When making my initial list of decisive battles, I shied away from final battles, those clashes that ended a war. Those battles like Appomatox, Berlin, Yorktown, between a nearly beaten force and a rampant one. I find that those clashes were not the decisive battles of their respective conflicts. Today’s entry is a notable exception.
Name: The (16th!) Siege of Constantinople, of The Fall of Constantinople
The War: The Byzantine-Ottoman Wars
When: 6 April – 29 May 1453
Where: Constantinople (today, Istanbul), Turkey
Forces/Commanders: 7’000 Byzantine troops and 26 ships under Emperor Constantine XI against (probably) 80’000 Ottoman troops and 90 ships under Mehmed II.
“The city is fallen but I am alive.”
-Constantine XI, his alleged last words before a final charge.
The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;
the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.
-Mehmed II, reciting a line of Persian poetry after entering the city
Constantinople was one of the jewels of the ancient world, capital of the Byzantine Empire, the successor of the Romans. It’s leaders could claim to be part of a dynasty over a thousand years old.
But where the Empire had once been master of the Mediterranean, by 1453 it was a shadow of its former self. Internal disputes, foreign invasion, religious splits, competing dynasties all combined to leave the Empire in a state of great weakness in the middle of the 15th century. Its territory consisted of little more than the area of Thrace around Constantinople and parts of Greece. It was surrounded on both sides by the ambitious expanding Ottoman Empire.
The Byzantines and the Ottomans had been warring against each other for a long time, on and off, with the Byzantines having the worse of it. Now, Thrace and Constantinople stood in the way of Ottoman unification over the Dardanelles, the city’s strategic position over the straits between Europe and Asia being obvious. The Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, moved to eliminate his long-term neighbours once and for all.
It should be noted that the city itself, while very well protected behind an immense system of fortifications and walls, not only to the land side but in its immense harbour as well (check out this enormous map of the area), had fallen upon bad times. In truth, behind the walls lay little more than a series of interconnected villages rather than the mighty capital of Constantine the Great’s day. The constant invasions, civil wars and high taxation had reduced the city’s population to critically low levels. As a result Emperor Constantine XI could do little in the face of the Ottoman advances, other than call for help from western powers. But other events at the time – the rapidly concluding Hundred Years War, internal disputes in Germany, the reconquista in Spain, Polish defeats to the Ottomans, prevented any relief from coming.
Mehmed II still viewed possible European intervention as a threat and moved to neutralise such a development, building an immense fortress, Rumeli Hasari, several miles north of Constantinople on the European side of the strait to mirror other fortresses on the other side.
Constantine’s appeals for help, even to the extent that he offered a religious unification with Rome, went mostly unheard. Genoa sent 700 men under Giovanni Giustiniani, a siege specialist, who was given command of the walls. Venice sent a fleet of ships but they arrived too late to help. With Rumeli Hisari completed in mid-1452, the Emperor moved to placate the Ottomans with gifts and diplomacy: his ambassadors were executed. Due to underpopulation, Constantine could only muster 5’000 militia along with around 2’000 foreign troops to defend the city. A mixed fleet of 26 vessels was also available.
Coming against them was an immense force. Estimates of its strength vary wildly from 80 to 200’000 due to the exaggeration of witnesses. It was likely closer to the smaller number, but still gigantic for the time. It was backed by a fleet of close to a 100 vessels and cannon pieces of great length and power, some that needed 60 oxen to transport them.
Encamped outside the Theodosian Walls, the longest and most outlying of the cities walls, the siege began on April 6th 1453. Constantine out himself and his Greeks at the centre of the wall with the less experienced militia and Genoese to either side.
The Ottomans proceeded with the standard wall attacks of the day. Ladders, siege towers and the like all attempted to execute the taking of the walls. But each attack was thrown back. The walls height and excellent design offered the defenders a great advantage.
Mehmed wasted no time in letting his artillery loose but, while his cannons were impressive for the time, they were ineffective in their goals. His main monsters could do some damage but their reload time, close to 3 hours per shot, meant any damage they inflicted could be repaired. For over a month the frontal assaults continued to no effect, with the Ottomans taking heavy losses.
Things were going little better for the Ottomans at sea. Seeking to cut off the city completely, a fleet had attempted to enter the Golden Horde, a natural enclave that protected Byzantine shipping, but a great boom, a metal chain, had been lain on wooden logs across its entrance preventing the Ottomans from gaining access. The smaller Byzantine navy, and other Christian vessels in the area, frequently engaged the Ottoman fleet, with some success. Some merchant ships were able to bypass the Ottoman Navy and get past the boom, which helped Byzantine morale, unexpectedly high due to the heroic defence of the walls.
But the boom defence couldn’t last. Using greased logs placed just north of the Horn, Mehmed had his fleet rolled past the metal barrier. An attempt to destroy the Ottoman Navy with fire ships failed with heavy losses. From then on, the land defence was weakened due to the need for extra troops to be posted to the Horn. Outside supply was now impossible.
For all the naval success, the Ottomans were edging towards a breaking point. Unable to take the walls by direct assault, Mehmed attempted to undermine them using the Serbian vassal part of his army for the task. Several tunnels were dug in this attempt. The Byzantines however, through clever counter-digging and information obtained from Turkish prisoners, were able to find and intercept every tunnel, destroying them and killing many soldiers through the use of Greek fire, a famous incendiary weapon of the era.
The failure to take the walls quickly, despite the overwhelming manpower advantage, caused some leading Ottomans to question the possibility of success. Mehmed overruled them and began planning a large-scale assault on every part of the walls.
Around the same time, several events had an effect on the defence. Strange natural phenomenon, such as unseasonal fog, lunar eclipses and lights in the sky played havoc with Byzantine morale with many of the city’s inhabitant viewing them as portents of disaster.
Interestingly enough, while the idea of strange lights in the sky has often been dismissed as fantasy and hysteria by historians and other commentators, NASA, in 1993, put forward the theory that the lights were a by-product of the eruption of a volcano in the southern Pacific which effected the atmosphere in the same way that Krakatoa did in 1883.
More concretely, a last Venetian vessel was able to get into the city bringing the news that no relief force from the Italian republic would be coming to help.
Mehmed was ready for his final assault. After giving his tried troops 36 hours of rest, he launched an assault fo three waves on all parts of the wall on the 28th May. First were the poorly trained auxiliaries, meant to soften up the enemy. Then the more battle hardened Anatolian groups who did force an entrance to the north-west briefly before being pushed back. Finally, Mehmed unleashed his best troops, the famous Janissaries.
The Byzantines held them all back for a time but the dam couldn’t hold. Giovanni Giustiniani was mortally wounded during the third wave attack; his death caused panic up and down the line and the retreat of many Genoese soldiers. Constantine and the local Greek troops continued to beat back the constant assault for many hours but a twist of fate was their undoing: the Ottomans realised that one of the walls gates, the Kerkoporta, had been left unlocked, having previously been covered by debris.
The mistake revealed, the Ottomans rushed in. At the same time, many parts of Constantine’s section of defence were finally overrun. Mehmed’s army poured through the gaps into the city itself where the last of the fighting took place. It was here, according to witnesses, that the Emperor cast aside his regal clock and threw himself into a final hopeless attack, dying in the onslaught though some Ottoman sources claim he was killed by Turkish marines while attempting escape by sea.
With the elimination of the last defenders, the city was taken. It’s population was largely destroyed either through enslavement or by pillaging over the following 3 days.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
It ended it, to be blunt. There remained some Byzantine holdings in Greece, but these had been autonomous for some time and were absorbed by the advancing Ottomans soon enough. With the fall of Constantinople, and the lack of an imperial heir, the Empire was finished. Byzantium vanished from the maps never to rise again, and along with it, the last true remnants of ancient Rome.
For the Ottomans, a land bridge to Asia had been secured, ensuring that their holdings in Eastern Europe could be better defended. The city came to be renamed Istanbul over time, though not by direct order as some believe.
Mehmed’s cannons, gigantic for the time, spring to mind. Combined with the French victory at Castillion that year, the siege defined gunpowder driven artillery as a major force in warfare. That being said, Mehmed’s cannons did not take the city for him though they have remained a potent symbol of Ottoman power throughout history.
Constantine did a remarkable job in defending his capital, given the critical lack of manpower he had. The boom covering the Golden Horn was an ingenious solution to a pressing problem though Mehmed’s land based counter move was just as impressive.
Probably little though, as always, its hard to tell. Even if Constantinople had been able to hold out, say with Mehmed abandoning the siege before his final assault, the Empire was in a wretchedly poor state. It’s hard to imagine it lasting much longer barring a number of unlikely events – population increase, support from western Europe etc. The again, Byzantium had been up and down already (it fell to crusaders in 1204 and rose again) so it could have happened again.
A continuing Empire would have disrupted the growth of the Ottoman Empire, making the holding and supply of their European territories difficult. Moreover, the Ottomans would have had another obstacle in their quest to be masters of the Mediterranean. If Constantinople could have stood, Lepanto, over a hundred years later, may not have been necessary.
The Ottoman triumph meant that they could continue their march into Europe, with a century of victory ahead of them. They now focused their energies on fighting new enemies – Venice, Genoa, and Austria, conflicts that would last for generations. By securing Constantinople, Mehmed ensured the position of the Ottomans as a great power in European affairs for most of the next millennium. a position that only really ended in 1918.
In National Consciousness
Pretty huge for both sides. The Ottoman Empire, and its successor the Republic of Turkey, consider the taking of the city and the achievements of Mehmed (who became known as “the Conqueror”) to be a watershed in the growth of both the Empire and Islam. Mehmed was commemorated as a face on Turkish money up to 1992 and many mosques and other buildings bear his name.
Constantinople, soon to be Istanbul, underwent radical changes, becoming the centre of the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed began a process of rebuilding and refurbishment with many churches being converted into mosques, and the population of the city being increased. Today Istanbul is one of the most populous cities in the world, though it has lost its status as a capital to Ankara.
For Christianity, both Catholic and Orthodox, the fall of the city was a cultural and spiritual hammer blow. It’s reconquest became a much sought after event, with many Popes and rulers attempting it, though no one ever really came close. The Crusading spirit was nearly done in Europe and upcoming events like the Reformation meant that the re-taking of Constantinople became an ever more distant possibility, one that was brought to the forefront occasionally in times of war.
The Catholic League that triumphed at Lepanto may have had a chance to retake the city, but lack of cohesion ruined the opportunity. Tsarist Russia, in their many wars with the Ottomans came close, coming within 10 miles of the city at one point in the 19th century. The Greeks, during their war of Independence in the early 20th century, came just as close to attacking the city, but were again repulsed.
Following the establishment of a secular Turkish Republic and its subsequent joining of NATO, it would appear that the return of Istanbul to anything resembling Christian hands has ended, rightly.
And as for Constantine, his legacy is that of the “sleeping hero” promised to return one day to retake Constantinople from his Turkish foe. Many such myths of a religious nature have sprang up about the city, from angels carrying the King away to priests vanishing into the cities walls as the Ottomans arrived. Though officially uncanonized, some practitioners of Orthodox Christianity consider him a saint.
In a wider sense, in combination with events taking place elsewhere on the continent – Castillion, the end of the Hundred Years War, the invention of the printing press – the fall of the city is seen to make the year 1453, the last of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the “Early Modern” era. Such an impression is a measure of the immense effect that the fall of the city had on the world both and the time and in subsequent historical study.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.