Cowardice or Pragmatism? The truth behind the fall of Constantinople: Extract from ‘The End of Byzantium’

'The End of Byzantium' by Jonathan Harris

‘The End of Byzantium’ by Jonathan Harris

When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, this heralded the end of the once-mighty Byzantine empire. In this exclusive extract from The End of Byzantium, historian Jonathan Harris discusses the siege and its aftermath, focusing on ordinary Byzantines and their apparent readiness to surrender their city and end a thousand-year empire.

Extract from The End of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris

Late in the night of 28 May 1453, Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos met with his commanders. For six weeks they had defended the walls of Constantinople, capital and one of the last outposts of the once-mighty empire of Byzantium, against the forces of the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II. Against all the odds, they had held the line, heavily outnumbered and hopelessly outgunned by the sultan’s huge cannon. Now, from their positions on the walls, they could see from the piles of scaling ladders and grappling hooks and from the frenzied activity in the besiegers’ camp that Turkish preparations for the final assault were complete. At this critical juncture, the emperor sought to prepare his men for the battle ahead and to raise morale with a rousing speech:

Well, then, my brothers and fellow soldiers, be prepared for the morning. With the grace and strength granted to you by God and with help from the Holy Trinity, in which we have placed all our hope, let us force our enemy to depart from here in shame.

His commanders were deeply moved and declared that they were ready to die for Christ and their homeland. The emperor then proceeded from one to another, asking them to forgive him if he had ever done them any wrong. They did the same, embracing one another and ‘no man, even if he were made of wood or stone, could have held back his tears’. The defenders then returned to their positions to face the Ottoman attack but their heroic resistance was to be in vain. By the early hours of 29 May, the emperor and many of his commanders were dead and the Turks were pouring into the city, bringing the long history of Christian Constantinople to an end.

The story of the emperor’s last speech, the tearful embraces and the commanders’ eager declarations of their readiness to die for their country and faith has been told and retold over the centuries as an inspiring example of defiant heroism and self-sacrifice in the face of desperate odds. Sadly, it is almost certainly untrue. The chronicle that tells the tale was a forgery. It purports to be an eyewitness account of the siege by the Byzantine courtier and statesman George Sphrantzes (1401–c.1478), but it was, in fact, composed over a century later by a Greek archbishop living in Naples. Writing in the hope that the Holy Roman Emperor was soon to make war on the sultan and restore Constantinople to Christian rule, the author embellished and exaggerated the heroism of his Byzantine forebears, hoping to rouse his compatriots to a war against the common Muslim enemy. The many genuine contemporary accounts of the 1453 siege tell a very different story. Some mention that the emperor made a speech but they ascribe very different words to him and not one of them describes his emotional request for forgiveness or the mutual embraces and declarations. On the contrary, many first-hand accounts record that the Byzantines of Constantinople were decidedly unwilling to lay down their lives and that the most active defenders of the city were the Venetian and Genoese contingents. It was said that wealthy Byzantines hoarded their money rather than donate it to fund the defence while poorer ones demanded to be paid to participate.

Even among the Byzantine ruling classes, there was little interest in heroic last stands. While Constantine XI and some of his commanders undoubtedly did die on the walls of Constantinople fighting the victorious Turks to the last, not everyone was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. The emperor’s younger brothers Demetrius and Thomas took much less dramatic exits from their strongholds in the Peloponnese seven years later. Demetrius tamely surrendered to the sultan and handed over the town of Mistra without a fight. Thomas did not even wait for the Turks to arrive but fled in a ship to the island of Corfu.

Throughout the period 1372 to 1460, there were examples of outright Byzantine resistance to the Turks but they were relatively few and far between. For most of that time, the Byzantine emperor was a vassal and officially an ally of the Ottoman sultan. Rather than openly defy him, the emperor confined his opposition to covert intrigues, testing the bounds of the sultan’s forbearance to the limit. Members of the ruling Palaiologos dynasty were much more likely to be fighting each other than the Turks, often with one or other party in the dispute calling on the sultan for help.

All this can make it difficult to write the story of the end of Byzantium. Some have taken a sympathetic line, notably Sir Steven Runciman (1903–2000) who narrated the 1453 siege and its aftermath in vivid and unforgettable style. An ardent philhellene, he made no secret of where his sympathies lay and retold the stories of the Pseudo-Sphrantzes chronicle uncritically. Others have been considerably less complimentary about the last Byzantines and especially about their ruling Palaiologos family. Some regarded their downfall as the inevitable outcome of cowardice and decadence. That scourge of all things Byzantine, Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), saw the rulers of Byzantium as having ‘feebly sustained the name and majesty of the Caesars’, and George Finlay (1799–1875) singled out the last Palaiologoi as ‘the most worthless of princes’. An extreme view was voiced by the American journalist Herbert Adams Gibbons (1880–1934), who denounced the Palaiologoi as ‘the most iniquitous family that has ever disgraced the kingly office’ and declared that the death of Constantine XI was ‘a striking illustration of the wrath of God upon the fourth generation of those who had hated and despised him’. To those who had been raised in the atmosphere of nineteenth-century nationalism, the apparent readiness of the Palaiologoi and their subjects to sacrifice the interests of their country for their own factional advantage was unforgivable.

Recent commentators have taken a much more balanced line towards the last Byzantines with their readiness to surrender to the Turks and to indulge in petty dynastic squabbles. Some have argued that many Byzantines saw domination by a Muslim power as preferable to rule from the Catholic west because even if the Turks were infidels, they were nevertheless prepared to tolerate the Orthodox faith. Others have pointed out that economic issues and family ties rather than just personal ambition often lay behind struggles among the Palaiologoi. Yet a persistent element of criticism remains. The Byzantines have been accused of bigoted insularity which blinded them to the reality of the situation. It rendered them incapable of reaching a religious agreement to pave the way for help from western Europe, but at the same time they were not prepared to make sacrifices to resist the power of the Ottoman sultan.

So the problem remains. Even today, there is a perception that the Byzantines were somehow wanting or cowardly in their response to the Ottoman threat. It is a view that arises partly from a persistent fascination with the Crusades. Popular interest has led to the publication of a rash of books on the subject, many of whose titles reflect an assumption that there was (and is) an inevitable and inherent conflict between Christianity and Islam and that medieval Christians and Muslims were in a constant state of antagonism and war. The same assumption underlies the belief of many Muslims today that they have been the perpetual victims of Christian aggression across the centuries and the equally erroneous claim by westerners that Islam is some kind of uniquely violent religion. In that light, the readiness of some Byzantines to surrender tamely to Muslim domination seems like disloyalty to their own ‘side’ and somehow a deviation from what might normally be expected in the circumstances.

Siege of Constantinople, by Jean Chartier (1500-1580)

Siege of Constantinople, by Jean Chartier (1500-1580)

In reality, whatever the ideological or religious differences between Christian Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Turks, they were not necessarily natural enemies. On the contrary, on an everyday basis Greeks and Turks interacted quite peaceably for much of the first half of the fifteenth century. They were neighbours and trading partners and noticeably adopted aspects of each other’s customs and language.

Although they might disagree over whether Jesus Christ was God incarnate or simply a prophet, even in the Middle Ages that was seldom the kind of issue over which people went to war, the First Crusade (1095–9) perhaps being an obvious exception. What created the conflict were the policies pursued by those in power, whether ambitious Ottoman sultans who sought to promote themselves from leaders of a tribe to rulers of an empire, or meddlesome Byzantine emperors who believed that they could improve their precarious position by ill-judged stratagems. Indeed, political ambition rather than dogma lay behind most late medieval wars. Otherwise there would have been no Hundred Years War (1337–1453) between the Christian English and the equally Christian French and no clash between the Muslim Ottomans and their co-religionists and fellow Turks, the Karamanids.

Consequently, in the final phase of Byzantine history, the willingness on the part of some Byzantines to accommodate themselves to the Turks was not necessarily cowardice or lack of ‘patriotism’ but a realisation that the Turks were a permanent feature of the political landscape who were not going to go away. The deciding factors that the Byzantines were responding to were not so much the claims of religion or country but the realities of international politics and diplomatic manoeuvrings, and the need to make a personal choice to secure their future and that of their families.

The End of Byzantium focuses on individuals, whether the emperors and princes who took the decisions or the aristocrats, intellectuals, craftsmen, artists and townspeople who were forced to make choices in response. Sometimes, it is true, they acted in accordance with what they considered to be a moral imperative which dictated resistance and self-sacrifice but more often they chose their perceived economic or political interests. It is these personal choices and experiences that together make up the story of the end of Byzantium.

Jonathan Harris is Reader in Byzantine History, Royal Holloway, University of London. His research interests lie mainly in the later period of Byzantine history (1100-1453) and in the interaction between Byzantium and Western Europe, especially during the Crusades and the Italian Renaissance. His previous books include Byzantium and the Crusades and Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium.

The End of Byzantium is available now in paperback from Yale University Press.

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