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Ideology and Rhetoric in Manuel Ⅱ Palaiologos’s Texts

Florin Leonte, Central European University, Junior Fellow 2009–2010

The fellowship project I undertook at Dumbarton Oaks sought to investigate the political messages embedded in several texts of Manuel Ⅱ Palaiologos (r. 1391–1425). To gain a better understanding of the role of rhetoric in the political transactions of Manuel's reign, I followed three major paths of inquiry.

First, I focused on two of the emperor's texts, The Foundations of an Imperial Education and the so-called Seven Ethico-Political Orations. Their study revealed the author's effort to arrange deliberative topics in a system of moral virtues meaningful for an emperor-to-be. In addition, the multitude of genres employed in the Seven Orations (protreptic discourse, philosophical essays, and homilies) attest to Manuel's will to experiment with different literary forms incorporated in a coherent, unified framework echoing ancient diatribes. If one considers the performance contexts of the orations, it emerges that these texts had a distinct didactic purpose. For instance, the sixth and the seventh orations provided expressis verbis a public criticism of young John, Manuel's son and co-emperor, who apparently did not keep with the conventional mores vis-à-vis other members of the political elite.

Second, based on extant late Byzantine letter collections, I identified the main aspects and functions of the emperor's circle of literati: places of performance (theatra), literary and aesthetic options, and their role as a group in the public affairs of the Byzantine state or diplomacy. I focused on the epistolary collections of Byzantine authors such as John Chortasmenos and Manuel Kalekas, as well as on selected letters of Italian intellectuals in contact with Byzantine scholars.

Third, I approached the emperor's ideological stance in relation to the competing political discourses dominant in late Byzantine society. On the one hand, the ecclesiasts' positions on political issues become visible in the texts of Symeon of Thessaloniki and Joseph Bryennios. On the other hand, Isidore of Kiev or Demetrios Chrysoloras represent a rather traditional political discourse surfacing in panegyrics. In contrast, Manuel seems to have developed a slightly different ideology that advocated reconciliation. In addition, his efforts to circulate his texts not only in Byzantium but also in the Latin West suggest that he consistently asserted the image of an emperor rhetorician.

All in all, the emperor's texts reflect three major rhetorical modes employed in late Byzantium for political communication: the dialogic mode, which he used in the Dialogue on Marriage with the Empress Mother; the narrative mode, manifest in the Funeral Oration for his Brother Theodore, Despot of Morea; and the didactic mode, emerging in the Precepts of an Imperial Education and the Seven Ethico-Political Orations.