Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Turks in Europe

Andronicus III was a shade better than the incapable old man whom he supplanted. Though he was given like all his house to treachery and deceit, and though hips life was loose and luxurious, he was at any rate active and energetic. He may be described as a weak reflection or copy of Manuel Comnenus, being a mighty hunter, a bold spear both in the tournament and on the battle-field, and a great spender of money. If he had not the brains to keep his empire together, he at any rate fought his best, and did not sit apathetically at home like his grandfather while everything was going to rack and ruin.

Nevertheless, Andronicus III. was destined to see the termination of the process which had begun under Andronicus II. the entire loss of the Asiatic provinces of the empire to the Turks. It was now with the Ottomans almost exclusively that he had to deal; the other Seljouk hordes had no longer any marchland along the shrunken frontier of his dominions.

These new foes of the empire deserve a word of description. Othman, the son of Ertogrul, was a vassal of the Seljouk Sultan of Roum, who had been granted a tract in the Phrygian highlands under the condition of military service against the Greeks. His fief lay in the northwest angle of the great central plateau of Asia Minor. Behind it lay the rolling country of hills and uplands already occupied by the Seljouks. Before it were the Bithynian mountains, with their passes protected by forts, and garrisoned by local militia, till the day when they were so perversely stripped of their defenders by the action of Michael Paleologus. Othman, and his father Ertogrul before him, owned nothing in the hills, nor could they have pushed on if Michael had not made the way easy for them. But after 1270 the native militia was gone, and the followers of Othman, instead of having to face an armed population, fighting to protect its own fields, found to oppose them only inadequate garrisons of regular troops at long intervals.

Othman's life covered two series of great events, the disastrous reign of Andronicus II. at Constantinople, and in Asia Minor the no less disastrous break-up of the power of his own suzerain, the Sultan of Roum. In 1294, Gaiaseddin, the last undisputed sovereign of the Seljouk line, fell in battle against rebels; and in 1307, Aladdin III., the last prince who claimed to be supreme Sultan, died in exile. This made Othman an independent prince; but he did not take the title of Sultan, contenting himself with the humbler name of Emir.

Othman's field of operation from 1281 to 1326 was the Byzantine borderland of Bithynia and Mysia. He was by no means the strongest of the Seljouk chiefs who made a lodgement within the borders of the empire, and it took him twenty years before he conquered one large town. His wild horsemen harried the open seacoast plain of Bithynia again and again, till at last the wretched inhabitants emigrated, or acknowledged him as their sovereign. But the towns, within their strong Roman walls, were unassailable by the light cavalry which formed his only armed strength. The siege of Prusa [Broussa], the capital and key of the region, lasted ten years. The Turks built a chain of forts around it and gradually made the introduction of provisions more and more difficult, till at last a large force was required to march out every time that a convoy was expected. At length the inhabitants could find no advantage in spending their whole lives in a beleaguered town undergoing slow starvation. Prusa surrendered in 1326, and Othman heard of the news on his death-bed. The Turkish frontier now once again touched the Sea of Marmora, which it had not reached since the Crusaders thrust it back inland in 1097.

The reign of Othman's son Orkhan, the second Emir of the Ottomans, almost coincided with that of Andronicus III. All that the one lost the other gained. Orkhan's life-work was the completion of the conquest of Bithynia, which his father had begun. He took Nicomedia in 1327 and Nicaea in 1333, with all the surrounding territory, so that Andronicus retained nothing but Chalcedon and the district immediately facing Constantinople beyond the Bosphorus. Only once did he have to meet the Emperor in pitched battle; this was at the fight of Pelekanon in 1329. Andronicus was wounded early in the day, and his army, deprived of its leader went to pieces and was severely beaten. After his recovery from his wounds the Emperor never faced the Ottomans again.

After conquering Bithynia, Orkhan subdued his nearest neighbours among the other Seljouk Emirs, and then turned to organizing his state. This was the date of the institution of his famous corps of the Janissaries, the first steady infantry that any Eastern power had ever possessed. He imposed on his Christian subjects in Mysia and Bithynia a tribute, not of money, but of male children. The boys were taken over while very young, placed in barracks, educated in the strictest and most fanatical Moslem code, and trained to the profession of arms. Having light horse enough and to spare, Orkhan taught the Janissaries to fight on foot with bow and sabre. They were well drilled, and moved in compact masses, which for many ages no foe proved competent to sunder and disperse. So thorough was the physical and moral discipline to which the Janissaries were subjected, that it was almost unknown for one of them to turn back from his career and relapse into Christianity. To keep them firm in their allegiance there acted not only the military and conventual discipline to which they were subject, but the dazzling prospect of future greatness. The Ottoman sovereigns made it their rule to select their generals and governors, their courtiers and personal attendants from the ranks of the tribute-children. It was calculated that more than two-thirds of the Grand-Viziers of Turkey, in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, had begun their career as Janissaries.

The first generation of the "New Soldiery" [for such is the meaning of the word Janissary] grew up to the military age during the latter half of the reign of Orkhan, and it was he who first utilized them on the European shore of the Bosphorus.

Andronicus III. died in 1341, and left his shrunken dominions to the risks of a minority, for his son and heir, John III., was only nine years of age. If anything had been wanting to aid in the destruction of the empire, it was the arrival of such a contingency. The usual troubles soon set in, and the inevitable civil war was not far off.

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


The evil spirit of the time was John Cantacuzenus, the prime minister of the deceased emperor. He was a clever, shifty, intriguing courtier, with a turn for literature, but had the abilities neither of a general nor of a statesman. However, he had read the tale of the rise of the Paleologi to some purpose, and had resolved to imitate the career of Michael VIII. Now, as in 1258, there was the best of chances for an unscrupulous minister to make himself first the colleague and then the supplanter of his young master. Cantacuzenus did his best to repeat the doings of Michael on Michael's great-great-grandson. He bribed and intrigued, made himself a party in the state, and prepared for a coup d' tat when the time should be ripe. Unfortunately for himself, Cantacuzenus was not of the stuff of which successful usurpers are made. He had his scruples and superstitions, and showed a fatal habit of procrastination which always led him to act a day too late. The Empress Dowager, Anne of Savoy, succeeded in raising a party against him, and when he threw of the mask and declared himself emperor he found himself unable to seize the capital, though he mustered an army under its walls. Finding that he was playing a losing game, Cantacuzenus took the usual step of calling in the national enemy to aid him. It was for the last time that this was done in Byzantine history, but never before had the result been so fatal. The usurper summoned to his aid first Stephen Dushan, the king of the Servians, and a little later the. Turkish princes from across the Aegean—Orkhan the son of Othman, and his rival, Amour, Emir of Aidin.

These allies kept the cause of John Cantacuzenus from destruction, but it was by destroying the empire that John had coveted. King Stephen entered Macedonia and Thrace, and occupied the whole country-side, except Thessalonica and a few other towns. He then pushed further south, conquered Thessaly, and made the despot of Epirus do him homage.. The Byzantine government retained little more than the capital, and the districts round Adrianople and Thessalonica. Most of this country was lost forever to the imperial crown, and it seemed as if a Servian domination in the Balkan Peninsula was about to begin, for Stephen moved south from Servia, made Uscup in Macedonia his capital, and proclaimed himself "Emperor of the Servians and Romans."

It would perhaps have been well for Christendom if Stephen had actually conquered Constantinople and made an end of the empire. In that case there would have been a single great power in the Balkan Peninsula, ready to meet the oncoming assault of the Turks. But Dushan was not strong enough to take the great city, and to the misfortune of Europe he died in 1355 leaving a realm extending from the Danube to the pass of Thermopylae. But his young son Urosh was soon assassinated, and the Servian Empire broke up as rapidly as it had grown together. A dozen princes were soon scrambling for the remnants of Stephen's heritage.

The other allies whom John Cantacuzenus called in were the Turks Amour and Orkhan, and on them he depended far more than on the Servian. He took over into Thrace a large body of Turkish horse, and allowed them to harry the country-side and carry away his subjects by thousands, to be sold in the slave-markets of Smyrna and Broussa. But the depth of John's degradation was reached when he gave his daughter Theodora to Orkhan, to be immured in the Turk's harem. Thrace was rapidly assuming the aspect of a desert under the incursions of the Ottoman mercenaries of Cantacuzenus, when after six years of war the party of the Empress Anne consented to recognize the usurper as the colleague and guardian of the rightful heir. A hollow peace was patched up, and the two Johns could take stock of their dilapidated realm [1347]. The net result of their civil war had been that Macedonia and Thessaly were in Servian hands, and that Thrace was utterly ruined by the Turks. There was nothing left that could be called an empire; all that remained was Constantinople and Adrianople, the town of Thessalonica and the Byzantine province in the Peloponnesus. Cantacuzenus certainly deserves a notable place by the side of Isaac and Alexius Angelus, as the third of the great destroyers of the Eastern Empire.

But his evil work was not yet done. For seven years he ruled in conjunction with John Paleologus, waging and unsuccessful war against Servia in the hopes of winning back Dushan's conquests. But in 1354 the young emperor, having attained the age of twenty-four, resolved to assert himself, and took arms to dethrone his guardian. Cantacuzenus resisted, and sent over to Asia for the troops of his son-in-law Orkhan, who crossed into Thrace and drove the adherents of the Paleologi out of several fortresses. But a night surprise from the side of the sea put John Paleologus in possession of Constantinople, and by a fortunate chance he got Cantacuzenus himself into his hands. The usurper was, in accordance with the usual practice, tonsured and placed in a monastery; by exceptional good fortune he was spared the loss of his eyes, and was able to spend the remainder of his life in writing a history of his own time.

But it was of little use to sweep away Cantacuzenus while Orkhan's Turks were in Thrace. The Ottomans had come as auxiliaries in the war, but they were resolved to stop as principals. Suleiman, the son of Orkhan, seized Gallipoli for himself, filled it with Turkish families, and made it a permanent settlement. This was the first Ottoman foothold in Europe, but it was not long to remain isolated.

In 1359 Orkhan died, and his successor, Murad I., determined to cross over into Europe, and try the fortune of his arms. John Paleologus was not a worse man than his immediate predecessors on the throne, but thanks to Cantacuzenus he had far less resources than even they had possessed. Two years of fighting sufficed to put Thrace in the hands of Murad from sea to sea. A decisive battle in front of Adrianople in 1361 was the finishing stroke, and the empire became a mere head without a body; its last home-province had been lopped away, and beyond the walls of Constantinople no land acknowledged John V. as sovereign save the district of Thessalonica and the Peloponnesus.

Why Murad I. did not finish the task he had begun, and take Constantinople itself, it is hard to discern. Its walls were still formidable, and the Genoese and Venetians could still protect it on the side of the sea. But a siege pressed firmly to an end must at last have triumphed over the mere inert resistance of stone and mortar, unsupported by an adequate garrison within. However, Murad preferred to press on against worthier adversaries than the weak Paleologus, and spent his life in incessant and successful wars with the Servians the Bulgarians, and the Seljouk Emirs of Southern Asia Minor. In a reign of thirty years he extended his borders to the Balkans on the north, and annexed large tracts of Seljouk territory from his brother Emirs in Asia Minor.

John Paleologus was his humble vassal and slave. After a vain attempt to get help from the Pope, this emperor without an empire resolved to make what terms he could, and rejoiced when he found that Murad was prepared to grant him peace. The Turk was a hard master, and rejoiced in giving his vassal unpalatable tasks. Best remembered among the tribulations of John is the siege of Philadelphia. That place had preserved a precarious independence after all the other cities of Byzantine Asia fell into the hands of the Turkish Emirs. Being far away in the Lydian hills, it lost touch with Constantinople, and had become a free town. Murad, wishing to subdue it, compelled John V. and his son Manuel to march in person against the last Christian stronghold in Asia. The Emperor submitted to the degradation, and Philadelphia surrendered when it saw the imperial banner hoisted among the horse-tails of the Turkish pashas above the camp of the besiegers. The humiliation of the empire could go no further than when the heir of Justinian and Basil Bulgaroktonos took the field at the behest of an upstart Turkish Emir, in order to extinguish the last relics of freedom among his own compatriots.