chapter  2
37 Pages

Byzantium on the eve

The year 1402 marks a watershed in the history of the late Byzantine Empire. In that year the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane defeated and captured the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I at the battle of Ankara. It gave Byzantium half a century’s respite, which made all the difference between it ending not with a whimper but a bang, for that half century saw it recover some of its prestige and prosperity. On the eve of the battle of Ankara the Byzantine Empire was all but done for and counted for very little. So taken for granted had the fall of Constantinople become that had it occurred at this juncture it would have caused scarcely a ripple on the surface of the historical record. But the worst did not come to the worst, thanks to Tamerlane’s victory. There followed what Ottoman chroniclers remembered as a time of troubles ( Fetret Devri ), when a series of civil wars among Bayezid’s sons convulsed the Ottoman territories in the Balkans and Anatolia. 2 Byzantium was the major benefi ciary, so much so that the Venetians began to worry about the dangers that a restored Byzantine Empire might hold for their commercial interests. By a treaty of 1403 Bayezid’s eldest son Süleiman waived the tribute which the Byzantine emperor had for the past thirty years paid to the Ottoman ruler as a mark of client status. Instead, following an almost-forgotten Byzantine convention Süleiman recognised the emperor’s seniority by pledging him fi lial devotion. In addition, he surrendered to the latter control not only of Thessaloniki and its hinterland, including Mount Athos, but also of the Black Sea coasts as far as the port of Mesembria (modern Nesebâr). 3 So, quite unexpectedly, Byzantium was given a breathing space. If it only delayed the Ottoman conquest, it also gave Byzantium the opportunity for one last Renovatio , which helped to change the signifi cance of the fi nal fall of Constantinople, for by 1453 Byzantium was a far more infl uential force

than it had been in 1402. Its neighbours held it in much higher regard. Constantinople was more prosperous and populous and its citizens had recovered much of their self-confi dence, which helps to explain their stout defence of their city. It was an impressive transformation, which owed much to the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425). 4

Manuel was already 52, and visiting the French court, when he received news of Constantinople’s deliverance. He had known setbacks and humiliations. He must have thought that he would die in exile in Western Europe. But once the opportunity came he set about restoring Byzantium with a wisdom derived from adversity. The weapons he possessed were the pivotal position of Constantinople and the lingering prestige that still attached to the imperial offi ce. In the aftermath of the battle of Ankara Bayezid’s sons were willing to look on him as an honest broker. The main benefi ciary was at fi rst the eldest son Süleiman, who with Byzantine support secured control of Rumeli, as the Ottoman territories in the Balkans were known. After his death in 1411 Manuel worked with Mehmed I, another of Bayezid’s sons. The emperor’s reward was confi rmation of the 1403 treaty, which was the essential safeguard of Byzantium’s position. Manuel’s position was secure enough for him to leave Constantinople on tours of inspection of the territories that still remained to the Byzantine Empire. In 1408 he went to the Peloponnese and to Thessaloniki, where he respectively installed his young sons Theodore and Andronikos as despots. Then in 1414 he set out on a longer tour. His main concern was the Peloponnese, which was far and away the most important of his possessions. He rebuilt the wall known as the Hexamilion across the Isthmus of Corinth with a view to improving its defences. He also crushed a local rebellion, which at least temporarily strengthened imperial control over the local archontes , who were the real power in the Peloponnese.