The volume under review is a welcome addition to the literature in English on the medieval “empire” of Trebizond. Located on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea and established as an independent Greek state in 1204 just before Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade, Trebizond retained its independence under the dynasty of the Grand Komnenoi until David Komnenos surrendered to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1461. It played no mean role in the political and economic history of the later Middle Ages. It was integral to developments in Anatolia and all the lands bordering the Black Sea, from Constantinople and the Crimea to Georgia in the Caucasus. It also figured significantly in the rivalry of the Italian maritime states of Genoa and Venice. Nonetheless, the last history we have of it in English remains the nearly century-old Trebizond: The Last Greek Empire of William Miller published in 1926. True, significant studies in English have appeared since then, most notably Anthony Bryer’s and David Winfield’s classic The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos in 1985. But until a new synthetic survey in English appears, Anglophone students of Trebizond best profit from the latest scholarship by publications such as this addition to the Dumbarton Oaks text series.
The editor, Scott Kennedy, chose to combine two very different sorts of texts: the late fourteenth-century chronicle of the imperial secretary Michael Panaretos, “a drab but reliable narrative” in the words of A. A. Vasiliev,1 and the consciously literary, fifteenth-century encomium of Trebizond by the future cardinal Bessarion but written at a time when he was still only a Basilian monk. Kennedy’s translation is clear, fluent, and accurate. In the notes he alerts the reader when he is attempting to render a difficult or ambiguous passage. For the Greek text facing the English translation, Kennedy reproduced with only modest changes the long available critical editions of Odysseas Lampsides published in the journal Archeion Pontou in 1958 (Panaretos) and 1984 (Bessarion).
As far as Panaretos is concerned, Kennedy decidedly advances beyond Lampsides by his diligent identification and translation of Turkish names and individuals from Panaretos’s idiosyncratic Greek spelling, and by the dense running commentary on persons and events in his notes on Panaretos. In 2016, Annika Asp Talwar anticipated many of Kennedy’s Turkish identifications in an English translation of Panaretos, in a volume published on the occasion of an exhibit at Koç University in Istanbul, but without his extensive historical documentation. The chronicle itself is a series of factual snippets recording events from 1204 to 1426. Panaretos begins to speak in the first person reporting on events in 1340 and continues to do so up to events of 1386. At some point thereafter, the notices must have been additions made by others. Panaretos provides no coherent narrative, but lots of useful information and often piquant and even touching comments, such as when he laments the death of his two sons. Kennedy includes an excellent map, prepared by Ian Mladjov, of the Black Sea coast from Sinope to Georgia and an inset of the Crimea. He also provides a three-page genealogical chart of the Komnenoi as well as a “glossary of offices, titles, and technical terms.” All in all, a very good package for understanding and exploiting Panaretos.
The irony of Kennedy’s combining Panaretos and Bessarion is that whereas Panaretos’s chronicle is a rich, factual source illuminating events and aspects of medieval Trapezuntine history, Bessarion’s encomium is a literary text in need of illumination through the identification of its sources and the events to which it all too vaguely refers. Its value as a source for the history of Trebizond is limited primarily to its description of the city and especially of the imperial palace. It is unfortunate, therefore, that John Eugenikos’s contemporary, relatively short ekphrasis of Trebizond is not also included in the volume (another regrettable omission is a plan of Trebizond, which would have been useful in reading Bessarion). The main value of Bessarion’s encomium resides instead in what it reveals about Bessarion and his vision of Trebizond and Greek history. Consequently, when and where he wrote the encomium matters a great deal for how we are to understand it and its meaning for Bessarion. Unfortunately, we have no reliable or exact information on the date, place, or circumstances of its composition. Kennedy is agnostic about the date, but he favors the view that Bessarion “wrote the text in Mistra or Constantinople as an intellectual exercise and circulated it among his friends back in Treibzond” (xvii). I doubt the correctness of much of this statement, but we need to review the encomium before discussing its origins.
Bessarion was born in Trebizond but educated in Constantinople and Mistra in the Peloponnesus. He describes the oration as a tribute to his native city (§§ 1–5). It is pretentiously long, covering 145 pages in the volume as compared to the 57 pages of Panaretos’s chronicle. It is pretentious in another way. As Kennedy puts it, “Stylistically, Bessarion’s Greek is challenging and demanding” (xvi). After an introduction justifying the composition of the encomium (§§ 1–9), Bessarion makes some general comments on the origin of cities and invokes the deity (§§ 10–12). Then comes a long historical survey as he traces the founding of Trebizond: Athens founded Miletus, which subsequently founded Sinope, which in its turn founded Trebizond. Passing quickly over Athens (§§ 13–14), Bessarion spends considerable time expiating the glorious history of Miletus (§§ 15–23) and provides an interesting ekphrasis of Sinope (§§ 24–28), which suggests that he might have known the city firsthand. He then expounds the geographic and physical virtues of Trebizond (§§ 29–59) as well as the moral virtues and the Greekness of the Trapezuntines down through history (§§ 60–89). A section glorifying the Grand Komnenoi follows (§§ 90–97) before he gives an ekphrasis of the city (§§ 98–110). He ends with another laudatio of the virtue of the Trapezuntine people (§§ 111–121) and an appeal for approbation of his effort (§ 122).
The first thing to be said about its composition is that the encomium was not some idle “intellectual exercise.” It seems to me that Bessarion makes it quite clear that he was commissioned to write it (§ 7), condemning those who under no duress take on tasks beyond their abilities while pleading for understanding of those who willy-nilly (ἐκῶν ἄκων) venture into something arduous. The second point is that he wrote it in Constantinople, not in Trebizond, and certainly not in Mistra. Lampsides, having edited the text, was the first, I believe, to argue for Constantinople. He made an argument ex silentio, namely, that Bessarion does not name or pay obeisance to any contemporary ruler, official, or other figure, something incomprehensible if he were part of an official mission to Trebizond.2 Kennedy adds a telling piece of evidence, although not properly interpreted. At § 36, Bessarion contrasts the steady calmness of the Black Sea to the frequent turbulence of the Aegean, the Hellespont, and “this here sea,” which Kennedy in the notes takes as a reference to the Mediterranean, a conclusion that makes little sense since Mistra is in the middle of the Peloponnesus and Constantinople guards the Bosporus. Rather, Bessarion must mean the Sea of Marmara on the southern shore of the city, which fits nicely in a trilogy with the Aegean and the Hellespont. The third and fourth points, noted by multiple commentators, are (a) that Bessarion’s reference to Trebizond’s submission to Rome “nearly 1500 years ago” (§ 78) would seem to confirm a date for the encomium in or near 1437, since Rome took over Trebizond after the death of Mithridates in 63 BC; and (b) the location of the encomium in Bessarion’s chronologically ordered autograph collection of writings in MS Marc. Gr. 533 (= coll. 778) fits a date of 1436–37: it follows texts written in the mid-1430s and precedes those written at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, in 1438–39. The fifth and last point is that Bessarion clearly had not yet been named one of the spokesmen of the Greek delegation to the Council and therefore had not been officially recognized as a theological expert. Hence, the only expertise he claimed was that over words, a study to which he had dedicated “his whole life” (§ 5). My conclusion is that after returning to Constantinople from Mistra in late 1436 or early 1437, Bessarion was commissioned to write the encomium. One can speculate on the circumstances of the commission, but it is probably significant that he cast the encomium as an address delivered before Trapezuntines rather than as some sort of letter. Since he claimed expertise only in words, I would favor a date in 1436/1437 before he became a teacher in (if not the head of) a monastery in Constantinople and subsequently the bishop of Nicaea.
Kennedy does a good job in annotating the encomium. The only criticism I have is his failure to note at §§ 41–44 Bessarion’s startling repudiation – already noted by Frederick Lauritzen3 – of the writings of his teacher in Mistra, George Gemistus Pletho, concerning the deleterious influence of merchants and commerce, though he does rightly note that Bessarion also contradicts Plato on this point.
In sum, with these two translations and their accompanying documentation, Kennedy has most helpfully served the interests of not only those who study medieval Trebizond, but also those who work on the towering intellectual figure who by his life and works connected Byzantium to the Italian Renaissance.
1. “The Empire of Trebizond in History and Literature,” Byzantion, 15 (1940–41): 316–77, at 316. At 333, he referred again to “this drab but truthful chronicle.”
2. “L’eloge de Trébisonde de Bessarion,” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 32 (1982): 121–27; “Περὶ τὸ «’Εγκώμιον εἰς Τραπεζοῦντα» τοῦ Βεσσαρίωνος,” Archeion Pontou, 37(1982): 153–81, at 159–60; and “Ο «Εἰς Τραπεζοῦντα» τοῦ Βεσσαρίωνος,” Archeion Pontou, 39 (1984): 3–75, at 5–6.
3. “Bessarion’s Political Thought”: The
Encomium to Trebizond,” Bulgaria Mediaevalis, 3 (2 (2011):
Sandra Ducic, whom I would love to have write a plurilingual book
on Bessarione, gives the following: 'I will try in the following
days to put my hand on Bessarione’s Correspondence; I have copied
some of his letters while working on his manuscripts in the
Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. By the way have you ever read his
passionate epistolary? It might be a source of inspiration for
Shakespeare Passionate Pilgrim…will we ever know? I am always
moved to tears by Bessarions’s poetical talent. It is very nice
that you relate him to the Vita nova! Once I read in the
Biblioteca Marciana (especially his missive from February
1453 writ in water (to put is in the words of Keats), while
seeing for the first time Venice… these were one of the most
precious lines from our history, ‘… 'on February 2nd I wake up to
a great mist about a city which seemed to me as God's Paradise,
from far away I could contemplate from my ship San Marco 's Cupola
which I have never yet seen' … I was sweetly bathed by the divine
light of dawn which created in my contrived heart such a joy that
I could not stop weeping…” it is my humble translation… But I
could measure his feelings and the tone of his soul (who as myself
was somehow in exile, as we are all…), and I cannot deny the grief
in my own heart for the loss of Constantinople'.
Academia.edu's reviewers comment with the following observations:
Though a little hotchpotch of experiences and events, the article deserves publication.
JBH. Yes, I agree, it is open-ended, etc. But we are also using
to the fullest hypertext mark-up language on the webpage, http://www.florin.ms/Bessarione.html,
which tends to get lost in .pdf. We are trying to exploit the
newest technologies. First we had speech. Then we had
cave-painting, Then we had writing. Now we can mix recordings,
images, writings, direct transmissions, all together. The way
Virginia Woolf described a writer's desk to be, or George
Eliot's definition of a novel as a 'baggy monster'.
Cardinal Bessarin was a key figure between East and West in
the Late Middle Ages. He is a scholar who, with his language
and rhetoric, was able to influence a wide audience in his
time. It is a good idea to examine Bessarion's original
letters and plan to add them to the literature. Good luck.
JBH: Yes, I am hoping Sandra Ducic carries out her project.
Academia Bessarion hopes to be a matrix for scholars.
There are definitely the seeds of an intriguing paper here. The
content is engaging and I enjoyed the personal slant. My only
suggestion would be to better organise the discussion so that it
is clear to the reader what they are looking at - a clearer
title and integration of the two parts of the draft.
JBH: Can you accept the concept of the Academia Bessarion as
frame, as a base from which to launch multiple discussions, new
directions, with Fibonacci curves? The way the human mind and
dreams work, outside of time and space, synapsing
internationally across boundaries, while memorializing and