Category: History

Battle of Pliska

Drinking from the Skulls of Your Enemies: The Battle of Pliska

On 26 July 811, a massive Byzantine army was destroyed on the plains between the Danube and the Haemus Mountains. During the Battle of Pliska, the emperor Nicephorus I himself was killed—the first to die in battle since Valens in 378—and his head was turned into a silver-lined drinking gourd by the victorious Bulgarian khan. […]

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Fall of western roman empire

When Did the Western Roman Empire Really Fall?

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Roman history knows 476 as the year the Western Roman Empire fell. That was when Odoacer, a barbarian military commander serving in the Roman army, deposed Romulus Augustulus and declared himself King of Italy, ending a thousand years of Roman rule in the west. Although Roman emperors continued to […]

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Why is Byzantium Called Byzantine

Why Is The Byzantine Empire Called “Byzantine”?

Nearly every book on the Byzantine Empire begins by noting that its people never called themselves Byzantine. They were Romans, and always called themselves such; theirs was the true and continuous legacy of the Roman Empire. Readers may nod along and take this in stride; but by the time they finish reading a millennium-worth of […]

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John Cantacuzenus Legacy

Fall of Byzantium: The Legacy of John Cantacuzenus

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. When Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus abdicated and entered a monastery in 1354, he had played a major role in the empire for more than three decades. Over the next nine years, he would write the history of this time, an apology for his career. This […]

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Back into fire

Fall of Byzantium: Dilemma #6 – Back Into the Fire

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. The Byzantine involvement in the latest war between Venice and Genoa was brief but costly. Everything they had won in the Galata War was lost, and there was a large moral cost to this defeat. John Cantacuzenus was now less popular than ever before. Around […]

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Scylla and Charybdis

Fall of Byzantium: Dilemma #5 – Scylla and Charybdis

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. With the signing of peace between Byzantium and Genoa in March 1349, John Cantacuzenus could finally focus on governing the empire. The increased customs receipts coming into the treasury improved matters somewhat. John also reformed the tax system so that it would both draw more revenue […]

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Galata War

Fall of Byzantium: Dilemma #4 – The Galata War

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. Constantinople had suffered much over the past century and a half. The Fourth Crusade, Latin rule, and the recent war had taken a huge toll on the city. The capital was densely packed with refugees and the population weakened by hunger. So when the Black […]

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Fall of Byzantium: Dilemma #3 – The Decisions of Peace

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. When John Cantacuzenus entered Constantinople on the night of 2 February 1347, the Byzantine Empire had been at war with itself for a little over five years. The war had been unnecessarily destructive, prolonged by the intransigence of the regency. Even when their troops could […]

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Byzantine Civil War

Fall of Byzantium: Dilemma #2 – Civil War

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. John Cantacuzenus was at his headquarters in Thrace when he heard the news that he had been stripped him of his titles and declared an outlaw. A stream refugees arrived soon after from Constantinople, bringing stories of the depredations committed against anyone even suspected of […]

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Fall of Byzantium: Dilemma #1 – The Regency

The previous post in the Fall of Byzantium series is here. Andronicus III died in May 1341 after an energetic and largely successful reign of thirteen years. Although he had lost nearly all of Asia, he more than made up for that with his gains in Europe. The empire was bigger, richer, and stronger than […]

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John Cantacuzenus

Fall of Byzantium: John Cantacuzenus

Previous post in this series on the fall of Byzantium is here. Of all the emperors to rule during the last two centuries of Byzantium, John Cantacuzenus was one of the most interesting. As described in the introduction to this series, his reign faced him with an unbroken series of dilemmas that produced irrecoverable disaster […]

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Breaking of the empire

Fall of Byzantium: Breaking of the Empire

Yesterday’s post introduced John Cantacuzenus, one of the most significant of the last Byzantine emperors who faced a series of impossible dilemmas which saw a further crumbling of the empire from its already dilapidated state. Before looking at the difficulties of his reign, let us see how the empire got to such a wretched state in […]

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Fall of Byzantium

Fall of Byzantium: The Slow Death of Empire

Imagine a man tumbling down a steep, rocky mountain. He might have so much control as to slide left or roll right. Perhaps he could aim for the flattish, gravelly stretch right before the precipice; or, he could continue down the hard-packed slope. But whatever choice he makes, his destiny is out of his hands. Every […]

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Chaucer's Knight

Chaucer’s Knight: A Grand Tour of the Medieval World

In July of 1343, a company of English knights, squires, churchmen, and men-at-arms appeared before Algeciras, in southernmost Spain. There they found King Alfonso XI of Castile, who had been besieging the city since the previous summer. Algeciras was an important port city on the Strait of Gibraltar which allowed the emir of Granada to […]

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Dalmatian Coast

The Dalmatian Coast: Merchants & Pirates of Croatia

The Dalmatian Coast is one of the most spectacular and rugged stretches of coastline in the world. The multitude of inlets shelter gorgeous cities of red-tile roofs and pristine beaches, while splinter-shaped islands line the coast. Behind it all, the Dinaric Alps rise up, a backdrop of incredible scenery. The thin sliver of coastline has […]

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Muslim Sicily

Muslim Sicily and the First Reconquista

Before the Spanish Reconquista began making serious gains, and before the First Crusade was launched for Jerusalem, there was another counteroffensive fought by the forces of Christendom against Islam. This first reconquista was of the rich island of Muslim Sicily. The island had been in Muslim hands since the early 10th century, when the armies […]

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Chinese shipwreck

A Chinese Shipwreck: Glimpse of a Lost World

An ancient Chinese shipwreck in the Java Sea has been found to be much older than previously thought. The new dating places it within a vast and intricate trading network that spanned from southern China to Egypt. The story of this ship and its cargo adds color to an already fascinating world. A Major Haul The […]

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Original Assassins

Who Were the Original Assassins? Alamut & the Old Man of the Mountain

The beginnings were inauspicious. A middle-aged man, accompanied by a paltry group of followers, sought refuge from the hounds of their oppressors in a remote mountain fastness. For decades, their people had been persecuted by one of the most powerful empires the world had ever seen—the Seljuk Turks. The wretched group found themselves before the imposing fortress […]

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Templar Tunnel

Templar Tunnel: A Mysterious Discovery

An exciting new discovery has been made in England. A man tromping through his fields stumbled into a rabbit hole that concealed a secret. The hole was in fact a narrow tunnel leading to a door. Behind it was a small series of caves, hollowed out by the medieval military order called the Templars. This […]

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Treasures of Timbuktu

Timbuktu’s Treasures: A Threatened Legacy

William Dalrymple reviews a harrowing account of the race to save Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts during Al-Qaeda’s takeover of the city in 2012: The realisation that Timbuktu’s fragile heritage was in danger set off alarm bells across the world. The city was once one of Africa’s most revered centres of learning and the arts. From the 13th […]

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Labyrinth of the Alhambra: The Fortress Beneath the Palace

The Reconquista was the long, drawn-out struggle by Christians to expel the Muslim occupiers, or Moors, from Spain. The nearly eight centuries of conflict saw many back-and-forths, with complicated alliances forming among the major powers. For most of that time the ultimate outcome lay in doubt. Yet the Christians inexorably pushed forward. Like large waves in a receding […]

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A Sliver of Gold: The Swahili Coast, Pt. 1

The story begins with Arab and Persian sailors establishing trade colonies in East Africa, but its antecedents lie much earlier. Arabian, Egyptian, and Greek traders had long been making expeditions across the Red Sea and down the East African coast.

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Genoa: Rival to Venice

Genoa the Superb, Part 1: A Merchant Rival to Venice

The Republic of Venice earned its place in history through its consummate mastery of Machiavellian scheming and diplomacy.  Creating its trade empire amidst the ceaseless wars between Christians and Muslims in the East, agents of the Serene Republic were well-versed in playing one rival off another to their commercial advantage.  But surely as piglets shove and jostle at their mother’s teat, the Venetians had to ward off other claimants to so rich a prize as trade with the Orient.  Among all the other Italian mercantile city-states, only one was potent enough to mount a formidable challenge: the Republic of Genoa. (more…)

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Guinea Coast

The Gullah: African Roots

Between the Senegal River and modern Liberia lies a marshy, tropical coastline that is one of the most densely-populated in Africa.  Early Portuguese explorers noted its agricultural productivity, and the region came to be called the “Grain Coast” for its surplus of rice and millet.  The Portuguese quickly set up trade posts here to provision their expeditions further south, initiating regular contact between Europeans and Africans. (more…)

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Polo: The Game of Kings

Games are often compared to war, and words like “blitzkrieg” or “onslaught” are common clichés of sports journalism.  As far removed as modern sports are from real combat, they have always been seen to encourage the teamwork, discipline, and physical toughness necessary to make good soldiers.  One game still played today, though, was created specifically to fill army ranks with brave and skilled fighters.   (more…)

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The Monsoon Trade System: An Indian Ocean Network

Sometime before 100 B.C., Greek sailors coming from Egypt discovered a shortcut to India.  Much easier and more direct than the arduous overland route, or than hugging the deserted coastlines of Arabia and Persia for 5,000 miles, this route took only weeks to travel.  Sailing straight out into the open waters of the Arabian Sea during the late spring, […]

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