Sacking Of Constantinople

Feature, Middle Ages

A Direct Cause of the Rebirth of Learning in Europe

The Renaissance was the whole process whereby Europe passed from a medieval to modern civilization: “the fructifying of the human mind through contact with the classical world of Greece and Rome.” It was the “rebirth of learning”, and especially the study of Greek, which first weakened the rigid conventions of the Middle Ages. In consequence, though such a change as the Renaissance represents cannot be accurately dated, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 can be taken as one of the major, if not the decisive, events marking the transition between the ancient and the modern worlds.

How did Constantinople come to achieve such significance?

By A.D. 270 the once-great Empire of Rome was ready to crumble away owing to internal weakness and dissensions, and the formidable assaults of the Germanic tribes. The final dissolution was prevented, however, by the Emperor Diocletian, at least for the time being.

Diocletian was the greatest political organizer Rome ever had after Augustus. He tried to reconstitute all the imperial institutions in such a manner as to remove a number of sores which were threatening to destroy the body politic. Under his reorganization the Empire was divided into two spheres, an Eastern and a Western.

His successor was Constantine the Great, who, having officially accepted Christianity, deprived Rome of its eminence, and made the new capital of the Empire the famous old Greek city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople, after himself.

This ancient city on the Bosphorus was reconstructed, and in A.D. 330 was solemnly dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was Constantine’s ambition to make his city worthy to be the capital of the Empire, and with that in mind he seized all the art treasures in the principal cities of Greece for its embellishment.

Whereas Byzantium covered only two hills, Constantine’s new city occupied five, and when two more were added a century after his death, Constantinople, like Rome, stood on seven hills.

In 413 this enlarged city was surrounded by a high, fortified wall about thirteen miles long, as the main defence against the barbarians. For a thousand years, Constantinople, more fortunate than Rome, resisted the Goths and bought off the Huns; Belisarius saved it from the Bulgarians; it withstood the Persians for ten years; and it saw the famous Caliph Haroun al-Raschid retire from its walls.

Indeed the city might have claimed impregnability had it not been taken by the Crusaders in 1203, under Baldwin of Flanders. They marred a remarkable military exploit by so ruthlessly sacking the place that many of the choicest specimens of the art of ancient Greece were lost forever. The Venetians alone showed good taste by carrying off the Horses of Lysippus to decorate their great Cathedral of St Mark’s in Venice, where they can still be seen.

The direct consequence of this capture of Constantinople was the establishment of a family of Latin emperors. This family, however, ruled for little more than half a century, and in 1261 the Greeks were restored to the Imperial throne in the person of Michael Palaeologus. It was a descendant of this Michael who, under the title of Constantine XI, nearly two hundred years later, by his failure to defend the city from the Turks, became the last Roman Emperor.

Under the Palaeologus family the city had been restored too much of its outward glory. Proud of their capital in its unique setting, the Palaeologi all added to the magnificence of its buildings and tried by every means to make it otherwise a worthy centre of empire. Scholars were encouraged to settle there, and to attract them a great library, the special pride of successive emperors, was established. By the end of the fourteenth century, Constantinople had become the world’s centre of learning.

Simultaneously with Rome’s decline and fall a new power rose on its eastern borders. In 1307 Othman, the ruler of a relatively unimportant Turkish tribe, founded a small state and declared its independence. His successor, Orkhan, extended the boundaries of his state to the shores of the Sea of Marmara.

By the end of the fourteenth century this Ottoman kingdom, as it had become known after its founder Othman, had spread its domain into Europe, and was well on its way to becoming a world power when its progress was halted by the sanguinary invasion of the Tartar warrior, Tamerlane the Great, in 1402. It was only a temporary halt, however.

Mohammed I, who came to the throne in 1413, by constant warfare, recovered the territories lost by his father, and passed on his ambitions to his son, Mohammed II, who was to become known as El Fatyh, the Conqueror.

Mohammed II was a young man of twenty-one when he succeeded in 1451, three years after the accession of Constantine XI to the Imperial throne of Rome. After very rapidly establishing his position at home, by marrying his widowed mother to a slave and having his brother drowned, thus removing any possible counter-claimants, he turned his attention to executing the expansionist plans of his predecessors.

Ever since the conversion of the Turkish tribes to Islam in the tenth century the presence of a great Christian city and empire on the borders of their territory had been a constant thorn in the flesh of successive Sultans. As the capital of this Christian empire, Constantinople, besides the attraction of its great beauty and wealth, became a major target of the hatred of the Moslem Turks for the infidels. Not only that, Constantinople’s position at the meeting point of the two great cultures of the East and West made it a place of the greatest importance to a power seeking to expand its influence into Europe. Several of Mohammed’s predecessors had made attempts to capture it. He was determined to succeed where they had failed.

Within a year of becoming Sultan, Mohammed began to lay his plans. One of his first actions was to build a strong castle five miles from Constantinople, commanding the narrowest part of the straits of the Bosphorus. Seeing the danger which this represented, Constantine at once declared war on Mohammed.

Unfortunately, the Greek inhabitants of Constantinople deeply occupied in disputing with each other and with the Christians of Rome and Western Europe about unimportant details of religious doctrine, did not see the threat as clearly as their emperor saw it, and rallied to his warnings only with lukewarm enthusiasm.

When Constantine called for help, his natural friends and commercial allies, Genoa and Venice, were too intent on building up their trading relations with the Turks to wish to intervene; and the other Christian peoples of Europe showed an indifference to Constantine’s predicament which can only be termed extraordinary.

The defences of Constantinople were very strong, and the only way in which the city, which had stood impregnable for centuries, might be captured was by siege, and starvation; and this method of reduction, so it was thought, was bound to entail many months, perhaps even years, of patient waiting on both sides, with the situation of the inhabitants becoming progressively grimmer.

The city occupied a triangular peninsula with the apex due east, and the base on the landward side, facing due west. The southern side, so precipitous that attack here was out of the question, was washed by the Sea of Marmara, the northern by the Golden Horn, a comparatively narrow but deep inlet of the Bosphorus.

To these natural defences successive Roman emperors had added formidable fortifications. These consisted of a moat over 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep, running under a low battlemented wall some 7 feet high, which made good cover for archers.

Twenty yards behind this wall was the main outer wall, 27 feet high, intersected by 96 towers at intervals of 60 yards, about 35 feet high and obtruding from the wall so that the whole wall might be effectively covered with fire.

Behind this wall was a 60-foot-broad covered-way, which separated the outer wall from the inner defensive wall. This wall was 30 feet above the covered-way, and into it were let 60-foot towers, double the size of those in the outer wall, so placed that they covered the intervals between the towers in that wall.

On the westward side the wall was pierced by 9 gates, and provided the enemy did not divert it, a stream flowed under the wall through the city to the sea on the south, thus assuring a supply of fresh water. In the Golden Horn Constantine had a fleet of 9 galleons and 30 smaller ships. To prevent Mohammed’s ships from entering, a huge chain was stretched across the entrance to the inlet. These galleons could add their fire-power to that of the defenders inside the city.

Constantinople had a population of 100,000, but out of this number Constantine could find only 5,000 willing to fight for the city’s defence. He had, however, 3,000 mercenaries, Genoese, Venetians and Cretans. Against this relatively puny force, commanded by a Genoese, Giovanni Giustiniani, the Turks brought up an army 160,000 strong.

The Sultans had for many years been guarded by a body of men comparable with the Roman Praetorian Guard, who were elite soldiers responsible for the protection of the Emperor’s person. These Turkish troops, called Janissaries, were, however, selected on quite a different basis from the Praetorians. The Sultans seized the fifth son from all Christian families in their realms who had this number of sons or more, and trained them from early boyhood in athletic and moral accomplishments. They represented the cream of all Mohammed’s armies, and indeed were unequalled by any other fighting men in Europe at this time.

By 5 April, 1453, Mohammed had completed his preparations, and he ordered his armies to approach the city. He pitched his red and gold pavilion outside the walls not far from the Golden Horn. Fourteen batteries of heavy guns were dragged into position, and to the accompaniment of prayers, shouts and the beating of drums the siege began with what was probably the first genuine bombardment in history.

Despite the thickness of the walls, they were unable to withstand the assault, and were soon breached in several places. Unfortunately for the defenders, the moat had run dry, and Mohammed ordered it to be filled in with the rubble from the walls. This was done under the defenders’ fire. At the same time the latter erected stockades inside the walls opposite the gaps.
This work was completed in ten days, and on 15 April the Sultan ordered his infantry to attack at sunset. In the last glowing rays of the dying sun, the Turks threw themselves through the gaps in the walls. Within a short time the moat was filled in with the bodies of dead and wounded under the fire from Giustiniani’s arrows and catapults. But though the Turks made the most determined efforts to set fire to the stockades and force a way through the outer defences, the little body of Constantinople’s defenders held them off, and by degrees the battle waned and then ceased.

Nor was this Mohammed’s only setback. He had ordered his own ships to assault Constantine’s fleet in the Golden Horn, so that the city might be entirely surrounded, and the supporting fire from the galleons, which was proving very effective on behalf of the defenders, put out of action. These attacks, too, failed, and despite ingenious redispositions of his artillery the ships appeared as impregnable as the city.

A few days later, the arrival of three Genoese warships and a grain ship, bringing reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered city, drew the Turkish fleet once more into action. And once more Mohammed’s ships were unsuccessful and all four Genoese ships reached the safety of the Golden Horn.

Mohammed now became convinced that until he had put the galleons in the Golden Horn out of action he would not be able to take the city by assault or to starve it into submission. Since he could not sail his ships into the Golden Horn, he would have them taken overland and take the Roman galleons in the rear, a plan which reveals both the Sultan’s resource and his ruthlessness.

First he had a track of wooden sleepers laid down, ten miles in length, from the Bosphorus to the river which ran into the Golden Horn from the north. When this was completed, he had the ships hauled up out of the sea and placed in cradles. The track was then well greased, and the ships in their cradles glided along it with comparative ease.

The operation was hidden from the defenders of Constantinople by the houses of the suburb of Galata on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. To cover the noise, a constant bombardment was kept up. The operation was completed within three days, and on the morning of 23 April both the defenders and the crews of the ships looked out across the Golden Horn unable to believe their eyes, for there, gently swaying on the calm waters westward of the Roman fleet, was the Turkish fleet.

The Turks attacked immediately but were driven off. Giustiniani then ordered his largest ships to place themselves between the Turkish fleet and the northern walls of the city to ward off any possible attack in that quarter. Mohammed re-disposed his artillery so that these ships were brought within the range of his guns, and when one galleon was sunk, Giustiniani withdrew the rest.

To strengthen his position still further, Mohammed built a pontoon bridge across the upper end of the Golden Horn. Two thousand feet long with an eight-foot-wide road supported on barrels, this bridge brought the whole of the Turkish army and navy in touch. Constantinople was now completely surrounded.

On 29 May, Mohammed launched his final assault. In many hours of bitter fighting Giustiniani’s meagre forces fought off attack after attack, and seeing that he was making no headway at all, Mohammed decided to bring up the Janissaries, whom he had intended to keep in readiness until the ordinary infantry breached the walls, and then throw them in for the final, decisive phase.

Mohammed placed himself at their head, and led them into the ditch. But even these elite troops could not overcome Giustiniani’s eight thousand.

Just as Mohammed was furiously considering calling off the assault, Giustiniani was mortally wounded by an arrow. As soon as the news spread, panic seized his men, and they began to leave the walls, thinking only of escape.

At the first relaxation of the opposition, the Janissaries made a renewed attack, and this time gained a foothold within the city’s defences.

Constantine made a determined and courageous effort to rally his men, and in person led the counter-attack, but as he went forward he, too, was killed. Without a leader, the defenders broke, and Mohammed’s troops poured in through the gaps in the walls.

For three days the pillage and slaughter raged, and when it was over, Constantinople was firmly in Turkish hands, and has remained so ever since.

Though thousands were killed, and thousands more were sent into slavery, a number of the scholars of Constantinople did manage to escape. Many made their way to Rome, where their arrival infused new life into the ranks of scholarship and literature. As many more wandered about Europe kindling an interest in learning wherever they went.

It was inevitable that under these invigorating influences there should be a revival in learning in the West. Though it is not possible to maintain that the sack of Constantinople was solely responsible for the Renaissance, it was certainly one of the major contributing factors.