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The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 imperilled Christian Europe

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Religion on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about Constantinople originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Fall of Constantinople, picture, image, illustration

The Fall of Constantinople by Angus McBride

When the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 328-330 built a new capital upon the old Greek city of Byzantium, he gave the Roman Empire two capital cities. Rome in the West and the new Constantinople in the East. This division was made more complete under his successors who ruled as separate Emperors from these two capitals.

The two halves of this divided Empire had entirely different futures and for this the barbarian invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries were responsible. When the Huns began their sweep across central Europe, only a few areas of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire felt the ripples of the disturbance. The Goths merely brushed up against Constantinople, laying waste the Balkan regions; they did not settle there permanently, but moved on to attack Rome’s western regions. Gaul, Spain, Britain, North Africa and finally the Italian peninsula itself fell under barbarian rule.

The Roman Empire in the east lasted independently for 1,000 years, during which time it suffered great changes of fortune ranging from times of brilliant vitality to periods of pitiable weakness. For these ten centuries, Constantinople was a Christian bulwark for the West against the threatening Goths, Slavs, Persians and Saracens. While the Empire was forced to surrender lands, it upheld every one of its claims to pre-eminence. Among its genuine achievements was the maintenance of a high standard of culture – which was the more impressive because of the general lack of it elsewhere – and the transmission of the Christian religion to Russia and the Balkan states.

Though the Empire ceased to exist in the west in the 5th century, it reached one of its greatest periods in the east under the 6th century Emperor, Justinian. Besides regaining for a time some of the provinces that had been lost in the West, Justinian undertook the mighty work of systematizing Roman Law, a work which had a profound effect on the intellectual life of Western Europe in later centuries, and which still arouses admiration and respect.

During the 7th century, the Empire lost much territory to the Arabs who, spurred on by their new-found religion, Islam, were steadily building themselves an empire. For the next century, the eastern Empire was to look in vain for a man who could restore some of its bygone glory. With corruption rife at Court, and with Emperors falling like ninepins at the hands of assassins, it was little wonder that the Moslems overran Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and continually menaced Asia Minor.

The downward slide was arrested by the work of Leo the Isaurian (717-41). His reforms were felt in every sphere of government, and in particular in the army. Leo’s work prepared the way for a new period of conquest and a revival of learning which reached its zenith in the reign of Basil II (976-1025).

Unfortunately, this upsurge did not last. During the 11th century, the eastern Empire was again on the verge of collapse. It was the Emperor Alexius Comnenus who appealed to the Pope in Rome to send troops to help him against the Seljuk Turks who had conquered Palestine. But the First Crusade which arrived at the gates of Constantinople was not at all what Alexius had expected, or what he wanted. He wanted a mercenary army which would do his bidding, not a force of self-seeking volunteers.

The Crusaders eventually turned to attacking the Empire itself. The Fourth Crusade (1204) was diverted to Constantinople to reinstate the deposed Emperor, Isaac Angelus and his son, Alexius. But when this had been done, Alexius was not in a position to hand over the huge sum of money that he had promised in payment, and the waiting Crusaders, growing restive, stormed and took the city and committed appalling barbarities.

A western Emperor sat on the Byzantine imperial throne for 50 years after the taking of Constantinople. Then it was recaptured by Michael Palaelogus in the name of the Byzantine aristocracy. But the Empire never fully recovered from the shock of the western attack and, although it survived for nearly 200 years, it was never more than a shadow of its former self.

At the end of the 13th century, the Empire had to face the hostility of two formidable enemies: the Ottoman Turks in Asia, and the Serbs in the Balkan peninsula. It must have been with intense relief that the Empire witnessed the defeat of the Serbs by the Ottomans in 1389, and the annihilation of the great Ottoman army by the Mongols under Tamerlane in 1402.

Characteristically, the Empire made no constructive effort to restore its fortunes in the few years’ respite that events had given it. The Ottoman Turks did recover from their disastrous defeat and, on this occasion, it was to the Hungarians under their great soldier King, John Hunyadi, that the eastern Empire had cause to give thanks.

Hungary, menaced by the raiding sorties of the Turks, gathered an army and drove the Turks out of Serbia with such vigour that they sued for peace. Unfortunately, the Hungarian King did not pursue his advantage, but agreed to peace, and a year later, in 1444, the tables were turned and his army was defeated at Varna.

Nine years later, the stage was set at Constantinople for the final scene. In April, 1453, the Turkish ruler, Mohammed II, laid seige to the city with a land and sea force of 150,000 men. The Emperor, Constantine XI had only 8,000 men, but he was assisted by a brilliant Genoese soldier, John Justiniani.

Constantinople had never fallen before an enemy horde and some believed that it never would. But little was done to back this up.

The defence of the city was mainly in the hands of Italians, Germans and Spaniards.

The end came on the night of 29th May, 1453, when the Turkish cannon breached the wall. As dawn broke, the last of the Roman Emperors died the death of a hero in battle, and the Turks took the imperial city.

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