The Fall of Constantinople: Relentless Ottoman Fire Power Finally Pulverizes the Last Vestiges of the Roman Empire
Constantinople stood against sieges and attacks for many centuries, until finally new technology—the big cannons of the Ottoman Empire—brought down the Byzantine Empire’s capital. The fall of Constantinople in May 1453 was the end of an age for much of Europe and the Near East.
After the big guns did their work, Ottoman troops plundered the ancient city and put its residents to the sword. Nearly 4,000 died, and another 50,000 were taken as slaves. Many of the residents committed suicide, fearing what it would mean to face the Ottoman soldiers or live as slaves.
Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, and it also became one of the primary cities of Christianity. The city was named after Emperor Constantine, who ruled in the 4th century, during the early days of the rise of Christianity. The city today is named Istanbul and most of its residents are Muslim.
The consequences of the fall of Constantinople were dreadful for the city’s residents, who faced rape, slaughter, and slavery.
The Byzantines Repelled Earlier Attacks
By the 15th century the Byzantine Empire had shrunk as the Ottomans began taking their territory.
The attack by the Ottomans was far from the first. Constantinople had withstood attacks:
- In the 7th and 8th centuries by Arabs
- In the 9th and 10th centuries by Bulgar Khans
- In the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries by the Rus
- In the 9th century by Thomas the Slav
An attack by Crusaders in the 13th century and subsequent brief occupation succeeded because a gate in the walls had been left open.
Byzantine forces inside the city and a fleet in the harbor repelled invaders for many centuries. The armed forces of Constantinople had a secret weapon called Greek fire, which was an extremely flammable liquid.
The Walls of Constantinople
But the greatest asset the city had were its defensive walls and moat. In the 5th century Emperor Theodosius II built up the city’s defenses by constructing a series of three walls measuring 6.5 kilometers long (about 4 miles). Additionally, Constantinople was situated on a peninsula and was surrounded on three sides by water. It was easy to keep ships out of the harbor by putting a chain or boom across its mouth.
A mural of the walls and boom or chain across the mouth of the harbor, all a part of Constantinople’s formidable defense. In the end, the Ottomans overcame them all.(CC BY SA 3.0)
But this time, in April 1453, it was estimated the troops manning the city’s walls numbered just 5,000, and the city had only a few ships to defend from the sea. The Byzantine forces were outnumbered, outgunned and out-shipped.
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Section of existing (restored) three wall structure that once protected Constantinople. (dinosmichail /Adobe)
Ottomans Demand Constantinople’s Surrender
On April 5, Ottoman Emperor Mehmed II, with his army gathered outside the city, sent word to Constantine IX demanding the city submit to the Ottomans. Constantine did not answer. Mehmed was determined to subdue the ancient capital, and he had a formidable force backing him.
Mehmed had something all those others who attacked Constantinople did not have: massive siege guns, designed by a Hungarian named Urban. And Mehmed had a force estimated variously from 60,000 to 200,000 fighting men. He also had a fleet outside waiting to enter the harbor.
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Huge siege cannons were used by the Ottomans in the siege of Consantinople (cascoly2 / Adobe)
The Ottomans’ siege guns were fearsome. One of the guns was 9 meters (29.5 feet) long and had a muzzle a meter across (more than 3 feet). That gun could fire a cannon ball of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) a distance of more than 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile). The barrel would get so hot that it could be fired just seven times a day. But the Ottomans had other powerful cannons that could be fired 100 times a day.
A Relentless Bombardment
On April 6, the huge guns began blasting the formidable walls of Constantinople to rubble. The defenders repelled attackers at the holes in the walls, and tried to repair those holes at night. They fired their own, much smaller cannons, too.
The defenders of Constantinople held out for six weeks.
They repelled the Ottoman ships at the boom (chain) across the harbor for a time. But the Ottomans built a railed road during the siege and got 70 of their ships into the harbor from the road. They began bombarding the weaker walls facing the sea.
A Rebellion at Home
In late May, the Ottoman emperor received word some of his subjects in Asia Minor were rebelling now that the army was away. Mehmed made an offer to Constantine IX: He would pay tribute, and the Ottomans would withdraw and call off the siege. Mehmed hoped to return to Asia Minor, but Constantine refused. It was a tragic mistake not to accept the offer.
The Hagia Sophia, which had been a Christian church; the day Constantinople fell, the Ottoman conqueror ordered the church be converted into a Muslim mosque. (Derzsi Elekes Andor/CC BY SA 4.0)
Angry, Mehmed told his men they could plunder the city any way they wanted when it fell. And Constantine was one of the richest cities in the world.
On May 29, Mehmed launched an all-out assault on the city, sending successively more powerful troops against it in three waves. The final assault by the Janissaries, his elite troops, proved Constantinople’s undoing. Once again, a small gate had been left open in one of the walls which allowed the Janissaries to enter the city. The raised the Ottoman flag in the city and then maneuvred around to a main gate and let the remaining army inside. The once impregnable Constantinople was soon to be overcome.
In the last desperate moments, the city had resorted to defending some of the walls with women and children. Needless to say they were quickly overrun. Some of the men fled to their homes to defend their families. Some people fled to the protection of the churches. That was not a wise move as the city’s churches were rich with gold and gems.
The Ottoman troops smashed Christian icons, statuary, frescoes and churches, including the Hagia Sophia. Mehmed entered the city later the same day and said the huge, magnificent church would become a mosque. He ended the slaughter upon his entrance.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Mehmed II made it his new capital. The rest of the Byzantine Empire fell not long after and was subsumed into the Ottoman Empire.
Top image: The Fall of Constantinople Source: cascoly2 / Adobe
By Mark Miller
Updated on December 31, 2020.
Cartwright, M. 1453: The Fall of Constantinople, available here: https://www.ancient.eu/article/1180/1453-the-fall-of-constantinople/
EyeWitness to History, The Sack of Constantinople, 1453; available at www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2011).
McLaughlin, W., 1453: The Fall of Constantinople and the End of the Roman Empire, available here: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/fall-constantinople.html.