The fall of Constantinople is probably the most famous battle in both Ottoman and Byzantine history. The Byzantines were major underdogs in the siege – however, they put up impressive resistance with what they had from April 2 until May 29 and arguably even had a small chance of mounting a successful defense of the City. Though it was not to be, it is an epic battle with fascinating characters, and one which has intrigued people ever since it was fought.
BACKGROUND: AN EMPIRE NEARLY GONE:
The Eastern Roman Empire had not been a huge power since the reign of Manuel Komnenos which ended in 1180. 24 years later, Constantinople was desroyed by the Crusaders and it’s Empire shattered. The Byzantine state which emerged from it was, despite admirable efforts, a diminished one. Most states would not have survived those events, but the Empire was in terminal decline ever since. In the 14th century, the progress of restoration made in the 13 century was lost and the Empire began to decline steadily. Only shrewd diplomacy, the defenses of Constantinople, it’s historical prestige, and luck saved the Empire in these times.
A quick look at the map shows that the Roman Empire by 1453 is beyond recognition, it is not simply a smaller state, it is a rump state. It is more like a city-state of Constantinople ruled by the Emperor, and a semi-autonomous region in the Peloponnese known as the Despotate of the Morea. It was technically the last province of the Empire, but it seems doubtful it was sending any revenue to the capital. The last Emperor, Constantine XI was a Despot of Morea before succeeding his brother John VIII Palaiaologos as Emperor in 1449. The Empire he inherited was not at all capable of resisting the Ottomans long-term without serious and highly successful outside intervention.
THE LOST CAUSE OF THE CHRISTIAN EAST:
Christianity in the Middle East had been losing ground ever since the emergence of Islam in the 7th century. The Romans had valiantly outlasted the Caliphal superpowers, resisting their attempts to absorb them into their empires. However, beginning with the battle of Manzikert and the following decade, the process of Turkification had began. This would make it so Anatolia would be slowly lost in a period from the 11th to 14th centuries, despite the best efforts of the Komnenian dynasty to reclaim Asia Minor. The First Crusade was in part a response to these events. By the 15th century the zeal for crusading was noticeably less, and many Romans did not want any Western armies coming into their land. Looking at the Fourth Crusade, one can see why. Even though several Emperors attempted to seek union with the Catholic Church in order to secure Western aid and prevent themselves from being victims of Latin aggression, it was too little too late to save Byzantium.
Byzantium itself seemed like a lost cause by 1453. It had lost most of it’s territory, wealth, and military power. It was more like a city-state trying to assert whatever control it could wherever it could Donald M. Nicol described the situation – “Constantinople was isolated and seemed very far away from the front line. No one could any longer regard it as the capital of an empire. It was an island of Christian culture around whose walls lapped the waters of Islam. Its emperor had become a poor and tragic relative of the Catholic community of the west. He had seen the light and joined their Christian flock. Therefore he was to be pitied and comforted. People deluded themselves with the thought that Constantinople was so well fortified as to be impregnable. But few really believed that the flood waters of Islam could be turned back as far as the Bosporos.” The Romans would get a bit of help, but not the kind they would need to defy the Ottoman army which would be outside the Theodosian walls.
THE LAST EMPEROR:
Constantine XI Palaiologos was the son of Manuel II Palaiologos. When he took over, he had a good resume as a mature experienced leader. First, he was made regent of the Empire in 1422, while Joh VIII had left the City to try to get Western aid against the Turks. When Manuel II died after poor health, John VIII became the sole-Emperor, and gave Constantine XI territory north of Constantinople as his own to govern. It was clear that Constantine was trusted by John VIII, and was a far better man than his in-fighting brothers. John VIII eventually sent Constantine to help in the Morea. Then he served as the one of the Despots of the Morea, essentially independent governors of the Peloponnese, and nominally a province of the Empire. This province typically had 2-3 Despots. During his rule, they were able to work together to oust the Latins from their remaining territory in the Peloponnese, and even conquer territory outside of that. After taking Patras in the Morea, the West and the Ottomans were concerned, neither truly wanting to see any rising Byzantine powers in the region. Constantine was a great leader, and although he ruled a small and relatively weak state, he tried to expand it. He led a campaign north further into Greece, liberating Athens from the Crusaders and moving into Ottoman Thessaly. Secondly, he had served as the regent for his brother John VIII Palaiologos. He did not try to overthrow his brother, as he surely genuinely respected his brother for trying to to Rome.
In 1437, Constantine went back to Constantinople to meet with the Emperor John VIII. His other brothers feared he would be raised to co-Emperor or otherwise made the official heir. But instead, John VIII had recalled him to place his trust in him once more. John went to Italy for a council between the Eastern and Western churches. Many Romans vehemently opposed a union with the Catholics whom they saw as heretical. John saw the pragmatic value for the endangered Empire. John even had to bring Demetrios, a brother of Constantine and John, because of his rebellious behavior and the possibility he might cause another damaging civil war in the Emperor’s absence. Again, this highlights how noble a man Constantine XI was in the context of his family and his time. Constantine saw his brothers wisdom, and himself would die a unionist trying to convince the Latins to help save the city they had destroyed in 1204.
John VIII died October 31 of 1448 he was a controversial figure among his own people. Donald M. Nicol wrote about his mixed legacy – he “may be remembered as the Emperor who went to the Pope’s Council at Florence. He was so remembered, with some bitterness, by most of his subjects…Perhaps it was too late for such an emperor. Perhaps his father Manuel II had been right: what the Empire needed was not a great emperor but a good manager. John VIII, for all his qualities as a person, was neither. He had not even been able to manage his own brothers. His younger brother Demetrios had his eye on the throne. But his eldest surviving brother Theodore not unnaturally considered himself to have prior claim. In 1443 Theodore had agreed to exchange the Despotate of Mistra, which he had governed for 36 years, for the appanage of Selymbria in Thrace. The arrangement put an end to the feud that he had been waging with his younger brother Constantine in Greece. It also put Theodore that much nearer to Constantinople to move into the palace when the moment came. He was never given the chance, for he died in June 1448, four months before the Emperor…Before he died, however…he chose the Despot Constantine. From every military and political point of view it was the wisest choice.” And thus Constantine XI was the last Emperor to succeed to the throne. He inherited all the problems the others couldn’t fix, and would have to face their culmination as the City would fall just 5 years later.
When Constantine heard that his brother died and the throne was vacant, he had to act wisely. He was far from the capital, in the Morea. He was aware of the fact his brothers might try to interfere and take the throne for themselves, and they were closer to Constantinople at this critical moment. His biggest rival was his brother Demetrios, he had his own supporters, and he represented the anti-unionists who viewed the union with the Catholics as morally and spiritually bankrupt. Constantine had a more powerful asset, his mother, the former Empress during the reign of Manuel II. Constantine was her favorite son, which is why he used the name Dragases in addition to Palaiologos, and she used her influence to usher him to the throne. She acted as a regent for Constantine XI until he arrived. She sent officials to Constantine Palaiologos in the Morea and had him crowned at Mistra on January 6 of 1449 so that when he arrived at the Queen of Cities he was already the Emperor of the Romans. Constantine XI entered Constantinople on March 12 of 1449 – this was the last succession in Roman history. As soon as he took control of the “Empire” he immediately sent a diplomatic embassy to the Ottoman Sultan Murad to make peaceful overtures and secure the peace. Probably the Ottomans would have preferred Demetrios, as he was anti-union which would have reduced the odds that the Byzantines received any Western assistance. Nonetheless, Constantine XI was recognized by the Turks as the rightful Emperor.
Constantine was never crowned by a Patriarch of Constantinople, as typically was the case for Byzantine Emperors. However, he was still seen as the legitimate Emperor by his rivals and subjects. Even Gennadios Scholarios, who would be the first Patriarch of Constantinople after the Ottoman conquest of the City, still saw Constantine XI as legitimate. Even though he disagreed with the idea of a Church union, he still saw him as the rightful Emperor.
THE USELESS PROVINCE:
The Morea looks like a province of the Roman Empire on most maps, and in a way it was. But in a way it was just it’s own parallel state. The Palaiologos family did rule it, Constantine XI had ruled it for example prior to his rise to the throne. However, it really was it’s own state that acted without any fear of imperial power. The reality was Constantinople could do nothing to force anyone in the Morea to do anything. The Palaiologos family only stayed in the imperial fold because they dreamed of one day being Emperor in Constantinople. Constantinople still held a prestige, a symbolic significance. The province was of little help directly to Constantinople though. It had to fund it’s own defense against many enemies, and was often divided into sub-units which fought each other.
After becoming the Emperor, Constantine gave his brothers the Morea to rule as Despots, and helped his brothers Demetrios and Thomas resolve their disputes. They agreed a 50-50 partition of the land with agreed borders. They swore to their Emperor, and to their mother Helena that they would honor this deal and stop fighting. The Empire was on the brink of collapse, the last thing it needed was civil war. As was the case many less-than-noble members of the Palaiologos family, it still devolved into pitiful infighting sadly. Showing how much less able and how much less moral they were as leaders, their agreements dissolved within mere months of taking over the Despotate. Instead of helping in the struggle their brother in Constantinople was facing against the Turks – the brothers hindered it. The brothers invited Turkish interference in their wars against each other, weakening the land and exposing it’s inhabitants to raiding. It probably shook what faith the locals even had in Byzantine rule. Constantine XI, who had helped bring success to the Morea, must have been disappointed to see the resources of the last Roman province being wasted this way. There was nothing he could do though, he had his own problems.
THE NEW SULTAN:
Although on paper Mehmed II had been made Sultan in 1444 when his father retired to Bursa, he was 12 years old and his father Murad had to come out of his retirement to run the Ottoman Empire. When in 1451 the Sultan Murad II died, Mehmed truly ruled the state. This was to result in a change of policy towards the Romans which would lead to their doom. His successor was a young man of only 19 years of age, and he would finally put the Roman Empire to death. Initially, Mehmed confirmed previous arrangements with the Byzantines as he consolidated his power. The Sultan was initially seen as “inexperienced youth” who could easily be manipulated by both his own and officials and the diplomatically astute Byzantine court. Donald Nicol describes the miscalculation of the Byzantines regarding Mehmed II – “the Byzantines were slow to recognize that so young and inexperienced a ruler presented with a danger more formidable than any Sultan since the great Bayezid. For to begin with Mehmed seemed ready to be their friend, even to the point of making certain guarantees and small concessions.”
Despite the initial hopes of his enemies Mehmed II was not a weak-minded boy however, and quickly showed this was not the case. He promoted his own loyal officials, Zaganos Pasha and Shihab al-Din Pasha, to counter-balance the influence of his father’s Grand Vizier Candarli Halil. The Sultan had his own brother killed to remove the potential for him to be overthrown. The only potential claimant to the Ottoman throne was Prince Orhan, whom the Byzantines held in their capital as a card to play against the Turks. Any other possible sources of problems for the Ottomans were dealt with by Mehmed. He dealt with the Karaman Turks in Anatolia, who had tried to take advantage of the young ruler and were crushed in 1451.
It seems once has more security in rule he looked for a pretext to seize the city which had long been the target of the Ottomans. In late 1451, the Emperor Constantine XI asked Mehmed to double the payment of 20,000 hyperpyra which the Romans collected to imprison for detaining Prince Orhan, an Ottoman rival to the throne. This was a traditional maneuver in Byzantine diplomacy, to hold potential rivals for their opponents thrones to either unleash or retain the threat to unleash upon their foes. Allegedly after receiving the message one of Mehmed’s Vizirs wrote the following message:
“You stupid Greeks, I have known your cunning ways for long enough. The late Sultan was a lenient and conscientious friend to you. The present Sultan Mehmed is not of the same mind. If Constantinople eludes his bold and impetuous grasp, it will only be because God continues to overlook your devious and wicked schemes. You are fools to think that you can frighten us with your fantasies and that when the ink on our recent treaty of peace is barely dry. We are not children without strength or sense. If you think that you can start something, do so. If you want to proclaim Orhan as Sultan in Thrace, go ahead. If you want to bring the Hungarians across the Danube, let them come. If you want to recover places that you lost long since, try it. But know this: you will make no headway in any of these things. All that you will do is lose what little you still have.” -Halil Pasha
Whether or not this was an actual message or a literary device with a pinch of hindsight, who knows. But surely the idea that small City-state could threaten the Ottoman Empire with Orhan was laughable. Mehmed, the shrewd lord that he was, responded more level-headed. He concluded peace with the Karamans after demonstrating his power in Anatolia, and returned to Adrianople in Thrace in the winter of 1451. He then revoked the minor concessions he previously offered to the Romans and began making plans to strangle Constantinople. Mehmed seems a man who did not receive insult well, had a lot of pride and confidence, and dreamed big.
Besides the meddling of the Byzantines, he had a host of reasons to want Constantinople. Looking at the map below, one can see why Mehmed eyed Constantinople as his new capital. The City clearly was the logical capital of the rising Ottoman Empire which held extensive territory in Anatolia and Europe. Constantinople was sort of awkwardly in the middle, stubbornly resisting the Turks and intervening in their civil wars. And although Constantinople could not raise armies to threaten the Turks, the city stood as a cause for potential Western armies and Crusades to come east to defeat the Turks. It’s ports served as bases for Italian merchant states, giving them influence over the seas. Thus the Turks decided conquest of the Queen of Cities was the way to remove all of these threats.
Mehmed himself summed it up well: The ghaza [Jihad/Holy War] is our basic duty as it was in the case of our fathers. Constantinople, situated in the middle of our domains, protects our enemies and incites them against us. The conquest of this city is, therefore, essential to the future and the safety of the Ottoman state.“
As soon as Mehmed had decided on conquering the City, he began laying the groundwork for such a feat instead of rushing into it out of spite for Constantine XI’s meddling. Bayezid had already built his own fortress on the Bosphoros known as Anadoluhisari in 1394. That helped the Ottomans exert more influence on the narrow strait. Mehmed built his own fortress on the Bosporos, and he boldly built it right on Byzantine territory. This fortress is known as Rumelihisari, and also was known by the Turks as “Boghazkesen” which meant channel-cutter. Constantine XI protested but could do little else about Mehmed’s power move. Construction began in April 1452 on the fortress and was finished in four months. The Byzantines could see the fortress being built from the walls of Constantinople, and it probably sent fear in their hearts. The sense of impending doom must have loomed large.
Doukas recorded an incident which demonstrated the power that Rumelihisari gave the Ottomans over the Bosporos. Although the Ottoman navy was at this time not as good as those of the Italian states, this fortress gave them the ability to police the strait. “A large Venetian vessel, commanded by a man named Rizzo, at this time sailed through the Mouth without lowering its sails before the fortress of Bagkesen(Rumelihisari). The fortress’s garrison discharged an enormous stone which shattered the ship. As the vessel began to sink, the captain and thirty survivors boarded a boat and made it ashore. The Turks seized them, bound their hands and necks in chains, and, placing them in single file, brought them before Mehmed who was then sojourning in Didymoteichos. He gave orders to behead them all except the captain whose life was to be taken by a stake through the anus. Moreover, they were to be left uninterred. I saw them a few days later after my arrival there.”
In January of 1453, Mehmed came to Adrianople from Didymoteichos in Thrace. At this time, according to Doukas – “Since every piece of military equipment was ready, he wished to test the cannon which the technician had constructed. Placing it skillfully before the great gate of the courtyard of the palace buildings which he had built that year, inserting the stone carefully and measuring out the powder, he planned to discharge it the next day. All of Adrianople was notified that the impending blast and crash would be like thunder from the heavens so that the sudden shock would not leave some speechless or cause pregnant women to abort. In the morning when he ignited the powder and the air became heated, the stone when discharged, was propelled from the cannon with a piercing air-rending sound, and the air was filled with smoke and haze. The explosion could be heard over ten miles away. The stone landed one mile from the point of departure and the hole it made where it fell was one fathom deep. Such was the power of the gunpowder which propelled the stone.”
There is a dialogue recorded by the contemporary Byzantine historian Doukas between the sides which documents the venom between the sides over the construction of Rumelihisari. The Byzantine ambassadors allegedly told the Sultan that they wanted to be friends and submit:
“Some one hundred years or more have elapsed since your forefather Murad, Orchan’s son, seized Adrianople. In their treaties with us, none of his descendants, except yourself, has ever considered the erection of a tower or hut within the environs of the City. Even when there was cause and both sides proposed battle, yet by making a compromise they preserved peace. When your grandfather Mehmed wished to build a fortress on the eastern shore of the straits, he made this request which was not a small one of Emperor Manuel like a son importuning his father. He assented on the grounds that the work was to be constructed in the East which for many years had been inhabited by the Ottomans. Now that all is going well with you, you are obviously determined to close the Black Sea to the Franks in order to starve the City and to deprive her of her customs duties. We entreat you, therefore, renounce this design and we will be your genuine friends just as we were the friends of your father, the honorable ruler. If you wish us to pay tribute, we will do so.”
Mehmed replied to the Romans from a position of strength and dismissiveness:
“I take nothing from the City. Beyond the fosse (walls of Constantinople) she owns nothing. If I desire to build a fortress at the Sacred Mouth, the Emperor has no right to stop me. Both the fortresses situated east of the Sacred Mouth, wherein Turks reside, as well as all the uninhabited lands of the West are under my authority, and the Romans have no permission to dwell there…” Mehmed added that his father had desired to build Rumelihisari and that he “vowed to build another fortress on the western shore opposite the fortress on the eastern shore. He did not live to achieve this but, with God’s help, I will do so. Why do you (try to) stop me? Is it not permissible for me to do as I wish in my own lands? Go and tell the emperor, ‘The present ruler is not like his predecessors. The things which they were unable to do, he can achieve at once and with ease, and those things which they did not wish to do, he both desires and is determined to accomplish. The next man who comes here to discuss this matter will be flayed alive.’”
THE OTTOMAN CANNONS:
There is also the well-known story of Orban – the legendary cannon-maker. He was a Hungarian engineer who specialized in large guns. It is said that he offered his products to the Emperor, but he did not have the money to pay for them. Nor would they have been as useful for him. However, for Mehmed they were not only affordable, but far more pragmatically useful for his goals. Mehmed used these guns on Rumelihisari to police the Bosporos, any ship not granted passage risked being blown out of the water by Orban’s cannons. Far bigger guns than that were being crafted for the purpose of blasting holes in the legendary defenses of Constantinople.
Doukas described the situation regarding Orban switching sides – “With the passing of summer and the beginning of autumn, although Mehmed remained in his palace, he took no rest. Night and day his only concern was how to take the City and become her master. While he was directing the construction of the fortress, a cannon founder came from the City, a Hungarian by nationality and a very competent technician. He had come to Constantinople long ago; after he made his trade known to the Emperor’s chief ministers, they mentioned it to the Emperor. Although the Emperor had authorized an un- worthy stipend for his skill, the artisan was not given even this paltry and unsubstantial sum. His circumstances became desperate, so one day he left the City and went to the barbarian. Mehmed welcomed him gladly and generously supplied him with food and clothing. If the emperor had given him but a quarter of the remuneration which he received at the hands of Mehmed, he would not have fled from Constantinople.“
When Mehmed asked if he could forge a large enough cannon to destroy the Theodosian walls, Orban replied, “I am able, if you so wish, to construct a cannon as great as the size of the stone shown me. I have precise knowledge of the City’s walls. The stone discharged from my cannon would reduce to dust not only those walls but even the wails of Babylon. I will complete the whole operation satisfactorily but I am not competent to discharge the stone and I could not guarantee to do that.” After Mehmed heart that he told him: “Cast the cannon for me and I will see to the discharging of the stone.” Doukas then recorded that the Sultan wasted no time and gave him what he needed to work – “A supply of bronze was provided and the technician fashioned the matrix of the apparatus. In three months’ time, a terrifying and extraordinary monster was forged and cast.” Mehmed was systematically preparing for the siege, far more than any of his predecessors, greatly increasing the odds of his success.
Constantine XI protested the building of Rumelihisari, but I highly doubt he thought that could truly do anything.
According to Doukas – “when the emperor heard of the incident, he shut the City gates, and all the Turks found inside were bound and taken into custody. Three days later, however, he set them free. What could he do? From among the Turks who were rounded up there were some young eunuchs from the ruler’s palace who, on being presented to the emperor, said, ‘If you will release us, O Emperor, before the sun sets in the West, we will be grateful to you. If, however, we do not return to the ruler by the time the sun has set, but are released later, it will not do us any good but only result in our deaths. For this reason, show us mercy and release us now. Otherwise, command that our heads be chopped off. It is better to die at your hands than at the hands of the common destroyer of the universe.‘”
Realizing his efforts to convince the sultan that peace was the best option, Constantine XI wrote a message conveying his steadfast defiance to Mehmed:
“Since you have chosen the way of battle and neither with oaths nor with flattery am I able to prevail upon you, do what you will. As for myself, I take refuge in God and if it be His will to deliver the City into your hands, who is able to stop you? If again He implants peace in your heart, this I would also gladly welcome. For the present, however, take back your treaties and oaths. From this moment on, with the City gates secured, I will defend the inhabitants within as long as there is strength in me. As for yourself, continue to rule as an oppressor until the Righteous Judge shall render unto each of us the just verdict.’’ Doukas wrote that: “When the barbarian heard these words, he made no attempt to justify his action but forthwith ordered a declaration of war to be made. Six months earlier, foreseeingthe future, the emperor diligently prepared the City’s fortifications and moved inside those villagers living nearby. The harvested wheat and the winnowing fans were also brought inside.”
Constantine was not a dumb or passive man, thus he did what he could to prepare Constantinople for what was obviously coming. Surely he did rely on his faith, but he also endeavored in all the ways he could to bolster the defense of New Rome. Constantine had in his memories the experience of the 1422 siege of Constantinople, giving him the kind of experience needed for this situation. He had as much as he could harvested and stored from the areas surrounding the City, and also bought or acquired as charity large sums of food from the Aegean islands held by both Romans and Italians.
Constantine sent word to the Republic of Venice that the City was under the threat of imminent conquest. The Republic was his greatest hope, they had a powerful fleet and could project their influence via sea and help protect their commercial interests. Constantine had renewed the privileges of Venice in 1450, and the Venetians retained a trade quarter in Constantinople, but they were not overly moved by the pleas of the Emperor. The Venetians would follow the money, as they always had done, and they had already made deals with the Ottomans. Venetian traders were making good many in Adrianople and relations were generally good between Venice and the Turks at that moment. Venice was not going to stop the building of Rumelihisari or even try. Venice also had to be ware as with Rumelihisari and Anadoluhisari the Ottomans could easily restrict their access to the Black Sea trade which was flourishing at this time.
The Emperor, not one to give in easily, tried to find pity and aid from other Western powers. He made attempts to get aid from the mercantile Republic of Ragusa on the Adriatic, offering them special trade privileges like those of Venice if they helped the Romans. He offered other cities in Italy the same deals, and he reached out to the Papacy to help organize aid. He sent word to John Hunyadi of Hungary, offering him Mesembria on the Black Sea coast of Thrace if he helped. Palaiologos also tried to get Genoa to help, but they were wary of losing Galata if Constantinople were to fall.
The defenders also undertook some small, and ultimately fruitless efforts to make the city more defendable. They tried to dig a trench in front of the Blachernae walls, knowing them to be weaker. They also tried to put wool and leather sheets over the walls to absorb cannon balls, which did not actually work.
CONTROVERSY IN CONSTANTINOPLE:
As the Emperor did all he could to ready the defenses, many people had other concerns. After Rumelihisari was finished, some good news arrived for the desperate Emperor. Cardinal Isidore, the papal legate sent to help continue the officially agreed union between the Eastern and Western churches, arrived in Constantinople. With him came 200 archers from the city of Naples in Italy. However, this also created further controversy as the Byzantine clergy railed against the Catholic Church and decried the heresy of giving up their independent Orthodoxy. Constantine had to summon the clergy and listen to their complaints as there was no Patriarch of Constantinople at this time. Even as he prepared for the ultimate battle, the Emperor could not find a uniform sense of purpose in his people.
Donald M. Nicol describes the mixed sentiment of the populace and their worldview: “It seemed that in the end, when their backs were to the wall, they had allowed the Latins to win the last round in the battle of wits that had begun with the Fourth Crusade. At the moment when the final siege of Constantinople was about to begin there must surely have been those who thought that it would be better to surrender than to resist. It was common knowledge, and common experience from the fate of other Byzantine cities, that resistance, if unsuccessful, brought a terrible retribution from the Turks. There were certainly those who felt and perhaps said that they would prefer to see the Sultan’s turban in their city than the Latin mitre. The remark was attributed to Loukas Notaras; and although it seems to be out of character, he may well have been goaded into uttering it by the insensitivity of some of the unionists.14 But surrender was not much spoken of. Constantinople was unique. It was the nerve centre of a whole way of life. Even in its surrounding provinces that were now irretrievably under Turkish domination the currents of thought and faith that had emanated from it over the centuries were still flowing. Omens and prophecies about the ultimate fate of the city had been heard for many years. The Byzantines were given to bouts of fatalistic gloom and pessimism. It was widely believed that the end would come in the 7000th year from the Creation, in 1492, which meant that there were still forty years to run. When the moment came, however, as it seemed to come in the long winter of 1452, there were few who felt that their Queen of Cities was not worth defending.” This is why, despite the controversy over union, the people did not revolt against Constantine. The City and all it stood for had to be defended, and no one could accuse Constantine XI Palaiologos of neglecting that responsibility.
Doukas said that the people were immensely fearful following the construction of Rumelihisari. He is writing with hindsight however. He said “After the emperor’s ambassadors had heard the tyrant’s reply as he vented his wrath and fury, they returned to the City to tell the emperor of these developments. Then the entire populace of the City, full of anguish and fear, told one another, “He it is who will enter the City and destroy and enslave her inhabitants, trample upon the Blessed Sacraments, demolish the holy churches, and cast on the squares and crossroads the relics of divinely inspired men and martyrs deposited in them. Alas! What shall we do? Where shall we go?” Thus did the wretches bewail and lament their fate. Doukas writes knowing of their fate, but the people probably had some hope as these events had not yet taken place, but surely this sentiment of fear and helplessness was in the streets of Constantinople as well.
Although other states had failed to organize large relief forces for the Queen of Cities, there were some heroic individuals. As mentioned above, Cardinal Isidore brought 200 archers with him, not a princely number but surely enough men to slightly boost the defense of the Theodosian walls. Although he did not come purely to add to the defense of the City but on a political/spiritual mission, he knew that it was under threat thus him going there is worthy of praise. The most important hero to arrive on the scene was Giovanni Giustiniani Longo of Genoa. This man deserves special praise for his efforts. He personally recruited 700 men for the defense of the City from Genoa, Chios, and Rhodes. He had experience in defensive siege warfare, and also brought John Grant, a sapper who could help fight the Turks underground if they tunneled under the walls. . He was such an impressive and effective leader that Constantine XI made him the overall commander of the defense.
THE STRENGTH OF THE OTTOMAN ARMY:
There are varying estimates of the Ottoman army which conquered Constantinople. I am going to disregard any wild estimates and try to give the most academically supported and fair estimations I can based on my research. The consensus I have found is 60-80,000 fighting men, and I will present this historical narrative under the guidance of that academic estimation.
As far as primary sources Giacomo Tedaldi, in his contemporary account, said that “On the fourth day April in this same year (1453), the Turks moved close to Constantinople, and on the following day, the fifth, their army took up it’s position before the city. At the siege were altogether 200,000 men, of whom perhaps sixty thousand were fighting men, thirty to forty thousand of them being mounted. A quarter of them were equipped with coats of mail or leather jackets. Of the others, many were armed after the fashion of France, some after the fashion of Hungary and others again had helmets of iron, and Turkish bows and crossbows. The rest of the soldiers were without equipment except that they had swords and scimitars, which are a kind of Turkish sword. The rest of the two hundred thousand were thieves and plunderers, hawkers, workmen, and others who followed the army.” This sounds like a realistic estimate. 60,000 fighting men would require a huge support network, and the artillery force itself would have required a lot of laborers. the supply/logistics of the army, cooks, civilians/families following along, and slaves serving the Ottoman leadership.
THE OTTOMAN NAVY:
Historian David Nicolle described the navy : “The Ottoman fleet was a separate arm by the mid-15th century and probably had its own dockyard and arsenal organization. With its main base at Gallipoli, its initial role was to ensure that Ottoman armies could cross between Anatolia and Rumelia without hindrance. Nevertheless, this Ottoman fleet was virtually destroyed by the Venetians outside Gallipoli in 1416.” But eventually the Ottoman navy recovered and began to grow again. “By 1442 the Ottomans reportedly had 60 ships with a squadron based at the Byzantine vassal island of Lemnos and six years later at least 65 vessels supported a demonstration against Constantinople [in 1448]. Despite this, the size of the fleet that appeared outside Constantinople in 1453 came as a shock to the Byzantines and Italians alike.” The Ottomans knew the value of the navy, and to take Constantinople it was invaluable to be able to attack the sea walls in the Golden Horn. The Ottoman navy was manned by many Romans from Anatolia, which had seafaring traditions and experience. Some of them had converted to Islam, but many had not. The Ottoman navy was probably a diverse multi-ethnic group of Muslims and non-Muslims, Turks and non-Turks. According to Ottoman sources, the fleet was 400 ships strong, though many of the ships were small and not cutting-edge. Overall, weighing all the sources, the estimates very to a great degree. Surely, there were at least 100 ships of varying sizes based on the estimates, but it is hard to tell for sure. Nonetheless it was enough to blockade the waters around the City.
It seems the defenders did not expect such a strong naval force to attack the City, but Mehmed had prepared his plan extremely well. The Sultan had put all the necessary pieces in place – powerful artillery capable of damaging even the mighty Theodosian walls. A large army of 60-80,000 fighting men with additional supporting personnel. Peace treaties with his enemies in Anatolia. A powerful fortress in the form of Rumelihisari blocked any aid from the Italian forces active in the Black Sea, or from Trebizond. Finally, and with the element of surprise, a large fleet to cut the City completely off during the siege. Now it was a matter of leadership, luck, and perseverance – none of which can be taken for granted before a battle.
THE STRENGTH OF THE DEFENDERS:
The defense was made up of different components, some Roman and some foreign, and some professional and many non professional soldiers. These unspecialized men alone would not have been enough to hold the City against the army of Mehmed.any of the Roman defenders were just militia defending the city as described by the Archbishops Leonardo of Chios: The greater part of the Greeks were men of peace, using their shields and spears, their bows and swords, according to the light of nature rather than with any skill. The majority had helmets and body armour of metal or leather, and fought with swords and spears. Those who were skilled with in the use of the bow or the crossbow were not enough to man all the ramparts.” Each tower only had as a standard deployment one archer and either one crossbowmen or one handgunner in support. There were reserve forces, and surely forces pooled in certain areas to repel assaults, but this gives an idea of how lightly the defense could man these walls. They could not even imagine fully manning all three of the layers of defense. Of course, as the battle wore on and parts of the walls were blasted to pieces, towers collapsed, and casualties sustained, these plans had to be adapted.
Constantine had gone to great lengths to utilize every fighting man the City could provide. The chronicle of George Sphrantzes details the organized effort: “The Emperor ordered the tribunes to take a census of their communities and record the exact numbers of men, laity, and clergy, able to defend the walls and what weapons each man had for the defence. All tribunes completed this task and brought the lists of their communities to the Emperor.”
Giacamo Tedaldo says Constantinople had “six to seven thousand fighting men” to defend the walls, but that there 30,000-35,000 men under arms. However, the second figure is highly unlikely. The population of the entire City was less than 50,000. 1,000 soldiers were kept as a reserve for the defense of the City to react to any breakthroughs in the wall and fill any breaches.
THE CHRISTIAN FLEET:
The defenders had far fewer ships but better ones with more experienced crews. Leonardo of Chios wrote that: “The defenders position appeared better in naval terms, and the assorted vessels in the Golden Horn expected to hold their own, including powerful Italian ships with experienced crews which had sought refuge in Constantinople on their way home from the Black Sea. Twenty-six could be rated as fighting ships, five from Genoa, five from Venice, three from Venetian Crete, one each from Ancona, Spain, and France, about ten Byzantines.”
The defense had the asset of the chain/boom which extended across the Golden Horn, keeping the Ottoman fleet outside of the harbor. This section was where the Crusaders had broken into Constantinople, the Byzantines were aware of how important it was. On April 2, the Christian forces under the supervision of Bartolomeo Soligo, a Genoese engineer, extended the chain across the harbor blocking it’s entrance in anticipation of the arrival of the Ottoman fleet. With better ships, defending the chain would be easy even with numerical inferiority.
THE OTTOMANS ARRIVE:
On April 2, which was the same day the Byzantines dragged their defensive chain across the Golden Horn, the Sultan had his tent set up in front of Constantinople. Mehmed and his circle pitched their camp in front of the St. Romanos gate. The majority of the forces had not yet arrived though, and took until April 6th to deploy in front of the City. The main army paused when it was one mile (1.5km) from the Queen of Cities, and made their prayers before moving in to set up for the biggest battle they would ever fight in.
THE SIEGE BEGINS:
The siege truly began on April 7 when the first assault on the walls was unleashed by Mehmed upon the Christian defenders. This was a probing assault by the poorly equipped and irregular troops. These were the more zealous but less illustrious warriors. The defenders did not struggle to push this wave back, and following the attacks simply repaired the walls overnight, to the frustration of the Turks. The Byzantines themselves were using Italian cannons under the command of two men known as the Bocchiardi brothers. Even when their larges cannon busted the defenders used smaller cannons to great effect. The would stuff it like a shotgun with multiple rounds and shoot it off into the enemy troops inflicting much damage. Leonardo of Chios tells of the limited but effective use of the cannons the defenders had: “These, however, could not be fired very often, because of the shortage of powder and shot. When they were available, their position did not at first allow them to do any damage to the enemy, who were protected by fences and trenches; and the largest cannon had to remain silent, for fear of damage to our own walls by the vibration. But on occasion they were fired against the tight-packed enemy, with great destruction of men and of the shelters which protected them, and every shot did damage, since the enemy could not avoid it. In this way many Turks died, wounded by cannon and gunfire.” Right away it would have been clear – to take Constantinople meant a huge blood sacrifice for the attackers.
In the early days of the siege, the defenders were successful and confident enough to even make sorties against the Turks, but eventually Giustiniani decided to top that tactic and abandon the outer third wall and retreat to the middle wall. At this point, both sides were reorganizing and little fighting took place. Mehmed had his artillery moved in order to improve the bombardment, after a couple days of rest and planning the Ottomans opened fire again April 11 or 12. Leonardo of Chios salutes the Ottomans for their military prowess with their artillery, theorizing that even “a Scipio, a Hannibal, or any of our modern generals would have been amazed at the discipline which they showed arranging their weapons, and the promptness and evidence of forward planning which their maneuovres showed.” From this point on in the battle, the bombardment would remain steady.
Leonardo also criticized the many Christians working for Mehmed: “But tell me, pray, who were truly responsible for this encirclement of the City? Who but traitors taught the Turks their work? Hungarians, Bohemians, and others from all the the kingdoms of Christendom were to be found among the Turks.” The defenders were shocked how large the cannon balls being hurled at them were, up to 1100lb shells hitting the ancient walls. The cannon balls were so big and expensive and in limited supply that the Ottomans were taking casualties to send men to retrieve the cannon shells to reuse them. To protect his soldiers, the Ottomans built woodworks near the walls to provide some cover for his troops going in the line of danger.
At sea, the Ottomans also had opened their assault on the City. The first assault on April 7 was easily repelled. The Turks then waited for more ships from the Black Sea to arrive and launched a second attack on April 12th. However, the Christian ships were taller and thus the defenders could shoot down on the exposed Ottoman sailors and slaughter them. At sea the Ottomans were making no progress at this point in the battle.
Leonardo of Chios wrote that the Ottomans expected it to be easier due to the small numbers of defenders: “the enemy thought that the small numbers of the Christians would prevent them from defending the city satisfactorily when they were overcome by weariness after continuous fighting.” But this was not the case. The lack of progress was a problem for Mehmed. We know the battle would be won, but the Ottoman soldiers and officials just knew that many previous attempts had failed. Thus, they were naturally more skeptical that we might expect that this battle would be won. Mehmed played politics, and had his lead admiral Baltaoglu brought to his camp and he debated executing him. Historians believe it was unlikely he would have seriously decided to do this, but he had to make it look like it was individual errors, and not his own, hindering the attack on Constantinople. Particularly at sea. Hamza Bey was appointed to take charge of the navy and Baltaoglu was spared.
Morale was low in the army, and the defenders felt the siege was going well. Some factions in the Ottoman forces wanted to give up. Candarli Halil, the influential Grand Vizier, advocated abandoning the siege with favorable terms at this time. He proposed Mehmed extract 70,000 gold pieces a year and some political rights over the City. However the other Viziers and Mehmed himself most importantly decided to continue the siege. Candarli’s lack of faith would not be forgotten, either. However, for now, the will and determination of Mehmed kept the siege on track.
THE SIEGE GOES ON:
Tedaldi describes how stubborn the City was in it’s resistance. “Constantinople being thus besieged by land and sea, and so roughly battered without and within by arrows, by cannon and by other weapons, defended itself for fifty-four days.” This is impressive considering the defenders could barely man the walls. However, they defended with courage, organization, and spirit. The Ottomans struggled early on, taking huge casualties and initially struggling to make progress in the attack.
The Sultan, to his credit, never stood idly during the battle. He constantly tried to change his tactics and strategies in order to improve the situation. This was highly influential to the course of the battle as well. Seeing that the Golden Horn chain was impassable, he had the cannons of many ships removed and put on land in order to attack the Christians ships defending it from land. Then he set in forth a plan which remains famous to this very day. He would bypass the chain which the Christian fleet was using to keep the Ottomans out of the Golden Horn.
TERROR IN THE TUNNELS:
Tunneling is an ancient tactic to destroy enemy fortifications. The concept is simple – men will dig underneath the walls, building wooden supports as they go in order to hold up the walls and earth above them. Then, when the operation is complete they set fire to the tunnels and destroy the woodworks inside. The supports are destroyed and the walls collapse into the holes created by the collapsing earth. However, this is not an easy endeavor. Not only is it hard work to undermine the fortifications, but the defenders can attack you as the work is undertaken. The Ottomans had tried to tunnel in previous sieges, however it did not work.
The Ottomans made an attempt to undermine the walls in 1453, Mehmed seems to have tried every tactic imaginable to put pressure on Constantinople. Giacomo Tedaldi described the Turkish plan in his account of the siege: “On the landward side, a renegade Christian from Albania wo had risen to a position of great importance, had among the men were besieging the city a number who were accustomed to mining gold and silver. He made them tunnel in 14 places under the walls to make them collapse, beginning his tunnels a long way off. The Christians for their part dug counter-mines, and listened, and located them time and time again. They suffocated the Turks in their mines with smoke, or sometimes with foul and evil-smelling odours. In some places they drowned them with a flood of water, and often found themselves fighting hand to hand.” As is clear from this, mining walls was treacherous work. However, although it was unsuccessful, it still contributed to the siege. It was one more thing the defenders had to worry about. Mehmed had comparatively unlimited manpower, thus to lose some laborers in the tunnels was nothing for him, yet it distracted precious defenders from other duties.
Leonardo of Chios also records the tunneling his account, describing how close of a call it was. Had the Turks undermined the wall, the City may have fallen early on. He wrote that the Byzantines were overconfident it would not be an issue due to previous Turkish failures to tunnel: “The Greeks, who claimed that since the present Sultan’s ancestor Bayezit and his father Murat had been unsuccessful in their earlier attempts to get into the city by tunneling, Mehmet would also be unable to do so, were proved wrong by the evidence of what happened. So the tunnels were detected by our counter-mining, and did not harm the city. Great disquiet, however, was caused by the discovery that the ground had been dug out from beneath the foundations of one tower, which was now supported by wooden props covered with pitch. But after the enemy had been driven out of the fire and sulphur, and the space filled in, greater confidence was felt.”
Great credit must go to John Grant, the Scot who led the anti-tunneling efforts. Leonardo specifically thanks him, saying the tunnels were only detected thanks to the “wisdom of and energy of John Grant…a most gifted soldier skilled in all the arts of war, whom Giovanni Giustinianni the leader of the defenders had brought along as an officer…” The Byzantines describe him as a German, but he was Scottish, as the name would indicate. He had come from Germany, as he clearly had international demand for his services.
MEHMED’S FAMOUS SHIP MANEUVER:
NO MORE REINFORCEMENTS EVER ARRIVE:
During the siege, Constantine seems to have always hoped that eventually aid would come from the West. It would not have taken a massive army to save the city. Even a relatively small well-trained well-armoured force laden with supplies could have easily prevented the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It took the Ottomans 54 days to take out the city with only 7,000 soldiers, not all of which were professional. A contingent of Latin soldiers would have bolstered morale and the defenses of the City, and in context of how the battle unfolded without reinforcements, it is clear that had they come it would have changed the tide.
THE SIEGE DRAGS ON:
THE OTTOMANS BREAK THROUGH THE THEODOSIAN WALLS:
The Ottomans were the only army who ever conquered the city by attacking on land. On May 29, in the middle of the night, the Ottomans attacked with everything. Had this attack failed, it is likely the siege would have collapsed. But, Mehmet’s risk paid off, and succeeded where no one else ever had. In the Fourth Crusade it had been the Venetian fleet exploiting the sea walls which proved to be weak. This was the first time in history that someone had ever gone through the Theodosian walls to take Constantinople.
Nicolo Barbaro lamented this last day – “On the twenty-ninth of May, the last day of the siege, our Lord God decided, to the sorrow of the Greeks, that He was willing for the city to fall on this day into the hands of Mahomet Bey the Turk son of Murat.” Some would like to believe the Romans had no chance at all, which is not entirely true. The length of the siege shows that the defenders were capable of repelling assaults. What the defense lacked was strategic reserves. Mehmet organized three waves of attack for his final assault, gambling all of his troops in order to seize the city. Barbaro has an excellent description of the three-waved assault which took Constantinople by force:
“On the twenty-ninth of May, 1453, three hours before daybreak, Mahomet Bey son of Murat the Turk came himself to the walls of Constantinople to begin the general assault which gained him the city. The Sultan divided his troops into three groups of fifty thousand men each: one group was of Christians who were kept in his camp against his will, the second group was of men of a low condition, peasants and the like, and the third group was of janissaries in their white turbans, these being all soldiers of the Sultan and paid every day, all well-armed men strong in battle, and behind these janissaries were all the officers, and behind these the Turkish Sultan. The first group, which was the Christians, had the task of carrying the ladders to the walls, and they tried to raise the ladders up, and at once we threw them to the ground with the men who were raising them, and they were all killed at once, and we threw big stones down on them from the battlements, so that few escaped alive; in fact, anyone who approached beneath the walls was killed. When those who were raising up the ladders saw so many dead, they tried to retreat towards their camp, so as not to be killed by the stones, and when the rest of the Turks who were behind saw that they were running away, at once they cut them to pieces with their scimitars and made them turn back towards the walls, so that they had the choice of dying on one side or the other; and when this first group was killed and cut to pieces, the second group began to attack vigorously. The first group was sent forward for two reasons, firstly because they preferred that Christians should die rather than Turks, and secondly to wear us out in the city; and as I have said, when the first group was dead or wounded, the second group came on like lions unchained against the walls on the side of San Romano; and when we saw this fearful thing, at once the tocsin was sounded through the whole city and at every post on the walls, and every man ran crying out to help; and the Eternal God showed us His mercy against these Turkish dogs, so that every man ran-to ward off the attack of the pagans, and they began to fall back outside the barbicans. But this second group was made up of brave men, who came to the walls and wearied those in the city greatly by their attack. They also made a great attempt to raise ladders up to the walls, but the men on the walls bravely threw them down to the ground again, and many Turks were killed. Also, our crossbows and cannon kept on firing into their camp at this time and killed an incredible number of Turks.“
However, the defenders had held after the first two assaults. The Turks had taken huge casualties, but they had saved their best soldiers, the Janissaries, for the final assault. As the second group of Ottomans clearly had not succeeded to take the City, the ultimate moment of truth came. Mehmet’s gamble that he could take the City by force at this moment, if it had failed, would have meant the failure of the siege and quite plausibly the end of Mehmed’s reign. But, the Janissaries advanced. Barbaro describes these men as “all very brave men,” and said that Mehmed was behind them for this wave. He said the attacks were ferocious:
“This third group attacked the walls of the poor city, not like Turks but like lions, with such shouting and sounding of castanets that it seemed a thing not of this world, and the shouting was heard as far away as Anatolia, twelve miles away from their camp. This third group of Turks, all fine fighters, found those on the walls very weary after having fought with the first and second groups, while the pagans were eager and fresh for the battle; and with the loud cries which they uttered on the field, they spread fear through the city and took away our courage with their shouting and noise. The wretched people in the city felt themselves to have been taken already, and decided to sound the tocsin through the whole city, and sounded it at all the posts on the walls, all crying at the top of their voices, ‘Mercy! Mercy! God send help from Heaven to this Empire of Constantine, so that a pagan people may not rule over the Empire!’ All through the city all the women were on their knees, and all the men too, praying most earnestly and devotedly to our omnipotent God and His Mother Madonna Saint Mary, with all the sainted men and women of the celestial hierarchy, to grant us victory over this pagan race, these wicked Turks, enemies of the Christian faith. While these supplications were being made, the Turks were attacking fiercely on the landward side by San Romano, by the headquarters of the Most Serene Emperor and all his nobles, and his principal knights and his bravest men, who all stayed by him fighting bravely. The Turks were attacking, as I have said, like men determined to enter the city, by San Romano on the landward side, firing their cannon again and again, with so many other guns and arrows without number and shouting from these pagans, that the very air seemed to be split apart; and they kept on firing their great cannon which fired a ball weighing twelve hundred pounds, and their arrows, all along the length of the walls on the side where their camp was, a distance of six miles, so that inside the barbicans at least eighty camel-loads of them were picked up, and as many as twenty camel-loads of those which were in the ditch. This fierce battle lasted until daybreak.”
It was an apocalyptic moment, the ancient Theodosian walls crumbled from weeks of bombardments, tens of thousands of determined men attacking the city, dead Ottoman soldiers everywhere, and a stubborn few defenders fighting as hard as they could to save Constantinople. This is one of those battles which was not decided on one side lacking willpower, or courage, both sides displayed these virtues to the maximum.
But then, one bullet changed the course of the battle. Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, the hero of the city so far, was fighting in a breach of the wall repelling the attackers successfully. Then he was hit by a Turkish gun, and suddenly everything changed. When Giustiniani was wounded and retreated, the Romans lost their heavy troops which were the key. Throughout the battle the Turks had tried overwhelming the defenders, but the heavily armored Genoese troops had repelled them. They were the best performing soldiers in this battle by far. Probably seeing him leave weakened the morale of the troops, and some of his troops followed him to check on his condition. It is important to remember that his men were being paid by him, so if he died their stake in the battle was gone. Nicolo Barbaro has a bias against Giustiniani, because Venice and Genoa had extreme animosity, thus he accuses Giustiniani of abandoning his post out of cowardice. However, it seems clear when looking at all the sources that Giustiniani was seriously injured and his retreat was due to just concerns of mortality, not cowardice. Regardless of Giustiniani’s motivation, the effect was the same – a collapse of the defenses. Barbaro describes the chaos: “At this moment of confusion, which happened at sunrise, our omnipotent God came to His most bitter decision and decided to fulfill all the prophecies, as I have said, and at sunrise the Turks entered the city near San Romano, where the walls had been razed to the ground by their cannon. But before they entered, there was such a fierce struggle between the Turks and the Christians in the city who opposed them, and so many of them died, that a good twenty carts could have been filled with the corpses of the first Turks.” One they entered, the Turks quickly began looking for the loot they had earned from such a bloody endeavor which taking Constantinople was.
THE EMPEROR’S LAST STAND:
One of the things that makes the Fall of Constantinople a great story is the dignity which the character and courage of Constantine XI gave to the defenders as well as Romans/Greeks of later centuries. He did not simply surrender the City and flee to Rome or the Morea or to Venice, which he certainly could have. He fought and died for his people and for Constantinople, and for that he deserves respect. In this story, he is the hero who dies a heroic death in most narratives. It is fitting the last Emperor was named Constantine. Gennadios Scholarios, the first Ottoman-appointed Patriarch of Constantinople, made some observations about coincidental elements of the story: Donald M. Nicol wrote that “He noted that the Christian Empire of the Romans had originated with the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena and had come to its end when another Constantine, son of Helena, was Emperor and was killed in conquest of his city. Between the first and last Constantine, there had been no Emperor of the same name whose mother was a Helena.”
There are multiple accounts of how he died in the primary sources, most of which portray the Emperor heroically, but not all of them do. There are several conflicting accounts. Probably as the City fell and people fled, the survivors mostly had not seen it themselves. They just pieced it together from hearsay. You can make your own conclusion, but most historians believe he died with honor:
Giacomo Tedaldi of Florence wrote that “The Emperor of Constantinople was killed. Some say that his head was cut off, and others that he died in the press at the gate; both stories may very well be true.”
Leonardo of Chios: “The Emperor then, seeking to avoid capture, cried, ‘which of my brave young soldiers will run me through now with my own sword, in God’s name, so that his sovereign may not be handed over to our crafty foes?’…For a while he survived, battling against the press of the Turks, and was cleft in two by an axe. In the same way Giovanni Schiavo, the Illyrian, fighting like another Hercules, killed many of them before an enemy sword brought his life to a close. Many of the defenders were crushed to death after this, as they tried to reach the gate. The Emperor was caught up among these, fell and rose again, then fell once more; and in this throng the ruler of their country lost his life.“
Laonikos Chalkokondylos: In his account he described the Emperor trying to fill the void left by the injured Giustiniani, but when the moment the defenses began to fail came “The Emperor turned to Kantakouzenos, and the small band of men around him and said ‘Then let us at any rate attack these barbarians.’ The brave Kantakouzenos was killed, and the Emperor Constantine was driven back, until after being forced to to retreat he was followed and given a wound in the shoulder which killed him.“
Michael Doukas: As the defenses collapsed “The Emperor now gave up all hope. He stood holding his sword and shield, and cried hopefully, ‘Is there no Christian who will cut off my head?’ But all had deserted him. One of the Turks gave him a blow in the face. He struck back, and received another blow. Then another Turk behind him gave him a a mortal wound, and he fell to the ground. They did not know he was the Emperor, but thought him a common soldier, so after killing him, they left him.”
Cristofero Riccherio: He said Constantine died a cowardly death – “When Constantine saw his soldiers retreating, he forgot his office, his rank and what was proper for such a monarch, namely to die fighting. He fled behind the others towards the gate, and there, with everyone struggling to get out and trampling one another, he met his death.“
Zorzi Dolfin: He does not directly describe the death of the Emperor, but it is implied he died either from the trampling at the gate or in battle, as “a great search had been made by order of the Sultan among the corpses of the dead, there was found the pitiful head of the Emperor Constantine, and it was brought to the Sultan, who was greatly moved by the cruel sight.“
Nicolo Barbaro: According to Donald M. Nicol, he “wrote in his diary that nobody really knew whether the Emperor was alive or dead. Some said his body had been seen among the corpses and it was rumoured he hanged himself at the moment when the Turks broke through at the Gate of St. Romanos.”
Cardinal Isidore of Kiev: In the Immortal Emperor, by Donald M. Nicol, he summarizes a letter (which I cannot find in English). He said that “Isidore wrote from Crete to his colleague Bessarion on 6 July 1453 and reported that Constantine had been wounded and killed fighting at the Gate of St. Romanos before the final battle. But he added a new detail to the story: he had heard that the Emperor’s head had been severed and presented as a gift to the Sultan, who was delighted to see it, subjected it to insults and injuries, and carried it off in triumph as a trophy to Adrianople.”
THE SECOND SACKING OF CONSTANTINOPLE:
Once the city began to fall, historian David Nicolle wrote that: “It is clear that some areas inside Constantinople resisted the first looters before surrendering to regular troops who were sent into the city while the bulk of the army remained outside.” Probably at first people did not know if the city had fallen or if just a few Turks had made it in. Mehmet was an able commander, and systematically took control of the city. I take issue with the fact David Nicolle said the Ottomans treated the population better than the Crusaders did, because “only 4,000” people died. If you account for the massive population difference, the people did not fare better. What is perhaps better is the way building were treated overall by the Turks, because they wanted to reinvent the city as a new capital of the Ottoman Empire, not just loot it for profit like the Crusaders. I feel he poorly substantiated this claim, and downplayed the violence of the sack.
MEHMED ENTERS THE CITY:
Candarli Halil is portrayed as being a traitor working for the Christians. I doubt that, he did earlier on send harsh messages to the Byzantines. I think he did want to work against Mehmed for his own reasons, and that is why he had some common cause with the defenders. The influential Grand Vizier had advocated abandoning the siege with favorable terms early in the battle. He proposed Mehmed extract 70,000 gold pieces a year and some political rights over the City. However the other Viziers and Mehmed himself most importantly decided to continue the siege. Candarli’s lack of faith was not forgotten by the Sultan after his great conquest of Constantinople.
It is true the defenders thought of him in a friendly way. Leonardo of Chios referred to him as a friend of the defenders, which tells us all we need to know in terms of why Mehmed had him killed. Leonardo stated that Mehmed ordered a larger cannon to be cast but “it was never completed by it’s maker, thanks to the efforts, as it was said, of our friend the vizier Halil.” It is possible Halil wanted Mehmed to fail so he could seize power. Had the siege failed, it is likely the young Sultan would have been toppled or at the least been embroiled in civil war.
After taking control of the City, Mehmed dispensed his retribution upon Candarli Halil. Just two days after the conquest of Constantinople on June 1, the Sultan had him arrested. He was executed on July 10, 1453.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FALL OF NEW ROME:
Of course, there some obvious outcomes of significance. The first and foremost, and the most obvious, is the fact that it was the end of the Roman Empire. Steven Runciman wrote how it has been used as an arbitrary date for the end of the medieval period: “In the days when historians were simple folk the Fall of Constantinople, 1453, was held to mark the close of the Middle Ages.” Secondly, it cemented the rise of the Ottoman Empire and became the center of the Ottoman world. Today, Istanbul is a source of great pride for Turkish people. They love their city – and of course this is not possible without the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Julian Raby described the significance of the fall of Constantinople extremely well from an Islamic and Turkish point of view: “In 1453 Mehmed’s victory realized a dream that Dar al-Islam had harbored for eight hundred years – the capture of Constantinople.” The Arabs had set about trying to conquer the Roman Empire, and very quickly had swallowed half of it. However, the Romans outlasted this threat. However, the Ottomans had realized this ancient dream successfully in 1453.
Mehmed set about re-founding Constantinople as a new Islamic Turkish capital of the Ottoman empire. Raby added that the Sultan “defined the city in multiple ways – demographically, spatially, architecturally, ceremonially, ideologically, and of course, religiously. He ordained the fate of both Hagia Sophia and the Holy Apostles. One he preserved, the other he demolished. If I am correct in suggesting Mehmed built directly over the Holy Apostles, then the tomb of the founder of the new Constantinople lay near the tomb of the founder of the first Constantinople. If the mihrab of Fatih Camii did indeed stand over the tomb of Constantine, the the Mihrab established by the man who conquered Constantinople for Islam stood over the tomb of the man who established Christianity as the imperial religion. One marked the future, the other the past.”
The city today is known as Istanbul, but this name change did not occur in 1453. The name of the city was kept as Constantinople – rendered as Turkish as Kostantiniyye. This name was on Ottoman coinage during the entire existence of the empire. Istanbul was a popular nickname. Raby concluded that “Mehmed’s vision was of a city that contained echoes of Constantinople’s past but was, above all, a living witness to Islam.” Thus, Istanbul retained shadows of Byzantine Constantinople everywhere, but had embarked on a new journey which has led to todays metropolis of Istanbul. None of this was possible without the conquest which Mehmed envisioned, led, and pushed for.
ROMANS IN OTTOMAN CONSTANTINOPLE AND MODERN ISTANBUL:
The Romans would still be in Constantinople after 1453, an important part of the city’s demographics and urban character. However, they were no longer the ruling class. The biggest monuments of the city belonged to the Turks and Islam, not the Christian Romans. Slowly but surely most of the Byzantine Churches would be appropriated for use as a mosques. But the Romans continued to maintain a large presence until the Istanbul pogroms in the 1950’s, after which most of the fled to Greece. There is still an extremely tiny community of Greeks/Romans/Rumlar in Istanbul though it is shrinking. The Patriarch of Constantinople still stands at his post in Istanbul today, a reminder of the Byzantine past.
The Phanar Greek Orthodox College still exists, though it has extremely few students for it’s size, because it was designed to serve a larger community. The Turks called it Özel Fener Rum Lisesi, translated as the Private Phanar Roman Lyceum.
Foreign Relations and the End of Byzantium: The Use of Personal Diplomacy
during the Reign of Constantine XI Palaiologos (1448 – 1453)
by Adam William Hellebuyck https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/55463/hellebuyck_adam_history_honors_thesis.pdf;jsessionid=9BD8BEA079BF46D4EF7CD42ECA2AB749?sequence=1
A History of the Byzantine State and Society by Warren Treadgold
The Last Centuries of Byzantium by Donald M. Nicol
The Immortal Emperor: The Life and Legend of the Constantine Palaiologos, Last Emperor of the Romans (1992) by Donald M. Nicol
Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks by Doukas (primary source)
The Holy Apostles: A Lost Momument, a Forgotten Project, and the Presentness of the Past (2020) by Margaret Mullett and Robert G. Ousterhout.
The Siege of Constantinople 1453: Seven Contemporary Accounts, translated by J.R. Melville Jones (1972)
The Siege of Constantinople in 1453, according to Nicolo Barbaro (https://deremilitari.org/2016/08/the-siege-of-constantinople-in-1453-according-to-nicolo-barbaro/)