Byzantine Chronology: The 15th Century

Figure 1.--This imaginative scene depicts the Turks entering Haiga Sophia at the fall of Constantinople in 1453. I'm not sure who painted this, but was probably done in the 19th century. Note the altar boys and the boy at the right who looks to be dressed more in 15th century Reniassance Otalian clothing than any destinctive Byzantine clothing. I'm unsure how accurate these clothing depictions are.

Constantine Palaeologus, the last Byzantine emperor as Constantinre XI was born (1404). Constantinople had declined by the 15th century to a shadow of its former imperial glory. The city was a tempting target, but the city's massive walls held the Turks at bay. Emperor John VIII dies and the sucessioin is disputed betweem his brothers Demetrius and Constantine (1448). The arrival of gunpowder from China, as in Western Europe, changed the military calculations of beseiging Medieval fortifications. Cannons devestated the walls that had protected the city for 1000 years. Mahammed II became Sultan on the death of his father (1441). Mehmed II conducts a siege and finally overwealm the vastly outnumbered Byzantine defenders (1453). Turkish cannons achieve a break in the wall and another opening occurs at a unprotected port. Turkish soldiers pour through the walls to take the city. The few remaining cities, such as Trebizond and Mistra, also fell to the Turks before the end of the century. The fall of Constantinople was a shock to Western Christendom. It was a great victory to the Ottomons who benefitted in many ways from possession of the great city. The city's fall also fueled the already increasing interest in Greek and classical studies, especially in Italy. This was a major factor in the appearance of the European Renaissance. [Runciman]

John VIII (1390-1448)

Emperor John VIII (John Palaeologus) suceeded his father Manuel II (1425). When he became emperor, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced by the Ottoman Turks to the city of Constantinople and a few loosely associated port cities (Trebizond and Mistra). Emperor John attempted to obtain secure Western aid by agreeing at the Council of Florence to the union of the Eastern and Western churches (1439). John died without children and the succession is disputed by this brothers, threatening a civil war.

Constantine XI (1404-52)

Constantine Palaeologus was born (1404). He was the 8th eighth of 10 children born to Emperor Manuel II and the Emperess Irene. Constantine was both Byzantine and Serbian. The Serbian kingdom had not yet been conquuered by the Turks and was the major Christian kingdom facing the Turks. The power of Byzantium had shrunk to Constantinople and a few related coastal ports. Emoperess Irene was a Serbian Princess who claimed descent from the French royal family through Helene de Courtenay, Queen of Serbia (1262-1308). Constantine's brother John succeeded his father as Emperor John VIII, but died without sons (1448). The throne was then diputed between two other sons of Emperor Manuel II, Demetrius and Constantine, and the possibility of civil war arose. To avoid this, Constantine and Demetrius decided to submit their claims to arbitration. Interestingly, rather than chose a disinterested paty in the West such as a Christian king or pope, they chose Murad II, the Turkish Sultan. The Turks of course were the mortal enemy of Byzantium. The choice seems strange to us today, but relations betwen Byzantium and the Christian kingdoms to the west and the Turks to the east or more complicated than appwars at first glance. A civil war in Byzantium could be of great benefit to the Turks. Sultan Murad, however, helped settle the dispute by chosing Constantine who became Constantine XI (1449). Constantine was at the time of his selection at despot of the Peloponnesus. He was crowned emperor in Mistra (January 6, 1449) and reached Constantinople (March 12, 1449).

The Ottoman Empire

The image of the Empire founded by Othman in the 13th century is not a popular one in the modern mind. There are no romantic images as surround many other great empires such as those of Greece and Rome. The images that are most in the public mind are those of a war-like, uncivilized people conquering the great jewel of Christianity--Constaniople, the enslavement of Christian children, the asault on Christain Europe, and the supression of the Greeks in the 19th century. The new sultan's murder of his brothers and the titilating stories of harems did nothing to improve the Ottoman image. The Ottoman Empire from the fall of Byzantium (1453) to the failed seige of Vienna (1683) was at the hight of its power and a major threat to Christian Europe. The Byzantine Empire had been a Christian bulwark. After the fall of Byzantium, Venice, the Hapsburgs, and other European powers had to face the full force of Ottoman military power.

Murad II (1402/04-51)

Sultan Murad early in his reign was faced with rival claimants to the throne, some of whom were supported by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II. These claimants were dangerous because they received support from some of the Turkmen principalities in Anatolia--the Ottoman hearland. Murad eliminated his rivals, including the most dangerous Moustafa the Duzmedje (1425). He reestablished his rule over the Turkmen principalities of western Anatolia and forced Byzantium to resume its tribute pyments. Murad beseigned Constantinople (1422) and recaptured Morea (1423). Although Murad did not take Constantinople, he ininiated Balkan campaign. The campaign lasted 5 years and resulted in the conquest of Salonika (modern Thessaloníki), in northern Greece which had been part of the Venetian empire (1430). The Ottoman armies achieved some success against a Hungarian-Serbian-Karaman allianceand formed a crusading army. The Turks conquered Bosnia (1438) and besieged Belgrade (1439). German, Polish, and Albanian forces strengthened the alliance (1441). As a result Murad lost Nis and Sofia (1443) and were defeated at Jalowaz (1444). The Crusaders were defeated at the Battle of Derbendi and the Segadin Agreement concluded with them in (1444). Demoralized, Murad signed the peace treaty at Edirne (June 12, 1444) and abdicated, allowing his 12-year-old son, Mehmed II, to become sultan. The crusading Europeans, despite the truce, saw the new child sultan as a weak target. Pope Eugenius IV helped organize a new campaign, violating the truce. Mehmed appointed his father commander-in-chief of the Ottoman army and Murad defeated the Christian crusdwrs at Varna (November 1444). Murad reassumed the office of Sultan again (1446). Murad crushed the Hungarian army at the second Battle of Kosovo (1448). Murad II was the Ottomon Sultan at the time that John VIII died (1448). One historian describes him as a "thoroughly correct and honest man". [Berk] Although it seems against his best interests, Murad help mediate the dispute between Demetrius and Constantine and decided in favor of Constantine. Murad mediated the dispute, despite the fact that he long dreamed of conquering Byzantium and seizing Constantinople. Murad died at Edirne when he was only 47 years old. On his deathbed emplored his son to take Constantinople (1441).

Mahammed II

Mahammed II became Sultan on the death of his father (1441). He was 2 years and had been highly educated. He spoke Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Slavonic. He was not of pure Turkish blood. His mother was an Albanian slave girl. He was raised by his stepmother, the Sultana Mara Brankovich who was Serbian.

Mara Brankovich

Upon becoming sultan, Mahammed II granted his stepmother rich estates in Macedonia and allowed her to return to her father, George Brankovich, who ruled Serbia. Constantine XI had married twice and bith his wives had died. The emperor's relative Protostratorissa Palaeologina suggested that her nice, Mara, the former Turkish sultana Mahammed's stepmother might be suitable as Constantune's next wife. He proposed, but was rejected. (Berk)

Orchan Effendi

Mahammed II also granted the Byzantines a grant of 300,000 aspers annually to allow Orchan Effendi, an Ottoman prince who had fled to Constantinople to live in a style befitting his station. Constantine upon arriving in Constantinople found the state bankrupt and unable to even pay the salaries of state officials and the relatively small military force defending the city. Constantine decided to obtain some added revenue by asking the Ottomons for additional funds to house Prince Orchan Effendi. (Berk)

Ottoman Decession

The Byzantines made the request for additional funds to the Ottoman Grand Vizier Chalil-pasha. His ancestry was a Greek and Serbian, but was furious with the Byzantine request. The Sultan was also furious when he learned of the request and decided that the time had come to honor his father's deathbed request and began to collect the necessary military forces. Mahammed built a castle on the European side of the Bosporus just outside the Constantinople city walls. It was here that the Sultan directed the assault on the city. The castle was called Rumeli Hisar, the "castle of Rome". Emperor Constantine XI tried to buy off the Sultan with gifts. The sultan beheaded two of his ambassadors. Constantine realized that war could not be prevented.

Western Response

Emperor Constantine XI upon learning of the Ottomon decision to attack Constantinpople sent emissaries to important western kingdoms, pleading for assistance. He hoped that a new crusade against the Ottomons might be possible. The Council of Basel had failed to unite the Wesern an Eastern Churches which impaired Constantine's ability to gain Western support. Some Venetians and Genoans did come to aid the Byzntines. Pope Nicholas V finally lent his moral support and offered to send a small force of ships and men to assist. Two of the major Christian kingdoms were at war, England and France. French King Charles VII agreed to end the war and help save Constantinople. English King Henry, however, was unwilling. The closing phase of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) was in progress. The French had largely won the war, but the English were not willing yet to conceed defeat. Unable to recruit forces from western kingdoms, Constantine requested that at least the pope send the 10 ships and men he promised. Pope Nicholas insisted first on the reunion of the Western and Eastern Church. Constantine and Orthodox Church officials agreed and a joint mass was celebrated in St. Sophia (December 12, 1452). The people of Byzantium, however, were enraged. As a result of the Crusades, many hated westerners who they called Latins more than the Ottomon Turks. A nun noted for her Christian piety put on turban and began sacrificing for Mohammed. [Berk]

Varying Loyalties

Constantine with limited military and financial resources faced the military superpower of the age--the Ottomon Empire. In addition, the world was not divided neatly between a Christian West and Islamuc East. Not only did many Byzantines hate the Catholic westerners or Latins more than the Turks, many Christians were more than willing to work with the Turks against Byzantium. Emperor Constantine faced one reverse after another. Constantine had a military force of only 7,000 Christians to defend Constantinople. Mahammed forces arrayed against the city included 30,000 Christians. Constantine's reported friend, Serbian ruler George Brankovich, sent 1,500 soldiers to on the Turkish side. The unpaid Byzantine soldiers and workmen virtually went on strike. Constantine ordered silver from the city's churches to be melted down for coins to pay the soldiers and workers.

Hungarian Canon

The Hungarian cannon maker Orban who had supplied the Byzantines began supplying tge Turks when they offered to pay much more than the Byzantines. Artillery was still a very novel weapn. The cannons available to both the Byzantines and Turks were still primative weapons. Orban built a hugh cannon, 7.9 meters long and 20 cm in diameter. It fired a 544 kg ball up to a mile. The Byzantines also had cannons, but they were smaller and the recoil damaged the wall where they were mounted. Urban's monster cannon sounds fearsome, but it was virtually impossible to aim and took 3 hours to reload. This gave the Byzantines time to reair damage. The number of cannonballs were limited. Finally the cannon recoil rendered it in oerative after 6 weeks.


The one advantage that Constantine held was the fact that Constantinople was perhaps the strongest fortified city in Europe. There were 14 miles of strongly fortified walls. The city had remained safe behind its enormous walls for centuries. There was, however, only a small force of defenders, insuffient for manning 14 miles of walls gainst the force amassed by the Sultan. The Byzantine military force had been variously estimated at 7,000-12,000 men. About 2,000 of the Byzantine force were foreign mercenaries.

Peace Offer

Sultan Mahammed II offered Emperor Constantine XI peace and a territory in Greece to rule. The Emperor's Council advised him to flee the city. Constantine realizing that Constantinople would fall decided that he would as the last emperor die along with the Empire.

Ottomon Attacking Force

Sultan Mehmed II amassed a force of 100,000-150,000 men which lay seige to the city. The Sultan's force included 20,000 Janissaries. The Sultan also built a fleet to besiege the city from the sea.


The final Ottomon siege lasted 50 days. The Turks brought up massive cannon to breach the city walls. Their huge infantry force was used to engulf the city. The Sultan planned his attack from the west, the part of the city that was not protected by water. The Sultan's army reached Constantinople and began the seige on Easter Monday (April 2, 1453). The Turks used the massive Hungarian cannon to fire on the city walls. It did some damage, but did not destoy the wall. In fact the inability to aim and the time needed to reload meant that the Byzantines managed to repair much of the damage after each shot.

Naval Seige

Sultam Mahammed' Black Sea fleetwas unable to complete the blockade by closing the sea route. The Byzantines built a massive chain across the entrance to the Golden Horn. Venetian and Genoese ships could still reach Constantinople from the south. The Sultan built a log road so the ships did not have to pass under the guns of Constantinople (May 21, 1453). This enabled the Sultan moved 30 ships across 8 km of land from the Bosporous into the bay of the Golden Horn. This enabled the Sultan to cut off all outside supplies and hope of reinforcements.

Assault on the City

The Turkish artillery pounded the city walls to weaken the defenses. The assault on the city began (May 29, 1453). The first attack was led by the Bashi-bazouks. They attacked the weakest point in the walls where the artillery had caused the greates damage. They fought furiously, but had to withdraw after 2 hours of combat. The second assault was carried out by the Anatolian Turks from Ishak's army. They employed cannons to blast at the city walls. They actually breached the walls and etered the city, but suffered terrible losses. The attack was called off at dawn. Mahammed before the Byzantine army was able to regroup and prepare for the next assault, ordered another assault on the breaches already achied in the walls. He ordered in the Janissaries. A fierce hand to hand battle ensued. The Byzanties had commited their reserves. The Turks stormed the gate, but were stopped again stopped. The Genoan general directing the Byzantine defense, Giovanni Giustiniani, was wounded in the Janissaries attack and his troops began to panic. The Kerkoporta port was left unmanned. The Turks then commited their naval force which brought in large numbers of soldiers. The Byzantinearmy was fully engaged with the Janissaries and there was no significant force available to stop the sea assault. These troops penetrated the harbor walls and started looting the city. Constantine pulled together a small force and met the invaders in the street. It was here that he was killed.

Fall of the City (1453)

The Turks looted Constantinople for 3 days. This was the traditional Turkish punishment for a city that resisted a siege. The people of the city were not put to the sword, although there were killings. The Sultan exercized some restraint out of respect for the great Byzantine Empire which had stoof over 1,000 years. Emperor Consantine's body was recognized after the fall of the city. He had purple shoes with embroidered double headed eagles (May 29, 1453). Constantine's head was exposed in front of the imperial palace to demonstrate that he was truly dead. Mahammed II allowed Constantine's body to be burned with all honors. He paid for a flame to be eternally maintained where Constantine had fallen.


The Ottomons seized control of the city. The Sultan renamed the city Istanbul and made it the Ottomon capital. To claim the city for Islam, Hagia Sophia was made a mosque and new mosques built. The Sultan also ordered palaces, monuments, and aqueducts built. Islamic law was introduced. The Greeks were made to form communities within the empire that were called milets. Christians were allowed to continue practicing their religion. The Greek Orthodox Church ws allowed to continue functioning. Gennadius Scholarius was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople. The Greeks had to wear distinctive clothes and were not permitted to bare arms. They were confined to the Phanar and Galata districts. They became known as the Phanariots and were often sought as advisors by the sultans. They came to be seen as traitors by other Greeks.


The few remaining cities, such as Trebizond and Mistra, also fell to the Turks. The last Byzantine state, the Empire of Trebizond, managed to hold out until 1461. The fall of Constantinople was a shock to Western Christendom. It was a great victory to the Ottomans who benefitted in many ways from possession of the great city. The city's fall also fueled the already increasing interest in Greek and classical studies, especially in Italy. Many Greeks fled Constantinople seeking refuge in Italy. This was a major factor in the appearance of the European Renaissance. [Runciman] Another important impact was that it gave new impetus to the European voyages of discovery. Venitian and other European traders had some access to China through the Silk Road. With the fall of Byzantium, the Ottomans closed this access. Now to trade with China a sea route would have to be established.


Berk, Harlan J. "The Story of Constantine XI: The Last Byzantine Emperor (1448-1453 AD)".

Runciman, S. The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 256p.


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Created: September 3, 2003
Last updated: 5:07 AM 4/23/2006