III. THE LAST YEARS OF CONSTANTINOPLE: 1373–1453

No other government ever so fully deserved to fall as the Byzantine. Having lost the will to defend itself, and unable to persuade the too sophisticated Greeks that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country, it sent no contingent to the Christian armies at the Maritsa, Kosovo, or Nicopolis. It provided 12,000 soldiers for the Sultan in 1379; and it was Byzantine troops that, on the order of John VII Palaeologus, compelled the Byzantine city of Philadelphia, in Asia Minor, to surrender to the Turks (1390).

When Bajazet resumed the siege of Constantinople (1402), the Byzantine Empire was reduced to its capital: Bajazet commanded both coasts of the Sea of Marmora, controlled the Dardanelles, ruled nearly all of Asia Minor and the Balkans, and passed safely between his Asiatic and European capitals. The final hour seemed to have struck for the beleaguered city. Starving Greeks let themselves down over the walls, and deserted to the Turks in order to eat. Suddenly from the Moslem East an “infidel” savior appeared for the outpost of Christendom. Timur the Lame—Tamerlane the Great—had determined to check the growth and insolence of Ottoman power. As the Tatar hordes rolled west Bajazet abandoned the siege of Constantinople, and hurried to regroup his forces in Anatolia. Turks met Tatars at Ankara (1402); Bajazet was defeated and captured. The Turkish tide ebbed for a generation; God at last seemed to be on the side of the Christians.

Under the wise rule of Manuel II Byzantium recovered most of Greece and parts of Thrace. But Mohammed I reorganized the Turkish army, and Murad II led it, after a major defeat, to major victories. The Moslems still drew inspiration from the belief that to die for Islam was to win paradise; even if there should be no paradise and no houris, chey were impartial enough to consider the Greek maidens beautiful. The Christians were not so impartial. Greek Catholics hated Roman Catholics and were hated in turn. When Venetians hunted and massacred Greek Catholics in Crete for refusing to accept the Roman ritual and papal supremacy, Pope Urban V joined Petrarch in congratulating the doge on his firm protection of the one true Church (c. 1350).9 The populace and lower clergy of Byzantium repudiated all attempts to reunite Greek with Latin Christianity; and a Byzantine noble declared that he would rather see the Turkish turban at Constantinople than the red hat of a Roman cardinal.10 Most Balkan states hated their neighbors more than the Turks, and some preferred to submit to the Moslems, who taxed no more than the Christian rulers, persecuted heresy less or not at all,11 and allowed four wives.

In 1422 Murad II renewed the attack upon Constantinople. A revolt in the Balkans compelled him to abandon the siege, and John VIII Palaeologus was allowed to reign in relative peace on condition of paying a heavy annual tribute to the Turks. Murad reconquered Greece, Salonika, and most of Albania. Serbia resisted manfully under George Branković; a combined army of Serbians and Hungarians under Hunyadi János defeated Murad at Kunovitza (1444), and Branković ruled Serbia till his death at the age of ninety (1456). After victories at Varna and in the second battle of Kosovo (1448), Murad signed a peace with the Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus, and retired to Adrianople to die (1451).

Mohammed II, surnamed the Conqueror, came to the Ottoman throne at twenty-one. He confirmed the treaty with Constantine, and sent his nephew Orkhan to be brought up (possibly as a spy) at the Byzantine court. When other Moslem powers challenged his authority in Western Asia, Mohammed ferried his army across the Straits, and left his European possessions in charge of the Vizier Khalil Pasha, known for friendliness to Byzantium. Constantine had more courage than wit; he informed the Vizier that unless the pension paid for the care of Mohammed’s nephew should be doubled, Orkhan would be put forward by Byzantium as a claimant to the Ottoman throne.12 Apparently Constantine thought that the revolt in Asia offered an opportunity to weaken the Turks in Europe. But he had neglected to secure either his alliances in the west or his communications to the south. Mohammed made peace with his Moslem enemies, and with Venice, Wallachia, Bosnia, and Hungary. Crossing back to Europe, he raised a powerful fortress on the Bosporus above Constantinople, thereby ensuring the unimpeded passage of his troops between the continents, and controlling all commerce entering the Black Sea. For eight months he gathered materials and men. He hired Christian gunsmiths to cast for him the largest cannon yet known, which would hurl stone balls weighing 600 pounds. In June 1452, he declared war, and began the final siege of Constantinople with 140,000 men.13

Constantine led the defense with desperate resolution. He equipped his 7,000 soldiers with small cannon, lances, bows and arrows, flaming torches, and crude firearms discharging leaden bullets of a walnut’s size. Sleeping only by snatches, he supervised, every night, the repair of the damage done to the walls during the day. Nevertheless the ancient defenses crumbled more and more before the battering rams and superior artillery of the Turks; now ended the medieval fortification of cities by walls. On May 29 the Turks fought their way across a moat filled with the bodies of their own slain, and surged over or through the walls into the terrorized city. The cries of the dying were drowned in the martial music of trumpets and drums. The Greeks at last fought bravely; the young Emperor was everywhere in the heat of the action, and the nobles who were with him died to a man in his defense. Surrounded by Turks, he cried out, “Cannot there be found a Christian to cut off my head?” He threw off his imperial garments, fought as a common soldier, disappeared in the rout of his little army, and was never heard of again.

The victors massacred thousands, till all defense ceased. Then they began that rampant plunder which had so long been the substance of their hopes. Every usable adult among the defeated was taken as a prize; nuns were ravished like other women in an impartial mania of rape; Christian masters and servants, shorn of the garb that marked their state, found themselves suddenly equalized in indiscriminate slavery. Pillage was not quite uncontrolled; when Mohammed II found a Moslem piously destroying the marble pavement of St. Sophia, he smote him with the royal scimitar, and announced that all buildings were to be reserved for orderly rapine by the Sultan. St. Sophia was transformed into a mosque after proper purification; all its Christian insignia were removed, and its mosaics were whitewashed into oblivion for 500 years. On the very day of the city’s fall, or on the ensuing Friday, a muezzin mounted the tallest turret of Hagia Sophia and summoned the Moslems to gather in it for prayer to victorious Allah. Mohammed II performed the Moslem ritual in Christendom’s most famous shrine.

The capture of Constantinople shook every throne in Europe. The bulwark had fallen that had protected Europe from Asia for over a thousand years. That Moslem power and faith which the Crusaders had hoped to drive back into inner Asia had now made its way over the corpse of Byzantium, and through the Balkans to the very gates of Hungary. The papacy, which had dreamed of all Greek Christianity submitting to the rule of Rome, saw with dismay the rapid conversion of millions of southeastern Europeans to Islam. Routes of commerce once open to Western vessels were now in alien hands, and could be clogged with tolls in peace or closed with guns in war. Byzantine art, exiled from home, found refuge in Russia, while in the West its influence disappeared with its pride. The migration of Greek scholars to Italy and France, which had begun in 1397, was now accelerated, fructifying Italy with the salvage of ancient Greece. In one sense nothing was lost; only the dead had died. Byzantium had finished its role, and yielded its place, in the heroic and sanguinary, noble and ignominious procession of mankind.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!