Empire of Liberty: Byzantium After Byzantium

Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

To understand the rivalry between the Russian and the Turk, one must understand ancient history and the vague concept of Rome. This does not equate to a thorough understanding of the Roman Empire or even Rome the city, but rather Rome the concept. Europe’s roots lie on the Roman Empire as a foundation of knowledge, power and stability that lasted nearly a millennium. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed that tradition of knowledge, power and stability transferred east to Constantinople where the Byzantine Empire reigned for nearly another millennium. Few argue the importance or the line of succession from this “First Rome” to the “Second Rome” but the 1453 fall of the Byzantine Empire (by that point largely confined to Constantinople and a shadow of its former glory) to the Ottomans marks the start of the Russo-Turkish conflict.

For the Ottomans, the conquest of Constantinople made them the inheritors of Rome and the Ottoman Empire the new foundation of knowledge, power and stability in the world. Their long-time hold on a core of stable territory that overlapped much of the old Roman and Byzantine Empires combined with their imperial tradition and dedication to arts and culture make them worthy claimants to this mantel. However, the collapse of the Orthodox Christian powerbrokers that became so intertwined with the Byzantine Empire caused a migration of Orthodox knowledge, power and stability north to its new bastion: Muscovy. To the Russians, Rome could not be Muslim. In their minds, Rome (despite its pagan beginnings) was a Christian entity, more specifically an Orthodox Christian entity. In their minds, the fall of Constantinople to a Muslim power ended Constantinople’s mantel as the “Second Rome” (just as Rome’s fall to barbarians shifted the mantel elsewhere) and the mantel shifted, northwards, to Moscow. Indeed, Ivan III had married the niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor and the imperial Palaiologos bloodline (narrowly) merged with the Romanovs. Over the years, Russia itself became a bulwark in the east, a massive power with a proud history of military conquest and artistic expression; yet another bastion of knowledge, power and stability for the world to build upon.

Unlike Rome and the Byzantine Empire, there was no clear-cut point of transfer for this imperial concept and the expansion of the Ottoman and Russian Empires occurred concurrently. Border clashes in the Caucuses, around the Black Sea and in the Balkans would have been inevitable given the size and scope of the two powers but the societal concept of “Rome” underlain everything. Russia would not, could not, accept a Muslim power as the successor to Rome and in occupation of Constantinople and the Holy Land just the same as they could not accept the upstart Catholic Holy Roman Empire infringing on an imperial tradition that was rightfully theirs. Concurrently, the Ottomans would not accept the prejudices and barbarisms of Slavs living in the frozen wastes to the north to undercut their authority. To the Turks, Rome had been pagan, Byzantine had been Christian and now the Ottomans would bring the new light of Islam to backwards feudal Europe.

This rivalry explains the constant wars and forging of national ethos in both Russia and Turkey. It explains why, ultimately, one power had to give way to the other at some point in history. It also speaks to a broader concept of ascendancy and hegemony, which both Constantinople and Moscow were intimately familiar. Both, however, failed to remember that Roman hegemony grew from Greek hegemony, at the same time China exercised hegemony over Asia, various Indian empires exercised hegemony over the subcontinent and the same holds true for the native empires of the Americas. In the end, the Ottomans and the Russians squabbled over concepts of inheritance regarding bygone powers of the ancient past while they failed to observe that ascendant powers had just as much right to claim they, themselves, were the new foundations upon which the world would find knowledge, stability and power.

Russia in the late 18th century could very accurately be described as an ascendant power. Energized by the progressive reign of Peter the Great earlier that century, the long rule of Catherine the Great saw Russia acquire nearly 200,000 additional square miles of territory, mostly at the expense of the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire. To the east, Catherine conspired with the Austrian Hapsburgs and Prussian Hohenzollerns to partition the Commonwealth three separate times leading to Russian acquisition of the Baltics to the Niemen River, Belorussia, and large swathes of Poland and Ruthenia. Over the course of several wars with the Ottoman Empire, the Russians took the north coast of the Black Sea and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 1783 though it would take another decade of war to receive final confirmation via the 1792 Treaty of Jassy. In addition, the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk saw the Caucasian kingdom of Georgia sign as a protectorate of Russia, a betrayal of Persia who had acted as Georgia’s protector for centuries. The Persians under Agra Mohammed Khan invaded in 1795 reestablishing their rule but they suffered consistent defeat in the subsequent war with Russia. Only the death of Catherine and the rise of Paul I as Tsar saved Persia from ruin. Paul harbored animosity against the commander of the Caucasian Campaign and recalled the army on the verge of triumph. This allowed Persia to (narrowly) remain the hegemon in the Caucasus region but earned Paul the enmity of the officers of the Persian Campaign. The whole affair proved pointless when Agra Mohammed Khan was assassinated in 1797 and Russian troops reentered Georgia and occupied the devastated capital of Tbilisi in 1799. On January 8, 1801, Paul decreed that Georgia would be incorporated into the Russian Empire. This touched off even more struggle between the Persians, Russians and even the Ottomans (with the Georgians caught in between) for hegemony in the region.

Paul was not nearly as stable as his mother was in his reign. An idealistic young man, he ended some of Catherine’s harsher edicts but could also be cruel and vindictive. He ordered a constant stream of reforms to the nobility to suit his whims, palace construction projects and began interfering with the Russian army; even micromanaging uniform design and the punishments of individual soldiers. Legend holds that he once ordered a regiment of guards to literally march to Siberia after some disorganized maneuvers while parading (though he changed his mind 16 km into their exile).

The crisis in France coincided with Paul’s reign. While he detested Bourbon and Republican France, he recalled promised soldiers before they could arrive to help in the War of the First Coalition. Napoléon’s seizure of Malta did lead Paul, as the titular head as Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller, to enter the War of the Second Coalition. The great Russian General Alexander Suvorov did much to expel the French from northern Italy but was tied up by the French General Léonard Mathurin Duphot before Suvorov could cross the Alps and assist an Austro-Russian Army in coalition efforts to expel the French from Switzerland and Swabia. Suvorov made a heroic retreat across the Alps in the winter before withdrawing his army. The last major Russian activity in the war came when an Anglo-Russian force invaded Holland by sea but the campaign stalled, its only practical effect being the creation of an air of panic in Paris that allowed Napoléon  to overthrown the Directory and impose himself as First Consul.

On the night of March 23, 1801, a band of Paul’s disgruntled officers, drunk after a night of dining together, stormed the Tsar’s bedroom and assassinated him. Allegedly, General Nikolay Zubov, the recalled commander from the Persian Campaign, was the first to strike Paul thus transforming an attempt at a forced abdication into an outright assassination. Reportedly, Zubov told Paul’s 23-year old son, Alexander “Time to grow up! Go and Rule!” while Paul’s body was still warm.

Formally crowned in the Kremlin on September 15, 1801, Alexander had only a few months before Russia plunged into the Napoléonic Wars. Initially, Alexander reversed his father’s pacifist agenda and prepared to oppose Napoléon at all costs. However, two events at the start of his reign caught him off-guard. Firstly, consternation among the nobility in the Baltics and Poland, combined with a general air of revolution stemming from France and America, forced Alexander to confirm privileges in his western territories, preventing consolidation of the empire. Secondly, four days after his coronation, word arrived that the French Navy had destroyed the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of Cyprus. A token force remained in the Black Sea but, at least at sea, the Ottomans were exposed.

It is true that Alexander detested French interference in Egypt and the Levant as well as its spread of republicanism across Western Europe. Yet Russia, owing to its ancient claim as an heir to the Romans and its historic role as foil to the Ottomans, could not withstand an opportunity to kick Constantinople while it was down. The records demonstrate that Alexander had war plans drawn up for an invasion through the Caucuses Mountains to reinforce Georgia and conquer Ottoman territories in Pontic Anatolia. To secure Georgia, he would propose an audacious alliance with the Persians and guarantee their expansion into Mesopotamia. From there, Alexander harbored ambitious ideas where a Russo-Persian alliance would expel the French and the Ottomans from the region with Russia liberating the Holy Land and possibly taking Constantinople and even Egypt while the Persians would conquer the Arabian Peninsula and incorporate the Islamic holy cities within their realm. Like most European leaders at the time in their attempts to react to rapidly changing events on the ground, Alexander’s ideas about what to do in the Middle East as scattered. Vague war plans of a Russian conquest of everything from the Caspian Sea to Libya are just as outlandish as the vague dispatches on record between Russian and French diplomats about a Partition of the Ottoman Empire. These schemes never came to fruition but the idea would be to give Austria some accommodations in the Balkans, create an independent Greek kingdom, and perhaps create a “Free City of Constantinople”. Alexander even sketched a crude plan for a renewed “Kingdom of Byzantium” that would include parts of Anatolia and all of Greece with Constantinople as its capital, with a Romanov on the throne of course.

These grandiose schemes would have been farfetched even if events played out in Alexander’s favor. They came for naught when, in December 1801, Hadži Mustafa Pasha, a prominent Ottoman commander and politician was assassinated in Belgrade, then part of the Ottoman Sanjak of Smederevo by the janissary Kučuk-Alija [1].


Excerpt from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s “The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Vol. II”, Harvard University Press, 1934.

After decades of reverses, mostly in Europe at the hands of Austrians and Russians, the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III, embarked on the first real effort at modernization the Ottomans had seen in ages. These reforms were widespread, touching on areas of finance and administration, but the central goal was improving the army. The loss of Crimea, two disastrous wars against Russia, another losing effort against the Austrians, several decades of rebelliousness in North Africa (including being forced to share power with the mamluks in Egypt), the disastrous war with France, and the loss of Arabia all combined to demonstrate that the Empire of Osman was teetering on the brink. Selim imposed new systems of taxation and created a “new treasury” (the Irad-i Cedid). The outdated system of tariffs and state licenses were overhauled. Ottoman administrators began to crack down on some of the special privileges enjoyed by non-Muslims, an unpopular move in some of the more diverse, and especially peripheral regions, of the Empire such as North Africa.

Militarily, Selim reformed his transportation and artillery departments and established war colleges for naval training and army engineering. Selim paid numerous European military advisers to come to Constantinople and assist in the efforts (interestingly a young French artillery officer named Napoléon Bonaparte almost took one of these positions). They made several needed reforms including the creation of the elite Nizam-i Djedid a decidedly western trained and equipped military unit [2].

Unfortunately, for Selim, these reforms greatly offended the janissaries. Once elite forces in their own right, the janissaries had become a conservative elite who utilized their military power to advance themselves commercially and politically and had caused the empire to stagnate through the 18th century. The offended janissaries became politically unstable and a rift developed between the Sultan, his administration, and the janissaries, splitting the allegiance of many prominent Ottoman administrators and officials across the Empire. This split would foment revolt in North Africa and the Levant as well as more nationalistic uprisings in locations like Greece and Serbia.

The most notable incident though first occurred in the Sanjak of Smederevo, an Ottoman administrative unit that roughly corresponds to Serbia. On December 15, 1801, Kučuk-Alija assassinated the Ottoman Pasha of Smederevo, Hadži Mustafa Pasha [3]. Kučuk-Alija was a disgruntled janissary who, combined with other rogue janissaries in the region, created a rebellious anti-Serbian regime known as the dahije that opposed Serbian privileges and stood in defiance of the Sultan [4].

Context for the assassination is necessary to understand the rapidity of the events that follow.

In 1788 during the aforementioned Austro-Turkish War, a “Serbian Free Corps” of approximately 5,000 refugee soldiers fought on the side of the Austrians. Seeking the liberation of Serbia, the Hapsburg-Serbian forces occupied much of the Serbian region by 1791 but the Austrians returned the region to the Ottomans as part of the terms of the Treaty of Sistova. Mass reprisals for the revolt did not occur from Selim III, but he did give control of the province to the janissaries under the authority of his governor: Hadži Mustafa Pasha. As part of Selim’s reform efforts, the Serbs were given freedom of trade and religion in exchange for more efficient systems of taxation (that notably cut out the janissaries as intermediaries). Selim also expelled many janissaries from the region whom he viewed as a threat to stability. These janissaries flocked to the rebellious banner of Osman Pazvantoğlu a renegade janissary based in the Danube River town of Vidin [5]. Throughout the 1790’s these rebel janissaries, under the leadership of Pazvantoğlu, raided and harassed the Serbians against the wishes of the Sultan. The situation came to a head in 1797 when Hadži Mustafa Pasha, now raised to one of the most important offices in the empire, went to Vidin to bring Pazvantoğlu to justice. In his absence, the janissaries and local Serbs clashed. Serbian nobles (knezes) Aleksa Nenadović, Ilija Birčanin and Nikola Grbović laid siege to Belgrade and expelled the janissaries from the city.

In a testament to the instability of the empire, the situation unfolded chaotically. The Administration could not defeat Pazvantoğlu. By this point, Pazvantoğlu had effectively carved out his own domain in the Balkans, was minting his own money and conducting foreign relations. Despite such brazen rebellion, in 1799 the Sultan forgave him and promoted him to the position of Pasha. Furthermore, the janissaries returned to the Serbian region that year and the harassment quickly renewed. When Hadži Mustafa Pasha marched a force of 600 Ottoman soldiers against a rogue janissary who had murdered a Serb, Pazvantoğlu sided with the janissary and the crisis returned.

And it was in this chaotic climate of nationalism and rebellion that Kučuk-Alija assassinated Hadži Mustafa Pasha.

Immediately, this meant that Sanjak of Smederevo came under janissary rule, theoretically as part of Pazvantoğlu’s larger rogue domain. The janissaries rolled back the Sultan’s decrees, imposed harsh taxes and pressed many Serbs into forced labor. Terror gripped the countryside and a refugee crisis emerged that threatened to pull Austria into the fray.

As the Serbs prepared to petition the Sultan for assistance, word spread that Ottoman armies were marching south to oppose the renewed French effort in Egypt. This appalled many leaders in the region. How could the Sultan prioritize Egypt and peripheral areas of the empire that had long been de fato detached while a cruel rebellion wracked his own backyard? To some it was an indication that even a progressive Sultan would forever view his non-muslim subjects as second-class citizens. To others it was evidence that the empire was on the verge of destruction. Regardless of outlook, the decision was deeply unpopular.

Of course, the Serbian knezes (rightfully) viewed the situation through their own perspective. To Selim, the empire was in an existential crisis. Franco-American incursions in North Africa threatened to forcibly remove his domains from Algiers to Syria. Further south, the troublesome House of Saud, a Whabbist kingdom based in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, shocked the Muslim world when they captured Mecca and Medina in January 1802. Past Sultans had always tolerated a degree of roguish autonomy from the janissaries and Selim, while disturbed by their actions, did not consider the autonomous domain of Pazvantoğlu a critical threat to the empire. In essence, Pazvantoğlu could be dealt with later when the situation stabilized but the French threat must be dealt with immediately less the entire southern domain of the empire become permanently detached.

From a utilitarian standpoint, the Sultan made the right call. With the benefit of hindsight though, we know he should have accepted a harsh peace with Napoleon and send his army north.

On April 22, 1802, leading knezes gathered at the village of Orašac. Here, the first Praviteljstvujušči Sovjet (Governing-Council) convened and included Stanoje Glavaš, Atanasije Antonijević, Tanasko Rajić, Aleksa Nenadović, Krom Buđevac, Nikola Grbović and Ilija Birčanin. The Serb nobles organized a guerilla campaign against the janissaries and immediately began constructing their own revolution. Drawing from years of enlightenment interaction with France and the nearby Hapsburgs, the Council rapidly evolved from a group of decision makers opposing the janissaries into a council of decision makers making a new state. Sending envoys to France, Russia and Austria, they began petitioning for supplies and assistance. Building on the lessons of the American and French Revolutions, the Serbian cause slowly evolved from expulsion of the janissaries, and an end to their abuses, into an autonomous structure within the empire whereby the Serbs would rule themselves with the Sultan acting as constitutionally limited monarch. Eventually the call would morph into one of outright independence.

The escalating situation captured the attention of many foreign powers. Russia, the long-time antagonist of the Ottomans and ally of the Serbs (and other Slavic peoples in the region), exerted diplomatic pressure on the Sultan to end the violence less Alexander march an army to Belgrade himself. Secretly, Alexander harbored ambition of detaching Serbia from the Ottoman Empire and installing a Romanov on a throne. The Hapsburgs had no desire to see a civil war on their doorstep and less desire to see a Russian army stationed to their south while the Napoléonic threat stood in northern Italy and southern Germany. Napoléon, itching to hurt the Sultan but also sow division between the Russians, Austrians and Serbs ordered arms and munitions covertly supplied into the region to assist the revolting Serbs. In May 1802, Austrian diplomats met with the Sultan multiple times in an attempt to find a solution that would not spark a war. Yet all parties remained stuck. If Austria and the Ottomans allied to end the violence, they risked war with Russia and France. If Austria intervened against the Sultan to set up a new Serbian state, they risked creating a Russian vassal in their backyard, which would stretch their forces thin. Any military intervention by Austria meant moving troops to their southern border and away from their current watches along the French frontier. The Ottomans, by this point thoroughly defeated in the Levant at the hands of the French, risked partition and even an outright janissary revolt. Selim surely had to be aware that if Pazvantoğlu marched his forces towards Constantinople, the Sultan would be hard pressed to resist.

The negotiations collapsed under the weight of larger events. Just as talks began, Tripoli and the United States formally went to war and shortly after the entire Barbary Coast was in conflict. As the conflicts escalated through the summer, the tensions rose for all sides. The Sultan and the Janissary Corps were increasingly at odds, war loomed in some form between France, Russia and Austria and other conflicts flared in the peripheries.

The situation came to a head in September of 1802.

History remembers these few days as the fault of a series of egos that could not resolve their differences. In reality, records demonstrate unfortunate luck in the timing of the parties involved. A tentative August agreement between the Sultan and the Emperor allowed Austrian intervention, in conjunction with the Vizier of Bosnia, Bekir Pasha, to restore the peace and punish the rebel janissaries. Their mission was a simple one. They were to capture Belgrade, establish peace in the region and arrest the leaders of the dahije.

Their mission immediately complicated. The Austrian invasion began on September 2, the exact same day of the Belgrade Uprising. The record demonstrates that neither side coordinated with the other, though all parties had a vague awareness of an imminent uprising and an imminent invasion.

The twin events alone were a challenge but hardly something, that could not be fixed. What few parties knew was that three days before Krom Buđevac, acting as envoy to Paris, sent an urgent message that he believed Napoleon would militarily support an independent Serbia. This message fueled the fire of the decision makers on the council of knezes and gave one faction the edge over the others. It did not help with the timing in that the Belgrade Uprising was too successful, too quickly. The janissaries were expelled from the city in a matter of hours and, flush with victory and believing France would support them, the leading knezes issued a proclamation from the city square.

A proclamation of independence and the creation of a new Serbian Republic.

———– Author’s Notes ————–

[1]: The Sanjak of Smederevo is basically the equivalent of “Ottoman Province of Serbia”

[2]: This is roughly Turkish for “the New Order”. This term simultaneously refers to Selim’s broader reforms as well as his professionalized army (sometimes called the New Order Army).

[3]: the term “Pasha” roughly equates to “Turkish officer of high rank” and is a common title for governors, officers and military commanders.

[4]: This term roughly equates to “uncle” with the term for the broader group of rebellious janissaries equating to “bullies”.

[5]: Vidin is a town in northwest Bulgaria in our timeline. It basically intersects the traditional lands of the Serbs, Bulgars and Romanians and a was a very important crossroads town.

Source Materials

Bataković, Dušan T. “A Balkan-Style French Revolution? The 1804 Serbian Uprising in European Perspective.” Balcanica: Annual Of The Institute For Balkan Studies XXXVI (2006): 113.

Haukeil, Henry A. and Tyrrell, H. “The History of Russia from the foundation of the Empire to the War with Turkey in 1877–78”, Vol. 1. London: The London Printing and Publishing Company, Limited. 1854.

Laurence Spring. “Russian Grenadiers and Infantry 1799-1815”. Ed. Osprey Publishing, 2002: 56.

Marbot, Jean. (Oliver C. Colt, trans.). “The Memoirs of General the Baron de Marbot”, Volume 2.

Morison, W. A. “The Revolt of the Serbs Against the Turks: (1804-1813)”. Cambridge University Press. 1942.

Paxton, Roger Viers. “Russia and the First Serbian Revolution: A Diplomatic and Political Study. The Initial Phase, 1804-1807”. Department of History, Stanford University. 1968: 13.

Shaw, Stanford J. “The Origins of Ottoman Military Reform: The Nizam-I Cedid Army of Sultan Selim III.” JSTOR, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 37, No. 3. Sep., 1965: 292.

Yaycioglu, Ali. “Partners of the empire: The crisis of the Ottoman order in the age of revolutions”. Stanford University Press. 40.

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