Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XII- Constantinople Surrenders to the Ottomans in 1453 in Order to Buy Time to Start a Crusade to Recapture it (Finale)

Posted by Powee Celdran

DISCLAIMER: Although this is mostly a work of fiction, it is largely based on true events and characters. It seeks to alter the course of actual events that transpired in the 15th century AD. This story will begin with real events in history but will become fictional as it progresses.

Previous Story: Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- 14th Century

Consider then, my brothers and comrades in arms, how the commemoration of our death, our memory, fame and freedom can be rendered eternal.” -Final speech of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, 1453

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Welcome to the 12th chapter of the Byzantine Alternate History series by the Byzantium Blogger, the grand finale of this 12-part series! Last time in chapter XI, we went over a possibility wherein the powerful and ambitious Serbian emperor Stefan IV Dusan in the 14th century would take over a deteriorating Byzantium not to destroy it but to save it from decay and expel the new threat of the Ottoman Turks from the Balkans which in real history would in fact be the power that would conquer the once great civilization of the Byzantines in 1453. Once again, as these chapters in this alternate history series are not continuous with each other in plot, the outcome of the previous chapter wherein the Serbian Empire took over Byzantium for a brief time which resulted in the full expulsion of the Ottoman troops in the Balkans before the Byzantine Empire itself returned following the death of the Serbian emperor in Dusan in 1355 would not happen, instead this chapter as usual will begin with what actually happened in real history.

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire (13th-15th centuries)

Now as we all know it, the Byzantine Empire had lived on for so long, and true enough this Byzantine Alternate History series had been running for more than 7 months now, featuring 11 chapters covering more than 1,000 years of Byzantine history beginning all the way back in the 4th century (chapter I) when basically the only major power in Europe and the known world was the Roman Empire eventually becoming the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire that continued to live for over a thousand years to where we are at now wherein it remains a small state in the middle of countless of others all over the world. In the past 11 chapters of this series, we went over many emperors and empresses, battles, traditions, political intrigues, betrayals, disasters, reforms, civil wars, and so much more over the past 1,000 years as well as a large number of foreign powers that the Byzantines had come across over the centuries that either posed as a serious threat to them or came as an ally and these included the likes of the Goths, Huns, Vandals, Sassanids, Franks, Lombards, Avars, Slavs, the Arab Caliphates, Bulgars, Khazars, Rus, Magyars, Pechenegs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mongols, Serbians, and finally the Ottoman Turks. The truly impressive and inspiring part here is that the Byzantine Empire saw all of these people come and go with so many kingdoms around them rising, evolving, and falling in its entire existence, but of course all empires have their end and the 15th century where this chapter takes place in was in real history the end of the Byzantine Empire as a state. In the past 1,000 years there were several instances wherein Byzantium could have already ended whether it was to the sudden and rapid expansion of the Arabs back in the 7th and 8th centuries, or to the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century, or most recently to the 4th Crusade in 1204 but throughout all these hard times, the Byzantines still persisted and through their determination and willingness to not allow their proud empire to disappear. By the end of the 14th century however, the end for Byzantium was already inevitable and like many threats the empire had faced in it history, the one that had the potential to bring about its end was an unlikely power, in this case the Ottoman Turks. The 14th century true enough saw the rise and quick evolution of the Ottomans from a small Turkish feudal state or Beylik located along the Byzantine border in the former Byzantine heartland Asia Minor to becoming the master power of Asia Minor and the rising new power of the Balkans that had been able to crush the once powerful Serbian Empire in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo, make what was left of the Byzantine Empire its vassal, and later on conquer the entire 2nd Bulgarian Empire and wipe it off the map.

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire

By the end of the 14th century, the Ottomans had already expanded deep into the Balkans to the point of already posing a threat to the more powerful kingdoms of Western Europe but luckily the Byzantine Empire despite being severely reduced to Constantinople already surrounded by Ottoman territory as well as parts of Southern Greece and some Aegean islands was still standing and this was mainly because the Byzantines to ensure their survival surrendered to the Ottomans as a vasal no matter how humiliating it was. However, as the 15th century began, the rising Ottoman Empire’s new sultan Bayezid I whose life-long ambition was to finally capture Constantinople decided to capture it once and for all thus leading to an 8-year siege, while the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos not wanting to surrender what was left of his empire travelled around Europe to seek military aid from the various kingdoms there that had now surpassed the once powerful Byzantium in military and economic power. Though Manuel II returned to Constantinople empty handed, Byzantium was fortunately saved from the inevitable Ottoman threat as in 1402, the undefeatable Ottoman sultan Bayezid I was for once defeated out of the blue by the powerful Turco-Mongol emperor Timur at the Battle of Ankara resulting in the capture of the sultan and the Ottoman Empire itself thrown into anarchy and civil war among the sultan’s sons. If not for Timur crushing the Ottoman army causing a temporary collapse for the Ottomans, Byzantium would have already fallen, but because it happened, Byzantium was given 50 more years left to live allowing their history to extend deep int the 15th century. Manuel II would then die in 1425 and would be succeeded by his son Emperor John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448) and in the meantime, the Ottomans would get their act back together again thus once more becoming a major threat not only to the existence of Byzantium but to the rest of Europe which made organizing Crusades a thing once again. The Byzantines being the most threatened by the rise of the Ottomans were the ones to have to ask for the kingdoms of the west and for the pope’s approval to launch a Crusade against the ever-expanding Ottomans, but such aid from the west would come at such a high price, and the price to pay here in order for the Catholic kingdoms of the west to agree to help Byzantium was for the Byzantines to give up their old faith of Orthodoxy and convert to Catholicism. In the last days of Byzantium, Byzantine emperors as mentioned even in the previous chapter were more than willing to end the age old schism with the west by submitting their empire to the faith of Catholicism in order for the empire to survive, and though this may turn out to be a practical choice, it proved to be very unpopular among the Byzantine people that there was even a famous saying at this time by the Byzantine imperial official Loukas Notaras in the last days of Constantinople which said “I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the city than the Latin miter” meaning that it would be better off that Byzantium would fall to the Ottomans rather than losing their identity by submitting to the Catholic Church as after all, the Byzantines even over 200 years later could still not get over the damage and destruction brought upon them by the Catholic armies of the 4th Crusade in 1204 as discussed in chapter X of this series. Despite the Byzantine Empire already in ruins and their end near, disunity and conflict among the people especially over religious matters still remained unchanged while the centuries old “Cold War” between Byzantium and the Western world too was still existent even up to Byzantium’s last days. In the meantime, the Ottomans could not also focus all their attention in capturing Constantinople as they too were distracted by other problems in the Balkans such as resistance from the Albanians and the threat of Crusades summoned against them from the other kingdoms of Europe particularly Hungary. The Ottomans however at this time were still able to defeat two massive Crusades launched against them by Hungary, first at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, then at the Battle of Varna in 1444, and lastly once again at the Battle of Kosovo in 1448 fought in the same place the Ottomans crushed the Serbians in 1389, and following the Ottoman victory at the 2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448 the way to besiege Constantinople was clear. With the death of the Ottoman sultan Murad II in 1451, the new sultan which was his son and successor the young and ambitious yet treacherous Mehmed II had only one single objective which was to simply capture Constantinople and finish off the Byzantine Empire for good as no matter how weakened the Byzantines became to the point of becoming just a small dot surrounded by a vast sea of Ottoman territory, they still posed a dangerous threat by asking for help from the rest of Europe against the Ottomans. Mehmed II in 1453 then raised an army of about 80,000 men including some 320 ships, 70 cannons, and one massive cannon intended to completely destroy Constantinople’s 1,000-year-old walls that no enemy before had ever managed to destroy. The Byzantine emperor here meanwhile which was Constantine XI Palaiologos, the younger brother of John VIII and this story’s tragic hero that came to power in 1449 after John VIII’s death was known to be a brave soldier-emperor, an exception for his time when Byzantine emperors no longer fought in battle themselves, and apparently Constantine XI was in fact given an offer by Mehmed II to simply surrender Constantinople and be able to leave unharmed. Constantine XI however declined this offer and bravely chose to fight to the death, thus resulting in a 2-month Ottoman siege of Constantinople that had been described in such vivid detail wherein Constantine XI despite having an army of roughly more than 7,000 men including barely trained local Greek forces and Italian mercenaries were able to defend Constantinople’s walls against an Ottoman army of over 80,000 that had a more of an advantage with the use of cannons. At the end however, the outnumbered defenders still lost, Constantine XI died as the last Roman emperor, while Constantinople had fallen to the Ottomans on May 29 of 1453 making Sultan Mehmed II be remembered as “Mehmed the Conqueror” who then built Constantinople back up scratch turning it into the Ottoman’s capital. Now, a lot say that the defeat of the Byzantines here in 1453 despite fighting courageously to the end was because they were outnumbered while no aid from the west came for them, and so for this chapter, I would say that if Constantine XI did initially surrender Constantinople to Mehmed II when given the offer, then would this allow Constantine XI to buy time and organize a large Crusade consisting of various European powers now aware of the Ottoman threat which could achieve in taking Constantinople back from the Ottomans a few years later and allow the Byzantine Empire to continue its existence?  

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Flag of the Byzantine Empire

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Note: Since this chapter is set in the 15th century, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine characters will be referred to as Byzantines, not Romans.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)
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Map of the Byzantine Empire by 1450 (purple) and other territories including the Ottoman Empire
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Fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottomans, 1453

Since this chapter will be the grand finale of this 12-part series, I had something specular in mind planned for it, thus this chapter will be a lot longer than the past 11 ones. As the finale, it will be a culmination of all the stories from the past 11 chapters going as far back as the 4th century, and ever since conceptualizing this 12-part series before even writing the first chapter, I had already planned something big for the final chapter. The past 5 chapters since chapter VII now had however contained more history than fiction, but here in the last chapter of the series it will once again be like the first 6 chapters of this series with more fictional elements including larger than life battles, more insights on the people of the story and their character, many side stories and cameos of famous historical figures, and a number of supernatural elements such as ghosts of the important characters from the previous chapters returning here for the grand finale.

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Map of the 1453 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi

To conclude this series, this chapter will have a climax more epic and larger than life than the past 11 chapters as after all in real history, the Byzantine Empire in 1453 did not die out with a whimper but with a bang when the Byzantines of Constantinople fought to the end defending their city against the 80,000 Ottoman army despite still losing to the Ottomans at the end, unlike let’s say the Western Roman Empire in 476 which just ended quietly when its last emperor surrendered to a barbarian general who just chose to make himself King of Italy instead of emperor, which if you remember was part of the story of chapter II of this series. However, since this series is always in favor of Byzantium wherein all chapters ended with a Byzantine victory, the series in this chapter will definitely have to end with Byzantium once more victorious and alive, thus we will conclude this series with one epic battle like no other. This chapter like all others in this series will again begin with events that did take place in real history in order to establish the story’s 15th century setting wherein Byzantium although still standing is no longer what it once was as a major world power that all other powers around them were either in awe of or feared but instead reduced to an insignificant backwater in the humiliating position as a vassal of the new power of the Ottomans and a shadow of its former self. World history in the 15th century true enough hardly makes any mention of Byzantium if not for the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 as the 15th century true enough had too much happening around the world that had more significance to what was happening in Byzantium, but on the other hand even if Byzantium was already so reduced to the point of making it more or less a city-state, Constantinople itself despite being so damaged and depopulated still had the prestige of being a thousand-year-old imperial capital and Byzantium itself too still had the prestige of basically being the Roman Empire still alive, thus making it the ultimate goal of the Ottomans to conquer it as the saying goes “whoever possesses Constantinople controls the world” as Constantinople was once the world’s greatest metropolis.

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Coat of Arms of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, 13th-15th centuries

Other than the prestige Byzantium still had all the way up to the 15th century, Byzantium although no longer known for being a military power still had a great cultural influence and in its last years as Constantinople was decaying, one of Byzantium’s last holdings in the Peloponnese Peninsula in Southern Greece known as the Morea and particularly its capital Mystras would have an important part to play here as a place where art, culture, and education thrived despite the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople already weak and dying. In this chapter, Mystras will have a major part to play especially since it was here where new ideas formed and ancient ones revived such as the Ancient Greek Platonic philosophy which would later on play a major role in impacting the Renaissance in Italy. The 15th century is as well best remembered for being the century when the Middle Ages came to an end and when the Renaissance began and thrived especially in Italy, but what a lot do not realize is that the kick-start of the Renaissance in Italy can be attributed a lot to the Byzantines especially since throughout the Middle Ages, the Byzantines had preserved the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge of the past, but in the last years of Byzantine history due to Byzantium no longer being safe especially due to the expansion of the Ottomans, several scholars fled to especially to Italy with their texts containing ancient knowledge, which would soon enough begin a trend there in the revival of ancient knowledge in which most were in Greek which only these Byzantine scholars could understand and translate. It was then particularly the event of the Council of Florence from 1437-1440 wherein knowledge from Byzantium was brought into Italy as the Byzantine emperor John VIII himself visited Italy together with several Byzantine scholars in which some chose to stay behind in Italy. The 15th century was therefore true enough an era of major transition and change and a lot of this had to do with the Middle Ages fading away and a new age of learning, art, and science emerging in Europe known as the Renaissance wherein it would now be the rest of Europe’s turn to be more and more of an advanced society the way Byzantium was centuries ago- if you remember from chapter VII of this series set in the 10th century- when the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages, however for Byzantium it would be the other way around in the 15th century wherein they would be the ones left behind in time as the rest of Europe progressed. In the 15th century, the biggest challenge the Byzantines would have to face is to now give up their old ways and “Westernize” meaning to be more like how the rest of Europe was turning out to be in this era, but for Byzantium to change, this would mean taking away their soul which is the faith of Orthodoxy as to be at the same level as the rest of Europe they had to convert to the religion of the rest of Europe at that time which was Catholicism. As mentioned earlier, despite the Byzantine rulers of this time willing to submit to Catholicism to save their empire, the thought was strongly opposed by the proudly Orthodox Byzantine people which only did more harm than good to the already dying Byzantium. Now the climax of this story would start off in 1453, the exact same year Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, but here rather than the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos choosing to fight to the end, he would initially surrender Constantinople to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II as a way to buy time and one day a few years later recapture Constantinople. As a more realistic approach, rather than Constantine XI suddenly receiving a last minute Crusade from the west sent by the pope to assist him while defending Constantinople from the Ottomans in 1453, I chose to have Constantine XI surrender at first and return to Mystras in the Morea wherein his brothers Demetrios and Thomas Palaiologos still remained as its governors or Despots, and it is here where Constantine would in the next few years organize a Crusade and personally go to Rome to once and for all submit to the pope and convert to Catholicism realizing it is the only way to get assistance from the more powerful west especially since he would be the one particularly asking for the Crusade.

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Rise of Empires: Ottoman series

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 is then a very well-known historical topic that was true enough made into many historical fiction books and live action series like the recent 2020 Netflix miniseries Rise of Empires: Ottoman (watch the trailer here), however most people when hearing of 1453 will just think about the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI battling against the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II. True enough it was not only Constantine XI that was resisting against the Ottomans as he did in fact have younger brothers in the Morea at the time he was emperor wherein one of them being Thomas was on Constantine’s side willing to also submit Byzantium to Catholicism in order to launch a Crusade against the Ottomans while the other brother Demetrios who for the longest time had bad blood with his brothers envying them strongly opposed Church unity and found it better to just continue having Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal despite Mehmed II unlike the other sultans before him being tired of having Byzantium as a vassal but instead wanting to conquer it once and for all. On the other hand, while Byzantium and the Ottomans were at war with each other, there were a number of famous rulers across the Balkans resisting the Ottoman expansion as well which included the independent Albanian lord George Kastrioti better known as “Skanderbeg” who once serving in the Ottoman army knew their tactics which made him later on be undefeatable by the Ottomans, the Hungarian general John Hunyadi who fought a number of battles against the Ottomans despite losing them but at the end still successfully resisted, and the Voivode or Prince of Wallachia Vlad III Tepes known as “the Impaler”, who would forever be remembered for his atrocities against the Ottomans and basically the basis of the famous “Dracula”. This story’s fictional climax wherein the final battle to recover Constantinople will then take place in 1458, 5 years after the actual fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, and here in 1458 Constantine XI would return to take back Constantinople from Mehmed II now with more assistance as here he would be aided by his brother Thomas as well as the Genoese mercenary general Giovanni Giustiniani- who did assist him in real history when defending Constantinople- while at the same time these great figures I just mentioned being Hunyadi, Skanderbeg, and Vlad III who were all contemporaries of Constantine XI would also come to his assistance as in real history neither of them came to Constantinople’s aid, but if they did then possibly Constantine XI’s side would have more of an advantage. In addition, I wanted to include one more power from Europe that would assist in the reconquest of Constantinople from the Ottomans, and here it would be the very unlikely choice of the Kingdom of Portugal which was also another rising power here in the 15th century.

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Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Portugal, rising star of the 15th century

Now having the Portuguese come to assist Byzantium here seems to be very odd and unlikely considering how far Portugal being at the far western edge of Europe along the Atlantic Ocean was to Byzantium, but here in this story it could be a possibility considering that with Byzantium converting to Catholicism, a Catholic power like Portugal would come to their aid, and out of all the powers that could come to assist Byzantium I chose Portugal for the sake of it being unlikely as for the Byzantines in their entire history of being in contact with several powers around the world, they never in fact had any contact with Portugal, thus this alternate history story would be this chance for the Portuguese and Byzantines to finally meet each other which is the kind of fantasy I always wanted to see happen. Now at this time in history, Portugal was in fact a growing power especially considering that it was here in the 15th century when they would also begin the Age of Exploration where they would develop faster ships known as caravels enabling them to sail down the Atlantic and discover new lands especially in Africa that no one else had seen before, and for this story it would be only fitting to have this new rising star of this era being Portugal to also have a part in assisting Byzantium.

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The last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI in the Portuguese blue and white tile art style, art by myself

Now with all these characters and countries mentioned, this chapter is thus set to be like no other as rather than just a Byzantine story, this chapter as the grand finale will be not only the story of Byzantium but of the Ottomans, Serbia, Albania, Hungary, Wallachia, Italy, and Portugal put together in one big epic. Now due to Portugal’s part in this story’s climax I chose to draw this story’s lead character and tragic hero Emperor Constantine XI in the art style of the Portuguese blue and white tiles. Now, this story’s climax will feature an epic battle like no other mentioned in this series levelling up from battles with Cataphract cavalry soldiers and Greek Fire to one with knights and armies in full plated armor, gunpowder weapons such as cannons and guns finally in use, and faster and more effective ships being the Portuguese caravels squaring off against the much smaller Ottoman ships, and true enough the 15th century saw a major change in the course of warfare with guns and cannons finally coming into the picture. Before moving on to the story itself, I would like to thank the Youtube channels Eastern Roman History and Kings and Generals for providing a good amount of information for this very eventful era especially on the Byzantine angle, while I would also like to thank the artists (Spatharokandidatos, Pyrasterran, FaisalHashemi, Elveo, HistoryGold777, Radialart, Badbuckle, R7artist, JohnJollos, Gambargin, and FlaviantheHistorian) whose works will be featured here in order to guide you viewers through the very action-packed 15th century, the concluding century of the 1,100-year history of Byzantium.

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The Fall and Conquest of Constantinople with the massive cannon, 1453

Related Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Alternate History Chapter XI- The Serbian Empire takes over a dying Byzantium in the 14th Century

Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History (my personal best to least)

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part II (1000-1461)

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Lesser Known and Would be Byzantine emperors (695-1453)

All Sieges of Constantinople

The Art of War in the Byzantine World


 

The Leading Characters:

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos- Byzantine emperor (1449-1453)

Mehmed II- 7th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire 

George Sphrantzes- Secretary of Constantine XI

Demetrios Palaiologos- Younger brother of Constantine XI and Despot of the Morea

Thomas Palaiologos- Youngest brother of Constantine XI and Despot of the Morea 

Loukas Notaras- Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire under Constantine XI

Giovanni Giustiniani Longo- Italian general in Byzantine service

Mara Brankovic- Serbian princess and former Ottoman empress

Basil Bessarion- Byzantine born Catholic cardinal in Italy

Durad Brankovic- Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia, father of Mara 

John Hunyadi- Governor-General of Hungary

George Kastrioti “Skanderbeg”- Independent Lord of Albania

Vlad III “Dracula”- Prince of Wallachia

Zaganos Pasha- Grand Vizier and general of the Ottoman Empire under Mehmed II 

Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu- Portuguese prince and adventurer 

Background Guide: Byzantines (blue), Ottomans (dark orange), Serbians (light blue), Hungarians (dark red), Albanians (gold), Wallachians (dark green), Portuguese (light green) 


Prologue- The Ottoman Expansion into the Balkans and the Reign of Manuel II Palaiologos (1389-1425)           

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Once the Ottomans from Asia Minor gained their first holding in Europe in 1354 which was the Byzantine city of Gallipoli along the European shore of the Dardanelles Strait separating Europe from Asia following the massive 1354 earthquake there, nothing was left to stop the Ottomans from expanding. Not too long after the Ottomans had first crossed into Europe, the Byzantine city of Adrianople in Thrace not too far from the imperial capital Constantinople was captured and turned into the new Ottoman capital renamed “Edirne”, thus Constantinople and its surroundings would now be surrounded by a sea of Ottoman territory.

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Seal of the Palaiologos Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded in 1261

By this point, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople was only limited to just its capital and its surroundings, a few islands in the Aegean, and a region in the Peloponnese Peninsula in Southern Greece known as the Morea which was however isolated and cut off by land from Constantinople wherein only ships that were in fact not even Byzantine but hired from foreign powers particularly Italian ones were the only means of connection between Constantinople and the Morea. By the late 14th century, the glory days of Byzantium as a Mediterranean power with professional armies of Cataphracts and Varangian Guards, lavish banquets and functions, emperors sitting on a golden mechanically operated throne, secret superpowered weapons like Greek Fire defending the capital, and a cosmopolitan imperial capital of with a multi-ethnic population of about a million was long gone, instead Byzantium was reduced into an impoverished backwater state surrounded by Ottoman territory while the imperial capital of Constantinople was severely depopulated with a population of about only 50,000 with the rest having been killed off by the plague of Black Death in 1340s. Though Constantinople still had its centuries old impressive landmarks including the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia, the Theodosian Walls, and the Hippodrome they were however rundown and neglected to the point of being taken over by cobwebs, insects, and rats as the empire no longer had funds to maintain them anymore, the imperial Blachernae Palace too was run down where a long wooden dining table now appeared before the emperor’s throne, while at the same time there were already patches of farmland within Constantinople’s walls. Though no matter how much of a shell of its former self Byzantium became, it still had the great prestige of being the surviving relic of the centuries old Roman Empire which is why Constantinople itself was such a great prize for the new Ottoman Turkish power to conquer.

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Emperor John V Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1341-1347, 1354-1376, 1379-1391)

The emperor at this point John V Palaiologos who had ruled the empire since he was a child in 1341 although with a few interruptions tried all he could to keep his empire alive as the Ottomans rapidly expanded around him, but when seeing there was no other choice as John V had been turned down every time he asked for assistance from foreign powers such as the Kingdom of Hungary and the Papacy, John V decided to peacefully surrender Byzantium as a vassal to the Ottoman sultan Murad I who was the 3rd Ottoman sultan that had been in power since 1362. With the Byzantine Empire as an Ottoman vassal, the emperor had to pay annual tribute, provide the Ottomans with young Christian boys wherein they would convert to Islam and serve as the Ottomans’ toughest and most loyal soldiers known as the Janissaries, and basically do whatever the sultan ordered him to do. Although no matter how humiliating the idea was of the once proud Byzantine Empire having to submit to the Ottomans as vassal, this at least spared Byzantium from being conquered and wiped off the map by the Ottomans, thus allowing the Ottomans to fight wars against Byzantium’s northern neighbors in the Balkans being Serbia and Bulgaria in which the Ottomans intended to conquer both. As for Serbia here in the 1380s, just 3 decades earlier they were the dominant power of the Balkans being the Serbian Empire but this golden age Serbia however did not last as immediately after the death of the Serbian Empire’s founder and only great ruler Stefan IV Dusan in 1355, Serbia fell into ruin breaking apart into various independent states ruled by their own powerful magnates. In 1387 however, one of these powerful Serbian magnates which was Prince Lazar with a united force of Serbians and Bosnians won a surprising victory over the expanding Ottomans at the Battle of Plocnik, although in the same year the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki in Greece fell to the Ottomans as well after a 4-year siege.

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Prince Lazar of Serbia (r. 1373-1389)

Now due to his victory over the Ottomans in 1387, Prince Lazar felt the confidence to reunite the fractured states of Serbia and revive the Serbian Empire of Dusan that died out 3 decades earlier, thus Prince Lazar began to organize a massive army intending to once and for all drive the Ottomans away from the Balkans. On June 15 of 1389, the massive Serbian army of Prince Lazar then confronted the massive Ottoman army led by their sultan Murad I himself at the Battle of Kosovo in which the site of the battle was known as the “Field of Blackbirds”. Though no matter how large the Serbian army was here, at the end they were still surrounded by the Ottoman forces and thus defeated, and to finish off the last remains of the Serbian forces, Murad I sent a large number of his men to chase the fleeing Serbians though this also left Murad undefended which then caused the Serbian knight Milos Obilic to break into Murad’s tent and assassinate Murad on the spot, although right after killing Murad Milos was immediately cut down and killed by the sultan’s guards.

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Serbians and Ottomans clash at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

As the battle came to an end, the Serbian army’s leader Prince Lazar too was captured and executed which led to the collapse of the Serbian army here as they no longer had a leader, and as for the Ottomans although they suffered a lot of casualties in this battle, they at least won which then allowed them to continue their expansion into the Balkans. Following Murad I’s death, his son who was also present in this battle commanding a division of the Ottoman army immediately came to power after the battle as the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, and following the Ottoman victory over the Serbians, Bayezid I to seal an alliance with the defeated Serbians married the slain Prince Lazar’s daughter Olivera Despina whose brother then which was Stefan Lazarevic, son of Prince Lazar was made the Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia ruling Serbia’s northern portion as the entire south of Serbia fell under direct Ottoman rule, therefore Serbia would now be forced to ally with the Ottomans and join their future campaigns. In the meantime back in the Byzantine Empire, the emperor John V in 1390 was suddenly overthrown by his 20-year-old grandson becoming Emperor John VII Palaiologos, who rebelled and overthrew his grandfather to continue what his father started and failed to do as apparently John VII’s father Andronikos IV Palaiologos had rebelled against and had overthrown his father thus becoming emperor for 3 years (1376-1379), however John V being assisted by Murad I took back the throne in 1379 forcing his son Andronikos to surrender, although Andronikos in 1385 decided to rebel again but suddenly died before he could launch another rebellion, which therefore left the job of rebelling against John V to his son.

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John VII Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor in 1390, grandson of Emperor John V

After travelling to Genoa in Italy himself to get some support from the Genoese government, John VII who also got support from the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I was able to oust his grandfather out of Constantinople and seize the throne, however the deposed John V managed to escape to the Aegean island of Lemnos where his other and more loyal son Manuel Palaiologos was and just 5 months later, John V was able to take the throne back from his grandson with the help of Manuel and the Knights of Rhodes while the young John VII was forced to flee back to his base which was the port town of Selymbria west of Constantinople, although John VII would still not give up his imperial title.

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Bayezid I the “Thunderbolt”, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire since 1389

When back in power, the old John V decided to continue being a vassal of the new Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, thus part of the agreement was for John to send his grown-up son Manuel as a hostage to the court of Bayezid in both Bursa in Asia Minor and Edirne in Thrace where Manuel was to join in the sultan’s military campaigns. Feeling that his rule was once again secured, John V ordered the repair of the damaged Golden Gate of Constantinople’s Walls, however Sultan Bayezid I saw John V repairing the gate as a threat especially since John repaired it without Bayezid’s permission, and being an Ottoman vassal the Byzantine emperor could not do even the slightest thing such as repairing the gate without the sultan’s permission, thus Bayezid sent John an ultimatum to tear down the Golden Gate he had just repaired or else his son Manuel who was in Bayezid’s court was to be blinded. John V not wanting to lose another son who would succeed him, as his eldest son Andronikos already died back in 1385 complied with the sultan’s orders and so he ordered the gate he just repaired torn down, however John could no longer live from the humiliation of this as true enough he lived a life of constant humiliation and stress, and so in one February night of 1391 John V decided to end his tragic life, and so the 58-year-old John V killed himself in the peaceful way of possibly poisoning his wine, and in the next day he was found dead on his bed. Now John V’s eldest surviving son Manuel who was in Bursa when hearing of his father’s death by suicide returned to Constantinople at the dead of night without even asking permission from his master Sultan Bayezid as Manuel needed to get to Constantinople and be crowned before his nephew John VII would as John VII true enough had still not yet given up his claim to the throne.

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Manuel II Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor since 1391, son of John V, art by Spatharokandidatos

Manuel luckily made it right in time back to Constantinople in 1391 to be crowned as Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, and as the new emperor Manuel II decided to continue in having Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal while Bayezid I too had forgiven Manuel for leaving Bursa at the dead of night without asking permission, however Bayezid still preferred to have the young John VII instead of Manuel II as Byzantine emperor. Manuel II despite being already 42 by 1392 still remained unmarried as he was both never arranged to marry anyone and had no time to do so, but as emperor and finally having the time to do so, Manuel here married the 20-year-old Serbian princess Helena Dragas, daughter of the Ottoman vassal Serbian prince Konstantin Dejanovic, and despite the age gap between Manuel and Helena their marriage would turn out to be a happy one. Meanwhile, as Bayezid I had Byzantium as a vassal, Byzantine troops were sent to assist the Ottomans in their campaigns into the Asia Minor in which Bayezid would conquer the last remaining Turkish feudal states or Beyliks there that were still not yet under the Ottomans, while at the same time Bayezid also continued his conquests in the Balkans, most particularly his wars against the now deteriorating 2nd Bulgarian Empire which had formed some 2 centuries earlier when the Bulgarian population rebelled against Byzantine rule due to heavy taxation imposed on them by the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) and after crushing all Byzantine attempts to recapture Bulgaria, the Bulgaria became a full independent empire.

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Flag of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185, ended in 1393

By the end of the 14th century however, the 2nd Bulgarian Empire was already weak and divided between two rulers the brothers Tsar Ivan Shishman ruling from the city of Tarnovo and Tsar Ivan Sratsimir ruling from the city of Vidin in Western Bulgaria. In 1393, Bayezid I’s Ottoman forces then laid siege to Tarnovo which was once the united 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s capital, and with the defending Bulgarians unable to resist the attacking Ottomans, Tarnovo was captured by the Ottomans while its ruler Ivan Shishman fled and would be captured and executed by the Ottomans 2 years later, thus leaving Vidin as the last Bulgarian holding for one more year. The fall of Tarnovo to the Ottomans in 1393 then ended the existence of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire making Sultan Bayezid I be the second “Bulgar-Slayer” for slaying the Bulgarian Empire, although instead Bayezid was known as “the Thunderbolt”, while the original “Bulgar-Slayer” was the Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025) who in 1018 conquered the original Bulgarian Empire that had been Byzantium’s neighbor being both is ally and enemy since the late 7th century, though this event in 1393 would then once and for all end Bulgaria’s time as a medieval empire putting it now not again under Byzantium but under full Ottoman rule.

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Map of the Ottoman expansion into the Balkans and Asia Minor under Murad I, 1362-1389
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Ottomans defeat the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Sultan Murad I assassinated by Serbian knight Milos Obilic after the Battle of Kosovo, 1389
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Golden Gate of Constantinople’s Walls, repaired and destroyed by John V

Back to the Byzantines, Manuel II began to feel that his nephew John VII who was still in Selymbria might once again launch a coup to take over throne, thus Manuel attempted to solve the tension between them diplomatically, which however turned out to be another violation of the treaty with the Ottomans, as again Manuel was doing something without the sultan’s permission. In response to this act of violation by Manuel, Bayezid I first considered executing Manuel although he instead demanded that Manuel turn the Genoese colony of Galata in Constantinople into an Ottoman colony with a mosque. Manuel II now tired of being bullied by the Ottoman sultan then proceeded to do something very bold yet foolish which was suddenly refusing to pay annual tribute to Bayezid and also no longer responding to all of Bayezid’s letters leading to Bayezid becoming more enraged than ever, thus in 1394 Bayezid began laying siege to Constantinople by blockading it as after all Bayezid’s lifelong dream was to conquer Constantinople.

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Sultan Bayezid I’s 1394 Siege of Constantinople

To enable his conquest, Bayezid constructed a large fortress in the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait known as the Anadoluhisari in Turkish meaning “Fortress of Asia” at the narrowest part of the Bosporus to block of all ships coming from the Black Sea to assist Constantinople while supplies could also not come from the Aegean as the Dardanelles Strait too that connected the Aegean to the Marmara Sea where Constantinople was too was under Ottoman control. The people of Constantinople however soon enough began to get used to life under a blockade as they were apparently able to sustain themselves with the farmland inside the walls.

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King Sigismund of Hungary

In the meantime, there was one chance of salvation for Constantinople here as in 1394 as well, the King of Hungary Sigismund was organizing a Crusade consisting of armies from all across the kingdoms of Europe intending to expel the Ottomans from Europe once and for all as apparently Hungary too began feeling threatened by the Ottomans’ expansion due to the Ottomans crushing the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, crushing and annexing the Bulgarian Empire in 1393, and now laying siege to Constantinople. Although busy in blockading Constantinople, Bayezid I was also busy fighting a war with the rich and dark forested though politically unstable Principality of Wallachia or the “Land of the Vlachs” which now also felt threatened by the Ottomans as their southern neighbor being Bulgaria had just fallen, and so in 1395 the Prince of Wallachia Mircea I with his army clashed against the Ottoman army together with their Serbian vassals led by Bayezid I himself at the Battle of Rovine in Wallachia, and here for the first time Bayezid I was defeated due to the Wallachians using guerilla warfare, though Bayezid still survived but the Serbian prince and Manuel II’s father-in-law Konstantin Dejanovic who was present here assisting Bayezid as his vassal was slain in battle against the Wallachians.

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Prince Mircea I of Wallachia (r. 1386-1418)

Feeling the Ottoman threat was still at large despite winning, Prince Mircea then agreed to join the Crusade organized by King Sigismund of Hungary, and in 1396 despite the rest of Europe in conflict with each other most notably France and England fighting the Hundred-Years’-War with each other, they still sent troops to join Sigismund’s Crusade, while other armies from the Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights, Burgundy, Aragon, Poland, Bohemia, and Italy as well as ships from both the Republics of Venice and Genoa all took up arms joining the Crusade of Hungary and Wallachia against the Ottomans. The massive Crusader army of about 100,000 led by Sigismund then marched south to Bulgaria wherein Bayezid I who was besieging Constantinople quickly marched north when hearing about this, thus the army of Sigismund’s Crusade confronted the Ottoman army of only 30,000 which included Serbian allies too led by the Serbian vassal prince and brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396.

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Bayezid I defeats the Crusader army at the Battle of Nicopolis, 1396

At the end of the day, no matter how well organized this Crusader army was which consisted of knights in full plate armor and archers armed with powerful longbows, they still suffered a defeat to the Ottomans while King Sigismund in fact barely escaped back to Hungary with his life, although the Ottomans too suffered many casualties but this still did not stop the Ottomans from conquering the last Bulgarian holding which was the city of Vidin later on in 1396. With nothing anymore in the way of the Ottomans, Bayezid I now put all his attention in capturing Constantinople, however Manuel II who was defending it still did not want to surrender that in 1397 he even sent word to the King of France to send a reinforcement army of knights to defend Constantinople, and true enough an army of 1,200 French knights led by the French general Marshal Jean Boucicaut came to the aid of Constantinople.

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French knights, 1390s

With the help of these French knights, the Byzantines still managed to defend Constantinople for more than year but by 1399 the Marshal Jean had to return home to France while he also convinced Manuel to travel himself to the courts of the kings of Western Europe if he desperately wanted military aid, and so in December of 1399 Manuel II recalled his nephew John VII from Selymbria assigning him to defend Constantinople with some 300 French knights while Manuel departed for Western Europe. Before travelling to Western Europe, Manuel first left behind his wife Helena and their 3 sons in the Morea under the care of Manuel’s brother the Despot of the Morea Theodore I Palaiologos as Manuel feared that if his wife and sons were left behind in Constantinople, John VII might harm them as after all John VII had not yet given up his claim to the throne. In early 1400 Manuel II and Jean arrived in Venice from where they headed north to Milan, and from there north to France wherein Jean returned home while Manuel proceeded to the suburbs Paris, the Kingdom of France’s capital meeting the King of France Charles VI of the Valois Dynasty and from there they proceeded to the king’s palace which was the Louvre.

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King Charles VI of France (r. 1380-1422)

In Paris, Charles VI treated Manuel as a special guest entertaining him with banquets and hunting trips and no matter how well received Manuel was, Charles VI was still quite blind to the Ottoman threat and rather than providing Manuel with real assistance, Charles only went as far as sending another army of 1,200 French knights to assist Constantinople. Seeing that he did not gain much from the King of France, Manuel then decided to travel north across the channel to England being the first Roman emperor since Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) who was also the first Byzantine emperor more than a thousand years earlier to set foot in the island of Britain. By this point in 1400, the King of England Henry IV of the Lancaster Dynasty had only been in power for about a year recently just overthrowing his cousin the last Plantagenet King of England Richard II (r. 1377-1399), and by this point as well it had been about 1,000 years since the Roman forces of the Western Roman Empire left and abandoned Britain.

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Manuel II of Byzantium (left) meets King Henry IV of England (right) in London, 1400

In December of 1400, Manuel arrived in England personally meeting its king Henry IV, and for the next 2 months Manuel would stay at Eltham Palace which was one of the royal palaces in London wherein he would spend Christmas and New Years’ in, and true enough Manuel was treated so well by the king that a joust was even held in his honor. The English chroniclers at the king’s court meanwhile were in awe but also perplexed of Manuel and his Byzantine entourage’s exotic look with their long beards and golden robes seeing them as a kind of weird cult, while Manuel on the other hand describes that Henry IV was a good ruler who was generous enough to provide him with a generous donation of 2,000 pounds intended for the defense of Constantinople. Not receiving anything more from Henry IV, Manuel left England in February of 1401 returning to France wherein he would reside for an entire year in the Louvre still feeling it would be unsafe to return to Constantinople which was still under siege. During his stay in the Louvre, Manuel sent letters with important holy relics to a number of rulers across Europe including the pope Boniface IX, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, King Martin of Aragon, and King Charles III of Navarre in order to ask them for further assistance, but in return none of them came to his aid as they all had problems of their own. Fortunately Manuel II received some good news for once from Constantinople later in 1402 and this good news was that the Ottoman threat suddenly vanished as out of the blue, the powerful yet deadly and brutal ruler of the new Turco-Mongol empire of Central Asia Timur also known as “Tamerlane” out of the blue invaded Ottoman Asia Minor forcing Sultan Bayezid I to abandon his siege of Constantinople to confront Timur’s forces and at the Battle of Ankara in Asia Minor in July of 1402, Bayezid I who seemed unbeatable in battle suffered a heavy defeat to the powerful Turco-Mongol army of Timur.       

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Fortress of Asia (AnadoluHisari), built by Bayezid I in 1394 on the Asian side of the Bosporus for the Siege of Constantinople
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Multinational Crusader army of knights at the Battle of Nicopolis, 1396
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Battle of Rovine in 1395, Wallachian army of Prince Mircea I defeat the Ottomans
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The Louvre, late medieval royal residence of the Kings of France in Paris

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 (Kings and Generals).       

At the Battle of Ankara in July of 1402, Bayezid I “the Thunderbolt” commanded an army of 60,000 of Ottomans as well as Serbian allies again led by his brother-in-law Prince Stefan Lazarevic of Serbia while Timur on the other hand who attacked Asia Minor as a result of Bayezid expanding Ottoman territory too far into the east exposing himself to Timur’s new empire commanded an army of 90,000 mostly made up of fully armored Turkic horse archers and Indian war elephants.

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Turco-Mongol army of Timur’s empire

Timur had after all since he began his reign in the 1370s achieved a large number of victories wherein he managed to conquer Persia and even parts of Northern India and Russia through terror, thus by having so much experience especially in conquering entire kingdoms mercilessly, he managed to defeat Bayezid I in battle thus throwing the Ottoman Empire into chaos and anarchy as their sultan Bayezid I himself after his defeat was captured and brought over thousands of kilometers away to Timur’s capital of Samarkand in Central Asia inside a cage, and in the following year (1403) Bayezid I would die there in captivity. Following Timur’s victory, he and his forces freely raided and pillaged Asia Minor mercilessly killing off its inhabitants and when taking as much loot as they wanted, Timur decided to return east as after all he only wanted to pillage Asia Minor as his main objective to conquer was Ming Dynasty China.

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Timur “Tamerlane”, founder and emperor of the Mongol Timurid Empire (r. 1370-1405)

Now Timur’s main objective really was to restore the Mongol Empire of his ancestor Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227) to its dominance as a power that controlled almost all of Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe some 200 years earlier which is why he intended to conquer Northern India, Persia, Asia Minor, Russia, parts of the Middle East, and China as they were all once under the Mongol Empire until it fragmented wherein some of the Mongol successor states like the Ilkhanate of Persia disintegrated while the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia which Timur came to rule rose up again, and Timur at the same time too wanted to establish his empire as an Islamic cultural superpower as his branch of the Mongols had in fact adopted the religion of Islam.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos of Byzantium

On the other hand, as Manuel returned home to Constantinople in 1403, he sent tribute money to Timur convincing Timur to not attack the severely reduced Byzantium, but true enough Timur had no such intention as here he was already making preparations to invade China and return it to Mongol rule, however Timur would never achieve this dream as in 1405 before launching his invasion of China, he died at 70 and thus his Timurid Empire would no longer be much of a threat. Now, thanks to Timur’s unlikely intervention in crushing the Ottomans at Ankara, the Byzantines would now be given a great relief as this terrible defeat caused the Ottoman Empire to collapse after just about 100 years of existing, and here civil war would erupt between the sons of Bayezid wherein one of Bayezid’s sons Prince Suleiman took control of Ottoman territory in Europe allying himself with Byzantium, while Bayezid’s other son Prince Mehmed was recognized by Timur as the ruler of Asia Minor that would be vassals of the Timurid Empire, and also as a result of Bayezid’s capture the Serbian prince Stefan Lazarevic declared Serbia once again independent and no longer an Ottoman vassal as his loyalty was only to Bayezid and not his sons.

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Prince Suleiman, claimant Ottoman sultan, son of Bayezid I

By sealing an alliance with Prince Suleiman, the Byzantines fortunately were able to gain back a number of lands they had lost to the Ottomans and this included the city of Thessaloniki itself, a long strip along the Black Sea coast all the way up north to Mesembria in Bulgaria, the Khalkidhiki Peninsula in Northern Greece, and in fact even getting back some land in Asia Minor along the Marmara coast across Constantinople from Scutari to Nicomedia as part of the treaty, while the Byzantines too would stop paying tribute to the Ottomans as well. Now Manuel’s nephew John VII who stayed behind to defend Constantinople apparently did a good job assisted by the few French knights left behind, and the moment Manuel returned to Constantinople, John VII who was able to regain these said lands through the treaty with Prince Suleiman dutifully surrendered control of Constantinople back to his uncle as after all John VII really just wanted some control over Constantinople for a time, and for his loyalty and renouncing his claim to the throne, Manuel rewarded John VII by making him governor of Thessaloniki in which they just gained back from the Ottomans, thus John VII would rule Thessaloniki as its governor until his death not too long after in 1408 never giving his uncle the emperor a hard time anymore, while Manuel’s wife and sons too would return to Constantinople from the Morea at this time.

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Palaiologos family portrait- Emperor Manuel II (in purple) and his wife Empress Helena Dragas and their first 3 sons John (in purple), Theodore, and Andronikos

With the Ottomans now facing a civil war between its princes known as the “Ottoman Interregnum”, Manuel II would now be given a chance to rule his empire in peace and in this period of peace, he turned to continuing Byzantium’s Palaiologan Renaissance by promoting art, culture, and literature in his empire as apart from being a highly skilled diplomat emperor, Manuel was also known to be serious, highly cultured, and devoted scholar and theologian making him have a vision of a highly cultured and educated Byzantium which for the past decades could not have been a reality due to all the wars and disasters the Byzantines had to face, however this would be the last time Byzantium would enjoy a period of peace. In the meantime, Suleiman being the most ambitious of the warring Ottoman princes put his claim on Asia Minor thus marching there but Mehmed who was the crowned-prince had counter-attacked by sending his allied brother Prince Musa to the Balkans to attack Suleiman’s territory which then forced Suleiman to return back to defend his territory. In 1410, Suleiman then defeated Musa’s forces in battle although Musa still escaped alive, and though Suleiman was victorious his troops were however unhappy with him thus they killed him and all defected to Musa’s side.

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Prince Musa, claimant Ottoman sultan, son of Bayezid I

Following Suleiman’s death, Musa then proclaimed himself the ruler of Europe taking over from Suleiman, thus declaring rebellion against his brother Mehmed in Asia Minor and out of revenge on the Byzantines for being his brother Suleiman’s ally, Musa decided to lay siege to Constantinople in 1411. With Constantinople again put under siege although a much smaller one this time, Manuel II then turned to diplomacy to save Constantinople, thus he allied himself with Mehmed who became Musa’s enemy and so Manuel asked Mehmed to cross over to Europe to defeat his brother Musa. When Mehmed arrived outside Constantinople, he managed to help lift Musa’s siege forcing Musa to flee deep into the Balkans.

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Stefan Lazarevic, Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia (r. 1389-1402), Independent Prince of Serbia (r. 1402-1427), brother-in-law of Bayezid I

It would only be in 1413 when Mehmed and Musa would once again clash in battle, and here in 1413 Mehmed with the help of a small army sent by Manuel II and from Stefan Lazarevic of Serbia defeated Musa’s forces in a battle in Bulgaria killing Musa in the process, thus ending this 11-year period of anarchy in the Ottoman Empire and once again restoring order. With the Ottoman interregnum over, Mehmed I became the full Ottoman sultan and due to Manuel II helping him take over the Ottoman Empire, both rulers would be in good terms with each other while Byzantium would once again no longer have to pay tribute, and now with the Byzantines and Ottomans having established friendly terms with each other, Mehmed I would then focus his attention in taking back lands in Asia Minor and also in conquering the independent feudal states of Albania as this part of the Balkans had not yet fallen under the Ottomans. As part of Mehmed I’s conquests of Albania, one Albanian feudal lord which was John Kastrioti in 1415 surrendered himself as a vassal to Mehmed and in the process, he also sent his 10-year-old son George Kastrioti to Mehmed’s court in Edirne as a Janissary, wherein George would later be known to the Ottomans as “Skanderbeg”.            

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Map of Timur’s Mongol Empire (green), territory invaded by Timur (light green)
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Ottoman sultan Bayezid I captured by Timur at the Battle of Ankara, 1402
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Bayezid I as a prisoner at Timur’s capital Samarkand
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Map of the Byzantine Empire (pink) in 1403 with new gains including Thessaloniki, Thessaly, Thrace, and Asia Minor across Constantinople
Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Ankara in 1402 (Kings and Generals).

With Manuel II and Mehmed I in a more or less peaceful co-existence with each other, Manuel then turned to assigning his 3 eldest sons to control different parts of the empire thus he made his eldest son John his co-emperor in 1414 as Manuel was starting to age, then in 1415 he appointed his second son Theodore as the Despot of the Morea based in its capital Mystras wherein Theodore now as Despot Theodore II would succeed his uncle Manuel’s younger brother Theodore I who had died back in 1407, while at the same time Manuel had already appointed his 3rd son Andronikos who despite being weak-minded and sickly as the Governor of Thessaloniki as the previous governor Manuel’s nephew John VII had died back in 1408, while on the other hand Manuel’s 3 younger sons were both still too young to be given positions while there was also no longer much land in the empire to assign them to anymore.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos

In 1415 when Manuel travelled to the Morea to appoint his son Theodore II as its despot, Manuel did a tour of the Peloponnese Peninsula and here he ordered the construction of wall across the entire Isthmus of Corinth, the small piece of land that connected the Peloponnese to mainland Greece, and this wall that was built here was known as the Hexamilion or “6-mile wall” in which its purpose was to further defend the Morea from attackers from the north. When visiting the Morea and particularly Mystras, Manuel came to believe that if ever Constantinople was to fall, Byzantine civilization would continue to thrive in Mystras as after all Constantinople had grown more and more insignificant while its location too made it very vulnerable for future Ottoman attacks if Mehmed I’s successors were to again resume war with Byzantium, while Mystras on the other hand was in a safe location being found on the high the slopes of the mountains above the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Sparta, thus making its location a hard one to attack which would therefore allow learning and culture to thrive there.

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Sultan Mehmed I of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1413-1421), son of Bayezid I

This period of peace between the Byzantines and Ottomans would however unfortunately not last as in 1421, Sultan Mehmed I after making a quick stop in Constantinople to attend a function hosted by Manuel II as Mehmed was returning back to Bursa in Asia Minor from a military campaign in the Balkans, Mehmed suddenly died only in his 30s when returning to Bursa, thus only ruling for 8 years as a legitimate sultan. Mehmed I was then succeeded by his son Murad II as sultan who was however only 17, while in 1421 as well Manuel already reaching his 70s decided he was too old to run the empire alone, thus he went into retirement leaving his eldest son John to be practically in control of the empire while Manuel only ruled in title, and now the new rulers were not entirely interested in maintaining diplomatic ties with each other the way Manuel and Mehmed did. Byzantium now practically under John had turned out to make quite a risky and foolish move when they attempted to get Murad II away by starting a rebellion within the Ottoman Empire by backing a man named Mustafa who claimed to be the long-lost son of Bayezid I that returned from captivity in Samarkand in rebelling against Murad II. The rebellion of Mustafa was however quickly defeated by Murad II in 1422 and again out of revenge on the Byzantines for supporting the rebel Mustafa, Murad II shortly after once again put Constantinople under the siege the way his uncle Musa did back in 1411 with the same reason as well which was for plain revenge, thus Murad II here did not really have a large enough army to fully capture Constantinople and end Byzantine rule.

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Manuel II as an old man

The co-emperor John in charge of Constantinople was the one here this time to defend it against the Ottomans, however as Constantinople was under siege Manuel II came out of retirement to again use diplomacy to save Constantinople and this time, Manuel found a way to pay off Murad II’s younger brother also named Mustafa to rebel which then forced Murad II to abandon his siege on Constantinople and rush back to Asia Minor to deal with his brother Mustafa in which Murad succeeded in defeating. Constantinople was then once again saved from another Ottoman siege, however Manuel later in 1402 suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed, thus Manuel retired to become a monk using the name Matthew, while his son John from now on really ruled the empire. In the meantime as Murad II put Constantinople under siege, he sent an army to attack the Morea and destroy the Hexamilion Wall Manuel had just built to simply punish the Byzantines while Murad also blockaded Thessaloniki, and though his siege of Constantinople was lifted, Thessaloniki could no longer resist and so in 1423 its governor Manuel’s son Andronikos sold off the whole city of Thessaloniki itself to the Republic of Venice hoping they would defend it better against the Ottomans, thus Andronikos would return to Constantinople to retire as a monk while the Byzantines from here on would forever lose Thessaloniki.

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Sigismund, King Hungary (r. 1387-1437), King of Germany (r. 1411-1437), Holy Roman emperor (r. 1433-1437)

In 1423 as well, Manuel now having recovered but also traumatized from Murad’s attack the previous year decided to do one last trip to Europe to ask for assistance, this time to Buda, the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary wherein his father John V travelled to many decades earlier in 1366, and at this point King Sigismund who led the failed Crusade in 1396 that was defeated by Bayezid I at the Battle of Nicopolis was still Hungary’s king in addition to being King of Germany since 1411. Just like his father many decades earlier, Manuel II here was turned down by the King of Hungary as Sigismund true enough suffered a heavy defeat to the Ottomans at Nicopolis, thus Sigismund came to believe nothing could stop the Ottoman expansion anymore, however Sigismund at this point also had his own problems to deal with in his own lands and this was particularly a civil war in Bohemia known as the Hussite Wars against a militant heretical branch of Christianity known as the Hussites, thus Sigismund needed most his own forces to defend against the Hussites who were many in number. Manuel II then returned back to Constantinople empty handed once more and the worst part was that in 1424, he had to do the humiliating thing once again of signing a treaty together with his son John that would make Byzantium an Ottoman vassal once again to ensure its survival as Murad II unlike his father really intended end Byzantium’s existence, thus the Ottomans were back again as Byzantium’s overlord that would continue to bully it. Manuel II Palaiologos then died at the age of 75 in 1425 as a broken man although as a monk while his son and co-emperor John was away in Rome at this time to seek an alliance with the pope, though Manuel on the other hand left behind a number of philosophical works written in his time as emperor.

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Map of Constantinople in the early 15th century
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Remains of Byzantine Mystras in Greece today
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Byzantine Thessaloniki, sold to Venice in 1423
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1422 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, art by FaisalHashemi

Watch this to learn more about Manuel II’s reign (Eastern Roman History).


The Reign of John VIII Palaiologos, the last Victories of the Byzantines, and the Resurgence of the Ottomans (1425-1448)        

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The Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos who died in 1425 had a total of 6 children with his wife Empress Helena Dragas the Serbian princess, and all these 6 children were boys with the eldest of them being John who was born in 1392 and named after his grandfather Emperor John V succeeded his father as the senior emperor John VIII Palaiologos who was however still in Rome when hearing of his father’s death.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium, son of Manuel II

Here, John who is in Rome after hearing about the death of his father immediately rushed back to Constantinople to be crowned as the new senior emperor at the age of 33, and in personality John was wise, practical, and diplomatic much like his late father. Now the second son of Manuel and Helena which was Theodore II at this point in 1425 still ruled as the Despot of the Morea and although he was very much unambitious and lazy, he still did not want to step down from power while the 3rd son on the other hand which was Andronikos who was previously in charge of Thessaloniki but surrendered it to the Venetians in 1423 had already chosen to retire as a monk and stay away from politics due to his bad health. Meanwhile, the 4th son of Manuel and Helena which was Constantine Palaiologos who was born in 1405 in Constantinople and named after his maternal grandfather- Helena’s father the Serbian prince Konstantin Dejanovic who was killed in the battle against Wallachia in 1395- was a large and muscular man although not very tall but still courageous and adventurous, highly skilled in military matters, as well as in martial arts, horsemanship, and hunting much like the legendary great brave warrior Byzantine emperors centuries ago, although Constantine too was very superstitious but also loyal to his family and empire making him the favorite brother of John VIII. Now the 5th son of Manuel and Helena which was Demetrios Palaiologos who was born in 1407 happened to be the most neglected of the brothers which made him the most selfish and rebellious of the 6 when grown up, however Demetrios only arrived back in the Byzantine Empire in 1427, 2 years after his father’s death as for the past 4 years Demetrios had been living in the court of the King of Hungary Sigismund in Buda feeling that the Hungarian king could protect him from his brothers who constantly gave him a problem, and even though returning to Byzantium in 1427 Demetrios was still granted nothing by his eldest brother the emperor. Lastly the youngest of the 6 sons which was Thomas Palaiologos who was born in 1409 was a large and intimidating man, although being the youngest of the brothers he basically just did whatever he was told.

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Durad Brankovic, Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia since 1427, successor of Stefan Lazarevic

It also happened that in 1427 the former Ottoman vassal Prince of Serbia Stefan Lazarevic had died and without naming an heir, both the Ottomans and the Kingdom of Hungary came close to the point of having a war with each other over the vacant Serbia, until one of the Ottoman vassal Serbian nobles Durad Brankovic who previously took part fighting with the Ottomans against Timur at Ankara in 1402 also here in 1427 stepped up and claimed the vacant throne of Serbia agreeing to be a vassal prince or “despot” of both the Ottomans and Hungary to prevent either side from invading Serbia, thus Serbia would become the buffer zone between the Ottomans and Hungary. In 1427 as well, the Morea in southern Greece which was under Despot Theodore II Palaiologos became threatened by Carlo I Tocco, the independent Italian ruler of the Ionian Sea islands of Cephalonia and Zakynthos who constantly raided the coasts of Byzantine Morea with the pirate fleet he commanded, and Theodore who was quite an ineffective ruler could barely stop the pirate attacks that the action had to be done by the emperor John VIII himself.

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Seal of Carlo I Tocco, independent Italian warlord in the Ionian Sea

Later in 1427, John VIII together with his brother Constantine and Constantine’s childhood friend and now secretary George Sphrantzes travelled by ship from Constantinople to the Morea to settle down the conflict with Carlo Tocco through diplomacy, however the negotiations failed leading to a minor naval battle along the Western coast of the Morea between the last remains of the Byzantine fleet commanded by Constantine and the pirate fleet of Carlo. The Byzantines however still won the battle defeating Carlo’s fleet, thus in 1428 Carlo agreed to a peace treaty with the Byzantines wherein he returned the islands and parts of the Morea he conquered from Byzantium along the Western coast back to the Byzantines, and to further seal the deal Carlo also married off his niece Theodora to Constantine. For Constantine’s victory against the Italian pirates in the Ionian and reclaiming most of the Peloponnese, John VIII rewarded him by appointing him as Despot of the Morea, however Constantine’s brother Theodore II was still in power as Despot of the Morea, and despite being unambitious Theodore still refused to give up his rule over the Morea, thus both Theodore and Constantine had to share their rule over the Morea. Additionally, John VIII in 1428 as well appointed his youngest brother Thomas who was only 19 as an additional Despot of the Morea thus making the Morea have 3 rulers simultaneously, and while John VIII as the emperor basically in control of just Constantinople would for the next years not really do much, the action from here on would all take place in the Morea with the 3 brothers. Seeing that the entire Byzantine Morea (Peloponnese) was not sufficient enough in land for all 3 brothers to control, the 3 all decided that they should attack and conquer the still surviving but already weakened Latin Principality of Achaea, one of the many states the Crusaders in 1204 established when carving up the remains of Byzantine territory.

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Seal of the Latin Principality of Achaea in Greece, founded in 1204

Although the restored Byzantine emperor and founder of the current Palaiologos Dynasty Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) after restoring Byzantium in 1261 managed to take back the southeast part of the Peloponnese for Byzantium in 1263, thus establishing the city of Mystras which became the major Byzantine city there, the Latin Principality of Achaea still survived, although by the 15th century it was basically reduced to just the northern Peloponnese. Now by 1429, Constantine, Theodore II, and Thomas joined forces in attacking the Principality of Achaea’s strategic port city of Patras along the northern coast of the Morea, however due to Theodore’s laziness and Thomas’ inexperience due to his young age, the conquest of Patras failed leaving Theodore and Thomas to abandon the campaign, though the courageous Constantine still chose to continue it himself together with his secretary George Sphrantzes.

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Constantine Palaiologos in armor, Despot of the Morea and son of Manuel II

Constantine’s siege of Patras that would then go on for 3 months turned out to be a difficult and hopeless one that in one occasion Constantine’s horse was shot by an arrow and killed while Constantine was on it thus nearly killing Constantine if not for George saving his life. Eventually the last Latin knights and soldiers defending Patras surrendered to Constantine accepting him as their overlord, thus Patras after about 225 years of Latin occupation returned to Byzantine rule with George appointed by Constantine as Patras’ Byzantine governor, however the Prince of Achaea which was the Italian Centurione II Zaccaria was still alive and following the fall of Patras to the Byzantines, he retreated to the inland region of Arcadia in the Peloponnese which would here be the last holding of the Latin Principality of Achaea. In the meantime, the 3rd son Andronikos who retired as a monk in Constantinople since 1423 had died in 1429 at the young age of 29 due to sickness while Thessaloniki which was now under the Venetians could no longer resist against the Ottomans that were blockading it, thus in 1430 Thessaloniki once again fell under the rule of the Ottomans, and this time for good. Later in 1429, Constantine experience the tragedy of the death of his wife Theodora Tocco after more than just a year of marriage which resulted in no children.

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Turahan Bey, Ottoman general under Sultan Murad II, art by Pyrasterran

Now due to Constantine crushing the Principality of Achaea which however happened to be an Ottoman vassal as well, the Ottoman sultan Murad II furious about Constantine who was also his vassal attacking another Ottoman vassal which was Achaea sent an Ottoman army led by his general Turahan Bey in 1431 to attack Byzantine Morea by land not to invade it but to pillage it just to teach Constantine and his brothers a lesson that as Ottoman vassals, they should not mess around with their other fellow vassals. The Ottoman devastation over the Morea however was only minimal and now with the Byzantines secured, the youngest brother Thomas made a deal with the defeated Prince of Achaea Centurione II wherein Thomas would marry Centurione’s daughter Caterina Zaccaria as a way to finally put an end to more than 200 years of the Latin Principality of Achaea, and in 1432 following the death of Centurione II as the last Prince of Achaea, the Principality of Achaea itself ceased to exist as Thomas who now married the late prince’s daughter inherited the entire Principality of Achaea. Rather than taking the title of “Prince of Achaea”, Thomas decided to abolish it and choose to simply be “Despot of the Morea”, and now in 1432 the entire Peloponnese Peninsula was again fully under Byzantine rule, except for a few port towns which were under Venice.            

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Map of the Morea (Peloponnese) in the Byzantine era
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Illustration of Constantinople in the 1430s
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Patras Castle in the Morea, attacked by Despot Constantine in 1429
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Byzantine army in the Morea, 15th century

With the entire Peloponnese under Byzantine rule once again, Constantine and his brothers Theodore II and Thomas would now come to the point of co-existing as rulers of the entire peninsula with their own capitals as Theodore would be based in the thriving mountain city of Mystras, Constantine in the fortress city of Kalavryta in the north of the Morea, and Thomas based in the Ancient Greek city of Elis in the west of the Morea.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, art by Spatharokandidatos

Meanwhile, the Byzantine emperor John VIII in Constantinople in his lifetime had been married twice, although the first wife died back in 1417 before he was emperor, while the second wife had divorced him without warning in 1426, and now John was married for the 3rd time, here to the Byzantine princess Maria Komnene from the Byzantine successor state of the Empire of Trebizond at the far eastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea founded in 1204 which in the 1430s was still existing, however both of John’s first two marriages failed to produce children while the 3rd so far too had not produced any. Having no children so far, John VIII whose favorite brother was Constantine considered naming him his heir in case John died without a son and thus John called Constantine to come over to Constantinople in 1435, which however only made Theodore suspicious thinking his brother John was going to make Constantine co-emperor making Theodore follow Constantine to Constantinople leaving Thomas as the only brother to watch over the Morea. However, John VIII only called Constantine to come over to Constantinople to just stay behind as its regent as here John had planned to travel to Italy to attend the Church Council there that had been held since 1431 wherein the Byzantines wanted to have a part in it to negotiate with the pope in finally submitting the Byzantine Church to Catholicism, something no emperor has ever achieved ever since the permanent schism between both Eastern and Western Churches in 1054 if you remember from chapter VIII of this series.

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Helena Dragas, wife of Manuel II and mother of their 6 sons

Although Theodore found out there was really no intention to make Constantine co-emperor, a quarrel still erupted between Theodore and Constantine in Constantinople almost leading to civil war if not for it being resolved a year later (1436) by their mother Helena Dragas who was still alive retired as a nun. All while the Palaiologos brothers Theodore and Constantine were at a petty conflict with each other, a revival of Classical Greek philosophy had been developing in the city of Mystras in the Morea and the one particularly responsible for this revival was the scholar George Gemistus Plethon, a Greek native of Constantinople who for several years studied Ancient Greek texts in the Morea, as well as one of his students which was Basil Bessarion, a Greek native of the Empire of Trebizond.

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George Plethon, 14th to 15th century Byzantine philosopher

Together they were at a campaign to revive the philosophy of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato on nature and politics known as “Neo-Platonism”, and in fact Plethon even called himself that thinking himself as the new Plato. At the same time, the Ottoman capital in Europe Edirne, once Byzantine Adrianople was also growing as a center of learning under Murad II wherein the Ottomans themselves would learn the Ancient Greek philosophy too which the Byzantines had left behind there blending it with their own Islamic philosophy, and in 1435 in Edirne Murad II had married the Serbian princess Mara Brankovic, the daughter of the Ottoman vassal Serbian prince Durad Brankovic who sent his young daughter to marry the sultan to prevent the Ottomans from literally invading Serbia as Durad like many others knew the sultan was up to trouble. John VIII too despite being an Ottoman vassal knew that Murad II was up to trouble as due to his unpredictability Murad could just break their treaty and attack Constantinople anyway, which is then why John agreed to take part in the Church Council held in Italy to submit the Byzantine Church to the pope as he believed it was the only way to get protection from the pope and the more powerful Western kingdoms against the once more ever-expanding Ottomans.

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John VIII in Florentine Renaissance painting by Gozzoli

In 1437, John VIII departed Constantinople for Italy to attend the still ongoing council in Ferrara made to discuss various religious issues of the day, thus John VIII left with an entourage of 700 as a way to show full commitment in submitting to the pope, and the entourage included the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II who turned out to be a son of the last Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman, a large number of bishops and priests, and the same scholars from Mystras Plethon and Bessarion who were interested to travel to Italy to introduce their new philosophical ideas there. Meanwhile, the 5th Palaiologos brother Demetrios comes back to the picture here in 1437 being forced by his eldest brother the emperor to join him in their trip to Italy as John surely knew that if Demetrios were left behind in Constantinople he would immediately seize the throne behind John’s back as apparently Demetrios had his own rebellious tendency to seize the throne in the name of the Orthodox faith due to Demetrios’ strong anti-Western worldview.

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Meme of Loukas Notaras, preferring the Sultan’s turban over the Latin miter

Constantine was then left behind to watch over Constantinople as its regent while John VIII was away, and during his time as Regent of Constantinople, Constantine would be advised by his mother Helena Dragas, his secretary George, and the politician Loukas Notaras who just like Demetrios was also strongly anti-Western preferring that it would be better that Byzantium would fall to the Ottomans rather than for the emperor to submit to the pope which is why he said he preferred the sultan’s turban over the Latin miter, while Theodore on the other hand returned to the Morea to rule it together with Thomas.

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Dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, Florence

By 1439, the council moved from Ferrara to Florence where it was held at its famous cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in which just a few years back its impressive and massive high dome that could already rival that of the Hagia Sophia’s in Constantinople had been completed which then would have humbled the Byzantines visiting it unlike before when it was the other way around as those from other parts beyond including Italy were humbled when seeing Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia cathedral. Here at the cathedral of Florence, the historic moment of 1439 happened wherein the union between both Byzantine and Latin Churches was finally declared when the pope Eugene IV as well as the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II and Emperor John VIII signed the Church Union making the Byzantine Church now fully submitting to the pope’s authority. At this time, Florence had already been a growing center for arts and culture, and during his visit to Florence John VIII was in fact painted by famous Florentine Italian painters of this age such as Piero de la Francesca and Benozzo Gozzoli in which the latter painted John VIII as one of the figures in a massive wall fresco at the Magi Chapel in Florence which can still be seen today.

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Basil Bessarion, Byzantine scholar turned Catholic cardinal in Italy

Among John VIII’s entourage, Basil Bessarion who had previously been ordained as a priest in Byzantium chose to stay behind in Italy after the Council of Florence and due to the Byzantines submitting to the pope at the council, Bessarion was made a Catholic cardinal as well, while Plethon who however turned out to secretly renounce Christianity and return to worshiping the Ancient Greek gods returned to Mystras. Other than Bessarion, other Byzantine scholars who joined John VIII here in Italy also chose to stay behind as in Byzantium the noble families both no longer had enough money to sponsor scholars and were more interested in mystical ideas- such as the meditation practice of Hesychasm if you remember previously from chapter XI- than progressive philosophy at this time, while in Italy these Byzantine Greek scholars were in high demand as the Italians too had been starting to become interested in Classical Greek philosophy but could not understand it as it was in Greek therefore needing these Byzantine scholars to translate them.

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Cosimo de Medici, Florentine banker and patron of the artists and scholars

On the other hand, there were more wealthy patrons in Italy such as the rich and powerful Cosimo de Medici who was the one responsible for this revival of art and learning in Florence, and it was possibly Cosimo who sponsored these émigré Byzantine scholars in Italy leading to the rise of the Italian Renaissance that began and grew in Florence. John VIII meanwhile extended his stay in Italy to explore the land as after all aside from John’s grandfather Emperor John V who visited Italy back in 1369, there has not been a Byzantine emperor to really travel around Italy since the 7th century Constans II (r. 641-668), who if you remember from chapter IV of this series not only toured Italy but even chose to move the Byzantine capital to the city of Syracuse in Sicily only to get assassinated in his bath there in 668.

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Joseph II, Patriarch of Constantinople, present at the 1439 Council of Florence

Members of John’s entourage including the Patriarch Joseph II with a number of bishops and priests meanwhile did their own side trip to Venice wherein they came across the loot the Crusaders stole from Constantinople back in 1204 while the Venetian locals that toured told them that these were important treasures from Constantinople, however these bishops and priests who true enough could read the Greek inscriptions on these treasures realized that this loot the Venetians stole were not as valuable as the Venetians thought they were as these priests and bishops knew they came from smaller monasteries in Constantinople based on the inscriptions carved into them. John VIII then returned to Constantinople by ship in 1440 while his brother Demetrios returned earlier and back in Constantinople, John returned receiving a grand celebration thrown by Constantine and Demetrios celebrating the union of both Churches that had finally been achieved.          

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Complete painting of John VIII as one of the magi, made during his stay in Florence by Benozzo Gozzoli
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John VIII (far left in red robes and hat), painting by Piero de la Francesca
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Sketch of John VIII and his entourage in Florence by Pisanello

Following John VIII’s return to Constantinople in 1440, his brother Constantine would not yet return to his brothers Theodore and Thomas in the Morea but would stay behind as he was to look for a suitable candidate for a second wife as his first one died back in 1429, and eventually he came across the young Caterina Gattilusio, the daughter of the Italian Lord of Lesbos Dorino Gattilusio who was in fact a Byzantine vassal.

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Coat of arms of the Palaiologos Dynasty (above) and of the Genoese Gattilusio family (below), the Byzantine vassal rulers of Lesbos since 1355

Dorino, the Byzantine vassal Lord of Lesbos apparently had not only been paying tribute to the Byzantines who paid tribute to the Ottomans, but had also turned out to be a second cousin of Constantine as Dorino’s grandmother was Constantine’s great-aunt Maria who was the sister of Constantine’s grandfather Emperor John V, as back in 1355 if you recall from the previous chapter Dorino’s grandfather the Genoese pirate Francesco Gattilusio was rewarded the by John V island of Lesbos to rule it as his own independent vassal state as well as John V’s sister Maria in marriage in exchange for helping John V take back the throne from his father-in-law Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347-1354) . Now Constantine’s future wife Caterina would apparently be related to him, although Constantine would not yet meet Caterina until he would go to Lesbos himself in 1441, though prior to this Constantine had already sent George to Lesbos to arrange the marriage. Following Constantine’s arrival in Lesbos in 1441 together with George and Loukas Notaras, Constantine after meeting Caterina and her father would marry Caterina in Lesbos, but shortly after marrying Caterina Constantine finally returned to the Morea leaving Caterina behind in Lesbos with her father.

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Seal of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea

When returning to the Morea, Constantine came to discover that his brothers Theodore and Thomas were able to rule it well while he was in Constantinople for the past 4 years, and although things seemed very much stable in the Morea, it was Constantinople that was not as apparently the people were discontent with their emperor John VIII uniting the Byzantine Church with the Catholic Church. Rather than holding their emperor in such high regard for travelling all the way to Italy and leaving his empire for 3 full years, most of the Byzantine people especially in Constantinople saw their emperor as a selfish traitor who betrayed them for his own personal interests, as the Byzantine people were certainly not willing to let go of their centuries old Orthodox Christian traditions despite their beliefs being very similar to that of the Catholics with only minor differences. The Byzantine people basically even 200 years after the sack of Constantinople by the Catholic Crusaders in 1204 were still traumatized by it which gave them a true reason to refuse submitting their faith to Catholicism. In response to John VIII reuniting with the Catholic Church, the Byzantine people rioted for days in Constantinople, thus the Church union wherein John VIII travelled all the way to Italy for just to sign it never pushed through due to popular objection, and the one mostly responsible for stirring the rioting that went as far as burning houses was no other than the trouble-making brother Demetrios.

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Demetrios Palaiologos, younger brother of John VIII and Constantine, portrait depicting him as one of the magi, made during his stay in Florence by Benozzo Gozzoli

As it turned out, Demetrios not only wanted to rebel against his brother John VIII for his own selfish objectives but to seize the throne in the name of Orthodoxy as Demetrios was a proud Orthodox Christian and traditionalist who resented all the radical changes the Byzantines were going through which John VIII as well as his brothers Theodore, Constantine, and Thomas championed such as Church unity, the introduction of new fashion styles from Western Europe, and new philosophies. Demetrios on the other hand wanted Byzantium to be how it was like in the past centuries, therefore he resented the new fashion styles borrowed from Western Europe which consisted of more comfortable, loose, and simpler robes together with vests and smaller hats for men and women’s dresses that were much more lose with a wider neckline which also showed more skin and shoulders.

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Renaissance fashion styles in Italy, 15th century

Instead, Demetrios still preferred the age old Byzantine fashion styles of tight-fitting and uncomfortable silk tunics and oddly shaped hats for men and tight-fitting silk dresses for women that basically covered up everything except their faces, but more so Demetrios strongly championed these old traditions and fashion styles as they were more associated with the Orthodox faith, while the Ottomans too had supported him as they were true enough threatened by John VIII’s plans to unite with the Catholic Church which for the Ottomans meant starting a Crusade against them. At this time, Demetrios following his return from Italy had been given control of the port of Mesembria along the Black Sea by John VIII, which was at this point Byzantium’s northernmost holding while Constantine on the other hand feeling that he had done his part as Despot of the Morea and now wanted to have a new experience considered switching positions with Demetrios wherein Constantine would rule Mesembria and Demetrios would be Despot of the Morea. Constantine then sent George to deliver Demetrios in Mesembria his proposal but also sending George afterwards to the Ottoman sultan Murad II in Edirne as again with Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal, the slightest thing such as an appointment of a family member in ruling a part of the empire needed the sultan’s approval.

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Murad II, Ottoman sultan since 1421

Demetrios in 1442 however no longer had any desires for new appointments, instead his main objective now was the imperial throne and by having the backing of Sultan Murad II, Demetrios declared war on John VIII thus preparing to march to Constantinople to seize the throne in the name of Orthodoxy and age-old traditions. Seeing Demetrios’ threat being large, John VIII had to recall Constantine from the Morea once again to defend Constantinople as John himself did not have as much military ability as Constantine. On his way to Constantinople, Constantine returned to Lesbos to fetch his wife Caterina but on the way to Constantinople when stopping at the island of Lemnos, Caterina suddenly died after suffering a fever and thus Constantine for the second time lost a wife and again this marriage did not produce any children, though Constantine still arrived outside Constantinople’s walls right in time to repel Demetrios’ attack which however consisted of just a few soldiers.

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Fresco of Despot of the Morea Constantine (left) and his secretary George Sphrantzes (right)

The defeated Demetrios was then imprisoned while George was appointed by Constantine to be in charge of the port town of Selymbria west of Constantinople to keep a watch on Demetrios who was imprisoned there. In the following year 1443, Constantine’s older brother and co-Despot of the Morea Theodore II finally decided it was time to give up his position as despot after holding it for many years and in exchange for resigning his title as Despot of the Morea, Theodore was given control of Selymbria thus George stepped down as he was supposed to be only its temporary governor, thus making Constantine and Thomas the sole Despots of the Morea. In his time as despot co-ruling with Thomas, Constantine ruling from Mystras proved to be highly capable administrator and politician that he greatly won the loyalty of the people and landowners of the Morea by holding athletic games such as footraces for prizes, thus in a way reviving the Ancient Greek Olympic Games in Greece after a thousand years as in the 390 it was the Christian extremist Byzantine emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) that put an end to the centuries old Olympics believing it to be Unchristian. The biggest achievement of Constantine in his time as despot though was that he completely reconstructed and further fortified the Hexamilion Wall at the Isthmus of Corinth that his father Manuel II constructed in 1415 in which the Ottomans destroyed in 1423 and 1431, and its completion in 1444 greatly impressed the people of the Morea as well as the Venetian colonists there.

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Life in Byzantine Morea, 15th century
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The Hexamilion Wall, Isthmus of Corinth, Greece

         

In the meantime, the Kingdom of Hungary had been in a state of chaos after the death of their king Sigismund in 1437- who also became Holy Roman emperor in 1433- and only in 1440 did Hungary once again have a king, and however this new king was the young reigning King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania Wladyslaw III who then came to rule both Poland and Hungary.

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John Hunyadi, Governor-General of Hungary

At this time when Hungary had no legitimate king, the one holding the kingdom together happened to be the general John Hunyadi as its governor-general, while the state of chaos Hungary was in allowed the Ottomans to further threaten Serbia which was the Ottomans’ and Hungary’s buffer state. After becoming King of Hungary, Wladyslaw III then turned to making alliances with the kings all over Europe against the Ottomans and from 1441-1442, both Wladyslaw III and John Hunyadi while waiting for their allies to come began launching initial campaigns against the Ottomans in the Balkans which had turned out to be successful. It was then only in 1443 when Pope Eugene IV considered launching a Crusade against the Ottomans consisting of armies from all across Europe which was to be led by Wladyslaw III, while at the same time the Serbian vassal prince Durad Brankovic also decided to turn against the Ottomans and join forces with the Crusaders. This Crusade initially won a major victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Nis in 1443 and part of this was due to George Kastrioti known to the Ottomans as “Skanderbeg”- the same Albanian boy originally an Orthodox Christian taken as hostage by the Ottomans in 1415 and converted into Islam to be a Janissary soldier- who at this point was already a grown man turned against the Ottomans switching sides to the Crusaders.

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George Kastrioti “Skanderbeg”, independent Lord of Albania since 1443

Following the Crusade’s victory at Nis in 1443, Skanderbeg returned to Albania converting to Catholicism and ruling it as its independent lord as his father its former feudal lord John Kastrioti died back in 1437, and as for the Crusaders their next battle against the Ottomans later in 1443 would result in defeat, but in early 1444 they would win another victory over the Ottomans. This defeat the Ottomans faced to the Crusaders in early 1444 then made their sultan Murad II unpopular among his subjects that he had to decide to abdicate the throne and go to retirement in Asia Minor despite Murad still being quite young, thus Murad here passed the Ottoman throne to his 12-year-old son Mehmed II who despite being still a child had already been developing a singular objective and obsession which was the ultimate conquest of Constantinople from the Byzantines, however the Crusade of Wladyslaw III and John Hunyadi distracted Mehmed II from pushing through with his main objective.

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King Wladyslaw III of Poland (r. 1434-1444), King of Hungary (r. 1440-1444)

Believing that the Ottomans were now in a weaker state especially since their new ruler was still a child, Wladyslaw III decided to resume his Crusade believing he had a strong chance of winning, thus the young Mehmed II being too young to lead the campaign himself called his father out of retirement to lead the counter-attack against the Crusaders. In the meantime, a smaller Ottoman force was sent by Murad II who came out of retirement to attack Albania in which Skanderbeg had just declared independent from the Ottomans, but apparently Skanderbeg after returning to Albania had united neighboring Albanian and Serbian lords into a military alliance known as the “League of Lezhe” and with a united army of Serbians and Albanians as well as some hit-and-run tactics, Skanderbeg defeated the Ottoman army sent against him in 1444. In October of 1444, the Crusader army led by Wladyslaw III of Hungary and John Hunyadi with armies from Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Wallachia, Serbia, and Burgundy clashed with the Ottoman army led by the retired Murad II at the Battle of Varna in Bulgaria.

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Ottoman Janissaries

The battle started going in the favor of the Crusaders until the tide suddenly turned to the side of the Ottomans when Wladyslaw III after charging at the Ottoman Janissaries and not expecting their fierceness in battle was killed by them while Hunyadi when trying to reach Wladyslaw’s body was encircled by the Ottomans and forced to retreat, thus the Ottomans decimated this large Crusader army and won a decisive victory just like at the Battle of Nicopolis back in 1396. Now as the Ottomans were busy fighting wars in the Balkans, Constantine as the Despot of the Morea used the situation to his advantage and thus with only a few forces marched north to invade the Duchy of Athens which at this point was under the rule of the Catalans ever since 1311, and thus after being defeated in battle the Catalan Duke of Athens was even forced to start paying tribute money to the Byzantines instead of the Ottomans in which they were initially paying tribute to as well.

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Andronikos III Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor (r. 1328-1341), great-grandfather of Constantine, art by myself

Constantine’s victory over Athens thus made him confident enough to campaign all across Greece with the ambition to return it all again to Byzantine rule much like his great-grandfather Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) who Constantine looked up to wanting to continue his legacy in making all of Greece Byzantine again. However, Constantine would sadly not be able to fulfill his dreams as in 1446, the young Ottoman sultan Mehmed II feeling too young to rule stepped down asking his father Murad II to come back to power while the Janissaries also rebelled demanding that the more experienced Murad II take back the throne, and with Murad II back in power, the Ottomans were again a threat to the expansion of the Byzantines. Murad II then recaptured what Constantine took back in Thessaly and again forced the Duke of Athens that paid tribute to Byzantium to pay tribute to the Ottomans again while Constantine refused to surrender the lands he captured back to Murad, thus Murad tired of Constantine sent an army of 60,000 to attack Byzantine Morea led by Turahan Bey, the same Turkish general that attacked the Morea in 1431.

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Byzantine troops defending the Morea during the 1446 Ottoman raid

Knowing that the Ottomans would again attack from the Hexamilion Wall, both Constantine and Thomas with an army of 20,000 rushed there to defend it but stood no chance against the Ottomans when the Ottomans arrived as the Ottoman army true enough had cannons with enough power to break down this wall. With the use of their cannons, the Ottomans were able to reduce the wall that Constantine had just repaired and fortified to rubble, thus allowing the Ottomans to mercilessly slaughter the Byzantine defenders and take the survivors as slaves, while Constantine and Thomas themselves barely escaped with their lives. The Ottomans then raided south into the Morea even attempting to besiege Mystras, however due to its strategic position on a steep mountain slope, the Ottomans failed to capture it, but because Constantine and Thomas lost a lot of men, they were left with no choice but to again renew their deal with the Ottomans to pay them tribute and not do anything without the sultan’s permission which included promising to never again repair the Hexamilion Wall.

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Pope Eugene IV

On the other hand, the defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of Varna in 1444 made Pope Eugene IV once more consider calling for another Crusade, but this time the rest of Europe was too busy having their own problems, thus leaving the Hungarian general John Hunyadi alone to face the Ottomans wherein Hunyadi waited for the arrival of Murad II’s forces at the same field of Kosovo where the battle of 1389 wherein the Ottomans crushed the Serbian army despite their sultan Murad I being assassinated took place in. Like in the first battle in 1389, the Ottomans at the 2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448 again won a major victory, this time over Hunyadi, while Serbia’s prince Durad Brankovic again returned his loyalty to the Ottomans, while in Wallachia the young Ottoman backed prince Vlad III who like Skanderbeg had also been taken as a hostage and made to serve as an Ottoman Janissary seized the entire Wallachia with Ottoman support while his cousin the current prince Vladislav II joined Hunyadi in battle, but due to Hunyadi’s defeat Vladislav II returned home to Wallachia forcing his cousin Vlad to go into hiding in Hungary.

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Emperor John VIII Palaiologos portrait, died in 1448

Back in Byzantium, Theodore II Palaiologos the former Despot of the Morea who had retired to Selymbria since 1443 had died in June of 1448 while in October of 1448 just 2 weeks after the 2nd Battle of Kosovo, it was the emperor John VIII who died at the age of 55 leaving behind no children as even his 3rd wife who died back in 1439 failed to produce him children, thus a succession crisis broke out. Among the 3 surviving Palaiologos brothers, Constantine being the eldest surviving one was the most popular choice as he was brave and charismatic while the youngest one Thomas backed Constantine as well while the 5th brother Demetrios who had already been released from prison was also popular due to his championing of Orthodoxy and old traditions, and right after John VIII’s death both Demetrios who intended to be emperor and Thomas who did not rushed to Constantinople leaving Constantine behind in the Morea.

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King Wladyslaw III of Poland and Hungary at the Battle of Varna against the Ottomans, 1444
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2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448, Ottomans defeat the Hungarian army of Hunyadi
Watch this to learn more about the 1402-1413 Ottoman Interregnum and the Battle of Varna in 1444 (Kings and Generals).

The Climax Part I- The Reign and Surrender of Constantine XI (1449-1453)         

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Though both brothers the thin and long-haired nationalist Demetrios and the large sized and bald pro-Western Thomas Palaiologos rushed to Constantinople after the death of their eldest brother Emperor John VIII in 1448, neither of them were crowned as the new emperor as for one their mother Empress Helena Dragas who was still alive preferred Constantine over all her 6 sons and Constantine was true enough the closest to his mother among his brothers that he even went by the name “Constantine Dragases” referring to his mother’s last name at certain times.

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Murad II, 6th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1st reign 1421-1444, 2nd reign 1446-1451

Refusing to accept either Demetrios or Thomas as the new emperor, Helena wrote to the Ottoman sultan Murad II who had the final say on who should be emperor that Constantine should take over and Murad being Byzantium’s overlord when getting word of this accepted the offer to make Constantine the new emperor. With the succession problem quickly and peacefully resolved, Helena sent word to her son Constantine in Mystras that he was selected as emperor by Murad II, and in January of 1449 Constantine at age 44 was crowned as Basileus (emperor) Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos in the main cathedral of Mystras though not by the Patriarch of Constantinople but simply by the local bishop crowning him only with a golden headgear instead of an actual crown, and the reason to why Constantine had to be crowned secretly with a small ceremony is that if he was crowned in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the people would riot as they knew Constantine supported the unpopular Church Union policy of John VIII. Constantine eventually arrived in Constantinople in March of 1449, although since the Byzantines no longer had decent ships at this point, Constantine had to in fact hire a Catalan ship from Athens to transport him by sea from the Morea to Constantinople, while it was also impossible to travel by land as the lands between Constantinople and the Morea were no longer under Byzantine rule.

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Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, crowned in 1449

When arriving in Constantinople, Constantine XI having no time to renovate the deteriorating Byzantine capital immediately focused on consolidating his rule by sending word to Murad II agreeing to continue being his vassal while also sending both Demetrios and Thomas back to the Morea wherein Thomas was to return to his capital Glarentza and Demetrios was to replace Constantine as Despot of the Morea based in Mystras in order to prevent Demetrios from further causing trouble. While negotiating with the anti-unionist Byzantines which included Constantine’s Megas Doux or top advisor Loukas Notaras who previously served John VIII, Constantine made himself busy seeking marriage alliances considering that his two previous wives that died failed to produce children, thus he wrote to the King of Aragon and Naples Alfonso V asking to marry Alfonso’s relative Beatrice who was however very distant coming all the way from the Kingdom of Portugal which was at the opposite end of Europe from Constantinople. The second option for Constantine XI to make a marriage alliance with was with the Byzantine successor state of the Empire of Trebizond at the eastern edge of the Black Sea, which just like the main empire was also stranded and greatly reduced, although despite its distance from the main empire, Trebizond still retained the same Byzantine government systems and Greek culture while also still being ruled by the same Komnenos Dynasty ever since its formation in 1204.

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Flag of the Empire of Trebizond, Byzantine successor state formed after 1204

Constantine XI then sent his old friend and secretary George Sphrantzes to Trebizond to arrange a marriage with the daughter of the Emperor of Trebizond John IV Megas Komnenos as well as with the daughter of the King of Georgia. In the meantime, the Ottoman sultan Murad II continued his campaigns against the independent Lord of Albania Skanderbeg, and in 1449 as well Murad II leading the army himself for once won a victory over Skanderbeg when capturing the Albanian fortress of Berat from Skanderbeg’s forces, thus Murad II with his son Mehmed proceeded to attacking Skanderbeg’s own stronghold itself which was the Castle of Kruje in 1450. Despite having an army of 100,000 and cannons, the Ottomans still failed to capture Kruje Castle due to its strategic position on a steep hill, thus Murad II and his forces retreated to Edirne achieving nothing allowing Skanderbeg to continue posing as a threat to the Ottomans. In 1450 as well, Constantine’s mother Helena Dragas had died in Constantinople at the old age of 78 as the last Byzantine empress, and being a popular figure, her death was mourned by many while the philosopher Plethon in the Morea who was still alive wrote funeral orations praising her for her fortitude and intellect, though 2 years later (1452) it would be Plethon’s turn to die in his 90s.

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, son of Murad II

In early 1451, it was Sultan Murad II’s turn to die in Edirne at only 47, thus his son Mehmed II would succeed him for a second time as the 7th Ottoman sultan, although this time permanently. Now with Mehmed II as sultan, there was nothing anymore stopping the Ottomans from taking Constantinople as Mehmed unlike his father before him totally wanted to get rid of Byzantium as vassal once and for all for he really had the lifelong goal of conquering Constantinople and the decaying Byzantium altogether replacing it with the Ottoman Empire, a dream his great-grandfather Sultan Bayezid I had as well which he could have achieved if he were not defeated and captured by Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Wanting to continue Byzantium as an Ottoman vassal under Mehmed II, Constantine sent envoys to renew the treaty with Mehmed which Mehmed however refused as he surely wanted to capture Constantinople, thus right after becoming sultan he began laying his plans to conquer it. At the same time following Murad II’s death, his Serbian wife Mara Brankovic (known as “Mara Hatun” in Turkish) decided to return to her father Prince Durad Brankovic in Serbia, although it apparently turned out that Mehmed grew up close to his stepmother Mara. At the same time too, George Sphrantzes returned to Constantinople in 1451 from Trebizond and Georgia although empty handed, but he still suggested to Constantine that a highly possible candidate to marry was Mara Brankovic as with her husband dead she was single again. Constantine was then all for marrying Mara, although Mara when getting word of it refused as following Murad’s death, she chose to live the rest of her life alone in Serbia, thus Constantine considered returning to making a marriage alliance with Georgia marrying whoever this Georgian princess would be.   

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Skanderbeg and his Albanian rebel army
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Skanderbeg’s castle in Kruje, Albania
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Map of the Despotate of the Morea in 1450 divided between Constantine XI’s brothers Demetrios (pink) and Thomas (purple)

Ever since Mehmed II was a child, even before his first reign as sultan (1444-1446), he already had the singular dream to capture Constantinople and tear down its walls as he grew up with the saying “whoever possesses Constantinople controls the world”, while also hearing about how his father Murad II, great-uncle Musa, and great-grandfather Bayezid I failed to capture Constantinople, Mehmed grew more and more determined to achieve what they failed to do.

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Mehmed II, 7th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, art by Elveo

Additionally, Mehmed was a very cultured person who knew the Latin and Greek language together with his native Turkish language, Arabic, Persian, and Serbian, and aside from looking up to his Turkish ancestors such as the Ottoman Empire’s founder Osman (r. 1299-1324) who was his direct ancestor as well as the previous Seljuk sultans of Asia Minor from the 11th to 14th centuries, he also looked up to the great men of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium which gave him every reason to conquer Constantinople as after all Constantinople was once that impressive imperial city that preserved the Greek and Roman civilization in the Middle Ages. Even though Constantinople was no longer the imperial metropolis it once was by the 1450s, conquering it would mean so much as for the past 1,100 years if you remember from the past 11 chapters, several armies had tried to capture but all failed except for the 4th Crusade in 1204 which however only cheated by not breaking down its massive land walls but instead only attacking it from behind through the smaller and weaker sea walls. Mehmed’s attack on Constantinople however would be postponed at first as when coming into power, his authority was immediately challenged by the Ottoman’s vassal Turkish Beylik in Eastern Asia Minor which were the Karamanids, thus Mehmed had to quickly march east into Asia Minor to deal with them.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos, art by Flavian the Historian

At the end, Mehmed managed to put down the Karamanid Beylik’s rebellion but in Constantinople, Constantine XI taking advantage of situation of Mehmed being away used the same kind of diplomacy his father Manuel II used, and this would be in organizing a civil war among the Ottomans as for many years, Mehmed’s cousin the Ottoman prince Orhan had been kept in Constantinople as a political prisoner, and to distract Mehmed from capturing Constantinople, Constantine released Orhan in an attempt to start a civil war as Orhan too had a claim on the Ottoman throne. Orhan however was never released as when Mehmed II returned from Asia Minor his Grand Vizier or top advisor Candarli Halil Pasha who before Mehmed was Murad II’s right-hand-man got word of Constantine’s plot reported it to Mehmed, and for Mehmed this was the last straw as he finally had enough of tricks from the Byzantines, thus Mehmed decided it was time to launch his attack on Constantinople. In 1452, Mehmed II began raising a large army which he envisioned to be about 100,000 in men while also force working his engineers and blacksmiths in Edirne to forge tens of cannons, which were at this point the new trend in warfare, and knowing that no previous siege weapons such as catapults and trebuchets could not bring down Constantinople’s 5th century land walls, Mehmed strongly believed cannons would do the job as after all his father was able to raze the Hexamilion Wall to rubble back in 1446 with cannons. As Mehmed made preparations for besieging Constantinople, a Hungarian engineer named Orban suddenly showed up at Mehmed’s court in Edirne presenting to Mehmed his plans of making a superweapon that would tear down Constantinople’s walls, and this was a massive cannon known which was 17ft long and could fire a cannon ball weighing half a ton for over a mile, and after hearing of its might Mehmed accepted the offer and bought the cannon’s plans from Orban, thus Mehmed immediately ordered the construction of this superweapon.

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The cannon of Orban, Ottoman superweapon

Before selling the plans to Mehmed, Orban apparently tried to offer it to Constantine XI except that Constantine lacked the money to pay for it and its construction. In preparation for the ultimate siege, Mehmed II decided to do the daring move of constructing a fortress on Byzantine soil, and this new fortress Mehmed had constructed was located on the European side of the Bosporus Strait right across the Fortress of Asia (Anadoluhisari) which his great-grandfather Bayezid I built back in 1394. In only 4 months, a stronger and more massive fortress was built across the narrowest part of the Bosporus across the Fortress of Asia, and this new monstrous fortress was known as the Rumelihisari or “Fortress of Europe”, and the intention of this fortress was to again block off all ships coming to Byzantium’s aid from the Black Sea wherein the only way to Constantinople was through the Bosporus, which therefore gave the fortress the nickname of the “throat-cutter”.

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Fortress of Europe, aka. the “throat-cutter”, built by Mehmed II in 1452

Constantine XI meanwhile tried to negotiate with Mehmed to stop the construction of the fortress even giving gifts, but in return Mehmed refused all offers and had the men Constantine sent to negotiate with him beheaded and their heads sent back to Constantine as a warning that Constantinople was to fall. With the fortress completed, Mehmed too imposed a heavy toll on all ships that were not Ottoman passing through it, and when a Venetian ship passed through it ignoring all signals from the Ottomans to stop and be inspected, the Ottoman forces at the fortress fired cannons at the ship sinking it while decapitating all the captured crew members and impaling the captain displaying him in public as a warning to all sailors passing through the Bosporus if they passed without stopping.

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Pope Nicholas V, successor of Eugene IV since 1447

Knowing that the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans was inevitable, Constantine XI decided it was time to renew his late brother John VIII’s policy of Church Union, thus he sent word to the pope Nicholas V in Rome- who had been pope since Eugene IV’s death in 1447- that it was time to have another council and this time the Church union was to be final, and this council was to be held in Constantinople. Pope Nicholas V then agreed to launch a Crusade to defend Constantinople which was now clearly threatened by Mehmed II only if Constantine XI was to fully submit to the pope and his people to the Catholic faith. In 1452, the pope sent his representative the Byzantine Greek native Cardinal Isidore– who was present back in the Council of Florence in 1439 and was also formerly the Papal representative in Russia- to Constantinople together with an army of 200 archers from Naples just for safety measures, and it was Isidore who was to accept Constantine XI’s submission to the Catholic faith.

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Cardinal Isidore, former Papal representative in Russia and to Constantinople in 1452

Right when Cardinal Isidore arrived in Constantinople, the people again just like in 1440 following John VIII’s return from Italy rioted in the streets in strong protest against Church unity believing that Constantine XI just like his brother John VIII and their ancestor Emperor Michael VIII was another traitor that would betray their Orthodox faith for his own selfish interest, however the people were unaware that the Ottomans would capture Constantinople any time soon. In December of 1452, despite popular opposition even by Constantine’s top advisor Loukas Notaras, the union between the Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches was once again declared, this time with a Catholic Mass held in the Hagia Sophia by Cardinal Isidore wherein the names of both the pope Nicholas V and the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory III were mentioned showing that both Churches had now united, while Constantine as well as the patriarch were present at this Mass as well. Now that the Byzantine emperor had submitted to the pope- although unofficially- Constantine XI was now free to ask for troops from any Catholic kingdom of Western Europe which now had more powerful armies, however it would take time for these reinforcements to arrive as their kings and nobles would have to first train them while travel time to Constantinople would take long as well, so Constantine fearing that Mehmed would lay siege to Constantinople at any time sent word to both his brothers the Despots of the Morea Thomas and Demetrios to send an army to reinforce Constantinople. Both Demetrios and Thomas however could not send troops as in late 1452, another Ottoman army invaded the Morea which was however defeated, but by losing too many men in the process, the brothers still failed to send troops to Constantine.

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Seal of the Republic of Venice

The ones to respond to Constantine’s call early enough though was the Republic of Venice, and even though they were never really always friendly with the Byzantines, their ruler or Doge the very old Francesco Foscari agreed to help them as they had a common enemy being the Ottomans, as true enough the Venetians wanted their revenge against Mehmed II for blowing up one of their ships, killing its crew, and impaling its captain. In January of 1453, Constantinople received a large reinforcement army of 700 Genoese Italian soldiers both knights in full plate armor and archers using either crossbows or longbows, and in command of them was the Genoese general and former pirate Giovanni Giustiniani Longo coming from the Genoese held island of Chios in the Aegean.

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Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, Genoese Italian mercenary general

Now Giovanni Giustiniani was someone from a powerful family in Genoa, although when turning to piracy raiding ships in the Mediterranean, the Genoese government declared him an outlaw, thus he was not allowed to return to Genoa. Though despite having a criminal record, Constantine XI still had to count on Giovanni who was a master of siege warfare and defending cities, and though he was brave and tough, Giovanni was lacking in loyalty as his real purpose to fight was really for pay, however Constantine still appointed Giovanni to be in command of the city’s defense even giving him the Byzantine title of Protostrator, even promising Giovanni the Aegean island of Lemnos if they succeeded in defeating the Ottoman siege. In total, Constantine XI had an army of about 7,000 which included Giovanni’s 700 men while the rest were local Greeks from Constantinople and its surroundings in which most were new and barely trained recruits, while another portion of his army consisted of Ottoman traitors led by Mehmed’s cousin Orhan who Constantine decided to keep within the city in order to further defend it.

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Ottoman Janissaries with guns

Mehmed II on the other hand by early 1453 already put together an army of over 80,000 men including the Ottomans’ most elite troops which were the Janissaries armed with guns, while another of the Ottoman troops consisted of Bashi-Bazouks or drunken shock troops, and the others being cavalry, while Mehmed had also brought about 70 cannons with him over to Constantinople, 320 warships, and the massive superweapon cannon of Orban which took tens of oxen to transport it from Edirne to Constantinople. The 80,000 army of Mehmed II then marched from Edirne to Constantinople with Mehmed and a few of his bodyguards arriving outside the walls on April 2, while the rest of them would arrive a few days later.

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Meme of Constantine XI before Mehmed II

When seeing the walls and its size, Mehmed despite having raised an army of over 80,000 and paying a large sum to construct a superweapon began doubting his ability to breach them, thus he decided to consider the second option of taking Constantinople by forcing the emperor Constantine XI to surrender it to him personally kissing the sultan’s ring and thus he would be allowed to go unharmed and so would his people. Mehmed then sent envoys to Constantine at the Blachernae Palace, and now Constantine was torn with a very tough choice as true enough he had only 7,000 men while Mehmed had over 80,000 making the chances of defending Constantinople very low, and if he surrendered and was allowed to escape alive back to the Morea, then he could one day start a major Crusade and take back Constantinople. On the other hand, Constantine also felt like fighting till the end as he did not want to suffer the same kind of humiliation his grandfather John V did many decades ago who in fact killed himself in 1391 out of the humiliation of surrendering to the Ottoman sultan’s terms. It is now in this part when the story will be altered, and here rather than Constantine refusing Mehmed’s terms to surrender like in real history, he would accept them and bring himself to Mehmed outside the walls and kiss his ring.

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Fortress of Europe (RumeliHisari) in the Ottoman era painting
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The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I
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Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II, 1453

Watch this to learn more about the details of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople (Eastern Roman History). 

        

In real history, we all know that Constantine XI refused Mehmed II’s terms of surrendering Constantinople and thus he fought to the end beginning with the fist bombardment of the cannons on April 6 ending on May 29 when the Ottomans finally broke through the 1,000-year-old land walls entering through a tiny crack caused by the cannon balls.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor in armor

This story however would no longer go into full detail about how the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 happened, rather we will already jump to the end of it wherein Constantine XI on the final day (Tuesday, May 29) seeing that there was no more after making one last inspiring speech to his troops reminding them of the greatness of their empire, and as Giovanni was injured by an Ottoman arrow dying shortly after, Constantine seeing there was no more hope charged straight into the thickest part of the battle and disappeared for good as his body was never to be found, and after the Ottoman flag was placed above Constantinople’s walls, the victorious Mehmed II rode into the city entering it for the first time becoming known as the Fatih or “conqueror” as well as claiming the title of Qayser-I Rum or “Caesar of the Romans” in Turkish as he true enough conquered the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital since 330 which was Constantinople, thus making him its new emperor.

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Emperor Constantine XI meets Emperor Justinian I, art by Spatharokandidatos

In this story’s case however, before Constantine XI would make the decision to surrender, two ghosts would show up and convince him to surrender and this would be the ghost of Byzantium’s greatest past emperor from 900 earlier Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), and the ghost of his ancestor Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos wherein Justinian I would tell Constantine that their empire once covered the whole Mediterranean which it did under Justinian I if you remember from chapter III, thus he cannot simply let go of it by fighting a fight he is not sure to win, while Michael VIII would tell his descendant that he worked so hard to take back Constantinople from the Latin occupiers in 1261 therefore Constantine can’t just simply let it fall.

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Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), the first Byzantine emperor

Constantine would at first also remember the prophecy saying that the last Byzantine emperor would have the same name as the first one, and true enough Constantine had the name of the first Roman emperor to use Constantinople as his capital which was Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) while the prophecy additionally said the last emperor’s mother’s name would also be the same name as the first emperor’s mother, and true enough both Constantine XI’s and the first emperor Constantine I’s mothers were named Helena, the mother of the first emperor being St. Helena. Constantine XI would thenbe confused as these ghosts were telling him that he should not surrender or he would put all their hard work in vain, but both ghosts would tell him that surrendering would be the wiser choice as one day Constantine can still organize a massive Crusade and take it back. Constantine would also remember from the story of Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068-1071)- if you recall from chapter VIII- whose decision to not accept peace terms and charge straight into battle against the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert only led to the Byzantines’ defeat and the beginning of Turkish occupation over Asia Minor that eventually led to the rise of the Ottomans, and learning from this mistake of Romanos IV underestimating the Turks, Constantine would decide not to go into battle or suffer Romanos IV’s fate.

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Loukas Notaras, Megas Doux of Constantine XI with his sons Isaac and Jacob, and daughter Anna, art by Elveo

After being convinced by these ghosts to surrender, both ghosts disappeared and Constantine headed outside the walls together with Giovanni, Loukas Notaras, and his old friend and secretary George to formally surrender the city to Mehmed II. Constantine dressed in the imperial purple robes with a golden crown on his head would then kneel down before Mehmed II dressed in the complete Ottoman sultan’s robes and turban, and thus Constantine would kiss Mehmed’s ring reluctantly but still telling Mehmed to stay true to his word and spare the people and not loot anything. Mehmed on the other hand having great respect for Constantinople agreed to Constantine’s terms thus allowing Constantine to return to the palace and pack his things, however back in the palace Loukas Notaras who in this story’s case would disapprove of Constantine’s surrender would abandon him right here and together with his sons Isaac and Jacob and daughter Anna choose to stay and serve Constantinople’s new ruler Mehmed II. Now, Constantine removing his imperial robes and putting on formal western style clothes would leave Constantinople together with Cardinal Isidore, George, and Giovanni and decide to return to Mystras, while Mehmed when entering Constantinople would like in real history also now be referred to as “the conqueror” and would also claim the title of “Caesar of Rome”.

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Mehmed II the Conqueror rides into Constantinople after the conquest, 1453

Like in real history, Mehmed’s first act in this story’s case when capturing Constantinople would be converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, thus he would clean and repair all the damage but also cover up all the mosaics showing human images by painting over them as images were forbidden in Islam. Mehmed on the other hand was at least still tolerant towards Christians, thus he would still allow Constantinople’s Christian population especially the Orthodox ones to continue worshiping their faith as long as they no longer rang their church bells and made their churches smaller compared to the mosques in which Mehmed would turn most of Constantinople’s churches into. Being able to take over the Byzantine capital and reside in the Blachernae Palace where Constantine XI all other Byzantine emperors since the Komnenos Dynasty in the 12th century- if you remember from chapter IX of this series- had resided in with exception of the exiled Byzantine emperors in Nicaea (1204-1261) whereas the Latin emperors resided there, Mehmed II would at least be satisfied that he achieved his dream in capturing the Byzantine capital making it now the Ottomans’ new capital.

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Fatih Sultan Mehmed II

In this story’s case then, Mehmed would be initially enraged about not taking Constantinople by force- as in real history Mehmed even ordered his ships dragged across the land from the Bosporus to the Golden Horn to surprise the Byzantines- but would then soon enough come to realize that he did the wise choice of taking over the Byzantine capital through diplomacy as if he chose to declare war, he started coming to think that he would die and thus throw the Ottomans into chaos. The ones disappointed however would be the 80,000 army including his Janissaries, his top general Zaganos Pasha, and the cannon’s engineer Orban as they came all the way there, trained for over a year, and crafted a superweapon including 70 other large cannons for nothing, however Mehmed would be able to convince them that they did not do all that for nothing as he definitely had plans for them in future campaigns namely against the undefeatable Skanderbeg of Albania who Mehmed would believe that Orban’s cannon would have enough power to turn Skanderbeg’s castle on the steep hill into dust.

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Constantine XI Palaiologos, fought till the end in real history, art by HistoryGold777

Back to real history, the Morea where Constantine’s younger brothers Demetrios and Thomas still ruled as Despots still survived as a Byzantine fragment state despite Constantine XI’s death, although Mehmed II still decided to leave the Morea unharmed as long as both brothers continued paying tribute to him as after all, all Mehmed wanted was Constantinople therefore he could just leave the Morea alone considering it was in no significant location. In this story’s case though, Mehmed II would allow Constantine XI now no longer the emperor to return to Morea and once again return to being its Despot ruling it together with his brothers Demetrios and Thomas as long as Constantine continued to pay tribute and not plan any attempts anymore to reclaim Constantinople. In Constantine’s case for this story, he would still secretly form a resistance in the Morea to take back Constantinople which he was actually going to do in real history if he surrendered Constantinople to Mehmed, although here he would at first keep it a secret, and among the men with him that would flee to the Morea in this story, it would be the Italian general Giovanni Giustiniani who would be most disappointed as he really wanted a fight but could not get one as Constantine surrendered. To satisfy Giovanni, Constantine despite not using him for battle would still reward him with the entire island of Lemnos as Constantine returning back to the Morea no longer needed Lemnos.

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Meme of Mehmed II’s takeover of Constantinople and the Roman Empire itself

Constantine would then return to the Morea together with the last remains of the Byzantine senate- as apparently the Byzantine senate still remained in real history up to the empire’s end in 1453- and there Constantine and the senate would rule from Mystras despite Demetrios already being there, however Demetrios when seeing Constantine return would be enraged and thus Demetrios would simply abandon Mytras and the Morea and flee to Constantinople altogether betraying Byzantium and joining the court of Mehmed thinking he would do better off with Mehmed as true enough Mehmed was more accepting towards true Orthodox Christians like Demetrios unlike his brothers Constantine and Thomas who chose to give up their Orthodox faith. Now in the Morea, things will now return to how they were before Constantine XI’s coronation in 1449, therefore the Morea would be under Constantine and Thomas again as Despots with Constantine ruling the eastern half and Thomas the western half, thus Constantine would now rule the Morea again, this time thinking of himself as ruling a Byzantium in exile the way the emperors Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221) and John III Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254) ruled the Empire of Nicaea while the Crusaders captured Constantinople, if you remember from chapter X.

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Fresco of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople
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Mehmed II orders his ships dragged across the land to the Golden Horn, 1453 in real history
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The last stand of Constantine XI against the Ottomans, May 29, 1453 in real history
Watch this to learn more about the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (Kings and Generals)

The Climax Part II- The Ultimate Reconquest of Constantinople and Final Battle (1453-1458)         

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In this story just like in real history, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II at only 21 achieved the dream that one else did before, which was taking over Constantinople, although in this story Mehmed would not really be seen as much as a great conqueror hero by his people as he still did not achieve in breaking down Constantinople’s walls but rather only took over it through negotiation, although this would still be such a feat for such a young ruler to force an emperor of a 1,100 year empire to surrender.

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Battle of Castillon, French victory over the English finishing the Hundred-Years’-War with the use of cannons, 1453

Now the year 1453 was true enough a very big one world history as not only was it the year when the Eastern Roman Empire finally fell with Mehmed II capturing Constantinople, but in this year the Hundred-Years’-War between England and France that began back in 1337 finally came to an end concluding in the Battle of Castillon in France in July of 1453 just 2 months after the Fall of Constantinople, and here it ended with a French victory and ironically it had a lot to do as well with the use of cannons. 1453 would then see both France and the Ottoman Empire emerge as new world powers now that the French basically conquered all English holdings in France except for Calais while the Ottomans by taking over Constantinople no longer had a small piece of land at the center of their empire that was not theirs, however for Mehmed the French victory that ended the Hundred-Years’-War was too far for him to care about, while his conquest of Constantinople- even though it was only through diplomacy in this story’s case- was only the beginning of his life of more conquests, though in this story’s case Mehmed would start considering an alliance with the French as after all both were victorious in 1453. After capturing Constantinople, Mehmed II would at first consolidate his rule and build up his administration in Constantinople, and here Loukas Notaras who switched sides from Constantine XI to Mehmed would become one of Mehmed’s main advisors as a way to show continuity from Constantinople’s Byzantine administration to the new Ottoman administration, although in real history Loukas who survived the siege was executed by Mehmed a few days after Constantinople fell.

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Zaganos Pasha, Grand vizier of Mehmed II since 1453

Mehmed however when taking Constantinople just like in real history will still choose to rule with the title of “sultan” instead of “emperor” while keeping the Ottoman style administration and military structure, which was however basically based on Byzantine systems, and for his new top advisor or Grand Vizier, Mehmed in this story just like in real history would also get rid of his old top advisor Candarli Halil Pasha by executing him thus replacing him as Grand Vizier with the younger Zaganos Pasha who Mehmed was closer to, while Mehmed would also execute his traitor cousin Orhan who was left behind, as in real history Mehmed also executed Orhan after capturing Constantinople. Meanwhile, Demetrios Palaiologos would arrive in Constantinople later in 1453 after abandoning the Morea to serve Mehmed, and here Mehmed would agree to make Demetrios as one of his top advisors as long as Demetrios stayed fully loyal, again to show continuity from the previous Byzantine administration to the new Ottoman one, although Mehmed would also want to keep Demetrios to boost his popularity as Demetrios was still popular among Constantinople’s people for championing Orthodoxy and old traditions. Just like in real history, Mehmed would also want to keep the Orthodox faith here and not impose Islam on his new subjects, which was not only out of religious toleration but again to show Byzantine continuity and also to protest against the Church union policies of Constantine XI and John VIII before him, thus to spite the Catholic Church Mehmed would appoint the strong anti-unionist Gennadius II who was a major political opponent of Constantine XI as Constantinople’s Patriarch in 1454, thus once again breaking the union with the Catholic Church.

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Sultan Mehmed II (left) and his newly appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 1454 Gennadius II (right)

In this story’s case, some of the imperial palace’s staff and servants that Mehmed still kept to serve him would secretly be sending letters to the deposed Constantine XI and his brother Thomas in the Morea to inform them of possible opportunities to take back Constantinople, however Constantine and Thomas would at first be preoccupied with their own problems in the Morea and part of this is to rebuild their relations with the pope considering that the Church union just broke off when Mehmed appointed an anti-unionist Patriarch. Mehmed however would not be aware of the palace servants plotting to put Constantine XI back in power as in 1454 he would be busy with launching a new campaign, this time against Serbia as in real history Mehmed II in 1454 just after conquering Constantinople began making preparations to invade Serbia still under Prince Durad Brankovic from who Mehmed no longer wanted to accept tribute money from. In this story, just like in real history Mehmed II between 1454 and 1456 would fight a long campaign against Serbia in which he would win major victories against the Serbians capturing the important Serbian cities of Smederevo and Novo Brdo. In the meantime, as Mehmed was busy campaigning against Serbia, Durad Brankovic’s daughter Mara Brankovic, the widow of the late Ottoman sultan Murad II in this story’s case would have a change of mind by now considering marrying again as she previously chose not to marry again and return to Serbia following Murad II’s death in 1451.

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Mehmed II and his stepmother Mara Brankovic, art by Elveo

In this story’s case, what would make Mara have a change of mind would be mainly because of finding out that her stepson Mehmed II who she was close to had turned against her by launching an invasion of her native land, and now threatened by her stepson, she would now in this story’s case consider marrying the deposed Constantine XI for an alliance as after all both were facing a common situation of losing their power. In the meantime, legend says that in 1454 when Mehmed II left for his campaign against Serbia, the young and mysterious Ottoman vassal Prince of Wallachia Vlad III who had been in hiding after losing his throne in 1448 suddenly appeared with an army outside Constantinople in 1454 where he would decide to now turn against the Ottomans and recapture Constantinople to avenge the fall of Byzantium.

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Prince Vlad III of Wallachia attacks newly conquered Ottoman Constantinople according to legend, 1454

Vlad III taking advantage of the situation of most of the Ottoman forces departing for Serbia would attack Constantinople, however the legend says that Vlad was able to somewhat succeed in breaking into Constantinople as the walls were still in ruin from the previous year’s siege, however it would turn out Vlad did not really come to capture Constantinople from the Ottomans but to bury Constantine XI’s body, and true enough legend says Vlad did in fact find Constantine XI’s body in which Vlad buried it beneath Constantinople’s Golden Gate after turning Constantine undead, which then created the legend of Constantine XI as the “Marble Emperor” that would one day rise from the dead and take back Constantinople. However, in this story’s case none of this would happen as Constantine XI would still be alive and Constantinople’s walls would still be left intact as the siege of 1453 never happened, although what would happen in this story just like in Vlad’s legend would be that Vlad would impale the Ottoman soldiers he had killed in his attack thus leaving behind hundreds of spikes with impaled bodies outside Constantinople’s walls. Now in 1455 in this story’s case, Mara Brankovic would travel from Serbia to the Morea to marry the deposed emperor Constantine XI at a small ceremony in Mystras only attended by a few others including Thomas and Constantine’s old friend and secretary George Sphrantzes, however this ceremony would be a Catholic one as part of Constantine still staying true to his policy of Church Unity. Now with the slim and attractive 40-year-old Mara Brankovic with long dark hair, tanned skin, and green eyes marrying the now 50-year-old Constantine, both Serbia and the exiled Byzantines would make a common cause against the Ottomans, and although this marriage was one for alliance it would still not really result in something spectacular such as a union of two great empires like it could have been if the Byzantine empress Irene of Athens (r. 797-802) and the Frankish emperor Charlemagne (r. 768-814) married- if you remember from chapter VI of this series which was its main story- which could have thus result in uniting both east and west into one large empire but never did.

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Thomas Palaiologos, Despot of the Morea and younger brother of Constantine XI

Although with Constantine marrying again, he would now no longer want to have children as not only was his new wife possibly too old but because Constantine’s younger brother Thomas already had 3 children with his Italian wife Caterina Zaccaria, the daughter of the last Latin prince of Achaea which included a daughter named Zoe and two sons named Andreas and Manuel, thus if Constantine died, he knew the Palaiologos line would be continued through Thomas’ sons. Back to Mehmed II, his campaign against Serbia would be all successful until 1456 when Mehmed would attempt to besiege the city of Belgrade which was the border city between Serbia and Hungary.

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Battle of Belgrade, 1456

Here, Mehmed II himself would battle against the same legendary Hungarian general John Hunyadi, who despite losing against the Ottomans at the Battles of Varna in 1444 and the 2nd Battle of Kosovo in 1448 would this time finally win against the Ottomans in battle this time by successfully defending Belgrade against them. Now John Hunyadi was supposed to come to Constantinople’s rescue in 1453 when it was under siege by the Ottomans, however by that time Hungary had its own problems that Hunyadi had to deal with considering that with the previous King of Hungary Wladyslaw III dead since 1444, the new king Laszlo V was still a child which made Hungary pressured by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick III of the Habsburg Dynasty who thus put his claim over the Kingdom of Hungary. In this story’s case, Hunyadi did not need to come to Constantinople’s rescue anyway as no siege happened, but here his major victory over the Ottomans would make Hunyadi not only a national hero of Hungary but a hero of the Christian faith that the pope in 1456 even started a tradition of ringing church bells at noontime to commemorate the victory of Hunyadi, considering that Hunyadi was a Catholic.

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John Hunyadi, the Athleta Christi (Christ’s Champion), died in 1456 in real history

In real history however, Hunyadi died in 1456 just 3 weeks after defending Belgrade from the Ottomans as a result of a plague, and thus Hunyadi after his death was awarded with the title of Athleta Christi or “Christ’s Champion” for his victory over the Ottomans. For this story however, Hunyadi will not die 3 weeks after his great victory as he would be needed to stay alive for the upcoming final battle in this story, similar to the case of chapter I in this series where we chose to keep the Western Roman emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375) alive for the Battle of Adrianople in 378 despite him dying 3 years prior to it in 375 from a stroke caused by his own anger. However, the one to die in this story just like in real history in 1456 would be the Ottoman vassal Serbian prince Durad Brankovic at the age of 79, and like in real history he would be succeeded by his son Lazar. Now with Mehmed losing to Hunyadi at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456, he would instead once again return to campaigning against the undefeatable Skanderbeg of Albania, thus in 1457 Mehmed II just like in real history will send an army of 65,000 Ottoman troops under the command of his general Evrenos Isa Bey with the intention to conquer all of Albania and once and for all defeat Skanderbeg. Again, with the use of hit-and-run tactics and knowing the Ottoman warfare style as Skanderbeg grew up serving the Ottomans, he would with only 10,000 men once again defeat the Ottomans and stop another invasion of Albania, which would then make Mehmed even more frustrated.

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Mehmed II and Ottoman Constantinople, Hagia Sophia transformed into a mosque
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Hungarian army of John Hunyadi defeat the Ottomans at the Battle of Belgrade, 1456
Watch this to learn more about Skanderbeg and his rebellion against the Ottomans (Kings and Generals).

In 1457 as well, for this story’s case at least, Constantine XI together with his brother Thomas, new wife Mara Brankovic, secretary George, and Cardinal Isidore would travel themselves to Rome to once again conclude a Church Union at St. Peter’s Basilica- the same place the last competent Western Roman emperor and Byzantine ally Anthemius in 472 was executed (chapter II) and where Charlemagne in 800 was crowned as Roman emperor (chapter VI)- with the new pope Callixtus III who had been pope since the death of Pope Nicholas V in 1455, thus Constantine would see the city where the Roman civilization that his empire continued all began.

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Pope Callixtus III, successor of Nicholas V since 1455

This new pope on the other hand in this story’s case would be willing to accept Constantine’s submission especially since it was aimed for expelling the Ottomans from Europe once and for all, and this new pope was hopeful about it considering Hunyadi’s victory against them in 1456. Callixtus III being from the noble Spanish Aragonese Borgia family would thus have ties to the King of Naples and Aragon Alfonso V who Constantine XI was previously going to ask troops from, however this time both the pope Callixtus III and Alfonso V would tell Constantine that they do not have enough men to assist him while Spain itself also cannot as by this time Spain itself was not yet united but still divided into the 3 kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre, however both the pope and Alfonso V of Aragon who were present in Rome at Constantine’s visit in this story would recommend Constantine to count of the 4th kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula west of these Spanish kingdoms being the Kingdom of Portugal. Now Portugal was a land never under Byzantine rule from Constantinople as Justinian I’s conquests in the 6th century- if you remember from chapter III- only went as far as Southern Spain, although before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century Portugal was in fact a Roman province named Lusitania.

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Kingdom of Portugal coat of arms

By this point in the 15th century, Portugal was however a relatively new power although still older than the Ottomans, and if you remember from back in chapter IX, the story of how Portugal became a kingdom was explained as this happened during the 2nd Crusade in the reign of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) when English knights on the way to the Levant to join the 2nd Crusade stopped over at the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula to help a local Catholic warlord establish his own kingdom by battling the Muslim occupiers, and back in 1147 after the Crusaders assisted this warlord in capturing the city of Lisbon from the Muslims, the Kingdom of Portugal was established with Lisbon as its capital and up this point in the 15th century, it was still the capital. Now by the 15th century, this once small Kingdom of Portugal at the far western end of Europe had evolved into a major maritime power that had just recently driven away its Muslim (Moorish) invaders and began sailing the Atlantic Ocean and exploring as well as colonizing new lands to the south in Africa that one has ever heard of before.

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Alfonso V, King of Aragon and Naples (r. 1416-1458)

Back in 1451, Constantine XI when still in power if you remember had almost married a Portuguese princess who was related to King Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples, although this marriage never came to happen but little did Constantine know that this distant Kingdom of Portugal was in fact a rising power, and when coming to Rome here in 1457 to once and for all submit to the pope, Constantine would meet the man responsible for turning Portugal from a minor backwater to a maritime power, and this was no other than the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator who in this story’s case only had come to Rome to represent Portugal but also to meet Constantine and the Byzantines who were asking for help, and accompanying Henry to Rome was his nephew the Duke of Viseu Ferdinand, who here in the 1450s was a young adventurer exploring the Mediterranean in search for wealth while his older brother the King of Portugal also named Alfonso V was busy ruling.

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Prince Henry the Navigator, son of King Joao I of Portugal

Now Prince Henry the Navigator of the Alviz Dynasty back in 1415 first came into the picture when helping his father the King of Portugal Joao I (r. 1385-1433) in successfully capturing the port city of Ceuta in Morocco from Moorish pirates, which then brought about the rise of the new Portuguese Empire. Henry was then appointed as governor of Portugal’s southern province of the Algarve and with it being located by the Atlantic Ocean, Henry seeing that the age of war against the Moors was over began investing in building effective fast-sailing ships known as caravels that could sail farther than any other ship could, and other than ships Henry also began training sailors and funding their explorations to discover lands down the coast of Africa that no one has ever knew of before as Henry believed that in the far south there was a mysterious rich Christian kingdom that could assist the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms in their fight against the Moors, and now by the 1450s Portuguese explorers sent by Henry had already gone as far as the Senegal River and the islands of Cape Verde in the south and to the Azores islands deep in the Atlantic Ocean to the west, which were lands no other Europeans had set foot in before.

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Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu, brother of King Alfonso V of Portugal

At this point however, Henry himself was too old to help Constantine in battle against the Ottomans, however his young and adventurous nephew Ferdinand, a short, stocky, and slightly overweight man with a slightly deformed neck was all willing as he lived for adventure and battle. Present at this meeting in Rome with the pope, Constantine XI, and the Portuguese princes was the same old Byzantine scholar turned Catholic cardinal Basil Bessarion who in this story together with the Pope Callixtus III would convince Constantine that there would be no other ally in the Catholic world than Portugal that can guarantee real assistance against the Ottomans, as after all Portugal had real experience not only in fighting Muslims but in expelling them from Europe. Although Portugal may be of great help considering that they have built a large navy even more powerful than that of Genoa or Venice, their help would come at such a great price as here Prince Ferdinand told Constantine that he would help him only if Constantine were to give him islands in the Aegean to be used as Portuguese naval bases, the problem here though is that Constantine had nothing left to offer as he already handed over Lemnos to Giovanni Giustaniani, thus the only remaining land he can give up is the Morea. Here in Rome, Constantine had at least formally once and for all concluded the Church union with the pope as following the death of Pope Nicholas V in 1455 and Mehmed installing an anti-union patriarch in Constantinople, the union made in December of 1452 in the Hagia Sophia became void.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1261-1282), ancestor of Constantine XI and founder of the dynasty

Constantine however here would successfully convince the pope that even though he converted to Catholicism, his people including those who fled to the Morea wanting to escape Mehmed’s rule in Constantinople would have a hard time accepting Catholicism especially since the Orthodox faith was already deeply rooted in them, however the pope here would at least be understanding enough to not force conversion on them as this was the mistake Constantine’s ancestor Michael VIII made when he tried to convert Byzantium to Catholicism in the 1270s if you remember from the previous chapter, however the pope asked Constantine to slowly impose the Catholic faith on his subjects so that they don’t get shocked that suddenly they were forced to change their religion, but after all the differences between the Orthodox and Catholic faiths were very minimal except for a few rituals, which would then make it easier for the Byzantines to convert.

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Byzantine Iconoclasm under Leo III in the 8th century

In addition, Constantine would also apologize to the pope that it was after all the fault of the Byzantines why a schism happened between the Eastern and Western Churches, and this was mostly because of a stupid policy imposed by the Byzantine emperor Leo III (r. 717-718) in the 8th century known as Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons- if you remember from chapter V of this series- which was at first thought to save Byzantium from its troubles but at the end only caused a deep schism with the pope that could never be resolved. Noticing how bold Constantine was to apologize for Byzantium being at fault for their schism, Pope Callixtus III here in this story too would apologize to Constantine for all the wrongs the Papacy did to Byzantium, namely directly insulting the Byzantines by crowning Charlemagne as a “Roman emperor” in 800 and organizing the 4th Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204, which was however more of Venice’s doing. Before returning to Morea, both cardinals Bessarion and Isidore would tell Constantine and Thomas that more perks would await if they converted not only themselves but their people to Catholicism, and this would include getting military aid from the two most powerful warriors that resisted the Ottomans being the Hungarian general John Hunyadi and Skanderbeg of Albania who were both Catholics, also that their conversion would make the rest of the European powers start feeling that Byzantium would become one of theirs. Constantine together with Thomas, Mara, and George would then return to the Morea now fully converted to Catholicism, and back in Mystras Constantine would make a speech to his people telling them that he did not want to convert and impose conversion on them but he has no choice as being united as one with the rest of Europe is the only way they could stand against the Ottomans, and after all it was just about time that the Orthodox east and Catholic west must settle all the tension between them that has been going on for over 7 centuries already, thus the saying goes “time heals all wounds”, although Thomas here would tell the people that in case they still never take back Constantinople, the Morea should be reborn as the “New Byzantium”. The people would then surprisingly be fine with the Church union Constantine just signed in Rome as after it was finally agreed that the Byzantines were not forced to convert or be jailed or tortured if they did not comply but instead were just encouraged to do so simply to just not be treated as second class citizens.

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Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror

Now back in Constantinople, Mehmed II would be so infuriated for so many so many reasons including being defeated by Hunyadi at Belgrade, discovering that Constantine was going to strike back against him by concluding the Church union with the pope, discovering his stepmother Mara married Constantine behind his back thinking that she too had turned against him, and seeing his men impaled by Vlad when he was way, though Mehmed still ordered the spikes with the impaled men removed when returning. Mehmed too at this point would also start becoming unpopular especially among his Christian subjects as even though he allowed them to practice their faith, he still treated them like second class citizens while he also did not really care much about his people and instead cared more about conquests that his people started believing he would soon bankrupt the Ottoman treasury despite having already taken Constantinople. In early 1458, Constantine would depart Mystras with an army of about 7,000 Greeks that he had raised in the past 3 years he was in exile there, thus he would say goodbye to his wife Mara who would stay behind in Mystras as if it was the last time they would see each other, thus Constantine and Thomas here in early 1458 would end up provoking Mehmed to declare war on them the moment they suddenly stopped paying tribute to Mehmed.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos meets the leaders of the First Crusade, back in 1096

Now Constantine would come to think of himself as his other direct ancestor the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) by doing exactly what Alexios I did in appealing to the pope to start a Crusade which Constantine did exactly that here, while also thinking of himself as the Byzantine emperor Zeno (r. 474-475/ 476-491) of the 5th century by doing exactly as Zeno did in making a brave attempt to take back throne despite having no chance of getting it back, if you remember from chapter II of this series. Before Constantine and Thomas with their respective armies would head to Constantinople, they would first head north to the ruins of the Hexamilion Wall they were forced to not rebuild anymore back in 1446 by Sultan Murad II, and here Constantine in direct rebellion against Mehmed would order the wall restored, thus Mehmed would send an army this time led by Evrenos Isa Bey who failed to defeat Skanderbeg the previous year to crush Constantine and Thomas’ army.

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Genoese crossbow archer under the command of Giovanni Giustiniani

Here at the Hexamilion, Giovanni Giustiniani coming from Lemnos now with an additional 300 crossbowmen to his army 700 making him now have a total of 1,000 men would then meet up with both brothers, and the moment Evrenos would arrive to crush them, the allied forces of Constantine and Thomas’ Byzantine soldiers and Giovanni’s Italian and local mercenaries from Lemnos would easily crush the Ottoman army of Evrenos killing Evrenos in battle. On the other hand, both Constantine and Thomas despite raising up a combined army of 11,000 still failed to produce cannons as they lacked funds and raw materials to do so, however after crushing the Ottoman army at the Hexamilion, they would seize the 6 cannons the Ottoman forces brought and would load them on the Genoese ships that came for them at the port of Corinth. From Corinth, Constantine together with Thomas and the secretary George as well as Giovanni with a combined army of 12,000 would board the Genoese ships and sail directly to Constantinople to immediately put it under siege. 

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Medieval era St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
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Portuguese blue and white (Azulejo) tiles depicting 15th century Portuguese caravels

        

After about 4 days on sea, the Genoese ships carrying an army of 12,000 combined would arrive at the port town of Selymbria west of Constantinople, and upon arrival, their large number would easily overwhelm the few Ottoman troops stationed there, thus Selymbria would fall back again to the Byzantines. From Selymbria, Constantine would order all of them to march west to the land walls of Constantinople which would just be 2 hours away, and when arriving before the 5th century land walls build under Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) on April 2 exactly 5 years since Constantine surrendered the city to Mehmed wherein the impaled bodies had just been cleared, Constantine himself would be shocked experiencing something new, as for the longest time being a Byzantine inside the walls, he never knew what it was like to attack them but only defend them, but this time it would be the first time he would see how difficult it was for all the armies in the past like the Sassanids, Arabs, and Bulgarians, including that of Byzantine rebels like his brother Demetrios back in 1442 to attack it.

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Constantine XI in full armor, art by Spatharokandidatos

When arriving before the walls, it would be then be the other way around as compared to 1453 as instead of Mehmed standing before the walls with Constantine looking at him from above, it would be Mehmed standing above the walls and here to insult Constantine, Mehmed would be seen wearing Constantine’s purple imperial robes and crown instead of the sultan’s robes and turban while Constantine below the walls would be dressed not in the traditional Byzantine lamellar armor but in western style full plate armor with a purple cape and a golden band around his head. Standing next to Mehmed would be his top advisor and general Zaganos Pasha together with the Byzantine traitors Demetrios who was now appointed as Constantinople’s prefect or mayor and Loukas Notaras who became one of Mehmed’s top advisors, and from below Constantine would shout at Demetrios and Loukas asking them to come back as they will be given a second chance.

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Loukas Notaras, art by Elveo

Both Loukas and Demetrios however would shout back saying they belong to Mehmed’s Constantinople, while Mehmed would laugh at Constantine for being that daring yet foolish enough to launch an attempt to take back his capital without the military aid from the west that he so desired, however Constantine would shout to Mehmed that he will surprise Mehmed. Once both rulers finished exchanging insulting words with each other, Mehmed would immediately order his Janissaries stationed at the wall to open fire, while Thomas beneath the walls too would order that the 6 cannons to open fire. The battle would thus begin with the Ottoman Janissaries above the 5th century land walls not only firing their bows and crossbows at the Byzantines and their allies but firing actual guns which were however slow to reload, but the attackers beneath the walls would still be frightened at these new weapons hitting them and killing some soldiers with just one shot. Now the attacking Byzantines had no experience in firing cannons, however some of Giovanni’s soldiers did and so in response to the guns fired by the Ottomans, the Genoese soldiers would fire the 6 cannons at Constantinople’s walls. Just as the siege began, horns would be heard from the distance and riding from the hills to west would be no other than the Hungarian John Hunyadi with an army of over 8,000 mostly consisting of fully armored knights, thus Hunyadi would rush down to help the attackers.

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John Hunyadi on a horse

Constantine would at first be relieved that Hunyadi came to his aid while Hunyadi would say it was about time he did as the Byzantines now converted to Catholicism which gave a valid reason for the Catholic Hungarians to help them. Mehmed on the other hand would be enraged at the sight of Hunyadi, the Hungarian that just defeated him in Belgrade 2 years earlier, but this still would not stop Mehmed from having his men fire guns and cannons at the attackers and at the same time send troops to march out of the walls to deal with the attackers. Under the command of Zaganos Pasha, the Ottoman troops including Janissaries, Bashi-Bazouk shock troops, and Sipahi cavalrymen would charge directly at the Hungarians and Byzantines, however Hunyadi here would easily defeat the Sipahi light cavalry with his mounted knights while Giovanni’s Genoese soldiers would take down many Janissaries using their crossbows.

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Ottoman Sipahi cavalry

Constantine on the other hand would then come to realize, that this kind of warfare they are fighting is totally new and that this is what warfare is going to be like from here on as superweapons the Byzantines of the past thought as invincible like Greek Fire had now become obsolete with the invention of more powerful weapons that use gunpowder such as cannons and guns. At the same time, Constantine would also come to realize that the military manuals written by the past Byzantine emperors like Maurice (r. 582-602), Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959), and Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) now did not mean anything with the development of these new weapons, thus the only key to winning is to adapt to this new style of warfare. For the next 5 days then, the siege would remain without results and with neither side gaining the upper hand despite the attackers using cannons, although on the 6th day of the siege, another reinforcement army would arrive, and this would be that of the Albanian lord and leader of the League of Lezhe Skanderbeg dressed in full armor with an army of 15,000 rebels, and just like Hunyadi Skanderbeg who was exactly Constantine’s age would tell Constantine he decided to come to his aid because of Constantine’s conversion to Catholicism which Skanderbeg believed was the way forward which is why he converted to it many years earlier.

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Skanderbeg, Lord of Albania and Leader of the League of Lezhe in armor

Now with Skanderbeg and his army as an addition to the attackers, they would now have more of an advantage that when Zaganos Pasha would continue brining more troops to attack the attackers outside the walls, the attacking side with Skanderbeg’s men ambushing the Ottomans again with hit-and-run tactics would kill off more Ottoman soldiers compared to how many were killed in the past 5 days. Eventually, Skanderbeg’s forces would begin having more difficulty in fighting the Ottomans here as back in Albania they were able to crush the Ottoman invaders basically because of the hilly terrain wherein the Albanian skirmishers had the high ground, unlike here outside Constantinople where the terrain was flatter. In the meantime, a Venetian fleet of 30 ships sent by the pope would arrive at the Marmara exactly a week after the siege began, and due to their larger size, the Venetian warships would then destroy most of Mehmed’s smaller Ottoman ships which were the same ones he brought over back in 1453. After destroying most of the Ottoman fleet, the Venetians would then be able to capture Mehmed’s fortress of Europe, thus the tide of would begin to turn on the allied Crusade forces’ side.

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Ottoman warships, 15th century

However, in the next day Mehmed would light up a few of his smaller ships turning them into fire ships which would then ram into and explode a large number of the Venetian ships on the Bosporus, the same way the Vandals destroyed the Byzantine navy of Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474) back in 468 at the Battle of Cape Bon if you remember from chapter II. In the meantime, it would be Thomas that would grow impatient of besieging Constantinople for so long, thus he would come up with a tactic out of both boredom and frustration just to intimidate the Muslim Ottomans by grabbing some pigs from nearby pig farm run by Byzantine Greek Christians who would also volunteer to join the Crusading army of Constantine, thus Thomas would catapult these pigs into Constantinople, which would however just annoy Mehmed. Demetrios on the other hand who would be in charge of defending the walls too would grow impatient thus he would grab a rifle from one of the Janissaries and try to kill both his brothers Constantine and Thomas with it first targeting Constantine, although a Cretan archer in Constantine’s army would immediately get in front of Constantine taking the bullet and dying, making Demetrios even angrier. For the next 2 days then, the same would go with the Crusader forces of Constantine firing the 6 cannons still not making much progress in destroying the walls, while their Cretan archers would continue firing their longbows as the Ottomans would continue shooting arrows and ammunition at the attackers while Hunyadi’s and Skanderbeg’s forces would still continue obliterating the Ottoman troops sent outside the walls.

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Voivode (Prince) Vlad III of Wallachia on a horse

In the meantime, the 3rd leader was still on his way to Constantinople, and this was the Wallachian Voivode (prince) Vlad III who since 1456 took back the Wallachian throne from his cousin, and although he was not invited to join the Crusade as Vlad still remained Orthodox, Vlad had made a name for himself in slaying Ottomans back in 1454 when impaling Mehmed’s men, while Vlad too had the title Dracula which was given to him by his father the former Prince of Wallachia Vlad II Dracul (r. 1446-1442), and this title was given to members of the Order of the Dragon formed by the former King of Hungary Sigismund in 1408 to combat the Ottomans in which Vlad II was a part of and now his son Vlad III as well. On his way to Constantinople, Vlad with a large and powerful Wallachian army consisting of infantry and cavalry would then pillage the Thracian countryside and again impale the Ottoman soldiers as an act of psychological warfare just as the Byzantine emperor Basil II did back in 1014 when blinding the Bulgarian soldiers he defeated. Not to mention, it would in the exact field outside Adrianople (Edirne) where the battle in chapter I of this series took place wherein the Byzantine emperor Valens (r. 364-378) met his end in real history wherein Vlad III would carry out these atrocities, thus going full circle for this series.

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Ottoman Bashi-Bazouk soldier (shock troop), art by Badbuckle

Now as Vlad III and his forces were still on their way, the attackers at night would face the Ottoman Bashi-Bazouk shock troops which were basically easy to slay with as they were barely armored, but difficult to fight due to their drunken behavior, while the Ottomans too would play such loud battle music to energize their troops which just tortured the ears of the attackers. After again wiping out another Ottoman force sent to attack them despite losing men, Constantine would remember a way to enter the city through the 4th century Aqueduct of Valens in which the Byzantine emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695) successfully used together with Bulgarian troops in 705 when he was restored as emperor, thus Constantine here would have Giovanni and about 100 of his men climb up the aqueduct and sneak into it at night in order to get to the walls and open the gates for them. Giovanni at first would succeed in getting inside the city however due to the aqueduct’s narrowness, 5 of his men would slip and fall off to the ground to their deaths, thus alerting some Ottoman troops in time for them to fire a cannon at the aqueduct in order to kill the sneaking attackers. From outside, the attackers would hear one loud blast of a cannon, and this cannon that would fire at the aqueduct from inside the city would be no other than Orban’s superweapon intended to blast Constantinople’s walls wide open, and here Giovanni and all his men that sneaked through had been blasted to pieces as the massive cannon ball hit the aqueduct.    

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The 5th century Theodosian Land Walls of Constantinople, art by myself
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Ottoman Janissaries battle with guns
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Venetian warship

           

By this point, 2 full weeks had already passed since the Crusader army led by Constantine had laid siege to Constantinople, and while the attackers especially Thomas and Hunyadi began growing impatient, the people inside Constantinople began growing more and more furious that the more they wanted a Byzantine to rule them instead of an Ottoman sultan.

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Mehmed II in full battle gear, art by Elveo

At this point in this story, Mehmed II would begin showing his true cruel side especially in dealing with anyone inside the city who would dare open the gates to the attackers by executing whoever attempted to it even if they just wanted to go out for food. As for Constantine, he would start coming to the point of seeing there was no more hope left especially since his plan to get Giovanni to sneak through the aqueduct and open the gates for them failed with the Ottomans blowing up the aqueduct killing Giovanni in the process. Constantine too would start thinking that the Portuguese prince Ferdinand was never really true to his word in assisting them as the Portuguese reinforcement fleet still had not yet arrived while the only navy they had which consisted of Venetian and Genoese ships had mostly been destroyed by the smaller Ottoman fire ships. When observing the walls one more time, Constantine once again came to realize how powerful they were with its 3 layers, massive towers, and a moat seeing that even the most powerful conquerors like Atilla the Hun back when the walls were still new in the 5th century still failed to breach them, while the 4th Crusade army too failed as they instead attacked the shorter sea walls, which Constantine considered attacking as well, although here that part became unreachable as the Ottomans blocked the way to the Golden Horn with a chain. For the next few days, the 6 cannons the Byzantines stole from the Ottomans in the Morea continued firing at the walls until all cannons broke down due to overheating as none of them knew that these cannons could only be fired every 3 hours to give a cooling period otherwise, they would explode which they did. Constantine and Thomas would then once again try to persuade both Demetrios and Loukas and Notaras to turn against Mehmed and join them again, but again both would refuse and Demetrios more furious than ever that his brothers had not yet left ordered the superweapon cannon of Orban fired to the point that he had fired it too many times that the massive cannon itself blew up exploding some houses and killing a few Ottoman troops in the process, although Demetrios still survived.

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Prince Vlad III of Wallachia in full armor, art by RadialArt

On the 18th day of the siege, the 3rd army arrived to assist the attackers and this was that of the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III dressed in full armor and a hat covered in pearls with an additional 10,000 men including Wallachian knights, however the Crusader leaders Thomas, Hunyadi, and Skanderbeg would not be pleased with Vlad’s arrival as Vlad was never invited to join their fight as he still remained Orthodox. Thomas, Hunyadi, and Skanderbeg who were all men large in size would then gang up on the much smaller Vlad who was a quiet man with long black hair and green eyes, to the point of attempting to beat him up, however Vlad had a silent violent streak by the looks of him that he could eat them alive in an instant, though Constantine would come in time to put down the tensions between the 3 leaders and Vlad before things could go bloody telling them all that this is not the right time to fight among each other while Vlad even if coming uninvited has great use considering that the attackers lost a lot of men following the death of Giovanni. During the night when the rest of the attackers would sleep, Vlad would then prove his ability and deadliness in war as here he and his men would be a wake to counter-attack another wave of Ottomans troops sent outside the walls to attack the camp of the allies, and here Vlad using the tactics he learned from his time in the Ottomans of fighting at night would obliterate the Ottoman forces and again impale them on spikes outside the walls.

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Vlad III the Impaler (Tepes) with the Ottoman soldiers he impaled

When waking up, the leaders who initially were cold to Vlad were now surprised at this ability and ruthlessness seeing the entire Ottoman force sent outside the walls all impaled on spikes, which then even made these leaders start having some respect for Vlad, while in real history Vlad would in fact earn the nickname Tepes meaning “the Impaler” for his cruelty against the Ottomans by impaling the fallen Ottoman soldiers on spikes as an act of psychological warfare. Mehmed now when seeing his men all impaled would once again not only get furious but would be greatly terrified as just like Constantine, Mehmed was also very superstitious. On the other hand, Thomas would also again apply an act of psychological warfare, and this time he would have the heads of the fallen Ottoman soldiers catapulted into the walls to strike fear in the Ottoman defenders, which was a tactic applied by the Byzantine general and later emperor Nikephoros Phokas when besieging the city of Chandax in Crete from the Arabs in 961, if you remember for chapter VII.

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Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969), art by Spatharokandidatos

As Thomas would be busy catapulting heads and snakes into the walls, Constantine would remember that in 1261 the Byzantine army of only 800 from Nicaea were able to take back the city from the Latins by passing through a tunnel that led to a monastery, and when finding that tunnel, Constantine sent Hunyadi here with also only 800 men to sneak in order to open the gate from inside. Hunyadi would then successfully make it inside the city wherein he himself would slay a number of Ottoman soldiers including Janissaries with his sword, however the Ottomans would soon become too large in number that they would begin pushing Hunyadi and his men back into the monastery and into the tunnel.

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Hungarian knights, 15th century

Mehmed’s top general Zaganos Pasha would thus arrive in time to drive away Hunyadi and his men to the monastery, and to block off that entrance, Zaganos would have gunpowder barrels brought in, although before Hunyadi and his men could retreat, Zaganos threw a torch straight at the barrels, thus causing it to explode blowing up the entire monastery and that section of the wall as well, thus died Christ’s Champion John Hunyadi, who in real history however had already died 2 years earlier. From outside, Constantine would then see a large part of the walls blown up wondering if Hunyadi had blown up with it, although as soon as the fires from the explosion had gone off, a large number of Ottoman troops rushed out of the small crack in the wall caused by the explosion to the point that the attacking allied army would be encircled. Meanwhile from above the walls, Demetrios when seeing his brothers Constantine and Thomas as well as Skanderbeg and Vlad encircled and fighting off the Ottoman soldiers one by one themselves in order to survive also seeing the small frail secretary George exhausted and falling to the ground and thus brutally beaten up by two large Ottoman Janissaries, Demetrios would then have a change of heart. Beginning to realize his mistake of betraying his people and joining the ultimate enemy which was Mehmed II, Demetrios would then run to the Golden Gate of Constantinople’s walls and thus open it to the attackers. The Ottoman forces meanwhile when seeing the gate open would begin sounding their loud music forcing the rest of their men to fall back thinking that the sultan ordered them to do so, although as the Ottomans would begin falling back the attackers would thus have the advantage, thus Constantine himself with his large broadsword would slay the Janissaries beating up George.

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Constantine XI in full plated armor with his broadsword, art by JohnJollos

Constantine, Thomas, George, Skanderbeg, and Vlad themselves with what was left of their forces would then rush into the gate before it would close and with such momentum would slay all the Ottoman soldiers on the way with their swords. When getting into the gates, Constantine and Thomas seeing Demetrios above would shout a big thank you to him for letting them in before rushing deep into the city. Constantine and Thomas would then be impressed that Mehmed repaired most of their damaged capital but would still be enraged seeing the two holiest churches being the Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles where most emperors until the 11th century had been buried in turned into mosques while the cross above the Forum of Constantine was removed as well. Mehmed II now dressed in the complete Ottoman sultan’s robes would then rush the walls approaching Demetrios at such an enraged manner that Mehmed would pull out his knife stabbing Demetrios with it right at the heart thus killing him for betraying Mehmed and allowing the attackers in. In the meantime, Thomas would be first to hear a mysterious sound of ship bells ringing, and minutes later several cannon balls from these ships would hit Constantinople’s sea walls at the south side of the city right where the seaside Boukoleon Palace is, and these ships would be no other than the Portuguese caravels led by Prince Ferdinand himself finally coming to assist in the attack of Constantinople. As Thomas would be rushing down Constantinople’s main street or the Mese together with Skanderbeg killing all Ottoman troops at their sight, Thomas himself would spot the traitor Loukas Notaras and kill him with one blow of his sword to his head spilling his brains out while outside the walls at the Marmara Sea, the fleet of 50 Portuguese caravels would finally turn the tide of the battle obliterating the much smaller Ottoman ships with their cannons.

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Portuguese army, 15th century

Soon enough, the Portuguese ships would manage to break down the sea walls along the Marmara with their cannons, thus these ships would dock along the ruined walls while Prince Ferdinand himself with his fully armored knights would immediately jump off to the land and make their way into the city. Mehmed II now seeing that the Crusader army had overwhelmed him would then have no choice but to send his best general and Grand Vizier Zaganos Pasha to the southern walls to counter-attack the Portuguese also to create a distraction, however the Portuguese knights would overwhelm Zaganos and his men thus Zaganos himself would be slain by the swords and pikes of the Portuguese knights in their charge. Constantine when seeing Ferdinand arrive would then be relieved that the Portuguese did indeed stay true to their word, although Vlad who would be slaying Ottoman Janissaries beside Constantine to the point of being pinned down to the ground, when seeing Mehmed all confused getting into a carriage loaded with explosive barrels would tell Constantine that Mehmed was escaping. The fully armored Constantine himself would then get into another carriage and chase Mehmed who was headed out of the city’s walls, and now with the sultan leaving the burning Constantinople, the rest of the Ottoman forces would lose morale thus in an instant the Portuguese army together with Vlad’s men would wipe them all out to the last man to the point when Thomas would suddenly shout out that Constantinople is Byzantine again. Constantine thus would continue chasing Mehmed out of Constantinople on carriage heading north to the high cliffs above the Bosporus where the Fortress of Europe was as apparently Mehmed was headed to the shore to get onto a boat and gather reinforcements from Asia Minor. As both carriages sped through the narrow road along the cliff, Constantine using his carriage would ram straight into Mehmed’s carriage, however the impact of the ram was so strong that both carriages fell off cliff together with Constantine and Mehmed. In midair, the gunpowder barrels due to the crash exploded thus disintegrating the carriages as well as the 53-year-old Constantine and 26-year-old Mehmed to dust falling straight into the Bosporus Sea below. Some hours later as the sun began to set, the 21-day Siege of Constantinople had concluded with Constantinople falling back to the Byzantines, while Thomas, Vlad, Skanderbeg, George, and Ferdinand rushed to the scene where Mehmed and Constantine fell off, and realizing that the emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos had died, the remaining Byzantine troops from Mystras would then proclaim the very shaken Thomas, the last standing of the Palaiologos brothers as their new emperor, while everyone else around him would bow down to him, and before night came they would all return to Constantinople to clear out the mess from the battle.

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Alignment table for this story’s 1458 Reconquest of Constantinople with characters and nations involved
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Diagram of the 3-layered land Walls of Constantinople
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Constantine XI’s final charge against the Ottomans (1453, in real history), art by FaisalHashemi
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Portuguese caravel with full sails

 

The Epilogue and Conclusion              

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Back to real history, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople carried out by Mehmed II on May 29 of 1453 was only the beginning of the many conquests to come for Mehmed II the Conqueror’s next 28 years in power. With Mehmed appointing the anti-unionist Patriarch Gennadius II as the new Patriarch of Constantinople in 1454, the Church Union concluded by Constantine XI in 1452 had become void, also because with Constantine’s death the union which he signed was made void as well as there was no more Eastern Roman emperor to continue it. As mentioned earlier, John Hunyadi in real history had died in 1456 shortly after successfully defending Belgrade from Mehmed II and his army, thus this victory of Hunyadi over the Ottomans here in 1456 would stall the Ottomans from invading Hungary for another 70 years.

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Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (r. 1451-1481)

While busy continuing his campaigns to put all of the Balkans under Ottoman rule, Mehmed would be busy as well in repopulating and reconstructing the severely damaged late Byzantine era Constantinople to make it worthy of being the “3rd Rome”, and by doing this Mehmed would convert many of the deteriorating Byzantine churches other than the Hagia Sophia into impressive and lavish Ottoman style mosques, while he too would construct a new palace near the ancient church of the Hagia Eirene at the center of Constantinople, thus this palace would be where the Ottoman sultans beginning with Mehmed II would reside in, the Topkapi Palace. In addition, not all churches in Constantinople were turned into mosques as Mehmed respected the Byzantine culture thus, he allowed his subjects to continue practicing their Orthodox faith with a patriarch still charge, though some of the most important churches such as the Hagia Eirene and the 9th century Nea Ekklesia in the former Great Palace Complex built under Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886)- from chapter VII- were both converted into ammunition storage houses instead of mosques. On the other hand, the Morea in real history would continue to be under the rule of Constantine XI’s bothers Demetrios and Thomas as its Despots even after the fall of Constantinople, however rather than working together to take back Constantinople from the Ottomans, Demetrios and Thomas would continue being at odds with each other as both brothers had their own motive whereas Thomas seeing himself as Constantine XI’s successor was making plans to once again seal the Church Union with the pope and launch a Crusade to recapture Constantinople- which was the case of this story- while the anti-Catholic Demetrios was willing to ally with Mehmed, and just like in this story to desert to him in exchange for great rewards. The tensions between the brothers Demetrios and Thomas would then intensify to the point that both almost started a civil war with each other all while Mehmed in 1458 managed to conquer the entire Catalan Duchy of Athens in Greece, and in real history it was only in 1459 when Vlad III of Wallachia who until this point was an Ottoman vassal prince declared war on the Ottomans by refusing to pay tribute to Mehmed and killing the envoys sent by Mehmed to collect tribute by nailing their turbans to their heads. Meanwhile, Mehmed having enough of the Palaiologos brothers in the Morea and fearing that one day Thomas would launch a Crusade to Constantinople decided to invade the Morea with a large army and finish off the brothers once and for all, thus on May 29 of 1460, exactly 7 years after the Fall of Constantinople, the entire Despotate of the Morea fell to the Ottomans.

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Pope Pius II organizes a possible Crusade against the Ottomans with Thomas Palaiologos (in a blue hat) in Italy

Following the fall of the Morea to the Ottomans, Demetrios was taken as a prisoner and sent to Edirne where he would die in 10 years later (1470) while Thomas would eventually flee to Italy and make an attempt to again submit to the pope and launch a Crusade, however the Crusade would not come to happen as its organizer Thomas died in 1465 in Rome, though Thomas’ 3 children Zoe, Andreas, and Manuel would at least make it safely to Italy where they would live from here on as exiles. The Morea however would not completely fall to the Ottomans as a number of Byzantine generals would still resist the Ottoman invasion, however in July of 1461, the last Byzantine holdout which was the Castle of Salmeniko held by the Palaiologos family’s relative the general Graitzas Palaiologos would finally fall which would then mark the complete fall of the Morea to the Ottomans. In the meantime, as Mehmed conquered most the Morea and its capital Mystras in 1460, he decided to also end the last remaining Byzantine state which was the faraway Empire of Trebizond at the far east of the Black Sea, and being isolated with no allies around them, Trebizond was a much easier target than Constantinople. The Ottoman Siege of Trebizond however continued up until August of 1461 when the last emperor of Trebizond David Megas Komnenos having no more means to defend Trebizond and being too far away to ask for an alliance with the powers of Western Europe, had no more choice but to surrender to Mehmed II personally who travelled himself east to Trebizond while also conquering another Turkish Beylik in the process of capturing the city of Trebizond. The surrender of David Megas Komnenos to Mehmed in 1461 thus put an end to the Empire of Trebizond that had been around since 1204 under the same Komnenos Dynasty that once ruled Byzantium at its glory days, thus the Fall of Trebizond marked the complete end of the Byzantine Empire as a state, as even though Constantinople fell Trebizond was still a standing Byzantine state with an emperor who still had a claim to the Byzantine throne, but with David surrendering, all claims to the Byzantine throne was gone, and to make sure David would no longer attempt to take back the throne, he was executed in Constantinople by Mehmed’s orders in 1463. In 1462 meanwhile, it was the turn of Lesbos which had been under the Genoese Gattilusio family since 1355 as a Byzantine vassal to fall to the Ottomans, and in 1462 Mehmed’s forces easily captured the Island of Lesbos as well as its last independent ruler Niccolò Gattilusio who was then executed as well when brought to Constantinople.

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Vlad III of Wallachia charges at the Ottomans

Also in 1462, Vlad III of Wallachia decided to launch an attack on Ottoman Bulgaria, which is when Vlad did what he was most famous for in impaling the Ottoman soldiers he had slain in battle, thus provoking Mehmed to go north himself and counter-attack Vlad, although Mehmed was caught by surprise and ambushed by Vlad and his forces at the Night Attack of Targoviste wherein Mehmed was defeated, however Vlad who attempted to assassinate Mehmed here still failed, though Vlad again impaled the slain Ottoman soldiers. In the same year (1462) however, Vlad was ousted from power as the Prince of Wallachia again due to the political instability of Wallachia where their boyars (nobles) who were not for Vlad’s anti-Ottoman policy plotted against him, thus Vlad escaped into hiding once again eventually fleeing to the Kingdom of Hungary which since 1458 order was again restored with a legitimate king in power which was John Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus. In the meantime, Mehmed II succeeded in finally conquering all of Serbia by 1459 making it a full Ottoman province and it is here where Mara Brankovic would return to the Ottoman court this time in Constantinople, however the King of Bosnia Stefan II Tomasevic, ruling the small kingdom to the west of Serbia had attempts to claim the throne of Serbia while Stefan who was also paying tribute to the Ottomans decided to stop which then made Mehmed launch an army and conquer Bosnia, thus in 1463 after a short campaign, the small Kingdom of Bosnia completely fell under Ottoman rule while Stefan II its last king was executed under Mehmed’s orders. Bosnia then became the Ottomans’ westernmost territory and with Bosnia now under the Ottomans, its old capital Bobovac was no longer in use, instead the new city of Sarajevo was built to be its Ottoman provincial capital.

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Skanderbeg, art by HistoryGold777

The last part of the Balkans now that would still resist Ottoman rule was Albania under Skanderbeg who in 1462 and 1463 again defeated multiple Ottoman invasions that in 1466 Mehmed II himself decided to lead the campaign against Skanderbeg himself with about 100,000 troops intending to conquer Albania once and for all. Here, Skanderbeg was for once defeated as his allies from Italy never arrived, however in 1467 the Ottomans once again failed to capture Skanderbeg’s hilltop castle of Kruje leaving Skanderbeg undefeated again, though in the following year 1468 Skanderbeg died peacefully with all of Albania still not yet falling to the Ottomans. To fully conquer Albania, Mehmed had fortresses built all over Albania’s border to block off all reinforcements, however it would be only in 1478, 10 years after Skanderbeg’s death when all of Albania would finally fall under Ottoman rule when Mehmed managed to capture the Castle of Kruje, thus from here on the entire Balkans was under Ottoman rule.

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Prince Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia (r. 1448/ 1456-1462/ 1476-1477)

On the other hand, Vlad III in late 1476 returned to power as Prince of Wallachia but shortly after a civil war erupted in Wallachia due to Vlad’s return wherein the other faction opposing Vlad was backed by the Ottomans, and in early 1477, Vlad III himself died in battle against his rival faction in the Wallachian Civil War, thus Wallachia became an Ottoman vassal again. With Ottoman rule in the Balkans becoming secure, Mehmed II then turned to finishing off the entire Ottoman conquest of all the Turkish Beyliks in Asia Minor where his great-grandfather Bayezid I failed due to being captured by Timur after losing at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, and here Mehmed would in fact manage to succeed in putting almost the entire Asia Minor under Ottoman rule by 1473, and in 1475 Mehmed had also gone as far as annexing a part of the Crimea Peninsula north of the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire, thus giving the Ottomans some access to the now growing Russian principalities.

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Mehmed II’s failed conquest of Rhodes, 1480

In 1480 then, Mehmed the conqueror after conquering so many lands decided to carry out a conquest of the Island of Rhodes from the Crusader Knights still there as well as his ultimate conquest which was Italy, thus he planned a naval invasion of Italy from Albania, however this invasion only lasted very quickly only succeeding in capturing the Southern Italian city of Otranto which only lasted for a few months, while the invasion of Rhodes failed as well. Before Mehmed could launch a full invasion of Italy, he suddenly died in 1481 from an illness at age 49, and although Mehmed II spend most of his reign at war, he had the legacy of repopulating Constantinople turning it once more into a thriving imperial metropolis, and though Constantinople would only be officially called “Istanbul” in the 20th century, following the Ottoman conquest of 1453 with most of the people that Mehmed repopulated it with being Turks, the name “Istanbul” meaning “to the city” already became the new name people popularly refer to the city as, with “Constantinople” or Konstantiniyye in Turkish being just its official name. At Mehmed II’s death in 1481, the Ottoman Empire had gone a long way from a small Turkish feudal state in Asia Minor to an empire covering the entire Balkans- except for a few islands like Crete that was still under Venice- and almost all of Asia Minor taking the place of Byzantium with the addition of the Crimea and Wallachia as vassals, and following his death Mehmed II would be succeeded by his son Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) whereas the Ottoman golden age would soon arise. Meanwhile for the Byzantine survivors, the most notable ones would be Cardinal Bessarion who would live as a Catholic Cardinal in Italy until 1472 and together with other scholars that would continue to flee the Ottomans, they would further help initiate the Italian Renaissance.

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Andreas Palaiologos, son of Thomas Palaiologos and last bearer of the Byzantine imperial title, died in 1502 in Rome

As for Thomas’ children, the older son Andreas would still inherit the title of “Byzantine emperor” from his father following his death in 1465 which Thomas thus inherited from his brother Constantine XI, however Andreas despite having the title would eventually lose all his money due to spending unnecessarily that he would have to sell of his title to the King of France, however with the King of France’s death in 1498 the title went back to Andreas who in 1502 died in poverty in Rome as the last bearer of this title of “Byzantine emperor”, at least dying in Rome where the Roman civilization which Byzantium inherited all began. Andreas’ younger brother Manuel on the other hand would end up becoming a mercenary captain serving the various nobles of Italy in battle, although being unhappy with his pay in Italy Manuel would return to Ottoman Constantinople dying there in 1512. Out of Thomas’ 3 children, the one with the happy ending however would be the eldest one, which was his daughter Zoe who in 1472 would be arranged by Cardinal Bessarion to marry the Grand Prince of Moscow in Russia Ivan III, thus Zoe would travel all the way from Italy to Russia, and thus this marriage with a Byzantine princess who was the last emperor’s niece would then give Moscow the claim as the “New Byzantium” and “3rd Rome”, and Zoe would then die in Russia as a princess in 1503 unlike her brothers who died losing everything.

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Fatih Mosque, built by Mehmed II over the Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles
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Fall of Trebizond, last Trebizond Byzantine emperor David Megas Komnenos surrenders to Mehmed II, 1461
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Vlad III and his Wallachian army clash with Mehmed II and his army, 1462
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Ottoman era Constantinople, after 1453
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Map of the Ottoman Empire (green) at the death of Mehmed II in 1481

Watch this to learn more about Mehmed II’s conquests after 1453 (Kings and Generals).

In this story’s case on the other hand, things will turn out to be entirely different with the Byzantines and their allies taking back Constantinople in 1458 and with Mehmed II dying together with Constantine XI. In this story, following the death of Constantine XI and Mehmed at midair after their carriages exploded, Thomas would be proclaimed emperor by his troops while all his allies including Vlad III, Skanderbeg, and the Portuguese prince Ferdinand would all recognize Thomas as the restored Byzantine emperor. The day after the Battle of Constantinople, Thomas would at first summon the Ottoman appointed patriarch Gennadius II and have him blinded then exiled thus replacing him with a Catholic archbishop, which in this story’s case would be Cardinal Bessarion who would travel from Rome back to Constantinople to formally crown Thomas as the new Basileus of the Byzantine Empire at the Hagia Sophia which Thomas would have converted back from a mosque to a church again thus removing the plaster Mehmed painted over the mosaics, but rather than making it an Orthodox church again, the 900-year-old Hagia Sophia would from here on become a Catholic cathedral while Bessarion would no longer hold the title of Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, but instead would be the Catholic Archbishop of Constantinople submitting directly to the pope in Rome.

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Statue of Emperor Constantine XI

In his first act as emperor, Thomas would have his late brother Constantine whose body however exploded into dust be declared as Byzantium’s national hero and defender, thus Thomas would order the construction of a massive statue of his brother Constantine XI in full armor which would be placed above the Column of Constantine, the first landmark to be built in Constantinople by the first emperor Constantine I in 330 to mark the foundation of the new capital of the Roman Empire. Thomas would also commemorate the fallen heroes being the Genoese Giovanni Giustiniani and the Hungarian John Hunyadi by also building statues of them around the Forum of Constantine where Thomas would also restore the exiled Byzantine senate in Mystras to, as the forum was the Constantinople’s original senate house. As for his other brother Demetrios, Thomas would still decide to honor him as a hero as Demetrios did in fact defend Byzantine traditions and the Orthodox faith till the very end and at least redeemed himself by turning against Mehmed and opening Constantinople’s gates, thus Demetrios too would be given a special burial in the Church of the Holy Apostles which Thomas would convert from the Fatih Mosque Mehmed turned it into back again into a church. On the other hand, Loukas Notaras would still be seen as a traitor thus Thomas who killed him himself would dump Loukas’ body together with the fallen Ottoman soldiers including their general Zaganos Pasha in a pit to be burned. Now after defeating the Ottomans and taking back Constantinople, the Byzantines would not only take back Constantinople but its surroundings as well as the entire Aegean coast of Thrace all the way to Thessaloniki in which the city of Thessaloniki itself would return to Byzantine rule, and so would the Princes Islands in the Marmara, and the Marmara coast of Asia Minor including the city of Nicomedia thus gaining some of their old heartland Asia Minor back again. All these lands taken back by Thomas would then be under his direct rule, while the Morea which still remained under Byzantine rule would be placed under Thomas’ sons Andreas and Manuel where they would at first govern as its despots to prepare them to one day rule the empire when their father dies.

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The fallen Constantine XI with the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (left) and first Byzantine emperor Constantine I (right)

Though at this point, both Andreas and Manuel being only young children- with Andreas only 5 and Manuel only 3- they would at first be only despots in name but under the regency of their mother Caterina Zaccaria- who in real history died in 1462- and here George Sphrantzes- who in real history would die as a monk in 1478- would be the one to train the young sons of Thomas in the Morea to one day rule the empire and tell also them about the greatness and the sacrifice of their uncle Constantine. In this story’s case, the late Constantine’s Serbian wife Mara Brankovic who remained in the Morea while the battle to recapture Constantinople took place would return back to her homeland Serbia never to be heard from again when hearing of her husband’s death. In this story’s case with Mehmed gone, Serbia would again return to being its own independent principality under Mara’s brother Stefan Brankovic who in 1458 took over from his late brother Lazar as Prince of Serbia, while they would never have to face the threat of the Ottomans again, thus being independent again the Serbians would expand once more across Central Balkans taking former Ottoman lands. As for the Ottomans, their defeat at Constantinople in 1458 and the death of Mehmed would once again throw their empire and system into chaos just like back in 1402 after Bayezid I was captured by Timur, and here in 1458 Thomas to ensure that the Ottomans would not return again would have Mehmed’s young sons including his eldest one and intended heir Bayezid who was only around 10 here executed, and in this case Thomas would send Vlad who now became his close friend over to Edirne where Mehmed’s family was to kill them, and as usual of Vlad, here he would impale all of Mehmed’s slain family members outside Edirne. Now with all of Mehmed’s family killed off, the entire Ottoman Empire’s system would fall into chaos, thus the surviving Ottoman generals would flee back to Asia Minor and dissolve the empire by returning again to the old system of disunited Turkish feudal states or Beyliks in Asia Minor like how it was before Osman founded the Ottoman Empire and united the other Beyliks in 1299, and here each of the surviving generals would establish their own separate Beylik in Asia Minor. With the Ottomans now reverting to decentralized Turkish states that would be too busy in conflict with each other, they would no longer pose a threat to the Byzantines and the Balkans anymore. The Duchy of Athens meanwhile which fell to the Ottomans in 1458 in real history would still stay alive and would also choose to ally themselves with Thomas while Lesbos under the Genoese Gattilusio family too would still stay as a Byzantine vassal continuing in paying tribute to the new emperor Thomas. The Empire of Trebizond at the far east of the Black Sea too would not fall in 1461 due to the Ottoman threat suddenly melting away, thus the Emperor of Trebizond David Megas Komnenos would not be its last emperor, and knowing Constantinople returned to Byzantine hands, he too would also ally himself with Thomas.

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Prince Ferdinand Alviz of Portugal (Ferdinand, Duke of Viseu)

The Portuguese prince Ferdinand and his troops would then be given the Island of Lemnos by Thomas in exchange for helping take back Constantinople, and considering that Giovanni Giustiniani who was originally given Lemnos had died, the now vacant Lemnos could be given as a reward to the distant Portuguese prince and his army, thus Ferdinand in this story’s case would make Lemnos his own Portuguese colony. In real history, Prince Ferdinand in 1458 was known to have joined his brother the King of Portugal Alfonso V in a military campaign against Moorish pirates in Morocco, and in this story’s case, Ferdinand after helping take back Constantinople would return west with his fleet and also help his brother in this same campaign in Morocco. In the long-term however, this new alliance between Byzantium and the distant Portuguese kingdom would also give the Byzantines access to rare products that the Portuguese would take from their colonies in Africa, as by this time Portuguese exploration and colonization of Africa’s west coast would continue and even progress, while in case Byzantium would be in trouble from the sea as well, the powerful Portuguese fleet would be there at all times to come to their aid.

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Skanderbeg (left) and John Hunyadi(right), the defenders of Europe against the Ottomans, art by R7artist

As for the independent Lord of Albania Skanderbeg, in return for helping in taking back Constantinople, Thomas would allow him to take over territory in Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly considering that the Ottomans who held it were gone while the Byzantines not having much of an army anymore would no longer have much interest in recovering old lands. With the Ottoman threat gone, Skanderbeg in this story would no longer have to constantly defend Albania from the Ottomans, thus he would continue to rule in peace until his death in 1468 while Albania itself would never fall to the Ottomans like it did in real history in 1478. Vlad III of Wallachia too would turn out to be a great ally of Thomas and the now Catholic Byzantium despite Vlad still staying Orthodox, and in return for helping the Byzantines Vlad would be allowed by the Byzantines to annex Ottoman Bulgaria into his already rich Principality of Wallachia, and without the Ottomans in the picture anymore Vlad would possibly not be overthrown as prince by a rival pro-Ottoman faction, thus he would also not be killed in the Wallachian civil of 1477, and in addition Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus would as well become King of Hungary too being an additional ally to Byzantium.

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Zoe Palaiologina, daughter of Thomas Palaiologos, married to Ivan III of Moscow in 1472

In 1472 in this story’s case, Thomas unlike in real history who died in 1465 would still live, and unlike in real history wherein it was Cardinal Bessarion who arranged for Thomas’ daughter Zoe to marry the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III, here it would be both Thomas and Bessarion that would arrange it; thus, the Byzantines would now build ties with the rising Orthodox Grand Principality of Moscow. In this story’s case, Thomas would die in around 1479 at the age of 70 and would be succeeded as emperor by his son Andreas, and by the time of Thomas’ death Byzantium itself would completely change by adopting the ways of the Renaissance like the rest of Europe did at this time by getting rid of their old medieval traditions and fashion styles and begin to adopt the much more comfortable and colorful fashion styles of Renaissance Italy as well as the new invention of printing presses, while the Catholic faith too would slowly be more and more accepted by the Byzantine people who would in return slowly forget the past and all the bad blood with the Latin west thus filly healing the age old schism with the west, though Orthodoxy however would still live on but no longer the dominant faith of the empire. Now even though the Byzantine Empire once again returned and survived, it would still just continue to remain a small Greek kingdom with no more intention to become a world power anymore like how it was under the Komnenos emperors in the 12th century or under Basil II at the beginning of the 11th century, instead it would be happy with what it has especially considering that they not only survived but helped in destroying that undefeatable Ottomans. In the meantime, there would be one power to rise and see themselves as the “New Byzantium” and this would be the Grand Principality of Moscow in Russia considering that their grand prince married the Byzantine princess Zoe, and considering the Byzantines abandoning Orthodoxy and converting to Catholicism, Moscow remaining truly Orthodox would more and more see themselves as the “New Byzantium”, but this would be a whole different story altogether.

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Map of Portuguese discoveries by 1500
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Constantine XI, the “marble emperor”
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Constantine XI (right) in the 19th century Greek Kingdom poster
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Constantine XI Palaiologos with the Byzantine emperors of the past above, left to right: Constantine I the Great, Justinian I the Great, Heraclius, Basil II, John II Komnenos, and Michael VIII Palaiologos, art by JohnJollos

         

And now we have reached the very end not only of this chapter but of this entire 12-part series and the history of Byzantium altogether, and jut to put it short the Byzantine Empire’s story does indeed show an impressive story of how an empire had lived on for a complete 1,123 years and 18 days in total surviving so many wars, disasters, plagues economic crisis, betrayals, and glorious days and conquests.

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The lifetime of the entire Roman civilization- Kingdom, Republic, Empire, and Byzantine Empire (753BC-1453AD)

The Byzantine Empire too was the civilization that created a link between the Classical Greco-Roman world to the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance as true enough the Byzantine Empire was no other than the continuation of the Roman Empire based in the east that outlived the fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century, that preserved the traditions, culture, and knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome and fused it together with the faith Christianity, and at the end the Byzantines from the east were true enough the ones to return this knowledge of the past to the west in the 15th century and bring about a new age of learning, art, and development known as the Renaissance which would succeed the Middle Ages and define the next 2 centuries to come. The Byzantine Empire did indeed see the various kingdoms of Europe around them rise from small and weak barbarian tribal states formed by migrants following the fall of Western Rome and grow over the centuries to become kingdoms even surpassing Byzantium in power, while the Byzantines too saw several powers in its lifetime rise and fall namely the Arab Caliphates, Bulgarians, and Seljuk Turks which were powers that both rose and fall within the lifetime of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire’s story was then of one empire that had many ups downs one after the other wherein in so many instances the end of the empire was already likely to happen, but miraculously Byzantium survived all these challenges and continued to live on, and true enough Byzantium still continued to live on deep into the 15th century whereas it could have already fallen when century began if not for the intervention of Timur defeating the Ottomans at the Battle of Ankara. However like all empires in history, it still had to end, and its end true enough happened not so longer after it was supposed to end. On the other hand, the saying goes “where one ends, the other begins” and in this case the Byzantine Empire in 1453 if referring to the Fall of Constantinople or 1461 if referring to the Fall of Trebizond may have only just ended as a state as even though it ended politically, its systems, laws, and culture were still passed on to its immediate successor and conqueror, the Ottoman Empire.

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Family tree of the Ottoman sultans beginning 1299

Although an Islamic power that may have seemed at first as a dark foreign invader, the Ottomans which from 1453 onwards took over Constantinople becoming the “New Byzantium” and “3rd Rome” still continued the systems, laws, military organization, and parts of the culture and knowledge the Byzantines were well-known for, and just like the Byzantines the Ottomans would become as successful as they were as in the 16th century the Ottoman Empire itself would be very much like the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I the Great 1000 years earlier in the 6th century being a major world power. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire would then enter its golden age wherein they would in fact manage to conquer the entire Kingdom of Hungary and finally meet the Portuguese in naval battles for new territories, thus the Ottoman Empire at its height would extend all the way to Central and Eastern Europe including parts of Russia and Ukraine, Egypt, parts of North Africa, most of the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula. The Ottoman Empire itself just like its predecessor Byzantium would also have such as strong imperial system that their empire would in fact survive all the way up to the 20th century ending in 1922 after World War I, and the more impressive part is that unlike Byzantium which in their 1,100 year history had a total of 15 dynasties, the Ottoman only had one which was the Dynasty of Osman the empire was named after that lived on in one straight line of succession from the empire’s founding in 1299 to its fall in 1922. Although the Ottomans would have succeeded Byzantium politically, it would be Italy considering that they adopted the knowledge from the Byzantines in forming the Renaissance that would succeed Byzantium spiritually, while Russia on the other hand by the 16th century could also be considered as Byzantium’s spiritual successor for continuing the Orthodox faith and Byzantine imperial culture. Meanwhile, despite the Byzantine Empire drastically shrinking to insignificance by the 15th century, the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 was such a catastrophe to the rest of the world as it true enough showed that an empire over a thousand years old could still fall, thus it sent great shockwaves all over Europe. However, the impact of the Fall of Constantinople would only be evident in the long-term as due to the Ottomans capturing Constantinople, this meant that old routes like the Silk Route to get to lands in the far east such as India and China had been closed off, thus leading to several European powers to have to look for new routes to the far east, thus leading to the rise of new powers such as Portugal which had already been searching for sea routes through Africa and Spain by the end of the 15th century in which the powerful kingdoms there of Castile and Aragon had united power being the Kingdom of Spain.

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Christopher Columbus discovers the New World, 1492

Considering that new routes had to be discovered to reach Asia due to the Fall of Constantinople, an indirect coincidental result of this took place by the end of the 15th century which was that of the discovery and beginning of the colonization of the Americas by the Genoese Christopher Columbus under the new united Spain in 1492 where the rest of world history would entirely change altogether. Meanwhile, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror would make such a name for himself in history for achieving the dream no other could in conquering the once great imperial city of Constantinople as well as the entire Balkans. However, the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos too would have such a great legacy for his part in real history when fighting till the end to defend Constantinople that soon enough so many legends about him would arise such as one wherein he is believed to never have died but rather when charging into the Ottomans for a final time on the last day (Tuesday, May 29 of 1453), and angel carried his body away and turned him into marble so that one day he would take back Constantinople from the Turks.

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Constantine XI, the last emperor with the great rulers of Byzantium’s past above, left to right: Basil II, Manuel I Komnenos, Justinian I, Theodora, Irene of Athens, Zoe Porphyrogenita, art by Gambargin

During the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the legend of Constantine XI would be reborn wherein the memory last Byzantine emperor would play a major role in the Greeks’ fight for independence and due to his sacrifice and his part as a well-loved ruler as the Despot of the Morea before his time as emperor, Constantine XI would in fact be until this day one of the national heroes of Greece, while he too is considered as an unofficial saint though both his parents Emperor Manuel II and Empress Helena Dragas happen to be Orthodox saints. As for the other heroes in this story like John Hunyadi and Skanderbeg they too would be national heroes in their own respective countries Hungary and Albania for their role in resisting the ever expanding Ottomans. Vlad III Tepes too would have the same legacy in being a national hero of today’s Romania where Wallachia was for resisting against Ottoman expansion, however he would remain having a mixed reputation wherein westerners would view him as a sadistic monster for being too extreme in fighting the Ottomans to the point of mass genocide while his own people after his time would see him as their country’s protector, however Vlad’s legacy would turn out to be very well-known up to this day as he happens to be the basis for the famous literary vampire Dracula. Now to conclude this entire 12-part, I thought there would be no other way to make it such an epic by having all of these legendary characters like Constantine XI, Sultan Mehmed II, John Hunyadi, Skanderbeg, and Vlad III Tepes put together in a massive epic battle for the fate of the world, while also showing side stories of the happenings around the world, and also the Portuguese part of the story too would have been very unlikely considering how far Portugal was to Constantinople but again because the Portuguese played such a big role in the 15th century, it was only fitting to put them in these legendary epic with all these other legendary historical figures. Overall, the 15th century with the Fall of Byzantium included was entirely one epic century featuring short lived empire’s like Timur’s Empire, the Renaissance, Hundred-Years’-War, the Ottoman expansion, and concluding with the Age of Exploration. Additionally, since this chapter was to conclude the entire series, it had to be obviously longer than all the other chapters as I also wanted to give a throwback to many of the highlights and historical people mentioned in the past 11 chapters in order to make everything come full circle. Now whether we go with this story’s case wherein Byzantium would continue to live or in real history where it fell, everything at the end still did go full circle as first the last emperor Constantine XI shared the same name with the first emperor, and second as Byzantium in which its imperial culture originated in Rome which was in Italy returned to Italy when those who fled the Ottomans returned to Italy and reintroduced the knowledge of the Classical past there. Now, even if the Byzantine Empire may be gone, there are still so many ways up to this day in the distant future where we can still see its legacy remain which include the landmarks left behind by the Byzantines like the Hagia Sophia and many other churches in Greece, the Balkans, Italy, and Turkey with impressive mosaics and frescos, the laws and political systems many countries still use which were based on Justinian I’s code of laws and other Byzantine imperial reforms, the culture of court ceremonies and lavish events, the Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople that still remains up to this day, and of course the stories of these historical figures in its 1,100 year history that will forever stay with us and inspire us. The big question now would be that if we go with this story’s case of the Byzantine Empire surviving, how would things turn to be for them if they lived up to the very dynamic and crucial 16th century? True enough in the 16th century, just a century after Byzantium’s falls was the only time the name “Byzantine” was invented referring to the empire as well as the negative meaning of the word meaning “extremely complicated”, which is why up to this day we see the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire as two different empires even if they were one and the same, however this would be a totally different story for another time, and as this series would come to an end here, up next will no longer be another chapter but an article to conclude this entire series as a whole wherein I would put in my thoughts and feelings about Byzantine history in general and on this entire 12-part series I started and finished after more than 7 months. Now this is all for Chapter XII, the grand finale of Byzantine Alternate History, this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler, thank you and goodbye for now!

Most Favorite to Least Favorite- Ranking the 12 Centuries of Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome back to the Byzantium Blogger! As for now, I will be taking a break from the extremely long but informative Byzantine Alternate History series in which I have progressed very far, at this point I have completed the 8th chapter of this 12-part series. To break my consistent streak of Byzantine fan fiction articles now that I am in between chapter VIII and chapter IX of my series, I have decided to come up with another more entertaining special edition article which will mark the end of the 2nd quarter of this year 2021. Previously 3 months ago, I did another special edition article marking the end of the first quarter of this year wherein I asked 5 of my friends to give their own point of views on quotes quoted by Byzantine era people to see what these ancient quotes mean these days. This time, my special edition article to mark the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd quarter of this year is a more personal one which will be a list ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantine history (4th-15th centuries) from my point of view from 1 being my most to 12 being my least favorite one. Now as may would know, the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire lived on for an exact 1,123 years (330-1453), meaning 12 centuries of stories to tell and within these 12 centuries were a series of ups and downs wherein the empire at some points would be a dominant power then at some points lose it and have to fight to defend its borders and then once again become a power again, and so the cycle goes on. Basically, the Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire itself continued except being based in the east with Constantinople as its capital throughout its 1,100-year existence- except for a brief period of time between 1204 and 1261 when the capital fell under the rule of the Latin Empire or basically the Crusaders- and throughout these 1,100-year existence there are a lot of stories to be told. Now out of the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, some really had a lot of exciting moments within them while some had important turning points in world history, but some just had less stories to tell compared to others. For this article, I will rank the 12 centuries from my personal best to worst according to how eventful these centuries were. I will both put a summary of each century but will evaluate them by describing why I find each century more interesting or less interesting based on everything I have learned about Byzantine history in the past 2 years that I have been reading up on it, therefore this article is mostly based on my insights and did not involve heavy research. In my opinion, I find centuries filled with action-packed events as the more interesting, fascinating, and memorable ones compared to those that had less happening, and so here I would place the more eventful centuries on the higher tiers of this ranking and the less eventful ones on the lower ones. In the history of Byzantium however, each of its 12 centuries of existence had a lot of events happening, although some centuries may have just been more eventful than others. Now to find out which centuries I find more fascinating and which ones I find less fascinating, you will have to find out by scrolling down the list, and before beginning, the previous 8 chapters of my alternate history series will be linked to the respective centuries they are set in, except for the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries as I have not yet written any alternate history chapters yet for these 4 mentioned centuries. In addition, each century that will be ranked on this list will be guided by images of important events that took place in these respective centuries, in which most of these images would be Byzantine fan art made by either myself or other Byzantine history fans that do art related to it.

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Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part I (300-1000)

Around the World in the Byzantine Era Part II (1000-1461)


 

1. The 10th Century           

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Map of the 10th century Byzantine Empire (purple), from Byzantine Tales

My personal favorite out of the 12 centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence has to be the 10th century or the century of the Byzantine Renaissance, which is at the same time a very popular era in Byzantine history that is also fascinating to a lot, and there are just so many reasons to say why this century happens to be so popular among Byzantine history fans such as myself. First of all, if there were to be any century in Byzantine history that had so much happening both within the empire and beyond, it is the 10th century which featured Byzantium under the Macedonian Dynasty entering a golden age of military and cultural dominance over the known world while at the same time, this century shows exactly just how complex Byzantium was especially in politics and succession which makes Byzantine history ever more fascinating. The intriguing roller-coaster of the 10th century begins with the reign of Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) wherein Byzantium is still fighting to defend itself against various attacks by Arab powers, which is then followed by a complicated succession crisis after Leo VI’s death where his son the young Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos is placed under regents all fighting each other for power all while Byzantium is threatened by their next-door northern neighbor, the Bulgarian Empire ruled by Tsar Simeon the Great. As the 10th century progresses, the complicated situation of Constantine VII’s regency is taken care of in 920 when the ambitious low-born admiral Romanos Lekapenos takes over the throne not to depose but protect young Constantine VII who he actually turns out to sideline, but even though he may seem to be a usurper, Romanos I ruled the empire well as during his 24-year reign (920-944), he was able to end the war with Bulgaria through the diplomacy while the Byzantines too had totally managed to turn the tide of war against their Arab enemies in the east to the offensive but Romanos I unfortunately did not stay in power forever as in 944 he was overthrown by his sons who were then overthrown by the legitimate ruler Constantine VII who then becomes the sole emperor.

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Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), art by myself

Constantine VII’s reign as sole emperor (945-959) is also one of my favorite moments in Byzantine history as Constantine VII as emperor had shown a great example that Byzantium at this time was not only a military power but a cultural one which was perfectly demonstrated by the emperor himself being an intellectual who published 4 books himself about the Byzantine Empire’s history, court etiquette, and governance system while at the same time, he was able also able reveal to the world how Byzantium was a superior sophisticated culture by impressing foreign diplomats by sitting on a mechanical throne that lifted itself up while the mechanical lions beside it projected an actual sound of lion and the fake birds on the golden tree next to it sang. Constantine VII after his death in 959 was succeeded by his son Romanos II who despite ruling very quickly (959-963) had a lot of accomplishments in his reign which were although achieved not really by him but by his successful generals such as the brothers Nikephoros and Leo Phokas and their nephew John Tzimiskes who successfully crushed the powerful Arab armies a number of times in Cilicia and Syria while at the same time in 961, Nikephoros Phokas was able to reclaim the entire island of Crete itself from the Arabs after a long and brutal campaign.

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Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969)

The second half of the 10th century gets even more exciting when Nikephoros II Phokas becomes the emperor himself in 963 after marrying the empress Theophano, the wife of the late emperor Romanos II who died earlier that year, and in Nikephoros II’s reign Byzantium expands even more by conquest that a large number of territories they had lost over the past 3 centuries to the Arabs including the region of Cilicia, the island of Cyprus, and the city of Antioch itself are taken back by the Byzantines, thus forever weakening the Arab powers that had threatened Byzantium for the past 3 centuries. Nikephoros II as emperor was a brilliant general and strategist but nothing more as he failed as a politician in terms of pleasing his people and in foreign policy that when failing to negotiate with the Bulgarians, war between them resumed. Due to his harsh taxation policies and growing unpopularity, Nikephoros II in 969 was assassinated in his sleep by his nephew the general John Tzimiskes who then succeeded his uncle as emperor who just like his uncle was more or less a warrior emperor but at least succeeded more as a politician. John I Tzimiskes as emperor (969-976) was successful in fighting wars against the new power of the Kievan Rus’ army that had invaded Bulgaria which he defeated resulting in most the Bulgarian state itself to be absorbed into Byzantium and following this, John I returned to campaigning in the east winning more decisive victories against the Arabs again but before returning to Constantinople in early 976 he suddenly died.

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Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer of Byzantium (r. 976-1025)

John I after his death in 976 was succeeded by the legitimate ruler Basil II, son of the previous emperor Romanos II and Empress Theophano, and would be the last ruler of the 10th century, although his early reign was not really stable as he was challenged by the ambitious rival generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas who believed that Basil II was unfit to be emperor due to being raised in the palace. Basil II however proved them wrong and in 989 after making an alliance with the Kievan Rus’ Empire that provided him with an army of 6,000 warriors which would become the Varangian Guard, Basil had defeated Bardas Phokas and 991, Basil II’s rule would be fully secure following the surrender of Bardas Skleros allowing Basil to grow the empire even more that by the time the next century began, the Byzantines had managed to conquer the entire Bulgarian Empire itself. Though the 10th century ended before the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria finished, the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 10th century was a dominant military and cultural power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe that the entire Kievan Rus’ Empire (consisting of what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) fell under Byzantium’s sphere of influence by adopting the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium, while at the same time, their rival empire which was the Holy Roman Empire in Germany looked up to them in terms of culture, and in the south the Arab powers that once threatened Byzantium were now the ones threatened by Byzantium’s growing power.

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Byzantine Cataphract cavalry unload in Crete’s shore using ramps, 960

Overall, I would say the 10th century had the complete set of everything that would define the history of Byzantium including epic battles, ambitious yet brilliant generals with unique strategies like Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, sophisticated and superior technology unheard of in the Middle Ages including the superweapon Greek Fire and mechanical thrones, superior intellectual culture in Constantinople, a decadent imperial court rich in luxury, lots of violence including blinding and assassinations, scheming eunuchs behind the throne, and ambitious women in power such as the empress Zoe Karbonopsina who ruled as regent for her young son Constantine VII in the complicated regency period (913-920) and Empress Theophano who was the wife of two emperors Romanos II and Nikephoros II, both who they say she had killed. It is for all these reasons why I would say it is the century in Byzantine history that fascinates me most, and other than all these reasons that I had mentioned above, what makes this period fascinating too was that there was never any dull moment in this century as every step of the way was action-packed and most of them were all the wars the Byzantines fought as they were not only fighting against one enemy but many including Arabs, Bulgarians, the Rus, and Pechenegs while at the same time there was a lot going on in this century especially in foreign relations as here Byzantium made contact with the various powers of the time including the Holy Roman Empire and a lot more. Now by having so much going on all in one century, I would also say that the 10th century is really the century that defined Byzantium the same way the 15th century or Renaissance was for Italy, the 16th century for Spain, the 17th for the Dutch, 18th for France, and 19th for England, and true enough it is also the 10th century where Byzantium gets a lot of attention in visualized media even centuries ago as the famous illustrated manuscript the Madrid Skylitzes specifically focuses a lot on the events of the 10th century and even up to this day, a lot of Byzantine related media such as the recent graphic novel Theophano: A Byzantine Tale is set in this period, and so are some of my Lego films including The Rise of Phokas (2019) and Killing a Byzantine Emperor (2019). 

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Emperor Constantine VII hosting a feast, art by Byzantine Tales
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Nikephoros Phokas enters Constantinople in 963, Madrid Skylitzes
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Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941

To learn more about Byzantium in the 10th century, read Chapter VII of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

2. The 5th Century           

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Roman Empire 5th century map, dissolution of the west (red).

For second place, I would put the 5th century which was the second century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence but also a very crucial point in their history as it was in this century when the Eastern Roman Empire was already a concept as a separate empire from the Western Roman Empire based in Constantinople, while the 5th century was also the century when the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium became the sole Roman Empire itself following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Now the story of 5th century Byzantium until 476 is basically told as a story of two parallel empires which are the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople and its twin satellite empire the Western Roman Empire based in Ravenna wherein one empire (the east) is strong but still struggling to survive against the massive invasions of barbarian powers while the other one (the west) is weak and dying without any chance to live long anymore unless fully dissolved or absorbed into the eastern empire. The 5th century however happens to be more famous for the story of the Western Roman Empire which is already at a breaking point as when the century begins and progresses, the western empire is ruled by incompetent rulers like Honorius (395-423) and Valentinian III (425-455) while most of the empire is already falling apart being invaded by several barbarian people that have wither settled in it or invaded from beyond including the Visigoths who take over the Western Roman lands of Gaul and Hispania, the Burgundians and Franks that take parts of Gaul, and the Vandals that take over North Africa, while here the Romans completely lose control of Britain at the beginning of the century.

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Battle of Chalons, 451

While several barbarian powers take over territories of the Western Roman Empire, a larger threat is yet to arrive which was Atilla the Hun and his rapidly growing Hunnish Empire which is not only a threat to the Eastern and Western Roman Empires but to these barbarian powers too, thus the Western Romans and some barbarian powers like the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Franks join forces against Atilla’s Huns and together led by the Roman general Aetius they manage to achieve the impossible in defeating Attila’s forces at the Battle of Chalons in 451, and after Atilla’s death in 453 the Huns from being the terror of the world simply vanished as a major threat. Despite the Western Romans’ victory over Atilla, the following years were not as favorable anymore as in 454 they lost their greatest general Aetius who was assassinated by the emperor Valentinian III out of envy and in 455 Valentinian III was assassinated which leads to conflict with the new power of the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa under their King Genseric who also in 455 launches an invasion on Rome and sacks it. The 5th century saw two major attacks on Rome itself first by the Visigoth king Alaric I in 410 and in 455 by the Vandals in which both forever weakened the power of Western Rome, although after 455 there were still some emperors that had the ambition to save and revive the weakened Roman Empire and reconquer their lands the barbarians took from them and these emperors included the capable soldier Majorian (457-461) and the Eastern Roman aristocrat Anthemius (467-472) but sadly both never achieved their dreams as they were in fact both puppets of Ricimer, the ambitious barbarian general in Roman imperial service who was responsible too for killing both of these emperors for being too ambitious and not being his intended puppets.

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End of the Western Roman Empire with the surrender of the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to Odoacer, 476

After Anthemius’ death in 472 it was all downhill for the Western Roman Empire which was now only reduced to Italy, thus it was only a matter of time that the western empire would disappear and just 4 years later in 476, one small event brought the Western Roman Empire to its complete end and this was simply when the barbarian general Odoacer marched into the empire’s capital Ravenna and forced the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus to surrender which he did and so ended the Western Roman Empire which was replaced by Odoacer’s personal Kingdom of Italy. Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire had a much different story in the 5th century which was as I would say more or less not as exciting in the century’s earlier half but more exciting in its second half. The earlier part of the 5th century did not have much happening for the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium except for the rule of the incompetent Arcadius (395-408) where the century begins although he did not really live long enough and following his death in 408 he was succeeded by his young son Theodosius II who later grew up to be a more competent ruler who ruled for a full 42 years (408-450), and in his long reign he was able to achieve a lot as a peace loving palace scholar emperor and his achievements included the construction of Constantinople’s massive land walls named after him even though he did not really have much of a part in building it, but in his reign he also compiled a code of laws for the empire, established universities, and oversaw a major Church Council.

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Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450)

It was also in Theodosius II’s reign when Atilla was expanding his empire but wanting to get away from any major conflict, Theodosius II agreed to pay heavy tribute to Atilla annually, which however only made Atilla’s army stronger that despite their agreement, Atilla still invaded Eastern Roman territory but turned away when failing to besiege Constantinople‘s walls which already proved to be an effective defense system for the Byzantine capital. Theodosius II’s long rule came to an end when he died from a horse-riding accident in 450 and having no sons, he was succeeded by the general Marcian who married Theodosius II’s sister Pulcheria and as emperor, Marcian oversaw the major Church Council of Chalcedon in 451 and when dealing with the major threat of Atilla, he unlike Theodosius responded to it with force by sending armies to invade Atilla’s base in Central Europe itself which then contributed to Atilla’s downfall in 453. After Marcian’s death in 457, he was succeeded by Leo I the Thracian who being only a common soldier was appointed as emperor by Aspar, the powerful barbarian general serving the eastern empire who happened to be the actual power behind Marcian and Theodosius II before him. The story of the 5th century for the eastern empire then gets more exciting during Leo I’s reign (457-474) as Leo was someone who may have seemed unambitious and useless as an emperor being only a commoner by origin but as his rule progressed, he actually turned out to be ambitious yet ruthless with a strong desire to be independent that in 468 he launched a major invasion of the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa itself by sending 1,000 ships to punish the Vandals for sacking Rome in 455, though at the end this invasion failed but Leo I still succeeded in making himself an independent ruler with his own dynasty by killing off his power hungry puppet master Aspar in 471. Leo I was later succeeded by his son-in-law and general Zeno after Leo’s death in 474 and for me Zeno is one of the most interesting emperors of Byzantium and he is one of the reasons too why the 5th century makes 2nd place in this list.

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Zeno the Isaurian, Byzantine emperor (r. 474-475/ 476-491), art by myself

As for Zeno, he was originally an outsider as he was an Isaurian chief named Tarasis Kodisa coming from the people of the mountains of Asia Minor that the people of Constantinople saw as primitive and uncivilized and basically because of his origins, Zeno was not accepted by his people that his rule was challenged countless times by ambitious generals that one time between 475 and 476, Zeno was in fact completely overthrown by Leo I’s brother-in-law Basiliscus who Zeno later overthrew himself. In addition, Zeno was also the Eastern Roman emperor in 476, the year the Western Roman Empire was abolished, therefore Zeno became the first emperor to rule the Eastern Roman Empire as the sole Roman Empire and throughout his reign, his position and that of the empire was left very challenged both internally and externally and the biggest threat here happened to be the Ostrogoth Kingdom of the ambitious king Theodoric the Great, although Zeno succeeded in overcoming Theodoric by turning him away from Byzantium and instead having him invade Italy. Zeno at the end at least managed to die in 491 peacefully without being ousted from power again but more importantly he left the eastern empire more stable than how he had founded it, although Zeno with his wife Ariadne had no children so after Zeno’s death Ariadne married the finance minister Anastasius I who as the next emperor was even far more successful especially in the managing the economy. Now, I would put the 5th century as my 2nd place in this list not only for the Eastern Roman Empire’s story but for the combined stories of both Eastern and Western Roman empires as one, as the 5th century was crucial for both and even though the earlier part of the century for the Byzantines is not as interesting for me, the story of their twin western empire was and following the fall of the western empire in 476, it is the story of the east that becomes more exciting, therefore to sum it up this entire century was basically eventful and action-packed, although not the same way the 10th century was in terms of being totally action-packed every step of the way.

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Mosaics of the Galla Placidia Mausoleum in Ravenna, made in the 5th century

For both east and west, the 5th century saw so many memorable events of all kinds take place such as wars, religious debates and Church Councils, interesting emperors, bizarre stories such as men living above columns known as the Stylites, and cultural innovations including lavish construction projects in Constantinople from colorful mosaics to massive city walls. The more important part of the 5th century however was the drastic change of geography of the old Roman Empire into the several barbarian kingdoms of the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Suebi, Vandals, and more, therefore this century being the transition of the Roman era into the Dark Ages for the west leaving Byzantium as the only Roman power left alive is a very crucial point in world history and thus because of how dramatic things had changed in this century, I consider it my 2nd favorite one out of the 12 centuries of Byzantium’s existence.  

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The 5th century land walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Land Walls), art by myself
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King Gaiseric and his Vandal army sack Rome, 455
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The world map after 476 with the Byzantine Empire (red) as the surviving Roman Empire

To learn more about Byzantium in the 5th century, read Chapter II of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

3. The 6th Century           

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Detailed map of the Byzantine Empire at its fullest extent under Justinian in 555 (gold)

If there was one century that everyone will come across when hearing about the Byzantine Empire which always features on general history books when briefly discussing Byzantium, this is the 6th century and this is because of no other than the reign of Byzantium’s most influential emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565) that took place here. The 6th century was then the first full century of the Byzantine Empire being the sole Roman Empire as previously mentioned, the Western Roman Empire came to an end in the previous 5th century, but it also happened that in the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire recovered the lands that were once part of the western empire although instead of restoring the old western empire, these lands came under the rule of the eastern empire from Constantinople.

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Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565)

Now, I would say that no doubt the 6th century is a very fascinating part of Byzantine history especially considering that the reign of Justinian I when all the century’s highlights took place was a long one lasting for a full 37 years. It is basically the reign of Justinian I (originally Flavius Petrus Sabbatius) that puts the 6th century in the top 3 of my list, as in his reign, almost every step of the way had a story to tell from the massive Nika riot in Constantinople that almost overthrew him in 532 which then had to be dealt with such brutality, to ambitious construction projects in Constantinople, loads of reforms, the devastating plague of 542 that wiped out so much of the empire’s including Constantinople’s population wherein Justinian himself was a victim of it but still survived, and so much more. In his reign, Justinian I had two major legacies that still live on up to this day and this includes his Code of Laws or Corpus Juris Civilis that still serves as the basis of most countries’ legal systems up to this day and the other one being no other than the impressive Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople with its massive dome which did in fact only take 5 years (532-537) to build its structure, yet it is still intact up to this day. Another great legacy of Justinian I were his ambitious military campaigns to reconquer the lands that were once part of the Western Roman Empire in order to bring them back to Roman rule and in his reign, Justinian I managed to reconquer all the entire Vandal Kingdom of North Africa, all of Italy from the Ostrogoth Kingdom, and Southern Spain from the Visigoths, and the even more fascinating thing about this was that first Justinian conquered by intervening in their political struggles and that Justinian himself did not have to go himself to any of these campaigns but just stay in the palace. Other than his conquests, Justinian I was also known to have had made contact with parts of the world very distant to the Roman sphere of influence such as Sub-Saharan Africa wherein he had sent Christian missionaries to and China wherein he sent monks to learn the secret of silk making which resulted in the monks smuggling silkworms from China leading to the creation of silks in Byzantium itself.

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Court of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora

Another thing that made Justinian I’s reign very eventful were the people behind his rule which included his wife Empress Theodora, the finance minister John the Cappadocian who managed to make the empire’s economy a strong and wealthy one, the jurist Tribonian who was responsible for codifying Roman law of the past thus creating the famous code of laws, the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus who were responsible for the building of great structures like the Hagia Sophia, the historian Procopius who gives us a very detailed source of this time, and the generals Belisarius and Narses who were responsible for expanding the empire through war in the years-long conquests of North Africa and Italy. By the time Justinian I died in 565, the Byzantine Empire was a very massive one basically covering the entire Mediterranean stretching west to east from Southern Spain all the way to Syria and north to south from the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine all the way down to Egypt, but with all the wars and plague that had brought too much damage by killing off a large number of people and severely weakening the economy, this massive empire would soon enough prove to be too difficult to manage considering how large it was, therefore making it exposed to future invaders as well.

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Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium and Shah Khosrow I of the Sassanid Empire, by Justinianus

Another thing that makes Justinian’s reign more action-packed therefore putting more story into the 6th century was Byzantium’s chronic war with its traditional enemy in the east which was the Sassanid Persian Empire which during Justinian’s reign was ruled by Shah Khosrow I, an equally ambitious ruler who despite being paid off by Justinian to not attack in order for the Byzantines to focus on their conquests in the west still attacked Byzantine borders from time to time. On the other hand, the 6th century had a lot more than just Justinian I’s reign and these were the events before and after his long reign, although I would say it is only Justinian I’s reign that makes the 6th century a very interesting one for me as the events before and after it were still dramatic ones but do not fascinate me much.

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Anastasius I Dicorus, Byzantine emperor (r. 491-518), art by Amelianvs

Anyway, the events that had taken place before Justinian I came to power in 527 were not as exciting but very important especially in setting the stage for Justinian’s epic projects to expand the empire as first of all, the emperor who ruled at the beginning of the century which was Anastasius I- the successor of Zeno- was responsible for strengthening and enriching the economy with his smart economic policies which later made Justinian’s ambitious projects possible, and though Anastasius I’s empire was already threatened by the Sassanids in the east, the Byzantines were still able to successfully fight them. Anastasius I died in 518 at the age of 87 leaving the empire’s economy strong and rich, but the problem was that he did not have a clear succession plan by having no sons, so instead he was succeeded by the commander of the palace guard Justin I who was Justinian’s uncle and even though Justin I as emperor coming from humble origins was illiterate, he was able to still rule well especially in protecting the Orthodox faith of the empire, therefore gaining the support of the pope in Rome, although behind Justin I’s power was really his nephew Justinian who in 527 succeeded his uncle following his death. On the other hand, the latter part of the 6th century following Justinian I’s death in 565 was for me more or less disappointing especially to see how all the hard work of Justinian to expand his empire disappeared when new barbarian invaders came in such as the Lombards who in 568 just 3 years after Justinian’s death invaded Italy making their own kingdom only just a few years after the Byzantine reconquest of it from the Ostrogoths was completed, while in the Balkans new invaders such as the Slavs and Avars appeared, and in the east the war against the traditional enemy the Sassanid Empire under Shah Khosrow I intensified.

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Imperial court of the mentally insane Justin II (seated) with Empress Sophia (left) and Tiberius II as Caesar (right), by Amelianvs

The more disappointing part however after Justinian I’s death was that his successors were not as capable as he was, and this included his nephew and immediate successor Justin II who without a clear solution but also having a weakened economy decided to stop paying tribute to the empire’s neighbors including the Sassanids which then made things only worse as seen when the Byzantines started losing a lot of lands to them. The mistake at the latter part of the 6th century however happened to be that the empire left behind by Justinian I was so large and defending so many borders proved to be so difficult that Justin II ended up turning insane that in 574 he had to abdicate passing the throne to his palace guard commander who then became Emperor Tiberius II who however proved to be a much more capable emperor than Justin II before him. Although Tiberius II was a competent emperor, he still could not solve all the empire’s problems at the same time so while he was busy continuing the war against the Sassanids in the east, the Balkans were left exposed therefore allowing the Avars and their Slav allies to invade it, while at the same time he too lacked enthusiasm in ruling.

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Maurice, Byzantine emperor (r. 582-602)

After his death in 582, Tiberius II was succeeded by his general and son-in-law Maurice who was a far more competent emperor than his two predecessors, and as emperor Maurice set a new standard for emperors to personally lead the army in battle himself, therefore he spent most of his reign campaigning against the Sassanids in the east and against the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans. Although he was a capable general, Maurice was weak in economic policy but at least he still managed to solve the problem of having provinces very distant from Constantinople which were Italy and North Africa in which he made them semi-independent provinces known as Exarchates where their own rulers somewhat ruled independently except still answering to the emperor in Constantinople. Now, what I would say makes the 6th century a very fascinating one is that it had a lot of exciting moments especially in warfare as the Byzantines at this time were fighting a variety of enemies from the powerful organized armies of the Sassanids, to the barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe, and even the nomadic people of the steppes such as the Avars, Huns, and Bulgars while at the same time they also made contact with distant lands like China, and it was also a century of great cultural innovations especially seen with the ambitious projects of the Hagia Sophia and a lot of structures around the empire including the mosaics of Ravenna in Italy. Although the 6th century had a lot of moments that I find very exciting and dramatic, not all of it was, as this century also had a lot to do with religious controversies especially between the Orthodox, Arian, and Monophysite faiths and a lot about economics as well which I don’t find very fascinating, but overall the 6th century was still one with so much happening and drama which is why I consider it as my 3rd favorite.

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World Map, 555AD, Byzantium under Justinian I (purple)
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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I with his generals Belisarius and Narses, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
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The Hagia Sophia, built under Justinian I
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Massacre of the 30,000 at the Hippodrome ending the Nika Riot, 532
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The Plague of Justinian hits Constantinople, 542
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The Byzantine Empire in 600 (green) and Sassanid Empire (orange)

To learn more about Byzantium in the 6th century, read Chapter III of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

4. The 13th Century          

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Map of the aftermath of the Byzantine Empire after its fall to the 4th Crusade in 1204

Despite the 13th century being the century wherein the Byzantine Empire disappeared for half of it (1204-1261), I still count it as one of my favorites for a number of reasons. The 13th century was one of if not the most turbulent time for the empire and also the beginning of its end as when the century began, the terrible 4th Crusade that was aimed at the Byzantine Empire was launched which in 1204 managed to capture Constantinople itself, thus temporarily ending Byzantine rule establishing the new Latin Empire with Constantinople as its capital.

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Seal of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261)

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Latin (Western European) army of the 4th Crusade, the geography of what was once the Byzantine Empire totally changed as Constantinople and it surroundings fell under the Latin Empire, Greece fell under various Latin nobles from the west, Crete and a number of islands to the rule of the Republic of Venice, while the Byzantine people as well divided themselves once their capital fell thus creating their own separate states including the Despotate of Epirus in Western Greece, the Empire of Nicaea in Western Asia Minor, and the Empire of Trebizond along the Black Sea coast in the far eastern corner of Asia Minor. Among the 3 successor Byzantine states which were the Empires of Nicaea and Trebizond, as well as the Despotate of Epirus, it was the Empire of Nicaea that was the most successful of them, therefore it remained as the legitimate successor state of the Byzantine Empire, so basically the story of Byzantium for half of the 13th century was the story of the successor state of the Empire of Nicaea. What I find very fascinating about the 57-year period of the Byzantine Empire in exile as the Empire of Nicaea in the 13th century was that despite them being so fatally defeated that they even lost their capital to the Crusaders, the Byzantines still had it in them to rise up again and one day direct their attention to reclaim their capital. Even in its earliest days, the Empire of Nicaea under its first ruler Theodore I Laskaris from 1205 to his death in 1221 already came up with a clear plan to put the pieces back together and form a state strong enough to one day make an attempt to reclaim the old capital and doing this required a lot of hard work, alliances, and good timing.

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Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea/ Byzantium (r. 1222-1254)

The real success for the empire of Nicaea however came during the reign of John III Doukas Vatatzes (1222-1254), Theodore I’s successor and son-in-law and as the emperor of Nicaea, John III was able to make the exiled Byzantium as powerful as it was when the Byzantines still held Constantinople by turning the tide of war against Byzantium’s Latin occupiers as true enough the Latin Empire of Constantinople had turned out to be a failed state, also John III gave his people a time of peace and economic growth. John III in fact almost succeeded in recapturing Constantinople in 1235 with assistance from the 2nd Bulgarian Empire’s tsar Ivan Asen II but failed in doing so when mistrust erupted between them but also when seeing that they had no way to break into the walls. The rest of John III’s military campaigns were mostly successful especially against the rival Byzantine power of the Despotate of Epirus that he was able to successfully reclaim the city of Thessaloniki from them, but other than military campaigns John III invested heavily in promoting Greek culture in the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea that his reign would begin what would be the Greek cultural revival of Byzantium as well as the birth of the medieval Greek identity. Though John III ruled somewhat with an iron fist, he was also a well-loved ruler and that when he died in 1254, he was mourned by almost all his subjects, though the sad part about his death was that he was not able to live long enough to see Constantinople back in Byzantine hands. John III’s son and successor Theodore II Laskaris however only ruled for 4 years (1254-1258) and was not as successful as his father, while also did not prioritize the reconquest of Constantinople, although after his sudden death in 1258 the Empire of Nicaea was taken over by the ambitious noble and Theodore II’s greatest rival Michael Palaiologos who made his message clear to everyone which was to take back Constantinople from the Latins. The Empire of Nicaea’s army was then able to successfully recover Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 by surprise when attacking at the dead night, but to their surprise, most of the Latin army was away, therefore the Latin Empire came to an end and the Byzantine Empire was restored as Constantinople was recaptured. Now, again what makes the 13th century a fascinating one for me were the stories of the two strong emperors that dominated this century which were John III Vatatzes who ruled the exiled Empire of Nicaea for a full 32 years and Michael VIII Palaiologos who finally managed to recapture Constantinople in 1261 and restore the Byzantine Empire after 57 years of disappearance, and what both rulers had in common was that they persisted and made Byzantium persist despite the challenging times.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1261-1282), painting by myself

As for Michael VIII, despite restoring the Byzantine Empire, he faced so many difficulties immediately after taking back Constantinople. In Michael VIII’s 21-year reign (1261-1282), the restored Byzantium was threatened on all sides by various enemies including the Turks and Mongols, as well as the still surviving Latin powers in Greece established back in 1204 following the 4th Crusade and the rival Despotate of Epirus too that still continued to pose a threat to them even if the Empire of Nicaea became the Byzantine Empire again, although the most dangerous threat to Michael VIII’s restored empire was the new ambitious French king of Sicily Charles of Anjou who took over Sicily in 1266 and from there made it his goal to launch another invasion on Byzantium with the ultimate goal to take Constantinople back from the Latins. Now what makes Michael VIII an interesting character was that he was someone that would do all it took to save his empire especially through diplomacy even if there were dirty tactics involved such as turning against his allies and paying off people to rise up in rebellion known as the “Sicilian Vespers” which was in fact how he managed to get the ultimate threat of Charles of Anjou away from him as before Michael’s death in 1282, he paid off the people of Sicily to rebel against their French overlord Charles of Anjou which then succeeded in overthrowing the French overlords who were replaced by the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, an ally of Michael VIII. On the other hand, Michael VIII’s may have ruled with an iron fist too much with very rash decisions such as his attempts to submit Byzantium to the pope in order to be allies with the rest of Western Europe, although this created such unrest among his proud Orthodox subjects which caused Michael to lose so much of his popularity.

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Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium

Michael VIII however responded with such brutality to all those that opposed his policy to reunite the Byzantine Church with the Latin Catholic Church that he imprisoned and even executed many of his subjects for opposing it, but at the end his intentions were still good which was to save his empire even if this would mean taking the greatest of risks such as submitting to the more powerful Latin Church despite great opposition by his people as he believed that it would be only by joining forces with their enemy being the western world that Byzantium could be saved. Basically for me, it is just John III’s and Michael VIII’s reigns that I find fascinating about the 13th century and the rest not so, though for me, the last years of the 13th century happen to be nothing more but disappointing as Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos who ruled in the last years of the 13th century was a nothing much but a weak and incompetent emperor, although Michael VIII was in fact also to blame for leaving behind to his son such a troubled and bankrupt Byzantium, as in his reign Michael VIII had spent so much on war and bribing other powers to not attack while also by putting too much attention on the west and the Balkans, he neglected Byzantium’s borders in their heartland which was Asia Minor, therefore by the time Andronikos II came to power, he would have to face the consequences of his father’s decisions and over-spending. On the other hand, the 13th century was one of the periods in Byzantine history that I put a lot of attention to that I in fact made two major Lego films set in this era focusing on important events of the century and these films include Summer of 1261 (2019) focusing on the Byzantine reconquest of 1261 and War of the Sicilian Vespers (2020) focusing on the conflict in Sicily which the Byzantines assisted the Sicilians in overthrowing their French overlords in 1282.     

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Constantinople falls to the 4th Crusade, 1204
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Byzantine Reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, art by FaisalHashemi
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Map of the restored Byzantine Empire in 1261 (yellow)
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Rebellion of the Sicilian Vespers, 1282

5. The 11th Century              

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The Byzantine Empire at Basil II’s death in 1025 (white) with new annexed territories by 1055 (red)

The 11th century was no doubt one of the most action-packed centuries in Byzantine Empire which saw it be at its height of power when the century began then all of a sudden drastically fall from it, therefore the Crisis of the 11th Century comes in, although this century again ends with Byzantium strong again, therefore the 11th century is the one century which shows the usual pattern of Byzantium going up then down then up again in terms of power and influence.

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Emperor Basil II the “Bulgar-Slayer” (r. 976-1025)

The 11th century began with the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty as the dominant power of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean in the Middle Ages and following the ultimate Byzantine conquest of the Bulgarian Empire in 1018, Byzantium and its army was feared by all that no one would dare attack Byzantium or else suffer the same fate as Bulgaria. The period of great power and influence Byzantium had held over the world however did not last long as after Basil II’s death in 1025 it would be all downhill from here despite Byzantium still being a massive empire that covered the entire Balkans going east all the way to Armenia while in the west still keeping most of Southern Italy. The downfall of Byzantium following Basil II’s death in 1025 was also due to how large the empire stretched making it already impossible to maintain a large enough army to defend all its borders although things still would have been better even if Byzantium held a large amount of territory if they had better leaders in the 11th century, but unfortunately the Byzantines did not. Most of the emperors that succeeded Basil II were weak rulers that tolerated having a corrupt court run by scheming eunuchs while a number of ambitious generals from powerful military aristocratic families many times rebelled and tried to claim the throne. Now while corruption reigned in mid-11th century Byzantium and so did economic problems that for the first time in their 700 years of history their standard gold coin or the Solidus was devalued, new and unexpected enemies came into contact with the Byzantines and these included the Normans in Italy which were just mercenaries that the Byzantines happened to underestimate as true enough it turned out they were there in Italy to stay and conquer it while in the east, a new power arose which the Byzantines never saw coming and this was the empire of the Seljuk Turks who the Byzantines first battled with in 1048 although still defeating the Seljuks.

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Seljuk Turks ride from the steppes into Asia Minor

In 1056, the long-ruling Macedonian Dynasty came to an end with the death of the last Macedonian ruler Theodora, the niece of Basil II and what followed her death was some political instability until 1057 when the strongman emperor Isaac I Komnenos came to rule the empire promising to return it to its military glory in the time of Basil II, although Isaac I’s reign ended too soon as he abdicated in 1059 due to illness leaving the throne to an unworthy successor which was Constantine X Doukas who made the worst decision ever in disbanding the eastern army to save up on funds right when the Seljuks were threatening Byzantium’s eastern borders. After Constantine X’s death in 1067, his wife Empress Eudokia married the capable general Romanos Diogenes who in 1068 became Emperor Romanos IV right when the Seljuks made constant riads into the Byzantine heartland which was Asia Minor without orders from their leader the sultan Alp Arslan. In 1071, Romanos IV tired of the Seljuks raiding the empire declared war on them even if their sultan Alp Arslan’s intention was never to really fully invade Byzantium but just take a part of it in order to gain access to conquer his ultimate goal which was Egypt.

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Defeat and capture of Romanos IV by the Seljuks, 1071

The forces of Romanos IV and Alp Arslan clashed at the fatal Battle of Manzikert in 1071 in which Romanos IV was defeated and captured although spared but when returning to Constantinople, he was betrayed as the imperial court declared him deposed therefore replacing him with his stepson Michael VII Doukas. Romanos IV was then blinded in 1072 dying shortly after although the next emperor Michael VII proved to be a very incompetent one, and due to his weak leadership, a number of ambitious generals rose up to claim the throne and with all this chaos, Norman mercenaries turned warlords created their own states in Byzantine Asia Minor itself while the Seljuks due to their victory at Manzikert freely raided and occupied lands in Byzantine Asia Minor. Michael VII eventually abdicated in 1078 and was replaced by Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates who was in fact much worse as due to his old age, he could not really do anything to save the empire from deteriorating that almost all of Asia Minor already fell under Seljuk rule, though in 1081 Nikephoros III was ousted from power by the much young and ambitious general Alexios Komnenos, nephew of the previous emperor Isaac I, and as emperor Alexios I promised to restore the empire to its greatness once more.

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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

Alexios I began his reign fighting off a Norman invasion finally defeating it by 1085, then in 1091 he defeated a massive Pecheneg invasion. The 11th century ends with Alexios I calling for military assistance from Western Europe to help him reclaim Asia Minor from the Seljuks, but in return he got the First Crusade which was never really loyal to him, though at the end despite the Crusaders claiming for themselves lands in the Middle East, they at least pushed back the Seljuks relieving Alexios I and Byzantium from its ultimate extinction. Now, I would say that the 11th century featured so many events that were not only crucial for Byzantium but for world history in general such as the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria in 1018 and the significant defeat the Byzantine army faced at Manzikert which then turns out to be the most significant turning point of this century, as this defeat exposed that the once feared and all-powerful Byzantine army was in fact vulnerable, but this defeat that also led to the Seljuk occupation of Asia Minor more importantly led to the Crusades to become a thing which would be the major story for the next 2 centuries in world history. It is because this century had such crucial events such as the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the Great Schism before that in 1054 which finally separated Byzantium from the west culturally and spiritually that I find this century very fascinating, but also because it featured a lot of epic battles and the famous Varangian Guard consisting of Nordic mercenaries serving in Byzantium protecting its emperor. On the other hand, unlike the 10th century that preceded it, the 11th century was not all action-packed and memorable every step of the way, but instead had a number of exciting yet suspenseful moments such as of course Manzikert and a lot of other battles before it but it also had its share of disappointing moments especially its repetitive cycle of having one incompetent emperor after the other wherein one able emperor comes in between them but does not stay too long, while this century also featured a lot of economics and religious struggles again which makes it have some not so interesting parts for me. The 11th century however was one of the few centuries in Byzantine history that was action-packed from beginning to end despite a few dull and disappointing moments in between, which why I still consider it one of the more purely fascinating ones in Byzantine history but still not one of my plainly most fascinating ones.

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Empresses Zoe (left) and Theodora (right) in the palace, art by Eldr-Fire
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Painting of the fateful Battle of Manzikert between the Byzantines and Seljuks, 1071
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Map of the expansion of the Seljuk Turks and their empire (yellow), in the 11th century
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The First Crusade, 1095-1099
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Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, art by Diogos_tales

To learn more about Byzantium in the 11th century, read Chapter VIII of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

 

6. The 4th Century               

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Map of the Roman Empire under Constantine I, 330

The 4th century is considered to be the first century in the history of Byzantium as this was when Constantinople was founded as the Roman Empire’s new capital by the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great, however the real history of the Eastern Roman Empire being the Byzantine Empire only begins in 395 where the 4th century ends, therefore the rest of the 4th century more or less is just the introduction period to the actual main body of Byzantine history that fully begins in the 5th century following it. Although since the 4th century still counts as part of Byzantine history basically because this was when Constantinople was founded and had become the new capital of the Roman Empire, I am putting it on this list. Now the 4th century as I would say was more or less a very eventful one filled with exciting, action-packed, and even dramatic moments which then makes it for me a very fascinating one, although I am only placing it on #6 of this list because as I mentioned earlier it is not really part of the main history of Byzantium and therefore still more or less part of the history of the original Roman Empire before Byzantium, but also because for some reason the history of the 4th century has many gaps as it is only the important events here that are mostly recorded, therefore I cannot appreciate it as much as the other centuries. From beginning to end, the 4th century had a lot of significant moments as when the century began, the Roman Empire was still under the experiment known as the Tetrarchy with 4 divided parts ruled by 4 different emperors which seemed to do well until 305 when this system’s founder Emperor Diocletian retired, therefore creating chaos leading into civil war as a result of the other rulers of this system wanting more land and power.

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Roman emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337), founder of Constantinople

The empire was then thrown into chaos until one of the rulers of the Tetrarchy which was the western emperor Constantine I defeated all his rivals over the span of 18 years (306-324), and by 324 after fighting an on-and-off civil war against all his imperial rivals in the western and eastern portions of the empire, he became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire deciding to turn the backwater port town of Byzantium along the Bosporus Sea between Asia and Europe as the Roman Empire’s new capital seeing it as a strategic location, and in only 6 years the small port town was transformed into an imperial capital which was inaugurated in 330. Constantine I known as “the Great” of course had made a lot more of achievements than founding Constantinople and therefore the Byzantine Empire and restructuring the Roman army, and a lot of his major achievements had to do with making Christianity the dominant but not official religion of the Roman Empire as in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan that finally gave toleration to Christians after centuries of persecution, then in 325 Constantine I organized the First Church Council at Nicaea that formally set the official doctrine for Christianity and condemned the teachings of Arianism as heresy, though it was only shortly before his death 337 that Constantine I was baptized as a Christian.

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Council of Nicaea, 325

Although Constantine I ruled the entire Roman Empire alone, after his death the empire was divided among his 3 sons that were basically all at odds with each other and at the end, only the middle son Constantius II ruling from Constantinople survived his two brothers therefore ruling the whole empire alone until his death in 361 and without any son to succeed him, Constantius II passed the throne to his younger cousin Julian despite not trusting him. Julian’s 2-year reign (361-363) was one of the most interesting moments of the 4th century as he was the last Roman emperor willing to return to the glory days of Ancient Pagan Rome that he in fact was a Pagan himself although he did not rule long enough to achieve his goal to return the empire to its glory days of the past as in 363, he was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persian Empire while campaigning in the Sassanid heartland itself.

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Emperor Julian (r. 361-363), art by Amelianvs

The Roman army however survived and returned to empire and in 364, a new emperor came to power establishing a new dynasty which was the soldier Valentinian I who when coming to power split the empire in half with him ruling the western half and his younger brother Valens ruling the eastern half from Constantinople. Valentinian I the Great ruled successfully managing to defeat a number of barbarian tribes invading the western half but in 375 he died from a burst blood vessel caused by his own anger while failing to negotiate with barbarian tribal leaders at the empire’s Danube border. Meanwhile, the eastern half of the Roman Empire ruled by Valens, a sudden massive migration of barbarian Goths poured into the eastern half’s Danube border in 376 which later proved to be too uncontrollable by Roman authorities in the Balkans leading to war against the Goths resulting in the Roman army defeated by the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 wherein Valens himself was killed. The death of Valens and the victory of the Goths put the eastern half of the empire into chaos without any emperor sitting in Constantinople until the next year came when the general Theodosius came to power as the Eastern Roman emperor and in his reign, he focused on containing the pillaging Goths which he succeeded in except that he was only able to take care of the problem only by allowing the Goths to settle within the empire as Foederati or defeated soldiers forced to serve their conquerors in exchange for being kept alive.

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Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395)

As emperor, Theodosius I known as “the Great” being a devout Christian prioritized making Christianity the empire’s dominant religion and true enough in 380 he declared Nicene Christianity which was established back in 325 as the official religion of the Roman Empire and began persecuting those who opposed it. Theodosius I too had dealt with two large civil wars in his reign in which he managed to defeat both and after defeating the second one in 394, he became once more the sole ruler of the whole Roman empire except only for a few months as in early 395 he died permanently dividing the empire in half leaving his older son Arcadius to rule the eastern half which was the Byzantine Empire and the younger son Honorius to rule the western half. Now, the 4th century more or less was full of exciting and memorable moments in different fields especially in warfare as it featured important and climactic battles whether in Roman civil wars such as the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 and Frigidus in 394 or in battles against barbarians such as Strasbourg in 357 and Adrianople in 378 while at the same time, it was a very crucial period especially for the history of Christianity as this was when it first became both a dominant faith and an official state religion. Although, the 4th century had a lot of important and exciting moments, it was only known for major moments and nothing much in between which is why I place it as #6 on this list which is in fact not very low, but even though this century may just be one notable for important events, it was still a very crucial one in world history as it saw the transition of what was Classical Ancient Rome into the Byzantine era as well as the era of Christendom, therefore I would say that this century would be most fascinating to Roman history enthusiasts, especially if they want to be introduced to Ancient Rome’s continuation which is Byzantium.

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Constantinople, Eastern Roman Imperial capital, founded in 330
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Constantine I civil war victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, 312
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The Roman Empire divided among Constantine I’s sons Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II following Constantine I’s death, 337
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Emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375, center) with his Palatini legions, art by Amelianvs
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Defeat of the Romans to the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople, 378
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The Roman Empire divided between east (purple) given to Arcadius and west (red) given to Honorius at Theodosius I’s death in 395
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Map of all Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire, 100-500AD

To learn more about Byzantium in the 4th century, read Chapter I of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

7. The 12th Century         

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Map of the Byzantine Empire (red) during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180)

The 12th century is often remembered as the century of the Crusades wherein Byzantium did in fact play a major role in it, as true enough before the century began the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested military aid from Western Europe to help him drive away the Seljuk Turk occupiers from the Byzantine heartland Asia Minor but in return what he got was the First Crusade.

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Coat of Arms of Byzantium under the Komnenos Dynasty

The Crusader army that came to aid Byzantium may have not kept their word in returning the lands they conquered to Byzantium and instead claimed these lands as their own but in return the Byzantines simply allow this to pass, therefore the 12th century was another period of Byzantium’s revival while also a challenging time as the empire had to battle different enemies on sides such as the Crusaders, Seljuks, Normans, and Hungarians. Most of the 12th century was then defined by what was the “Komnenian Restoration” which was a period of the Byzantine Empire’s revival in military and cultural power after it had lost most of it in the previous century due to the 11th century crisis and the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071, and most of the efforts to restore the empire to the old glory it had during the late 10th century and early 11th century were due to the reigns of 3 consecutive long-reigning strong visionary emperors in a straight line of succession which were Alexios I (1081-1118), his son John II (1118-1143), and his son Manuel I (1143-1180). These 3 Komnenos emperors may have had a strong vision to restore the empire, although their policies to revive the empire’s glory were a bit too ambitious, required so much funds, but also involved bullying other nations to submit to the authority of Byzantium as was seen with the new Crusader states in which these emperors demanded a lot from them including forcing them to pay tribute and to recognize Byzantium as their overlords, while the same thing too can be said to how the Komnenos emperors acted towards the Kingdom of Hungary. In the Byzantine Empire itself, the 3 long-reigning Komnenos emperors did in fact do a lot to restore the invincible power of the Byzantine army, strengthen the economy, and reclaim most of Asia Minor which was in the previous century lost to the Seljuks.

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Emperor John II Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1118-1143)

Alexios I’s son and successor John II mostly spent his 25-year reign away from the capital in military campaigns against Hungary in the Balkans and the Seljuks in Asia Minor, although his reign also saw the new age of revival for the empire take shape. John II’s son Manuel I meanwhile did the same ambitious projects as his father and grandfather did before him, except that he was far more ambitious that his constant wars throughout his 37-year reign drained the empire’s funds. Manuel I just like Justinian I in the 6th century put all his attention to restoring the empire and again reconquering the west which they have lost which in his reign was seen with his attempt to reconquer Italy which however failed.

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Emperor Manuel I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1143-1180)

Manuel I’s over ambitious campaigns and spending would also later on cause the downfall of the empire and therefore the end of the Komnenian restoration and part of the reasons that caused the downfall of his dynasty and of the empire was his decision to have war with their ally Venice which then only made Byzantium and Venice bitter enemies for the next centuries to come, while at the same time Manuel I was also too fascinated with the culture of Western Europe that he even tried introducing it to Byzantine society which at the end did not work out well, therefore only causing division among his people. The most disappointing part however was that in 1176, the Byzantines again suffered a heavy defeat to the Seljuk army in Asia Minor therefore ending this age of restoration, thus Manuel I in 1180 died without seeing his dreams achieved but the worst part that was to come was that his son and successor Alexios II was only a child therefore under the regency of his mother Empress Maria of Antioch who was unpopular due to her western heritage that her regency caused internal conflict in the empire which resulted in the empress and her son the emperor overthrown and executed by Manuel I’s anti-western cousin who became Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos.

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Emperor Andronikos I Komnenos of Byzantium (r. 1183-1185), art by Skamandros

The new emperor Andronikos I turned out to be nothing but a bloody and paranoid ruler that just ruled out revenge executing, torturing, and exiling everyone who was associated with the previous regime of his cousin Manuel I who he hated, but at the end Andronikos I too had met a bloody end in 1185 being tortured to death by the people that put him in power 3 years earlier as they switched their support to his relative, the young charismatic politician Isaac Angelos who then became emperor following this revolution. The new emperor Isaac II Angelos however was not what his people expected as rather than being the strong ruler promising to save the empire from collapse, he was one ruler that again faced so many difficulties on all sides especially usurping generals that questioned his legitimacy as they too saw he was unfit.

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Emperor Isaac II Angelos of Byzantium (r. 1185-1195/ 1203-1204)

Isaac II however still had still managed to drive off a large Norman invasion of Byzantine Greece in 1185 but unfortunately this was only one of his few successes as the rest of his reign was filled with disaster and some of it caused by his own inept policies such as the Bulgarian uprising of 1185 that led to the breaking away of Bulgaria from Byzantium once again thus creating the 2nd Bulgarian Empire which was mostly due to Isaac II’s heavy taxation allegedly to pay for his lavish wedding ceremony while he too dealt with the arrival of the 3rd Crusade in Byzantium terribly by being skeptical about letting them through which at the end did not solve anything but instead only led to conflict with the Crusaders. Isaac II however at least knew he was responsible for creating such trouble including the Bulgarians’ declaration of independence that Isaac II in fact made many attempts to take back Bulgaria with force which however failed many times, but when finally launching a massive invasion to finally reclaim Bulgaria in 1195, Isaac II unfortunately did not succeed as he was overthrown and blinded by his jealous older brother who then became the next emperor Alexios III Angelos who proved to be even more incompetent than his brother, thus putting Byzantium down a path that will lead to its temporary collapse in 1204 when Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders. Now, I would say that the 12th century was in fact a very eventful and exciting one though I still do not consider it as one of my top picks as for me it is really a mixed century with equally fascinating but also equally disappointing moments. The part I find interesting and worth talking about for the 12th century is definitely the earlier part of it with the empire undergoing a time of restoration under the rules of the 3 ambitious and competent Komnenos emperors Alexios I, John II, and Manuel I, while the second half for me is nothing more but disappointing especially to see all the greatness of the empire fade away through a series of incompetent rulers including Andronikos I, Isaac II, and Alexios III. It is basically for the reason that this century that was supposed to be defined by the age of the restoration of Byzantium’s imperial glory ended so disappointingly why I don’t count this century as one of my favorites, but since it was one that had a lot of excitement including battles, political intrigues, and most importantly more significant contact made between Byzantium and the western world mostly because of the Crusades, this century is still something that fascinates me a lot when talking about the entire history of Byzantium in general.

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Byzantine defeat to the Seljuks at the Battle of Myriokephalon, 1176
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Isaac II Angelos’ rise to power, 1185

8. The 15th Century          

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Map of the reduced Byzantine Empire in 1450 (purple)

The 15th century being the last century of the Byzantine Empire’s existence is best defined by one event which was the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 with the epic siege of Constantinople, so basically the 15th century story of Byzantium was only half a century as in the second half of it, the Byzantine Empire was already gone. Now, I would say that the 15th century was very exciting and eventful in different parts of the world as by this point the kingdoms of Europe were already much more powerful than they were in the past centuries but for Byzantium it was the other way around as instead of the major power it was when the rest of Europe was still forming, Byzantium was now the one weak and reduced and by the time the 15th century began, Byzantium was basically just Constantinople and its surroundings as well as a few Aegean islands and the region of Southeast Greece known as the Morea.

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Flag of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century

In the region of where the Byzantine Empire was however, the main story was no longer Byzantium but the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe that already sent shockwaves to the kingdoms of Western Europe to fight them back considering that the Ottomans from being a small power just a century ago was able to defeat and conquer both Serbian and Bulgarian Empires. The reduced and dying Byzantine Empire meanwhile in the 15th century was just a backwater state entirely surrounded by the Ottomans that it was only going to be a matter of time that the capital Constantinople itself would be captured by the Ottomans therefore finishing off Byzantium for good.

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Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) with his family

Fortunately the last emperors that ruled Byzantium in the 15th century which were Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425) and his son John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448) were competent rulers that still managed to keep the Ottomans away and still keep their dying empire alive and a lot of their success in keeping Byzantium alive despite being surrounded by the Ottomans was through diplomacy and true enough both Manuel II and John VIII made several trips to Europe asking for financial aid and alliances from various rulers there. John VIII in 1448 however died without any sons to succeed him and so it was his younger brother that succeeded him as Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1449 who was then the last Byzantine emperor.

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Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), the last Byzantine emperor

In 1451, just 2 years after Constantine XI came to power, the young Mehmed II came to power as the Ottoman Empire’s sultan and he had the ultimate goal to begin his reign by conquering Constantinople to get it out of the way in order to push through with the complete Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. In 1453, Mehmed II thought of asking Constantine XI to simply surrender Constantinople to him without a fight so that the Ottomans could already take their ultimate prize in exchange for Constantine XI to be spared, but Constantine XI not wanting to shamefully surrender his city refused and so the Ottomans laid siege to Constantinople which lasted for 2 months. The Byzantines and their western allies defending the walls however fought bravely and resisted for 2 months strait but at the end they proved to be outnumbered and the Ottomans having more advanced weapons such as cannons were finally able to break through the 1,000-year-old walls of Constantinople for the first time and on May 29 of 1453, the last Byzantine emperor vanished in battle while the victorious Ottomans took over Constantinople making it their empire’s new capital, thus ending the 1,123-year history of Byzantium.

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Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captures Constantinople, 1453

On the other hand, Byzantine history did not yet fully end in 1453 as the other parts of the empire still under Byzantine hands resisted but in 1460 Mehmed II was able to capture the last Byzantine holding in Greece which was the Morea held by Constantine XI’s brothers and in 1461 Mehmed II too conquered the last remaining Byzantine break-away state which was the Empire of Trebizond founded back in 1204 in the eastern edge of Asia Minor along the Black Sea, thus this event in 1461 marked the final end of the Byzantine story. Now I would say that the 15th century was a very action-packed one with all the battles with the Ottomans but also a very tragic one considering it was the end of Byzantium and true enough the siege and fall of Constantinople was no doubt this century’s biggest story and one of my all-time favorite moments in Byzantine history as it showed the Byzantine Empire not ending quietly but with a bang. However, it is only the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 that I consider the only major highlight of the century while the rest of the events were not as memorable for me especially seeing how the Byzantine Empire grew to be so insignificant, therefore with nothing else but 1453 being its major highlight, I would not consider the 15th century or more specifically the last century of Byzantium as one of my top picks when ranking all 12 centuries in Byzantine history.

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1453, the final siege of Constantinople
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Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, May 29, 1453

9. The 9th Century           

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Byzantine Empire in the 2nd half of the 9th century (yellow)

If I there was one century in Byzantine history that may have had a lot of important as well as exciting moments but with equally dull and uninteresting moments, it is the 9th century. First of all, I would say the 9th century had a lot of important moments and highlights worth remembering and a lot of them involved Byzantium’s interactions with the rest of the world around them such as the proposed marriage between Byzantium’s empress Irene and the newly crowned Frankish emperor of the west Charlemagne in 802 which never happened, the crushing defeat the Byzantines suffered to their northern neighbor the Bulgarian Empire in 811 at the Battle of Pliska wherein the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I himself was killed in, the Bulgarian war that followed, the fall of Byzantine Crete and Sicily to the Arabs, continued wars against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, the first attacks of the Kievan Rus on Byzantium, and the beginnings of the Byzantine Renaissance as well as its cultural and military revival at the latter part of the century. The first half of the 9th century basically saw Byzantium at a low point still in its Dark Ages having to defend itself both against the Arabs in the east and the Bulgarians in the north while within the empire the controversy of Iconoclasm or the breaking of religious icons still lived on.

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Emperor Theophilos, Byzantine emperor (r. 829-842)

It is only as the 9th century progresses when the Byzantine story gets more interesting which is when Michael II becomes emperor in 820 after assassinating his predecessor Leo V thus founding the Amorian Dynasty, while in the reign of his son and successor Theophilos (829-842) the Byzantine cultural Renaissance was already taking shape and despite losing heavily to the invading Arabs in battle, Theophilos invested a lot of money into making Constantinople a cultural and educational center. Things then get even more action-packed in the latter part of the century under Theophilos’ son and successor Michael III (842-867) and even though he was ineffective as an emperor, a lot had happened in his rule such as the final end of the Iconoclast controversy in 843, the mission of St. Cyril and St. Methodius to convert the people of Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity which was organized by the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios I, the Kievan Rus’ first attack on Byzantine territory in 860, the conversion of Bulgaria to Orthodoxy, and the rise to power of the unlikely peasant and wrestler Basil the Macedonian who after becoming close to Michael III killed him in 867 and became the new emperor Basil I establishing the long-lived Macedonian Dynasty that survived until the 11th century.

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Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886)

The reign of Basil I (867-886) saw Byzantium once again rise up to become a strong military power as well as a cultural one, therefore laying the foundations for the actual Byzantine golden age in the following century. Now the reason why I am putting the 9th century far down on this list ranking the 12 centuries of Byzantium compared to the 10th century that followed it which is my personal best being #1 on this list is because the 9th century compared to the 10th that followed was definitely not action-packed every step of the way but it had a lot of exciting and memorable moments too. These memorable moments though that the 9th century had to offer mostly had to do with its relations with other powers such as the Bulgarians, Rus, Arabs, and the west and true enough a lot of important moments took place in this century that are worth telling regarded Byzantium’s foreign relations and these included the mission of St. Cyril and Methodius which has a more intriguing angle to it as their mission was not plainly one for spirituality but politics as this was a cold war situation wherein Byzantium competed against the Western Catholic Church to see who would convert the still Pagan people of Eastern Europe first, and at the end the Byzantines won it.

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Sts. Cyril (left) with the Cyrillic Alphabet and St. Methodius (right), Byzantine missionaries sent to convert the Slavs by Patriarch Photios

The battles against the Bulgarians were exciting moments as well as already at the beginning of the century Byzantium was already engaged in war with them while the century also ended with Byzantium again at war with Bulgaria in which Bulgaria was much more powerful under its greatest ruler Tsar Simeon, while also the conflicts between Byzantium and the Arabs had a lot more excitement here as it was in this century when the Byzantines first turned the tide of war against the Arabs to the offensive when for the first time the Byzantine army in the 860s did not just fight to defend its borders from Arab raiders but in fact raided deep into Arab territory. On the other hand, it is only in the external situation that makes the 9th century exciting for me as internally, the Byzantine story was not very much exciting as a lot of the stories here had to do with complicated court politics and religious issues, although the internal issues of this century only gets more exciting in the latter part of century such as Basil I’s rise to power and the questionable parentage of his son the future emperor Leo VI who came to power in 886 as it is still debated whether he is actually Basil I’s son or the previous emperor Michael III’s. For me, the 9th century had more not so exciting if not dull moments compared to its more exciting and dramatic moments which is why I do not consider it as one of my favorite centuries, but other than that I still find the 9th century a period that has a lot of interest for me as the 9th century set the stage for the Byzantine Renaissance including its military and cultural golden age that took place in the following century which is my all-time favorite of the 12 centuries in Byzantine history.

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Aftermath of the Battle of Pliska in 811, Khan Krum of Bulgaria uses Emperor Nikephoros I’s skull as his drinking cup
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Michael III (right, in blue) makes Basil the Macedonian (left, in red) his co-emperor, Madrid Skylitzes

To learn more about Byzantium in the 9th century, read Chapter VI of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

10. The 7th Century          

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The Byzantine Empire in 650 (orange) under Constans II

The 7th century was definitely a major turning point for the Byzantine Empire as this was the end of the old Roman era and the beginning of their Dark Ages, and a lot of this had to do with the final defeat of their traditional eastern enemy the Sassanid Persian Empire and the unexpected rise of a new power which were the Arabs that in such a quick amount of time took over the entire Middle East as well as half of the Byzantine Empire’s territory. The 7th century is often described as a dark time for Byzantium and was already dark right when this century began when in 602 the emperor Maurice was executed by the usurper Phocas thus ending the great Justinian Dynasty and the age of Antiquity in general and beginning what would be the Dark Ages. The execution of Maurice and Phocas seizing the throne led to war breaking out with the Sassanid Empire in the east as its ruler or shah Khosrow II was an ally of Maurice although he also had the ambition to invade Byzantium and using the execution of Maurice as an excuse, Khosrow II declared war on the Byzantines.

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Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), art by Skamandros

Phocas however was overthrown and executed by Heraclius in 610 who became the emperor and as emperor he turned all his attention to fighting off the Sassanids and finishing them off for good whereas the Sassanids too had gained the upper hand and invaded a large percent of Byzantine territory including Syria, Egypt, and even laying siege to Constantinople in 626 with the help of the Avars and Slavs who at the same time were also invading the Byzantine Balkans. Heraclius at the end managed to defeat the Sassanids in 628 and reclaim all Byzantine territories lost to them but despite his victory, a large percent of the army was destroyed and the imperial treasury emptied out from the war, therefore meaning that another war would mean the end of Byzantium. True enough, just right after the war with the Sassanids came to an end, just some years later a new unexpected power arose and expanded with such speed with nothing to stop it, and these were the Arabs in the form of their first empire which was the Rashidun Caliphate and their invincibility was already shown when defeating the Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 and defeating the Sassanids too that same year. Following the ultimate defeat of the weakened Byzantine army to the Arabs in 636, the Byzantines in the next few years lost all of their territories in the Middle East including the important cities of Antioch and Jerusalem, thus Heraclius died in 641 seeing everything he restored to the empire fall apart due to the Arab conquests.

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Emperor Constans II of Byzantium (r. 641-668), art by myself

Heraclius’ reign was followed by that of his grandson Constans II (641-668) who in his reign saw all of Egypt fully fall to the control of the Arabs as well as the first Arab naval attacks and raids deep into imperial territory in the east. Though coming to power only as a minor, Constans II would later on prove to be a decisive ruler that held the empire together in such a challenging time and he had also created the new Thematic System or Themes thus restructuring the old Byzantine provinces into smaller ones run by the army in order to strengthen its defenses against the constantly raiding Arabs. Constans II although saw that Constantinople was in a dangerous position as it was vulnerable to the naval attacks of the Arabs and so he decided that the capital should be moved to Syracuse in Sicily where he even set himself up from 663 to 668 thinking that if the east would fall, he could rebuild Byzantium in the west but his plans never came to happen as he was assassinated in his bath in Syracuse in 668. Following Constans II’s death, he was succeeded by his son Constantine IV who despite being still young was a successful ruler and from 674 to 678 successfully defended Constantinople from its first siege by the Arab armies with the use of the new superweapon of Greek Fire.

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Emperor Constantine IV (r. 668-685), son and successor of Constans II

It also happened in the late 7th century in 680 wherein the Bulgarians first appeared and settled in Byzantine lands forming their state and Constantine IV despite his success against the Arabs failed to contain the Bulgar raiders. Following Constantine IV’s death in 685 he was succeeded by his son Justinian II who although had the intention to revive the old glory of Byzantium and defeat all its enemies was too ambitious that his constant fighting off wars led to empire being further weakened while he too had a very oppressive ruling style which led to his downfall in 695 where he was overthrown by the senate, army, and people wherein his nose was cut off and therefore sent into exile afterwards. The 7th century then ended terribly for the Byzantines as the overthrow of Justinian II in 695 threw the empire into anarchy which would see a change of emperor 7 times in the course of 22 years and in this time, the Byzantines too suffered the great loss of losing their last territory in North Africa which was Carthage to the Arabs in 698.

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Emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695/ 705-711), art by Amelianvs

Now, it is no doubt that the 7th century was a very crucial turning point in Byzantine history considering the fall of its old enemy being the Sassanids and the rise of a new one which were the Arabs, the creation of the Thematic System, the invention of Greek Fire, and countless wars everywhere which makes it a very eventful and exciting one. The 7th century for me no doubt had a lot of exciting moments worth remembering and a lot of it had to do with wars such as the full-scale Byzantine-Sassanid War from 602 to 628, the conflict with the Arabs, and the sieges of Constantinople first in 626 by the Sassanids with their Avar and Slav allies and from 674 to 678 by the Arabs, therefore this century is something that would interest war enthusiasts. At the same time, the rulers of this century which was mainly the Heraclian Dynasty being the emperors Heraclius (610-641), Constans II (641-668), Constantine IV (668-685), and Justinian II (685-695) were very interesting and colorful characters as well. The downside of this century however was that everything usually seemed so one-sided which was mostly because it had so much wars from beginning to end that the history of this century would in fact go from exciting to becoming already too tiring and repetitive in story. What makes this century less interesting too aside from that it did not have much to tell except wars, and if not wars its other stories had a lot to do with abstract religious debates such as the controversial new Monothelite doctrine that Heraclius and Constans II supported but was finally declared a heresy by Constantine IV. What makes the 7th century a bit too one dimensional as well was that there were no other interesting characters except for its emperors who were all strong military men, therefore no other interesting stories such as cultural innovations and ambitious women except for Heraclius’ wife Empress Martina who however only had a very brief role in this century at the time of Heraclius’ death in 641. If not for the exciting battles and new inventions like Greek Fire and Thematic System, the 7th century story of Byzantium is more or less disappointing considering how much territory they had lost including half of it which fell to the Arabs, most of the Balkans which fell to the Avars and Slavs and later on the Bulgarians, most of Italy to the Lombards, and all of Byzantine Southern Spain to the Visigoth Kingdom. Despite all the disappointing moments and one-dimensional kind of story that defined the 7th century, I still find it fascinating as it was a major turning point in their history but I would consider it as one of my least favorites for the reason that it did not have much stories to tell except of warfare.

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Greatest extent of the Sassanid Empire (orange) under Khosrow II, by 622
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Defeat of the Byzantine forces (left) to the Arabs (right) at the Battle of Yarmouk, 636
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Byzantine and Arab fleets clash with each other at the Battle of the Masts, 655
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Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople

To learn more about Byzantium in the 7th century, read Chapter IV of my Byzantine Alternate History series.

11. The 14th Century

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Byzantium in 1350 (blue)

The 14th century which is the 2nd to the last century of Byzantium’s existence was no doubt one of its most disappointing ones especially considering how reduced and weakened the Byzantine Empire became due to the damage of the 4th Crusade in the previous century and even though the empire was restored in 1261 by Michael VIII Palaiologos, it was already too late for Byzantium to become a world power again. The 14th century is often the overlooked century in Byzantine history which many history books only make a very quick mention of or if not do mention the century as if it did not exist and true enough it is overlooked for many reasons, thus making this century be known as the “forgotten century”.

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Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1282-1328)

First of all, the 14th century already began terribly for Byzantium as during the reign of Andronikos II Palaiologos when the century began, the empire was close to bankruptcy due to the great amounts of money his father Michael VIII spent in his reign (1261-1282), therefore without much funds the army had to be disbanded but it had happened in such a bad time as a new enemy rose up in Asia Minor which were the Ottomans that may have started out only as a small power in Asia Minor but after winning a number of victories in Asia Minor, they soon enough kept expanding. The reign of Andronikos II was also a very disastrous one due to a major mistake of hiring an unruly band of Catalan mercenaries in 1302 to strike back at the Ottomans which only ended in failure when the Catalans turned on the Byzantines due to lack of pay and as a result of it pillaged Byzantine lands in Thrace and Macedonia burning it to the point of turning it into a desert. The incompetence of Andronikos II’s rule would lead to his downfall as in 1321 his grandson also named Andronikos rose up in rebellion and in 1328 succeeded in overthrowing his grandfather following a 7-year civil war.

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Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos of Byzantium (r. 1328-1341)

In his reign, the new emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341) vowed to revive the Byzantine Empire and make it at least a significant power in the Balkan region again and so he spent most of his reign in military campaigns which however had mixed results as most of Greece including the rebel Byzantine states of Epirus and Thessaly were returned to Byzantium through Andronikos III’s conquests although he failed when battling the new power of the Ottomans in Asia Minor, thus proving that the Ottomans were now growing far too powerful. Andronikos III at least succeeded in making Byzantium a power in the Balkans but he died too soon in 1341 before seeing his dreams fully achieved, therefore it would be all downhill after his death. The following years after 1341 would be the worst for Byzantium as Andronikos III’s lack of a succession plan led to a civil war between the faction of his young son Emperor John V Palaiologos led by his mother the empress Anna of Savoy who was the late emperor’s wife and Andronikos III’s closest friend and advisor the general John Kantakouzenos.

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Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Byzantium (r. 1347-1354)

The civil war ended in 1347 with John Kant