Conference Report: Remembering Constantinople in the 15th Century

Remembering Constantinople in the 15th Century: SPBS sponsored session at IMC Leeds 2018, 3 July 2018

Our panel “Remembering Constantinople in the 15th Century” presented on Tuesday, July 3 at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds proved to be very productive and engaging. We are convinced that our respective presentations on three fifteenth-century Byzantine encomia by Bessarion, Isidore of Kiev and John Dokeianos allowed us to shed light on multiple historical questions regarding the Mistra circle of intellectuals, uses of classicizing rhetoric and literary memory, late Byzantine cities and historiography, and the shaping of Byzantine identities in the fifteenth century. We were also lucky to have a few of our Byzantinist colleagues in the audience. We regard this panel as a first step towards future collaborations and exchanges. We include brief summaries of our papers.

We are thus extremely grateful that the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies chose to sponsor our session and to lend us its prestigious institutional support.

Aslihan Akışık
Annika Asp
Anna Calia

From West to East – the legacy of Constantinople in Bessarion’s literary portrayal of Trebizond
Annika Asp

Bessarion is one of the best-known fifteenth-century intellectuals, yet the earliest years of his career in Constantinople and Mistra are not well understood. This paper discussed Bessarion’s literary works related to Trebizond in light of his loyalties during his time spent in Constantinople. Bessarion was born in Trebizond around 1408 and moved to pursue his education in Constantinople at a young age. It was argued in this paper that he travelled back to Trebizond at some point between 1426 and 1428. In Trebizond, he stayed at the court of Alexios IV Komnenos and had a role in the conclusion of a marriage alliance between the latter’s daughter Maria Komnene and the new Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. During this time, Trebizond became embroiled in dynastic struggle following a rebellion by John, the son of Alexios IV Komnenos. It was argued that Bessarion’s loyalties lay with Alexios IV, as evident in a speech written to the Trapezuntine ruler and three monodies lamenting the death of the latter’s consort Theodora Kantakouzene. Questions of the origin, audience and purpose of Bessarion’s Encomium of Trebizond were also addressed in this paper. Portrayals of Constantinople are markedly in the Encomium. Bessarion construed a history for his native city portraying the Trapezuntines as descendants of Milesian Greeks, and Constantinople only had a tangential and predominantly negative role in this narrative. It was argued that Bessarion wrote for a non-Trapezuntine audience and contrasted Constantinople, depicted as failing, with Trebizond construed as a true bastion of Hellenism for two purposes. Firstly, it countered any stereotypes associated with Trapezuntines, being considered less Greek and more Persian. Secondly, it formulated a narrative of anti-Ottoman crusade, which was a central zeal for Bessarion during his lifetime. This ambition reflected Trebizond’s longstanding Ottoman antagonism and its alliance with the Ak Koyonlu Turkmen.

Historical memory and Constantinople in Isidore’s encomium of John VIII
Aslıhan Akışık

Focusing on Isidore of Kiev’s encomium of John VIII and Manuel II from 1429, I explore the various different ways in which Constantinople was represented in the fifteenth century. Isidore’s imperial encomium stands out for its extensive treatment of Constantinople. Indeed, a third of the encomium is devoted to the capital city. This detailed representation of Constantinople and focus on patria distinguishes the encomium from other imperial encomia. The encomium is also a primary source for numerous contemporary events such as the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, the Byzantine military activity in the Peloponnese and Thessaly after 1402 when Timur defeated Bayezid and the eight-year-long siege of Constantinople was lifted, Manuel II’s and John VIII’s travels in the west when they sought military and diplomatic aid against the Ottomans, the siege of Constantinople in 1422, the Byzantine military encounter with Carlo Tocco in 1428. It has been previously suggested that this encomium was also a historiographical account and is the missing historiographical link between the historians of the earlier Palaiologan period (Kantakouzenos, Pachymeres and Gregoras) and the historians of the fall (Doukas, Sphrantzes, Chalkokondyles, and Kritoboulos). In fact, late Byzantine intellectuals were experimenting with rhetorical and historiographical genres and blurring the lines between the two as is also evident from the laudatory portrayal of Mehmed II in Kritoboulos’ History. Thus, the encomiastic and idealized portrayal of Constantinople contrasts with contemporary military activity. Importantly, Isidore’s narrative on the patria was not passively adopted from previous compositions (in particular Metochites’ and Manuel Chrysoloras’ city encomia). Rather, the author constructed a new chronological and linear narrative on the founding of the city, engaged with geographical theories of centrality, inserted historicizing portions on the pre-Constantinian Roman expansion in the Hellenized east. Some of Isidore’s interventions would later be put to new use by Bessarion in his encomium of Trebizond, by Laonikos Chalkokondyles, and by Michael Apostolis in a letter addressed to Bessarion.

Literary Memory and Classicizing Discourse in John Dokeianos’s Encomium of Constantine XI
Anna Calia

In my paper I focus on the encomium of Constantine XI Palaiologos by John Dokeianos, a less-known author, copyist and bibliophile of the late Palaiologan period. Dokeianos lived and worked in Mistra, where he was at the service of the despot Constantine Palaiologos and he was also connected to Gemistos Pletho’s milieu. After Constantine’s election as emperor in 1449, Dokeianos switched his allegiance to the anti-Latin and pro-Ottoman despot Demetrios. After the Ottoman conquest of Morea in 1460 our rhetor was abducted to Constantinople together with the Byzantine court. After this date we can track Dokeianos’ presence in the Ottoman capital, where he worked for both the Patriarchate and the Ottoman court.

Dokeianos’ encomium, written around 1442, is preserved in two different redactions, the second of which is still unedited. This text is a good example of the balance between tradition and experimentalism in late Byzantine rhetoric, of the need to adhere to the tropes of a very formalized and traditional genre and at the same time to address current political issues in an age of political and religious turmoil. In the encomium Dokeianos adopts a classicizing discourse making large use of classical sources and references to ancient Greek history. Although he generally seems to follow the traditional and formulaic structure of the Byzantine encomium, in some cases he departs from his models and he innovates, namely by inserting at the end of the text a narrative section on the Byzantine-Ottoman siege of 1442. This was the last major Ottoman attack of the capital before the siege of 1453 and, importantly, it was led by the Ottoman sultan Murad II backed by Demetrios Palaiologos, both willing to overthrow the emperor John VIII. In my paper I focus on Dokeianos’ use of sources, I draw analogies with other 15th century imperial orations and I analyze the circumstances of the rhetorical performance and its audience.