The Fall of the Eastern Roman Empire and the City of Constantinople 29 May 1453

The Despot Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos becomes the last Emperor

Тhe Despot Constantine after the disaster of Varna continued his campaigns in Greece, he again invaded Boeotia, extended his power over Phocis  to Pind. It appeared that for a time on the ancient Greek soil  there will be a new state, which will succeed the Byzantine Empire. But vengeance was given swiftly to the bold despot by the Vitor from the battle of Varna. Murat II in 1446 attacked with a large army and quickly entered through middle Greece. When they reached  the great bulwark of the Corinth Strait here the despot Constantine was able to give a stronger resistance, but the Turkish artillery fire had crashed this obstacle: on December 10, 1446 he attacked with a large army and quickly  the fight was decided. The Turks entered Morea, they destroyed the Byzantine cities and villages and took over 60,000 prisoners.  The Byzantine despot had to submit to the Sultan and to pay him tribute. Soon after the despot Constantine is called to take the Imperial throne. John VIII died on October 31, 1448, leaving no children, and little before him died Theodore, his crown was awarded to the despot. Constantine, the third son of Emperor Manuel II and Helena Dragases, the daughter of Constantine Dejanovic.  He was Crowned in Morea on January 6, 1449, Constantine Dragases in March arrived in Constantinople.

Mehmed II the Conquerer (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han)

The siege of Constantinople by the Turks attracts our first attention to the person the great destroyer. Mehmed II  was the son of Murad II. His first education and sentiments were those of a devout Muslim; and as often as he conversed with an infidel, he purified his hands and face by the legal rites of ablution. His aspiring genius disdained to acknowledge a power above his own; and in his looser hours he presumed to brand the prophet of Mecca as a robber and impostor. Under the tuition of the most skilful masters, Mehmed advanced with an early and rapid progress in the paths of knowledge and besides his native tongue it is asserted that he spoke or understood five languages, the Arabic, the Persian, the Hebrew, the Latin, and the Greek. The history and geography of the world were familiar to his memory the lives of the heroes of the East, perhaps of the West, excited his emulation: his skill in astrology is excused by the folly of the times, and supposes some rudiments of mathematical science; and a profane taste for the arts is betrayed in his liberal invitation and reward of the painters of Italy. But the influence of religion and learning were employed without effect on his savage and licentious nature. His sobriety is attested by the silence of the Turkish annals, which accuse three, and three only, of the Ottoman line of the vice of drunkenness. But it cannot be denied that his passions were at once furious and inexorable; that in the palace, as in the field, a torrent of blood was spilt on the slightest provocation; and that the noblest of the captive youth were often dishonoured by his unnatural lust. In the Albanian war he studied the lessons, and soon surpassed the example, of his father; and the conquest of two empires, twelve kingdoms, and two hundred cities, a vain and flattering account, is ascribed to his invincible sword. He was doubtless a soldier, and possibly a general; Constantinople has sealed his glory; but if we compare the means, the obstacles, and the achievements, Mehmed II must blush to sustain a parallel with Alexander or Timour. Under his command, the Ottoman forces were always more numerous than their enemies; yet their progress was bounded by the Euphrates and the Adriatic; and his arms were checked by Huniades and Scanderbeg, by the Rhodian knights and by the Persian king.

Preparations for the siege of Constantinople

The Greeks and the Turks passed an anxious and sleepless winter: the Greeks were kept awake by their fears, the Turks by their hopes; both by the preparations of defence and attack; and the two emperors, who had the most to lose or to gain, were the most deeply affected by the national sentiment. In  Mehmed, that sentiment was inflamed by the passion of his youth and temper: he amused his free time with building at Adrianople  the lofty palace of Jehan Numa, (the watchtower of the world) but his serious thoughts were irrevocably bent on the conquest of the city of Constantinople. At the dead of night, about the second watch, he started from his bed, and commanded the instant attendance of his prime vizier. The message, the hour, the prince, and his own situation, alarmed the guilty conscience of Calil Basha; who had possessed the confidence, and advised the restoration, of Murad. On the accession of the son, the vizier was confirmed in his office and the appearances of favou. His friendship for the Christians, which might be innocent under the late reign, had stigmatized him with the name of Gabour Ortachi, or foster-brother of the infidels;  and his avarice entertained a venal and treasonable correspondence, which was detected and punished after the conclusion of the war. On receiving the royal mandate, he embraced, perhaps for the last time, his wife and children; filled a cup with pieces of gold, hastened to the palace, adored the sultan, and offered, according to the Oriental custom, the slight tribute of his duty and gratitude.

“It is not my wish,” said Mehmed, “to resume my gifts, but rather to heap and multiply them on thy head. In my turn, I ask a present far more valuable and important; Constantinople.”

The great Cannon of Mehmed II

Among the implements of destruction, he studied with peculiar care the recent and tremendous discovery of the Latins; and his artillery surpassed whatever had yet appeared in the world. A founder of cannon, a Dane or Hungarian, who had been almost starved in the Byzantine service, deserted to the Muslims, and was liberally entertained by the Turkish sultan. Mehmed was satisfied with the answer to his first question, which he eagerly pressed on the artist.

“Am I able to cast a cannon capable of throwing a ball or stone of sufficient size to batter the walls of Constantinople? I am not ignorant of their strength; but were they more solid than those of Babylon, I could oppose an engine of superior power: the position and management of that engine must be left to your engineers.”

The Ottoman army that stood before the gates of Constantinople

the Janizaries in the front were stationed before the sultan’s tent. The Ottoman line was covered by a deep entrenchment; and a subordinate army enclosed the suburb of Galata, and watched the doubtful faith of the Genoese.  All the Turkish forces of any name or value could not exceed the number of 60,000 horse and 20,000 foot. Such indeed might be the regular establishment of the Capiculi, the Sipahi who marched with the prince, and were paid from his royal treasury. But the bashaws, in their respective governments, maintained or levied a provincial militia many lands were held by a military tenure, many volunteers were attracted by the hope of spoil and the sound of the holy trumpet invited a swarm of hungry and fearless fanatics, who might contribute at least to multiply the terrors, and in a first attack to blunt the swords, of the Christians. The whole mass of the Turkish powers is magnified by Ducas, Chalcondyles, and Leonard of Chios, to the amount of three or four hundred thousand men; but Phranza was a less remote and more accurate judge; and his precise definition of two hundred and fifty-eight thousand does not exceed the measure of experience and probability. The navy of the besiegers was less formidable: the Propontis was overspread with three hundred and twenty sail; but of these no more than eighteen could be rated as galleys of war and the far greater part must be degraded to the condition of store-ships and transports, which poured into the camp fresh supplies of men, ammunition, and provisions.

The defenders of the City

In its last decay, Constantinople was still peopled with more than a hundred thousand inhabitants; but these numbers are found in the accounts, not of war, but of captivity; and they mostly consisted of mechanics, of priests, of women, and of men devoid of that spirit which even women have sometimes exerted for the common safety. I can suppose, I could almost excuse, the reluctance of subjects to serve on a distant frontier, at the will of a tyrant; but the man who dares not expose his life in the defence of his children and his property, has lost in society the first and most active energies of nature. By the emperor’s command, a particular inquiry had been made through the streets and houses, how many of the citizens, or even of the monks, were able and willing to bear arms for their country. The lists were entrusted to Phranza and, after a diligent addition, he informed his master, with grief and surprise, that the national defence was reduced to four thousand nine hundred and seventy Romans. Between Constantine and his faithful minister this comfortless secret was preserved; and a sufficient proportion of shields, cross-bows, and muskets, were distributed from the arsenal to the city bands. They derived some accession from a body of two thousand strangers, under the command of John Justiniani, a noble Genoese; a liberal donative was advanced to these auxiliaries; and a princely recompense, the Isle of Lemnos, was promised to the valour and victory of their chief. A strong chain was drawn across the mouth of the harbour: it was supported by some Greek and Italian vessels of war and merchandise; and the ships of every Christian nation, that successively arrived from Candia and the Black Sea, were detained for the public service. Against the powers of the Ottoman empire, a city of the extent of thirteen, perhaps of sixteen, miles was defended by a scanty garrison of seven or eight thousand soldiers. Europe and Asia were open to the besiegers; but the strength and provisions of the Byzantines must sustain a daily decrease; nor could they indulge the expectation of any foreign succour or supply.

False union of the two churches

The primitive Romans would have drawn their swords in the resolution of death or conquest. The primitive Christians might have embraced each other, and awaited in patience and charity the stroke of martyrdom. But the Byzantines were animated only by the spirit of religion, and that spirit was productive only of animosity and discord. Before his death, the emperor John Palaeologus had renounced the unpopular measure of a union with the Latins; nor was the idea revived, till the distress of his brother Constantine imposed a last trial of flattery and dissimulation. With the demand of temporal aid, his ambassadors were instructed to mingle the assurance of spiritual obedience: his neglect of the church was excused by the urgent cares of the state; and his orthodox wishes solicited the presence of a Roman legate. The Vatican had been too often deluded; yet the signs of repentance could not decently be overlooked; a legate was more easily granted than an army; and about six months before the final destruction, the cardinal Isidore of Russia appeared in that character with a retinue of priests and soldiers. The emperor saluted him as a friend and father; respectfully listened to his public and private sermons; and with the most obsequious of the clergy and laymen subscribed the act of union, as it had been ratified in the council of Florence. On the twelfth of December, the two nations, in the church of St. Sophia, joined in the communion of sacrifice and prayer; and the names of the two pontiffs were solemnly commemorated; the names of Nicholas the Fifth, the vicar of Christ, and of the patriarch Gregory, who had been driven into exile by a rebellious people. The population of Constantinople was filled with rage and discontent and in their misery they stood stronger then ever before joined in their believe and their faith not to budge and inch or to bow before the Catholic faith. The hate towards the Latins could be described through the words of Loukas Notaras:

I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the City than the Latin mitre”

The Siege of Constantinople 6 April – 29 May 1453

Of the triangle which composes the figure of Constantinople, the two sides along the sea were made inaccessible to an enemy. The Propontis by nature, and the harbour by art. Between the two waters, the basis of the triangle, the land side was protected by a double wall, and a deep ditch of the depth of one hundred feet(30 m). Against this line of fortification, which Phranza, an eye-witness, prolongs to the measure of six miles (9 km), the Ottomans directed their principal attack; and the emperor, after distributing the service and command of the most perilous stations, undertook the defence of the external wall. In the first days of the siege the Byzantine soldiers descended into the ditch, or sallied into the field, but they soon discovered, that, in the proportion of their numbers, one Christian was of more value than twenty Turks and, after these bold preludes, they were prudently content to maintain the rampart with their missile weapons. Nor should this judgment be accused of weak spirit. The nation was indeed of weak spirit, but the last Constantine deserves the name of a hero: his noble band of volunteers was inspired with Roman virtue and the foreign auxiliaries supported the honour of the Western chivalry. The incessant volleys of lances and arrows were accompanied with the smoke, the sound, and the fire, of their musketry and cannon. Their small arms discharged at the same time either five, or even ten, balls of lead, of the size of a walnut and, according to the closeness of the ranks and the force of the powder, several breastplates and bodies were transpierced by the same shot. But the Turkish approaches were soon sunk in trenches, or covered with ruins. Each day added to the science of the Christians but their inadequate stock of gunpowder was wasted in the operations of each day. Their ordnance was not powerful, either in size or number; and if they possessed some heavy cannon, they feared to plant them on the walls, lest the aged structure should be shaken and overthrown by the explosion. The same destructive secret had been revealed to the Muslims by whom it was employed with the superior energy of zeal, riches, and despotism. The great cannon of Mehmed has been separately noticed, an important and visible object in the history of the times: but that enormous engine was flanked by two fellows almost of equal magnitude,  the long order of the Turkish artillery was pointed against the walls. 14 batteries thundered at once on the most accessible places; and of one of these it is ambiguously expressed, that it was mounted with one hundred and thirty guns, or that it discharged one hundred and thirty bullets. Yet in the power and activity of the sultan, we may discern the infancy of the new science. Under a master who counted the moments, the great cannon could be loaded and fired no more than seven times in one day. The heated metal unfortunately burst; several workmen were destroyed; and the skill of an artist was admired who bethought himself of preventing the danger and the accident, by pouring oil, after each explosion, into the mouth of the cannon.

The final days of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium)

The last speech of Palaeologus was the funeral oration of the Roman empire

Far different was the state of the Christians; who, with loud and impotent complaints, deplored the guilt, or the punishment, of their sins. The celestial image of the Virgin had been exposed in solemn procession; but their divine patroness was deaf to their entreaties: they accused the obstinacy of the emperor for refusing a timely surrender; anticipated the horrors of their fate; and sighed for the repose and security of Turkish servitude. The noblest of the Byzantines, and the bravest of the allies, were summoned to the palace, to prepare them, on the evening of the 28-th, for the duties and dangers of the general assault. The last speech of Palaeologus was the funeral oration of the Roman empire:  he promised, he conjured, and he vainly attempted to infuse the hope which was extinguished in his own mind. In this world all was comfortless and gloomy; and neither the gospel nor the church have proposed any conspicuous recompense to the heroes who fall in the service of their country. But the example of their prince, and the confinement of a siege, had armed these warriors with the courage of despair, and the pathetic scene is described by the feelings of the historian Phranza, who was himself present at this mournful assembly. They wept, they embraced; regardless of their families and fortunes, they devoted their lives; and each commander, departing to his station, maintained all night a vigilant and anxious watch on the rampart. The Emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured; and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Emperors.

The final Ottoman assault on the City of Constantinople

In the confusion of darkness, an assailant may sometimes succeed; out in this great and general attack, the military judgment and astrological knowledge of Mehmed advised him to expect the morning, the memorable 29 of May, in the year 1453 of the Christian ear. The preceding night had been strenuously employed: the troops, the cannons, and the fascines, were advanced to the edge of the ditch, which in many parts presented a smooth and level passage to the breach; and his fourscore galleys almost touched, with the prows and their scaling-ladders, the less defensible walls of the harbour. Under pain of death, silence was enjoined: but the physical laws of motion and sound are not obedient to discipline or fear; each individual might suppress his voice and measure his footsteps; but the march and labor of thousands must inevitably produce a strange confusion of dissonant clamours, which reached the ears of the watchmen of the towers. At daybreak, without the customary signal of the morning gun, the Turks assaulted the city by sea and land; and the similitude of a twined or twisted thread has been applied to the closeness and continuity of their line of attack. The foremost ranks consisted of the refuse of the host, a voluntary crowd who fought without order or command; of the feebleness of age or childhood, of peasants and vagrants, and of all who had joined the camp in the blind hope of plunder and martyrdom. The common impulse drove them onwards to the wall; the most audacious to climb were instantly precipitated; and not a dart, not a bullet, of the Christians, was idly wasted on the accumulated throng. But their strength and ammunition were exhausted in this laborious defence. The ditch was filled with the bodies of the slain, they supported the footsteps of their companions and of this devoted vanguard the death was more serviceable than the life. Under their respective bashaws and sanjaks, the troops of Anatolia and Romania were successively led to the charge: their progress was various and doubtful; but, after a conflict of 2 hours, the Byzantines still maintained, and improved their advantage; and the voice of the emperor was heard, encouraging his soldiers to achieve, by a last effort, the deliverance of their country. In that fatal moment, the Janizaries arose, fresh, vigorous, and invincible. The sultan himself on horseback, with an iron mace in his hand, was the spectator and judge of their valour: he was surrounded by ten thousand of his domestic troops, whom he reserved for the decisive occasion; and the tide of battle was directed and impelled by his voice and eye. His numerous ministers of justice were posted behind the line, to urge, to restrain, and to punish; and if danger was in the front, shame and inevitable death were in the rear, of the fugitives. The cries of fear and of pain were drowned in the martial music of drums, trumpets, and attaballs; and experience has proved, that the mechanical operation of sounds, by quickening the circulation of the blood and spirits, will act on the human machine more forcibly than the eloquence of reason and honour. From the lines, the galleys, and the bridge, the Ottoman artillery thundered on all sides; and the camp and city, the Byzantines and the Turks, were involved in a cloud of smoke which could only be dispelled by the final deliverance or destruction of the Roman empire. The single combats of the heroes of history or fable amuse our fancy and engage our affections, the skilful evolutions of war may inform the mind, and improve a necessary, though pernicious, science. But in the uniform and odious pictures of a general assault, all is blood, and horror, and confusion nor shall I strive, at the distance of three centuries, and a thousand miles, to delineate a scene of which there could be no spectators, and of which the actors themselves were incapable of forming any just or adequate idea.

The death of the Last Roman Emperor

The immediate loss of Constantinople may be ascribed to the bullet, or arrow, which pierced the gauntlet of John Justiniani. The sight of his blood, and the exquisite pain, appalled the courage of the chief, whose arms and counsels were the firmest rampart of the city. As he withdrew from his station in quest of a surgeon, his flight was perceived and stopped by the indefatigable emperor.

“Your wound,” exclaimed Constantine, “is slight; the danger is pressing: your presence is necessary; and whither will you retire?” — “I will retire,” said the trembling Genoese, “by the same road which God has opened to the Turks;”

And at these words he hastily passed through one of the breaches of the inner wall. By this cowardliness act he stained the honours of a military life; and the few days which he survived in Galata, or the Isle of Chios, were embittered by his own and the public reproach.  His example was imitated by the greatest part of the Latin auxiliaries, and the defence began to slacken when the attack was pressed with redoubled vigour. The number of the Ottomans was fifty, perhaps a hundred, times superior to that of the Christians; the double walls were reduced by the cannon to a heap of ruins: in a circuit of several miles, some places must be found more easy of access, or more feebly guarded; and if the besiegers could penetrate in a single point, the whole city was irrecoverably lost. The first who deserved the sultan’s reward was Hassan the Janizary, of gigantic stature and strength. With his cimeter in one hand and his buckler in the other, he ascended the outward fortification: of the thirty Janizaries, who were emulous of his valour, eighteen perished in the bold adventure. Hassan and his twelve companions had reached the summit: the giant was precipitated from the rampart: he rose on one knee, and was again oppressed by a shower of darts and stones. But his success had proved that the achievement was possible: the walls and towers were instantly covered with a swarm of Turks; and the Byzantines, now driven from the vantage ground, were overwhelmed by increasing multitudes. Amidst these multitudes, the emperor, who accomplished all the duties of a general and a soldier, was long seen and finally lost. The nobles, who fought round his person, sustained, till their last breath, the honourable names of Palaeologus and Cantacuzene: his mournful exclamation was heard, “Cannot there be found a Christian to cut off my head?”  and his last fear was that of falling alive into the hands of the infidels.  The prudent despair of Constantine cast away the purple: amidst the tumult he fell by an unknown hand, and his body was buried under a mountain of the slain. After his death, resistance and order were no more: the Byzantines fled towards the city; and many were pressed and stifled in the narrow pass of the gate of St. Romanus. The victorious Turks rushed through the breaches of the inner wall; and as they advanced into the streets, they were soon joined by their brethren, who had forced the gate Phenar on the side of the harbour.  In the first heat of the pursuit, about two thousand Christians were put to the sword; but avarice soon prevailed over cruelty; and the victors acknowledged, that they should immediately have given quarter if the valour of the emperor and his chosen bands had not prepared them for a similar opposition in every part of the capital. It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan, and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mehmed II. Her empire only had been subverted by the Latins: her religion was trampled in the dust by the Muslim conquerors.

The horrors the befell the city of Constantinople as the Roman Empire Fell

The tidings of misfortune fly with a rapid wing; yet such was the extent of Constantinople, that the more distant quarters might prolong, some moments, the happy ignorance of their ruin. But in the general consternation, in the feelings of selfish or social anxiety, in the tumult and thunder of the assault, a sleepless night and morning must have elapsed; nor can I believe that many Grecian ladies were awakened by the Janizaries from a sound and tranquil slumber. On the assurance of the public calamity, the houses and convents were instantly deserted; and the trembling inhabitants flocked together in the streets, like a herd of timid animals, as if accumulated weakness could be productive of strength, or in the vain hope, that amid the crowd each individual might be safe and invisible. From every part of the capital, they flowed into the church of St. Sophia: in the space of an hour, the sanctuary, the choir, the nave, the upper and lower galleries, were filled with the multitudes of fathers and husbands, of women and children, of priests, monks, and religious virgins: the doors were barred on the inside, and they sought protection from the sacred dome, which they had so lately abhorred as a profane and polluted edifice. Mehmed II had promised to his soldiers three days to plunder the city, to which they were entitled. Soldiers fought over the possession of some of the spoils of war. According to the Venetian surgeon Nicolò Barbaro “all through the day the Turks made a great slaughter of Christians through the city”. According to Philip Mansel, widespread persecution of the city’s civilian inhabitants took place, resulting in thousands of murders and rapes and 30,000 civilians being enslaved or forcibly deported. The looting was extremely thorough in certain parts of the city. Weeks later on 2 June, the Sultan would find the city largely deserted and half in ruins; churches had been desecrated and stripped, houses were no longer habitable and stores and shops were emptied. He is famously reported to have been moved to tears by this, speaking “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction.




Leave a Reply