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Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peleponnese , by Steven Runciman

The Lost Capital of Byzantium: The History of Mistra and the Peloponnese - Steven Runciman, John Freely


             The Remains of Mistra, From the Foot of the Mountain



Steven Runciman's (1903 - 2000) Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peleponnese first appeared in 1980 and was resurrected in 2009 by Harvard University Press as The Lost Capital of Byzantium with a completely superfluous foreword by John Freely, making available again one of the few histories of a very interesting side chapter of Europe's past, one which I knew nothing about until recently. 


Runciman was one of the great, second generation modern historians of Byzantium, the point around which all of his work circled. He famously wrote that the Crusades were more an invasion of Byzantium than an invasion of the Islamic Middle East. In any case, the infamous fourth Crusade in which avaricious western Christian knights sacked the capital of eastern Christianity, Constantinople, at the instigation of Constantinople's competitor, Venice, perfectly conforms to Runciman's view.(*)


One of the consequences of this crusade was the occupation of much of Greece by Frankish lords. In particular, through a series of accidents two sires of Champagne, Geoffroi de Villehardouin and Guillaume de Champlitte, saw an opportunity in 1205 and conquered much of the Peleponnesos with no more than 600 men. The residents were unused to war and were fed up with their former Byzantine lords. In the sole large engagement, where the Franks were outnumbered 10 to 1, the Greeks were crushed by the first charge of the Frankish heavy cavalry, wherein knights in full body armor weighing as much as a man were mounted upon hugely powerful steeds bred for precisely such a task. 


Guillaume soon died of illness and Geoffroi became the Prince of Achaea, consolidating Frankish control of all of the Peleponnesos and building strongpoints where he thought advisable. The Peleponnesos was divided into a strict feudal hierarchy with the Church and the Venetians getting their big pieces. Runciman describes the complicated politics of this new Principality, recognized by the Pope. The religious situation was complicated also, with the Latin churchmen taking the high positions and the administration into their control but leaving the parish churches in the hands of the native Orthodox priests, who continued celebrating the Eastern rites.


Old French was spoken at the Frankish court, into which the rest of the Frankish culture was transplanted, including its architecture. But the Franks were few and the Greeks were many. Soon there were little gasmoules, the local name for the half-caste offspring, running around and growing up. The children of the knights and noblemen maintained their language and culture for a time, but those of the foot soldiers spoke Greek and were culturally absorbed into the population right away even though they had blond hair and blue eyes. It was not long before even the offspring of the de Villehardouins were speaking Greek, but a unique Frankish-Greek cultural synthesis had already begun to emerge. In the near future I'll write on one of the aspects of this synthesis we can still enjoy - the literary.


Geoffroi died in 1218, replaced by his eldest son, Geoffroi II, an enlightened and capable prince. At his death in 1246 his brother, Guillaume, became Prince. Guillaume was ambitious and significantly extended his principality in the midst of great international turmoil.(**) There were three different remnants of Greek Byzantium, the ever shrinking Latin Byzantium, the Bulgarians and the Turks, all fighting each other over the big prize - Constantinople. In the confusion, Guillaume made some mostly successful moves.


But in the summer of 1259 he was outmanoeuvred politically and militarily in a battle against the Nicaean branch of the Greek Byzantines, headed by "Emperor" Michael Palaeologus. Guillaume was captured and held by the Byzantines for a few years. In the meantime, Palaeologus took Constantinople in 1261 and the quotation marks could be dropped. As part of the negotiations for Guillaume's release, the two-headed eagle of the Palaeologus family flew over the ramparts of Mistra.


Within a year, the Byzantines and Franks were fighting again. And matters were complicated further by the rise of Charles d'Anjou and Emperor Michael's troubles with the Turks and Bulgarians. Runciman explains all of this thoroughly, but I'll just say that the Franks' influence in the Peleponnesos waned as that of the Byzantines waxed. Ultimately, the Emperor declared the Peleponnesos to be under the aegis of the Despotate of the Morea, and it remained so until the Ottoman invasion of the Morea in 1460. 


Mistra served as the capital of the Despotate, and because the Despots were usually members of the Palaeologus family (indeed, for a time the Despot was the most likely man to become the new Emperor when the necessity arose), Mistra enjoyed more than a century of brilliance and grandeur before the Turks arrived. Under their dominion Mistra declined into insignificance, as Runciman describes with regret in the last two chapters.


Unfortunately for my personal tastes, Runciman's history is almost exclusively political, whereas I prefer social, economic and cultural histories. My eyes begin to cross when I must read about the struggles for power between a gaggle of close relatives. There is much of that in this book. But there is a lovely chapter describing the city itself with illustrations and a chapter on the brief period when Mistra was the philosophical center of the Eastern Christian world.


It was news to me that Giorgios Gemistos Plethon, the neo-Platonist who famously was the seed of the Italian Renaissance and was called the second Plato throughout the Christian world, was active primarily in Mistra instead of Constantinople. Nor did I realize the degree to which the man was heretical. Towards the end of his life he advocated a return to the ancient Greek gods. So you know who is going onto my TBR list.


Runciman, an historian famed for a particularly graceful prose style, does not disappoint in that respect in this little book, an homage to a place with which Runciman had a strong personal connection. But I wish the emphasis were not so heavy on the political history...


(*) Even more reprehensible than the fourth Crusade was the Albigensian Crusade. But more about that some other time.


(**) He also constructed a fortress on a mountaintop around which, on the mountain's steep sides, a city accumulated, a city called Mistra (or Mystras) - see above.