic, and from the ubiquitousness and drive of Latin merchants and their trading partners in quest of profits. Not that many senior churchmen in the Constantinopolitan patriarchate or Athonite leaders saw merit in the fragmentation of earthly powers. Besides seeking individual emperors’ support in wrangles over hesychasm, church appointments and property-ownership, these churchmen upheld the idea of empire as an article of faith. It was more than a matter of finding a compliant figurehead at a time when the patriarchate’s own stock and organisation were riding high. Allegiance to a Christian Roman emperor on earth, and specifically in the ‘holy city’60 of Constantinople, was a characteristic that distinguished true Romans from mere Latins, whose brand of Christian observance seemed to bring them so many material advantages and sharp debating points. The empire that Constantine the Great had instituted was, after all, part of God’s design for the redemption of mankind, and those who stayed loyal to the idea were at the same time ‘true believers’, orthodoxoi. More positively, and less time-specific, senior orthodox churchmen could hold up the imperial order projected in Constantinople through ceremonial and liturgical worship as a kind of ‘icon’, prefiguring the divine order in heaven. Even if the late Palaiologan empire appeared to be confined within the City’s walls, the capital’s endurance of siege conditions had venerable precedents.61 The empire had repeatedly survived almost total submersion beneath alien occupiers and invaders, its enclaves standing out above the flood as a kind of archipelago (see below, pp. 226–7, 255–7, 259–60, 610– 12). The successive phases of fragmentation and territorial reconfiguration gained meaning and purpose from a standpoint attuned to liturgy, the constant re-enactment of sacred time by means of key texts and symbols in a church building, a miniaturised heaven (see above, p. 8). This perspective enabled churchmen and laity alike to see beyond current setbacks and material want to the ultimate victory of the emperor and all he stood for. Patriarch Antony IV (1389–90, 1391–7) voiced it in his letter to Grand Prince Vasilii I of Moscow (1389–1425) in 1393, when he insisted on the ‘commonality’ of the church and ‘the natural emperor, whose legislations and regulations and ordinances are held in regard across all the inhabited world’, in contrast to ‘particular local rulers’, like Vasilii, ‘besieged by the unbelievers and himself taken captive’, a dig at Vasilii’s recent spell as a hostage of the Golden Horde.62 By this line of thinking, which many on Athos shared, church and empire stood for ethical and political principles of universal validity, and Constantinople was still their exemplary centre. Whether Rus and other Slavic-speaking potentates fully subscribed to this line is questionable, but one should not underestimate the readiness of some of their clergy, at least, to put an exceptional valuation on the liturgical rites in St Sophia or to associate them closely with the emperor. Thus Ignatius of Smolensk wrote a detailed eyewitness account of the coronation there ofManuel II Palaiologos (1391–1425) in1392.He interrupts his description of the liturgy to ask ‘who can express the beauty of this?’ in terms akin to those of Rus emissaries who had reported back to Vladimir of Kiev after witnessing a service in St Sophia some 400 years before: ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth . . . We only know that God dwells there among men.’63 For even the most educated Rus churchmen, Byzantine political culture was only a remote aspiration, but south Slav potentates were eager to appropriate details of Byzantine inauguration ritual to sacralise their own regimes. Translated texts containing the basic prayers and procedures are known from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts: the translations into Slavonic were probably carried out in the fourteenth century, if not earlier.64 While these appropriations signal Bulgarian and Serb leaders’ ambitions to gain divine sanction for their own authority and for the right solemnly to delegate to subordinates in the manner of the basileus, they also imply a kind of gold-standard status for the rites of rulership celebrated at his court. This did not stop them from doing battle with the basileus’ armies or occupying his former territories and provincial towns, as the Bulgarian Ivan II Asen (1218–41), and the Serb rulers Stefan Uroˇs II Milutin (1282–1321) and Stefan Duˇsan (1331–55) did with panache.65 Divinely sanctioned authority was not, however, gained quite so straightforwardly. Overweening as individual potentates’ personal pretensions might be, many of their churchmen and subject populations still saw in the tsar’s court in Constantinople a model of legitimate monarchical rulership, even a reflection of the celestial order. As Alain Ducellier notes, the victorious Milutin effectively remodelled his court ceremonial and panoply of authority symbols on Byzantine lines at the time of marrying Simonis, daughter of Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282–1328), in 1299.66 Already wealthy, Milutin could now legitimately bedeck his wife and selected nobles in ‘imperial garments and gold belts’ and in imperial purple, sending them on progresses through his lands.67 The belief that preeminence rightfully belonged to the ‘emperor of the Romans’ resonated among the monks of Athos and even the most ambitious of Serbian predators, Stefan Duˇsan, had to take heed while appropriating Byzantine-ruled towns inMacedonia and claiming to be chief protector of the HolyMountain. 68 StefanDuˇsan’s conquests and prestige owed much to the military failings and penury of the Byzantine empire. As Angeliki Laiou shows, these weaknesses were partly self-inflicted, a consequence of bitter divisions within the Palaiologan dynasty and civil war between the regents of a minor, John V Palaiologos (1341–91), and a formidable figure who for a while took the helm, John VI Kantakouzenos (1347–54) (see below, pp. 809, 810–11, 822– 4). The mid-fourteenth century saw an unmistakable turn for the worse in the empire’s fortunes, as pressures from Turks, Serbs and other external powers mounted, while revenues fell far short of the emperor’s outgoings. One symbolic indignity was the cessation of issues of gold coins from some point between 1354 and 1366 onwards: striking gold coins bearing his image had been a prerogative of the emperor in the New Rome’s heyday (see below, pp. 809–10). A mid-fourteenth-century observer bemoaned the loss of territories: ‘Now it is we who are enslaved by all those people who were . . . [formerly] . . . under our sway.’69 The Ottomans, in contrast, conducted a war-machine formidably well calibrated for continual operations. The Byzantine emperor became a tribute-payer and thus vassal of Sultan Murad I (1362–89), but this bought only temporary respite, and for nearly ten years from 1394 Constantinople was under siege (see below, pp. 827–8, 832). Deprived of a forceful legitimate monarch by Duˇsan’s untimely death in 1355, the Serbs’ new polity itself fell prey to internal dynastic rivalries and regional secessions, while the Serbs’ defeat at the battle of Kosovo in 1389 might suggest that the Ottomans were all but unstoppable (see below, p. 852); likewise with the Turks’ annihilation of a large crusading army at Nikopolis in 1396 under the leadership of Murad’s son and heir Bayazid I (1389–1402). The survival of the Byzantine empire into the fifteenth century could plausibly be put down to luck and its very harmlessness in Ottoman eyes. Yet the loose-knit, almost federal, empire of the Palaiologoi was not necessarily worst-adapted for obstructing the Ottomans. A case may even be made for its resilience. From behind his Roman walls, the emperor could still seek out his enemy’s enemy in the diplomatic tradition of Justinian. The arrival of the Central Asian conqueror, Timur, in Anatolia in 1401 probably owes something toManuel II’s d´emarches towards him in conjunction with western emissaries.70 Timur’s crushing of Bayazid’s army at the battle of Ankara in 1402 and the subsequent squabbles between Bayazid’s sons eased the pressure on Byzantium, and some Byzantines invoked another equally venerable tradition, the intervention of theMother ofGod. The despatch of icons and relics – ‘reliquary diplomacy’ – was pursued with as much vigour by emperors and senior churchmen after Nikopolis as before 1396; their efforts were directed at both western and eastern sympathisers, potential providers of military manpower or treasure.71 Institutionalised links were forged in the late fourteenth century with the church organisations of nascentWallachian andMoldavian principalities beyond the lowerDanube, and as late as the 1430s the Serbian despot George Brankovi´c (1427–56) constructed a fortified residence at Smederevo on the lines of one recently built in the City walls at Constantinople by, most probably, his fatherin- law, Theodore Palaiologos Kantakuzenos.72 Other marriage-ties bound the Serbian political elite with that of the empire of Trebizond, and this network was, towards the mid-fifteenth century, extended to the Ottoman ruling family, too (see below, pp. 872, 874). Given the Ottomans’ problems with finding military manpower for the Balkans, and the limited number of Muslims residing west of the Aegean and the Bosporus in the later fourteenth and earlier fifteenth centuries, it was conceivable that the strands and strongholds of orthodox dynasts and supporting populations might be tweaked together in such a way as to thwart the ‘Ishmaelites’, denying them sufficient captives, plunder or revenues to maintain their war machine. If the Turks proved ultimately unstoppable, this owed much to the Ottomans’ methods of ‘harvesting’ Christian children and firing the ‘new army’ of janissaries with zeal for further conquests (see below, p. 858). The underlying ties of faith and allegiance between emperor, Greek-speaking Romans and even sometimes the Slavonic-speaking orthodox had survived earlier inundations and, when occupying elites and armies faltered, resurfaced with a vengeance (see below, pp. 785, 798–9). The empire without frontiers lost vital nutrients at grassroots with each successive ‘child levy’ and s¨urg¨un, haemorrhaging as debilitating as the holes blasted in Constantinople’s walls by Turkish guns in 1453.73 The care the Ottomans showed in drawing on the human resources of the empire’s former provinces is as revealing about Byzantium as it is about their own organisational talents. The Ottoman war machine was vastly more formidable than the one that had enabled the Fourth Crusaders to seize the City and, unlike the Crusaders, the Turks had long dominated its hinterland. But they needed to draw heavily and confidently on their Balkan possessions for revenues and manpower before taking on the task of capturing Constantinople and administering in and from it. They were not going to repeat the experience of the Crusaders, who had had to contend with Greek and Slav populations of, at best, uncertain loyalty, to the west and south-west of Constantinople. The forbearance of the sultans and their counsellors from attempting a direct assault in the first half of the fifteenth century was partly due to internal political tensions. But it also suggests that the Byzantine empire had other strengths besides the near-impregnability of its ‘reigning city’. Embers could still flare up in unlikely places and outliers metamorphose into new centres, as Mistra showed signs of doing with the help of its commercial and cultural ties with the Italian world.74 The sultans were assiduous in courting acceptance from Athonite monasteries by confirming their landed possessions and right to go their own spiritual way and, as Bryer shows, once Mehmed II (1444–6, 1451–81) had captured the City, he showed ambivalence in his quest for cooperation from senior churchmen, from the patriarchate downwards (see below, pp. 869, 871–2). At a material level, he confirmed theGenoese trading privileges within days of Constantinople’s fall (see below, fig. 65 on p. 867). The Genoese deal can, like Mehmed’s compact with the orthodox church, be viewed as a measure of the old empire’s decomposition, its unravelling into discrete ecclesiastical, monastic, regional and commercial sectors. Yet to dwell only on these negatives would be to overlook the variable geometry that had long been characteristic of the empire sans fronti`eres (see above, p. 3).Middle Byzantine emperors had mostly managed the balancing act between Greek-speaking religious orthodox insiders and other princes, populations and powers until the preponderance of western resources and organisational skills made the balance virtually unsustainable. The loose-knit, dynastic mini-empires emerging after the catastrophe of 1204 were structured differently from their illustrious predecessor, and the ‘emperor of the Romans’ reinstated in Constantinople in 1261 could not call up the administrative or military apparatus of the past. In fact the malfunctioning of late imperial governance was the despair of some of those who sought to operate it or who had written on its behalf,75 while from the end of the fourteenth century, numerous craftsmen – goldsmiths, gold wire-drawers, shipwrights and also medical doctors – saw better prospects in the west and set up successful enterprises as far afield as London.76 The imperial order did not, however, survive by institutions alone. In its capacity to engage the sympathies, belief or commercial concerns of quite disparate, scattered groupings the Palaiologan empire showed a certain continuity with its earlier incarnation. Not for the first time the patchwork qualities of the Byzantine empire made outright conquest and long-term occupation by even the most resolute outsiders an expensive, potentially self-defeating business. The Ottomans’ step-by-step approach to the conquest of the Byzantine empire and its affiliates bears witness to this. So do the studied ambiguities and concern for legitimacy in the eyes of their new subjects of Mehmed the Conqueror and his immediate successors.