May 29, 2011

Why Constantinople Fell

Michael Koumenides
May 29, 2011

On the 29th of May we mark the 558th year since the fall of Constantinople, the Golden Apple. Still, many questions linger. Specifically, why did Mehmed II succeed in taking Constantinople when so many before him had failed? The end of the city has become a point of marked importance in Greek culture and signifies the beginning of a period of enslavement and poverty in the Greek psyche. Why did Constantinople fall?

The Siege of Constantinople was successful for several reasons. Some have their roots stemming hundreds of years, others more current and finite. Following the Fourth Crusade the Byzantine Empire had been in a weakened position. Since the recovery of the capital from Venetian rule, Constantinople was unable to regain its former importance. The Palaeologos dynasty would never bring the Byzantine Empire back to its former strength and was under constant pressure from several different groups in the Balkans and Asia Minor. The city itself was under populated and financially incapable of funding a prolonged struggle. The wealthiest districts of the city belonged to the Latin traders, whilst the Greek population was relatively poor. Relations between Constantinople and the West had been souring since the Fourth Crusade and had reached a low point prior to the siege of 1453. The Council of Florence organized to unite the Christian world, instead served to highlight distrust and misunderstanding between the Greeks and Latins. Venetian relations with the city remained strong, yet confronting the Turks without a united Christian force was undesirable. Equally, the advances and unique style of attack conducted by Mehmed demonstrated an evolution in Ottoman warfare with a combination of siege tactics utilized to pressure the defenders into capitulation. These factors combined at a crucial point in 1453 to signal the fall of Constantinople.

The account of Sylvester Syropoulos indicates the extent to which relations had soured between the Latin and Greek worlds prior to the siege. The pressure for Union between the Churches made many Greeks feel that it was being forced. Union with the Catholic Church became synonymous with aid in Byzantium’s bleak foreign affairs. This pressure aggravated many individuals within Constantinople. Syropoulos was an anti-unionist and writes an account in this light. Sylvester portrays an Emperor who was encouraging union with the Latin Church as a means of protecting The Orthodox Church. However Sylvester and the Patriarch were not of the same opinion regarding union. Anti-unionists ike himself viewed any union as the beginning of the end for Orthodoxy. They saw union of the Church as a submission to the pope. In Syropoulos’ account, the Despot of the Peloponnese requests to depart for Venice in the middle of a council formed to discuss union. the despot is clearly doing this as a form of protest. Before leaving for Venice the Despot made a speech to the council declaring that, if forced to disregard spiritual matters, the union would benefit Byzantium’s secular world. It is conceivable that historical as well as contemporary matters created a deep distrust and dislike of the Latin and Catholic world in Constantinople. Union would offer materialistic and political gains; anti-Unionists and the Despot feared the spiritual and cultural repercussions.[1]

Arguably, an equal distrust existed in the Latin world towards the Greeks. The accounts of travelers to the Byzantine Empire by Latin officials display a similar dislike and misunderstanding. Bertrandon , a Frankish spy, arrived in Constantinople dressed as a Turk and was kindly received. Once discovered to be Catholic he was held up to pay a larger sum for his passage. He concieved that the Greek hatred for the Catholic faith was almost violent and openly wrote this particular passage as a warning to Catholic travelers to the City[2]. Latin dislike and mistrust of the Greeks is evident in his account which takes place four years prior to the Council in Florence which sought to unify the Christian churches. Severe disputes with Constantinople’s traditional allies in the west left the Empire in a particularly fragile position. Furthermore, the inherent cultural differences since the schism between Christianity was magnified when in the context of a theological dispute.

The fragility of Constantinople however stemmed from the Fourth Crusade. The event had devastated the city. Economically, politically and culturally Constantinople was never capable of recovering that loss. Other travelers describe an under populated city in decay. Only the large Latin sectors of the city, established for trade purposes, flourished. The Greeks are described as populating several poor villages within the Theodosian walls, outside of the centre. Pero Tafur recounts the Emperors description of the devastation experienced by the Fourth Crusade, particularly due to the Venetians. He describes the theft of many great objects and relics shipped to Venice during their seventy-year control of the Golden Apple. Notably, the four great brass horses of St. Marks were removed from Constantinople and brought to their dominion as its crowning jewel.[3] This pillaging of the cities riches and the general state of the city after the crusade indicates that Constantinople during this siege was but a shadow of its former glory. Consistent Ottoman attacks had also brought the city to its knees. The Turkish siege thirty years prior by Murad had ended with a humiliated treaty signed by the Emperor and insuring the vassalage of the City to the Turks.[4] Most of the Emperors traditional subjects in mainland Greece and Asia minor were also mostly under Turkish or Latin control. The maneuverability of the Emperor at this point in Byzantine history was slight. All that remained of the Empire was its capital.

The cities population density was obviously and notably low. The Latin traveller Clavijo observes the vast size of the cities walls and the many hills within the city. Within the walls most is covered with farmland rather than an urban sprawling. The city had the impression of an under populated metropolis with many sectors of the city in ruin and disuse. Bertrandon also provides an accurate yet blunt description of Constantinople as made up of villages with more open then built up areas. Pero Tafur, a Spaniard ,describes the emperor’s palace within Constantinople as being in good condition where as the portions of the city surrounding it were modest and poor by comparison.[5] This in general portrays a picture of Constantinople that is in decline rather than in a position to defend itself against a well financed, armed and organized Turkish force. Additionally, the Osman Turks were experiencing an economic and political ascent that the Theodosian walls would not withstand.

However, had the Venetian senate been earlier informed, The Byzantine Empire may have survived the struggle. According to Venetian senatorial records, a fleet was mobilized to come to the aid of Constantinople but didn’t organize in time to save the besieged City. The Venetians even began informing other Christian powers of their intention to help Constantinople and demanded their assistance. The preparations in Venice lagged behind the escalating situation in Constantinople. It was only after the 17th of April that the fleet could set sail for Constantinople. Distant communication between the cities facilitated the Sutan. Furthermore, Venice’s willingness to go to war was questionable. According to senatorial records Venice dispatched ambassadors to land in Greece and negotiate with the Sultan. The emphasis of the meetings was on Venice’s peaceful intentions and the state of Venetian trade in the emerging Ottoman Empire.[6] Thus, the intentions of Venice towards Constantinople demonstrate that the republic was willing to help but was constrained by the speed to which Constantinople capitulated and the resources required to counter Mehmed’s forces.

The Ottoman story was one of a slow and consistent ascent. By 1350 Ottoman Turks formed the bulk of Asia Minors population and many Turks even remained within Byzantine territory. By 1387 the Ottomans had captured the crucial city of Thessaloniki in the Balkans and established themselves in mainland Greece. By the time of the siege of 1453, Constantinople was almost entirely encircled by the Turkish invaders. Still, this siege would demand a break from previous Ottoman attempts to take the city in order to succeed. The revolutionary changes in Ottoman warfare impemented by Mehmed II was to tip the scaled in favour of the Easterners. Mehmed’s use of artillery, mining, and naval force was devastating. Mehmed’s evolutionary tactics are apparent in Ottoman gunpowder technology. Mehmed focused on artillery more in this siege than any other Ottoman sultan and arguably believed it to be crucial to the capitulation of the City. Building one of the largest cannons in the world. Kritovoulos, a Greek historian under the service of the Sultan , describes all sorts of artillery machines of various sizes and of impressive engineering, commissioned by Mehmed.[7] Though these artillery weapons were impressive and intimidating they were not the key element in defeat of the City. The cannons bombarded the walls with questionable effectiveness. The defenders quickly devised methods to counter these bombardments. Doukas recounts that the defenders mounted their own cannons to offset the Ottomans artillery and other histories highlight the ineffectiveness of Ottoman cannons.[8] However, it is evident that Mehmed was serious and unique in his planning and preparation for this endeavor. Multiple siege tactics were simultaneous employed effectively.

Strategic mining under the Theodosian walls was a constant threat to the defenders of the City; counter mining was always in operation. Barbaro describes one Ottoman tunnel found near the Emperor’s palace in Calegaria. The mine was successfully collapsed by the efforts of the defenders, killing all but two attackers. Barbaro describes how these intruders were captured and tortured for information before being killed.[9] The successes of Ottoman mining operations are questionable. Yet they do indicate that artillery was not the sole focus of Mehmed’s tactics. Mining was as important, if not ,more important than artillery warfare. Leonard of Chios states that although the Sultan was “battering the walls with his cannons; he paid even more attentions to stealing into the city through subterranean tunnels. He ordered the Chief miners whom he had brought from Novo Brod to be sent.”[10] Tunneling was a prominent scenario of warfare in the siege of 1453 and one of the methods along with artillery used to slowly wear down the defenders both psychologically and physically.

Crucially, unlike other Ottoman sieges, naval superiority was clearly on the side of the Ottomans. The exact number of ships is uncertain, Barbaro gages the fleet at one hundred and forty five strong, comprising of several different types. The ships anchored north of the city at the Columns.[11] The Turkish clearly overwhelmed and outnumbered the aging Byzantine ships docked in the Golden Horn. Any naval counter offensive was difficult at best. Barbaro, docked in the harbour during the siege, and other account do describe singular events where a Christian ship was able to escape or dock in the Golden horn. Yet, an effective naval counter offensive was out of the question.[12]Ottoman naval superiority cut off Constantinople completely from its trade partners in the Black seas and from the possibility of relief or aid from the Latin West. The Golden Horn had historically been sealed by a long chain comprising of metal and Wood stretching across from Constantinople to Pera on the other side. Even the chain that sealed off the Golden Horn was surmounted by Ottoman cunning and engineering. The Ottomans hoisted their ships behind Pera and into the harbor with speed and organization, Barbaro suggest nearly seventy odd ships.[13]

The final victory of the Turks does not occur due to one of the multitude of methods above, but due to the abandoning of its defensive posts. Gustiniani, a Genoese commander in charge of the land defenses, was either injured or merely abandoned his post on the Wall. Their leader in flight, the men at Gustiniani’s section of the wall defenses began to flee. This weakness in the walls was discovered by the Ottomans and is eventually overrun by the attackers. Leonard of Chios , a Greek chronicler, describes that Gustiniani is hit in the armpit by an arrow and had it not been for his forced retreat the city would not have been lost.[14] This scenario creates the impression that the defenders simply could not handle the duration and degree of Ottoman pressure.

Mehmed successfully pressured every aspect of the city through these siege methods. Not one specific aspect of the siege ensured an Ottoman victory, but with the dwindling defenders and the constant pressure from all aspect of the siege, morale and numbers were the defenders worst enemy. The accounts of Barbaro and Leonard of Chios suggest a situation in which the submission of Gustiniani led to the eventual fall of the City. Every other attack Mehmed conceived of was either repelled or endured. The psychological impact and exhaustion experiences by the defenders under the constant bombardments, infantry charges, mining operations and lack of manpower brought the ancient city to its knees. The capability of Constantinople to repulse the Ottomans in its present state of affairs was impossible. Both domestically and abroad Byzantium was constricted. Hope relied on the possibility of a swift and concise Christian crusade. However the antagonistic nature of the Greek-Latin relationship evident in Syropoulos and the Travelers accounts demonstrates the distant nature of that appeal. This reality, combined with Mehmeds serious ambitions for taking the city at a time of Ottoman ascent, rendered it virtually incapable of repelling its eventual capitulation.


[1] Syropoulos, Sylvester, and V. Laurent. Les “Memoires” du Grand Ecclesiarique de l’Eglise de Constantinople Sylvestre Syropoulos sur le concile de Florence 1438-1439. ( Roma: Pontificium Inst. Orientalium Studiorum, 1971.)

[2] Brocquiere, Bertrandon, trans. Galen R. Kline. The Voyage d’Outremer. (New York: P. Lang, 1988.)

[3] Tafur, Pero, and Malcolm Henry Ikin Letts. Travels and Adventures 1435-1439. ( New York: Harper & Bros., 1926.)

[4] Magoulias, Harry J. Decline and fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.)

[5] Clavijo, Ruy. Embassy to Tamerlane, 1403-1406. London: Routledge, 2006.

[6] F. Thiriet, trans, Regeste Des Deliberation du Senat de Venise Concernat la Romanie III,(Paris, Mouton & Co)182.

[7] Riggs, Charles T. History of Mehmed the Conqueror.( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954) 46.

[8] Magoulias, Harry J. Decline and fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.) 83.

[9] Barbaro, NicoloÌo, and J. R. Jones. Diary of the siege of Constantinople, 1453. (New York: Exposition Press, 1969.)

[10] Jones, J. R. Melville. The Siege of Constantinople 1453: Seven Contemporary Accounts. Las Palmas: Hakkert, 1972.) 17.

[11] Barbaro, NicoloÌo, and J. R. Jones. Diary of the siege of Constantinople 1453. (New York: Exposition Press, 1969.)

[12] Ibid,

[13] Ibid,

[14] Jones, J. R. Melville. The Siege of Constantinople 1453: Seven Contemporary Accounts.(Las Palmas: Hakkert, 1972).