History of the Middle ages: John Palaeologus to Constantine

Only three more sovereigns ruled the remnants of the Roman world after the reign of John Palaeologus, but the final downfall of the empire was delayed above fifty years by a series of events that had sapped the strength of the Mahomedan empire. The rise and triumph of the Moguls and Tartars under their emperors, descendants of Jenghiz Khan, had shaken the globe from China to Poland and Greece (1206-1304). The sultans were overthrown, and in the general disorder of the Mahomedan world a veteran and adventurous army, which included many Turcoman hordes, was dissolved into factions who, under various chiefs, lived a life of rapine and plunder. Some of these served Aladin (1219-36), sultan of Iconium, and among these the fathers of the Ottoman line.

The force or horde, that Orthogrul ruled as the soldier and servant of Aladin recognized on his death the authority of his son Othman (1299-1326). Leading his forces through the passes of Mount Olympus, Othman invaded Bithynia and entered the territory of Nicomedia. In a long series of campaigns against the Christians, his hereditary troops were multiplied by the accession of captives and volunteers. Establishing himself, Othman maintained his position against the Greeks. In the last year of his reign he received the welcome news of the conquest of Prusa by his son Orchan. From the conquest of that town we may date the true era of the Ottoman Empire.

ORCHAN ruled from 1326 to 1360, achieved the conquest of Bithynia, and first led the Turks into Europe, and in 1353 established himself in the Chersonesus and occupied Gallipoli, the key of the Hellespont. Orchan was succeeded by Amurath I (1360-89), who in his turn gave way to Bajazet I (1389-1403). Bajazet carried his victorious arms from the Danube to the Euphrates, and the Roman world became contracted to a corner of Thrace, between the Propontis and the Black Sea, about fifty miles in length and thirty in breadth, a space of ground not more extensive than the lesser principalities of Germany or Italy, if the remains of Constantinople had not still represented the wealth and populousness of a kingdom.

Under Manuel (1391-1425), the son and successor of John Palaeologus, Constantinople would have fallen before the might of the Sultan Bajazet had not the Turkish Empire been oppressed by the revival of the Mogul power under the victorious Timour, or Tamerlane. After achieving a conquest of Persia (1380-93), of Tartary (1370-83), and Hindustan (1398-99), Timour, who aspired to the monarchy of world, found himself at length face to face with the Sultan Bajazet. Bajazet was taken prisoner in the war that followed. Kept, probably only as a precaution, in an iron cage, Bajazet attended the marches of his conqueror, and died on March 9, 1403. Two years later, Timour also passed away on the road to China. Since the reign of his descendant Aurungzebe, his empire has been dissolved (1659-1707); the treasures of Delhi have been rifled by a Persian robber; and the riches of their kingdom are now possessed by the Christians of a remote island in the northern ocean.

Far different was the fate of the Ottoman monarchy. The massy trunk was bent to the ground, but it again rose with fresh vigour and more lively vegetation. After a period of civil war between the sons of Bajazet (1403-21), the Ottoman Empire was once more firmly established by his grandson, Amurath II (1421-51).

One of the first expeditions undertaken by the new sultan was the siege of Constantinople (1422), but the fortune rather than the genius of the Emperor Manuel prevented the attempt. Amurath was recalled to Asia by a domestic revolt, and the siege was raised.

WHILE the sultan led his Janissaries to new conquests, the Byzantine Empire was indulged in a servile and precarious respite of thirty years. Manuel sank into the grave, and John Palaeologus II (1425-48) was permitted to reign for an annual tribute of 300,000 aspers and the dereliction of almost all that he held beyond the suburbs of Constantinople.

Reduced now to the limits of distress, the Roman emperors sought the assistance of the Western powers. Manuel had visited most of the European countries in the hope of raising a crusade against the Turks. His successor, under the pretence of re-uniting the churches of East and West, imitated his methods. A pompous embassy accompanied him to Rome, and at the Council of Florence the union was accomplished, and the final peace of the church established in 1449.

ONE of the fruits of this imperial mission was the march of Ladislaus, king of Poland and Hungary, at the instigation of Pope Eugenius, against the Turks (1443). In two battles he overcame the forces of the sultan, and compelled him to restore Serbia and evacuate the Hungarian frontier. A truce of ten years, which was agreed upon by treaty, was broken in 1444, and Ladislaus met his death on the field of Warna (Nov. 10, 1444).

BY the generous command of the sultan a column was raised on the spot where he fell, recording the valour and bewailing the misfortunes of the Hungarian hero.

On November 1, 1448, Constantine, the last of the Roman emperors, assumed the purple of the Caesars. For three years he indulged himself in various private and public designs, the completion of which was interrupted by a Turkish war, and finally buried in the ruins of the empire.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I