Europe in the Shadow of Asia

The historiography of Western political ideas is beset with many curiosities. One of them is the bland complacency with which historians ignore the fact that Western Civilization did not unfold in a vacuum but led a dangerous existence in the shadow of Asia. . . .

[Voegelin surveys the incursions by the Vandals, Visigoths, Attila’s defeat at the Battle of Chalons in 451;  the Magyars (defeated at Lechfeld in 955);  the Mongol three-pronged invasion of Silesia, Western Hungary, and the Adriatic in 1241 ( the defeat of the last Western armies at the Battle of Liegnitz);  and the Ottoman Turks' conquest of Constantinople in 1453 (reaching the gates of Vienna in 1529).]

The fall of Byzantium and the rise of the Ottoman empire, accompanied by the threat to the West, were enough to capture the imagination of contemporaries. These were changes on the political scene of a magnitude that reduced the struggles between Western princes to smallish domestic affairs by comparison; here was power without tradition, on a scale of rational organization and effectiveness in empire building beyond the possibilities of any single Western power unit.

Against this background of dark threat appeared the meteoric figure of Timur—as far as the Westerners were concerned, another power out of nowhere—stopping abruptly the victorious Turkish advance, which, at the same time, had already eaten deep into Bulgaria and Macedonia;  ending the danger to Byzantium and the West;  and then receding as inexplicably as it had risen.

Such an outburst of power in the raw, with its ups and downs of threat and salvation, would be as fascinating as it was unsettling. The Italian historians of the fifteenth century, who were closest to the events and felt their repercussions firsthand through the Greek emigration, were, indeed, intensely occupied with the new phenomenon of power on a world scale;  and in particular the dramatic intervention of Timur, the almost savior, gave occasion to evoke the image of the man of destiny, the fateful conquering prince.

Chapter 1, The Order of Power: Machiavelli
§4,The Asiatic Background, pp 42-45.