This silver stavraton features the faded image of Christ and of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor.
Two days ago, millions around the world marked the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. Constantinople was one of the greatest cities in the world – the final bulwark of the ancient Roman Empire. More importantly to the Europeans, it was the only buffer against a rising Muslim power in the East.
This ancient city was founded in the early 4th century AD by the Roman emperor Constantine. Constantine was looking for a place to plant a new capital – Rome had been in decline for some time, and the Eternal City had been built in a not very defensible spot on the western coast of Italy. The Emperor settled on the site of Byzantium, the ruin of an ancient Greek city that sat on the Bosporus between Europe and Asia Minor, and appropriately called his new capital Nova Roma. The name didn’t stick, though. Its initially informal name of Constantinople, or the city of Constantine, quickly became the city’s only name. And after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, it became the undisputed capital of the still-surviving East.
A mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The distinctive Greek Orthodox style of art developed in Constantinople and its surrounding lands. (Source: Wikicommons, author Leigh Harries.)
Among the courts of medieval Europe and the Middle East, Constantinople was known for two things: its wealth and its impregnability. The city mostly lay in Europe, but one district had been built across the Bosporus in Asia Minor, and the city’s defenses included an elaborate wall and tower network and control of the waterway. The walls of Constantinople were one of its greatest assets – they stood unbreached for well over one thousand years despite the best efforts of the empire’s Christian and Muslim rivals.
Constantinople was surrounded by a set of double walls. Invading soldiers who successfully scaled the outer walls found themselves caught between the two and were cut to ribbons by the city’s defenders.
Unfortunately for the Byzantines, the empire suffered from severe internal rot. Between highly competent and innovative rulers such as Justinian and Basil II, long strings of weak emperors reigned, and succession struggles were common. The Byzantines also lost large parts of its empire to invaders, most notably the Muslim armies that swept through and captured the Levant and Egypt from them in the 7th century. The Latin Crusades against the Muslims, strangely enough, did not help the Byzantine Empire regain this land: the Catholic invaders set up their own Crusader states in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and southeastern Anatolia, which had formerly been Roman holdings. And in the 13th century, things got even worse.
In 1202, the Fourth Crusade was launched to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Crusaders, however, ended up embroiled in one of Byzantium’s many succession battles and were invited by a deposed Emperor to retake the city and crown him again. The Venetians, seeing the perfect opportunity to set up their Mediterranean rivals for a fall, told them they’d be happy to help. Together they sailed into Constantinople, sacked the city and, after a short interval, established a new Catholic state in the Greek Orthodox capital.
The empire after Constantinople’s recapture by the Byzantines. Its size was much reduced and remained frozen in the southern Balkans and western Anatolia.
The family who would overthrown the Latin state and reestablish Orthodox rule in the empire was also the family who would see the end of the empire two hundred years later. Michael VIII Palaiologos retook the great capital, and his descendants would maintain it for two hundred more years while it suffered defeats and further losses of territory, primarily against the Turks.
The newly formed Ottoman Empire, a Muslim Turkish state, had captured most of Anatolia. The sultans of this new upstart looked towards Constantinople and dreamed of capturing it for themselves. By the 14th century, the Turks had invaded the European side of the Byzantine Empire and reduced the state to Constantinople, slivers of land directly west and east of the city, and southern Greece. Disjointed and ailing, the Romans needed a miracle to hold out. What they got were delays to the almost inevitable end. In 1402, the great conqueror Tamerlane captured the sultan and imprisoned him, causing chaos within the Ottoman ranks and putting off their capture of Constantinople. And in 1451, with the city on the verge of capture, Sultan Murad II suddenly died, leaving his young son Mehmed II in power.
If the Byzantines thought Mehmed too green to be an effective leader, though, they were quickly proved wrong. The 19 year old took up where his father had left off and continued the siege of the surrounded city.
In 1449, when Constantinople was on the brink of defeat, Constantine XI Palaiologos assumed the throne. In 1451, the representatives of the new emperor approached the new sultan, and he and Mehmed agreed to act peaceably towards each other. This agreement didn’t hold, and it probably couldn’t have considering the sheer strength and numbers of the Ottomans and the incredible value of Constantinople as a prize. By 1453, Mehmed had drawn up his invasion plans and assembled his armies for war.
Two factor worked against him, however: one, the unparalleled defenses of the city and two, the stubborn character of its emperor.
Constantine refused to leave the city despite pleas from his inner circle and an offer of safe conduct from Sultan Mehmed if he would surrender Constantinople. Instead, he organized his defenses and sent for help from the West. Constantinople was under near total Turkish siege and blockade, but several gutsy Venetian ships were able to break the blockade and sail through with much-needed supplies. Contingents of Genoese and Venetian troops also joined the city’s defenders.
A depiction of the siege of Constantinople. The Ottoman attackers bombarded the city’s massive double wall fortifications with their cannon.
These developments were not nearly enough to stop Ottoman power. Mehmed had superior numbers, open lines and cannons. The forward-thinking sultan had contracted a Hungarian engineer to craft cannons so large that they could breach the unbreachable walls of Constantine’s great city. His project was a success: this new invention rendered Constantinople’s double walls useless and spelled certain death for the Byzantine Empire. On May 29th, the Sultan finally broke through the walls and his highly agitated men stormed the city, conducting the usual pillage, murder and rape that was pretty standard for city sackings in those days. That very day, seeing that his city was lost, Constantine XI tore off his imperial robes and signs of office and charged into the thick of battle. His body was never convincingly identified, but he was almost certainly cut down by the Ottomans.
Sultan Mehmed eventually restrained his troops – as the new Emperor of Rome, as he had styled himself, he had the responsibility to maintain his new capital. Constantinople became the center of the Ottoman Empire, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and the Orthodox Christian world lost its ancient center, and seven years later, the last remnants of the two thousand year-old Roman Empire would be captured by the Turks.
A statue of Emperor Constantine XI, the last ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Constantine would become a martyr of the Orthodox Church and a patron saint of Greece.
The fall of Constantinople truly marked the end of an age. The advent of gunpowder rendered many of the older military tactics and defenses obsolete and led to a world in which war would be significantly bloodier. The end of the last truly ancient empire in Europe also coincided with the European Renaissance and the formation of the nation-state as a political concept. For many, though, the fall of Constantinople was a tragedy. One popular myth that still lives to this day claims that the Emperor Constantine did not fall in battle but was transformed by an angel into a statue, and that he would reappear one day to take his city back. Maybe the modern Republic of Turkey should draw up some plans just in case.
Above, a bronze half-folis from the reign of Justinian. In the early days of the Byzantine Empire, bronze coins were widely used for everyday transactions. (Source: Wikicommons, owner: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)
Early Byzantine coins are classified as ancient and used a mix of ancient Roman weight standards and newer denominations. The bronze nummi and the gold solidus were both used for making payments and accounting. In the 14th century, the Palaiologos emperors did away with the solidus and started minting a silver coin called the stavraton. These coins are symbolic of this final period of Byzantine rule.
A gold solidus and a silver miliaresion from the 10th century. Like the older Roman coins they were styled after, Byzantine coin designs combined secular and religious symbols. (Source: Wikicommons, owner: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)
Byzantium gets a raw deal from traditional Western historians as a corrupt, decadent and wholly inefficient empire that was just waiting to get knocked over. The truth is a lot more complicated. If you want to learn more about the Byzantines but don’t have a whole lot of time to fit intense study into your schedule, check out 12 Byzantine Rulers, a podcast that is exactly what it says it is.