Thursday, 16 July 2020

How Columbus and European Colonialism learned their dark art in the Levant

European Colonialism doesn’t begin with Colombus or 1492. The 1st people to be colonised by Europeans were other Europeans. The Frankokratia left a swath of merchant colonies across the Eastern Mediterranean which are the very model of post-Colombian colony.

Frankokratia was the period following 4th Crusade (1204) when the Morea & Greek islands came under Latin control. The model was usually for a wealthy Genoese or Venetian family to control an island or archipelago, including the Sanudi on Naxos, the Gattilusi on Lesbos & the Giustiniani on Chios.

The Latin faith was introduced by the new overlords, to little enthusiasm from the locals. Pragmatically, the Latin rulers tolerated the Greek faith but gave it no legal sanction. Byzantine landowners (archons) submitted to the Frankish invaders & kept control over their paroikoi. Essentially a small colonial topsoil was added to the existing social strata.

The motive for maintaining these colonies was broadly the same as later colonialism: commercial exploitation & as strategic checks on rival powers. Alum, as a commodity, was to the 15th century what oil was to the 20th. The main source (prior to 1461) was Genoese-held Phocaea. In 1346 a chartered company (Maona) was setup to exploit Chios & Phocaea. The mineral & taxation rights were sold by the Genoese Republic to the Maona of Chios & Phocaea. The company employed its own troops & ran Chios for 220yrs. Similar Maona existed on Cyprus (1373) & Lesbos.

The Maona can be seen as a blueprint for the East India Company of the C17th. Another Genoese institution that foreshadowed the EIC was the Bank of St George. Established in 1407, it was given the charter to run Genoa’s 5 colonies in the Crimea (collectively, Gazaria), from 1453

Gazaria provides the darkest echo of future colonialism, Caffa being a hub of slave trading. Medieval slavery was domestic (mostly female) slaves rather than the agricultural workers of the African trade. East Europeans & Central Asians were the victims.

Most were sold into the Muslim world where demand was higher but 1000’s went to Italy. Petrarch lamented ‘Whereas huge shipments of grain used to arrive by ship annually in this city, now they arrive laden with slaves, sold by their wretched families to alleviate their hunger.’

Religion rather than race was used to excuse slavery. It was always a contentious subject. Was it only wrong to sell Christians to Muslims? What of non-Latin Christians? Pope Martin V excommunicated the merchants of Kaffa in 1425 for dealing in Christian flesh but nothing changed

In 1431 Genoa signed a treaty with the Mamluk Sultan to provide boys (to become eunuchs) from the Black Sea coast via Kaffa market. The Ventimiglia family of Genoa were the official slave agent to Cairo.

Like the British ‘divide & rule’ policy with Mughal rulers in India, Genoa exploited local conflicts to its benefit. Most crucially, perhaps, in 1352, during the Byzantine civil war, Genoa aided the Ottomans to cross the Dardanelles & take their 1st European possession.

Christopher Columbus provides a symbolic continuity between colonialism in the Levant & Americas. He was ‘from the Republic of Genoa’, but not necessarily Genoa itself. One theory holds he was in fact from Genoese Chios.

As well as an explorer he was also a pirate (the 2 careers went together back then). Just as England would later use privateers to hassle Spanish treasury convoys in the Caribbean, Genoa and Anjou used corsair navies to disrupt the Venetian muda convoys in the Med.

Venice did not have an equivalent to the Maona, preferring direct control of its Stato da Màr. It held Crete (Candia) from 1205 to 1667 & divided island into 6 sestieri just like their home city but later reformed this to 4 provinces.

Venetian rule never sat easily with the natives who were heavily taxed & saw most of their best produce shipped to Venice There were numerous uprisings. When a new tax to pay for Candia’s harbour was imposed in 1363 it triggered a Boston Tea Party moment: The Revolt of St Titus.

The figure of St.Titus became the emblem of the newly established Commune of Crete. Greeks were admitted to the councils of government, & restrictions on the ordination of Greek priests were abolished. But unlike 1776, the rebellious colony could not hold on to independence.

Venetian troops retook Candia within a year, but it took 5 before Crete was completely subdued. Venice celebrated with jousting in Piazza San Marco witnessed & recounted by Petrarch. Note that the Byzantine Emperor openly supported Venice & not his fellow Greek freedom fighters.

The Kallergis family were instrumental to the rebellion of 1363 & had been in previous revolts in 1282 & 1341. Later rebellions included the uprising of Sifis Vlastos in 1453. Ironically Venice used the Kallergis family to put down the Vlastos uprising.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Hagia Sophia and the little known last Divine Liturgy

"Some weeks before, Anna Notaras had wished that the candle of worship within Hagia Sophia might flame up one last time. Although she was herself absent that evening, the sound of voices raised in song came to her ear through the window of her room in the Rose Palace. She lay on her front, listening, silently weeping in joy and despair, while Zenobia gently rubbed balm into her wounded back. For the first time since its Latin desecration, the people had converged on the great church. Greek and Latin, Venetian and Genoese, side by side; united in a last solemn ceremony, a final plea to God.

Stood among beggars and lords in the dark, lamp-lit basilica, John Grant watched with a quiet calm as no ritual was spared, no relic left unparaded. All had come. All, in their finest robes, to the mother church one final time. Ranks of soldiers, merchants and millers, fishermen and sailors, all joining their voices to rise and fall in the harmony of rhythmic chanting. The sound re-echoed from the walls and rose with the incense vapour, up, up, into the curving embrace of the dome.

The gaunt emperor led a solemn procession beneath a banner of the two-headed eagle, joined by the Latin cardinal Isidore and all the local churchmen, absent Gennadius. It seemed at last that here the two halves of the faith were united; the great schism forgotten.

The relic of the true cross was paraded, and soldiers kissed its silver casing, that it might instil divine strength to them for the hours ahead.

Then, having taken the sacraments, the emperor fell to the floor and begged God to forgive all their transgressions. He bowed in all directions and took his leave, followed by Grant and the rest of the army, leaving behind a vigil that would continue through to dawn." 

Chapter 32 of Porphyry & Ash begins with the service conducted on the night of the 28th May 1453 as the depleted Byzantine & Latin defenders prepare to face the final assault. That dawn vigil will of course be ended by Janissary bursting into the great church and within a matter of days it would be converted into a mosque.

As Erdogan seeks to turn Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque, it would be understandable to think that the liturgy John Grant witnessed on the night of the 28th was the last one performed in Hagia Sophia, but this is not so. There is a little known historical footnote to the buildings history as a church. The last Byzantine Rite performed there took place just over a century ago, on the 19th January 1919. This is the story of a bold priest & a bubble in the Turkish control of Constantinople.

The Armistice of Mudros, signed on the deck of HMS Agamemnon, concluded the Ottoman empire’s involvement in WWI on 30 October 1918. Two weeks later French & British troops began the occupation of Constantinople. They would remain for 5 years until 4 October 1923 when Kemalist forces retook the city following the Treaty of Lausanne.

Meanwhile the Russian Civil war was underway. As part of the Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks, an international expeditionary force sailed to the Ukraine in early 1919 including two divisions of the Greek army.

On route, the fleet docked at Constantinople & the military chaplain of the Greek 2nd Division along with 4 officers determined to go ashore & perform the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia – at the time still a functioning mosque.

The chaplain was Eleftherios Noufrakis (Father Lefteris) from Rethymno in Crete. He and the 4 officers hired a local Greek boatman to row them ashore and lead them quietly to the doors of Hagia Sophia. 

At the door, a guard asked in Turkish what they were trying to do, but with the city under occupation, he had little authority against allied officers.

Father Eleftherios moved quickly, identifying the location of the Sanctuary and the Holy Altar. Finding a small table, he put it into place, then opened his bag and took out everything needed for the Divine Liturgy. Then he put on his stole and began the first Byzantine rite in Hagia Sophia for 466 years.

As this went on, an incredulous crowd of local Muslims worshippers began to watch in silence. Lefteris placed the antimension on the table, to do the Proskomidi. He then took a small Holy Chalice out of his bag, as well as a paten, a knife & small prosphoron, even a bottle of wine. 

News of what was happening had spread around outside the building. The crowd was growing, both Turks & Greeks. The atmosphere was changing. Nonetheless the Divine Liturgy was completed without interruption.

As the five soldiers made to leave, the crowd began to shout. Outside they there attacked by one man with a stick but made it back to the boatman & were rowed to their ship. The incident caused a brief diplomatic ruckus. Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos appologised publicly but privately congratulated Lefteris.

Father Lefteris died in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Crete. His monument can be seen in the village of Alones.  

Tuesday, 3 December 2019


Before the Roman fall of 1453 there was the Roman fall of 452. Before Venice there was Altinum. When the Huns of Attila burst into northern Italy they sacked a small provincial Roman city on the edge of an unprepossessing lagoon. Fleeing those barbaric invaders, the local Veneti of Altinum took to those treacherous waters and founded a new settlement on one of the lagoon's islands. They named it Torcello, after the Porte Torcellus, one gate of their old destroyed city and they named five other small islands around it after the five other gates: Murano, Burano, Mazzorbo, Ammianco and Constantiacum.

Torcello had a century of significance before an outbreak of malaria decimated the population and the lagoon community shifted a little further out to Venice. It's fitting therefore that when another barbarian invasion swept through the Eastern Roman Empire, many of its survivors sought refuge in the same lagoon as had done during the Western empire's decline and fall. Venice post 1453 had a thriving Greek population. One wonders if any took comfort from the dramatic success the Veneti had built from the wreckage of their sacked mother-city. They probably would never have become a maritime empire if Attila had not driven them into the lagoon. So perhaps something more would one-day rise from the ashes of their own homeland. 

If any Greeks did look to Torcello for inspiration, they would have found a physical symbol in the shape of the churches which are all that remains of that settlement to this day. The Basilica of Santa Maria Asunta was first built in 639. It is the oldest building in the entire Venetian lagoon. Its current form dates to 1008 and was restored in 1423. Underneath the altar are the remains of Saint Heliodorus, first Bishop of Altinum and a friend of Saint Jerome. An Orthodox iconostasis divides the chancel from the nave with images of the Virgin and Child and The Twelve Apostles. The semi-dome in the apse behind has a 13th-century mosaic of the Virgin and Child in a field of gold, probably the work of Greek craftsmen from Constantinople who were also responsible for the Apostles in the atrium of San Marco.

But most impressive of all is the spectacular mosaic back wall containing the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement. The heads of the damned, brought to a blue-skinned Satan by his flying demons, are unmistakably Byzantine in their style and it would surely have evoked the most terrible memories in the minds of any survivors of 1453 each time they looked upon it and prayed for the souls of lost friends and family.

Monday, 29 July 2019

The life and times of Anna Notaras

I had the pleasure this month of guest posting at the Coffee Pot Book Club.

The below is taken from Mary Anne Yarde's blog, which is a great source to get to know about historical fiction authors:

Imagine a life which begins with a childhood playing at the knee of Roman emperors and ends after the New World of the Americas have been discovered. It sounds like something out of Highlander or the Portrait of Dorian Gray, but in fact this real life belonged to a woman named Anna Notaras, who was every bit as remarkable as the era of history she witnessed.

Born in Constantinople in 1436, Anna was the youngest daughter of Loukas Notaras, the Megas Doux (Grand Duke), perhaps the richest man in the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). The Notaras family were relative newcomers to the upper tier of Roman society. Anna's merchant grandfather, Nicholas, had made a fortune during the Byzantine civil war (1373-1379AD). His son Loukas had gone into politics and held several of the top administrative ranks in both Byzantium's civil and military administration by the 1450s. Whilst Anna's three sisters were married off: the eldest into a powerful Aegean-based Genoese family, another to the powerful local Kantakouzenos family, Anna remained unwed, likely because Loukas Notaras had very high ambitions for his last daughter.
By the time Anna came of age, the empire - which had been in perpetual crisis for some time - had taken another shuffling step towards the abyss. Emperor John VIII Palaiologos died in 1448 and his younger brother Constantine XI took the porphyry throne. In his forties, Constantine had been widowed twice already and had no heir. It was therefore imperative that he take an empress swiftly. Circumstantial evidence suggests Loukas Notaras may have put Anna forward as a candidate, but been thwarted by his court rival, George Sphrantzes, who oversaw arranging the bridal candidates. In the event, Constantine never did marry, as Constantinople came under yet another siege from their Muslim Ottoman neighbours and this time, against newly perfected cannon fire, the walls were unable to hold out. On 29th May, 1453, the Roman Empire fell for the last time.

That might have been the end of the story for Constantine and Byzantium, but it was not the end for Anna. Historians are divided on when she escaped the city (some say her father moved her abroad years before, others think weeks and there is even the intriguing entry of the name Notaras in the passenger list of a ship which escaped on the 29th of May itself). Whatever the truth of those lost years, we know for certain that Anna resurfaced in Italy in 1459 to claim her family fortune.

As prudent men of business, both her father and grandfather had hedged the risk of Ottoman invasion by placing their material wealth with the Bank of St George in Genoa and obtaining both Genoese and Venetian citizenship for their family. Thus, among the many thousands of Byzantine refugees who moved from Greece to Italy following the fall of Constantinople, Anna Notaras was by far the wealthiest (in stark contrast to the last emperor’s brother who was little better than a beggar in Rome). She did not sit on this fortune but instead put it to work over the remaining forty-odd years of her life trying to help the Byzantine refugee diaspora and maintain their church and customs in an alien land.
In 1499, when the first dedicated Greek-language printing press began, the dedication in the initial book printed was made to ‘the most modest lady Anna, daughter of Loukas Notaras’ for financing this new technology to ensure Byzantine culture and knowledge persisted. Like her close friend, Cardinal Bessarion, Anna also helped recover humanist manuscripts from the east and bring them to Italy as part of the Renaissance’s great impetus in the late 15th century.
Anna lived most of her exile life in Venice, where she maintained a grand house with at least one of her widowed sisters. Venice was the home to the largest community of displaced Byzantine families, but there was no provision for a Greek-Orthodox church in the city. Anna began to lobby the Senate to allow the construction of such a church but met great resistance. This had been an era of religious friction between the Greek and Latin churches (one reason for the fall of Constantinople was the luke-warm assistance offered by the Pope). Faced with this problem, Anna’s solution in 1472 was to try and negotiate the lease of an old castle and tract of land from the Commune of Siena, where Greek families could resettle and live according to their religious practices and customs. The contractual documents were drawn up and survive to this day. Intriguingly they address Anna as Anna Notaras Palaiologina – from which the legend that she had been married to Constantine may well stem. There is no reason to believe Anna actually married the last emperor, but it may be that she allowed the old men of Siena to believe it to try and advance her cause. 

The contract was never executed, perhaps because Anna and her supporters surveyed the land – malarial, war-torn, barren - and realised what a poor prospect it represented. Instead, further badgering of the Venetian senate brought a compromise and in 1475, Anna was granted leave to build a chapel within her own house where the Byzantine rite could be performed. After twenty years, the Greeks of Venice had their temporary church, fittingly inside Anna’s home.
Eventually, in 1498, Venice relented further and agreed to the founding of the Scuola de San Nicolo dei Greci with its own church, San Giorgio dei Greci. Although Anna died in 1507 before the church was completed, modern visitors to San Giorgio can still admire the three ikons she gifted to it in her will: Christ in His glory surrounded by symbols of the 4 Evangelists and figures of the 12 Apostles; Christ Pantokrator; and an image of the Virgin Hodegetria.

She was clearly not a woman to cross lightly, as contemporary Venetian court records attest. She disapproved of her brother’s choice of wife and their conflict was played out in a series of fiery legal cases. Through these depositions it is possible to glean the outline of an incredible, intelligent, determined character. The renaissance was still very much a man’s world, but Anna Notaras was a woman who refused to allow the disadvantages of being female, a refugee and a religious minority, stop her in her mission to preserve as much of her culture from the apocalypse of her city’s collapse.
Anna’s life is the central subject of my books, the first of which, Porphyry and Ash, charts the final days of Constantinople. Subsequent books will form a thirty-year journey right across the Levantine map: from the Crimean steppe to the lagoon of Venice, from the mountains of Transylvania to the harem of Topkapi by way of Anatolian plains and Aegean islands. My Anna, like her historical inspiration, is not a woman to accept a passive lot in life and while she may not swing a sword or have magical powers, just like her inspiration, she can still kick ass and achieve a great deal for her people.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Porphyry and Ash

Released today, in paperback and Kindle: Porphyry and Ash.

1452: After a thousand years, the sun is setting on the Eastern Roman Empire...The covetous eye of the Ottoman Sultan has set itself firmly upon Constantinople. His great army prepares to strike, while the Byzantine court is split between those who would sacrifice everything - including their religion - to defend the city, and those who would prefer rule by the Turkish turban. But amid the deadly undercurrent of court politics, religious division and a brutal siege, Anna Notaras, youngest daughter of Byzantium's richest family, has a more mundane issue to solve - how to be rid of an unwanted betrothal to a loathsome Venetian.When she meets John Grant among the mercenaries flocking to the city's defence, she thinks she might have found a solution. Scottish, world-weary and repentant, Grant hopes holy war can bring absolution for his dark past. He soon discovers that life in Constantinople is never so simple, and the cannons and scimitars of the invaders beyond the crumbling walls might prove less lethal than the dangers lurking within them: a flamboyant Genoese general with a secret agenda, a firebrand monk with the mob in his thrall, a murderer with a taste for the theatrical. And although Grant has the requisite strength and skills to overcome all of these, in the beautiful, astute, monstrously ambitious Anna, he might have met his match.

Available now from:

USA Amazon

UK Amazon





Or, if you prefer to support your local bricks & mortar bookstore or library (and it's not already dominating their shelves), you can ask them to order it in using the ISBN: 9781999644109

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Life of Gemistus Plethon

Georgius Gemistus (later called Plethon), was one of the most renowned philosophers of the late Byzantine era. He was an important pioneer of the revival of Greek scholarship in Western Europe and re-introduced Plato's ideas to Italy during the 1438-1439 Council of Florence. His great literary work, the Nomoi or Book of Laws, which he only circulated among close friends, made a rejection of Christianity in favour of a return to ancient wisdom based on Pagan Greek philosophy and Zoroaster. He adopted the name Plethon out of his deep admiration for Plato's philosophy. Cardinal Bessarion once speculated as to whether Plato's soul occupied Plethon's body.

Plethon was born in Constantinople around 1355AD. Raised in a family of well-educated Christians, he studied in Constantinople and Ottoman Adrianople, before returning to Constantinople and establishing himself as a teacher of philosophy. He also served as a senator in Constantinople and a judge. Eventually, in about 1410, he was sent to Mystras by Emperor Manuel II. At Mystras he established something of an academy, perhaps modeled on his beloved Plato. A great many of the most famous 15th century Greek humanists were at one time or other his pupil. 

When Emperor John VIII departed for Italy to seek Western Christian aid against the Turks, he included Plethon in the delegation, despite his being a secular philosopher, on the basis of his renowned wisdom and morality. Other delegates included Plethon's former students Bessarion, Mark Eugenikos and Gennadios. He was not included in the Council's religious debates and instead, at the invitation of some Florentine humanists, he set up a temporary school in Florence to lecture on the difference between Plato and Aristotle. According to Marsilio Ficino, Cosimo de Medici was among those who attended and became subsequently enthralled by Plato.

While still in Florence, Plethon wrote a volume titled Wherein Aristotle disagrees with Plato, (De Differentiis), to correct the misunderstandings he had encountered. He claimed he had written it 'without serious intent' while incapacitated through illness, 'to comfort myself and to please those who are dedicated to Plato.' Gennadios responded with a Defence of Aristotle, which elicited Plethon's subsequent Reply. 

This Reply letter is not a sober academic piece but a work of venomous personal invective directed at Gennadios:

"Along with your other faults, lying comes naturally to you. . . .

You are not only vindictive, but dull-witted, as your present work shows . .
. . . a man who has no shame in boasting about the influence of a wretched woman -- and a little tart at that . .

You seem to be so consumed with your vanity that you will even sacrifice your religious beliefs for it, changing them at every opportunity in whatever direction you think will bring you greater esteem. . .

They are certainly not stupider than you, for it would be hard to find among serious students of Aristotle anyone stupider than you. . .

You can have nothing to say that affects me . . . I have paid, and shall continue to pay, no more attention to it than to the howling of a Maltese whelp. "

He seems to have been an old man full of bones piss and vinegar and very definitely not someone, as Anna knew, one invites on a picnic if one requires only flattery.

Still, clearly Plethon could be a charming, loveable man as well. That aspect of his character comes through in the monody he wrote for the funeral of Cleofe Malatesta, the wife of Theodoros Palaiologos, the Despot of Morea. Gennadios aside, most of those around him appear to have treasured him greatly.
Gennadios was to get the last laugh in that bitter rivalry of master and rejected pupil. In 1460, when the Morea fell to the Ottomans and Theodoros's young brother, Demetrios, was summoned to Adrianople with his wife Theodora, they stopped at Serres, where the now ex-Patriarch, Gennadios, was living in monastic seclusion on nearby Mt. Menoikeon. The manuscript of Plethon's great work, "Laws" appears to have been among their possessions and Theodora - a devout woman, likely troubled by the overt paganism extolled in the work - handed it over to Gennadios. 

Gennadios read the work, a tremendously upsetting experience he claims, that brought him to tears. He made a list of chapter headings and a summary then sent the book back to Theodora, with instructions to burn it. She couldn't bring herself to do so and sent the book back to Gennadios who burned it himself, in a public ceremony. It was possibly the only copy in existence.

Gennadios was found of burnings. A few years before this he had sent a letter to the Morea vividly describing how a heretic should be tortured and then burned. I was perhaps unfair to the man to portray him as I did in Porphyry and Ash, but then again, perhaps not.
Still, Plethon was not above burning people either. In the Laws he recommended it as punishment for those guilty of perversions of sexuality (which he considered divine). These perversions included bestiality, pederasty, rape, incest, and male adultery. Notice, however, these did not include homosexuality as a perversion.

Plethon's writing is full of a sense of physical knowledge. In a society that appears to have been quite awkward and sexually repressed (Cleofe Malatesta and her husband took six years to consummate their marriage), Plethon was anything but. 

"Desire is a gift of the gods," he wrote. It is the way we approach the gods since it is a thing most beautiful and most divine to marry and have children. We cannot deny the importance of this act which in our mortal nature is the imitation of the immortality of the gods. We ought to see that we do it well. We do this in private not because of shame, but because most humans do not wish to display publicly those religious acts which they regard as the most holy. It is the most personal thing people can do, and since it is one of the most important things given to people to do, it deserves to be done as perfectly as possible. Nothing is more shameful than an important act poorly done.

Plethon himself had two children, Demetrios and Andronikos. Both were alive and of age in 1450.
There is disagreement over when precisely Plethon died. Some say 1454, others 1452. Hence I have felt comfortable splitting the difference at 1453 to suit my purposes. He would have been in his nineties in any event. In all probability he died peacefully in the Morea and we might hope it was the earlier date to prevent him learning of the cataclysmic fall of the capital and the death of his old pupil Constantine. 

In 1464, another Malatesta came to Mystras. Unlike Cleofe, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta was not well loved and did not come to marry into the dynasty. A famous Italian Condottiero, Malasesta had been hired to lead Venice's land forces in their campaign to drive the Turks out of southern Greece. It proved an unsuccessful venture, but Malatesta was able to pull off one personal coup. A true renaissance man, Malatesta was an admirer of Plethon and returned to Rimini where he was funding the reconstruction of the Tempio Malatestiano, as a personal mausoleum. Malatesta wanted to include the tombs of illustrious people and so had the bones of Plethon dug up and brought back to Rimini with him, where they remain within the side chapel. 

Readers of Porphyry and Ash might find this difficult to imagine since my version of history does not seem to allow for Plethon's bones to be in Mystras. For this, we might consider two possible explanations. 

The first is that Malatesta dug up any old bones and made up the story to add provenance to them and secure something from an otherwise dismal campaign. The third is that faced with an armed general demanding to know where the grave of a philosopher was, some enterprising peasant showed him any old tomb and let him dig it up. Note I am not arguing this is actually what happened - probably Plethon remained in Mystras and never returned to Constantinople - I am merely suggesting that Malatesta's story is not necessarily proof that Plethon could not have done.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The life of George Sphrantzes - the last Byzantine

George Sphrantzes, (sometimes Phrantzes) was a late Byzantine historian and Imperial courtier. He served all three of Emperor Manuel, his son Emperor John VIII and his other son Emperor Constantine XI.

Late in life, Sphrantzes authored a Chronicle which is considered an important primary source, " which Steven Runciman described as "honest, vivid and convincing" and that Sphrantzes "wrote good Greek in an easy unpretentious style." In fact, for a long time it was believed he had written two: the Minor Chronicle and the Major Chronicle. The Major Chronicle is more detailed, particularly about the siege of Constantinople but in the last century researchers managed to demonstrate that the Major Chronicle was written decades later by Makarios Melissenos ("Pseudo-Sphrantzes"), the Metropolitan Bishop of Monemvasia who fled to Naples in 1571 during the Turkish invasion. It remains disputed as to whether the Major chronicle is nothing but a forgery, or whether it is an expanded edition, based on an original by Sphrantzes but with other Byzantine chroniclers appended.

As a chronicler, Sphrantzes is mediocre, glossing over much of the great events of the time. As a memoir of a Byzantine noble with a front seat on the final plunge of the empire his book is compelling. Described by one historian as 'saturated in loss' it really is one of the saddest primary sources you can ever read. Not for nothing does Sphrantzes describe himself as 'pitiful' and the chronicle as 'the account of the events that occurred during my wretched life." He was writing it as a memoir, aged 76, exiled in a Corfu monastery, wracked by rheumatism,. Two years before he had suffered an infection of the sinuses, ears, and throat. It had been bad enough that he received the last rites three times. There's something almost symbolic about that, since death seemed to reach for him throughout his life and stay its hand at the last each time. But he suffered. Physically he suffered deafness from the infection and complained he couldn't hear a bell tolling next to him, he suffered from the damp in his joints which left him too pained to walk. But more than physical pain, he must have suffered from dreadful survivors guilt, because he was there still in 1478 and nothing of his world remained.

Sphrantzes was born in 1401, a time of great upheaval in the Empire & perhaps appropriately the city was under an Ottoman blockade during the moment of his birth. He was a member of a good Byzantine family and had grown up at court. His father was tutor to Thomas, his uncle was tutor to Constantine. He had been an imperial playmate to Emperor Manuel's sons. But death and tragedy is never far from him, like Waltari's dark angel hovering at his shoulder: plague took Sphrantzes' sister, her husband, a daughter, six servants, then his parents. Still, Sphrantzes survives and at sixteen and a half, Emperor Manuel gave him a good role at court, in charge of the imperial chamber. Manuel seems to have had a real fondness for Sphrantzes and perhaps found it easier to indulge him than his own children. Tellingly, Sphrantzes identifies himself with his first title, protovestiarites, in his memoir, despite accumulating other, perhaps more illustrious honours later in life. Sphrantzes liked clothes & pays attention to them (at least his own) in his chronicle in a way he does not to other matters. There is much about the gifts he received from Manuel - a caftan (kavadi), dark & lined with fur, and a green robe for his future wife. Perhaps the position in Manuel's chamber sparked an interest and allowed him to become knowledgeable on fabrics.

When Manuel died in 1425, John inherited him and after a couple of years, Constantine appears to have begged John to transfer Sphrantzes to his service. He joining the entourage of his childhood friend Constantine in the Morea in December 1427. He was as faithful as any dog has ever been.

His time in the Morea proved quite eventful. Sphrantzes assisted Constantine in a campaign to reconquer the remainder of the Morea (still in the hands of post-1204 crusader families). He gives an account of his captured on 26 March 1429 in a skirmish outside of Patras in which he claims to have saved Constantine's life. He was held prisoner: "I had sustained multiple wounds and was thrown into the dark tower of a house, full of ants, weevils, and mice, as it was located in front of the grain storage. I was put in secure irons and my leg was held by a strong chain, which was attached to a big post." Once the identified him as Constantine's key man he was paroled back to the Byzantine side to negotiate. Constantine was greatful for what his faithful aide had gone through for him and lavished him with gifts which Sphrantzes takes pleasure in describing. Again he picks out clothing: expensive double green tunic lined with fine green linen from Lucca, a red cap embroidered with gold with a silk lining from Thessaloniki, and a heavy gold-colored caftan from Brusa. 

It was not the last time Sphrantzes underwent hardship for his master. Later, while traveling to Epirus as an ambassador, to help negotiate peace between Carlo II Tocco and his uncle's illegitimate sons over the succession in Epirus, Sphrantzes was kidnapped by Catalan pirates, along with his retinue, and held at Cephalonia until the pirates took the group back to Glarentza where they were ransomed.

He continued to travel, being sent by Constantine to attempted to secure Athens in 1435, negotiate Constantine's second marriage with Caterina Gattilusio in 1440 (a journey he would have undertaken alongside Loukas Notaras). The marriage took place at Mytilene that August, but the marriage lasted only a year. Constantine, returning to Constantinople in July 1442, stopped at Mytilene to collect his Empress, and proceeded to Lemnos where he was caught by, as Sphrantzes describes it, "the whole Turkish fleet". Perhaps it was the shock and fear of this, but although no attack fell upon them, Caterina was taken ill and suffered a miscarriage. She died not long afterwards at Palaiokastron on Lemnos. It is just one of the many tragic deaths that fill the memoir.

In 1449 Constantine became emperor and returned to Constantinople from the Morea. Sphrantzes went with him and one of his first tasks was to find Constantine a third wife. The Palaiologoi brothers seemed cursed in this way, with John having died childless and Constantine also without an heir. (Only Thomas of the five sons of Manuel produced a son of their own who lived to maturity). 

Sphrantzes appears to have selected as his first choice Mara Brankovic, the recently widowed consort of Sultan Murad. Mara, who had a complex relationship with Murad's heir, had been allowed to return to her family in Serbia upon Murad's death (the rest of the imperial hareem were remarried to high Ottoman officials - this really was an unusual exception). It's not clear why Sphrantzes thought Mara a good choice for Constantine. She had produced no children for Murad (the rumour of the day was she had withheld her sexual favours but this seems highly unlikely given the power dynamics), so it cannot have been a choice with strong expectations for a quick pregnancy. It's dynastic link to Serbia would have also been unimpressive. Durad Brankovic, Despot of Serbia had already shown himself to be unreliable when it came to helping Christian allies against Turkish attack (in fairness to him, he had little choice but to play a double game to keep any independence for his tiny kingdom). So it appears that the choice of Mara, might well have come down to a belief on Sphrantzes's part that by uniting the Ottoman Valide Hatun and Imperial Empress in one person would safeguard Byzantium from Turkish aggression. Regardless, the offer (accepted by Durad Brankovic) was rejected by Mara.

Sphrantzes then travelled to Georgia by way of Trebizond, to secure a second choice candidate - an unidentified princess. It's hard to see much logic in this choice, beyond a desperate courtier with a reduced number of options. Certainly Georgia was in no position to give military support. It could be that Sphrantzes just wanted to find someone willing and royal in a hurry - perhaps because Constantine was already in his mid-forties and without a child, or perhaps because other members of the court were putting forward candidates of their own. 

There is nothing in Sphrantzes's recounting of this period to confirm the idea that Anna Notaras was a serious candidate to become Constantine's third wife. Indeed the only evidence for it is very unreliable comments made in Italian legal papers decades later. However, one might argue that Sphrantzes (whose relationship with Loukas Notaras was certainly one of political / court rivals) has every motive to whitewash from the record any imperial linkage, the more so given that he wrote his Chronicle after the fall, when Anna Notaras was at the height of her own fame. We should recall that during the first few decades of Turkish Constantinople, the exiled community of Greeks in Italy can be divided between a staunchly Orthodox group in Venice where Anna was certainly pre-eminent, and the remnant Palaiologoi in Rome (where Thomas converted to the Latin faith in return for a Pope's pension), to whom Sphrantzes was alligned.

Whatever the truth about the third bride of Constantine, the siege of 1453 intervened before any final marriage could take place. Sphrantzes gives a rather vague account of things, perhaps because he was employed away from the front line. When the defenses broke, Sphrantzes was captured and enslaved, but was ransomed on 1 September 1453, he immediately traveled to the Morea to offer his services to Thomas. He was able to locate and randsom his wife Helena in 1454 and then served as Thomas's ambassador to Venice in 1455.

When the Morea descended into conflict between Thomas and his brother Demetrios, the latter called in the Turks who promptly seized the whole region. Thomas and his court fled, first to Corfu, then across to Ancona and finally to Rome. They took with them the Head of St Andrew, which Bessarion received at a ceremony in April 1462. Sphrantzes went as far as Corfu but no further. Nor did Thomas's wife and three children, Andreas, Zoe and Manuel. Bessarion managed their education from Rome (we have his many letters which express his concern that their Greek was poor and needed improving). We don't know if Sphrantzes was involved in raising the three Palaiologoi heirs but after they were called to join their father in Rome in 1465, Sphrantzes did make the journey to visit them in 1466 and stayed for 5 weeks.

In his younger, happier days, Sphrantzes had married a good Byzantine woman named Helena, daughter of the imperial secretary Alexios Palaiologos Tzamplakon. Constantine was best man at his wedding. He and Helena had five children, of whom two sons died in infancy, a third son, Alexios, died at the age of 5. John and his only daughter, Thamar, both lived to fourteen & Constantine was godfather to both. They were also enslaved after the fall, but Sphrantzes was unable to locate and ransom them before each died, John in December 1453, Thamar in September 1455 - reportedly of disease in the Imperial hareem. 

Of John's death, Sphrantzes recorded: "the most impious and pitiless sultan, with his own hand, took the life of my dearest son John, on the grounds that the child had conspired to murder him . . . My son was fourteen years and eight months less a day; yet his mind and body proclaimed a much more mature person." It's unclear quite what he meant here - some might be reminded of the fate of Jacob Notaras and that Sphrantzes believed his son was a victim of the sultan's supposed taste for boys, or perhaps he simply that he looked and seemed old enough to be an assassin. 

It's another sad footnote to an unfulfilled life, you can hear Sphrantzes' grief for both his grown children. Having navigated the perils of childhood, which had claimed three of their siblings, he had plans for both when the tottering empire finally fell. His daughter had not quite reached marriageable age when the travel became impossible. Sphrantzes had made plans to take his son John on the medieval equivalent of a father-son road trip. They were to go to the Morea and Cyprus, "so that my son could visit the places and learn all those things which would be of use in his life". Probably he would have left John in the Morea for safety but perhaps the demands on his time prevented it. The trip certainly never came about and the great events of history conspired to crush that dream.

He is known to have clashed with Loukas Notaras, especially during those last short years that Constantine was Emperor. Notaras was Megas Doux, the most powerful noble not of the imperial family. His father had built up the family power and wealth in Constantinople over the first half of the century. It's not hard to see how these two men would rub against one another. Both social climbers having only one or so generation previously penetrated the upper tier of Byzantine nobility. Sphrantzes from a family of intellectuals, Notaras from hard-bitten merchants. They had been two of the bright young things of Manuel's court, both sent as emissaries to Sultan Murad in 1424 when Byzantium officially submitted to being an Ottoman vassal. 

Sphrantzes saw himself very much as Constantine's man, a member of the imperial oikeios, and must have grown used to taking over and running every city that came under Constantine's remit. Each place Constantine ruled, Sphrantzes was installed into the highest administrative position: when Constantine was despot at Patras, Sphrantzes was governor (Kephale) of Patras, when Constantine was despot in Selybria, Sphranzes was governor of Selybria; when Constantine was despot at Mistra, Sphrantzes was governor of Mistra. Then Constantine becomes Emperor, but someone else already runs the show, his old contemporary from two decades prior. 

Then in 1451, Sphrantzes was told he needed to go to Cyprus for the Emperor. He had only just got back from his mission to Georgia seeking a bride. The story goes that Sphrantzes told his old friend that his wife would either marry another man or run off to the monastery if he continued to live on the road for the emperor like this. Constantine's solution appears to have been to exhume an old disused imperial title and plant Sphrantzes with that (Megas Logothete). Whether this was to mollify his wife or Sphrantzes himself is not clear. There is evidence this caused a minor stir at court, where rank was so important. It was this mission to Cyprus that Sphrantzes saw as an opportunity to take his son on, to bond and teach the young man but it never got underway. 

The rivalry with Loukas Notaras led to him painting the megas doux in an unflattering light in his memoirs but much of the dirt thrown in that direction might also be applied to Sphrantzes. He was as guilty of feathering his own nest as his rival. The trip to Georgia netted him 1,600 florins. 

Another area of friction between the two lay in religion. Notaras was the most vocal critic of Constantine's church union with Rome. Sphrantzes, if he was not the actual architect of that policy, was a fervent cheerleader for it. 

In the end, George Sphrantzes outlived not only his master Emperor Manuel but all of Manuel's sons and his own family. Not only that but he lived to see the Morea, Trebizond and Gothia follow Constantinople into Turkish possession. As an intimate member of the imperial inner circle, he has a very good claim to have been the last Byzantine.