Late Byzantine Historiography

Late Byzantine history-writing offers a fascinatingly varied glimpse into a world where centuries-old tradition was gradually being affected by contact with outside cultures- forcing the Byzantine historiographers, who were themselves often key participants in their own works, to assess complex and often confusing sets of events in divergent ways.

Although his life-span was primarily in the earlier period, Niketas Choniates (c. 1155-1217) is necessary to mention as the author of one of the most objective and important works of all Byzantine historiography, and indeed the major one for reconstructing the siege and invasion of Constantinople in 1204 from the Byzantine perspective.

Born Niketas Akominatos in Chonae (near ancient Colossae in Phrygia), Choniates moved to Constantinople for an education, where he also entered government service. Under the Angelos emperors, he became logothete (chancellor) and was made a governor of Philippopolis (nidern Plovdiv, Bulgaria) for a time. After the sack of 1204, Choniates escaped to Anatolia and the court of Theodoros I Laskaris in Nicaea, where he died in 1217. The book for which he is famous, the History (translated in English as O, City of Byzantium) covers the period from 1118 to 1207. Choniates is considered an unusually objective and lucid writer by modern historians of Byzantium, and his account of the Latin destruction of Constantinople (including his list of statuary destroyed) is important for archaeologists too.

John_VI_Kantakouzenos, depicted here at a synod, was the only Byzantine emperor to write a history of his own reign.

After Choniates, the next important Byzantine historiographer was Georgios Akropolites (c. 1217-1282), son of a high official (the logothete, Konstantinos Akropolites), who sent his son as a teenager to study at the court of John III Doukas Vatatzes, Emperor of Nicaea. Akropolites continued his education under Theodoros Hexapterygos (c. 1190- c. 1236) and the previously mentioned Nikiphoros Blemmydes. Akropolites would have a first-hand practical view of events as, following his education, he participated as a diplomat under Vatatzes and his successors (Theodoros II Laskaris and Michael VIII Palaiologos) in important missions abroad, winning the important title of Grand Logothete, or chancellor in 1244. However, in 1257, while given command of the army against the Byzantine successor state of Epiros in northwestern Greece, he was less capable, captured and held prisoner for two years. He was later an emissary from Emperor Michael Palaiologos to the Church Council of Lyons, convened as an attempt to forestall another Latin invasion and with the ostensible goal of obtaining church reunion.

Georgios Akropolites was thus well-placed to recount the key political, military and social events of the early Palaiologan period. This he did in the Annals, a detailed history of political events in Byzantium from the Latin sack of 1204 to Michael Palaiologos’ recovery of the city in 1261. While not as technically skilled a writer as Choniates, Akropolites is on the whole considered a dependable source for the early period of the Palaiologan Empire.

Continuing on from Akropolites, Bythynia-born Church legal advisor and polymath Georgios Pachymeres (1242- c. 1310) wrote one of the most important Byzantine histories of near-contemporary events, picking up where Akropolites’ coverage left off. Pachymeres’ work exists in thirteen books, and continues Akropolites’ coverage from 1261 to 1308, forming a key source for the reigns of Michael and Andronikos II Palaiologos.

Another near-contemporary historiographer, most notable for his extensive contributions to Orthodox Church history, was Nikiphoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos (c. 1256- c.1335). The last major Byzantine ecclesiastical historian, Xanthopoulos did not cover contemporaneous events, but rather left an eight-volume history of early Christianity down to the year 610, that survives only in one manuscript.

Into the tumultuous 14th century of Byzantine civil wars, wars in Western Europe and the Black Death, other historiographers emerged from the ranks of the ruling elite. One such figure was ohn VI Kantakouzenos (c. 1292-1383). Born into an eminent noble family, Kantakouzenos served as grand domestic under his friend Andronikos III Palaiologos, in fact helping him to plot the overthrow of his own grandfather, Andronikos II in 1328. John also became regent for the usurper’s son, John V Palaiologos.

Following a complex civil war from 1341-47, John himself became Byzantine emperor (from 1347 to 1354). However, he was overthrown and, following established practice, he retired to a monastery. This was fortunate for future generations in that it gave him time to write his four-volume History,  which covers events from 1320-1350. Unique as the only history any Byzantine emperor left of his own reign, it inevitably suffers from the subjective views and attempts of Kantakouzenos to brush over the failings of what is considered one of the most chaotic and disastrous periods of Byzantine history, in which foreign opportunists, mercenaries and domestic miscreants alike all seized the opportunity posed by central infighting to their advantage. This inevitably weakened the empire, expediting the consolidation of Turkish forces in Anatolia and their subsequent Balkan expansion.

Nikipohoras Grigoras was not only an important historian, he also unsuccessfully tried to get imperial support for calendrical reform- two centuries before the Gregorian Calendar was passed in Rome,

A useful corrective or accompaniment to the emperor’s historiography is the near-contemporary author, Nikiphoras Grigoras (c. 1295-1360). The nephew of the Bishop of Herakleia Pontika in Anatolia, Grigoras was educated in Constantinople and was appointed chartophylax (keeper of the archives) by Emperor Andronikos II. Of great interest historically is his 1326 suggestion to the emperor (which was rejected out of fear of inciting disturbances) that certain calendrical changes be adopted. These were essentially the same as those adopted in the West in the Gregorian Calendar two centuries later, thus giving this calendar an (if uncredited) Byzantine origin.

In any case, though Grigoras originally shared Andronikos II’s fate after the coup by Andronikos III, and was forced into private life, he was asked to step forth and make a rebuttal to Barlaam of Calabria during the Hesychast controversay. He did this successfully and enhanced his reputation, gaining pupils as well as an imperial commission under Andronikos III to participate in the negotiations over church reunion. However, under the influence of Empress Anna in 1346, he turned against Palamas in a treatise, which earned him the status of heretic at the 1351 Orthodox synod. Grigoras’ shifting positions and refusal to recant are indicative of the turbulent and complex times of the civil war period.

These personal experiences also colored Grigoras’ history-writing. His Byzantine History, in 37 books, covers the 1204 sack of Constantinople by the Latins to the year 1359, continuing the work of Pachymeres and offering a different view than that of Emperor Kantakouzenos, providing an (if somewhat affected) corrective to the latter’s personally-invested coverage of the turbulent middle 14th-century period.

A lesser-known but vital Byzantine historiographer for events in the eastern Pontic hinterland of the Empire of Trebizond (one of the three post-1204 Byzantine successor states) is Michael Panaretos (c. 1320– c. 1390). An official in the court at Trebizond (modern Trabzon in Turkey), Panaretos wrote the only surviving history of the Trapezuntine Empire. Panaretos was a court official under Trebizond’s Emperor Alexios III Komnenos (r. 13499-1390), and  thus participated in many of the events he documents in his Chronicle. While only 20 printed pages in length, it covers events from 1204 to 1390 (with about half of it devoted to events from 1350-90). This chronicle not only provides the chronological outline of Trapezuntine emperors (including some otherwise unattested), it also provides valuable coverage on the Turkish expansion, from a Pontian Byzantine perspective. Remarkably, the chronicle only was rediscovered in the 19th century in the Venetian Biblioteca Marciana by scholar Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer.

Preserved in four languages, the anonymous Chronicle of the Morea is a key source for life in the 13th-century Peloponnese following the Crusader takeover.

One of the most intriguing Byzantine historiographers was Michael Kritovoulos (c. 1410– c. 1470), a politician and scholar. Hailing from a landowning family on the island of Imvros, Kritovoulos personified the conflicting identities and impulses of the final generation of Byzantine scholars. For one, he changed his surname to sound more classical (alluding to a character in a Platonic text) and adopted the same high literary tone of writing in his history of the capture of Constantinople in 1453 and subsequent first decades of Turkish rule. On the other hand, while lamenting the loss of the city, he deems it an act of God and praises the skill of his benefactor- the victorious Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, who commissioned the text. Kritovoulos’ history is considered particularly important for its depiction of the Ottoman conquest and early efforts of the Turks to rebuild and repopulate a capital city that had become largely moribund by 1453.

Other historiographers known for their coverage of the fall of Constantinople include Doukas (c. 1400- c. 1462), Laonikos Chalkondyles (c. 1430- c. 1470) and Georgios Sphrantzes (1401- c. 1478).

Of these writers, Doukas (whose first name is not known) was descended from the famous Doukas family that had been politically involved in the civil wars of the middle 14th –centory and was subsequently banished to Anatolia. In 1421, Doukas found employment with the powerful Genoese Gattilusi family, who ruled the island of Lesvos. Later on, as his own history recounts, he was sent on their behalf to the Ottoman court as an emissary, and also shows up at places like Didymoteichon in Thrace. Doukas witnessed many grisly events before and leading up to the fall of Constantinople, and his book, covering the period 1341–1462, continues that of Grigoras and Kantakouzenos.

Unlike Kritovoulos, Doukas depicts Mehmet II as a cruel ruler, and the fall of Byzantium as divine punishment for morale failings. Doukas also staunchly supported church union to fight the Turks. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he also knew Italian and Turkish, which gave him critical insight into other sources and events that make his history valuable.

As for Laonikos Chalkondyles, he was born into a wealthy Greek family in Athens at a time when the once-great city was controlled by the Florentine Acciaioli family. After his mother, who was related to that family, schemed to get her son declared prince of Athens by appealing for Ottoman support, the whole plot backfired with his imprisonment by the sultan. After an escape and another imprisonment, the family was forced to relocate to the Byzantine=controlled Peloponnese in 1446. There Laonikos became a student of Gemistos Plethon in Mystras, and in fact inherited Plethon’s personal copy of Herodotus that was later used by Bessarion in Rome.

Chalkokondyles’ most important historical work, Proofs of Histories covers the period from 1298–1463. The steady rise of the Ottoman Turks at the expense of Byzantium is its major theme, with substantial biographical coverage od Mehmet II included as well. In a typically archaizing flourish, he compared the capture of Constantinople to the fall of Troy. His antiquizing tendencies went on to include both linguistic expression and place-names and names of archaic peoples that were not generally encountered at the time (for example, referring to the Byzantine as ‘Hellenes’ rather than ‘Romans,’ the latter being normal practice). Such incidences would not fail to influence the developing European view of the Byzantines and later trends in Greek identity as the Ottoman centuries passed.

Georgios Sphrantzes, finally, was a high official under Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and his successor, John VIII Palaiologos, as well as a close advisor to Konstantinos XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor. He first entered Manuel’s service in 1418 and was sent in 1427 to the Morea as servant of his friend, Konstantinos. In this capacity, Sphrantzes went on many diplomatic missions and suffered misfortunes like being kidnapped by Catalan pirates in Epiros.

Sphrantzes personally experienced Constantinople’s fall to the Turks in 1453, and was subsequently captured and imprisoned by them. However, he was soon ransomed and served the surviving Byzantine state in the Peloponnese under Despot Thomas Palaiologos. Finally becoming a monk in 1472 in Venetian-held Corfu, Sphrantzes found the time to write his history, the Chronicle. It provides valuable local detail and personal reflections from one of the most informed statesmen of the late Palaiologan period. While Sphrantzes’ personal loyalty to the Palaiologan dynasty may perhaps have influenced him to minimize mention of their failings, his is on the whole a very important work. It covers events until Sultan Mehmed II’s attempt to seize Nafpaktos in the summer of 1477.

Finally, something completely different from the erudite offerings of aristocratic Byzantine historiographers is the vernacular Chronicle of the Morea, a 9,000-line verse recounting of the events in the Peloponnese from 1204 into the 1290s. Surviving in Greek, French, Italian and Aragonese translations, it was probably the work of a French or French-Greek author who supported and promoted the Latin cause after they seized and colonized much of the Peloponnese with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Although it is still not clear as to its languae of origin, the Chronicle is important for its use of vernacular Greek and for the details it provides about local conditions during the Latin occupation.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Michael Psellos, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia

Niketas Choniates, as O, City of Byzantium

Anthony Kaldellis, A New Herodotos: Laonikos Chalkokondyles on the Ottoman Empire, the Fall of Byzantium, and the Emergence of the West

Georgios Sphrantzes, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes 1401-14

Anne Van Arsdall, ed., The Old French Chronicle of Morea: An Account of Frankish Greece after the Fourth Crusade

Ruth Macrides, George Akropolites: The History


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