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?


  1. Yes, I think the Battle of Manzikert is important, but it is only one component among many that would be needed for the Byzantine Empire to have survived. Certainly the 4th Crusade was horrendous in ultimately condemning the Empire, but I feel that problems started right at the time of the 1st Crusade. This was called effectively to defend/recover cities held by Byzantium along the Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian littoral. However, right from the recovery of Antioch, instead these went to West European lords who carved out the Crusader States. If, instead, Byzantine rule had been reasserted over them, it would not have saved the Empire necessarily in the long run, but would have strengthened it in the mid-Middle Ages.

  2. The other thing is that to have a surviving Byzantine Empire, there does need to be a different pattern for the Seljuks too. Effectively they were crushed by invaders from the East and only the Osman tribe, those who became the Ottomans revived after that period. They could equally have been destroyed or relocated to another region. In my book it is envisaged that they effectively end up in what is now Jordan and Iraq rather than modern day Turkey. Furthermore, I did not think it was impossible for fragmentation to continue and there being a number of beyriks across central and eastern Syria which the Byzantines could have held at bay, especially if there was division between Shi'ites and Sunnis, let alone other Islamic sects and with even some adopting various forms of Christianity that continued divisions.

  3. I have considered writing a sequel to 'Byzantium Express' set in 1918. It does seem probable that revolutionary fervour would have come to the region. Added to that it is likely that Arab nationalism would have impacted on this Empire as much as it did on the Ottoman Empire. Fighting alongside Germany as happens in my novel, it is likely that the Byzantines would have been treated like the Ottomans and various mandates created from their Arab lands. Interestingly, without the massacres seen in Anatolia, especially during and soon after the First World War, there would not only be a much larger Greek population across the region, but a far larger Armenian one too. Thus, it is probable under Wilsonian self-determination, an Armenian Republic would have been created, but more populous and stronger than the short-lived one of our world. The Kurds may also have been granted a state, though perhaps as a British mandate. As with the Treaty of Sèvres in our history, various zones may have been given over to Entente powers, notably Italy. In this alternative it may have even received Greek islands especially Corfu and other Kephalonia. It is probable that the Straits would have been internationalised as happened in our world, so maybe the rump Byzantium would have found a different capital to Constantinople, though more likely Smyrna than Athens.

  4. In 'Byzantium Express', Bulgarian enters the war on the side of the Entente rather than the Central Powers, so is likely to have been 'rewarded' after the war, with an Aegean coastline, separating the two parts of Byzantium and also most likely the entirety of Macedonia rather than much of this going to the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia). Rather than the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey seen in our world, there is liable to be an equally acrimonious though smaller scale exchange of Greeks and Bulgars.

  5. For the sequel scenario I have imagined that Byzantium would be affected by revolutionary ideas. Remember these took hold not simply in Russia, but in Germany - particularly Bavaria - and Hungary too. There is quite a good chance that there would have been a Byzantine Civil War, in some ways like the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, with the British supporting the Emperor and Bolshevik Russia backing the revolutionaries. This may have led to the fragmentation of the rump of Byzantium with some 'soviet' republics being established especially around cities. This could have endured for 2-3 years, perhaps longer. Liberal democracies tended not to last long in Central Europe and the Balkans in the inter-war period, so as suggested above a Fascist state or possibly more like a monarcho-fascist (as in Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria) or simply a military dictatorship could have appeared in the late 1920s/early 1930s. In part it might depend if the Emperor had gone into exile as happened in Hungary and Spain or if he was still around to oversee some form of authoritarian regime himself. While this might make Byzantium sympathetic to Nazi Germany (though probably still angered by Fascist Italy's control of some of it territory), the harm that the First World War had inflicted would make the Byzantines, like the Turks, very cautious about being involved with Germany again, especially with the threat of Soviet intervention. If Byzantium still controlled oil fields, e.g. in what in our world is northern Syria and Iraq, then Germany certainly would have worked hard for benign neutrality as with Spain and Sweden, if nothing else.

    1. Great line of thinking on the right-wing turn for post-war Byzantium. It did make me think of the Spanish Civil War, and, as you said, could depend a lot on the Emperor's handling of it. Perhaps it might be a sidelined pseudo-supporter, as seen in Italy?


Site Meter