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June 5, 2013

Three Trends Before the Fall of Constantinople

The fall of Constantinople in Suceava Monastery, Romania

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

When Constantinople fell on 29 May 1453, the so-called "Byzantine" Empire, in actuality the Roman Empire, was quite weakened by the Frankish occupation that began in 1204 with the Fourth Crusade, as well as the occupations of various regions by the Ottomans. Thus, the only free part of the former thriving Roman Empire was Constantinople and its environs.

At that time, before the fall of Constantinople, there were three prevailing ideological and intellectual trends, all of which had different plans for the preservation of the then free Roman Empire. Steven Runciman gives us interesting information on this subject.

The three trends were represented by three important personalities: Metropolitan Bessarion of Nicaea, George Gemistos Plethon, and George-Gennadios Scholarios, who later became the first Patriarch of Constantinople under Turkish rule. All three participated in the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439), and each of them played a significant role in the events of the time.

More specifically, the first trend was expressed by the Metropolitan of Nicaea Bessarion, who had studied at the University of Constantinople, was a Platonist, and expressed the view that Constantinole and the Roman Empire in general would be saved if the Orthodox Church was united with the Pope. Therefore, he clearly had a Western orientation. Eventually, Bessarion joined "Catholicism" and became a Cardinal and was nearly elected Pope of Rome.

The second trend was expressed by George Gemistos Plethon, who was "perhaps the most original thinker of Byzantium". He had finished university and was a champion of Hellenism. He was a Platonist philosopher and when he was in Florence he even gave lectures on Plato, helping refocus the Renaissance of Aristotelianism into Platonism. George Gemistos Plethon theorized that the rescue of the Empire would come from turning to ancient Hellenism, and the Empire would be reformed under the principles of Plato. He distanced himself from Constantinople and remained in Mistra, where he developed his theories, but did not persuade, and he died there.

The third trend was expressed by George Gennadios Scholarios, who was a disciple of St. Mark of Ephesus. Scholarios had finished the University of Constantinople and knew scholasticism, but in the end he was very much influenced by St. Mark of Ephesus, who had finished the Patriarchal Academy and was soaked in patristic theology. George Gennadios Scholarios was of the opinion that the rescue of the Empire will come from the same Greek Orthodox tradition when experienced in its entirety, that is, when it is based on its spiritual foundations.

It is clearly evident that George Gennadios Scholarios was fully vindicated, and became the first Patriarch after the Fall, helping to maintain the consciousness of the Empire with fidelity to tradition and, as Runciman confesses, of course he succeeded. The other two trends failed however, namely that the preservation of the Empire would come either from union of the Orthodox Church with the Pope or the restoration of ancient paganism. The experiment of Gennadios helped to maintain the identity of the Empire, keeping the Empire unconquered and free from the rule of the Ottomans, ensuring the potential for their release at the proper time. From this perspective we can see the offering of the Orthodox Church, the Clergy and the Monasteries in the rescuing of the consciousness of the Empire against the Turks, and the subsequent freedom from under the Turkish yoke.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Τρεις τάσεις προ της πτώσεως της Κωνσταντινουπόλεως", May 2009. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.