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History of the Byzantine empire
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Under Andronicus III, John V’s predecessor, Stephen Dushan had already taken possession of northern Macedonia and the major part of Albania. With the ascension to the throne of the boy John V, when a devastating civil war began to tear the Empire, Dushan’s aggressive plans widened and took definite form against Constantinople itself. A Byzantine historian of the fourteenth century, Nicephorus Gregoras, put into the mouth of John Cantacuzene these words: “The great Serb (Stephen Dushan) like an overflowing river which has passed far beyond its banks, has already submerged one part of the Empire of Romania with its waves, and is threatening to submerge another.” Stephen Dushan came to an agreement, now with Cantacuzene, now with John V, as it seemed advantageous to him. Taking advantage of the desperate situation of the Empire, whose forces were occupied by internal troubles, Stephen conquered all of Macedonia except Thessalonica without difficulty and after a siege took Seres, an important fortified place in eastern Macedonia, lying on the way from Thessalonica to Constantinople. The surrender of Seres was of great importance; Dushan gained a fortified and purely Greek city, only slightly inferior to Thessalonica, which might serve as a key to Constantinople. From this time on, broader plans against the Empire developed in the mind of the Serbian leader.
Contemporary Byzantine sources connect with the capture of Seres Dushan’s assumption of the title of tsar and the open display of his claims to the Eastern Empire. John Cantacuzene, for example, wrote, “The Kral [King] approached Seres and took possession of it. ... After that, becoming excessively conceited and seeing himself master of the major part of the Empire, he proclaimed himself Tsar of the Romans and Serbs, and upon his son he conferred the title of Kral.” In his letter to the Doge of Venice from Seres, Dushan, among other titles, glorifies himself as “the master of almost all the Empire of Romania” [et fere totius impeni Romaniae dominus]. His Greek decrees Dushan signed in red ink “Stephen in Christ God the faithful Kral and autocrat of Serbia and Romania.”
Dushan’s broad plans concerning Constantinople differed from the plans of the Bulgarian kings of the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Simeon and the Asens. The chief aim of Simeon had been the liberation of the Slavonic lands from the power of Byzantium and the formation of one great Slavonic Empire; “his very attempt,” wrote T. Florinsky, “to take possession of Constantinople was due to the same tendency to destroy the power of the Greeks and replace it by that of the Slavs…” “He wished to possess Tsargrad and to exert power over the Greeks, not as emperor of the Romans, but as tsar of Bulgaria.” Similar aims were pursued by the Asens, who aspired to the liberation and complete independence of the Bulgarian people and wished to found a Bulgarian Empire which should include Constantinople.
In assuming the title of emperor (basileus) and autocrat Stephen Dushan was guided by different aims. The question was not only the liberation of the Serbian people from the influence of the eastern emperor. There is no doubt that Dushan set himself the goal ot creating a new empire instead of Byzantium, not Serbian, but Serbian-Greek, and that “the Serbian people, the Serbian kingdom, and all the Slavonic lands annexed to it were to become only a part of the Empire of the Romans, whose head he proclaimed himself.” Proposing himself as an aspirant to the throne of Constantine the Great, Justinian, and other Byzantine emperors, Dushan wished, first of all, to become emperor of the Romans, and then of the Serbs, that is, to establish in his person a Serbian dynasty on the Byzantine throne.
It was important for Dushan to draw to his side the Greek clergy of the conquered regions; he realized that, in the eyes of the people, his proclamation as tsar of the Serbs and Greeks would be legal only if sanctioned by the higher authority of the Church. The archbishop of Serbia, dependent upon the patriarch of Constantinople, was not sufficient; even though the complete independence of the Serbian church had been proclaimed, the archbishop or patriarch of Serbia could crown the kral (king) only as tsar of Serbia. In order to sanctify the title of the “Tsar of the Serbs and Romans,” which might help him to the Byzantine throne, something more was needed. The patriarch of Constantinople, naturally, would not consent to such a coronation. Dushan began to plan to sanctify his new title by the approbation of the highest Greek clergy of the conquered regions as well as by the monks of the Greek monasteries of the famous Mount Athos.
For this purpose he confirmed and widened the privileges and increased the endowments of the Greek monasteries in conquered Macedonia, where many estates (μετοχια) which belonged to Athos also came under his power. The peninsula of Chalcldice itself with the Athenian monasteries came into Dushan’s hands, and the monks could not fail to understand that the protection of the monasteries had passed from the Byzantine emperor to a new master, upon whom their further welfare would depend. The charters (chrysobulls) written in Greek granted by Dushan to the Greek monasteries of Athos testify not only to his confirmation of their former privileges, exemptions, and possessions, but to the granting of new ones. Besides the charters given to separate monasteries there is a general charter granted to all the Athenian monasteries; in this charter he said: “Our Majesty, having received (into our power) all the monasteries situated on the Holy Mountain of Athos, which from all their hearts have had recourse to us and have become subject [to us, has granted and accorded to them by this general edict (chrysobull) a great benefaction in order that the monks dwelling therein may fulfil peacefully and without disturbance their pious work.”
Easter 1346 brought a momentous day in the history of Serbia. At Scopia (Skoplje, Uskub, in northern Macedonia), Dushan’s capital, there assembled the noble princes of the whole kingdom of Serbia, all the higher Serbian clergy with the archbishop of Serbia at their head, the Bulgarian and Greek clergy of the conquered regions, and, finally, the protos, the head of the council of igumens (abbots), which administered Athos, and the igumens and hermits of the Holy Mountain of Athos. This large and solemn council was “to ratify and sanctify the political revolution achieved by Dushan: the foundation of a new Empire.”
First of all, the Council established a Serbian patriarchate entirely independent from the Constantinopolitan patriarchate. Dushan needed an independent Serbian patriarch for his coronation as emperor. As the choice of that patriarch took place without the participation of the ecumenical patriarchs of the East, the Greek bishops and the hermits of Mount Athos had to substitute for the patriarch of Constantinople. The Serbian patriarch was elected, and the patriarch of Constantinople, who refused to recognize the acts of this council as regular, excommunicated the Church of Serbia.
After the election of the patriarch the solemn coronation of Dushan with the imperial crown was performed. This event had probably been preceded by the ceremony of the proclamation of Dushan as tsar at Seres, soon after this city was taken. In connection with those events Dushan introduced at his court pompous court dignities and adopted Byzantine customs and manners. The new baslleus turned to the representatives of the Greek nobility; the Greek language seems to have become officially equal to the Serbian tongue, for many of Dushan’s charters were written in Greek. “The privileged classes in Serbia, large landowners and clergy, who had exerted enormous influence and power and limited the freedom of action of the Serbian kings, were now forced to yield to the higher authority of the Tsar, as an absolute monarch.” In accordance with Byzantine custom, Dushan’s wife was also crowned, and their ten year old son was proclaimed “Kral of all Serbian lands.” After the coronation, by means of many charters (chrysobulls) Dushan expressed his gratitude and favor to the Greek monasteries and churches, and with his wife visited Athos, where he stayed about four months, praying in all the monasteries, generously endowing them, and receiving everywhere “the benediction of the saintly and holy fathers, who led angelic lives.”
After the coronation Stephen’s sole dream was to reach Constantinople; after his victories and coronation he could see no impediment to the attainment of this goal. Although in the last period of his reign his campaigns against Byzantium were not so frequent as before, and his attention was distracted now by hostilities in the west and north, now by internal affairs, nevertheless, as Florinsky said, “to all this Dushan’s attention only turns aside, no more: his eyes and thoughts are as before concentrated upon the same alluring extreme southeast corner of the peninsula. The desire of taking possession of this southeast corner, or, properly speaking, of the world city situated there, now holds still more firmly all the Tsar’s thoughts, becomes the leading motive of his activity, and characterizes the whole time of his reign.”
Powerfully affected as he was by the dream of an easy conquest of Constantinople, Dushan did not immediately grasp the fact that some serious obstacles to the realization of his plan already existed. First, there was the growing power of the Turks, who were also aiming at the Byzantine capital and whom the badly organized Serbian troops could not overcome; besides, in order to take Constantinople it was necessary to have a fleet, which Dushan had not. To increase his maritime force he planned to enter into alliance with Venice, but this step was from the beginning doomed to failure. The Republic of St. Mark, unreconciled to the return of Constantinople to the Palaeologi, would never have consented to support Dushan in his conquest of the city for himself; if Venice conquered Constantinople, it would be for her own sake. The attempt of Dushan to form an alliance with the Turks also miscarried, due to the policy of John Cantacuzene; in any event the interests of Dushan and the Turks must undoubtedly have collided. Nor could interference in the internal strife of the Empire materially help Dushan’s plans. In the last years of his reign a body of Serbian troops fighting on the side of John V Palaeologus was slain by the Turks. Dushan was doomed to disappointment; it became obvious that the way to Constantinople was closed to him.
The statement in the later chronicles of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) that Dushan undertook a vast expedition against Constantinople in the very year of his death, which alone prevented its being carried into effect, is not confirmed by any contemporary information, and the best scholars do not consider it true. In 1355 the Great Master of Serbia died without realizing his ambition. Thus, Dushan failed to create a Greco-Serbian Empire to replace the Byzantine Empire; he managed to form only the Empire of Serbia, which included many Greek lands, but which after his death fell, as John Cantacuzene said, “into a thousand pieces.”
The existence of Dushan’s monarchy was of such short duration, that, as Florinsky says, “in it, properly speaking, only two moments may be observed: the moment of formation during the whole time of Dushan’s reign, and that of disintegration, starting immediately after the death of its founder.” “Ten years after,” another Russian scholar wrote, “the grandeur of the Serbian Empire seemed to belong to a remote past.” Thus, the most grandiose attempt of the Slavs, their third and last, to create in the Balkan peninsula a great Empire, with Constantinople at its head, ended in failure. The Balkan peninsula was open and almost defenseless to the aggressive plans of the warlike Ottoman Turks.