THE Byzantine Empire, bloodlessly restored under a new Palaeologus dynasty in 1261, survived despite itself for almost two centuries. Its territory was reduced by the advance of the Moslems in Asia and Europe, by the expansion of the Slavs in its rear, and by scattered fragments of its former self retained by the Christian enemies who had sacked Constantinople in 1204—Normans, Venetians, and Genoese. Industry lingered in the towns of the Empire, but its products were carried in Italian vessels that paid no revenue into the treasury. Of the once numerous middle class only a fringe remained. Above it were luxurious nobles and prelates gorgeously garbed, who had learned nothing from history and had forgotten everything but their privileges. Below were turbulent layers of monks who salted piety with politics, and peasant proprietors lapsing into tenancy, and tenant farmers slipping into serfdom, and prolétaires dreaming of egalitarian utopias. A revolution at Salonika (1341) expelled the aristocracy, pillaged palaces, and set up a semi-communistic republic that ruled for eight years before it was suppressed by troops from the capital.1 Constantinople was still a bustling nexus of commerce, but a Moslem traveler in 1330 noted “many destroyed houses, and sown fields within the city walls”; and the Spanish diplomat Ruy González de Clavijo, about 1409, wrote: “Everywhere throughout the capital are great palaces, churches, and monasteries, but most of them are in ruins.”2 The glory had departed from the Queen of the Bosporus.
Amid this political decay the ever-cherished heritage of ancient Greek literature and philosophy combined with the Byzantine-Oriental tradition in architecture and painting to compose the cultural swan song of the Eastern Roman Empire. The schools still expounded Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno the Stoic, though they shunned Epicurus as an atheist; and scholars revised and commented upon classical texts. Maximus Planudes, Byzantine envoy to Venice, edited the Greek Anthology, translated Latin classics into Greek, and rebuilt a cultural bridge between Byzantium and Italy. The career of Theodoras Metochites illustrates this Palaeologian Renaissance. Prime minister to Andronicus II, he was at the same time one of the most learned and prolific scholars of his time. Nicephoras Gregoras, himself savant and historian, wrote of him: “From morning to evening he was wholly and eagerly devoted to public affairs, as if scholarship were quite irrelevant to him; but late in the evening, after having left the palace, he became absorbed in studies to as high a degree as if he were a scholar with absolutely no connection with any other interest.” 3 Theodorus composed history, poetry, astronomy, and philosophy, of an excellence unmatched by any Greek of that fourteenth century. In the revolution that dethroned his master, he forfeited position, fortune, and home, and was cast into prison; but, falling ill, he was allowed to end his days in the monastery of St. Saviour “in Chora” (i.e., in the fields), whose walls he had ennobled with some of the fairest mosaics in Byzantine history.
In philosophy the old contest between Platonists and Aristotelians recaptured the stage. Emperor John VI Cantacuzene defended Aristotle, while Plato remained the god of Gemistus Pletho. This most renowned of the new Greek Sophists studied philosophy at Brusa in Asia Minor, when that city was already the capital of the Ottoman advance. From a Jewish teacher there he learned the lore of the Zoroastrians; and when he returned to his native Peloponnesus—then renamed Morea—he had probably abandoned the Christian faith. Settling down at Mistra, he became both a judge and a professor. In 1400 he wrote a treatise bearing Plato’s title, The Laws, in which he proposed the replacement of both Christianity and Mohammedanism by the religion of ancient Greece, merely transforming all the Olympians but Zeus into symbolic personifications of creative processes or ideas; Pletho did not know that religions are born, not made. Nevertheless pupils gathered around him eagerly; one of them, Johannes Bessarion, was destined to become a humanist cardinal in Italy. Both Gemistus and Bessarion accompanied Emperor John VIII to Ferrara and Florence (1438) to attend the council in which the Greek and Roman churches were for a moment reconciled in theology and politics. At Florence Gemistus lectured on Plato to an elite audience, and almost touched off the Italian Renaissance. It was there that he added the cognomen Pletho (complete) to his name, playing upon both gemistos (full) and Platon. Returning to Mistra he subsided theologically, became an archbishop, and died at ninety-five (1450).
The revival of art was as marked as the rejuvenation of letters. The themes and figures were still ecclesiastical; but now and then a touch of landscape, a breath of naturalism, a new warmth of color and line gave life to the mosaics. Those recently uncovered in the Chora monastery (the Kahriye-Jami Mosque) have so much vitality that Western historians profess to see in them some fresh Italian influence. In the frescoes that increasingly replaced expensive mosaics in the decoration of churches and palaces, the ecclesiastical hold relaxed, and figures of vivid fantasy and secular story appeared beside the legends of the saints. The icon-makers, however, clung to the old hieratic style—forms thinned, faces burning with a puritanic piety strikingly absent from the morals of the time. Byzantine miniature painting suffered now a sharp decline, but the weaving of pictorial designs into silk still produced masterpieces unrivaled in the Western world. The so-called “Dalmatic of Charlemagne” dates from the fourteenth or fifteenth century; on a base of blue-dyed silk an artist designed, a skillful artisan wove in silk threads of silver and gold, scenes from the life of Mary, Christ, and divers saints. Similar splendors of textile painting took form in this age in Salonika, Serbia, Moldavia, and Russia.
Greece was now again a center of great art. As the thirteenth century neared its end the Franks who had dotted the classic sites with picturesque castles made way for the revived Byzantine power. In 1348 the Emperor John VI sent his son Manuel to bedespotesof the Morea. He established his provincial seat on a hill overlooking the ancient Sparta. To the new capital came nobles, patrons, monks, artists, scholars, and philosophers. Magnificent monasteries were built, and three of them have kept in their churches some of their medieval frescoes: the Metropolis and Peribleptos abbeys from the fourteenth century, the Pantanassa from the early fifteenth. These are the finest murals in the long history of Byzantine art. In their precise draftsmanship, in the flowing grace of their figures, in the depth and glow of their colors, they compare with the best frescoes of the same period in Italy; indeed, they may owe some of their novel grace to Cimabue, Giotto, or Duccio—who all owed so much to Byzantium.
On the eastern coast of Greece, high on the promontory of Mount Athos, monasteries had been raised in the tenth century, and in most centuries since: in the fourteenth the majestic Pantocrator, in the fifteenth St. Paul’s. Of the murals in these retreats an eighteenth-century Greek Guide to Painting ascribed the best to Manuel Panselinos of Salonika, who “showed such brilliance and skill in his art that he was raised above all painters ancient or modern.”4 But of Manuel’s dates or works there is no certainty; he may have belonged to the eleventh or the sixteenth century; and no one can say which of the paintings on Mount Athos are from his hand.
While Byzantine art experienced this final ecstasy, the Byzantine government declined. The army was in disorder, the navy in decay; Genoese or Venetian vessels controlled the Black Sea, and pirates roamed the Greek archipelago. A band of mercenaries from Catalonia—the “Catalan Grand Company”—captured Gallipoli (1306), mulcted the commerce of the Dardanelles, and set up a republic of robbers in Athens (1310); no government succeeded in suppressing them, and they were left to be consumed by their own violence. In 1307 Pope Clement V joined France, Naples, and Venice in a plot to recapture Constantinople. The plot fell apart, but for many years the Byzantine emperors were so fearful of the Christian West that they had no energy or courage to resist the Moslem advance. When that fear subsided the Ottoman Turks were at the door.
Some of the emperors bought their own destruction. In 1342 John VI Cantacuzene, involved in civil war, asked aid of Orkhan, Sultan of the Ottomans; Orkhan sent him ships and helped him take Salonika; the grateful Emperor gave him his daughter Theodora as an extra wife; the Sultan sent him 6,000 additional troops. When John Palaeologus undertook to depose him, John Cantacuzene robbed the churches of Constantinople to pay Orkhan for 20,000 more Turks, and promised the Sultan a fortress in the Thracian Chersonese. In the hour of his apparent victory the people of Constantinople turned against him as a traitor, and revolution transformed him overnight from an emperor into an historian (1355). He retired to a monastery, and wrote the history of his times as a last attempt to overwhelm his enemies.
John V Palaeologus found no ease on the throne. He went to Rome as a suppliant (1369), and offered, in return for help against the Turks, to bring his people into obedience to the papacy. Before the high altar of St. Peter’s he abjured the Greek Orthodox Church. Pope Urban V promised aid against the infidels, and gave him letters to the princes of Christendom. But these were busy with other affairs. Instead of receiving assistance, John was held at Venice as a hostage for the payment of Greek debts. His son Manuel brought the money; John returned to Constantinople poorer than before, and was denounced by his people for forswearing the Orthodox creed. Failing in a second attempt to get succor from the West, he recognized Sultan Murad I as his suzerain, agreed to provide military aid to the Ottoman army, and gave his beloved Manuel as hostage for the fulfillment of his pledge.5 Appeased for the moment, Murad spared Byzantium, and turned to subjugate the Balkans.