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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Byzantium

General situation in the Empire 


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Page 8

Later, Murad's successor Bayazid required that John V send him, with the stipulated tribute, his son Manuel and some Greek auxiliaries. Manuel was compelled to yield and take part in a predatory Turkish expedition through various regions of Asia Minor. His humiliation, complete impotence, and the privations of the expedition are clearly felt in Manuel's letters. Having described famine, cold, fatigue, and the crossing of the mountains, where even wild beasts could not feed, Manuel made a tragic remark: all this is being suffered jointly by the whole army; but one thing is unbearable for us: we are fighting with them (the Turks) and for them, and it means that we increase their strength and decrease ours. In another letter Manuel wrote an account of the destroyed cities which he had seen during the expedition: To my question what was the name of those cities, those whom I asked, answered: As we have destroyed them, so time has destroyed their names; and immediately sorrow seized me; but I sorrow silently, being still able to conceal my feelings. Such humiliation and subserviency towards the Turks Manuel had been forced to suffer before he ascended the throne.

His nobility was manifest when he redeemed his father John V from the Venetians who, on the Emperor's return from Italy, had arrested him at Venice on account of his failure to pay back borrowed money. While the eldest son of John, Andronicus, who ruled the Empire in his father's absence, was deaf to John's prayers to collect the sum due, Manuel obtained it at once and, going to Venice in person, redeemed his father from his humiliating captivity.

After his long and painful reign Manuel, in the last years of his life, withdrew from state affairs, which he entrusted to his son John, and devoted all his time to the study of the Scriptures. Shortly after, Manuel was struck with apoplexy; two days before his death he took holy orders under the name of Matthias (Matthew).

His son and successor, John VIII, reigned from 1425 to 1448. The new Emperor was married three times, and all three wives belonged to different nationalities. His first wife was a young Russian princess, Anna, daughter of the grand prince of Moscow, Vasili I; she lived in Constantinople only three years, but in that short time she became very popular in the capital. She fell a victim to the plague. John's second wife was an Italian, Sophia of Montferrat, a woman of lofty spiritual qualities but so unattractive in appearance that John felt only repulsion for her; the Byzantine historian Ducas, who describes her appearance, gave a popular proverb of his time: Lent in front and Easter behind. She could not bear her humiliating position at court, and, with the help of the Genoese of Galata and to the satisfaction of her husband, fled to Italy, where she ended her days in monastic retirement. His third wife John found in a princess of Trebizond, Maria (Mary), of the house of the Comnent, who was distinguished for her beauty and good manners. The attractiveness of this charming lady is remarked both by a Byzantine historian, and by a French pilgrim to the Holy Land, who was enraptured by the beauty of the basilissa when he saw her leaving St. Sophia. She possessed great influence over the Emperor, who outlived her. There stands today in one of the Prince's Islands (near Constantinople) a small chapel of the Holy Virgin erected by the beautiful Empress of Trebizond.

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