Sunday, April 11, 2021

Guest Post: Byzantine Express

The article first appeared on the Today in Alternate History blog. The scenario of a Byzantine Empire surviving until the Great War is fully explored in Alexander Rooksmoor's latest AH novel Byzantine Express.


5 August, 1914 - Byzantine Empire Joins the Great War

The clash of rival Empires known to alternate history as the Great War rapidly escalated when Byzantium opened hostilities on the Central Powers.

The imperial government in Constantinople recognized that its survival over the centuries had depended upon the lasting support of her long-time fighting partners, Serbia and Bulgaria. Set against German encroachment in the Balkans, she unexpectedly found herself allied with the British, French and Russians. These three rival Empires were "fair-weather friends", having their own competing interests and territorial ambitions in the near East. In fact, their only common interest was the ancient proverb "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

Challenged by such a powerful array of forces, the Central Powers were eventually subdued, but Europe was shattered years by the unrelenting slaughter. In the bloody aftermath of popular uprisings and continuation wars fought, stateless minorities won their freedom and crowned heads were forced to abdicate. Riding this sea change was the nascent Byzantine Republic. She seemed incredibly fortunate to enjoy the unity of a Greek-speaking population spread across a strategic territory on world trade routes, Anatolia and the southern tip of the Balkans. In the early years of the 1920s she rapidly became a modern state at the forefront of efforts to rebuild a broken continent.

The discovery of huge oil reserves in the Levant changed everything. With the prospect of regional hegemony returning unexpectedly into sight, the victor powers quickly became deadly enemies. A group of right-wing officers known as the "Young Byzantines" seized power in Constantinople. Convinced that the former Imperium had fought on the wrong side of the Great War, they formed a Fascist State and quickly set about occupying large swathes of Arabia.

Of course, their encroachment into the Middle East was a cynical mirror image of the failed earlier German land-grab on the Byzantine's own door-step. With the Great Powers seemingly on the road to war for the second time in a generation, it appeared that the ephemeral vision of popular democracy that had first begun in Greece was a mirage. With the world's oil supplies firmly in the greedy hands of the Young Byzantines, W. B. Yeats bitterly noted that democracy was only a fleeting interlude between lasting eras of demagoguery.

Author's Note:

In reality, Byzantium was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in AD 1453.


Provine's Pondering

As noted on Today in Alternate History, the timeline follows from a hypothetical, "what if the Ottoman Turks had never headed west?" Alexander Rooksmoor goes into deep reflection on potential changes in his Tablets of Lead blog post. In summary of the fascinating counter-factual analysis, the call for aid to crusaders from Western Europe allowed the Ottomans to recover their lands (rather than those lands being set up as Crusader States). Presumably, the big change was the Fourth Crusade where, as one History professor summed, "drunken Normans stormed Constantinople." Returned to power with a strong eastern buffer, the Byzantines withstand any incursions by Seljuk Turks. The later Ottomans (if Osman I isn't butterflied away from being born) would be one of several diverse states throughout the Muslim world farther southeast.

While digesting all this, multiple other points-of-departure may bubble up. One potential point-of-departure for such a TL could be even farther back with the incursion of the Seljuk Turks that began the call for Crusades. If the Battle of Manzikert of 1071 had been a rousing Byzantine victory rather than many of their mercenaries joining the Seljuk side, Byzantium could have maintained Anatolia and perhaps had to battle Mongols on their eastern frontier.

The extensive history of the Turkish people has plenty of PODs, including if they had never been converted to Islam and instead remained worshipers of Tengri. The Turks originated in northeastern Asia and migrated southwestward, where they came into the Muslim world via missionaries in Central Asia. Mercenaries and more formal armies made up much of the Seljuk push westward, moving into the territory conquered. If culture wars (and more literal wars) had broken out between the Turks and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, that would had discouraged further migration.

On the Byzantine side, more alternatives come to mind. Perhaps if the Byzantines and Sasanids had not fought in the seventh century, conducting the final "Roman-Persian" war, there would not have been so much back-and-forth destabilizing the area. Or, what if the Plague of Justinian hadn't ravaged the Mediterranean economy and Justinian's conquests had time to affirm Byzantine rule and recoop wartime investments?

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