on 19 April 2014
I have previous read much of Steven Runciman’s work with pleasure, particularly his more scholarly works which date from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, so I was disappointed with his history of Mistra. From the 1960s Runciman also wrote several studies on topics in which he was interested and his enthusiasm, writing skill and the subjects’ interest made most of these enjoyable. “Mistra” was written in 1980, when Runciman was in his seventies: his travel memoirs were published a decade later, but this was the last of his historical works. It has some aspects of a guide book, from Runciman’s wish in the preface it will encourage visitors to a chapter on covering the present-day remains of the city. However, his evident enthusiasm for the place is insufficient to generate and sustain interest in a relatively minor aspect of Byzantine history among readers who do not visit it.
Although Runciman’s preface excuses his lack of references because the book is intended for “civilized travellers”, it also states that he is attempting a full history of Mistra not just a guidebook, so the result should be judged on that basis. He argues that Mistra became important when the declining Byzantine Empire lost control of the major cities outside the capital. However, it was never more than a relative backwater thrust into temporary prominence. Although it was ruled by Byzantine princes, what they ruled was a small province whose insignificance demonstrated the empire’s decline and decadence.
After a brief introductory chapter on the history of the area before 1204, there are four chapters covering the formation of the Frankish principally of Achaea and the foundation of Mistra, the Greek reconquest of Achaea and, in the mid 14th century, the appointment of an Imperial prince as governor or Despot. These are well written and cover the most interesting part of the city’s history, less than two centuries. Five more chapters cover, firstly, the rule of later despots against the terminal decline of the Byzantine Empire, and then the Turkish conquest of Mistra and the centuries of Ottoman rule, including the destruction of Mistra in 1770 and its aftermath. These cover over 400 years and, because they cram in a lot of detail, can be confusing. There is also a chapter on the geography of the city, useful for visitors, and another on its philosophers, which adds little.
Although this only book runs to around 150 pages, most of the interest is concentrated in the first 50 pages or so. The rest of the book is not so well written, probably through lack of sources. It also shows signs of being tacked on to coverage of what most interested the author, the interplay of Franks and Byzantines in the 13th and early 14th centuries.
on 12 June 2011
First off this is a great book. It focuses solely on the city of Mistra just south-west of Sparta. Mistra was the most important city after Constantinople by the time of the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Thessalonika had fallen. Adrianople had fallen. The Turkes surrounded Constantinople on all sides. Mistra was in the Peloponnese and it had no connection to Constantinople except by sea. When Constantine Palaeologos went from Mistra to the capital to claim his throne he had to book passage on a Venetian ship. So low had the fortunes of the Byzantines suffered. But Mistra had a history before that. It was founded by the Crusaders and had served as the major fortress in the Peloponnese for centuries.
The book's main strength is its topic. It is clear, focused, and interesting. While it sometimes drifts onto events elsewhere this is only natural given the importance placed on Mistra by the Emperors. It had an interesting history and the man in charge had the opportunity to directly affect the entire Peloponnese. The downside is that this book is short. The text only runs for 147 pages. Perhaps this was an inevitability given the lack of sources, but I think there must have been more than that. The later chapters on Turkish control of the region are especially brief. So while it makes for a nice light read it isn't as useful as it could have been. The early chapters deal with the Crusaders in the Peloponnese and the construction of Mistra. After that the next four chapters deal with the four Despots (a formal title) who ruled after the Byzantines recovered it. Then comes a chapter on the city itself and another on the philosophers who taught there. The last two chapters cover almost 400 years worth of the Turkish history at Mistra. Anyone who's read any of Runciman's books knows that he majorly loved the Byzantines and anything Greek. Given that none of his opinions in this book will come as a surprise.