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"A Single, Easily Managed Household": Antiquity and the Peloponnese in Late Byzantium

Eric Wesley Driscoll

American School of Classical Studies at Athens

This paper argues that an increasing clarity of vision about the geographical unity of the Peloponnese is evident in several key texts from Late Byzantium, and that this increasing clarity is not simply a reflection of changing political conditions but attended a more intensely felt reception of ancient texts dealing with Sparta. Antiquity plays a crucial role in constructing a relationship between Hellenic ethnicity and territory, a relationship theorized in tandem with increasingly solid Byzantine control of the fragmented political landscape of the Peloponnese. Theodore Metochites’ 100th Essay, on the constitution of ancient Sparta, is my earliest text, and the latest is a letter from Cardinal Bessarion to Constantine Palaiologos urging him to reform and modernize the Despotate of the Morea.

In Late Byzantium, the Despotate had become a key stronghold for the imperial family, seeming to offer a safe harbor from what Demetrios Kydones called the "general shipwreck" of Byzantium (as quoted by Shawcross 2013: 424). A chief exponent of the early Palaiologan renaissance that bloomed a generation after the 1261 recovery of Constantinople (Beck 1952, Ševčenko 1975, Medvedev 1984), Metochites wrote before the Morea had assumed that role. His discussion of the Peloponnese in Essay 100 (I have collated the defective 1821 edition against what Hult 2002 identifies as the best manuscript) is a rather indistinct mélange of Plutarchan ideas drawn mainly from the Lives of Agesilaos and Lycurgus, but also the Apophthegmata Laconica. Sparta is the very model of a philosophically sound polis, but its isolationism is also presented as a cause of ignorance and disorganization. Metochites is not simply recapitulating Plutarch but engaging in active theorization (cf. Featherstone 2011). Ultimately, however, I argue, his Essay does not coherently suggest any relationship between land and ethnicity or antiquity. By contrast, Bessarion advises Constantine that he must restore “the most well-arranged constitution of the Lakedaimonians.” His letter develops a complicated and highly rhetorical argument for emulating antiquity, in which Bessarion explicitly equates ancient Sparta, the contemporary Peloponnese, and the genos of the Hellenes as such. 

These two texts belong to very different genres, but I attribute the different way in which Bessarion approaches the Peloponnese as a geographical space not so much to the exigencies of advising a prince as to the intellectual revolution that occurred around the start of the 15th century. Mystras, the Despotate’s capital, developed into a cultural and intellectual center (Zakythinos 1952), closely associated with the presence of the infamous George Gemistos Plethon, the “last of the Hellenes” (Woodhead 1986) and a man deeply steeped in ancient texts. Plethon wrote a sequence of Memoranda to the imperial family, in which he drew on Plutarch and Plato to develop a utopian vision for Peloponnesian society, radically reconfigured behind the safety of the newly rebuilt Hexamilion wall across the Isthmus of Corinth. In his letter to Manuel II, Plethon famously tells the emperor that “we over whom you are leader and king are Greeks by genos, as our language and ancestral education attest,” and goes on to argue that the Peloponnese is the one most quintessentially and ineradicably Hellenic landscape (cf. Siniossoglou 2014).

None of these texts has been published in English translation (Plethon’s Memoranda have been extensively paraphrased; German translations also exist) and while Plethon’s Memoranda are well known and have been much discussed (highly selective but representative: Tozer 1886, Masai 1956, Woodhouse 1986, Siniossoglou 2011, Shawcross 2013, and most recently Smarnakis 2017), their intertextual relationship with Metochites’ Essay seems to have garnered little or no discussion, and Bessarion’s epistle has mainly been treated superficially as a footnote to Plethon. My paper begins to redress this imbalance. It shows that Metochites, Plethon, and Bessarion offer an increasingly clear sense of the Peloponnese as a geographically unified territory, characterized by metonymic slippage from Sparta to Peloponnese--and from antiquity to modernity--as ancient texts are used to help situate the present-day Morea as both Hellenic and Byzantine.

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Constructing a Classical Tradition: East and West

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