|Gemistus Plethon’s portrait from Benozzo Gozzoli’s Three Magi fresco (Firenze, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, 1459-1461)|
“In the Synod of Florence, organized with the participation of Greeks and Latins, Cosimo de’ Medici often heard a Greek philosopher named Gemistus Plethon, to explain the Platonic mysteries. His inspired lectures made so big impression on him, that at that time the idea of the foundation of the Academy was conceived in him.”The corpse of Plethon were stolen in 1466 by his former students and by Venetian mercenaries led by Malatesta from the Peloponnese city of Mystras, which came under Turkish rule, and brought to Rimini, “so our great teacher could lay among free people”, and in order to authenticate with his authority the shockingly pagan Neoplatonic iconography of the Malatesta church. The inscription of his tomb poses an interesting geographical and historical problem: since when is Byzantium called Byzantium?
The question may seem pointless at first. It is therefore worth to go over from where this term comes from.
The “Byzantine” Empire in the reality never existed under this name, which put roots and is exclusively used in historiography. The term was coined about a century after the fall of the Roman Empire – as it was really called – by a German humanist historian, Hieronymus Wolf.
Wolf learned self-taught Greek. In 1549 he published the first translation of Demosthenes’ speeches. From 1551 he worked the Augsburg Fugger library, where he catalogued the medieval Greek manuscripts brought from Venice. In 1557 he published his main work, the Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, compiled from the Greek sources in the Augsburg library, with which he unintentionally rewrote the world history. When in the early 17th century the compilation of a similar summary from the surviving Constantinople sources was encouraged by Louis XIV of France, it obviously had to be based on Wolf’s work, so that Philippe Labbé, the Jesuit scholar leading the project did not even try to find a new title for the 34-volume collection: it was also published as Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. The scholars dealing with the late Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople, all adopted this terminology (e.g. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1822-1897). The adjective “Byzantine”, which during the Enlightenment spread worldwide, especially due to the writings of Montesquieu, was impossible to be detached from the (late) Roman Empire. And the adjective was also associated with an explicitly negative connotation, which was deduced from the supposed qualities of state power: courtly intrigues, complicated bureaucracy, incomprehensible and over-decorated ceremoniality and fraudulent diplomacy.
The problematic character of the “Byzantine” adjective can be shown in three examples:
A country? – A state called “Byzantium” or “Byzantine Empire” never existed in world history. If someone used this term between the 6th and 15th centuries, nobody would have understood what he meant. The official name of the Constantinople-centered and Greek-speaking state was Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων (Basileia tōn Rōmaiōn), that is, Rome, to its very end. Its own citizens called themselves Romans, even though they were also aware of their Hellenistic cultural heritage. In history, it is not possible to draw a caesura, that is, to mark a date when Rome became Byzantium. The root of the problem is that with the coronation of Charlemagne, the Roman Empire got a challenger, who sought to strengthen his own legitimacy. Therefore they tried to deprive the Empire from its Roman character, by calling it Greece, or the Empire of Constantinople, but never Byzantium. This endeavor appeared during the Holy (German) Roman Empire of Otto, but it could overcome only after the real Roman Empire was finally swallowed by the Turkish flood. When Wolf came into scene, there was no longer anyone who could have protested against the “Byzantine” title.
The map of Constantinople (1422). This is the oldest surviving map of the city, and the only one made before the Turkish conquest
A city? – The city of Byzantion did exist, in the place of Constantinople, the modern Istanbul, on the peak of the headland reaching into the Golden Horn bay and the Marmara Sea, opposite to Chalcedon, the “city of the blind”, who did not notice that the opposite coast was much more suitable for the foundation of a city. It was founded by Megaran colonists under the leadership of Byzas, on the altitude which was later called “the first hill”. In 330, this settlement was completely rebuilt on Roman model by Emperor Constantine, who called it Constantinople, or New or Second Rome. It cannot be therefore associated with the (Eastern) Roman Empire, since the history of the town of Byzantion ended at the moment when this latter was born through the foundation of Constantinople.
A famous person? – Until Christmas of the year 800, apart from a few self-proclaimed emperors, nobody called in question that the Roman Emperor rules from Constantinople. Even the Roman popes recognized his supremacy as long as the late 8th century, they minted money on Constantinople model, and dated their documents by the years of the emperors until 781/782. After Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome, they had to coin a new title for him, because despite the fact, that the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled for the moment by a woman, nobody imagined that Charlemagne would move to Constantinople to rule from there the rest of the Roman Empire. Between 800 and 1461, the titles of the Eastern and Western Roman Emperor existed parallel to each other, and in this period it was the Western emperors who felt it more critical to prove the “Romanness” of their empire. A mean to this was to call “Greek” the Emperor of Constantinople, who since Heraclius did not use the title “Augustus”, but adopted the Greek “basileus”. The official language of the empire was Greek, but the state itself, its rulers and its organization was the legal successor of the Roman Empire. This is why in Constantinople they did not know greater diplomatic insult than the terms of “Greek” Emperor or “Greek” Empire. Liutprand of Cremona, the envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto tells this about the reception of those who came with letters addressed like this.
“The Greeks scolded the sea and cursed the ocean, and were extremely amazed that the waves did not open by themselves to swallow the ship on which such a monster was traveling. «A foreigner», they shouted, «some Roman beggar dares to call the only great and majestic Roman Emperor, Nicephorus, the Emperor of the Greeks! What should we do with these unholy, crooked people? They are poor maggots; if we kill them, we contaminate our hands with vile blood.» Therefore, they put the papal emissaries in prison, and they forwarded the sinful letter to Nicephorus in Mesopotamia…”But what has all this to do with the inscription on Plethon’s tombstone?
The Rimini epitaph calls the philosopher “Byzantine”:
“The mortal rests of the Byzantine Gemistus Plethon, the greatest philosopher of his age was brought here by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, son of Pandolfo, commander of the Peloponnesian war born against the Turkish ruler, and, inspired by his ardent love to erudite people, he placed them here in 1465.”Apart from Gemistus Plethon, there were a number of other “Byzantine” famous people, for example the astronomer Epigenes of Byzantium, who lived around 200, and thus actually came from the town of Byzantium. The same is the case with his contemporary, the linguist Aristophanes, who also was a “real” Byzantine. In a more complicated situation is Stephanus Byzantinus, who was known for his geographical work Ethnica, written about the ancient Greece. In his works published in Europe, his name was only written “Stephanus” as long as 1678, their Amsterdam edition. In the Leiden edition of 1688 he is already mentioned as Stephanus Byzantinus. That is, he was simply renamed sometime in the last third of the 17th century.
If we assume, that the tomb inscription was not made after Wolf’s work of 1557 (and the tombstone-carver did not keep pace with the latest scientific research), then we must also assume, that the term “Byzantine” already existed before 1557, as a typical Renaissance hyper-classicism (like Istropolis instead of Posonium), but it was only applied to the city, and not to the state. Wolf was probably aware of this use, and as he tried to draw a caesura between the ancient and medieval Greek literature and sources, he adopted the term “Byzantine”, which was later extended on the basis of his work to the Constantinople-centered Roman Empire.
Byzantium, like a ghost, definitively broke free from Wolf’s bottle, and it is unlikely that we will ever squeeze it back there. Nowadays, if anybody talks about the Roman Empire in connection with the period between the 6th and 15th century, he will shock his listeners just as much as if he used the term of Byzantine Empire in those very centuries.
Piero della Francesca: The Baptism of Christ, 1448-1450 k. London, National Gallery. According to Carlo Ginzburg and other art historians, the exotically dressed figures in the background are Eastern Orthodox theologians, who are discussing the central topic of the Synod of Florence (1439-1442), the Filioque, that is, the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. Thus, after many centuries, they are the first Byzantine figures in Western art, and there is a good chance that also Gemistus Plethon can be found among them.