Book Review: The Byzantine Hellene: The Life of Emperor Theodore Laskaris and Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century

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by Dimiter Angelov

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xxi, 440+. Illus., maps, table, appends., notes, biblio., index. $44.99. ISBN: 1108480713

A Byzantine Scholar-Emperor

On the night of April 12, 1204, soldiers of the Fourth Crusade broke into Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) empire. The city was brutally sacked. Treasures accumulated over the course of centuries were looted or destroyed. A French knight, Baldwin Hainaut, was installed as the “Latin Emperor of Constantinople,” while the Byzantine Greek elite fled, eventually setting up several successor states in remaining fragments of the empire: Trebizond, Nicaea, and Epirus. Of these, Nicaea proved to be the most successful, eventually regaining control of Constantinople in 1261.

Theodore II Doukas Laskaris (1221-1258) was the only son of John III Vatatzes, Nicaea’s second emperor. Site of a famous Church Council in the year 325, the strongly fortified lakeside town of Nicaea stood just 90 km (56 miles) southeast of Constantinople. Young Theodore received the traditional training of a Byzantine prince: heavy doses of Orthodox religion, and hunting (which was considered good military training.) At the age of 14 he was married to a Bulgarian princess. The arranged political marriage proved a happy one and the couple had several daughters and a son (future emperor John IV, born 1250, blinded and imprisoned in a monastery in 1261 in a palace coup. Byzantines regarded blinding, which rendered the victim ineligible for the throne, as more merciful than decapitation.)

Although several Byzantine rulers were prolific authors (notably the scholarly Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, 905 – 959), Theodore is unique in that a vast collection of his personal correspondence survives, providing remarkably intimate insights into his personality. Unusually for the time, he wrote about his feelings and everyday life. Even more unusually, he had an ironic sense of humor.

Like most Byzantines, Theodore was obsessed with theological speculation. But he was also deeply versed in the classic (i.e., “pagan”) philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Theodore was also fascinated with numerology and the occult. Modern Greek historians have seen him as an early proponent of “Hellenic” nationalism (hence the book’s title.)

Theodore II Laskaris died prematurely, probably from cancer, on 16 August 1258 at the age of just 37. His fragile dynasty was soon overthrown by his political enemy, Michael VIII Palaiologos (1223-1282). The Palaiologos dynasty recaptured Constantinople and ruled it through a long era of political decline and cultural flowering, until its final conquest by the Turks in 1453.

Harvard professor Dimiter Angelov has devoted decades to studying this complex and difficult material and produced a richly detailed and impeccably scholarly biography. It will be of interest mainly to Byzantine specialists, but it has much to offer any reader of medieval history and culture. The book is handsomely illustrated with color photographs, and quite reasonably priced for an academic publication.

 

Note: The Byzantine Hellene is also available in several e-editions.

 

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort, Governments-in-Exile and the Jews During the Second World War, Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, and Admiral Gorshkov.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

 

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Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


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