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Byzantine and Italian City States

Byzantine and Italian City States

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Published by Chad Whitehead
Article about Byzantium and Italian City States
Article about Byzantium and Italian City States

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Published by: Chad Whitehead on Jan 06, 2013
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2010 DOI: 10.1163/157006510X530089
 Journal of Early Modern History 14 (2010) 451-504 
Between Chimera and Charybdis:Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Views on the PoliticalOrganization of the Italian City-States
 Vasileios Syros*
Te University of Chicago
Tis article offers a detailed investigation of Byzantine and post-Byzantine perceptions of the political organization of the Italian city-states. Drawing on philosophical and histori-cal writing produced by Byzantine and post-Byzantine authors between the thirteenth andseventeenth centuries, it identifies the main patterns and motifs that informed Byzantinediscourse about the constitutional arrangements of such Italian cities as Genoa, Venice,Florence, and Milan. It shows how these come into play in the writings of major figures of Byzantine and post-Byzantine intellectual life such as Teodoros Metochites, John Kanta-kouzenos, Nikephoros Gregoras, George of rebizond, Cardinal Bessarion, LaonikosChalkokondyles, and John Kottunios. It also explores the ways in which the classical leg-acy of political thought was applied by Byzantine writers in their analysis of various con-stitutional forms. Te findings of this survey provide new insights into cross-culturalexchanges between the Byzantine world and medieval and early modern Europe and theformation of Byzantine identity.
Byzantine, medieval and early modern western intellectual and cultural history, cross-cul-tural exchanges between Byzantium and Italy, Byzantine historiography and politicalthought, constitutional history of medieval and early modern Italy; Italian city-states;myth of Venice”; Italian humanism; reception of classical political thought* I would like to thank Christos Baloglou, Börje Bydén, Jonathan Harris, Walter Kaegi, Anthony Kaldellis, George Karamanolis, Dimitris Krallis, Stelios Lampakis, Leslie Mac-Coull, Dominic O’Meara, Chris Schabel, and Alfred Vincent for their insightful com-ments on early drafts of this paper.—
Note on transliteration:
I have used directtransliterations from the Greek for proper names (e.g. Kottunios instead of Cottunios),but I chose non-transliteration for names which have passed into English usage (e.g. Johninstead of Ioannes, George instead of Georgios, Matthew instead of Matthaios). In my transliteration of Greek names and terms, I have used
V. Syros / Journal of Early Modern History 14 (2010) 451-504 
 While there is a good deal of scholarship on the economic and diplomaticrelations between Byzantium and medieval Italy, notably Genoa andVenice, the topic of Byzantines’ views about the political and constitu-tional arrangements of the medieval Italian city-states has to date beenaddressed in piecemeal fashion. Tis paper purports to fill this lacuna by examining the ways in which a number of major Byzantine and post-Byz-antine political writers and historians contemplated the political organiza-tion of the Italian cities. A great multiplicity and diversity of sourcescould be consulted, such as popular legends or songs as well as politicalworks advocating ideas reminiscent of the constitutional practices fol-lowed in the Italian city-states.
However, this paper draws predominantly on philosophical and historical texts, as well as treatises with an ostensiblepolitical intent, written by Byzantine and post-Byzantine authors betweenthe thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. My specific objective is to cut a path through this terrain and offer a map of the chief positions, intellec-tual forces, and motifs operative in Byzantine discussions about Italiancivic life. I will show how these come into play in the writings of seminalfigures of Byzantine and post-Byzantine intellectual life such as TeodorosMetochites (1270-1332), John Kantakouzenos (1292-1383), NikephorosGregoras (ca. 1295-1359/60), George of rebizond (1394-ca. 1472), Car-dinal Bessarion (ca. 1400-1472), Laonikos Chalkokondyles (ca. 1423-1490?), and John Kottunios (1572-1657). In addition, my survey willinvestigate the ways in which classical political ideas were used and appro-priated by Byzantine writers as they analyzed various constitutional formsand justified particular regime types.Tis piece represents the first detailed study of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine writers’ ideas on the political conditions that prevailed in medi-
For songs, see, e.g., Manuela Dobre, “Te Venetians in the 15th Century ByzantinePeople Songs,”
 Annuario dell’ Istituto Romeno di Cultura e Ricerca Umanistica di Venezia 
4(2002): 69-81; Petros P. Kalonaros,
Venice in the Legends and Songs of the Greek People 
 (Athens, 1942) [in Greek]; Silvio G. Mercati, “Venezia nella poesia neo-greca,” in
Italia e Grecia: Saggi su le due civiltà e i loro rapporti attraverso i secoli 
(Florence, 1939), 309-39, in
Collectanea Byzantina 
, ed. Augusta Acconcia Longo (Bari, 1970), 2: 572-602. For politi-cal works, see Teodore Palaeologos’ (1382-1464)
De regimine principis 
Les enseigne-ments de Téodore Paléologue 
, ed. Christine Knowles (London, 1983). See also thediscussion in eresa Shawcross, “‘Do Tou Nothing without Counsel’: Political Assem-blies and the Ideal of Good Government in the Tought of Teodore Palaeologus andTeodore Metochites,”
20 (2008): 89-118.
V. Syros / Journal of Early Modern History 14 (2010) 451-504 
eval and early modern Italy. It recovers and presents hitherto unknown orneglected material, such as Kottunios’ works and epigrams composed by Greeks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It brings new authorsto the fore and identifies aspects of their writings that merit inclusion inthe history of Byzantine and post-Byzantine political thought.
Classical Precedents and Sources
Republic and Democracy 
Byzantine accounts of the constitutional organization of the Italian city-states were often framed in terms of comparisons with two ancient Greek patterns of political organization, democracy and the mixed constitution,even though the Byzantines’ knowledge of the political history of ancientGreece often comes out as inaccurate or defective.
Te great majority of Byzantine writers expressed a strong predilection for monarchy. Nonethe-less, and although it would certainly be too great a stretch to affirm theexistence of a distinct republican strain within the Byzantine political tra-dition, we do come across isolated defenses of republican or democraticideas or of election as a precondition for healthy governance.Zosimos (Zosimus, who lived from the second half of the fifth century to the beginning of the sixth century) in his
Historia Nova 
New History 
)argues for the desirability of the Republic versus the Empire.
John Lydos
Johannes Irmscher, “Die hellenische Polisideologie und die Byzantiner,” in
Hellenische Poleis: Krise-Wandlung-Wirkung 
, ed. Elisabeth C. Welskopf (Berlin, 1974), 3: 1639-67;and, in general, Elizabeth M. Jeffreys, “Te Attitudes of Byzantine Chroniclers towards Ancient History,”
49 (1979): 199-238. On Byzantine views on the ancientGreek city-states, see Johannes Irmscher, “L’ideologia ellenica della polis e i Bizantini,”
Byzantinische Forschungen
8 (1982): 71-85. Compare Michael Choniates’ (ca. 1140-1220)description of ancient Athens in Paul Speck, “Eine byzantinische Darstellung der anti-ken Stadt Athen,”
28 (1975): 415-18, English trans. as “A Byzantine Depictionof Ancient Athens,” in idem,
Understanding Byzantium: Studies in Byzantine Historical Sources 
, ed. Sarolta akács (Aldershot, 2003), no. V (29-32). See also Silvio G. Mercati,“Intorno alla elegia di Michele Acominato sulla decadenza della città di Atene,” in
Eis mnemen Spyridonos Lamprou
(Athens, 1935), 423-27, in
Collectanea Byzantina 
, 1: 483-88.
A suvey of middle Byzantine views of ancient Rome appears in Athanasios Marko-poulos, “Roman Antiquarianism: Aspects of the Roman Past in the Middle ByzantinePeriod (9th-11th Centuries),” in
Proceedings of the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies 
, vol. 1:
Plenary Papers 
, ed. Elizabeth Jeffreys (Aldershot, 2006), 277-97.

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