The fall of Byzantium was as much a shock for Europe as the sack of Rome, argues John Hinton
The End of Byzantium
BY JONATHAN HARRIS YALE, £22.50
The empire of Byzantium, which once covered half the Mediterranean, was gradually eroded, first by Muhammad and his successors, and then by the Turks. Constantinople remained, resplendent but doomed, in the midst of this devout and fanatical tide. The rest of Christendom talked of another crusade to rescue it and there was an attempt in 1443, before it came to a frozen halt in the bitter Balkan winter of 1444.
Any westerner seeing Constantinople for the first time was staggered by its majesty and size. Its triple land walls, built by Theodosius 1,000 years before, enclosed 115 square miles, at a time when Florence, one of the largest cities in western Europe, covered just two. It was a vast trading market at the heart of Eurasia.
In his new study, historian Jonathan Harris lists “cereals, fish and furs from the Black Sea coast and the Crimea; wine and cheese from Venetianruled Crete; cotton, sulphur, linen, figs, raisins, soap, hides, tallow, tin, iron and lead”. Not to forget silk, the secret of which had been stolen from the Chinese by wily Byzantine monks centuries earlier.
Harris begins his history of the fall of Byzantium with that most memorable of scenes, the night of May 28 1453. Knowing that, after having stood defiantly for eight long centuries, his city was finally about to fall to the forces of Islam, the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI, solemnly addressed his courtiers: “My brothers and fellow soldiers, be prepared for the morning...” All declared that they were prepared to fight and die for Christ and their homeland. The emperor then proceeded from one to another, asking them to forgive him if he had ever done any of them wrong. They embraced and many wept. Then the defenders returned to their positions. By the early hours of May 29, the city had fallen, the Turks were in, and most of the defenders were dead.
In fact, Harris reveals this moving account “is almost certainly untrue”. Supposedly an eyewitness report, it was in fact written more than a century later by a Greek archbishop living in Naples and was mere propaganda.
Instead, he presents a less heroic and colourful account of the end of the city. As with the fall of many empires, it was perhaps more plausibly characterised by cowardice, treachery, desperate efforts to escape, and the last-minute hoarding of gold.
Yet Byzantium’s terrible last siege and apocalyptic fall remain an astonishing story. And Harris offers plenty of serious scholarship, and a useful amount of background. Byzantium’s fall must have shaken Europe as much as the sack of Rome did Jerome and Augustine.
Harris argues persuasively against the idea that “medieval Christians and Muslims were in a constant state of antagonism and war”. They lived in relative harmony at times, especially when trading with each other. He dismisses “the belief of many Muslims today that they have been the perpet ual victims of Christian aggression across the centuries”, a version of events so false as to be comical.
The Arabs tried to conquer Byzantium in 674-78, and again in 71718. There were further sieges in 1394-1402, 1403 and 1411-12, before the last act in 1453. The city came under ferocious bombardment by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II, the difference now being gunpowder and the monstrous cannon whose use the Ottomans had mastered. The biggest cannon was said to require a gun carriage drawn by 150 oxen, and fired cannonballs that weighed a staggering 1,400lb each.
By comparison, the greatest British battleships of the Second World War, such as HMS Hood, fired shells of 1,900lb.
The fall of Byzantium to the religion of Islam was followed by “wholesale rape and sexual abuse”, says Harris, the destruction of numerous churches, and the deaths of some 4,000 people, combatants and noncombatants alike. One Byzantine nobleman fled to Granada to fight the Moors there as an obscure common soldier. Other wealthy families went to Italy, having found themselves persecuted as Christians in their conquered homeland.