I’m not a historian. I don’t even play one on TV. But I do have some theories of history, some probably very controversial, and some less so. One of the less-controversial theories is that much of a ruler’s legacy, whether through wars, great buildings, law codes, marriages, and especially wars (have I mentioned wars?), are due to the problem of succession.
Death, being a sneaky bastard, does not always cooperate with princes, kings, and emperors, and in the age when medicine included things like medical astrology and bloodletting, and eschewed things like basic hygiene, this was especially true. The reductionist could make a surprisingly cogent argument for accidents of birth and death being responsible for empires.
For example, without Charlemagne there would not have been a Holy Roman Empire. But without some timely deaths, the Holy Roman Empire itself would probably have died with him. Consider that Louis was the only of Charlemagne’s four legitimate sons to have survived him. And given that the very next generation saw the civil war that led to what’s now the independent countries of Germany and France, and which began the steady fragmentation that lasted thereafter for centuries, it is easy to see that a simple succession leads much more easily to things like territorial integrity and relative peace.
This is true of the Byzantines and the Ottomans as well, of course. Justinian is famous for his law codes and his great church. Rightly so, but his vigorous pursuit of those things can probably be largely traced to the fact that he had no real hereditary right to the throne. In terms of the imperial succession from Anastasius I, Justinian could be placed somewhere between “mildly related to some guy who took the throne,” and “some guy who took the throne.” Frankly, he didn’t have much business in the purple at all, but once he was draped in it, he felt the need to prove his worthiness. In the cultural milieu of the day, it was seen as obvious that the emperor who held God’s favor would be able to prove it.
Justinian is less famous for his largely-unsuccessful wars against the Persians, but a true, heavenly-ordained emperor would have had to fight the Persians. It was simply something one did. Being an emperor without battling the Persians would be like being a citizen without being taxed to fight wars against the Persians, or being a soldier and not fighting the Persians.
Where am I headed with all this? Well, in a previous post, I compared Constantine XI to Mehmet II, and I noted my obvious bias in favor of Constantine. After all, he had a force of some six or seven thousand against a conquering army of 100,000 or more. He was tasked with holding the imperial city – and the existence of the empire itself – against outright destruction. He was the romantic hero, the doomed underdog, the honorable soldier giving his life for his homeland.
I have never been able to see Constantine without this prism. Nor do I cheer for Achilles to kill Hector. I don’t consider Horatius Cocles just one of many Roman casualties. And I don’t think Nikola Subic Zrinski was just another general.
But am I being fair to Mehmet? Simply put, no. By romanticizing Constantine’s situation, which I probably won’t stop doing, by the way, I am minimizing Mehmet’s. And his was quite precarious, actually.
Again it comes down to succession. Despite his father, Murad II, having had a long thirty-year reign, Mehmet was a young 18 years old when he acceded the throne in 1451. He was faced with an imperial bureaucracy wary of disruption, a powerful grand vizier, Çandarlı Halil Pasha, inclined toward peace with the Byzantines, and a populace wary of an inexperienced young sultan. He had to prove that he was the sultan ordained by God. And as the Romans fought the Persians, so the Ottomans fought the Romans. Mehmet set his eyes on the biggest prize of all: Constantinople.
This was a heady gamble for Mehmet. Constantinople had never been taken in nearly 900 years of Muslim attacks, from the followers of Mohammed himself to Mehmet’s own father Murad. Western Europe was threatening to raise a Crusade in response to Constantine’s openness to healing the western schism. Hunyadi Janos of Hungary, one of history’s great generals, was lurking to the north and threatening to help the Byzantines. And, most immediate of all, Mehmet was faced with the massive fortifications of Constantinople itself: the kind of walls that could allow a small fighting force to repel an army twenty times its size for months. As they did.
If Mehmet lost this fight, he may well have lost his empire. And remember, not a single Muslim attacker had ever won this fight, though it seems like hundreds had tried. In the final analysis, this battle is not as simple as 20 to 1. And it’s certainly not as simple as one ruler staking his life and his empire on the result, because both did.
If I look at this objectively, I have given Mehmet the short end of the stick. I’m not sure I’m ready to start looking at it completely objectively, but I can acknowledge my own historical shortcomings.
(Many thanks to Ilker, who challenged me to look at Mehmet more closely.)