Login *:
Password *:


8-08-2015, 13:19

The morea, the council of florence and plethon

The history of the Morea is a late Byzantine success story, which also illustrates the dilemmas faced by Roman orthodox leaders caught between the west and the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. From 1262 the Peloponnese was steadily recovered from the south by the Byzantines, who shared it with the shrinking Frankish principality of Achaia, based on Andravida in the north-west, until the Latins were finally ejected in 1429 (on this principality, also known as the Frankish principality of Morea, see above p. 767). From 1349 the Morea was an autonomous despotate, an appanage of Constantinople usually ruled, like Thessaloniki, by a younger member of the imperial dynasty. The despots’ capital was at Mistra, below a crusader castle which overlooks ancient Sparta and its plain. Unlike Thessaloniki, Mistra was new, without strong-minded bishops. As the Frankish Chronicle of the Morea helpfully put it in 1249: ‘. . . and they named itMyzethras, for that was how they called it.’14 The steep streets of Mistra, which cannot take wheeled traffic, still tumble past monastic enclosures, domed churches and balconied houses down to the only square and stabling, which is the courtyard of the despots’ palace. Here on 6 January 1449 the despot was invested, but not crowned, as last Roman orthodox emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos. As despot he had been a tributary of the Ottomans since 1447; as emperor he died fighting for Constantinople on 29 May 1453, but it was not until 29 May 1460 that Mehmed II took Mistra.15 The Morean economy was pastoral and transhumant in the highlands, with lowland agriculture, which included exports to Venice of Kalamata olives, along with silk and salt. Monemvasia gave its name to exports of malmsey wine and Corinth to currants. The archives of the despotate are largely lost, but it seems to have been run efficiently on late Byzantine fiscal and feudal lines, financing its defence principally through agriculture.16 The peoples of theMorea were not as exotic as those of the Crimea, but since the seventh century had included Slav settlers (see above, pp. 257–8). Despite evangelisation as Roman orthodox from the tenth century, Slavs were still evident in Tsakonia, the wild east of the peninsula, while the Maniots in the south had a quite undeserved reputation as the last pagans in Byzantium. Frankish rulers had faced the same problems of manpower as would the Ottomans, who did not settle much either. The Franks left halfcastes (gasmouloi), great castles, impeccable Cistercian monasteries and, in towns, now forlornGothic churches. But they did not take root as deeply as other Latins in the Aegean and Ionian islands. In fact the most substantial demographic introduction in the Morea since the Slavs was Albanian. However called, Albanians had been moving south before the Ottomans used them to police the Balkans. The Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs had thrived in the shade of the Byzantine empire. The Albanians seized their turn underOttoman patronage. They were eager, if sometimes casual, converts to Islam. For example, George, last Roman orthodox mayor (kephal¯e) of Kanina, close to Avlona in southern Albania, turned Turk in 1398, with the result that his family kept that office until 1943, incidentally supplying the Ottomans with thirty-one successive local sandjakbeys, thirteen beylerbeys (of Rumelia, Anatolia and Syria), four field marshals (two Ottoman, one Egyptian, one Greek) and a grand vizier on the way.Muslim members of the Vlora family patronised local Roman orthodox monasteries and died fighting the Latins at Rhodes (1522),Naupaktos (1571) and Candia (1668).17 The Vlora dynasty, however, was unusual in keeping its identity; Ottoman policy was at best to pension off local ruling families. Incomplete Ottoman registers show a growth of taxable population in theMorea from about 20,000 to 50,000 non-Muslim households between 1461 and 1512, figures surely too low even if shepherds could not be tracked down over a land mass of 20,000 square kilometres. Yet the indications are clear: the Latin and Muslim population was slight, and of the orthodox over one third was Albanian.18 Fifteenth-century Mistra was, however, unmistakably not just Roman orthodox, but Hellene – in the person of Byzantium’s last great original thinker:GeorgeGemistos Plethon.Asort ofNeoplatonist, Plethon adopted his last name in allusion to Plato and probably inspired Cosimo de’Medici’s foundation of a Platonic Academy in Florence. If there was a Byzantine ‘Renaissance man’, he was Plethon, a maverick who had already dabbled in turn with Zoroastrianism and Judaism (perhaps at the Ottoman court) and whose last autograph fragments of a Book of laws exalt Zeus as supreme God. He was an awkward nonconformist to handle in Roman orthodox Constantinople. It was perhaps for his own safety thatManuel II exiled him toMistra c. 1410. But Plethon was soon addressing treatises toManuel and his son, Despot Theodore II Palaiologos (1407–43) on Platonic Republican lines, urging the division of the citizenry into three classes (of which the most important was its military) and the revival of ancientHellenic virtues: not those of identity of faith or ethnicity, but of patriotism. He had little time for monks, whose lands threatened to turn Byzantium into a monastic economy of almost Tibetan proportions. Such rhetoric may have been utopian, but Plethon held judicial office at Mistra and was rewarded with estates in the Morea. Perhaps on the principle that patriotism is more important than faith, Plethon was in his old age invited to represent the Roman orthodox church as a lay member of its delegation to the conference with the western church held at Ferrara and Florence in 1438–9.19 Like other conferences held under duress, the Council of Florence was soon overtaken by military and political events. The crusade promised by Pope Eugenius IV (1431–47) to save the Constantinople of John VIII Palaiologos from the Ottomans, which the emperor sought in reward for union, got as far as the Bulgarian shore of the Black Sea, but came to grief at Varna in 1444. Ostensibly, however, the council considered theological innovations and terms developed in the western church for which the Roman orthodox had no useful equivalent, or sometimes even definition: the addition of filioque to the creed; the notion of purgatory; and the question of unleavened bread – matters which hardly bothered mostRoman orthodox unless they lived (as inCrete orCyprus) alongside westerners. But the essential issue was that of authority, and the way that it had developed in Old and New Romes: the primacy of the pope, archbishop of Old Rome and patriarch of the west, over that of the ecumenical patriarch, archbishop of New Rome, to which the orthodox subscribed in 1439; they could at least agree to be ‘Roman’. But besides the Ottoman threat, the orthodox delegation was under the additional duress that the agenda and dialectical rules of the great debate were chosen by western scholastics, who ran rings round them. For westerners the union was a matter of discipline: the reincorporation of the wayward orthodox under the authority of a single pope. But for the Roman orthodox it touched their very identity – hence the inclusion of pundits such as Plethon at the Council.20 Patriarch Michael III of Anchialos (1170–8) is first credited with identifying the crux of the matter, when he told his emperor: ‘Let the Muslim be my material ruler, rather than the Latin my spiritual master. If I am subject to the former, at least he will not force me to share his faith. But if I have to be united in religion with the latter, under his control, I may have to separate myself from God.’21 His view was to be put more bluntly in words attributed to megas doux Luke Notaras on the eve of the fall of Constantinople in 1453: ‘Better the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Latin [pope].’22 Between 1439 and 1453 lines were drawn which were to dictate Roman orthodox politics thereafter. Spiritual authority in the east had never been focused on a single see, as in the west, but was in effect dispersed among the whole body of the faithful, including the departed. While those alive soon made it clear that they did not accept union, the Byzantine government remained faithful to the expediency of Florence until the bitter end. After 1453 there could be no going back – or forward. What individual delegates did at Florence in 1439 is therefore vital to explaining not just their own fate, but that of the Roman orthodox under the Ottomans. TheRoman orthodox delegation which John VIII and his dying patriarch took to Florence was a final assembly of the Byzantine intelligentsia, a network of patriotic, family and wandering scholarly contacts, in that order, which somehow survived later party politics.We have already met Plethon (who soon got bored), but to take the link of patris, a remarkable number of the delegates had a connection with Trebizond in the Pontos. For instance the Aristotelian scholar George of Trebizond (1395–c. 1472) was already a convinced unionist and attended the council as a lay member of the papal curia. His reaction to the events of 1453 was to inviteMehmed II to convert to Rome; but he reported so fulsomely on the sultan when they met in Constantinople in 1465, that he found himself in a papal prison. The family of John Eugenikos (1394–c. 1455) also came from Trebizond, on which he wrote patriotic encomia; however, he left Florence before the end of the council, to castigate the union. Otherwise, most Roman orthodox signed the decree of union along with their emperor. Some recanted. Others, convinced by the argument at Florence, entered the western hierarchy itself. However,Mark Eugenikos, brother of John and bishop of Ephesos (1437– 45), refused to sign in 1439. A Palamite, but nevertheless pupil of Plethon, he was in 1456 canonised as a saint by Patriarch Gennadios II, who, as George Scholarios, had attended the council, along with George Amiroutzes from Trebizond and Plethon, as one of a remarkable trio of laymen. Bessarion of Trebizond, bishop of Nicaea (1437–9), had studied with Plethon and Amiroutzes and stayed on in Italy as a cardinal (1439–72). GregoryMamme attended the council as abbot of the great Constantinopolitan monastery of the Pantokrator. He served as ecumenical patriarch (Gregory III) between 1443 and 1450, before returning west to be made titular Latin patriarch of Constantinople (1451–9). Isidore, fromMonemvasia in theMorea, attended as Roman orthodox bishop of Kiev and All Rus (1436–9). Also made a cardinal, he was sent to Moscow as papal legate to Grand Prince Vasilii II (1425–62), who promptly imprisoned him as a unionist. Isidore persisted. He proclaimed the union in Constantinople for Mamme on 12 December 1452, and escaped its fall to become Latin patriarch from 1459 to 1463 – to be succeeded in that office by none other than Bessarion.23 In the face of so many lures and pressures it was patris that held this network together. Plethon was the first to die, in his nineties, at home in his patris ofMistra on 26 June 1452. The last local decree of Constantine Palaiologos as despot was to confirm Plethon’s sons on his Laconic lands. But after 1453 Plethon’s last work, the Book of laws, was forwarded to Patriarch Gennadios, who could do no other than burn it. The book was not just heretical: it was plain pagan. In Mistra another of Plethon’s circle had been Cleopa Malatesta, wife of the despot Theodore II Palaiologos, younger brother of John VIII. In 1465 Sigismondo PandolfoMalatesta (1417–68) penetratedOttomanMistra with a Venetian force, and retreated with Plethon’s body. He installed the remains in a sarcophagus in the south arcade of his extraordinaryMalatesta Temple in Rimini, part-church, part-pantheon, with an epitaph to ‘the greatest philosopher of his time’.