A Constant Bombardment

Advanced Ottoman Artillery and the Erosion of Christian Morale During the Siege of Constantinople (1453).

Created in AD 324 by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Constantinople stood as a strong and important city for over a thousand years. Due to its importance as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and then the Byzantium Empire, the city went through many sieges and attacks in its history, none able to successfully get around the fortifications the city had. Constantinople has only been conquered twice- the first time was in AD 1204 by Christian soldiers during the Fourth Crusade and the second time was in AD 1453 by the Sultan Mehmet II and his forces. The second event is the focus of this paper due to the importance and ramifications of the event that has been termed ‘The Fall of Constantinople’. The Fall itself is complex, occurring due to a build up of events and choices made by the Emperor of Constantinople and the Sultan Mehmet II before and during the Siege. As to how it finally was conquered, the Fall of Constantinople happened due to a loss of hope and morale for the Christians of Constantinople- though they were strong and determined to win, their power and defenses were soon overcome. They were overcome due to the military might and relentless dedication of the Turks under Mehmet II. After reading and studying The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Sir Steven Runciman, three events stand out as important to the overall success of the Turks: When the Hungarian Engineer Urban built cannons for Sultan Mehmet instead of Constantinople, the consistent destruction of Constantinople fortifications and ships during the siege by Turkish cannons, and the final loss of morale and hope due to the gaps in the city’s fortifications and opened little gate.

Located on a thin Peninsula between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Constantinople has been a key part of European Christendom for centuries and due to this, enemies of Christendom have tried to capture the city many times. But while the city’s defenses were still impregnable and strong, the Byzantium Empire itself was growing weak as time went on. Seeing this, the quickly growing Ottoman Empire moved to conquer the failing Empire, wanting to increase the size of their nation. Due to their efforts, Constantinople was soon left helpless and alone with no help from the rest of Christendom due to the Turkish blockade surrounding it. The citizens and soldiers of Constantinople were worried, but held strong to their hope that this city’s defenses could make it through this attack as they had made it through previous attacks. But, technology had changed much since the last time Constantinople had been attacked, bringing with it a great and formidable weapon to city defenses: the cannon.

The Fall of Constantinople 1453 states that a Hungarian Engineer by the name of Urban went to offer his expertise on cannons to Constantinople during the Summer of 1452. As stated before, though, the Byzantium Empire had been growing weaker- this was also shown in the amount of money and resources they had. Unable to pay the rates or give him the supplies Urban needed, Emperor Constantine XI had to refuse his offer and leave Constantinople’s cannons as they were. From here, Urban went and approached Sultan Mehmet II, saying he could “construct a cannon that would blast the walls of Babylon itself”(Runciman, 78). After being paid far more than he had been asking for and given the materials he needed for his work, Urban built an enormous cannon for Mehmet II. These sentences show the striking difference between the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantium Empire- the Byzantium’s did not have the funds to match Urban’s request nor the materials to help him construct cannons; on the other side of things, the Ottomans had more than enough money to pay Urban with and supply him with the materials he needed. That means that, finance and resource wise, the Ottoman Empire was much more powerful. After the cannon’s successful use on Venetian ships trying to get around the blockade, Urban built a second cannon larger than the first. When the second one was tested, “the reverberation was heard for a hundred stadia, and the ball hurtled through the air for a mile, then buried itself six feet deep in the earth.” This sentences shows the strength and force of this cannon; it begged the question that while the walls and fortifications of Constantinople are formidable, are they enough to stop such a powerful weapon? Even more, from building this cannon, Urban went on to build more cannons for Mehmet II’s military. The book mentions on page 79 how terrified and full of despair the Christians of Constantinople were when they saw Mehmet II’s military approach their city with the cannon’s in toe. They had meager forces- less than a tenth of the soldiers Mehmet II had. But, they were a courageous bunch and were not going to surrender quietly- so despite their terror, they worked hard to prepare themselves and their city for the Ottomans’ attack. 

It was not just soldiers that Constantinople was lacking, though- they had their own cannons as well, but they were fixed ones on the fortifications of the city and “proved to be of little value”(Runciman, 94). They did not have enough potassium nitrate to act as gunpowder for the cannon balls; even worse, when the cannons were fired “the reverberation damaged the fortifications.” All in all, their cannons were no match for Sultan Mehmet II’s cannons and even weakened the fortifications of Constantinople. Throughout the siege, Mehmet II’s cannons proved essential to the fight against the Christian defenders. Of course, Mehmet II’s cannons had their own problems as they were hard to keep in position and often had to be tended to. The largest one could only be fired a few times a day- but those few times brought much damage as the cannonballs “broke into a thousand pieces as they hit the walls; and the masonry could not stand up to them”(Runciman, 97). No matter what the Christians tried to lessen the cannonballs affect, it was no use as the devastation to the walls kept continuing. They tried to rebuilt the gaps in the walls, but were not able to keep up with the destruction. This also brings with it the implication that, due to the destruction caused by the cannonballs, much Christian manpower was diverted from fighting to rebuild the walls, taking people away from an already small fighting force compared to the Ottomans. One thing the Christians had an advantage in, though, was the naval battles, such as the one on April 12. But, even though they won the battle, Sultan Mehmet II was resourceful and able to adapt- angered at the loss, he changed their strategy by making improvements to the cannon’s aim so that they could hit the much taller Christian ships- they succeeded in this after a few days of study. Upon testing, “The first shot failed, but the second landed on the very centre of a galley and sank her, with considerable loss of life”(Runciman, 98). Despite the strength of the Christian’s fleet, Sultan Mehmet II and his military were able to adapt and improve their cannons to create even more devastation. Following this pattern, Mehmet II went on using cannons in naval battles, resulting in the sinking of many Christian ships. The force of the cannons against the city was strong as well; in fact, Mehmet “calculated that the damage done to the land-walls would enable him to take the city without the necessity of forcing the boom”(Runciman, 99). This sentence shows that the cannons force and penetration of Constantinople’s walls was key to shortening Mehmet’s attack on the city and making it easier on his men.

The Christians were formidable in their fighting and held out well against the attacks of the Ottomans. But while they were courageous in fighting, morale began to sink as did hope. The devastation and might of the Ottomans was a constant bombardment to the Christians. The forceful Turkish cannons destroyed ship after ship as well as creating numerous holes in the walls of Constantinople that the Christians tried fervently to stop. But, with few supplies and strength running low, their hope began to wane. On the Twenty-Eighth of May, Sultan Mehmet II sent out his Bashi-bazouks(mercenary soldiers known for their ferocity) to fight the Christians and though they did not win the battle, “they had served their purpose in wearying the enemy”(Runciman, 135). From this, the Christians “hoped for a moment of rest. It was not granted to them.” As this fighting went on, Mehmet’s cannons kept destroying the walls, causing many Christians to race to rebuild the gaps in the city’s defenses. Things were looking bleak for the exhausted Christians as they tried desperately to repel the determined Turks back. It was in this exhaustion that an important event occurred. The sun had yet to rise when the Genoese Giustiniani was shot and injured in battle. Completely battered, he gave up the fight- the Emperor of Constantine tried to talk him out of leaving, but he was fervent his “nerve was broken; he insisted on flight”(Runciman, 138). It was this that led to the Fall of Constantinople- completely exhausted and devoid of hope, Giustiniani(the siege expert of Constantinople) rushed back into the city with some of his men, leaving the little gate open. At this, the Turks rushed in through it and passed the walls to the city of Constantinople, “The Emperor and his Greeks were left on the field alone”. From here, the rest of the Turkish soldiers surged forward, climbing up the stockade which had collapsed earlier in the night from a Turkish cannon. The soldiers of Constantinople tried desperately to stop the Ottoman soldiers from entering the city, but it was too late: the defeated actions of Giustiniani and the destruction of Mehmet II’s cannons to the walls of Constantinople had sealed their fate. From here, the city fell to the Ottoman Empire as the Byzantium Empire finally collapsed.

After pillaging the ancient city of Constantinople, killing anyone that got in their way, the soldiers settled down. After dispensing with anyone who would threaten their victory or call for later resistance, Mehmet II set out to rebuild the city of Constantinople. Due to the decline of the Byzantium Empire, much of the ancient city had been falling apart. Seeing this, Mehmet rebuilt it into a beautiful and magnificent city and making the ancient Christian city of Constantinople into the Islamic city of Istanbul which it still is today. As the city was now the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, the old Roman Empire was gone, leading to the modern age. The Ottoman Empire would continue to control this area until its fall in the early Twentieth Century. Upon the Fall, with the Ottoman Empire now controlling the city that stood in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea as well as much of the land of the Middle East, the Christians and European citizens were forced to find other ways to trade with Asian countries. This led to the colonization of the West coast of Africa, the complete navigation around Africa to the Southwest Asia, and later on the discovery of the Americas. The ramifications of this Fall were numerous and they all occurred due to the constant bombardment the Turks of Mehmet II made against the Christians of Constantinople. Despite their own courage and determination, they slowly weakened from the force of the Turks, the destruction of their own ships and walls from the adaptability and force of the Turks’ cannons, and the final loss of hope and morale that resulted in Giustiniani’s retreat that left the little gate open and allowed the Turkish soldiers to stream in through it and the gaps made in the walls from Turkish cannons. From the combination of these three things, Constantinople was lost to the Ottomans.

Works Cited

Runciman, Sir Steven. The Fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge: University Press, 1965.

Cartwright, Mark. “1453: The Fall of Constantinople.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. January 23, 2018. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1180/1453-the-fall-of-constantinople/

“Bashi-Bazouk.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/bashi-bazouk.