The Fall of Constantinople 29th May 1453 – The City and its Defences

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The City of Constantinople

Constantine XI Palaiologos and the Defences of Constantinople

Emperor Constantine had served as regent for his brother John VIII 1437–1439. Constantine succeeded his brother, who died in Constantinople of natural causes in 1448, as Emperor following a short dispute with his younger brother Demetrios. Despite the mounting difficulties of his reign, contemporary sources generally speak respectfully of Constantine. He was governor of Selymbria for a time, until surrendering the role to his brother Theodore in 1443. During the absence of his older brother John at the Council of Florence in Italy, Constantine served as his regent in Constantinople (1437–1440).

Constantine became the ruler of the Despotate of the Morea (the medieval name for the Peloponnesus, which is a peninsula in southern Greece), in October 1443. He ruled from the fortress and palace in Mistra, a fortified town also called Sparta or Lacedaemon due to its proximity to the ancient city. Mistra was a centre of arts and culture rivalling Constantinople. Twenty years before, Constantine had aided his brother John in consolidating Byzantine control over the Morea, campaigning against the Latin princes of the Principality of Achaea who still held parts of it, and except for the Venetian possessions of Modon, Coron, and Nauplion, the entire peninsula came under Byzantine control. After establishing himself as Despot, Constantine strengthened the defences of the Morea by reconstructing a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth called the “Hexamilion” (“Six-mile-wall”), on the suggestion of Constantine’s famous teacher, Plethon.

In summer 1444, Constantine marched out of the Morea, invading the Latin Duchy of Athens. He swiftly conquered Thebes and Athens, forcing its Florentine duke, Nerio II Acciaioli, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, to pay him tribute. The Turkish response was inevitable. Two years later, the Sultan Murad II, who had come out of retirement, led an army of 50,000–60,000 soldiers into Greece to put an end to the pretensions of Constantine. His purpose was not to conquer Morea but rather to teach the Greeks and their Despots a punitive lesson. The Ottoman army reached the Hexamilion on 27 November 1446. Constantine attempted to parlay with the Sultan, but, according to the historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, his terms “were not moderate, for he demanded that the Isthmos be allowed to stand as it was for him and that he get to keep all the sultan’s lands beyond it that he had subjected.”

Constantine and his brother Thomas braced for the attack at the Hexamilion. While the wall could hold against medieval attacks, Sultan Murad used bombards to supplement the usual siege engines and scaling ladders; the bombards breached the wall on 10 December 1446. Murad’s janissaries poured through the opening, and the defenders panicked and fled. Constantine and Thomas attempted to rally their soldiers, and failing, barely escaped to Mistra. Murad split his forces, giving one part to his advisor Turahan while leading the other part along the southern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, plundering and destroying as his troops advanced. While neither Patras nor Mistra fell to the Ottoman troops, the province was devastated; an estimated 60,000 people were taken prisoner by the Sultan’s forces and sold to the slave markets of Turkey. Constantine and his brother Thomas were forced to make themselves vassals of the Ottoman sultan and pay tribute. It was a forerunner of the events at Constantinople nine years later.

Constantine would rule for just over four years, his reign culminating in the Ottoman siege and conquest of Constantinople. Constantine did what he could to organize the defences of the city, stockpiling food and repairing the old Theodosian walls, but the reduced domain of the Empire and the poor economy meant that organizing a force large enough for the defence of the city was impossible. Constantine would lead the defending forces against an Ottoman army numbering around eight-to-ten times that number and died in the ensuing fighting.

With the approach of the Ottoman army, the population of Constantinople had swollen to around 45,000 people, with a regular garrison numbering a few hundred. The was also some 200 resident foreigners, but many more foreigners poured into the city, soldiers of fortune, patriots and those who recognised the threat of Islam and the Ottomans. Archbishop Leonard of Chios who took part in the siege, estimated that there were some 6.000 Greeks and 3,000 foreigners who volunteered to defend the city walls. The Archbishop reported that: “In the city there were altogether 30,000 to 35,000 men under arms and six to seven thousand real soldiers, making 42,000 at the most.”

The declining and depleted Byzantine Empire was too impoverished to recruit and hire mercenaries and had to rely on volunteers, soldiers and sailors, who for many reasons found themselves at the gates of Constantinople. The powerful Byzantine noblemen had their own military elite, many of them coming from the Despotate of Morea, were of Slavic or Albanian origin, as well as men of Crusader and Italian colonial descent. The small standing army of Constantinople were mainly archers or crossbowmen, somewhat of an elite force and formed in “brotherhoods” like the Italian medieval soldiers. Most of the wealthier defenders of the city wore the Italian or Serbian armour of the mid-15th century period. There were some bombards and hand guns for the defence, mainly coming from the Balkans and Italy, but nothing of the size and scale of the guns used by the Ottomans.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Constantinople’s defenders

The city of Constantinople consisted of village-sized settlements within the vast, ancient walls. The east of the city was more urban in nature, as was the northern sector closest to the Golden Horn. The rural villages known as “quarters,” had their own structured militia within each. There were also Greek monasteries in the rural areas, defended and patrolled by warrior monks. These monks also manned the vigla observation towers on the city walls. Constantinople also had a sizable Turkish Muslim population, following the Islamic tenet of immigration, colonisation and then conquest.

Constantinople was relatively self-contained and the Emperor Constantine had stored grain and foodstuffs from the small Byzantine enclave outside the city walls, before the Ottomans came and the population fled to within the city. The “quarters” were able to produce food in the more agrarian western area, the city was well served with wells and the River Lycus flowed through the city walls, before going underground and exiting the city in the harbour of Eleutherius. There was also an abundance of fish that could be caught in the Golden Horn.

The city’s primary defence was its walls. Initially built by Constantine the Great, the walls surrounded the new city on all sides, protecting it against attack from both sea and land. As the city grew, the famous double line of the Theodosian Walls were built in the 5th century. Although the other sections of the walls were less elaborate, they were, when well-manned, almost impregnable for any medieval besieger. Unfortunately, the walls would have to face a new type of warfare. The first of the walls were built by Constantine in 324 – 336. Constantine’s fortification consisted of a single wall, reinforced with towers at regular distances, which began to be constructed in 324 and was completed under his son Constantius II (r. 337–361). As the city expanded, the Constantine Wall became an inner defence and was replaced by the Theodosian Walls as the city’s primary defence.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Cross-section of the Theodosian Walls

Throughout their history, the walls were damaged by earthquakes and floods of the Lycus river. Repairs were undertaken on numerous occasions, as testified by the numerous inscriptions commemorating the emperors or their servants who undertook to restore them. The responsibility for these repairs rested on an official variously known as the Domestic of the Walls or the Count of the Walls, who employed the services of the city’s populace in this task. After the Latin conquest of 1204, the walls fell increasingly into disrepair, and the revived post-1261 Byzantine state lacked the resources to maintain them, except in times of direct threat. The wall had nine gates, although now their locations are uncertain and the only gate that can be identified with any certainty is the Golden Gate.

The outer wall was at least six foot thick at its base, and featured arched chambers on the level of the peribolos, crowned with a battlemented walkway, reaching a height of some ten feet. Access to the outer wall from the city was provided either through the main gates or through small posterns on the base of the inner wall’s towers. The outer wall likewise had towers, situated approximately midway between the inner wall’s towers and acting in supporting role to them. They are spaced at ten yards to eighty yards, with an average distance of fifty-five yards. Only 62 of the outer wall’s towers survive. With few exceptions, they are square or crescent-shaped, around forty-five foot tall and twelve feet wide. They featured a room with windows on the level of the peribolos, crowned by a battlemented terrace, while their lower portions were either solid or featured small posterns, which allowed access to the outer terrace. The outer wall was a formidable defensive edifice in its own right: in the sieges of 1422 and 1453, the Byzantines and their allies, being too few to hold both lines of wall, concentrated on the defence of the outer wall.

The moat was situated at a distance of about 20 yards from the outer wall. The moat itself was over sixty feet wide and as much as thirty feet deep, featuring a five feet tall crenelated wall on the inner side, serving as a first line of defence. Transverse walls cross the moat, tapering towards the top so as not to be used as bridges. Some of them have been shown to contain pipes carrying water into the city from the hill country to the city’s north and west. Their role has therefore been interpreted as that of aqueducts for filling the moat and as dams dividing it into compartments and allowing the water to be retained over the course of the walls. In the sections north of the Gate of St. Romanus, the steepness of the slopes of the Lycus valley made the construction maintenance of the moat problematic; it is probable therefore that the moat ended at the Gate of St. Romanus, and did not resume until after the Gate of Adrianople.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A surviving section of Constantinople’s walls

The lack of a proper navy would prove to be a major handicap for Constantinople’s defenders. The last real Byzantine fleet had been destroyed by the Genoese in the 14th Century. A floating boom was placed from Acropolis Point to the sea wall of Galata, sealing off the Golden Horn and Western Europeans helped to defend the city, fighting as sailors and marines. Many came from Italy where a surge in population had resulted in many young men who were unemployed, unable to marry and were looking for adventure. There were Venetian and Genoese traders and Catalans, so many that we will never know their names or their fate. All were armed except for the clergy or pilgrims. There were many Italian ships in Constantinople’s harbours, ranging from lumbering sail-powered merchantmen to merchant galleys and fighting galleys. For whatever reason they were there, they would have to fight for their lives.

© Blown Periphery 2019

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