Sunday, August 11, 2019


Scott Kennedy, Two Works on Trebizond. Michael Panaretos. Bessarion. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 52. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. Pp. 294. ISBN 9780674986626. $29.95.

Reviewed by John Monfasani, The University at Albany, State University of New York (

Version at BMCR home site

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The volume under review is a welcome addition to the literature in English on the medieval "empire" of Trebizond. Located on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea and established as an independent Greek state in 1204 just before Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade, Trebizond retained its independence under the dynasty of the Grand Komnenoi until David Komnenos surrendered to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1461. It played no mean role in the political and economic history of the later Middle Ages. It was integral to developments in Anatolia and all the lands bordering the Black Sea, from Constantinople and the Crimea to Georgia in the Caucasus. It also figured significantly in the rivalry of the Italian maritime states of Genoa and Venice. Nonetheless, the last history we have of it in English remains the nearly century-old Trebizond: The Last Greek Empire of William Miller published in 1926. True, significant studies in English have appeared since then, most notably Anthony Bryer's and David Winfield's classic The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos in 1985. But until a new synthetic survey in English appears, Anglophone students of Trebizond best profit from the latest scholarship by publications such as this addition to the Dumbarton Oaks text series.

The editor, Scott Kennedy, chose to combine two very different sorts of texts: the late fourteenth-century chronicle of the imperial secretary Michael Panaretos, "a drab but reliable narrative" in the words of A. A. Vasiliev,1 and the consciously literary, fifteenth-century encomium of Trebizond by the future cardinal Bessarion but written at a time when he was still only a Basilian monk. Kennedy's translation is clear, fluent, and accurate. In the notes he alerts the reader when he is attempting to render a difficult or ambiguous passage. For the Greek text facing the English translation, Kennedy reproduced with only modest changes the long available critical editions of Odysseas Lampsides published in the journal Archeion Pontou in 1958 (Panaretos) and 1984 (Bessarion).

As far as Panaretos is concerned, Kennedy decidedly advances beyond Lampsides by his diligent identification and translation of Turkish names and individuals from Panaretos's idiosyncratic Greek spelling, and by the dense running commentary on persons and events in his notes on Panaretos. In 2016, Annika Asp Talwar anticipated many of Kennedy's Turkish identifications in an English translation of Panaretos, in a volume published on the occasion of an exhibit at Koç University in Istanbul, but without his extensive historical documentation. The chronicle itself is a series of factual snippets recording events from 1204 to 1426. Panaretos begins to speak in the first person reporting on events in 1340 and continues to do so up to events of 1386. At some point thereafter, the notices must have been additions made by others. Panaretos provides no coherent narrative, but lots of useful information and often piquant and even touching comments, such as when he laments the death of his two sons. Kennedy includes an excellent map, prepared by Ian Mladjov, of the Black Sea coast from Sinope to Georgia and an inset of the Crimea. He also provides a three-page genealogical chart of the Komnenoi as well as a "glossary of offices, titles, and technical terms." All in all, a very good package for understanding and exploiting Panaretos.

The irony of Kennedy's combining Panaretos and Bessarion is that whereas Panaretos's chronicle is a rich, factual source illuminating events and aspects of medieval Trapezuntine history, Bessarion's encomium is a literary text in need of illumination through the identification of its sources and the events to which it all too vaguely refers. Its value as a source for the history of Trebizond is limited primarily to its description of the city and especially of the imperial palace. It is unfortunate, therefore, that John Eugenikos's contemporary, relatively short ekphrasis of Trebizond is not also included in the volume (another regrettable omission is a plan of Trebizond, which would have been useful in reading Bessarion). The main value of Bessarion's encomium resides instead in what it reveals about Bessarion and his vision of Trebizond and Greek history. Consequently, when and where he wrote the encomium matters a great deal for how we are to understand it and its meaning for Bessarion. Unfortunately, we have no reliable or exact information on the date, place, or circumstances of its composition. Kennedy is agnostic about the date, but he favors the view that Bessarion "wrote the text in Mistra or Constantinople as an intellectual exercise and circulated it among his friends back in Treibzond" (xvii). I doubt the correctness of much of this statement, but we need to review the encomium before discussing its origins.

Bessarion was born in Trebizond but educated in Constantinople and Mistra in the Peloponnesus. He describes the oration as a tribute to his native city (§§ 1–5). It is pretentiously long, covering 145 pages in the volume as compared to the 57 pages of Panaretos's chronicle. It is pretentious in another way. As Kennedy puts it, "Stylistically, Bessarion's Greek is challenging and demanding" (xvi). After an introduction justifying the composition of the encomium (§§ 1–9), Bessarion makes some general comments on the origin of cities and invokes the deity (§§ 10–12). Then comes a long historical survey as he traces the founding of Trebizond: Athens founded Miletus, which subsequently founded Sinope, which in its turn founded Trebizond. Passing quickly over Athens (§§ 13–14), Bessarion spends considerable time expiating the glorious history of Miletus (§§ 15–23) and provides an interesting ekphrasis of Sinope (§§ 24–28), which suggests that he might have known the city firsthand. He then expounds the geographic and physical virtues of Trebizond (§§ 29–59) as well as the moral virtues and the Greekness of the Trapezuntines down through history (§§ 60–89). A section glorifying the Grand Komnenoi follows (§§ 90–97) before he gives an ekphrasis of the city (§§ 98–110). He ends with another laudatio of the virtue of the Trapezuntine people (§§ 111–121) and an appeal for approbation of his effort (§ 122).

The first thing to be said about its composition is that the encomium was not some idle "intellectual exercise." It seems to me that Bessarion makes it quite clear that he was commissioned to write it (§ 7), condemning those who under no duress take on tasks beyond their abilities while pleading for understanding of those who willy-nilly (ἐκῶν ἄκων) venture into something arduous. The second point is that he wrote it in Constantinople, not in Trebizond, and certainly not in Mistra. Lampsides, having edited the text, was the first, I believe, to argue for Constantinople. He made an argument ex silentio, namely, that Bessarion does not name or pay obeisance to any contemporary ruler, official, or other figure, something incomprehensible if he were part of an official mission to Trebizond.2 Kennedy adds a telling piece of evidence, although not properly interpreted. At § 36, Bessarion contrasts the steady calmness of the Black Sea to the frequent turbulence of the Aegean, the Hellespont, and "this here sea," which Kennedy in the notes takes as a reference to the Mediterranean, a conclusion that makes little sense since Mistra is in the middle of the Peloponnesus and Constantinople guards the Bosporus. Rather, Bessarion must mean the Sea of Marmara on the southern shore of the city, which fits nicely in a trilogy with the Aegean and the Hellespont. The third and fourth points, noted by multiple commentators, are (a) that Bessarion's reference to Trebizond's submission to Rome "nearly 1500 years ago" (§ 78) would seem to confirm a date for the encomium in or near 1437, since Rome took over Trebizond after the death of Mithridates in 63 BC; and (b) the location of the encomium in Bessarion's chronologically ordered autograph collection of writings in MS Marc. Gr. 533 (= coll. 778) fits a date of 1436–37: it follows texts written in the mid-1430s and precedes those written at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, in 1438–39. The fifth and last point is that Bessarion clearly had not yet been named one of the spokesmen of the Greek delegation to the Council and therefore had not been officially recognized as a theological expert. Hence, the only expertise he claimed was that over words, a study to which he had dedicated "his whole life" (§ 5). My conclusion is that after returning to Constantinople from Mistra in late 1436 or early 1437, Bessarion was commissioned to write the encomium. One can speculate on the circumstances of the commission, but it is probably significant that he cast the encomium as an address delivered before Trapezuntines rather than as some sort of letter. Since he claimed expertise only in words, I would favor a date in 1436/1437 before he became a teacher in (if not the head of) a monastery in Constantinople and subsequently the bishop of Nicaea.

Kennedy does a good job in annotating the encomium. The only criticism I have is his failure to note at §§ 41–44 Bessarion's startling repudiation – already noted by Frederick Lauritzen3 – of the writings of his teacher in Mistra, George Gemistus Pletho, concerning the deleterious influence of merchants and commerce, though he does rightly note that Bessarion also contradicts Plato on this point.

In sum, with these two translations and their accompanying documentation, Kennedy has most helpfully served the interests of not only those who study medieval Trebizond, but also those who work on the towering intellectual figure who by his life and works connected Byzantium to the Italian Renaissance.


1.   "The Empire of Trebizond in History and Literature," Byzantion, 15 (1940–41): 316–77, at 316. At 333, he referred again to "this drab but truthful chronicle."
2.   "L'eloge de Trébisonde de Bessarion," Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, 32 (1982): 121–27; "Περὶ τὸ «'Εγκώμιον εἰς Τραπεζοῦντα» τοῦ Βεσσαρίωνος," Archeion Pontou, 37(1982): 153–81, at 159–60; and "Ο «Εἰς Τραπεζοῦντα» τοῦ Βεσσαρίωνος," Archeion Pontou, 39 (1984): 3–75, at 5–6.
3.   "Bessarion's Political Thought": The Encomium to Trebizond," Bulgaria Mediaevalis, 3 (2 (2011): 153–59.

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