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.