Post-classical history

Rebels and Patrons

Among us [the poor], the tillers of the soil, the builders of houses and merchant ships and the craftsmen are drawn… and who comes from among you?… Gamblers, voluptuaries, people bringing public calamities with their greediness, disrupters of civic order, spreading poverty.

Alexios Makrembolites, Dialogue between the Rich and the Poor, first half of the fourteenth century

Behind the façade of unchanging hierarchy, cultivated by the ceremonies of the imperial court, there was considerable flexibility, social mobility and innovation in Byzantium, as we have seen. Both before and after 1204, ‘good birth’ was naturally recognized as a qualification for the elite category of rulers – both civil and clerical – and educated administrators. Similarly, those in charge assumed that people born into families of low status, who were settled on the land in agricultural labour or in urban trading activities, should continue in those positions. Education and the army provided avenues of upward mobility, and marrying into an established family was also a common method of social advancement. Conversely, the emperor’s power to confiscate property and exile opponents created some dramatic downward movement. But among underprivileged members of Byzantine society, higher status, however urgently desired, usually remained out of reach.

The imperial notion of taxis (order), however, could not imagine any change in rule by the elite. At the first sign of popular unrest, contemporary authors denounced the mob and its ambitions, using terms such as demokratia (rule by the people) andochlokratia(mob rule). In Constantinople, crowds might be organized by the Blues and Greens, but they could also take to the streets spontaneously to protest against unpopular policies. In 1203, when he fled from the city, Alexios III Angelos is reported to have said that the people were ‘intent on turmoil’, and ‘infected with instability’. They were also the first to welcome Byzantine forces back to the city in July 1261. The Latin emperor, Baldwin II, and the Latin patriarch immediately left for the West, together with the Franciscan and Dominican monks.

Byzantine rule was restored to Constantinople. One month later, Michael VIII Palaiologos, who had usurped power, walked into the city of Constantine behind an icon of the Virgin on 15 August, the feast of her Dormition (or Assumption), which was already famous in the life of the empire, and gave thanks in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia for the liberation of Constantinople from Latin rule. He had never seen the Queen City, which had been neglected by the Latins. Michael and his wife, Theodora, were crowned for the second time in Hagia Sophia by the restored Patriarch Arsenios Autoreianos, and the emperor commissioned a new mosaic of Christ flanked by the Virgin and the Baptist for the church’s gallery. Following imperial tradition, he put up his own honorary column at the church of the Holy Apostles. Churches used by Latin priests were restored to the orthodox rite and the city walls were strengthened by new fortifications. The Venetian merchants were punished for their role in 1204 by exile from the city, and the Genoese, re-established in their own quarter in Pera, took over control of international trade.

After this triumphant return, Michael had the legitimate emperor, John IV Laskaris, blinded and thus made incapable of ruling, though he lived on for forty years. The usurper, like Basil I, founded his rule in violence, but established the Palaiologan dynasty, which, like the Macedonian, lasted for nearly two hundred years. Despite civil wars in the 1320s and 1340s, a Palaiologos occupied the Byzantine throne until the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. Most patronized the arts and erected new churches, monasteries and castles. Many were scholars; Manuel II wrote numerous treatises, including a Dialogue on religion between a Greek and a Turk, and another on the benefits of marriage; and all encouraged the remarkable flowering of Byzantine art and culture which is the hallmark of the late empire.

Although Michael VIII Palaiologos re-established Byzantine rule in Constantinople in 1261, the rival empires of Epiros and Trebizond had no intention of submitting to him. He could claim authority only over the western provinces of Thrace, Macedonia, parts of the Morea (the Peloponnese), and the territory of the empire of Nicaea (western Asia Minor). His chief asset was control of the sea passage linking the Aegean with the Black Sea, which permitted Byzantium to tax merchandise moving in either direction, whence the modern name ‘Empire of the Straits’. This greatly reduced empire could not withstand the new threat of the Ottoman Turks, who added yet another divisive factor to the already fragmented Byzantium. There was no chance of a full imperial recovery after 1204.

While many Turkish groups were still pastoral peoples, from about 1282 the tribe led by Osman/Othman (which became known as Ottomans) took over the campaign against Byzantium in the tradition of holy war. By overcoming underlying tribal rivalry, Osman managed to persuade the leaders of small emirates to join him in attacking the Byzantine province of Bithynia. Several major Byzantine landowners in the region who felt no loyalty to Michael VIII also went over to Osman on condition that they could continue to control their properties. Other Christian mercenaries served with Turks in units commanded by their own leaders, wearing their Byzantine uniforms and armed in the Greek style. With these additional forces, Osman was able to attack the strongly fortified ancient cities of Nicaea, Nikomedeia and Prousa. In 1302 a major victory in Bithynia opened the region to Turkish settlement, and just before Osman’s death, in 1326, his son Orhan captured Prousa after a prolonged siege.

Orhan made it his capital, calling it Bursa, and continued to threaten the remaining Byzantine regions of western Asia Minor. Nicaea capitulated in March 1331 and Nikomedeia six years later. Orhan transferred his father’s remains to a grand new mausoleum (turbe) attached to the church of St Elias, now transformed into a mosque. Many later emirs and sultans constructed mosques and funerary structures in Bursa. Turkish administration of the conquered territory usually followed Byzantine practice, often using the same Christian officials to record land ownership, property rights and taxes due. With this strategic control over the eastern approaches to Byzantium, Orhan forced the empire to rely even more on its European hinterland. But not all his relations with Byzantium were hostile. He cooperated with Andronikos III (1328–41) in the emperor’s efforts to regain Phokaia (near Smyrna), which had become the centre of alum production under the Zaccaria family from Genoa. Alum is the substance which fixes colours and is vital to all dyeing processes, as well as in leatherwork and painting, and the alum mines had become highly profitable. Later, Orhan made an alliance with John VI Kantakouzenos and married his daughter Theodora. This was only one of several political marriages that united Turks and Byzantines. But during the civil war that broke out in 1341, the Turks and other neighbours of Byzantium were quick to intervene.

When Andronikos III died in June 1341, his eldest son John was only nine years old. No clear provision had been made for a regency. The widowed empress, Anna of Savoy, was determined to protect her son’s rightful inheritance, and was initially supported by John Kantakouzenos, her husband’s closest adviser, who assumed the role of regent. But Patriarch John Kalekas also claimed the right to direct the regency, setting up a rivalry which Serbs, Bulgarians and Turks were quick to exploit. While Kantakouzenos left the capital in July 1341 to defend the empire, Kalekas plotted against him and persuaded the empress of his treacherous intentions. The property of the Kantakouzenos family in Constantinople was attacked and Anna ordered the disbanding of the army. In his bid to control the young emperor, Kalekas was supported by the Grand Duke Alexios Apokaukos, head of the fleet and eparch of Constantinople.

In response, Kantakouzenos proclaimed himself emperor at Didymoteichon (Thrace) in October 1341, opening a civil war characterized by traditional aristocratic in-fighting. In Constantinople, Patriarch Kalekas excommunicated the ‘pretender’ (John VI Kantakouzenos) and crowned John V Palaiologos as emperor. The news of Kantakouzenos’ challenge to the ruling Palaiologan dynasty generated increased unrest, as people took sides for or against the rival emperors. But in a relatively new development an anti-aristocratic wave of violence swept through Adrianople, led by Branos, a labourer, who encouraged people to attack the properties of the rich. Since the Kantakouzenoi were extremely wealthy, there may well have been a good deal of pent-up ill feeling against them and the poor saw an opportunity to take revenge. In an entirely calculating fashion, Grand Duke Apokaukos supported them and appointed his son Manuel as governor of Adrianople. Apokaukos himself had only risen to a position of influence through the patronage of Kantakouzenos, who encouraged his ambitions and allowed him to amass considerable wealth. (Incidentally, some of this wealth he spent on commissioning manuscripts: a famous copy of Hippocrates, now in Paris (graecus 2144), displays his portrait as the donor. Apokaukos also supported medical practice, and the distinguished doctor and court physician John Aktouarios dedicated his work The Method of Medicine to him.)

At this time, Thessalonike was a major port and an important centre of fourteenth-century learning and culture, represented by local scholars and painters, such as the anonymous artist who decorated the church of St Nikolaos Orphanos. The declaration by Kantakouzenos provoked an anti-aristocratic reaction within the city. Calling themselves Zealots (literally, ‘enthusiasts’, ‘zealous’ for their cause), they expelled the governor and set up a council of twelve archons to rule the city. In seizing political power they drew on a well-organized guild of seamen, who exercised influence in the port, itself a city within the city. Their rebellion appears to have won some support from those of moderate means (the mesoi, a recognized stratum of middle-ranking home-owners and proprietors, including Jewish merchants). For the next seven years, the Zealots effectively ruled the city and gained support in other centres. Since they officially declared for John V Palaiologos, Apokaukos again sought to win control over the city by appointing another of his sons as governor, but this seems to have had little effect on the Zealot council of twelve.

Who were these unexpectedly successful rebels? The names of several leaders are recorded: Andreas Palaiologos, leader of the seamen’s guild; Alexios Metochites; Michael Palaiologos, who also served as archon until he was murdered on the orders of Apokaukos; and perhaps the most radical, George Kokalas, whose family was well represented in the area. Although Andreas and Michael share the name of the imperial family, they were not from its ruling circle; the relationship between Alexios Metochites and other members of that family is not known. Not many Zealots seem to have risen from the lowest levels of society, but they claimed to represent the poor against the depredations of the rich. Probably they succeeded because Thessalonike was a great port with a large number of sailors who protected their livelihood in some sort of guild. Certainly, they were able to form a militia led by Andreas Palaiologos to defeat the pro-Kantakouzenos faction.

While the administrative arrangements put in place by the rebels remain obscure, it is evident that they managed the defence of the city against foreign enemies as well as supporters of Kantakouzenos. In 1343, when Umur, the Ottoman Emir of Aydin, sent 6,000 additional troops to reinforce a siege of the city, they held out defiantly. Two years later, the murders of Michael Palaiologos in Thessalonike and then of Grand Duke Apokaukos in Constantinople prompted the Kantakouzenos faction to try to throw out the Zealot council. But the Zealots retaliated by murdering Apokaukos’ son and all the pro-Kantakouzenos allies. Their bloodshed was condemned but no one could doubt their hold on the city. Indeed, when Gregory Palamas was appointed Metropolitan of Thessalonike in 1347, the Zealots prevented him from entering. It is not clear if they were opposed to the hesychast traditions of spiritual worship and mystical contemplation that he supported, or simply refused to accept any cleric chosen by Constantinople, but they effectively kept him out and retained control for two more years.

Since most of the sources describing the Zealots are written by their opponents, it is difficult to work out what they stood for. Among historians of the period, Nikephoros Gregoras condemns the rebel government as ochlokratia– mob rule was truly dreadful to traditional Byzantines. Another account is provided by Demetrios Kydones, a native of Thessalonike, who wrote a monody for those killed in the 1345 uprising. This oration bemoans the ‘world turned upside down’ created by the Zealots, where slaves, peasants and villagers attacked their betters. He naturally takes the part of those aristocrats who suffered most, though he mentions that even the radical Zealot Kokalas was unable to save his son-in-law from being killed by the crowd. Similar concerns occur in letters written by Thomas Magistros, longtime resident of Thessalonike, addressed to friends in Constantinople. As a scholar and teacher of conservative views, Thomas was disturbed by the disorder of the Zealots, identified as good-for-nothing people, worth no more than three obols (pennies). He condemned their lack of respect for decent house-owners, people who invest in landed property and who maintain ancestral graves.

In contrast to these predictable complaints, Alexios Makrembolites wrote a Dialogue between the Rich and the Poor which presents a number of issues that may well have motivated the Zealots. In this fascinating text, the speaker for the Poor accuses the Rich of numerous inappropriate attitudes and evil actions, particularly greediness, selfish exploitation of nature’s benefits, insatiable determination to seize and hoard as much as possible, and a preference for corporeal rather than spiritual values. In reply, the Rich tries to justify his superior situation and accuses the Poor of being at the origin of ‘theft, drunkenness, laxity, slander, envy and murder’. The Poor comments:

The means of acquiring money are obvious to any intelligent man: some become rich through knowledge, or through trade, others through abstinence, still others through rapine, many through domination, or inheritance or similar paths. Opposite reasons lead others to poverty.

But he is even more irritated by a series of humiliating social measures, including refusal to sit at the same table or to speak to the poor in normal discourse, or to permit the rich and poor to marry, a strategy which the Poor believes would cause poverty to disappear. Through sharing the abundance of the rich, ‘the mixing of opposites… produces, astonishingly enough, the salutary mean’. The extremes of difference are listed: elaborate food and good wines, fine clothing, elegant accommodation, good medical advice, front-row seats at assemblies, as opposed to bad bread and soured wine, one shabby cloak ‘full of filth and pestering lice’, and inadequate protection against the weather. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ at rich funerals (with splendid graves, psalms and chants, eulogies, candle-bearers, wailing relatives and mourning women) is contrasted with the humble burial ‘which contributes to a more splendid resurrection’. The Poor taunts the Rich, claiming that even Jews and Muslims look after their kin better than wealthy Christians, who fail to imitate Christ and deserve to be deprived of the rewards of the future life.

Makrembolites was by no means a rebel. Like other fourteenth-century writers, he belonged to a group of literati – scholars who wrote speeches to be delivered at the imperial court and earned a living in the civil administration. But his interpretation of fourteenth-century developments, particularly the success of the Turks, made him more of a realist than others. He interpreted the collapse of the dome of Hagia Sophia in 1346 as a sign of the end of the world (although it was patched up again) and blamed the Byzantines for their sinful greed and immoral behaviour.

The Dialogue is a contrived text, not a straightforward account of poverty in Byzantium. But the aggrieved complaints put into the mouth of the Poor, just like the justification and contempt of the Rich, must have resonated with contemporaries. Many who joined the Zealots and other anti-aristocratic forces to oppose the extremes of wealth accumulated by families like the Kantakouzenos would have reacted like the Poor against such a vast divide between the haves and have-nots. What remains exceptional is the lasting impact of the Zealot revolt, which removed Thessalonike from imperial control for seven years when traditional control broke down.

Eventually, however, the council of twelve divided over how to deal with the apparent resolution of the civil war. In February 1347, John Kantakouzenos gained entry to Constantinople and forced Empress Anna to agree to a compromise, which included the resignation of Patriarch Kalekas and the marriage of Helena Kantakouzene (John VI’s daughter) to young John V Palaiologos. The two rival families were thus united, even if some supporters of the Kantakouzenos faction were disappointed that the emperor did not establish his own dynasty. Faced with this change, the Zealots displayed their hostility by the public burning of all orders from the capital. They proposed to invite Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, who was already calling himself Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks, to become their leader, calculating that their own independence would be less compromised by accepting Serbian overlordship than by recognizing John VI Kantakouzenos as their ruler. Stefan Dušan was only too delighted to intervene in the squabble and sent forces to take control of the city.

But this invitation provoked a split among the Zealots that pushed Alexios Metochites into action against Andreas Palaiologos. He defeated the seamen’s guild, announced his support for Kantakouzenos and refused to let the Serbs into the city. At this news, John VI set sail from the capital with his young co-emperor, sending his son Matthew with an army reinforced by Turkish auxiliaries. With the help of a dissatisfied Serbian military officer and Turkish naval forces, he gained entrance to Thessalonike in 1350, forcing Andreas Palaiologos to seek refuge on Mount Athos. The remaining Zealots were arrested, exiled or sent to Constantinople to be tried. John V Palaiologos, whom the Zealots had supported, was hailed as emperor, and Gregory Palamas was duly installed as metropolitan of the city. In one of his first sermons, he condemned the rebels as wild beasts, but called for peace and harmony under the rule of the Palaiologos family.

When John VI Kantakouzenos was forced to retire from public life by another demonstration of popular disapproval of his policy of alliance with the Turks, he adopted the monastic name Joasaph and wrote his Memoirs. In an attempt to justify his own role in the civil war, he accused the Zealots of excessive violence and presented their rebellion as a widespread movement:

it spread like a malignant and horrible disease, producing the same forms of excess even in those who before had been moderate and sensible men… All the cities joined in this rebellion against the aristocracy and those that were late in doing so made up for their lost time by excelling the example set them by others. They perpetuated all manner of inhumanity and even massacres. Senseless impulse was glorified with the name of valour and lack of fellow feeling or human sympathy was called loyalty to the Emperor.

He also characterized the aristocrats as an elite picked on for their good birth by the poor seeking revenge, and claimed that those of the middling sort were compelled to support the rebels. This denunciation of the violence of the urban mob is corroborated by a Constantinopolitan official, Theodore Metochites, who lost nearly all his property when his palace in the capital was attacked in 1328, long before the events in Thessalonike. Later he would re-found and decorate the monastic church of the Saviour (Chora), in which he is shown as the patron wearing his court costume (plates 26 and 33). Clearly the Zealots could call on popular and aggressive antagonism to men considered super-rich in Byzantium. But just as predictably, the wealthiest could also restore their fortunes.

In the subsequent history of Thessalonike, John V Palaiologos’ mother Anna of Savoy reinstated rule by the elite. From 1351 to her death in about 1365, she governed the city as if it belonged to her. When she had been short of money in Constantinople during the civil war, she had pawned the crown jewels to the Venetians for a loan of 30,000 ducats, which was never repaid. Later governors of the city included the young Manuel II (emperor from 1391 to 1425), who was forced to flee in 1387, and his son Andronikos, who handed over its defence to Venice in 1422. By then, Thessalonike was under an almost continual blockade by the Turks, and Venetian officials were no more successful than Byzantines in preventing the final capitulation in 1430. The Zealot experience was not repeated, but their seven-year experiment with a more communal and popular form of government represented the trend of the future: several Italian cities had already embraced largely republican forms, and major centres in the West, as distant as Barcelona and Gdańsk, were following in their train. Thessalonike’s commercial activity and the guild of seamen facilitated the overthrow of the natural order, when the rich ruled the poor, and the Zealots proved that Byzantium could also generate rebels who discarded traditional government and took account of social disadvantages.

At almost the same time as the rebels took over Thessalonike, a spectacular Frankish castle perched above ancient Sparta emerged as a new centre of Byzantine culture. From 1348 to 1460, Mistras was the capital of the Morea, ruled by sons of the emperors of Constantinople who were titled despots (despotes, lord or master). William II Villehardouin, the fourth Prince of Achaia, had founded this castle in 1247 atop Mount Taygetos overlooking medieval Lakedaimonia. During the next forty years it changed hands several times. Following the common practice of calling on outside forces to sustain the crusading states, William made an alliance with Charles of Anjou, ruler of Naples and Sicily, who inherited the principality after William’s death in 1278. To counter the serious threat posed by this French development, Michael VIII Palaiologos arranged various European alliances, which led ultimately to the massacre of French troops in 1282 in Sicily. These intrigues, which provided Verdi with a splendid libretto for his famous opera The Sicilian Vespers (1855), also generated competition between the West and Byzantium for control over the Morea. But Mistras remained a Byzantine possession.

From the late thirteenth century onwards, the inhabitants of medieval Lakedaimonia moved up the hillside to settle closer to the fortifications of Mistras, creating a new town below the castle. This settlement was dominated by the governor’s palace, probably built on Frankish foundations, and churches, including the cathedral dedicated to St Demetrios, to which later churchmen made additions. Constantinople maintained a governor (strategos, also called kephale, literally, ‘head’), and the city gradually expanded. One of these governors was a member of the Kantakouzenos family and the father of John VI. Monasteries flourished under local patrons, some commemorated in portraits and others by inscriptions. At the complex of the Brontocheion monastery with its two churches built between 1290 and 1310, the variety of architectural designs and fresco decoration suggests a considerable range of skilled craftsmen, and painted copies of imperial chrysobulls preserve a list of its privileges.

Cut off from the capital by the Frankish duchies of Athens and Thebes, which continued to occupy central Greece, and constantly threatened by other westerners – the Catalan and Aragonese Companies (mercenary bands), the Italian families of Acciajuoli and Tocco, and the titular princes of Achaia – the Peloponnese gradually became a distinctive Byzantine region. In 1349, John VI Kantakouzenos nominated his son Manuel as despotes of this autonomous province. It thus became known as the Despotate of the Morea, and was usually ruled by a younger member of either the Kantakouzenos or Palaiologos dynasty. Manuel’s long rule as despot from 1349 to 1380 brought greater stability and prosperity. He was probably responsible for the main part of the palace, a two-storeyed residence with spacious rooms on the upper floor above a central courtyard and looking out over the plain of Sparta. He also built the local church of Hagia Sophia, which may have functioned as the palace church. It was later incorporated into a monastery. In 1361 his father, the ex-emperor John VI Kantakouzenos, now the monk Joasaph, fled from Mount Athos when it was afflicted by an outbreak of plague and sought refuge in Mistras. On Manuel’s death in 1380, John V Palaiologos appointed his son Theodore as despot, and Mistras remained an appanage of the ruling dynasty for the next eighty years.

Like every part of the Byzantine world in the fourteenth century, however, Mistras was not free from the fear of Ottoman attacks. The first invasion of the Peloponnese occurred in 1388, and further raids in the 1390s seem to have included a siege of Mistras itself. Against Turkish military threats, the despots sought alliances with western powers, drawing Latin forces into the defence of the despotate. They married noble and wealthy ladies such as Isabelle of Lusignan, Bartolomea Acciajuoli, Kleopa Malatesta, Maddalena-Theodora Tocco and Caterina Zaccaria, and then found they also had to contend with a series of ambitious fathers-in-law. Yet by 1430, the despotate had put paid to Tocco and Zaccaria claims and had incorporated the principality of Achaia and the Venetian city of Patras perched on the northwest corner of the Peloponnese. Thus extended and strengthened, Mistras was also appreciated as a peaceful refuge. Manuel II left his wife and children in the Peloponnese when he went on his long embassy to the West. When an epidemic broke out in Constantinople in 1417/18, it was also used as a safe haven, and five years later, when Andronikos Palaiologos, the last Byzantine governor of Thessalonike, was forced to give up the city to the Venetians, he retired to Mistras. The apparently impregnable fortress of the despotate seemed to guarantee safety, even amid the devastation caused by the intense rivalries of competing forces.

Although it never developed into a major urban centre, being confined by its geographical setting to a small area of the slopes of Mount Taygetos, Mistras became rich and cosmopolitan. This small walled area resembled an ancient city-state and took inspiration from its proximity to Sparta. The population lived off a prosperous agricultural territory where vines, olive groves and mulberries flourished. There was an established Jewish community engaged in weaving and carpet-making, cloth and silk production, and many foreign merchants were attracted to the area – Genoese, Venetians, Spaniards and Florentines. Via the River Evrotas and the sea, communication with the West was easier than with Constantinople, and many embassies from the capital travelled via Mistras. The city characterizes the exceptional vitality of Byzantium, even in the empire’s most fragmented state.

In earlier centuries, Byzantium had reserved the term Hellene (ellenes) to designate pagans, but in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries it had been transformed into a Greek way of claiming cultural superiority over the Latins. The literati at the imperial court in Nicaea incorporated ancient Hellenic wisdom, especially philosophy, into their Byzantine identity; John III Vatatzes spoke of his ‘Hellenic’ descent. Of course, all scholars of Byzantium felt this affinity with the ancient world and even monks like Isidore (later Bishop of Kiev and Roman cardinal), Bessarion, Bishop of Nicaea (and also later cardinal) and George Scholarios, later patriarch, who lived for some time at Mistras, saw no difficulty in combining it with their Christian upbringing. During the late Byzantine period, schoolteachers in Constantinople, Trebizond and Thessalonike perpetuated and deepened awareness of it. But at Mistras this strand of the Greek inheritance became more striking and obvious, in such close connection with one very particular aspect of the ancient world: the civilization of Sparta. Demetrios Kydones wrote to an otherwise unknown philosopher named George: ‘In your excessive love of Hellenism you imagined that the very soil of Sparta would enable you to see Lycurgus’ (the lawgiver of ancient Sparta).

This was the context into which George Gemistos, also known as Plethon, stepped in about 1410 when he was exiled by Emperor Manuel II from Constantinople to Mistras for heresy. His family name was Gemistos; Plethon was his pseudonym, under which he wrote his greatest work of philosophy, On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato. Both names mean ‘full’ but the second suggested a connection to the ancient philosopher Plato, with whom Gemistos was so closely connected. While his enemies retorted that ‘he called himself Plethon as if insinuating a link with the soul of Plato’, his supporters regularly described him as ‘a second Plato’, or ‘second only to Plato’. The court of the despots at Mistras had already attracted scholars and artists, who created a vibrant centre of Byzantine and Hellenic culture. Having been a teacher in the capital, Plethon brought this expertise to the Peloponnese. More than other philosophers, he cherished the notion that fifteenth-century Greek scholars embodied ancient Hellenic wisdom and that it could serve a practical purpose. At Mistras, he constantly made radical proposals for administrative and political developments, while serving as a judge. The despots rewarded him with grants of land and his advice was solicited by rulers in Mistras and Constantinople alike.

To Manuel Palaiologos, Plethon recommended drastic changes which echo the aims of the Zealots: ‘all the land should be the common property of all its inhabitants… the produce of the labour of all… should be divided into three parts’, which would be distributed to the labourers, the farmers and the exchequer. He thought that the military should be exempt from taxes and should be maintained by the state and the services of one tax-paying labourer, called a helot:

Each infantry soldier should have one helot assigned to him, and each mounted man should have two; and thus each soldier… will be in a position to serve in the army with proper equipment and to remain permanently with the standards.

He also wished to reform the currency: ‘It is the height of folly to use these foreign – and bad – bronze coins which we now use: it only brings profit to others and much ridicule on ourselves.’ With additional recommendations for the control of trade, to encourage self-sufficiency, Plethon hoped to see the creation of an effective citizen army and the provision of a well-organized tax base, which would ensure better government and military success. As in other regions which aimed at independence, in Mistras Plethon saw the need to make government more responsive, and to incorporate popular demands for greater equality in local administration.

In association with these suggestions for a Spartan-style society, Plethon proposed a revival of ancient Greek social values and religion. His Book of Laws must have contained a complete liturgy for the worship of Zeus. Only 16 of the 100 chapters in three books, and some only in parts, survive. But the chapter headings reflect the broad concerns of this work devoted to theology, ethics, politics, ceremonies and natural science, which include a prayer to the gods of learning:

Come to us, O gods of learning, whoever and however many ye be; ye who are guardians of scientific knowledge and true belief; ye who distribute them to whomsoever you wish, in accordance with the dictates of the great father of all things, Zeus the King… Grant that this book may have all success, to be set as a possession forever before those of mankind who wish to pass their lives, both in private and in public established in the best and noblest fashion.

Zeus is understood to be the absolute good; he is ungenerated, everlasting, the father of himself, the father and pre-eminent creator of all other things. The Olympian gods are few and supracelestial; they have no bodies and exist outside space. The lower, lesser gods are more numerous, as are the terrestrial daemons.

While many of the chapters must have been devoted to matters of religious observance (prayers for morning, afternoon and evening), priestly functions and the names of the gods, sections are also devoted to metaphysics (abstract questions concerning the eternity of the universe), ethics (against incest and polygamy) and practical matters of government (administrative, judicial, economic). Plethon had distinct proposals for improving late Byzantine society, notably that indecent sexual behaviour could be curbed by the threat of death by burning. Women convicted of adultery were to have their heads shaved and should be forced to live as prostitutes. Rape, homosexual and bestial acts would be punished by burning in a special place, beyond the public cemetery, where distinct areas for the graves of priests, ordinary citizens and criminals were to be kept apart. In his final appendix to the Book of Laws, Plethon invoked the powers of the gods, and the doctrines taught by Pythagoras, Plato, Kouretes and Zoroaster, as superior to any other. He dismissed the teaching of certain sophists, who misled people by promising greater happiness through a genuine immortality (a reference to Christian teachers), pointing out that their idea of eternity was only a future one. In contrast, he believed the philosophy outlined in his Book offered the soul an absolute eternity, both past and future – a reference to the doctrine of continued and repeated reincarnation of souls.

When the negotiations for church union were initiated in 1438, Plethon travelled to Ferrara and on to Florence, where he made contact with Italian scholars. His interest in Christian theology may not have been profound, but he could settle an argument with a logical tour de force when necessary. With one brilliant intervention, he proved that a Latin document, supposedly issued by the Seventh Oecumenical Council of 787, which recorded the creed with the filioque clause, could not be authentic. For if it was, he pointed out, and everyone both Greek and Latin had accepted it then, there would be no problem. But there was no evidence that the additional filioque had been cited in 787. On the contrary, Popes Hadrian I and Leo III, who welcomed the ending of iconoclasm, both recited the creed without it. It was only in the course of the eleventh century that the papacy had accepted what had become standard practice in the rest of Europe, namely reciting the creed with the clause.

Plethon’s lectures on Platonism given to Italian scholars in Florence made a great impression on contemporaries, who were enthusiastically trying to identify, translate and read every ancient text by Plato that they could find. Their relative ignorance stimulated his major work, On the Differences of Aristotle from Plato, which attacks Aristotle and exalts Plato. His scholarship gave a major boost to the study of Platonic philosophy in the West, which later bore fruit in the foundation of the Florentine Academy by Cosimo de’ Medici in about 1460. Under the direction of Marsilio Ficino, who translated Plato’s Symposium into Latin and wrote an important introduction to it, the discovery and study of Platonic texts expanded greatly. Plethon was interested in problems of geography and his discussion of Strabo’s Geographika may also have played a significant role in the debate among Renaissance scholars during the 1430s. Paul Toscanelli was one of those who met Plethon and showed him new maps of the northernmost islands of the earth: Scandinavia, Greenland and Thule, which were then being explored. In 1474, Toscanelli would write that the quickest way to the Far East was by sailing west from Europe. Strabo was certainly considered a reliable guide for the greatest voyage of exploration: Christopher Columbus’ attempt to reach the Indies by crossing the Atlantic in 1492.

Until his death in 1452, Plethon continued to defend Plato against the Aristotelianism of George Trapezountios (‘of Trebizond’) and George Scholarios. His devoted pupils, Michael Apostoles and John Argyropoulos, and his defenders, including Cardinal Bessarion, continued his study of Platonic texts, though they were in a minority. Aristotelian arguments had been incorporated into Christian theology as early as the sixth century and were an accepted part of Byzantine learning. In the West, the study of logic in medieval schools and St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra gentiles (1259–64) had developed Aristotelianism into a precise tool of rational argument. Scholarios championed this new western scholasticism, which he tried to introduce into the traditional Byzantine curriculum; he also translated and commented on writings by Aquinas. His opposition to Plethon was based not only on Plethon’s attack on Aristotle but also on the Book of Laws, which was sent to him after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Scholarios, by then a monk with the name Gennadios, had been installed as patriarch by Mehmet II the Conqueror. In this capacity, Scholarios condemned as heretical Plethon’s fervent enthusiasm for Hellenic religion, and ordered all copies of his Book to be burned. He thus made sure that the rest of Plethon’s writings would also remain almost unknown.

A few years after this forceful censorship, Sigismondo Malatesta led a campaign against the Turks, who had forced the Despot Deme-trios and his wife Theodora to flee to Constantinople in 1460 when Mistras was captured. In 1464, Malatesta regained the lower town, where he found Plethon’s grave. Years before, he had tried to persuade Plethon to head his court school at Rimini, to no avail. Now, however, he could ensure a more appropriate burial for his hero. He removed Plethon’s bones from Mistras to inter them with due reverence in the wall of his Tempio Malatestiano, where the dedication inscription may still be read: ‘The remains of Gemistos the Byzantine, Prince of Philosophers in his time…’

Mistras thus lost the tomb of its most famous philosopher. During the long period of Turkish domination over the Peloponnese, Mistras was largely abandoned. Many of its churches, monasteries and houses fell into ruins. But they are now being restored, their frescoes conserved and their inscriptions published. The Palace of the Despots is to be roofed over once again and may serve as a tourist attraction in the newly founded Centre for Byzantine Studies. In appreciation of the historian Steven Runciman’s devotion to the site, celebrated in his book on Mistras, a street was named after him. Perhaps it is also time that in this most spectacularly beautiful Byzantine city a road or square may be named after George Gemistos Plethon.

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