Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

Decline and Decay


There was now once more a Byzantine empire, and to an unobservant reader the history of the reigns of the Paleologi looks like the natural continuation and sequel of the history of the reigns of Isaac Angelus and his brother. If the annals of Michael VIII. and his son were written on to the end of that of Alexius Angelus, the intervening gap of the Latin Conquest might almost pass unperceived, and the reader might imagine that he was investigating a single continuous course of events. The Frank dominion at Constantinople, and the heroic episode of the Empire of Nicaea, would pass equally unnoticed.

We need not insist on the perniciousness of such a view. Great as may seem the similarity of the Byzantine Empire of 1204, and that of 1270, it had really suffered an entire transformation in that period. To commence by the most obvious and external sign of change, it will be observed that the lands subject to Michael Paleologus were far more limited in extent than those which had obeyed Alexius Angelus. The loss in Asia was less than might have been expected: Theodore Lascaris and John Ducas had kept back the Turk, and only two districts of no great extent had fallen into Moslem hands the Pisidian coast with the seaport of Adalia on the south, and the Paphlagonian coast with the seaport of Sinope on the north. Besides these the distant Pontic province had now become the empire of Trebizond.

In Europe the loss was far more serious: four great blocks of territory had been lost forever. The first was a slip along the southern slope of the Balkans, in Northern Thrace and Macedonia which had fallen into the hands of the Bulgarians, and become completely Slavonized. The second was the district which is represented by the modern land of Albania. When the Angeli of Thessalonica fell before John Ducas, a younger member of the house retired to the original mountain house of the dynasty, and preserved the independence of the "Despotate of Epirus." Here the Angeli survived for some generations, maintaining themselves against the Emperors of Constantinople by a strict alliance with the Latin princes of Southern Greece.

Next in the list of Old-Byzantine territories which Michael never recovered, we must place Greece proper, now divided between the Princes of Achaia, of the house of Villehardouin, and the Briennes, who had succeeded to the Duchy of Athens. But the Paleologi still retained a considerable slice of the Peloponnesus, and were destined to encroach ere long on their Frankish neighbours. Lastly, we must Wien; on the islands of the Aegean, of which the large majority were held either by the Venetian government, or by Venetian adventurers, who ruled as independent lords, but subordinated their policy to that of their native state.

But the territorial difference between the empire of 1204 and the empire of 1261was only one of the causes which crippled the realm of the Paleologi. Bad though the internal government of the dominions of Alexius III. had been, there was still then some hope of recovery. The old traditions of East-Roman administrative economy, though neglected, were not lost, and might have been revived by an emperor who had a keen eye to discover ability and a ready hand to reward merit. New blood in the personnel of the ministry, and a keen supervision of details by the master's eye, would have produced an improvement in the state of the empire, though any permanent restoration of strength was probably made impossible by the deep-seated decay of society. But by the time of Michael Paleologus even amelioration had become impossible. The three able emperors who reigned at Nicaea, though they had preserved their independence against Turk and Frank, had utterly failed in restoring administrative efficiency in their provinces. John Vatatzes, himself a thrifty monarch, who could even condescend to poultry-farming to fill his modest exchequer, found that all his efforts to protect native industry could not cause the dried-up springs of prosperity to flow again. The whole fiscal and administrative machinery of government had been thrown hopelessly out of gear.

It was the commercial decline of the empire that made a reform of the administration so hopeless. The Paleologi were never able to reassert the old dominion over the seas which had made their predecessors the arbiters of the trade of Christendom. The wealth of the elder Byzantine Empire had arisen from the fact that Constantinople was the central emporium of the trade of the civilized world. All the caravan routes from Syria and Persia converged thither. Thither, too, had come by sea the commodities of Egypt and the Euxine. All the Eastern products which Europe might require had to be sought in the storehouses of Constantinople, and for centuries the nations of the West had been contented to go thither for them. But the Crusades had shaken this monopoly, when they taught the Italians to seek the hitherto unknown parts of Syria and Egypt, and buy their Eastern merchandize from the producer and not from the middleman. Acre and Alexandria had already profited very largely at the expense of Constantinople ere the Byzantine Empire was upset in 1204. But the Latin conquest was the fatal blow. It threw the control of the trade of the Bosphorus into the hands of the Venetians, and the Venetians had no desire to make Constantinople their one central mart: they were just as ready to trade through the Syrian and Egyptian ports. To them the city was no more than an important half-way house for the Black Sea trade, and an emporium for the local produce of the countries round the Sea of Marmora. From 1204 onward Italy rather than Constantinople became the centre and starting-place for all European trade, and the great Italian republics employed all their vigilance to prevent the Greek fleet from recovering its old strength. Henceforth the Byzantine war-navy was insignificant, and without a war-navy the Paleologi could not drive away the intruders and restore the free navigation of the Levant to their own mercantile marine.

The emperors who succeeded each other on the restored throne of Constantinople were, without exception, men more fitted to lose than to hold together an exhausted and impoverished empire. Their lot was cast, it is true, in hard times; but hardly one of them showed a spark of ability or courage in endeavouring to face the evil day. The three monarchs of the house of Lascaris who ruled at Nicaea had been keen soldiers and competent administrators, but with the return of the emperors to Constantinople the springs of energy began to dry up, and the gloom and decay of the ruined capital seemed to affect the spirit and brain of its rulers.

Michael Paleologus, though it was his fortune to recover the city which his abler predecessors had failed to take, was a mere wily intriguer, not a statesman or general. Having usurped the throne by the basest treachery towards his infant sovereign, he always feared for himself a similar fate. Suspicion and cruelty were his main characteristics, and in his care for his own person he quite forgot the interests of the State. Even contemporary chroniclers saw that he was deliberately setting himself to weaken the empire, because he dreaded the resentment of his subjects. He disbanded nearly all the native Greek troops, and refrained as far as possible from employing Greek generals.

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


One of his minor acts in this direction may be said to have been the original circumstance which set the Ottoman Turks, the future bane of the empire, on their career of conquest. The borders of the empire in Asia were defended by a native militia, who held their lands under condition of defending the castles and passes of the Bithynian and Phrygian mountains. The institution, which somewhat resembled a simple form of European feudalism, had worked so well that the Byzantine Empire had for a century and a half kept its Asiatic frontier practically intact, in spite of all the pressure of the Seljouk Turks of the Sultanate of Iconium. But the Bithynian militia were known to be attached to the house of Ducas, which Michael had dethroned, and he therefore resolved to disarm them. The measure was carried out, not without bloodshed, but the disbanded levy were not replaced by any adequate number of regular troops. Michael's financial straits did not permit him to keep under arms a very large force, such as was required to garrison his eastern line of forts after the abolition of the previous machinery of defence. Ten years only before Othman, the father of the Ottoman Turks, succeeded to the petty principality which was destined to be the nucleus of the Turkish Empire, the way for him had been thrown open by Michael's suspicious disarmament of the guards of his own frontier.

Michael lived for twenty-one years after the recovery of Constantinople, but he did not win a single important advantage in all the rest of his reign. In Europe he barely held his own against the Bulgarians, the Franks, and the fleets of Genoa and Venice. The troubles which befell him at the hands of the two naval powers were largely of his own creation, for he shifted his alliance from one to the other with such levity and suddenness that both regarded him as unfriendly. Though all through his reign he was at war either with Genoa or Venice, yet such was the distrust felt for him that, when at war with one of the rivals, he could not always secure the help of the other. Venice had been the mainstay of the Frank emperors of Constantinople, and Michael might, therefore, have been expected to remain staunch to the Genoese. On the other hand, the Genoese had designs on the Black Sea trade, which touched the Emperor's pocket very closely, while the Venetians were more connected with the distant commerce of Syria and Egypt, which did not concern him. Balancing one consideration with the other, Michael played false to both the powers, and often saw his coast ravaged and his small fleet compelled to take refuge in the Golden Horn, while the enemy's vessels swept the seas. On land he was less unlucky, and the Duke of Athens and the despot of Epirus were both kept in check, though neither of them were subdued.

But it was in Asia that Michael's rule was most unfortunate. In the second half of his reign the Seljouks, though split into several principalities owing to the breakup of the Sultanate of Iconium, united to assail the borders of the empire. They conquered the Carian and Lydian inland, though Tralles and several other towns made a vigorous resistance, and reduced Michael's dominion in South-western Asia Minor to a mere strip along the coast. A similar fate befell Eastern Bithynia, where the Turks forced their way as far as the river Sangarius.

But the ruin of Byzantine Asia was reserved to fall into the times of Michael's son and successor, Andronicus II. This prince had all the faults of his father, levity, perfidy, and cruelty, with others added from which Michael had been free—cowardice and superstition. The main interest which Andronicus took in life was concerned with things ecclesiastical it would be wrong to say things religious and he spent his life in making and unmaking patriarchs of Constantinople. No prelate could bear with him long, and in the course of his reign he deposed no less than nine of them.

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


While Andronicus was quarrelling with his patriarchs the empire was going to ruin. The Seljouk chiefs from the plateau of Asia Minor were pressing down more and more towards the coast, and making their way to the very gates of Ephesus and Smyrna. At last the emperor, growing seriously alarmed when the Turks appeared on the shores of the Propontis itself, and threatened the walls of Nicaea and Prusa, resolved to make an unwonted effort to beat them back.

In 1302 the long war of the "Sicilian Vespers" between the houses of Anjou and Aragon came to an end, and the hordes of mercenaries of all nations which the two pretenders to the crown of Sicily had maintained were turned loose on the world. It occurred to Andronicus that he might hire enough of the veterans of the Sicilian war to enable him to beat back the Turks into their hills. All Europe acknowledged that they were the hardiest and best-disciplined troops in Christendom, though they were also the most cruel and lawless. Accordingly the emperor applied to Roger de Flor, a renegade Templar, the commander of the mercenaries who had served Frederic of Aragon, and offered to take him into his service, with as many of his followers as could be induced to accompany him. Roger accepted with alacrity, and came to Constantinople in 1303 with 6,000 men at his back; other bodies were soon to follow. Andronicus loaded the "Grand Company," as Roger de Flor styled his men, with unlimited promises, and a certain amount of ready money. Roger himself was given the title of "Grand Duke," and married to a lady of the imperial house. After clearing the Turks out of the Bithynian coast-land the "Grand Company" spent the winter of 1303-04 in free quarters along the southern coast of Propontis. Their plundering habits and their arrogance soon brought them into ill odour with the inhabitants, who complained that they were well-nigh as great a curse as the Turks. In the next year Roger moved south with his host, and drove the Turks out of Lydia and Caria; but instead of putting the emperor into possession of the reconquered land, he garrisoned every fortress with his own men, and raised and appropriated the imperial taxes. There can be little doubt that he was plotting to seize on the provinces he had regained, and to reign at Ephesus as an independent prince. At last Roger went so far as to lay formal siege to Philadelphia, because its inhabitants preferred to obey orders from Constantinople, and would not admit him within their gates. Andronicus then lured him to an interview at Adrianople, and in his very presence the great condottiere was assassinated by George the Alan, an officer whose son had been slain in a brawl by Roger's soldiers. The Emperor had probably arranged the murder, and certainly refused to arrest its perpetrator [1307].

He was promptly punished. The "Grand Company" was not disorganized by the loss of its leader, and thought of nothing but revenge. Assembling themselves in haste, and abandoning Asia Minor to the Turks, they marched on Constantinople, harrying the land far and wide with fiendish cruelty. The Emperor sent his son Michael against them, but the young prince was disgracefully beaten in two fights at Gallipoli and Apros, and the mercenaries spread themselves all over Thrace and plundered it up to the gates of the capital. It almost looked as\ if a second Latin Conquest of Constantinople was about to take place, for the leaders of the "Grand Company" got succour from Europe, raised a corps of Turkish auxiliaries, and occupied Thrace for two years. But they could not storm the walls of Constantinople or Adrianople, and at last, after two years of plundering, they had stripped the country so bare that they were driven away by famine. Drifting southward and westward they ravaged Macedon and Thessaly, and at last reached Greece. Here they fell into a quarrel with Walter de Brienne, Duke of Athens, slew him in battle and took his capital. Then at last did the wandering horde settle down; they seized the duchy, divided its fiefs among themselves, and established a new dynasty on the Athenian throne. The empire was at last quit of them, for when once they ceased to wander the "Grand Company" ceased to be dangerous.

This disastrous war with the mercenaries not only ruined Thrace and Macedonia, but was the cause of the final loss of the Byzantine provinces of Asia Minor. While Andronicus was feebly attempting to cope with the "Grand Company," the Seljouk chiefs had conquered Lydia and Phrygia once more, and then advanced yet further north to siege Mysia and Bithynia. By 1325 they had reduced the Emperor's dominions on the east of the straits to a narrow strip, reaching from the Dardanelles to the northern exit of the Bosphorus, and bounded by the Bithynian hills to the south. Five Seljouk leaders had carved out for themselves principalities in the conquered districts, Menteshe in the south, Aidin and Saroukhan in Lydia, Karasi in Mysia, and in the Bithynian border-land Othman, destined to a fame very different from that of his long-forgotten compeers.

While Othman and the rest were turning the once thickly-peopled countries of Western Asia Minor into a desert sparsely inhabited by wandering nomads, Andronicus II. was busied in a war even more uncalled for than that with the mercenaries. He wished to exclude from the succession to the throne his grandson and heir, who bore the same name as himself. But the younger Andronicus took measures to defend his rights, and raised armed bands. Grandfather and grandson were ere long engaged in a long but feebly-conducted war, which was only terminated in 1328, when the old man acknowledged Andronicus the younger as his heir, and made him his colleague on the throne. But his grandson, not contented with this measure of success, made him retire from the conduct of affairs, and assumed control over every function of government. The name of Andronicus II. was still associated with that of Andronicus III. on the coinage and in the public prayers, but he took no further part in the rule of the empire. In 1332 he died, at a good old age, lamented by no single individual in the realm which he had ruled for fifty years. At his death the empire was only two-thirds of the size that it had been at his accession.