In political and economic respects the Empire under the Palaeologi was living through critical times, receding step by step before the Ottoman Turks, gradually reduced in territory until it was confined to Constantinople with its surroundings, and Morea. Apparently there would be neither place nor time nor suitable conditions for cultural development. In reality, however, the perishing Empire of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially the city of Constantinople, was a center of ardent culture, both intellectual and artistic. The schools of Constantinople flourished as they had in her most brilliant past, and students came not only from the far-off Greek regions, like Sparta or Trebizond, but even from Italy, at that time in the height of the Renaissance.
Philosophers, headed by Gemistus Plethon, explained Aristotle and Plato. Rhetoricians and philologists, who had studied the best specimens of classical antiquity and endeavored to equal them in their style, attracted enthusiastic groups of auditors and disciples and in their activity and interests presented a striking analogy to the Italian humanists. A great number of historians described the last days of the Empire. An active ecclesiastical life marked by the Hesychast movement and the problem of the union with the Roman church left its trace in literature, dogmatic, ascetic, mystic, and polemic. A revival may also be noted in poetry. Finally, this literary renaissance was followed by an artistic renaissance which has left monuments of great value. Besides Constantinople, Mistra-Sparta was also remarkable for a vivid intellectual movement. The fourteenth century was the golden age of Thessalonica (Salonica) in art and letters.
In a word, at the time of its political and economic decay, Hellenism seemed to gather all its strength to show the viability of classical culture and to give grounds for hope for the future Hellenic renaissance of the nineteenth century. One historian said, on the eve of her definite ruin, all Hellas was reassembling her intellectual energy to throw a last splendid glow.
A History of the Byzantine Empire - Table of Contents
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