Golden Journal No. 40:
An Alternative History
Note: Byzantium Eternal is our alternative-history setting for our Soldier Emperor game, in which the Byzantine Empire has survived the 1453 Ottoman assault on Constantinople and continued to exist for another 350 years.
The Byzantine Empire’s unlikely victory in the 1453 Siege of Constantinople owed much to the timely arrival of Vettore Capello’s powerful Venetian fleet. With the Ottoman fleet unable to prevent supplies and reinforcements from slipping into the city, Constantine XI’s garrison repelled repeated Turkish assaults. The death of the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmed at the hands of a special squad of papal operatives threw the besiegers into confusion, and the Turks soon withdrew in disarray.
Note: This was the plotline of our Last Days of Constantinople role-playing adventure, published just after the turn of the century, though in that adventure it’s unlikely that our heroes will succeed.
With the Turks falling back to their European capital of Adrianople, the Basileus Constantine and his allies secured the Turkish fortresses sealing both the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits connecting the Black Sea with the Aegean. As the Turks fell into civil war to determine who would serve as regent for Mehmed’s young son Bayezid, Constantine recovered Thessalonika, the Morea peninsula in Greece and re-unified his small empire with the breakaway Empire of Trebizond in eastern Anatolia. The Byzantine capital received a boost in 1492 when the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews from their lands; the Byzantines - with a long history of tolerance toward the Emperor’s Jewish subjects - welcomed them and received a needed infusion of professionals and merchants.
The tiny Byzantine Empire lay astride the communications routes between the European and Asian halves of the Ottoman domain, and in 1529 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent brought the full force of his empire to bear on the Byzantine capital. The siege lasted just two weeks, as the Byzantine fleet brought timely reinforcements from the other Byzantine territories as well as several thousand Italian mercenaries. Suleiman would try again in 1565; this time the siege lasted for four months but once again it was broken, this time with the help of Spanish troops.
Notes: Constantinople did prosper with the arrival of a large influx of Jewish refugees from Spain, but this happened with the city under Turkish rule. Suleiman attacked Vienna in 1529 and Malta in 1565.
Upon Suleiman’s death in 1566 while preparing yet another assault, he was succeeded by Selim the Drunk, ushering in a respite of over a century for the small Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines took advantage of Turkish distraction, and in 1570 the sebastokrator Bajica Sokolovic, an Orthodox Serb, led an expedition to conquer Ottoman-ruled Egypt. The Byzantines succeeded, and over the next decade Sokolovic oversaw the digging of a canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The canal, completed in 1585, at first allowed only galleys to transit between the seas but over the following decades it would be widened and deepened with towpaths to accommodate the teams of oxen that pulled ships through.
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 other side, Selim would have had even more reason to drink heavily.
With a direct connection to the luxury goods of India and the Spice Islands, Byzantine fortunes soared in the decades that followed. Merchant fleets made the journey to India, while Venetian traders also fattened the Imperial purse with tolls paid to pass the canal - under the long-standing alliance between Republic and Empire, Venetians paid the same rate as Imperial citizens while others paid fees bordering on extortion. The Byzantines cultivated Egypt’s Coptic population as clients, while forging an alliance with Christian Ethiopia as well.
While Venice profited, her rival Genoa faded, and by the early 1600’s the Byzantines had absorbed the former Genoese colonies in the Crimea and the Aegean. The Crimea became the Empire’s breadbasket, with strong fortifications and a galley fleet to protect it from the Tatars on the steppes just to the north and Turkish raiders operating from Bulgaria or northern Anatolia.
By the middle of the 17th Century, the Byzantine-Venetian commercial and military alliance came under increasing pressure from the Atlantic maritime powers as English and Dutch ships now entered the Mediterranean in numbers and demanded access to the Suez Canal. Yet even as these new threats emerged, marked by a great increase in piracy the Turks bestirred themselves under the warrior Sultan Mehmed IV and in 1683 launched a coordinated assault against both Constantinople and Suez. The Byzantines had spent both decades and vast amounts of their wealth on fortifications and garrisons, and repelled both attacks with the aid of their Venetian allies.
Following the repulse of the Turks, the Byzantines and Venetians were joined by new allies in a Holy League dedicated to expelling the Ottomans from Europe. Austria, Poland and Russia all attacked, and the Turks suffered repeated defeats. When the war ended in 1699, Turkish-controlled territory in the Balkans had been reduced to just the western coast of the Black Sea. The Byzantine Empire now recovered Bulgaria, northern Greece and the remainder of Thrace, with the Austrian Habsburgs taking Serbia, northern Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania.
Note: The War of the Holy League really happened, and did conquer large swathes of Ottoman-ruled territory in the Balkans, but of course the Byzantines were not involved.
Byzantine rule over Bulgaria would last but two generations. An ill-advised and poorly-conducted effort to drive the Turks completely out of Europe, launched in 1737 in alliance with the Austrians and Russians, ended in disaster as the Turks re-took Bulgaria, Wallachia and Moldavia, while the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Albania revolted against their Habsburg overlords and returned to Ottoman rule. Fortunately for the Byzantine cause, the Turks lacked the resources to mount offensives against Constantinople or Suez.
Note: The disastrous 1737 Austro-Turkish War saw the Habsburgs cough up a good-sized piece of their earlier gains.
When the European powers engaged in a series of dynastic wars throughout the 18th century, the Byzantine Empire remained on the sidelines. With Ottoman Turkey likewise neutral, Ottoman Bulgaria actually proved a useful buffer against the warfare convulsing the northern and western parts of the continent. Citing the transit of French warships through the canal, the British attacked Suez in 1762 but were repulsed by the garrison and the galley fleet. While the Byzantines had confined their eastern adventures to a fortified port at Aden in southern Arabia, the Venetians had established trading stations all over India and now faced an aggressive British campaign to capture them. The Byzantines allowed their Venetian allies free use of the canal for their fleets, but blocked foreign warships, leading to repeated confrontations.
By 1803, the Byzantine Empire consisted of Thrace and the opposite shore in Asia, the Crimea, Greece, Crete, the Aegean Islands, Cyprus and Egypt. Long-standing alliances with Venice and Ethiopia were supplemented by friendly relations with Austria and Russia. A small professional army and a strong, modern fleet defended the wide-flung territories.
The Ottoman Empire remained unrelentingly hostile, and the unprovoked French invasion of Egypt in 1797 - eventually defeated with Venetian aid - brought the Byzantines firmly into the anti-revolutionary camp. Likewise, Byzantine troops saw action in northern Italy in the same year, assisting Venice in fending off a French attack.
When Napoleon I declared himself Emperor of the French, the Byzantine Basileus Constantine XIX refused to recognize his elevation; such a title could only be granted by God. While the French are known to be consorting with the Turks, British lust for the canal is well-known and there is no more trust for London in Constantinople than there is for Paris.
Note: And that’s the situation when our Byzantium Eternal variant opens.
The Golden Journal is only available to the Gold Club (that’s why we call it the Golden Journal). It’s free when we first offer it, but then it’s $9.99 afterwards. 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 $9.99 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 zillions of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his dog Leopold, who is a good dog.
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