Timeline: Decline and Fall (13th to 15th Centuries)

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The Fourth Crusade

The end of the Komnenian dynasty signals a new period of weak and finally incompetent rule.

A disinherited Byzantine prince involves a crusading army in Byzantine politics with disastrous results. The crusaders were originally bound for Egypt. Encouraged by the Venetians, who by now are a significant maritime and economic power, the crusaders instead attack and partially destroy Constantinople - the greatest city in Christendom.

For the first time in almost eight hundred years the walls of Constantinople yield to an attacking army. Committed by one group of Christians against another, the so-called "Fourth Crusade" ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in all of European history.

For the next sixty years Constantinople languishes under Latin rule.

1261 to 1282

Byzantine recovery of Constantinople and reign of the Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos

Although the heart of Empire was torn out by the capture of Constantinople, the Byzantines themselves show a considerable amount of resilience. Three major "successor states" are set up by Byzantines within the borders of the old Empire. The strongest of the successor states is the so-called Empire of Nicaea. In 1261 the Nicaean Emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos, succeeds in recapturing Constantinople from the Latins.

Michaelís brilliance as soldier and diplomat restores the Empire to some of its former glory, but he remains an ambivalent figure in Byzantine history - he had murdered his way to the top but had committed a still greater crime in the eyes of his subjects. In the interests of securing some form of western alliance, Michael had attempted forced union of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Church union is unthinkable to most ordinary Byzantines - their attitude towards the west permanently embittered by the Fourth Crusade.


Ottoman Turks capture Nicaea

The weakened Empire is unable to hold on to its provinces in Asia Minor. Osman, a Turkish Emir with his power base in northwestern Asia Minor, enhances his power at the expense both of his Turkish neighbours and the Byzantines. His emerging state, named after him, is known as the Ottoman Emirate.

The Ottomans take Nicaea after an unsuccessful Byzantine relief expedition. Little of Asia Minor is left in Byzantine hands.

1341 to 1391

Civil War, Plague, political and military collapse

Byzantiumís position is exacerbated by a protracted civil war, fought out between aristocratic factions and partisans of the Palaiologos family. Superimposed upon civil war is the Black Death, which hits Constantinople in the spring of 1347.

Shorn of virtually all of its territory Byzantium is a virtual dependency of the Ottoman Turks, who now surround Constantinople from Europe and Asia.

1397 to 1402

First Turkish siege of Constantinople

The siege is finally lifted as an incidental effect of the Battle of Ankara - a terrible Ottoman defeat at the hands of Timur-Lenk (Tamburlane) and his army of Mongols and Tartars.

Manuel II Palaiologos undertakes a tour of western Europe (as far afield as Britain) in the hope of stirring up support for what remains of his empire. Western Europe is becoming more aware of its Greek heritage and Manuel encounters much sympathy and expressions of goodwill - unfortunately these do not extend to much in the way of concrete assistance.


Second Turkish siege of Constantinople

The second Turkish attack upon Constantinople, this time led by the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, is a shorter and much fiercer affair than its predecessor. Nevertheless, the Byzantines put up a determined resistance and the Turks eventually lift the siege - partially, also, as a result of clandestine Byzantine interference in Ottoman politics.


The fall of Constantinople

The young Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, decides upon the final elimination of the Byzantine "Empire" - which is now effectively reduced to Constantinople itself and the Despotate (Province) of Morea in the Peloponnese.

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos is the last Byzantine Emperor, strictly speaking the last Roman Emperor, in an unbroken political tradition stretching back to Augustus, almost 1,500 years earlier.

Constantine had been proclaimed Emperor at Mistra (capital of the Despotate of Morea) in 1449 and had precious little time to prepare for the Turkish assault. For the defence of Constantinople he has a small army of just over 8,000 men - 3,000 of them foreigners, including, ironically enough, contingents from Genoa and Venice, the two great Italian maritime cities who had done a considerable amount of damage to the Empire over the previous three centuries.

The defenders, outnumbered at least 10 to 1 by Mehmetís army, put up an extraordinarily brave and effective defence - differences between Latin and Greek are forgotten in the last few desperate days of the Empire.

Finally, in the early hours of Tuesday, 29 May 1453, the Turks launch wave after wave of attackers against Constantinopleís land walls. Turkish soldiers force their way in through a small gate and organised Byzantine resistance finally collapses. Constantine and most of his Byzantine soldiers die fighting along and around the walls. The aftermath of the City's fall is rivalled only by that of the Fourth Crusade.

Mehmet, who is later to make Constantinople the capital of his own great empire, is a dynamic and ruthless 21-year-old. After touring the Cityís ruined Great Palace, he is moved to speak a few lines by a Persian poet:

"The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab ...."

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