Post-classical history

Chapter Seventy-Six


The Turks and the Desperate Emperor

Between 1352 and 1373, the Ottoman Turks are invited across the Hellespont, and the emperor of Byzantium loses almost everything

TWO EMPERORS now occupied the palace of Constantinople: twenty-year-old John V, son of Andronicus Palaeologus; and John VI, the former regent John Cantacuzenus, a man of nearly sixty.* Together, they ruled over a plague-battered city, a half-empty countryside, and a sadly shrunken empire: all that was left of glorious Byzantium was the old Roman province of Thrace, a handful of northern Aegean islands, and the city of Thessalonica, marooned on the coast with Stefan Dushan’s Serbian conquests all around it.1

It was a bleak picture, but young John V could see nothing but his own lack of power. His dominant co-ruler, John VI, had already handed parts of the empire over for his two surviving sons to govern: the remote southernmost tip of the Greek peninsula to the younger, the strategically valuable city of Adrianople to Matthew, his oldest.2

In the summer of 1352, young John V marched recklessly into Matthew’s territory and laid siege to Adrianople. Matthew sent his father a plea for help; to supplement the thinned ranks of the Byzantine army, John VI asked his old ally Orhan of the Ottomans for help.

Orhan agreed, and sent over into Byzantium a whole detachment of Turkish soldiers, under the command of his own oldest son, Suleyman Pasha. In return, young John begged another dangerous enemy for help; he sent a message to Stefan Dushan, asking for reinforcements.

Dushan sent four thousand soldiers, and the Byzantine-Ottoman troops defending Adrianople lined up against the Byzantine-Serbian soldiers trying to conquer it. On the banks of the Marica river, right outside Adrianople’s walls, the Ottomans crushed the Serbs, and young John’s allies retreated. John himself was taken prisoner; the older John ordered him deported to Tenedos, a fifteen-mile-long island just off the coast of Asia Minor.

Claiming that he acted more in sorrow than in anger, John VI now declared his young co-ruler deposed and appointed his own son Matthew to be emperor in his place. But he had overstepped. His invitation to the Turks had not been a popular one, especially since (as Nicephorus Gregoras tells us) he had raided the churches and monasteries of Constantinople for enough gold and silver to pay them. When, after the battle, the Turks rampaged their way through the villages near Adrianople, taking what they pleased, he was widely thought to have given them permission. Even worse, Orhan’s son Suleyman Pasha had seized a fortress in Thrace—Tzympe, on the coast—and now refused to leave.3

Two hundred and fifty years earlier, Alexius Comnenus had invited Crusaders east to deal with the Turks and, in doing so, had made his empire vulnerable to their attack. John VI had invited the Turks west to deal with his fellow Byzantines, and had given them a foothold in his empire; Constantinople would pay the price for this decision as well.

John VI grew steadily more unpopular, the presence of the Turks increasingly irksome. In 1354, catastrophe threw its weight onto the Turkish side. On the morning of March 2, a massive earthquake shook the entire coastline of the Aegean Sea. The walls of Constantinople itself shifted and cracked. Throughout Thrace, houses and fortresses crumbled; some villages entirely disappeared. The city of Gallipoli, the key point for controlling passage over the Hellespont, was flattened. Thousands died; the survivors were lashed by fierce storms of alternating rain and snow.4

John VI launched relief efforts from Constantinople, but the Turks were already on their way. Suleyman Pasha, hearing of Gallipoli’s destruction, rounded up a massive crowd of Turkish soldiers and civilians and descended on the deserted ruins. They occupied the wrecked empty houses, repaired the walls, and claimed the city as their own. More Turks dispersed through the countryside, doing the same whenever they found a shattered village. It was a quiet and effective occupation, and they refused to leave.5

The Byzantine survivors expected their emperor to drive the squatters out, but John VI hoped to shift them through diplomacy instead. “Intelligent men do not go to war without first weighing the strength of their own forces against those of their enemy,” he wrote in his memoirs, justifying his refusal to fight. “These barbarians have great experience, great numbers, and great enthusiasm. . . . Our resources are by comparison minimal. Our army, once so brilliant and celebrated, is now poor and small; our public revenues are reduced to poverty and insignificance.”6

But when he appealed to Orhan, the Ottoman leader stalled. Young John took advantage of the situation; in November he escaped from his island and returned to Constantinople. The citizens welcomed him, shouting his name in the streets and demanding his return to power.

John VI buckled. On December 10, he abdicated as co-emperor of the Byzantine realm and handed all power over to the younger man. His abdication seems to have been a relief; he had been running the empire for over thirty years, and bad luck had dogged him the entire time. He entered the Monastery of St. George in Constantinople, and there he remained for the rest of his long life, finally dying at the age of ninety-one.7

Constantinople, now in worse shape than ever, was in the hands of John V. Aged twenty-three, inexperienced at war, he was facing the Turks on the east and Stefan Dushan of Serbia on the west. One or the other seemed likely to seize the city and the throne; but Stefan Dushan, gearing up the effort, suffered a massive stroke in December 1355 and died. He was only forty-seven, and had named no heir. His empire immediately split apart under battling successors.8

This left Orhan and the Ottomans as John V’s greatest problem: a problem that would occupy him for the next seventeen years of his reign.

Unlike the older John, he was very willing to attack the Turks. But he soon realized that his deposed co-emperor had had a point. The Byzantine army alone was completely incapable of driving out the Turks.

So, having learned precisely nothing from history, he sent an appeal to the pope for help. His letter to Avignon made an offer that would never have crossed Alexius Comnenus’s mind. In exchange for Christian soldiers and ships, John V offered to convert to Catholicism and to return the entire empire to the Catholic fold.

Clement VI had survived the plague, dying in 1352 after a long illness; his successor in Avignon was the Frenchman Innocent VI. Innocent, a lawyer by training, politely sent a papal legate to instruct the emperor in the faith, but he ignored the request for soldiers. John V had not bothered to consult his advisors about the offer, and Innocent VI was a realist; he knew the chances that the Orthodox church would willingly dissolve itself were less than slim.9

After the pope, John V tried the Serbs (too embroiled in their own civil wars), Genoa and Venice (unable to supply the necessary numbers), and the king of Hungary (too busy with his own war against Bulgaria). Meanwhile, the Ottoman occupation of Thrace crept forward. The opportunistic Suleyman Pasha was killed in a riding accident in 1357 (his horse was executed and buried next to his body on the Thracian shore), and Orhan sent his second son Murad across the Hellespont to take his place as governor of Gallipoli and leader of the Turkish invasion. “The Turkish historians say that the prince Murad . . . was the most powerful of the line of the Ottomans,” says the sixteenth-century Greek chronicler Theodore Spandounes, “for there was no one to be found who could defeat him in battle. He was always the first to strike.”10

Under Murad, the occupation turned into an out-and-out invasion. He besieged and captured the city of Didymoteichon, the second-largest in Byzantium, and then took Adrianople as well. Renamed Edirne, the latter city became the Ottoman capital in Thrace.

His father Orhan died sometime late in 1361 or early in 1362 (the Turkish chronologies are unclear), and Murad became the Ottoman chief. Orhan had taken the title of sultan to himself for the first time in the year of his death; now Murad adopted it as well.11

And the conquest of Thrace continued.


76.1 The Ottoman Empire

ABRUPTLY, the Avignon papacy tottered.

The lawyer Innocent VI died in September of 1362, and the conclave of cardinals decided to elevate the Benedictine monk William Grimoard in his place. At the time, Grimoard was in Italy on a papal mission; when he heard of Innocent VI’s death, he is said to have burst out, “If a Pope were elected who would restore the seat of St. Peter to Italy, I would die content!” News of his own election came shortly after.12

On his return to France, he took the name Urban V. He was ascetic by nature, severe and pious by training, and he had little patience with the luxury that Innocent VI had lived in. He also believed that the papacy could not serve both God and the king of France, and from the moment of his election he began to plan a return to Rome.

The cardinals, most of whom preferred France, objected; but the Roman Senate sent messages of encouragement, and the poet Petrarch (now in his sixties) sent a long and flowery appeal. “While you are sleeping on the shores of the Rhone, under a gilded roof,” his letter began, “the Lateran is a ruin, the Mother of Churches open to the wind and rain; the churches of the Apostles are shapeless heaps of stones.”13

In April of 1367, Urban V set sail from Marseille* and took the papacy (and the unwilling cardinals, who complained the whole way about Italian customs, Italian manners, and Italian food) back to its birthplace. The papal palace was indeed a ruin, but he took up temporary residence near Viterbo.

It was there that John V of Constantinople arrived, two years later: at his wits’ end for help, he had decided to appeal once again to the Church. He had realized that the Greek church would not tamely surrender to the pope, but as a last-ditch attempt to raise support, he had decided to convert himself, in the hopes that the Orthodox back in Constantinople would follow.

Urban V agreed to receive the emperor back into the fold of the faithful. In an elaborate ceremony on October 21, 1369, John V kissed the pope’s feet, hands, and mouth, and was welcomed into the Catholic faith.14

In return, Urban V supplied him with three hundred soldiers, hardly enough to mount an attack on the Ottomans. But the pope also issued an official bull ordering all Christian monarchs in the west to do everything possible to assist the emperor, as he was now a full brother in the faith. Armed with this assurance, John V tried to raise support from both Genoa and Venice; he was too broke to get home without help, in any case. But when he arrived in Venice, he discovered that the Doge was still calculating interest on the unpaid 30,000-ducat loan taken out by his mother Anne, back in the days of the civil war with John Cantacuzenus. The Doge politely refused to forgive the debt; John V had no money left for travel; and so the emperor of Byzantium was stranded in Venice, saddled with debt, and unable to get back to Constantinople.

Eventually his oldest son Manuel managed to raise the cash by confiscating treasure from the churches and monasteries in Thessalonica, where he was governor, and made his way to Venice to bail out his father. John V arrived at his capital city, humiliated, converted, and penniless, in October 1371. There, he learned that Murad had just led the Ottoman army in a shattering defeat of the Serbians, killing two of the princes who had claimed parts of the Serbian empire after Stefan Dushan’s death, and driving deep into Serbian territory. The Turkish threat now flanked Byzantium, cutting the remnants of the empire off from the rest of Europe; only by water could John return home.15

The emperor gave up.

Contemporary accounts do not record the terms of the treaty, but by 1373, John V had sworn a vassal’s oath to Murad and was carrying out his duties by fighting with Murad against rival Turkish tribes in Anatolia. He had renounced his faith and humiliated himself at Venice for nothing; he had transformed himself from an Orthodox Byzantine emperor into a Catholic Turkish vassal, and in return had lost everything but Constantinople itself.16


*See chapter 60, p. 425.

*See map 73.1, p. 518

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