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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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Constantine XI (1449-53) and the capture of Constantinople.

        The territory which recognized the power of the last Byzantine emperor was confined to Constantinople with its nearest environs in Thrace, and the major part of the Peloponnesus or Morea at some distance from the capital, and governed by the Emperor’s brothers.

        Honesty, generosity, energy, valor, and love of country were Constantine’s characteristics, vouched for by many Greek sources of his time and by his own conduct during the siege of Constantinople. An Italian humanist, Francesco Filelfo, who during his stay at Constantinople, knew Constantine personally before his ascension to the throne, in one of his letters calls the Emperor a man “of pious and lofty spirit (pio et excelso animo).”[197]

        The strong and terrible adversary of Constantine was Muhammed II, twenty-one years old, who combined rude outbursts of harsh cruelty, blood-thirstiness, and many of the baser vices, with an interest in science, art, and education, energy, and the talents of a general, statesman, and organizer. A Byzantine historian relates that he occupied himself enthusiastically with the sciences, especially astrology, read the tales of the deeds of Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar, and the emperors of Constantinople, and spoke five languages besides Turkish.[198] Oriental sources praise his piety, justice, clemency, and protection of scholars and poets. Historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries vary in their estimation of Muhammed II; they range from denying him all positive qualities[199] to acknowledging him as a man of genius.[200] The desire to conquer Constantinople was an obsession with the young sultan, who, as the historian Ducas said, “by night and day, going to bed and getting up, within his palace and without, turned over and over in his mind the military actions and means by which he might take possession of Constantinople.” He spent sleepless nights drawing on paper the plan of the city and its fortifications, pointing out the places where it could be most easily attacked.[201]

        The pictures of both these adversaries survive, those of Constantine Palaeologus on seals and in some later manuscripts,[202] and those of Muhammed II on the medals struck by Italian artists in the fifteenth century in honor of the sultan and in some portraits, particularly one painted by the famous Venetian artist, Gentile Bellini, who spent a short time (in 1479-80) at Constantinople at the end of the reign of Muhammed.[203]

        Having decided to deal the final blow to Constantinople, Muhammed set to work with extreme circumspection. First of all, north of the city, on the European shore of the Bosphorus, at its narrowest point, he built a powerful stronghold with towers, the majestic remnants of which are still to be seen (Rumeli-Hisar); the guns placed there hurled stone cannon balls which were enormous for the time.

        When the erection of the stronghold on the Bosphorus was known, there came from the Christian population of the capital, Asia, Thrace, and the islands, from all directions, as Ducas said, exclamations of despair. “Now the end of the city has come; now we see the signs of the ruin of our race; now the days of Antichrist are at hand; what is to become of us or what have we to do? ... Where are the saints who protect the city?”[204] Another contemporary and eyewitness, who lived through all the horrors of the siege of Constantinople, the author of the precious Journal of the Siege, a Venetian, Nicolò Barbaro, wrote, “This fortification is exceedingly strong from the sea, so that it is absolutely impossible to capture it, for on the shore and walls are; standing bombards in very great number; on the land side the fortification is also strong, though less so than from the sea.”[205] This stronghold put an end to the communication of the capital with the north and the ports of the Black Sea, for all foreign vessels, both on entering and leaving the Bosphorus, were intercepted by the Turks, in case of siege Constantinople would be deprived of the supply of corn from the ports of the Black Sea. It was very easy for the Turks to carry out these measures, because, opposite the European stronghold, there towered on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus the fortifications which had been built at the end of the fourteenth century by the Sultan Bayazid (Anatoli-Hisar). Next Muhammed invaded the Greek possessions in Morea, in order to prevent the Despot of Morea from coming to the aid of Constantinople in case of emergency. After these preliminary steps Muhammed, this “pagan enemy of the Christian people,”[206] to quote Barbaro, began the siege of the great city.

        Constantine made every possible effort adequately to meet his powerful adversary in the unequal struggle whose result, one may say, was foreordained. The Emperor had all possible corn supplies from the environs of the capital brought into the city and some repairs made on the city walls. The Greek garrison of the city numbered only a few thousands. Seeing the coming fatal danger, Constantine appealed to the West for help; but instead of the desired military support, a Roman cardinal, Greek by origin, Isidore, the former metropolitan of Moscow and participator in the Council of Florence, arrived in Constantinople, and in commemoration of the restored peace between the Eastern and Western churches, celebrated a union service in St. Sophia, which aroused the greatest agitation in the city population. One of the most prominent dignitaries of Byzantium, Lucas Notaras, uttered his famous words, “It is better to see in the city the power of the Turkish turban than that of the Latin tiara.”[207]

        The Venetians and Genoese took part in the defense of the capital. Constantine and the population of the city relied especially on a Genoese noble of great military reputation, John (Giovanni) Giustiniani, who arrived in Constantinople with two large vessels bringing seven hundred fighting men. Access to the Golden Horn was barred, as had already happened several times at dangerous moments in the past, by a massive iron chain. The remains of this chain, it was supposed, could be seen until recently in the Byzantine church of St. Irene, where the Ottoman Military-Historical Museum is now established.[208]

        The military forces of Muhammed on land and sea which consisted, besides the Turks, of the representatives of different peoples whom he had conquered, largely exceeded the modest number of the defenders of Constantinople, the Greeks and some Latins, particularly Italians.

        One of the most important events in all world history was imminent. The very fact of Turkish siege and capture of the “City protected by God,” Constantinople, left a deep mark in the sources, which, in various languages and from different points of view, described the last moments of the Byzantine Empire and allow one to follow, sometimes literally by days and hours, the development of the last act of this thrilling historical drama. The sources which exist are written in Greek, Latin, Italian, Slavonic, and Turkish.

        The chief Greek sources vary in their estimation of the event. George Phrantzes, who participated in the siege, an intimate friend of the last Emperor, and a very well-known diplomat, who held high offices in the Empire, was full of boundless love for his Emperor-hero and for the house of the Palaeologi in general, and was opposed to the union of the Churches; he described the last days of Byzantium in order to restore the honor of the vanquished Constantine, his abused country, and the insulted Greek Orthodox faith. Another contemporary writer, the Greek Critobulus, who had passed over to the Turks and wished to prove his devotion to Muhammed II, dedicated his history, which shows strongly the influence of Thucydides, to the “greatest emperor, king of kings, Mehemet”;[209] he related the last days of Byzantium from the point of view of a subject of the new Ottoman Empire, though he did not attack his Greek countrymen. A Greek of Asia Minor, Ducas, a supporter of the union, in which he saw the only means of security for the Empire, wrote from a standpoint favorable to the West, especially stressed the services and merits of the Genoese commander, Giustiniani, rather belittled the role of Constantine, but at the same time wrote not without love and pity for the Greeks. Finally, the fourth Greek historian of the last period of Byzantium, the only Athenian in Byzantine literature, Laonikos Chalco-condyles (or Chalcondyles), choosing as the main topic of his history not Byzantium, but the Turkish Empire, took a new and vast theme to describe — “the extraordinary evolution of the might of the young Ottoman Empire which was rising on the ruins of the Greek, Frankish, and Slavonic states;”[210] in other words, his work is general in character. Since, in addition to that, Laonikos was not an eyewitness of the last days of Constantinople, it has only secondary significance. Among the most valuable sources written in Latin were several by authors who lived through the whole time of the siege at Constantinople. One was the appeal To All the Faithful of Christ (Ad universos Christifideles de expugnatione Constantinopolis) written by Cardinal Isidore, who narrowly escaped Turkish captivity. He begged all Christians to rise up in arms to defend the perishing Christian faith. The report to the pope of the archbishop of Chios, Leonard, who also escaped Turkish captivity, interpreted the great distress which had befallen Byzantium as a punishment for the Greekssecession from the Catholic faith. Finally, a poem in verse, in four stanzas, “Constantinopolis,” was composed by an Italian, Pusculus, who spent some time in Turkish captivity. He was an imitator of Virgil and to a certain extent of Homer. A zealous Catholic, he dedicated his poem to the pope and was, like Leonard, convinced that God had punished Byzantium for its schism.

        Italian sources have given us the priceless Journal of the siege of Constantinople, written in the old Venetian dialect in a dry business style, by a noble Venetian, Nicolò Barbaro. He enumerated day by day the conflicts between the Greeks and Turks during the siege, and his work is therefore of the greatest importance for the reconstruction of the chronology of the siege.

        In old Russian an important history of the capture of Tsargrad, “this great and terrible deed,” was written by the “unworthy and humble Nestor Iskinder” (Iskander).[211] Probably a Russian by origin, he fought in the sultan’s army and described truthfully and, as far as possible, day by day, the actions of the Turks during the siege and after the fall of the city. The story of the fall of Constantinople is also related in various Russian chronicles.

        Finally, there are Turkish sources estimating the great event from the point of view of triumphant and victorious Islam and its brilliant representative, Muhammed II the Conqueror. Sometimes Turkish sources offer a collection of Turkish popular legends about Constantinople and the Bosphorus.[212]

        This enumeration of the chief sources shows what rich and various information exists for the study of the problem of the siege and capture of Constantinople by the Turks.

        At the beginning of April, 1453, the siege of the great city began. It was not only the incomparably greater military forces of the Turks that contributed to the success of the siege. Muhammed II, called by Barbaro, “this perfidious Turk, dog-Turk,”[213] was the first sovereign in history who had at his disposal a real park of artillery. The perfected Turkish bronze cannons, of gigantic size for that time, hurled to a great distance enormous stone shots, whose destructive blows the old walls of Constantinople could not resist. The Russian tale of Tsargrad states that “the wretched Muhammedconveyed close to the city wallscannons, arquebuses, towers, ladders, siege machinery, and other wall-battering devices.”[214] The contemporary Greek historian, Critobulus, had a good understanding of the decisive role of artillery when he wrote that all the saps made by the Turks under the walls and their subterraneous passagesproved to be superfluous and involved only useless expense, as cannons decided everything.”[215]

        In the second half of the nineteenth century, in several places of Stamboul, one might still see on the ground the huge cannon shots which had hurtled over the walls and were lying in nearly the same places in which they had fallen in 1453. On April 20 the only piece of good fortune for the Christians in the whole siege took place: the four Genoese vessels which had come to the aid of Constantinople, defeated the Turkish fleet in spite of its far superior numbers. “One may easily imagine,” wrote a recent historian of the siege and capture of the Byzantine capital, Schlumberger, “the indescribable joy of the Greeks and Italians. For a moment Constantinople considered itself saved.”[216] But this success, of course, could have no real importance for the outcome of the siege.

        On April 22 the city with the Emperor at its head was struck by an extraordinary and terrifying spectacle: the Turkish vessels were in the upper part of the Golden Horn. During the preceding night the sultan had succeeded in transporting the vessels from the Bosphorus by land into the Golden Horn; for this purpose a kind of wooden platform had been specially made in the valley between the hills, and the vessels were put on wheels and dragged over the platform by the exertions of a great number of “canaille,” according to Barbaro,[217] who were at the sultan’s disposal. The Greco-Italian fleet stationed in the Golden Horn beyond the chain was thereafter between two fires. The condition of the city became critical. The plan of the besieged garrison to burn the Turkish vessels in the Golden Horn at night was treacherously revealed to the sultan and prevented.

        Meanwhile the heavy bombardment of the city, which did not cease for several weeks, brought the population to the point of complete exhaustion; men, women, children, priests, monks, and nuns were compelled, day and night, under cannon fire, to repair the numerous breaches in the walls. The siege had already lasted for fifty days. The tidings which reached the sultan, perhaps especially invented, of the possible arrival of a Christian fleet to aid the city, induced him to hasten the decisive blow to Constantinople. Imitating the famous orations in the history of Thucydides, Critobulus even gave the speech of Muhammed to the troops appealing to their courage and firmness; in this speech the sultan declared, “There are three conditions for successful war: to want (victory), to be ashamed (of dishonor, defeat), and to obey the leaders.”[218] The assault was fixed for the night of May 29.

        The old capital of the Christian East, anticipating the inevitable catastrophe and aware of the coming assault, spent the eve of the great day in prayer and tears. Upon the Emperor’s order, religious processions followed by an enormous multitude of people singingO Lord, have mercy on us,” passed along the city walls. Men encouraged one another to offer a stubborn resistance to the Turks at the last hour of battle. In his long speech quoted by the Greek historian, Phrantzes,[219] Constantine incited the people to a valorous defense, but he clearly realized their doom when he said that the Turks “are supported by guns, cavalry, infantry, and their numerical superiority, but we rely on the name of the Lord our God and Saviour, and, secondly, on our hands and the strength which has been granted us by the power of God.”[220] Constantine ended his speech thus: “I persuade and beg your love to accord adequate honor and obedience to your chiefs, everyone according to his rank, his military position, and service. Know this: if you sincerely observe all that I have commanded you, I hope that, with the aid of God, we shall avoid the just punishment sent by God.”[221] In the evening of the same day service was celebrated in St. Sophia, the last Christian ceremony in the famous church. On the basis of Byzantine sources an English historian, E. Pears, gave a striking picture of this ceremony:


The great ceremony of the evening and one that must always stand out among the world’s historic spectacles was the last Christian service held in the church of Holy Wisdom … The emperor and such of the leaders as could be spared were present and the building was once more and for the last time crowded with Christian worshippers. It requires no great effort of imagination to picture the scene. The interior of the church was the most beautiful which Christian art had produced, and its beauty was enhanced by its still gorgeous fittings. Patriarch and cardinal, the crowd of ecclesiastics representing both the Eastern and Western churches; emperor and nobles, the last remnant of the once gorgeous and brave Byzantine aristocracy; priests and soldiers intermingled; Constantinopolitans, Venetians and Genoese, all were present, all realizing the peril before them, and feeling that in view of the impending danger the rivalries which had occupied them for years were too small to be worthy of thought. The emperor and his followers partook together of “the undefiled and divine mysteries,” and said farewell to the patriarch. The ceremony was in reality a liturgy of death. The empire was in its agony and it was fitting that the service for its departing spirit should be thus publicly said in its most beautiful church and before its last brave emperor. If the scene so vividly described by Mr. Bryce of the coronation of Charles the Great and the birth of an empire is among the most picturesque in history, that of the last Christian service in St. Sophia is surely among the most tragic.[222]


Phrantzes wrote: “Who will tell of the tears and groans in the palace! Even a man of wood or stone could not help weeping.”[223]

        The general assault began on Tuesday night between one and two oclock of May 28-29. At the given signal, the city was attacked simultaneously on three sides. Two attacks were repulsed. Finally, Muhammed organized very carefully the third and last attack. With particular violence the Turks attacked the walls close to the St. Romanus gate (or Pempton) where the Emperor was fighting. One of the chief defenders of the city, the Genoese Giustiniani, seriously wounded, was forced to abandon the battle; he was transported with difficulty to a vessel which succeeded in leaving the harbor for the Island of Chios. Either there or on the journey there Giustiniani died. His tomb is still preserved in Chios, but the Latin epitaph formerly in the church of S. Dominic in the citadel has apparently disappeared.[224]

        The departure and death of Giustiniani was an irreparable loss to the besieged. In the walls more and more new breaches opened. The Emperor fought heroically as a simple soldier and fell in battle. No exact information exists about the death of the last Byzantine Emperor; for this reason his death soon became the subject of a legend which has obscured the historical fact.

        After Constantine’s death, the Turks rushed into the city inflicting terrible devastation. A great multitude of Greeks took refuge in St. Sophia, hoping for safety there. But the Turks broke in the entrance gate and poured into the church; they murdered and insulted the Greeks who were hiding there, without distinction of sex or age. The day of the capture of the city, or perhaps the next day, the sultan solemnly entered conquered Constantinople, and went into St. Sophia, where he offered up a Muhammedan prayer. Thereupon Muhammed took up his residence in the imperial palace of Blachernae.

        According to the unanimous indication of the sources, the pillage of the city, as Muhammed had promised his soldiers, lasted for three days and three nights. The population was mercilessly murdered. The churches, with St. Sophia at the head, and the monasteries with all their wealth were robbed and polluted; private property was plundered. In these fatal days an innumerable mass of cultural material perished. Books were burnt or torn to pieces, trodden upon or sold for practically nothing. According to the statement of Ducas, an enormous number of books were loaded upon carts and scattered through various countries; a great number of books, the works of Aristotle and Plato, books of theology, and many others, were sold for one gold coin; the gold and silver which adorned the beautifully bound Gospels was torn off, and the Gospels themselves were either sold or thrown away; all the holy images were burnt, and the Turks ate meat boiled on the fire.[225] Nevertheless, some scholars, for example Th. Uspensky, believe that “the Turks in 1453 acted with more mildness and humanity than the crusaders who had seized Constantinople in 1204.”[226]

        A popular Christian tradition relates that at the moment of the appearance of the Turks in St. Sophia the liturgy was being celebrated; when the priest who held the holy sacrament saw the Muslims rush into the church, the altar wall miraculously opened before him and he entered it and disappeared; when Constantinople passes again into the hands of the Christians, the priest will come out from the wall and continue the liturgy.

        About sixty years ago the local guides used to show tourists, in one of the remote places of Stamboul, a tomb purporting to be that of the last Byzantine Emperor, over which a simple oil lamp was burning. But of course this nameless tomb is not really that of Constantine; his burial place is unknown. In 1895 E. A. Grosvenor wrote, “Today, in the quarter of Abou Vefa in Stamboul, may be seen a lowly, nameless grave which the humble Greeks revere as that of Constantine. Timid devotion has strewn around it a few rustic ornaments. Candles were kept burning night and day at its side. Till eight years ago it was frequented, though secretly, as a place of prayer. Then the Ottoman Government interposed with severe penalties, and it has since been almost deserted. All this is but in keeping with the tales which delight the credulous or devout.”[227]

        It has usually been said that two days after the fall of Constantinople a western relief fleet arrived in the Archipelago, and learning the tidings of the fall of the city immediately sailed back again. On the basis of some new evidence, at the present time this fact is denied: neither papal vessels nor Genoese nor Aragonese sailed to the East in support of Constantinople.[228]

        In 1456 Muhammed conquered Athens from the Franks;[229] shortly after all Greece with the Peloponnesus submitted to him. The ancient Parthenon, in the Middle Ages the church of the Holy Virgin, was, on the sultan’s order, turned into a mosque. In 1461 the far-off Trebizond, capital of the once independent Empire, passed into the hands of the Turks. At the same time they took possession of the remnants of the Despotat of Epirus, The orthodox Byzantine Empire ceased to exist, and on its site the Muhammedan Ottoman (Othman) Empire was established and grew. Its capital was transferred from Hadrianople to Constantinople, which was called by the Turks Istamboul (Stamboul).[230]

        Ducas, imitating the “lamentation” of Nicetas Acominatus after the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204, bewailed the event of 1453. He began his lamentation:


O, city, city, head of all cities! O, city, city, center of the four quarters of the world! O, city, city, pride of the Christians and ruin of the barbarians! O, city, city, second paradise planted in the West, including all sorts of plants bending under the burden of spiritual fruits! Where is thy beauty, O, paradise? Where is the blessed strength of spirit and body of thy spiritual Graces? Where are the bodies of the Apostles of my Lord? Where are the relics of the saints, where are the relics of the martyrs? Where is the corpse of the great Constantine and other Emperors…[231]


Another contemporary, the Polish historian Jan Diugosz, wrote in his History of Poland:


This Constantinopolitan defeat, both miserable and deplorable, was the enormous victory of the Turks, the extreme ruin of the Greeks, the infamy of the Latins; through it the Catholic faith was wounded, religion confused, the name of Christ reviled and oppressed. One of the two eyes of Christianity was plucked out; one of the two hands was amputated, since the libraries were burnt down and the doctrines of Greek literature destroyed, without which no one considers himself a learned man.[232]


A far-off Georgian chronicler remarked piously, “On the day when the Turks took Constantinople, the sun was darkened.”[233]

        The fall of Constantinople made a terrible impression upon western Europe, which first of all was seized with dismay at the thought of the future advances of the Turks. Moreover, the ruin of one of the chief centers of Christianity, schismatic though it was from the point of view of the Catholic Church, could not fail to arouse among the faithful of the West anger, horror, and zeal to repair the situation. Popes, sovereigns, bishops, princes, and knights left many epistles and letters portraying the whole horror of the situation and appealing for a crusade against victorious Islam and its representative, Muhammed II, this “precursor of Antichrist and second Sennacherib.”[234] In many letters the ruin of Constantinople was lamented as that of a center of culture. In his appeal to Pope Nicholas V the western emperor, Frederick III, calling the fall of Constantinople “a general disaster to the Christian faith,” wrote that Constantinople was “a real abode [velut domicilium proprium] of literature and studies of all humanity.”[235] Cardinal Bessarion, mourning the fall of the city, called it “a school of the best arts” (gymnasium optimarum artium).[236] The famous Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, calling to mind numberless books in Byzantium which were still unknown to the Latins, styled the Turkish conquest of the city the second death of Homer and Plato.[237] Some writers named the Turks Teucrians (Teucri), considering them the descendants of the old Trojans, and warned Europe of the sultan’s plans to attack Italy, which allured him “by its wealth and by the tombs of his Trojan ancestors.”[238] On one hand, various epistles of the fifth decade of the fifteenth century said that “the Sultan, like Julian the Apostate, will be finally forced to recognize the victory of Christ”; that Christianity, doubtless, is strong enough to have no fear of the Turks; that “a strong expedition” [valida expeditio] will be ready and the Christians will be able to defeat the Turks and “drive them out of Europe” (fugare extra Europam). But, on the other hand, some epistles anticipated the great difficulties in the coming struggle with the Turks and the chief cause of these difficulties — the discord among the Christians themselves, “a spectacle which inspires the Sultan with courage.”[239] Enea Silvio Piccolomini gave in one of his letters an excellent and true picture of the Christian interrelations in the West at that time. He wrote:


I do not hope for what I want. Christianity has no longer a head: neither Pope nor Emperor is adequately esteemed or obeyed; they are treated as fictitious names and painted figures. Each city has a king of its own; there are as many princes as houses. How might one persuade the numberless Christian rulers to take up arms? Look upon Christianity! Italy, you say, is pacified. I do not know to what extent. The remains of war still exist between the King of Aragon and the Genoese. The Genoese will not fight the Turks: they are said to pay tribute to them! The Venetians have made a treaty with the Turks. If the Italians do not take part, we cannot hope for maritime war. In Spain, as you know, there are many kings of different power, different policy, different will, and different ideas; but these sovereigns who live in the far West can not be attracted to the East, especially when they are fighting with the Moors of Granada. The King of France has expelled his enemy from his kingdom; but he is still in trouble, and will not dare to send his knights beyond the borders of his kingdom for fear of a sudden landing of the English. As far as the English are concerned, they think only of taking revenge for their expulsion from France. Scotch, Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, who live at the end of the world, seek nothing beyond their countries. The Germans are greatly divided and have nothing to unify them.”[240]


Neither the appeals of popes and sovereigns, nor the lofty impulse of individuals and groups, nor the consciousness of common danger before the Ottoman menace could weld disunited western Europe for the struggle with Islam. The Turks continued to advance, and at the end of the seventeenth century they threatened Vienna. That was the climax of the might of the Ottoman Empire. They were turned back from Europe, but Constantinople, it is well known, even today is in the hands of the Turks.


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