In 216 BC, the Romans went on to rebound from their disastrous defeat at Cannae, where they possibly lost more than 5 percent of their male population in a single day. But after almost 1,700-years, the endurance of the Romans was finally extinguished by yet another burgeoning empire, with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. And while the momentous event in itself was among one of the many factors that led to the revival of Classical ideals in continental Europe (thus paving the way for Renaissance), it also marked the historical nadir of the Eastern Roman realm (Byzantine), the medieval counterpart to the Roman legacy.
But beyond far-reaching cultural and political effects, the Siege and Fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD in itself was a tactical set-piece that stretched both the sides – the Eastern Romans and the Ottomans, to their strategic limits. And that is exactly what has been presented in a detailed manner, with a bevy of blocks and diagrams in the following animated video –
1) The population ‘implosion’ on the Roman side
While Constantinople ruled the roost of largest European cities when it came to the long years between 5th and 13th century, the Constantinople of 1453 AD was only a mere shadow of itself, with its paltry population of around 50,000 people (inside the city walls). This populace was actually divided into various village-like settlements, all guarded by the massive land walls of the Eastern Roman capital, thus alluding to a decentralized state of affairs.
However the eastern-most side of the city still upheld its urbanized scope, and many of its neighborhoods were controlled by foreign merchants, including the Venetians. In essence, the inhabitants of this urban area were already inculcated with the military doctrine of favoring organized militia. Interestingly enough, they were also accompanied by the armed guards of the Greek monasteries, who were in turn aided by the monks serving in the vigla observation towers.
2) The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) military
A census made in the first half of 15th century revealed that the city officially only had 4,973 Greek professional soldiers as defenders, accompanied by around 200 foreign residents. However one should also account for the foreign volunteers and sailors who fought in the defense of Constantinople in 1453 AD, which would have brought the total number of defenders to about 8,500 men. Now as we fleetingly mentioned in the previous entry, many of the defenders from the eastern part of the city were organized in the style of urban militias. However historians still have very scant ideas about the professional Eastern Roman troops of this time.
In any case, one thing is for certain – the archers and crossbowmen of the Byzantine side played their major role in the defense of the city, and as such might have even formed brotherhoods, thus once again mirroring the military ideas of medieval Italy city-states. They were possibly supplemented by armed retainers of the many Byzantine noblemen and pronoia (fief) holders, along with the aforementioned guards of the monasteries. There are also records of the Constantinople defenders carrying their own set of firearms (smaller than their Ottoman counterparts), complemented by Greek Fire regiments under the supervision of one Johannes Grant, a Scot who made his way into Greece via Germany. And among these ‘professional’ troops, many wore Western European-style armor, in contrast to the majority light cavalry troops of the Byzantine army who adopted the attires of their Turkish foes.
3) The Ottoman Janissaries
The most famous of all Ottoman military units pertains to the Janissary (yeniçeri meaning ‘new soldier’). Belonging to the special kapıkulu class, their unique status didn’t either fall into freeman or ordinary slaves, but were considered an elite part of both the Ottoman military and society. Much has been said about their rigorous training and discipline, along with the infamous devşirme system which required a yearly quota of non-Muslim boys from the ages of 6 to 14 to be ‘forcibly’ enrolled as indoctrinated Muslim Janissaries (at least till the year 1648 AD). Interestingly, regarding the latter mentioned system, there were times when Christian peasants in the Ottoman-controlled European territories willfully wanted their children to be selected, so as to give them better prospects in life.
Now beyond training and indoctrination, it was the prevalence of rare Christian motifs that stood as testament to the originally non-Islamic origins of the Janissaries and the collusive system of the early Ottomans. To that end, the first batch of Janissaries may have just been Christian prisoners of war who were freed and asked to serve in the Ottoman army. The open-minded scope allowed for Bektashidervishes to serve as dedicated chaplains inside Janissary barracks; and these ascetics in turn were influenced by the initial Christian beliefs of the recruits. In fact, the teachings of Haji Bektash Veli (the founder of the Bektashi dervish order) were sometimes identified with that of Orthodox Christian saints. Such synergistic religious overtones translated to unexpected displays, like carrying of gospel quotations by many Janissary troops as lucky charms.
4) The development of artillery-based warfare
It was the Ottoman expertise in siege-craft that theoretically handed the Turkish side the advantage in the initial phases of this incredible encounter. On the other hand, Constantinople possibly had the best defensive fortifications among all (or most) of the medieval European cities. In any case, as opposed to native techniques, the original impetus to Ottoman gunpowder weaponry was probably offered by Balkan gun-makers and Jewish people who fled from Spain after the Moorish defeat. So it was only over time that the Turks were able to specialize in such gun-making skills, which culminated in incredible giant cannons with ‘modular’ designs – thus attesting to the Ottoman penchant for adopting military technologies (ironically, much like the ancient Romans).
Simply put, the giant weapons were assembled on the battlefield itself, with their barrels being transported directly from the depots. One of the famous example pertains to the gigantic siege cannon built by one gunfounder named Orban (who hailed from Transylvania). Used in the final siege of Constantinople in 1453 AD, this gun was supposedly completed in just three months (in Adrianople) and then dragged to the outskirts of Constantinople with the help of 60 oxen.
The scope was however not just limited to the size of the weapon systems, but also extended to their management during real-time battles. With some of the guns boasting over a mile in range (and capacity of firing thousand-pound iron balls), accuracy was tantamount to breaching massive medieval defense structures. For such preciseness, shots were sometimes compressed and then filled with the apt quantity of gunpowder in accordance with the required range. The shooting ambit also involved using sequential barrages, defensive mantlets (that provided cover for the artillerymen during reloading) and even illuminated range-markers for accurate nighttime bombardments.
Video Source: Reply History (YouTube)
Book References (for the article): Constantinople 1453 – The End of Byzantium (By Davide Nicolle)/ The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600 (By Halil İnalcık) / Armies of the Ottoman Turks (By David Nicolle).
Featured Image Source: Panoramio