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Greek Laughter and TearsAntiquity and After$

Margaret Alexiou and Douglas Cairns

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781474403795

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474403795.001.0001

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Laments by Nicetas Choniates and Others for the Fall of Constantinople in 1204

Laments by Nicetas Choniates and Others for the Fall of Constantinople in 1204

(p.338) 19 Laments by Nicetas Choniates and Others for the Fall of Constantinople in 1204
Greek Laughter and Tears

Michael Angold

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Nicetas Choniates’s History contains a famous lament for the fall of Constantinople in 1204 to the crusaders. It is beautifully phrased, but so conventional that it tells us very little about the emotional reaction of the Byzantines to a dreadful event. More interesting are the funeral orations delivered soon afterwards by survivors for those they had lost, because they mixed tears of grief over the departed, with tears of shame for the overthrow of Byzantium. In doing so, their authors, who were drawn from the highest ranks of the church and imperial administration, reveal the self-regard of the elite, which ran Byzantium. They could not understand how beings, as superior as they were, had been bested by a rabble of foreigners. At least, they knew they were not to blame. Their message was that they and their friends and relatives had displayed their moral and spiritual worth in the face of the indignities that were heaped upon them. They could see that this was God’s way of testing them for the failings of others. It was their duty as the guardians of Orthodoxy to lead the people of Byzantium through this challenge.

Keywords:   Constantinople, 1204, Nicetas Choniates, Orthodoxy


Perhaps Meg Alexiou has said all that needs to be said in her Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition1 about the famous lament for the fall of Constantinople, with which Nicetas Choniates concludes his narrative of the sack of the city by the Latins.2 Other treatments of this lament have had little to add.3 As one might expect from Nicetas Choniates, his lament is in literary terms a highly accomplished piece of writing interweaving a major theme – the parallel of the fall of Constantinople and the fall of Jerusalem – with a minor theme – the struggle of Hellenism against the forces of barbarism. He develops the latter more fully in his De Signis, as it is conventionally known, where he itemises the classical statuary destroyed by the crusaders.4 Normally, as Anthony Kaldellis has warned, it is a mistake to take anything that Nicetas Choniates writes at face value.5 However, the lament is not laughter in disguise. Choniates rebukes those who to the strains of the lyre make fun of Constantinople’s plight. In this case, he means exactly what he says, which may be the reason why there is so little to say about it.

Choniates’ History contains another lament for the fall of Constantinople, which Nicetas Choniates purports to have extemporised as he passed through the gates of Constantinople into exile.6 (p.339) He reproached the walls of Constantinople, which stood as tall as ever, for failing to protect the Byzantines. He beseeches the city to intercede with God for them, but the main theme is what is going to happen to them now that they have been torn away ‘like darling children from their adoring mother’. This lament is far more emotional and personal than his earlier and much more formal lament. It has more in common with the other laments for Constantinople penned by Nicetas Choniates and others, such as his brother Michael, in the funeral orations which they delivered in the aftermath of the fall. These are of great value for the way they bring out the emotional response of a group of highly educated members of the Byzantine elite to the fall of Constantinople. It is this emotional response on which I shall concentrate. There will be precious little laughter, but plenty of tears shed and not shed. It was felt that the inability to shed tears when overcome by sorrow added to the intensity of grief, for, as Michael Choniates explained, without tears there was no ‘easy release of the pain nurtured in the soul’.7

But first of all there is the question of whether works of rhetoric can serve as a guide to emotional states. Traditionally, rhetoric has given Byzantium a bad name.8 More specifically, funeral orations were dismissed as empty and dishonest emotionalism in an anonymous Byzantine tract entitled ‘Monody for Monodists’.9 Thanks to the palaeographic skills of Daniele Bianconi we know that the author of this piece was John Katrares, an obscure early fourteenth-century copyist from Thessalonica.10 Bianconi disposes of the possibility that he was simply copying an earlier text. The manuscript is not only an autograph, but also a working copy with many corrections and additions in Katrares’ hand with no attempt to incorporate these into the text. The reasons behind his denunciation of those delivering funeral speeches must first of all be sought in the rivalries there were among the literati of early fourteenth-century Thessalonica. Whether it had more general application is another matter. The charge brought by Katrares was that ‘threnodists’, as he calls them, used the funeral oration as a vehicle of false emotion. Recourse to heightened emotion put them on the same level as drunkards.

However, I don’t think drunkenness so bad as your unrestrained and unbounded behaviour displayed when delivering funeral orations, for there is nowhere safe from your lamentations: not the (p.340) market places, the meeting halls, nor colonnaded mansions, not just by day but even at night.11

They contended among themselves to give reality to the sorrows of Niobe. To which the author’s retort was ‘Better you were turned to stone! It would at least mean that you stopped delivering funeral orations!’12 The author had in mind rivals who made a living out of delivering funeral orations. He thought that they had no sense of the appropriate. They did not understand the restraints needed for the effective expression of emotion. The author seems to be idealising a past, when funeral orations were the work not of hired hacks, but of men of learning, who were friends or close relatives of the deceased. This would have been a view favoured by the accidents of survival, which ensured that a much higher proportion of funeral orations of exactly this kind were available to later generations.13 Included among these were Nicetas Choniates’ monody for his brothers-in-law Michael and John Belissariotes, Michael Choniates’ monody for his brother Nicetas, and Nicholas Mesarites’ epitaphios for his brother John. The emotions revealed strike me as perfectly genuine and all the more powerful for the constraints that respect for the rules of rhetoric imposed. Their grief for the deceased relatives had an extra dimension, in the shape of the disaster which they had all lived through. The expression of their sorrows over the departed merged with despair over the fall of Constantinople.

As in almost all societies, so at Byzantium the expression of emotion was laudable, as long as it conformed to a code of behaviour. The charge made against ‘threnodists’ by John Katrares was that their behaviour was inappropriate. He accused them of being like women who sit beside corpses and, in the words of Euripides, ‘heap tear upon tear’.14 They were like actors or loose women who are paid to mourn the dead. Katrares was not condemning an appeal to the emotions, but making the point that to be effective these needed to be under control. As Meg Alexiou has underlined, this had normally meant making sure that at funerals and commemorations women were kept in their place, separate from the men.15 A chance conversation that Michael Psellos had with one of his relatives at the time of his sister’s death makes it clear that it was the father who would lead the lamentations for a daughter, not the mother, who might be inconsolable (p.341) but was expected to remain silent.16 The funeral orations were intended to put a masculine stamp on proceedings. That in other circumstances women might join in the process of lamentation is apparent from an episode recounted by Nicetas Choniates in his History. As Andronikos I Komnenos was being brought back to Constantinople to face execution, he began singing a lament contrasting his high birth and past good fortune with the fate that awaited him. The women with him improvised responses to his lamentations that were even more pitiful.17 This is something quite different from the formality of an epitaphios or a monody, where women’s voices were absent.


My starting point will be the monody which Nicetas Choniates composed after the fall of Constantinople for the deaths in quick succession of his brothers-in-law John and Michael Belissariotes.18 His grief was so overwhelming that he found it impossible to cry. He too used the image of Niobe, ‘who was not able to cry like a human, but as a stone was able to endure unbearable suffering’.19 He complained that he suffered even more: ‘I have the worst of both worlds. Having acquired a stone-like inability to cry I have lost the ability to suffer unflinchingly.’20 This was the result of the magnitude of interwoven disasters that he had experienced, culminating in the deaths of his brothers-inlaw, who were among ‘the brightest and the best’.21 Why was humiliation and misfortune saved up for a generation like theirs, which embodied all that was best in the Byzantine ideal? In other words, permeating Nicetas Choniates’ grief for the deaths of his brothers-in-law was a need to understand the catastrophe that had overtaken Byzantium. It was slightly more than this. There were many who blamed Nicetas Choniates and his like for the fall of Constantinople. He was at pains to counter such accusations. He traced the immediate failure of the Byzantine government to the decision taken by the emperor to dismiss John and Michael Belissariotes from office. It was Choniates’ opinion that as long as they carried out the public administration, society shared in the general prosperity. With the departure of the Belissariotes brothers from office, to quote Nicetas Choniates, ‘the fortunate state of affairs disappeared, unleashing life-destroying (p.342) forces’.22 Not everybody will agree with Choniates’ viewpoint, but it coloured his reaction to the fall of Constantinople. It was the venality, ambition and sheer stupidity of others which delivered Constantinople to the Latins.

As a result ‘the Queen of Cities, renowned among cities, became a military camp for an obscure and motley band of foreigners’.23 This was cause for tears at the shame of being humiliated by people who had swooped down on Constantinople, destroying with fire its ‘beautiful arcades and glittering halls’ and accumulating ‘piles of all sorts of money’.24 This was of superficial importance compared with their deliberate attempt to humiliate the most prosperous of citizens.25 What really hurt was the disrespect shown to the Byzantine way of life, as exemplified by its leading lights, such as Nicetas Choniates and his circle. As a way of expounding the Byzantine predicament Nicetas turned to the fall of Troy. He uses Hector’s words ‘Now is steep Ilios wholly plunged into ruins’ (Iliad 13.772–3)26 to express his bitter grief over the fall of Constantinople. He also remembered ‘how bitterly Hector complained and how grief-stricken he was when he saw overcome in battle by the Achaeans his warrior commanders, men who were the best when it came to fighting and displayed their skill in defending the walls and moat of Ilios’, and were judged by men of discernment as ‘more able than any others for their powers of administration’,27 in other words people like Nicetas himself. There is nothing quite so humiliating as being bested by those considered your inferiors. To express the depths of grief he felt for the deaths of his brothers-in-law he offered the prayer from Euripides’ tragedy of Hecuba, ‘“Would that my arms, hands, hair and feet had voices”, so that all touched by common sufferings might produce in harmony a lamentation.’28 He chose this prayer deliberately because of the similarity of circumstances that united Trojan and Byzantine.

The parallel with Troy might have been apposite, but it was depressing, because Troy never recovered from the sack. It left Nicetas with the painful question of, as he put it, ‘How do we face up to our expulsion from our homeland, which will not easily be reversed?’29 Exile eventually brought Nicetas, with only one brother-in-law, John (p.343) Belissariotes, as companion, to Nicaea; the other, Michael, having died along the way. It would have been better, Nicetas complained, if they had never seen Nicaea. Its citizens were inhospitable and took pleasure in their plight. The only consolation that Nicetas drew from John’s sudden death not long after they reached Nicaea was that he thus ‘avoided being numbered among the men of the present, who are deceitful’. Nicetas was referring to men of the fifth age, Hesiod’s age of iron.30 He was looking back to their days in Constantinople as, if not a Golden Age, then at least a Silver Age, where men of quality were appreciated: ‘It is now a generation of iron and I know that to men of iron all the benefits flow, while intellectual pursuits are without good reason disregarded.’31 These were the men accused by Nicetas Choniates, in the lament contained in his History, of celebrating to the music of the lyre the misfortunes of Constantinople, by making a comedy out of its tragedy and fun of its afflictions.

Nicetas Choniates insisted that John Belissariotes’ early death meant that his end was more fortunate and much more honourable than if he had lingered on. He did not die as a worthless peasant or a despised immigrant, which Nicetas thought was his lot.32 It left the historian disoriented. He now felt

a burning sensation like that fire which rained down indiscriminately and devoured our houses with the flames leaping to the tops of those lofty, gilded, three-storied mansion … Now have I truly experienced the meaning of pillaging and plundering and the bitterness of being led away into captivity; now I am an object sold as booty; now I am plundered and pillaged.33

Grief over his brother-in-law’s death revived the horrors of the sack of Constantinople and led to a proper appreciation of what had happened. It is the best example of the way Nicetas conflated personal loss with the fall of the city.

Nicetas Choniates is able to use his monody for his brother-in-law as an outlet for the emotions triggered by the fall of Constantinople. These were primarily those associated with humiliation and loss of status. He had seen a noble ideal, which people like him embodied and orchestrated, overthrown by the sheer stupidity of members of the imperial family in collusion with the forces of barbarism. What Nicetas leaves unsaid is that he had been quite powerless to prevent (p.344) this happening. His impotence was only underlined by his irrelevance to the new world which was taking shape.


Nicetas Choniates lingered on at Nicaea until 1217. His elder brother Michael, the archbishop of Athens, was shocked by the news of his death, which must have reached him several months later. His reaction was to compose a monody for the benefit of the many relatives and associates of Nicetas who had found refuge in Greece. Michael’s viewpoint on the politics of his times was rather different from his brother’s. Nicetas knew something of conditions in the provinces, because during his early career he had served as a fiscal official in Thrace and elsewhere, but latterly he had held high office in the central administration at Constantinople, culminating in the post of grand logothete, which effectively put him at the head of the administration. His brother Michael had gone as long ago as 1182 to Athens, as its archbishop. Thanks to his character and ability he was a success in the job.34 It helped to have powerful contacts inside the government at Constantinople. These included his brother Nicetas. But Michael became increasingly disillusioned with Constantinople and the imperial government. On the eve of the fall of Constantinople he found himself alone defending the city of Athens against a local tyrant, Leo Sgouras. Michael succeeded in driving him off. Compared with Michael’s own troubles the fall of Constantinople did not seem of immediate importance. In a letter which served as a monody for a nephew of his murdered by Sgouras, he contrasted the comparative restraint of the Latin conquerors with the barbarity of Leo Sgouras and his men. ‘Compared to him’, Michael Choniates observed, ‘even the Italians seem blameless. For the evils which they have caused seem less pernicious than those he perpetrated, with the result that the Romaioi find foreigners more civilised and on the whole more principled.’35 While Choniates had conducted a brave defence of Athens against Leo Sgouras, he surrendered the city without a fight to the Latins. He preferred, however, to go into exile rather than live under Latin rule. There were limits to his good opinion of the Latins. In exile he had time to ponder the real meaning of the fall of Constantinople, which he sets out in his monody for his brother.36 His description of the sack of the city is perfunctory: ‘The New Sion in the (p.345) same way as the Old was abandoned, taken, and plundered. It was emptied of its population, some of whom either by mischance or by the skin of their teeth emigrated to Nicaea in Bithynia.’37 There they now lived, but as suppliants. Michael Choniates was more sanguine than his brother. He thought that the exiles brought education and an example of good conduct which improved the morale of the weak and feeble. He believed that while his brother had his companions from Constantinople around him he did not think unduly about his expulsion from Constantinople. Echoing Thucydides’ Nicias (7.77), Michael Choniates insisted that it was not walls or tall houses and arcades and squares that made a city, but the good character, decorum and piety of its citizens.38 It meant that while Nicetas and his fellow exiles lived, ‘it was as though the acropolis of Constantine survived unconquered’,39 for they seemed the incarnation of all it stood for. As Michael Choniates said of John Belissariotes, they were ‘the embodiment of the best in our political system’.40 But after they had departed to what he calls ‘the senate in the sky,’41 people felt the true meaning of the loss of Constantinople. It was only then that their lamentations started, ‘realising that the city had been utterly overthrown and its most precious possession defiled and had suffered the complete exhaustion of its rich treasures’.42 The personal consequences could be even more painful. Michael Choniates thinks of his brother’s widow, who had ‘sought a dignified death in old age with him’, left instead ‘seated on the floor in some corner dressed in black amidst a swarm of young children and infants, bewailing her pitiful widowhood and her orphaned children’.43 Her older children had all gone their separate ways and ‘must lament and cry aloud all by themselves’.44 Michael Choniates was emphasising how family solidarity suffered as a result of the fall of Constantinople, a consequence of which was the dispersal of the Byzantine elite.

Michael Choniates brings out more clearly than his brother had in his monody for John Belissariotes that the fall of Constantinople represented the destruction of an ideal, which was epitomised by its educated elite. Their very presence had kept its memory alive in exile. The archbishop makes no ringing declaration that their example will preserve the ideal; the unspoken assumption being that it has died (p.346) with them. Michael Choniates regretted that ‘such a cornerstone of Christendom had been shattered’; that ‘such a network of charitable institutions had been overturned’.45 The imperial office, as such, is not mentioned. He conceded that the principles underlying Byzantium’s political system were something to be proud of.46 But, even if he refrains from blaming the imperial family directly, as his brother did in his History, he concedes that constant changes of ruler had deprived the emperor of authority.47 The Byzantine ruling class had brought their tragedy upon themselves. Its members deserved what they got. However, Michael Choniates managed to rescue something from the humiliation of the fall of Constantinople. It gave his brother an opportunity to show his true mettle. He embroiders an episode mentioned almost in passing in his brother’s History, where Nicetas Choniates explains in a few lines how he rescued a young girl from the clutches of a licentious Latin by enlisting the aid of other westerners, and how he returned the girl safe and sound to her father. In the monody Michael Choniates goes on for nearly three pages about the bravery of his brother in facing up single-handed to the ravening Latin, without ever mentioning the support Nicetas had from other Latins.48 It was undoubtedly an act of great bravery on Nicetas’ part, but, as presented by his brother, it was also proof that he was not tainted by the moral degeneracy of the Byzantine ruling class, which had delivered Constantinople to their enemies.


A similar point was made in the monody delivered by Euthymios Tornikes over the tomb of his uncle, the long-serving archbishop of New Patras, Euthymios Malakes.49 He was unable to stop weeping, though he did not know whether it was out of grief for the fall of Constantinople or for the death of the archbishop, which occurred in quick succession. The first came about as punishment for the sins of its people, whereas the archbishop was full of virtue and free of sin.50 Euthymios Malakes was one of Michael Choniates’ allies and mentors.51 He was very much a political bishop. He was archbishop of New Patras for nearly forty years. His see in central Greece (p.347) was relatively poor and obscure and he spent much of his time in Constantinople, where he was in demand as an encomiast.52 His was a powerful voice in the patriarchal synod and he played an important role as an intermediary between Constantinople and Greece. The last we know of him comes from a letter he received from Michael Choniates regretting that his return to Greece from Constantinople had been put off yet again. The contrast that the latter draws between the former’s comfortable life in Constantinople and his own precarious position in Greece suggests a date shortly before the arrival of the crusaders under the walls of Constantinople in August 1203.53 At some point Malakes abandoned Constantinople and made his way back to Greece. He was buried at Chalkis in Euboea, which was on his route back to his see. It is most probable that he left Constantinople before its final fall to the Latins in April 1204, because he was part of a wave of refugees which left before Euthymios Tornikes, who lived through the sack of Constantinople and was captured by the Latins. Tornikes arrived in Chalkis to find Malakes dead, but he derived consolation from the latter’s tomb.54 It was compensation for the destruction during the sack of the city of one of his most treasured possessions: Malakes’ Book of Wisdom.55 Its lessons would have provided him with much-needed guidance through the difficulties he faced. The book does not survive among Malakes’ works. It is likely to have been a florilegium with a strong moral content, because Euthymios Tornikes insists that Malakes had foreseen the cosmic cataclysm that overtook Byzantium, ‘which the waft of our sins set in motion’.56 Like many others over the centuries Malakes will have been critical of the moral degeneracy he saw all around him. The Old Testament roots of Byzantium ensured that there were always prophets crying in the wilderness.57 When disaster finally struck, this was thought to absolve such men of any responsibility for the outcome.


Euthymios Tornikes’ monody is a work of modest proportions, unlike the epitaphios which Nicholas Mesarites delivered over his brother John’s grave on 16 March 1207.58 It is far more substantial (p.348) than any of the funeral orations discussed so far. But there are similarities in the way that Tornikes and Mesarites present their subjects. Both were holy men who predicted the catastrophe which awaited Byzantium because of its sins. Commemorating them became all the more urgent because of the destruction during the sack of Constantinople of their major works, which were their most appropriate memorial: Malakes’ Book of Wisdom and John Mesarites’ Commentary on the Psalms. Malakes was a political bishop, whom it was difficult to turn into a hero around whose memory the defeated and confused Byzantines could regroup and recover a sense of pride and purpose. By way of contrast, John Mesarites was a hesychast, who defied the Latins to do their worst. There can be little doubt that his brother was deliberately casting him as a hero of Orthodoxy, whence the long physical descriptions. As if to emphasise his brother’s moral integrity Nicholas dwells lovingly on John’s long, flowing beard.59 The Mesarites were a family of bureaucrats, but their fortunes had faded in the generation before 1204. The hopes of the family had rested on John, who at an early age had been appointed didaskalos of the psalter.60 But he was also unfortunate enough to have been adopted as a confidant by the emperor Andronikos Comnenus.61 After the latter’s downfall John was a hunted man and found refuge in the life of a hesychast.62 His reputation as an ascetic allowed his rehabilitation and he became Alexius III Angelos’ confessor, with honoured access to the imperial court. He was able to devote himself to his compilation of a commentary on the Psalms. The anticipated rewards from the emperor failed to materialise, because of the arrival of the fourth crusade under the walls of Constantinople. John had foreseen such a possibility, for he had been vouchsafed a vision in which

he seemed to see a ship coming from the west and bringing fire across the seas. It contrived to fly through the air and land in the middle of Byzantium. All around it became fuel for the fire until the city was burnt to the ground and turned to ashes.

Coming to his senses, he asked himself, ‘Can Byzantium expect such a calamity to arrive from the west?’63 Three days later he had his answer, when a messenger reported seeing the sea covered in trees just like the (p.349) land.64 After recounting his brother’s vision, which seemed to be an accurate prediction of what was to come, Nicholas Mesarites turned to his audience and asked its members whether or not his brother was chosen by God. He anticipated an affirmative answer.65

This incident is the hinge on which Nicholas Mesarites’ presentation of his brother’s mission turns. All his past life, his education, his feats of asceticism were preparation for his God-given role as a champion of Orthodoxy at a critical moment in Byzantine history. The gift of foresight allowed him to apportion blame for the catastrophe which Byzantium suffered.

When we put to one side our Lord’s commands, we find our lives have no purpose. Should an emperor, who is only mortal, disregard and set aside His orders, will He who was before all eternity never bend his bow and unleash his destructive arrows, however loving of mankind He is?66

This is the only instance I have found in the funeral orations delivered in the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople where the emperor is explicitly blamed for the disaster that overcame the city. On the other hand, it is not absolutely clear whether Nicholas Mesarites was blaming a succession of emperors from the house of Angelos – that monstrous trinity, as he describes them elsewhere67 – or whether he had only the last of them in mind: the young Alexios Angelos, who had seized the throne with crusader support. John Mesarites was not blaming the emperor alone for the Byzantine failure. His criticism extended to the whole of Byzantine society. He compared the Byzantines to Jeremiah’s ‘precious sons of Zion’, who abominated righteousness and, as it were, cast lascivious glances at their neighbour’s wife and for the most part bore false witness.68 The Byzantines were guilty of all sorts of other offences ‘which are irreconcilable with and alien to Christian teaching’.69 Only when they were properly contrite and had abandoned their sinful ways would the Byzantines recover their own Zion. John Mesarites urged his fellow citizens ‘with tears running down their faces to beseech the mercy of Him who cares for us, lest we are weighed down with the heavy and bitter yoke of servitude’.70

(p.350) A taste of what this would mean was all too apparent as the Latins rampaged through the conquered city. Incidentally, Nicholas Mesarites provides perhaps the most graphic depiction of the horrors of the sack of Constantinople, which he had lived through.71 He found refuge in the Great Palace of the Emperors,72 while his brother John abandoned his cell for what he had hoped would be the greater safety of the monastery of St George of the Mangana.73 It was not long, however, before the crusaders broke into the monastery, where they manhandled the monks, including John, in their eagerness to loot the monastery’s treasures. When he was questioned this was the answer he gave:

Naked came I out of my mother’s womb. Therefore am I as bereft of fear as I am of possessions, so that I have absolutely no fear of robbery nor do I tremble in the face of this turn of events; I am not perturbed in the slightest nor do I go in fear. I have embraced divine love; I reject love of worldly delights, as a burden to be shaken off.74

His stance so impressed the conquerors that one of them got up and offered John Mesarites his seat. They talked through an interpreter. The crusader exclaimed at the end, ‘if the people of Byzantium had had such a man as their leader, we might have submitted and taken an oath of fealty’:75 the moral of the story being that even the enemy recognised true nobility, which the fall of Constantinople could not extinguish.

This incident formed a prelude to the climax of Nicholas Mesarites’ epitaphios, which is provided by the debates between religious leaders on both sides over the differences separating the two churches. The drama is increased since the debates are set out in dialogue form. John Mesarites not only drafted the Byzantine replies but also assumed the role of chief spokesman. He was being cast in a heroic role. The Byzantines might well only have themselves to blame for their plight because of their sinful way of life, but this had not discredited their form of Christianity. On the contrary, it was the only thing left for them to cling to; the only thing which offered them any hope of reconciliation with God. To the charge that the Greeks were contumacious and refractory John Mesarites pointed out that they could all have left (p.351) Constantinople and sought refuge in various centres of resistance that were growing up to Latin rule:

However, we have not done so, making the correct estimation, as we see it, that it is pleasing to God that we do not flee from you, [because] you have been sent by God to chastise and discipline us. [Rather do we prefer] to submit to the painful things that He has inflicted upon us for our sins, but certainly not for our lack of faith. It is for this reason that we every day endure a myriad of evils suffered at the hands of your people and rejoice in Holy God, who has thus seen fit to wipe away our sins, [even though] we lack [our] daily sustenance. We may have been deprived of all possessions, but we still have one source of wealth – our hallowed and orthodox faith, which you cannot take from us, however much pain you contrive to inflict upon us. While we breathe, we shall never appear as traitors to our hallowed faith. It will not happen, even with the threat of death [hanging] over us.76


Everything else seemed to have been taken away. Having failed in its duty to unify and protect Byzantine society in the face of the enemy, the imperial office had passed into the possession of foreign conquerors. The learned elite which had run the official organs of government was now scattered among different provincial cities, where its members learnt just how unpopular they were. The lamentations we have considered were lamentations for their plight. But it was more than this: it was a recognition that the imperial ideal which validated their privileged existence was in danger of extinction. Orthodoxy was all that was left to cling to. The tears that were shed were for themselves and for the passing of an ideal. They were tears of helplessness and hopelessness, but also tears of contrition. It was part of a process of rehabilitation, at the centre of which was their Orthodox faith. That grasped, there was little need for tears, which are notably absent from John Mesarites’ confrontation with the Latins, as they are from one final lament. This was a piece by the exiled patriarch John X Kamateros, entitled ‘On the harm done to us by the Latins’.77 It begins with a lament for his fate, condemned to be a wanderer ‘without city or see’,78 and a lament for the sack of Constantinople by the Latins:

(p.352) What terrible and shameful acts have they not committed! They have dishonoured the dwellings of God; they have turned churches into stables and the most fragrant into dunghills. They have trampled under foot the most sacred of holy icons and have profaned altars by slaughtering pigs and sheep, where once was the blood of the ineffable sacrifice. They have desecrated the tombs of the saints and of ordinary believers.79

The patriarch concedes that to an extent the Byzantines had only themselves to blame for what had happened. They were guilty of the sin – if sin it is – of negligence, which had allowed the Latins to triumph, but in their triumph the Latins were guilty of much more serious crimes, for which they had been and were being punished. The patriarch reminded them that

not so long ago you were driven from Jerusalem by the Arab. Does that mean that the Arabs are stronger in their faith than your church and its leader? So too were you overcome and slaughtered by the Scythian and the Bulgarian. Does that mean that they are more holy than you?80

The Latins were coming to a bad end as punishment for impiety against God, displayed in their failure to defend Jerusalem and in their sack of Constantinople. They had no idea how to honour God, so unlike the Byzantines, who now chose to go hungry and unclad rather than fail to celebrate the liturgy in appropriate fashion.81 The fall of Constantinople had tested the Byzantines and they had not been found wanting. The patriarch himself had gone through fire and water and expected that in due course it would earn him ‘heavenly repose’, for ‘I have preserved within me the grain of faith inviolate, which deserves its heavenly resting place.’82 He might have allowed himself a tear or two of joy.


(4) Nicetas Choniates 1975: 647–55. It is interesting that this is the only detailed consideration from the Byzantine side of the looting and destruction wrought by the crusaders in 1204. There is nothing similar on relics, which we know from western sources were of consuming interest to the Latins and looted on a massive scale.

(8) Most famously, Jenkins 1963: 46.

(10) Bianconi 2006: 69–91. I have to thank Professor Niels Gaul for this reference.