“Never mistake motion for action.”
“Never mistake motion for action.”
I just uploaded the final part of the blog series I’ve been writing for the last seven months, Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes. It took a lot longer to complete than I anticipated, mostly because as I progressed further and further with the story of the Byzantine Empire, the more I realised I needed to cover in order to do the history of the period justice. That being said, I’m sure many of those who’ve been reading it will have noticed that it is in many ways a history for the layperson – that is to say, there were details or asides that I chose to omit for the sake of brevity. I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence, as this blog remains but a side project.
Speaking of, I’ve been wondering lately what I can do now that Tides of War has been concluded. I still haven’t decided what I’ll be working on from here on, but I have been looking at investing some more time in writing projects away from this blog. That means that the relatively sedate pace of my posts may be slowed even further. And again, I hope you’ll forgive me this. Hopefully, in the end, it will all be worth it.
As always, I’ll endeavour to keep you all updated.
Thanks for reading.
“Over the span of about a century, as the remnants of their empire crumbled around them, the partnership between these Byzantine teachers and their Italian students literally saved ancient Greek literature from destruction at the hands of the conquering Turks. The Byzantine contribution of the Greek classics allowed the promise of Renaissance humanism to be fulfilled, by letting the West reclaim the body of literature that makes up the foundation of Western civilisation. How frightening it is to contemplate a world without these works, and how unsettling to make out the slenderness of the thread by which they dangled over the void.”
– Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World, Colin Wells (2006)
It didn’t take long after the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed II (thereafter called “the Conqueror”) in 1453AD for things to turn against the few remaining remnants of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire.
The now-wholly independent regions of Morea (in the Peloponnese) and Trebizond were conquered themselves in 1460 and 1461AD respectively.
And with that, the Byzantine Empire was no more.
Thomas Palaiologos and his son Andreas claimed the title of Emperor(s)-in-exile until one died in 1465, and the other in 1503AD; both were guests of the Pope in Rome. But the line of rulers stretching back to Constantine the Great, and through him all the way to Augustus and the founding of the Roman Empire in 27BC is generally accepted to have ended with Constantine XI Palaiologos’ death during the defence of Constantinople.
But like other empires before and since, it could be argued that despite the loss of its territories and political independence, the Byzantine Empire lived on in its institutions, its traditions, and its legend.
Several of those nations who had taken religious and political cues from Byzantium, including Bulgaria, Serbia, and most successfully, Russia, claimed for themselves the title of the “Third Rome”, trying through rhetoric and suggestion to position themselves as the successors to the Byzantines.
The Ottomans too felt they should lay claim to the traditions of the Romani, allowing the Byzantine-Greek religion and culture to continue under their rule.
Meanwhile, in the West, those academics, scholars and theologians who had escaped the Fall of Constantinople brought with them copies and understanding of classical Greco-Roman literature not seen for centuries, helping initiate a resurgent interest that would eventually fuel the Renaissance in Italy and beyond.
The contribution Byzantium made to the world should not be underestimated. In the fields of art, science, medicine, civil and military administration, theology and culture, they had a far wider-reaching effect than most realise (or some care to).
For a thousand years they kept alive the traditions of the Roman Empire that had preceded them, and made a direct contribution to our understanding of a past that could otherwise have been forgotten.
Their fortunes fluctuated like the tide; sometimes, they rose high; and sometimes, they fell low. But always, even unto the end, they fought for their ideals, their history and the promise of the future.
The Final Decline and the Fall of Constantinople
“To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else’s who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.”
- Constantine XI Palaiologos, to Mehmed II during the Siege of Constantinople (1453)
His forbearers had already done much to expand the power of their people, taking most of Asia-Minor during the 14th-century and even expanding into Europe, defeating numerous attempts to dislodge them from the Christian nations of the Balkans and beyond.
All their achievements were marred though by an inability to take the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople.
Surrounded now on all sides by the Turks, the Byzantines controlled little more than the city itself. Certainly, a few bastions of Imperial authority survived in Epirus, the Peloponnese and Trebizond – but these places were largely independent; and besides that, could do little to aid the capital at any rate.
The Mother of Cities was, for all intents and purposes, on its own.
The Emperor of the day, Constantine XI Palaiologos, like his immediate predecessors, fought valiantly to win allies to the Byzantines’ side, even attempting a Union of the Churches (with the Orthodox subservient to the Catholic) in order to secure support from the West.
However much he may have tried though, the division by this point was too great; and especially for the Byzantines, who, remembering the atrocities of the Fourth Crusade, are said to have believed as Loukas Notaras (an advisor to the last three emperors in Constantinople) did when he exclaimed, “Better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara.”
In the end, when Mehmed II finally set out to lay siege to the city in 1453AD, a mere 2000 foreign troops (mostly Genoese and Venetian) came to the aid of the citizens of Constantinople. Though they would prove invaluable (especially those led by Giovanni Giustinani, an expert in siege defence from Genoa), arrayed against them – and the 5000 Byzantine soldiers Constantine was able to muster – was a force of between 50000 and 80000 Ottomans, including (at least) 5000 elite Janissaries.
Also with Mehmed’s forces was a Hungarian (or possibly German) man named Orban, a master founder of one of the newest weapons in the medieval arsenal: cannons. The history of firearms and gunpowder goes back much farther than the 15th-century, especially in the Far East where gunpowder is believed to have been invented in the 9th-century. But Constantinople in 1453 was one of the first European cities to feel the deadly effect of this emerging technology…
Orban had previously offered his services to Constantine, but the Byzantine emperor had been unable to afford him, so instead he sought someone who could: the Ottomans.
Amongst the weapons Mehmed brought against the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople – which had resisted all for a thousand years – was a cannon (or bombard) designed and cast by Orban that took sixty oxen to haul, such was its size and weight.
On the 5th of April, Mehmed II arrived with the last of his troops and the siege began in earnest. The Ottoman army surrounded the city from the west while the navy blockaded it from the east. Access to the Golden Horn was prevented though by a chain strung across the entrance to Byzantium’s natural harbour. And despite the formidable power of Orban’s cannon, its slow rate-of-fire and imprecise aiming meant that the defenders, despite being spread ridiculously thin along the city’s 20km of walls, were able to repair any damage during the long pause between bombardments.
Despite this, the Ottoman Sultan was not about to give up in his attempts. After failing to prevent a small force of Christian ships from running the blockade, Mehmed had his fleet rolled overland on greased logs into the Golden Horn, effectively cutting Constantinople off from the sea. And until mid-May he kept up constant attacks on the Theodosian Walls, sacrificing thousands of soldiers in inconclusive frontal assaults.
When these proved ineffective he decided to try a new tactic, deploying men to undermine the walls. The Byzantines had on their side though a man named Johannes Grant, a Scottish counter-mining expert who helped them locate and destroy the Ottoman tunnels.
By this time it was late-May and Mehmed was considering whether to continue in the seemingly futile attempt to take the city, or withdraw. One of his most senior advisors insisted that the siege must be concluded soon or the Ottomns would risk humiliation and defeat. Thus a final assault was planned for the 29th of May, to commence at midnight and designed to overpower the weary defenders of the city.
News soon reached the Byzantines and both sides knew it would be a bloody – some would say, apocalyptic – affair. Solemn religious proceedings occurred both in the city and in the Ottoman camp.
When the assault came it was led by Mehmed’s disposable Christian and azap auxiliaries, followed by his regulars from Anatolia, and finally, the elite Janissaries. They concentrated their attack on the Theodosian Walls, and eventually managed to overwhelm several sections. When Giovanni Giustinani was wounded trying to fend off the advancing Turks he was carried away by his troops.
His absence demoralized many of the other defenders.
Finally, unable to stem the tide of Janissaries pouring through breaches in the wall, Constantine XI Palaiologos, who had fought bravely and tirelessly throughout the siege, cast off his purple cloak and led a final charge against the enemies of his city and empire. He disappeared in the throng of combatants, and was assumed dead, an anonymous casualty amongst thousands who gave their lives that day.
He was the last Emperor of Byzantium, and by extension, the Roman Empire.
The defence quickly collapsed from there and the Ottomans poured into the city. The Byzantine soldiers who had managed to escape the walls fled back to their homes, to try and defend their families from the coming slaughter, while what foreign troops remained ran to their ships. Quite a few managed to escape this way, running the blockade before Mehmed’s fleet could stop them.
A three-day sack ensued, as was customary. No quarter was given to the Byzantine citizens who tried to hide from the victorious Ottomans, and every form of murder, rape, desecration and theft is recorded to have occurred.
At the end of the third day, Mehmed II ordered his army out of the city, and Constantinople, so long a bastion of Christianity, and the last connection to the old Roman Empire of Constantine, Augustus and Caesar, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Next part: Mopping Up
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse.”
Reclaiming the Capital
“There was a time, a far distant time, when the Roman empire extended to the Adriatic, the Tigris, and the confines of Æthiopia. After the loss of the provinces, our capital itself, in these last and calamitous days, has been wrested from our hands by the barbarians of the West. From the lowest ebb the tide of prosperity has again returned in our favour; but our prosperity was that of fugitives and exiles; and when we were asked which was the country of the Romans, we indicated with a blush the climate of the globe, and the quarter of the heavens. The divine Providence has now restored to our arms the city of Constantine, the sacred seat of religion and empire; and it will depend on our valour and conduct to render this important acquisition the pledge and omen of future victories.”
- Michael VIII Palaiologos, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter LXII, Edward Gibbon (1776)
When Constantinople and its environs fell to the Latin Crusaders in 1204AD, many Byzantines fled to other parts of the Empire, and it wasn’t long before a trio of successor states had been established, centred on the regions of Epirus, Nicaea and Trebizond.
Each in their own way had a claim to being the “legitimate” Byzantine Empire. And for the next fifty-seven years they would fight both the Latins and each other in an attempt to establish supremacy.
From the beginning though, the Empire of Nicaea (as it is called by historians) had the strongest claim of all, being as it was so close to Byzantium itself and very much on the “front lines” of the war to reclaim it.
The Latins, for their part, struggled even as the momentum of their conquest brought more lands into the fold. The tide was destined to turn, and it did…
In 1261AD a general (Alexios Strategopoulos) under the command of the Emperor in Nicaea, Michael VIII Palaiologos, seized the city of Constantinople with just 600 men while the bulk of the Latin forces were away.
Thus the Byzantine Empire was restored. But it, like the capital itself, was damaged beyond repair. During the half-century of exile, what little remained of the once expansive empire had been eroded, conquered or partitioned; while the city of Constantine had been neglected and left to ruin. All that was left was a shadow…
And all the while, a new threat was growing. The Mongols, who had swept across the breadth of Asia under Genghis Khan and his successors, had smashed the old enemy of the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks. And in the aftermath of their destruction, an ambitious chieftain (or “Bey”) named Osman rose to prominence, and established what would become the Ottoman Empire.
Next part: The Final Decline and the Fall of Constantinople
A couple of film trailers have dropped recently that have sent tongues a-waggin’ (so to speak).
The first is for the fourth instalment of the “Mad Max” series (which, unfortunately, was not shot in Australia like the previous three, does not feature Mel Gibson – or any Australian, for that matter – as Max, and seems to have a minimal number of references to the fact that the setting is supposed to be post-apocalyptic Outback Australia…so, yeah).
At least George Miller has still got plenty of ‘splosions to dazzle us with!
Next up is the third and final “The Hobbit” film, which should tie together that trilogy and “The Lord of the Rings” films.
And in other news, I finally got around to watching “Gravity” the other day, the critically lauded and commercially successful 2013 film that once again showed us the wonder of space travel while simultaneously making us hope that it’s never us that’s going to have to deal with that…
Warning: the following clip contains (possibly) offensive language and awesomeness!
Mind = blown.
The Fourth Crusade
“Constantine’s fine city, the common delight and boast of all nations, was laid waste by fire and blackened by soot, taken and emptied of all wealth, public and private, as well as that which was consecrated by God, by the scattered nations of the West…”
– O City of Constantinople: Annales of Niketas Choniates, Niketas Choniates (120?)
The seeds of Byzantium’s destruction were sown long ago. They had taken root amongst the enmity between the eastern and western churches, and grown strong in the presence of the early crusaders, the mass of soldiers, knights and lords who travelled far from their cold and blustery homes to the decadent shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. Now it was all around them, choking the life out of them…
Outside the walls of Constantinople, an army was gathered. Primarily French and German, it faced the mighty Theodosian Walls, while an armada of Venetian ships blockaded the city’s ports in the Sea of Marmara.
How had it gone so wrong? A little over a century before, the forces of Western Europe had ridden to the defence of the Byzantine Empire (or so it could be argued). Now they were laying siege to its capital.
In truth, the weapons turned against the Byzantines had actually been intended for the Muslims who once again occupied the holy cities of the Levant. The Sultan of Egypt, Saladin, had conquered much of the former Crusader Kingdoms including Jerusalem, and decisively defeated the crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. He had also managed to stave off attempts by King Richard I of England, called “the Lionheart”, and others of the Third Crusade to dislodge him from the Holy Land.
When Saladin died in 1193, Jerusalem was still firmly in Ayyubid hands (although a treaty allowed free access to the city for Christian pilgrims).
Thus, in 1198AD the newly-elected Pope Innocent III called for a new crusade.
It was not a call that many rushed to accept though. Many of the European nations were too concerned with their own territorial disputes, and it took some time for the idea to gain traction. Eventually, an army was organised at a tournament by a French noble named Count Thibaut, who promptly died and was replaced by an Italian, Boniface of Montferrat.
In order to ensure the success of their mission, Boniface and the other leaders of the crusade decided to target the Muslim-held territory of Egypt first – by sailing directly there, and bypassing the land route across Anatolia, they hoped to speed their conquest and avoid the attrition of a long march through enemy territory.
And to achieve their aim, they recruited the Venetians to their cause. Under the guidance of their doge, Enrico Dandolo, the citizens of the Most Serene Republic poured themselves into building and manning a fleet large enough to carry the crusaders across the Mediterranean.
It must have come as a disappointment then when there weren’t enough crusaders to actually pay for the fleet. Many who had “taken the cross” sought alternative passage, or lost the enthusiasm that had initially motivated them. In the end 12,000 gathered in Venice for the expedition, rather than the previously expected 35,000.
In order to settle their debts to the Venetians, the Crusaders agreed to aid them in a domestic matter: the Dalmatian city of Zara had until recently been an economic vassal of Venice. It had rebelled though, and established its independence. Eager to regain control, the Venetians turned to the crusaders as the instrument of their revenge…
On 24 November 1202AD, the city fell after a brief siege, and the pillaging began.
It was the first time the crusaders had turned their weapons on fellow Christians. And despite condemnation (and excommunication) from the Pope, it would not be the last.
A dynastic struggle in Constantinople presented a unique opportunity when the deposed Prince Alexios IV Angelos asked the crusaders for help in reclaiming the throne of his father Isaac II from the reigning Alexios III. In return for their aid, he offered to furnish them with funds, ships and manpower to complete their quest. He also, crucially, offered to place the Patriarch of Constantinople under the authority of the Pope, ending the Great Schism once and for all.
In June 1203AD, the crusaders arrived at their destination, and promptly put the city under siege. Internal dissension meant the Byzantines were in no way ready to mount a concerted defence, although they did manage to ward off the initial attempts to storm the city, thanks in part to the formidable fortifications and the presence of the Varangian Guard.
Eventually, dismayed at the ongoing presence of the hostile army at his doorstep, Alexios III fled with much of the imperial treasury, leaving Alexios IV unable to pay the crusaders their due. Raised to co-emperor alongside his ailing father, Isaac II, but bereft of any means to placate his former allies, the one-time exile-prince was in a tough spot.
A spot he was unable to extricate himself – or the citizens of Constantinople – from.
In short order, Isaac II passed away, and Alexios IV was deposed. The Byzantines, chafing under the crusader yoke, sought a new emperor – one who could drive Boniface, Dandolo and the others away. The man chosen, Alexios Doukas, was crowned as Alexios V and set about strengthening the city’s defences. He also had his predecessor strangled, provoking the crusaders to attack…
Initially successful in their resistance, the Byzantines almost looked as though they would prevail once again. That is until the crusaders, desperate and about to break, poured everything into one last assault.
Showing his true colours (and emulating Alexios III), the emperor fled. And though the defenders did everything they could, in the end it was the Venetians who proved the victory-makers, using the knowledge gained from years of trade with the Byzantines to force a breach in the sea-wall.
Noted Byzantine historian Judith Herrin said it best, in her book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2007):
“In April 1204, the crusaders attacked Constantinople with their most sophisticated siege weapons, which had been destined for Muslim-held Jerusalem. After four days, they forced an entry over the sea walls and subjected the Byzantine capital to a five-day sack. They then elected Count Baldwin of Flanders as emperor and the Venetian, Thomas Morosini, as patriarch, setting up a Latin Empire. The Byzantines were forced into exile.”
“In this way the leaders of the Fourth Crusade subverted the ideals of the First. The spirit of Christian pilgrimage and adventure, inspired by Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont, was destroyed by the Latin occupation of Constantinople. Although this did not put an end to crusading, its dark shadow hung over all attempts to re-create Christian unity against Islam.”
The wholesale slaughter, rape and robbery of the Byzantine population during the sack was notorious ever-after. The city was never the same again, large swathes having been destroyed; and much of its wealth was carted-off to Western Europe.
Medievalist Steven Runciman said in 1954:
“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”
Next time: Reclaiming the Capital
“Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.”
“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”