The Annals of Trebizond, I by Thomas Fleming
The Annals of Trebizond
By Thomas Fleming
“Trebizond,” I exclaimed, “Why the very word spells romance.”
“That’s funny,” she replied. “I always thought romance began with an ‘r’.”
Once upon a time, long long ago and far away on the coast of the Black Sea, flourished the might Empire of Trebizond. This statement is true enough for the WikiBritannica entry, but it needs a few minor adjustments. To be accurate, the 15th century, when Trebizond fell to the Turks, was not so long ago, at least when viewed in the context of the three thousand years our civilization has been around. And the right name for the sea was Euxeinos Pontos (an optimistic euphemism meaning “sea kind to strangers”) though in fact, its earlier name Axeinos, hostile to strangers was a more accurate name for a storm-wracked sea that scuttled many any ancient ship. Even in those ancient times, some people thought you could change things simply by changing the names that were used to describe them. I’ll say more about that when I come to my first tale. Finally, “empire” is a bit grandiose a term for a city-state with a territory about the size of Long Island. What’s in a name?
Founded in the 8th century as a colony of Sinope, which was itself a colony of Miletus (which had been refunded with the help of Athens), Trebizond was an important Greek commercial center on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea. During the struggle between the Roman Republic and King Mithradates of Pontus, the citizens had wisely taken the Roman side and received the reward of being made a free city. Trebizond had been given a boost by the Emperor Hadrian, who was a booster of all things Athenian, but she was punished for supporting a rival of Septimius Severus and later sacked by Goths in the troubled Third Century. Rebuilt by the time of Diocletian, it was an important Hellenic commercial and cultural center during the later Roman and Byzantine Empires, and the so-called Pontic Greeks remained in the area until those nice Turks, who never commit genocide, massacred them after World War I.
In the 13th century Trebizond became the capital of a tiny empire when the grandsons of Byzantine Emperor Andronikos I seized the city about the time of the Latin conquest of Constantinople, and, though often partly dependent on the revived Byzantine Empire, it fought off repeated attacks from Turks and Mongols and even survived the second fall of Constantinople (to the Turks) in 1453. For Western Europe, Trebizond was a land of tremendous wealth and beautiful women, making the imperial princesses very desirable as brides. The place also suffered, perhaps understandably, from delusions of grandeur.
Alexios Komnenos and his brother David were the sons of Manuel, who had been blinded after the mob had murdered his father, the brilliant if erratic Emperor Andronikos I. Alexios was only 22, when at the head of an army of Georgians, he appeared in the neighborhood of Trebizond and received a warm welcome from local Greeks who retained fond memories of his family that came from the region. From the beginning the new principality faced many threats and not only from the Latin Empire but also from rival Greek states in Nicaea and from the Seljuk Turks. Alexios and his brother became adept at shifting their allegiances and playing off one rival power against another. Treachery, in these circumstances, becomes not just a strategy but a way of life that was adopted by their successors throughout the 257 years of Trapezuntine history—the longest ruling dynasty in Greek history, as Cardinal Bessarion, perhaps the most famous Trapezuntine, was later to point out.
Bessarion was a wise and learned man, but he and his infamous brother George Amoiritizes shared their countrymen’s notorious lack of loyalty. A prominent delegate to the Council of Florence, at which the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches was negotiated, Bessarion broke with the majority of his colleagues and argued for unification. He later chose to remain in Italy, where he was made a Roman cardinal and considered very papabile: Indeed, when the conclave deadlocked in 1455, he emerged as a front-runner and was being solicited for future favors. He lost out when, so it is alleged, the French voiced opposition that he was too Greek in appearance (he wore a beard!) and manner. He wisely remained in Italy while the Ottoman Turks ’besieged and took Constantinople; enslaved, raped, and murdered the Greeks; and, ultimately, destroyed a great civilization just as it was on the verge of a great renascence.
Although a prince of the Church, Bessarion remained on good terms with the neopagan Gemistos Plethon and, when his friend died, wrote a letter to his sons promising that their father had gone to the Elysian fields with Iamblichus and Proclus, and other great anti-Christian magicians. Indeed, the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. Bessarion received many emoluments, and he was given a house in Rome not far from the Baths of Caracalla, a master he doubtless would have been delighted to serve. Like all such clever plotters, the turncoat had a thin, and it is sometimes said that he died of vexation when a wiler plotter than he, King Louis XI (‘the universal spider”) failed to treat him with the respect he thought he was owed.
In fairness to Bessarion, one should note that he was a fine scholar, did what he could to assist Byzantine exiles, and spoke in praise of his native city. On the other hand, he shared with his fellow-Trapezuntines a bizarre sense of self-importance and an insouciant willingness to turn his coat.