Post-classical history

Ottoman Empire

Founded in the late thirteenth century in northwestern Anatolia by Osman (d. c. 1324), the Ottoman Empire developed rapidly from a small and insignificant Turkish state into a great empire with its center at Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), the former Byzantine capital. The empire became a magnet for merchants from East and West, and as its power grew, it came to represent not merely a source of profit but also a source of great fear to Western Christendom, where terrible rumors spread after the Turkish capture of Constantinope in 1453 that Ottoman armies were on the point of descending on Rome itself. While the great wealth and luxury of the Ottoman court struck many Westerners, the Ottomans also came to represent “the other” for Europeans, an “anti body” against whom they could define themselves. As their power grew, the Ottomans came to be regarded more and more in the West as barbarous and cruel, a menace to the very survival of Christendom. Much of this rhetoric had to do with the crusade movement. For the humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later pope as Pius II), for example, the Ottomans represented the epitome of wickedness and ignorance. Crusades, however, came and went in the East, and left very little impression on Ottoman military might. Their armies took the Ottomans deep into Europe, as far as the gates of Vienna, and struck both fear and admiration into the hearts of Europeans.

The Fourteenth Century

The Ottoman state expanded quickly against the Byzantines, defeating them near Nikomedia (mod. Izmit, Turkey) in 1302 and capturing various Byzantine towns. Under Orhan (d. 1362), the Ottomans took Bursa (1325), which became the Ottoman capital until the conquest of Adrianople (mod. Edirne, Turkey), followed by Lopadion (mod. Ulubat) in 1327, Nicaea (mod. Iznik) in 1331, and Nikomedia in 1337. The Ottomans crossed onto European soil when they were called in to assist Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos in the civil war (1341-1347) with his rival John V Palaiologos. Kan- takouzenos, whose daughter Theodora married Orhan, kept his alliance with the Ottomans throughout his reign, and several times Ottoman forces were called in to fight for him. In 1354 the Ottomans took Gallipoli (mod. Gelibolu) and other towns in Thrace.

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Near East and Europe

Expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Near East and Europe

Under Murad I (1362-1389), the Ottoman advance into Europe was swift and effective. Adrianople probably fell in 1369. The defeat of the Serbian despots of Macedonia, Vlkasin, and Uglesa, at the battle of Çirmen on the Maritsa River (1371) opened the way into the Balkans. The Ottomans took Philippopolis (mod. Plovdiv, Bulgaria), Zagora, and, probably, much of Bulgaria. The tsardom of Turnovo, too, fell under Ottoman suzerainty, and Serbia and Bosnia came under Ottoman attack. In 1385 Nis fell. In Greece, the Ottomans took Thessalonica (mod. Thessaloniki) in 1387.

The Ottoman Turks take Constantinople, 1453. (Bettmann/Corbis)

The Ottoman Turks take Constantinople, 1453. (Bettmann/Corbis)

In 1365 Emperor John V, worried by the Ottoman advance, attempted without success to negotiate an alliance with the king of Hungary. He did, however, receive help from his cousin, Amadeus VI, count of Savoy, who seized Gallipoli in 1366. John also sent an embassy to Pope Urban VI and went himself to Rome in 1369, prepared, in return for help, to offer union of the Greek Church with the Roman. Western concern was evident in 1372 when Pope Gregory XI proposed an anti-Ottoman alliance between the Byzantine emperor, the king of Hungary, and the Latin lords of Greece. Concern was not sufficient, however, and an alliance was reached between the Ottomans and the Byzantines in 1373. From that point on, the Ottomans played more and more of a role in internal Byzantine politics, as the Byzantines descended into civil war between John V and his son Andronikos IV, backed by the Ottomans and the Genoese. Andronikos paid heavily for this support, both in financial terms and by having to return Gallipoli to Murad. Murad next supported John, who reentered Constantinople. By the time of the settlement, negotiated through the Genoese in 1381, the Byzantine emperor had been reduced to the position of a vassal of the Ottoman ruler.

After the death of Murad at the battle of Kosovo Polje (23 June 1389), at which the Serbian ruler Lazar was also killed, Bayezid I (1389-1402) began a whirlwind expansion, reducing George Stracimirovic of Shkodër, Vlk Brankovic of Pristina, and Lazar’s son Stephen to vassal status, and marrying Lazar’s daughter Olivera. Bayezid moved into Bulgaria and attacked Tsar Shishman, whose capital Turnovo fell in 1393. Two years later Bayezid had Shishman beheaded, and Bulgaria became an Ottoman possession. The Byzantines, too, found themselves increasingly under Ottoman domination. Manuel II Palaiologos, who became emperor in 1391, was forced to accompany the Ottoman ruler on campaign a year later. Constantinople itself came under Ottoman siege in 1394 and was to remain so until 1402.

Fear of the growing might of the Ottomans caused increasing consternation in Europe. King Sigismund of Hungary, engaged in a power struggle with the Ottomans over control of Serbia, sought allies among the Western rulers for a united offensive. A crusade was organized involving forces from Hungary, Germany, France, and England. At the battle of Nikopolis (1396), the European forces were wiped out by the Ottomans.

Manuel II turned in desperation to the West. In 1397 he approached the pope and the kings of France, England, and Aragon.The only response was the arrival of Marshal Bouci- caut, sent by Charles VI of France to Constantinople with a force of 1,200 soldiers in 1399. In the same year Manuel set off for England and France in an attempt to drum up support. He was not to return for three years. The Ottomans moved into Albania, Epiros, and southern Greece, where their progress was much helped by the divisions between the Frankish and Greek lords in the Peloponnese. At sea they har- rassed the Aegean islands and attacked Venetian shipping. Venice apparently proposed a Latin League in the Aegean against Ottoman naval attacks in 1398. What ultimately saved the West was not a crusading movement or European unity but the rise of a major military power to the East.

Collapse and Reestablishment

Sweeping out of Central Asia, the nomad conqueror Timur crushed the Ottoman forces at the battle of Ankara in 1402, capturing Bayezid and plunging the Ottoman state into civil war. Timur’s victory was a great relief for the European powers. Bayezid’s son Süleyman, who had fled to the European territory of the Ottoman state immediately after the battle, was forced to negotiate a peace treaty, concluded in early 1403, with the Byzantines, Venice, Genoa, and the Hospitallers of Rhodes. Although undoubtedly weakened, Süley- man remained a major player in the Balkans, while the European powers were still rent by internal divisions, and, like Süleyman, threatened by Timur. Nevertheless, Süleyman did make considerable concessions to the various signatories of the treaty.

In 1411 Prince Süleyman was defeated and killed by his brother Musa, who was himself killed by another son of Bayezid I, Mehmed I (1413-1421). Mehmed I followed a peaceful policy, concluding a treaty with Serbia and with the Byzantines, who had supported him during his struggle with his brother. At the same time Manuel tried to interest the Venetians in a scheme against the Ottoman ruler. Venice, out to conclude her own agreement with the Ottomans, refused to be drawn in. At this point Manuel appears to have released an Ottoman pretender, the son of Süleyman, a tactic he had apparently adopted earlier in the civil war between Musa and Mehmed. The son was captured by Mehmed and blinded. An envoy claiming to represent a further pretender, Mehmed’s brother Mustafa, approached Venice for support, but Venice declined, preferring for the moment to maintain peaceful relations with the Ottomans.

Ottoman raiding in European territories continued through 1415. Negotiations began to form an anti-Ottoman league in the Aegean, involving the Genoese rulers of Chios and Mytilene, the Hospitallers, Venice, and Manuel, but came to nothing. In 1416 the Venetians had a significant victory over the Ottoman naval forces, defeating and killing the Ottoman admiral. With the sea now somewhat safer, the Venetians had no real interest in Manuel’s proposal in 1417 for a naval alliance with the Genoese and the Hospitallers. Manuel tried again in 1420 to organize an anti-Ottoman alliance.

Gradually Mehmed gained control in Anatolia and put down the revolts in 1416 of Borklüce Mustafa in western Anatolia and Seyh Bedreddin in northeast Bulgaria, both of whom were supported by Mircea of Wallachia. In 1420 he took the Genoese colony at Samsun on the Black Sea coast. In Europe he captured Valona (mod. Vlorë, Albania) and a large part of southern Albania, and reduced Mircea of Wal- lachia to vassal status.

Successfully surviving the challenge of his uncle Mustafa, backed by Byzantium, Murad II (1421-1444 and 14461451) laid siege to Thessalonica, which ultimately fell in 1430, and to Constantinople in 1422. The emergence of a fresh challenge to the throne, by Murad’s brother Mustafa, who was supported by Manuel, saved the Byzantine capital. Murad defeated and killed Mustafa in January 1423. Late in the same year Emperor John VIII Palaiologos set off to Venice in an attempt to win Western support against the Ottomans. During his absence, his regent Constantine concluded a treaty with Murad (February 1424). Venice was more interested in a potential anti-Ottoman alliance with Hungary, proposed by Sigismund in 1425, but, suffering from the considerable expense involved in defending Thes- salonica, which it had received from Andronikos Palaiolo- gos, Venice sought peace with Murad. An agreement was made between the governor of Gallipoli and the Venetian Andrea Mocenigo, Captain-General of the Sea, but not ratified by Murad. Once again civil war in Byzantium, this time between John VIII and his brother Demetrios, drew the Ottomans into Byzantine politics. Demetrios called in Ottoman help for an attack on Constantinople, which lasted until August 1442.

Through the later 1420s and 1430s, Murad campaigned in Serbia and Albania. Thessalonica fell in 1430. By 1433 Albania was under Ottoman domination, and in the late 1430s northern Serbia was brought under direct Ottoman rule. Hungary’s position at this time was weakened by a civil war following the death of King Albert II. The situation changed after the victories in Wallachia in 1441 and 1442 of John Hunyadi, the voivod of Transylvania. Although in themselves of no great significance, they gave a great psychological boost to Murad’s enemies, who now entered into an anti-Ottoman alliance. At the Council of Florence (1439), John VIII had already accepted the union of the Latin and Greek churches in return for an attack by Christian forces against the Ottoman Empire. Pope Eugenius IV, for whose prestige a successful crusade would have been most advantageous, backed the enterprise, which also offered much to Hungary, to George Brankovic, the exiled despot of Serbia, and to Venice, ensuring the security of its territories in Greece and of its shipping in the Aegean Sea. In preparation for this crusade, peace was organized between the warring factions in Hungary, and Karaman, the perennial Ottoman enemy in Anatolia, was brought in. In 1443 Ibrahim, the ruler of Karaman, attacked Murad, apparently urged to do so by the Byzantine emperor, but with no help forthcoming from John VIII, Ibrahim made peace the same year.

During the winter of 1443-1444, the Ottomans clashed with the forces of the king of Hungary, the despot of Serbia and John Hunyadi. Although the Christian forces did not win a great victory, the winter campaign was viewed as a success in Europe and gave further encouragement to the crusade movement. Nevertheless, King Vladislav, George Brankovic, and John Hunyadi concluded a ten-year peace with the Ottomans in 1444 (the Treaty of Adrianople), but, when Murad abdicated in favor of Mehmed II in the same year, Vladislav and John Hunyadi, together with Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini, the apostolic legate to Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland (but without the participation of George Brankovic), crossed the Danube. Returning across the straits with Genoese help, Murad, out of retirement to lead the Ottoman army, met the crusader forces at Varna in November 1444. The Christian forces were routed, and Vladislav and many of his troops killed. The Crusade of Varna now at an end, Murad once more retired.

A further attempt at a crusade was made along the Danube in 1445 involving the Burgundians, Dracul of Wal- lachia, the Hungarians, the Byzantines, and John Hunyadi. Nothing much came of this campaign. An attempt the following year by the pope to pursuade Venice to provide galleys for a new campaign was unsuccessful, Venice having concluded a treaty with Mehmed II in early 1446.

Once back on the throne after Mehmed’s removal in a janissary revolt, Murad II turned his attention to the despot of Mistra, Constantine, against whom he successfully campaigned in 1446 and 1447. In 1448 he moved against the Albanian leader Skanderbeg (George Kastrioti). Skanderbeg was a danger not merely for the Ottomans but also for Venice, which was willing to cooperate with Murad in order to defeat him. In the face of Ottoman attack, Skanderbeg withdrew. In the last years of his reign Murad campaigned against Skanderbeg as well as in Greece, raiding Tinos and Mykonos and threatening Lesbos.

Another crusade now came over the horizon, organized this time by Hunyadi, with support from the new pope, Nicholas V, the new voivod of Wallachia, and Skanderbeg, but without the support of Venice. In October 1448 Hunyadi met the Ottoman army at the second battle of Kosovo, where he was defeated, and fled from the battlefield.

The Establishment of Empire

Mehmed II’s second reign (1451-1481) began dramatically for the Europeans with the conquest of Constantinople and the Genoese settlement of Pera (1453). This event, which shook the West, prompted many calls for crusade. Venice in particular was anxious about Mehmed’s intentions in the Aegean and swiftly concluded a treaty with him. The Genoese settlements of Old and New Phokaia (on the western coast of Anatolia) and Enez in western Thrace fell in 1455 and 1456. Mehmed also took the islands of Limni, Imbros, and Samothrace. Imbros and Limni were, however, recaptured the following year by a fleet sent by Pope Calix- tus III and King Alfonso V of Aragon. Mehmed campaigned in the Peloponnese in 1458 and took Athens. Serbia fell in 1459 and Bosnia in 1464. In 1461 Mehmed extinguished the Byzantine Empire of Trebizond on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey.

In 1463 Venice declared war. Allied with Hungary, the pope, the duke of Burgundy, and Karaman, Venice was at first successful, taking Argos in 1463 and occupying Mon- emvasia. But in 1464 the Hungarians under Matthias Corv- inus were contained by Mehmed, the Venetian attack on Lesbos failed, and both the pope and the ruler of Karaman died. Venice, however, refused a peace offered by the Ottomans and instead accepted an alliance with Mehmed’s enemy to the east, Uzun Hasan, the ruler of the Akkoyunlu Turcomans. No effective action resulted from the anti-Ottoman alliance of Venice, Hungary, and Uzun Hasan. In 1470 the Ottomans took the Venetian island of Negroponte (Euboia), but Venice again refused peace in 1471. In 1473 Mehmed defeated Uzun Hasan and the following year wiped out Karaman. With the Ottomans campaigning in the Crimea, where they took the Genoese trading settlement of Caffa (mod. Feodosiya, Ukraine) in 1475, as well as in Moldavia and against the Hungarians, Venice had a breathing space. But from 1477 Mehmed was back. In January 1479 Venice surrendered Shkodër (Scutari) and sued for peace. The following year the Ottoman fleet laid siege to Rhodes, and Ottoman troops landed at Otranto in southern Italy.

On his accession, Bayezid II (1481-1512) was faced with the revolt of his brother Cem (Djem), who, after the failure of his challenge, fled to the Hospitallers. From then until his death Cem remained in the custody of Christian powers, first the Hospitallers, who transferred him from Rhodes to France, then the pope, and after his invasion of Italy and capture of Rome, the French king Charles VIII. The presence of Cem in Christian hands presented these powers with both a source of income and a political pawn: from 1483 onward Bayezid paid to ensure Cem’s continued custody, while to avoid conflict, he ratified the 1479 treaty with Venice, made peace with Hungary (1483), and guaranteed not to attack the Papal States, Venice, or Rhodes (1490). Charles VIII did not intend merely to keep the peace, and in January 1495 declared a crusade against the Ottomans. Bayezid ordered the strengthening of the fortifications of Constantinople and hastily made a treaty with Hungary. Charles’s plans came to nothing, and Cem died the following month, leaving Bayezid with a freer hand in his dealings with his western neighbors.

During the period of Cem’s captivity, Bayezid had annexed Hercegovina (1483), invaded Moldavia (1484), and fought against the Mamlûk sultanate from 1485 to 1491. Now, with Cem dead, he took Naupaktos (Lepanto, 1449), Modon, Coron, and Navarino (1500). Venice’s response was an anti-Ottoman alliance with the pope and Hungary, concluded in May 1501. Both France and England promised support. In 1502 Venice took Lefkada, while Bayezid took Durrës (Dyrrachion). Peace was made, under the terms of which Venice retained trading privileges but lost territory. Ottoman attention now shifted to the rising power of the Safavids in Persia.

Ottoman concentration on the east continued under Selim I (1512-1520), who crushed the Safavids at the battle of Çaldiran (1514) and extinguished Safavid rule in southeastern Anatolia. Selim next destroyed the Mamlûks, conquering Syria in 1516 and Egypt in 1517. The holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem were now in Ottoman hands. In 1519 Hayreddin Barbarossa, a fomer pirate andde facto ruler, together with his brother Uruc, of Tunis and Algiers, placed himself under Ottoman protection. The Ottomans now came into conflict with Spain in the western Mediterranean.

The Apogee of Territorial Power

Sultan Süleyman I (1520-1566) began his reign by invading Hungary and taking Belgrade in 1521, and Rhodes, the Hospitaller stronghold, in 1522. During his second campaign he soundly defeated the Hungarians at the battle of Mohacs (August 1526). Following the death of the Hungarian king Louis II in this battle, a succession dispute broke out between the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, who proclaimed himself king, and John Szapolyai, elected by the Hungarian Estates. In 1529 Süleyman, who had backed Sza- polyai, returned once again to Hungary, retaking Buda, which Ferdinand had captured, and laid siege to Vienna. Peace was reached in 1533. Further Ottoman-Habsburg conflict was ended with a five-year truce concluded in 1547. An Ottoman campaign of 1552 resulted in the fall of Temesvar (mod. Timișoara, Romania) and the occupation of part of Transylvania.

On several occasions France, also threatened by Habsburg power, allied with the Ottomans. When in 1536 war broke out with Venice, the French king Francis I and Süleyman entered into an alliance against Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. Further such attempts at French-Ottoman cooperation followed, in 1543, 1551, and 1552. In 1555, in the last such venture, a joint fleet campaigned against the Spanish kingdom of Naples. Any further cooperation was ended by the 1559 peace concluded between Philip II of Spain and Henry II of France at Cateau-Cambrésis. Charles V had also sought earlier to conclude an anti-Ottoman alliance with Süleyman’s enemy in the East, Shah Tahmasb, the Safavid ruler of Persia, but without success.

As the war with Venice continued, the Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa took Venice’s remaining Aegean islands. The forces of the Holy League set up by Venice, Pope Paul III, Charles V, and Ferdinand of Austria in February 1538 were instantly defeated by Hayreddin Barbarossa at the battle of Prevesa in the same year. The war ended in 1540, Venice losing yet more territory, including Monemvasia and Nauplion. The Ottomans continued to campaign successfully at sea during the 1550s. In 1565 the Ottoman fleet besieged Malta and took the Genoese island of Chios the following year.

In the western Mediterranean and along the North African coastline the Ottomans faced the Spanish. Charles V successfully campaigned against Tunis in 1535, and in 1541 he attacked Algiers. This expedition proved to be a disaster, and much of the Spanish fleet was destroyed in a storm. A later expedition against the Tunisian coast in 1550 was more successful. In response, the Ottoman admiral attacked the island of Malta. Tripoli fell in the summer of 1551, and the Ottomans campaigned successfully during the late 1550s.

In the East Süleyman fought several campaigns against the Safavids. By the Treaty of Amasya (1555), the frontier was fixed between the two states. To the south he had been unable to contain the Portuguese in the Red Sea and the Gulf. He died on campaign against Hungary in 1566. By now the Ottoman Empire had reached the height of its territorial extension, and the western expansion of the Turks into Europe had reached its limit.

Ottoman Sultans (to 1566)


?-c. 1324


c. 1324-1362

Murad I


Bayezid I


Mehmed I


Murad II


Mehmed II


Murad II (again)


Mehmed II (again)


Bayezid II


Selim I


Süleyman I


The Ottoman army was composed largely of janissaries (the sultan’s household infantry) and sipahis (cavalrymen) supported by land grants (Turk. timars), as well as the elite cavalry divisions attached to the sultan. It was in part recruited by the system known as the devsirme: this was a periodic levy of Christian children in the Balkans, the most able of whom ended up in the service of the sultan’s court. The state was governed by the sultan and the divan (imperial council), which was headed by the grand vizier and included the kadiaskers (military judges), the nisanci (chancery head), and the defterdar (treasurer). The empire was divided into a series of provinces, initially two (Rumeli and Anadolu) but expanding to thirty-two by the early seventeenth century, controlled by beylerbeyis (governor-gen- erals), and subdivided into units known as sancaks, under sancak beyis. The empire quickly developed a large and efficient bureaucracy, which administered every aspect of the state, surveying its ever-increasing lands and registering its finances and also its population. Although its military might was a major factor in its makeup, it was far, far more than merely a military machine. It was a complex, rich, and magnificent empire, an integral part of the European politics of the period, and a central player in the Mediterranean world.

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