The Reluctant Emperor


For we are fallen into so lamentable a weakness, that far from being able to impose the yoke on others, we are hard put to avoid it ourselves . . . Let us therefore earn once again the esteem of our friends, and the fear of our enemies. If on the other hand we fall through despair into a contemptible idleness, we shall soon be reduced to servitude. There is no middle way. Either we save the Empire, by keeping our ancient virtues; or we lose it, and live under the domination of our conquerors. Take, therefore, a noble resolution, and act in the interests of your glory, your security, your liberty and your lives.

John Cantacuzenus, appealing to his subjects for funds, 1347

'If,' wrote Nicephorus Gregoras, 'John Cantacuzenus had not lapsed into the heresy of Palamas, he would have been one of the greatest of Byzantine Emperors.' Nicephorus may have been wrong about the heresy; none the less, one can see what he means. John VI was a man of integrity, courage, high intelligence and a rare degree of political vision. Had he firmly asserted his claim to the throne on the death of Andronicus III in 1341, he might well have checked the Empire's decline and even put it back on the road to prosperity; but six years later too much damage had been done for any real recovery to be possible. It was John's misfortune to inherit a divided and bankrupt Empire, deeply demoralized and under attack from every side; and when at last he found himself in undisputed possession of the supreme power, although he had thought long and hard about the Empire's political and economic collapse and was fully aware of the steps necessary to launch its recovery, he seems to have lacked that last ounce of steel necessary to impose his will.

He had other misfortunes too, and one of them was to be a contemporary of Stephen Dushan, the self-styled Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks. It was Stephen who had been the real beneficiary of the civil

war, brilliantly playing one side against the other and taking every advantage of the weakness of the regency and the Cantacuzenists alike. After his capture of Serres in September 1345 he was master of virtually all Macedonia except Thessalonica itself; only a month later we find him describing himself - in a document addressed to the Doge of Venice - as fere totius imperii romani dominus, 'Lord of almost the whole Roman Empire'; and, as this title implies, he had no intention of stopping at Macedonia. In the years that followed he was also to conquer Albania and Epirus, Acarnania and Aetolia, and finally Thessaly - all of them at the cost of only a few short sieges and without fighting a single major battle. By the time of his death in 1355 his Empire extended from the Adriatic to the Aegean and from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth, a territory many times larger than that which now remained to Byzantium.

By then, too, he was almost a Greek himself. His people had long since cast off their barbarian image. Andronicus IPs Logothete Theodore Metochites, visiting the Serbian capital on diplomatic business as early as 1298, had been deeply impressed not only by the luxury of the court but by its strong Byzantine flavour; and during the intervening half-century the hellenizing process had continued apace. Dushan ruled the southern part of his Empire from Greece, leaving his son - the later Stephen Urosh V, but still only a child - in nominal charge of the Serbian lands in the north; he himself spoke fluent Greek, integrated Greek officials into his administration and gave them Greek titles. Nor, when necessary, did he hesitate to adopt Greek institutions: the Syntagma, or manual of law, by the Byzantine canonist Matthew Blastares formed the basis for a considerable part of the new legislative code which he first promulgated in 1349 to put his new Empire on a sound legal footing.

There can be no question but that the ambitions of Stephen Dushan were fixed on the throne of Constantinople, and little doubt that he would have achieved them but for a single weakness: Serbia had always been a land-locked Kingdom, and even after his maritime conquests he had no effective navy. The more parlous the situation of the Empire, the more essential was the maintenance of the Land Walls of the capital; and despite the ravages of the civil war this tremendous bastion was still as impregnable as ever it had been. It followed that Constantinople could be successfully attacked only from the seaward side; and without a fleet Dushan was as powerless to conquer the city as his great predecessor Symeon had been more than four centuries before. Again and again he tried to ally himself with Venice for the final onslaught, but the Venetians always rejected his advances; they had no wish to replace the weak Byzantine Empire with a powerful Serbian one.

Yet Stephen Dushan represented neither the beginning nor the end of the misfortunes of John VI - who, in the very first year of his reign, was called upon to face an enemy more implacable by far than any number of Balkan rivals. In the spring of 1347 Constantinople was stricken by the Black Death, brought almost certainly by ships escaping from the already plague-ridden Genoese colony of Caffa in the Crimea, which was then under siege by the Mongols. The city had suffered similar visitations in plenty over the centuries, but never one so virulent or on such a scale. We need not necessarily believe - though our local sources give no statistics to contradict him - the anonymous contemporary chronicler from the Italian town of Este, who claims that in Constantinople it accounted for eight-ninths of the entire population; to the Byzantines, however, already broken in spirit by two civil wars in a single generation, it must have seemed the final proof of what they had suspected for so long: that the Holy Virgin, their patron and protectress, had, more than a thousand years, at last deserted them.

Less dramatic than the progress of the Serbian Emperor or the spread of the Black Death, but equally disturbing for John Cantacuzenus, was the general situation of the Empire. Once upon a time it had extended from the Straits of Gibraltar to Mesopotamia; now it was limited to the former province of Thrace - with the two vital cities of Adrianople and Didymotichum - and a few islands in the northern Aegean (though not Chios, which had been retaken by the Genoese in 1346). To this pathetic rump could be added, after 1350, the city of Thessalonica, which finally rid itself of the Zealots in that year; but Thessalonica was now a tiny Byzantine enclave within the dominions of Stephen Dushan, accessible only by sea.

Economically, the position was still more catastrophic: the civil war had reduced the Thracian countryside to a desert in which no farming was possible and which was moreover under constant harassment by marauding bands of Turks, while the coast was under continual attack by pirates from the Emirates of Asia Minor. Such food as was available was brought in from the Black Sea by the Genoese, who could cut off supplies whenever they liked. Trade, too, was at a standstill: Gregoras tells us that whereas the Genoese customs in Galata were collecting

200,000 hyperpyra a year, across the Golden Horn in Constantinople the corresponding figure was a mere 30,000 - and the hyperpyron itself was losing value with every day that passed. Any major expenditure by the government was made possible only by appeals for gifts or loans, which were all too often directed away from their stated purpose. When around 1350 Symeon, Grand Duke of Muscovy, sent a large quantity of gold for the restoration of St Sophia after its recent collapse, this magnificent contribution to a Christian cause found its way almost immediately into Muslim pockets: it was spent on the recruitment of Turkish mercenaries.

John's first care was to consolidate those parts of the Empire that still remained. His youngest son, Andronicus, had been carried off by the Black Death; of the two remaining, the elder, Matthew, was made responsible for an extensive area of Thrace between Didymotichum and Christopolis, along the Serbian frontier; the younger, Manuel, was a little later given charge of the Morea, henceforth to be considered as an autonomous despotate. It has been suggested. that in making these appointments John was simply finding a useful occupation for two potentially headstrong princes, but such an interpretation seems to do him - and them - less than justice. Stephen Dushan, he well knew, would not rest until he had brought both these areas under his own control; and he knew too how easy it was for imperial territories to break away when under pressure. Since the civil war, there were few personal loyalties left among the leading Byzantines; in conferring these posts on his sons he was very sensibly putting the two key areas of his diminished Empire into the hands of men he could trust.

Next he looked towards Galata and the Genoese, who were simultaneously holding the Empire up to ransom and draining its economy dry. But nothing could be done against them without a fleet - of merchantmen as well as war galleys - and there was no money to build one. The rich — and the word can henceforth be used only in its comparative sense - were appealed to for funds, but largely in vain: by now they had all lost the bulk of their fortunes, and they were too despondent and generally apathetic to make further sacrifices. Only with enormous difficulty did the Emperor manage to raise a hopelessly inadequate 50,000 hyperpyra with which to launch his programme. Then there was the problem of the customs dues. It was clearly intolerable that the annual receipts in Galata should be nearly seven times those in Constantinople, and to remedy the situation John decreed a dramatic reduction of import tariffs to the point where foreign vessels were once again attracted to the western, rather than the eastern bank of the Golden Horn.

Not surprisingly, the Genoese lodged a strong protest; and when this was ignored they had no hesitation in resorting to force. In August 1348 a flotilla of their ships sailed across the Horn, burning the few Byzantine vessels they could find. John Cantacuzenus was away in Thrace; his wife Irene, however, with her younger son Manuel and her son-in-law Nicephorus - husband of their daughter Maria1 — inspired a spirited resistance on the part of the entire population of Constantinople. The Genoese warehouses along the shore were set on fire; huge rocks and flaming bales were catapulted into Galata. The fighting continued sporadically for weeks - long enough for the Genoese to send for additional ships and equipment from Chios and to install vast catapults of their own on two of their largest warships. More sinister still, on another vessel they constructed a huge siege tower, higher than the sea walls of the capital. When it was ready, nine smaller ships towed it across the Horn and a fierce battle took place against the walls; at one stage it looked as if the city were about to suffer a major invasion.

But the Genoese had underestimated their opponents. The people of Constantinople fought like tigers for their city; even the slaves, writes Gregoras, were given weapons by their masters and taught themselves the use of bows and arrows. Finally the whole tower collapsed and the would-be invaders were forced to withdraw with heavy casualties to Galata, whence on the following day they sent ambassadors to Irene to sue for peace. But the Byzantines' blood was up; and when the Emperor returned on 1 October he gave orders for the stepping-up of the shipbuilding programme, the money to be provided - compulsorily if necessary - from the citizens not only of Constantinople but from all over Thrace. The timber from the Thracian forests had, we are told, to be transported overland in huge ox-wagons; the Empire possessed no vessels capable of carrying them, and the sea routes were anyway controlled by the Genoese.

In Galata, meanwhile, major defensive works were in progress. The walls along the Horn — they covered that stretch of the eastern shore running between the present Galata and Atatiirk bridges - were raised and strengthened, and two more converging walls were added, running up the hillside behind to form a fortified triangle. At the apex of this was built a large cylindrical tower known as the Tower of Christ, which - better known as the Galata Tower - survives today.1 From time to time while the work was in progress, the Genoese would repeat their suggestions for peace talks, but the Emperor still refused to listen: his fleet was now rapidly taking shape, and he was determined to use it.

By the early spring of 1349 it was ready - nine fair-sized ships and about a hundred smaller ones, several of which had been built and equipped by wealthier citizens at their own expense. At the beginning of March the first detachment left its dockyard on the Marmara and sailed to the mouth of the Golden Horn - where, on the evening of the 5 th, it managed to capture and set fire to one of the largest of the Genoese vessels. On the evidence of subsequent events, however, it looks as though this initial triumph may have been more a matter of luck than anything else; for when the rest of the Byzantine ships arrived on the following day they suffered disaster - from which it became evident that their commanders and crews were ignorant of the most fundamental rules of seamanship. Precisely what occurred remains something of a mystery. Did a sudden gale strike the fleet just as it was rounding what is now Seraglio Point into the Golden Horn? Such, certainly, is the testimony of John Cantacuzenus himself and of another eye-witness, an intensely patriotic Byzantine named Alexius Macrembolites; but it hardly explains what happened next. All our contemporary sources, Greek though they are, assert that the whole fleet was suddenly and simultaneously seized with panic, and that soldiers and sailors together hurled themselves lemming-like into the sea before they had even engaged with the enemy. The astonished Genoese first suspected a trick; as they approached, however, they saw that the Byzantine ships were indeed abandoned; all they had to do was to tow them across to Galata.

Can it, one wonders, have been quite as simple as that? Is there really no other explanation for so extraordinary an outbreak of mass hysteria, for cowardice on so gigantic a scale? But if there was a better reason, what could it have been? And even if there was not, if the cause of the whole debacle was indeed nothing but a sudden squall taking inexperienced seamen by surprise, why did the captains not order their crews to lower the sails and ride it out? We shall never know. Of the result, on the other hand, there can be no question. From one moment to the next

1 The guides - and postcards - which claim that the Tower was built by Justinian are not to be believed. The building is now used as a restaurant and nightclub. By day and by night, the balcony running round the outside affords one of the most spectacular views in all Istanbul, both across the Golden Horn and up the Bosphorus.

the sea was full of floundering men, some sinking under the weight of their armour, others being carried over by the current to the Galata side, where the Genoese made short work of them. Relatively few managed to reach their home shore in safety.

And even that was not the end of the story. Somehow, the terror spread to those watching the proceedings from the city:

Every spot both inside and outside the walls and gates was packed with people. A trumpeter or a drummer might have inspired them with a little fighting spirit; instead, they stood like corpses, until suddenly they turned and stampeded in flight, trampling over each other while the enemy watched in wonder and amazement, commiserating with the disaster rather than exulting in their victory; for they felt that some evil genius must have been at work, to cause men so freely to sacrifice their lives when there was no one in pursuit.1

It was the same with the soldiers who had been sent round to the east of Galata with orders to attack it from behind. Seeing what had occurred, they hurled away their weapons and fled. In its long history, Byzantium had suffered many defeats more serious than that of 6 March 1349; but none, perhaps, more shameful.

And yet, when a week or two later plenipotentiaries arrived from Genoa to conclude a formal treaty of peace, they proved remarkably accommodating. The Republic readily agreed to pay the Empire a war indemnity of more than 100,000 hyperpyra; it undertook to evacuate the land behind Galata which it had illegally occupied; finally, it promised never again to attack Constantinople. In return, Byzantium surrendered virtually nothing. No wonder the ambassadors were loaded with presents and given an elaborate ceremonial farewell: John and his subjects had obtained far more than they had expected — or deserved.

Encouraged by the success of these negotiations, John Cantacuzenus quickly put all memories of the recent disaster behind him. Determined to restore his Empire's reputation in the eyes of the world and heedless of the unpopularity that he knew he was incurring, he imposed new taxes on his subjects and began once again to rebuild the fleet — taking care, this time, to ensure proper training for the officers and men to whom it was to be entrusted. Soon, too, his luck began to change. Later in the year he actually persuaded the Genoese - who seem at last to have understood that the continued prosperity of Galata largely depended on

1 For this translation from Gregoras (II, 864-5), as for so much else in these final chapters, I am indebted to Professor D. M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453.

Byzantine goodwill - to restore to the Empire the island of Chios, which they had reoccupied during the recent civil war; and in September he renewed the peace treaty with Venice - concluded in 1342 by John V and the Empress Anne - for a further five years.

Next, it was the turn of Thessalonica to return to the fold. After the bloodbath of 1345 the Zealots had if anything tightened their grip, paying lip-service (though no more than that) to the imperial claims of John V but firmly denying those of Cantacuzenus, and refusing outright to allow Gregory Palamas, who had been appointed Metropolitan Archbishop in 1347, to take up his See. They went too far, however, when they talked openly of surrendering the city to Stephen Dushan. Stephen, taking them (perhaps rather rashly) at their word, appeared at the gates with an army, and early in 1350 the Zealot leaders - now hopelessly divided - were deposed by their own people in favour of Alexius, son of old Theodore Metochites, who made no secret of his support for the legitimate government. John Cantacuzenus saw his opportunity. Immediately he dispatched his eldest son Matthew to Thessalonica at the head of a formidable army — it included twenty thousand Turkish cavalry put at his disposal by his son-in-law Orhan -while he himself, with his co-Emperor John V, followed by sea. The sudden recall of Orhan's troops to Asia Minor almost put paid to the whole expedition, but on reaching the mouth of the Strymon river Matthew was lucky enough to find a fleet of Turkish pirates, who willingly agreed to join him. With their help the two Emperors made a ceremonial entry into Thessalonica in the autumn of 1350, where the overwhelming majority of the population gave them a warm welcome. Gregory Palamas followed them soon afterwards. The remaining Zealots were either exiled or sent for trial in Constantinople.

Leaving John V in Thessalonica, Cantacuzenus spent several weeks on campaign in Macedonia and Thrace, regaining Berrhoea, Edessa and a number of smaller fortresses. Only at the beginning of 13 51 did he return definitively to the capital - to find that the dispute over the hesychasts had flared up yet again. The absence of Palamas - their leader and principal spokesman - in Thessalonica, far from allowing the issue to be forgotten, had encouraged their opponents to return to the attack. With John Calecas and Gregory Acindynus both dead, their place at the head of the anti-hesychast movement had been taken by the historian Nicephorus Gregoras, supported by Bishop Matthew of Ephesus and other prominent ecclesiastics; and it was clear that, in characteristic Byzantine fashion, the controversy was now colouring, distorting and occasionally poisoning any number of quite unrelated issues, infecting the entire body politic and the machinery of the state.

To settle the question once and for all, a third council - presided over, like its two predecessors, by John Cantacuzenus in person - was convened on 28 May 13 51 in the Palace of Blachernae. Both Gregory Palamas, arriving hotfoot from Thessalonica, and Nicephorus Gregoras spoke emotionally and at considerable length in defence of their convictions; but the discussions ended, as everyone had known that they would, in a total vindication of the hesychasts. At a fourth and final council in July its findings were confirmed; and on 15 August, in the course of a solemn ceremony in St Sophia, John presented to the Patriarch Callistus a formal tomos in which they were set forth in detail, together with a call for the excommunication of all who opposed them. This document was counter-signed - unwillingly, if Gregoras is to be believed - by John Palaeologus on his return from Thessalonica in the following year.

Poor Gregoras never got over his defeat, and never forgave his old friend Cantacuzenus for what he insisted on considering a betrayal. The excommunication in particular came as a bitter blow, since he had taken monastic vows only a short time before the sentence was pronounced. In the monastery of the Chora - where he was confined for the next three years — he spent his days churning out pamphlets and denunciations of Palamas, the hesychasts and everything they stood for. He was released in 1354, but by then his sense of injustice had become too much for him: once the foremost historian and theologian of his time, he had degenerated into a hopeless obsessive, losing the sympathy of all his former friends and supporters - though he certainly did not deserve the fate that befell him after his death some five years later when, we are told, his body was dragged through the streets of the capital. We can only be grateful that he did not live long enough to learn of the very different treatment that was reserved for his arch-enemy Gregory Palamas, who was canonized in 1368 and is now venerated among the saints of the Eastern Church.

At the end of 1349, with the ink on his treaties with Venice and Genoa still scarcely dry, John Cantacuzenus might have been forgiven for thinking that his difficulties with the two mighty sea republics were over. Alas, for both of them the rewards offered by commerce around the Black Sea proved too great to resist. Their rivalry soon turned once again to open war, and the proximity of Galata to Constantinople made it impossible for Byzantium not to support one republic or the other - almost invariably emerging the loser. When, for example, in May 1351a Venetian fleet sailed into the Golden Horn to attack Galata, and the Genoese - furious that the Byzantines did not immediately come to their assistance - brought their catapults into position and began lobbing huge rocks over the walls, John reluctantly sided with Venice; almost immediately, however, the Venetians withdrew and he was left alone to face the Genoese wrath. The result was another sea battle on 28 July, with Genoa victorious as usual. Only three months later a Genoese fleet on its way to Galata captured and sacked the port of Heraclea on the northern shore of the Marmara. Its subsequent journey past Constantinople and up the Bosphorus was uneventful - the Emperor having prudently put all the other cities and towns on the alert - but once in the Black Sea it turned north-west and wrought similar havoc on the unoffending city of Sozopolis.

By now Venice, too, was growing seriously alarmed. The previous November the Genoese had seized Euboea, one of her most valuable colonies: the initiative was clearly theirs, and they seemed determined to keep it. Fortunately she had another potential ally at hand: King Peter of Aragon, eager to lessen Genoa's influence in the western Mediterranean, had agreed to provide the Venetians with a fleet of twenty-six fully-armed men-of-war, provided only that they agreed to pay two-thirds of its upkeep. John Cantacuzenus now offered another twelve vessels on the same conditions, with the further proviso that, in the event of victory, Galata should be razed and the various islands seized by Genoa restored to him - together with the imperial crown jewels, which had already been seven years in pawn to Venice.

The diplomatic negotiations that preceded these agreements and the military preparations that followed them were prolonged. The Aragonese treaty was signed only in July 13 51; and at just about the same time a report was received by John Cantacuzenus to the effect that the Venetians - assisted by Stephen Dushan - were trying to subvert his son-in-law John V, who was still in Thessalonica. They had, it appeared, offered him a 'loan' of 20,000 ducats in return for the cession of Tenedos, an island of considerable strategic importance to them since it controlled the entrance to the Hellespont.1 Cantacuzenus, unable to leave the capital himself, sent the Empress Anne at once to Thessalonica to stiffen

1 According to Virgil (Aeneid, II, 2iff.) the Greeks had hidden there, watching and waiting, while the Wooden Horse was sent into Troy.

her son's resolve and to try to dissuade Stephen from so dangerous a policy. Fortunately she was successful on both counts and another civil war was averted; but the incident hardly improved the prospects of the new Venetian alliance.

It was consequently not until the beginning of 1352 that the rival fleets met in the Marmara. Each side had entrusted its fortunes to an admiral of outstanding ability - the allies to the Venetian Nicolo Pisani, Genoa to a member of that brilliant family whose name was to blaze across the republic's history for five centuries and more, Paganino Doria; and on 13 February the two faced each other at the mouth of the Bosphorus, beneath the walls of Galata. Paganino, guarding his home waters, had the advantage of position and had drawn up his ships in such a way that the attackers could not approach him without dangerously constricting their own line. Pisani saw the trap at once. The sea was rough, the days were short; it was clear that any attack would be folly. But the Aragonese commander refused to listen. Before Pisani could stop him, he cut his cables and bore down upon the Genoese; and the Venetians and Byzantines had no course but to follow.

The ensuing battle quickly resolved itself into a straight contest between Venice and Genoa. The Byzantines retired almost at once, without engaging the enemy; the Aragonese, after their initial heroics, lasted very little longer. It was left to the two most formidable naval powers of the time to fight it out by themselves, and so they did -savagely, with no quarter given on either side. Soon fire broke out, which the high winds quickly spread through both fleets; but they fought on, far into the night, by the light of their own blazing ships. Finally it was the Venetians, with the wind and current both against them, who had to yield. They had lost most of their galleys and some fifteen hundred of their best fighting men, an appallingly high figure at any time; coming as it did less than four years after the Black Death -which had destroyed six out of every ten of their population - it was more catastrophic still. But when the dawn came, to reveal the surface of the water almost invisible beneath the wrecks and the multitude of human corpses, Doria found that his own losses had been almost as heavy, to the point where he was obliged to conceal them from his fellow-citizens in Galata for fear of provoking a general panic. His, certainly, was the victory in the technical sense; but it was a victory that had cost him more dearly than many a defeat.

For John Cantacuzenus it was defeat pure and simple. Neither the Venetians nor the Aragonese had the stomach to continue the fight; the survivors, after repairing as best they could the battered hulks that remained to them, sailed back to the West. John, however, had no choice but to negotiate yet another peace with the Genoese. It was concluded in May - at just about the time that John V Palaeologus returned to the capital after his protracted stay in Thessalonica. The young Emperor was now twenty years old, no longer content to submit unquestioningly, as he had in the past, to his father-in-law's bidding. For some time the two surviving Cantacuzenus sons had been entrusted with the government of important areas of the Empire. His own mother, the Empress Anne, had recently been given control over Macedonia, with her capital at Salonica. It was time for him also to claim his due.

John VI was well aware of his son-in-law's ambitions, and of the danger of civil war if they were not satisfied. He therefore offered the co-Emperor - who accepted it with alacrity — the greater part of Thrace, strategically of vital importance since it controlled the approaches to Constantinople itself. There was only one problem: the area in question comprised the large city of Didymotichum and most of the appanage that John had already granted to his son Matthew. In an attempt at solution Matthew was allotted Adrianople and its surroundings, but he was left feeling ill-used and resentful of his brother-in-law - who, to make matters worse, was now his immediate neighbour.

The first to break the uneasy peace was, surprisingly enough, John Palaeologus. Possibly in order to pre-empt an attack by Matthew, he crossed the latter's frontier in the summer of 1352 and laid siege to Adrianople. Matthew immediately appealed to his father, who hastened to his relief at the head of a considerable force of Turkish troops, put at his disposal by the Emir Orhan and commanded by the latter's son Suleyman Pasha. John for his part summoned help from the Serbs and Bulgars, an appeal to which Stephen Dushan responded with four thousand cavalry. In the event the city was saved, but this proved to be of comparatively little importance. Far more significant was the fact that the Empire was once again at war with itself, and - more ominous still -that John VI had thrown an army of infidels against his own Christian subjects. After the relief of Adrianople Suleyman's Turks had been allowed to pillage, plunder and terrorize the neighbouring towns and villages; and, at least so far as the victims and public opinion at large were concerned, they had done so in the senior Emperor's name.

It scarcely mattered when, a few months later, the same Turks destroyed a joint Serbian-Bulgarian army on the frozen Maritsa river; they were then fighting, ostensibly at least, as perfectly legitimate mercenaries against a foreign enemy. But those earlier atrocities were something altogether different; and from his association with them, whether deliberate or accidental, the reputation of John Cantacuzenus never recovered. Even in Constantinople it was now in rapid decline. After all, the people reminded themselves, he was not of the true imperial family: even if he had not actually usurped the throne, he was in a sense only a caretaker Emperor. Now that young John Palaeologus had grown to manhood, was it right that he should still be obliged to share his authority - and to share it with a man who, in recent years, had brought the Empire little but disaster?

By this time John VI had probably lost all appetite for power. Already in 1341 he had bought himself a plot of land from the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, and in 1350 he had made a handsome endowment to the monastery of St George at Mangana; since then he had often spoken wistfully of the attractions of the monastic life. From the first, too, he had supported the legitimate claims of John Palaeologus, whom he could easily have overthrown - as many of his friends had advised - after the death of Andronicus III. But had young John not now proved that he could not be trusted? And had he not, moreover, shown himself to be a serious threat to the survival of the Empire itself - a ready tool of the Venetians, the Bulgars and of Stephen Dushan, one who possessed neither the judgement to perceive the dangers they represented nor the strength to resist their blandishments? In April 1353, on the advice of a body of his supporters in Constantinople, John Cantacuzenus performed an act which, six years before at his coronation, would have been to him unthinkable. At a public ceremony in ?he Palace of Blachernae, he declared John V formally deposed and named his son Matthew co-Emperor in his stead — making it clear, however, that the Palaeologi had been in no sense disinherited and that John's son Andronicus (who was of course a Cantacuzenus on his mother's side) remained as heir apparent. He then exiled his unfortunate son-in-law, with his family, to Tenedos.

Not for the first time, however, he had underestimated the strength of the opposition. Patriarch Callistus, a firm adherent of John V, flatly refused to perform Matthew's coronation. Instead, he pronounced sentence of excommunication on Cantacuzenus, then resigned his office and retired to a monastery. A few days later he slipped across to Galata and with Genoese help soon found his way to Tenedos, where the deposed Emperor gave him a warm welcome. Meanwhile a certain Philotheus, formerly Bishop of Heraclea, was elected as his successor. He, predictably enough, proved to be an enthusiastic Cantacuzenist; but it was not until February 1354 that Matthew and his wife Irene were finally crowned, and even then the ceremony took place not in St Sophia, as might have been expected, but in the church of the Virgin at Blachernae.

Less than a month later, on 2 March, a large part of Thrace was ravaged by a violent earthquake. Hundreds of towns and villages were destroyed; during the blizzards and deluges of rain which followed, many of the survivors died of cold and exposure. In the once-great city of Gallipoli -from which, fortunately, most of the population had managed to escape by sea - scarcely a house was left standing. The disaster would have been terrible enough by any standards; it was however made still more catastrophic by the conduct of the Turks - both the marauding bands of irregulars who had made Thrace their home and the more disciplined troops of Suleyman Pasha across the straits in Asia Minor. For Suleyman himself, it provided precisely the opportunity for which he had been waiting. When the news was brought to him at Pegae he set off at once for the stricken lands, taking with him as many Turkish families as he could find to install in the abandoned towns. The majority headed for the ruins of Gallipoli itself, whither many more of their compatriots were shortly afterwards brought to join them; and within a few months the city had been repaired, with its walls rebuilt and an exclusively Turkish population resident where a Greek one had been before.

For the Empire, this first settlement by the Turks on the European continent was a calamity greater even than the earthquake itself. The devastated areas would sooner or later recover; Gallipoli - the principal crossing-point for travellers bound from Thrace to Asia Minor - seemed permanently lost. To John VI's formal demand for its restitution, Suleyman replied that the city had fallen to him through the will of Allah; to return it would be an act of impious ingratitude. He had not after all taken it by force; his men had simply occupied a place that had been abandoned by its former inhabitants. Such was the Emperor's anxiety to regain Gallipoli that he quadrupled the amount of compensation he had first suggested, but the Pasha remained obdurate. John then appealed to Orhan, who agreed to meet him near Nicomedia to discuss the matter; John arrived, however, to find only a message awaiting him to the effect that the Emir had suddenly been taken ill and was unable to make the journey.

By now John Cantacuzenus must have felt that his own God had forsaken him. More than ever he must have longed to put his worldly cares behind him and retire, before it was too late, to the life of prayer and contemplation for which he longed, enabling him to make his peace with his Creator and pass his remaining years in tranquillity. Some time during the summer, with a faint hope in his heart that he might be able to come to some arrangement with his Christian son-in-law, he sailed to Tenedos; but the islanders would not even service his ships, and John Palaeologus - knowing that time was on his side - refused point-blank to receive him. Sadly he returned to Constantinople, there to await the developments that he was powerless now to control.

They were not long in coming. On 21 November 1354 John Palaeologus slipped out of Tenedos. It was a dark, moonless night with occasional bursts of heavy rain, but there was a good following wind that drove him quickly up the Hellespont and into the Marmara. In the early hours of the 22nd he reached Constantinople which, still under cover of darkness, he succeeded in entering unobserved. Once inside the city, however, he immediately made his presence known, and by dawn the crowds were already gathering in the streets and calling his name. Before long, inevitably, they went on the rampage. Again the family mansion of John Cantacuzenus was plundered and set on fire; the houses of many of his supporters suffered a similar fate. Some of the rioters seized control of the arsenal; others marched on Blachernae. John V, meanwhile, temporarily installed himself in the old Palace of the Emperors opposite St Sophia.

It was from there, on 24 November, that he sent a messenger to his father-in-law suggesting a meeting; and in the negotiations that followed he showed himself surprisingly understanding of the latter's position. He did not insist on his abdication; rather he proposed that the two should rule jointly as before, with Matthew Cantacuzenus continuing to reign from Adrianople over his own territory until his death. John VI would be obliged to surrender the fortress at the Golden Gate which he had recently rebuilt and strengthened, and which he had garrisoned with a regiment of Catalan mercenaries; but he would remain the senior Emperor and would continue to live at Blachernae, while John V would occupy the private palace of Theodore Metochites, one of the largest and grandest in the city.

The immediate crisis was over, and the two Emperors swore a solemn oath to observe the agreement that they had made. Many problems, however, remained unsolved. One was the continued presence of Suleyman's Turks in Thrace; another was the increasing unpopularity of John

Cantacuzenus, of which he himself was fully aware. He knew too that such supporters as he had, discouraged by the open hostility shown them throughout the capital, were rapidly falling away. For about a week he bore the situation as best he could; then, after a particularly violent demonstration against him, he finally took the decision that he had been considering for so long. On 4 December, at a ceremony in Blachernae, he solemnly laid aside the diadem, divesting himself too of the dalmatic and the purple buskins, embroidered with golden eagles, which only Emperors might wear. In their place he adopted the simple black robe of an Orthodox monk. His wife Irene similarly put off her imperial pomp to become a nun at the convent of Kyria Martha, which had been founded in the 1270s by Maria Palaeologina, sister of Michael VIII, and in which her mother-in-law Theodora Cantacuzena lay buried. He himself retired first to the monastery of St George at Mangana, later moving to another, smaller foundation which had recently been established by his old friend and supporter John Charsianeites, from whom it took its name.

John Cantacuzenus - known henceforth as the monk Joasaph - had been Emperor only seven years; but he had effectively governed the Empire for a quarter of a century, and guided it for ten years longer still. He was to live for another twenty-nine, until 1383. The first years after his retirement were largely devoted to the completion of his Histories, which continue until 1356. When this work was done he turned to theology, and to a long and closely-reasoned defence of the hesychast doctrine. As we shall soon see, however, he did not altogether withdraw from political life, much as he may have wished to do so.

Many historians — Edward Gibbon among them — have cast doubts on John's sincerity. Was his abdication, they ask, really as voluntary as he pretends? Was he not in fact driven from the throne by his ambitious young son-in-law? There is no reason to think so. All his life John had been a deeply religious man. For fifteen years at least he had been dreaming of just such a withdrawal; and the humiliations and disappointments that he had recently suffered were surely more than enough to persuade him to take the step he had contemplated for so long. His subjects, all too clearly, had no further use for him. He had made his peace with his son-in-law John V, whose right to the throne was far greater than his own and who had by now made at least some demonstration of his ability to rule the Empire. If he were ever to abdicate, this surely was the moment to go.

It is hard not to feel sorry for John Cantacuzenus. Few Emperors had worked harder for the imperial good; few had possessed less personal ambition. He might, had he so wished, have been co-Emperor with Andronicus III in the 1330s, and certainly on Andronicus's death the throne had been his for the asking; but he had always refused. Only after the Empire had been torn apart by civil war had he assumed the diadem, and even then with genuine reluctance; and he would never have deposed John Palaeologus, nominating his own son in his place, had he not been genuinely convinced that John, by resuming that war, was throwing the whole future of Byzantium into jeopardy. Unfortunately, this moment of self-assertion had come too late. Had he shown it in 1341, he might well have held the Empire together and spared its citizens thirteen years of misery. By 1353 the damage had been done.

Luck, too, was against him. The foolhardiness of John Palaeologus, the hesychast controversy, the Black Death, the aggression of the Turks, the ambitions of the Genoese and the Venetians: without any of these afflictions, he might conceivably have won through. Together, they made his task impossible. The greatest burden of all, however, was the bankruptcy of the Empire itself - a bankruptcy as much moral as financial. Not only was the treasury empty; the Byzantines themselves had lost heart. Their old self-confidence was gone, and with it the will to recover their past greatness. A truly charismatic personality might perhaps have been able to galvanize them into action; but John Cantacuzenus, wise statesman and excellent general as he had been, was primarily a scholar and an intellectual; he was not ultimately an inspired leader of men. Instead of enthusing his subjects with determination and courage, he had succeeded only in alienating their affection and their trust. Thirty-five years of dedicated service to the Empire had been ill repaid. As he and his wife exchanged the trappings of Empire for their coarse monastic habits, it is hard to believe that they can have done so with anything but relief.

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