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Response to Review no. 1030

I am extremely grateful to Michael Angold for his generous review and careful reading of my work. I am also very pleased that he has paid tribute to the work of Tonia Kiousopoulou. Her succinct little book has transformed our understanding of the last 50 years of the Byzantine empire and hopefully it will be translated into English before too long so that it can be used in teaching. In the case of both books, Angold unerringly perceives the intentions of the authors. Kiousopoulou aims to argue a thesis that Byzantium had changed constitutionally in response to its drastic contraction and these changes dictated the Byzantine response to the Ottoman threat. My book, on the other hand, is more of an overview, designed to provide a coherent narrative of the period 1403 to 1465 for a general readership. He has placed both books in the context of wider debates on the last 50 years of Byzantine history.

Angold points out that there are a number of issues that are not addressed in detail, or in some cases at all, in my book. There is no discussion of Ivan Djurić’s rehabilitation of Emperor John VIII Palaiologos in his Le crepuscule de Byzance (1996), no detailed weighing up of the evidence of the Chronicle of George Sphrantze, no investigation of the problem of why Constantine XI was never crowned in Constantinople and no explanation of the flight of the patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory Melissenos, to Rome in 1450. These are all undeniably very important points but as Angold himself observes my work is designed as an overview for the general reader. Detailed discussion of these points would not only have distracted from the narrative flow and overburdened the text; it would also have sent me far beyond the strict 100,000 word limit. It is also something in the nature of Byzantine studies that authors are often constrained to narrate rather than dig deeper: it is such a neglected area of history that knowledge on the part of the reader cannot be assumed.

Angold also has some concerns that my conclusion contradicts what I say in the body of the book. In the latter, I appear to say that Manuel II Palaiologos did enough to give Byzantium a chance of survival between 1403 and 1421, but this came to nothing because his son John VIII was overambitious in his foreign policy. The conclusion, on the other hand, focuses on how all the Palaiologoi from Manuel II to his grandson Andreas spent much of their time desperately raising cash either through loans or simply begging from other Christian rulers. This, Angold concludes, only leaves the impression that Byzantium was in more of a mess than even Ivan Djurić allowed. I do not, however, accept these interpretations or that there is any contradiction. There is a strongly defined theme that runs through the whole book which is laid out in the prologue (pp. xvii-xxii): it is just that it is perhaps a different one from what Angold was expecting.

The theme of the book is how people respond to crisis and in particular how the Byzantines responded to a period of 50 years when their society teetered on the brink between survival and destruction. Steven Runciman’s classic Fall of Constantinople lays great stress on the heroic last stand of Emperor Constantine XI on the Land Walls in 1453 but that emphasis can be misleading for two reasons. First, much of Runciman’s narrative was based on the late and unreliable work of pseudo-Sphrantzes and secondly the open military defiance of the Ottomans that he represented was by no means a typical response to the situation. Most Byzantines, rich and poor, took a much more ambivalent line, attempting to secure their personal survival and that of their families and fortunes, whatever might befall. The obvious example is that of Loukas Notaras, the wealthy Grand Duke who hedged his bets between the Latin West and the Ottoman Turks. It is this very human response that the book explores and much of the policy of both Manuel II and John VIII should be seen in the light of it. Both emperors had peace treaties with the Ottoman Sultan and yet both continued to talk to the Western powers in the hope of organising an anti-Turkish crusade. Both received financial help from Christian rulers as oppressed co-religionists at the same time as they were vassals of the sultan. It was not honourable, it was not heroic but in the circumstances it was very understandable. Hence my conclusion which focuses on Andreas Palaiologos and emphasises how the third generation in exile responded in exactly the same way, playing on the sympathy of the Christian west but also prepared to throw themselves on the mercy of the sultan. I therefore see no contradiction in the main theme of my book.

At the end of the day a book is a very personal thing and I am well aware that anyone else would have written The End of Byzantium in a very different way. Angold notes, for example, that I put a great deal of stress on the Byzantine diaspora after 1453. The reason is that I wrote my PhD on the topic: another author would have laid the emphasis elsewhere. The points that Angold raises in his review are those to which he attaches importance and which, it is to be hoped, will be explored in his own book on the fall of Constantinople which is due to be published in 2012. When that appears we will probably all have to revise our opinions.