Few Byzantine emperors had a life as tumultuous as that of Manuel II Palaiologos (1350-1425). Living and ruling during the last decades of the Byzantine Empire, Manuel witnessed civil wars between the members of his own family, socio-economic problems and theological disputes. His paths crossed with many famed rulers and scholars of the age. His own court boasted many talented Byzantine literati. His life bore testimony to the rise of Ottomans and the precursors of the Renaissance. The emperor endured several sieges by the Ottomans; Manuel travelled to Western European courts to personally seek aid against them. He thus became famous as the only Byzantine ruler to have visited France and England. His life was further enriched as he was a gifted author who penned many literary, philosophical and theological works.
Manuel II’s eventful life sat at the crossroads of Byzantine, Western European and Ottoman history. Some highlights from his story: when he was sixteen, he was left as a hostage by his father in Hungary. As a young man, he was imprisoned for several years with his father by his elder brother Andronikos IV, only to secretly sneak out and oust the latter from power. When his father re-installed Andronikos as his heir, Manuel angrily sailed to Thessalonike and established a separatist rule there, eventually losing the city to the Ottomans. Immediately after his accession in 1391, he was summoned by Sultan Bayezid I to Anatolia, to fight alongside the Ottoman army as a vassal. When the army spent the winter in Ankara, the emperor was hosted by an Islamic scholar. The two held discussions on Christianity and Islam, exchanged not only theological notions, but also pleasantries, compliments and jokes. Manuel even portrays himself as playfully offering some freshly hunted boar to his host — whom the prank did not offend in the slightest, but rather amused.
When Manuel disobeyed the next summon of the Ottoman sultan, his refusal triggered an eight-year long blockade of Constantinople. The emperor duly travelled among Western European courts, visiting Venice, Milan, Pavia, Padua, Paris, Calais and London — distributing relic pieces along the way. He stayed for almost three years in Paris. Lodged in the Palace of Louvre, he exchanged New Year’s presents with the famous Jean de Berry and prayed in the Abbey of Saint Denis with Charles VI. In London, the attires of the Byzantine party caught the eye of English courtiers, and Manuel was treated to a lavish Christmas banquet by Henry IV. Only upon Bayezid’s defeat by Tamerlane in 1402 was Manuel able to return to Constantinople. All his life, the emperor wielded the pen. Today we have thirty-three surviving works by him: letters, orations, dialogues, philosophical and theological treatises, poems and a hymn.
It was on the account of the richness of his life that I decided to write a new biography of Manuel. What motivated me the most was Manuel’s literary talent and the fact that many of his works were unstudied. While learning Classical Greek as an undergraduate, I had translated a letter by Manuel; he had intrigued me. Although he is famous for being an author-emperor, his writings are usually consulted to gain information about the period and its political dimensions. The literary aspects of his oeuvre are often overlooked. In my biography, I have offered for the first time, an analysis of Manuel’s complete oeuvre. Arguing for his literary talent and merit, I focus on some select aspects of the emperor’s literary style, such as his imagery, metaphors and allusions. I examine his self-representation and portrayal of the others, as well as exploring some themes in his philosophical and theological thinking; his interpretation of Aristotelian ethics, his envisioning of the boundaries between philosophy and theology, and his ideas on the Church Union.
My goal in the book was not to write a political narrative of his reign, but rather to portray him as the fascinating multi-faceted figure he is. Apart from offering a portrait of Manuel as an author, I present him as a ruler and personality. I discuss his style of government starting from his earlier years as a prince, examining his diplomacy, preoccupation with the empire’s finances and his relationship with the Byzantine Church. To flesh Manuel out as a human being, I discuss his daily life: relationships with family, friends and foes, his childhood, pastimes, travels, life at the palace and the city of Constantinople. As Manuel’s biographer, I had a great variety of textual and visual sources at my disposal; the emperor’s own oeuvre, works of the Byzantine literati, Byzantine histories and official documents, Western European sources that range from Latin to medieval English, French and Italian, travellers’ accounts, manuscript illuminations…
The task of writing Manuel’s biography did possess some challenges on the account of its wide-ranging themes and vast sources. However, these very same issues expanded my horizons as a scholar. First as a doctoral candidate and then as a young scholar, Manuel’s biography kept me stimulated, engaged and also entertained. I could analyse the literary features of a work by Manuel, research the conditions on the ships during his travels, try to envision the dishes served to him at a European banquet and analyse his diplomatic dealings with the Genoese, Venetians and the Ottomans. Manuel’s life story thus offered me many of the topics and research questions I love as a historian. From the initial days of my doctoral research until the publication of my book, I have spent eight years with this fascinating emperor. All in all, it has been a time filled with intellectual stimulation, excitement and surprises, and I hope that the readers will enjoy the final outcome.