The Devil has still the same inclination to injure men that he has had since the beginning of the world; and although he does not always do them all the harm he intends, yet he succeeds in doing them a great part of it.
Andronicus II, to his grandson Andronicus III after the capture of Constantinople
Although the first decade of the fourteenth century was overshadowed, as far as Byzantium was concerned, by the Company of Catalans, this was by no means the only problem with which the unfortunate Andronicus Palaeologus was called upon to deal. To the west, Theodore Svetoslav continued to threaten - at least until 1307, when Andronicus conceded to him the Black Sea ports that he had already occupied, together with the hand in marriage of Michael IX's daughter Theodora. Then Charles IPs son Philip of Taranto joined forces with the Catholic Albanians and captured Durazzo. Meanwhile another Western European prince had entered the fray: Charles of Valois, brother of the French King Philip the Fair. In 1301 he had married Catharine of Courtenay, granddaughter of the Emperor Baldwin; now he in his turn was determined to restore the Latin Empire. To that end he had enlisted the help of Pope Clement V - who had obligingly pronounced sentence of anathema on Andronicus — as well as concluding agreements with Venice, with Miliutin of Serbia (by this time somewhat disenchanted with his father-in-law) and even, in 1308, with the Catalan Company. In that same year, however, his wife died; the right of succession passed to their daughter Catharine of Valois and Charles found himself without a claim after all - particularly after Philip of Taranto, having divorced his first wife Thamar, married Catharine in 1313. But although his machinations eventually came to nothing, during the first years of the century he too had caused the Emperor considerable anxiety.
To the east, once the Catalans had left Anatolia in 1304, the Turks continued to advance. In that very year the tribe of Aydin took Ephesus; in 1307 Othman seized the fortress of Trikokkia, thereby destroying communications between Nicomedia and Nicaea; and in 1308, by their capture of Iconium, the Karamans finally put an end — after over two centuries - to the long-moribund Seljuk Sultanate. In 1309 Byzantium suffered a further loss, when the island of Rhodes (which had for some time been effectively controlled by the Genoese) fell to the Knights of St John.1 With every day that passed, it seemed, the Empire diminished, its Emperor having long ago given up any hope of stemming the Turkish tide.
In Constantinople, the Arsenites became ever more troublesome. What little comfort they might have derived from the departure of the puritanical firebrand Athanasius in 1293 was taken from them when, at the Emperor's insistence, he was reinstated ten years later;2 and by 1304 their behaviour had become such that Andronicus — all his attempts to appeal to their better natures having failed - put an armed guard on their monastery at Mosele. When, in the year following, another plot against his life was discovered just in time and its chief instigator, a certain John Drimys, was found to have close Arsenite connections, Andronicus ordered the monastery to be closed for good and many of its members put under arrest. By now, however, the movement was rapidly losing impetus. John Lascaris, blind and imprisoned, no longer seemed so desirable a candidate for the throne as he had twenty years before; besides, most of the old Empire of Nicaea had already fallen to the Turks. In 1309 Patriarch Athanasius - who was said to have looked upon Byzantium as one vast monastery - retired to his own smaller one, this time for good; and his successor Niphon immediately set to work to heal the Arsenite schism once and for all. He achieved his object within a year: on 14 September 1310, in the course of a dramatically impressive ceremony at St Sophia, the Orthodox Church was formally reunited.
To Andronicus, the relief must have been immense; but in the same year he was faced with a new enemy - his own wife Irene, the former
1 The Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem were, like the Templars, a military Order which had been obliged to leave Palestine after the fall of Acre in 1291. They were to make their headquarters in Rhodes (where their splendid Hospital still survives) until the island's capture by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1522, soon after which they moved to Malta.
2 Athanasius had enjoyed a remarkable stroke of good luck. On 15 January 1303 he had proclaimed from his monastic refuge that the divine wrath would shortly fall upon the people of Constantinople; that same night there was a minor earthquake, which was followed by a considerably more serious one two days afterwards.
Yolanda of Montferrat. The eleven-year-old girl he had married had turned into a formidably ambitious and self-willed woman, and for some time relations between the two had been growing ever more tense. Matters came to a head when Irene proposed that on her husband's death the Empire should not pass to Michael IX alone but should be divided among all four sons - the younger three being of course her own. Predictably - and rightly - Andronicus rejected the idea out of hand; whereupon the Empress accused him of favouritism towards his first-born and left Constantinople with her three boys for Thessalonica which, besides being her childhood home, had the additional advantage of relative proximity to her daughter Simonis, now sixteen, at the Bulgar court. There she remained for the next seven years until her death, constantly intriguing against her husband with anyone who would listen to her.
Another resident of Thessalonica - he must have arrived shortly after his stepmother - was the co-Emperor Michael. Though still only in his middle thirties, he was already disappointed and disillusioned. A brave but disastrously untalented soldier, he had spent much of his adult life on campaign without ever winning a major battle. Apart from a few insignificant victories over the Bulgars in 1304, his career had been marked by defeat after defeat, first in Asia Minor and later in the Balkans. His most recent debacle had been at the hands of an army of some two thousand Turks who, after having joined the Catalans, had remained in Thrace when the latter moved into Greece and were to terrorize the region for the next two years, helping themselves to what little there was left to pillage and seriously disrupting communications. Early in 1311 Michael had led an army against them, with the usual catastrophic result. After this he had been relieved of his military command and had retired into private life.
By his Armenian wife Maria (her original name, Rita, having been replaced as was customary by a more respectable-sounding Byzantine one) Michael had four children - the eldest of whom, Andronicus, an intelligent and outstandingly good-looking boy, was in turn crowned co-Emperor at the age of nineteen in February 1316. There were now three Emperors sharing the throne, and the succession should have been assured for at least two more generations to come. Young Andronicus, however, soon began to show signs of dangerous instability. He drank, he gambled, he caroused, he ran up hideous debts with the Genoese in Galata; and he was notoriously fond of women. The year after his coronation he was married off to a noble German lady of stultifying tedium named Adelaide of Brunswick-Grubenhagen; but after the birth of one child (who died in infancy) he took little interest in her and reverted to his old ways — if indeed he had ever abandoned them.
By now the young man's behaviour was beginning to cause his father and grandfather serious anxiety; but matters were brought to a head only in 1320 when, suspecting one of his mistresses of infidelity, he carefully laid an ambush for his unknown rival near her house. Whether that rival really was his own brother Manuel or whether Manuel just chanced to be passing at the wrong moment is not altogether certain; in any case he was set upon and killed. Michael IX, when the news was brought to him, was still mourning the death of his daughter Anna;1 he was already a sick man, and this second shock was more than he could bear. He went into a decline and died on 12 October at Thessalonica. Andronicus II furiously disowned his grandson and named his own younger son Constantine as heir to the throne of Byzantium.
The result was civil war.
The old Emperor was now sixty years old - a considerable age in Byzantine dmes - and during the nearly forty years that he had been on the throne the situation in the Empire had gone from bad to worse. He was fortunate to have as his chief adviser (and later Grand Logothete) the writer and scholar Theodore Metochites, who served him devotedly from 1290 until the end of his reign; but even Theodore was powerless to stop the decline. Thrace was devastated, Asia Minor virtually lost. In the absence of a navy or merchant fleet, trade - and food supplies - were in the hands of the perpetually squabbling Venetians and Genoese. Taxes were being increased year by year; the revenue was spent, however, not on rearmament but on tribute - protection money to the Catalans and Turks, paid in the hopes that they would thereby be persuaded to leave imperial territory alone. No wonder that, when the young Andronicus refused to accept his grandfather's decree and raised the flag of rebellion in Adrianople, there were many in the capital - particularly among the younger generation of the nobility and landowning classes -who rallied enthusiastically to his support.
At the young Emperor's right hand was John Cantacuzenus, one of
1 Anna's first husband had been Thomas, Despot of Epirus; but in 1318 Thomas had been murdered by his nephew Nicholas Orsini, the Italian Count of Cephalonia, who had immediately adopted the Orthodox faith, established himself in Epirus as his uncle's successor and married his widow. Anna herself had died two years later.
the leading members of the military aristocracy: his father had been Governor of the Morea, and he himself was an important landowner in the Empire, possessing huge estates in Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly. Though he was a year or two older than Andronicus, they had been close friends since childhood; and John, whether as eminence grise, Grand Domestic, reluctant rebel or Emperor, was to dominate the Byzantine political scene for much of the century. Equally important for posterity, he was to write a long and detailed history of the Empire between 13 20 and 1356, drawing largely on his own memories of people and events and frequently quoting from original documents. Inevitably, it is to some extent biased in his own favour; but since he was the most outstanding soldier and statesman of his day it is certainly not to be dismissed on that account.
Second only to John Cantacuzenus in importance among the supporters of Andronicus III was a certain Syrgiannes Palaeologus. He was in fact a minor member of the imperial family only through his mother, his father having been of Cuman descent; and, as we shall see, he was to prove an unreliable ally. He and John, however, had both bought governorships for themselves in Thrace — the sale of offices was not the least of the abuses that had grown up under the Palaeologi - where they had immediately set to work fanning the flames of dissatisfaction among the local populace, already crushed under the ever-increasing weight of imperial taxation. At Easter 1321 the young Emperor joined them. If Gregoras is to be believed, one of his first acts was to exempt the entire province from paying any taxes at all; and by means of this and other extravagant promises he quickly won the support he needed. Syrgiannes then marched on the capital where old Andronicus, terrified lest the revolt should spread, hastily came to terms. By 6 June the two sides had agreed on a partition of the Empire. Andronicus II was to rule on the Bosphorus as before, Andronicus III in Adrianople.
Only a few years previously, when the Empress Irene had made a similar proposal, it had been received with horror; the fact that it was now so readily agreed shows all too clearly how far the Emperor's position had deteriorated in the past decade. To preserve some semblance of unity, old Andronicus insisted that responsibility for foreign policy should be his alone; but almost from the first his grandson showed himself determined to follow his own diplomatic path, and before long there were effectively two separate Empires pursuing completely different policies, more often than not in active opposition to each other.
In such circumstances peace could not endure for long, and early in 1322 hostilities were resumed. They seem to have been caused, strangely enough, by Syrgiannes himself. He had always been jealous of John Cantacuzenus, whom he rightly believed to enjoy the special favour of the young Emperor; and this jealousy now led him to change sides. Returning to Constantinople, he went straight to old Andronicus and encouraged him to teach his grandson a lesson. But it was no use. In both Thrace and Macedonia the rebels were too popular, and it soon became clear that if the old man continued to oppose them he might very probably lose such territories that remained in his control. In July 1322 the two Emperors reached a settlement for the second time. There was no longer to be any question of partition; both were now to rule jointly over the whole Empire, while Andronicus III was reconfirmed as sole heir. Andronicus II however would remain the senior, with the right of veto over any of his grandson's policies.
This time the peace lasted a full five years: years in the course of which, on 2 February 1325, Andronicus III was crowned for the second time in St Sophia and, on 6 April 1326, the Ottoman Turks captured Brusa after a seven-year siege and made it their capital.1More alarming even than this latter disaster was the news that Andronicus II's own nephew, the Governor of Thessalonica John Palaeologus, had announced his secession from the Empire. John was also the son-in-law of the Grand Logothete Theodore Metochites; and although Theodore himself remained as always loyal to his master, his two sons - who commanded the important military bases of Melnik and Strumica - immediately identified themselves with the rebellion. John then appealed for support to the Serbian King Stephen Dechanski (to whom he had given his daughter in marriage) and set off in person for the Serbian court.
Had he succeeded in forging an alliance with King Stephen, the Empire might well have been faced with a new and serious danger; in such an event grandfather and grandson might even have temporarily forgotten their rivalry and made common cause against the enemy. But John Palaeologus died, suddenly and unexpectedly, soon after his arrival in Skoplje; the immediate danger receded; and in the autumn of 1327 civil war broke out for the third time in less than seven years. On this occasion the two Emperors did not fight alone. Stephen Dechanski (whose young wife was, after all, the Emperor's great-niece) declared his
1 Brusa was actually taken by Orhan, the son of Othman. The latter died in the same year and did not live to see the new capital; but Orhan had his body brought there for burial in the citadel. Brusa thus became something of a shrine, and the burial-place of all the early Ottoman Sultans.
support for Andronicus II, while the Bulgar Tsar Michael Sisman — who had divorced his first wife, Stephen's sister, in order to marry Theodora, widow of Theodore Svetoslav and sister of Andronicus III — was only too happy to conclude an alliance with his new brother-in-law. As before, there was little serious fighting; it proved scarcely necessary, since young Andronicus - making more and more of those extravagant promises and donations that had served him so well in the past - was hailed wherever he appeared. In January 1328 he went with John Cantacuzenus to Thessalonica, where he was given a magnificent reception as basileus. Nearly all the other principal cities and castles in Thrace and Macedonia sent messages of support.
Meanwhile, quietly and unhurriedly, he was making his preparations to march on the capital as soon as the spring rains were over. Before he could do so, however, disturbing news was brought to him: Tsar Michael had unaccountably decided to change sides, and had sent three thousand Bulgarian cavalry for the defence of Constantinople. Andronicus hesitated no longer. Hurrying eastward with an advance guard, he managed to intercept the Bulgars before they had taken up their positions and persuaded their commander to order an immediate withdrawal, pointing out to him that he was acting in direct violation of the alliance entered into by his master less than a year before. Then, after sending the Tsar an angry message reminding him of his treaty obligations, he settled down to await the rest of his army.
The departure of the Bulgars was not the only blow sustained by the old Andronicus in the spring of 1328. Venice and Genoa were back once more at their usual tricks and, heedless of the sufferings of the Greek population, were using Constantinople and its surrounding waterways as their principal battleground. Throughout April a Venetian fleet of forty ships had been blockading Galata and the entrance to the Bosphorus, bringing the inhabitants of the city to the brink of famine. The years of civil war, during which opposing armies had trampled backwards and forwards across the fertile fields of Thrace, had made local agriculture impossible and interrupted their normal overland supply of food from the western provinces; now they could not even bring it in by sea. What little was available fetched huge prices, far beyond the reach of a people bled white by taxation, whose economy had long since been brought to a standstill. The old Emperor's popularity was diminishing day by day, his authority growing ever more insecure.
In such circumstances, the capture of the city by his grandson met with scant resistance. On the evening of 23 May 1328 Andronicus and John Cantacuzenus, at the head of a party of twenty-four men with siege ladders, crept up to the section of the great bastion opposite the Romanus Gate. Ropes were lowered by accomplices within the city, the ladders were hoisted up, and within minutes the first of the young Emperor's men were over the wall, opening the gate for their comrades. There was no killing, little looting; no one was hurt. Old Andronicus, awoken from a deep sleep, was initially terrified; but his fears were quickly allayed. All that was asked of him was to sign a deed of abdication; once that was done he was allowed to keep his imperial title and insignia and to continue, if he wished, to live in the Palace of Blachernae. Meanwhile a delegation was sent to free the Patriarch, Esaias by name, who in the previous year had refused to obey Andronicus IPs order to excommunicate his grandson and had been confined to the monastery of the Mangana. On his way back to his palace he was escorted not, Gregoras tells us, by the procession of distinguished ecclesiastics that might have been expected, but by a troupe of musicians, comedians and dancing girls, one of whom soon had him so helpless with laughter that he almost fell off his horse.
Apart from the old Emperor - who may well have been relieved to be spared a continuation of responsibilities for which he was manifestly unsuited - the only serious sufferer was his Grand Logothete, Theodore Metochites. In the absence of any other convenient scapegoat, this gentle scholar was now universally blamed for all his master's misfortunes and failures. Much of his property was confiscated; his house was plundered and burnt; he himself was initially exiled, but was then permitted to return to the monastery of St Saviour in Chora, which he had restored and embellished at his own expense some years before.1 There - near the point where the Land Walls run down to the Golden Horn, only a stone's throw from Blachernae — he lived out the years remaining to him, dying at last in March 1332.
He outlived Andronicus II by a month. The old Emperor remained in Constantinople for two years after his abdication; then he too was packed off to a monastery, where he took the name of Antonius. On 13 February 1332 he dined with his daughter Simonis, the widow of
1 The church of the Chora - more generally known today as Kariye Camii - still stands. Thanks to its dazzling mosaics and superb frescos, a visit there is one of the most memorable experiences that even Istanbul has to offer. The mosaics include a splendid representation of Theodore himself, offering his church to Christ, while the fresco of theAnastasis, or Harrowing of Hell, in the apse of the side chapel to the south is perhaps the supreme masterpiece of all Christian art.
Stephen Miliutin of Serbia, and died within hours of rising from the table. He was seventy-three years old, and had reigned for almost exactly half a century. Seldom in all its thousand-year history had Byzantium been more in need of a strong and determined ruler; seldom had it suffered a weaker one. Had Andronicus II been less of a pietist and more of a statesman; had he made things happen instead of waiting until they happened to him; had he possessed half the diplomatic skills of his father, the courage of his son or the energy of his grandson he might have turned both the coming of the Catalans and the fall of the Seljuks to his advantage and possibly even arrested the Empire's decline. Instead, lacking as he was in any long-term vision or any clear political objective, he allowed it to drift rudderless from one catastrophe to the next until Andronicus III - who, with all his faults, at least knew what he wanted and was ready to fight for it - removed him, gently but firmly, from the helm. As for his unfortunate subjects - beleaguered, half-starving and crippled by senseless taxation - they were glad to see the last of him.
Andronicus III was now thirty-one. The past decade had brought him at last to something like maturity. True, with his thousand huntsmen, thousand hounds and thousand falcons, he may have given rather too much attention to the pleasures of the chase; and not all his subjects approved of his love of jousting, a sport that had been re-introduced1 into Byzantine court circles by the Italian entourage of his second wife Anne, the daughter of Count Amadeus V of Savoy. Still, he had put the worst excesses of his youth behind him; and though he would always be capable of sudden bouts of irresponsibility and recklessness - and never lost his dangerous weakness for making promises that he was unable to fulfil - he was to prove himself a fearless soldier and, on the whole, a conscientious ruler. He was certainly an immense improvement on his grandfather.
Above all he was fortunate: fortunate in having at his side, throughout his thirteen-year reign, a man of quite outstanding ability in both the political and military fields and - more important still - unwavering loyalty to himself. John Cantacuzenus was more than the Emperor's friend and counsellor; he was, in a very real sense, his inspiration. Just as it was he who had been the guiding force behind the recent rebellion, so it was he, after the success of that rebellion, who now directed the
1 It may be remembered that Manuel Comnenus had also shown a certain enthusiasm for this most un-Byzantine of sports..
affairs of the Empire. He refused all titles - even those of Regent and co-Emperor, both of which were offered him by a grateful Andronicus -and held no titular office of state except that of Grand Domestic, or commander-in-chief; but few people in Constantinople had any doubts as to where the effective power really lay.
Yet it was probably Andronicus himself, rather than his Grand Domestic, who took the initiative for one of the first and most important decisions of his reign. He was fully aware - as, to their cost, were his subjects - that the imperial legal system was by now deeply corrupt. We have seen how easily John Cantacuzenus and Syrgiannes Palaeologus had bought governorships for themselves in Thrace; even the Grand Logothete Theodore Metochites, a man everywhere respected for his integrity and deeply versed in moral philosophy, unhesitatingly bought and sold high offices of state. Andronicus II had attempted to tackle the problem some thirty years before, with his usual lack of success; his grandson, less than a year after his accession as sole Emperor, now returned to the charge by instituting, in 1329, a new board of judges whom he designated 'Universal Justices of the Romans'. They were four in number - two ecclesiastics and two laymen - and effectively constituted a Supreme Court of Appeal, empowered to supervise the administration of the law throughout the Empire, with a special brief to watch for cases of corruption and tax evasion in high places. Local justices were appointed in outlying regions with similar responsibilities. The system was not, it must be admitted, entirely successful. Corruption, once it has taken root, is notoriously hard to eradicate: as early as 1337, at a special court held in St Sophia under the joint presidency of Emperor and Patriarch, three of the four Universal Justices were themselves found guilty of accepting bribes, deprived of their office and sent into exile. But successors were immediately appointed, and the institution was to continue for as long as the Empire itself.
On the international stage, Andronicus's new policy of non-appeasement quickly began to show results. Within a month of his coup, Tsar Michael Sisman of Bulgaria invaded Thrace as he had done several times in the past. On this occasion, however, Andronicus retaliated by launching an immediate invasion of his own and capturing a Bulgarian stronghold; and when, two months later, Michael tried the same thing again he found a Byzantine army drawn up against him. The result was a treaty of peace, which prevented any further violations for the next two years and might well have lasted a good deal longer had not the Bulgarian army been totally destroyed on 28 July 1330 at Velbuzd - now Kjustendil - by the Serbs under Stephen Dechanski. The Tsar himself was mortally wounded in the battle, and died in captivity soon afterwards. Stephen installed his nephew John Stephen* on the Bulgarian throne, and poor Theodora had to flee for her life.
For Andronicus his sister's misfortune proved something of a blessing, giving him as it did a convenient pretext for interference in Bulgarian affairs. Ostensibly to avenge her honour, he seized the Black Sea ports of Mesembria and Anchialus which his grandfather had ceded to the Bulgars nearly a quarter of a century before, together with several fortresses that lined the imperial frontier. He did not, however, keep them long, for the following year was to bring palace revolutions to both the Slav states. In Bulgaria John Stephen and his mother Anna were thrown out in favour of Sisman's nephew John Alexander, while in Serbia Dechanski — who, it was considered, had failed to follow up his victory in the approved manner — was murdered by a group of nobles and replaced by his son Stephen Dushan. The two new rulers then formed an alliance, which they cemented by a marriage between Stephen Dushan and John Alexander's sister Helena; together they then began to work, the Serbs in Macedonia and the Bulgars in Thrace, towards the realization of their common dream - the overthrow of the basileus and the establishment of a great Slav Empire in Constantinople. John Alexander easily won back the disputed Black Sea ports, while Stephen pushed steadily southward into Byzantine territory - much helped, it must be said, by the Empire's own internal troubles, not the least of which was the desertion in 1334 of Syrgiannes Palaeologus to the Serbian camp.
Syrgiannes is a difficult character to understand. An aristocrat on his mother's side - though a half-breed on his father's - he had been one of the closest and most intimate friends both of the Emperor and of his Grand Domestic. He was extremely intelligent and seems to have been possessed of unusual charm; but he knew the meaning neither of faith nor of loyalty. Once already he had betrayed his master - during the civil war, when he had shamelessly gone over to Andronicus II. Soon afterwards he had been implicated in a plot to murder the old Emperor, and had been sentenced to life imprisonment; but he had been released by Andronicus III after his assumption of power, formally pardoned - at
1 John Stephen was the son of Dechanski's sister Anna, the first wife of Michael Sisman, whom he had divorced to marry Andronicus's sister Theodora.
the insistent demand, we are told, of John Cantacuzenus - and, somewhat surprisingly, appointed Governor of Thessalonica. On his arrival there, he immediately began to make trouble, intriguing against Cantacuzenus and ingratiating himself with the Emperor'smother Rita-Maria - who had settled in the city after her husband's death - to the point where she adopted him as her son. In 1333 she died in her turn, and it soon became clear that Syrgiannes was once again hatching a conspiracy, this time against the Emperor himself and presumably with a view to replacing him on the throne. Whether or not he was already in touch with Stephen Dushan is not certain; but Thessalonica was too close to the Serbian frontier for comfort, and Andronicus was taking no chances. Syrgiannes was put under close arrest and taken to the capital for trial; before proceedings could begin, however, he escaped across the Golden Horn to Galata and thence, via Euboea and Thessaly, to Serbia. There Stephen Dushan welcomed him warmly and gave him command of an army, which in the spring of 1334 captured Kastoria and a number of neighbouring strongholds.
The Emperor and John Cantacuzenus hurried to Macedonia, determined to eliminate Syrgiannes once and for all. Uncertain, however, whether their hastily-gathered army was sufficient for the task, they decided on a more devious method. Selecting one of the senior officers on the staff, a certain Sphrantzes Palaeologus,1 they proposed to him a plan whereby he would be appointed a local governor of several small towns around Thessalonica. This, they believed, would be the perfect bait for Syrgiannes, who would immediately try to subvert him. Sphrantzes in turn would accept these overtures, and quickly gain his confidence; it would then be an easy matter for him to arrest Syrgiannes and deliver him up for punishment.
All went as arranged - except that at the critical moment Sphrantzes exceeded his brief and, instead of seizing the traitor, killed him outright. He was reprimanded for his disobedience, but was soon afterwards promoted to the rank of Grand Stratopedarch2 with a considerable increase of salary. It was a small price for the Emperor to pay: only a month or two later, in August 1334, he and Stephen Dushan met on the
1The surname is uncertain. John Cantacuzenus - who should know — refers to him simply as Sphrantzes, and adds that although he was a senior member of the Senate, he was of undistinguished birth.
2According to a fourteenth-century book of ceremonial, the holder of this rank was responsible for the provisioning of the army; in most cases, however, the title seems to have been purely honorific.
frontier near Thessalonica where, in return for the promise of Byzantine help against Hungary, it was agreed that those places taken by Syrgiannes should revert to the Empire.
Andronicus needed them, for Stephen made it abundantly clear that all his other conquests of the past two years - and they included Ochrid, Prilep, Strumica and even Vodena (the modern Edhessa) - were to remain in Serbian hands. A large part of Macedonia was now lost for ever. The final collapse had begun.
In Asia Minor it was proceeding apace. When, at the end of May 1329, reports reached Constantinople that the Ottoman Turks under Orhan were blockading Nicaea, the Emperor and John Cantacuzenus crossed the straits to Chalcedon with an army of some four thousand and advanced south-eastwards along the shore of the Marmara. On the third morning of their march they spied the Turkish army encamped in the hills above the little village of Pelekanos (now Manyas). As well as being far more strategically placed, it appeared to be about twice the size of their own; but after a brief council of war they decided that if Orhan came down on to the plain to meet them they would stand and fight. He did so; and on 10 June the battle began. It raged all that day, under a sweltering sun, and by evening it seemed that the Byzantines - who had by that time beaten off two major Turkish attacks - had the advantage. Their own casualties, however, were already severe; they knew moreover that Orhan, who had deliberately held back part of his army, would almost certainly fling it against them the next day. Cantacuzenus therefore advised that, as soon as possible after dawn, they should begin a discreet and dignified withdrawal.
So indeed they did; unfortunately some of the younger and less experienced soldiers, driven to distraction by constant harassment from the Turkish archers, broke ranks in order to drive them away. Knowing full well the dangers of such an action, Cantacuzenus wheeled his horse and galloped off in their pursuit; and a moment or two later Andronicus, who had not seen him, did the same. It was just as they had feared. They found the young hotheads surrounded, and in the bitter fighting that followed the Emperor was struck in the thigh. He only just managed to regain the body of the army - his horse, streaming with blood, expired on arrival - and the next day he was returned on a stretcher to Constantinople. The wound proved to be quite superficial; and all would have been well had not some of the soldiers, seeing him carried away, assumed that he had been killed. They panicked, and it was with the greatest difficulty that John Cantacuzenus - who had also had an extremely narrow escape - managed to restore a semblance of order, just in time to fight another engagement against the pursuing Turks outside the walls of Philocrene.
The battle of Pelekanos was the first personal encounter between an Emperor of Byzantium and an Ottoman Emir. It had not been a disaster on the scale of Manzikert, but it had shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the Turkish advance in Asia Minor was unstoppable. If any proof were needed, it was soon forthcoming: Nicaea - the imperial capital just seventy years before - fell on 2 March 1331, Nicomedia six years later. All that remained of the Empire in Asia - apart from one or two Aegean islands - was the occasional isolated town that the Turks had not yet bothered to conquer: Philadelphia for example, and Heraclea on the Black Sea. But none of these had any strategic value and their collapse, as everybody knew, was merely a matter of time. Meanwhile his possession of the entire Asiatic shore of the Marmara enabled Orhan to build up his sea power, with which he now began to subject the European shore to almost continuous attack.
For Andronicus, where the situation to the south and east was concerned, only three small shreds of comfort remained. First, diplomatic relations had been opened with the Turks. In August 1333 he himself had crossed over to Nicomedia. His pretext had been to give encouragement to the besieged city; in fact he had attended a secret meeting with Orhan to discuss a possible treaty of peace, during which he had agreed to pay the Emir an annual tribute in return for leaving the last Byzantine possessions in Asia undisturbed. Second, all the evidence suggested that Orhan, far from being the half-crazed and fanatical barbarian of the popular imagination, was — like his father Othman before him - a reasonable and civilized man. He had made no attempt to impose Islam on the Christians whose lands he had occupied, ordered no reprisals on those who had offered him resistance. After his capture of Nicaea he had allowed all the inhabitants who wished to do so to leave the city, together with their icons and holy relics. (Remarkably few had taken advantage of the offer.) His principal objective was to build a state, as his dying father had enjoined him to do, dedicated to justice, learning and the Muslim faith but embracing people of all races and creeds. Conversion and conquest were secondary concerns; they came in their own good time — and time, he knew, was on his side.
The last circumstance from which some consolation could be drawn was a distinct strengthening of Byzantine power in the Aegean. From the moment of his accession Andronicus had begun to rebuild his navy, and within a few years Byzantine ships were once again making the Empire's presence felt among the islands. It was probably thanks to them that Chios rebelled in 1329 against the Genoese family of Zaccaria - who had ruled it for the past quarter of a century - and returned to the imperial fold. Almost equally important was the mainland city of New Phocaea1 at the northern entrance to the bay of Smyrna (Izmir), to which the Emperor sailed from Chios at the end of the same year to accept an oath of allegiance. Unfortunately Genoa was not the only Western power involved in the eastern Mediterranean. The Knights of St John from their castle in Rhodes, the Venetians, the Lusignans of Cyprus2 and other families like the Zaccaria — several of whom had ruled in individual islands since the Fourth Crusade - were all pursuing their own interests. One interest, however, they had in common: that of delivering the area from the depredations of the Turkish emirates along the coast.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the idea was put forward - and fervently espoused by Pope John XXII in Avignon3 - of a great Christian League which would deal first of all with the Muslim pirates and then advance through Asia Minor to the Holy Land in a full-blown Crusade. But here was another problem: what part would Byzantium play? On this point, though Venice and the Knights — the two most enthusiastic proponents of the expedition - welcomed imperial participation, the Pope remained firm. For as long as the Empire was determined to remain schismatic, he insisted, it could on no account be a member of the League.
It was the same old story: even after the debacle following the Council of Lyon, the Papacy was still unable to accept the fact that the schism could not be ended by a stroke of the imperial pen. Andronicus III himself would have had no insuperable objections to reunion; but he was certainly not going to repeat the mistake of his great-grandfather by attempting to impose it from above. In any case, the Pope's attitude did not really interest him. He did not believe in Crusades; his people never
1Phocaea (now Foca) had been tragically looted by the Catalans in 1507 or 1308. They stole, inter alia, a piece of the Holy Cross, a shirt made by the Virgin for St John, and the latter's own manuscript of the Book of Revelation.
2Cyprus had fallen to Richard Coeur-de-Lion on his way to the Third Crusade. He had passed it first to the Templars and then, in 1192, to the French house of Lusignan.
3The Papacy had moved its seat to Avignon in 1307. It was to remain there for the next seventy years.
had, and history had proved them right. His own preoccupations were domestic: the defence of his capital and his Empire - objectives for which, as he knew all too well, the nations of the West would have little sympathy. For him, in any case, the Genoese were far more troublesome than the Turks; only six years after their loss of Chios, in the late autumn of 1335, they evened the score with the capture of Lesbos. Andronicus retaliated by ordering the immediate destruction of the defences of Galata, across the Horn from Constantinople. Then he and John Cantacuzenus sailed for the Aegean to negotiate a new alliance -with Umur Pasha, Emir of Aydin.
Umur, known as 'the Lion of God' and subject of one of the great epic poems of Turkish literature,1 was a typical Ghazi, a 'Warrior for the Faith' who spent his life harassing the Christians - principally the Genoese, the Venetians and the Knights of St John — around the islands of the Aegean and even, in 1332 and 1333, as far as Euboea and the Greek mainland. He particularly disliked the Genoese and warmly welcomed the Byzantine proposals, as a result of which a combined Byzantine and Turkish fleet was to reconquer Lesbos in 1336. Later, as we shall see, he was also to contribute considerable numbers of trained fighting men for the Emperor's European campaigns. But the negotiations led to more than just an alliance: they resulted in a life-long friendship between the Emir and John Cantacuzenus. And the importance of that friendship was to prove, in the years to come, infinitely greater than either could have suspected.
The only major territorial success that Andronicus and Cantacuzenus could record - though that too was to prove sadly fleeting - was in Thessaly and Epirus. As long ago as 1318, the last representatives of the ruling dynasties of these two Greek states had died within a few months of each other: John II of Thessaly unremarkably enough, Thomas of Epirus murdered - as we have seen2 - by his nephew Nicholas Orsini, who succeeded him both on the throne and in the bed of his widow, Andronicus Ill's sister Anna. After John's death Thessaly disintegrated. Most of it was torn apart by Catalans, Venetians and various local barons, all out for what they could get; only a relatively small corner, in the north-west between Trikkala and Kastoria, was peaceably governed by a certain Stephen Gabrielopulus Melissenus - who, since he
1The Destan, written in the 1460s by the poet Enver.
bore the title of sebastocrator, had presumably been empowered by the Emperor to do so. But in 1333 he died in his turn, and this region too was faced with anarchy. The situation was saved by the Emperor himself - who was fortunately in Macedonia at the time - and the Governor of Thessalonica, Michael Monomachus. Both hurried with their armies to the threatened area, where they drove off the Despot of Epirus - John Orsini, who had murdered his brother Nicholas in 1323 - and rapidly re-established imperial rule as far south as the Catalan border.
With Thessaly back within the Empire, it was clearly only a matter of time before Epirus followed. The family of Orsini had never been generally accepted as legitimate rulers; and the consequent internal struggles, combined with incessant attacks from outside, had brought the once-prosperous despotate to the point of collapse. The already powerful pro-Byzantine party in Arta numbered among its leaders the Despot's wife Anna;1 and in 1335, encouraged by recent events in Thessaly, she poisoned her husband — it was the third murder of an Orsini by an Orsini in seventeen years - and herself assumed the regency on behalf of her seven-year-old son Nicephorus. Two years later, when the Emperor returned to the region to put down an Albanian revolt, Anna sent a deputation to him at Berat proposing an arrangement whereby she and Nicephorus would continue to reign in Epirus in return for recognizing him as their suzerain; but Andronicus would have none of it. Epirus had now been an independent Despotate for over 130 years; henceforth, he insisted, it must be administered by an imperial Governor, responsible directly to himself. Then and there he appointed to the new post one of his closest friends and companions-in-arms, the protostrator Theodore Synadenus, who had been one of the leaders of thecoup against his grandfather nine years before. Anna, her son and her two little daughters were given a property in Thessalonica, there to live out their lives in comfortable exile.
As so often in Byzantine history, however, things did not go altogether according to plan. Suddenly young Nicephorus disappeared - and was found to have been abducted by certain members of the Epirot nobility, almost certainly with the collusion of those Western powers who had an interest in the continuation of the independent Despotate. Carried off to Italy, he was finally delivered to the court of Catharine of Valois,
1 She was herself a Greek, the daughter of another Andronicus Palaeologus - not the Emperor but one of the Byzantine commanders in the area.
Princess of Taranto and titular Latin Empress of Constantinople.1 There he remained until the autumn of 1338, when Catharine accompanied him to her house in Achaia - of which her husband Philip was also ruler - and, using him as a figurehead, settled down to promote an anti-Byzantine rising in Epirus. It was not long before she succeeded. In Arta, the Governor Theodore Synadenus was arrested and imprisoned; and early in 1339 young Nicephorus himself returned in state to Epirus, where he was installed in the coastal stronghold of Thomocastrum.
But the revolt was short-lived. Outside Arta, Ioannina and one or two other towns it failed to spark. The Emperor himself was back in 1340, as usual with John Cantacuzenus at his side; Arta was successfully besieged; and well before the end of the year a general amnesty had been announced and Synadenus restored to liberty. The Grand Domestic then rode off to Thomocastrum where, despite the presence of the Angevin fleet off the coast, Nicephorus was easily persuaded to abandon his claims and return to Thessalonica. There, in a somewhat vague gesture of compensadon, he was granted the tide of panhypersebastos and promised the hand of Cantacuzenus's daughter Maria in marriage. For a boy not quite thirteen, it had been an eventful year.
In the early spring of 1341, while still at Thessalonica, the Emperor celebrated the wedding of his cousin Irene to John Cantacuzenus's eldest son Matthew, thus binding the two families still more closely together. Soon afterwards he and his Grand Domestic returned together to Constantinople - into the thick of a new crisis. This time, however, it was a crisis of a very different kind: a crisis that could have arisen only in Byzantium. It concerned a small group of Orthodox hermits, mostly on Mount Athos, known as the hesychasts.
Hesychasm - the Greek word means 'holy silence' - was nothing new. From the earliest days of Christianity, the Orthodox Church had maintained a strong tradition of mystical asceticism whose adherents had spent their lives in silent and solitary meditation. Then, in the 13 30s, a monk named Gregory of Sinai had wandered through the eastern Mediterranean spreading the word that by following certain physical techniques it was possible to obtain a vision of the divine, uncreated Light that had surrounded Jesus Christ at his Transfiguration on Mt Tabor. Gregory's
1 Catharine, it will be remembered, was the daughter of Charles of Valois by his wife Catharine of Courtenay, granddaughter of the Emperor Baldwin; her husband, Philip of Taranto, was the son of Charles II of Anjou. Sec p. 27}.
teachings had found particular favour on the Holy Mountain, which quickly became the centre of the hesychast movement. Unfortunately, however, they also aroused the age-old Byzantine passion for religious disputation; particularly since the recommended techniques - which included the lowering of the chin to the chest, the fixing of the eyes on the navel, the regulation of breathing and the unceasing repetition of the Jesus Prayer1 - were all too obviously open to criticism and even to ridicule.
The spearhead of the opposition to the hesychasts was an Orthodox monk from Calabria by the name of Barlaam. His remarkable learning and erudition had soon caught the attention of John Cantacuzenus, who had found him a teaching post at the University of Constantinople; and in 1339 he had even been sent on a secret embassy to the Pope at Avignon to explain the Byzantine position on Church union. On his return, however, he had been rash enough to enter into a public debate with Nicephorus Gregoras, the greatest scholar of his day, by whom he had been thoroughly trounced; and it may partly have been in an effort to cover his shame that he now launched a violent campaign against practices which he considered to be nothing more than superstition, and heretical superstition at that. But the hesychasts too had their champion - one of their own number, the theologian Gregory Palamas, who produced a vast manifesto, Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts. This document, subsequently endorsed by all Gregory's colleagues on the Mountain, constituted a formidable piece of evidence and was largely responsible - with Cantacuzenus himself, whose own sympathies were strongly pro-hesychast - for persuading the Emperor to call a council of the Church and so to settle the matter.
That council was held in St Sophia on 10 June 1341, under the presidency of the Emperor himself. It was over in a single day, and resulted in an overwhelming victory for the hesychasts. Barlaam and all his works were condemned. Gregory Palamas and his friends behaved with commendable generosity, embracing him and complimenting him on the presentation of his case. He himself however, having first admitted his errors, then took the decision in extremely bad part, loudly complaining that the inquiry had been rigged against him before returning, chastened and discredited, to Calabria. There, according to Cantacuzenus, in his deep disillusionment he renounced Orthodoxy altogether and adopted the Church of Rome, ending a somewhat chequered career as Bishop of Gerace.
1 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.'
After the members of the council had returned to their homes, the Emperor complained of exhaustion and retired to rest at the monastery of the Hodegon1 - where, on the following day, he was stricken with a violent fever. For the next four days it grew steadily worse, and on 15 June 1341 he died. He had ruled wisely and well — better far than the grandfather who had done his utmost to keep him from the throne. For all the waywardness of his early youth, he had matured into an energetic, hardworking and - except when the pleasures of the chase got the better of him - conscientious Emperor. His legal reforms and the measures he took against corruption earned him the gratitude of his subjects, not only for introducing them in the first place but for the determination with which he carried them out. Always more of a soldier and man of action than a diplomat or statesman, he was fortunate enough to have John Cantacuzenus at his right hand throughout his reign, and intelligent enough to take his advice.
His tragedy, and that of his successors, was to have come to the throne at a time when his Empire was already doomed: his gains in the Balkans - which were due not so much to Byzantine military prowess as to the internal disintegration of the states concerned - were to prove transitory, and were in any case insignificant compared with the effective loss of Anatolia, which had brought the Ottoman Turks to within sight of Constantinople. This decline was no fault of his, and he had been powerless to prevent it. None the less, he had achieved more than most people would have thought possible; and the partnership (for such it was) of himself and his Grand Domestic did much to raise the spirits of a sad and demoralized people - and to prepare them for the still greater tribulations that lay ahead.
1 The monastery stood just to the cast of St Sophia, down by the sea walls.