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- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Zealots - A "Marxist" Revolution in Byzantium

Civil War - The Rise of the Zealots
Byzantium's Marxist Revolution

Rule number one - the "correct" history of any given moment in time is mostly written by those who win the wars.  The point of view of the defeated is usually swiftly discarded into the trash can of history.  That fact limits what we know about the Zealot Revolution.

The great failing of Imperial Rome and Byzantium was the collapse of any meaningful type of representative Senate or Plebeian Council.  With no political voice representing the people the only outlet was revolution or the armed backing one family of dictators over another family of dictators for the Imperial crown.

We have seen a number of major people's revolutions against dictatorship over the centuries from Spartacus to Oliver Cromwell to George Washington to Hồ Chí Minh.

But true popular revolts were not common in Rome or Byzantium for the obvious reason of fear of the Emperor's military.

Our view of the Zealot Revolution in Byzantine Thessalonica is tainted by our modern knowledge of Socialism and Communism.  It was not a "Marxist" revolution in the true sense because Marxism had not been invented yet.

Still all the elements of savage class warfare, killings and taking of private property were there just like there was in the French Revolution.

The Rise of the Zealots

"... They roused up the people against the aristocracy, and for two or three days, Thessalonica was like a city under enemy occupation and suffered all the corresponding disasters. The victors went shouting and looting through the streets by day and by night, while the vanquished hid in churches and counted themselves lucky to be still alive. When order returned, the Zealots, suddenly raised from penury and dishonour to wealth and influence, took control of everything and won over the middle class of citizens, forcing them to acquiesce and characterizing every form of moderation and prudence as "Kantakouzenism"."
John Kantakouzenos, History
Thessalonica at the time was the second most important city of the Empire after Constantinople itself. Wealthy and at least as populous as the capital, its people had already resented control from the far-off capital, and had already once rebelled against the Constantinople-appointed governor: in the first Palaiologan civil war, in 1322, they had ousted the despotēs Constantine Palaiologos in favour of Andronikos III and his lieutenant, John Kantakouzenos.

When the second civil war broke out, control of the city was of great importance to both camps, and Kantakouzenos' aristocratic supporters, led by its governor Theodore Synadenos, tried to deliver it to him.

The common people of the city however, led by the dockworkers and sailors, reacted, ousted them and took control of the city. Apokaukos himself arrived shortly after at the head of a fleet, and installed his son, the megas primikērios John, as its nominal governor. Real power in the city however rested with the Zealots' leader, a Michael Palaiologos, who jointly with John held the title of archōn. A council (boulē) was also established, but its composition and role is unclear.

Although the Zealots, throughout their existence, continued to recognize the legitimate Emperor John V Palaiologos, the city was effectively run as a commune and a people's republic. Under the new regime, the possessions of the aristocracy were confiscated. The Zealots, who were regarded in conservative ecclesiastical circles as disciples of Barlaam of Calabria and Gregory Acindynus, were also violently opposed to the Hesychasts, who supported Kantakouzenos. The political Zealots were therefore enemies of the church Zealots.

Michael and Andreas Palaiologos were the leaders of the revolt. Despite efforts to identify them however, they do not fit in any way into the known Palaiologan family tree, and we do not even know their relationship to each other: they may, indeed, simply have come from some sort of client family or families who took the dynastic name by extension. But one point does remain unavoidable: the so-called “revolutionaries” did consistently identify themselves with Palaiologan legitimacy.

Apokaukos' coup, reaction and terror
"...one after another the prisoners were hurled from the walls of the citadel and hacked to pieces by the mob of the Zealots assembled below. Then followed a hunt for all the members of the upper classes: they were driven through the streets like slaves, with ropes round their necks-here a servant dragged his master, there a slave his purchaser, while the peasant struck the strategos and the labourer beat the soldier [the land-holding pronoiars]."
Demetrius Cydones describing the anti-aristocratic killings of 1345
During the next years, the city successfully resisted attempts of Kantakouzenos to capture the city with the aid of his allies, the Seljuk Emir Umur and Stefan Dusan of Serbia. As the tide of the civil war gradually turned toward Kantakouzenos however, John Apokaukos began plotting against the Zealots. He contacted the remnants of the pro-Kantakouzenian aristocracy, and after having Michael Palaiologos killed, assumed power himself.

After learning of his father's murder in Constantinople in June 1345, Apokaukos decided to hand the city over to Kantakouzenos, but the city mob, led by Andreas Palaiologos, another leader of the Longshoremen (parathalassioi), rose up against him. Apokaukos and about a hundred of the leading aristocrats were lynched, and everyone even suspected of "Kantakouzenism" was liable to be killed and his house and property plundered.


In 1347 Kantakouzenos and the emperor John V reconciled, but the Zealots ignored the orders from the capital, such as the appointment of Gregory Palamas as its archbishop. The city remained isolated from the outside world, suffered from the Black Death, and was further subject to the continued threat of Stefan Dushan.

The situation became increasingly desperate, and there was even talk of surrendering the city to the protection of foreign, namely Serbian, rule. This however was unacceptable to many Thessalonicans, including the other archon, Alexios Laskaris Metochites.  At the end of 1349, the Zealots were defeated, and Andreas Palaiologos fled to Mount Athos. Negotiations followed, and in 1350, Kantakouzenos, accompanied by Emperor John Palaiologos and Palamas, made a triumphal entry into the city.

Byzantine Thessaloniki
The second most important city in the 10th century Eastern Roman Empire
with a population of about 200,000 people.
Hesychasts and Zealots:
Spiritual flourshing and social crisis in 14th century Byzantium

by Protopresbyter fr. George Metallinos
(f. Dean of the Athens University School of Theology)
“Hellenism combatting”, Tinos Publications, Athens 1995.

The 14th century has been acknowledged as one of the most critical periods of “Byzantine” History. It was marked by a peculiar paradox. Its socio-political crisis (evidence of its disorganization and decomposition) was interwoven with spiritual disputes (evidence of spiritual vigor and robustness). The territorial shrinkage of the Empire may have been progressing (territories shared between Serbs, Bulgarians and Ottomans), however, a parallel rebirth of education and a theological-spiritual flourishing was also being noted.

Civil upheaval peaked during the movement of the Zealots of Thessaloniki.

The second civil war - far more violent and broader than the first - had taken on a purely social character, so that it could boldly be referred to as a «social war». A leading role in this war was played by the lay strata, which the conflicting powers had, from the very beginning, hastened to "utilize". The Viceroy John Apokafkos - a supporter of Palaeologos - had roused the public of Constantinople in 1341 against Kantakouzinos. The looting of the latter's home functioned like something programmed, because very soon, an even broader civil uprising took place - one that went entirely out of control. However, the social turn of this social conflict was sealed with the appearance and the involvement in the lay masses of a group in Thessaloniki, who bore the name "Zealots". Their intervention (1342) and its consequences were the coarsest expression of political ideology in "Byzantium" (Romania). 

Only the raw military power of the ruling class kept the lower and middle classes from rising up in revolution against assorted forms of  "imperial" dictatorships.  One such revolt was by Spartacus (c. 109–71 BC) who was a Thracian gladiator.  Spartacus, along with the Gauls Crixus, Oenomaus, Castus and Gannicus, was one of the slave leaders in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic.

The hierarchically second and essentially first city of the Empire during this period - Thessaloniki - became the epicenter of social uprising. The city had already (as of the 7th century, with the expansion of the Arabs) proved itself to be the second centre of the Empire, and in the 10th century its citizens numbered 200.000. In the 14th century, it continued to be a densely populated city and a flourishing urban centre (international marketplace), with powerful guilds (naval, mercantile), but also with glaring social antitheses (many poor - wealthy aristocrats). The Zealots succeeded in rallying the indignant lay forces and utilizing them for the achievement of their goals.

b. But what was the identity of the Zealots? Bibliographical research is convinced, that a definite answer has not yet been given to this question. Sources make mention of «rabble-rousers and the stand of exarchs» (Bios of Saint Isidore) and of «new people», who previously had no involvement in governing (D. Kydonis). Gregoras characterizes them as a «riffraff lot». The Patriarch Filotheos (a hesychast) calls them «outsiders» and «barbarians», adding that: «who have come together [...] from our outermost reaches». The view that is prevalent today is that they were a «stratum» of society, which «they could tell apart from the remaining population (A. Laios). It has also been recorded that they were named «Zealots», because they placed the interests if the populace above their own (Thom. Magistros).

American colonists rising up against their
royal master King George III.  Around
60,000 died on both sides of the civil war.
The term «zealots», already familiar from the Old Testament (Exodus 20:5, 1Esdras 8:72, 2 Maccabees 4:2) and the New Testament (Acts 21:20, 1 Corinthians 14:12, Galatians 1:14, Titus 2:14), also passed into «byzantine» social reality with its religious connotation - as evident even in the New Testament (Romans 10:2): «...they have zeal, but it is a mindless one») from where it also took on its negative hue, which remains strong, even to this day. From the beginning of the 12th century, two ecclesiastic factions were active in byzantine society, which did not coincide between them and were both competing against each other in their attempts to influence the organization and the administration of the Church. Their appearance in the life of the Empire can be seen as early as the 9th century: they were the "Zealots" and the "Politicals". The former were supporters of the Church's independence from the State; they undervalued education and displayed a fanatic loyalty towards ecclesiastic tradition. With the majority of monks at their side, they influenced the People very noticeably. The "Politicals" had a diametrically opposed ideology: they were tolerant towards the separation of State and Church, they were in favour of school education, they were loosely tied to tradition, they had influence among the secular clergy and the educated ranks of society. With regard to the West, the Zealots were against unification, while the Politicals were in favour. One of the first clashes of these two factions can be seen in the Fotios-Ignatios dispute (9th century), but their opposition took on even larger proportions during the time of Michael Palaeologos (the "arseniates" schism) and the pseudo-union of Lyons (1274-1282). The battle at the time leaned in favour of the Zealots. It was maintained (Vasiliev) that this religious faction had regrouped in the 14th century and had involved itself in political life, by projecting reformatory trends and by having popular support on account of social disorder. But is that really how things were?
It is indeed clear that - in spite of the confusion in the sources - the Zealots of Thessaloniki constituted a «social group», as discerned by the People. It had ties to seamen (the "maritimers") - a well-known guild with Palaeologos family members at its head. The collaboration between Zealots and maritimers was obviously a coinciding of mutual interests. In other cities, merchants also participated in this collaboration. The presence of aristocracy (Palaeologos family) in its leadership should not disorient us. This was a common phenomenon in Western Europe also, in analogous situations. The Zealots identified with the people and they expressed the demands of the lower social strata, which partially coincided with those of the army as well.

It is our estimation that the Zealots of Thessaloniki were a particular kind of social group, one that was basically comprised of monks - which was the reason that it had acquired its name from the already familiar religious faction in Byzantium; ie, on account of the trends and analogous psychology (=fanaticism) that they had in common. However, this was a clearly politically-oriented faction, with clear-cut social motives and demands: against rich landowners and in favour of the hungry and oppressed. That non-political "Zealots" may have quite possibly collaborated cannot be excluded, given that the majority of the Zealots' ranks was comprised not only of monks but also of beggars and poor. The presence of a large number of monks also explains the absence of anti-religious trends, as well as the existence of a social ideology, which is permanently preserved in an Orthodox monastic coenobium.

When the hesychast Patriarch Filotheos refers to them as «apostates from the Church», this probably refers to their vehement stance which according to a general perception had overturned the "God-sent" established order, or, because of their negative reaction towards Palamas, the canonical metropolitan of Thessaloniki, whom Filotheos supported, as one who was like-minded. At any rate, it has been testified that the Zealots did not hesitate to use a Crucifix (which they had snatched from a holy altar) as a flag and that they had attacked the governor Synadinos and the aristocracy. Their lay "backup" also reinforces the view that the monks were the majority among them. The crimes that were committed do not exclude something like that, inasmuch as fanaticism can blind a person. Monks and non-monks (but definitely politically-minded individuals with rabble-rousing capabilities) consequently appear to have been in the leadership of the Zealots' movement.

c. The causes of this stand were sought out and were located by many researchers. Almost all of them converge on the position that there were social reasons: the wretched state of the populace and a request for a more democratic organization of society. The influence of analogous movements in Italy (revolution of Genova, 1339) is not regarded as decisive (per Charanis), given the democratic spirit, together with the broader participation of the people in the choice of emperor. Politically speaking, Kantakouzinos' coup was a provocation to the lay conscience and mentality (a respect for God-given monarchy and legality). Besides, the Zealots were sentimentally linked to the Palaeologos family, because some of its members governed Thessaloniki. And then, even though Kantakouzinos was clearly in favour of centralized administration, the Zealots strove for autonomy. Furthermore, Kantakouzinos' descent and the support he had by the aristocracy had intensified the reactions against him. The People found an opportunity to demonstrate its anti-aristocratic or even its anti-plutocratic conscience on account of the oppression they were under, and their financial wretchedness. Visions for a radical change, economic upgrading and social restructuring had become linked to the Zealots' stand. This - as things have shown - was an eruption of proto-Christian (cf. Acts 2, 4 and 6) common ownership or at least communality
, opposite the increasing social inequality and injustice, because of the accumulation of lands and wealth in the hands of the few "pronoiarioi" etc..

German Peasants' War
The burning of Little Jack (Jacklein) Rohrbach, a leader of the peasants during the war 1524–1525.  Being burned alive or tortured to death tended to discourage revolution against the nobility.  The aristocracy slaughtered up to 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers. 

Naturally the attempt to give a Marxist interpretation of the events in Thessaloniki was not omitted (for example G.Kordatos), within the limits of researching the historical backings of the Marxist ideology's prehistory. However, although the existing sources may allow for a verification of common points, still, they exclude every certainty of a complete coincidence of ideological presuppositions. The absence in "our East" of Frankish-German "racial" presuppositions precludes the relating - even the event itself - that the stand of the Zealots in Thessaloniki did not begin as a social revolution with an independent organization and a pre-designed goal, but that it was merely a circumstantial movement and an aspect (or phase) of the civil war (per P. Christou). Underlying social antitheses and demands had also manifested themselves during the course of the civil war.

The People had participated in the revolution, only for the resolving of their own problems, with no connection whatsoever to the familiar "agrarian uprisings" of history. The character of this stand remained purely urban and social. Furthermore, there are no testimonies which indicate that the Zealots had basically turned against the churches and the monastic holdings; on the contrary, they remained faithful to the legal emperor and the Patriarch's supporter, I.Kalekas. According to professor Nicol, what is strange is that the rich landowners (aristocrats) and the military aristocracy were the ones who were opposed to the church and her holdings. But there is also the view - which has been witnessed in contemporary sources - that refugees from lands which had been conquered by the Serbs had been added to the poor of Thessaloniki and that it was they who had pressured the Zealots into turning against the rich, with lootings as the end result. Because it is a fact that heinous crimes were not absent from the overall procedure. In 1347-49, when the Zealots had taken full command of Thessaloniki, they had hurled rich people from atop the city walls, while they had murdered others who were in hiding inside the city. This was the most violent aspect of their revolution, but also of the overall war.
The Reign of Terror
In the French Revolution the lower classes killed
16,594 by guillotine and another 25,000
in summary executions.

d. After Thessaloniki, the stand extended into other cities of the Empire, and as far as Trebizund. This signifies that the social clime of Thessaloniki was more of an overall phenomenon, and this is confirmed by many testimonies. The reaction was focused on the person of I. Kantakouzinos and the aristocracy. But in 1345, a crisis regarding the Zealots and their authority was noted, because the situation had begun to lean in favour of Kantakouzinos. The head of the Zealots - Michael Palaeologos - was assassinated, Zealots were arrested, imprisoned and/or exiled. Andronicus Palaeologos was proclaimed the new leader of the Zealots; an aristocrat, unassertive, and head of the maritimers' guild. The People once again regained power. New slaughters of aristocrats are noted, one being of I. Apokafkos. And the uprising against the rich takes on a more general character; now out of control, the People resort to an orgy of blood and looting, thus securing power for the Zealot leaders.

As surmised from the sources, the Zealots were in favour of decentralization. Even though their ideology is difficult to determine amd in spite of the limited information, the same did not apply to their political plans. Already in the summer of 1342 an unprecedented government was established in Thessaloniki: the independent Republic of Thessaloniki, with self-government and the exercising of external politics. Thsi was probably a kind of "commune"; one that endured up to 1350. However, the precise character of their polity is difficult to determine. It is a fact, that when threatened with a fall, the Zealots turned to Serbia's "kraly" (regent) Stefan Dusan for help, but this displeased the People to such an extent, that they had approached Kantakouzinos and had looked upon the aristocrats with sympathy. Apart from the existence of a powerful patriotic sentiment, what else could this signify, other than the absence of a class conscience? The People had never ceased to look upon the overall matter as an opportunity to improve their living conditions and nothing more.

e. The coincidence of the stand by the Zealots of Thessaloniki with the climax in the theological dispute eventually led to their implication, but not because the Zealots had actually become involved in the theological (hesychast) dispute. As previously mentioned, even though the Zealots had been named «apostates of the church», they had not included anti-ecclesiastic or anti-religious activities in their political agenda, nor does it appear that Theology had developed any particular dynamic with their activities. Their contrary views, which were valid in the past, were attributed to an erroneous linking of a text by N. Kavasilas to the Zealots, when in fact it was referring to a different case altogether. The engagement of theology and politics was the fruit of interdependence and inter-concessions between these two areas of byzantine life. However, the search itself for some kind of association between them is proof of the absence of every notion of a concentrated anti-hesychast ideology on the part of politicians (or politics) with an anti-hesychast ideology within the ranks of the Hesychasts.

The Russian Civil War (1917 - 1922)
Between war and famine perhaps 10 million or more people died.

Besides, it was not a rare phenomenon to have the adversaries of one area having a common stance with the other area; the protagonists of the civil war, I.Kantakouzinos and I.Apokafkos, had coincided in their friendly stance towards hesychasm. N. Gregoras and D. Kydonis - both against Palamas in their convictions - were nevertheless friends and followers of Kantakouzinos on account of their common interests. The Patriarch I. Kalekas and the empress Anna of Savoy had collaborated in the political area, but the Patriarch had remained fanatically anti-Palamas, while the empress had for a time supported Palamas. As usual, the People were dragged in every direction during this entire tragedy. Initially (in 1341), a large part of the People had shown an anti-hesychast disposition, which may have made the Hesychasts turn in favour of Kantakouzinos. But no-one can assert that all the Hesychasts followed Kantakouzinos, or that all of his followers were declared anti-hesychasts. D. Kydonis and Ni.Kavasilas for example were amicably disposed towards Kantakouzinos, but theologically belonged to opposing sides. Besides, there were many humanists who supported Palamas.

The Zealots - at least all those with an ecclesiastic origin (monks) - had preserved from the time of the Iconomachy a fondness towards Old Rome and that brought them closer to the pro-union Palaeologos family, even though Rome had now become Frankish and heretic. As is known, the emperor John Palaeologos had attempted to realize a union with Rome and had eventually become a papist. This element alone was enough to make the Zealots turn against the Hesychasts. Furthermore, their associating Palamas with Kantakouzinos (on account of the hesychast phronema of both men), had made them - as was expected - hinder the enthronement of Palamas when he was elected metropolitan of Thessaloniki (in 1347).

For the entire duration of that social turmoil, Gregory Palamas had remained a genuine hesychast and Patristic in his choices. It would be a huge injustice to Palamas, if one were to ascribe aristocratic ideas to him. By placing the tradition of theosis (deification) above political fluidity, he remained friendly towards John Palaeologos and the empress, himself behaving like a genuine "byzantine", within the clime of lawfulness. His correspondence with monks of the Holy Mountain is proof of his pacifist endeavours. He never moved between opposing sides and he avoided every involvement in favour of the one or the other side. His perseverance to the hesychast tradition and his opposition to Barlaam and the byzantine anti-hesychasts (e.g. Gregoras) had the exclusive objective of the continuation of patristic tradition and the preservation of the Empire's spiritual identity. He exiled himself to Heracleia, where he was often annoyed by (but not involved in) political disputes. His sympathy towards Kantakouzinos was attributed to Kantakouzinos' dedication to the tradition of Orthodoxy; there were no political motives. It must be regarded as certain, that the presence and the activities of Barlaam in the East had convinced Palamas of the inherent danger of subjugation to Rome, whose spiritual alienation had been exposed by his Calabrian opponent. This explains why he appeared friendly towards Kantakouzinos, even when he was still a friend and supporter of Barlaam and the protector of the humanistic renaissance. It is also known that Palamas had contributed towards the reconciliation between I. Kantakouzinos and John Palaeologos.

The People, with their infallible sensor had correctly interpreted Palamas' stance and had diagnosed the sincerity in his intentions. After the fall of the Zealots - whom Palamas had treated in a pacifist manner - the People welcomed him into Thessaloniki (December 1350) with jubilations. Palamas condemned the crimes that had been committed by the Zealots, but entered as a peacemaker into Thessaloniki, which had regained its normal rhythms.

For the full article go to (www.oodegr.com/english)

The Walls of Byzantine Thessaloniki

(doaks.org)        (oodegr.com - hesychast-zealot)        (books.google.com)

(h-net.org/reviews)        (barnesandnoble.com)        (Zealots of Thessalonica)

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