Medieval Military History | The Siege & Downfall Of The Great City Constantinople
Constantinople is a beautiful city that was founded by Roman Emperor Constantine I in 324 CE. The city served as the capital for the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire. It has faced many sieges and attacks throughout the years but managed to remain standing. The city had once been the most heavily fortified places in the world.
Located in what is now modern day Istanbul, Constantinople was a wealthy and thriving Christian port. This being due to its ideal location between European and Asian empires. The port making it a valuable harbor for trade and expansion of prominent countries. The cities religion, art, and military thrived due to trade for many years and Constantinople has been highly recognized for its magnificent architecture and rich history.
Invaders had attacked the city countless times before but found Constantinople impossible to defeat. The walls of the city had been built to defend against both land and sea campaigns. Switching between layers of brick and stone, the wall is a sturdy structure that create two lines of defense meeting at a ditch. The construction is around five meters thick and twelve meters high making it close to forty feet tall at the time of its creation. The strategic wall also came with nearly a hundred towers with battlement terraces on the top of each one. The architecture features a defensive moat that could easily be flooded when needed situated about fifty feet away from the walls.
The more noteworthy attacks on Constantinople were made when the Arabs attempted to defeat the city around 1674 and 1678 CE. The Arabs among several other adversaries such as the Slavs had tirelessly tried to win in battle. The city managed to defend itself against incoming enemies time after time. According to historian Mike Cartwright in his article on the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire was no stranger to sieges due to having faced many foes throughout its history. Cartwright wrote:
“Constantinople had withstood many sieges and attacks over the centuries, notably by the Arabs between 674 and 678 CE and again between 717 and 718 CE. The great Bulgar Khans Krum (r. 802-814 CE) and Symeon (r. 893-927 CE) both attempted to attack the Byzantine capital, as did the Rus (descendants of Vikings based around Kiev) in 860 CE, 941 CE, and 1043 CE, but all failed. Another major siege was instigated by the usurper Thomas the Slav between 821 and 823 CE. All of these attacks were unsuccessful thanks to the city’s location by the sea, its naval fleet, and the secret weapon of Greek Fire (a highly inflammable liquid), and, most importantly of all, the protection of the massive Theodosian Walls.”
The Byzantine Empire found itself in a very precarious position surrounded by enemies on all sides. The Bulgarians to start with had grown and now matched their rivals in power and military strength. To make matters worse, the Serbian Empire had been conquering Byzantines lands from the west. The Emperors of Byzantine rushed to come up with a plan to defend their empire. There was no time to waste with the Turks, a very dangerous enemy now raiding the country. Constantinople and its occupants faced many foes. The Emperors relied on aid to provide for the soldiers defending and fighting for their lands.
In an article written by historian William McLaughlin, the Byzantine Empire had been struggling for quite a while against the opposition. The empire did not have a claim to lots of territories anymore and was run down by constant problems. McLaughlin writes:
“Though the Empire again held Constantinople after recovering it from the Fourth Crusade, it was far from the power it had been in the early medieval period. At the time of Michael VIII’s reclamation of Constantinople, the Byzantine territories were confined to Thrace and northern Greece and a part of Western Turkey. The Turks had taken territory in Asia Minor up to the territory of Nicomedia in the north and near to the island of Rhodes in the south. A more sophisticated threat by this time, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Serbian Empires fought against the Byzantines as well. The city itself was greatly weakened by the Black Death and a large earthquake as well as civil wars that divided the populace. Under the Palaiologoi dynasty established after the reclamation of Constantinople, the empire became a shadow of its former self while a new eastern power set its sights on the great city.”
The Byzantines needed the leaders of Europe to assist and protect them. They requested support from the Roman Catholic Church by appealing directly to the pope but they would not receive help without certain demands being met. The cost was Byzantine converting to Catholicism. This logically might have been something easily met; however, the people of Byzantine would hear none of it. The emperors were more than willing to pay this price in order to get protection but it wasn’t to be so.
The western Civilization ER Services report that the people would not budge.
“Against all these enemies, the Byzantines could only look west in search of help. The pope, however, continued to stress that aid would only come if the Byzantines adopted the Catholicism of the Latin church. While the Byzantine emperors were willing to do so in order to save their empire, the populace hated the Catholics for the sack of Constantinople, and so attempts to reconcile with the Catholic Church only led to riots. Further theological disagreements inflamed the bitterness between the Orthodox and the Catholics. This was not acceptable for most Byzantines. A popular saying at the time was “Better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara.” In other words, the Orthodox Byzantines considered it better to be ruled by the Muslim Turks than to go against their religious beliefs and give in to the Catholic Church. Still, the emperors realized that Byzantium would soon fall without help from the west.”
The disagreements definitely presented obstacles for getting aid from the west to Byzantine. The Bishops of Byzantine and Emperor John VIII Palaiologos managed to make an agreement and bring about a resolution. They successfully converted religions per the Pope’s wishes in 1439 CE; however, upon their return home, there was definitely trouble brewing. Their own people began attacking them right on the streets and riots broke up. It was pure chaos when they returned to the empire. The deal had provoked in the masses nothing but violence and discontent. The disapproval was felt harshly.
The Byzantine Empire was declining as the Ottoman Empire grew and dominated the world around their lands. The empire had begun as a small Turkish country but managed to conquer those weaker in order to grow. Mark Cartwright in his article about the siege of Constantinople explains the Ottoman Empire’s exploits in full detail:
“By the early 14th century CE, the Ottomans had already expanded into Thrace. With their capital at Adrianople, further captures included Thessaloniki and Serbia. In 1396 CE, at Nikopolis on the Danube, an Ottoman army defeated a Crusader army. Constantinople was the next target as Byzantium teetered on the brink of collapse and became no more than a vassal state within the Ottoman Empire. The city was attacked in 1394 CE and 1422 CE but still managed to resist. Another Crusader army was defeated in 1444 CE at Varna near the Black Sea coast. Then the new Sultan, Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481 CE), after extensive preparations such as building, extending, and occupying fortresses along the Bosporus, notably at Rumeli Hisar and Anadolu in 1452 CE, moved to finally sweep away the Byzantines and their capital.”
Mehmed II would go down in history known as the conqueror. The sultan’s life is a very interesting one and far from average. As heir to the Ottoman throne, Mehmed was well educated. He had lived in Amaysa where he governed and obtained the experience to rule. The prince had numerous teachers and advisers at his disposal. Mehmed was the son of Murat II and would for a time become a ruler at the young age of twelve. Murat II had decided to abdicate his throne to the boy in 1444 CE.
The young new sultan faced many challenges during his early reign but somehow managed to be triumphant in crushing down a crusade directed by János Hunyadi shortly after the Hungarians started to break an established treaty at the Catholic Church’s insistence by entering Ottoman lands. The church was against the Muslim religion. It was at this point Mehmed sought to convince his father to return to the throne. Murat had no desire to do so, and this posed a problem for the young boy. He wrote to Murat and demanded his homecoming in a compelling letter that said:
“If you are the Sultan, come and lead your armies. If I am the Sultan I hereby order you to come and lead my armies.”
The ploy worked as intended by Mehmed because his father Murat II proved quite successful during the Battle of Varna in 1444 CE. The man’s return to his throne proved inevitable. He would rule until his death in 1451 CE. This once again placed the throne in Mehmed’s hands. The boy had grown into a man and was nineteen years old when he once again reigned over the Ottoman Empire. The sultan wasted absolutely no time in expanding his empire. Mehmed began plotting taking over the Byzantines by conquering the city of Constantinople. Preparations for a siege were officially underway.
The siege of Byzantine’s capital city of Constantinople took place in 1453 CE and would last for almost two months. The forces in the empire made up about ten-thousand men and this gave Mehmed’s armies a great advantage. The Byzantines were outnumbered and unprepared. The Ottoman’s had over a hundred thousand men at their side willing to fight. They arrived not only ready to win but supplied with advanced weaponry and tactics. Mehmed had equipped the army with cannons that were able to destroy the wall rather rapidly and warships able to patrol the sea surrounding Constantinople providing control of the waters to the Ottomans preventing aid to reach the Byzantine Empire.
Reports from the Russia and Eastern Europe Web Chronology Project indicate that Constantinople was absolutely devastated by the Ottomans. The defenders were unable to stop the invasion Mehmed and his army was determined to complete.
“After using his heavy artillery to form a breach in the wall, the fist attack was launched upon Constantinople on a May morning at 1:00 a.m. The shout of men could be heard miles away. This fist attack was led by the Bashi-bazouks. They tried to attack the weakest point in the walls. They knew they were outnumbered and out skilled, but they still fought with passion. After fighting for two hours, they were called to retreat.
The second attack was brought on by the Anatolian Turks from Ishak’s army. This army could easily be recognized by their specialized uniforms. This army was also more organized than the first. They used their cannons to blast through the walls of the city. By using trumpets and other noises they were able to break the concentration of their opponents. They were the first army to enter the city. The Christians were ready for them as they entered. They were able to massacre much of the army from this attack. This attack was called off at dawn.
Before the army was able to gain strength and order, another attack feel upon them. Mehmet’s favorite set of troops called the Janissaries started to attack. They launched arrows, missiles, bullets, stones and javelins at the enemy. They maintained perfect unity in this attack, unlike the other attempts. This battle, at the stockade, was a long tiring battle for the troops. The soldiers fought in hand-to-hand combat. Someone had to give. It was the Christians. The Turks remembered a port called the Kerkoporta. They noticed it had accidentally been left open by the Christians. The Christian army frequently used that gate to try to penetrate the flank of the Turkish army. They stormed the gate, but the Christians were able to stop them before completely entering the city.”
The Ottomans had achieved success and with permission from their sultan plundered the richest city they had ever seen; however, during the siege before all had been lost there was resistance. The Byzantine defenders did not just give up without the biggest fight of their lives. They tried to save themselves, their city, and its people in every way they could. The men of Constantinople managed to thwart several attempts made by the Ottomans. In his recent article, historian Mark Cartwright describes the defiance and numerous ways the Byzantines fought and lashed out at their attackers.
“The onslaught went on for six weeks but there was some effective resistance. The Ottoman attack on the boom which blocked the city’s harbour was repelled, as were several direct assaults on the Land Walls. On 20 April, miraculously, three Genoese ships sent by the Pope and a ship carrying vital grain sent by Alphonso of Aragon managed to break through the Ottoman naval blockade and reach the defenders. Mehmed, infuriated, then got around the harbour boom by building a railed road via which 70 of his ships, loaded onto carts pulled by oxen, could be launched into the waters of the Golden Horn. The Ottomans then built a pontoon and fixed cannons to it so that they could now attack any part of the city from the sea side, not just the land. The defenders now struggled to station men where they were needed, especially along the structurally weaker sea walls.”
When Mehmed II won and fell, it was the darkest and bleakest moment for the Byzantine people. Thousands were outright killed and many thousands more were shipped off as slaves while the enemy destroyed, pillaged, and raped the occupants of the city. Constantinople would become known as Istanbul.
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At the dawn of the thirteenth century, Constantinople stood as the bastion of Christianity in Eastern Europe. The capital city of the Byzantine Empire, it was a center of art, culture, and commerce that had commanded trading routes between Asia, Russia, and Europe for hundreds of years. But in 1204, the city suffered a devastating attack that would spell the end of the Holy Roman Empire.
The army of the Fourth Crusade had set out to reclaim Jerusalem, but under the sway of their Venetian patrons, the crusaders diverted from their path in order to lay siege to Constantinople. With longstanding tensions between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the crusaders set arms against their Christian neighbors, destroying a vital alliance between Eastern and Western Rome.
In The Great Betrayal, historian Ernle Bradford brings to life this powerful tale of envy and greed, demonstrating the far-reaching consequences this siege would have across Europe for centuries to come.
- 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West
- The Fall of Constantinople (Pivotal Moments in History)
- The Fall of Constantinople 1453 Publisher: Cambridge University Press
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- Eyewitness History. Middle Ages/ Renaissance (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/constantinople.htm
- Cartwright, M. (2018, December 15). 1453: The Fall of Constantinople. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/1180/1453-the-fall-of-constantinople/
- The Fall of Constantinople. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/EastEurope/FallConstantin.html
- Miller, M. (n.d.). The Fall of Constantinople: Relentless Ottoman Fire Power Finally Pulverizes the Last Vestiges of the Roman Empire. Retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-important-events/fall-constantinople-0011069
- McLean, J. (n.d.). Western Civilization. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/the-fall-of-constantinople/
- United States History. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1046.html