Gibbon, Part 15: The Fall of Constantinople and the End of the Roman Empire

We have finally arrived at the last stage of the history of the Roman Empire: the ultimate fall of the capital of the Byzantine empire, from which the Byzantine royalty was never to rise up again. It has taken me over two months (from June to now) to come to this point. Reading Gibbon is one thing, but recapping, reviewing, and reflecting on it has been a much more laborious task – in fact, I finished reading the entirety of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three weeks ago, but could not find the time to type up my reflections until now. In the last post, we had covered the progress of the Paleologi, who maintained the Byzantine empire for two more centuries, although it was only a mere shadow of what it was once: Constantinople, as always, remained a wealthy city, but as the episode with the Genoese under John VI Cantacuzune showed, the empire no longer resembled a true empire, with control over a large region and the allegiance of many vassals. Instead, its provinces had been reduced to only a small region in the vicinity of the capital. We also explored the rise of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which had successfully persisted in the face of the Timourid threat, underwent a resurgence and kept steadily expanding. The Ottomans would eventually strike the final blow into the legacy of an empire which had stood for over two millennia. With the Ottomans controlling Turkey, it was only a matter of time before the Roman empire was to be swallowed up. However, the events leading up to it are still quite interesting, although with a strong dash of dramatic irony, as we see the futile efforts of the Byzantines to delay again a fate which should have occurred many centuries before.

Events Leading Up to the Siege

Apprehensive of the advances of the Ottomans, Hungarians and Poles under the Hungarian commander John Huniades and Polish King Ladislaus waged a war against them, supported by the Byzantines. They obtained several victories, but suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Warna, where Amurath himself fought in person and Ladislaus was killed in battle. While these wars did little to stem the general tide of the Ottoman advance, they became a convenient pretext for the Ottomans to strike specifically at Constantinople. There, the emperor John VIII had been succeeded by his son Constantine XI in 1449, who was to become the last Roman emperor. Meanwhile, Amurath II abdicated his throne to his son Mehmed II.

By this time the Ottomans had controlled most of Turkey, with only Constantinople and small provinces around it remaining. Relations between the Byzantines and the Ottomans worsened, as Mehmed had a firm ambition to conquer Constantinople. A major step was when he resolved to build a fortress on the European side of the Bosphorus strait, on a spot called Asomaton, under the pretext that his grandfather had built a similar fortress on the Asian side. Constantine implored for peace, but was powerless: Mehmed cited the alliance of the Byzantines with the Hungarians under Huniades when they invaded the Ottomans as a justification to need the fortress to watch against them. A few more clashes between Turks and Romans became further pretext for Mehmed to fully execute his plans for the siege of Constantinople.

Mehmed funded the Danish or Hungarian cannon builder Urban to build a gigantic cannon which could be used to bombard the walls of Constantinople. The cannon is said to have a diameter “twelve palms” wide, fired cannonballs of 600 pounds weight, and required 30 wagons dragged by 60 oxen to be moved towards the city.

Mehmed’s Siege of Constantinople

In April of 1453, Mehmed finally commenced his siege of Constantinople. His forces numbered 260,000, according to the estimate most trusted by Gibbon (that of the Byzantine historian Phranza), with 320 ships invading the harbor. In contrast, despite having a population of about 100,000, the Romans could only muster a few thousand men for the defense of their city. Constantine had to augment his forces with paid mercenary help from the Genoese and Venetians, for a total of only 7,000-8,000 soldiers. This reluctance to defend their own homeland is deplored by Gibbon as a sign of the fundamental weakness and flawed nature of these supposed successors of the subjects of Caesar and Augustus.

…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.

Constantine also tried to seek help from the West, but even then, the obstinate people of Constantinople did not yield their pride and stubbornness, instead resolving to further repudiate any sort of communion with the Latins. They were convinced that Constantinople would once again be delivered from the enemy, as it had always been for the last millennium.

In the initial part of the siege, the Romans actually fared quite well. The Turkish armies were repulsed three times from the walls of the city; at the third victory, they suffered losses of 12,000 men. The Genoan navy held back the enemy in the harbor. The extensive geographic advantages of the city still supported it despite the aging walls and lack of defenders. Mehmed saw that an attack could not succeed unless it came from both land and sea, and he decided to transport part of his navy by land into the higher part of the harbor of the Bosphorus. Now holding a position on higher ground, he built an artificial bridge to put one of his largest cannons, which was now free to bombard the city with impunity. Meanwhile, the navy attacked the city through its most vulnerable side, a route which had been used by the Latin invaders a few centuries before.

The fate of the city was then sealed. Constantine was well aware that time had run out; attempts to placate Mehmed through tribute failed, as his ambition was firm. Constantine himself resolved to not surrender the city and fight to the death. But while the Turkish soldiers anticipated the battle with excitement and readiness to die as martyrs, the Byzantines despaired of their impending ruin and loss of their riches.

On May 29, 1453, the Ottomans began the last assault on the city. The numerous hordes of troops from Anatolia and Romania came first, and for two hours the Christians managed to maintain the upper hand, killing thousands of enemy soldiers. However, the elite Janissaries were then unleashed, while the soon-to-be conqueror looked on, surrounded by 10,000 soldiers specially convened for the occasion. The commander of the Genoese mercenaries, Justiniani, was lightly wounded, and chose to retreat. The rest of his soldiers followed; the useless mercenaries retreated from the city through the same holes that the Ottomans used to come in. Constantine discarded his regalia and fought bravely to the last moment (he was never recognized or captured before his death); according to Gibbon,

The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Cæsars.

Ottoman artillery had completely destroyed the city’s walls at all sides. Gibbon is at his most beautiful and magisterial here in describing the tragic, yet inevitable end of the two millennia of the Roman empire.

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 Mahomet the Second. Her empire only had been subverted by the Latins; her religion was trampled in the dust by the Moslem conquerors.

The Sack of Constantinople

The victorious invaders proceeded to sack the city. The captives and spoils were left to the soldiers, while the buildings were to be for the conquering emperor. The Romans were in despair and denial. Never had the empire been completely overwhelmed and completely cornered in such a way: Rome had been sacked several times by the barbarians, but by then the center of the empire had shifted to Constantinople. Unlike the earlier sack of the city by the Latins, it was clear that the empire would be no more after Mehmed’s victory. Inside the city,

…the trembling inhabitants flocked together in the streets, like an 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.

Thousands of frightened, despairing Romans gathered inside the great Hagia Sophia, convinced that an angel would come down from heaven at the last moment and deliver them from the invading Muslims. Alas, the prophecy turned out to be false: Turkish soldiers broke open the doors with little resistance, and proceeded to round up and divide the new captives, consisting of people from every strata of Byzantine society, from bishop to nuns to senators to the common plebeians. Again, Gibbon is immensely quotable in these masterful passages:

In this common captivity, the ranks of society were confounded; the ties of nature were cut asunder; and the inexorable soldier was careless of the father’s groans, the tears of the mother, and the lamentations of the children.

Final Endgame

Having died childless, Constantine XI died without any possible successors. The remaining members of the Paleologus family, some of whom ruled over smaller cities and islands in Turkey or Greece, were conquered by Mehmed within several years. Mehmed entered the ancient city in triumph. He destroyed the statues and images all over the city, in line with the Islamic prohibition on idolatry, and converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. He claimed himself as the new emperor and successor of the Romans. This claim was never seriously recognized by the Latins, the Orthodox Church, or any other authorities, but the final extirpation (one of Gibbon’s most favorite words in the entire Decline and Fall) of the Roman Empire was complete.

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