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Donation, reform and split in the Early Middle Ages

Posted by Guilhem en marzo 7, 2014

Donation, reform and split in the Early Middle Ages:

The way up to the division between the churches.


Abstract: During the Early Middle Ages, the Church was influenced by great personalities who were forging the dogma of Christian Faith according to the needs of his time. From the five patriarchal sees of the late Roman times, the ideological evolution and a series of events such as the advance of Islam and the conquest of the Near East and North Africa by the Arabs, determined that Christianity fall back on its main irradiation centers: Rome and Constantinople. We will discuss the main factors that led to the final rupture of ecclesiastical unity between East and West churches: the Schism of 1054 which has remained to this day.

A. Religion as a public service in the late Roman Empire (third, fourth and fifth centuries):

During the period when paganism ruled the religious destiny of the Roman Empire, the economic support of the temples devoted to the different gods was included inside the imperial state budget. Religion, road building as well as civil and military expenses of the central administration or the care of city walls were state questions just to mention some examples. The chapter related to the religious cult was considered a public service, and as such, it took up a considerable part of the imperial resource budget, about a twenty or thirty percent. This premise was so rooted in the Roman ideological conscience that when Christianity became licit after the tolerance edict of the year 313, church building turned into an obligation as it had been up to then, and the construction of pagan temple would also be compulsory. For such a reason it could be said that both church and state, being autonomous, were not separable. The edict of 380 raised Christianity to the official religion rank, and the emperors, as they had previously done with paganism and other beliefs, considered the Church as a public service and the church buildings as public sites: that is, Christianity got the benefit of an assigned budget because of its ideological and institutional function; this benefit included the giving of lands and its taxes. The worship affairs  started to   mean such a burden for the state that the critical point arrived when the increasing number of priests meant a menace for the state treasure and Justinian I the Great[1] was compelled to address the topic with these words: “ the difference between priesthood and empire is slight, as it is weak the difference between the sacred goods and those that belong to the community and the State, as it is the Imperial Power generosity the one who gives to the Saint churches the totality of its resources.”

All in all, such a big generosity had its dark side: as it had previously happened with paganism, now prelates had to accept that, despite negotiating in an autonomous way the church properties, these ones were not separable from the public goods. In other words, the emperors had the right to act above a stock of ecclesiastic goods which they still considered state property. This explains why the church remained so docile to a mechanism that was firstly used by Julian the Apostate and secondly highly used in the High Medieval Times by both Charlemagne and the Byzantine emperors, the confiscations. Neither the church was against a much more dangerous practice carried out by the ones who held the temporal power: the arbitration of kings and emperors in dogmatic and liturgical questions. These would come up above all in times of the first ecumenical and visigothic council. In other words, in the years 313 and especially in 380 the church accepted that the emperors took the control as vicars of God on the Earth. This was highly influenced by sacred figure of the emperor proposed under the pagan kingdom of Diocletian and later enthusiastically adopted by Constantine I the Great. Acting accordingly, the emperor Justinian I would later support the premises of the vicarage of God stated before:

  • As Dominus et Sacerdos, linking the notion of a fair and merciful government to the orthodoxy or faith.
  • As Supreme Lord, having the aim of defending the Church integrity.
  • As a Defender of Orthodoxy, assuming the responsibility of acting against Jews and pagans.

This program would also be copied in the Visigothic Spain once Reccared[2] had changed Aryanism by Catholicism, with the help of Isidore of Seville Bishop. What’s more, The Liber Iudicum[3] of 654, in its second book, already proclaimed that the king was the head of the social body and that it was established by God.  As expected, the concept of royalty would be appropriated by the heads of kingdoms and empires that would be leader The West along the Early Middle Ages. Apart from being a mirror of civilization, Byzantium was a center which came up with ideas.

B. Changing winds in The West versus stoicism in The East:

The barbaric kingdoms that followed the Western Roman Empire, despite trying to keep the ideological statuo quo, were far from being as powerful as the Caesars state. Whereas the Romans had gained the respect and fidelity of the people as they exhibited their powerful armies, the German kings would rather have distributed the fiscal lands with the same purpose. In this way, when their stocks of lands were decimated, they had to look for a way to support themselves not as Rex et Sacerdos but as primus enter pares. They could work out this problem by looking for the Church assistance in general and particularly by the Rome Bishop’s help, who, thanks to the unction mechanism, they got and ostensible improvement in their rank.

So far, the five patriarchal jurisdictions which existed, Constantinople, Rome, Antakya, Alexandria and Jerusalem, had been fighting over the supremacy without any significant result. Three of them had literally gone out of competition due to the breaking in of the Islam in the territories over which they had their influence: Antioquia, Jerusalem and Alexandria.  Instead, Constantinople, as the residence of the only universal Roman emperor and Rome, as the venue of St Peter Vicar on Earth, went on fighting over the privilege of universality without getting more from what they had gotten so gar. This was up to the moment when the conspiracy of the two facts allowed the Roman headquarters to go ahead and get rid of the God Vicar domination held by the Byzantine emperors: on the one hand the appearance of Carlos The Great king of the Franks and on the other hand the supposed donation of Constantine that, in the middle eighth century validated the Roman Archbishop aspirations. Without considering a third element that had been firmly establishing the presence of the church as a determinant factor in the occidental world: the clericalism of the justice and of the administrative functions in the cities after the disappearing of the old Roman curia, something that in the East, the strength of the Byzantine Empire had blocked with singular effectiveness.

C. The Donation of Constantine: 

I will not say much about this apocryphal document that was made clear as shamelessly false. The text had been written in first person; It could almost be said that it is Constantine the Great who writes, after becoming Christian. While he was ill with leprosy, pagan priest suggested him to take baths with children blood so as to inflect the evil and recover good health. In the previous evening to the kids’ immolation he was visited in his dreams by two mysterious people that he soon recognized as the apostles Peter and Paul. Both of them urged him to set off to the Roman Bishop so that he can free Constantine from the leprosy.

The pope Silvestre baptized him and the result is well-known: Constantine is cured and renounces to paganism. The following ones are the passages that I consider substantial for the topic being discussed:

  • And we ordain and decree that he shall have the supremacy as well over the four principal seats, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth. And the Pontiff, who at the time shall be at the head of the holy Roman church itself, shall be more exalted than, and chief over, all the priests of the whole world, and according to his judgment everything which is provided for the service of God and for the stability of the faith of Christians is to be administered”.
  • “And to our Father, the Blessed Sylvester, supreme Pontiff and Pope universal, of the city of Rome, and to all the Pontiffs, his successors, who shall  in the seat of the Blessed Peter even unto the end of the world, we by this present do give our imperial Lateran palace, then the diadem, that is, the crown of our head, and at the same time the phrygium[4] and also the shoulder-band,-that is, the strap that usually surrounds our imperial neck”.
  • “…and holding the bridle of his horse, out of reverence for the Blessed Peter, we performed for him the duty of groom, decreeing that all his successors, and they alone, use this same tiara in processions in imitation of our power”.
  • “Wherefore we have perceived it to be fitting that our empire and the power of our kingdom should be transferred in the regions of the East, and that in the province of Byzantium, in the most fitting place, a city should be built in our name, and that our empire should there be established, for where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by the heavenly Emperor, it is not right that there an earthly emperor should have jurisdiction”. 
0306 to 0337 Constantine I the Great v000

The Roman Empire under Constantine I (306-337)

Thus, by means of what it was later learnt, it was a shameful falsification, the Roman bishop exposed indirectly his temporal ambitions taking profit mainly of two questions: firstly, that the Byzantine power was being widely questioned in Italy by the Lombards and secondly, that the Carolingian dynasty needed the support of a spiritual power so as to justify the deposition of the Merovingians, as it was previously demanded by the Visigoths in order to stabilizer the succession process in Spain. The necessities of the Church and the candidates to the French crown were attached extraordinarily well and the result appeared not long after, under a new order format.

D.  From the dark centuries up to the reform of monk Hildebrand:

When it is talked about the dark centuries of the Church it is advisable to distinguish to which geographic scope we are referring to, and thus, to which Church we are mentioning. One thing is what happened in Byzantium between the V and IX centuries and another totally different one is what happened to the other side of the Adriatic Sea. As regards the influence of the Oriental Roman Empire, the oriental church went on strongly linked to the emperor, although every so often it afforded the shudder of new dogmatic positions that later became into heresy such as monofhisitism, monothelitism, and the iconoclasm. The leading figure of basileus went on personifying the same thing that Justinian defended in the past: the defense of faith, the integrity of the church, the chase of its enemies. The intromission of the secular power in the spiritual sphere was such that both monothelitism and iconoclasm were creations made by the emperors so as to save the differences that had came up from the inside of the Oriental Church (monothelitism, in our case) or bring up dramatically the influence of Islam in Christianity through the destruction of sacred images (iconoclasm). Anyway the oriental sovereigns were doing nothing apart from exercising the vicarage of God.

In the West, the situation was radically opposed. The Roman bishop, who was orphan from an eminent power since the Roman fall in 476, alternated good and bad moments as one more clergyman among the various headquarters that had already started to fight over his power: Seville, Toledo and Cordova in Spain (VII century) and Lyon and Reims in France. At the beginning the Byzantium range open after the conquest of Italy by Justinian, had served the purpose of taking some acknowledgement to the successors of St Peter’s throne. It was a difficult times for the popes marked by the Visigoth efforts to create a theocracy in the best Byzantine style, where the king was the one who named the bishops. The program was originally made by Reccared and Leandro of Seville and continued by others important bishops and kings.

The project could have conducted to the establishment of a national Church independent from Rome, but the Arabian burst in and truncated it. Neither the Carolingians’ participation reported great benefits except for protecting the church patrimony and lands from the universalist pretensions of the Byzantine emperor and the greed of the Lombards: and however, the co validation of a new dynasty would mean an inflexion point. Since then, the popes could arrogate the right to transfer the royal dignity from one family to the other one. It wouldn’t take them a long time to reclaim the legal authority to crown emperors, despite the fact that in 800, it seemed that Charlemagne turned Leon into Pope more than this one turned Charles into Emperor. Something did become evident: with Charles the Great the new Occidental Empire Ideology was not at the rear of caesaropapism of the oriental empire when postulating the establishment of a clergy functional to the politic in ecclesiastic matters.


E.  Louis the Merciful, the Benedictine rule and Cluny:

But Louis the Merciful[5] fairly deserved his name because he completely changed the ecclesiastic politic of his father. Together with the assistance of a multifunctional Benedict of Aniane, they both got the general reform of the monastic order fostering the Benedictine rule. Said with other words, the regular clergy recovered again the eminent role of worship and prayer. As basis of the Gregorian reformation, the free election of the abbot was where the change proposed by Louis was mainly seen, something that brought out the rejection of the land owners

With Otto I the Great[6], instead, the bishop investiture turned again into a fundamental political tool. The Kirchensytem assured the German Emperor a series of benefits when turning the bishops into imperial agents in the cities, and into count-bishop in the counties. The main advantage in this latest case was that when the bishop-count died, both the bishopric and the county passed automatically to the king. That is, by means of this practice, the German emperors avoided the smashing of fiscal lands that had been one of the main factors which led the Carolingian Empire to its banishment. On the other side, the bishop-counts, duly managed, were crucial to influence in the great counties of Bavaria, Swabia, Franconia, and Saxony, and indirectly, to play a fundamental role in the election of the emperor.

Anyway, as it happened before with Louis the Merciful, the Occidental Church was an excess of manipulation and robbery thanks to the laity faithful to the reform established by Louis. As an option to the secular clergy proposed and fostered by kings and emperors, it was introduced the chance of a regular clergy originated in the monasteries where the abbot election was still being free. In Aquitania, the Cluny monastery funded in 909 by William the Merciful headed the movement and started to leader the tendency that would later conduct the church directly to the reformation of the XI century. Underpinned above an original idea, what Cluny built was a monastic empire where the abbot controlled far away head offices and got an incessant flow of merciful donations. Meanwhile, he concentrated all his efforts in attacking three questions that affected the church seriously, subscribing the following guidelines:

  • Blood Taboo: Men of God could not be involved in bloodshed, as the only weapons allowed to the clergy were the spiritual ones.
  • Money Taboo: against simony or the trading of religious charges.
  • Flesh taboo: against nicholaism and in favor of priest celibacy.


Cluny’s achievements could be summarized in this way:

  • Finishing to the old tradition of the lay as specialists in prayer.
  • Exclusive property of the land to the benefit of St Peter of Rome.
  • Leaving out of the lay interference.
  • Abolition of the jurisdiction of bishop of Macon.
  • Construction of a hierarchical-corporative trans-regional model that would later be copied by the Catholic Church.
  • Contribution to the Peace of God and Truce of God, movements that strived to the truce respect in certain days of the week and in specific geographic spaces.
  • Fight against simony or trading of religious charges attempted directly by the feudal power and indirectly by the real or imperial one.
  • Condemnation of clerical matrimony or cohabitation that in the XI century would be known as nicholaism.

F. The situation of the Church in the XI century:

Speaking about an oriental and an occidental church in the late X century it does not seem correct from the academic point of view, since except for the matter of the patriarch Photios, there still had not appeared transcendental questions that justified a division in its bosom. And however, structurally and ideologically the Rome and Constantinople Churches were diametrically opposed. Although it is true that caesaropapism was a common practice in both jurisdictions as both of them were firmly submitted to the secular power of the kings and emperors, in the East things were a bit clearer as regards the eminent function of the basileus (emperor) as the Vicar of God over the Earth. The matter of the original doctrine of the two swords never got force in the Byzantine Empire territories, simply because Italy had been subtracted from its authority by the Lombards. And however, when Rome was under   Constantinople domination, the pope Gelasius[7] did not save any modals to reprimand Anastasius, Byzantine Emperor among 491 and 518, under the following terms:

“There are two, august emperor, by whom this world is mainly governed: the sacred authority of the clergy and the royal power. Of the two, their sacerdotal power is much more important since it has to give explanations of the kings of men to the divine court”.

Instead, in the West, it had always existed a latent tension related to the clergy subordination specially from the papacy to people who, although being honorable and worthy, were not ordained priests. Early enough, Saint Ambrose, archbishop of Milan, had already put limits to a surprised Theodosius with an accurate sentence that reflected the ideological conception or the Roman headquarter: “palaces belong to the emperor, churches to clergy”. Time after,  Franks, kings and emperors all finally acknowledged the superior authority of the pope and bishops in questions related to faith, but neither them nor the monarchs of England, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Bohemia, Germany, Hungary, stopped giving orders to the bishops including in religious doctrine as it was usually done by the Byzantine emperors. In this way, with a king in each kingdom and only one emperor with so many bishops among which there was a pope in similar level to the rest, the secular and spiritual sword seemed to be held by the same hand the secular one. By this time, the occidental church was experimenting a deep decentralization that was more evident in the weakness of the pope role which was spread in a very horizontal structure. A weakness that the German emperors used since Otto I the Great so as to reaffirm their imperial right of being the protectors of Rome, as Constantine and his successor had been for a time. And finally what rescued the papacy from a long medieval night was precisely the assistance of the German imperial power together with the idea brought in by Cluny consisting of an ecclesiastic structure completely regular, trans regional and vertical.

G. The Gregorian reformation and its implications:

The Dictatus Papae, heart of the Gregorian reform, was a manifesto written by monk Hildebrand (Gregory VII) that contained 27 concise propositions among which we might highlight:

  1. That the Roman church was founded by God alone.
  2. That the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.
  3. That he alone can depose or reinstate bishops.
  4. That, in a council his legate, even if a lower grade, is above all bishops, and can pass sentence of deposition against them.
  5. That the pope may depose the absent.
  6. That, among other things, we ought not to remain in the same house with those excommunicated by him.
  7. That for him alone is it lawful, according to the needs of the time, to make new laws, to assemble together new congregations, to make an abbey of a canonry; and, on the other hand, to divide a rich bishopric and unite the poor ones.
  8. That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
  9. That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
  10. That his name alone shall be spoken in the churches.
  11. That this title [Pope] is unique in the world.
  12. That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
  13. That he may be permitted to transfer bishops if need be.
  14. That he has power to ordain a clerk of any church he may wish.
  15. That he who is ordained by him may preside over another church, but may not hold a subordinate position; and that such a one may not receive a higher grade from any bishop.
  16. That no synod shall be called a general one without his order.
  17. That no chapter and no book shall be considered canonical without his authority.
  18. That a sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one; and that he himself, alone of all, may retract it.
  19. That he himself may be judged by no one.
  20. That no one shall dare to condemn one who appeals to the apostolic chair.
  21. That to the latter should be referred the more important cases of every church.
  22. That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness.
  23. That the Roman pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter…
  24. That, by his command and permission, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.
  25. That he may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a synod.
  26. That he who is not at peace with the Roman church shall not be considered catholic.
  27. That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

The ideological weapons exposed by Gregory VII had as the main objective to grab from the German emperor and his Byzantine peer the vicarage of God over the Earth, thus the pope becoming the head of a theocratic state whose laws were complied and applied universally by the earthly powers. In other words, join together under his figure the vicarage of God on the one hand, and the one of Peter on the other hand. It is clear enough the Gregory VII also proclaimed the supremacy of the Roman Church over the rest of the venues. Duly submission and obedience was demanded as a corollary Eastern Schism (1054).

I should rescue specially those points that refer to what is known as the vicarage of Peter: 22 and 23. The belief of being sanctified in the figure of St Peter means that the pope is Peter on Earth. In this way, Gregory is splitting the person who takes the charge from the charge itself. For this reason the papal function is objectively conceived through the charge and subjectively through the person or individual who holds it. This explains why the legislative acts of a pope would be valid even if the person who occupied the charge was a villain.

H. Dark clouds also in the East. Michael I Cerularius.

The East, meanwhile, was also fighting over the vicarage of God, as also here patriarch and emperor fought over the holding of the charge. The Byzantine state had found in Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059) the right person to take the control of the Empire after years of chaos. But his appearance coincided to the moment when another strong personality managed the spiritual life from the patriarchal throne: Michael I Cerularius. Despite being together at the beginning out of necessity against Miguel VI, soon harmony disappeared. The Byzantine historian Michael Attaleiates refers to the dense climate that the kingdom of Komnenos had to go through in the first months: “By that time the Patriarch, high-spirited by a superiority feeling, believing himself with more authority over all type of matters including those which exceeded his charge and confident in the sovereign’s benevolence, used to admonish the emperor when he did not like an imperial decision. Sometimes he did this with paternal attitudes and pieces of advice, and other times with insults and menacing orders which were a slap to the face of  the one who was used to listening praises and nice an flattering words. Soon this brought about the enmity with the emperor, who finally considered an insult what he had taken as some advice before.”

Constantino Monomaco y Zoe 001

Constantino IX, emperor by the time of the schism

In this point we might well ask if the vindication of temporal power made by Michael Cerularius was something he did for himself or as a representative of the Oriental Church as a whole. According to Attaleiates’ words it seems to be that the patriarch supported firmly the idea of its supremacy over the basileus’s one, and this would lead us to believe in a vindication of the temporal power as the best Roman style. The difference with the west, however, was that in Constantinople the emperors reduced disobedient Cerularius and sent him to exile. Meanwhile in Rome Gregory VII and his successors kept irreducible in front of the German Emperors, to whom they finally forced to give in after the Investiture Controversy

I. Conclusion:

What was paradoxical in the case of the fights kept along a time by emperors and popes in the West and basileus and patriarchs in the East was that they finally favored to third ones when they took up essential resources to the parts which were directly involved. The French with the matter of Avignon were the ones finally harvested the returns of the Investiture Controversies in the West, while in the West the unscrupulous chiefs of the Fourth Crusade obliged the Byzantine patriarch to go into exile to Nicaea.

Author: Guilhem W. Martín. ©

Sources and bibliography:

  • Michael Psellos, Chronographia,
  • Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume I, Cambridge University Press, 1951, ISBN 0-521-34770 paperback.
  • Franz Georg Maier, Bizancio, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 6ta. Edición, 1983, ISBN (volumen trece) 988-23-0496-2.
  • E. Patlagean, A. Ducellier, C. Asdracha y R. Mantran, Historia de Bizancio, Crítica Barcelona, 2001, ISBN 84-8432-167-3.
  • Warren Treadgold, A Concise History of Bizantium, Palgrave, 2001, ISBN 0-333-71830 paperback.
  • Charles Diehl, Byzantium: Greatness and Decline, Rutgers University Press, 1960, ISBN 0-813-503280 paperback.
  • John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium, Vintage, 1997, ISBN 0-679-772693.
  • Claude Cahen, El Islam, desde los orígenes hasta los comienzos del Imperio Otomano, Editorial Siglo Veintiuno, 1975, ISBN 83-323-0020-9
  • Joseph M. Walker, Historia de Bizancio, Edimat Libros S.A., ISBN 84-9764-502-2.
  • Emilio Cabrera, Historia de Bizancio, Ariel Historia, 1998, ISBN 84-344-6599-X.
  • Georg Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, Rutgers University Press, Revised edition 1969, ISBN 0-8135-1198-4 paperback.
  • Alexander A. Vasiliev, Historia del Imperio Bizantino, Libro, versión digital.
  • Norman H. Baynes, El Imperio Bizantino, Breviarios, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1974.
  • Roberto Zapata Rodríguez, “Italia Bizantina, Historia de la Segunda Dominación Bizantina en Italia, 867-1071”, Asociación Cultura Hispano-Helénica, versión revisada por Eva Latorre Broto, 2007, ISBN 9788487724022.
  • Salvador Claramunt, Las Claves del Imperio Bizantino 395-1453, Universidad de Barcelona, 1992, ISBN 84-320-9227-4.
  • Santiago Montero, Gonzalo Bravo y Jorge Martinez-Pinna, El Imperio Romano, Visor Libros, ISBN 84-7522-497-0, España.
  • Adelina Rucquoi, Historia medieval de la Península Ibérica, México, Colegio de Michoacán, 2000, págs. 37-72, ISBN: 970-679-040-3.
  • Robert Fossier, La Edad Media, Editorial Crítica (Grupo editorial Grijalbo), Barcelona.

[1] Justinian I the Great was a Byzantine emperor between 527 and 565.

[2] Reccared was one of the sons of Liuvigild (568-586) and king of the Visigoths between 586 and 601. He adopted Catholicism in 589, leaving his old belief, Arianism.

[3] Compilation of Visigothic laws

[4] A kind of tiara.

[5] Also called “the Fair” or “the Debonaire”.

[6] Son of Henry I the Fowler.

[7] Pope between 492 and 496. Gelasius was one of the most enthusiastic defenders of Rome primacy over Constantinople and the others patriarchal sees.

Autor: Guilhem W. Martín. ©

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