Archive for the ‘Byzantine Genealogy’ category

Basileios Basileus: A Review of ‘Theosis’ by Jonathan Harris

July 7th, 2024


In tenth-century Byzantium, among the nobility, there seemed to be two types of men. The first was sybaritic, relishing the splendour and luxuries of Constantinople. The second, provincial in his outlook, was the stern, often ascetic warrior. There seemed to be no meeting between the two, and it was to be the cause of increasing friction in the politics of the Empire.

The young co-Emperors, Basil II and Constantine VIII, both ‘born in the purple’, seemed to be of the first type. According to the philosopher Michael Psellos, who knew them well, Basil was dissolute and voluptuous, a dedicated party-goer and chaser of women. As for Constantine, he enjoyed all the ceremonial posturing, but avoided politics and would always rather be swimming or hunting.

Succeeding their father as infants in 963, the brothers had never needed to concern themselves with affairs of state, for their mother Theophano, the scheming daughter of a publican, had swiftly remarried.

The ‘happy’ bridegroom was the very archetype of the warrior-aristocrat. Nikephoros Phokas, chillingly nicknamed ‘the White Death of the Saracens’, had already trounced the Arabs in Crete and Syria. Duly crowned as co-Emperor (for the boys, being purple-born, could not be deposed), Phokas was an aspiring monk, but had a keen sense of duty, and was of the ‘right stuff’ for an effective ruler. Admittedly, he lacked personal charm and was physically repulsive, being short, hairy and unwashed. He looked, and smelt, like Rasputin.

Basileios Basileus (The Emperor Basil): in his cut-price purple robe, pitiless in passing judgment

Inevitably, the sexy Theophano soon tired of him. Luckily for her, he had taken a vow of chastity, preferring to sleep on the hard floor of his chamber. One night, she let her handsome new lover into the chamber, and Phokas was brutally murdered where he lay. The guilty man was Phokas’s own nephew, John Tzimiskes.

When the church vetoed his union with Theophano, a sham marriage with her sister-in-law, Theodora, did the trick. Theodora was released from her nunnery for the purpose, and it was Theophano’s turn to be exiled. Her abandoned boys were the hapless observers of these events.

As gifted a general as Phokas, the Emperor Tzimiskes campaigned relentlessly against the Arabs. In 975 he led his armies into Palestine, and came within a whisker of taking Jerusalem. Returning to Constantinople the following year, he died very suddenly en route. Was it typhoid that killed him, or was he poisoned, as some said, by a political rival?

If so, the likely culprit was the parakoimomenos Basil Lekapenos, the official so named for his privilege of ‘sleeping near’ the emperor. The parakoimomenos was Basil and Constantine’s great-uncle, being the Nothos or ‘Bastard’ (by a Scythian slave) of their great-grandfather, Romanos I. However, unlike Phokas and Tzimiskes, the Nothos was legally barred from becoming emperor, for he was a eunuch. He had been castrated probably in infancy but perhaps in adulthood after the death of his father.

The brothers resumed their function as stiff mannikins in the endless rituals of the court, while the Nothos governed wisely and well, though not without accumulating vast personal wealth and estates. Can he have been a true castrato, beardless and long-limbed, with a uniquely high-pitched voice? In that case, he would have cut an extraordinary figure. His personal authority must have been considerable, for it was only in 985, when he was twenty-seven, that Basil II at last took control of his own destiny.

Revealing unexpected mettle, Basil the cypher, the idle sybarite, suddenly emerged from the shadows, declaring that the policies of the Nothos, the only father-figure he had known, were no longer ‘according to our wish’. The Nothos was stripped of his office and of all his possessions, and deported. Constantine was content to let his elder brother take charge. For the remaining forty years of his life, Basil was to rule alone. He never married, and died in 1025, having been emperor for 62 years.

Jonathan Harris is Professor of Byzantine History at Royal Holloway College and the author of a number of extremely readable and original books, including The Lost World of Byzantium. No one is better versed in the drama of Basil’s early life. Unfortunately our best source, Psellos, fails to explain Basil’s sudden change in character. His childhood experiences would have left him deeply insecure, guarded and suspicious, but also open to manipulation. But was it a single act of betrayal, or a series of them, that caused him to depose and humiliate the Nothos?

For Harris, this puzzle could only be resolved through fiction. The pandemic was his opportunity to work on the novel that he had been itching to write. Theosis is an historical reconstruction in the tradition of Robert Graves’s I Claudius and Claudius the God, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy. It is an utter triumph.

The book is largely set in the claustrophobic world of the Great Palace at Constantinople, a city within a city, which is wonderfully evoked. Since that palace has largely vanished, Harris relies heavily on descriptions in the famous Book of Ceremonies, but one of his most successful reconstructions is almost entirely invented, proof of the writer’s superior skills as a novelist. In Harris’s imagination, the Portico of the Golden Hand, named for the hand from a gigantic statue of Constantine that was displayed there, has a columned portico with staircases at either end, and is where the young Basil, a lonely child, likes to run around. The fatherly Nothos instructs him in the symbolism of the statue.

Key to the plot of the novel is Basil’s romantic attraction to a school-fellow,  Demetrius Spondyles, one of a number of fictional characters who are deftly drawn. Though Spondyles is ‘endearingly artless’, it is hard to understand his appeal, or to reconcile Basil’s secret passion for this boy with his reputation as a ladies’ man. In a series of ingenious twists, Harris explains all.

Perpetuating a myth: depictions of the Battle of Kleidion and its aftermath, from the Synopsis Chronike of Constantine Manasses (12th century)

He is particularly good on the dichotomy between the sybarites and the hard men. Basil’s forbidding step-father, Nikephoros Phokas, is a man of limited conversation. ‘Antioch is ours’, or even ‘Ha!’, might be the extent of it. His relatives are ‘ghastly’, ‘low provincials from Cappadocia’, while Theophano, betraying her humble origins, refers to him as that ‘Anatolian shit’. Ironically, Basil is himself remembered as a man of few words, and his first-person narration is perhaps more fluent than one would expect. The urbane Psellos says he spoke like a peasant, and that there was no elegance and little coherence in his writing – although, admittedly, Psellos probably thought that of everyone’s conversation and writing, other than his own.

Psellos’s Basil could laugh loudly on occasion, but generally ran on a short fuse. He was decisive and commanding. Once his mind was made up, he would brook no further discussion. He came to despise the luxury and ceremonial of the court, and made little effort to look the part, scorning all the usual imperial ornaments such as diadems and rings. Even his robe, being not of the brightest purple, seemed to be a cut-price version. Without being obviously pious, he was characterised in maturity by the same self-denying puritanism as the Emperor Phokas, who had dedicated his life to the waging of ‘holy’ war.

Having broken away from the court, Basil had embarked on years of bitter campaigning, which left him, in Harris’s words, with ‘dead eyes’, like a shark’s. Occasionally, the novelist takes us away from the palace and into the field of action. In a particularly enjoyable episode, Basil unleashes a new secret weapon, his Russian (or actually Viking) auxiliaries, under the Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev. The price for Vladimir’s support is unprecedented, the hand of Basil’s purple-born sister Anna, whom Basil has never liked. Poor Anna! The envoys with whom he negotiates have ‘hairy arms like joints of meat that protruded from their sleeveless leather jerkins and long plaited hair which they had apparently smeared with rancid butter’. It is the Russians’ turn to be bemused when the Byzantines begin their pre-battle rituals, which include catcalling and ‘mooning’ the enemy.

Basil’s single-mindedness earned him a grim reputation which he has never lived down. He defeated not only his domestic enemies, but the Fatimids at Aleppo (995). After years of campaigning in the Balkans, often wintering with his troops, he famously prevailed over the Bulgars in 1014. He is alleged to have blinded no fewer than 14,000 prisoners after the Battle of Kleidion, and to have sent them home in batches of a hundred, each guided by a man with one eye. That improbable story, and Basil’s famous sobriquet, Boulgaroktonos or the ‘Bulgar-slayer’, were concocted by a later generation. But Harris has him hanging enemies without a qualm, or even feeding them to his lions: ‘Perhaps he had sacrificed all human emotions in some devilish pact on the altar of supreme power’.

It is hard to believe that Basil ever achieved his theosis. The word means, literally, ‘deification’, and refers to the transfixing ecstasy of union with God, to which all Christians should aspire. However, Harris’s Basil is a most compelling individual and a good deal more sympathetic than is commonly supposed.

I read most of this book in a single sitting, and cannot recommend it too highly.

Theosis is published in paperback by Trivent (Budapest, Oct 2023). For further background, see Jonathan Harris, ‘The Change in Basil’, Argo: A Hellenic Review, Issue 19 (Spring/Summer 2024), pp.30-31.

My earlier blog on Nikephoros Phokas can be found here:



A Balkan Adventure: Visiting the Monastery of the Greatest Lavra on Mount Athos

April 29th, 2015

Roofscape at the Greatest Lavra Monastery

The imperial double-headed eagle still flies over Mount Athos. The peninsula, in northern Greece, has been a self-governing monastic republic for over a thousand years. Robert Byron described it as ‘the composite and living memorial of a great civilisation’, for timeless Mount Athos represents the last gasp of the Byzantine Empire.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but the Holy Mountain continues to be regulated by a charter of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. It was the Emperor Monomachos, the direct heir to Augustus and Constantine the Great, who in 1045 confirmed the legal immunity of the Holy Mountain, and famously banned all female creatures from the peninsula, along with eunuchs and beardless boys.

To the consternation of female scholars and feminists, that prohibition still applies. However, having visited Mount Athos twice I am able to confirm the presence there of hens, she-cats, young boys and, indeed, beardless monks – and that it is only one’s passport and diamonitirion (official permit) that are examined at the port of entry.

The oldest, largest and remotest of the twenty surviving monasteries on Mount Athos is the ‘Great Holy Monastery of the Greatest Lavra’. It was founded in 963 by St Athanasios of Trebizond, whose earlier career had been as a teacher in Constantinople. Athanasios had served his noviciate, in a hermitage on Bithynian Mount Olympos, with the future Emperor Nikephoros Phokas (a thwarted-monk-turned-soldier who was known to his trembling enemies as ‘the White Death of the Saracens’), through whose offices the new monastery was richly endowed, not only with lands and privileges, but also with holy relics from the imperial collection.

Athanasios’s monastery, or lavra, was the first on the Holy Mountain. The very concept of a monastery was frowned upon by the true ascetics – even today there are hermits living there in caves on the sides of cliffs, spiritual athletes who are often driven to madness by their solitude – but Athanasios had ‘found by experience that it is right and beneficial for brothers to live together’.

The Katholikon

The Greatest Lavra resembles a castle with its great battlemented walls and keep, the so-called Tower of Tzimiskes. A necessary defence against pirates, who were long a blight on the place, these enclose a complex of buildings and courtyards, covering three or four acres, and date from the time of Athanasios himself.

Lavra was the template for all the subsequent monasteries on Mount Athos and, despite the intrusion of ugly and oversized buildings from later periods, the core structures from Athanasios’s time are still intact: the mulberry-coloured katholikon or church at its heart, the trapeza or refectory opposite, and, in between, the domed phiale or fountain, still the largest on Mount Athos.

Settling in and off to Church

We found our way to the archontiriki (guest-house), which is set into the walls above the main entrance. On a broad, covered balcony, crowded with visiting monks, we were received by a courteous and efficient lay helper. We entered the required particulars, including the names of our fathers, in the register.

Our attentive host returned with raki, Turkish coffee and glasses of water. He advised us that the service at 5 would be followed by a meal in the trapeza, and that the gates of the monastery would be closed at 8. We were shown to our room, one of four large dormitories that overhung the walls, each containing about fifteen beds, but neat and clean, with large windows looking down to the sea.

The kitchen block

Lavra has a captivatingly timeless atmosphere, despite the hideous modern additions. The most egregious of these is the large helipad outside, done in red asphalt with a large letter ‘H’ in the middle. It seemed to contradict the very purpose of the monastery as a place of extreme seclusion. Perhaps the rot had already set in a thousand years ago, the early monks seeming reluctant to sever all links with the outside world: the hermits who inhabited the neighbourhood had criticised them for keeping their own boat.

The rambling kitchen block, on the other hand, seemed to be a very ancient structure, barely changed in centuries, and there were numerous dark passages, staircases and ramparts to explore.

Entrance to the Katholikon

We observed the service as best we could, propped against the stalls, from the narthex of the katholikon, for the non-Orthodox are not admitted to the body of the church. The Greek services are long and baffling with occasional dramatic interludes – the lighting and snuffing of candles, the swinging of the corona, the censing of the congregation, who otherwise play no part. Music, other than singing, is forbidden. It is important to stand when required and to maintain a respectful posture.

The Trapeza

We were unprepared for the splendour of the trapeza, into which we processed at last for supper. A huge room in the shape of a cross, it was frescoed from top to bottom by the sixteenth-century master Theophanes of Crete, with numerous depictions of the saints and of biblical episodes, including the Day of Judgement. It has a stone-flagged floor and a simple wooden ceiling, cheerfully painted.

Most remarkable are the horseshoe-shaped tables and seats, which are set in stone along the length of the room. The stone base of each has been plastered over and whitewashed. The seats have boards laid on top of them and fastened down, while great grey marble slabs serve as table tops, some with little channels at the rim. Here, as was customary, we ate in silence, while some improving text was read to us from the far end of the room.

The entrance to the Trapeza, from the Phiale

The food was delicious – a thick reddish broth, filled with rice, of indeterminate flavour (perhaps red cabbage), with Coquilles de St Jacques, boiled eggs painted red for Easter, bread, plenty of red wine and oranges. When the meal was over, we filed past a row of monks, those in charge of the kitchen, who had their heads bowed,  graciously but needlessly assuming postures of penitence for their unworthy fare.

We stole back in for a closer examination of the trapeza, and were saddened to witness the deterioration of the frescoes. According to my companion, this was caused by rising moisture, the stone-flagged floors being about three feet below the ground level outside.

I congratulated an attendant (a Romanian who spoke good English) on the excellent supper, and asked for the ingredients. He would not, or could not tell me, and laughed at my suggestion that the recipe was perhaps a secret.

A grumpy monk, and a kindly one

A few minutes later we were waved back into church for a further service. We assumed our usual positions in the narthex, but discovered that much of the proceedings was to be conducted from thence – an intoning by half a dozen monks, positioned in opposite corners, of various texts, while the rest of the congregation and monks were otherwise engaged in the body of the church, from which we were separated by a curtain.

We had noticed the desultory manner in which the offices were read, but were surprised when, soon into the service, we were engaged in conversation by an elderly monk, though to all outward appearances we were deep in contemplation or prayer.  The fellow enquired curtly, in a loud, gruff voice, whether we were German. We satisfied him that we were not. His suspicions were, nevertheless, aroused. Where we, perhaps, Roman Catholic?

I had instructed my amiable companion, an old Amplefordian, to deny his Catholicity for the sake of a quiet life. (The Pope and all his cohorts have never been forgiven for the sack of Constantinople in 1204.) For about the fifth time in three days, Hamish dutifully declared himself an Anglican.

The surly fellow had been a monk of Lavra for twenty years. He explained that he had known England well, from visits to his sisters in Barry, near Cardiff. Did we know Barry? Hamish claimed, most unconvincingly, to have ‘driven through it’.

He then asked us what we did. ‘I am a writer,’ I said.

‘What do you write?’


‘Why do you bother?’ he said. ‘All history has been written.’

‘There are always new ways of looking at things,’ I stammered.

‘But the past is απολυτος,’ he said. ‘Fixed, unchangeable.’ I reflected wistfully on my  modest corpus of work, even of Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture, my tragi-comic account of a typical English town, seminal in its way. Yet worse was in store for Hamish.

‘I am an I.T. consultant,’ he announced. ‘To do with computers,’ he added, helpfully.

‘Aagh!’ said our friend, with an expression of disgust. ‘The computer is the μηχανισμος του Σατανου – machinery of Satan.’ Before Hamish could defend himself, the gruff monk, fully confirmed in his belief that we were incorrigible heretics, had walked away.

At the end of the service, the other congregants pressed forward for the purpose of examining the holy relics. A younger, more kindly monk encouraged us to join them. We took the opportunity to examine the frescoes, which are also attributed to Theophanes. Those in the narthex, of which we had had our fill, were inferior nineteenth-century work.

The kindly monk knew all about the buildings and their history. He pointed out the portraits of Nikephoros Phokas and of his nephew John Tzimiskes, who murdered him and took his throne. The two men seem to glare at each other across the doorway. The defensive Tower, named after the Emperor Tzimiskes, can only be entered through the monks’ own quarters. It contains four floors, but is not used. We learnt that the sakkos (embroidered vestment) and crown of Nikephoros Phokas, which I was most curious to see, could not be viewed as they were locked away, with all the other contents of the library. A new library is being built to house them. The noise and clutter of the construction work were all around us.

The kindly monk showed us Athanasios’s tomb in a side chapel. I asked why Athanasios’s death in this very building, from falling masonry, was not thought to be a sign of divine displeasure. He explained that Athanasios had evidently been ready for his reception into Heaven, having dressed appropriately for the occasion. The saint’s body was miraculously preserved and was partly visible in its silver casing. We were shown the iron rod, propped against the adjacent wall, with which the saint had performed one of his miracles, smashing open a rock so that it flowed with water.

The kindly monk had to hurry away, but we were grateful indeed that he had been so generous with his time.

The new library

We took a closer look at the construction work. With its concrete frame, basement and lift shaft, the new library looked like being another unnecessary modern intrusion.

Was it really worth the disruption and expense? Could they not have renovated an existing building? The monastery possesses an invaluable collection of charters, but these have been comprehensively edited and published by Madame Rouillard and her collaborators in their Actes de Lavra. Though it would have greatly gratified my curiosity to have had a sight of the originals, I had no pressing need to do so, and wondered how many scholars could be expected to make use of such a library at any one time. Even Madame Rouillard (a proscribed woman) had relied on photographs that were taken in 1918.

Besides, entry to Athonite libraries is hardly encouraged. In the seven monasteries on the peninsula that I have visited, I have only ever been admitted to one library, that at Gregoriou, which was represented to me as an exceptional privilege.

Back at the Archontiriki

The Guests' common room

The monastery proclaims its deep conservatism in the Guests’ Common Room. The room is stark and dimly lit, with a central chandelier, but the walls are crowded with pictures. A series of crude, colourful prints commemorates the heroes of the War of Independence. There are group photographs of the monks, with their lay servants and attendant evzones, dating from the 1920s and 30s; a couple of oil paintings of sailing ships apparently floundering off the peninsula; and, arrestingly, a set of portraits of the former kings of Greece, including the last, a young Constantine in black and white. Asked what his countrymen might make of that, a fellow pilgrim, a Greek, thought that they would be ‘disappointed’.

We retreated at last to our dormitory, where most of our room-mates were already preparing for, or in bed. I had a cold shower in the bathroom downstairs, but am British, so that was all right. We had a disturbed night, as one of the Russian pilgrims snored incessantly like a walrus, reducing us at first to giggles. I awoke to the put-put of a motor-scooter being started up, but this turned out to be our snoring friend. We arose early and caught the seven o’clock bus back to Karyes.

Breakfast at Karyes

See also

The Origins of the Naryshkin or Narischkine family of Muscovy

May 29th, 2014

At a recent family gathering, it was noticed that five of us were wearing the same signet ring, inherited from our Russian great-great-grandmother or, in one case, great-grandmother. Olga Aleksandrovna Naryshkina (or Narischkine, as it was usually spelt in the West) was born at Paris in 1847, and died at Southsea, Hampshire, in 1927. There was some discussion about what the arms represented. Alternative explanations were offered, but here is mine.

Olga Aleksandrovna Naryshkina, Marquise de Faletans (1847-1927)

The Naryshkins had been a relatively obscure gentry family until the late seventeenth century, when a certain Natalya Kirilovna Naryshkina had caught the eye of the ‘Most Gentle’ Tsar, Aleksey Mikhailovich. As a child Natalya had been sent to Moscow from the remote province of Torussa, to be brought up there by her godmother, a Scotswoman called Madam Matveeva. This lady, whose maiden name was Hamilton, was married to the Boyar Artemon Matveev, the Tsar’s close friend and adviser. At a time when foreign influences were generally abhorred and when women were shut away from the world in separate quarters, the Matveevs were open to the progressive ideas, habits and customs of the West, which were imbibed by Natalya herself as she grew up. The widowed Aleksey, an occasional visitor to the Matveev house, was charmed by their young ward and, on 22 January 1671, they were married. The following year, Natalya gave birth to a son who was the future Tsar and Emperor Peter the Great.

Natalya Kirilovna Naryshkina, mother of Peter the Great

Natalya’s father and a throng of brothers, uncles and cousins had immediately descended on the court to receive patronage from the uxurious Aleksey. The status of the family was transformed, almost overnight. They were received into the Duma of Boyars and were loaded with lesser titles, as well as gifts of land and serfs. Quick to conceal their undistinguished origins behind a mythical version of their genealogy, they cultivated social pretensions to match. In 1686, when the then joint Tsars, Ivan and Peter, created the famous Velvet Book in which the pedigrees of the nobility were to be inscribed, the Naryshkins entered one that took them back to ancient times. It was claimed that they descended from the Naristi, a Germanic tribe mentioned by Tacitus. As the Naristi were thought to have inhabited the north-west corner of Bohemia, the Naryshkins took as their arms those of the capital of that region, the imperial city of Eger (modern Cheb in the Czech Republic). The arms adopted by the family thus consisted of an imperial eagle with the lower part of its body covered by a grille, alluding to the fact that the incomes of the city had once been placed in pawn by the Emperor. It was further claimed that, as their ancestors had reigned over Eger, the Naryshkins had inherited princely rank, a privilege that in Russia was traditionally reserved for the male-line offspring of former ruling houses (those of Kiev, Lithuania, Tatary and a few others). However, among the Naryshkins, it was a point of honour that the title of prince should never be used. They maintained that their surname was dignity enough.

Ivan Aleksandrovich Naryshkin, Olgas's great-great-grandfather

Tsar Aleksey had died in 1676, to be succeeded by Fedor, the son of his first marriage. After Fedor’s death in 1682, the Naryshkins had hoped to promote Peter to the throne, but had been thwarted by his half-sister Sofya, who, on seizing power, had purged the court of Naryshkin influence, brutally putting leading members of the family to death. Seven years later, they had had their revenge, deposing Sofya in a coup (she was shut away in a convent) and inaugurating the sole reign of Peter, although his mother became the de facto ruler of Russia until her death in 1694. Since that date, the Naryshkin family had never ceased to occupy a position of prominence in the Romanov court.

Given the uncertainties of his early life, it is not surprising that Peter grew up to be remarkably ignorant and uncouth, but it seems he owed all his most remarkable qualities to his mother’s side. The first Romanovs had all been feeble, either in body or mind. Peter was a giant of just under seven feet. When he walked, his officials had to run along beside him in order to keep up. He was naturally athletic, and so dexterous that he could twist a silver platter into a scroll, and cut a piece of cloth with his knife in mid-air. His manners were appalling. On one occasion, when a guest was boring him at dinner, he spat full in his face. The Russian upper classes were not noted in that period for their refinement. Yet it was from Natalya that Peter had inherited the nervous energy which enabled him to modernise and transform his country. His mental agility, his enquiring mind and his admiration for the West were further legacies from his mother. Physically, he is said to have resembled one of her brothers, Fedor Naryshkin.

Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Naryshkina (born Stroganova), wife of Ivan, by Jean Voile

Olga Naryshkin was descended from one of Natalya’s great-uncles, Ivan Ivanovich. All her ancestors since Ivan had held office at the imperial court. Her great-great-grandfather, Aleksandr Ivanovich (1735 – 82), Chamberlain and Privy Councillor in the reign of Catherine the Great, had married the Princess Anna Nikitishna Trubetskaya, daughter of Prince Nikita Trubetskoy, Procurator-General of the Senate, from the old Lithuanian royal line. Their son, the Senator and Ober-Tseremoniymeister Ivan Aleksandrovich Naryshkin, had in turn married in Catherine’s presence into the fabulously rich Stroganov family, though he had been sentimentally attached to a certain Mademoiselle Vertel, a Frenchwoman who kept a shop in St Petersburg. The Baroness Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Stroganova had nevertheless borne him three sons, Aleksandr, Grigory and Aleksey, and two daughters, Elisaveta and Varvara. Aleksandr was an officer in the Life Guards who had died pointlessly in a duel, having been rash enough to challenge Count Fedor Ivanovich Tolstoy, the most famous duellist of the day. Grigory, the elder surviving son, became a Colonel in the Semenovsky Guards’ Regiment, died in Sorrento in 1835, and was the father of Aleksandr Naryshkin, Olga’s father.

A gathering of Naryshkin descendants, May 2014 (photo by Paul Spillane)

A Corfiot Romance: The Marriage Between Admiral Charles Bayley Calmady Dent and Corinna Kourkoumelles of Afra – and the Adventures of H.M.S. Edgar

May 26th, 2014

H.M.S Edgar (in which Charles Dent was the First Lieutenant) with the R.Y.S. Eva in Corfu Roads, the Island of Vido and the mountains of San Salvador in the background, by Forster

‘If I wrote a book about Corcyra it would not be a history but a poem.’ That is the promise that Lawrence Durrell fulfils in his beautiful Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu. First published in 1945, the book is one of the fruits of his Alexandrian exile during World War II.

Among the curiosities of the island, Durrell mentions ‘the remains of a Venetian aristocracy living in overgrown baronial mansions, buried deep in the country and surrounded by cypresses’. More curious still is Corfu’s relationship with the British, who ruled the Ionian Islands, of which it is part, for fifty years from 1814 to 1864, when they were ceded to Greece. Britain’s legacy to ‘Corcyra’ today includes, apart from some ‘nostalgic love and admiration’ (notwithstanding their resentment of them at the time), an addiction to cricket – ‘a mysterious and satisfying ritual which the islanders have refused to relinquish’ – and to ginger beer.

A blending between the decaying aristocracy of the island and its ‘bluff rulers’ – Durrell quotes Viscount Kirkwall’s description of them as exasperatingly self-satisfied with their paper-chases and tea-parties – occurred in my own family. Admiral Charles Bayley Calmady Dent, born at Plymouth in 1832, was my grandfather’s great-uncle. My grandfather was brought up by Charles’s sister. Steeped him in naval lore (the Dents had been serving continuously since the late 1600s), my grandfather himself embarked on a naval career at the age of only thirteen.

H.M.S. Valorous in 1851. Charles Dent served in her in the Baltic campaign during the war with Russia

Charles Dent’s period of service had been full of incident. The youthful First Lieutenant of H.M.S. Valorous during the war with Russia (the so-called ‘Crimean War’), he had been posted not to the Black Sea but to the Baltic, and had led a raid on the port of Uleaborg on the Gulf of Bothnia, destroying its stores and installations. The citizens of Uleaborg had already abandoned the town, leaving a ‘large number of spirit-stores open’, but Charles’s marines had maintained their discipline, despite the ‘great trials and temptations’ to which they were exposed, not to mention ‘the almost uninterrupted sleet’.

Transferring to H.M.S. Gorgon, which, like Valorous, was a paddle-steamer, Charles saw further action in the Baltic, in September 1855. In command of a detachment consisting of the pinnace, the cutter and a gig from Gorgon, together with forty of her crew, he was sent ‘to examine the Siela Sound, entrance [to the] Gulf of Riga, with directions to take possession of a small islet in that quarter; a position for stopping the trade passing in or out, as also forming a good shelter for the boats’.

In a period of five days, Charles succeeded in capturing ‘nine small vessels’ with their cargoes, and was able to report that ‘no vessel had escaped the line referred to, although the weather was rather unfavourable for boating operations’. These were actions almost worthy of Charles’s father, Rear-Admiral Charles Calmady Dent, a naval officer of the heroic age, who had assisted in assaults on Possitano and other Italian ports in the Napoleonic War, at the capture of Port d’Anzo (where there was heavy loss of life) and, later, in the boarding of a pirate vessel in the Persian Gulf, in which a misplaced thrust in the head from a boarding-pike is said to have ‘half-killed’ him.

The ‘heroic age’ was further recalled when Charles, by now a Commander, was appointed, on 11 July 1862, to the two-decker battleship H.M.S. Edgar, again as First Lieutenant. This was a time when ‘the transition from sails to steam was being gradually accomplished’. The Channel Squadron, of which she was part, consisted of ‘a mixture of wooden ships and ironclads: most of the former could not steam, none of the latter could sail. Nevertheless the Admiralty, who always have an eye to economy, decreed that, as the ships had masts and yards, they must sail.’ In the midst of all the advances in technology for which that era is famous, H.M.S. Edgar was a steamship, yet wooden-hulled and fully masted, looking exactly like something from Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, nearly sixty years before.

It was during a cruise of the Mediterranean in the summer of 1862 that Charles sailed in the Edgar into Corfu Harbour, to a fateful meeting with his future wife, Corinna Kourkoumelles. Born on Corfu on 21 November 1840, she was the eldest of the three daughters of Sir Demetrios Kourkoumelles, K.C.M.G., an Advocate, who served as Regent of the British Military Protectorate of Corfu from 1862 until the end of British rule in 1864, after which he became a Member of the Hellenic Parliament.

Sir Demetrios’s picturesque family seat at Afra (‘Breeze’), in the centre of the island, had been built in the 18th century in the Venetian style, above the cloisters of a deserted monastery – the family having migrated to the island from Kephalonia in the about 1750. The house at Afra is, or was until recently, still in the possession of the family (and occasionally visited by Corinnas’s descendants), but may be the old mansion there that is currently being offered for sale – It is just the sort of ‘overgrown baronial mansion, buried deep in the countryside and surrounded by cypresses’, to which Durrell refers.

Ioannes Kapodistrias, the Corfiot who was Greece's first President - the great-uncle of Corinna Kourkoumelles

The family had impeccable Corfiot connections. Corinna’s mother was Elisa, daughter of Nicolo Rodostamo, member of the Ionian Parliament, by his wife Maria, daughter of Count Antonio-Maria Kapodistrias, Doctor of Laws at Pavia, Member of the Grand Council of Corfu, Senator, and sometime Ambassador to the Sultan and the Tsar. Antonio-Maria was the brother of Ioannes Kapodistrias, undoubtedly Corfu’s most famous son – Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Tsar’s service (1816-22), and first President of Greece between 1827 and 1831 (when he was assassinated).

Charles and Corinna’s wedding took place in London, at Kensington Parish Church, on 6 August 1863 – the Edgar’s First Lieutenant was able to absent himself from a summer cruise around the British Isles. His address was given as 1 Norwood Place, and that of his bride as 40 St James’s Place. The then master of the Edgar was no doubt present – the future Admiral-of-the-Fleet Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, a grand Victorian figure (and a connection by marriage), who was to be celebrated, at the end of a long naval career, for never having fired a shot in anger.

Corinna’s family clearly did not share the general distrust of Corfiots for the British. Her father is said to have preferred to be called ‘Sir Demetrios’ rather than ‘Count’ – the Order of St Michael and St George, to which he belonged, is nowadays doled out to diplomats and others serving overseas, but had been instituted in 1818 specifically to reward natives of the Ionian Islands and of Malta. While in England, Sir Demetrios matriculated an elaborate coat of arms at the Herald’s College which included a variant on the Dent family motto – to their Ne Cede Malis he had added Sed Contra. Corinna’s younger sister Euphrosyne was also to marry an English officer, a Major Jettars.

The newly-wed Corinna had quickly to inure herself to the prolonged absences of her husband, the Channel Squadron spending the winter of 1863-4 between Madeira, Teneriffe, Gibraltar and Lisbon. At Portland on 25 April 1864, it was to receive a visit from Garibaldi and his entourage. They were entertained to a substantial late lunch – it began at 6 p.m. – aboard the Edgar, as flagship of the commander-in-chief, Admiral Dacres.

From the middle of the following August, the headquarters of the fleet was at Portsmouth, where the ships remained until 27 March 1865, ‘when the Edgar came out of harbour under sail – the last line-of-battle ship that ever sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour’. The crew of the Edgar were no doubt unconscious at the time of their moment in history. The squadron had cruised down to Lisbon by 22 April, bearing a mission (under Lord Sefton) to invest the King of Portugal with the Order of the Garter. The ensuing festivities included a visit by the King himself to the Edgar, and a match against the Lisbon Cricket Club, in which the naval team was victorious. Perhaps Charles and others of his crew had already played a part in inculcating the Corfiots with a love of the game.

Charles never achieved a command of his own, and the Edgar was his last ship. He retired from the service on 16 December 1865, and took up a post with the London North Western Railway, as their Marine Superintendent at Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey. He was nevertheless to enjoy promotion on the superannuated list (having commuted the pay), eventually attaining the rank of Admiral in 1893. He died at Chester on 20 March 1894. Corinna died at a cottage called ‘Decoy’, near Beaulieu, on 27 January 1918.

The product of a hard school, Charles was no doubt a tough, stoical seaman and stern disciplinarian. The log-book of one of his officers in the Edgar, G.S. Rolph, was recently sold by a dealer and offers insights into the routine of life aboard in 1864: ‘Sailmakers repairing mainsail… Carpenters variously employed’; ‘Mustered by divisions. Performed Divine Service’; ‘Punished Wm. Shipper with 36 lashes as per warrant.’ ‘Fired Royal Salute.’ ( Charles’s son Douglas Lionel Dent, who served in a successor to H.M.S. Edgar and also became an Admiral, was a notorious martinet, known in the service as ‘The Rogue Elephant’; a daughter, Cora, was the formidable Matron of the Royal Infirmary, Bristol, known as ‘The Acid Drop’. The men of the family were conspicuous for their height and build: one piece of family lore that has passed down to me is that Charles could contain Corinna’s tiny waist within the span of his hands.

(National Archives, ADM 196/13/Vol.I, p.257; Navy Lists; The Russian War, 1854: Baltic and Black Sea. Official Correspondence, ed. D. Bonner-Smith and A.C. Dewar (Navy Records Society, 1943), pp.64-5, 74-5, 79; The Russian War, 1855: Baltic. Official Correspondence, ed. D. Bonner-Smith (Navy Records Society, 1944), pp.320-3; Mihail Dimitri Sturdza, Grandes familles de Grèce, d’Albanie et de Constantinople: Dictionnaire généalogique (Paris, 1983), pp.251-2, 286; Rupert Willoughby, ‘The Naval Dents and their Marriages’, Genealogists’  Magazine, Vol.25, No.12 (Dec. 1997).)

Nikephoros Phokas, White Death of the Saracens, the Siege of Chandax and the Foundation of the Greatest Lavra on Mount Athos

July 28th, 2013

In the summer of 960, the great Byzantine general Nikephoros Phokas set sail for Crete. Occupied by the Arabs since 826, the island had become a nest of pirates who were the curse of the eastern Mediterranean, paralysing its economy. Nikephoros had been campaigning for years on the eastern frontiers of the Empire. The emirs of Aleppo, Tarsus and Tripoli had all been humbled. The youthful Emperor, Romanos II, had recently appointed him ‘Domestic of the East’, commander-in-chief of the forces of Anatolia. Confident that Nikephoros would finally re-take the island, Romanos had entrusted him with an overwhelming force, consisting of 307 warships and hundreds of smaller vessels, with 77,000 oarsmen and soldiers on board.

Nikephoros swept through the island, killing a reported 40,000 Arabs, and laid siege to Chandax (modern Heraklion), their well-fortified capital. Both sides suffered terrible privations that winter, but in March 961 the Byzantines broke into the city. The Cretan emir was taken, along with the accumulated spoils of a century and a half of piracy. Nikephoros put the rest of the population to death and the city was burned to the ground. With the island restored to imperial rule, missionaries set about re-converting it to Christianity. It was the greatest Byzantine victory in centuries.

Born in 912 into one of the great military dynasties of Anatolia, Nikephoros, known to his enemies as ‘the White (or Pale) Death of the Saracens’ was personally unprepossessing, with unusually long, curly black hair and a straggly beard. He was rough-mannered and sullen, and lived a remarkably simple, ascetic life, habitually sleeping on the floor. When not covering himself in glory on the battlefield, Nikephoros spent his time in prayer or consorting with holy men. A widower, whose only son had been killed in a tragic accident, he had taken a vow of chastity and hoped one day to become a monk.

Instead, owing to Palace intrigue, Nikephoros was to be crowned Emperor in St Sophia on 16 August 963, following the death of Romanos at the age of 23. To ensure his legitimacy, he was married within the month to Theophano, Romanos’s widow, and became step-father to her sons, the co-emperors Basil and Constantine. Theophano, a publican’s daughter, was extraordinarily beautiful, but unprincipled in the pursuit of her ambitions. Romanos had been completely under her spell. Ill-matched with the dour Nikephoros, she took a lover, his nephew John Tzimiskes, who brutally murdered him on the floor where he lay in 966. He was buried secretly in the Church of the Holy Apostles. An epitaph attributed to John of Melitene was later circulated. It ends with a pun on Nikephoros’s name: ὠ πλην γυναικος τἀλλα δ’αὐ Νικηφορος (Mark Diederich Lauxtermann, Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres, Texts and Contexts, Vol.I, Vienna 2003, pp.305-16.) – which I venture to translate as ‘bringer of victory over all in turn, save a woman’.

Nikephoros believed that he was fighting a ‘holy war’ against Islam, and that those who perished in it were martyrs, although this was a view rejected by the Church. During the siege of Chandax, he had summoned his old friend, Athanasios, to provide him with spiritual support. Athanasios, a native of Trebizond, renowned for his holiness, had abandoned a successful teaching career in Constantinople to become a hermit, and had settled in 957 on Mount Athos, in northern Greece. The promontory had long been favoured by hermits, as it had no other inhabitants. Thanks to the Cretan pirates, normal life there had become impossible.

The Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras, Mount Athos

Nikephoros heaped plunder from Chandax on Athanasios, who used it to found a small monastery or lavra on the south-easternmost point of the promontory. It was the first of many monastic houses on Mount Athos, as opposed to the sketai, or loose affiliations of hermits, that had existed before. Nikephoros had originally intended to join him there. Instead, as Emperor, he re-founded Athanasios’s lavra as an imperial monastery, endowing it with generous annual grants in money and in kind and with tax-free estates in nearby Chalkidiki. He even sent three holy relics from the imperial collection, including fragments of the True Cross. Athanasios’s humble lavra was thus transformed into ‘the Greatest Lavra’ (Μονη Μεγιστης Λαυρας), with accommodation for eighty monks, despite the objections of the hermits who were disturbed by the immense scale of the construction and by the fact that the new monastery had its own boat, an unwelcome connection with the outside world.

There are surviving sketai on Mount Athos where hermits continue to subjugate the flesh and endure lives of the utmost austerity, some of them perched in caves on the edges of cliffs. I have witnessed them myself. Although I have not been to the Greatest Lavra, I have visited other Athonite monasteries and can attest to the strength of the asceticism there, which has certainly wavered over the centuries. At the monastery of Simonos Petras, for example, the monks spend most of the time at prayer in their tiny cells. These are sparsely furnished, and there are no beds. Like Nikephoros Phokas, the monks at Simonos Petras, who are close to being a spiritual elite, sleep on the hard floor. (See Simopetras, Mount Athos, E.T.B.A., Athens 1991.)

Nikephoros, to whom the twenty surviving monasteries on Mount Athos all owe a debt, left no direct descendants, but has countless blood relations in Western Europe. His sister who married Theodoros Kourkouas was the ancestress of Maria of Bulgaria, wife of Andronikos Doukas. Their daughter, Eirene, was the matriarch of the Komnenos dynasty.

Nikephoros’s brother Leon Phokas had a daughter, Sophia, who married Konstantinos Skleros, and was the mother of the famous Theophano, wife of the German Emperor Otto II.

Leon had another daughter, married to a Botaneiates, who was the great-grandmother of the Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-81), and of his sister who married Theodoulos Synadenos. Their daughter, Synadene, married Gesa I, King of Hungary, who died in 1077.

Through these three Byzantine women, there are innumerable well-established lines of descent to the present day.

Why Learn Ancient Greek?

June 11th, 2013

Schoolboys and girls learning classical Greek are often heedless of their good fortune. They refer to it scornfully as ‘a dead language’. However, the death of Greek has been grossly exaggerated. A language is never dead as long as a body of literature survives. And what a body of literature: Homer and Herodotus, Aristophanes and Plato – men whose words, thoughts and stories resonate through the ages, still well-known, loved and relevant after nearly three millennia.

Boys and girls grappling with the Greek alphabet should bear in mind that, but for the Greeks, it is doubtful that we would be able to write at all. The ancient Greeks improved on the system of symbols that they had learnt from the Phoenicians, and invented vowels, so that it was possible for the first time to represent the full range of sounds in a written form. The Greek alphabet was the world’s first true alphabetic writing system. The unwilling pupil may disagree, but their system was so simple to learn that it made widespread literacy feasible for the first time. All modern western alphabets are directly descended from the Greek alphabet. The Romans borrowed from it shamelessly and the Latin alphabet, in which English is written today, includes no fewer than nine unaltered Greek letters.

This supposedly ‘dead’ language lives on, moreover, in all modern European languages, including English. We, the speakers of English, continue to use not only Greek letters but numerous Greek words in their original form – chaos, orchestra, climax, zone, analysis, idea, crisis, character, emphasis, echo, scene. There are countless other English words that have been adapted from the Greek – economy, philosophy, aristocracy, democracy, strategy, zoology, catholic, holocaust, psychiatry. How impoverished our language would seem, if all these words were taken away!

It is, however, in the language of modern Greece that we see the strongest signs of life. Modern Greek is far closer to ancient Greek than Italian is to Latin. Visitors to Greece who have studied the classical language will easily interpret the sign that reads Ἐθνικη Τραπεζα της Ἑλλαδος (National Bank of Greece). They might wonder how the word for ‘table’ (ἡ τραπεζα) has come to mean ‘bank’ – except that it had already acquired that sense in classical times. Similarly, they will readily understand the signs in parks that read: ΑΓΑΠΑΤΕ ΤΑ ΔΕΝΔΡΑ – ‘Love (or be kind to) the trees’. There are unadapted words still in use in modern Greece that appear on the earliest recorded Greek texts, dateable to about 1400 B.C. (they are contained in the clay tablets, written in the so-called ‘Linear B’ syllabic script, found at the Mycenean palaces of Knossos and the mainland) – words like ἐχω, I have, θεος, god, μελι, honey, παλαιος, old. It is only the pronunciation that has changed, and that is easily mastered.

Modern schoolboys and girls are taught ‘Attic’ Greek, the dialect of Athens (capital of Attica) in its classical heyday. The power and prestige of Athens ensured that its dialect became the standard speech throughout the Greek world. Most of the surviving classical Greek literature is in Attic Greek. It was spoken, or at least written, in the East Roman or ‘Byzantine’ Empire, which survived the fall of Rome by a thousand years, until it, too, fell to invaders, the Turks, in 1453 A.D. In modern Greece, Attic is still considered the ‘correct’ form of the language, other usages being merely colloquial.

He may not appreciate it, but ancient Athens is as relevant to an English schoolboy as it was to his Byzantine counterpart. In 508 B.C., one of its elder statesman, Cleisthenes, proposed at a public meeting that the Athenian constitution should be changed, and that all major decisions should thenceforth be agreed at a public assembly. Those eligible to attend would eventually include all male citizens, whatever their class or means, over the age of thirty. Slaves (mere chattels) and women (unreasoning inferiors) were of course excluded, but every male citizen was included equally. The invention of ‘democracy’, the means by which Athens was to be governed during its classical age, was the Athenians’ enduring legacy to the world.

It was during that enlightened period that Athens also gave the world both tragic and comic drama and some of the wonders of classical art, of which the Parthenon complex, on the Athenian acropolis, is surely the defining monument. Medicine, mathematics, philosophy, even atomic theory, were all advanced there. It was in Athens, too, that another form of literature was invented, by Herodotus: the writing of ‘history’, based not on myth and hearsay but on reasoned enquiry. History-writing as we know it had simply not existed before, and Herodotus was its father. Athens, ‘the great democracy’, was thus the ‘seat of a culture which could be said to be the “education of Greece”. The thinking, the theatre, the arts, the varied lifestyle which we still admire were all Athenian or based in Athens’ (Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World, London, 2006, p.161).

The limited vocabulary and subject matter that are required for Common Entrance and Scholarship exams are all redolent of ancient Athens, that tiny city, of only about 50,000 inhabitants, where such remarkable things happened. Words that appear frequently include:

ὁ δεσποτης, master, and ὁ δουλος, slave. It is ironic that a citizenry believing in ‘democratic’ freedom should also have been slave-owners. In fact, there were at least two slaves (almost all non-Greeks, traded on the wharves of Piraeus) for every citizen. They were central to the Athenian economy, working in the silver mines that were its mainstay, as well as in agriculture or in various crafts or as household servants. Many were recognisable only by their tattoos. A general in the Persian Wars once had an important message tattooed onto the shaved head of a slave, not trusting him to convey it verbally.

The native-born Athenian is a citizen, ὁ πολιτης (origin of our word ‘politician’), entitled to have his democratic say, who considers it humiliating to serve any master but himself – hence the number of one-man businesses and crafts in the city. He is jealous, too, of ὁ οἰκος, his house, often built round a courtyard, with an upper storey to accommodate the slaves. Here, the οἰκος νομος, law or organisation of the household, prevails – whence our word ‘economy’. The streets are so narrow and crowded that is it usual to knock before you exit – the doors are large and they open outwards.

ἡ ἀγορα, the market-place, is a focal point of the city. All roads lead to it, a meeting place as well as a shopping centre, enclosed by colonnaded buildings and numerous shrines, where I might θεραπευω (worship) or θυω (sacrifice) to my favourite θεος (god) or θεα (goddess). Here also the judge, ὁ κριτης, administers justice. Other prominent features are τα μακρα τειχη, the long walls that surround the city.

Most noticeable of all are the frequent military references in the exams, for the Athenian army, ἡ στρατια, was a citizen army. The soldier, ὁ στρατιωτης, must equip himself – if he can afford it – with τα ὁπλα, the arms, that are required of ὁ ὁπλιτης, the ‘hoplite’ or infantryman. Consisting of a gleaming breast-plate, helmet and greaves (to cover the calves and shins), and a large, circular shield (about three feet in diameter), these are prominently displayed in ὁ οἰκος. These weapons probably weighed up to fifty pounds, but made the wearer almost invincible to frontal attack, and the Greek hoplites in their legendary formation, ὁ φαλαγξ, one of the most effective fighting forces in the ancient world. The general, ὁ στρατηγος, who led them was a tribal official and there were regular opportunities to στρατευω, march or go on an expedition, or to pitch camp, το στρατωπεδον. Nor should one forget the real source of Athenian military might, the fleet of triremes, αἱ τριηρεις, manned by οἱ ναυται, the sailors, who are also proudly free.

The purpose of studying classical Greek is to understand the rich heritage of Athens, and to be able to read the ancient authors in the original. That is why candidates for Common Entrance are asked to translate simplified passages from ancient literature, such as the story of the death of Hector at Troy that is in the January 2013 paper. To be able, in the process, to prove one’s superior intellect is just a happy side-effect.

The Nea Mone, Chios – and the Vagaries of Levantine Travel

November 10th, 2011

Further to my last blog, the Nea Mone, Chios, was not quite deserted when I visited it on Thursday 10 October 1991, as I was reminded on re-reading my diary of the journey.

The previous day I had lunched with elegant Greek friends in Athens, before embarking at Piraeus on the Sappho, bound for Chios at 7 o’clock. I describe the ‘hellish atmosphere’ on board, ‘my class in one communal room with bar & food, television. Shortage of seats, which were cramped & uncomfortable. Many Turks, gipsies (one dirty boy begged from me) and soldiery. Slept badly …’

All was well on my arrival at Chios town. It had a ‘very Turkish atmosphere. Shacks built on top of the ramparts. Giustiniani Museum with a few Byzantine relics.’ On Thursday afternoon, the redoubtable Pandeles Spanos (‘the beardless’) drove me ‘up mountain to Nea Mone – sick-making hair-pin bends, a long drive to a very remote place …’ Pandeles thought we should delay our arrival till 3.45, as the monastery would surely be closed ‘for a long lunch’. He proved to be an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. ‘A kindly old monk supervised in the church – an illiterate.’ Pandeles ‘explained that I was a writer of Byzantine history, about which he was unfortunately ignorant. Later another, younger monk appeared, & an elderly nun, who gave me Turkish Delight & a cup of water. She had seemed charmed when I doffed my hat to her & also when I said the sweet was “nostimo” – delicious.’

We ‘went on to Anavatos, a desolate, haunted place, inhospitable enough even when inhabited’.

It is strange that my strongest memory of this day should be of seeing the Emperor Monomachos’s prayer book, and that, of all details, I should have omitted to mention this in my diary.

Constantine IX Monomachos, Zoe Porphyrogennete and Maria Skleraina: An Imperial Ménage à Trois.

October 31st, 2011

The Byzantines frowned on second marriages. They were permissible only when the first marriage had been childless. Third marriages were contrary to both ecclesiastical and Roman law, and to marry a fourth time was, according to the Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos, ‘a bestial act only worthy of lower animals’ (Judith Herrin, Byzantium (London, 2007), p.187).

In the imperial family itself, notable transgressors were the Emperor Leo VI (four times married) and his great-great-granddaughter, the Empress Zoe Porphyrogennete (three times married). Although Zoe and her younger sister, Theodora, were the sole heiresses to the Macedonian dynasty, they were considered, as women, to be unfit to rule alone. It was therefore incumbent on Zoe to marry – and marry again. She otherwise risked being deposed.

Zoe’s third husband was the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, himself the survivor of two previous marriages. When her second husband, Michael IV, died in 1041, Zoe considered, and rejected, two other possible candidates. Although she had not set eyes on Constantine for seven years, he had been her great favourite in the past, so much so that a jealous Michael had had him banished (on fabricated charges of treason) to the island of Mytilene (Lesbos), where he had languished ever since.

Constantine was handsome, effortlessly charming and genuinely likeable. In his youth he had been a champion pentathlete. He was the last heir to a prominent ‘civilian’ family (most of whose known members had pursued judicial careers) and both his previous marriages had been illustrious. On the first occasion, he had become ‘son-in-law to the outstanding member of court society’ (regrettably unnamed by the chronicler, Psellos). Then, as a childless widower, he had been permitted to re-marry (in or before 1025), to the only child of the magistros Basil Skleros. The bride’s mother, Pulcheria Argyropoulaina, was sister to Romanos Argyropoulos, who had subsequently become Zoe’s first husband and emperor as Romanos III. It had been Romanos’s particular wish that Constantine should be ‘grafted to the rich fertile olive’ of his family, though he had a low opinion of his nephew-in-law’s abilities, and had never trusted him to do any serious work (Psellos, Chronographia, VI, 15-21, trans. Sewter, pp.162-5; J.-C. Cheynet, Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (Paris, 1996), pp.192-3, 269).

At the time of his banishment in 1035, Constantine had recently been widowed for the second time. There was no hope of his remarrying. He had, however, fallen madly in love with his late wife’s niece, Maria Skleraina, a young widow herself, who had been taken into their household. The normally discreet Maria had been inveigled into a ‘highly improper association’ and had elected to share Constantine’s exile on Mytilene (which was considered a cruel fate indeed for a Constantinopolitan). On their way out, some monks of the neighbouring island of Chios had prophesied Constantine’s eventual return to the capital, not in disgrace but as emperor (Cheynet, pp.46, 56-70). It had given Maria hope that they would one day be able to marry. For an emperor, surely anything was possible.


Constantine was recalled in the spring of 1042 and returned to Constantinople in triumph. His wedding to Zoe took place on 11 June. The Patriarch, Alexios, made what are tactfully called ‘concessions to expediency – or shall we say that he bowed to the will of God in the whole affair?’ Constantine was about 42 years old. Zoe, at 69, was old enough to be his mother. There seems, at first, to have been a physical element to the marriage, but she soon tired of that, preferring to pursue the real passion of her later years, which was the running of her own private perfume factory in the Palace.

Maria, waiting anxiously on Mytilene, was sent word that an indulgent Zoe had consented to her return (Psellos, VI, 54, p.182). Constantine set her up in a small house near the Palace. If multiple marriages were frowned upon, it was yet more shocking to keep a mistress. Romanos III is said, by doing so, to have shown ‘little respect for the accepted standards of morality’ (Psellos, III, 17, p.75). Affronts to the dignity of the purple-born Zoe and Theodora were also liable to enrage the populace, who referred to them as ‘our mums’.

Deeply ashamed of himself and terrified of a scandal, Constantine took pains to conceal his affair. He commissioned extensions to Maria’s house and, on the pretext of overseeing the work, was able to pay her regular visits. Whilst the members of his entourage were distracted by banquets in the garden, he would disappear inside. They knew exactly what was going on, but became used to their regular feasts and seemed happy for them to continue. The Emperor, encouraged and emboldened, ceased after a while to make any secret of the affair.

It remained for him to come to some sort of arrangement with Zoe, who proved remarkably compliant. The Empress not only agreed to have Maria move into the Palace itself, but was also willing to sign a ‘treaty of friendship’ between the three of them. The entire Senate was summoned to witness the contract. They were astonished that Zoe, far from being humiliated and distressed, actually seemed to be quite pleased with the arrangement, by which Maria was even to be addressed officially by a specially created imperial title, that of sebaste. (On Maria’s title, see Nicolas Oikonomides, ‘St George of Mangana, Maria Skleraina, and the “Malyj Sion” of Novgorod’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 34/4 (1980-1), pp.239-46.)

According to Psellos, young Maria was not a remarkable beauty, but had a wonderfully charming and unaffected manner. It was a delight to hear her speak. She was also a good listener, and acutely sensitive to the feelings of those around her. Psellos, then an imperial secretary of similar age, found it impossible not to like her (Psellos, VI, 58-65, pp.183-7).

A large crowd gathered to watch Maria on her first public outing, when she processed with the other members of the imperial family to the Theatre. As she was passing, Maria saw a bystander turn to his companion and, in a stage whisper, mutter two well known words from Homer – ‘ου ηεμεσις …’ A cultured Byzantine quoted Homer as readily as a cultured Englishman quotes Shakespeare. He would also have been educated, and – at least in formal circumstances – would probably have conversed in classical Greek (the equivalent of a modern Englishman speaking the language of Chaucer). Anyone with an education would thus have recognised the quotation and understood its significance. It is the passage where Priam’s counsellors, rationalising the sufferings of the Greeks and Trojans for the sake of Helen, say that men have understandably been driven to it by her unearthly beauty.

When the formal ceremony was over, Maria approached the man and, imitating his tone exactly, recited the quotation in full:

ου νεμεσις Τρωας και ευκνημιδας Αχαιους

τοιήδ’ αμφι γυναικι πολυν χρονον αλγεα πασχειν.

αινως αθανατησι θεης εις ωπα εοικεν.

‘Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time suffer woes; wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon’ (Iliad, III, ll.156-8, trans. A. Murray, Loeb edition, I, p.129. I have, perforce, omitted the iota subscripts, breathing marks and other diacritics, too great a challenge for my computer).

It was a graceful compliment indeed, for which the flatterer was richly rewarded.

Maria Skleraina died before the age of thirty, suddenly, of a bronchial disease – for she was severely asthmatic – in 1044 or 5. Constantine was heart-broken. He had her buried in a sumptuous tomb at the monastery of St George-in-Mangana, under what is now the Topkapi Palace, which he had founded and granted to her – a further impropriety – so that its revenues would assure her of financial independence. Psellos was commissioned to deliver the oration (in iambic verse), in which he referred again to the charms of her conversation: he says that she was ‘truly an Orpheus and a Siren in words, sending unto all her beautiful song’ (Panagiotis A. Agapilos, ‘Public and Private Death in Psellos: Maria Skleraina and Styliana Psellaina’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 101ii (2008), pp.555-607). Apparently he was sincere.

The reign of Constantine IX Monomachos was an unmitigated disaster for the Empire. He neglected the affairs of state, concentrating instead on worldly pleasures. It amused him to construct a beautiful park and to place in the middle of it a deep pond, the sides of which were level with the surrounding lawn. He would watch as unsuspecting visitors, strolling through the park, suddenly found themselves up to their necks in water. At least the water was warm, and Constantine himself liked to bathe in it several times a day, even, apparently, in winter. It is most unusual to hear of a recreational swimmer in the Middle Ages. One day he caught a chill while emerging from the pool and it was the death of him. He was buried in January 1055, not with Zoe, who had pre-deceased him, but beside his beloved Maria at St George-in-Mangana. Perhaps they had enjoyed swimming together, all those years ago, off the Lesbian shore.

It is stated in the Russian Primary Chronicle that Vsevelod I, Grand Prince of Kiev, was married by 1053 to ‘a Greek princess’. Their eldest child, born in that year, was the future Vladimir I, surnamed ‘Monomakh’, who is assumed, therefore, to have been a relative, if not the grandson, of Constantine IX. A further suggestion is that the mother of the unfortunate ‘princess’ was Maria Skleraina. The evidence in the matter is inconclusive, but the bride sent to Russia appears also to have been called Maria (for the seal has been discovered there of the ‘all-high-born Maria Monomacha’), and Byzantine children were never named after their parents. In any case, Psellos would surely have mentioned it if there had been a child. Moreover, although he describes Constantine as the last of his line, the Emperor certainly had a first cousin, Theodosios Monomachos, who survived him and indeed aspired to the throne after his death (Cheynet, p.67); Vsevelod’s bride could have been the sister, daughter or niece of this Theodosios. (For an assessment of all the evidence, see Rupert Willoughby, ‘The Golden Line’, Genealogists’ Magazine, XXIII (March and June 1991), pp.321-7, 369-72.)

Constantine has at least left us his mosaic portrait (above), in the last bay of the south gallery of Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral church of Constantinople. Zoe was already depicted there, she and her previous husband, Michael, presenting gifts to the figure of Christ. On marrying Constantine she had all three heads renewed, ensuring that her own showed her in the most youthful, flattering light. Constantine’s interpolated head seems more realistic, with his handsome features and the fresh, ruddy complexion to which Psellos refers.

Constantine in gratitude to the Chian monks also founded the Nea Mone (‘New Monastery’) on the island (pictured left). It is now deserted, but I remember on a visit in October 1991 seeing a small psalter or prayer-book that is supposed to have belonged to him. Moreover, there are through Vladimir Monomakh – whose many descendants include Edward II’s queen Isabella of France – countless people in the West who can, with some confidence, claim Constantine IX Monomachos as a kinsman – if not as a direct ancestor.

Michael Keroularios, Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Psellos, Consul of the Philosophers, and their ‘Niece’, Eudokia Makrembolitissa

August 15th, 2011

Michael I Keroularios was appointed the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1043, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. He is a great figure in the history of the Orthodox Church.

The Emperor Monomachos was keen to ally himself with the Papacy against the Normans, who had overrun his possessions in southern Italy. Unfortunately, the reformed church in the West was now insisting (unhistorically) on the effective primacy of the Pope of Rome, and his entitlement to enforce religious discipline and conformity over the whole of Christendom.

Among other differences, the Westerners fasted on the Sabbath, ate strangled meat and, above all, used unleavened bread, or ‘azymes’, in the Sacrament. These customs accorded with Judaical law, but not with the tradition of the early church, which considered itself to be under a new dispensation. The reformed Papacy was nevertheless determined to impose discipline and ‘correct’ practice throughout Christendom. Keroularios rightly suspected that the alliance would come at a heavy price, and was having none of it.

In 1054, he had an ill-tempered encounter with a distinguished papal delegation, which accused him of disobedience towards the Pope. Keroularios deliberately took no notice of them. As a result, the exasperated legates handed the disdainful Patriarch a bull of excommunication in the middle of a service in Hagia Sophia. Having stormed out of the cathedral, they theatrically shook the dust from their feet. Keroularios responded to this insult in kind, with the full support of the city, and the legates were obliged for their safety to hurry home.

Each side had been careful to direct its excommunications at a small number of individuals; and to represent the affair as marking the final schism between the two churches is a fallacy. It was, however, a landmark in the process of estrangement, when each side was fully and disturbingly exposed to the prejudices and claims of the other.

For the proud Byzantines, it was bad enough to be lectured by ‘heretics’ (the Westerners had tampered with the Nicene Creed by inserting the word ‘Filioque’). It was worse still when they were ‘barbarians’. The legates had addressed a wildly inaccurate tirade against Keroularios, who, in a lofty reply, described them as ‘men who had burst from the evening shadows of the West’ and ‘attacked like some wild boar’. Constantinople, he wrote, was ‘God’s protected city, whence the springs of orthodoxy, the pure waters of the true faith, will flow like streams from a mountain peak to water all corners of the Earth and quench the souls of all men with the divine teachings’. (See Will ed., Acta et Scripta de Controversiis Ecclesiae Graecae et Latinae; Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism.)

Keroularios was not happy when, after the death of Monomachos in 1055, his sister-in-law, the porphyrogennete (‘purple-born’) Empress Theodora, sought to reign alone. Once friendly, she now ‘abominated the man, refusing even to meet him. There was a reason for this: the Patriarch was vexed because the Roman Empire was being governed by a woman. Characteristically he was filled with wrath at this state of affairs, and he spoke his mind freely.’ (Michael Psellos, Chronographia, VI, xviii, trans. Sewter, p.269.) He was no happier with her successor in 1056, the near-senile Michael VI – a mere puppet of the court eunuchs – and helped, by inciting a riot in the city, to engineer his deposition in 1057.

The habitually forthright Keroularios soon quarrelled with the new Emperor, Isaac I Komnenos. Having presented him with the throne, he felt entitled to share in his imperial power and, again, used ‘language that was somewhat bold’. He is said also to have sported a pair of purple buskins, an act of treason, as purple garments were traditionally a prerogative of the Emperor. However, he had met his match in Isaac, a tough general with a no-nonsense approach.

In November 1058, Isaac arrested the troublesome Keroularios and exiled him to Prokonnesos, thus ‘casting the Patriarch off as if he were a load off his shoulders’. (Psellos, Chronographia, VII, 65, trans. Sewter, p.315; Skylitzes, 809, p.644.) Michael Psellos, a trained lawyer as well as ‘Consul of the Philosophers’ in the University founded by Monomachos, was instructed to prosecute him. Psellos’s detailed Accusation sets out the charges both of heresy and treason. However, Keroularios died unexpectedly, before coming to trial. Psellos says that the usually dour Isaac ‘bewailed his loss loudly and mourned him sincerely’, and – guilty at having brought down so great a personage – immediately rehabilitated his family at court.

These included the Patriarch’s niece, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, second wife of the vestarches Constantine Doukas, a nobleman from Paphlagonia. Eudokia was the daughter, by the Patriarch’s sister, of Ioannes Makrembolites, and according to Psellos was ‘a woman of great spirit, and exceptional beauty’. Interestingly, Psellos describes himself as Eudokia’s ‘uncle’ and, elsewhere, as ‘spiritual brother’ to her father, who was presumably his first cousin. Psellos was thus related by marriage, if not by blood, to the Patriarch. (D.I. Polemis, The Doukai (London, 1968), pp.28-34; K. Barzos, Ή Γενεαλογια των Κομνηνων (Thessalonica, 1984), I, p.125; Jean-Claude Cheynet, Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (Paris, 1996), p.275.)

In the autumn of 1059, a disheartened Isaac himself became ill. Psellos, a proficient doctor among his other skills, convinced him (wrongly) that he was dying. That November, Isaac was persuaded to abdicate in favour of their mutual friend and relative, the amiable Constantine Doukas. The new Emperor entrusted the helm of state to Psellos, his wife’s uncle, who claims that Constantine drank his every word ‘like nectar’. The first duty of his former accuser was to pronounce, in the imperial presence, a glowing funeral oration, somewhat overdue, in honour of the dead Patriarch. An unashamed pen-for-hire and political survivor, Psellos now made him out to be a saint.

It is ironic that after the death of the Emperor Doukas in 1067, his widow Eudokia, niece of the misogynistic Patriarch Keroularios, should herself have assumed sole power, even sidelining her ‘uncle’ Psellos, until practical considerations forced her, in January 1068, to marry again. Her new husband, Romanos Diogenes, was the emperor who was defeated and captured by the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Psellos loathed Diogenes and, on his release from captivity in 1072, had him savagely blinded, an act of calculated brutality that horrified contemporaries. It enabled Psellos to resume his controlling influence in the court as chief minister to Eudokia’s son, the feeble Michael VII.

Psellos claims in his funeral oration that the Keroularioi were descended from Herakles. They had been patricians at least since the late 10th century, when a Keroularios served as a general (Cheynet, p.52, n.2), yet the family name means ‘candle-maker’. Their earlier ancestors were surely guildsmen in Constantinople, practising their craft in the hallowed environs over which Michael himself later presided. The many churches of Constantinople were, of course, vast consumers of candles.

The Pselloi were also a noble family. Their name, meaning ‘stammerer’, is most inappropriate for their most famous member, who was so renowned as an orator and conversationalist. Psellos reveals the little that is known about his immediate family in an earlier funeral oration that he had composed for his young daughter, Styliane Psellaina. She was his only child after many years of marriage, possibly to a woman called Theodote. (In desperation they had already adopted another girl, Euphemia.) In the summer of 1054, whilst Keroularios was smarting over the insults of the Papacy, Constantinople was in the grip of a smallbox epidemic, mentioned by the chronicler Skylitzes. The 9-year-old Styliane succumbed to the disease and died after 31 days of suffering.

Psellos clearly adored her and was heart-broken. He likens her to ‘a young, soft, tiny bird’. He delighted in her love of learning, in pursuit of which she would voluntarily visit school, presumably to sit at the back while the boys had their lessons; and speaks of her natural talents for weaving and embroidery. Skilled doctor that he was, he describes her illness in clinical detail; also the washing, dressing and laying out of her dead body, reduced to ‘one single open wound’. His later oration to Keroularios seems cold by comparison. (Panagiotis A. Agapitos, ‘Public and Private Death in Psellos: Maria Skleraina and Styliane Psellaina’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 101, ii (2008), pp.555-607.) It is the ‘private’ death that brings out Psellos’s innate humanity, and yet, if one thinks of him at all, it is probably not as the victim of a personal tragedy.

What lines of descent can be traced from these families to the present day? Hundreds of thousands, even millions of living people in the West can prove Byzantine ancestry from the eleventh century, through families such as the Komnenoi. Far fewer people, however, are able to establish a link with Psellos and Keroularios.

The Emperor Doukas had by their niece, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, a daughter, Zoe porphyrogennete. She married Adrian Komnenos, brother of the Emperor Alexios I. Their granddaughter, Anna Komnene Doukaina, married Alexios Palaiologos, a member of the last reigning dynasty in Byzantium.

This couple’s great-granddaughter, Theodora Palaiologina, married her third cousin, Andronikos Palaiologos, who died in 1247. They were the parents of the Emperor Michael VII Palaiologos (1259-82), from whom an exclusive number of Western families are able to trace their descent. I myself have a double descent from Michael.

In 1355, Michael’s great-great-granddaughter Maria was given in marriage by her brother, the Emperor John V, to Francesco Gattilusio, a Genoese buccaneer in his service, whom he made lord of Mytilene or the island of Lesbos. (D.M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium (Cambridge, 1972), p.256.) Their granddaughter, Catarina Gattilusio, married Pietro di Grimaldi, Baron of Bueil. Thence the line is traced directly, through thirteen generations, to my French great-grandmother. It is thrilling to think that I am flesh and blood with the likes of Psellos and Keroularios, and, indeed, one of their nearest living relatives.