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History of the Byzantine empire
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The problem of the internal conditions of the Empire under the Palaeologi is among the least studied and most complicated problems of Byzantine history. The sources on this subject, numerous and manifold, have not yet been satisfactorily examined or adequately estimated. Much precious material, especially imperial chrysobulls and monastic and private charters, is srill preserved unpublished among manuscript treasures of different libraries in the East and West; in this respect the manuscripts of the Athenian monasteries are of the greatest importance. But the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos were too watchful guards of their libraries, and in the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, the Athenian manuscripts were practically inaccessible to scholars who were not of the Orthodox faith. For this reason in the earlier study of Athenian manuscripts the Russian Orthodox scholars played a very important part.
In the eighteenth century, a Russian traveler, V. G. Barsky, visited the Athenian monasteries twice (in 1725-26 and in 1744). He was the first to become acquainted with the hidden archives and, through his detailed description, he threw light on a rich mine of historical sources preserved in the Athonian libraries. In the nineteenth century, the Russian scholars, Bishop Porphyrius (Uspensky), P. Sevastyanov, T. Florinsky, and V. Regel, worked assiduously in the monasteries of the Holy Mountain and published a long series of very important documents on the internal situation of the Byzantine Empire. Especially important are the charters published in the supplements to several volumes of the Russian Byzantine review, Vizantiysky Vremennik, which have not yet been thoroughly studied. At the very end of the nineteenth century, a Greek scholar, Sp. Lampros, published a catalogue of the Greek manuscripts on Mount Athos. But owing to circumstances beyond his control, Lampros could not include in his catalogue the two most important collections of manuscripts preserved in the monasteries of the Laura and of Vatopedi. The catalogue of the Greek manuscripts in the library of the monastery of Vatopedi came to light in 1924. In 1915, the French scholar G. Millet was sent on a mission to Mount Athos, where he collected a series of documents from the archives of the Laura, which is, according to a chrysobull, “the head and Acropolis of the whole monastic republic.”
In the preface to the Vatopedi catalogue, the authors declared: “The Holy Mountain has preserved and saved intact Byzantine civilization and the spiritual forces of the Hellenic people.”
Rich material on the Palaeologian epoch is also to be found in other libraries. Of great importance is the collection published by Miklosich and Müller, Acta et diplomata graeca medii aevi, as well as numerous editions of Greek texts by a Greek scholar, C. Sathas. Finally, the acts of the monastery of Vazelon, near Trebizond, recently published, give new and rich material for the history of peasant and monastery landownership, not only in the Empire of Trebizond, but in Byzantium in general from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.
As the territory of the restored Empire of the Palaeologi was small and was continually being reduced and constantly menaced by the Normans, Turks, Serbs, Venetians, and Genoese, the Empire under the Palaeologi passed into the secondary rank and was no longer a normal and well-organized state. Disorganization in all parts of the state machinery and decay of the central imperial power are the characteristic traits of the period. The long dynastic strife of the two Andronicoi, grandfather and grandson, and of John V Palaeologus and John Cantacuzene; submission to the popes with the view of achieving union and in connection with this, the sometimes humiliating voyages to western Europe of the emperors (John V, who was arrested at Venice for debt, Manuel II, and John VIII, similar abasement and humiliation before the Turkish sultans in various forms), the payment of tribute, forced stays at the Turkish court, and the giving of the imperial princesses in marriage — all this weakened and degraded the power of the Byzantine basileus in the eyes of the people.
Constantinople itself, which had passed into the hands of the Palaeologi after sack and pillage by the Latins, was a ruin of the city it had been before. Greek writers and various foreign travelers and pilgrims, who visited Constantinople at that time, all testify to the decay of the capital.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century, an Arab geographer, Abulfeda, after briefly enumerating the most important monuments of Constantinople, remarked; “Within the city there are sown fields and gardens, and many destroyed houses.” At the very beginning of the fifteenth century a Spanish traveler, Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, wrote: “Everywhere throughout the city there are many great palaces, churches and monasteries, but most of them are now in ruin. It is, however, plain that in former times when Constantinople was in its pristine state it was one of the noblest capitals of the world.” In contrast with Constantinople, when Clavijo visited the Genoese settlement across the Golden Horn, at Pera, he noted: “The city of Pera is only a small township, but very populous. It is surrounded by a strong wall and has excellent houses, all well built.” At the same time, an Italian, Buondelmonti of Florence, wrote that one of the most famous churches of Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Apostles, was in a state of decay (ecclesia jam derupta). None the less, pious pilgrims from different countries, who visited Constantinople in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, among them seven Russian pilgrims, were amazed and spellbound by the decorations and relics of the Constantinopolitan church. In 1287, the monk Rabban Sauma, an envoy of the king of the Mongols, after meeting the Emperor, Andronicus II, and with his special permission, piously visited the churches and relics of the city. Under Manuel II, in 1422, a Burgundian traveler, diplomat, and moralist, Ghillebert de Lannoy, was kindly received by the Emperor and by his young son and heir, who allowed him to visit “the marvels and antiquities of the city and of the churches.”
In 1437, a Spanish traveler, Pero Tafur, was graciously treated at Constantinople by Emperor John VIII, When, on his way back from the Crimea and Trebizond, Pero Tafur visited Constantinople again, the “Despot Dragas,” John’s brother, was governing there, for John himself at that time was in Italy. Tafur remarked that “the church they called Valayerna [Blachernae] is today so burnt that it cannot be repaired;” that “the dockyard must have been magnificent; even now it is sufficient to house the ships.” “The Emperor’s Palace must have been very magnificent, but now it is in such state that both it and the city show well the evils which the people have suffered and still endure … The city is sparsely populated … The inhabitants are not well clad, but sad and poor, showing the hardship of their lot which is, however, not so bad as they deserve, for they are a vicious people, steeped in sin.” Perhaps it would not be amiss to add this statement of Tafur: “The Emperor’s state is as splendid as ever, for nothing is omitted from the ancient ceremonies, but, properly regarded, he is like a Bishop without a See.”
After the Turkish and Serbian conquests in the Balkan peninsula in the second half of the fourteenth century, Constantinople with its nearest possessions in Thrace was surrounded by the dominions of the Turks and could hardly maintain by sea, relations with the territories which still composed a part of the Empire: Thessalonica, Thessaly, and the Despotat of Morea. These territories therefore became almost independent of the central government. Under these new conditions, when the sea route from the northern shore of the Black Sea, very important for the corn supply of the capital, was cut off by the Turks, the island of Lemnos, in the north of the Archipelago, became for a time a granary for Constantinople.
Owing to the feudalizing processes within the Empire which had begun before the Palaeologi, the skillfully organized central state machinery gradually weakened; at times, the central departments had almost nothing to do, for the Empire was disunited and disorganized to an extreme degree. Under the Palaeologi, finances, which had been undermined at the root by the Latin regime, became absolutely exhausted. The taxes from the few devastated provinces which still remained in the hands of the Emperor were not paid; all the balances of the funds were spent; the imperial jewelry was sold; soldiers could not be fed; misery reigned everywhere. A historian of the fourteenth century, Nicephorus Gregoras, described the wedding festivities of John V:
At that time, the palace was so poor that there was in it no cup or goblet of gold or silver; some were of pewter, and all the rest of clay ... at that festival most of the imperial diadems and garb showed only the semblance of gold and jewels; [in reality] they were of leather and were but gilded, as tanners do sometimes, or of glass which reflected in different colors; only seldom, here and there, were precious stones having a genuine charm and the brilliancy of pearls, which does not mislead the eyes. To such a degree the ancient prosperity and brilliance of the Roman Empire had fallen, entirely gone out and perished, that, not without shame, I tell you this story.
The cities particularly threatened by the Turks began to be deserted by their population. After the taking of Callipolis (Gallipoli) by the Turks a number of inhabitants of Constantinople left for the West. In 1425 many people emigrated from Thessalonica, and some of them went to Constantinople in the hope that the capital was more secure than Thessalonica. This was the critical time when Thessalonica was occupied by the Venetians, and the Turks were about to seize the city, which actually happened in 1430.
The reduced territory of the Empire and the very small population made it impossible for the Palaeologian government to keep a large local army, so that the army was composed of mercenaries of various nationalities. Under the Palaeologi appeared the Spanish (Catalan) companies, Turks, Genoese, and Venetians, Serbs and Bulgars. There were also, as before, Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, the so-called Varangians or Anglo-Varangians, and Vardariots, of Turkish stock. Unable to pay its mercenaries well, the government was forced sometimes to tolerate their arrogant restlessness and their devastation of entire provinces and large centers, as, for example, the bloody passage of the Catalans through the Balkan peninsula. Having a weak and disorganized land army, the Palaeologi endeavored in vain to restore the navy, which was in a state of complete decay. Michael Palaeologus accomplished something. But his successor, Andronicus II, neglected the fleet again, so that the islands of the Archipelago which were under the control of the Empire could no longer be protected against the aggressions of the pirates. The navy could do nothing against the well equipped and strong fleets of the Genoese and Venetians, or even against the Turkish fleet, which had just made its appearance. The Black and Aegean Seas passed entirely out of the control of Byzantium, and in the fourteenth century and the first half of the fifteenth the fleets of the Italian commercial republics were masters there.
The provincial or theme organization had been broken up by the Latin dominion and could not function normally under the Palaeologi. For the earlier type of provincial administration the Empire had not enough territory, The former title of the governor of a theme, strategus, wholly disappeared under the Comneni and was replaced by the more modest title of dux. The term theme has sometimes been used by modern scholars for the province of Macedon and Thessaly in the fourteenth century. But a province separated from the capital by the Turkish and Serbian dominions became a sort of despotat whose ruler was almost independent of the central government. Usually, a member of the imperial family was at the head of such a new state. At the end of the fourteenth century Thessalonica received as her despot one of the sons of the Emperor John V. The Despotat of Morea was also ruled by sons or brothers of the imperial dynasty.
Social relations between the higher and lower classes were very strained under the Palaeologi. Agriculture, always considered the real basis of the economic welfare of the Empire, fell into decay. Many fertile provinces were lost; the rest were devastated by the almost continuous civil strife and by the fatal passage of the Catalan companies. In Asia Minor the economic prosperity of the border settlers (akritai), also based on agriculture, was thoroughly undermined by the repressive measures of Michael VIII and the victorious advance of the Turks.
Large landownership was a distinctive feature of the Palaeologian epoch. The ruined peasants were in the power of their landlords. Quite a number of Greeks became powerful landowners in Thessaly after 1261. In the western part of Thessaly, which was seized by the Despot of Epirus, and in the northeastern part of Thessaly, which belonged to the Byzantine Emperor, the wealthy landlords played a most important role, and established feudal relations with smaller landowners. But owing to the Catalan devastations at the beginning of the fourteenth century and the invasions of the Albanians, the land system of Thessaly fell into a chaotic condition. Many Albanians became large landowners. Some improvement in the administration of the land was made, when in 1348 the king of Serbia, Stephen Dushan, took possession of Thessaly. In some mountainous parts of Thessaly there were to be found some individual peasant landownership and free peasant communities.
On the power and wilfulness of the large landowners (archonts) in the Peloponnesus important information is given by Mazaris. Earlier in the fourteenth century, John Cantacuzene wrote that the internal decay of the Peloponnesus was the effect not of the Turkish or Latin invasions, but of internal strife, which made “the Peloponnesus more desert than Scythia.” When Manuel, son of John V, was appointed Despot of Morea, he more or less restored agriculture, so that “the Peloponnesus became in a short time cultivated,” and the population began to come back to their homes. But the Turkish conquest put an end to the Byzantine work in Morea.
Under the pressure of the all-powerful, large landholders, the villages and the peasantry endured great hardships. The peasantry was ruined. It is sometimes stated that the position of the peasants, for example, in the district of Thessalontca in the fourteenth century, at least on the estates of large landowners, was not very bad. But, even if this was true, the misery of the peasants in general is not to be doubted. Class struggles and the hatred of the lower classes for the wealthy was felt not only in the provinces, but also in the chief cities of the Empire. During the revolution of 1328 the populace of Constantinople sacked the magnificent palace of Theodore Metochites.
From the point of view of the social antagonism between aristocratic and democratic elements, the revolutionary attempt in Thessalonica which broke out in the middle of the fourteenth century is exceedingly interesting and important. The revolutionary movement rose in 1341 at Hadrianople in connection with the proclamation of John Cantacuzene as Emperor, and manifested itself in sedition, successful at first, of the populace against the rich classes (δυνατοι); then it spread to the other cities of the Empire. The revolution of the zealots at Thessalonica, in the fifth decade of the fourteenth century, is particularly interesting.
The sources distinguish three classes at Thessalonica: (1) the wealthy and noble; (2) the middle class or bourgeoisie, “the middle” (οι μεσοι), to whom belonged merchants, manufacturers, rich craftsmen, small landowners and professional men; and, finally, (3) the populace—the small farmers, small craftsmen, sailors, and workers. While the significance and influence of the wealthy class was becoming more and more powerful, the position of the lower class, especially that of the farmers near the city, whose lands were continuously ruined by the enemy was going from bad to worse. All the commerce of this important economic center and the advantages connected with it were in the hands of the higher class. Resentment was growing, and any casual incident might provoke a clash. Then John Cantacuzene was proclaimed Emperor with the support of the nobility; immediately the democratic elements came to the defense of the Palaeologi. Tafrali wrote; “It was no longer a struggle of the ambitions of two persons who contested with each other for the supreme power, but a struggle between two classes, of which one wanted to maintain its privileges and the other was attempting to throw off its yoke.” One contemporary source wrote that “Thessalonica was regarded as the teacher of the other cities in the uprisings of the populace against the aristocracy.”
At the head of the democracy of Thessalonica stood the zealots who in 1342 expelled the nobles from the city, pillaged their rich houses, and established a sort of republican government by the members of the zealot party. Complications within the city led to a bloody massacre of the nobility in 1346. Nicholas Cabasilas was one of the few who escaped death. Even after Cantacuzene had come to an agreement with John V Palaeologus, the zealot government at Thessalonica continued to exist and “in certain respects resembled a real republic.” The zealots paid no attention to orders from Constantinople, and Thessalonica was governed as an independent republic until in 1349 John V and Cantacuzene finally succeeded, by their united efforts, in putting an end to the democratic regime of the zealots.
The real causes of the revolution of Thessalonica are not yet quite clear. The Roumanian historian, Tafrali, considered the chief cause the deplorable economic situation of the population, and saw in the zealots the champions of freedom and better social conditions for the future. Diehl wrote: “The struggle of the classes, rich against poor, aristocrats against plebeians, and the atrocity of the struggle manifest themselves in the interesting, tragic and bloody history of the commune of Thessalonica in the fourteenth century;” this struggle “betrays a vague tendency towards a communistic movement.” On the other hand, another historian maintained that in the revolt of Thessalonica the political element, that is, the struggle against the partisans of John Cantacuzene, prevailed over the social element. This problem deserves further study, but it appears that the social background occupied the first place in the revolution of Thessalonica; however, the social problem was intermingled with the political interests of that time, with the civil war between John V and John Cantacuzene. As an example of class struggle the revolution at Thessalonica is one of the most interesting phenomena in the general history of medieval social problems.
Owing to the external and internal conditions of the Empire, Byzantium lost control of her trade. Yet before the Turks definitely cut off all connection, Constantinople, as before, remained a center where merchandise came from various quarters and where one might meet merchants of different nationalities.
Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, a Florentine merchant and writer of the first half of the fourteenth century, a factor in the service of the mercantile house of the Bardi, gave valuable information about the merchandise for sale at Constantinople itself and at Galata or Pera, and about western merchants there. Pegolotti mentions Genoese, Venetians, Pisans, Florentines, Provençals, Catalans, Anconans, Sicilians, and “all other strangers” (e tutti altri strani). A Burgundian pilgrim of the first half of the fifteenth century, Bertrandon de la Broquière, wrote that he saw in Constantinople many merchants of various nations, but the Venetians “had more authority;” in another place he mentioned Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans. Of course, in addition there were in Constantinople many other merchants both from the west, for example from Ragusa on the Adriatic Sea, and from the east. Commercial intercourse in Constantinople was truly international.
But trade itself was no longer carried on by Byzantines; it passed entirely into the hands of the western merchants, mainly those of the Venetians and Genoese but to some extent those of the Pisans, Florentines, and others. From the reign of Michael VIII on, Genoa occupied the first place in the economic life of Byzantium. The Genoese were exempt from taxes, were allowed to build up and fortify Galata, and organized their factories and colonies not only in the islands of the Aegean Sea and in Asia Minor but also on the shores of the Black Sea, at Trebizond, in Caffa (Theodosia) in the Crimea, and at Tana at the mouth of the Don River. Caffa especially was a flourishing and well-organized city with powerful fortifications and a detailed statute (1449) of administration. A Byzantine historian, Pachymeres, admired the Genoese because the winter storms could not prevent them from navigating with their vessels in the Black Sea. Venice was also free from trade taxes, and the permanent political and economic rivalry between the two powerful republics, Genoa and Venice, sometimes resulted in violent wars. The position of Byzantium in these wars was extremely delicate. At the end of the thirteenth century, when in 1291 St. Jean d’Acre, the last stronghold of the crusaders; in Syria, fell to the sultan of Egypt, Venice was deprived of her trade in the southeast Mediterranean basin; thereafter she devoted all her energy to a violent struggle with Genoa in the north to regain her economic position in Byzantium, in the Aegean and Black Seas. New evidence on commercial relations between Florence and Constantinople show that this trade was very active and was carried on chiefly in corn.
But all the profit from the commercial activity of the many western merchants in Byzantium went to them, not to Byzantium; the economic dependence of the Palaeologi upon the wealthy and striving western republics and cities was complete. Economically the Palaeologi had no control over the Empire.
Italian influence may also be noticed on Byzantine coins. In the fourteenth century, under Andronicus II, Andronicus III, and John V, there was an attempt at monetary reform in connection with which the Florentine type of coin was introduced. The Venetian type may also be noted. The last golden coin of the Byzantine Empire was minted under Manuel II, perhaps for his coronation, and on it the Holy Virgin surrounded by the walls of Constantinople was reproduced. No coins of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, are known. The theory exists that under Manuel II and John VIII a reform took place which placed Byzantium under the regime of silver monometallism. But this theory is not proved.
The economic might of the west in Byzantium was ended by the victorious advance of the Ottoman Turks; gradually they took possession of Constantinople and the rest of the Empire, of Trebizond, and the northern shores of the Black Sea.
In view of the general deplorable position of the Empire, both external and internal, it is strange to read an anonymous treatise concerning court offices attributed to the fourteenth century and often, though wrongly, ascribed to Kodinus (Codinus). In this treatise are described in detail the gorgeous raiment of the court dignitaries, their various coverings for the head, their shoes, and their decorations; meticulous descriptions are given of the court ceremonial, coronations, and promotions to one or another rank. This treatise serves as a supplement to the well-known work of the tenth century which described ceremonies of the Byzantine court. In the tenth century, at the time of the greatest brilliance and power of the Empire, such a work was comprehensible and necessary. But the appearance of an analogous treatise in the fourteenth century, on the eve of the final collapse of the Empire, is puzzling and reveals the blindness that apparently reigned at the court of the Byzantine Emperors of the last dynasty. Krumbacher, also puzzled by the appearance of this treatise in the fourteenth century, remarked, not without irony: “The answer is, perhaps, given by a medieval Greek proverb; ‘the world was perishing and my wife was still buying new clothes’ (ο κοσμοσ εποντιζετο και η εμη γυνη εστολιζετο.