May 29, 1453 - The Siege of Constantinople & the End of the Byzantine Empire
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 29, 1453. 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire enters Constantinople after a siege of 53 days. The fall of the Byzantine Empire’s capital is the end of an era: the state still calling itself the Roman Empire has, after 1500 years, ceased to exist, its last Emperor going down fighting. It is also the beginning of an era: it was Mehmed’s artillery of cannons and bombards that breached the walls. The old has been conquered by the new.
As I’ve noted before, the Byzantine Empire is the same thing as the Eastern Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire “fell” in 476 AD, it was only the Western portion that vanished. The much wealthier and more powerful eastern portion, centered at the great city of Constantinople, continued to exist for another thousand years. To differentiate this later existence from what people commonly think of as the “Roman Empire,” historians refer to the last 1000 years of East Rome as the “Byzantine Empire.”
The Byzantine Empire had been Europe’s premier state for most of the Early and High Middle Ages, but fell into sharp decline after the 1200s. Defeats by first the Muslim Arabs and then the Turks had cost it most of its eastern territories, and the disastrous Fourth Crusade of 1204 sacked Constantinople and nearly killed the Empire there and then. The Byzantine Empire clung to life, though, even as they lost almost all their land and resources. By the 1400s, they were reduced to Constantinople itself and some small holdings in Greece.
Their biggest problem was the Ottoman Empire. The land now known as Turkey was the home of multiple Turkish tribal states busy feuding with each other. One such clan, the clan of Osman, carved itself out a nice little niche on the western coast and began expanding into Greece and Bulgaria. By the 1400s they had metastasized into a serious problem for every Christian realm in southeastern Europe, overrunning Serbia, Bulgaria, and almost all of Greece. This made them a very real and present danger for the remnant Byzantine Empire, which was basically surrounded by Ottoman territory.
Constantinople was not just a great city – it was the strategic linchpin of Europe and Asia. There are multiple times this year where I’ve pointed out the critical nature of the Dardanelles, most notably during the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. Constantinople, in effect, controlled the waterways that linked the Black and Mediterranean Seas, and divided Balkan Europe from Asian Turkey. It dominated the land *and* sea linkage of Europe and Asia; the Ottomans had to obtain it to keep their empire together, and the Christians had to retain it if they had any hope of rolling back the Ottoman tide.
The threat to the Christian kingdoms of Southeast Europe resulted in periodic attempts to relaunch the Crusade movement to drive back the Ottoman Turks. These were more or less all failures; in 1396, one such attempt was routed at Nicopolis. More relevant to today’s post, the final crusade and attempt to save Constantinople was decisively defeated at the Battle of Varna in 1444, where the Polish King Wladyslaw III was killed and the Byzantine Empire’s last hope for outside help was extinguished. Though no one wanted to say it, it was only a matter of time before the Ottomans came knocking at the gates of Constantinople.
Mehmed II became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1451, at nineteen years old, after the death of his father Murad II. Murad had been a fierce and powerful Sultan; it was he who had crushed the European crusade at Varna, expanded Ottoman control over most of Turkey, and annexed Serbia and Albania. Mehmed, then, had a lot to live up to, and he had enormous dreams. He wanted to achieve the vision of centuries of Muslims: the capture of Constantinople.
Even if Constantinople was one city held by a near-dead Empire, it was a formidable fortress. It had been purpose-built as one of the strongest and most easily defended cities in the world, and had withstood a millennium’s worth of sieges. Constantinople had never been taken when properly defended. It had held out from 18 different sieges, including three Ottoman attempts to capture it in 1399, 1411, and 1422. Constantinople was built on a peninsula, so it had to be both blockaded and besieged; it had two enormous lines of walls built in the 5th Century known as the Theodosian Walls, and these walls had never been breached. These walls were virtually impenetrable throughout the Middle Ages, and had resisted every attack.
Mehmed II, though, was a thoroughly modern ruler. A young man full of fierce ambition and enormous charisma – possibly the greatest ruler of his time – he made extensive plans to take the city. He built a huge fleet of 110 ships to blockade Constantinople from the sea. He raised an army of almost 80,000 men including 10,000 of the famed Janissaries, the Ottoman slave-soldiers. Finally and most importantly, he brought forward his heavy artillery.
Cannon had been known to the European continent since the 1200s, but had never really had a decisive impact in battle or in siege warfare before this era. In 1450, the French had begun the final stage of the Hundred Years’ War with an attack on English fortresses involving the use of cannon, but this success would not come close to the psychological effect of the Ottomans’ use of artillery at Constantinople. Here, the era of fortresses, high walls, and castles would come to a crashing end in the fire of Ottoman cannon.
Mehmed II employed the largest number of artillery pieces the world had ever seen – probably around 70, though the number is disputed. The Hungarian engineer Orban, in Mehmed’s service, built a piece called “Basilica” that was 27 feet long and fired a 600-lb stone ball over a mile. This was only the largest of the pieces that Mehmed used, and was by far the least efficient; it took three hours to reload, and collapsed under its own recoil after six weeks. The smaller but still powerful bombards and guns managed to do most of the work.
Mehmed invested the great city on April 6 and began siege operations. His fleet failed on several occasions to prevent a trickle of reinforcements into the city; the Byzantine Empire, Constantine XI, had sent pleas all over Europe for help. Most countries were still licking their wounds from the defeat at Varna, and Constantine only had 5,000 men of his own. An additional 2,000 arrived from Europe, including Italians under the leadership of Genoese mercenary Giovanni Giustiniani. The Pope also sent some small detachments. Nevertheless, Constantine and his little Empire were in a bad state as the Ottomans began to open fire with their enormous guns.
A chain stretched across the Golden Horn, the bay to the north of the city, prevented the Ottoman fleet from slipping in to engage; Mehmed had a road of greased logs constructed and literally rolled his ships overland to enter the bay and cut the city off from the north. Constantine’s navy counterattacked on April 28 with Greek fire-ships, but the attack failed. Both sides executed prisoners in full view of the other; Mehmed had his prisoners impaled, and the Byzantines threw Ottoman prisoners off the walls. The siege grew vicious as the Ottoman lines inched ever closer.
Mehmed’s troops made multiple frontal assaults on the wall, which were all thrown back. The constant bombardment made numerous breaches in the wall, but the Byzantines were able to repair them quickly. The Ottomans had Serbian engineers who tried to dig under the walls with mines, but Byzantine counter-mining led by Italian and German mercenaries thwarted these attempts as well. (It really was an equal-opportunity siege as far as nationality was concerned. This kind of thing happened all the TIME in early modern Europe.)
Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time, and Mehmed sent an offer to Constantine on May 21, offering to spare the Emperor and all the inhabitants if they gave up the city. He even offered to let Constantine be the governor of Greece, keep all his possessions, and would safeguard the population. Constantine refused. He would rather die than live on, an Emperor without an Empire. If the Roman Empire was doomed, he would go out with it.
Mehmed launched his final assault on May 29, gambling that the Byzantines had been so weakened by previous assaults that he would manage a breakthrough. His troops concentrated on the recent breaches in the northwestern walls, but wave after wave failed to cut into the gap. Even the reliable Turkish Muslim troops failed to gain the breach. Finally, the elite Janissaries were committed – the last round in the chamber – and they overran the breach in the wall. The Italian mercenary Giustiniani was killed in this fight; with him gone, his troops began to retreat, and soon the Ottomans were pouring into the city.
The city was in an uproar as the Turkish troops flooded over the walls. Constantine himself personally led counterattacks, but could not stop the Janissaries. Greek soldiers began running home to protect their families from looters, the Italians tried to flee to their ships, and many who had nowhere to go committed suicide by throwing themselves off the walls. Constantine XI, the last Emperor of the Roman Empire, discarded his Imperial regalia and led the final charge on foot. His body was never found.
With the city fallen, there was little outright slaughter; the Christian population of the city were far more valuable as slaves than they were dead. Many civilians were rounded up and assayed by price, with the most valuable being given to the officers. Mehmed II granted his men three days to plunder the city, in accordance with normal custom at the time; a city that did not surrender before an assault was necessary was essentially considered fair game.
The Ottoman troops ransacked Constantinople for days, raping, stealing and murdering quite a few of the less potentially valuable residents. The fall of Rome in 476 was far less terrible for its people than the plundering of Constantinople in 1453.
Mehmed regretted allowing his troops to plunder his new city; on June 2, Constantinople was half in ruins, with the churches desecrated, houses burned and stores emptied. Supposedly, Mehmed was moved to tears, saying “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction.” He ordered all looting stopped, many prisoners released, and reimposed the rights of property. Constantinople would be reborn.
It would be reborn, though, as a Muslim city. Most of the city’s grandest churches, including the world-famous Hagia Sophia, were converted into mosques. Turks from all over Anatolia were brought in to reoccupy the houses and palaces, replacing many of the former Greek residents. Mehmed made Constantinople his new capital, and in so doing transformed the Ottoman Empire into the premier power of its time. On a military, cultural, and economic scale, the Sultan’s realm would be unequalled for almost two centuries.
Mehmed did not want to destroy the Roman Empire – he wanted to BECOME the Roman Empire. He soon restored many of the Greek churches, promoted Greek and Latin reading, and founded new houses of education. He proclaimed himself “Kayser-I Rum” – Sultan of Rome. He extended rights and privileges to the Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the Empire, and led wars of expansion across the Balkans and Asia. Mehmed II did not see himself as a Turkish tribal sultan, but as the heir of the Caesars – a Muslim Constantine.
Nevertheless, it was not quite the same. Rome had finally fallen – for real this time. If the Ottoman Sultan mimicked the Caesars, he was not the same. Then again, though, the Byzantines had ceased to be the Caesars for some time themselves. The truth was, Rome had fallen long ago – it just didn’t know it yet.