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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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The policies of Byzantium in the fourteenth century.


The Turks. Toward the end of the reign of Andronicus the Younger the Turks were almost in complete control of Asia Minor. The eastern portion, of the Mediterranean and the Archipelago were continuously threatened by the vessels of Turkish pirates, both Ottomans and Seljuqs. The situation of the Christian population of the peninsula, coastlands, and islands became unbearable; trade died away. Turkish attacks on the Athonian monasteries forced one of the monks, Athanasius, to leave Athos and emigrate to Greece, to Thessaly, where he founded the famous monasteries “in air,” “the weirdly fantastic Metéora, which crown the needle-like crags of the grim valley of Kalabaka.”[124] The king of Cyprus and the Master of the military order of the Hospitalers, or of St. John, who had held Rhodes since the beginning of the fourteenth century, besought the pope to rouse the western European states to take arms against the Turks. But the small relief expeditions which answered the papal appeals, though not altogether unsuccessful, could not accomplish much. The Turks were resolved to establish themselves firmly on the European coast; and this was facilitated by the civil war in the Empire, in which John Cantacuzene involved the Turks.

        The first establishment of the Ottoman Turks in Europe is usually connected with the name of John Cantacuzene, who often called upon their support in his struggle with John Palaeologus. Cantacuzene even married his daughter to Sultan Orkhan. On the invitation of Cantacuzene the Turks as his allies devastated Thrace several times. Nicephorus Gregoras remarked that Cantacuzene hated the Romans as he loved the barbarians.[125] It is quite possible that the first settlements of the Turks in the peninsula of Gallipoli took place with the knowledge and consent of Cantacuzene. The same Byzantine historian wrote that while a Christian service was being celebrated in the imperial church, the Ottomans who had been admitted into the capital were dancing and singing near the palace, “crying out in incomprehensible sounds the songs and hymns of Muhammed, and thereby attracting the crowd to listen to them rather than to the divine Gospels.”[126] To satisfy the financial claims of the Turks Cantacuzene even handed over to them the money sent from Russia by the Great Prince of Moscow, Simeon the Proud, for the restoration of the Church of St. Sophia, at that time in a state of decay.

        Although some private settlements of the Turks in Europe, namely in Thrace and the Thractan (Gallipoli) peninsula, had existed, in all likelihood, from the first years of the reign of Cantacuzene, they did not seem dangerous, for they were, of course, under Byzantine authority. But at the beginning of the fifties, a small stronghold near Callipolis (Gallipoli), Zympa, fell into the hands of the Turks. Cantacuzene’s attempt to bribe the Turks to evacuate Zympa failed.

        In 1354 almost the whole southern coast of Thrace was struck by a terrible earthquake, which destroyed many cities and fortresses. The Turks fortified Zympa, and seized several cities in the peninsula which were abandoned by the population after the earthquake, among them Callipolis. There they constructed walls, erected strong fortifications and an arsenal, and set a large garrison, so that Callipolis became an extremely important strategic center and a base of support for their further advance in the Balkan peninsula. The people of Constantinople immediately realized their danger, and the news of the capture of Callipolis by the Turks threw them into despair. A prominent writer of the epoch, Demetrius Cydones, testified that clamors and lamentations resounded all over the whole city.

        “What speeches,” he wrote, “were more heard then in the city? Have we not perished? Are not all of us within the walls [of the city] caught as if in the net of the barbarians? Is he not happy who, before these dangers, has left the city?” “In order to escape slavery” all were hastening to Italy, Spain, and even farther “towards the sea beyond the Pillars,”[127] that is to say, beyond the Pillars of Hercules (present day Straits of Gibraltar), perhaps to England. Of these events a Russian chronicler remarked, “In the year 6854 [ab. 1346] the Ismailites [i.e., the Turks] crossed on this side, into the Greek land. In the year 6865 [ab. 1357] they took Callipolis from the Greeks.”[128]

        At that time the Venetian representative at Constantinople notified his government of the danger from the Turks, their possible capture of the remnants of the Empire, the general discontent in Byzantium, with the Emperor and government, and finally, the desire of the majority of the population to be under the power of the Latins, particularly of Venice. In another report the same official wrote that the Greeks of Constantinople, wishing to be protected against the Turks, desired first of all, the domination of Venice, or, if that was impossible, that of “the King of Hungary or Serbia.”[129] To what extent the point of view of the Venetian representative reflected the real spirit in Constantinople is difficult to say.

        Historians usually call John Cantacuzene the sole cause of the first establishment of the Turks in the Balkan peninsula; he called on them for aid during his personal struggle for power with John Palaeologus. The impression was that the whole responsibility for the subsequent barbaric behavior of the Turks in Europe was Cantacuzene’s. But, of course, it is not he alone who is responsible for this event, fatal to both Byzantium and Europe. The chief cause lies in the general conditions in Byzantium and the Balkan peninsula, where no serious obstacles could be opposed to the unrestrainable onslaught of the Turks to the west. If Cantacuzene had not called them to Europe, they would have come there in any case. As T. Florinsky said, “By their continuous incursions the Turks had paved the way for the conquest of Thrace; the miserable internal conditions of the Greco-Slavonic world had greatly contributed to the success and impunity of their invasions; finally, the political leaders of various states and peoples … had not the least idea of the threatening danger from the advancing Muhammedan power; on the contrary, all of them sought to compromise with it for their own narrow, egoistic goals; Cantacuzene was no peculiar exception.” Like Cantacuzene, the Venetians and Genoese, “these privileged defenders of Christianity against Islam,” were at that time occupied with the idea of an alliance with the Turks. The greatTsar of the Serbs and Greeks,” Dushan, was also seeking for the same alliance. “No one, of course, will absolutely justify Cantacuzene; he cannot be entirely cleared of blame for the unfortunate events which led to the establishment of the Turks in Europe; but we must not forget that he was not the only one. Stephen Dushan would perhaps have brought the Turks into the peninsula, as Cantacuzene had done, if the latter had not anticipated him and prevented him from coming to an agreement with Orkhan.”[130]

        Having established themselves at Callipolis the Turks, taking advantage of the unceasing internal troubles in Byzantium and the Slavonic states, Bulgaria and Serbia, began to extend their conquests in the Balkan peninsula. Orkhan’s successor, Sultan Murad I, captured many fortified places very near Constantinople, took possession of such important centers as Hadrianople and Philippopolis, and advancing to the west, began to menace Thessalonica. The capital of the Turkish state was transferred to Hadrianople. Constantinople was being gradually surrounded by Turkish possessions. The Emperor continued to pay tribute to the sultan.

        These conquests brought Murad face to face with Serbia and Bulgaria, which had already lost their former strength due to their internal troubles. Murad marched upon Serbia. The Serbian prince Lazar set out to meet him. In the summer of 1389 the decisive battle took place in the central part of Serbia on the field of Kossovo. At the outset the victory seemed to be on the side of the Serbs. The story goes that a noble Serb, Milosh (Miloš) Obilić or Kobilić, contrived to force a passage into the Turkish camp, presented himself as a deserter to the Turks, and entering Murad’s tent killed him with a stab from a poisoned dagger. The confusion among the Turks was rapidly quelled by Bayazid, the son of the slain Murad. He surrounded the Serbian army and inflicted a crushing defeat upon it. Lazar was taken prisoner and slain. The year of the battle of Kossovo may be considered the year of the fall of Serbia. The miserable remnants of the Serbian Empire which continued to exist for seventy years more, do not deserve the name of a state. In 1389 Serbia became subject to Turkey.[131] Four years later, in 1393 (i.e., after the death of John V), the capital of Bulgaria, Trnovo, was also captured by the Turks, and a short time later the whole territory of Bulgaria came under the power of the Turkish Empire.

        The old and ill John V had to suffer a new humiliation which accelerated his death. To protect the capital against danger from the Turks John set about restoring the city walls and erecting fortifications. On learning of this the sultan commanded him to destroy what had been built and, in case of refusal, threatened to blind the Emperor’s son and heir, Manuel, who was at that time at Bayazid’s court. John was compelled to yield, and fulfill the sultan’s demand. Constantinople entered upon the most critical epoch of its existence.


Genoa, the Black Death of 1348, and the Venetian-Genoese War. Toward the end of the reign of Andronicus III, the Genoese colony of Galata had obtained a powerful economic and political position and was a sort of state within the state. Taking advantage of the absence of the Byzantine fleet, the Genoese sent their vessels to all the ports of the Archipelago and seized the whole import trade in the Black Sea and in the Straits. A contemporary source, Nicephorus Gregoras, stated that the income from custom duties of Galata amounted annually to 200,000 gold coins, while Byzantium received barely 30,000.[132] Realizing the danger to Byzantium from Galata, Cantacuzene, notwithstanding the internal strife that was wasting the country, started, as far as the disordered finances of the Empire permitted, to build vessels for military and commercial use. The alarmed population of Galata determined to resist Cantacuzene’s plans by force; they occupied the heights commanding Galata and there erected walls, a tower, and various earthen fortifications, and took the initiative against Cantacuzene. The first attack of the Genoese upon Constantinople itself was a failure. The vessels built by Cantacuzene entered the Golden Horn to fight the Genoese, who at sight of the strength of the new Byzantine fleet were on the point of making peace. But the inexperience of the Greek commanders and the outbreak of a storm led to the crushing of the Greek fleet. The Genoese at Galata decorated their vessels and sailed triumphantly by the imperial palace, mocking the imperial flag which had been taken from the defeated Greek ships. According to the conditions of peace, the debatable heights over Galata remained in the hands of the Genoese, and Galata became increasingly dangerous to Constantinople.

        This increase in Genoese influence, already great, could not fail to affect the position of Venice, Genoa’s chief commercial foe in the East. The interests of both republics clashed acutely in the Black Sea and in the Maeotis (the Sea of Azov), where the Genoese had established themselves at Kaffa (Caffa, present-day Theodosia in the Crimea) and Tana, at the mouth of the River Don (near present-day Azov). The Bosphorus, the entrance into the Black Sea, was also in the hands of the Genoese, who, also possessing Galata, had organized on the shore of the Straits a sort of customs house which took commercial tolls from all vessels not Genoese, especially Venetian and Byzantine, sailing into the Black Sea. Genoa’s goal was the establishment of a trade monopoly in the Bosphorus. The interests of Venice and Genoa also came into collision in the islands and on the coast of the Aegean Sea.

        An immediate clash between the two republics was temporarily averted by the plague of 1348 and the following years, which paralyzed their forces. This terrible plague, the so-called Black Death, which had been carried from the interior of Asia to the coast of the Maeotis (the Sea of Azov) and to the Crimea, spread from the pestiferous Genoese trade-galleys sailing from Tana and Kaffa all over Constantinople, where it carried off, according to the probably exaggerated statements of the western chronicles, two-thirds or eight-ninths of the population.[133] Thence the plague passed to the islands of the Aegean Sea and the coast of the Mediterranean. Byzantine historians have left a detailed description of the disease showing the complete impotence of the physicians in their struggle against it.[134] In his description of this epidemic John Cantacuzene imitated the famous description of the Athenian plague in the second book of Thucydides. From Byzantium, as western chroniclers narrated, the Genoese galleys spread the disease through the coast cities of Italy, France, and Spain. “There is something incredible,” remarked M. Kovalevsky, “in this uninterrupted wandering of the pestiferous galleys through the Mediterranean ports.”[135] From these the plague spread to the north and west, and affected Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, and Norway.[136] At this time, in Italy, Boccaccio was writing his famous Decameron which begins “with a description of the Black Death classical in its picturesqueness and measured solemnity,”[137] when many brave men, fair ladies, and gallant youths “in the soundest of health, broke fast with their kinsfolk, comrades, and friends in the morning, and when evening came, supped with their forefathers in the other world.”[138] Scholars compare the description of Boccaccio with that of Thucydides, and some of them hold the humanist in higher estimation even than the classic writer.[139]

        From Germany through the Baltic Sea and Poland the plague penetrated into Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow, in Russia, where the great prince, Simeon the Proud, fell its victim in 1353, and then it spread all over Russia. In some cities, according to the statement of a Russian chronicle, no single man was left alive.[140]

        Venice was actively preparing for war. After the horrors of the plague were somewhat forgotten, the Republic of St. Mark made an alliance with the King of Aragon. The latter was discontented with Genoa and consented, by his attacks upon the shores and islands of Italy, to distract the Genoese and thereby to facilitate the advance of Venice in the east. After some hesitation John Cantacuzene joined the Aragon-Venetian alliance against Genoa; he accused the “ungrateful nation of the Genoese” of forgetting “the fear of the Lord,” devastating the seas “as if they were seized with a mania for pillaging,” and of endeavoring permanently “to disturb the seas and navigators by their piratical attacks.”[141]

        The chief battle, in which about 150 Greek, Venetian, Aragonese, and Genoese vessels took part, was fought in the beginning of the sixth decade, in the Bosphorus. It had no decisive result; each side claimed victory. The friendly relations between the Genoese and Ottoman-Turks forced John Cantacuzene to give up his alliance with Venice and become reconciled with the Genoese, to whom he gave his promise not to support Venice henceforth. He also consented to give more territory to the Genoese colony of Galata. But after some clashes Venice and Genoa, exhausted by the war, made peace. Since it failed to solve the chief problem in the conflict, the peace lasted only a short time; again a war broke out, the war of Tenedos. Tenedos, one of the few islands of the Archipelago still in the hands of the Byzantine emperors, possessed, owing to its position at the entrance into the Dardanelles, the greatest significance for the states which had commercial relations with Constantinople and the countries around the Black Sea. Since both shores of the straits were in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Tenedos was an excellent observation point of their actions. Venice, which had already for a long time dreamed of occupying this island, after long negotiations with the Emperor at last got his consent. But the Genoese could not acquiesce in the cession of Tenedos to Venice; in order to prevent its accomplishment, they succeeded in raising a revolution at Constantinople which deposed John V and set his eldest son, Andronicus, upon the throne for three years. The war which had broken out between the two republics exhausted both of them and ruined all the states which had commercial concerns in the East. At last, in 1381, the war ended with the peace made at Turin, the capital of the Duchy of Savoy.

        A detailed and voluminous text of the conference of Turin exists.[142] With the personal participation of the count of Savoy, the conference discussed various general problems of international life, which was already very complicated at that time, and worked out the conditions of peace; of the latter, only those are interesting here which put an end to the dispute between Venice and Genoa and which referred to Byzantium. Venice was to evacuate the island of Tenedos, the fortifications of which were leveled to the ground; the island itself was on a set date to pass into the hands of the Count of Savoy (in manibus prefati domini Sabaudie comitis), who was related to the Palaeologi (on the side of Anne of Savoy, wife of Andronicus III). Thus neither Venice nor Genoa gained this important strategic point, to whose possession they had so eagerly aspired.

        A Spanish traveler, Pero Tafur, who visited Constantinople in 1437 gave a very interesting description of Tenedos:


We came to the island of Tenedos, where we anchored and disembarked. While the ship was being refitted we set out to see the island, which is some eight or ten miles about. There are many conies, and it is covered with vineyards, but they are all spoilt. The harbor of Tenedos looks so new that it might have been built today by a masterhand. The mole is made of great stones and columns, and here the ships have their moorings and excellent anchorage. There are other places where ships can anchor, but this is the best, since it is opposite the entrance to the Straits of Romania [Dardanelles]. Above the harbor is a great hill surmounted by a very strong castle. This castle was the cause of much fighting between the Venetians and Genoese until the Pope sentenced it to be destroyed, that it might belong to neither. But, without doubt, this was very ill-advised, since the harbor is one of the best in the world. No ship can enter the straits without first anchoring there to find the entrance, which is very narrow, and the Turks, knowing how many ships touch there, arm themselves and lie in wait and kill many Christians.[143]


As for the acute question of the trade-monopoly of the Genoese in the Black Sea and Maeotis, especially in the colony of Tana, Genoa, according to the conditions of the peace of Turin, was obliged to give up her intention of closing the Venetian markets of the Black Sea and of shutting off access to Tana. The commercial nations resumed their intercourse with Tana, which, situated at the mouth of the river Don, was one of the very important centers of trade with eastern peoples. Peaceful relations between Genoa and the elderly John V, who had regained the throne, were restored. Byzantium had again to steer a way between the two republics, whose commercial interests in the East, despite the terms of peace, continued to collide. However, the peace of Turin, which ended a great war caused by the economic rivalry of Venice and Genoa, was of great importance because it allowed the nations which maintained intercourse with Romania to resume their trade, which had been interrupted for many years. But their further destiny depended upon the Ottoman Turks, to whom, as was already obvious at the end of the fourteenth century, belonged the future of the Christian East.


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