Golden Journal No. 40:
Byzantium Eternal

An Alternative Empire

Note: Byzantium Eternal is our alternative-history Soldier Emperor variant, appearing in Golden Journal No. 40. The Byzantine Empire has survived into the Napoleonic Era, and now once again has to make its way in a suddenly changed world. Let’s have a look at the Empire as it stands in 1801.

The failure of the 1453 Turkish assault on Constantinople ushered in 350 years of Byzantine recovery. The Empire steadily regained more and more of its lost provinces, with the 1683-1699 War of the Holy League and 1714-1718 Great Turkish War marking the most important advances. By 1801 the Empire stood as a respectable state on the south-east fringe of Europe but retained at best a shadow of its former glory.

The Byzantines do not, of course, refer to themselves as “Byzantines.” They are Romans, heir to the greatest empire the world has ever known, even if they now speak Greek. Ten provinces make up the Roman Empire; here’s a look at them.

The Capital
The center of the Byzantine Empire, and according to Byzantines of the universe as well, is Constantinople, known simply as The City. Once the Byzantine-owned Suez Canal opened in the late 16th Century, the city began a rapid period of growth and by 1800 it rivals Beijing for the crown of world’s largest city, with a population of slightly more than one million.

The hinterland includes the European shore of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, extending northward to the border with Russian-ruled Bulgaria and westward to the Maritza River, the border with the Byzantine province of Thrace. The Asiatic shore is also controlled by the Byzantines, with a hinterland ranging from 20 to 150 miles deep from the shores of the straits and the Sea of Marmora.

The City is the economic, political and military heart of the Byzantine Empire. Its shipyards, based on Venice’s famed Arsenal, can turn out both sailing warships and galleys in assembly-line fashion. Weapons, uniforms and other military supplies are churned out by its workshops in time of war.

Crimean wheat feeds The City, and vast quantities of Russian grain pass through Constantinople as well on their way to Italy, France and even England. An Industrial Revolution is in the offing, as small manufactories combine into true factory-sized establishments powered by coal-fired steam engines.

Breadbasket of the Empire, the Crimean Peninsula had long been home to a Byzantine foothold, the Principality of Theodoro. After the 1453 defense of Constantinople, a trickle of Byzantine reinforcements helped hold the small territory. Through the 16th Century the Byzantines slowly ejected the Genoese colonies that had strangled its access to the coast. During the War of the Holy League Byzantine troops finally pressed the Crimean Khanate out of the peninsula. The inhabitants are ethnically mixed and include many Crimean Goths, the last distinct remnant of the Gothic peoples who entered Europe some 1,500 years prior to our story. They all speak Greek now, and follow the Orthodox faith.

Note: The actual Principality of Theodoro was a Gothic, Byzantine backwater throughout its existence, pressured by Genoese colonies along the southern coast of Crimea and Crimean Tatars just to the north. It lasted 22 years longer than the Byzantine Empire, falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1475.

Tucked along the south-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the province of Trebizond spent three centuries as an independent empire of its own before returning to the Byzantine fold in 1528. Trebizond is the center of the Byzantine silk industry, and also exports tobacco and hazelnuts. As an isolated province it’s had to fend off repeated Turkish assaults over the last several centuries, but has not been seriously threatened since the War of the Holy League devastated the countryside and subjected the city itself to a protracted siege. Many of the locals still speak their own dialect of Pontic Greek, but the growth of Constantinople’s publishing industry and the coming of a standard Empire-wide educational system.

Note: The actual Empire of Trebizond separated from the Byzantine Empire after the 1204 sack of Constantinople, and fell to Turkish assault in 1464.

The Peloponnese, also known as the Morea, had been held by the Byzantines up until the failed siege of 1453, and afterwards it became a center of Byzantine power. The Empire steadily recovered Thessaly and Epirus to enlarge the Despotate, as it was known at the time of the Great Siege. By 1801, Greece is a well-populated province able to feed itself and supply the Empire with soldiers and sailors both. Athens has resumed its place as a cultural center, and most inhabitants make their living from the sea. While the population is culturally and linguistically Greek, following long-standing Imperial practice many peoples from the Empire’s borderlands have been resettled here and absorbed into Greek culture.

Note: The actual Despotate of the Morea, held jointly by the two incompetent younger brothers of Constantine XI, fell in 1460 to Turkish attack.

An old Byzantine possession, Crete had been lost to Venice in the wake of the disastrous 1204 Fourth Crusade. The Cretans retained their Orthodox religion and often rebelled against Venetian rule, and in 1454 a revolt led by the Cretan noble Sifi Vlastos overthrew the viceroy and placed the island back under Byzantine rule. Crete is an important center of wine production, and also houses an important Imperial naval base. In military terms, the Cretans are considered fierce fighters and are usually recruited for light infantry formations. Crete has been a cultural center of the Byzantine world for centuries, noted for its artists and poets. The province includes the island of Rhodes and the smaller islands between Crete and Rhodes.

Note: The revolt of Sifi Vlastos failed to gain much traction, but then, it didn’t have a great Byzantine victory and resurgence to provide inspiration (and arms). Crete did experience a cultural explosion, but did so under Venetian rather than Byzantine rule. The Ottoman Turks eventually conquered Crete in 1669 following an epic 21-year siege of the capital, Candia.

Like Crete, Corfu had been lost to the Venetians following the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople. The Byzantines recaptured the other six Ionian Islands between 1481 and 1502, but Venice retained Corfu. When the French occupied Venice in 1797, the Byzantines quickly moved to forestall any French move to take Corfu and incorporated the island into their Empire. Most inhabitants already spoke Greek and followed the Orthodox faith.

The Ionian Islands produce some agricultural exports, chiefly wine and the famous Zante Raisins (actually dried currants), but Corfu’s real value is as a naval base. It faces the West, guarding the Empire’s flank and potentially aiding the projection of Byzantine power into Sicily and Italy.

Note: Corfu served as a vital Venetian naval base up to the Republic’s fall in 1797, passing between French, Russian and Ottoman hands during the Napoleonic Wars. The Austrian Empire declined to take possession when it formally annexed the rest of the Serene Republic’s lands after the wars, and Corfu was ruled by Britain until 1864 when it and the other islands joined with Greece.

Constantine XI followed up the Byzantine victory in the 1453 Great Siege with a rapid strike to recapture Thessalonica, long the Empire’s second city, while the Turks still reeled. The Byzantines had handed the city to the Venetians in 1423, trusting them to defend it, but they lost it to the Turks in 1430. In the wake of the re-capture the Byzantines took some of the city’s hinterland and rebuilt its fortifications, but most of Thrace only fell under the Imperial eagle after the War of the Holy League. Those conquests gave Byzantine Thrace a substantial piece of inland territory, bordered on the north by Austrian-ruled Serbia, the east by Russian Bulgaria and the west by the disorganized Albanian principalities.

By 1801, the province’s Slavic inhabitants have become largely Hellenized, speaking and reading Greek and considering themselves Greeks. Muslims had been expelled long ago. Thrace produces wheat and wine, the staples of the Byzantine diet, and also tobacco, marble and a number of important metals. Its exports are largely geared toward supplying food and raw materials to The City’s growing population and industries, but Thessalonica is growing into a financial and industrial center of its own.

Cyprus had been lost to an army of Western crusaders in 1191, but almost three hundred years later the Byzantines re-acquired the island in 1489 by purchasing it from its last Frankish ruler, Queen Catherine Cornaro. The island produces sugar, but Byzantine restrictions on slavery – Christians cannot be enslaved, and Muslims who convert must be freed – limit the labor supply for the back-breaking work of cutting cane. Its population contains many of mixed ethnic descent, but almost all speak Greek and follow the Orthodox faith.

Cyprus is also considered an important naval base for defending the Suez Canal; even if the Canal Zone is blockaded or becalmed, fleets based in Cyprus can operate against them.

Note: It was Venice rather than Byzantium that purchased Cyprus in 1489; Muslim slaves labored in its sugar plantations until the Turks took the island in 1571.

Byzantine armies conquered the Suez region and the adjoining Sinai Peninsula in 1570, but failed in their attempt to take Jerusalem as well. Over the next 15 years, using tens of thousands of dragooned Egyptian laborers, they dug a canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas. This narrow waterway became the foundation of Byzantine prosperity, allowing Greek traders and their Venetian allies rapid access to India and the Spice Islands beyond.

The Canal Zone is lightly populated, mostly by Byzantine troops and Coptic Christian settlers – Islam is forbidden here as in the rest of the Byzantine world. The canal has been subjected to both Turkish and Western assaults throughout its existence, including a French invasion in 1798, but has never fallen to enemy attack.

Note: The highly competent Ottoman Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet, born Bajica Sokolovic, attempted to build a Suez Canal in the 1570’s but the project never progressed beyond engineering surveys. With Sokollu serving the Byzantine Emperor, Sultan Selim the Drunk would have had even more reason to drink heavily.

The only Byzantine province where Islam is allowed to be openly practiced, Egypt is also the most heavily-populated. Even so, it produces a grain surplus that helps feed The City. Muslim residents are exempt from military service, but subjected to higher tax rates than Orthodox or Coptic Christians.

The Byzantine Empire seized Egypt in 1570, during Turkish confusion of their failed 1565 assault on Constantinople and the subsequent death of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. A thousand years earlier it had been a thriving Byzantine province, but religious dissent had weakened its defenses and during the interim much of its population had become Muslim. Taking up a modified Turkish practice, Byzantine agents purchase infants from Muslim families to be raised elsewhere in the Empire as orphans, never knowing of their origin. Adults are encouraged to convert, through tax and other incentives, but after more than two centuries of these efforts the Orthodox faith remains a very small minority religion. Most Egyptian Christians are Copts, and enjoy the same civic freedoms as the Orthodox. The Muslims are restive, unhappy with their second-class status and angry that the Byzantine Greeks steal their children.

Note: And that’s the state of the Empire in 1801.

The Golden Journal is only available to the Gold Club (that’s why we call it the Golden Journal). We print enough of them to handle initial demand and a few extras, but once they’re gone we won’t reprint them – there’s just no profit in a company as small as Avalanche Press keeping a $19.99 item perpetually in stock. If you want your Byzantines, the time to grab it is now.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold. Leopold was a good dog.

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