The Byzantine Empire had fallen with its capital Constantinople, and the Latin Empire of Romania had taken its place. But the rule of the Franks was too weak to take an abiding hold on the provinces, and, after a brief and flickering existence, 1204-1261, it passed away, and a Greek dynasty was once more established in New Rome. While the Ottoman power was gaining strength, the Greek Empire was suffered to exist; but in the course of two centuries, through internal corruption and mismanagement, Byzantine dominion ceased to be an effective force in the world's affairs, and the city of Constantine easily fell a prey to the Mohammedan forces.
Though the Crusaders had captured the capital, the provinces refused to recognize the dominion of the Franks, and three Greek kingdoms were carved out of the remains of the Byzantine Empire by adventurous spirits who had left Constantinople rather than fall victims to the Western conquerors. Theodore Lascaris, the last to strike a blow for the doomed city, founded across the straits, out of the province of Bithynia, the empire of Nicaea, though his rights to royal power lay merely in his strong right arm and in his having married the daughter of the imbecile Alexius III. Alexius Comnenus, grandson of Andronicus I., had betaken himself to the eastern frontier of the Empire, and, chiefly through the glamour of his name, had made for himself, out of the long strip of coast land at the south-east corner of the Black Sea, a kingdom that was destined to carry on an independent existence for nearly three hundred years as the empire of Trebizond. Furthermore, Michael Angelus, a cousin of Alexius III., became |despot| of Epirus and later conquered the Latin kingdom of Thessalonica. Finally, after the Greek empire of Nicaea had enjoyed a steady growth for over half a century, during which it absorbed the kingdom of Thessalonica, Michael Palaeologus, the usurper of the Nicene throne, succeeded in wresting Constantinople from its Latin rulers, and established anew the Byzantine Empire, under the dynasty of the Palaeologi.
In the stories of the dynasties of these various kingdoms we have not many glimpses into the history of woman, but wherever feminine names are mentioned woman is found to be exerting her customary influence over the affairs of state and the destinies of empires.
The dynasty of Theodore Lascaris was handed down through his daughter Irene, whose husband succeeded to the throne as the Emperor John III. The Empress Irene was much beloved because of her amiable character and domestic virtues, and there is preserved a beautiful incident of the affection she inspired in a young maiden. John Asan, the King of Bulgaria, had formed an alliance with John III. through the betrothal of his daughter Helena to Theodore, the heir-apparent to the Nicene throne. Highly esteeming the virtues of the Empress Irene, the Bulgarian king had sent the young Helena to be educated under her care. Later, when the alliance between the emperor and the king was broken off, Asan sent for his daughter, with the request that she return to Bulgaria. John III. scorned to retain his son's betrothed as a hostage, and suffered the attendants to arrange her departure. But when the maiden ascertained that she was not to return to her dear mother the empress, her grief was inconsolable. Her tears and lamentations over the separation and her praises of the Nicene queen at length excited the serious displeasure of her father, and he had to threaten her with severe punishment if she did not cease to weep and mourn for her Greek mother. But her love for Irene was greater than the fear of punishment, and, in spite of the censure and the blandishments of her parent, she could never reconcile herself to the loss of the happy hours at the side of the virtuous and gifted empress. During Irene's lifetime John was uniformly successful, extending the bounds of his dominion and winning the love and devoted admiration of his subjects. But, after her death, another woman led him into evil ways.
John married as his second wife, in her twelfth year, the Princess Anna, natural daughter of the Emperor Frederick II. of Germany. Anna had brought in her train, as directress of her court, a beautiful Italian lady, Marchesina by name. The Emperor John fell violently in love with his child-wife's chief attendant. Marchesina soon received the honors conferred in courts on the recognized mistress of the sovereign, and was permitted to wear the dress reserved for members of the imperial family. Public opinion severely censured the emperor for his conduct, and one of the prominent bishops of the day, Nicephorus Blemmidas by name, found occasion to give Marchesina a severe rebuke. Blemmidas had so beautifully embellished the church of the monastery of which he was abbot, that it was frequently visited by members of the court. One day, while the abbot was conducting divine service in the chapel, the imperial mistress passed by with her attendants, and made up her mind to enter. But when Blemmidas heard of her approach, he at once ordered the doors to be closed, declaring that never with his permission should an adulteress enter the sanctuary. Marchesina, incensed at so severe a rebuke, so publicly inflicted, hurried back to the palace, threw herself at the feet of her imperial lover, and implored him to avenge on the abbot the insult he had put upon her. But John was not regardless of public opinion, and, recognizing the mistake he had made, merely said in response to Marchesina's entreaties: |The abbot would have respected me, had I respected myself.|
Woman, too, was in large measure the cause of the overthrow of the dynasty of Lascaris, and the usurpation of Michael Palaeologus, scion of one of the most influential families of Constantinople. Theodore II., who succeeded his father John, grew testy and superstitious in his old age, and had reason to suspect the cunning and able Michael who was rapidly winning the popular favor. But Michael was undoubtedly spurred on to action against the dynasty by Theodore's outrageous conduct toward his sister Martha. The latter had a beautiful daughter who had been most tenderly reared as became her rank. To the surprise of all, the emperor ordered the family to bestow her in marriage on one of his pages, Valanidiotes. Though beneath the maiden in rank, the page succeeded in winning the affection of the highborn damsel, and the family were consenting to the union, when the emperor capriciously changed his mind, and compelled a betrothal between the maiden and a man of her own rank. A report that this marriage was not consummated led the superstitious emperor to suspect that both this event and a malignant attack of his disease were due to some charm practised by the mother.
In his vexation and rage, he ordered Martha, though connected by birth with the imperial family, to be enclosed in a sack with a number of cats, which were from time to time pricked with pins that they might torture the unfortunate lady. Martha was brought into court with the sack thus bound about her neck, and was examined concerning her supposed witchcraft, but the suspicious tyrant could extract nothing from her on which to base a condemnation.
This unseemly action was an offence Michael could never forgive. From this time he began assiduously to plot against the throne. The story of his usurpation and of his cruelty toward the rightful emperor, the young lad, John IV., -- Ducas, -- does not concern us here. Suffice it to say that he ascended the throne of Nicaea as Michael VIII., -- Palaeologus, -- and was fortunate enough to capture the city of Constantinople and revive the Greek Empire there. Through the Empire of Nicaea the thread of tradition was unbroken, and from 1261 on we have once more a Byzantine Empire.
The history of this concluding period, 1261-1453, embracing the dynasty of the Palaeologi, is the most degrading portion of the national annals. Michael is renowned for being the restorer of the Eastern Empire, but his throne was gained through baseness and cruelty, and he left to his descendants a heritage of vice and crime of such a nature that the Empire survived for a century or two not because of its intrinsic worth, but because the Ottomans were not yet ready to seize it. It is a period notable for the absence of literary taste, of patriotic feeling, of political honesty, of civil liberty. The emperors are, as a rule, immoral and capricious men, utterly selfish in their aims and their pursuits, and each one leaves the Empire somewhat weaker than he found it.
The new Empire of Constantinople and that of Trebizond existed side by side, and frequent intermarriages took place between the royal families. By studying conjointly the annals of the Palaeologi and the Comneni we become acquainted with a number of the princesses of these royal houses, and can form some idea of the character of Greek womanhood in this age of decadence, and of the social life of the times as it affects woman's position and aspirations.
The women of the two rival houses appear, as a rule, superior in character, judgment, and virtue to the men, and this difference between the males and females of the imperial families is so marked, that we would fain know more of the system of education for women which produced an effect so singular and so uniform. It must have been due to the fact that in spite of the general demoralization, the life of the convents in which the princesses were trained was pure and uplifting, the methods of instruction thorough, the discipline severe; while the clergy who had in charge the education of the princes were so bent on their own preferment and the acquirement of political power, that they aimed rather at gaining an ascendency over their imperial wards than in imparting the instruction which would have made them great rulers.
The only empress of the Palaeologi, however, to gain supreme power and to win a place in history, was of foreign birth. Anne of Savoy, by the nomination of her dying husband, Andronicus III. (1328-1341), and the custom of the Empire, was made regent of her son, John V., Palaeologus, a lad of nine years. Her reign was made memorable through her struggles with a powerful courtier, who aroused civil war and ascended the throne for a time as John VI., Cantacuzenus (1347-1354).
Byzantine etiquette required the widowed empress to weep for nine days beside the body of her deceased husband, who was laid out in state in the monastery of the Guiding Virgin, whither he had retired when death was near and where he assumed the habit and the devotions of a monk. But John Cantacuzenus, the grand domesticos and first minister of the Empire, was bent on playing the role of earlier usurpers, and during her absence determined to establish himself in the imperial palace as guardian of the emperor. The empress, recognizing the danger of infringement on the rights of her child, deemed it necessary to shorten the period of mourning to three days, and returned to the palace to assert her authority as regent. Then began a course of intrigue between the two parties. Cantacuzenus instituted a rebellion against the regent, and by his followers was crowned and invested with the imperial robe. Under the guidance of the patriarch and the grand duke Apocaucus, the Empress Anne adopted forceful measures to intimidate the partisans of the rebels. Among the interesting women of this period was Theodora, the mother of Cantacuzenus, a woman of preeminent virtue and talent, far superior in ability and moral force to her son. But against her the vengeance of Anne was chiefly directed. The aged lady was thrown into prison by order of the regent, and was subjected to great cruelty and privations until death came to her relief. The young emperor, John V., was solemnly crowned. Apocaucus was appointed prime minister, and a vigorous war was prosecuted against the rebels, who were threatened with extermination. To save his cause Cantacuzenus treacherously turned to the common enemy, the Turk, and sacrificing his daughter Theodora on the altar of his ambition gave her in marriage to Orkhan, and sent her to dwell at Brusa, as a member of the Sultan's harem. All the religious people of the day were incensed at this violation of common decency and lack of paternal feeling, but the tone of morality was too low to cause serious opposition.
Meanwhile, there was discord in the palace. The Empress Anne fell out with her chief supporter. She had a violent quarrel with the patriarch. Her prime minister Apocaucus was assassinated. Through the aid of his Turkish ally Cantacuzenus was successful. The empress-regent showed a determination to defend herself in the palace, but her partisans were less courageous than she, and she was compelled to submit. But Cantacuzenus was as wily as he was ambitious. Recognizing the strength of his opponents, after he himself had been crowned emperor, he determined on the marriage of his daughter Helena with the young heir-apparent, and agreed to associate John V. with him on the throne when he reached the age of twenty-five. The children, for John was only fifteen and Helena thirteen, were betrothed and wedded with great ceremony, and then received the crown, and the courtiers and people were entertained by the rare spectacle of two emperors and three empresses seated on their thrones.
|The strange spectacle delighted the gazers; but it was not viewed without some feeling of contempt, for it was generally known that the imperial crowns were bright with false pearls and diamonds; that the robes were stiffened with tinsel; that the vases were of brass, not gold; and instead of the rich brocade of Thebes, the hangings were of gilded leather.|
Cantacuzenus deserves to rank with the two Angeli as the third of the great destroyers of the Eastern Empire. Through civil wars he depleted its resources; and by introducing the Turk into his dominions, he paved the way for the final downfall. Fortunately, John V. asserted himself at the age of twenty-four; Cantacuzenus was tonsured and placed in a monastery where he passed the rest of his days in literary labors. In native gifts and force of character, and in her checkered history, the Empress Anne of Savoy deserves a place by the side of the earlier self-asserting empresses of Constantinople.
The tale of the last hundred years of the Byzantine Empire is a mere bit of local history, and no longer forms an important warp in the woof of the annals of Christendom. Women there were who were deserving of a better destiny, but they are naturally obscured in the general demoralization. The Mussulman might have taken Constantinople seventy-five years earlier. The end came on May 29,1453. The city was captured by Mohammed II., and Constantine XIII., the last of the Caesars, the worthy scion of degenerate sires, fell in the breach. Mohammed proceeded quickly to convert Constantinople from a Christian into a Turkish capital. The city was sacked. The Byzantine women were sold into slavery, or became wives or concubines of the conquerors and passed the rest of their days in a Turkish harem. And, from this date, for centuries the life of Greek womanhood under Turkish domination was passed in oppression and obscurity.
The fragment of the Greek Empire known in the history of the Middle Ages as the Empire of Trebizond was the creation of accident. A young man descended from the worst tyrant of Constantinople, but of an illustrious name which retained the glamour inspired by the founder of the Comneni dynasty, grasped the sovereignty of a most important commercial centre, and his descendants continued to hold it until overwhelmed by the all-conquering power of the Turk. The Empire of Trebizond possesses unique grandeur in the romances of the West: the beauty of its princesses was a theme of universal praise; its reputed wealth and splendor excited the cupidity of Venetian and Genoese merchants. But it was, after all, an insignificant kingdom, which owed its strength merely to the weakness of surrounding peoples; and whose ostentatious court ceremonials were but an attempt to keep up the traditions of the Byzantine Empire and of the Comneni family in more prosperous days.
Shortly after the assassination of Andronicus by Isaac II., -- Angelus, -- his son Manuel, with other members of his family, met a similar fate. Manuel was survived by two sons, Alexius and David, the former a little lad of four. The boys were concealed for a time, and were brought up in obscurity in Constantinople, where faithful friends gave them an education worthy of their station. At the time when the Crusaders captured the city, Alexius escaped, raised an army, and took possession of Trebizond, then one of the most important commercial seats on the borders of the Black Sea. The surrounding province gladly recognized him as the lawful sovereign of the Roman Empire, and the Comneni dynasty was continued through him for two and a half centuries or more. To mark the legitimacy of his claim, and to prevent confusion with the rival family of Alexius III., -- Angelus, -- Alexius assumed the designation of |Grand-Comnenus,| and by this title the family was known until its extermination.
The earlier years of the Empire of Trebizond were notable chiefly for the efforts of its rulers to retain and extend their power, which was circumscribed by the stronger empire of Nicaea. After the latter had been merged into the restored Byzantine Empire with Constantinople as its capital, Trebizond was still strong enough to maintain an independent existence. A league was formed between the reigning sovereigns, Michael VIII., -- Palaeologus, -- of Constantinople, and John II., then Emperor of Trebizond, through the espousal of the latter to Michael's youngest daughter, Eudocia, who was destined to show herself one of the best and most capable of the Palaeologi princesses.
The ceremony was solemnized with great ostentation on September 12, 1282. The question of precedence was an important one, as the Trebizond government had considered itself the direct successor of the Empire of the Caesars. But through this marriage the wily monarch of Constantinople gained the advantage; for John on this occasion laid aside the title of |Emperor of the Romans,| to be henceforth reserved exclusively for the sovereign of the city of the Golden Horn, while that of Trebizond assumed the title of |Emperor of all the East, Iberia, and Perateia.| Furthermore, the inhabitants of the city saw in the respective marriage robes a certain inferiority of the Trebizontine monarch to the family of his wife; for while the robes of John were embellished with single-headed eagles, the bride appeared in a dress covered with double-headed eagles to mark her rank in the Empire of the East and West as a princess of the Palaeologi, born in the purple chamber.
John and his royal bride had not been long settled on the throne when he experienced a sudden and unexpected discomfiture at the hands of an aspiring sister. Theodora, the oldest child of Manuel I. by his marriage with Roussadan, an Iberian princess, jealous of the popularity of her sister-in-law, and proud of the superiority of Comneni traditions to those of the usurper of Constantinople, availed herself of the party intrigues of the nobles, and the popular dissensions in the capital, to assemble an army, surprise her imperial brother, and mount the throne. Her glory was of brief duration, but the existence of coins bearing her name and effigy demonstrates that her power was stable and that she was fully recognized as a sovereign of the Empire. No clue exists which enables us to determine how Theodora obtained the throne or how she was at length driven from power, but John appears to have finally recovered his throne and capital and to have expelled the ambitious princess.
During succeeding years the influence of Byzantine womanhood and the relations between the two kingdoms continued prominent. John died in 1297, leaving two sons, Alexius II. and Michael. The former succeeded his father at the age of fifteen, and was placed under the guardianship of his mother Eudocia's brother, the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II. Andronicus ordered his ward, the young emperor of Trebizond, though an independent sovereign prince, to marry Irene, the daughter of a Byzantine subject, Choumnus, one of his favorite ministers. But the idea of a Comnenus marrying below his station was offensive both to Alexius and his people. In obedience to the blood within his veins, and in contempt of his guardian's command, Alexius rejected the proposed mesalliance, and married the daughter of an Iberian prince.
The young married couple presented a beautiful example of conjugal tenderness and devotion, but this did not soften the hard heart of the guardian. Andronicus even went so far as to endeavor, to make the Greek Church declare the marriage null and void on the ground that it had been contracted by a union without the consent of his guardian. But the patriarch and clergy, sympathizing with the lovers, and alarmed at the ludicrous position in which they would be placed, took advantage of the interesting condition of the bride to refuse to gratify the spleen of the chagrined emperor.
At this time also, Eudocia, the mother of Alexius, who was in partial durance in the imperial palace at Constantinople, saw an opportunity of obtaining her freedom and of returning to her dominions. Her brother Andronicus was offended with her because she had rejected his proposal to form a second marriage with the Krai of Servia.
She persuaded her brother that her influence over her son, who was devotedly attached to her, would have far more weight in making the young emperor agree to a divorce than the sentence of an ecclesiastical tribunal whose authority he was able to decline; and to this end she obtained her brother's permission to return to Trebizond. Upon arriving at her son's court Eudocia was so much impressed with the conjugal fidelity of her son Alexius that she at once approved of his conduct, and supported him in his determination to resist the tyrannical pretensions of his guardian. Eudocia is an excellent example of the superiority of the Palaeologi women over their weaker and more selfish brothers. In every situation, even in her months of exile from her dominions, she maintained herself with dignity, and in her careful rearing of her son and regard for his interests she exhibited motherly traits of a high order.
In the next generation there was also an alliance between the royal families of the two kingdoms. The emperor Basilius, second son of Alexius II., married Irene Palaeologina, the natural daughter of Andronicus III. of Constantinople. Basilius had no legitimate issue, but falling in love with a beautiful lady of Trebizond, also named Irene, he made her his mistress and conferred on her every possible honor. She bore him four children. To insure the succession of one of his natural sons, Basilius in 1339 persuaded or forced the clergy to celebrate a public marriage with his Trebizontine mistress, though there is no evidence that he obtained a divorce from his lawful wife Irene, beyond his own decree. He died suddenly in the April following his marriage to his mistress.
Irene Palaeologina, who was, in spite of his second nuptials, universally regarded as the lawful wife of Basilius, was suspected of having hastened his end; and her unfaithful husband had certainly tried the soul of the proud lady. At any rate she was prepared for the sad event, and had already organized a faction which placed her on the throne, as the second independent Empress of Trebizond.
This promptitude in profiting by her husband's death, was worthy of the first Empress Irene in Byzantine history, and gave just ground for suspicion. But in considering an age when it was usual for people to circulate calumnious reports against their rulers, the evidence should be strong before we condemn the Palaeologi princess. However, the flagrant immorality of the court circles, and the lightness of character of Irene herself, as well as her conduct after the event, tended to give credibility to the rumor.
Irene, as soon as she was safely established on the throne, sent off her rival of Trebizond and the two sons of Basilius to Constantinople where her father Andronicus detained them as hostages for the tranquillity of her empire. A strong party of the nobility, however, who had hoped to gain wealth and power through the favor of the Trebizontine Irene, whom they purposed to make regent during the minority of her children, were chagrined at the success of the schemes of the Palaeologi princess, and at once began to plan her downfall. Two great parties arose, and the little empire was once more disturbed by the turmoil of civil war. Irene, with all her daring, was, like her father, of a gay and thoughtless disposition, and did not fully realize the danger of her situation. She recognized, however, that a second husband would strengthen her cause; and she urged her father Andronicus to send her a husband chosen from among the Byzantine nobles, who could aid her in repressing the factions which threatened her throne. Andronicus gave a favorable reception to Irene's ambassadors, but died before he had time seriously to attend to her request. The light-minded Irene consoled herself during the delay by falling in love with the grand domesticos of her palace. But this bit of favoritism only divided her own court into factions and strengthened the cause of her enemies.
A new storm now burst over the head of the thoughtless empress. Another woman, whose title to rule was far stronger than that of Irene, appeared to claim the throne. Anna, called Anachoutlon, was the eldest daughter of the Emperor Alexius II. She had in early womanhood taken the veil, and until this time had lived in seclusion. The opposition party searched out her retreat and persuaded her to quit her monastic dress and escape to Lazia, where she was proclaimed Empress of Trebizond, as the nearest legitimate heir of her brother Basilius. All the provincials united in demanding the sovereignty of a member of the house of Grand-Comnenus in preference to the usurpation of a Palaeologi princess, who was planning to marry a foreigner. The popular demand for the rule of a scion of the house of Grand-Comnenus gave Anna a triumphal march to the capital, and with but little opposition she was admitted within the citadel and universally recognized as the lawful empress. Irene was dethroned after a troubled reign of one year and four months. Three weeks later Michael Grand-Comnenus, second son of John II. and Eudocia, who had been selected at Constantinople as a suitable husband of Irene, arrived on the scene, to find the change of sovereignty. The Empress Anna was surrounded by a cabal of powerful chiefs, who determined to keep the reins of power in their hands. She graciously received her kinsman, but he was later treacherously seized and imprisoned by Anna's partisans. Irene was sent on, under suitable escort, to Constantinople, to pass the rest of her life in retirement. The treatment of Michael aroused the fury of many adherents of the house of Grand-Comnenus. Another upheaval followed. John III., son of Michael, was brought over from Constantinople, and proclaimed emperor by a constantly growing faction. The hapless Anna, who had doubtless ofttimes regretted giving up the peaceful life of the monastery for the troubles and cares of a crown, was taken prisoner in the palace, and was immediately strangled. She had occupied the throne hardly more than a year.
The next period of importance in our study of Trebizontine princesses is that covered by the long reign -- 1349-1390 -- of Alexius III., the second son of Basilius by Irene of Trebizond. His wife was also a Byzantine princess, Theodora, the daughter of Nicephorus Cantacuzenus, brother of the emperor John V., Cantacuzenus, whose stormy career of opposition to Anne of Savoy we have already noticed. Theodora bore to Alexius a number of beautiful daughters, whom he utilized when they became of marriageable age to form alliances with his powerful neighbors, both Mohammedan and Christian. His eldest daughter, Eudocia, Alexius first wedded to the Emir Tadjeddin, who had gained possession of the important district of Limnia; after Tadjeddin was slain in a quarrel with a neighboring emir, the beautiful and accomplished princess became the wife of the Byzantine emperor, John V. That aged monarch had chosen her to be the bride of his son, the emperor Manuel II., -- Palaeologus; but when she arrived at Constantinople for the celebration of the nuptials, her beauty and grace so powerfully captivated the decrepit old debauchee that he set aside the inclinations of his son, who was also enamored of his prospective bride, and married the young widow himself.
Anna, another daughter of Alexius, was married to Bagrat VI., King of Georgia; and a third daughter was bestowed on Taharten, Emir of Erdsendjan. Alexius's sisters met a similar fate. His sister Maria was married to Koutloubeg, the chief of the great Turkoman horde of the White Sheep; and his sister Theodora, to Hadji Omer, Emir of Chalybia.
These marriages with Mohammedan nobles, though one revolts at the immolation of Christian maidens on the altar of selfish expedience, are yet the strongest proof how the Christian state was being surrounded by powerful Mohammedan chieftains, who must be conciliated to ward off the evil day of extinction. Such alliances, too, may account in part for the moral degradation which henceforth characterizes the house of Grand-Comnenus.
In the next generation, Alexius IV. wedded Theodora Cantacuzenus, of the celebrated Byzantine family of that name. Neglected by her husband, the princess consoled herself with too close an intimacy with one of the chamberlains of the palace; her son John, indignant at his mother's disgrace, assassinated her lover with his own hands. He later murdered his own father, and ascended the throne as John IV.
Under this cruel and intriguing ruler and his successors, the Christian population of the country regarded the dynasty of Grand-Comnenus as a dynasty of pagan or foreign tyrants, so little of religion or morality survived in Trebizond. His alliances with the Turkoman plunderers of the frontiers increased the popular aversion. John early recognized the growing strength of the Turks, and sought to prepare to meet the coming invasion by forming an alliance with Ouzoun Hassan, chief of the Turkomans of the White Horde, whose daring courage and rapid career of conquest made him, in the general estimation, a formidable rival of Mohammed II.
When invited to join in the league against Mohammed, Hassan demanded as the price of his assistance the hand of the emperor's daughter Katherine, renowned throughout the Orient as the most beautiful virgin in the East. John IV. was highly pleased at the prospect of purchasing so powerful an alliance on such easy terms, and readily agreed, doubtless without consulting the fair Katherine. Yet, in order to save his credit as a Christian emperor, and perhaps as a balm to his own conscience in sacrificing his daughter to an infidel, he stipulated in the treaty that Katherine should be permitted always the exercise of her own religion, and should have the privilege of keeping a certain number of Christian ladies as her attendants, and of Greek priests in her suite, to serve a private chapel in the harem. It is to the honor of a Mussulman to observe that Hassan strictly kept his promises, even after the empire of Trebizond and the house of Grand-Comnenus were no more.
Before this matrimonial alliance was fulfilled, John came to his end; but his brother David, who displaced the heir and usurped the throne, -- a fit agent for consummating the ruin of an empire, -- completed the arrangement. The beautiful Katherine was sent with suitable pomp to the court of her bridegroom, Hassan, and readily adapted herself to the changed conditions of her life. She soon acquired great influence over her infidel husband, who was the soul of honor and good faith, and in every phase of her life which is known to us she showed herself the most attractive character of the whole house of Comnenus.
But no matrimonial alliance could save the doomed empire. Constantinople had fallen in 1453, and it was merely a matter of time when the last surviving Greek kingdom should succumb to the Mohammedan yoke. Mohammed II., by the exercise of intrigue, gradually detached from the emperor his infidel allies. When finally the Mohammedan forces came against the city, David showed that he possessed nothing of the heroic spirit of the last Constantine. He offered but a feeble resistance, and readily sacrificed the city to outrage and plunder on an assurance of safety for himself and his family. David basely deserted his empire and embarked on board one of the Turkish galleys, with his family and his treasures, to enjoy for a brief period luxurious ease in the European appanage assigned him by Mohammed.
David's family consisted of seven sons and a daughter borne him by Helena Cantacuzena, his second wife, who, through her devotion to husband and children, deserves to rank among the noblest of mothers in the chronicles of history.
The dethroned emperor was not long permitted to enjoy the repose he had purchased with so much infamy. Mohammed at length suspected him of carrying on secret communications with Ouzoun Hassan, his niece's husband, and plotting to reestablish the Empire of Trebizond. He was suddenly arrested on his luxurious estate, and conveyed with his whole family to Constantinople. While they were on the way a letter from Despina Katon -- the popular designation of the fair Katherine -- to her uncle David was intercepted by the Ottoman emissaries. In this the amiable spouse of Hassan, requested David to send her brother, or one of her cousins, to be educated at her husband's court. This letter afforded convincing proof to the suspicious Sultan that David was plotting with Ouzoun Hassan and other enemies of the Porte for the restoration of his empire.
The bare suspicion of Mohammed was a sentence of death to the whole race of Grand-Comnenus. As soon as the unfortunate prisoners reached Constantinople, David was ordered to embrace Islam under pain of death. His life had been ignoble, but in his death David showed that he still possessed something of the nobility of the Comneni, and he chose death rather than dishonor his name by renouncing his religion. David, his seven sons and his nephew Alexius were all slaughtered in one day, in the year 1470: the daughter was lost in a Turkish harem.
The bodies of the princes were thrown out unburied beyond the walls. No one ventured to approach them for fear of the vengeance of the Sultan. They would have been abandoned to the dogs, the usual scavengers of Christian flesh, had not the Empress Helena, the wife and mother, repaired to the spot where they lay. She was clad in a peasant's garb, to escape detection, and carried a spade in her hand. The day was spent in guarding the remains of husband and children from the ravenous dogs, and in digging a grave to receive their bodies. In the darkness of the night a few faithful souls came to her relief and assisted her in committing the bodies to the dust. The widowed and childless empress, who had seen the last of her race, the last of the glories of the Byzantine kingdom, then retired to a convent to pass the remainder of her days in prayers for the repose of the souls of her loved ones. Grief soon brought her to a refuge from all earthly sorrows in the grave.
The story of womanhood in the Byzantine Empire of the decadence is an extremely sad one. The times were out of joint; corruption and immorality prevailed; the emperors were almost without exception extremely selfish, cruel, and unprincipled. It was impossible for womanhood in such a period not to be tainted by the general ruin, yet we have found many noble characters, and whatever may have been their feminine weaknesses and foibles, however much their lots may have been circumscribed by the caprices of sovereigns and the ceremonials of courts, the princesses of the Comneni, the Palaeologi and the Cantacuzeni have, as a rule, shown themselves in virtue and in capability the superiors of their brothers.
The rest of our story of Christian women of Greek or Byzantine traditions is soon told. During all the period we have covered in this chapter there was a flourishing mediaeval life further south under Greek skies, in Athens, under a Frankish and, later, a Florentine duchy, and in the Peloponnesus, or the Morea, under Frankish or Venetian princes. But this was the feudal life of mediaeval times transferred to Greek soil, the life of foreigners among a conquered people, and does not concern us here.
When the Turks extended their conquests over Greek lands, it looked as if the torch of freedom, the light of Hellenic tradition, the lamp of Christianity which had for so many centuries brightened the life of Oriental women, had been extinguished forever. But all during the dark age of Turkish oppression, the Christian Church kept alive the nobler aspirations of the Greek race. Women have always been the chief exponents of religious faith, and Greek women handed on from generation to generation the traditions of religion and liberty and intellectual culture. Many of the women of Greek lands were forced to spend their lives within the narrow walls of a Turkish harem; many saw their children taken from them and carried to Constantinople to be brought up as Mussulmans for the service of the Sultan; many had to undergo ignominy and insults at the hands of petty officials. But the Church found a constant and enthusiastic ally in Greek womanhood in preserving the language, the spirit, the love of liberty, of the ancient Greeks.
Hence, when in the early decades of the nineteenth century the fulness of time had come for a portion of the Greek race to rid itself of Turkish domination, the women showed an intense love of country which enabled them not only to inspire their brothers in the fight for freedom, but they also frequently shared with them the toils and privations of actual conflict. We read in the histories of the Greek War of Independence how women at times accompanied the Greek soldiers on their forages, carrying arms and ammunition and frequently fighting themselves; how they kept the standard of military honor high, and were unsparing critics of the mettle of their husbands.
There is no more inspiring folk tale in the records of history than the legend of the Suliote women in the struggle of their people against Ali, the cruel and rapacious tyrant of Janina. Bred in the mountains of Chamouri, they refused to submit to his yoke, and the valiant people had to see the gradual extermination of their race. They had ventured to defy the rising star of Ali, and all that force or treachery could accomplish was inflicted upon them. Tzavellas was one of their leaders, and the valor of Moscho, his wife, has been commemorated in popular verse, as typical of Greek womanhood in their struggle for independence:
|This is the famous Suli, is Suli the renowned,
Where the little children march to war, the women and the children: Where the wife of Tzavellas combats, her sabre in her hand, Her babe upon one arm, her gun upon the other, and her apron filled with cartridges.|
The final incident of the unequal struggle which shows the desperate determination and courage of these Greek women, who suckled these klephts of the mountains and kept alive that spirit of liberty which finally won independence from Turkish misrule, has been thus described:
|Some sixty of these Suliote women, with their children, were assembled on a ledge of rock overhanging a sheer precipice, and, having witnessed the gradual extermination of their defenders, they resolved to die by their own act rather than fall into the hands of the grisly tyrant of Janina. The position which they occupied suggested an easy form of death, and the manner in which they sought it was tragically weird and grim. First, each mother took her child, embraced it, and, turning her head away from the pitiful scene, pushed it over the edge of the abyss. Then these sixty women linked their hands together, and, singing the familiar daring song of Suli above the rattle of the musketry, danced the old surtos measure round and round the ledge of rock, having each her back to the void as the winding chain approached the brink. And every time the chain wound round, one dancer, the last in the line, unlinked her hand, took one step back, and fell down into annihilation. One by one, without haste, without pause, singing the dancing song, they followed each other down that leap of death, until the last sprung over alone, consecrating the mountain with their blood an altar of liberty, from which, ere long, a flame arose that fired those ancient ranges from sea to sea.|
Such was the spirit of Greek womanhood in the trying year of the Greek War of Independence; and it was this spirit which enabled the Greeks to struggle on, without resources and allies, amid discouragements and misrepresentations, till finally the nations of Europe came to their rescue and established the modern Greek kingdom on a sure basis.
Athens was finally chosen as the seat of the new Greek government; and in 1837 the Bavarian king Otho and his lovely bride, the princess Amalia, entered Athens in triumph, and the kingdom of Hellas was fairly launched. Within the memory of living men the dynasty of Otho fell, and a scion of the royal house of Denmark, King George, with his Russian consort, Queen Olga, now holds sway in Athens.
The modern Greek woman of the higher classes has become so thoroughly cosmopolitan in her culture that she has lost in large measure her distinctive traits. Her sympathy is rather with Parisian life than with English, though her deportment is marked by a sobriety of manner partaking rather of Greek repose than of French effusion. Many faces seen in Greek lands exhibit, in profile especially, the Greek type of beauty.
The women of the lower classes, no doubt, preserve many of the characteristics of the race in all ages, in spite of the intermingling with foreign peoples and the results of centuries of Turkish oppression, which time alone can eradicate. Domestic fidelity, maternal affection, devotion to religious observances, the cheerful discharge of the duties and responsibilities of wedded life, are nowhere more beautifully illustrated than among the Greek women of to-day.
It is the Christian religion which makes the life of Greek women under King George superior to that of their sisters under the dominion of the Sultan, and we may hope that in the fulness of time the Greek women of Europe and Asia outside of the Hellenic kingdom may enjoy, untrammelled by Turkish authority, the rights and privileges of that religion which has elevated the sex, and that the Greek woman of the future may combine the personal graces of her sister in antiquity with the cultivation of the soul and the enlargement of spirit which comes to women with the inculcation of Christianity.