Empire of Liberty: All Roads Lead To (Eastern) Rome

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

On the orders of Napoleon, detachments under the command of General Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte pushed into Macedonia by following the Strymónas River valley, putting pressure on Thessalonica and forcing Muhammed Ali to split his forces. The panicked Turkish governor of Thessalonica imprisoned 300 hostages including 70 monks in hopes he could use them to barter with Bernadotte once he arrived. He never got the chance. As Bernadotte entered Serres on June 26, local uprisings pockmarked Macedonia. The villages of the Chalcidice peninsula began rising up on June 25 and the port town of Polygyros expelling its Turkish governor on a ship to Constantinople on June 28. On June 30, the governor ordered the execution of half the hostages. Bernadotte’s army arrived and lay siege to the city on July 4.

Logistically, the complex Greek operation was a nightmare. Messengers typically carried Napoleon’s orders into Serbia and then towards the coast where they would sail from Ravenna, Venice, Trieste, Pula or Dubrovnik depending on the confidentiality of the information contained. Messages bound for France and Italy would continue on the roads beyond Venice. The Balkan roads were long, in disrepair and, despite a quieter military situation, still dangerous. By mid-June, Napoleon no longer trusted that information headed into Austrian territory would remain secure. This meant that by the summer of 1804, most of his orders took wildly unique routes through Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro destined for Adriatic ports and hopes that an allied navy ship would pass by and take the message to Ravenna, the French coast, or around to the Aegean. Ali soon caught on to this and began sending raiders from Epirus and Albania into these territories to harass French sympathizers and capture messengers. Only a close encounter by one messenger (who took a bullet off a brass button and escaped) alerted Napoleon to this change in situation. Thus, after much debate, his vital orders to Moreau went south with Bernadotte to the Macedonian coast where two spies, one French and one Greek, took the orders to the quiet fishing village of Paralia and commissioned a captain to take them out to and flag down any allied ship once the inevitable blockade encounter occurred. Amazingly, the smuggled orders made it out to sea and into the hands of Captain Richard Abernathy of the HMS Resilient who was patrolling the waters between Mt. Athos and the island of Thasos. Morris Bentham, the Resilient’s pilot, later recalled:

“At roughly half past ten o’clock in the morning we sighted a small caïque fishing vessel several miles beyond out starboard side. Occasionally we would inspect these vessels for smuggling and contraband but having found no evidence of smuggling in the past two weeks, the captain ordered us to pay not attention to the craft. That was until ten minutes later when it became clear that the distinctive bow of the ship was pointed directly towards us. This was indeed a curious occurrence as most of these fishermen avoided interaction with us unless otherwise forced. Fearing a trick, the captain had me bring us on a slow approach towards the vessel while marines readied their guns just in case. One can imagine the surprise that befell our ship when the vessel came within shouting distance and one of the sailors began waving and yelling in English.

Until then, most of our communication with local vessels occurred in French, Greek, Italian and Turkish. On the occasion we found an English speaker, it was always on a larger merchant or warship. Never had we encountered an English speaker on a fishing vessel and certainly never had one sought out our inspection. The man and another colleague of his were brought on board and identified themselves as Lt. Pierre Girioud of Bounaparte’s Consular Guard and Dimitrios Gerontas a Corinthian and Greek liaison to Napoleon’s army. Imagine the spectacle when Girioud produced sealed letters from General Bernadotte and Bounaparte himself! I managed to catch a glimpse of Napoleon’s letter and noticed a distinctive embellished “N” pressed into the wax seal. The thought of a ruse crossed my mind but the outlandish occurrence of this Greek and Frenchman sneaking through the Macedonian coast, securing a fishing vessel and departing under the noses of the Turks in the middle of the night just to signal any of our ships was to unbelievable to be worth the Turks’ time. The captain must have felt the same way for he ordered us out to sea and towards the port at Volos.”

Abernathy made all haste from the Strymonian Gulf to the Thessalian port of Volos and the eager hands of General Moreau. Napoleon’s instructions were for Moreau to finish the campaign in Greece, link up with Bernadotte and march east where they would meet with Napoleon’s army at Çorlu, a town 80 kilometers from Constantinople. Bernadotte gave an update on his situation and his intention to meet Moreau in Thessalonica.

Bernadotte’s arrival into Macedonia also meant many critical watches along the Greek coast found themselves removed to more immediate fronts. This gave Moreau the opening he needed to take decisive action and eliminate his Albanian foe once and for all. Consulting with Lt. General Miles Nightingall, British military liaison to Moreau, they devised one of the only joint Anglo-French operations in all the Coalitionary Wars. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines would transport and support a French battalion under Joachim Murat. The force would land near Methoni and quickly march inland to catch the janissaries from behind. Moreau prepared his forces, still encamped at Larissa, and prepared to finish the war in Greece.

The nature of the message also meant that there would be no way to communicate (at least reliably) with Bernadotte’s battalion operating in Macedonia and certainly no way to inform Napoleon that his orders had been received. Even if Moreau had magically procured an airplane and flown directly to Sofia he would not find Napoleon for by this point the Consul had already been in Plovdiv for several days. In fact, by the time Murat’s marines landed at Methoni, Napoleon was preparing to march for Adrianople and then take the port of Alexandroupolis so he could reestablish consistent communications with anyone.

The complex operation began on the night of July 2 when Murat’s forces took Methoni by surprise with no fighting and hurriedly marched inland. On July 3, after receiving the signal that Murat’s force was safely ashore, Moreau ordered his forces off the safety of the plains and back into the cruel Olympus Range. Unbeknownst to Moreau, Murat, or Nightingall, Bernadotte’s force laid siege to Thessalonica on July 4, the same day that Murat’s force captured ancient Veria and began pushing across mountain passes towards Ptolemaida. Caught upside-down on three fronts, with fighting spanning across a nearly 70-mile region, Ali scrambled to fill the various gaps in his positions. A sense of chaos and lawlessness gripped the country with Greek bandits attacking Turkish convoys and Muslim villages while janissaries burned Christian villages and attacked peasants on any made up suspicion.

In his attempts to rectify the situation (which still very much favored the janissaries in terms of defensive positioning), Ali inadvertently put a sizable force of 3,000 on the same road that Moreau himself was marching with 5,000 men. The July 6-7 Battle of Chasia was hardly intended [1]. Instead Ali and Moreau’s scouts ran into each other in the thickly wooded and rocky terrain and the battle snowballed from there. An initial skirmish between mounted scouts turned into direct combat by line of battle troops on the afternoon of the sixth and the armies congregated as best they could on a narrow road that bypassed the small peak of Vounasa. Moreau was attempting to march around the Pindus Mountains and assist the attack on Ptolemaida; that he finally encountered Ali meant he would not forsake this chance to fight. Ali, believing the terrain would favor his forces, and with no good retreat options, gave into the decisive battle he always hoped to avoid. The skirmishes of the sixth gave way to full line of battle assaults and sweeping cavalry charges on the seventh by the brightly colored janissaries through the narrow valleys. Ultimately, French firepower won out. Ali fell on his horse around midday and as the janissaries realized what was occurring, more and more horsemen rode northwest to bleed back into the safety of Epirus and Albania. A victorious Moreau entered Ptolmaida on the 10th and the combined coalitionary army entered Thessalonica on July 19. To their amusement, Bernadotte’s besieging force had received a full surrender from the few janissaries guarding the crucial port two days prior when news of Chasia reached the city. Another two days after entering the city, news arrived of yet another political change in the region. Napoleon had entered Adrianople.

The stage was set for a final showdown with the janissaries at the ancient gates of Constantinople.


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

The battles of the great European armies led by their legendary commanders tend to overshadow the other main theater of the War of the Third Coalition even if that front happened to be the front that technically mattered most. From the moment Ottoman Sultan Selim III slipped out of Constantinople on a British slip in the early morning hours of August 1, 1803 ceding the city to his usurper brother Mustafa IV, the entire conflict centered on an Ottoman Civil War: the War of the Janissaries.

Mustafa formally crowned himself Sultan with the full support of the janissaries on August 3 while Selim reemerged as a threat at the southern port of Antalya under the protection of the Royal Navy two weeks later. Immediate jockeying for support began between the two sultans while armies gathered to square off across Anatolia. Both sultans had their challenges to overcome but also inherent supporters and stakeholders in the conflict.

Due to the root nature of the conflict, Mustafa could count on the support of most of the janissaries and autonomous governors of the various pashaliks and beyliks of the empire. The nature of his pro-janissary reign meant that other stakeholders throughout the empire that counted on devolved powers would also support him. This included the distant beys of the nominal Ottoman possessions in North Africa as well as the largely independent Arab lands in Arabia, the Levant and Mesopotamia. Mustafa could also count on the support of Russia, support that largely propped up his reign as more European powers declared for Selim.

Opposite of Mustafa, Selim could count on the support of the core Turkish population but also many Ottoman Christian citizens in Europe, the Levant and the Caucuses. The janissary raids in Wallachia and Serbia against local Christian populations had effectively destroyed any hope that Mustafa and the janissaries had of gaining their support. They also ended Russian hopes of finding support amongst the Orthodox Christians when they invaded as “liberators” since it was clear that Russia sided with the janissary enemy. A similar failure was occurring as a Russian army under the command of Pytor Bagration campaigned across the Caucuses region into Pontic Anatolia and found little support amongst the Christian Greeks who considered the Russians to be foreign invaders.

Furthermore, the Orthodox Christians throughout the region distrusted Selim’s European allies for various reasons. The Hapsburgs were longtime enemies, frequent invaders and were viewed as Catholic papists. Everyone knew that Britain only cared for its commercial interests (not to mention its people were heretical protestants). Worst of all were the atheist French and their republican ideology who mere months before had been at war with Selim. Many prominent Orthodox leaders enjoyed positions of power at the Ottoman court throughout the empire’s long history and Selim pledged his continued support and protect to these peoples. The Phanariote Christians who lived in Constantinople (allegedly descendants of powerful Byzantine families) and wielded tremendous financial and religious influence were also very conservative and distrusted Napoleon’s intentions. They did not have to look far to find examples of Napoleonic rule in Muslim/Orthodox lands and pointed to the turbulent social situations in Serbia, Greece and Egypt. Of course trapped as they were in janissary-controlled Constantinople they found their influence and expenditures limited. In fact, if anything the condemnations of Napoleon’s campaign by powerful Greek families and the Orthodox Patriarch only alienated Orthodox “allies” who saw their denouncements as propaganda (either Mustafa’s or Selim’s) and further eroded the ancient Orthodox hierarchy that had been established just after the fall of Constantinople. Indeed, the double dealing and chaotic interactions between Mustafa, Selim, the janissaries, the Orthodox elites, Napoleon, the Tsar, the Hapsburgs and the British all combined to create an environment of intense disillusionment throughout the empire. If anything flourished amongst the general populace at this time it was a belief in republican ideology and an individual’s sense of “community” since clearly all of these distant kings and consuls only cared for their own power and not the good of the people and the state. We should never forget that there is a reason the devolution of the late 18th century Ottoman Empire combined with the spread of republican and enlightenment ideals to foster the perfect conditions for revolutions in the Balkans and the beginning of Islamic Republicanism in North Africa.

We should note that the alliances between the Ottoman factions and their European allies were always tenuous. No one really knew exactly where Mustafa’s sovereignty ended in certain territories and where Russian influence or control began. The same could be said for Selim and Napoleon when the latter increasingly established republican institutions throughout the Balkans, Egypt and even Syria. We must also remember that the British, typically in support of a surviving Ottoman state to preserve the balance of power in the east, exerted tremendous influence on Selim. Every month the conflict lingered on appeared to be another month whereby the once vaunted Ottoman Empire would likely be reduced to a rump state in a post-war world.

Selim knew he needed to move quickly if he was not going to become a puppet sultan in his own right. This meant that he, and he alone, would have to retake Constantinople.

Unfortunately for Selim, he essentially needed to build a standing army from scratch while the janissaries obviously had their own existing forces, even if they were not particularly modern. This deficiency allowed Mustafa and his janissary allies to move quickly throughout the fall of 1803. Janissary forces formally seized Bursa on August 19 and finalized their control over the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara by September of 1803. Eskisehir, Ankara, the Pontic coast and much of central Anatolia fell under the control of Mustafa. Yet crises often allow for opportunities. Selim’s need to build a new government, military and other infrastructure from scratch allowed him the opportunity to build the modernized Ottoman state he always desired. Free from the constraints of religious leaders, janissaries and other medieval appendages that had blocked his efforts in the 1790’s, Selim actually made great strides in his modernization efforts. Selim recreated the nizam-i jedid, providing the foundation for a modern professional army. France supplied uniforms while the British supplied modern weapons. French, British, Austrian, Spanish, Italian, German and even an American (notably the young Lt. Zebulon Pike) all provided Selim a new officer corps to train this new army [2]. The rise of this modern Ottoman army and its intention to smash the janissaries brought the janissary’s original suspicions full circle, albeit with the ironic twist that the janissaries had done more than anything else to put themselves in the new army’s crosshairs.

Selim’s modernization efforts were not limited to the military. In his effort to establish his regime and bring new Turks into his army, he engaged in significant land reforms. It can be argued that Selim’s lasting legacies are for the Antalya Decrees and their impact on modern legal systems throughout the region. Selim reasoned that the root of his problem lie with the undefined and rogue powers granted to the various powerful janissaries, valis [governors] and ayans [notables] throughout the empire. Namely, this boiled down to the tremendous influence these elites had over real property, tax collection, the military, and occasionally regional and even religious affairs. Influential men like Osman Pazvantoğlu, Ali Pasha, and Muhammed Ali took their position and influence and successfully carved out their own quasi-states within the whole of the empire. His ancestors had not been wrong to move away from the 15th century timariot system but they had been wrong to let local powerbrokers run roughshod over the Sultan’s office in exchange for (nominal and dubious) loyalty and taxes. Clearly, the long-standing tradition of allowing broad autonomy in exchange for loyalty, taxes and soldiers was breaking down. Furthermore, the breakdown of the peasant-friendly timariot system into the plantationesque chiflik system had only created oppressive, serf-like, situations for the local peasantry that contributed significantly to the nationalist uprisings in the Balkans (where Serbs and Greeks saw privileges and marauding Turks and Albanians as oppressive overlords, not countrymen). To Selim, the decentralized janissary-led rule would force Mustafa to rely on these unreliable powerbrokers who only favored their own wealth and strength. Selim on the other hand, tended to have the backing of the bulk of the population and, moreover, needed them to contribute to his professional armies. Already an admirer of modern European institutions, it only made sense that Selim would create a system that deemphasized the notable powerbroker, emphasized the small farmer, and placed the state back into the center of Ottoman property law.

Via the Royal Navy, Selim established control over Smyrna [Izmir], the Aegean Coast and the remainder of the Mediterranean Coast. British loans and a rough system of conscription allowed Selim to begin forming a professional army in October with the first inland incursions beginning in December when Selim’s troops took control of Konya. This meant the first true battles began in the early weeks of 1804 when the two sultan’s regions of influence converged. By February, a general line of defense along the Taurus Mountains ensured that the mostly cavalry-based janissaries could not threaten Selim’s core coastal territories. However, the vast distances on the Anatolian Plateau generally favored cavalry as they historically had for centuries. This meant that Selim’s professional foot soldiers were limited in their effective range to a rough line running from Smyrna to Konya and then to Adana. An expedition in April demonstrated this range when 15,000 professional troops pushed north from Isparta towards Kütahya but were forced to retreat when janissary cavalry consistently raided their supply caravans and inflicted 700 casualties in lightning raids. The hot Anatolian summer brought the campaign season to a close furthering Selim’s reliance on European support. Selim resigned himself to a summer of drills and continued military buildup in hopes of sending an army the long way around the coast to attack Bursa near the end of the year. Selim’s hoped for 1804-1805 campaign to retake the capital evaporated on July 27 when word reached Antalya that Napoleon was in Adrianople preparing to attack Constantinople.

Hours before the news arrived, Selim hoped for an additional year of campaigning and training and an independent Ottoman attack on Constantinople to firmly reestablish his sovereignty. Suddenly, with Napoleon virtually on the doorstep of the great city, Selim found himself scrambling to organize his best troops, gather British ships and organize an amphibious expedition to the Dardanelles. Unbeknownst to the allies, 10,000 Russians from the Zubov brother’s armies (having returned to Russia and subsequently sent to the Black Sea port of Rostov) were crossing the water towards the Bosporus.

The race to Constantinople was on.

————– Author’s Notes —————-

[1]: Chasia being a nearby village on a rough road in the middle of the mountainous border region where Thessaly, Macedon, and Epirus all come together. I cannot guarantee either this road or Chasia existed in 1804 but lacking maps from the time, I’m rolling with what I have at my disposal.

[2]: In our timeline, Zebulon Pike led several contemporaneous explorations of the Louisiana Territory along with Lewis and Clark’s. His exploration for the sources of the Red and Arkansas Rivers led him to discover a mountain in our modern Colorado: Pike’s Peak. In this timeline, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory is phased so Zebulon has little to do and takes a high paying commission from Selim to train the newly created modern Ottoman army.

Source Materials

Karayiannis, Anastassios; Ithakissios, Dionyssios. “Hellenic Nomarchy: A Discourse on Freedom. An Early 19th Century Greek Humanist Treatise.” Stora Delpensiero Economico, 1999.

Kitromilides, Paschalis. “From Republican Patriotism to National Sentiment A Reading of Hellenic Nomarch”. University of Athens and Institute for Neoheilenic Research/NHR, 2006.

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

Trencsényi, Balázs; Kopeček, Michal. “Discourses of collective identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770–1945): texts and commentaries”. Central European University Press, 2006.

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