Friday, January 2, 2009

Michael Choniates to Theodore Doukas

In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire was split by competing powers for control. The Latins divided up the empire into fiefs which crusaders then tried to take. They had a great measure of success in the west overrunning Thessalonike and the greater part of Achaia and the Peloponnese. Notable Byzantine resistance was put up at Corinth by Leo Sgouros. Interestingly, Michael Choniates, the brother of historian Niketas Choniates and bishop of Athens, preserves us an account of his story of life after Athens fell in a letter to Theodore Doukas, the infamous ruler of Epiros and future emperor of Thessalonike for a spell. This is a clever response to Theodore's request, more like command that Choniates retire to his dominion. The date of the letter is 1217 because he says its been 12 years since Athens fell in 1205 and his nephews referred to are the sons of his brother Niketas Choniates. The monastery is Saint Nicholas the Saver refferred to in Choniates letter 166, which I've not yet had time to research much about.

To the mighty lord Theodore Doukas,

Who am I, Lord, my Lord, that the greatness of Your Person, who is surrounded by attacking enemies, tugged at one end and the other by myriads of cares and military expeditions, and neither gratifies its eyes with sleep nor rest to your temples so that it might keep his God-entrusted government free from Italian tyranny, has kindly paid attention to me and remembered me addressing letters to me and summoning to itself me, a man long since dead and genuinely near forgotten by everyone like a corpse. When I was driven from Athens, I ought to have as the prophet says spread my wings and flown to the dawning sun to the furthest reaches of the sea to settle down, but I did not, and instead contrived something almost Promethean because I am such philathenian and an idiot. What exactly? I did not flee far from my flock like a total hired laborer (1) because of the attacking beasts, but instead I took up residence at the islands across from Attica to watch from them as from far off guard watchtowers the panathenian destruction and to be able to help. I have lived here in the neighborhood of Athens for twelve years now (1205-1217) finding not benefit because I have seen the pains, convulsions, wailing, and lamentation my children be consumed as my own heart is tormented suffering along with them as though a motherbird seeing her own chicks become dinner for snake can only fly around and shriek pitifully and may even be gotten herself, so have I run the risk nearly to suffer. Last year, I dared to come to Athens and if I had not high tailed it out of there, I would have myself been gobbled down by Italian teeth.

When I soon realized that I was doing no good for my flock and putting myself in serious danger, I got far from there and fled here brought in a coffin to the holy monastery here where I was entombed and I pass the time with the holy abbot and the brotherhood under him.

They pray excessively night and day for your succor, and I add my own excessive prayers that you be strengthened in the Lord and that he shade your divine head on war days as well as for you to be girded with power from on high, so as to purge completely the enemy encircling your dominion and keep untrodden all your inheritance by the Italians as well as inspire fear always in them and strike them before they strike you. Your Lordship has no greater of us living here. Should a worn down person ravaged by all sorts of hard time leave here who is so unable to move that he is worthy of a couch and corner? Being in this condition, believe me that even if because of your love of God to took to traveling in a litter, I would be hard pressed to fulfill your order.

At the present time too, there are many things hindering me and especially preventing me from coming, which I will recount, so that Your Lordship may forgive our unwilling, one might say, disobedience. It’s like this. When I came here from Euboia, it happened that at the same time, the heads of Greece was gathering, who when they head of our migration, they became suspicious that I would head no where else than straight for Your Person’s land and they became so embittered, as passersby have made clear, that they were ready to a good deal of harm to my nephews traveling together and to the monastery that has received me. On this account my close of kin and the most holy abbot are afraid due this suspicion they should look to their own defense, since all of the barbarians are ready to impale them and do far worse thing out of only a suspicion as they have already posted agents not far from the monastery of Komnenos should I make a move for it, and thus reassured themselves of a possible stumbling block. Since things have gone this way, were I to follow your injunction to come there, I would be of no help to Your Person and become responsible for disaster for my next of kin and would also nevertheless create trouble for this monastery, returning their friendship to me and welcome with poor signs of gratitude having provided an excuse for perfidy against it to the Italians, who are ever hovering over it and thirsting for the slightest excuse at all to do damage to it.

Wary of all this, I have to remain here until God-willing I end the few, wearisome remaining days of my despondent life, though I am exasperated, believe me, that I cannot carry out the will of Your Person, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for its kindness to me and its kind sympathy to Ligouros and its recalling me to the previous honor. You benevolent soul indeed has don a great deed worthy of itself. Either you have felt sympathy for a man who has stumbled or you have become an imitator of God who endures us sinners every day or innocently become the object of false slander and thus kept the holy commandment saying that, “You will not condemn an innocent and just person.” So please forgive me for our unwilling refusal to live here when your forgiving and kind person asked us to live in one of the monasteries under your control. Whatever you should do there, I pray excessively not only for you, but also with the most holy abbot and the sacred brotherhood under him making mention each day of Your Person as well as of your close of kin the founder.

Exert yourself then, follow the correct road, and become superior to anyone hostile to you, open or closed, oh adornment of the Komnenoi, glory of the Doukades, pride of the Romans. For all to see, I acknowledge through my present letter the greatness of Your Person (2). May the Lord be with you, championing, guarding, and preserving you from all evil accident.

  1. illusion to John 10:1-16 where Jesus compares himself to a shepherd that his flock knows and who looks after his flock in comparison to a hired laborer.

  2. This sentence resembles for some reason the formality of an imperial letter or chrysobull. A chrysobull began, “For all to see is set here our present pious seal.”

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