Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty


The Appearance of the Ottomans

Between 1302 and 1347, the Ottoman Turks appear in Asia Minor, the Catalan Company arrives at Constantinople, and the emperors of Constantinople find themselves at constant war

ANDRONICUS II, second emperor of the Byzantine restoration, was facing a new upheaval.

Five or six years before, the village of Sogut had suddenly awoken. Sogut lay in the lands of the Turkish Sultanate of Rum; since its conquest by the Mongols in 1243, the Sultanate had existed in name only, its sultan a figurehead, the real power in the hands of Il-khanate viziers.

But beneath the surface of Il-khanate control, the Turks of Rum were restless.

Rum was home to a kaleidoscope of Turkish tribal alliances: Eskenderum, Eskisehir, Konyali, all of them possible challengers of the Il-khanate overlords. Sogut lay at the center of those three tribal territories, home to a small tribe led by the Turkish chief Osman. And sometime shortly after 1290, Osman had embarked on a sudden conquest spree.

There is no written history of his tribe that dates from anywhere near Osman’s lifetime; it is not certain that, in the last decade of the thirteenth century, the people of Sogut were even Muslim. But later legends tell of a dream Osman had, of a great tree growing up to shadow the whole world; the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Danube flowed from its roots; beneath its limbs were built scores of cities filled with minarets, where the faithful came to pray; the leaves of the tree were sword blades, and a wind blew against them and pointed them towards Constantinople, which lay in the distance “like a diamond . . . the precious stone of the ring of a vast dominion which embraced the entire world.”1

And from the beginning of his conquests, it seemed clear that Osman had his eye on Constantinople. He ransacked the nearby countryside, conquered the tribe of the Eskenderum to his north, occupied territory near Ephesus and Pergamum, intruded into Phrygia. The Il-khanate ruler Ghazan, currently occupied with fighting against the Bahri dynasty of Egypt and its tendency to expand, seems to have paid little attention to the agitation just south of the Black Sea. The truth was that Turkish agitation in Asia Minor was nothing new; under Il-khanate supervision, says the contemporary chronicler George Pachymer, the Turks of Asia Minor had been running rampant for decades, laying waste the lands between the coast of the Black Sea and the southern island of Rhodes. Mostly, the Mongol khans ignored the Turks, as long as they stayed where they were supposed to.2

But the Emperor Andronicus could not afford to look the other way. When Osman met a Byzantine army at Baphaeum, near Nicaea, and drove them back, Andronicus grew alarmed. He sent his son and co-emperor, the twenty-five-year-old Michael IX, into Asia Minor with a bigger army, but Michael found himself so outnumbered that he retreated without giving battle.

This was an unpleasant case of dejà vu for the empire. Advancing Turks, two hundred years earlier, had launched the First Crusade when a frightened Alexius Comnenus had appealed to the pope for help. Andronicus II did not make the same mistake. Instead of asking for help, he hired it.

The mercenary captain who agreed to come fight the Turks was Roger de Flor, a onetime Knight Templar who had (fortunately for him) been thrown out of the order by Grand Master Jacques de Molay for piracy. He had assembled around him a mercenary crew called the Catalan Company, mostly made up of soldiers from Aragon proper and from the Aragonese-controlled countship known as Catalonia, on the eastern Spanish coast.* He was at loose ends, having just finished up fighting for James of Aragon, and was looking for his next profitable adventure.

He arrived in September of 1302 with a fleet of Genoese-built ships (he had stiffed the shipbuilders, making an enemy of Genoa) and eight thousand paid soldiers (they had stopped to sack the Venetian island of Ceos on the way, making an enemy of Venice). Crossing over into Asia Minor, the Catalan Company began to engage Osman’s troops, doing the Turks significant harm. But Roger de Flor also showed himself completely willing to rob any Christian settlements in his way, and Andronicus was heartily regretting his invitation, particularly when Roger de Flor demanded more money and, not getting it, started to raid Byzantine territory.2

In the winter of 1304, the Catalan Company retreated to Gallipoli to wait out the cold. While they were there, Andronicus hired a second set of mercenary soldiers to waylay Roger de Flor, on a planned visit to Prince Michael IX at Adrianople, and murder him. The plot, carried out in April 1305, succeeded: the assassins, says the Catalan Company adventurer Ramon Muntaner in his own account of the incident, “massacred” Roger de Flor “and all who had come with [him] . . . not more than three escaped.” At the same time, Byzantine soldiers laid siege to the remaining Catalan Company at Gallipoli. “They found us thus off our guard,” says Muntaner, “and . . . killed over a thousand people. . . . [And] we agreed that . . . we would defy [the emperor] and impeach him for bad faith and for what he had done to us.”4

The Catalan Company fought back, which meant that Andronicus was now carrying on two separate wars with an already spread-thin army: one, led by his son Michael IX, against the Company; one in Asia Minor, against Osman. So he appealed to the Il-khanate, which had not yet paid much attention to Osman and his Turks. The khan Ghazan had died in 1304 without heirs, leaving the Il-khanate to his brother Oljeitu; Andronicus II offered Oljeitu a marriage alliance with one of his own daughters in exchange for troops to fight against Osman.

Oljeitu agreed to the deal. In 1308, an Il-khanate army of thirty thousand men marched against Osman’s troops, but although the Il-khanates claimed victory, Osman seemed unhindered. He took Ephesus, fought down the coast, and made a preliminary pass at Rhodes.


60.1 The Ottoman Invasion

In 1315, the Catalan Company finally abandoned Gallipoli. “We had been in that district [more than] seven years,” writes Muntaner, “and there was nothing left . . . we had depopulated all that district for ten journeys in every direction; we had destroyed all the people, so that nothing could be gathered there. Therefore we were obliged to abandon that country.” They went off in search of other wars, leaving behind a demoralized Michael IX, who had been unable to conquer them.5

He was suffering from some progressive and undefined illness, possibly aggravated by depression. In 1320 he died, leaving his father on the throne along with his twenty-three-year-old son Andronicus III, who had been crowned co-emperor a few years earlier to assure the succession.

Unfortuately, Andronicus III had embroiled himself in all sorts of scandals, mostly involving gambling, prostitutes, and strong drink, and his grandfather was fed up with him. Right before Michael IX’s death, young Andronicus (a married man) had completely horrified his family by hiring hit men to stalk one of his mistresses, whom he suspected of infidelity, and kill the other man she was sleeping with.

The other man turned out to be Andronicus’s half brother Manuel, one of Michael IX’s sons from his second marriage. He died in the dark, on the streets of Constantinople.6

The emperor promptly disinherited his grandson; young Andronicus in turn declared war on his grandfather. He gathered around him a core of discontented men his own age, and the rebels established themselves in Thrace.

The Catalan problem had now been replaced by a civil war. For seven years the Byzantine armies made no progress in reconquering Osman’s territories. Osman himself, perhaps feeling at the edge of his reach, did not advance farther; and the Turks remained in place until he died in 1327, leaving the principality to his son Orhan.

In May of the following year, Andronicus III finally won his war against the old emperor. He had been carrying on a constant propaganda campaign from Thrace, promising lower taxes and faster action against the Turks, and the people of Byzantium—overtaxed to pay for all of the ongoing fighting—were inclined to think that the time had come for a change in leadership. On the evening of May 23, 1328, supporters inside Constantinople opened the gates for Andronicus III and his troops; and they marched into the city.7

Andronicus III allowed his grandfather to abdicate and enter a monastery in safety; old Andronicus II lived there another five years, dying peacefully at the age of seventy-four.

The new emperor was now thirty-one years old, an experienced soldier with a strong following, most notably his longtime friend and now chief official (megas domestikos) John Cantacuzenus. He immediately began to push forward against the Turkish advance. But in Orhan, who had now named his principality the “Ottoman Empire” in memory of his father,* he faced an opponent as ambitious and capable as he. In the first battle where the two men came face-to-face, near the Marmara straits, Andronicus III was wounded, and the Byzantine ranks broke and fled.

In 1331, Orhan took Nicaea. He advanced to Nicomedia and laid siege to it; for the next six years, the Byzantine armies fought to drive him off. They forced the Turks to lift the siege twice, but both times Orhan retreated and then returned. By 1337, the fields and farms around Nicomedia had been laid waste for so long that the city could no longer be resupplied. The defenders were forced to open the gates, and Nicomedia surrendered.

The following year, Turkish raids into Thrace took thousands of Greek prisoners; three hundred thousand, according to contemporary chroniclers, a wildly inflated number that nevertheless reveals the panic the Byzantines felt, in the face of this ongoing, apparently unstoppable assault.8

Andronicus III had little time left to resist. In 1341 he was struck by a sudden high fever that lasted four days without breaking. On the fourth day the emperor died, a few months away from his forty-fifth birthday. He left the throne of Byzantium to his nine-year-old son, John V.9

He had made no arrangements for such a sudden end, and so his megas domestikos, John Cantacuzenus, assumed the role of regent for the child. Most of the Byzantine court seemed to think this perfectly natural; and as soon as affairs in the capital were in order, Cantacuzenus took the army out of Constantinople to head off border threats, a regent’s most important task.

In his absence, young John’s mother, the Empress Anne, and the Patriarch of Constantinople (who had never liked Cantacuzenus) paid off, promised, and flattered a critical mass of officials to declare Anne regent in place of Cantacuzenus. The megas domestikos, away in Thrace preparing for war, received the message that the city gates had been shut against him. After years of faithful service to young John’s father, he had been declared an enemy of the empire; his lands had been seized, his house destroyed, and even his mother exiled from the city.10

Cantacuzenus, who had been ready to serve the young emperor faithfully, could not swallow this insult. He decided to fight his way back into Constantinople and claim not just the regency but the crown of co-emperor.

Civil war began again.

AS THE WAR BETWEEN REGENTS dragged on, the king of Serbia launched his own bid for power.

Stefan Dushan was the great-great-great-grandson of Stefan Nemanja, the Serbian Grand Prince who had managed to free his country from Constantinople’s control. Dushan, the ninth king of a dynasty that had endured with enormous stability for nearly two centuries, had been crowned in 1331. His kingdom was bordered on the north by Hungary and Bosnia (technically a Hungarian vassal); on the east by Bulgaria; and on the south by Byzantium. For decades, Serbian nobles had been agitating for an attack on the bordering Byzantine lands; Stefan Dushan’s father had refused, but the son was willing.11

While John Cantacuzenus and his rivals fought, Stefan Dushan invaded. City after city fell in front of him, until he had reached almost as far as Thessalonica. “The great Serb,” complained Cantacuzenus, his hands occupied with Byzantine opponents, “like an overflowing river which has passed far beyond its banks, has already submerged one part of the Empire of the Romans with its waves, and is threatening to submerge another.”12

On Easter Sunday, 1346, Stefan Dushan made his intentions perfectly clear. He had already written to the Doge of Venice, whom he hoped to pacify with an alliance, claiming lordship of almost all of the imperii Romaniae; now he had himself coronated as Emperor of the Romans and Czar of the Serbs. He could see the throne of Constantinople, tossed into the air like a ball, hovering between claimants; there was no reason why he should not join their ranks.


60.2 Serbia under Stefan Dushan

IN THE END, Cantacuzenus beat him to it.

To bring the civil war to an end, he made overtures to the most powerful general around: Orhan of the Ottoman Turks. As incentive, Cantacuzenus offered a marriage alliance with one of his own daughters. Should Orhan help him retake Constantinople, the Ottoman chief would then be the son-in-law of the emperor: a position the Turkish leader could not even have dreamed of, two decades before. Orhan, who was an astute politician as well as a competent general, agreed to the plan.

In 1347, with a thousand of his own men with him and the threat of a much larger Turkish force hovering behind, John Cantacuzenus marched into the city through a gate opened to him by a supporter inside. The regent Anne was broke (she had, as a last resort, borrowed thirty thousand ducats from bankers in Venice, handing over the crown jewels of Constantinople as security) and unable to muster a defense. The people of Constantinople were ready for a competent emperor, and Cantacuzenus had no trouble negotiating a settlement: he would rule with young John V as equal co-emperor, taking the royal name John VI, and all the intrigues, hostilities, and injuries of the previous six years would be covered under a blanket amnesty.

He had his crown; but Stefan Dushan waited just past Thessalonica, and the Turkish alliance that had given it to him would barely survive the next decade.


*See map 56.1, p. 390.

*His subjects were actually known as “Osmanli,” the “descendants of Osman,” which came over into western languages as “Othmanli” or “Ottoman”.

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