Monday, 18 January 1999

Nicholas Cheetham: Medieval Greece (1981)

Edition: Yale University Press, 1981
Review number: 188

Greece had an incredibly complex history in the medieval period, from the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 until the fall of Crete to the Turks in the seventeenth century. Before and after this, it had hundreds of years as part of a large and stable empire, the Byzantine and the Ottoman; a fairly stable and slow-changing condition (though not without historical questions, such as the puzzle of when and how exactly the nature of the population changed from Greek to Slav). In between these periods of stability, though, come four and a half centuries of turmoil, incredibly complex political maneuvring among fragmenting states, all of which is little known in Western European histories.

The diversion of the Fourth Crusade to sack Constantinople was one of the more cynical crimes of history. Internal conflicts made the empire an easy target, and the commercial ambition of the Venetians made it a tempting prize to them (and they were organising the transport for the crusade). The capture of Constantinople caused the disintegration of the empire, particularly its European provinces, which had already been carved up among the participants in the Fourth Crusade before it took place. Greece was divided into four or five small states, some still ruled by Greek aristocrats, others taken over by the conquerors and reorganised along Western feudal lines, with the Venetians gaining many important ports and commercial privileges.

It is perhaps amazing that the Latin states (as they are known) lasted as long as they did, until in fact they were destroyed by the Turks. They were often at loggerheads with each other and with the Greek states; faced continual interference from the West in their internal affairs - mainly because the Angevin royal family of Naples got involved, which also involved their rivals for control of Sicily, the Aragonese; and experienced the dangers common to all foreign ruling classes which never even attempt to integrate themselves with the mass of the people. The first state to go was the Latin Empire, based in Constantinople itself, and the last the Venetian colony of Crete.

The complicated and often obscure affairs of these petty states are well described by Cheetham, a long-serving British diplomat in Greece, fascinated by the many medieval remains completely ignored in favour of the more well-known classical structures and artefacts. He even tries to unravel something of the economic and social history, in which material for the historian is almost completely lacking. The political manoeuvrings are incredibly dificult to keep track of, particularly given the way that pepople change name as they change the fief they hold, or marry, or their relatives die. Cheetham does his best, but even at 300+ pages can only manage to give a fairly sketchy picture of the history.

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