Thoughts on the History of Byzantium
(Ed. Note – we have translated this as “Memoirs”)
Thucydides, Michael Psellus and Anna Comnena have long been three of the authors I most admire.
- Thucydides because he had the courage and the honesty to write about a great war that revealed the true nature of men, and how the pursuit of individual glory, fame and wealth by those same men led to the collapse of a great civilization;
- Michael Psellus because of his successful straddling of the line between panegyricist and gossip – his chronicles of the Emperors from Basil II through Michael VII Parapinaces recount, again with honesty and courage, the intra-family feuds that sapped the strength of the ruling families, the corruption of both Church and Nobility and the fatal impact of these on the Empire as a whole, and the slow but seemingly inexorable slide into decay that beset the Empire at the end of the first Millenium; and
- Anna Comnena for her far-sighted and clear-eyed view of the Europeans as they cast their covetous eyes on the remnant of Empire that our noble rulers exerted so much effort and care over.
Prince Alexios has given me an opportunity to reflect (and dare, I hope, join?) these great names as chroniclers of History. Alexios (I will dispense with his title here – we are old friends) has asked me to oversee the production of what will be a mammoth set of volumes: The Comprehensive History of the Roman Empire. This will begin with the founding of Rome (753 BC), and continue to our present day. And not only that, but knowing my passionate interest in our history, he has granted permission for me to contribute to the collection. Consequently, I have made two decisions:
First, I will write of the period beginning with the reign of Manuel II – arguably the darkest days the Roman Empire has ever seen. Certainly we faced more mortally dangerous foes then than the Carthaginians, the Visigoths, Vandals or Huns. I am looking forward to bringing the resources Prince Alexios has at his command to bear on this fantastic opportunity!
(Ed.Note – Prince Alexios is the governor of Roman Hindustan. RH is comprised of three Themes: Carnatic, Malabar and Gujurat/Hyderabad. Each Theme is made up of several provinces. The capital is Burhanpur in the province of Khandesh. Amazingly, this one province has over 250,000 inhabitants! This Roman Theme is the center of global Spice production, and in consequence contributes to the vast wealth of the Roman Empire. Opportunities for trade and increased wealth in our own country by participating with the Romans in this is surely a significant reason to end the animosity of our two great countries.)
Second, I have decided to emulate my three literary friends and record my observations of our historical world as I discover and write about them in the volumes for Alexios. I believe that there will be many interesting facts uncovered by this effort. And while there will probably be only a few who ever read or even see the Comprehensive History (Alexios intends for it to sit in the Imperial Library in Constantinople, after all), perhaps this small volume will reveal to the reader the nature of the Roman Empire, its Emperors, subjects, enemies; it’s successes and failures; and perhaps something of Human Nature.
Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus
“The plan were we are encamped is deserted, as a result of the flight of its inhabitants to the woods and the caves and the mountain-tops as they tried to flee from what they are unable to escape: a slaughter that is inhuman and savage and without any formality of justice. No one is spared – neither women nor children, nor the sick, nor the aged…There are many cities in these regions that can never be true cities; they have no people. And when I ask the names of the cities, the answer is always, 'We have destroyed these places and time has destroyed their names'.” Manuel II Palaeologus wrote this in the darkest days of his reign, as he campaigned as a vassal of the Ottoman Emir Murad (I still cannot believe that such a time ever existed, even as I write the words – the Emperor of Rome a vassal to a wild Turkish tribesman!) The vassalage was the result of the extreme foolishness and misguided policies of his father, the Emperor John V Palaeologus. Murad, who was so bold as to title himself Sultan of Rum (a distant echo of the Seljuk Turks, a memory that stirred the fears of the Empire as the wind from the Russian steppes stirs the dust in the cold winters of Thrace), was a brave warrior if nothing else, and while the Imperial elite schemed and conspired in the ancient City, he traversed the southern shores of the Marmara, bringing the countryside under his heel.
What is indeed unbearable for me is that I am fighting beside these people when to add to their strength is to diminish our own.”
Manuel was forced in these campaigns by his status as a vassal of the Emir (and the Emir Murad invoked his liege rights often to humiliate the Emperor) to inflict great pain and the yoke of servitude on those he has promised God to succor and serve. The pain of these days, and others like them, are etched into the record of Manuel’s many actions as Emperor.
As I read, researched and began writing of these difficult days, I came to the realization that in order to understand the near Tragedy and final Triumph of Manuel II, I had to start with the legacy of his grandfather, Andronicus III Palaeologus and father, John VI Palaeologus. How else to understand that the Roman Empire, once the ruler of the world, has been reduced to the City and a few small dots of lands? How else to understand how it was that in just a few short years the Empire had gone from hope to despair, from what looked like resurgence to what seemed to the world to be stagnation, decay and inevitable destruction? Of these two Emperors, the first was a shining hope cut short too soon; the second was an unmitigated disaster. What follows are some thoughts on the strange course that History weaves through our lives, as it takes and leaves all things with impunity.
Andronicus III was seen as the hope the Empire had been waiting for. He inherited a small, precariously positioned realm, and through force of arms and will reunited Epirus, Macedonia, Thessaly, Morea and many of the Aegean Islands to the Empire. Of course, compared to the size of the Empire under Justinian, this seems piteously small. But he managed to stem the onslaught of the Turks from Anatolia, hold back the ambitious Bulgar and Serb Tsars, and win back territory from the rapacious Italians. These were no small victories given the times.
This is a map of the Empire at the height of Andronicus’ reign. You can see that dangers surrounded the Empire, and yet Andronicus managed to hold them off, and in many cases overcame them.
Sadly for the Empire, in 1341 Andronicus III died. Quite possibly he was murdered by those jealous of the resurgence of Imperial power. As difficult as it is to imagine in these modern times of loyalty to the Emperor, in those far off days of utmost danger to the Empire there were many who sought to rule, as the English I believe say, as “big fish in small ponds”. Certainly the nobility of Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia chaffed under the re-imposed rule from Constantinople. Just as certainly, many in the church and nobility resented the rule of a strong Emperor – their privileges and wealth were directly challenged by his focus on sustaining the Empire. They were not sad to see him go, and were too blind to see the disaster waiting just beyond the horizon.
After his death, they whispered rumors and tales into the ears of his frightened widow, Anne of Savoy (a poor Frankish woman unused to the deep currents and cunning webs of intrigue in the hot-house atmosphere of centuries-old Constantinople.) These factions attempted to draw her into their respective camps. They all used her fears for her son as the hook to pull her this way and that. The depth and blindness of their city-centered intrigue, at a time when the Turks were busy expanding their power in Anatolia against the Ghaznids, was foolish in the extreme.
The Grand Domestic of the time was John Cantacuzenus. (Yes, he is the illustrious ancestor of Alexios and his family. The Cantacuzenoi had been involved with the Empire’s fortunes for many years; in the person of this John, they BECAME the Empire for a short while, as I will mention below.) For many years he attempted to serve the Empress and her son faithfully, fighting on all sides the attempts of the Bulgars, the Serbs, the Turks and the Latins to seize back land from the Empire.
However, his enemies at court, of whom there were many, took advantage of his absences from Constantinople to poison the mind of the Empress and her advisors against him. In fact, many of her advisors were his most fervent enemies – a strong government threatened them. They eventually convinced the Empress that he was planning to usurp the throne and exile or kill her son. I am constantly amazed at the great energy and cunning people will expend to gain their ends, even in the face of grave external danger. These men and women (for there were both) put their immediate pleasure, power and desires ahead of the well-being of the entire Empire. It was as if they were living in another world, oblivious to the forces bent on the destruction of our country.
The order deposing John from his office of Grand Domestic (senior military commander -- the meaning has changed in our day) arrived while he was returning from battle. His troops, in honorable Roman tradition, failed to accept the ruling of a corrupt city faction. They proclaimed him Emperor, and made quickly for Constantinople. John summoned other allies, and they, too, raced to secure the Imperial City. John’s triumphal entry through the Golden Gate is commemorated elsewhere in stirring detail – suffice it to say that he brought dignity and honor back to a Court sorely lacking in both.
However, his empathy and honor were to be the undoing of him. Rather than exiling those of the Imperial Court who has sought his dismissal and demise, he welcomed them into his court. He was crowned Senior Emperor as John VI but insisted that Andronicus’ son, John V Palaeologus be crowned Junior Emperor. He even married his daughter Helena to John V in a show of loyalty to his great friend, the Emperor Andronicus III.
John VI Cantacuzenus adopted a policy of comity and mutual tolerance with the Turks, going as far as arranging for his daughter Theodora to marry the Emir Orhan (Murad’s father.) The faction of John V Palaeologus, however, adopted a strongly anti-Turk position. He led Roman troops against the Turks, and worked hard to undermine the work of John VI. Certainly the two Emperors stood in starkly contrasting positions. Their animosity and difference in purpose and deed in fact made it impossible for the Empire to function, and slowly ancient and new enemies whittled away the gains the Empire had seen under Andronicus. In particular, the Serb Tsar gained almost all of the Empire's lands in Europe -- gains that latter fell to the Ottoman Emir.
The old enemies of the senior Emperor also worked tirelessly on the populace of Constantinople, and eventually succeeded in turning them against John VI. After just six short years, he put aside the Imperial Purple, and turned over the government of a faltering Empire to one of the least capable Emperors ever to ascend the throne.
The Empire at the Departure of John VI
John V, became sole Emperor of a much-diminished Empire. He then proceeded, in a reign of almost 50 years, to lose almost every bit of land remaining to the Empire. He became the laughing-stock of Western Europe and the plaything of the Pope, he abased himself and the Empire in and to Venice (that most perfidious of cities -- her beauty concealed a corrupt and grasping heart). He abandon the very premise of the Empire when we offered one of the last bits of Roman land (the island of Tenedos) to the Venetians in return for military aid. He was captured by the Bulgars, he betrayed the Orthodox and True religion by offering subservience to the Pope in Avingnon.
And in the final indignity, he fell so low as to become the vassal of the Ottoman Emir. His uneven favoritism between his two sons Andronicus IV and Manuel II was the cause of Ottoman penetration into Thrace, and the reassertion of both Venetian and Genoan power in the Aegean. He was, as I noted ealier, a complete and utter disaster for the Empire, and his death was a welcome relief for many.
Here is the map of the Roman Empire at the death of John V Palaeologus.
This Emperor, spoiled by the whisperings of court favorites and unable to see beyond the needs of the moment (and unwilling to look to the preservation of the Empire) brought the Empire almost to its end, and set in motion the tragedies that followed Manuel II like the Furies for so many years.
Among the catalogue of sorrows that befell Manuel II prior to accession as sole Emperor I must include the following: many imprisonments in the Galata Tower by the partisans of Andronicus IV; the surrender of Thessaloniki to the Turks by its own citizens despite his appeals for bravery (he ruled as co-Emperor from there); his installation and then rejection as co-Emperor by his father in favor Manuel’s brother Andronicus IV; the refusal of the Latin rulers of Chios and Mytilene to admit him after his rejection and departure from Thessaloniki; the repeated rescues and subsequent rejections by his father, John V, again in favor of Andronicus IV; and his eventual need to throw himself on the mercy of the Ottoman Emir Murad when the partisans of Andronicus IV won (temporarily) the upper hand in Constantinople.
After all this, he was left with having to oppose Murad’s aggressive son Beyazit. Beyazit's first action upon the death of his father Murad (in the battle that shattered the Serbs) was to kill his brother to secure the throne. This was a hard and determined man. The measure of Bayezit’s danger is captured in this quote from a letter to Manuel II:
Shut the gates of the City and Govern within it; for everything beyond the walls is mine.
Hardly a propitious foundation upon which to build an Empire.
And yet....Manuel came to the Imperial Throne in 1391, and immediately set in motion plans to counter what seemed to be the unstoppable threat the Turks posed to both the Romans and the West. By 1399 he was ready to attempt what his father had failed to do – obtain help from the kings of Western Europe. In the final days of the century, he set sail from Constantinople with his wife and oldest sons (including the future John VIII Palaeologus – we will see that this made a deep and lasting impression on this future Emperor).
He bypassed the grasping states of Venice and Genoa (these nations were, after all, directly responsible for the collapse of the Empire in 1200 when the Fourth Crusade sacked the City at the bequest of the Italians, and continued to act as if the Empire was theirs for the taking) and appealed to the kings of Hungary, France and England. Pope Boniface IX issued Papal Bulls calling for material and financial support of the Empire as well as a Crusade against the Ottomans. As one western author wrote,
“The nations of the West had finally woken up to the Dangers posed by the Turks.”
And, amazingly, this trip was a success. Funds were raised throughout the West (although much was in the end embezzled by the Genoans – true to their history in those days of antipathy and hostility to the Empire!) More importantly, the Emperor met Charles of France in a period when that sad monarch’s mind was clear of the madness that was to consume him. And so Manuel II returned to the Empire with funds and the ships for the fight against the Turks.
Manuel II wisely spent these funds on improvements to the walls and in training his forces for what he believed was the inevitable onslaught. By 1419, the Empire stood as prepared as possible to face the Turks and to defend the history of Empire. 20,000 troops and 15 warships faced 60,000 Turks, and the Empire waited.