• Hi Guest!

    The costs of running this forum are covered by Sea Lion Press. If you'd like to help support the company and the forum, visit patreon.com/sealionpress

Post-1453 Byzantines: Could they have held the city?

Joshuapooleanox

electoral asbestos
Location
Newcastle, innit
Pronouns
they/them, she/her
The idea of a Byzantine revival is one of the most common ideas in Alternate History, with the idea of a legitimate Roman successor state surviving fascinating many.

However, it is easy to have them survive after say 1025, or 1180, or even in the 1300s. It is much harder by the time of the Marble Emperor.

Is it possible for the Byzantines to survive from 1449 with the beginning of Emperor Constantine XI's reign? Or were they doomed no matter what actions they took?
 

Gary Oswald

Old and Foolish now
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Pronouns
he/him
Depends what you mean by survive. It's entirely possible that the ottoman siege fails and there's no other attempt for another 20 years.

It could easily last to the 1470s or 1490s.

But its not going to do anything with that extra time. It has no power beyond its fading city and is unlikely to gain any. You can delay its fall or even change who it falls too but it will fall.
 
Even if the Ottomans collapse, say after Tamerlane, someone at some stage is going to go after the city. It's too good a location, has too good a potential, too much prestige to pass up, and a city-state albeit with an imperial pedigree is too enfeebled to resist someone resourced and determined enough.
 

George Kearton

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
In my view, the beginning of the end for Byzantium was the capture of the city (and Empire) by the Crusaders and Venetians in 1204. Although a Byzantine dynasty recovered power some 60 years later, Constantinople never recovered: Runciman describes the city in 1453 as being merely a collection of villages, sheltering within the city walls.
 

George Kearton

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Agreed! And a continuing and successful 'Latin' empire in the East would have had a considerable impact on the history of the Middle East and the Mediterranean as well as the power and prestige of Venice.
 

George Kearton

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
An alternative "Fall" - but of 1920's Istanbul to the Danubians, will be featured in the closing volumes of my "House of Stuart Sequence"
 
I have written books on Byzantium (eg my 'Chronology of the Byzantine Empire', by Timothy Venning, published by Palgrave in 2006), and did a Byzantine history degree at the University of London so I know a reasonable amount about this subject - and am doing a book of counter-factual essays on how the Empire could have survived. Once this is published it will show my arguments in detail, but for a few interim thoughts:

I have been speculating about this topic since I was a teenager, and it is one of my favourites. I would agree that the Empire as a viable 'Big Power' was probably doomed after the sack in 1204, as it was forcibly split up by the Crusaders, lost control of most of central/ southern Greece, and exhausted itself reconquering the capital (1261)and most of the Empire. Then when it was still facing threats of attack from the evicted 'Latin Empire' plus the latter's allies in Angevin-led Italy the Turks moved into western Anatolia, in flight from the Mongols. It could have held off one major enemy, but not two at once, unless it had had a rich capital and full-size provinces (as in c.1180) and army. But the loss of Asia Minor was not fatal, if the Empire had had a navy to protect the Dardanelles.
The Empire need not have let the Turks into Europe and so been surrounded on two sides - that was due to Byz civil wars in the 1340s (avoidable). Nor was it inevitable that the Turks would recover from defeat by Timur in 1402; had the Ottoman state broken up the Empire would have survived , albeit weak (and been a Venetian vassal?). By 1453 the best it could hope for was surviving a few decades if Mehmed II had been killed and the Ottomans broken up again, ditto if the 1444 Crusade had defeated the Ottomans. But if the city had been better populated and commercially rich - affording troops and cannons? - it might have played Turks and Venetians off into the C16th. It was a tragedy that two great emperors, Manuel II and Constantine XI, had too few resources to do much.
 

Omund the Wooden-Leg

Chazadjin Marmaduke Brandybuck
Depends what you mean by survive. It's entirely possible that the Ottoman siege fails and there's no other attempt for another 20 years.

It could easily last to the 1470's or 1490's.

But its not going to do anything with that extra time. It has no power beyond its fading city and is unlikely to gain any. You can delay its fall or even change who it falls too but it will fall.
Even if the Ottomans collapse, say after Tamerlane, someone at some stage is going to go after the city. It's too good a location, has too good a potential, too much prestige to pass up, and a city-state albeit with an imperial pedigree is too enfeebled to resist someone resourced and determined enough.
In my view, the beginning of the end for Byzantium was the capture of the city (and Empire) by the Crusaders and Venetians in 1204. Although a Byzantine dynasty recovered power some 60 years later, Constantinople never recovered: Runciman describes the city in 1453 as being merely a collection of villages, sheltering within the city walls.
I agree with you. Even if Mehmet II dies before he is crowned Sultan - ergo never becoming known as Mehmed the Conqueror - and even if Orban dies before he can become attached to the Ottoman court and casting his Basilika cannon - Constantinople will inevitably fall. Someone else will decide to besiege the city and make their preparations to breach the walls or get their ships overland to get round the chain of the Golden Horn.

Aside from sieges, the Empire behind the Theodosian Walls still consists of several walled villages separated by wide cultivated fields. Even if they are left alone, plague and famine will still whittle down the pathetically low population of the city until what is left? The people in the very eastern tip wandering round the empty overgrown ruins of the churches and palace etc? There are not enough people left to practise metallurgy and other arts?

Help from the West is never coming to relieve Constantinople. The state of Constantinople and its people are too pitifull to bother with or consider. The Empire had lost everything: its territories in Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe; its treasury, its diadem, and Imperial regalia; even its vaunted and dearly-held Orthodox Christianity, abandoned in a compromise with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.
 

Sulemain

Brush NOT Benzo
Location
Coventry
I have written books on Byzantium (eg my 'Chronology of the Byzantine Empire', by Timothy Venning, published by Palgrave in 2006), and did a Byzantine history degree at the University of London so I know a reasonable amount about this subject - and am doing a book of counter-factual essays on how the Empire could have survived. Once this is published it will show my arguments in detail, but for a few interim thoughts:

I have been speculating about this topic since I was a teenager, and it is one of my favourites. I would agree that the Empire as a viable 'Big Power' was probably doomed after the sack in 1204, as it was forcibly split up by the Crusaders, lost control of most of central/ southern Greece, and exhausted itself reconquering the capital (1261)and most of the Empire. Then when it was still facing threats of attack from the evicted 'Latin Empire' plus the latter's allies in Angevin-led Italy the Turks moved into western Anatolia, in flight from the Mongols. It could have held off one major enemy, but not two at once, unless it had had a rich capital and full-size provinces (as in c.1180) and army. But the loss of Asia Minor was not fatal, if the Empire had had a navy to protect the Dardanelles.
The Empire need not have let the Turks into Europe and so been surrounded on two sides - that was due to Byz civil wars in the 1340s (avoidable). Nor was it inevitable that the Turks would recover from defeat by Timur in 1402; had the Ottoman state broken up the Empire would have survived , albeit weak (and been a Venetian vassal?). By 1453 the best it could hope for was surviving a few decades if Mehmed II had been killed and the Ottomans broken up again, ditto if the 1444 Crusade had defeated the Ottomans. But if the city had been better populated and commercially rich - affording troops and cannons? - it might have played Turks and Venetians off into the C16th. It was a tragedy that two great emperors, Manuel II and Constantine XI, had too few resources to do much.
So for you, the Empire could have survived as basically Greece plus the Aegen Islands and Constantinople so long as it Navy remained intact even after 1204?

I've said it elsewhere but the constant Byzantine Civil Wars even as the Empire collapsed around them really make me dislike petty nobles and their gripes.
 
My guess is that the events of 1204 were not fatal if the Empire of Nicaea, or arguably the Epirot regime led by the Angeli that had closer personal links to the old regime in Constantinople that had fallen, had regained the capital and the heartlands around it some time between 1230 and 1261 and not then faced both:
1. the evicted Latins (with their opportunist allies in Naples once Charles of Anjou, a much more dangerous opponent that his predecessor Manfred of Hohenstaufen as he had French resources and the Papacy behind him, had taken over in 1266). This threat then turned into annexation of the Latin state of Achaia in the Peloponnesse and then to invasion of Epirus, heading for Constantinople, in 1280-1 as a repeat of Robert Guiscard's ambitions of 1081-5 and Bohemund's of 1107-8 - just as the Turks were turning into a major menace to Bithynia. Also, the threat of Latin invasion backed by the Pope caused Michael VIII to force the pro-Latin reunion of the Churches on his reluctant Empire, infuriating nationalist and culturally / religiously autonomist opinion and breaking up the consensus among the elite - some rival Byz successor states from after 1204 like Thessaly then backed the anti-Unionists. Michael fought the Latins off but died before he could tackle the Turks, and though his son Andronicus then cancelled the Union and reunified public opinion the Empire had been too financially exhausted by the war to keep up its full armed forces and so keep its enemies at bay. No Latin invasion threat (as a result of Manfred beating Charles of Anjou?), no Reunion of Churches, no early death of Michael (aged 58, his son lived to 73), and Michael has the time and resources to conduct a holding operation in W Antatolia.

2. The Ottomans or any other expanding Turkish state in N or W Anatolia which was bringing the disparate small emirates together into one larger power with a potential for a navy. The naval-based emirate of Aydin further S, based on Smyrna, also had the potential to unite Asia Minor and then cross to Europe as it was dynamic and expanding, and had charismatic leaders; its 1330s ruler Unur was a Byzantine ally but this need not have lasted under his successors. If Aydin , of when it fell to the Western Crusaders sent in by the Pope in 1334 a Turkish revanchist successor, had turned on the Empire and taken Gallipoli it could have succeeded as the Ottomans did in OTL; the other main expansionist Turkish emirate, Karaman which had the old Saljuk capital of Konya so more legitimacy, was in SE Anatolia so if it had emerged as the leading reunifier of Anatolia it would probably not be interested in Europe and would turn on Syria as the Mongol Ilkhanate declined and then fight the Mamlukes over Syria.

There is also a third factor - Michael was a usurper to the throne of Nicaea in 1258, forcing his co-rule on his 10-year-old colleague John IV Vatatzes Lascaris and murdering the then regent George Muzalon - and later having John blinded and deposed.In effect this is a coup by the aristocrats at court against the court bureaucracy and palace elite of Nicaea, and it deeply divided the state and led to dissension and some abortive revolts after 1261 in the old Lascarid heartlands of W Anatolia - precisely where the Turks were to strike after c. 1280. A universally accepted Emperor taking back Constantinople, eg John IV's father the capable if paranoid warrior emperor Theodore II (died 1258 aged 36 of epileptic attack) or later an adult John IV, would not have faced this anger and constant fear of subversion. Also, if Theodore's father John III, a canny and financially astute man unusual for Byz emperors, had retaken Constantinople when he secured the last Latin lands in Anatolia and crossed to Thrace in 1235 , or soon after, the Empire would have had far longer to recover before the Ottomans emerged and probably no Western invasion - in the 1240s the Pope was too busy trying to depose Frederick II from Germany and Sicily.

After Michael VIII the Paleologi were mostly hopeless as rulers, except for the virtually powerless Manuel II, John VIII, and Constantine XI, and arguably the weak and infuriating Andronicus II started this chain of disasters by cutting the navy to save money in the 1280s and not forcing more taxes out of the nobles to pay for a stronger army - though doing this would have needed an entirely different and tougher personality who would be accused of dictatorial behaviour and face noble plots. The Catalan troops' mutiny and rampage then weakened the empire further, plus the 1320s civil war - both just before the Turks started to think of Europe as a target. But the vigorous Andronicus III pulled an army together and retook Macedonia and Epirus by 1341, making him the strongest power in the Balkans assuming he and Serbia did not have a head-on clash. I see the death of A III in 1341, aged ?44, and the next civil war to 1347, followed by the Black Death, as the 'crunch' - so if Andronicus had lived to his 60s and passed on a secure throne to his (incompetent and divisive) son John V or John had been quickly deposed by the capable general John VI Cantacuzene the Empire would have had a chance as a second-ranking power - unless it got embroiled in a ruinous fight over Greece with Serbia. Instead, we get the minor successes by John VI in 1347-54 disrupted by another civil war started by John V, and then John winning but at the cost of losing Thrace (the last local source of men and taxes) to the Ottomans. I agree that the sheer greed and stupidity of the Byzantine leadership in the period 1341-91 is infuriating! But if Andronicus III or John VI had had long reigns... ?










i
 

Omund the Wooden-Leg

Chazadjin Marmaduke Brandybuck
My guess is that the events of 1204 were not fatal if the Empire of Nicaea, or arguably the Epirot regime led by the Angeli that had closer personal links to the old regime in Constantinople that had fallen, had regained the capital and the heartlands around it some time between 1230 and 1261 and not then faced both:
1. the evicted Latins (with their opportunist allies in Naples once Charles of Anjou, a much more dangerous opponent that his predecessor Manfred of Hohenstaufen as he had French resources and the Papacy behind him, had taken over in 1266). This threat then turned into annexation of the Latin state of Achaia in the Peloponnesse and then to invasion of Epirus, heading for Constantinople, in 1280-1 as a repeat of Robert Guiscard's ambitions of 1081-5 and Bohemund's of 1107-8 - just as the Turks were turning into a major menace to Bithynia. Also, the threat of Latin invasion backed by the Pope caused Michael VIII to force the pro-Latin reunion of the Churches on his reluctant Empire, infuriating nationalist and culturally / religiously autonomist opinion and breaking up the consensus among the elite - some rival Byz successor states from after 1204 like Thessaly then backed the anti-Unionists. Michael fought the Latins off but died before he could tackle the Turks, and though his son Andronicus then cancelled the Union and reunified public opinion the Empire had been too financially exhausted by the war to keep up its full armed forces and so keep its enemies at bay. No Latin invasion threat (as a result of Manfred beating Charles of Anjou?), no Reunion of Churches, no early death of Michael (aged 58, his son lived to 73), and Michael has the time and resources to conduct a holding operation in W Antatolia.

2. The Ottomans or any other expanding Turkish state in N or W Anatolia which was bringing the disparate small emirates together into one larger power with a potential for a navy. The naval-based emirate of Aydin further S, based on Smyrna, also had the potential to unite Asia Minor and then cross to Europe as it was dynamic and expanding, and had charismatic leaders; its 1330s ruler Unur was a Byzantine ally but this need not have lasted under his successors. If Aydin , of when it fell to the Western Crusaders sent in by the Pope in 1334 a Turkish revanchist successor, had turned on the Empire and taken Gallipoli it could have succeeded as the Ottomans did in OTL; the other main expansionist Turkish emirate, Karaman which had the old Saljuk capital of Konya so more legitimacy, was in SE Anatolia so if it had emerged as the leading reunifier of Anatolia it would probably not be interested in Europe and would turn on Syria as the Mongol Ilkhanate declined and then fight the Mamlukes over Syria.

There is also a third factor - Michael was a usurper to the throne of Nicaea in 1258, forcing his co-rule on his 10-year-old colleague John IV Vatatzes Lascaris and murdering the then regent George Muzalon - and later having John blinded and deposed.In effect this is a coup by the aristocrats at court against the court bureaucracy and palace elite of Nicaea, and it deeply divided the state and led to dissension and some abortive revolts after 1261 in the old Lascarid heartlands of W Anatolia - precisely where the Turks were to strike after c. 1280. A universally accepted Emperor taking back Constantinople, e.g. John IV's father the capable if paranoid warrior emperor Theodore II (died 1258 aged 36 of epileptic attack) or later an adult John IV, would not have faced this anger and constant fear of subversion. Also, if Theodore's father John III, a canny and financially astute man unusual for Byz emperors, had retaken Constantinople when he secured the last Latin lands in Anatolia and crossed to Thrace in 1235 , or soon after, the Empire would have had far longer to recover before the Ottomans emerged and probably no Western invasion - in the 1240s the Pope was too busy trying to depose Frederick II from Germany and Sicily.

After Michael VIII the Paleologi were mostly hopeless as rulers, except for the virtually powerless Manuel II, John VIII, and Constantine XI, and arguably the weak and infuriating Andronicus II started this chain of disasters by cutting the navy to save money in the 1280s and not forcing more taxes out of the nobles to pay for a stronger army - though doing this would have needed an entirely different and tougher personality who would be accused of dictatorial behaviour and face noble plots. The Catalan troops' mutiny and rampage then weakened the empire further, plus the 1320s civil war - both just before the Turks started to think of Europe as a target. But the vigorous Andronicus III pulled an army together and retook Macedonia and Epirus by 1341, making him the strongest power in the Balkans assuming he and Serbia did not have a head-on clash. I see the death of A. III in 1341, aged ?44, and the next civil war to 1347, followed by the Black Death, as the 'crunch' - so if Andronicus had lived to his 60s and passed on a secure throne to his (incompetent and divisive) son John V or John had been quickly deposed by the capable general John VI Cantacuzene the Empire would have had a chance as a second-ranking power - unless it got embroiled in a ruinous fight over Greece with Serbia. Instead, we get the minor successes by John VI in 1347-54 disrupted by another civil war started by John V, and then John winning but at the cost of losing Thrace (the last local source of men and taxes) to the Ottomans. I agree that the sheer greed and stupidity of the Byzantine leadership in the period 1341-91 is infuriating! But if Andronicus III or John VI had had long reigns... ?
i
Goodness, you are really are incredible knowledgeable on Byzantine history. You are our pocket Turtledove. Here's something that could interest you. The "Fall of Civilisations" podcast on Tuesday released a three and one-half hour episode on the city of Constantinopolis and the fledging, decline and fall of the East Roman Empire in admirable detail. I enjoyed it three times.
 

Omund the Wooden-Leg

Chazadjin Marmaduke Brandybuck
And furthermore, you may be aware a user (Basileus Komnenos) on Sufficient Velocity is posting a timeline ("The House of Komnenos: Like A Phœnix From The Ashes") on the recovery of the East Roman Empire by Alexios VI Komnenos, grandson of Andronikos I Komnenos, from Trebizond.
 
That sounds interesting. I have a fondness for the Comnenus dynasty of the Empire of Trebizond, which lasted longer than the Paleologus dynasty in Constantinople, and the obscure Greek communities of the isolated areas of the Empire in general, having read old 1920s books on Trebizond and the Phanariots of Constantinople/ Rumania as a postgraduate student. I have considered the possibilities of the Comnenus line not the Vatatzes/ Lascaris one in possession of Constantinople in the mid-later C13th, from the outcome of a more successful sweep across NW Asia Minor by David and Alexius Comnenus around 1210 taking over Nicaea and creating a 'new Pontus' that then takes the Byz capital, but haven't written much on it.

There's also possibilities of a Byzantine state that does not even lose Constantinople in 1203/ 4 if david and Alexius' grandfather Andronicus I , a drastic reformer (A to the tax-defrauding nobles and bureaucrats 'You must cease to cheat or cease to live') , had been younger and/or less polarising, then he can pass on the throne to his son Manuel and their line. But I fear that the eccentric Andronicus' approach was more that of a paranoid despot than an organized reformer - a cross between Stalin and a stereotypical later C20th 'Developing World' dictator rather than a Krushchev. The disruption caused too much chaos and gave too many people a stake to remove him for their own safety, and landed the Empire with the hopeless Angelus brothers.
 

George Kearton

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Loosely connected to this thread (in a general context of Mediterranean history) is the matter of Malta. If the Knights had been defeated by the Ottomans in 1565 then Italy and the southern coast of France would have been wide-open to conquest......
 

Roger II

Well-known member
Question-If you wanted to look beyond the careers of individual emperors to broader patterns or processes that affected the empire's lifespan, what would you look at?
 
Probably the changes in the army makeup and social fabric of the Empire in the C10th and C11th are a major and crucial point here, as the earlier infantry-led army of small farmers (based on the farmer soldiers of the 'theme' armies set up in the C7th) were slowly eclipsed as the structure of landholding changed especially in Asia Minor. Small farms owned or rented by peasant-soldiers or the equivalent of medieval English 'yeomen' proved uneconomic or too risky to survived long-term, which a series of bad weather crises may have exacerbated ( climate change is nothing new) or else it was a mixture of drought, plague, insects attacking the crops etc; historians are still divided on the reasons. But by the 920s small farms were being sold up and then bought for parts of larger aristocratic estates, the latter either replacing crops with livestock (and thus needing less tenants and workers to run this) or imposing harsh legal semi-serfdom and dependance on their rack-rented tenants. This hit the infantry recruitment and aided a wealthier landed aristocracy having the funds and land to raise horses and so increasing the cavalry element (and the better armoured heavy cavalry element ) of the army; you get more great landed dynasts and rich cavalry officers dominating the army, and arguably this leads to the power of families like the Phocas and Sclerus dynasties and their series of rebellions that threaten John I and Basil II - and which by the 1050s is powerful enough to have the civilian regime in the capital overthrown by the 'junta' of top landed generals led by Isaac Comnenus in 1057. The Comneni emerge from this milieu -and though Romanus Lecapenus in the 930s and Basil II in the 990s try to stop the consolidation of the aristos, buy up or seize their estates, and rebuild a 'free farmer peasantry' to boost the govt 's power and restore the old infantry army this fails in the long run.

The new army with its cavalry aristocrats had some good generals,eg the Phocae and John Tzimisces and arguably also Isaac I if his health had not collapsed in 1059, and it led to Alexius I seizing power and saving the Empire in 1081. The new cavalry regiments were also a bonus, and the Empire used outsiders as infantry instead eg the Varangians. It also hired light cavalry to combat the new light cavalry threat of the nomad Turks, eg the Pechenegs in the 1050s - though they lacked discipline and often ran away or mutinied. The army and social changes were not all bad, though it aided the risk of successful aristocratic revolt and so pushed the Empire towards decentralisation, tax-free nobles, and 'family rule' not centralised bureaucracy under the Comneni - the road to the collapse after the death of Manuel I? But arguably the changes made the army more vulnerable to defeat by the Turks in 1071 as it was less coherent and had less of a solid native Byz infantry core, and the mess that Romanus IV got his disparate and poorly run army into in E Anatolia into (chasing the mobile Turks around to no avail and then being trapped and broken up in a head-on attack by them) was made more likely. Also the army changes meant more need of Western mercenaries - so we get firstly Roussel of Bailleul and his Normans defying the weak state in the 1070s and then the decision to ask Pope Urban for help and the resultant Crusade. So does the Byz army weakness make the entire history of the Middle East different , though the 'new' army was successful at first in the C10th and only went wrong with poor central leadership after 1025?

Arguably the 'restore an army of small farmer tenants good, rely on goodwill of unreliable and tax-dodging aristocrats bad' argument also applies to the Empire of Nicaea - Theodore Lascaris and John III restore the 'theme' system model of small farmers as the core of the army and keep the nobles in check after 1204, esp in Thracesion province (Smyrna/ Ephesus/ Ionia/ Lydia), but after 1258 Michael VIII, a great noble, reverses this - partly as he's led a noble coup to overthrow the civilian bureaucrat regency for John IV and needs aristo support. We end up with the enfeebled Asia Minor defences letting the Turks in and Michael relying more on mercenaries, and to his son Andronicus II lacking the resources or will to control the nobles and pay for a large army that can save the Empire. So these social changes and their effect on the army arguably make disaster in the long term more likely, twice - though a good general on the throne could have delayed the results of this. So what if Basil II had selected as general as husband to his niece Zoe and handed the throne to them in 1025, brilliant seven-foot-tall general George Maniaces overthrown Constantine IX in 1043, Isaac I been in better health after 1057, or Theodore II not had epilepsy or Andronicus II had some backbone in the mid-later C13th?
 

Roger II

Well-known member
Hm, I'm wondering if either going back to Ye Old Yeoman Themes or shifting to something more...Ottoman(which is what you suggest with the Laskarids) would help. I wonder if having more non-agrarian economic development or something for the state to develop more of would also help. Out of curiousity, was waterpower important in Byzantium? Economically that is.
 
Top