Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you. — Pericles

Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The End of a Long Tale


The tale of the last seventy-five years of the Byzantine Empire is a mere piece of local history, and no longer forms an important thread in the web of the history of Christendom. Murad the Turk might have taken Constantinople in 1370, without altering in any very great measure the course of events in Eastern Europe during the next century. For after 1370 the empire ceased to exercise its old function of "bulwark of Christendom against the Ottomite." That duty now fell to the Servians and Hungarians, who continued to discharge it for the next hundred and fifty years. The Paleologi, by their base subservience to the Turk, protracted the life of the empire long after all justification for its existence had disappeared.

If Constantinople had fallen in 1370, instead of 1453, there are only two ways in which European history would have been somewhat modified. The commercial resources of Genoa and Venice would have been straitened before the appointed time, and ere the Cape route to India enabled Europe to dispense with the use of Constantinople as half-way house to the East. And, we may add, the Renaissance would have been shorn of some of its brilliance in the next century, if the dispersion of the Greeks had taken place before Italy was quite fitted to receive them and turn their learning to account. But in other respects it is hard to see that much harm would have resulted from the fall of Constantinople in the end of the fourteenth rather than the middle of the fifteenth century.

While Murad I. was conquering the Servians and Bulgarians, John Paleologus was dragging out a long and unhonoured old age. His reign was protracted for over half a century, but his later years were much vexed by the undutiful behaviour of his children. His son Andronicus twice rebelled against him, and once succeeded in seizing the throne for a short space. Andronicus allied himself unto Saoudji, a son of Murad I., who plotted a similar treason against his father the Emir. But Murad easily quelled the rebellion, put out the eyes of his own son, and sent Andronicus in chains to John II., bidding him to follow his example. The Emperor did not dare to disobey, and ordered his son to be blinded. But the operation was so ineffectually performed that Andronicus retained a measure of sight, and was even able to venture on a second rebellion against his father.

In consequence of his heir's unnatural conduct, the aged John determined to deprive him of his succession, and when he died in 1391, he left the throne to his second son Manuel, and not to his eldest born. Manuel II. was above the average of the Paleologi, and showed some signs of capacity, but of what use was it to a prince whose sole dominions were Constantinople, Thessalonica, and the Peloponnesus.? He had neither military strength nor money to justify rebellion against the Turk, and could only wait on the course of events.

There was, however, one moment in Manuel's life at which the liberation of the empire from the Ottoman suzerainty appeared possible and even probable. In 1402, there burst into Asia Minor a great horde of Tartars, under the celebrated conqueror Timour [Tamerlane]. Sultan Bayezid, the successor of Murad I., went forth to withstand the invader. But at Angora in Galatia, he suffered a crushing defeat, and the Ottoman Empire seemed likely to perish by the sword. Bayezid was captured, his trusty Janissaries were cut to pieces, his light horsemen scattered to the winds. The Tartars swarmed all over Asia Minor, occupied Broussa, the Ottoman capital, and restored to their thrones all the Seljouk Emirs whose dominions Murad I. had annexed. Bayezid died in captivity, and his sons began to fight over the remains of his empire: Prince Suleiman seized Adrianople, Prince Eesa Nicaea, and each declared himself Sultan.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman

This was a rare opportunity for Manuel Paleologus: the thieves had fallen out, and the rightful owner might perchance come again to his own, if he played his cards well. The control of the Straits was of great importance to each of the Turkish pretenders, so much so, that Manuel was able to sell his aid to Suleiman for a heavy price. In order to keep Eesa from crossing the water, the holder of the European half of the Ottoman realm ceded to the Emperor Thessalonica, the lower valley of the Strymon, the coast of Thessaly, and all the seaports of the Black Sea from the mouth of the Bosphorus up to Varna.

For a moment Manuel once more ruled what might in courtesy be called an empire, and so long as the Ottomans were occupied in civil war he contrived to retain his gains. The strife of the sons of Bayezid lasted ten years: Suleiman was slain by his brother Musa, Eesa by his brother Mohammed, and the two supplanters continued the war. By all Oriental analogies their empire ought to have fallen to pieces, for it is very much easier to build up a new state in the East than to keep together an old one which is breaking asunder. But Mohammed, the youngest of the sons of Bayezid, was a man of genius he triumphed over the last of his brothers, and united all the remnants of the Ottoman realm that remained. Much had been lost to the Seljouk Emirs in Asia Minor, and to the Servians and Manuel Paleologus in Europe, but the rest was back in Mohammed's hands by A.D. 1421. Manuel had very luckily cast in his lot with Mohammed during the later years of the Turkish civil war, and his ally let him enjoy the dominions he had recovered by his original treaty with Suleiman in 1403.

Between 1402 and 1421, Europe had an unparalleled opportunity to rid herself of the Ottomans. Unfortunately it was not taken. Sigismund, king of Hungary, and at the same time Emperor, was the sovereign on whom the duty of leading the attack ought to have fallen. But Sigismund was now engaged in his great struggle with the Hussites in Bohemia. This wretched religious war directed the strength of Hungary northward when it was wanted in the south. Without such a power to back them the Servians, though they recovered their own liberty as a result of the battle of Angora, could do nothing towards driving the Turks from the Balkans. There was never any sympathy between Serb and Magyar, and save under the direct pressure of fear of a Moslem invasion they would not act together. The Hungarian kings had always laid claim to a suzerainty over the crown of Servia, and from time to time tried to convert their neighbours to Roman Catholicism by force of arms. Hence there was no love lost between them, and a crusade to expel the Turks was never concerted.

Mahomet the Unifier died in 1421, and evil days at once set in for Constantinople and for Christendom, when his ambitious son Murad II. came to the throne. Manuel Paleologus was one of the first to feel the change in the times. He tried to make trouble for Murad, by supporting against him two claimants to the Ottoman Sultanate, each named Mustapha, one the uncle, the other the brother of the new ruler. This drew down on the empire the fate which had been delayed since 1370: the Sultan declared war on Manuel, took one after another all the fortresses which had been recovered by the peace of 1403, and finally laid siege to Constantinople. For the last time the walls of the city proved strong enough to repulse an assault. Though Murad leveled against them cannon, then seen for the first time in the East, built movable towers to shelter his troops, and launched his terrible Janissaries to the assault, he could not succeed. The report of a miraculous vision of the Virgin, who vouchsafed to reveal herself as the defender of the city, encouraged the Greeks to resist with a better spirit than might have been expected. At last the pretender Mustapha, whom Manuel had supplied with money to cause a revolt against his brother, began to stir up such trouble in Asia Minor, that the Sultan determined to raise the siege and march against him. He granted Manuel peace, on the condition that he ceded all his dominions save the cities of Constantinople and Thessalonica and the Peloponnesian province. Thus the empire once more sank back into a state of vassalage to the Ottomans [1422].

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman

Manuel II. died three years after, at the age of seventy-seven. He was the last sovereign of Constantinople who won even a transient smile from fortune. The tale of the last thirty years of the empire is one of unredeemed gloom.

To Manuel succeeded his son John VI., whose whole reign was passed in peace, without an attempt to shake off the Turkish yoke; such an attempt indeed would have been hopeless, unless backed by aid from without. As Manuel II. once observed, "the empire now requires a bailiff not a statesman to rule it." Treaties, wars, and alliances were not for him: all that he could do was to try to save a little money, and to keep his walls in good repair, and even these humble tasks were not always feasible.

All the descriptions of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, whether written by Greek natives or by Western travellers, bear witness to a state of exhaustion and debility which make us wonder that the empire did not collapse sooner. The country outside the walls was a desert. Within them more than half the ground was unoccupied, and covered only by ruins which testified to 4cient magnificence. The great palace by the Augustaeum, which sheltered so many generations of emperors, had grown so dilapidated that the Paleologi dwelt in a mere corner of it. Part of the porticoes of St. Sophia had fallen down, and the Greeks could not afford to repair even the greatest sanctuary of their faith. The population of the city had shrunk to about a hundred thousand souls, most of them dwelling in great poverty. Such commerce and wealth as still survived in Constantinople had passed almost entirely into the hands of the Italians of Genoa and Venice, whose fortified factories at Galata and Pera now contained the bulk of the wares that passed through the city. The military strength of the empire was composed of about four thousand mercenary troops, of whom many were Franks and hardly any were born subjects of the empire. The splendid court, which had once been the wonder of East and West, had shrunk to such modest dimensions that a Burgundian traveller noted with surprise that no more than eight attendants accompanied the empress when she went in state to worship in St. Sophia.

John VI., in spite of the caution with which he avoided all action, was destined to see the empire lose its most important possession beyond the walls of Constantinople. His brother Andronicus, governor of Thessalonica, traitorously sold that city to the Venetians for 50,000 zecchins. The Sultan, incensed at a transfer of Greek territory having taken place without his permission, pounced down on the place, expelled the Venetians and annexed Thessalonica to the Ottoman Empire [1430].

The chief feature of the reign of the last John Paleologus was his attempt to win aid for the empire by enlisting sympathy in Western Europe. He determined to conform to Roman Catholicism and to throw himself on the generosity of the Pope. Accordingly he betook himself to Italy in 1438, with the Patriarch of Constantinople and many bishops in his train. He appeared at the Councils of Ferrara and Florence, and was solemnly received into the Roman Church in the Florentine Duomo, on July 6, 1439. It had apparently escaped John's notice that Eugenius IV., the pope of his own day, was a very different personage from the great pontiffs of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, who were able to depose sovereigns and send forth Crusades at their good pleasure. Since the Great Schism the papacy had been hopelessly discredited in Christendom. Eugenius IV. was engaged in waging a defensive war against the Council of Basle, which was attempting to depose him, and had little thought or power to spend on aiding the Eastern Christians. All that John could get from him was a sum of money and a body of three hundred mercenary troops. This was a poor return for his journey and conversion.

Only one thing of importance was accomplished by the apostasy of the Emperor the outbreak of a venomous ecclesiastical struggle at Constantinople between the conformists who had taken the oath at Florence, and the bulk of the clergy, who disowned the treaty of union. John was practically boycotted by the majority of his subjects; the Orthodox priests ceased to pray for him, and the populace refused to enter St. Sophia again, when it had been profaned by the celebration of the Roman Mass. The opinion of the majority of the Greeks was summed up in the exclamation of the Grand-Duke John Notaras—"Better the turban of the Turk in Constantinople than the Pope's Tiara."

The last years of the reign of John VI. coincided with the great campaigns of Huniades and Ladislas of Poland against the Turks. For a moment it seemed as if the gallant king of Poland and Hungary, backed by his great Warden of the Marches, might restore the Balkan lands to Christendom. They thrust Murad II. back over the Balkans, and appeared in triumph at Sophia. But the fatal battle of Varna [1444] ended the career of King Ladislas in an untimely death, and after that fight the Ottomans were obviously fated to accomplish their destiny without a check. John Paleologus watched the struggle without movement if not without concern. He was too cautious to stir a finger to aid the Hungarians, for he knew that if he once offended the Sultan his days would be numbered.

John VI. passed away in 1448, and Sultan Murad in 1451. The one was succeeded by his brother Constantine, the last Christian sovereign of Byzantium, the other by his young son Mohammed the Conqueror. Constantine was a Romanist like his elder brother, and was therefore treated with great suspicion and coolness by his handful of subjects. He was the best man that the house of Paleologus had ever reared, brave, pious, generous, and forgiving. Like King Hosea of Israel, "he did not evil as the kings that were before him," yet was destined to bear the penalty for all the sins and follies of his long line of predecessors.

Mohammed II., the most commanding personality among the whole race of Ottoman Sultans, set his heart from the first on seizing Constantinople, the natural centre of his empire, and making it his capital. Some excuse had to be found for falling on his vassal: the one that he chose was a rather unwise request which Constantine had made. There dwelt at Constantinople a Turkish prince of the royal house named Orkhan, for whom Mohammed paid a considerable subsidy, on condition that he was kept out of the way of mischief and plotting. Some unhappy inspiration impelled Constantine to ask for an increase in the subsidy, and to hint that Orkhan had claims to the Sultanate. This was excuse enough for Mohammed: without taking the trouble to declare war he sent out troops and engineers, and began to erect forts on Greek soil, only four miles away from Constantinople, at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus, so as to block the approach to the city from the Black Sea. The Emperor did not dare to remonstrate, but when the Turks began to pull down a much-venerated church, in order to utilize its stones in the new fort, a few Greeks took arms and drove the masons away. They were at once cut down by the Turkish guards: Constantine demanded redress, and then Mohammed, having fairly picked his wolf-and-lamb quarrel with his unfortunate vassal, commenced open hostilities [Autumn 1452].

Turkish light troops at once appeared to blockade the city while the Sultan began to collect a great train of cannon at Adrianople, and to build a large fleet of war galleys in the ports of Asia: the siege was to begin in the ensuing spring.

The empire was now in its death agony, and Constantine recognized the fact. He spent the winter in making frantic appeals to the Pope and the Italian naval powers to save him from destruction. Nicholas V. was willing enough to help; now that the Emperor was a convert to Catholicism something must be done to aid him. But all that the Pope could send was a cardinal, a moderate sum of money, and a few hundred soldiers of fortune hastily hired in Italy. Venice and Genoa could have done much more, but they had so often heard the cry of "Wolf" raised that they did not realize the danger to their Eastern trade at its true extent. From Genoa, Giovanni Giustiniani brought no more than two galleys and three hundred men. Venice did even less, only commissioning the bailiff of its factory at Galata to arm such able-bodied Venetians as were with him for the protection of the city. Altogether the Franks, counting both trained mercenaries and armed burghers, who co-operated in the defence of Constantinople, were not more than three thousand strong. Yet either Genoa or Venice could have thrown a hundred galleys and twenty thousand men into the scale if they had chosen.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman

Constantine's own troops were about four thousand strong, but he hoped to recruit them by a general levy of the male population of the city. He issued a passionate appeal to his subjects to join in saving the holy city, the centre of Eastern Christendom. But the Greeks only remembered that he was an apostate, who had foresworn the faith of his fathers and done homage to the Pope. They stood aside in sullen apathy, and from the whole population of the city only two thousand volunteers were enlisted. Theological bitterness led the blind multitude to cry with Notaras that it preferred the Turk to the Roman.

In April, 1453, the young Sultan, with seventy thousand picked troops at his back, laid formal siege to the city on the land side, while a fleet of several hundred war galleys beset the Bosphorus. The end could not be for a moment doubtful; nine thousand men could not hope to defend the vast circuit of the land and sea-wall against a veteran army urged on by a young and fiery general. Mohammed set his cannon to play on the walls, and it was soon seen that the tough old Roman mortar and stone that had blunted the siege engines of so many foes could not resist the force of gunpowder. The Sultan's artillery was rude, but it was heavy and numerous; ere long the walls began to come down in flakes, and breaches commenced to show themselves in several places.

Constantine XI. and his second in command, the Genoese Giustiniani, did all that brave and skillful men might, in, protracting the siege. They led sorties, organized attacks by water on the Turkish fleet, and endeavoured to drive off the siege artillery of the enemy by a counter fire of cannon. But it was found that the old walls were too narrow to bear the guns; and where any were hoisted up and brought to bear, their recoil shook the fabric in such a dangerous way that the fire was soon obliged to cease.

At sea the Christians won one great success, when four galleys from the Aegean forced their way in through the whole Turkish fleet, and reached the Golden Horn in safety, after sinking many of their assailants. But the Turks had as great a numerical superiority on the water as on land, and the inevitable could only be delayed. Mohammed even succeeded in getting control of the harbour of the city, above its mouth, by dragging light galleys on rollers over the neck of land between the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, and launching them in the inland waters just above Galata. Thus the inner, as well as the outer, sea-face of the city was beset by enemies.

The end came on May 29, 1453. The Sultan had opened several practicable breaches, of which the chief lay in the northwest angle of the city by the gate of St. Romanus, where two whole towers and the curtain between them had been battered down and choked the ditch. The storm was obviously at hand, and the doomed Emperor was obliged to face his fate. Greek historians dwelt with loving sorrow on the last hours of the unfortunate prince. He left the breach at midnight, partook of the sacrament according to the Latin rite in St. Sophia, and snatched a few hours of troubled sleep in his half-ruined palace. Next morning, with the dawn, he rose to ride back to the post of danger. His ministers and attendants crowded round his horse as he started on what all knew to be his last journey. Looking steadfastly on them he prayed one and all to pardon him for any offence that he might wittingly or unwittingly have committed against any man. The crowd answered with sobs and wails, and with the sounds of woe ringing in his ears Constantine rode slowly off to meet his death.

The assault commenced at dawn; three main attacks and several secondary ones were directed against weak spots in the wall. But the chief stress was on the great breach by the gate of St. Rom an us. There the Emperor himself and Giustiniani at his side stood in the midst of the yawning gap with their best men around them, and opposed a barrier of steel to the oncoming assailants. Twelve thousand Janissaries, sabre in hand, formed successive columns of attack; as soon as one was beaten off another delivered its assault. They fell by hundreds before the swords of the mailed men in the breach, for their felt caps and unarmoured bodies were easy marks for the ponderous weapons of the fifteenth century. But the ranks of the defenders grew thin and weary; Giustiniani was wounded in the face by an arrow, and taken on board his galley to die. Constantine at last stood almost alone in the breach, and a forlorn hope of Janissaries headed by one Hassan of Ulubad, whom Turkish chroniclers delight to honour, at last forced their way over the wall. The Emperor and his companions were trodden under foot, and the victorious army rushed into the desolate streets of Constantinople, seeking in vain for foes to fight. The Greeks, half expecting that God would interfere to save the queen of Christian cities by a miracle, had crowded into the churches, and were passing the fatal hour in frantic prayer! The shouts of the victorious enemy soon showed them how the day had gone, and the worshippers were dragged out in crowds, to be claimed as slaves and divided among the conquerors.

Mohammed II. rode through the breach after his men, and descended into the city, scanning from within the streets that so many Eastern conquerors had in vain desired to see. He bade his men search for the Emperor, and the corpse of Constantine was found at last beneath a heap of slain, so gashed and mauled that it was only identified by the golden eagles on his mail shoes. The Turk struck off his head, and sent it round their chief cities as a token of triumph. Riding through the hippodrome towards St. Sophia, Mohammed noted the Delphic tripod with its three snakes, standing where Constantine the Great had placed it eleven hundred years before. Either because the menacing heads of the serpents provoked him, or merely because he wished to try the strength of his arm, the Sultan rose in his stirrups and smote away the jaws of the nearest snake with one blow of his mace. There was something typical in the deed though Mohammed knew it not. He had defaced the monument of the first great victory of the West over the East. He, the successor in spirit not only of Xerxes but of Chosroes and Moslemah and many another Oriental potentate, who had failed where he succeeded, could not better signalize the end of Greek freedom than by dealing a scornful blow at that ancient memorial, erected in the first days of Grecian greatness, to celebrate the turning back of the Persians on the field of Plataea.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman

At last the Sultan came to St. Sophia, where the crowd of wailing captives was being divided among his soldiery. He rode in at the eastern door, and bade a mullah ascend the pulpit and repeat there the formula of the Moslem faith. So the cry that God was great and Mohammed his prophet rang through the dome where thirty generations of patriarchs had celebrated the Holy Mysteries, and all Europe and Asia knew the end was come of the longest tale of Empire that Christendom has yet seen.