Why was Byzantium ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught
Over its period of existence, from 285AD to 1453, the Byzantines greatest asset was its strength in depth, and its culture. Even before Diocletian partitioned the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire in 285, the east was seen to be richer and stronger than the west. Egypt was the grain store for the empire, whereas Syria and Anatolia were strong and rich, as well as defensible. The Byzantine Empire was stronger than its enemies (with exception of the Ottoman Turks in the later years), and was aided by the fact that their enemies objectives lay in the conquest of territory, rather in the plunder of its riches.
This meant than when territory was lost, it was generally in a reasonably similar state when it was recaptured. This example was shown by Mehmed II, who kept the destruction inside Constantinople to a minimum, and then used the city as his new capital after its final end in 1453. Culture, another of Byzantium’s major assets, was key in its survival, especially after the nearly fatal fourth crusade in 1204. The idea of a superior culture was even seen during the second centaury. The Greek literature saw a revival, whereas the Latin literature showed decline.
Some aspects of the Greek culture, such as religion and language, even survived their Turkish counterparts in the regions that the Byzantine Empire had existed. As the Byzantine empire ultimately showed a resistance to change and decline, it is important to look closely at individual factors, such as internal politics, succession and religious factors, as well as external factors, such as opposition and natural disasters, in order to get a true answer to the question of “why was Byzantium Ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught? Just as the Roman Empire had faced strong opposition from Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, Visigoths and Franks, the Byzantine Empire also faced opposition from various groups over its long period of existence. Although the tribes and groups were numerous, they all individually lacked the power to overthrow Byzantium, with the exception of the Ottoman Turks and possibly the Persians. The strength of Byzantium, both politically and militarily, led to several successful attacks of the enemies.
The most successful being Belasarius’ campaigns that led to the spread of the Byzantine into the western territories that had been lost following the final fall of the west in 490. Heraclius’ sack of Ctesphion in 629 was yet another example of Byzantine strength, along with successfully garrisoning Constantinople against the Persians, Avars and Slavs in 626. Although the victorious campaigns against the Persians, and other eastern European tribes were fought, Byzantium also suffered major losses. In 568, the Lombards took over much of the Italian peninsula, leaving Byzantium with only a small portion.
The Slavs, fleeing from the Avars, settled in the Balkans in the mid 6th century. The western barbarians (also Christian, but were considered Arian heretics1) also put pressure on the empire. One of the major concerns, however, was the Ottoman Turks, whose presence became known following the defeat of the Persian Empire. It was the Turks who finally undid the Byzantine Empire in 1453. With the exception of the Ottomans, it was not the individual strength of the eastern European tribes but their number.
This served to weaken the Byzantines, making them susceptible to the final Ottoman onslaught. One of the main factors that led to the undoing of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Ottomans was the major event of the seemingly fatal 4th crusade. “For three days long pillage and massacre reigned in the city. The priceless treasures of when was then the greatest civilisation in the world were squandered among the conquerors and many were destroyed in sheer barbarism2. ” this quote from Ostrogorsky simply illustrates the sheer damage done by the fourth crusade.
Damage was done not only done to the city of Constantinople, where it was vast, but was also done to the state of mind of the Byzantines, who could never again trust the west. Not only did the Byzantines lose their capital, but they lost their unity, as three successor states survived, in Nicea, Trezibond and Epirus. This major crushing of Byzantium following the fourth crusade is one of the major factors why the Byzantine Empire was ultimately unable to survive the Ottoman onslaught. This is for various reasons. Firstly, the empire was significantly weakened both politically and territorially.
The conquering parties deliberately chose the weaker candidate for the position of emperor. “Instead of choosing their energetic leader Boniface of Montferrat, who was related by marriage to the Angeli and Comneni and now betrothed to the widow of Isaac II, some crusaders joined the Venetians in electing Baldwin of Flanders, a weaker candidate whom they hoped to manipulate. 3” This ploy, along with the destruction of Byzantine wealth, showed a very short sighted approach by the Venetians, who preferred to keep a weak Byzantium at their mercy, rather than risk attempting to rule a strong Byzantium.
The political situation of Byzantium was also weakened in the sense that following 1204, the empires central government dispended, and the representatives made their way into the smaller and weaker successor states. Combined factors such as corruption in the Taxation system4, and an army that needed paying meant there was not enough money to go around. The territorial weakening of Byzantium was shown by the division of the empire, and left none of the successor states in a favourable position. Secondly, the empires morale was crushed, as even in the last days of Byzantium, they could not trust the west.
The Union of Florence, 1440, saw the Byzantines having to accept union in order to gain support for the imminent attack from the Turks. The crusade of Varna in 1444 can again be seen as a lack of support for the east “That the crusade of Varna could in the best of circumstances have driven the Ottoman Turks out of Europe seems unlikely, but its failure strengthened the Ottomans’ already overwhelming domination of the Balkans5. ” Overall, the fourth crusade was one of the most major factors in the reason why Byzantium was untimely unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught.
It crippled an already weakened empire, and did not give it a chance to properly recover. Although the fourth crusade effectively spelled the end for the Byzantine Empire, thus suggesting that it was the most major reason that the Byzantine Empire was ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught, the fact is that the Byzantine empire actually recovered to a limited degree, “In 1204, an even worse disaster shattered the empire, but even so by 1280 the Byzantine successor states held as much land as the empire of 200 years earlier. Only then did a final decline begin6. This quote form Treadgold suggests that although there is no question as to the importance of the fourth crusade as a factor in the reason why Byzantium was ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaughts, it is not the only factor, as Byzantium made some kind of revival. It is also important to note, however, the quote only looks at the territorial perspective, and not at the overall power and finances in that territory. Following the accession of Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1259, the emperor now had a skilled general as its leader.
This was shown by a crushing victory against Michael of Epirus and his Latin allies. Constantinople was then re-taken in 1261, and Michael VIII set about rebuilding the city “The city had an air not only of poverty and neglect but also of emptiness, for under the Latin regime the population had dwindled. Many descendants of noble families who had formerly owned urban properties now returned to claim their rights and Michael made it his business to see that their claims were met, for he could not afford to fall out with the aristocracy. ” One of Michael’s problems, however, is that in attempting to gain more money for the empire, he further de-valued the value of the hyperpyron, the Byzantine gold coin8. Despite the inflation, and Michael’s many enemies, he was still able to make good use of his army, and fought successful campaigns against the invaders. It was not until the succession of Andronicus II in 1282, when Byzantium finally began to enter the state in which it was finally unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught.
The decision to dramatically reduce the size of the army, and place reliance on the use of mercenaries was a major error, as the Byzantines lost one of their most major assets, a skilled professional army. This was shown shortly afterwards in 1303, when the emperor could not afford to pay the 6500 Aragonese mercenaries, the Catalan Grand Company. They immediately plundered the empire, and then captured Athens in 1311. Another dynastic dispute and impending civil war further weakened his position. “The reign of Andronicus II saw damage to Byzantine power that was never repaired and was perhaps irreparable.
The disaster was the direct result of the emperor’s failure to maintain the small but effective army and navy that had been holding their own, or better than their own, since the time of Theodore I of Nicea. Even after the Byzantine forces were cut, contemporise took several years to realise how weak the empire had become. In the absence of enough native soldiers and sailors, foreign mercenaries and the empires’ Genoese allies proved to be more destructive than avowed enemies. 9” I feel that this quote by Treadgold perfectly sums up the military disasters of Andronicus’ reign.
It was also clear that the Empire, once a pinnacle of strength, was now lacking in territory and resources, and not much stronger than it’s once much weaker enemies of Serbia and Bulgaria. It was also clear to see that following the capture of much of the Byzantine territory, the Ottoman Empire had grown at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. It is fair to say, that the poor management under the reign of Andronicus II effectively left the empire ultimately unable to withstand an Ottoman onslaught.
As I am looking at the reasons as to why Byzantium was ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught, it is therefore necessary to look at the strength of the Turks. Following the move from Mecca to Medina in 622, Mohammed formally formed the religion if Islam. By nature, Islam was a militaristic religion, and the indoctrination of their soldiers led to a brilliant fighting force, as the soldiers were not afraid of death. By the time of Mehmet II’s ascendancy in 1451, the Ottoman Empire was in a major situation of strength.
They had already captured much of the Byzantines land over the preceding years, and they had defeated the last major threat against them, the crusade of Varna, where 20,000 crusaders were slaughtered. The Turks had a much stronger army, and they also possessed a large cannon. Control of the Bosporus was also gained for the Turks following the building of two castles either side of the river. The better drilled, better equipped and much larger size of the Ottoman army was indeed one of the reasons as to why Byzantium was ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught.
Some major reasons why the Byzantine Empire were ultimately unable to resist the Ottomans was due to a series of natural disasters following the ascendancy of Andronicus II in 1281. “In the summer of 1296 a series of earthquakes caused much damage in Constantinople and Asia minor. 10” Even following a major civil war, which was also damaging to Byzantine union, the Byzantine society was split down the middle. When the Empire gained a brilliant ruler in John VI, the Black Death caused major death in 1347. It did major harm to the centralised and monetised Byzantium than it did to its rivals.
Thessaly was invaded by King Duschan of Serbia following the death of the Governor. Another disaster, the earthquake of Callipolis in 1355 allowed the Turks to seize the city. This left the Byzantines with little more than the city of Constantinople, and therefore in such a weak position, that it is clear that they were not going to be able to survive any Ottoman onslaught. Overall, there are many factors involved when looking at the question “Why was Byzantium ultimately unable to resist the Ottoman onslaught?
I feel that it can be put down to three main factors. Firstly, the fourth crusade proved to be a huge factor when looking at the overall decline of Byzantium, not only in terms of the loss of territory and wealth, but also in the inherent lack of trust displayed with the west after the crusade. It also laid the groundwork for the final decline of a great civilisation, as it left the Byzantine Empire in a much weaker condition. Secondly, the strength of the Turks in contrast with the strength of the Byzantines was vast by 1453.
This is due to their superior military forces, and down to the fact that they captured a lot of Byzantine territory. Thirdly, poor management of affairs and bad luck post 1281 was a major factor. I feel that it is a combination of the three, with the most emphasis being placed on the strength of the Turks which is vital when explaining why Byzantium was ultimately unable to survive the Ottoman onslaught. Judging by the wealth of Byzantine culture, however, the decline can be seen as due to politics, and not due to cultural strength. i