Politics of silence and confrontation: Was there ever Byzantinism?

by Alexander Mirkovic *

There is almost universal consensus that the most important issue in the cultural history of the late Byzantine Empire was whether or not to bring about the union with the Western Church.1 The Byzantines identified the Western Church with the papacy, an institution represented by the official structure and defined by the universally accepted belief in a great universal creed. They negotiated the union of the Churches without realizing that the Christian body in the West was a conglomeration of local communities that could easily split apart from the official structure. The hope of the highest governmental echelons in Byzantium was that the promised military help in exchange for the union of Churches would bring badly needed military assistance. Even though we now know that the promised military help from the papacy was not and could not have been organized in time to save the failing state, it is a fact that all other political, social, and cultural issues are in one way or the other related to this decision facing Byzantine society. Finally, after the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine Church rejected the union and was supported in that decision by the Ottoman sultans, but scholars still argue why the ecclesiastical union was rejected and about what the rejection has meant for the population and their cultural identity.

In our opinion some scholars today make the same kind of categorical mistake that the Byzantines made in their negotiation with the papacy. They assume that the Byzantine Church was also a monolith body united by a commonly shared tradition under the leadership of the patriarch and the emperor. For example, Steven Runciman summarized this point in an unambiguous manner: ‘The real bar to union was that Eastern and Western Christendom felt differently about religion, and it is difficult to debate about feelings.’2 What underlines this statement is the presupposition that the Orthodox Church, by and large, managed to unite Byzantine society behind itself on a level that the papacy was never able to accomplish. Runciman’s student Donald Nicol ventured further into defining the ‘feeling’ of Byzantine self-identity, which prevented them from becoming something else through the union of the Churches. He called it ‘Byzantinism’, a sense of spiritual identity that was nourished by an irrational belief in the interdependence of time and eternity, a sense of belonging to a theocratic society.’3 According to Nicol, this feeling of ‘Byzantinism’ is what the people were afraid to lose; it was not a sense of national identity, not their Hellenism, but this elusive feeling that Nicol identifies with belonging to the Orthodox Church.4 This feeling is a psychosomatic condition ‘revealed at its highest spiritual level in the sanctity of an anchorite or the mystical-corporeal vision of a Hesychast, revealed more commonly in the daily mysteries of sacraments of the Church, revealed above all and in lasting form in Byzantine art.’

How real was this feeling of ‘Byzantinism’ in the late period of the empire (1261-1453)? Did all share it? Who defined it? Was it just the Orthodox Church that shaped the feeling of Byzantine identity, as Runciman and Nicol believe, or were other factors involved? By looking at Byzantine attitudes toward self-identity we hope to achieve a better glimpse into the ‘glue’ that held this society together. We will look at various strata of Byzantine society, imperial court and bureaucracy, landed aristocracy, clergy, merchants and craftsmen, and finally the peasants. Our argument is that far from being united by religion, Byzantine society was divided over many issues, religious, cultural, economic, and social. The idea that the Orthodox Church somehow managed to unite all the factions of Byzantine society under its banner should be further scrutinized, and in our opinion rejected. Our argument is that the late Byzantine Empire was a deeply divided society, divided on the issues of religion, politics, culture, and economics. If ‘Byzantinism’ was a feeling that most of the Byzantines shared, we need to examine who shared this feeling so essential for the identity of the people. In other words, the question must be asked: was there ever a feeling of ‘Byzantinism’?

In the analysis of the feeling of identity we shall start with the question how the Byzantines felt about themselves and other peoples around them. Feeling of identity is a very fluid concept, first because feelings are fluid by nature and second because identity is a multi-layered concept. The sense of belonging to the Orthodox Church was an important factor, but not the exclusive and absolute factor. For most of the people in the Middle Ages, Christianity was the principal factor in defining their identity and there is nothing particularly Byzantine about that. What is peculiar is that Byzantines called themselves Romans because they lived under Roman law, even though they spoke a Hellenic language.5 However, they saw their neighbours in the East through Biblical lenses. The Turks are almost universally called either the sons of Agar (agarènoi), or the sons of Ishmael (ismaèlites). In the case of the Turks the alleged descent seems to be the reason for the name. In their interaction with the Muslims the Westerners followed the same practice. The Westerners are most often lumped under one category Franks (frankoi), probably with an intention to emphasize their barbaric origin.6 Latin is used interchangeably with Franks. Here law, language, and custom played the major role, not religion. Since the Franks were living under different laws, spoke a different language, and behaved in a different manner, they were a different nation. The Byzantines never called the Franks Catholics, because they knew their Creed well and were aware of its claim that there is only one universal (catholic) church.7

In this paper we shall consider the period between the occupation and the pillaging of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 and the final fall of the city to the Turks in 1453. With the arrival of the Crusaders, the Byzantines had to deal with the Westerners not only through diplomatic channels, but also directly with the Latin principalities in the Aegean. The turning point in the way Byzantines felt about the West seems to have been the signing of the ecclesiastical union with Rome at the council of Lyon in 1274. The union was signed to counter the planned invasion of the Empire by the king of Sicily, Charles of Anjou. The act of union was a brilliant political move by the emperor, because it directly undermined the power of the French in Sicily, but it came at a sizeable internal cost. A large segment of the Church was infuriated by the attempt of the emperors to force the union on it and began to work diligently against the union. Some clerics even claimed that they would ‘rather die than ever to Latinize’ (latinizoo – to follow the way of the Latins).8 George Metochites provides us with an excellent testimony on how divided Byzantine society was over the issue of the union. After returning from the signing, he was welcomed by the mob shouting: ‘You have become a Frank.’ In response George wonders: ‘Should we pro-unionists, simply because we favour union, be subjected to being called supporters of a foreign nation and not Roman patriots?’9 The polemics against the Latin-minded people (latinofrones) undertaken by the Church shows many characteristics of a nationalist movement, but it does show that society was united behind the movement.

Ironically, the power of the anti-Latin movement reached its peak at about the time when Constantinople was falling to the Turks in 1453. Grand-duke Lukas Notaras spoke for many when he commented on the fall of the city saying: ‘Better the Sultan’s turban in our midst than the Papal tiara.’10 Finally the Orthodox Church was able to obtain the support of a powerful central government even though the government that provided it was not the government of the Roman Emperor. The new conquerors put the Christians under the authority, both secular and religious, of the patriarch of Constantinople, establishing thereby a millet system.11 The head of the Church was responsible to the Ottoman government for the payment of taxes and internal security of the people under his rule. At first two such institutions were established, one for the ‘Rum’ (Romans) under the Rum patriarch who controlled all Greek and Slavic population, and the other for the Armenians under the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople. At that point, the Orthodox Church was able to gain full control of the Christian population, something that had not been possible under the rule of Christian emperors.

Having therefore delineated the chronological boundaries of this study we will begin our survey of the various strata of Byzantine society starting with the office of the emperor and moving down the ladder. Because of the prestige of his office, the emperor was theoretically able to set the agenda and try to influence the feelings of national unity of his subjects. The office had a long tradition of powerful imperial rhetoric on its disposal that could be used for various purposes. In the late period this was no longer possible, because the powerful and majestic image of the emperor was completely detached from reality. One example should suffice here to indicate how powerless the emperor was during the last century of Byzantium and how he was invoking the feeling of pity, not admiration. It comes from the English chronicler Adam Usk who describes the visit of the emperor Manuel II Palaiologos to London in 1400. The purpose of the visit was to seek financial assistance. This is how Usk describes his feelings about the emperor:

I thought within myself, what a grievous thing it was that this great Christian prince from the farther east should perforce be driven by unbelievers to visit the distant islands of the west. My God! What dost thou, ancient glory of Rome? Who would ever believe that thou shouldst sink to such depth of misery, that, although once seated on the throne of majesty, now thou hast no power to bring succor to the Christian faith.12

It is clear that Usk sees the emperor as just one of the princes and according to the measurement of the English hierarchy he would have the power of a baron. Nevertheless, Usk’s remarks show that there was a feeling of Christian solidarity overriding the minutiae of cultural and religious differences. The fact that several emperors traveled personally to the West pledging for support indicates that the Byzantines also shared this feeling of pan-Christian solidarity. While there is no doubt that unionist policy had a lot of opponents, the fact that Byzantine emperors were allowed to leave the capital and pledge to the Westerners to proclaim a crusade against the Turks shows that Byzantines were at least aware of the feelings of common Christian compassion, interests, and solidarity.13

The foreigners saw the reality of imperial power and the Byzantines were hard pressed to hide it. Holders of the imperial office were faced with a very difficult predicament. Their power was miniscule and was growing ever weaker. The emperor of the Romans had to be a good actor because the symbolism of the office retained the rhetoric from the days when the emperor was the ruler of the known universe. It did not take much before either enemies or friends would realize how hollow this Byzantine imperial rhetoric was. For example, Vasily I, the grand prince of Moscow, realizing how weak the emperor of the Romans was, wrote a disparaging letter about him. Since there was no other way to prove him wrong, patriarch Anthony of Constantinople wrote a response to Vasily I in 1395 arguing how different the imperial office was from any other ruler. With all the other vestiges of power gone, he presents the emperor as the guarantor of true faith throughout the universe. The letter is a piece of political propaganda, so that one wonders to what extent either side believed in the far fetched theory of religious supremacy of the sacred emperor of the Romans. It is a supreme example of Byzantine imperial rhetoric, which in this case has clearly the form of patriotic propaganda. It indicates that old rhetoric of universal empire could be easily adapted for new purposes:

The holy emperor is not like other rulers or governors of other regions. This is so because from the beginning the emperors established and confirmed the true faith in the entire inhabited world. They convoked ecumenical councils and confirmed and decreed the acceptance of the pronouncements of the divine and holy canons. … The Basileus is anointed with the great myrrh and is appointed basileus and autokratoor of the Romans and indeed of all Christians. … Therefore, my son, you are wrong to affirm that we have the church without an emperor, for it is impossible for Christians to have a church and no empire.14

Naturally, the patriarch tries to salvage the imperial office from being damaged and to hide his feeling of shame, but the Russian prince was just pointing to the obvious. Very soon the Church would find out that it could function without a Christian emperor and that in some cases a powerful Sultan would be more useful to it than a weak emperor still willing to mingle in ecclesiastical issues.

Strictly speaking the Byzantine Empire never had a noble class in a Western sense, a group of people who had hereditary possession of land including the right to dispense justice over its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the advent of the Crusaders in the area led to the fragmentation of the state and the rise of centrifugal tendencies.15 The establishment of the Palaiologoi dynasty signified the victory for the higher Byzantine nobility. Feudalism was a relatively new concept in Byzantium, but the process of fragmentation reached its climax from the fourteenth century onwards. The secular and ecclesiastical landlords enlarged their estates, added to the number of their paroikoi (serfs), demanded increasingly extensive privileges and were frequently granted complete immunity.16 For all practical purposes the Byzantine Empire had become a feudal state in the worst sense of the word, a private property of the imperial family, given in pieces to the other members of the same family. Nevertheless, the façade of traditional adherence to the idea of imperial unity had to be preserved. It was convenient to blame the West for the innovation and Western women in particular.

In 1253 Michael Palaiologos, who eventually became emperor, but at that time was just one of the Greek nobles, faced the possibility of undergoing an ordeal by fire. At the age of twenty-one he was accused of treason. Facing the local Greek ruler of Nicea he was ordered, rather than to undergo the regular trial, to prove his innocence by the ordeal of fire. Michael cleverly avoided the test by insisting that he would undergo the ordeal if the bishop would first grasp the hot iron by his own hand and hand it to the accused. The whole episode concludes with the moral message saying that ordeal by fire: ‘is not part of our Roman tradition or of our laws. The practice is barbarous and unknown to us.’17

A historian would conclude two things from this story. First that the Byzantine noble class was very much influenced by the Crusaders and attempted to follow their customs even to a point of imitating the ordeal by fire. Second, the story is also a rejection of that kind of imitation. One should not forget that George Acropolites, the author who recorded it, was writing a story about the youth of an emperor.18 Its purpose was not only to record an actual event, but also to show the superior character of its protagonist, a man who is able to face any challenge and win. The young man who outwitted the ordeal went on to take back Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261. The story portrays two very important responses of the Byzantine nobles to their encounter of the West. They were willing to accept many Latin customs, but on the surface they remained protectors of the Roman traditions.

Another example of the behaviour of aristocracy towards the West comes from Nicephorus Gregoras, a good friend of one of the most powerful Byzantine aristocrats and later emperor John Kantakouzenos.19 Gregoras attacks feudal practice of dividing the empire and blames the Latin-born empress for trampling on the Roman custom when she suggested that her sons receive a part of the empire as apanage:

Eirene, the wife of the Emperor Andronikos, a woman ambitious by nature, desired that her sons and her descendants inherit in perpetuity, as successors, the imperial rule of the Romans. Even more unusual, she desired, not according to the fashion of monarchy as the custom prevailing among the Romans since antiquity, but in conformity with Latin practice, that all of Andronikos’ sons divide the cities and provinces of the Romans among themselves, and that each son rule a portion, as if they were dividing a private inheritance and personal possession. She proposed this because she was by birth a Latin and, having learned of this innovation from them, she wished to introduce it among the Roman people.20

The emperor refused the request and Eirene retired to Thessalonica in indignation. She interpreted the gesture as favouritism toward the emperor’s son from the first marriage and died in Thessalonica in 1317. One has to wonder what was really going on in this case and how accurate was Gregoras’ description? The practice of dividing the territory had been long abandoned in the West, so it is inaccurate to believe that Eirene’s suggestion was exactly worded as Gregoras presents it. In any case the suggestion to divide the Empire was not the result of a Latin way of thinking, previously unknown to the Roman people. At this point in time the Byzantine Empire began to look like the Carolingian empire after the death of Louis the Pious. Andronikos II had to divide the empire with his grandson, Andronikos III, after he failed to win the civil war in 1321. The general who led the grandson’s forces was no other than John Kantakouzenos, who received the apanage in Thrace with the promise of general exemption from taxation.21

What the Byzantine nobles did when dealing with the West stood in sharp contrast to their words of the strongest opposition to the union of Churches. This make-believe behaviour became obvious during the controversy over what is known as Hesychasm, a mystical movement of the fourteenth century whose practitioners claimed to have seen the uncreated light of God. The practitioners of Hesychasm were monks, but the movement soon received a political dimension due to the fact that at the time there was a civil war going on. On the one side was the powerful aristocrat John Kantakouzenos. On the other side was the regency in Constantinople led by the empress Anna of Savoy, the widow of the late Andronikos III (1328-1341). During the civil war (1341-1348) Kantakouzenos skilfully used hesychasm and its popularity among the monks to gain considerable political advantage. This is not to say that all the adherents of Kantakouzenos were supporters of hesychasm. Some of them such as the noted historian Gregoras despised it. However, ‘the closer the link between the hesychasts and John Kantakouzenos, the more deeply the religious dispute became involved with the political conflict which was dividing the Empire into two hostile camps.’22 The reason for this kind of politicizing of a religious issue is that one of the regents to the young John VI Palaiologos was no other than the Patriarch John Kalekas (1334-1347).

Hesychasm is taken to be the soul of the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church the soul of Byzantine identity.23 The Eastern Church is defined as a church with a strong inclination toward mysticism in contrast to the Western Church that lacks such a strong inclination. What is overlooked is the fact that comparable mystical movements flourished in the West during the same time, the waning of the Middle Ages. The piety of the late medieval West was marked by a profound mystical bend, which perhaps surpassed in its depth and fervour all prior mystical movements.24 A possibility could be raised that instead of being a typically Byzantine phenomenon, hesychasm might have been a symptom of the waning Middle Ages in the East like the mysticism of Meister Eckhart is a symptom of the waning Middle Ages in the West.25 Naturally, there are subtle theological differences between fourteenth-century mystics in the East and the West.26 The goal of Eckhart’s mysticism was the eternal birth of God within the soul; the goal of hesychasm was the vision of uncreated light seen by the apostles on mount Tabor. While both have in common the desire to recreate the apostolic experience, the one is the re-enactment of Nativity, the other of Transfiguration. The possibility that appearance of two contemporaneous mystical movements might have been caused by similar social factors should not be dismissed, only because the one is Eastern and the other is Western.

Furthermore, not all Byzantines practiced and supported hesychasm. The opposition to the movement among the intellectuals is well documented.27Teachings of hesychasm were only accepted after a long and bitter struggle and after several councils and counter-councils. Gregory Palamas, the leader of the movement, was actually imprisoned during the civil war by the regency in Constantinople. It also seems that the opponents of hesychasm were not only to be found among the learned. The people of Thessalonica violently opposed the appointment of Palamas as the archbishop of the city because he was the supporter of John Kantakouzenos during the civil war of 1341-’47. The people of Thessalonica rebelled against Kantakouzenos in 1342 and were led by a group called Zealots. The rebellion bears resemblance with Italian urban conflict between popolo grosso and popolo minuto. It is clear that in Thessalonica some of the rebels were members of the guild of sailors.28 Kantakouzenos in his memoirs makes a special effort to undermine their religious sincerity and Orthodoxy, but still has to admit that ‘Seizing the cross from the holy sanctuary, they used it as a banner and said they were fighting under it.’ The picture of violent city rebels fighting, under the sign of the Cross, against the rival political and religious faction is certainly not the image coming from a culturally well integrated society united by the ‘irrational belief in the interdependence of time and eternity.’29

Recent investigation has shown that even during the late period, the Byzantine Empire functioned as an integral part of the international trade complex in the Eastern Mediterranean.30 Trade, of course, has very little to do with feelings, but the role the Byzantine landed nobility played in that trade reveals something about the prevailing state of mind. In spite of its often heated rhetoric against the West, the nobility was the most important customer for the Italian fine cloth. Historian Nicephorus Gregoras complained about young fashionable men who appeared in church on Sunday dressed in peculiar fashion with Italian dresses.31 Gregoras was a partisan of John Kantakouzenos during the civil war and could be accused of a bias. What is revealing is that Bessarion, one of the main proponents of the union of the Churches, agreed with Gregoras in his belief that the Byzantine aristocracy was spending substantial amounts of money on Italian clothing.32

Because of the lack of records, we cannot tell how the Byzantine lower strata, namely artisans, merchants, and most importantly peasants, felt about their own identity, as it relates to the theological issue of hesychasm and the overarching issue of the union of the Churches. For example, even in the most notable example of the Zealots’ rebellion, we do not know how the Zealots felt about the issue of self-identity in Byzantium. We know that aristocratic writers, such as John Kantakouzenos, found them abhorrent. Only the popular literature, written in demotic Greek, the language of the masses, not of the learned, can give us some idea about how the Byzantine popolo minuto felt about the popolo grosso. The picture that comes out of this literary genre does not support the idea of a society united by religious beliefs. The Byzantine animal fable called The Legend of the Respected Ass provides an illustration. The legend consists of a series of stories where a fox and a wolf are trying to outsmart an ass and devour him. The action of the narrative takes place on a ship facing a storm. After several failed attempts the fox and the wolf seem to have finally figured out a way to devour the ass. Because of the possibility of death in the storm, the fox and the wolf suggest that they all make confession to one another. The wolf confesses all his sins to the fox, which include devouring of cattle, sheep, and pigs. The fox absolves him from all his sins. When it is the fox’s turn to confess, the wolf returns the favour and absolves her from all her sins. Now it is the time for the ass to confess, and he admits to only one sin: he had once unlawfully munched a coltsfoot leaf. Both the fox and the wolf conclude that this is a sin punishable by death for which no absolution can be given and the confessors demand the death of the ass. Seemingly accepting his faith, the ass wants to give them his final gift, the magical powers hidden in his back hoof. In their greed, both the fox and the wolf rush to see the gift and are kicked off the ship by the ass. It is not difficult to recognize who is hidden behind this fable. The wolf represents the powerful Byzantine landed nobility; the fox stands for financial officers.33 The ass represents the small artisans and traders, people like those who rebelled in Thessalonica in 1342.

We will need to go back in time to fully understand how the Byzantine Church felt about the union of the Churches. Ever since the first act of union was signed at the council at Lyon in 1274, the church of the Byzantine Empire was divided over the issue of union with Rome and the issue evoked very strong feelings. What was more troubling was the fact that the same man who had taken over Constantinople from the Crusaders, Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282), also was the first to sign the union with Rome. The majority of clerics, especially monks, considered the opposition to the union as the most important issue for their own identity. The behaviour of the patriarch Athanasius I (1289-93 and again 1303-9) is indicative of the attempt of the Church to unify all strata in Byzantine society under the banner of Orthodoxy. Athanasius I did for the Eastern Church what pope Gregory VII did for the Western. By his persistent insistence that wrath of heaven would come upon the Byzantines because of their willingness to compromise in matters of faith, he made a lot of enemies. What the patriarch had in mind was, of course, the compromise with the Pope. Patriarch Athanasius responded with the self-imposed exile behind the monastic walls. The exile was broken when the emperor, Andronikos II (1282-1328), bent on his knees, came to implore the powerful monk to return to the patriarchal office. Refined Byzantine chroniclers did not fail to notice the humiliation of the emperor.34 The comparison with Canossa is hard to escape and it indicates a deep crisis of imperial government, which was going to be challenged not only by the Church, but also by powerful aristocracy.

The church was especially afraid of Latin women, because through their marriages they were able to sway their children and bring them closer to the Latin Church. Six out of ten emperors of the Palaiologoi dynasty married Western women.35 The fear among Orthodox churchmen was not just a product of their misogyny. It had some basis in reality. The tractate written by the French publicist Pierre Dubois suggests sending educated Latin girls to the East to marry important Greeks, especially clerics.36 Dubois laments Greek unwillingness to accept priestly celibacy and suggest a solution: ‘These wives, possessing this kind of education and believing in the articles of faith and sacrament of the Roman church, would then teach their own children and their husbands to accept the Roman faith.’37 It is however doubtful whether this strategy ever had much effect, because we know that at least at the imperial level the wives remained loyal to the religion of their husbands.

Anna of Savoy, a Western woman who married the emperor Andronikos III (1328-41), was considered to be one of the most dangerous for Byzantine self-identity. Anna was born a Catholic and in 1326 she was married to Andronikos III according to the Greek rite, the fact that caused some anxiety to the pope.38 Nobody ever asked her to ‘convert’ to Orthodoxy. It was simply assumed that she would follow her husband’s religion. After taking part in a civil war (1341-’47) as a regent of her young son, she was given the city of Thessalonica to rule. In around 1360 she retired to a Greek monastery in Thessalonica and died there in 1365 as nun Anastasia. Her adherence to Orthodoxy can hardly be questioned, yet chroniclers often blame her for her bad influence on the emperor. Nicephorus Gregoras describes how under her influence her husband began to take part in Western-style tournaments: ‘then even the emperor participated in such single combat so that at some time he was almost mortally wounded. For this reason he was counseled by the older men not to participate in such activities. For it was not proper for the emperor to be struck by his inferiors.’39 In this passage two conflicting views of imperial office are contrasted. The traditional view was that the emperor could not take part in physical combat, and he was counseled by ‘the older men’ not to participate. On the other hand, the emperor certainly enjoyed tournament games. One must wonder who were the older men who advised the emperor not to take part in the tournament held on the occasion of the birth of his first-born son and what faction they did represent.

The question of mixed marriage was especially emotional, because it often carried a stigma of ecclesiastical suspicion, and as time went by the suspicion increased. The legality of mixed marriage is not clear because Byzantine legislation does not address the issue. One would assume that there was no canonical impediment to intermarriage. However, the papacy often required Western nobility to seek its permission. Sometimes the price of disobedience was excommunication. David Nicol noted that eight out of eleven female members of Greek ruling families in the thirteenth century married either French or Italian husbands.40 While the mixed marriages might have caused some problems for the aristocracy, there were mixed marriages among the common people, especially in the Latin held areas of Greece. The children from those marriages were called ‘Gasmules’ and were quite often employed by the navy. This is how George Pachymeres describes that character of the children from mixed marriages, revealing some of what the Byzantines felt about the Latins: ‘The Gasmules, whom the Byzantine call two-raced, are born of Byzantine women to Italian men. They derive their zealousness in battle and prudence from the Byzantines and impetuosity and audacity from the Latins.’41

Among the educated civil servants and scholars there were a lot of men in favour of the union. In a letter to the pope in 1339 Barlaam of Calabria addresses the issue. Barlaam was a Byzantine ambassador and a great supporter of Western scholastic theology. He explains to the pope how it is easy to persuade the Byzantine educated elite to accept the union:

You have two means peacefully to realize the union. You can either convince the scholars, who in their turn will convince the people, or persuade both people and learned men at the same time. To convince the learned men is easy, since both they and you seek only the truth. But when the scholars return home they will be able to do absolutely nothing with the people. Some men will arise who will teach all exactly the opposite of what you will have defined.42

Demetrius Kydones is another example of an educated Byzantine civil servant who took genuine interest in the West. He learnt Latin from a Dominican friar residing in Constantinople and translated into Greek Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles. Kydones was an influential councilor at the court and began his study of Latin in order to be able to read without translation Western chancery documents.43 He was personally fascinated with Aquinas, especially because of his use of Aristotle, who was ‘one of our own’, but was also well aware that many would not share his passion. The following quotation describes who some of his friends in the imperial administration reacted to his efforts:

I would show it [the translation] to my friends who scoffed at me and did not believe that I had succeeded in this task. I, for my part, wanted to tell my friends what I believed was good and I brought to Greece many of those chapters, and when we had some leisure time I gave them to the emperor to read. He listened with pleasure and praised me for my efforts in this regard, affirming that there would accrue great profit from this book for the cause of the Greeks in the future.44

The passage indicates how rare and unappreciated was the knowledge of Latin even in the highest ranks of imperial administration.

Other educated officials urged the Byzantines to adopt Western technology in order to salvage the failing state before it was too late. Bessarion (1403-’72) was one of the most passionate proponents of the union of Greek and Latin Churches, but his correspondence shows a surprising absence of strong feelings that the question of union evoked among the many. During the course of negotiation he became convinced by Latin arguments and upon the fall of Constantinople he returned to Italy where the pope awarded him with the title of cardinal. In a letter written to the despot of Morea around 1444 he reveals his interest in the matters of outdated Byzantine technology.

I heard that the Peloponnesos, especially the area around Sparta itself, is full of iron metal and that it is lacking men who know how to extract it and to construct weapons and other things… These four skills, my excellent lord, engineering, iron-working, weapons manufacture, and naval architecture are needed and useful to those who wish to prosper. Send four or eight young men here to the West, together with appropriate means – and let not many know about this – so that when they return to Greece they can pass on the knowledge to other Greeks.45

It is fascinating to compare Bessarion’s very practical advice with the theological wrangling that went on in Byzantium over the issue of union. The anti-unionist side most often quoted Scripture to prove that God will help only those who keep the true faith. The anti-unionists also combined a nationalistic argument with a religious one. The phrase began to circulate that those who were in favour of union had forsaken ‘the tradition handed down from their fathers’ (patroparadoton). The striking contrast between the two sides is only indicative of the divisions in the Byzantine society, especially among the intellectuals.

Not all intellectuals shared pro-Western feelings. George of Trebizond was born in Crete, spent a large part of his life in Italy, and finally joined the Turkish sultan Mohammed II some years before the fall of Constantinople. In a letter written to the sultan, he contemplates the possibilities of a joint Greco-Turkish empire.46 After explaining to the sultan that Christianity and Islam are not that different and blaming the Jews for misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims, he concludes that when Orthodox Christianity and Islam join forces under the aegis of Mohammed II, all empires in history would appear small in comparison to this great achievement. George’s problem was that the Turkish sultan did not need consent from Orthodox Christians to proceed with the enlargement of the Ottoman Empire.

There is some evidence that the imperial government had occasionally attempted to forge a bond with the artisan middle class, the bond that was essential for the success of the national monarchies in the West and for the prosperity of European cities during the high Middle Ages. For example, the emperor John Vatatzes (1221-’54) issued an edict during the Latin occupation of the capital that forbade the Byzantines to buy clothing from foreign weavers. Instead, he ordered that only clothing produced ‘by the hands of Roman weavers’ is used.47 The move indicates a feeling of national pride, but the feeling never took hold and the later emperors did not pursue the policy further.

It is a common place for contemporary Greek chroniclers to write about the hatred of the local population toward Venetian and Genoese merchants. Aristocrats, such as Nicephorus Gregoras, complained that the imperial government was not very favourable toward local Greek merchants, because it openly favoured Venetians and Genoese.48 The reality might have been very different, because there was a great interaction in business affairs between Greek and Italian merchants, even though Italians dominated Byzantine commerce.49 In spite of occasional outbursts of Orthodox patriotism, Greek merchants adopted many Italian business practices and at time became partners in Italians’ commercial ventures, even when the emperors prohibited such partnerships.50 They used the same procedures and business practices. In Constantinople one found the comenda and thecolleganza, which were arrangements between merchants and financial backers. ‘Nationalism and strong feelings gave way when business was at issue,’ writes Oikonomides in his recent assessment of Byzantine merchants and craftsmen.51 Small Greek merchant colonies existed in both Venice and Genoa even though most of Greek merchant enterprise was limited to local shipping, because their Italian competitors closed the Western market to them. There is still a lot of research to be done in this area, but the indications are that Byzantine merchants were far from being extinct in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.52

The status of ethnic minorities could also shed further light on how intense were the feelings of ethnic identity, especially because the Jews and the Armenians belonged mainly to the artisan and merchant class that the central government was so concerned with. The case of the Jews is quite indicative. The emperors inherited the situation where according to Roman law the rights of the Jewish community needed to be respected. Throughout Byzantine history it was the imperial office that initiated the persecution of the Jews. Around the sixth century, Jews had been denied the right to teach in state universities, to serve in the army, to work for the government, or to hold public office, with the occasional exception of the burdensome decurionate.53 It was the Church that actually saw itself as the legitimate defender of the Jews when they were faced with an edict of forced conversion. This is not to say that the Church did not favour ‘honest’ conversions of the Jews to Christianity. The Church saw itself as a foe of Judaism, but as a defender of individual Jews in case of forced conversions. In the later period, these roles were reversed. Under the Palaiologoi dynasty, it was the imperial government that sought to present itself as the defender of the Jews. The Church, by this time increasingly in the hands of monks, increased its attacks on the ‘dark forces’ that threatened the Orthodox civilization including Judaism.54 The fact that the imperial administration was willing to change its long-standing policy and seek help from the Jews indicates that it was desperately seeking for allies within the crumbling Byzantine society. The policy seems to have worked with the Jews. Unlike the case of the Arab invasions in the seventh century, when most of the Jews openly sided with the Arabs, upon the fall of Constantinople, a Jewish rabbi composed a lament in the style of Jeremiah.55

The letter written circa 1310 by Patriarch Athanasius I (already mentioned above) describes and objects to the privileges given to Jewish artisans and merchants by the emperor Andronikos II. It shows deep dissatisfaction with the ruler’s policy. Written at the time when the Ottoman Turks were already conquering parts of Asia Minor, the letter clearly reveals the most fanatical aspects of the patriarch’s character. Using biblical quotations the patriarch identifies the emperor with wobbling Jewish kings who sought the help of men instead of the help from God in the face of Assyrian danger. He further continues the comparison with the good kings of the Old Testament and point to their clear policies toward idolatry. The wrath of God will fall on the empire because we ‘allow the presence of the deicidal synagogue in the midst of the faithful.’ After leveling the accusation of allowing idolatry, the patriarch, true to his personal style of disingenuous exaggeration, continues to lament the poor condition of Christians in the empire, ‘who do not dare to speak for their faith’, because they fear the power wielded by the Jewish population. Speaking about a certain government official, he says: ‘through gifts, Kokalas [an official] allowed them [the Jews] great power.’56 In order to express his dissatisfaction with the government policy toward the Jews, the patriarch was willing to use any means necessary.

The official imperial position can be discerned from the letter of Andronikos II to the Venetian Doge dated 1319-’20. In the letter intended to settle a dispute between Venetian Jews and Byzantine Jews the emperor says: ‘Regarding the Jews, we respond thus, that our Jews (nostri Judei) are a legitimate possession of the Empire, and for that reason an allotted place is given to them for their dwelling in which they can live and practice their own skills, paying to the Empire that which is ordered them.’57 He continues to say that the incoming Jews from Venice, who decided to settle in the Empire, should follow the same regulations and afterwards describe further details of trade regulations binding for Byzantine Jewish skin and fur producers and merchants. Since these kinds of exchanges are not unique, it is safe to conclude that with regard to the Jews, the Byzantine emperors followed a relatively tolerant policy, because they had a vested economic interest in doing so.

In sum, when we take a look at Byzantine society and analyze how it felt about its own identity we arrive at a picture of a divided society. ‘Byzantinism’, ‘the myth that Byzantine society united behind the Orthodox Church in search for a theocratic state on earth’ should be further examined and in all probability rejected. Most of the Byzantines did not spend their time in contemplation of the uncreated light of God. In fact, the factional strive was so highly developed that it is hard to speak even of one culturally united Byzantine society. The conflict was not between the East and the West. The disagreement was between various factions within Byzantine society, not between the powerful Latin influence and the ethereal feeling of Byzantinism. Byzantine nobles were vocal in their opposition to the Westerners, yet found no problems with marrying Western women and adopting many of the Western practices. Craftsmen and artisans profited greatly from their commerce with Italian cities, but were quite resentful of the privileges that the Italians were able to obtain from the emperors. Yet, their resentment of the landed nobility who prevented their rise to prominence was probably greater that the resentment felt toward successful Italian merchants, who were, after all, their partners. Byzantine monks spoke in one voice in their opposition to the ecclesiastical union and Latin theology, but many of the leading intellectuals found Latin theology appealing. Outside forces, Latins and Turks, served as catalysts to make the differences within Byzantium more apparent, they did not create them. Marxist historians have pointed to the divisions in late Byzantine society and attributed them to the class struggle between the landed nobility and peasants.58 Their interpretation should be rejected because it was inaccurate and simplistic. Not every conflict is class struggle. We believe that the time has come to re-examine the divisions within the late Byzantine society by looking at other kinds of conflicts: between the cities and the countryside, supporters and opponents of the union of Churches, nobles and merchants, men and women, monks and scholars, and so on. Should we not have another look at the assortment of under-evaluated conflicts brewing in the peaceful and mystical society defined habitually by the spirituality of some of its members?

Notes

* University of South Florida.

1 We are aware that the Western Church in pre-Reformation Europe was not a monolith body sharing a uniform belief in a great universal creed. The Western Church was rather a body made up of an infinite multiplicity of local communities that could easily, under pressure, split apart from the official structure. The point advanced here is that the Byzantines perceived the Western Church to be a monolith body. See: Henry Kamen, Early Modern European Society (London: Routledge, 2000), 55.

2 Steven Runciman, Great Church in Captivity (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), 85. A somewhat different view is expressed by Geanakoplos who believes that Byzantium and the West were essentially sibling Christian cultures that underwent several phases of interaction. See: Deno John Geanakoplos,Interaction of the ‘Sibling’ Byzantine and Western Cultures (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976).

3 Donald M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 130.

4 Runciman and Nicol write in direct opposition to many modern Greek historians who argue that the origins of Greek feeling of a national consciousness could be traced back to the Byzantine period. Voyatzidis, for example, suggests that many of the forms of the political and cultural expression of modern Greece are essentially derivative of Byzantine Hellenism. For a review of Greek historians on the issue see: Apostolos E. Vacalopoulos, Origins of the Greek Nation: The Byzantine Period 1204-1461 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 27-45. Paul Magdalino brings the review of scholarship up to date in Paul Magdalino, ‘Hellenism and Nationalism in Byzantium’ in Paul Magdalino,Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Byzantium (Brookfield, Vermont: Grower, 1991), 1-29. In addition to Runciman and Nicol, Magdalino points also to Cyril Mango, Byzantium and its Image (London, 1984).

5 The Jews living within the empire were considered Romans, because they were Roman citizens, subject to the Roman law, even though they were clearly second-class citizens. See: Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985).

6 Only in some official documents can one notice the distinctions between Italians, Germans, Catalans, and Franks. The West responded in kind by calling the Easterners Greeks (Graeci) rather than Romani. See: Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 33.

7 Catholic as a word is a direct transliteration of the Greek word katholikhè, which is used in the Greek Creed and means general, universal. The Modern Greek dictionary designates that one of the meanings of this word defines could define a person belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, but there is no evidence that the word was used in than sense during the medieval period. See: D. N. Stavropoulos, Oxford Greek-English Dictionary(Oxford: OUP, 1988).

8 Bishop Dositheos of Monembasia at the council of Florence in 1438-9. J. Gill (ed.) Quae supersunt actorum Graecorum concilii Florentini (Roma, 1953) vol. 2, 399.

9 Deno Geanakoplos, Interaction of the Sibling Byzantine and Western Cultures, 46.

10 The fifteenth-century historian Doukas attributes the remark to the grand-duke, who was the head of the non-existent Byzantine fleet. See: Doukas,Istoria Turco-Byzantina, ed. V. Grecu (Bucharest, 1958), 329. English translation by H. J. Magoulias, Doukas: Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks (Detroit, 1975).

11 Millet is a self-governing community in the Ottoman state, governed by its own laws, and placed under the religious leader.

12 Adam Usk, Chronicon A.D. 1377-1421 (London: H. Frowde, 1904), 219-20.

13 Ostrogorsky claims that there was always an influential circle in Constantinople who favoured the unionist policy. It is hard to tell to what extent the sense of Christian solidarity was spread outside of the capital. G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 562.

14 Letter of Patriarch Anthony, from F. Miklosich and I. Müller (eds.), Acta et Diplomata Graeca Medii Aevi (Vienna, 1862), vol. 2. 190-91. Translation in Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 143.

15 It is not absolutely correct to assume that the Crusaders introduced feudalism to Byzantium. The thematic system was already failing in the early eleventh century and was slowly augmented by land grants in return for military service. At first these land grants were not hereditary. On Byzantine feudalism see: A. P. Kazhdan and A. W. Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985).

16 George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 481-82.

17 Deno John Geanakoplos, Interaction of the Sibling Byzantine and Western Cultures (New Heaven and London: Yale University Press, 1976), 146.

18 George Acropolites, Opera, ed. A. Heisenberg (Leipzig, 1903), 1:98.

19 The father of John Kantakouzenos was given the lands of Morea in Peloponnese by the emperor Andronikos II in 1308. He governed those lands until his early death in 1316. See: G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 497.

20 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I. Bekker and L. Schopen (Bonn, 1829-1855), vol. 1, 233-34.

21 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I. Bekker and L. Schopen, vol. 1, 319, 14.

22 G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, 514.

23 David M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium, 130.

24 David Herlihy, Medieval Culture and Society (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1993), 347.

25 Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 264-67.

26 The difference is also that Pope John XXII condemned the mysticism of Meister Eckhart in 1329. Gregory Palamas, the most eloquent spokesman for hesychasm, was declared orthodox and eventually saint, after substantial wrangling back and forth.

27 John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas (London: Faith Press, 1964).

28 Geoorgios Christopoulos ed., Historia tou Hellènikou Ethnous, tomos TH, Buzantinos Hellènismos (Athèna, 1980), 156.

29 David M. Nicol, Church and Society in the Last Centuries of Byzantium, 130.

30 Grain was the most important land product traded by the Byzantines. We see a steady decline in grain production due to Ottoman conquest and civil conflicts. For example in 1350 Thessalonica was unable to feed itself due to the Serbian siege and Venice provided supplies of grain. Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis, ‘The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1980-81), 34-35, 178.

31 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I Bekker and L Schopen (Bonn, 1829), vol. 3, 555-56.

32 Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis, ‘The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1980-81), 34-35, 186.

33 H. W. Haussig, A History of Byzantine Civilization (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 376.

34 Gregoras describes the emperor as a man with a bit in his mouth being led like a horse by the patriarch. Gregoras, Romaike Historia, I, 258-9.

35 Angeliki E. Laiou-Thomadakis, ‘The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System’, in: Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1980-81), 34-35, 178.

36 Deno John Geanakoplos, Byzantium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 376.

37 Pierre Dubois, De recuperatione terre sancte, ed. V. Langlois in Collection de textes pour servir à l’étude de l’histoire (Paris, 1891), ch. 61, 51-52.

38 Donald M. Nicol, The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 91.

39 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina historia, ed. I. Bekker and L, Schopen (Bonn, 1829), vol. I, 482. Translation in Geneakoplos, Byzantium, 323.

40 David Nicol, ‘Mixed marriages in Byzantium in the thirteenth century’, in: C. W. Dugmore and C. Duggan (eds.) Studies in Church History I (London, 1964), 160-72.

41 George Pachymeres, De Michaele et Andronico Palaeologis, ed. I. Bekker (Bonn, 1835), vol. 1, p. 309. Translation in: Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 305.

42 From Migne Patrologia Graeca, vol. 151, cols. 1332. Translated by D. Geanakoplos, ‘Byzantium and the Crusades’, in K. Setton, A History of the Crusades (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), 55-56.

43 D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 378.

44 G. Mercati, (Studi e testi, no. 56), Notizie di Procoro e Demetrio Cidone (Vatican, 1931), 362-63. Translated by M. Varouxakis and D. Geanakoplos.

45 From ‘Letter of Bessarion to the Despot of the Morea Constantine Palaeologus (c. 1444)’ in S. Lambros, ed., Neos Hellenomnemon (Athens, 1906), vol. 3, 43-44. Translation in: D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 379.

46 D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 384.

47 Nicephorus Gregoras, Byzantina Historia, ed. I. Bekker and L. Schopen, vol. 1, 43.

48 The policy of favouritism started with the bull issued in 1082 by emperor Alexius I Comnenus giving the Venetians right to trade in all maritime cities of the empire and releasing them from the payment of any custom duties. When Venice led the Crusaders to take the city of Constantinople, the emperors tried to play the Genoese against the Venetians. In 1261 similar privileges were granted to the Genoese, in return for their help against the Venetians.

49 D.J. Geanakoplos, Byzantium, 292.

50 As seen from the account book of Giacomo Badoer, the Venetian businessman who settled in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, Greco-Latin business partnerships were very common. See: U. Dorini, Il libro dei conti di Gracomo Badoer Constantinopli 1436-1440 (Roma, 1956).

51 Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘Entrepreneurs’, in: Guglielmo Cavallo, The Byzantines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 168.

52 Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘Entrepreneurs’, 167.

53 Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 11.

54 Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 10.

55 There is something ironic in the situation were the commander of the city fleet welcomes the fall of the city to the Turks while a Jewish rabbi laments it. One of the verses actually says: ‘My loins are filled with anguish. Who gave up Israel to the robbers?’ See: Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 342.

56 The letter can be found in patriarchal correspondence collected in Migne, Patrologia Graeca 142, col. 512. The translation is from Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 242. The patriarch also levels a similar charge on Armenian artisans and merchants.

57 G. M. Thomas ed., Diplomatarium Veneto-Levantinum (Venice, 1880-’99), I, 143-43. Translation in: Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 244.

58 The main vehicle for the exposition of the Marxist-materialistic view of Byzantine history was Vizantiiskii Vremennik, a periodical started in 1947 by the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the former USSR.


Published in print in Golden Horn Volume 8, issue 2 (spring 2001)