“Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet belium.”
“If you want peace, prepare for war.”
The last two centuries of Byzantine history make, for the most part, rather discouraging reading. Against an increasingly hopeless backdrop, petty emperors waged destructive internal squabbles while the empire crumbled, reducing the once-proud state to a mere caricature of itself. There were, however, small moments of light to pierce the advancing gloom, rare individuals of courage and determination, struggling against the overwhelming odds, knowing full well that they were doomed. As the empire edged toward extinction, a cultural flowering occurred, a brilliant explosion of art, architecture, and science as if the Byzantine world was rushing to express itself before its voice was forever silenced. Sophisticated hospitals were built with both male and female doctors, and young medical students were given access to cadavers to learn the human body by dissection. Byzantine astronomers postulated on the spherical shape of the world and held seminars to discuss how light appeared to move faster than sound.
For the most part these advancing fields of physics, astronomy, and mathematics managed to peacefully coexist with the increasingly mystic Byzantine Church, but there were occasional tensions. The noted fourteenth-century scholar George Plethon composed hymns to the Olympian gods, and even went so far as suggesting a revival of ancient paganism.* While this certainly didn’t help the reputation of the sciences and tended to confirm the suspicion that excessive study in some fields weakened the moral fiber, Byzantine society at large remained remarkably open to new ideas. This spirit was seen most vividly in the decorations and new buildings of the capital. Perhaps the impoverished empire could no longer build on the grand scale of the Hagia Sophia, or even the more modest levels of the Macedonian dynasty, but what it lacked in splendor it made up for in originality. In Constantinople, a wealthy noble named Theodore Metochites embellished the church of the Chora Monastery with vivid frescoes and haunting mosaics, departing from the staid forms of past imperial art in a way that still has the power to catch the breath today. The Ottoman shadow may have been looming over the city, but even the threat of extinction couldn’t cow the Byzantine spirit.
Ironically enough, it was partly Michael VIII’s glorious reconquest of Constantinople that hastened the collapse. Once restored to their rightful capital, the focus of the Byzantine leaders shifted back to Europe. Concentrating on the all-important city, the myopic emperors turned their backs on Asia Minor, where the balance of power was rapidly changing. The Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 had broken the back of Seljuk power and a massive influx of Turkic tribes had come streaming in to fill the vacuum.† One of these groups, led by an extraordinary warlord named Osman, united several tribes and crossed into Byzantine territory. Calling his men “Gazi” warriors—the “swords of God”—Osman led a jihad aimed at nothing less than the capture of Constantinople. The terrified Byzantine population of Anatolia fled at his approach and was replaced with Turkish settlers, largely extinguishing the Greek presence in Asia Minor. After a short struggle, the ancient city of Ephesus fell and Osman’s troops—now calling themselves Ottoman in his honor—shattered the weakened imperial army. Under his son Orhan, they took Bursa, at the western end of the Silk Road just across the Golden Horn from the capital, and then Nicaea and Nicomedia as well. Soon all that was left of the empire in Asia was Philadelphia and remote Trebizond on the Black Sea coast. Ottoman warriors could now stand in the waters of the Propontis and see the fluttering banners hanging from the churches and palaces of fabled Constantinople. The storied city was almost within their grasp. All they needed now was a way across.
Incredibly enough, this was conveniently provided by the Byzantines themselves, who seemed more interested in fighting over the fragments of their empire than protecting it from the obvious threat. By 1347, what was left of Byzantium was devolving into something resembling class warfare. A rebel patrician named John Cantacuzenus was attempting to seize the throne, and its current occupant responded by waging a successful public-relations war that branded John as a reactionary—the embodiment of the privileged class that had brought such ruin to the empire.* Across the empire, indignant cities expelled his troops. The citizens of Adrianople, anticipating the French Revolution by more than four centuries, massacred every aristocrat they could find and appointed a commune to rule the city.
Thrown back on his heels, Cantacuzenus invited the Turks into Europe, hoping to use their strength to seize Constantinople. The deal won Cantacuzenus his crown, but was disastrous for Europe, as what started as a trickle of Ottoman soldiers all too quickly became a flood.* As the Turks crossed the Hellespont in ever-greater numbers to ravage Thrace, the bubonic plague returned to Constantinople after an absence of six centuries, adding the miseries of disease to the horrors of war. Spreading as it had before in the bodies of fleas and rats, it claimed the lives—according to one terrified account—of nearly 90 percent of the population.†
The one consolation for the huddled, miserable inhabitants of Byzantine Thrace was that the Turks had come as raiders, not settlers. Each winter, the marauding Ottomans returned across the Bosporus to their Asian heartland and left the weary peasants in peace. But even that small comfort disappeared in 1354. On the morning of March 2, a tremendous earthquake shattered the walls of Gallipoli, reducing the city to rubble. Declaring it to be a sign from God, the Turks swept in, settling their women and children and evicting the few Byzantines who hadn’t already fled. The emperor frantically offered them a large amount of money to leave, but their emir responded that since Allah had given them the city, to leave would be a sign of impiety. The Ottomans had gained their first toehold in Europe, and they didn’t intend to leave. Jihadists flooded across from Asia, and the weak and devastated Thrace fell easy victim to their advance. After a probing stab in 1359 convinced the Ottomans that Constantinople was out of reach, they simply surged around it. Three years later, Adrianople fell, surrounding the capital of eastern Christendom in an Islamic sea.
The Turkish emir left little doubt of his intentions. Moving the capital of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, he sold part of Adrianople’s population into slavery and replaced the balance with settlers of Turkish stock. The rest of Thrace was subjected to the same treatment, and as most of its population was transferred to Anatolia, Turkish settlers came pouring in. The Ottoman tide seemed irresistible, and the mood in the capital was one of gloomy pessimism. “Turkish expansion …” one of them wrote, “is like the sea … it never has peace, but always rolls.”*
Emperors and diplomats left for Europe to beg for help, but only the pope was interested, and the price for his aid was always the same. The eastern and the western churches must be joined, and the Orthodox must place themselves beneath the authority of Rome. This had already been proposed several times in the past, but always the people of Constantinople had disgustedly rejected it. John V, however, was desperate enough to attempt it again. In 1369, he knelt solemnly on the steps of Saint Peter’s, accepted the supremacy of the pope, and formally converted to Catholicism.
The emperor’s submission was a personal act that had no binding power on anyone else, and the only thing it accomplished was to embarrass John in the eyes of his subjects. The empire may have been distinctly shabby, but Byzantine dignity would never tolerate a willful submission to the hated Latin rite whose crusaders had so recently stained the streets of Constantinople with blood. The westerners had chased the Byzantines from their homes, murdered their families, and ruined their beautiful city. Even if the empire was now plainly doomed, asking its citizens to submit in their faith as well was too much. As far as they were concerned, no aid was worth that cost.
Despite John’s conversion, the promised help from the West never arrived, but the Orthodox power of Serbia responded to the empire’s plight. Marching down into Macedonia, they met the Ottoman army on the banks of the Maritsa River. The Turkish emir Murad—now calling himself sultan—won an overwhelming victory and forced Macedonia’s squabbling princes to become his vassals. Determined to crush the Orthodox spirit, Murad swept into Dalmatia and Bulgaria, sacking their major cities and reducing their princes to vassalage. A coalition of princes led by the heroic Serbian Stefan Lazar managed to keep the Ottoman advance from entering Bosnia, but in 1389, at the terrible battle of Kosovo, Tsar Lazar was killed and the last vestige of Serbian power was irretrievably broken. The only consolation for the people of the Balkans—whose fate was now sealed—was that Murad didn’t survive the battle. A Serbian soldier feigning desertion was brought before the sultan and managed to plunge a sword into his stomach before being hacked apart by the sultan’s guards.
Emperor John V had pinned all his hopes on Serbian help, and the disaster broke him. Writing to the sultan, he humbly offered to become an Ottoman vassal if only the sultan would spare his capital. Two hundred years before, Manuel I had made the Seljuk sultan his vassal; now John’s young son Manuel II watched helplessly as his prostrate father reversed the situation. The anointed defender of Orthodoxy was now a servant of Christendom’s greatest enemy.
It was at this moment of despair that another man of vision finally ascended the Byzantine throne. Manuel II had all the energy and political wisdom that his father so conspicuously lacked, and though he knew there was little hope for the empire, he was determined that it should expire with its head held high.
Never in its long history had the deck been so thoroughly stacked against Byzantium. The new Ottoman sultan Bayezid, a man whose speed in battle would soon earn him the nickname “the Thunderbolt,” was more menacing than his father, Murad, had ever been. Ominously taking the title “Sultan of Rum” (Rome), he was determined to crush any thoughts of independence. Forcibly reminding the emperor of who his master was, Bayezid peremptorily summoned Manuel II to Asia Minor. Philadelphia, one of the seven cities of Revelation and the last Christian outpost in Anatolia, still resisted the Turks. Clearly relishing the agony it caused, Bayezid ordered Manuel to help reduce this final Byzantine city to ruin.
Manuel II had no choice but to participate in the final political extinction of the Christian East. The imperial writ now barely extended beyond the walls of Constantinople itself, and the emperor didn’t have any illusions about the weakness of the Byzantine position. It could still claim a few ports on the Aegean and most of the Peloponnese, but such scraps hardly deserved to be called an empire. Any show of resistance against the overwhelming force of the Turks would almost certainly be suicidal, and the sultan was already dangerously hostile.
The campaign was mercifully short, and Manuel II was back in Constantinople in time to marry a Serbian princess named Helena Dragases the next year.* The emperor was willing to play the faithful vassal to keep the Ottoman wolf at bay, but Bayezid seemed determined to provoke a war. After increasing the tribute that the impoverished empire had to pay, the sultan ordered a huge Turkish quarter to be set up in Constantinople that was independent of Byzantine authorities and governed instead by Muslim judges. As if such humiliations weren’t bad enough, the unstable sultan then took to bouts of arbitrary cruelty, mutilating several Byzantine ambassadors and screaming that he would kill his imperial vassal. By this time, Manuel II had had enough. There was no sense in trying to appease such an unpredictable monster. When Bayezid summoned him for a campaign against Transylvania, Manuel II slammed the gates shut in his face and prepared for war. A few months later, the Ottoman army appeared, and the siege began.
Despite the overwhelming power of the Ottoman forces, Bayezid suffered from the same weakness that many would-be conquerors of Constantinople had discovered before him. Without a navy, there was no hope of an effective blockade, and the land walls of the city were stout enough to resist any attempt thrown at them. To make matters worse, the furious sultan soon got word that his recent foray into Transylvania had awakened Hungary to the Turkish threat, and a new Crusade was lumbering on its way. Briefly raising the siege, Bayezid raced to the Bulgarian city of Nicopolis, somehow arriving before the crusaders, and smashed their army to pieces. Ordering his men to lop off the heads of ten thousand prisoners, the sultan returned to Constantinople, conquering Athens and central Greece for good measure along the way.
By 1399, when the Thunderbolt returned, Manuel II was no longer in his capital. Taking advantage of the sultan’s absence, the emperor had boarded a ship and headed to Europe. Landing triumphantly in Venice, he was given a warm reception, and wherever he went, from Paris to London, crowds flocked to see him. The emperor had come for assistance, but not to beg, and a Europe trembling in the first stirrings of the Renaissance greeted him with open arms. This tall, gracious figure seemed every inch an emperor, a worthy successor of Augustus or Constantine, and erudite into the bargain. Manuel’s visit, so different from the one his father, John, had made just a few years before, brought up no mention of a union of churches, or of a humiliating submission. Manuel sat on the throne of the Caesars, and, no matter how debased that throne had become, its dignity was still unparalleled.
In terms of style, Manuel’s European visit was a tour de force, but practically speaking it achieved as little as his father’s had. There were some vague promises of support, but no one was in a hurry to help. Henry IV was too insecure on his English throne, the king of France was hopelessly insane, and the rest of Europe was still asleep to the danger. Manuel traveled from capital to capital in vain, stubbornly refusing to give up while there was the faintest hope. Just as he was succumbing to despair, salvation arrived from a most unexpected quarter. The electrifying news swept through Europe, quickly reaching Manuel II where he was staying in Paris. A great army from the east had invaded Asia Minor, and Bayezid had withdrawn to fight it. Constantinople was saved.
The rumors swirling in France had it that a mighty Christian king had arrived to save Byzantium, but this was only half true. The Turkic warrior Timur the Lame had been born in central Asian Uzbekistan more than sixty years before and had spent his life in thesaddle at the head of a Mongol horde. His dream was to restore the glorious empire of Ghengis Khan, and to that end he unleashed his army in an extraordinary burst of conquest. By the year 1400, he had an empire that stretched from India to Russia and from Afghanistan to Armenia. Spies preceded his troops, spreading tales of his inhuman cruelty, weakening the morale of the defenders and spreading panic. In Damascus, he herded the citizens into the Grand Mosque and burned it to the ground; in Tikrit, he ordered each soldier to show him two severed heads or forfeit their own; and in Baghdad, he slaughtered ninety thousand civilians and built a pyramid out of their skulls. Lands he passed through became deserts, cities became ghost towns, and whole populations fled.
At the turn of the century, he crossed into Ottoman territory, bringing the enraged sultan speeding from his siege of Constantinople. When the two armies met outside of Ankara on July 20, 1402, the carnage was terrible. Fifteen thousand Turks fell, and the sultan himself was captured. Timur the Lame cheerfully took possession of Bayezid’s harem and, according to some accounts, used the sultan as a footstool, carrying him before the army in an iron cage.* The Mongol warlord was now the master of Asia Minor, but he was restless and more interested in conquest than administration. After a few more outrages—he sacked Philadelphia and built a wall of corpses to commemorate it—he withdrew to invade China, leaving a shattered Ottoman Empire and a chaotic Anatolia in his wake.
Now was the moment to drive the Turks out of Europe, but as usual Manuel II could find many vague promises but no actual help to accomplish it. Whatever chance there was to turn the tide passed by forever the moment the new sultan arrived in Adrianople. Bayezid’s son Süleyman had survived the devastating Mongol attack, and he slipped across the Bosporus to take possession of the European provinces while his brothers fought it out in Asia Minor. Skillfully neutralizing his Christian neighbors by granting Venice and Genoa trade concessions, Süleyman contacted the Byzantine emperor and offered extraordinary terms. Manuel II was, of course, to be released immediately from the humiliation of vassalage; Thrace and Thessalonica were instantly returned to the empire, along with the monastic community of Mount Athos; and, as the final pièce de résistance, Süleyman offered to become Manuel’s vassal.
On the warm afternoon of June 9, 1403, Manuel II entered triumphantly into Constantinople. He had left as the servant of the sultan and against all conceivable odds had returned the master. Crowds cheered him as he walked down the streets, church bells rang out jubilantly throughout the city, and a special service of thanksgiving was held in the Hagia Sophia. Despite Süleyman’s subservient posturing, however, the Ottoman sultan had the better end of the bargain. With a few gulps of swallowed pride, he had gained a valuable respite. Byzantium was as weak as ever, and its newfound prestige was merely an illusion. A concerted effort by Christendom just might have been able to push the Turks out of Europe while they were still fragmented, but the Ottoman willingness to come to terms had lulled the European powers into a false sense of security. Convinced that the threat had been overblown, they turned their attentions elsewhere and left Byzantium terribly alone. It would’ve been better for the empire by far if Manuel had rejected Süleyman’s terms.
The respite from Ottoman aggression was all too brief. In 1409, Süleyman’s brother Musa crossed into his territory and besieged the city of Adrianople. Manuel II gave what aid he could to his vassal, but, after a brief struggle, Musa captured the city and strangled Süleyman. By 1411, the new sultan was at the walls of Constantinople, determined to punish the emperor for supporting the wrong side, and Manuel was only able to rescue the situation by encouraging Mehmed—a third brother—to overthrow Musa. The siege was lifted and Musa succumbed in his turn to the bowstring, but once again Constantinople was subject to the Ottoman whim.
Fortunately for the empire, the cultured, sophisticated new sultan took an instant liking to Manuel, even referring to him as “my father and overlord,” and loyally kept the peace. The emperor took advantage of the lull to shore up the imperial defenses, taking a tour of Byzantine territory, and building a six-mile-long wall across the Isthmus of Corinth—the Hexamilion—to cut off access to the Peloponnese. He remained on excellent terms with his Turkish counterpart, but the truce with Islam, Manuel II well knew, could never last for long, and sooner or later an Ottoman army would once again be at the gates.*
The invasion came sooner than the emperor expected. In 1421, the thirty-two-year-old Mehmed suddenly died, leaving his violent, unstable seventeen-year-old son Murad II as sultan. Such times of transition were inevitably chaotic, with rival claimants trying to seize power, and Constantinople was faced with the opportunity to support a usurper. Manuel II, now in his seventies and increasingly feeling his age, preferred to leave the Ottomans to sort it out and not risk antagonizing the eventual victor. His eldest son, John VIII, however, with all the confidence of youth, wanted to take a more aggressive stance and support a pretender. In the end, the weary emperor gave in, imperial support was thrown behind Murad’s cousin Mustafa, and the Byzantines held their breath.
Manuel II had been wise to hesitate in risking the empire’s neutrality. Mustafa was trapped by his cousin in Gallipoli and strangled, and Murad furiously turned on Byzantium. Thessalonica was put under siege, the Hexamilion was demolished, and the Peloponnese was raided. By 1422, Murad was at the walls of Constantinople, demanding the city’s immediate surrender. Manuel II was near death, but he had one final gift for his capital. Sending ambassadors to the sultan’s youngest brother, the emperor convinced him that the time was right to make a bid for the throne. The annoyed sultan had no choice but to immediately deal with the threat. In exchange for a promise by the emperor to once again become a Turkish vassal, the siege was hastily lifted, and Murad raced to Asia Minor. Somehow Manuel II had successfully avoided extinction. Alone in a Turkish sea, the situation was no better now than it had been at the time of his coronation, but thanks to his ingenuity and cleverness, Constantinople had been saved. Manuel II could expire with his empire—however tenuously—at peace.
It didn’t stay so for long. Manuel’s oldest son, John VIII, was barely crowned before Sultan Murad II decided to besiege the city of Thessalonica. The hard-pressed Byzantine commander turned over the city to Venice in exchange for its protection, but in 1430 the Venetian governor decided the situation was beyond saving and calmly sailed away, wishing the defenders the best of luck. The hapless Byzantines managed to hold out until March, but the walls were finally breached and the Turks poured in, committing the usual atrocities.
Convinced that Constantinople would be next, John VIII left for the familiar attempt to drum up support in Europe, confident in his abilities to succeed where his predecessors had failed. The Turkish threat, he was quite sure, was now plain for anyone to see, and the West would certainly be motivated out of fear, if not altruism. Like his father and grandfather before him, however, John found that Europe was caught up in its own struggles and quite blind to any larger danger. England and France were locked in the Hundred Years War—Joan of Arc had been captured and burned by the English that same year—and everywhere else John went he received the same tired old response. Byzantium could receive no aid until the Orthodox Church submitted to Rome.
John VIII knew full well that his subjects would never accept such a thing, but he was desperate and promised the pope that he could convert the empire to Catholicism. The pontiff didn’t quite believe him—he’d heard that promise too many times before—but the emperor was determined. After fourteen years of tortuous negotiations and diplomatic maneuvering, he gathered a group of intimidated eastern bishops and signed the decree of union at a council at Florence, officially joining the churches. The pope instantly promised armed help, and Hungary, well aware that it was the next nation on the Ottoman chopping block, agreed to lead the Crusade.
It was one thing to sign a document, however, and quite another to enforce it. John returned to his capital to find his actions universally condemned and his own position on the throne seriously undermined. Most of those who had signed the hated decree publicly retracted their signatures; the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch furiously repudiated it; and one of the emperor’s brothers tried to seize the throne in the name of Orthodoxy.
With the church hopelessly divided and the citizens up in arms, everything now depended on the Crusade. Led by the Hungarian king Ladislas, along with the brilliant Transylvanian general John Hunyadi, the crusaders set off in 1443, sweeping into Bulgaria and conquering it within a few months. Murad II was so alarmed at having his Christian enemies united against him that he offered the crusaders a ten-year truce if they would withdraw. The Serbian contingent of the army accepted and returned home, but the rest, spurred on by the pope, plunged down to the Black Sea coast. At the little city of Varna, they found the enraged sultan waiting with an army nearly three times their size. The Turks broke before the first crusader charge, but disaster struck when, in a wild attempt to capture the fleeing Murad, King Ladislas was killed. The crusader army disintegrated in a panic, and in a few hours’ time, the Christian army had ceased to exist.
The Hungarian regent John Hunyadi managed to regroup his forces and keep the sultan busy for a few years, but by 1448 his army was effectively crushed. Watching sadly from Constantinople, John VIII, who had pinned all his hopes on help from the West, was completely broken. He had incurred the wrath of his people and the abasement of his throne, and divided the church in vain. Heartbroken and defeated, he was near death, but one final humiliation remained. On the sultan’s return, the emperor was forced to present himself before Murad II and congratulate him on the victory that had sealed Constantinople’s fate. Eleven days later, he was dead.
*He also suggested that a good way to deter adultery would be to force the guilty women to live as prostitutes (no word on the punishment for the men involved) while those who committed rape should be burned alive.
†As a Muslim, the Mongol warlord didn’t want to shed the blood of the heir of Muhammad, so he had the caliph wrapped in a carpet before trampling him with a horse. The invaders then settled down to a thorough sack of the city. According to legend, so many books from its great library were hurled into the Tigris that the river ran black from the ink for six months. The story is an obvious hyperbole, but Baghdad has never been the same since.
*There were the usual complaints of the poor against the rich, as well as the startling claim that allowing the wealthy and destitute to marry (a practice frowned upon) would eliminate poverty and lead to a utopian society of shared resources.
*It was by this time a rather pathetic glass crown, since John’s impoverished predecessor had pawned the real thing to Venice.
†In Europe, the black death, as it was called, carried off nearly a third of the population, but the Ottomans, far away from densely settled cities, were largely spared.
*Roger Crowley, 1453 (New York: Hyperion, 2005).
*Fortunately for posterity, the emperor left a lively account of his journey across the lost Byzantine heartland.
*Some contemporary accounts say the Mongol khan treated Bayezid with respect—or at least more respect than confining him to a cage—while others go to great lengths to describe the humiliation, relishing every detail. In any case, Timur the Lame had no use for the Ottomans, and abusing their conquered sultan certainly wouldn’t have been out of character.
*Understandably for a man whose empire was under almost constant attack from Islam, Manuel II abhorred the concept of conversion by the sword. A prolific writer, he left us a book called 26 Dialogues with a Persian, which is a record of his debates on the subject with his Muslim counterparts. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from it, arguing that violence had no place in faith. Ironically, the speech unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the Middle East, resulting in the destruction of some churches and several deaths.