By the end of the 1460s most of the Balkan peninsula was under Turkish rule. Thus the core of the new Ottoman state was Asia Minor and the Balkans. From this core, before the death of Muhammad II in 1481, the Turks expanded across the Danube into modern Romania and seized the Genoese outposts in the Crimea. They also fought the Venetians and landed forces in Italy. The limits of their expansion were marked by the great Hungarian fortress of Belgrade and the island fortress of Rhodes in the Aegean, stronghold of the Hospitalers.
The Late Middle Ages in Eastern Europe
Until the sixteenth century, the Ottomans showed tolerance to their infidel subjects, permitting Christians and Jews to serve the state and allowing the patriarch of Constantinople and the Grand Rabbi to act as leaders of their own religious communities, or millets. The religious leader not only represented his people in their dealings with the Ottoman state but also had civil authority over them in matters that affected them alone. Non-Muslims paid a head tax and lived in comparative peace.
Part of the Ottomans’ inheritance no doubt came from their far-distant past in central Asia, when they had almost surely come under the influence of China and had lived like other nomads of the region. Their language, their capacity for war, and their rigid adherence to custom may go back to this early period.
By the fourteenth century the Ottoman Turks had begun to press against the borders of Byzantine Asia Minor. Economic and political unrest led the discontented population of this region to prefer the Ottomans to the harsh and ineffectual Byzantine officials. Farmers willingly paid tribute to the Turks, and as time went on many of them were converted to Islam to avoid payment. They learned Turkish and taught the nomadic Turkish conquerors the arts of a settled agricultural life.
When the Greeks of Nicaea under Michael VIII Palaeologus (r. 1259-1282) recaptured Constantinople, they found it depopulated and badly damaged and the old territory of the Empire mostly in Latin hands. It was impossible for Michael to reconquer all of Greece or the islands, to push the frontier in Asia Minor east of the Seljuk capital of Konia, or to deal effectively with the Serbians in the Balkans.
After the sack of Constantinople, the Latins elected Baldwin of Flanders as the first Latin emperor (12041205), and the title continued in his family during the fifty-seven years of Latin occupation. The Venetians chose the first Latin patriarch and kept a monopoly on that rich office. The territories of the Empire were divided on paper, since most of them had not yet been conquered.