The Keepers of Byzantium’s Flame

Peter Sandham

How two Byzantine women remained influential long after their empire vanished.
Anna Notaras (left), and Mara Brankovic
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The Porphyry War is set in the medieval Mediterranean during the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire’s fall. At its heart are a pair of underappreciated historical figures; two women of shared heritage and surprising influence. Byzantium’s.

Murad II

Mara Brankovic was born to a mother from an imperial Byzantine family and Durad, the Despot of Serbia. Wedged between aggressive neighbours, Durad pursued a diplomatic balance by marrying off his daughters. One wed a Hungarian courtier, while Mara became the fourth wife of Ottoman Sultan, Murad II.

Having disappeared into the harem, little more was usually recorded about imperial consorts, other than the names of their offspring. On several counts that was not the case with Mara. Murad’s other wives produced ten children; unusually, Mara bore none. Instead, she made her mark as an influential courtier and international diplomat during the reign of Murad’s conquering son, Mehmed II, who was said to trust her judgement implicitly.

That fact Mara had born no rivals to Mehmed’s throne may have been the foundation for that trust. He gifted Murad’s other widow to a courtier but made Mara his Valide Hatun – a title previously reserved for the Sultan’s mother – and permitted her the freedom to move between the Ottoman palace, Serbia and her own estate in Macedonia.

Another peculiarity of Mara’s time at court was the fact she remained overtly Christian. Whilst she made it her business to advocate for the needs of her fellow Christians within his domain, she remained unquestionably loyal to the Sultan.

In 1451, Emperor Constantine XI sought Mara for his empress. One might have expected someone of her heritage to jump at the chance, but Mara was too politically attuned to accept. She could see the writing on the wall. Within two years Constantinople fell, bringing the final curtain down on the Byzantine empire.

Mehmed II

However, the Byzantine people, culture and state religion did not vanish in 1453. Greek speaking adherents to the Eastern Church became a sizeable portion of Mehmed’s subjects. There is ample evidence that Mara viewed herself as their protectress. Several monasteries were sustained directly from her purse. Mara ensured that Rila in Bulgaria obtained stewardship of St Ivan Rilski’s bones and persuaded Mehmed to respect the independence of holy Mount Athos. When Symeon of Trebizond attempted to buy the position of Orthodox Patriarch in 1466, an outraged Mara successfully intervened again.

The fall of Constantinople soon brought the regional powers of Venice and the Turks into direct conflict. During the ensuing war, Mara ran what historian Donald Nicol describes as an ‘unofficial foreign office’ from her Macedonian estate, maintaining diplomatic relations and receiving ambassadors from Ragusa, Venice and Constantinople. In 1471, Venice’s peace envoy made sure of Mara’s person escort such was her perceived influence with the Sultan. Her mark on the region remains to this day in the continuation of monasteries she patronized, and a strip of Greek coastline named Kalamarija in her honour: ‘Mara the Good’.

Mara’s cultural preservation in the east was mirrored in the west by another Byzantine lady. Anna Notaras spent most of her life as a wealthy refugee in Italy where her father had prudently stashed his fortune. That wealth and her aristocratic bloodline afforded Anna an unusual degree of independence and influence in both Rome and Venice, where she became the figurehead of the émigré community.

Unlike Mara, Anna aimed for Byzantium’s political resurrection. In 1471 she began unsuccessful negotiations with Sienna to purchase land for an independent Byzantine commune. Interestingly, the correspondence suggests the Sienese had the false impression that Anna was Emperor Constantine’s widow – perhaps she had been a candidate after Mara turned him down.

Anna’s father had been a vocal proponent of the Eastern Church’s independence from the Vatican and Anna continued that legacy, petitioning Venice for the Greek community’s own church. Venice eventually granted permission for a chapel in her property and finally, in 1498, further consented to the founding of a Greek school and adjoining church – San Giorgio dei Greci. Anna died before San Giorgio’s completion, but she left three ikons to the church in her will. They remain on prominent display.

A noted collector of books, Anna also provided the financial capital for the first press in Venice dedicated to printing in Greek. This was the era when much ancient Greek literature, including Plato, was reintroduced to Western Europe. Who can say how crucial Anna’s printing press was in helping preserve and disseminate it?

Despite the empire’s destruction, Byzantine culture and faith endured in the Mediterranean. Anna Notaras and Mara Brankovic played no small part in that.

Peter Sandham is the author of The Porphyry War trilogy, published by Sharpe Books.