Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ottoman Thoughts

The following observations are a result of reading Colin Imber's The Ottoman Empire.

For much of the early history of the Ottoman Empire, the succession mechanism was fratricide; when a sultan died, there was a civil war among his sons and their supporters, with the winner ending up as the next sultan, the losers dead, imprisoned, or in exile. On the face of it that is an expensive way of choosing a ruler. On the other hand … .

The early sultans commanded in battle, presided over the meetings of the council of state that made policy, played an active role in the running and expansion of the empire. Eventually they abandoned fratricide. Also eventually, the role of the Sultan shifted. The council of state was run by the Grand Vizier, who merely reported to and consulted with the Sultan. The armies were commanded by generals. The Sultan withdrew into luxurious isolation.

The obvious conjecture is that the two changes were linked. Fratricide was expensive--but it selected the claimant best able to win. The result was to put at the head of the empire able, aggressive, politically and militarily competent rulers. Abandon fratricide and eventually the ruler becomes a figurehead.

During the early centuries, when the Ottoman Empire was not engaged in a large war it was engaged in small ones--regular raids across the border to bring back loot. Such raids depopulated, and so weakened, the border territories of nations adjacent to the Empire, making conquest easier. And they gave people living in those regions at least some incentive to want to be conquered, in order to get to the side of the border raids were coming from instead of the side they were going to.

Raiders received tax advantages from the Empire, but were largely motivated by the desire for loot. Poor peasants do not have much worth stealing. But in a slave society, the peasants themselves are worth stealing. Thus the institution of slavery, by helping to make possible a cheap form of military force with which the Ottomans could harass their neighbors, gave a real advantage to an expansionary state.


David Friedman said...

Markm writes:

"E.g., in the late Ottoman empire (at least), bribery was institutionalized."

True in lots of societies without fratricide. The shift away from fratricide was, I think, in the 16th century, so well before the "late Ottoman empire." The impression I got from the book was that corruption was probably more common after the shift, since the Sultan wasn't an involved player, had power, and could be influenced by concubines, his barber, more or less anyone who had access to him.

"the Norman Conquest was enabled by a fratricidal war between Harald and his brother, so Harald's troops arrived at the battle with William's exhausted and somewhat reduced in number"

Tostig didn't have the resources to fight a civil war, and left England when he was outlawed. The war was between Harold Godwinsson and Harald Haardrada, with Tostig allied to the latter. It's possible that Harald wouldn't have invaded without the excuse and support provided by Tostig, but far from clear.

On the other hand, it's clear in the Ottoman case that enemies of the Empire did sometimes make use of defeated claimants to the Sultanate.

"Since betrayal and civil war are legitimate means of gaining power, eventually it will become impossible to find officials trustworthy enough to leave in charge while the ruler is absent. At the same time, any general who is given a large enough command and enough independence to be effective in distant areas is thereby a threat to overthrow the crown."

None of that seems to have been an issue for the Ottomans. I don't know how they managed it, but the military was consistently loyal to the regime, although not to a particular claimant. At least in the period covered by the book, I do not think there is a single case of a general, governor, or the like who wasn't in the direct line of succession using his power to seize the Sultanate.

Anonymous said...

Most of the information in this post is correct but not enough.. Before sultan mehmet ottomans were a small population. With Sultan mehmet taking constantinopolis[polis][istanbul] ottomans becomes an empire and there are things that an empire have. After istanbul became the capital of ottoman empire mehmet became the sultan han "king of globe". As he was the leader of the ottomans with taking istanbul he became the "kayser-i rum" king of the orthodox christians. The pope of the time sent him a mail telling him that "we will accept you as the king but with a little water"[aquae pauci]..

As Mehmet became sultan and the ruller of a empire he made soem changes.. He changed the rule of sultan joining the council [divan], with him sultan was near the divan in a cage. if he has something to say he usually hit the cage and say what he things. As the ottoman became an empire the diplomatic and armed forces system totally changed..

The main reason of the ottomans fall apart is that they were the last empire of the world and that time is not the right time for an empire to move along. The democratic movement in the globe made a big scratch on the ottoman family who ruled this country for more than 800 years.

And the ruler do move to battlefield but until 1700s.

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