Book Review: Sylvester Syropoulos on Politics and Culture in the Fifteenth-Century Mediterranean (Kondyli, Andriopoulou, Panou, & Cunningham, eds.)—Review by Matthew Buszek

Book review: Fotini Kondyli, Vera Andriopoulou, Eirini Panou, and Mary B. Cunningham, eds. Sylvester Syropoulos on Politics and Culture in the Fifteenth-Century Mediterranean. Themes and Problems in the Memoirs, Section IV. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 16. Farnham; Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. xii+248 pp. $124.95, £70.00 ISBN-13: 9781409439660.

This book – introduction, ten chapters, and an appendix – is the result of a colloquium at the University of Birmingham in June 2009 entitled Sailing from Byzantium: Themes and Problems in Sylvester Syropoulos’s Memoirs, Book IV. The purpose of the colloquium was to study Book IV of Syropoulos’s (d. c. 1453) memoir, re-contextualize it, and translate it into English. The seminar’s members concluded a new English translation was needed because the last critical edition of the text was Laurent’s French edition of 1971.[1] This memoir, written by a member of the Byzantine ecclesiastical delegation to the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–1449), was an account of the Byzantines’ journey to Ferrara and Florence, the events and theological controversies of the Council, and the journey back to Constantinople. Book IV, the concern of this book, only includes the trip from Constantinople to the Council and the first meetings between the Byzantines and the Latins at the Council. The theme of the short lived ecclesiastical union achieved at the Council is central to the memoir.

The authors of the book argue that to-date Syropoulos’s memoir has been underutilized by historians because it has been judged to be biased: “Syropoulos’s portrayal of both the protagonists of the union and of the Latins, as well as his narrative of the events concerning the council, are heavily conditioned by his writing agenda” (2). Each of the contributors to the book demonstrate how, despite this bias, this memoir can be used to elucidate features of fifteenth-century Mediterranean life. In the authors’ own words: “The main objective of this book is to explore the richness of information that makes Syropoulos’s writings so unique and valuable but also enjoyable to read, and to make his work more widely known and better understood” (1).   Thus the book is to be judged on the extent to which it succeeds in drawing useful information from Syropoulos’s memoir despite its bias and in creating an enjoyable and useful translation.

The first chapter, “Sylvester Syropoulos: The Author and His Outlook,” is a textual analysis. Mary B. Cunningham lays out the purpose of the work and the intended audience. She also examines Syropoulos’s background, the writing of the memoir, and its historiography. By examining the grammar and style, she argues the work was intended for the widest audience possible. She argues that a number of “factors contributed to the composition of the Memoirs, including Syropoulos’s desire to provide a ‘true’ account that would be read by as many Constantinopolitans as possible, his wish to distance himself from his signing of the decree of union, and, perhaps more arguably, his literary intention to provide an entertaining and persuasive narrative of the events surrounding the Council of Ferrara-Florence” (19).

The second chapter, “The Ottomans, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Perils of the Papacy,” examines the diplomatic difficulties leading up to the Byzantine journey. Elizabeth A. Zachariadou discusses the Ottoman conquests of Byzantine territory in the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Latin military conquests, and growing Latin commercial power in former Byzantine lands. Zachariadou’s argument is that while Emperor John VIII (r. 1425–1448) desired ecclesiastical union with the Latins, the Ottomans were hostile towards the idea. Additionally, the memory of the Fourth Crusade, Latin ecclesiastical domination over Greeks even after the liberation of Constantinople, and the continued survival of three patriarchs in Muslim lands all greatly contributed to the fact that “the Greek Orthodox Church had realized that it could survive under the Muslims, but not under the Latins” (30).

The third chapter, “Precedence and Papal Primacy,” examines the issue of precedence in the negotiations between the Latins and Byzantines. Richard Price argues that Syropoulos, by choosing which details to focus on of these first meetings, crafted a narrative demonstrating the Byzantine’s political weakness vis-à-vis the Latins. For example, the differences between other sources and Syropoulos’s account of an episode where the patriarch was expected to kiss the pope’s foot demonstrates that when the pope “actually received first the emperor and the patriarch his conduct was neither arrogant and overweening, nor guarded and reserved (as Syropoulos’s account suggests by its silence, but courteous and accommodating” (37). Other issues Price addresses include the debates about who should preside over the Council, the differing theologies of ecclesiology (pentarcy versus primarcy) and the ability of breaches of precedence to derail diplomatic negotiations. The chapter could have been improved with a brief comment on contemporary practices of precedence in the wider Mediterranean to contextualize Syropoulos’s account. Also, readers might have benefited by a footnote pointing to contemporary Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue discussions about the nature of the primacy in the first millennium.

The fourth chapter, “The Logistics of a Union: Diplomatic Communication through the Eyes of Sylverster Syropoulos”, discusses the diplomacy of the Byzantines under John VIII. In this chapter Vera Andriopoulou discusses the methods the Byzantines used in diplomacy, such as sending gifts and promises of ecclesiastical union. With respect to Syropoulos’s memoirs, they gives biographical details on the various members of the embassy mentioned by the memoir, and it discusses what these details can tell us about general features of Byzantine diplomacy. Finally, it discusses the specific negotiations between the Emperor, the papal representatives, and the representatives of the Council of Basil on the eve of the Byzantine departure.

The fifth chapter, “City, Marquis, Pope, Doge: Ferrara in 1438”, articulates the conditions in Ferrara on the eve of the Council, how these conditions affected the Byzantine embassy, and the preparations for large number of visitors. Trevor Dean discusses issues such as how the Byzantine delegation was to be provided with food, the tax policies of Ferrara, housing for the participants of the Council, and reasons for transferring the Council to Florence. Finally, Dean discusses three important relationships: the Marquis and the city of Ferrara, the family of the Marquis and the pope, and finally the cities of Ferrara and Venice.

The sixth chapter, “Labelling Images, Venerating Icons in Sylvester’s World”, discusses how the iconography of the Latins and Byzantines differed at this time, and the recent rise of iconographic production in Crete. Annemarie Weyl Carr examines fifteenth century Mediterranean sacred art within the context of Syropoulos’s intriguing statement “When I enter a Latin church, I do not venerate any one of the saints there because I do not recognize them” (80). This chapter includes ten figures, which greatly contextualize Carr’s argument.

The seventh chapter, “What Did Syropoulos Miss? Appreciating the Art of the Lippomano Chapel in Venetian Negroponte,” examines a chapel on Venetian Negroponte (Euboea) which Syropoulos did not visit. Nikos D. Kontogiannis argues that Syropoulos’s account of the poor treatment of Byzantines by Latins (in this case the Venetians) in former Byzantine territories needs to be reevaluated, and the art and architecture of the chapel provides an alternative narrative. This exemplary artistic and architectural analysis ends with the conclusion that the chapel “is a specimen of the art of the Western monastic orders, as realized in the territories of the former Byzantine Empire, within a late medieval city-port of the Eastern Mediterranean” and is evidence of “artistic exchange between Byzantium and the West” (133).

The eighth chapter, “The Logistics of a Union: The Travelling Arrangements and the Journey to Venice,” by Fotini Kondyli describes the conditions at sea for the Byzantine delegation that followed the typical Venetian trade routes between Venice and Constantinople. It also includes an examination of Syropoulos’s description of the boats used and of the detours taken by the Emperor. Kondyli argues Syropoulos’s account provides valuable information about the visual aspects of the journey while also pointing out where it provides false or manipulated information and Syropoulos’s reasons for including such information.

The penultimate chapter, “On Syropoulos’s Dalmatian and Istrian Route,” by Neven Budak, examines the recent and contemporary history of Dalmatia and Istria and the cities of Zadar (Zara), and Dubrovnik (Ragusa). Formerly a part of the Byzantine Empire, these territories had recently been caught between the expanding Venetian Republic and the Kingdom of Croatia, and later Hungary. It also examines how Syropoulos’s account of the itinerary differed from standard routes and why it gave so little information about this region.

The final chapter, “The Colours Sylvester Syropoulos Saw: The Ideological Function of Coulor in Byzantine Historiography and Chronicles (Thirteenth-Fifteenth Centuries),” by Eirini Panou examines Syropoulos’s use of color in his memoir. Panou examines the four most important words Syropoulos uses for color, which objects possess those colors in the account, and finally how those colors were used in contemporary chronicles and Byzantine society.

All the contributions use Syropoulos, but some are more focused on the memoir than others. While some chapters seem to be only tangentially related to the memoir, the book succeeds in re-contextualizing Syropoulos’s work. A work once considered useless due to bias turns out to be quite useful after all. By comparing it to other narratives it is possible to see how Syropoulos constructed a narrative to convince his contemporaries to reject the results of the Council of Ferrara-Florence. It would be interesting for a future study to compare further such narratives in order to examine what the account says about contemporary Constantinopolitan discourse. How were the arguments Syropoulos used, the ways he constructed the narrative, and the adjustment of details which differ from other accounts received by his contemporaries? Another question for future examination is the theological content of the memoir, a subject the book does not address. Considering his training, station, and bias, how did Syropoulos employ theological arguments, imagery, and content to bolster his argument?

In summary, the contributors examine the political, cultural, nautical, and aesthetic uses of the memoir: readers looking for a theological critique of the memoir should look elsewhere, e.g. Joseph Gill’s The Council of Florence which the contributors cite repeatedly.[2] The work does lack continuity but this is to be expected as it is the result of a colloquium. Nevertheless, this collection provides an introduction for undergraduates examining the Byzantine-Roman world of the fifteenth century. Also, the individual chapters will be useful for scholars examining topics addressed in the work. Graduate students and scholars examining the fifteenth century Mediterranean as well as the non-theological issues surrounding the Council of Ferrara-Florence, such as travel and the political opposition, will find the work useful. Finally, scholars will benefit from the book’s demonstration that polemical works, such as Sylvester’s memoires, can provide details and information not found in less biased sources.

Matthew Buszek

Matthew Buszek received a Masters of Theology from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, and is currently working on a PhD in Church History at the Catholic University of America. He studies religious interactions between the various faiths in Early Modern Eastern Europe.


[1] Vitalien Laurent, ed., Les mémoires du grand ecclésiastique de l’Église de Constantinople Sylvestre Syropoulos sur le Concile de Florence (1438-1439) (Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1971).
[2] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

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