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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Byzantium

Political and social conditions in the Empire


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In the preface to the Vatopedi catalogue, the authors declared: The Holy Mountain has preserved and saved intact Byzantine civilization and the spiritual forces of the Hellenic people.

Rich material on the Palaeologian epoch is also to be found in other libraries. Of great importance is the collection published by Miklosich and Muller, Acta et diplomata graeca medii aevi, as well as numerous editions of Greek texts by a Greek scholar, C. Sathas. Finally, the acts of the monastery of Vazelon, near Trebizond, recently published, give new and rich material for the history of peasant and monastery landownership, not only in the Empire of Trebizond, but in Byzantium in general from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.

As the territory of the restored Empire of the Palaeologi was small and was continually being reduced and constantly menaced by the Normans, Turks, Serbs, Venetians, and Genoese, the Empire under the Palaeologi passed into the secondary rank and was no longer a normal and well-organized state. Disorganization in all parts of the state machinery and decay of the central imperial power are the characteristic traits of the period. The long dynastic strife of the two Andronicoi, grandfather and grandson, and of John V Palaeologus and John Cantacuzene; submission to the popes with the view of achieving union and in connection with this, the sometimes humiliating voyages to western Europe of the emperors (John V, who was arrested at Venice for debt, Manuel II, and John VIII, similar abasement and humiliation before the Turkish sultans in various forms), the payment of tribute, forced stays at the Turkish court, and the giving of the imperial princesses in marriage all this weakened and degraded the power of the Byzantine basileus in the eyes of the people.

Constantinople itself, which had passed into the hands of the Palaeologi after sack and pillage by the Latins, was a ruin of the city it had been before. Greek writers and various foreign travelers and pilgrims, who visited Constantinople at that time, all testify to the decay of the capital.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, an Arab geographer, Abulfeda, after briefly enumerating the most important monuments of Constantinople, remarked; Within the city there are sown fields and gardens, and many destroyed houses. At the very beginning of the fifteenth century a Spanish traveler, Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, wrote: Everywhere throughout the city there are many great palaces, churches and monasteries, but most of them are now in ruin. It is, however, plain that in former times when Constantinople was in its pristine state it was one of the noblest capitals of the world. In contrast with Constantinople, when Clavijo visited the Genoese settlement across the Golden Horn, at Pera, he noted: The city of Pera is only a small township, but very populous. It is surrounded by a strong wall and has excellent houses, all well built. At the same time, an Italian, Buondelmonti of Florence, wrote that one of the most famous churches of Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Apostles, was in a state of decay (ecclesia jam derupta). None the less, pious pilgrims from different countries, who visited Constantinople in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, among them seven Russian pilgrims, were amazed and spellbound by the decorations and relics of the Constantinopolitan church. In 1287, the monk Rabban Sauma, an envoy of the king of the Mongols, after meeting the Emperor, Andronicus II, and with his special permission, piously visited the churches and relics of the city. Under Manuel II, in 1422, a Burgundian traveler, diplomat, and moralist, Ghillebert de Lannoy, was kindly received by the Emperor and by his young son and heir, who allowed him to visit the marvels and antiquities of the city and of the churches.

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