Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

A Second View

The Byzantine Empire, Part One

Eastern Europe, And Russia To 1600

 

                                  Donald MacGillivray Nicol: KoraŽs Professor Emeritus of Byzantine and Modern Greek History, Language, and Literature, King's College, University of London. Director, Gennadius Library, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1989Ė92. Author of The Last Centuries of Byzantium and others.

 

 

Byzantium: The Shining Fortress

Introduction

 

 

     When we speak of the fall of the Roman Empire, we should not forget that

in fact only the western portion of that empire succumbed to the Germanic

invaders. In the east, the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire stood for a

thousand years as a citadel against the threats of expansion by the Muslims.

 

     The Byzantine Empire made great contributions to civilization: Greek

language and learning were preserved for posterity; the Roman imperial system

was continued and Roman law codified; the Greek Orthodox church converted some

Slavic peoples and fostered the development of a splendid new art dedicated to

the glorification of the Christian religion. Situated at the crossroads of

east and west, Constantinople acted as the disseminator of culture for all

peoples who came in contact with the empire. Called with justification "The

City," this rich and turbulent metropolis was to the early Middle Ages what

Athens and Rome had been to classical times. By the time the empire collapsed

in 1453, its religious mission and political concepts had borne fruit among

the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe and especially among the Russians. The

latter were to lay claim to the Byzantine tradition and to call Moscow the

"Third Rome."

 

Byzantium: The Shining Fortress

 

     At the southern extremity of the Bosphorus stands a promontory that juts

out from Europe toward Asia, with the Sea of Marmora to the south and a long

harbor known as the Golden Horn to the north. On this peninsula stood the

ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which Constantine the Great enlarged

considerably and formally christened "New Rome" in A.D. 330 (see chap. 5).

 

     Constantine had chosen the site for his new capital with care. He placed

Constantinople (now Istanbul) on the frontier of Europe and Asia, dominating

the waterway connecting the Mediterranean and Black seas. Nature protected the

site on three sides with cliffs; on the fourth side, emperors fortified the

city with an impenetrable three-wall network. During the fourth and fifth

centuries Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths unsuccessfully threatened the city.

In the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, first Persians, then Arab forces,

and finally the Bulgarians besieged - but failed to take - Constantinople.

Until 1453, with the exception of the Fourth Crusade's treachery, the city

withstood all attacks.

 

     The security and wealth provided by its setting helped Byzantium survive

for more than a thousand years. Constantinople was a state-controlled, world

trade center which enjoyed the continuous use of a money economy - in contrast

to the localized systems found in the west. The city's wealth and taxes paid

for a strong military force and financed an effective government. Excellent

sewage and water systems supported an extremely high standard of living. Food

was abundant, with grain from Egypt and Anatolia and fish from the Aegean.

Constantinople could support a population of a million, at a time when it was

difficult to find a city in Europe that could sustain more than 50,000.

 

     Unlike Rome, Constantinople had several industries producing luxury

goods, military supplies, hardware, and textiles. After silkworms were

smuggled out of China about A.D. 550, silk production flourished and became a

profitable state monopoly. The state paid close attention to business,

controlling the economy: A system of guilds to which all tradesmen and members

of the professions belonged set wages, profits, work hours, and prices and

organized bankers and doctors into compulsory corporations.

 

     Security and wealth encouraged an active political, cultural, and

intellectual life. The widespread literacy and education among men and women

of various segments of society would not be matched in Europe until, perhaps,

eighteenth-century France. Until its fall in 1453, the Byzantine Empire

remained a shining fortress, attracting both invaders and merchants.

 

The Latin Phase

 

     Constantine and his successors struggled to renew the empire. Rome

collapsed under the pressure of the Germanic invaders in 476 (see ch. 5).

Thanks to its greater military and economic strength, Constantinople survived

for a thousand years, despite revolutions, wars, and religious controversy.

 

     Justinian (527-565) was the last emperor to attempt seriously to return

the Roman Empire to its first-century grandeur. Aided by his forceful wife

Theodora and a corps of competent assistants, he made lasting contributions to

Western civilization and gained short-term successes in his foreign policy.

 

     The damage caused by devastating earthquakes (a perennial problem in the

area) in the 520s and 530s gave Justinian the opportunity he needed to carry

out a massive project of empire-wide urban renewal. He strengthened the walls

defending Constantinople and built the Church of the Holy Wisdom, which still

stands in the city. The dome of the church is an architectural triumph with

forty windows circling its base, producing a quality of light that creates the

illusion that the ceiling is floating.

 

     Justinian also reformed the government and ordered a review of Roman law.

This undertaking led to the publication of the Code of Justinian, a digest of

Roman and church law, texts, and other instructional materials that became the

foundation of modern Western law. Justinian also participated actively in the

religious arguments of his day.

 

     The emperor's expensive and ambitious projects triggered outbreaks of

violence among the political gangs of Constantinople, the circus crowds of the

Greens and Blues. ^1 Since ancient times city dwellers throughout the

Mediterranean formed groups, each pursuing a set of economic, social, and

religious goals. Much like contemporary urban gangs, members of the circus

factions moved about in groups and congregated at public events.

 

[Footnote 1: Alan Cameron, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and

Byzantium (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), pp. 310-311.]

 

     In Constantinople the Circus took place in the Hippodrome, a structure

that could hold 80,000 spectators. There contests of various types were held,

including chariot races. The Blues and Greens backed opposing drivers and

usually neutralized each other's efforts. In 532, however, the Blues and

Greens united to try to force Justinian from the throne. The so-called Nike

rebellion, named after the victory cry of the rioters, nearly succeeded. In

his Secret Histories, Procopius relates that Justinian was on the verge of

running away, until Theodora stopped him and told the frightened emperor:

 

     I do not choose to flee. Those who have worn the crown should

     never survive its loss. Never shall I see the day when I am not

     saluted as empress. If you mean to flee, Caesar, well and good.

     You have the money, the ships are ready, the sea is open. As for

     me, I shall stay. ^2

 

[Footnote 2: Procopius of Caesarea, History of the Wars, I, XXIV, 36-38,

trans. S. R. Rosenbaum in Charles Diehl, Theodora: Empress of Byzantium (New

York: Frederick Ungar, 1972), pp. 87-88.]

 

Assisted by his generals, the emperor remained and put down the rebellion.

 

     Justinian momentarily achieved his dream of re-establishing the

Mediterranean rim of the Roman Empire. To carry out his plan for regaining the

lost half of the empire from the Germanic invaders, he first had to buy the

neutrality of the Persian kings who threatened not only Constantinople but

also Syria and Asia Minor. After securing his eastern flank through diplomacy

and bribery, he took North Africa in 533 and the islands of the western

Mediterranean from the Vandals.

 

     The next phase of the conquest was much more exhausting. Like warriors

before and after him, Justinian had a difficult time taking the Italian

peninsula. After twenty years, he gained his prize from the Ostrogoths, but at

the cost of draining his treasury and ruining Rome and Ravenna. Justinian's

generals also reclaimed the southern part of Spain from the Visigoths, but no

serious attempt was ever made to recover Gaul, Britain, or southern Germany.

 

     By a decade after Justinian's death, most of the reconquest had been

lost. The Moors in Africa, Germanic peoples across Europe, and waves of

Asiatic nomadic tribes threatened the imperial boundaries. Ancient enemies

such as the Persians, who had been bribed into a peaceful relationship,

returned to threaten Constantinople when the money ran out. In addition, the

full weight of the Slavic migrations came to be felt. Peaceful though they may

have been, the primitive Slavs severely strained and sometimes broke the

administrative links of the empire. Finally, the empire was split by debates

over Christian doctrine. Two of Justinian's successors succumbed to madness

under the stress of trying to maintain order in the empire.

 

[See Justinian Byzantium: The Byzantine Empiere under Justinian.]

 

Heraclius: The Empire Redefined

 

     Salvation appeared from the west when Heraclius (610-641), the Byzantine

governor of North Africa, returned to Constantinople to overthrow the mad

emperor Phocas. Conditions were so dismal and the future appeared so perilous

when Heraclius arrived in the capital that he considered moving the government

from Constantinople to Carthage in North Africa.

 

     The situation did not improve soon. The Persians marched through Syria,

took Jerusalem - capturing the "True Cross" - and entered Egypt. When Egypt

fell to the Persians, the Byzantine Empire lost a large part of its grain

supply. Two Asiatic invaders, the Avars and the Bulgars, pushed against the

empire from the north. Pirates controlled the sea lanes and the Slavs cut land

communication across the Balkans. At this moment of ultimate peril, the

emperor decided to throw out the state structure that had been in place since

the time of Diocletian and Constantine.

 

     Heraclius created a new system that strengthened his army, tapped the

support of the church and people, and erected a more efficient, streamlined

administration. He determined that the foundation for the redefined empire

would be Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and that the main supply of soldiers

for his army would be the free peasants living there, rather than mercenaries.

In place of the sprawling realm passed on by Justinian, Heraclius designed a

compact state and an administration conceived to deal simultaneously with the

needs of government and the challenges of defense.

 

     Heraclius' system, known as the theme system, had been tested when the

emperor had ruled North Africa. Acting on the lessons of the past four

centuries, he assumed that defense was a constant need and that free peasant

soldiers living in the theme (district) they were defending would be the most

effective and efficient force. He installed the system first in Anatolia, and

his successors spread it throughout the empire for the next two centuries.

Heraclius' scheme provided sound administration and effective defense for half

of the cost formerly required. ^3 As long as the theme system with its

self-supporting, land-owning, free peasantry endured, Byzantium remained

strong. When the theme system and its free peasantry were abandoned in the

eleventh century, the empire became weak and vulnerable.

 

[Footnote 3: George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, trans. Joan

Hussey (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957), pp. 86-90.]

 

     Heraclius fought history's first holy war to reclaim Jerusalem from the

Persians. By 626 he stood poised to strike the final blow and refused to be

distracted by the Avar siege of Constantinople. He defeated the Persians at

Nineva, marched on to Ctesiphon, and finally reclaimed the "True Cross" and

returned it to Jerusalem in 630.

 

     Heraclius was unable to savor his victory for long, because the Muslim

advance posed an even greater threat to Byzantium. The Muslims took Syria and

Palestine at the battle of Yarmuk in 636. Persia fell the following year, and

Egypt in 640. Constantinople's walls and the redefined Byzantine state

withstood the challenge, enduring two sieges in 674-678 and in 717. When

Byzantium faced a three-sided invasion from the Arabs, Avars, and Bulgarians

in 717, the powerful leader Leo the Isaurian (717-741) came forward to save

the empire. The Byzantines triumphed by using new techniques such as Greek

fire, a sort of medieval equivalent of napalm. The substance, a powerful

chemical mixture whose main ingredient was saltpeter, caught fire on contact

with water and stuck to the hulls of the Arabs' wooden ships. Over the next

ten years, Leo rebuilt those areas ruined by war and strengthened the theme

system. He reformed the law, limiting capital punishment to crimes involving

treason. He decreed the use of mutilation for a wide range of common crimes, a

harsh but still less extreme punishment than execution.

 

The Iconoclastic Controversy

 

     From the beginning, the Byzantine emperors played active roles in the

calling of church councils and the formation of Christian doctrine.Leo the

Isaurian took seriously his role as religious leader of the empire. He

vigorously persecuted heretics and Jews, ordering that the latter must be

baptized. In 726 he launched a theological crusade against the use of icons,

images or representations of Christ and other religious figures. The emperor

was concerned that icons played too prominent a role in Byzantine life and

that their common use as godparents, witnesses at weddings, and objects of

adoration violated the Old Testament prohibition of the worship of graven

images. Accordingly, the emperor ordered the army to destroy icons. This

image-breaking, or iconoclastic, policy sparked a violent reaction in the

western part of the empire, especially in the monasteries. The government

responded by mercilessly persecuting those opposed to the policy. The eastern

part of the empire, centered at Anatolia, supported the breaking of the

images. By trying to remove what he considered an abuse, Leo split his empire

in two.

 

     In Byzantium's single-centered society, this religious conflict had

far-reaching cultural, political, and social implications. In 731 Pope Gregory

II condemned iconoclasm. Leo's decision to destroy icons stressed the fracture

lines that had existed between east and west for the past four centuries,

expressed in the linguistic differences between the Latin west and the Greek

east. ^4 Leo's successors continued his religious and political policies, and

in 754 Pope Stephen II turned to the north and struck an alliance with the

Frankish king Pepin. This was the first step in a process that half a century

later would lead to the birth of the Holy Roman Empire and the formal

political split of Europe into the east and west (see ch. 9).

 

[Footnote 4: A.N. Stratos, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, I, trans. Marc

Ogilvie Grant (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1968), pp. 37-39.]

 

     There was a brief attempt under the regent, later empress, Irene

(797-802), in 787, to restore icons. In 797 she gained power after having her

son - the rightful but incompetent heir - blinded in the very room in which

she had given him birth. Irene then became the first woman to rule the empire

in her own name. She could neither win widespread support for her pro-icon

policies, nor could she put together a marriage alliance with the newly

proclaimed western emperor Charlemagne, a union which would have brought east

and west together. As Irene spent the treasury into bankruptcy, her enemies

increased. Finally in 802, they deposed her and exiled her to the island of

Lesbos. ^5

 

[Footnote 5: Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, A.D. 610-1071

(New York: Vintage Books, 1969), pp. 90-104.]

 

     The conflict over iconoclasm and Irene's ineptitude placed the empire in

jeopardy once again. Her successor, Nicepherous (802-811), after struggling to

restore the bases of Byzantine power, was captured in battle with the

Bulgarians in 811. The Khan Krum beheaded him and had his skull made into a

drinking mug. Soon the iconoclasts made a comeback, but this phase of

image-breaking lacked the vigor of the first, and by 842 the policy had been

abandoned.

 

     The iconoclastic controversy marked a period when the split between east

and west became final. Eastern emperors were strongly impressed by Islamic

culture, with its prohibition of images. The emperor Theophilus (829-842), for

example, was a student of Muslim art and culture, and Constantinople's

painting, architecture, and universities benefited from the vigor of Islamic

culture. This focus on the east may have led to the final split with the west,

but it also produced an eastern state with its theological house finally in

order and its borders fairly secure by the middle of the ninth century.

 

[See Byzantine Empire 814: The Byzantine Empire about 814]

 

The Golden Age: 842-1071

 

     For two centuries, roughly coinciding with the reign of the Macedonian

dynasty (867-1056), Byzantium enjoyed political and cultural superiority over

its western and eastern foes. Western Europe staggered under the blows dealt

by the Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars. The Arabs lost the momentum that had

carried them forward for two centuries. Constantinople enjoyed the relative

calm, wealth, and balance bequeathed by the theme system and promoted by a

series of powerful rulers. The time was marked by the flowering of artists,

scholars, and theologians as much as it was by the presence of great warriors.

It was during this golden age that Constantinople made its major contributions

to Eastern Europe and Russia.

 

     Missionaries from Constantinople set out in the 860s to convert the

Bulgarian and Slavic peoples and in the process organized their language,

laws, esthetics, political patterns, and ethics, as well as their religion.

But such transformation did not take place without struggle. Conflict marked

the relationship between the Roman and Byzantine churches. The most

significant indication of this competition was seen in the contest between the

patriarch Photius and Pope Nicholas I in the middle of the ninth century.

 

     Photius excelled both as a scholar and religious leader. He made

impressive contributions to universities throughout the Byzantine empire and

worked to increase the area of Orthodoxy's influence. Nicholas was his equal

in ambition, ego, and intellect. They collided in their attempts to convert

the pagan peoples such as the Bulgarians, who were caught between their

spheres of influence.

 

     The Bulgarian Khan Boris, as cunning and shrewd as either Photius or

Nicholas, saw the trend toward conversion to Christianity that had been

developing in Europe since the sixth century and realized the increased power

he could gain by the heavenly approval of his rule. He wanted his own

patriarch and church and dealt with the side that gave him the better bargain.

Between 864 and 866 Boris changed his mind three times over the issue of which

holy city to turn to. Finally, the Byzantines gave the Bulgarians the

equivalent of an autonomous church, and in return the Bulgarians entered the

Byzantine cultural orbit. The resulting schism between the churches set off a

sputtering sequence of Christian warfare that went on for centuries. ^6

 

[Footnote 6: Francis Dvornik, The Photian Schism: History and Legend (New

Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970), passim.]

 

     The work of the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius was more

important than Bulgarian ambitions or churchly competition. The two, who were

brothers, were natives of Thessalonica, a city at the mouth of the

Vardar-Morava waterway that gave access to the Slavic lands. They learned the

Slavic language and led a mission to Moravia, which was ruled by King

Rastislav. The king no doubt wanted to convert to Orthodoxy and enter the

Byzantine orbit in order to preserve as much independence for his land as he

could in the face of pressure from his powerful German neighbors. Cyril and

Methodius went north, teaching their faith in the vernacular Slavic language.

Cyril devised an alphabet for the Slavs, adapting Greek letters. The two

brothers translated the liturgy and many religious books into Slavic. Although

Germanic missionaries eventually converted the Moravians by sheer force, the

efforts of Cyril and Methodius profoundly affected all the Slavic peoples,

whose languages are rooted in the work of the two brothers.

 

     Byzantium continued its military as well as its theological intensity.

Arab armies made continual thrusts, including one at Thessalonica in 904 that

led to the Byzantine loss of 22,000 people through death or slavery. But

during the tenth century the combination of the decline in Muslim

combativeness and the solidarity of Byzantine defenses brought an end to that

conflict. Basil II (963-1025), surnamed Bulgaroctonus, or Bulgar-slayer,

stopped the Bulgarians at the battle of Balathista in 1014. At the same time,

the Macedonian emperors dealt from a position of strength with western

European powers, especially in Italy, where their interests clashed. Western

diplomats visiting the Byzantine court expressed outrage at the benign

contempt with which the eastern emperors treated them, but this conduct merely

reflected Constantinople's understanding of its role in the world.

 

     By the eleventh century, succession to the Byzantine throne had

degenerated into a power struggle between the civil and military

aristocracies. On the other hand, the secular and theological universities

flourished despite the political instability, and the emperors proved to be

generous patrons of the arts. Basil I (867-886) and Leo VI (886-912) oversaw

the collection and reform of the law codes. Leo, the most prolific lawgiver

since Justinian, sponsored the greatest collection of laws of the medieval

Byzantine empire, a work that would affect jurisprudence throughout Europe.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (912-959) excelled as a military leader, lover

of books, promoter of an encyclopedia, and surveyor of the empire's provinces.

At a time when scholarship in western Europe was almost nonexistent, Byzantine

society featured a rich cultural life and widespread literacy among men and

women of different classes.

 

     The greatest contribution to Western civilization made during the golden

age was the preservation of ancient learning, especially in the areas of law,

Greek science, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and Greek literature.

Unlike in the West where the church maintained scholarship, the civil servants

of Constantinople perpetuated the Greek tradition in philosophy, literature,

and science. Byzantine monasteries produced many saints and mystics but showed

little interest in learning and teaching.

 

Decline And Crusades

 

     Empires more often succumb to internal ailments than to external

takeovers and this was the case with the Byzantine empire. As long as

Constantinople strengthened the foundations laid by Heraclius - the theme

system and reliance on the free peasant-soldier - the empire withstood the

military attacks of the strongest armies. When the Byzantine leaders abandoned

the pillars of their success, the empire began to falter.

 

     Inflation and narrow ambition ate away at the Heraclian structure. Too

much money chased too few goods during the golden age. Land came to be the

most profitable investment for the rich, and the landowning magnates needed

labor. As prices went up, taxes followed. The peasant villages were

collectively responsible for paying taxes, and the rising tax burden

overwhelmed them. In many parts of the empire, villagers sought relief by

placing themselves under the control of large landowners, thus taking

themselves out of the tax pool and lowering the number of peasant-soldiers.

Both the state treasury and the army suffered. Until the time of Basil II, the

Macedonian emperors tried to protect the peasantry through legislation, but

the problem was not corrected. Even though the free peasantry never entirely

disappeared and each free person was still theoretically a citizen of the

empire, economic and social pressures effectively destroyed the theme system.

Exacerbating the problem was the growth of the church's holdings and the large

percentage of the population entering church service, thus becoming exempt

from taxation.

 

     In the fifty years after the death of Basil II in 1025, the illusion that

eternal peace had been achieved encouraged the opportunistic civil

aristocracy, which controlled the state, to weaken the army and ignore the

provinces. When danger next appeared, no strong leader emerged to save

Byzantium. Perhaps this was because no enemies appeared dramatically before

the walls of Constantinople.

 

     Instead, a new foe arose, moving haphazardly across the empire. Around

the sixth century, the first in a series of waves of Turkish bands appeared in

southwest Asia. These nomads converted to Islam and fought with, then against,

the Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs. When the Seljuk Turk leader Alp Arslan

("Victorious Lion") made a tentative probe into the empire's eastern perimeter

near Lake Van in 1071, the multilingual mercenary army from Constantinople

fell apart even before fighting began at the battle of Manzikert. With the

disintegration of the army, the only limit to the Turks' march for the next

decade was the extent of their own ambition and energy.

 

     Byzantium lost the heart of its empire, and with it the reserves of

soldiers, leaders, taxes, and food that had enabled it to survive for the past

four centuries. From its weakened position, the empire confronted Venice, a

powerful commercial and later political rival. By the end of the eleventh

century, the Venetians took undisputed trading supremacy in the Adriatic Sea

and turned their attention to the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantines also

faced the challenges of the Normans, led by Robert Guiscard, who took the last

Byzantine stronghold in Italy.

 

     In 1081 the Comnenian family claimed the Byzantine throne. In an earlier

time, with the empire in its strength this politically astute family might

have accomplished great things. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, though,

the best they could do was play a balance-of-power game between east and west.

Fifteen years later, in 1096, the first crusaders appeared (see ch. 10),

partially in response to the Council of Clermont, partially in response to the

opportunity for gold and glory. Alexium Comnenus (1081-1118) had appealed to

Pope Urban II for help against the Turks, but the emperor had not bargained on

finding a host of crusaders, including the dreaded Normans, on his doorstep.

Alexius sent them quickly across the Dardanelles where they won some battles

and permitted the Byzantines to reclaim some of their losses in Asia Minor. ^7

 

[Footnote 7: For an eastern perspective, see Amin Maalouf, The Crusades

Through Arab Eyes (New York: Schocken Books, 1985).]

 

     Subsequent crusades, however, failed to bring good relations between east

and west, whose churches had excommunicated each other in 1054. By the time of

the Fourth Crusade, the combination of envy, hatred, and frustration that had

been building up for some time led to an atrocity. The Venetians controlled

the ships and money for this crusade and persuaded the fighters to attack the

Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia - a commercial rival of Venice - and

Constantinople before going on to the Holy Land. Venice wanted a trade

monopoly in the eastern Mediterranean more than a fight with the Muslims.

Constantinople was paralyzed by factional strife, and for the first time, an

invading force captured the city and devastated it far more than the Turks

would 250 years later. A French noble described the scene:

 

          The fire...continued to rage for a whole week and no one

          could put it out....What damage was done, or what riches

          and possessions were destroyed in the flames was beyond the

          power of man to calculate....The army...gained much booty;

          so much, indeed, that no one could estimate its amount or

          its value. It included gold and silver, table-services and

          precious stones, satin and silk, mantles of squirrel fur,

          ermine and miniver, and every choicest thing to be found on

          this earth...so much booty had never been gained in any city

          since the creation of the world. ^8

 

[Footnote 8: Geoffrey de Villehardouin, The Conquest of Constantinople in M.

R. B. Shaw, Chronicles of the Crusades (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), pp.

79, 92. ]

 

     The Venetians made sure they got their share of the spoils, such as the

bronze horses now found at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, and played a key

role in placing a new emperor on the throne. The invaders ruled Constantinople

until 1261. The Venetians put a stranglehold on commerce in the region and

then turned their hostility toward the Genoese, who threatened their monopoly.

 

     The Paleologus Dynasty (1261-1453), which ruled the empire during its

final two centuries, saw the formerly glorious realm become a pawn in a new

game. Greeks may have regained control of the church and the state, but there

was little strength left to carry on the ancient traditions. The free peasant

became ever rarer, as a form of feudalism (see ch. 8) developed in which

nobles resisted the authority of the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy. The

solidus, the Byzantine coin which had resisted debasement from the fourth

through the eleventh century, now fell victim to inflation. The church, once a

major support for the state, became embroiled in continual doctrinal disputes.

Slavic peoples such as the Serbs, who had posed no danger to the empire in its

former strength became threats. After the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth

century destroyed the exhausted Seljuq Turks, a new, more formidable threat

appeared - the Ottoman, or Osmanli, Turks.

 

     Blessed after 1296 with a strong line of male successors and good

fortune, the Ottomans rapidly expanded their power through the Balkans. They

crossed the Straits into Europe in 1354 and moved up the Vardar-Morava valleys

to take Serres (1383), Sofia (1385), Nish (1386), Thessalonica (1387), and

finally Kossovo from the South Slavs in 1389. The Turks won their victories by

virtue of their overwhelming superiority in both infantry and cavalry. But

their administrative effectiveness, which combined strength and flexibility,

solidified their rule in areas they conquered. In contrast to the Christians,

both Roman and Byzantine, who were intolerant of religious differences, the

Turks allowed monotheists, or any of the believers in a "religion of the book"

(the Bible, Torah, or Koran), to retain their faith and be ruled by a

religious superior through the millet system, a network of religious ghettoes.

 

     In response to the Ottoman advance, the west mounted a poorly conceived

and ill-fated crusade against the Turks at Nicopolis on the Danube in 1396

that led to the capture and slaughter of 10,000 knights and their attendants.

Only the overwhelming force of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame), a Turko-Mongol

ruler who devastated the Ottoman army in 1402, gave Constantinople and Europe

some breathing space.

 

     The end came finally in May 1453. The last emperor, Constantine XI, led

his forces of 9,000, half of whom were Genoese, to hold off the 160,000 Turks

for seven weeks. Finally, the Ottomans, with the help of Hungarian

artillerymen, breached the walls of the beleaguered city. After 1123 years,

the Christian capital fell. ^9

 

[Footnote 9: Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1965), passim.]

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