25 July 2009

Thomas Palaiologos

If this were a folktale, the youngest brother would end up with the princess, the throne, and live happily ever after. But even though the Palaiologue jewels and robes have appeared in one folktale or another for 600 years, the Palaiologos family did not live in a folk tale. Nor did any of them live happily ever after: the family simply unraveled.

The youngest Palaiologos brother, Thomas, is the most enigmatic of the brothers. The Italians who knew him in his last years noted his fine appearance, his dignity, his melancholy. Melancholia. Depression.

Depression is understandable, even normal: he had left the Morea in July 1460 with his family, pursued by Mehmed. He had not surrendered his Despotate or dowry lands, and he spent his last five years waiting on the kindness of strangers. Pius II was going to lead a crusade to retake the Morea and, ultimately, Constantinople, and make him the eastern emperor, but Pius died in August 1464, just before the crusade sailed, the crusade went wrong in the Morea almost immediately, and Thomas died in May 1465.

He moved into history at the age of 8, when he was shipped off to the Morea to join his brother Theodoros. It was normal practice for the Palaiologos family to hive off its sons very young. His introduction to Italy probably came a few years later through his brother's wife Cleope and her Italian companions, not to mention
a steady stream of Italians -- merchants, colonists, diplomats, curiosity-seekers -- I almost said, people like Cyriaco of Ancona, but there was no one like Cyriaco.

In his teens, Thomas joined his brothers, Theodoros and Constantine, in a series of small military campaigns to take over the non-Byzantine lands of the Morea. The campaign against the Principality of Achaia was settled when he was 21, with marriage to Catharine Zaccaria, daughter of the last Prince of Achaia, and more than a third of the Morea as dowry -- western Morea across to Karitena and down to Kalamata, Vostitsa nearly to Corinth, and the eastern Argolid. John sent an emissary from Constantinople to tell him that he had been awarded the title of Despot over Achaia. There seems to have been a pattern in the family of
formal titles coming with marriage, and like Theodoros, John and Constantine, he married a Latin woman in conformance with his father's strategy that marriage in the Latin church would bring Western aid.

We know of little he did in his role as Despot beyond signing the occasional grant of land. He lived primarily in Patras and Leondari. One account mentions his giving an order to have someone blinded. This may not tell us anything about him: it was normal Byzantine judicial practice and we know of a similar order from his brother John. A foreign writer commented that you saw a lot of mutilated people in Greece.

Despite his apparent affinity for things Italian, he did not go to Italy until his late 20s when his brother Constantine sent him with a message to John at Floremce, and Florence must have been overwhelming -- Brunelleschi's dome was half-way along, Fra Angelico was frescoing the convent of S. Marco where many of the Greek delegation were staying, the Gates of Paradise were dazzling in the summer sun. But this is a problem. We know of nothing Thomas did or sponsored in the Morea that would indicate he had seen or enjoyed Italy, or that he had learned anything there, and when he had to live in Italy, he was an outsider and a subject for art. He is reported to have had beautiful manners, but this was reported of most of his family.

He becomes more problematic after Constantine moved to Constantinople on the death of their brother John, and Demetrios was sent out to hold the position of Despot of Mistra. That is when the vocabulary comes in and one chronicler describes them as "those brothers who swallowed their oaths like cabbages," and another, "those brothers who ate each other's hearts." (These were quoted in the entry on Demetrios, but they are eminently quotable descriptions by people who knew them better than we do.) Demetrios was with reason jealous: Thomas had been in the Morea for nearly 32 years, he had acquaintances and alliances, and he would have liked the whole thing. Even though Demetrios was older he was the new boy.

After the Fall of the City the brothers were left flailing at each other, surrounded by revolts, needing Ottoman aid to maintain their titles, needing Venetian aid to balance off the Ottomans. Several of Thomas' followers offered their allegiance to Mehmed. Then after five years, Mehmed demanded the surrender of Constantine's cities -- Corinth, Patras, Kalavryta -- which Thomas held. They were formally surrendered on his behalf, but the next year he went to war with 300 soldiers sent from the west, and took Kalavryta and some few territories back. But he found that his followers were now ruling, not on his behalf, but were treating these lands as their personal conquests, and the 300 were were rampaging and out of control. He and Demetrios continued to tear at each other, encouraged by various archons who changed sides with the weather. What could any of them have thought would happen?

Inevitably, in 1460 Mehmed came into the Morea, took the surrender of Mistra and added Demetrios Palaiologos and his family to the numbers who traveled with his camp. He set out next for Leondari and Thomas, but Thomas worked his way south with his family.
He never surrendered. He took ship at Porto Junco/Pylos for Corfu where he left his family and went to Italy to obtain Papal assistance. He was dependent on others for his support, and while he shows up often enough in art, and even on the central doors of St. Peter's in Rome, he is essentially unknowable.

His last years were a litter of losses, failures, waiting, dependency -- all done with beautiful manners. Melancholia. His wife died on Corfu. He never saw his children again though he left detailed instructions for their education -- daughter as well as sons-- with his friend Cardinal Bessarion who became their guardian. He had no more knack for fatherhood than his own father who also suffered from melancholy.

He died on 12 May 1465, aged about 56.


  1. I just love the way you bring people and monuments to life. You make Runciman sound boring. I hope you are writing a novel about all this.

  2. Thank you for bringing this man to life. To know that he was depressed about everything that happened to his family and his country is very touching. You mention tiny details that you don't read anywhere else. It is nice to read about personal detail as well as facts. This is a little gem of an article, with more personal insight. More articles like this please!

  3. Was he the Christ depicted by Piero della Francesca in Resurrection?

  4. It seems most unlikely. Thomas came to Italy after the painting was completed, and I don't think there is any evidence that Piero ever saw him. Piero did see John in Florence in 1439.


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