Review of The Lost Capital of Byzantium

Image Credit: The Vizier

Mistra, in its prime, was a centre of influence in the Peloponnese. At the height of its eminence, it became the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. But the influence of Mistra during its short lived glory went beyond the Peloponnese. Kingdoms from all over the Mediterranean sought to control Mistra to further their ambitions. Now, Steven Runciman provides a gripping account of Mistra’s rise and fall in “The Lost Capital of Byzantium.”

During his lifetime, the esteemed medievalist historian Steven Runciman travelled widely in the Mediterranean. Upon discovering the ruins of ancient Mistra, he developed an endearing fascination with it. Over the course of time, Runciman returned repeatedly to visit the ancient ruins. The hospitality he received during each visit from the people of modern day Mistra had a profound impact on him. It was to repay their kindness that Runciman dedicated “The Lost Capital of Byzantium,” to them. Runciman has written many books throughout his career. His most famous work is “A History of the Crusades.”

In “The Lost Capital of Byzantium,” Runciman gives a comprehensive history of Mistra from beginning to end. He argues that many factors influenced the history of Mistra. But the most significant of these factors was the Peloponnese where Mistra was located. Due to its unique circumstances, it is difficult to appreciate Mistra in a vacuum. By the end of the book, Runciman shows how an understanding of the history and motivations of those who sought to control the Peloponnese is important in appreciating Mistra.

How Mistra was born

Runciman opens with a sweeping history of the Peloponnese and the civilizations that lived there throughout the ages. Even in those early times, external influences shaped the Peloponnese and its inhabitants. Many invaders sought to dominate the Peloponnese and fought bloody battles over it. The narrative soon centres on the Fourth Crusade and the rise of the Villehardouin, who were the masters of the Peloponnese by 1213. Runciman’s focus here is amply justified. By relating these events, Runciman shows how they led to the birth of Mistra in 1249.

How Mistra rose to prominence and flourished

But Mistra did not become important overnight. A series of events over which it had no control shaped its destiny. In 1262, the Battle of Pelagonia in Macedonia ended with the Byzantine Empire gaining control of Mistra. It was under the Byzantines that Mistra slowly became prominent. By the 1280s, Mistra received a boost in status by becoming the capital of the Byzantine territories in the Peloponnese. Mistra, with its centralized position and natural defences, was an ideal base for the Byzantines in their ongoing struggle for control of the Peloponnese. But this alone did not make Mistra important. The period from the 1300s-1400s was one of great unrest. Yet Mistra flourished and became a centre for learning and the arts. This was only possible due to Mistra’s luck in having enlightened governors to shape its development.

How the actions of the enlightened Despots shaped Mistra

Enlightened Despots like Manuel Cantacuzenus and Theodore II Palaeologus helped to make Mistra important. Their statesmanship allowed Mistra to thrive amidst great difficulties. Under their rule, Mistra continued to attract scholars and artists from far and wide as the Greek peninsula fell to the Ottomans. Its most famous resident in the early fifteenth century was George Gemistus Plethon. His mere presence alone enhanced the prestige of Mistra and contributed to its glory.

The fate of Mistra under Ottoman rule

Sadly, the Ottoman conquest of Mistra changed everything. The resulting brain drain stripped Mistra of its former vitality as many scholars fled west to avoid Ottoman rule. Despite being a cultural centre in its prime, Mistra was just another provincial capital in the mighty Ottoman Empire. It too was subject to the Sultan’s dictates from Constantinople. Although Ottoman rule bought relative peace and prosperity to Mistra, their rule caused much resentment amongst the Greeks.

As the years passed, the Ottomans declined in might, becoming powerless to defend the Peloponnese. Runciman describes how control of the Peloponnese changed hands many times with damaging effects for Mistra. Mistra finally met its end during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. In birth, life and death, Mistra had little control over its fate. The new Kingdom of Greece decided to leave ancient Mistra in ruins. All that remains today is the modern day town of Mistra that grew out of the suburbs of the ancient city.

What the city and atmosphere of Byzantine Mistra was like

To complete his tale, Runciman provides a description of Byzantine Mistra. He describes the way the houses and streets are laid out. At other points he muses about important buildings and who their inhabitants might have been. Not only does he give a guided tour of the ancient city, he also explains the philosophical and cultural atmosphere during its prime. This allows the reader to experience Mistra through the eyes of a man who loved and knew the city well. It also provides for a better appreciation of ancient Mistra and its charms.

How you will benefit from reading “The Lost Capital of Byzantium”

I came away from the book with the haunting beauty of Mistra etched firmly in my mind. Part of Mistra’s appeal is how such an important city during its prime is nothing but ruins today. At least for that fleeting moment in time, Mistra had its glory.

The following are just some of the benefits which I hope you will derive from reading the book. Firstly, you will learn about the history of Mistra and the Peloponnese in greater detail. Secondly, you will know about the important people who shaped the development of Mistra. Runciman even provides juicy details where possible. Lastly, the guided tour provided by Runciman through ancient Mistra allows you to experience the ancient city from the comfort of your chair.

You can also experience ancient Mistra for yourself by clicking on the link below to purchase this book.

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. The Vizier says:

    Hi Evelyn

    Wikipedia is a good place to start. That is where I learned about Mistra, the Byzantine Empire and its various personages.

  2. Peloponnese says:

    Great blog you have, so much valid information. Thank you for sharing!

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