13 March 2015

A new Chalkokondyles

the concluding page of the 1318 Herodotos belonging to George Gemistos Plethon, 
used by Bessarion in 1436, belonging to Laonikos Chalkokondyles. 
The bottom, faded, inscription is the only surviving writing by Chalkokondyles.

The intellectual world of Mistra mostly dissolved in the disorders of the Morea after 1453. George Gemistos Plethon died in 1454 (or 1452: there is disagreement, but 1454 suits my purposes better).  Chalkokondyles and his teacher Gemistos had had many conversations over the past few years comparing the progression and personalities of the Ottomans, with what Herodotos had to say about the Persians. After the Fall of the City, which surprised none of them, Gemistos told him it was his responsibility to write a new Herodotos to explain current events, and presented him with his own copy in which he had made correctionsAfter Gemistos died, Nikolaos Chalkokondyles, in his mid-20s, left Mistra, with the Herodotos . John Eugenikos left that year for Trebizond: perhaps Chalkokondyles took the opportunity to go with him and collect material on Trebizond. He ended up in Constantinople -- Eugenikos seems to have gone to Constantinople, and family members were in business there. 

This is what I imagine happened: we have no information one way or another, but there are a number of reasons to think he was writing in Constantinople.

Exhilarated by Gemistos' confidence, Chalkokondyles wrote at the end of the Herodotos – you can barely see it above on folio 340v – “[Belonging to] Laonikos the Athenian. It seems to me that the Greeks displayed a virtue greater than what is merely human, and that they made a demonstration of deeds such as to amaze us when we learn about them in our inquiries.  They were also fortunate to have a herald who himself did not fall far short in worth of the deeds themselves, I mean Herodotos of Halikarnassos, who recounted these events in the way in which each happened, in a manner akin to a divine procession." 

He was going to be the new herald, and he began: Laonikos the Athenian has written here the events that came to his attention during his lifetime, both those that he witnessed and those he heard about. . . . In my opinion, those events are in no way less worthy of being remembered than any that have ever taken place anywhere in the world. I am referring to the fall of the Greeks and the events surrounding the end of their realm, and to the rise of the Turks to great power, greater than that of any other powerful people to date.”

I have recently been delighted to acquire copies of Anthony Kaldellis' new two-volume translation of Chalkokondyles, and a third companion volume, A New Herodotos which is a gracefully-written analysis of what we can know about Chalkokondyles, his ideas, and his sources.  Kaldellis has wrestled with Chalkokondyles' murky prose -- if he was writing a new Herodotos, he was trying to use Thucycides' language -- and made it lucid. Working back and forth with these books has provoked my speculations.

It is the ending, though, that gives a memorable view of Chalkokondyles.  He had intended to write nine books, like Herodotos, and Book 9:78 has a sort of ending, one he would have improved had he had time to revise and clean up his text.  But August 1461 was not the end of the history of the Ottomans and the Greeks, and he kept writing. (He had also acquired good material on Vlad the Impaler he had to use.)  But the Histories sputter to an unplanned ending early in 1464 with the Ottoman-Venetian war, and the last several pages are a feverish jumble of remarkable fragments of information and errors.  Kaldellis comments in his notes, on the incoherence of the last sentences.  In these last pages we are watching Chalkokondyles forcing himself to write until he knows he has come to his end. His last sentence is a formal act of reverence to Thucydides.  He wrote:ταῦτα μὲν τοῦ χειμῶνος ἐς τὴν Πελοπόννησου ἐγένετο / That, then, was what was happening that winter in the Peloponessos." Thucydides had ended his third book:  “ταῦτα μὲν κατα τὸν χειμῶνα τοῦτον ἐγένετο . . .," and other books similarly.

It has been thought he died of plague but we don't know: plague arrived in the Morea in August 1464 and travelled north, although it is not reported in Constantinople until 1467. It could have been plague.  There is certainly an impression of the effects of  high fever on the mind. 

The manuscript of his book got into the hands of George Amiroutzes, who stuffed in a great deal more information about Trebizond than Chalkokondyles had found it necessary to include. (The first copy was made after Amiroutzes had finished.) This makes me wonder whether Chalkokondyles had heard about the incident in Florence (he himself would have been only about 7 then), an intense discussion between John VIII, Amiroutzes, Bessarion, and Isidore of Moscow who were supporters of Union, against Mark Eugenikos and Gemistos who opposed it. Amiroutzes berated Eugenikos so humiliatingly that Gemistos intervened, only to be shouted down. John said nothing to stop or reproach Amiroutzes, "nothing of solace" (πρὸς θεραπείαν) to Gemistos. Cyriaco of Ancona was at the Council of Union: he met young Chalkokondyles nine years later at Mistra when the boy was about 17. Already interested in history, Chalkokondyles showed him the ruins of ancient Sparta.

The manuscript of Herodotos you see above was in Rome in 1480, in the hands of the copyist Demetrios Rallis Kavakes who was from Mistra. 

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