The Fall of Constantinople: 1453, Sir Steven Runciman

I’m back on a deep dive into medieval history. It’s a long story, but the revival was sparked by my figuring out how to stream Audible “books-on-tape” through my Android phone and a Bluetooth hands-free speaker phone that pushes audio into my the car’s FM radio.

The first book I downloaded was Edward Gibbon’s: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. With four hours and 250 miles to kill between Manhattan and Cape Cod, it’s enough time to listen to two chapters as read by by the former University of Virginia professor, Bernard Mayes.  Somehow sitting in bumper-to-bumper between Westport and Norwalk, Connecticut and learning about the excesses of Commodus (the real emperor who was the basis of the bad guy Joaquin Phoenix played in Gladiator) seems like a very good use of idle time. I’m on chapter 16, having just endured a beastly 3 am drive from NYC to Boston on Saturday morning in a downpour.

For the armchair, I’ve been engrossed in Sir Steven Runciman’s masterful The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. I prize his three-volume history of the Crusades, which contains what may well be my favorite line of all historical writing, regarding the leprous King Baldwin IV: “In Jerusalem the leper king kept the reins of power in his decaying hands.”

Runciman was a masterful historian and astonishing scholar who read his primary sources in nearly every language they were originally written. For some reason in all of my past readings into Byzantine history, I’ve missed out on his account of the siege and fall of the capital of the Roman Empire. Thanks to Amazon’s used book finder, I’ve plowed through the book and am here to declare that someone needs to make a movie, for a better tale of action I’ve never known.

The quick background:

Constantinople is strategically located on the Bosporus — the Hellespont — the narrow channel that divides Asia from Europe. Constantine the Great, the Emperor of the Romans who succeeded Diocletian after a protracted civil war, converts to Christianity and moves the capital from Rome to Byzantium, a remote outpost of the empire strategically straddling the Hellespont. What follows is the longest lived empire in the history of civilization, culminating with its defeat and destruction in 1453 by the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II. The city was sacked and invaded by the Fourth Crusade, a disaster that weakened it and set into play the conflicts between the Orthodox Eastern Christian Church and the Western Catholic Church. As a result, no sovereign in the West came to Constantinople’s defense during the alarming fall and winter preceding the spring attack. Despite the pleading of the last Emperor (also named Constantine), the few Greeks remaining in the walled city were all that stood between the invading Islamic force. Only the merchant city states of Venice and Genoa sent fleets and arms, but those were to defend their commercial interests and weren’t enough to come close to matching Mehmet’s immense army of over 100,000 men.

The defenders could only muster 7,000.

For two months the famed walls of Constantinople kept the Turks frustrated, but time, treachery, and sheer numbers saw the inevitable finally come true.

Runciman writes of the last Emperor’s final moments as the Turks finally breached the walls:

“…In the confusion it was impossible to close the gate. The Turks came pouring through; and the Bocchiardis’ men were too few now to push them back. Constantine turned his horse and galloped back to the Lycus valley and the breaches in the stockade. With him was the gallant Spaniard who claimed to be his cousin, Don Francisco of Toledo, and his own cousin Theophilus Palaeologus and a faithful comrade-at-arms, John Dalmata. Together they tried to rally the Greeks, in vain; the slaughter had been too great. They dismounted and for a few minutes the four of them held the approach to the gate through which Giustiniani had been carried. But the defence was broken now. The gate was jammed with Christian soldiers trying to make their escape, as more and more Janissaries fell on them. Theophilus shouted that he would rather die than live and disappeared into the oncoming hordes. Constantine himself knew now that the Empire was lost and he had no wish to survive it. He flung off his imperial insignia and, with Don Francisco and John Dalmata still at his side, he followed Theophilus. He was never seen again.”

I strongly recommend this one.


Back to the drawing board – Rushy Marsh Plugged

The new cut on Oregon Beach to refresh the stagnant waters of Rushy Pond by opening a sluiceway to the sea has been deliberately plugged with boulders and then again with some finality by a wad of sand and codium blown in on Saturday’s easterly storm. A backhoe is still parked there at the scene awaiting further instructions, but since I haven’t seen anything in the local press I’m assuming some authority — local or state — has decided to go back to the drawing board either out of concern or complaint over how the original engineering performed.

According to local scuttlebutt the new cut was supposed to flow at three miles per hour but instead was ripping out at 7 mph and causing some beach transformation as a result. So initial optimism that the pond would return to some pristine saltwater pond state has been dashed until further notice.

One comment on this blog lamented the impact of the project, tying it to my past post about the negative effect of rock groins/jetties on natural beach sedimentation dynamics. Another impact, reported second-hand by my wife, is the apparent mass fleeing of the area by the resident population of painted box turtles, none of whom like the change in salinity and have headed for the woods in search of decent habitation. My daughter said she saw a dead baby turtle crushed on the road while running past Wesson’s yesterday.

(and in further Cotuit wildlife weirdness, a dead deer washed up on the beach by Lloyd’s, probably drowned by exhaustion trying to paddle across Nantucket Sound at deer have been known to do).

So stand by. I would have hoped they’d let the thing drain until it found some equilibrium, but more educated minds are in charge.

The comment says:

“There is an ugly, untold truth about the Rushy Pond Project. With all the knowledge and experience of the detrimental effects jetties and groins cause on beaches, the Town of Cotuit embarked in the construction of yet another stone jetty by Oregon Beach, the former crown jewel of Cotuit beaches.

“In no time the once sandy beach North of the rigid jetty, has eroded leaving a man made retention cliff and a fringe of rocks on its place.

“Furthermore the jetty, which was built over private beach rights without notification or consent, now helps guide a stream of dirty water from the bacteria filled pond and into the ocean.

“The beautiful Oregon beach as we once knew it, is no loger available to be freely enjoyed by walkers, fishing enthusiasts and runners as the eye sore barrier of stones and dirty water is now on the way.

“Sadly due to the tampering with mother nature, the whole area is now much more vulnerable to flooding, than it ever was.
I surely wouldn’t let my loved ones swim into that newly created sewer like beach environment.”

I won’t argue the points, but find it hard to believe this is a surprise to any of the abuttors, many of whom pushed for the project. As for the beach as we once knew it — this is the most changed piece of beach in Cotuit. I remember the old days of the spit and internal lagoon than ran from Wesson’s down past the Bragdons. That’s long gone. The new cut was causing a cliff to develop on the northern shore. I’m surprised the engineers didn’t run two jetties out to cover both sides of the new inlet.  Stay tuned.

Both photos courtesy of Sharon Johanson.

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