Thursday, April 26, 2012

Monaco and the Byzantine Empire

The House of Grimaldi has been around for a long time but, as we know, the history of Monaco itself goes back much farther. One period, long before the time of the Grimaldis, that not many people are familiar with is the time when Monaco was part of the Byzantine Empire, formerly known as the East Roman Empire, based out of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). How did this happen? Most people are at least generally familiar with the declining years of the Roman Empire. Barbarians invaded Italy, the borders were overrun, Rome itself was sacked (more than once) and it all came to an end with the teenage monarch Romulus Augustulus, the “last” Roman Emperor. All true, but not quite complete. That was the “Western Roman Empire” that collapsed. The “Eastern Roman Empire” (later known as the Byzantine Empire) survived and continued on for centuries longer.

Naturally, the Byzantines, despite being beset by their own neighboring enemies most of the time, hoped to eventually retake what had been the Western Roman Empire and add it to their own dominions, basically restoring the Roman Empire as it had been back in the glory days of the Caesars. The one man who came closest to actually accomplishing this dream was the East Roman Emperor Justinian, also known as Justinian the Great. During his reign the Byzantines conquered most of north Africa, all of Italy and even established a foothold as far west as southern Spain. It was under Emperor Justinian that Monaco became a Byzantine naval base, an important link in the chain stretching from Constantinople across the Mediterranean Sea. However, Emperor Justinian, with his far-flung wars and ambitious building programs, almost exhausted Constantinople in the flurry of activity that characterized his astounding reign. It was glorious but unsustainable.

John I
Eventually, Byzantine power weakened and a new, powerful force began to rise in the region which was the expanding power of Islam. Exploding out of the mysterious sands of the Arabian peninsula, the Muslims advanced across northern Africa, sweeping all before them. Soon there were raids and footholds in southern Europe as well and Monaco was not spared. During the 8th Century the Saracens established themselves in the region and took control of the port of Monaco for themselves. However, the Saracens were not there to stay and Monaco had not seen the last of the Byzantines. In an effort to expel the Muslim forces the Christian leaders of Provence and Piedmont allied themselves with the Byzantine Emperor John I. In a combined offensive the Christians of Provence and Piedmont came charging down over the mountains while Byzantine warships sailed into the harbor of Monaco, starting a huge battle which saw the Moors defeated and permanently removed from Monaco and the surrounding area. One of the participants in that campaign was Giballin Grimaldi whose family would one day secure Monaco as a sovereign state.

This was only a part of a number of counter-offensives launched by Emperor John I who, during his reign, subdued Bulgaria, most of Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq; a period of resurgence for the Byzantine Empire. Today there are not many reminders in the Principality of Monaco of that long ago period when Eastern Rome came to the West. However, there were other subsequent periods when Monegasque and Byzantine history collided. During the Fourth Crusade when the Latin Knights attacked Constantinople they were supported by the Republic of Venice. That in itself was reason enough for the Republic of Genoa to ally with the Byzantine Emperor. Gentile Grimaldi was a sailor and a diplomat who helped mediate disputes in Bulgaria and others in the family had dealings with the Byzantines, usually on behalf of Genoa, during the Crusades and in the later competitions with Venice. Today this legacy lives on in a way on a more personal level. In 2010 HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco was pleased to present the first prize of the Cardinal Paul Poupard Foundation to His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I and the Sovereign Prince has established friendly relations with many countries of the historic “east”, particularly Russia.

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