The fall of Constantinople: Judith Herrin tells the dramatic story of the final moments of Byzantine control of the imperial capital

The fall of Constantinople: Judith Herrin tells the dramatic story of the final moments of Byzantine control of the imperial capital

Judith Herrin

“At this moment of confusion, which happened at sunrise, our omnipotent God came to His most bitter decision and decided to fulfil 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 … anyone they found was put to the scimitar, women and men, old and young, of any conditions. This butchery lasted from sunrise, when the Turks entered the city, until midday … The Turks made eagerly for the piazza five miles from the point where they made their entrance at San Romano, and when they reached it at once some of them climbed up a tower where the flags of Saint Mark and the Most Serene Emperor were flying, and they cut down the flag of Saint Mark and took away the flag of the Most Serene Emperor and then on the same tower they raised the flag of the Sultan … When their flag was raised and ours cut down, we saw that the whole city was taken, and that there was no further hope of recovering from this.”

WITH THESE WORDS, and much longer descriptions of the slaughter that followed, the Venetian Nicolo Barbaro recorded the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. His eyewitness account describes the progressive stranglehold devised by the Turks and the sense of fatalism that developed within the city. As the major trading partner of the empire, Venice had strong links with Constantinople and its citizens fought bravely in its defence. Barbaro’s account of their loyalty is impressive. Although he is less favourably inclined to the Genoese, who also played a leading role in the defence of the city, his account has the immediacy of one who lived through the siege.

There is no shortage of records of the fall, although some were concocted long after the event and claim a presence that turns out to be quite inauthentic. Greeks, Italians, Slavs, Turks and Russians all composed their own versions; they cannot possibly be reconciled. But those written closer to the date, May 29th, 1453, and by people involved in some capacity all share a sense of the disaster they documented. Taking account of many of their variations and contradictions, they permit a basic outline of events to be constructed.

The leaders of what became such a mythic battle were both younger sons who had never expected to become rulers. The Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, born in 1432, was made sole heir at the age of eleven by the death of his two elder brothers; Constantine XI, born in 1404, was the fourth of six sons of Manuel II, whose imperial authority was inherited by the eldest John VIII. When John died in 1448, the Empress-Mother Helena insisted that Constantine should be crowned in a disputed succession. His two younger brothers, Demetrios and Thomas, were appointed Despots in the Morea (southern Greece), and took no interest in the fate of Constantinople. In 1453 the Sultan was twenty-one years old, the Emperor forty-nine, and the Ottomans far out-numbered the Christian forces who undertook the defence of the city.

The imperial capital dedicated by Constantine I in AD 330 had resisted siege on numerous occasions. The triple line of fortifications constructed on the land side in the fifth century had held off attacks by Goths, Persians, Avars, Bulgars, Russians, and especially Arabs. Even today they make an impressive sight. Over the centuries new aqueducts and cisterns were built to ensure an ample water supply, and the imperial granaries stored plentiful amounts of grain.

From the first attempt by the Arabs to capture the city in 674-78, Muslim forces aimed to make Constantinople their own capital. Using this ancient foundation as their base, they hoped to extend their power across Thrace and the Balkans into Europe, in the same irresistible way that they advanced across North Africa into Spain. Frustrated in these efforts, the centre of their operations was moved to Baghdad, and they occupied the Fertile Crescent and vast areas further east. In the eleventh century these same ambitions were taken up by Turkish tribes from central Asia, who constantly harried the empire. First Seljuks and later Ottomans maintained pressure on Constantinople, hoping to take a symbol of unconquered strength and great strategic importance.

Their aim was not merely political and military. For centuries Constantinople was the largest metropolis in the known world, the impregnable core of a great empire, served by a deep-water port that gave access to the sea. Known as New Rome and the Queen City, it had been built to impress, its magnificent public monuments, decorated with statuary set in an elegant classical urban landscape. Its apparent invincibility and famous reputation made it a great prize. The city was also reputed to be hugely wealthy. While the Turks had no interest in its famous collection of Christian relics, the fact that many were made of solid gold and silver, decorated with huge gems and ancient cameos, was of importance. Their existence added weight to the rumour that Constantinople contained vast stores of gold, a claim which cannot have been true by 1453. By the early fifteenth century the city had lost all its provinces to Turkish occupation and was totally isolated. The surviving Greek territories of Trebizond and the Morea were similarly surrounded and made no effort to assist the ancient capital.

It is notoriously difficult to reconstruct the early history of the Ottoman Turks from the sparse sources that survive. They seem to have been a tribe of ghazi warriors (men devoted to holy war) who gradually adopted a more organised monarchy. Their leader Osman (1288-1326) gave his name to the group, which is now associated with one of the most successful empires of all time. During the fourteenth century these Ottoman Turks took full advantage of the civil war in Byzantium. From his capital at Nikomedia Sultan Orhan offered assistance to John VI, claimant to the throne, and married his daughter Theodora, thus setting up an excellent excuse for invading the empire.

At the same time, he was able to exploit unexpected developments at Gallipoli when an earthquake shook the castle fortifications so violently that they collapsed in 1354. Orhan ferried an entire army across the Dardanelles and opened a bridgehead on the European shore. The conquest of Thrace, the last province loyal to the empire, and the capture of Adrianople, which became the Ottoman capital as Edirne, meant that the Turks were now in a position to threaten the capital from the west. Once they could mount an attack by land as well as by sea, Constantinople was totally surrounded. This stranglehold on the empire was symbolised by the treaty of 1373, which reduced the emperor to the status of a Turkish vassal. John V agreed to pay Sultan Murad an annual tribute, to provide military aid whenever it was required, and to allow his son Manuel to accompany the Turks back to their court as a hostage.

Despite a surprising defeat by the Mongols in 1402, Ottoman attempts to capture Constantinople continued. In preparation for the campaign of 1452-53, Sultan Mehmet II ordered the blockade of the city. Since the southern entrance to the Bosphorus from the Aegean at the Dardanelles was already in Ottoman hands, he concentrated on the northern entrance from the Black Sea. Two castles were constructed close to the mouth of the Bosphorus on the Asian and European shores, to prevent any aid arriving from the Black Sea. Barbaro gives a vivid description of how the garrison at Rumeli Hisar on the European shore tried to control shipping by firing on any galleys entering the Bosphorus until they lowered their sails:

From the walls of the castle, the Turks

began to shout ‘Lower your sails,

Captain’ … and when they saw that

he was unwilling to lower them, they

began to fire their cannon and many

guns and a great number of arrows,

so that they killed many men … After

he had lowered his sails, the Turks

stopped firing, and then the current

carried the galleys towards Constantinople.

And when they had passed the

castle and the Turks could not reach

them any longer with their cannon,

the captain quickly raised his sails and

got through safely.

Ships also carried oars so that sailors could row with the current in order to avoid the blockade.

Byzantine rulers had made too many appeals to Western powers to come to the aid of their Christian city. The crusading movement had been exhausted by numerous military disasters. After the failure of the crusade of 1396 at Nicopolis on the Danube, the young emperor Manuel II made a long tour of western capital cities between 1399 and 1403 in the hope of gaining financial and above all military support for the defence of the city. In Paris he noticed a fine tapestry hanging in the palace of the Louvre and wrote a letter to his old tutor describing its beauty. In London he was invited to the Christmas dinner hosted by Henry IV at the palace of Eltham. Manuel’s attempts to obtain aid were enhanced, as so many times before, by a promise to unite the Latin and Greek churches.

In this respect Manuel and his son John VIII proved that they could achieve the desired ecclesiastical union. At the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39 the union of the churches was finally realised. But even after this major compromise, help from the papacy, the Italian city republics and the monarchs who had received Manuel during his trip was slow to materialise. In the autumn of 1452, the papal legate Cardinal Isidore and Bishop Leonard of Chios arrived in the city with a body of archers recruited and paid for by the papacy. The Cardinal then celebrated the official union of the Latin and Greek churches in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia on December 12th.

As Bishop Leonard of Chios reports the event:

Through the diligence

and honesty of the said

Cardinal, Isidore of

Kiev, and with the assent

(if it was not insincere)

of the emperor and the

senate, the holy union

was sanctioned and

solemnly celebrated on

December 12th, the

feast of Saint Spiridon,

the bishop.

But even with the union in place, Western promises to assist the last great Christian centre in the East Mediterranean proved empty, while a large portion of the Greek population of Constantinople remained obstinately opposed to it.

Among those who joined the Greek inhabitants in the city to defend it against the expected siege, were numerous representatives of the Italian republics of Venice and Genoa. Both enjoyed commercial privileges from trading in Constantinople but were staunch rivals. Some of those who fought had been residents for many years, had adopted Byzantine citizenship and married Greek wives. A significant number of Armenians were present and the resident Catalan traders took part under their consul. Prince Orhan, pretender to the Ottoman throne, who had lived for years as a guest of the Byzantine court, offered his services with his Turkish companions. Ships from Ancona, Provence and Castile added to the naval forces, and a group of Greeks from Crete elected to remain in the city. When they saw what would happen, though, on February 26th, 1453, six of their ships slipped away with one Venetian.

The inhabitants were greatly cheered by the arrival in January 1453 of the Genoese condottieri, who braved the Turkish blockade and got through with his two ships and about 700 men. This was Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, identified in many sources as Justinian, a friend of the emperor, whose determination to assist the city was greatly appreciated. Constantine XI put him in charge of the weakest part of the land walls, the section by the Gate of Romanos, and, as Nestor-Iskander says:

… he invigorated and even instructed

the people so that they would not lose

hope and maintain unswerving trust

in God … All people admired and

obeyed him in all things.

After masterminding the defence Justinian was hit on the chest during the last days of the assault. The Genoese managed to get him out of the city on one of the first ships to leave after the capture but he died at Chios. His disappearance lowered the spirits of the Christian forces.

Also among the defenders was a young man called Nestor, who had been taken captive by a Turkish regiment in Moldavia, southern Russia, forcibly converted to Islam and enrolled in the unit. Since he had some education, Nestor, renamed Iskander, was employed in military administration and learned about Turkish artillery practices. He accompanied the unit on its march to Constantinople and then ran away, ‘that I might not die in this wretched faith’. His account of the siege may have been written many years later when he was a monk in a Greek monastery, but it has the quality of a lived experience, a first-hand account of what he witnessed as a noncombatant. It has been suggested that he was attached to Giustiniani’s forces at the Romanos Gate and helped them to identify the Ottoman commanders and their weaponry.

Siege warfare was revolutionised in the fifteenth century by the invention of cannon. In the 1420s when the Byzantines had their first experience of bombardment by cannon, they reduced the effectiveness of the new weapon by suspending bales of material, wood and anything that might absorb and diffuse its impact. But the fifth-century fortifications of Constantinople presented an easy target. Now Byzantium needed new technology as well as new warriors to match the enemy. Appreciating this vital combination, in 1451 Constantine XI employed a Christian engineer, a Hungarian named Urban, to assist with the first, while he sent numerous appeals to the West for extra soldiers. But when he failed to pay Urban adequately, the cannon expert offered his skills to the Turkish side. The former allies of the Empire, meanwhile, sent little or no assistance.

It was undoubtedly Byzantine inability to invest in this technology of warfare that sealed the fate of the city. Once Urban was in the employ of the Sultan, who was happy to pay what he asked, the Hungarian cast the largest cannon ever produced, a 29 foot-long bore which fired enormous stones variously identified as weighing 1,200-1,300 lbs. This was called Imperial (Basilica) and was so heavy that a team of sixty oxen had to haul it from Edirne. It could only be fired seven times a day because it overheated so greatly. But once correctly positioned opposite the Gate of Romanos and fired, it brought down the ancient walls and created the historic breach through which the Ottoman forces entered the city on the morning of May 29th.

Against this monster weapon, the defenders set up their own much smaller cannon. But when fired they caused more damage to the ancient structures of the city than to the enemy. All the regular techniques of siege warfare were employed: the attackers dug tunnels under the walls, and built tall siege towers which they rolled up to the walls, in order to fix their scaling ladders. The defenders dug counter tunnels and threw burning material into those of the invaders; they poured hot pitch from the walls and set fire to anything wooden set against them. The smoke of fires, as well as cannon, meant that the combatants fought without seeing clearly what was around them.

In 1453 Easter was celebrated on Sunday April 1st, and the next day the Emperor ordered the boom which protected the city’s harbour on the Golden Horn to be set in place. Once it was stretched between Constantinople and the Genoese colony of Pera it prevented ships from entering the harbour. As they watched the Turks bringing up their forces, the inhabitants must have realised that battle was about to commence. From April 11th, the cannon bombardment began and the following day the full Turkish fleet of 145 ships anchored two miles off from Constantinople. Fighting occurred on land and sea, with a major onslaught on the walls on April 18th, and a notable naval engagement on April 20th. After the land battle Constantine XI ordered the clergy and monks to gather up the dead and bury them: a total of 1,740 Greeks and 700 Franks (i.e. Westerners) and Armenians, against 18,000 Turks. This duty was repeated on April 25th, when 5,700 defenders were slain, and 35,000 enemy. While the figures (which vary from source to source) are not reliable, the sense of loss and disaster permeates all accounts. Constantinople had been under siege in effect for many years. In 1453 the actual conquest took forty-six days.

Towards the middle of May after stalwart resistance, the Sultan sent an envoy into the city to discuss a possible solution. Mehmet still wished to take the city, but he announced that he would lift the siege if the Emperor paid an annual tribute of 100,000 gold bezants. Alternatively, all the citizens could leave with their possessions and no one would be harmed. The Emperor summoned his council to discuss the proposal. No one seriously believed that such a huge sum could be raised as tribute, nor were they prepared to abandon the city. As in many earlier meetings he had with Cardinal Isidore and the clergy of Hagia Sophia, the Emperor refused to consider flight. Further discussion on the issue was useless. He had embraced his heroic role.

One aspect of the siege emphasised by many authors is the immense din of battle. The Turks made their dawn prayers and then advanced with castanets, tambourines, cymbals and terrifying war cries. Fifes, trumpets, pipes and lutes also accompanied the troops. Three centuries later this manifestation of Turkish military music inspired Mozart to some of his most exciting compositions. In response to the Turks’ percussive noise, the Emperor ordered the bells of the city to be rung, and from the numerous churches the tolling of bells inspired the Christians to greater zeal. Trumpets blared at the arrival of troops in support of the city. Nestor-Iskander records how the sound of church bells summoned the non-combatants, priests, monks, women and children to collect the crosses and holy icons and bring them out to bless the city. He also says that women fought among the men and even children threw bricks and paving stones at the Turks once they were inside the city. His account reminds us of the long clash of Muslim and Christian forces which can still be heard today.

George Sprantzes, Constantine XI’s loyal secretary, recorded the outcome of the final battle and the way the last emperor of Byzantium conducted himself:

On Tuesday May 29th, early in the

day, the sultan took possession of our

City; in this time of capture my late

master and emperor, Lord

Constantine, was killed. I was not at

his side at that hour but had been

inspecting another part of the City

according to his orders … What did

my late lord the emperor not do

publicly and privately in his efforts to

gain some aid for his house, for the

Christians and for his own life? Did

he ever think that it was possible and

easy for him to abandon the City, if

something happened? … Who knew

of our emperor’s fastings and prayers,

both his own and those of priests

whom he paid to do so; of his services

to the poor and of his increased

pledges to God, in the hope of saving

his subjects from the Turkish yoke?

Nevertheless, God ignored his

offerings, I know not why or for what

sins, and men disregarded his efforts,

as each individual spoke against him

as he pleased.

In many respects the city of Constantinople which had for so long eluded the Arabs and Turks was no longer the great Queen of Cities it had once been. That city had already been destroyed in 1204 by Western forces of the Fourth Crusade who had plundered its wealth and then occupied it for fifty-seven years. When the Byzantines reconquered their capital in 1261, they attempted to restore its past glory but could never recreate its former strength. As the Ottomans closed in on their prize, Constantinople became the last outpost of Christian faith in the Middle East, and its inhabitants had to face their historic destiny. The battle between Christianity and Islam was joined around the city.

Constantine XI was the first to realise this and his disappearance during the last day of fighting heightened the myth of 1453. Although a head was solemnly presented to Sultan Mehmet and a corpse given to the Greeks for formal burial, Constantine’s body was never found. As a result many stories of his escape and survival circulated. The idea that he had found shelter within the walls of the city and would emerge to triumph over the Muslims is typical. The prolonged resistance and bravery of the defenders made heroes of them all. And within a few years, to have been present in the city on May 29th, 1453, became a badge of honour, claimed by many who had been elsewhere. By the same token Sultan Mehmet would have delighted in the nickname which recognised his role in the fall: from the late fifteenth century onwards, and even today, 550 years later, he is still known as Mehmet the Conqueror.


J. R. Melville Jones, The Fall of Constantinople 1453: Seven Contemporary Accounts (Amsterdam 1972); J. R. Jones, Nicolo Barbaro: A Diary of the Siege of Constantinople 1453 (New York 1969); Nestor-Iskander, The Tale of Constantinople (of Its Origin and Capture by the Turks in the Year 1453), translated and annotated by Walter K. Hanak and Marios Philippides (New Rochelle NY and Athens 1998); M. Philippides, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes 1401-1477 (Amherst, 1980); Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge 1965); Mark Bartusis, The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453 (Philadelphia, 1992)

Judith Herrin is Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College London. Her most recent book is Women in Purple. Rulers of Medieval Byzantium (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002).

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