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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Phôteinê B. Perra

O Leôn enantion tês Hêmiselêou: O prôtos Beneto-Othômanikos polemos kai ê katalêpsê tou Helladikou khôrou (1463-1479).

[The Lion against the Half-moon: The First Venetian-Ottoman war and the conquest of the Greek area (1463-1479)] 

Athêna: Papazêsê, 2009. 315 pp. €18,81. ISBN: 978-960-02-2294-4.

In recent years there has been growing interest among Greek scholars about their country’s past under the Latin and Ottoman dominance. One representative of this tendency is the book by Fôteine B. Perra, whose Greek title can be translated as The Lion against the Half-moon: The First Venetian-Ottoman war and the conquest of the Greek area (1463-1479). The book is largely based on Perra’s PhD dissertation, which was accepted at the University of the Aegean in October 2007. Although several scholars have dealt whit this war, the book by Perra is the first monograph that has the war as its main subject. The book concentrates on events in Greek area.

The sources about the First Venetian-Ottoman war can be divided into the Greek, “Latin”, and Turkish ones. The Greek sources include the “historians of the Fall of Byzantium”, such as Doukas and Kritoboulos, who continue their descriptions into the period after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Also the so-called “Byzantine Short Chronicles” offer sometimes valuable information. There are a number of different types of “Latin” sources (i.e. from the West-European cultural sphere, not necessarily in Latin). Largely these are included in the collection Documents inédits relatives à l’histoire de la Grèce au moyen âge by K. Sathas (8 volumes, Paris, 1880-1886), but Perra herself has also visited the archives of Venice and used unedited material. New editions of some deliberations of the Venetian Maggior Consiglio are included in the book. Further, the history of Hospitallers by G. Bosio (Rome, 1625) gives some information and Perra has translated the relevant parts of this source into Modern Greek in her book. The Turkish sources give mostly sporadic information about the war with Venetians - apparently this conflict was not so important for them - and it is possible to say that Perra treats the war mostly from the Venetian perspective. 

In the beginning of the book is a short overview chapter on all seven wars that Venice and the Ottomans officially waged between 1463 and 1718. The “First Venetian-Ottoman war” was not, however, the first time when the Venetians and Ottomans clashed together with arms; this is noted in the next chapter, which deals with the relations of Venice and the Ottomans from the beginning of the 14th century until the outbreak of the war. But the Venetians were interested mostly in sea-trade, and the Ottoman Empire was land-based.  The conquest of Constantinople is seen as a significant breaking point in the history of the region. After that the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (1444-1446 and 1451-1481) began the systematic conquest and annexation of the remaining Christian areas in the surroundings of his empire. Perra claims that merchant republic Venice tried to avoid wars until there was no other alternative. Ottomans on the other hand were more warlike, because of the concept of Muslim holy war and, as a more essential factor, the need to support the army through conquests. When the Ottomans launched attacks against the Venetian possessions in mainland Greece in 1462-3, the Venetians had to declare war on 28 July 1463.

Perra divides the war into two phases, 1463-9 and 1471-9. Between these phases is probably the most important and dramatic event of the war, the Ottoman conquest of Chalcis (usually called Negroponte in this era) in the island of Euboea. In her description of the military actions Perra concentrates on the first phase of the war and on the conquest of Chalcis. The description of the second phase is only very short, because major campaigns were rare and the main events took place outside Greece. 

There are separate chapters for diplomacy and for the impact of war on Greek populations. The diplomacy chapter concentrates on Venice’s efforts to find herself allies, both in the West and in the East where they had dealings with the Turcoman Aqquyunlu-confederation. Perra claims that the Ottomans did not need any allies. The chapter also describes the peace negotiations between the Ottomans and Venice. Venice lost some areas and promised to pay repetitions and tribute. The chapter about the impact of war on Greek populations focuses on the significant population movements in Greece that the war caused, and it emphasizes the importance of the support of the local population for the Venetians especially in the Peloponnese. Perra claims that thanks to this support and to fortunate events, the Venetians could manage the situation during the first phase of war at least as well as they did.

The main problems of the book are in its structure and focus. The overview of all seven official wars between the Venetians and Ottomans might be nice for a Greek-speaking non-specialist reader, but has little interest from a scholarly point of view. Above all, its place at the beginning of the book is problematic. The reader must jump from the last Venetian-Ottoman war in the 18th century to the first contacts between Ottomans and Venetians in the 14th century, and to a time preceding all those wars that were just dealt with. If the writer (or publisher) truly wanted to have this overview chapter, it would have been better to place it at the end of the book as some kind of epilogue and leave the first war out of it. Also the focus on Greece and Greeks when dealing with the military events and impact on populations is problematic, especially when in the chapter dealing with diplomacy the geographical scope is wide. For example the events on the Albanian front and even the Albanian population of Greece, which was quite significant at that time, are left out. It might also have been useful to deal with military and diplomatic actions together. 

Although the subject of the book is war, there is little analysis of the methods of war, weaponry, organization of armed forces or comparable subjects belonging to the field of military history. In other respects, too, the writer could have been bolder with analysis and new conclusions of her own. She has also chosen to write the book in her native language, although evidently she is skilled enough to have done so in English. It is good that research is published in smaller languages as well, and the students of Byzantine history, for example, should be able to read Modern Greek – but a similar requirement cannot be placed on international students of Venetian and Ottoman history, who probably have an interest in the subject of this book. Now they must depend on reviews like present one, or hope for translations or new books on the subject in more accessible languages.

[ED. NOTE: the author has also publised a different review of the same work in The Bulletin of the Finnish School at Athens]

Juho Wilskman

University of Helsinki <juho.wilskman@helsinki.fi>

Page Added: November 2009