As the metropolitans disembarked from the ships the citizens greeted them as was customary, asking 'What of our business? What of the Council? Did we prevail?' And they answered: 'We have sold our faith; we have exchanged true piety for impiety; we have betrayed the pure sacrifice and become upholders of unleavened bread.'
The Empire of which, on 21 July 1425, the thirty-two-year-old John Palaeologus became sole basileus was effectively bounded by the walls of Constantinople; and Constantinople now presented a dismal picture indeed. Already in 1403, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo had remarked on its strange emptiness:
Despite its size and the huge circuit of its walls, it is poorly populated; for in the midst of it are a number of hills and valleys on which there are fields of corn and vineyards and many orchards; and in these cultivated areas the houses are clustered together like villages; and this is in the midst of the city.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, after three sieges — each of which resulted in the flight of many hundreds of citizens, the majority of whom never returned - and several visitations of the plague, the population must have declined still more dramatically. Precise figures are hard to estimate, but by 1425 the inhabitants are unlikely to have numbered more than fifty thousand, and may well have been considerably less.
Economically, too, the Empire was in desperate straits. Once the richest and busiest commercial centre in the civilized world, Constantinople had seen her trade taken over lock, stock and barrel by the Venetians and the Genoese; now they too had suffered from the constant warfare and political instability, and a few paltry customs dues were all that ever trickled into the Byzantine exchequer. The coinage, already debased, was devalued again and again. Thanks to the successive sieges and the depopulation, the system of food distribution was on the point of collapse and frequently broke down altogether. The people were thus chronically undernourished, and their low resistance to disease caused one epidemic after another to rage unchecked through the city.
The simultaneous lack of manpower and of money made it impossible to keep the buildings in repair. Nearly all were by now seriously dilapidated. Many of the churches were little more than empty shells. Constantine's great Hippodrome, rapidly falling into ruin, was used as a polo ground. The Patriarch had long since deserted his palace in favour of somewhere warmer and drier. Even the imperial Palace of Blachernae was crumbling. Later in John's reign another Castilian traveller, Pero Tafur, was to report that
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 which they still endure .. . Inside, the building is badly maintained, except for those parts where the Emperor, the Empress and their attendants can live, although these are sorely cramped for space. The Emperor's state is as splendid as ever, for nothing is omitted from the ancient ceremonies; but, properly regarded, he is as a bishop without a see ...
The city is sparsely populated. It is divided into districts, that by the seashore having the greatest population. The inhabitants are not well clad but are poor and shabby, showing all too well the hardship of their lot - which is however less bad than they deserve, for they are a vicious people, steeped in sin.
It was not an inspiring inheritance; and John must often have thought with envy of his younger brothers. One, the Despot Constantine, was admittedly not much better off: since his father's death he had governed a relatively small area covering the northern approaches to Constantinople, which the Turks had recently allowed the Empire to retain in fief; it included the port of Selymbria and the cities of Mesembria and Anchialus on the Black Sea coast. Strategically it was not without importance; but the Emperor held it only as the vassal of the Sultan, and it is hard to see what he or Constantine could have done if Murad had decided to take it back, or even to advance through it on his way to launch another attack on the capital. The other four of Manuel's sons were all in the Morea - an unmistakable indication of the importance which the southern Despotate had by now assumed in the thinking of the Palaeologi. Their reasons are equally clear. The Morea could be defended; Constantinople could not. The latter, admittedly, still had its Land Walls, which had never yet been breached and which had stood fast against three major sieges in the past quarter-century alone. But during that time the process of depopulation had continued remorselessly; every day saw a further decrease in the number of able-bodied men and women able to rally to the city's defence. Worse still was the failure of morale. Few intelligent people any longer cherished a real hope of deliverance. Western Europe had proved itself a broken reed. The Turks - after a brief setback - were now, under the determined and implacable Murad II, as strong as they had ever been. It was all too likely that when (as he surely would) he decided on yet another siege of the city, its inhabitants might make a voluntary surrender - if only to spare themselves the massacre and rapine which would inevitably follow if they did not.
The Morea, on the other hand, was relatively secure. True, it had suffered considerable devastation as recently as 1423, when an army of Turks had invaded Albania and then swept down through Thessaly, seeming almost to ignore Manuel's much-vaunted Hexamilion. But they had not remained for long, the wall had since been heightened and strengthened, and Venice - understandably alarmed at the prospect of a Turkish presence on the Adriatic shore - had promised to come to the rescue if the incident were ever repeated. Already Venetian ships patrolled the coasts, where they were more than a match for the still rudimentary Turkish navy. There remained a few French and Italian princelings ruling their little enclaves amid the mountain valleys; but they had lost much of their former power, and no longer threatened any serious trouble.
Inevitably, there were a few problems. The Peloponnesians, Manuel had complained ten years before, seemed to love fighting for its own sake. The Despots spent most of their time trying to reconcile one faction against another - a task which was not made easier by the fact that the local Greek nobility felt no loyalty to Byzantium and openly resented what they saw as a foreign ascendancy, foisted on them from distant Constantinople. Compared to those in the capital, however, conditions in the Morea were pleasant indeed; and by 1425 few people, offered the alternatives of living in Constantinople or in Mistra, would have hesitated at the choice.
The city of Mistra, lying on the slopes of the Taygetus range in the southern Peloponnese, had been founded by William of Villehardouin, great-nephew of the chronicler of the Fourth Crusade, in 1249. Just twelve years later, after the reconquest of Constantinople by Michael Palaeologus, William had been obliged to surrender it - together with Monemvasia and the fortress of Maina on Cape Matapan - to Byzantium. For much of the next half-century it had remained little more than a small and remote Greek enclave, set deep in Frankish territory; not surprisingly, the Byzantine Governor preferred to reside at Monemvasia, from which he could keep in regular touch with the capital. As time went on, however, the Greek province steadily grew in size, the Latins retreated, and Monemvasia itself became an outpost. By 1289 we find the Kephale, as he was called, settled more centrally in Mistra; and thus it was to Mistra that the Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus had sent his son Manuel, first Despot of the Morea, in 1349 - exactly a hundred years after the city's foundation.
Manuel had been succeeded by Theodore Palaeologus, fourth son of John V, on whose death in 1407 the Despotate had passed to his nephew and namesake, Theodore II. By this time Mistra had developed into something far more than a mere provincial capital. It was now an artistic, intellectual and religious centre comparable with what Constantinople had been a century before. Its first important church had been built shortly before 1300; and a few years later this was incorporated into a large monastery, the Brontochion - which in turn gave rise to a second church, dedicated to the Virgin Hodegetria, 'she who points the way'. By this time the Metropolitan Church of St Demetrius was already almost completed; two other great churches, the Pantanassa and the Peribleptos, followed soon afterwards, possibly at the instigation of the Despot Manuel. He was certainly responsible for the church of St Sophia, which was used as the palace chapel. Alas, all these buildings have been wholly or partly ruined; but many of their frescoes -particularly those of the Peribleptos - still have the power to catch the breath.
These churches alone are enough to show the extent to which Mistra attracted the greatest artists in the Byzantine world; it was equally active in the field of scholarship. Manuel Cantacuzenus and his brother Matthew - who was technically co-Despot with him after1361, although he left the business of government in Manuel's hands - were both highly cultivated men, while their father John, the ex-Emperor and one of the greatest scholars of his time, was a regular visitor to Mistra and had indeed died there in 1383. Small wonder was it that others followed. Among them were the famous Metropolitan Bessarion of Nicaea and the future Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev - both of whom were later to become cardinals in the Church of Rome - and the philosopher and theologian
George Scholarius, who under the name of Gennadius II would be the first Patriarch of Constantinople after the fall of the city. The greatest moment, however, in the intellectual life of Mistra was unquestionably that of the arrival in the city of the most original of all Byzantine thinkers, George Gemistos Plethon.
Unlike the rest, Plethon did not come to Mistra of his own free will. At an early age he had fallen foul of the Orthodox establishment. They had been shocked by his stay of several years in Turkish-held Adrianople - where he had studied Aristotle, Zoroastrianism and Jewish cabbalistic philosophy — and seriously alarmed when he gave a course of what they considered to be highly subversive lectures on Platonism at the university; he might well have been arraigned on charges of heresy had not the Emperor Manuel, his friend and admirer, suggested that he might find Mistra a more congenial environment. Plethon asked nothing better. He was acutely aware that Byzantium was the inheritor, not only of the Roman Empire, but of the literature and civilization of classical Greece; and he was happier living and teaching where the ancient Greeks had lived and taught than in what to them had been a barbarian land. Moreover, as a good Platonist he shared his master's frequently-expressed disapproval of Athenian democracy, infinitely preferring the discipline of Sparta; at Mistra, only some five miles away from the ruins of the ancient city, he could almost feel that he was there.
Apart from his year in Italy - to be described later in this chapter - Plethon remained for the rest of his life at Mistra. There he was a member of the Senate and a senior magistrate; but he saw himself primarily as the official court philosopher of the Despotate, in the old tradition of Plato at Syracuse or even of Socrates himself, strolling up and down the local agora with his disciples and — always inspired by the Spartan ethos - endlessly developing an elaborate scheme for the reform, the defence and ultimately the salvation of the Morea. This involved reliance on a standing army of citizen Greeks rather than on foreign mercenaries, on strict sumptuary laws and on rigorous standards of temperance and dedication. Land would be held in common; the import and export trades would be closely regulated; monks would be forced to work and make a proper contribution to society. All these reforms were formally proposed by Plethon in a whole series of memoranda, addressed to the Emperor Manuel and his son the Despot Theodore between 1415and 1418, but it was no use: even at this critical moment in their history, the regime he advocated was too authoritarian, too socialist — in a word, too Spartan - for the Byzantines. They preferred, as they always had, to put their trust in God and the Holy Virgin; if any reforms were necessary, they must be achieved not in the political or social fields but in the hearts of men.
They would have been even more wary of Plethon had they known the directions his thought was taking him. His last work, On the Laws, completed only towards the end of his life - he was not to die till 1452, when he was ninety - seems to have proposed a new and extremely idiosyncratic religion, based partly on Persian Zoroastrianism and partly on the old Greek pantheon, where the ancient deities were revived -though more as symbols than anything else - and subordinated to an almighty Zeus. Sad to say, we know this curious composition only from its table of contents; virtually all the rest was destroyed after the author's death by his horrified friend George Scholarius, the future Patriarch. But though George Gemistos Plethon may have died a prophet with relatively little honour in his own country, in Europe - and above all in Renaissance Italy - he was deeply venerated. Not only was Cosimo de' Medici to found the Academy at Florence in his honour; in 1465, when that most cultivated of condottieri, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta of Rimini, entered Mistra at the head of a Venetian army, he removed Plethon's body from its simple grave and took it back with him to his native city. There it still lies, in the magnificent tomb he built for it in the cathedral church of S. Francesco, a proud inscription paying tribute to 'the greatest Philosopher of his time'.
During the first five years of the new reign, things went well for the Despotate of the Morea. In 1427 John VIII, accompanied by his brother Constantine and George Sphrantzes, personally led a campaign which destroyed the fleet of Carlo Tocco, Lord of Cephalonia and Epirus, at the mouth of the Gulf of Patras. By the terms of the resulting treaty Tocco gave his niece Maddalena in marriage to Constantine, together with the region of Elis and the port of Clarenza (the modern Killini) in the north-western Peloponnese. Two years later Constantine wrested Patras itself from the control of its Latin Archbishop, even gaining recognition from Sultan Murad of its return to the Despotate; and by 1430 most of the Morea - with the important exceptions of the Venetian-held harbours of Corone, Modone and Nauplia - was back in Greek hands.
Progress in the south, however, was outweighed by disaster further north; for in March 1430 the city of Thessalonica fell once again to the Sultan. Its seven years under the banner of St Mark had not been a success. The Turks had maintained their blockade; meanwhile, as the Venetian governors persisted in ignoring the formal undertakings made at the time of the transfer of power, local resentment had steadily increased to the point where many of the inhabitants were shamelessly in favour of opening the gates to the infidel. Before long the Venetians, far from turning Thessalonica into a second Venice as they had promised, were heartily regretting that they had ever accepted the Despot's offer which, they complained - since the Sultan was forcing them to pay an annual tribute - was costing them some 60,000 ducats a year. On the other hand, they still had their pride; and when Murad himself arrived on 26 March with an army estimated - surely with wild exaggeration -at one hundred and ninety thousand men to demand the immediate surrender of the city, he was answered with a hail of arrows.
On the following day the monks of the monastery of the Vlataion (which still stands just inside the northern walls) are said to have sent a message to the Sultan advising him to cut the pipes that brought water into the city. Whether or not they were actually guilty of such treachery we shall never know, though it seems extremely unlikely - and unlikelier still that he acted upon their advice. This time he was putting his trust in brute strength; he had collected and equipped a huge army, and he was determined to use it. The attack began at dawn on 29 March, Murad himself taking command of the units drawn up along the eastern section of the walls which seemed to him to be the weakest. For some three hours his catapults, mangonels and battering rams did their worst, while his archers loosed further volleys of arrows every time a defender showed himself above the bastion. Gradually the Thessalonians, realizing that the situation was hopeless, grew more and more discouraged; many of them deserted their posts; and soon after nine o'clock in the morning the Sultan's men managed to bring the first scaling-ladder into place against the wall. A moment later a Turkish soldier was up and over the parapet, triumphantly throwing the severed head of a Venetian guard down to his comrades below as a sign that they should follow.
The people of Thessalonica were only too well aware of the fate that a-waited any city that resisted conquest, and that the Turks were consequently obliged to take by storm; but for many of them the events of the next seventy-two hours must have exceeded their worst fears. A Greek eye-witness, John Anagnostes, describes how the streets were loud with the war-cries of the Turks as they charged through the city in a frenzy of murder and pillage, and how these dreadful sounds mingled with the screams of children torn from their mothers and wives from their husbands. All the churches were looted, and many of them destroyed; the palaces of the nobility were ransacked, then either requisitioned or put to the torch. The number of victims of the massacre is unknown, but Anagnostes estimates that not less than seven thousand - mostly women and children - were carried off into slavery.
After the statutory three days, Murad called a halt. Thessalonica was the second city of the Byzantine Empire; he had no wish to reduce it to a smoking ruin. Its inhabitants had been taught the traditional lesson; those who had survived it had been punished enough. A general amnesty was declared; a number of distinguished citizens who had been imprisoned were immediately released; rich and poor alike were invited to return to their homes, with a guarantee that they would suffer no more ill-treatment. The Christian religion would everywhere be respected, apart from the conversion of certain churches into mosques -including the most venerable Panaghia Acheiropoietos ('not made with hands'), which had stood for almost a thousand years.1
And what, it may be asked, of the Venetian governors of the city -those who had boasted that they would turn it into a second Venice and whose determined resistance had been the cause of all the misery and bloodshed? Somehow, in the general chaos, they had managed to make their way down to the harbour, where a ship was waiting to bear them off to the nearest Venetian soil, the colony of Euboea. When they finally returned to their lagoon, it was to find the Doge and Senate extremely displeased with their performance: accused of having neglected the protection of the city that they had been charged to defend, they were thrown into prison. They were lucky to have escaped so lightly; their crimes were greater than their masters ever knew.
Away in the West, the Roman Catholic Church was still in confusion. The Council of Constance had failed to effect any real reforms; indeed, in at least one respect it had done more harm than good, since it had declared itself to be a General Council, with an authority that derived directly from God and was consequently superior to that of the Pope himself. This had dangerously intensified the already existing dispute between those who supported such a view and those who believed in
1 The church took its name from a celebrated icon it once contained, which was said to have been miraculously painted. It remained under Muslim control until early this century (the city was Turkish until 1913) and has unfortunately suffered more damage since - in 1923 when it was occupied by Greek refugees from Asia Minor, and more recently as a result of the severe earthquake of June 1978.
absolute papal supremacy, to a point where it began to present a serious threat to Church discipline; and it was largely in an attempt to settle the matter once and for all that Pope Martin V summoned a new council, to meet at Basel in 1431.
To John Palaeologus, this council seemed to offer a ray of hope. Once again as at Constance, representatives of all the Christian nations of the West would be present; and although their reactions on the previous occasion had been disappointing to say the least, much had happened in the past fifteen years to make them change their minds. Venice in particular had been brought face to face with Turkish arms at Thessalonica, and had suffered serious damage not only to her financial and strategic interests but - far more important - to her international prestige. Sigismund of Hungary, too, had watched powerless during the previous summer as the Sultan marched from Thessalonica right across the Balkan peninsula to Epirus, accepted the surrender of Ioannina without a struggle and then pressed on through Albania, pushing the frontiers of his Empire further and further back towards Sigismund's own. This time, perhaps, a Byzantine appeal might fall on more receptive ears; and where Venice and Hungary led, others would surely follow. John was also intrigued by the conflict over the authority of General Councils. Virtually all recent attempts at Church union had foundered on a similar issue, the Byzantines insisting on a council to be held at Constantinople, the Latins refusing to consider such a proposal; might there not be potential allies among the conciliarists, capable at last of swinging opinion in his favour?
The imperial ambassadors, arriving at the papal court in the late summer of 1431, found tensions running high. Pope Martin had died in February and his successor, Eugenius IV, in a desperate attempt to assert his authority, had ordered the council to leave Basel and to hold all future sessions in Italy where he could exercise a firmer control; the delegates, however, had announced that they were staying where they were. On 18 December Eugenius issued a bull dissolving the entire gathering and declaring its deliberations null and void; this time the delegates simply reaffirmed the decrees issued at Constance, pointing out that they too constituted a General Council - although at that time they numbered only fourteen of the senior clergy - and that their own authority was consequently paramount. For the next two years the dispute continued, and as it did so John found himself wooed ever more assiduously by both parties: the council pressing him to send an official delegation to Basel, the Pope equally anxious that he should do nothing of the kind. Finally in 1433 the Emperor took his decision, nominating three ambassadors to represent him at the council; when a papal legation arrived to remonstrate he sent another delegation, this time to Eugenius; and so he continued, playing one side off against the other, until in the summer of 1437 matters came finally to a head.
By this time the Pope had been obliged to revoke his former decision and to recognize the council after all; more important for John VIII, he had also reluctantly accepted what the Byzantines had never ceased to maintain: that true union could be achieved only by means of a council of the whole Church, to be attended by representatives of both East and West. To the vast majority of those concerned, however, it was now obvious that Basel was not the place. The past six years had seen too much ill feeling and bitterness; if the proposed council were to have any chance of success, a fresh start was essential. The more hidebound of the conciliarists objected - in 1439 going so far as to declare the Pope deposed and to elect an anti-Pope in his stead - but this arbitrary renewal of the papal schism cost them what little prestige they had left, and one by one the Christian nations submitted to the authority of Eugenius.
Ideally, the Emperor would have wished the new council to be held in Constantinople; but he was obliged to admit that in the circumstances now prevailing this was no longer practicable. He therefore willingly accepted the Pope's choice of Ferrara, confirming that he personally, together with his Patriarch, would head the imperial delegation. Eugenius, hearing this welcome news, lost no time. By September his legates were already in Constantinople to work out the details, while others were negotiating with the Venetians for the hiring of a fleet to bring the Byzantine delegation in proper state to Ferrara. Thus it was that John Palaeologus once again left his brother Constantine as Regent in Constantinople and on Wednesday, 27 November 1437 embarked on his historic journey, taking with him a party some seven hundred strong, among them the most distinguished group of Eastern churchmen ever to visit the West. There was the Patriarch himself, Joseph II - nearly eighty years old, crippled by heart disease but beloved of all who met him; eighteen Metropolitans, some of them representing his fellow-Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and also including the brilliant young Metropolitan Bessarion of Nicaea; Isidore, Abbot of the monastery of St Demetrius in Constantinople, who had attended the Council of Basel and had been promoted in the previous year to be Bishop of Kiev and All Russia; and some twelve other bishops. Among the laymen were
George Scholarius, whose knowledge of Latin theology and, more particularly, of the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas would, it was hoped, confound the scholars of the West; and, most revered of all, George Gemistos Plethon himself from Mistra. All these were pro-Western, to a greater or lesser degree. The leading light of the ultra-Orthodox camp was Mark Eugenicus, Metropolitan of Ephesus. One of his Church's leading theologians and an implacable opponent of the filioque, he was to cause John much irritation and anxiety in the months that followed.
The Emperor also took with him his brother Demetrius, to whom in 1429 he had given the tide of Despot. He did not delude himself that Demetrius would make any effective contribution to the coming debate; but he already knew him for a dangerous intriguer, and thought it safer to have him where he could keep an eye on him. Subsequent events were to prove him right.
The party reached Venice on 8 February 1438, and anchored off the Lido. This time the Republic was determined to spare no expense in giving the Emperor the most splendid reception it could devise. Early the following morning, Doge Francesco Foscari came out to greet him, and according to George Sphrantzes - who was not himself an eyewitness but claims the Despot Demetrius as his authority - showed him every mark of respect, making a deep obeisance and standing bareheaded while John remained seated before him. Only after a decent interval did the Doge take a chair, specially set for him at a slightly lower level on the Emperor's left, while the two discussed the details of John's ceremonial entrance into the city. Foscari then returned to prepare for the official reception.
At noon the Doge, attended as always by his six-man Signor/a, sailed out in his state barge, the Bucintoro, its sides hung with scarlet damask, the golden lion of St Mark glinting from the poop, the oarsmen's jackets stitched with golden thread; as it advanced, other smaller vessels took up their positions around it, pennants streaming from their mastheads, bands of musicians playing on their decks. Coming alongside the Emperor's flagship, Foscari went aboard and once again made his obeisances. He had originally assumed that the two rulers would then be rowed into the city in the Bucintoro, but John demurred. His imperial dignity, he considered, made it necessary that he should disembark in Venice from his own vessel; orders were accordingly given that this should be towed from the Lido to the foot of the Piazzetta, where what appeared to be the entire population of the city was waiting to greet its exalted guest, cheering him to the echo. From there the procession slowly wound its way up the Grand Canal, beneath the wooden Rialto Bridge where more crowds waited with banners and trumpets, and so finally at sunset to the great palace of the Marquis of Ferrara,1 which had been put at the disposal of the imperial party for the duration of their visit. There the Emperor stayed for three weeks, writing letters to all the princes of Europe, urging them to attend the council or at least to send representatives. It was the end of the month before he himself left on the final stage of his journey.
Compared to his Venetian reception, John's arrival at Ferrara was a lacklustre affair, not improved by pouring rain. Pope Eugenius gave him a warm welcome, but even this was somewhat clouded when the Emperor was informed that his Patriarch, on his arrival a few days later, would be expected to prostrate himself and kiss the Pontiff's foot. Old Joseph was the mildest and gentlest of men, but even for him this was too much. When he received John's warning message he refused to come ashore until the demand was retracted. At last Eugenius was obliged to yield; had he not done so, it is doubtful whether the Council of Ferrara would ever have taken place. This was only the first of many painful problems of protocol and precedence to arise; both Emperor and Pope were extremely sensitive on all matters affecting their dignity. The relative positions of their two thrones in the cathedral, for example, raised difficulties which at one moment seemed almost insuperable. Later, when the venue had been shifted to the papal palace, John was to insist on proceeding on horseback to his throne itself; when this proved impossible, he demanded that a hole should be broken through a wall in order that he should not be seen dismounting, and that he could be carried to the throne without his foot touching the ground. This was done — and the sessions were suspended till the work was completed.
Such extraordinary punctilio may seem excessive, even ridiculous. To some extent it was part of the elaborate protocol which had always existed at the Byzantine court; but in Ferrara, as later in Florence, it also had a deliberate purpose. If John's mission to the West were to succeed, it was essential that he should be seen not as a suppliant but as the monarch of a great — if not the only — Christian Empire, a vital element
1 This thirteenth-century palace, restored with marvellous insensitivity in the 1860s and - in consequence of its later history - better known today as the Fondaco dei Turchi, still stands on the upper reaches of the Grand Canal, opposite the S. Marcuola vaporetto station.
in the whole polity of Christendom which must be preserved at all costs from the cupidity of the Turk. The Patriarchal official Sylvester Syropulus, from whose invaluable if somewhat tendentious behind-the-scenes record of the council the above anecdotes have been taken, also records a remark made by the Emperor to the Patriarch before their departure from Constantinople, about the appearance of the Greek ecclesiastics: 'If the Church makes a dignified showing, it will be honoured by them and will be a credit to us. But if it is seen to be dirty and unkempt, it will be despised by them and counted for nothing.'
Quite apart from the vexadous questions of etiquette, the council got off to a bad start. John had stipulated that four months should elapse before the formal discussions on doctrine were begun; one of his principal reasons for attending was to seek help from the other European princes, and he was determined that no important decisions should be taken before their arrival. But spring turned to summer, and no princes appeared. The Latins grew more and more impatient, the Pope — who was responsible for the board and lodging of the entire Greek delegation - more and more concerned as his financial reserves fell ever lower. In June and July - to give themselves something to do — limited numbers of Greeks and Latins opened discussions on the question of Purgatory, which was doubtless where many of them felt themselves to be; but they reached no conclusions.
With August came the plague. Strangely enough, the Greeks appeared immune - the Emperor was in any case away from Ferrara for most of the time, indulging in his favourite sport of hunting - but there was heavy mortality both among the Latin delegates and in the city as a whole. Meanwhile the Latins grew even more irritated with their guests. Fortunately for them, however, the Greeks too were losing patience. They had been away from home for the best part of a year at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty, and had so far achieved nothing. Many of them too were short of money, for the papal subsidies were becoming increasingly irregular. Finally it was by now plain that none of the European princes had any intention of attending the council at all, so that there was no point in waiting for them any longer. It was to everyone's relief when deliberations began in earnest on 8 October.
For the first three months they were concerned almost exclusively with the filioque clause - and not even the question of whether the Holy Ghost did in fact proceed from the Father and the Son (rather than from the Father only) so much as that of whether the act of introducing it into the Nicene Creed was legitimate or no. The principal spokesman on the Greek side was the Metropolitan Mark Eugenicus, who rested his case on a specific regulation agreed in 451 by the Council of Ephesus: 'To no one is it allowed to recite, write or compose a faith other than that defined by the Holy Fathers in Nicaea.' The Latins argued that the disputed word was a clarification rather than an addition, and pointed out that the Creed as recited in the Greek Church already incorporated various changes from the Nicene original; but the Metropolitan would have none of it. It was anyway, they suggested, a profoundly insignificant point; in that case, he testily replied, why were they so determined to keep it in? The issue was further clouded by linguistic problems. Few of the delegates spoke any language other than their own, and there were no qualified interpreters. Additional difficulties arose when it was discovered, at a fairly early stage in the proceedings, that various Latin and Greek words at first believed to be precise equivalents were in fact nothing of the sort: to take but one example the Greek word ousia, meaning 'substance', carried with it various shades of meaning quite alien to the Latin substantia. The sessions ended on 13 December with agreement as far away as ever.
At this point the Pope managed to persuade the delegates to move to Florence. He gave as his reason the continued presence of the plague in Ferrara, but his true motives were almost certainly financial: the council had been sitting for eight months, it showed every sign of going on indefinitely, and it had already made alarming inroads on the papal treasury. In Florence, on the other hand, the Medici could be trusted to help out. But the move also proved beneficial in other ways. When the sessions were resumed towards the end of February 1439 the Greeks -tired, anxious, homesick and (if Syropulus is to be believed) hungry - seemed distinctly readier to compromise than they had been in the previous year. By the end of March they had agreed that the Latin formula according to which the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son meant the same as a recently-accepted Greek formula whereby it proceeded from the Father through the Son. It was soon after this breakthrough that Patriarch Joseph finally expired; but then, as an observer rather unkindly remarked, after muddling his prepositions what else could he decently do?
With the filioque at last out of the way, the other outstanding questions were quickly settled. The Greeks disapproved of the Roman dogma on Purgatory (for which they could find no justification) and of the use of unleavened bread at the Sacrament (which, they thought, not only smacked of Judaism but was disrespectful of the Holy Ghost, symbolized by the leaven); they also deplored the Latin practice of giving communion in both kinds to the laity, and of forbidding the marriage of secular priests. But on all these issues they put up only a token opposition. When, on the other hand, the Latins violently attacked the recently-defined Eastern doctrine concerning the uncreated Energies of God, they declined to press the point. The question of papal supremacy might at other times have caused difficulties, but since the Council of Basel this had been a delicate subject and was consequently glossed over as far as possible.1 Thanks largely to the Emperor himself - who employed persuasion and threats in equal measure to ensure the amenability of his subjects - by mid-summer agreement had been reached on every major issue, and on Sunday, 5 July the official Decree of Union - little more than a statement of the Latin position, apart from one or two concessions permitting Greek usages - was signed by all the Orthodox bishops and abbots except the Metropolitan of Ephesus, who had given in on absolutely nothing but was forbidden by John to exercise a veto. The Latins then added their own signatures; and on the following day the decree was publicly proclaimed in Florence cathedral, being recited first in Latin by Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini (who from the beginning had been the principal Latin spokesman) and then in Greek by the Metropolitan Bessarion of Nicaea. The Latin version began with the words Laetentur Coeli - 'let the heavens rejoice'. But the heavens, as it soon became clear, had precious little reason to do so.
It was February 1440 before John Palaeologus returned, via Venice, to Constantinople. He had a sad homecoming. After the departure of his luckless second wife Sophia of Montferrat, who had fled back to Italy fourteen years before, he had married Maria, the daughter of the Emperor Alexius IV of Trebizond. She had proved the love of his life, and he was broken-hearted to learn as he stepped from his ship that she had died a few weeks before. More serious for the Empire was the fact that the Council of Florence was already almost universally condemned. The Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch disowned the delegates who had signed on their behalf. Mark Eugenicus, Metropolitan of Ephesus, was the hero of the hour. The signatories to the hated
1 It was during discussions on this subject that the Donation of Constantine - according to which Constantine the Great, on transferring his capital to Constantinople, was said to have left the imperial crown to the Pope to bestow on whomever he wished - was used as evidence for the last time. Only a year later the Renaissance humanist Lorenzo Valla proved it a forgery. (See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 379.)
Laetentur Coeli were condemned as outcasts and traitors to the Faith, castigated throughout the capital and in several cases physically attacked - to the point where in 1441 a large number of them issued a public manifesto, regretting that they had ever put their names to the decree and formally retracting their support for it.
Such general revulsion could not but have a dangerous effect on the Emperor's own position. In the summer of 1442 his ever-ambitious brother Demetrius - who had accompanied him to Florence but had left early, together with George Scholarius and Plethon, and returned his minor Despotate at Mesembria - tried to seize the throne for himself in the name of Orthodoxy. Despite assistance from the Turks, he was quickly captured and put under house arrest; but his attempted coup was only a symptom of a greater dissatisfaction, which continued to grow - especially after the return to Constantinople of the Metropolitan of Ephesus the following year. Mark Eugenicus proved a far more dangerous opponent than Demetrius. In other circumstances he might have been dismissed as an incorrigible reactionary, but now he stood out as the most fearless and determined champion of the Faith. After all the practice that he had gained in Ferrara and Florence, he was a superb debater; and such was the genuine piety and the blamelessness of his life that there could be no question of trumping up charges against him and sending him into exile.
True, there were other distinguished pro-unionists who might have given John their support; but Bessarion of Nicaea, who had been converted to Catholicism in 1439 and almost immediately made a cardinal, had left Constantinople in disgust within a few months of his return and taken the first available ship back to Italy, never again to set foot on Byzantine soil.1 His friend Isidore of Kiev, who had also been admitted to the Cardinalate, was less lucky: on his return to Moscow he was deposed and arrested - though later he too managed to escape to Italy and, as we shall see, was back in Constantinople soon afterwards as a papal representative. As for George Scholarius, that distinguished Latin scholar, he was to reveal feet of clay; before long he too renounced the Laetentur Coeli and retired to a monastery. After the death of Mark Eugenicus in 1444 he was to become the generally accepted leader of the anti-unionists.
1 In Rome Bessarion was to found an academy for the translation and publication of ancient Greek authors. By his death in 1472 he had amassed an important library of Greek manuscripts, all of which he left to Venice - where they became the nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana.
The papal nuncio in Constantinople naturally kept his master fully informed of these developments, for which he tended to hold the Emperor responsible. Pope Eugenius, however, chose at least temporarily to overlook them. Church union now existed, at least on paper; and it was now incumbent on him to raise a Crusade against Byzantium's enemies. Were he to refuse to do so on the grounds of spiritual insubordination, he would not only be going back on his word to the Emperor; he would be proclaiming to all that the Council of Florence had been a failure, the Laetentur Coeli worthless. Besides, the Crusade was becoming more obviously necessary every day; for the Ottoman advance was relentless. Smederevo, the great Danubian fortress built by George Brankovich in 1420some twenty-five miles south-east of Belgrade,1 had surrendered in 1439 after a three-month siege; Brankovich himself had sought refuge in Hungary. Though Belgrade itself still held out, virtually all the rest of northern Serbia was under Turkish control. In 1441 the Sultan's army crossed into Transylvania; there could be no doubt that Hungary would be next.
It was thus the Hungarians - together with the Serbs under George Brankovich - who formed the bulk of the Pope's Crusade, the Hungarian King Ladislas (also King of Poland, the two Kingdoms having been temporarily united) whom he named its leader and a Hungarian general - the brilliant John Hunyadi, Voyevod of Transylvania - to whom he entrusted the supreme military command. The organization he placed in the hands of Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini, the principal Latin spokesman at Florence who had long been Eugenius's right-hand man, particularly where foreign relations were concerned. The necessary fleet was to be provided by the Venetians, the Duke of Burgundy and the Pope himself. It was to sail through the Hellespont, the Marmara and the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, thence if necessary proceeding up the Danube to meet the army, which would advance simultaneously from the north-west.
The Crusade set off some twenty-five thousand strong in the late summer of 1443, and within weeks succeeded in destroying the forces of the Turkish Governor of Rumelia just outside the Serbian city of Nish. Unopposed, it now marched onward into Bulgaria where Sofia surrendered, after only a token resistance, shortly before Christmas. January 1444 saw another major victory; and by late spring the Sultan was growing seriously alarmed. Suddenly, his Empire was threatened on
1 Its ruins still stand today, and very impressive they are.
every side. In Anatolia he was struggling to put down a dangerous rising of the Karamans. In Albania a certain George Kastriotes, the famous Scanderbeg, had raised the banner of revolt from his castle at Croia. In the Morea, Constantine Palaeologus - who, having exchanged his Black Sea appanage with his brother Theodore, had been ruling as Despot since the previous October — had rebuilt the Hexamilion and pushed on across the Gulf of Corinth, where before long he had occupied both Athens and Thebes and forced the local Duke Nerio II Acciajuoli to pay him the tribute that the Duke had previously owed to the Sultan as his vassal. Clearly, if Turkish power were to be maintained, Murad would have to make some sort of accommodation with his enemies.
In June, ambassadors from King Ladislas, George Brankovich and John Hunyadi were received at the Sultan's court in Adrianople. The result of the ensuing negotiations was a ten-year truce, by the terms of which, among other concessions, Murad promised to loosen his grip on Wallachia, and Brankovich had his Serbian territories restored to him. A month later the treaty was ratified by Ladislas at Szegedin. Freed at last - as he thought - from his problems in Europe, the Sultan left for Anatolia to deal with the Karaman rebels once and for all. When the news reached Rome, however, Pope Eugenius and his Curia were horrified. Hunyadi's victories and the recent promise of additional help from the Venetians had called up visions of the Turks being expelled altogether from Europe; were all the gains that the Crusade had so far achieved to be thrown away? Cardinal Cesarini was particularly incensed: refusing to see his careful organization brought to nothing, he hastened to Szegedin, immediately absolved King Ladislas from the oath he had sworn to the Sultan and virtually ordered the Crusade on its way again.
Ladislas should have refused. Not only was he breaking his solemn word — absolution or no absolution - to the Sultan; his forces were dangerously diminished. Many of the erstwhile Crusaders had already left for home and George Brankovich, who had in any case been delighted with the terms of the truce, was determined to observe it. But a few reinforcements had recently arrived from Wallachia, and the young King decided to do as he was bidden. In September he was back with the army - accompanied now by the cardinal himself. The Crusade started off once again, and despite sporadic resistance somehow managed to make its way across Bulgaria to the Black Sea near Varna, where Ladislas confidently expected to find his fleet awaiting him. The fleet, however, was otherwise engaged. Murad, on hearing of his betrayal, had rushed back from Anatolia with an army of eighty thousand men, and the allied ships - mostiy Venetian - were desperately trying to prevent him from crossing the Bosphorus. They failed. Forcing his way across the strait, the furious Sultan hurried up the Black Sea coast and on 10 November 1444, with the broken treaty pinned to his standard, tore into the Crusading army. The Christians stood their ground and fought with desperate courage; outnumbered, however, by more than three to one, they had no chance. Ladislas fell; so, shortly afterwards, did Cesarini. The army was annihilated; of its leaders, only John Hunyadi managed to escape with a few of his men. The last Crusade ever to be launched against the Turks in Europe had ended in catastrophe. It was a devastating blow, from which Christian morale would never recover.
For the Emperor John Palaeologus, the disaster at Varna meant the negation of all his work, the frustration of all his diplomacy, the end of all his hopes. For this, he now realized, and for this alone he had risked the dangers of foreign travel, endured the barely concealed scorn of his fellow-princes, betrayed his Church and incurred the hatred and contempt of the vast majority of his own subjects. And the final humiliation was yet to come. When the victorious Sultan returned it was John, as his loyal and faithful vassal, who was obliged to bid him welcome and congratulate him on his triumph.
The Emperor's brother Constantine, on the other hand, was undismayed. He had found a new ally in the shape of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip V. Philip, a fervent believer in the fight against the infidel, had already provided - or at any rate offered to provide - ships for the recent disastrous Crusade, but like Constantine he had been in no way deterred by its failure. In the summer of 1445 he sent a company of several hundred of his own men to the Morea, thus enabling the Despot to embark on another raiding expedition through central Greece as far as the Pindus mountains and into Albania. He was welcomed everywhere he went, and at least one local Venetian governor was obliged to beat a hasty retreat. Meanwhile Constantine's own Governor of Achaia left his base at Vostitsa with a small company of cavalry and foot soldiers, crossed to the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth and drove the Turks out of western Phocis - the region around Delphi.
This last insult was too much for the Sultan. Only a few months before, he had abdicated his throne in favour of his son Mehmet; now he furiously resumed his old authority to take vengeance against these upstart Greeks. In November 1446, accompanied by the recently evicted Duke of Athens and Thebes, he swept down into the Morea at the head of an army of some fifty thousand. Phocis was once again overrun; Constantine and his brother-Despot Thomas hurried back to the rebuilt Hexamilion, determined to hold it at all costs. But they had not reckoned on Murad's weaponry. He had brought with him not only the usual siege engines and scaling-ladders, but something that the Greeks had never seen before - heavy artillery. For five days his long cannons pounded away at the great wall; then, on 10 December, he gave the order for the final assault. Most of the defenders were taken prisoner or massacred; the Despots themselves barely managed to make their way back to Mistra.
But the Sultan was not yet ready for a war of conquest. That would come in its own time; meanwhile he was in no hurry. His purpose on this occasion was simply to chastise the Greeks, to teach them a lesson and to leave them in no doubt as to who was master, in the Morea just as everywhere else. Sending half his army under his General Turachan southwards towards Mistra, he himself set off with his regiment of Janissaries along the southern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, leaving a trail of devastation behind him. The city of Patras — though most of its population had fled across the Gulf to Naupactus - had prepared itself for a siege and refused to surrender; ignoring it, Murad marched on to Clarenza, where Turachan joined him. The general had failed to reach Mistra; it was by now mid-winter, and the mountain passes were blocked by snow. But he too had laid waste the countryside, burning and pillaging every town and village through which he had passed. The historian Laonicus Chalcocondylas - whose father had been briefly imprisoned after delivering a message from Constantine to the Sultan at an earlier stage of the campaign, after which he had been an eye-witness of the battle for the Hexamilion - reports that when Murad and his general returned to Adrianople they took with them no less than sixty thousand prisoners; a later account estimates the number of dead at twenty-two thousand.
In one respect the Despots were lucky: their capital was spared. The Italian traveller and antiquarian Ciriaco of Ancona, arriving at Mistra in July 1447, seems to have noticed few changes since his previous visit ten years before. He had an audience with the Despot Thomas, he met the ageing Plethon, and he was delighted to be taken by Laonicus Chalcocondylas to inspect the ruins of ancient Sparta on the plain below the city. Admittedly these interested the father of modern archaeology far more than contemporary Mistra, but he noted that the land was fertile and the recent harvest plentiful, and it is clear that - at least to the average visitor - life in the southern Peloponnese appeared normal enough. Things could, however, have been very different. Mistra had been saved by one thing only: an unusually early and severe winter. Had the Sultan launched his campaign in May or June rather than in November, Turachan would have had no difficulty in reaching the remotest corners of the Peloponnese; and Mistra, with all its churches and glorious frescos, would almost certainly have been reduced to ashes.
Constantine was able to spend most of the two years following the Turkish invasion doing his best to repair the damage it had caused; the Sultan, on the other hand, was still bent on extending his Empire. In the summer of 1448 he turned his attention to John Hunyadi, now Regent of Hungary. Hunyadi was ready for him. He had already gathered an army of Hungarians, Wallachians and assorted mercenaries, and marched south in the expectation of joining forces with the Albanian Scanderbeg. But Scanderbeg was fully occupied with the Venetians; and Hunyadi was without an ally when, on 17 October, he faced the Sultan on that same plain of Kosovo that had seen the destruction of the Serbian nation less than sixty years before. For three long days the battle raged; but by the 20ththe Hungarians could fight no longer. John Hunyadi escaped, but was almost immediately captured by his former ally George Brankovich - now a faithful vassal of the Sultan - who held him until he had agreed to pay compensation for damage caused by his army in Serbia.
Eleven days later, on 31 October 1448, John VIII died in Constantinople. Though he was still only fifty-six, the disappointments of the past few years had aged him prematurely and left him a sad and broken man. After Varna and Kosovo there could be no more Crusades; few people anywhere in Europe now believed that the Empire could be saved from the infidel, and there were by now a good many, at least in the Latin world, who seriously doubted whether it was worth saving. Of all the Byzantine Emperors John is the best known in appearance, thanks to his portrait in the famous fresco of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli that adorns the chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence.1 But he hardly merited his posthumous celebrity. Manuel II had remarked on his deathbed that the Empire needed not a great basileus but a good manager; it has been rightly observed2 that John was neither.
1See cover illustration.
2By Professor Nicol, op. cit., p. 386.
He possessed neither the ability of his father nor the charismatic qualities of his brother. Much of his reign was spent, in defiance of Manuel's wise advice, in the pursuance of a policy which could never conceivably have succeeded; as a result he sacrificed his Church's independence, forfeited his own popularity and ultimately brought about only a miserable campaign that did far more harm than good.
Yet we must not be too hard on John VIII. He did his best, and worked diligently for what he believed to be right. Besides, the situation that he inherited was already past all hope; in such circumstances, virtually anything that he had attempted would have been doomed to failure. And perhaps it was just as well. Byzantium, devoured from within, threatened from without, scarcely capable any longer of independent action, reduced now to an almost invisible dot on the map of Europe, needed — more, probably, than any once-great nation has ever needed - the coup de grace. It had been a long time coming. Now, finally, it was at hand.