Gibbon, Part 14: The Last Centuries of the Roman Empire

As we saw in the previous post, the events of the Fourth Crusade could have completely annihilated the Byzantine empire, if not for the efforts of Theodore Lascaris. Through the lucky bravery of this man, who was not even a member of the ruling Comneni by blood, the complete elimnation of the declining empire was delayed for another two centuries. Lascaris’ victory would not last long, however, as the Paleologus family came to rise up as the last dynasty to rule the Byzantine empire, up until the final defeat at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453. In this post, we shall cover the progress of the Paleologi over these centuries, as well as the shocking developments which were happening in other parts of the world: the rise of the Mongols and the Ottomans.

The Rise of the Paleologi

We last left the Byzantines ruling at Nice, where John Vataces ruled for 33 years, a reign described as peaceful and prosperous. Primarily through the use of French mercenaries, Vataces reconquered several regions of the empire (such as the Hellespont) and attacked many others. The Latin emperor only managed to send an army once against him, which was roundly defeated. After the death of Vataces, the kingdom devolved to his son Theodore II, who was a tyrannical ruler. Theodore died when his son John II Vataces was still too young. His guardianship was entrusted to the favored Grand Domestic George Muzalon. However, Muzalon had acquired many enemies during his ascent and was murdered only eight days later. In the aftermath of the conspiracy, Michael Paleologus rose to become regent and guardian of John. He was a prominent constable and member of an illustrious Byzantine family had supported the ascent of the Comneni dynasty over two hundred years before. Michael naturally came to want the throne for himself. He was crowned co-emperor in 1259, but he then delayed John’s own coronation. The unfortunate John was finally blinded and imprisoned for the rest of his days, and the Paleologi thus ascended as the new ruling dynasty of the Nicaean Empire.

Only two years later, in 1261 the general Alexius Strategopulus besieged the Constantinople with only 800 men, found a breach and fully expelled the Latins from the city. Baldwin II, the last reigning Latin Emperor, escaped. Twenty days later, Michael Paleologus entered the ancient capital in triumph, and the Byzantine Empire was officially restored. However, Michael’s crime against John resulted in his scandalous excommunication by Arsenius, the patriarch of Constantinople. He was denied all opportunity to absolve his sins through penitence, with the exception of abdicating his throne, which he was not willing to do. Only after the patriarch was replaced by Joseph was Michael finally cleared of his crimes.

After the death of Michael, his son Andronicus became emperor. Andronicus had a son, also named Michael, whose own son was the younger Andronicus. The grandfather, son, and grandson were regarded fondly by the populace as a ruling triad. But Michael died early, and the younger Andronicus’ ambition led him to clash with his grandfather before his death. While the main government supported the elder Andronicus, the younger obtained the support of the disgruntled provincials and some foreign support. A series of civil wars over seven years wrecked the empire, leading to the final victory of the grandson. The elder Andronicus was initially allowed to keep his nominal title as emperor, but he was increasingly confined by his grandson and finally died as a monk a few years later. Unsurprisingly, the ambition of the younger Andronicus did not result in a glorious reign; “in the supreme station he lost the remains of his early popularity; and the defects of his character became still more conspicuous to the world.” He died while his son John V Paleologus was only nine years old, and the Grand Domestic John Cantacuzene acted as regent.

Cantacuzene administered the empire superbly; he even declined the offer of promotion to co-emperor by his young pupil. Unfortunately peace was thwarted by the conspiracy of the Admiral Apocaucus, which resulted in his near downfall, including confiscation of his fortunes and an accusation of treason. To save his life, Cantacuzene declared himself as emperor, reigning as the sixth John. Over the next six years another civil war raged for control of the empire, which also involved Bulgarians, Servians, and Turks. The death of Apocaucus eventually ensured Cantacuzene’s victory. He was generous in dictating terms of peace, still allowing John Paleologus to be emperor, only that he would act as regent for a decade and have his daughter marry Paleologus.

Cantacuzene’s subsequent reign was colored by a war with the Genoese, with whom the empire had started an alliance during the reign of the elder Michael Paleologus. The Genoese were valued for their naval capabilities, in which the Byzantines were severely lacking; they were also allowed to conduct trade. Over time, the empire became more dependent on their trade and the Genoese came to increasingly control and abuse the capital. An attack on a Byzantine vessel erupted into a naval war with the Genoese. This war was eventually completely lost by the empire, despite enlisting the help of the Venetians and Catalans. As a result, Cantacuzene was forced to accept complete Genoese monopoly of Byzantine trade. Only the decline of Genoa itself and the long-term ascendancy of Venice saved the Eastern Roman empire from becoming a mere province of Genoa.
As the young co-emperor John V matured, he rebelled against Cantacuzene. While initially Cantacuzene had invested his son Matthew with the purple, this only accelerated the return of the rightful heir to the throne. Instead of contesting the outcome, John VI was ready to retire from his throne to assume the habit of a monk, and John V became the next emperor.

Rise of the Mongols, Ottomans, and the Timurids

The Mongols

Meanwhile, only a few thousand miles away from Asia Minor, the Mongolian chief Genghis Khan (1162-1227) first rose to conquer parts of Northern China, who were not completely defeated but were forced to pay him off. He moved on to the empire of Mohammed, the sultan in Carizme (Khiva), who ruled from the Persian Gulf to India and Turkestan. After Genghis’ death, his descendants continued the expansion of the Mongol empire: Octai Khan, his son, finished the conquering of Nothern China. Kublai Khan, his grandson, conquered the Song dynasty in Southern China, and attempted but failed to expand to Japan and Southeast Asia. Hulagu Khan, another grandson, fully conquered Persia and destroyed the already declining Abbasids in Baghdad. They also conquered Armenia, Anatolia, and Syria. Octai sent his nephew Batou, who ravaged Russia and eastern Europe. The Mongols swept across Hungary and Poland and penetrated as far as the borders of Germany. Sheibani Khan, brother of Batou, even conquered Siberia. However, Constantinople, being embroiled in conflicts with the Latins, miraculously escaped from their wrath, probably due to sheer luck.

THE Ottomans

The beginning of the Ottoman Empire was marked by the conquest of Prusa (Bursa in modern-day Turkey) by the forces Othman (Osman), a descendant of the Turkish general Soliman Shah, who fought for the Carizmian empire. Othman rose ascendant in the struggle for power after the fall of the Seljuk dynasty and the retreat of the Mongol invaders. Othman’s son, Orchan, led the successful siege of Prusa, and he made the city the capital of the new empire. Taking advantage of the civil war between the elder and younger Andronici, he proceeded to conquer most of Turkey, up until the shores of the Bosphorus and Hellespont. The advance of the Ottomans continued during the reign of Cantacuzene; Orchan’s retreat was finally bought by granting his request to marry Theodora, daughter of Cantacuzene. Orchan’s nephew, Amurath, restarted the Ottoman attack, encircling Constantinople as it had never been before, forcing the emperor John Paleologus to become a de facto vassal, attending his camp and being subject to his whims. led a conquest against the Sclavonian nations between the Danube and the Adriatic. The captives from this mission were the origin of the Janissaries, a specially trained group of Christian soldiers in the service of the Ottomans. The Byzantine empire continued to be a vassal of the Ottomans under the reign of Amurath’s son Bajazet. By that time, it had came to be reduced to a small strip of a corner of Thrace no more than 30 miles times 50 miles in length, a pitiful sight, if not for the remaining jewel of Constantinople. Bajazet’s ambition to conquer the ancient capital was only delayed by his fear of inciting another crusade and the wealth of the city.

The Timurids

The conquering legacy of the Mongols underwent another resurgence in the person of Timour (Timur) or Tamerlane (1336-1405). Timour originated from a noble tribe in the empire of Zagatai, Genghis Khan’s son. His first success was repelling the invasion of the khans of Kashgar from his homeland. He proceeded to ascend the throne of the empire, and personally led an army to conquer India, Turkestan, Persia, and parts of Russia. His progressed was checked only when he reached Anatolia, part of the Ottoman Empire under sultan Bajazet. He turned to Syria and Egypt instead, conquering the fortress of Aleppo. Unlike Genghis Khan, who did not have a strong position on religion and tended to allow for religious freedom in his empire, Timour was a strong Muslim. After defeating a region, his style of mercy was similar to that of Muslim armies of centuries past: captive Christians and non-Muslims were given the choice to convert to Islam or be put to death. But his campaigns, like that of the earlier Mongols’, were more often than not nomadic: more often than not he laid waste to a kingdom, took its spoils and deserted it as soon as he came.

The delay caused by Timour’s diversion to Syria and Egypt gave the opportunity for Bajazet to gather his forces again, and the two enemies met decisively in a battle outside the city of Angora. Bajazet was completely defeated and became a captive of Timour. Thus a large chunk of Asia had been conquered by Timour. Constantinople and Gallipoli came next, and both the remaining Turks and their vassals the Byzantine Empire were intimidated by the Timourids and were more than happy to bend the knee and pay tribute, thinking that the nomadic invaders would leave as soon as they came. Sparked by his successes, Timour was tempted to expand his ambitions to the entirety of Northern Africa, Europe, and China, where the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty had been replaced by the Ming dynasty. Unfortunately (fortunately for the rest of the world), Timour was already an old man, and died soon after at the age of 70. His children did not have the same expansionist ambitions their father, and in Gibbon’s words, sought to reign instead of to govern. The empire of the Timourids was lost within a few generations.

In contrast, the Ottomans quickly rose to power again. In the aftermath of the fall of Bajazet and the departure of the Timourids, his sons fought to gain power in the vacuum; this was finally attained by Mehmed. The Ottoman civil war gave a chance for the Byzantine empire to escape from oppression: emperor Manuel II (son and successor of John V) supported Mahomet (Mehmed) I and concluded a treaty with him which prevented their advance beyond Gallipoli. However, after the death of Mehmed, his brother and former rival, Amurath II, rose supreme as the new sultan, attacking Constantinople with jealous wrath. Luckily, his siege failed, and the Byzantines were given a precarious respite of a few decades. Manuel II died and was replaced by his son, John VIII.

Unification Attempts and the Failed Council of Ferarra

Despite the abject failure of the efforts during the Fourth Crusade, several figures continued to believe that the Great Schism between East and West was not yet permanent. Numerous attempts by successive Paleologi emperors were made at unifying the Western and Eastern churches, many times in the hopes of unifying against the growing threat of other enemies. The first attempt was made during the reign of the younger Andronicus, who was encouraged by the Turks’ conquest of Bithynia to seek alliance with the western Europeans. An invitation to convene a universal synod was made, but firmly rejected by the Latins. John Cantacazune then also attempted friendly (but failed) overtures with the pope. John V traveled to Rome, submitting to the pope and ostensibly converting to Roman Catholicism. But this was only a temporary fad which faded as soon as John returned to the capital.

The emperor Manuel II warned his son John VIII that the threat of alliance between the Eastern and Western Christians kept the Turks at bay, despite the unlikelihood of it every happening. John VIII proceeded to organize the most serious attempt at healing the schism under Pope Eugene IV. A council at Ferarra, Italy, was convened, with the emperor himself, the patriarch, and many other high ranking officials of the Eastern church attending. But Eugenius was deposed of by the council of Basel. Six months later a second council at Florence was convened. Slowly an optimistic union was formed; the central question of the nature of the Holy Ghost was resolved as such:

“that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, as from one principle and one substance; that he proceeds by the Son, being of the same nature and substance; and that he proceeds from the Father and the Son, by one spiration and production.”

However, upon their return to Constantinople, they discovered the city restless and in disarray after two years of absence. The people were especially incensed that the Eastern delegation had been unable to impose their will completely on the Western church. The emperor and his patriarchs quickly changed their minds and showed their “repentance” by renewed commitment to their former instead of ecumenical positions. The schism of East and West was finally permanently established, which continues to this day.

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