The mysterious and gilded Empire of Trebizond has for centuries cast a spell on observers. Cervantes called up the city and its emperors in the same breath as serpents, monsters, swashbuckling women, and “enchantments of every kind” as examples of the exotic and fantastical fare to be found in the chivalric tales deluding his hero Don Quixote—equal parts impossibility and allure. The capital city of a Byzantine successor state founded after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, Trebizond (modern Trabzon in Turkey) sits on the southern coast of the Black Sea and was a trading center on the medieval Silk Road.
Trebizond’s mystique, both in Cervantes’s time and now, lies partly in the lure of the unknown, enhanced by the scarcity of surviving works by Trapezuntine authors. Most of what we know about the empire’s history comes from two sources: a short chronicle of the ruling dynasty attributed to Michael Panaretos (fl. 1349–1390), the emperor’s personal secretary, and a highly rhetorical panegyric in praise of the city by the influential cardinal and philosopher Bessarion (ca. 1403–1472). Former junior fellow Scott Kennedy (2017–2018), now an assistant professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, has translated both these sources into English in Two Works on Trebizond (Harvard University Press, 2019), a new volume in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series.