The Medieval Review 11.02.02

Necipoğlu, Nevra. Byzantium between the Ottomans and the Latins, Politics and Society in the Late Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xvii, 350. 99.00 ISBN 978-0-521-87738-1. .

Reviewed by:

Teresa Shawcross
Cambridge
tshawcross@amherst.edu

The exploration of the transformation of identities and allegiances figures prominently in current scholarship on the late medieval eastern Mediterranean, with a number of volumes having been published in recent years (e.g., Antony Eastmond, Art and Identity in Thirteenth-Century Byzantium: Hagia Sophia and the Empire of Trebizond [Aldershot: 2004], Ruth Macrides, George Akropolites: The History, [Oxford: 2007]; Dimiter Angelov, Imperial Ideology and Political Thought in Byzantium, 1204-1330, [Cambridge, Eng.,: 2007]; Gill Page, Being Byzantine: Greek Identity before the Ottomans [Cambridge: 2008]; and my own Chronicle of Morea: Historiography in Crusader Greece [Oxford, 2009]; also the volume edited by Judith Herrin and Guillaume Saint-Guillain, Identities and Allegiances in the Eastern Mediterranean after 1204 [Aldershot: 2010]). Necipoğlu's monograph makes a substantial contribution to current debates. It describes the trajectory of Ottoman expansion and explores the responses over several centuries of different components of society to this nascent power, focussing upon the variety of political positions among the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire. Three events are insisted upon as watersheds. The first of these is the acquisition in the third quarter of the fourteenth century by the Ottomans of their initial footholds on European soil, notably at Gallipoli, which allowed pressure to be exerted by sea and by land on the Balkan Peninsula. The second is the military defeat of the Ottomans on their eastern frontier at the beginning of the fifteenth century, which resulted in a civil war over the succession to the sultanate, granting the states on the Ottomans' western frontier a period of reprieve during which they could regain lost territories and reorganise their defences more effectively. The third is that of the elimination in the third quarter of the fifteenth century of the Palaeologan dynasty as the reigning dynasty of the Byzantine Empire and the passing of the last remnants of the Empire itself under direct Ottoman control.

Using these events to provide a chronological framework, Necipoğlu identifies the development of a range of allegiances during the period. Most Byzantines, whatever stratum of society they belonged to, ultimately strove, we are told, for prosperity and the preservation of their material interests, but there were considerable differences of opinion as to how these goals might be achieved. One group, according to Necipoğlu, proposed co-operation with the Ottomans and ultimately capitulation to them. However, she goes on to explain that, while some Byzantines favoured submission to the invaders, others advocated continued resistance. The latter can be divided into two further sub-categories: those who wished the Byzantine Empire to rely upon its own resources and refuse foreign aid, and those who considered that native military was inadequate for the task in hand and therefore contended that it was necessary to broker alliances with various Latin powers. These political positions were not adhered to by their supporters with absolute consistency; rather, changes in external circumstances elicited new reactions and consequently there could be considerable fluctuation in attitudes over time. Moreover, amongst the Byzantine population there were those who, entirely self-centred and concerned only with profiteering, exploited their fellow citizens with little thought as to the political consequences of their actions.

The core chapters of the book offer a series of case studies, focussing in turn on Thessalonike, Constantinople and the Despotate of Mistra, and identifying the existence of shared trends while also drawing attention to extensive regional variation. The second city of the Byzantine Empire, Thessalonike (Chapters 3-5), underwent significant political, social and economic changes during the late Middle Ages. By the time of its first brief occupation by the Ottomans in the 1390s, Thessalonike was already riven by internal tensions between rich and poor, and could claim a long history of civic discord and bloody revolt. This occupation, which proved to be "unexpectedly and surprisingly gentle," was followed by a return to Byzantine control, then by a series of further Ottoman attacks and sieges. Ottoman hostilities cut off the city from the surrounding countryside, and deprived it not only of food but also of the trade goods that were the main source of the urban population's income. Almost all the Thessalonians were affected adversely. Some fled, while the rest "were divided over political preferences as they sought different ways to relieve their hardship". The common people clamoured for surrender to the Ottomans, while those members of the aristocracy who held offices in civic government were by and large in favour of calling in the Venetians to assume the role of protectors of the city. Heavy-handed administration by Venetian governors during the 1420s, however, coupled with the inability of the Serenissima to prevent famine, led to disillusionment with western regimes even among the upper classes. Even so, the city eluded the Ottomans until 1430, when Murad II finally took it. Although the inhabitants were initially allowed by the conquerors to keep their moveable and immovable property, this policy was soon reversed and ultimately the only sector of society not to be the target of extensive requisitions were the monks of nearby Mount Athos.

Comparing Constantinople (Chapters 6-8) to Thessalonike, Necipoğlu identifies many similarities. Both cities were characterised by a division of the population not into an upper, middle and lower class, but rather into two clearly defined groups that can be referred to simply as the rich and the poor. As the late Middle Ages progressed, the distance between these two classes continued to widen, and inequality became even more marked. In each of the cities, social divisions were broadly reflected in the political positions that were adopted by the inhabitants. That said, the status of Constantinople as the capital of the Byzantine Empire also meant that this city's political landscape had certain characteristics unique to it. Constantinopolitans thus witnessed the brokering of marriage alliances and other agreements between the ruling Byzantine and Ottoman dynasties. In the fourteenth century, there developed within the imperial court in Constantinople an influential group, led by Andronicus II Palaeologus, that was markedly in favour of an accommodationist attitude towards the Ottomans. After the emergence of Bayezid's aggressive policy of "unification," however, peaceful co-existence with the Ottomans no longer seemed a possibility, and most courtiers, like the aristocrats in Thessalonike, turned to a pro-Latin policy. Economic interests played an important role in this shift. Necipoğlu shows that the secular elite of Constantinople sustained substantial financial losses in the early fifteenth century as a result of Ottoman expansion; those who maintained their wealth into the mid-fifteenth century did so because of their connections with Italian commercial networks, and in many instances abandoned Byzantine citizenship in favour of Venetian or Genoese citizenship. Meanwhile, the lower classes were generally opposed to the Latins, and indeed at one critical juncture, during a siege of Constantinople shortly before the battle of Bapheus of 1402, agitated in favour of the acceptance of Ottoman rule. For their part, ecclesiastics and monks also became increasingly hostile to the Latins, particularly after the Union of the Churches in 1439. Yet, despite these pro-Ottoman tendencies attested in certain sections of the population, Constantinople, like Thessalonike a couple of decades earlier, did not surrender, but had to be taken by force by Mehmet II in 1453.

In the Despotate of Mistra, the subject of the final case study (Chapters 9-10), concerns were, according to Necipoğlu, very different to those of the two major cities of Macedonia and Thrace. Relations between Byzantines and Ottomans were complicated by the fact the region of the Peloponnese had for a significant period following the Fourth Crusade in 1204 come under western rule, notably that of the Villehardouin dynasty. Various groups of westerners, such as the Venetians, continued as late as the fifteenth century to exercise considerable influence over local affairs. As a result, even in those Peloponnesian territories that were gradually reincorporated within the Byzantine Empire during the re-conquest that lasted from 1262 to 1432, imperial authority remained weak. Local magnates repeatedly sought the military assistance of both the Latins and the Ottomans against the Palaeologoi with the aim of preserving jurisdiction over lands and personal strongholds, and avoiding imperial taxation. Imperial governors and despots also contracted similar alliances. However, once these foreign "allies" had been introduced into the region, they proved difficult to control. The Ottomans, in particular, began to stage regular raids, culminating with the sack of the city of Argos in 1397 and the enslavement of 14,000 Christians from the north-east Peloponnese. In order to prevent further Ottoman incursions, the Palaeologoi in the second decade of the fifteenth century proposed the rebuilding of the ruined Hexamilion, an impressive line of fortifications that had first been established in the sixth century and had, for much of the Byzantine period, acted as a main component of military defences at the Isthmus of Corinth. However, this project was interpreted by Peloponnesians less as an attempt to upgrade defences so that they could withstand the Ottomans than as yet another strategy on the part of central government aimed at subjugating the Peloponnesians themselves. Tensions between metropolitan and provincial interests led to a series of outright rebellions against the imperial regime by Peloponnesians, quelled only with difficulty; indeed, rumblings of discontent continued right up to the termination in 1460 of the Palaeologan rule over the region.

With this volume, Necipoğlu offers a well-researched and thoughtful discussion of the elaboration of a series of distinct types of allegiance, commenting perceptively on the shifts that occurred from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. Religious factors, while acknowledged as playing some part in the process, are generally downplayed in the volume as decisive determinants of political loyalty. In contrast, far greater emphasis is put on social and economic factors. Thus, commercial interests are seen as key to the decision of certain Byzantines to side not with the Ottomans, but with the Latins instead. Not everyone will agree with the conclusions reached. The portrayal of Ottoman expansion in the book is provocative and may raise some eyebrows. Necipoğlu makes a case for the existence within late Byzantine society of a significant contingent willing to adopt attitudes that can labelled as having been in various respects pro-Ottoman. The pro-Ottoman stance on the part of certain Byzantines is understood by her to be a result of the implementation by the Ottomans of a conciliatory policy towards Christians that culminated in the imposition upon those territories that came under Ottoman dominion of a regime which in many respects was more lenient than rule by other powers. The Ottomans sought to expand "dar al-Islam" ("the abode of Islam") primarily by threatening the indigenous population of neighbouring regions, then offering terms, only undertaking outright conquest by the sword as a last resort. A readiness was displayed to treat not only with peasant populations or urban masses, but also with local elites who in certain contexts were allowed to maintain their religious faith and social status, and who were incorporated into the fabric of the nascent Ottoman Empire through the "grant of military fiefs known as timars". In other words, despite the fact that the key cities of Thessalonike and Constantinople were both sacked, Ottoman dominion in the Balkans should be understood as having generally been achieved through more peaceful means. This is the part of Necipoğlu's argument that is most likely to be challenged.

The reader of the volume cannot ignore that, in this discussion of the Byzantine Empire, the coverage of different strata and different geographical areas is a little uneven. For instance, Necipoğlu is superb when delving into the archives in order to reconstruct the motives and actions of individuals and families belonging to the upper echelons of society in Thessalonike and Constantinople; she is less convincing when dealing with other social groups, or when looking at the largely rural population of the Despotate of Mistra. Her analysis of local and trans-regional networks, which forms the most innovative and original aspect of the book, could perhaps have been pushed further so as to occupy its rightful place at the heart of the volume. At the very least, the blanket terms "aristocrat," "aristocrats," and "aristocracy" should have been more carefully defined, or perhaps even avoided altogether in favour of a richer and more nuanced language that could delineate the interaction of different regional nexuses of power with greater accuracy. As it is, one is left in a state of puzzlement regarding the extent to which the metropolitan and provincial elites were distinct or intertwined in the period under discussion. But these issues are to some degree an unavoidable consequence of the nature of surviving sources.

Without a doubt, the volume is an engaging one, and the lively scholarly exchanges on the subject of Ottoman expansion that can be expected to be generated as a result of its publication will considerably advance our knowledge of the late medieval eastern Mediterranean. In addition, Necipoğlu's monograph will be an invaluable tool to anyone wishing to teach the last centuries of the Byzantine Empire not as a narrative of inexorable decline and fall, but with attention to the upheavals and uncertainties of the period.