The Sieges of Constantinople

378, 626, 674, 717, 813, 821, 860, 907, 941, 1047, 1101, 1203, 1204, 1235, 1261, 1376, 1402, 1411, 1422, 1453 

Posted by Powee Celdran

It’s either I take this city, or the city takes me, dead or alive, the city is all I want” -Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, Siege of Constantinople, 1453

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Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger, this new article which will be the second one for this year 2020 is once again going to be another Byzantine topic and something I always wanted to cover, which would be on the many times the Byzantine capital Constantinople was besieged, either by foreign enemy armies or by Byzantines themselves in the many civil wars the empire fought among themselves. Since the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) lasted for more than a thousand years with Constantinople as its capital, the capital has been besieged many times over the centuries but despite being besieged multiple times, no enemy was able to breach into the city, and only twice was the city’s walls breached and the capital captured by the enemy; first by the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204 and finally by the Ottomans in 1453, and one time it was successfully besieged- though by an infiltration and not a siege- by the Byzantines themselves when they recaptured the city in 1261. What saved the city multiple times from enemy armies attacking it were its strong multi-layered walls built in the 5th century during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) which protected the city both from the land and sea and went as high as 12m. Since these walls were too strong and were surrounded by many moats as well as having many towers, none of Byzantium’s enemies had the technology to breach these walls except for the Ottomans in 1453, and only by technologically advanced cannons were they able to break through the walls as the Crusaders in 1204 were only able to capture the city as the overwhelmed Byzantine defenders fled due to the Crusaders’ surprise attacks in which they did not fully breach the walls but scaled the sea walls to break into the city. However, before the Crusaders in 1204 and Ottomans in 1453 were able to successfully besiege Constantinople, all other armies before them failed especially when the city’s walls were the most powerful in the world and could not be matched by any other while at the same time these enemies did not have the technology to attack the walls. The armies of the Goths, Persians, Slavs, Avars, Arabs, Bulgars, Kievan Rus, as well as Byzantine rebels failed to attack these walls and instead returned home defeated, thus allowing the Byzantine Empire to live on. In fact, one of the reasons why the Byzantine Empire lived on for so many centuries as a powerful state was because its capital was protected by extra-powerful walls allowing the city inside to grow. What also helped Byzantium win these wars and always successfully defend themselves and their capital was not because of having these powerful walls but because the Byzantines had many advanced means of protection such as powerful siege weapons like Greek Fire and also the diplomatic skills of emperors who were able to persuade other neighboring countries to help them attack the besieging enemy armies, but on the other hand sometimes it was all about luck that saved the Byzantines from enemy sieges, but also at the same time, the courage of the Byzantine soldiers helped defend their empire by their motivation to fight to defend the Christian faith. By However, at the end Byzantine control of Constantinople ended with the city being captured by the enemy in 1453 but this did not end Constantinople completely as the Ottoman conquerors rebuilt the dying Byzantine capital into a cosmopolitan world capital again, though before that the Ottomans too tried and failed many times to besiege the city. Before becoming an imperial capital, Constantinople was once the unimportant port town of Byzantium at the Bosporus Sea between Asia and Europe until the emperor Constantine I the Great, the founder of the Byzantine Empire chose this location as the new capital for the Roman Empire and being in a strategic location controlling trade in the narrow Bosporus Sea, it grew to become the world class imperial city it was known to be. In this article, I will cover all the sieges of Constantinople that were recorded in history as others may have happened but were not record it and together with the dates of the sieges, I will mention a short story behind these sieges, who the enemies were and how they fought, which Byzantine emperors were at the sieges defending the city, and how the Byzantines won or lost these battles. This article will be written in chronological order from the 4th to 15th centuries, although in some centuries, luckily Constantinople had not been besieged. At the end of this article, I will discuss the final siege of Constantinople in 1453 and make a quick review on the new 6 episode Netflix series Rise of Empires: Ottoman which tells the story of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople.

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
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Byzantine Era Constantinople
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Diagram of Theodosius II’s walls of Constantinople
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Byzantine siege weapons
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Meme of the Byzantine Empire’s protection of Europe from Islamic invasions

 

Other Related Byzantine Articles from The Byzantium Blogger:

The Art of War in the Byzantine World 

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History

Ethnic Origins of the Byzantine Emperors

Constantinople, the Queen of Cities and its many Secrets

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

Byzantine Science and Technology

The 94 Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

 

Pre-Constantinople Byzantium Sieges (478BC, 340BC, 193-195AD)

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Byzantium before being Constantinople

Before Constantinople became the Roman Empire’s new capital in 330 under Emperor Constantine the Great, it was the small and unimportant but still promising port town of Byzantium which was said to be founded by the Greek colonizer Byzas of Megara in the 7th century BC. The first known date Byzantium was besieged was in 478BC by the combined armies of the Greek city states during the last days of Greek-Persian Wars when the Greeks have already driven out the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s armies from Greece. Though the details of the siege are unknown, it was a naval siege by the Greek navy and at the end it was successful and the Persians were driven back to Asia Minor.

The next recorded date old Byzantium was besieged was in 340BC by the Macedonian Greek army under their king Philip II, though he failed in besieging both coastal cities of Byzantium and Perinthus from the Thracians, though King Philip II despite these failed sieges would begin growing the small kingdom of Macedonia into a military power in which his son and successor Alexander III the Great would built on by swiftly conquering everything in the east including the Achaemenid Persian Empire expanding Macedonia’s empire all the way to India.

The next time Byzantium would be besieged would be centuries later from 193-195AD when it had already been under the control of the Roman Empire, and this time, Byzantium was used as one of the bases of Pescennius Niger, a general and rival emperor of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) who was crowned emperor the same year he laid siege on the port town of Byzantium, which lasted 2 years. During the 2-year siege of the Roman civil war, Niger was beheaded in 194 but Byzantium refused to surrender until Severus’ army stormed Byzantium and razed it to the ground. Septimius Severus, who originally was from Roman North Africa having both Roman and North African blood saw that Byzantium had potential so instead of leaving it fully destroyed after he captured it, he decided to rebuilt the city and during his reign, the original Hippodrome of Constantinople was constructed while more than a century after his death in 211, Constantine the Great would transform this port town into the new Roman capital.

 

Goths, 378- The first attack on Constantinople as the new Roman capital took place in 378 with the Goth army attacking, which is commonly known as the Battle of Constantinople. Prior to the attack of the Goths, the Romans and the Goths from beyond the northern Roman borders in Eastern Europe got into conflict with each other during the reign of Emperor Valens (364-378) who ruled the eastern half of the empire from Constantinople now that Constantine the Great had already founded Constantinople as the capital, meanwhile as Valens ruled the east, his older brother Valentinian I (r. 364-375) ruled the west from Milan. The Goths from Eastern Europe sought refuge in the Eastern Roman Empire in fear of Hun attacks from the east but the emperor Valens failed in settling them in his empire and instead of making peace with the Goths, the Goths rose up against Valens and in August 9, 378 the Goth army defeated Valens and his army by surprise attack at the Battle of Adrianopolis in Thrace just near Constantinople. Valens was thus killed in this battle and his body was never to be found, and shortly after the victorious Goth army led by their king Fritigern marched south to Constantinople which had already been fortified. Constantinople’s defending army though was outnumbered and leading the defense of the city from the Goths was Valens’ widow Empress Albia Dominica who reinforced the city’s defense with Arab warriors as the army of the city was outnumbered. The Arabs were recorded to fight excellently against the Goths and it was even said that one Arab warrior charged at the Goth army naked and sucked the blood from the neck of a decapitated Goth. In the end however, the Goths had to abandon the siege as their army was also outnumbered despite previously winning the Battle of Adrianopolis and instead of entering the city, the Goths fled to Thrace, Illyria, and Dacia. At this time, Constantinople did not yet have the powerful walls of Theodosius, yet its already existing fortification built by Constantine the Great was enough to make the Goths retreat, though the Goths too had no means to besiege the new capital. On the other hand, Valens died without any sons to succeed him so for a couple of months, Constantinople had no emperor and instead Valens’ nephew and Valentinian I’s son Gratian ruled over Constantinople until the general Theodosius I came to Constantinople early in 379 to become emperor and would be the last emperor to rule a united Roman Empire as after his death in 395, the empire was fully divided east and west between his sons Arcadius who would rule the east and Honorius who would the west. It would be Theodosius I’s grandson, Arcadius’ son Theodosius II that would have the powerful walls of Constantinople built during his long reign.

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Fullt division of the Roman Empire between east and west, 395

 

Persians, Avars, and Slavs, 626- For almost 3 centuries from 378 to 626, there had been no major siege of Constantinople by enemy armies or during Byzantine civil wars except for a few attacks by rebel Byzantine armies. During this time, Constantinople and Byzantium itself went through a golden age under the reign of Justinian I the Great (527-565) but decades after his death, the Byzantine Empire was too large to control with its borders spanning west to east from Southern Spain to Syria, north to south from Ukraine to Egypt and at the beginning of the 7th century, the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) no longer had enough funds for the army so he decided to cut army pay leading a usurping centurion named Phocas to overthrow and execute Maurice and his family and become emperor (602-610). Earlier, the emperor Maurice made peace with the Sassanid Persian Empire, the long-time enemy of Byzantium by putting Chosroes II in the Persian throne in 591 but with his friend Maurice dead, Chosroes II declared war on Phocas for killing Maurice and due to the incompetent rule of Phocas, the Persians began quickly capturing all Byzantine provinces in the east going as far as to invading Asia Minor and as Phocas focused on wiping out any political enemy, Byzantium’s northern borders at the Danube too were threatened by new invaders, the Slavs and Avars. To save Byzantium from destruction, a rebellion led by Heraclius the Elder the exarch of Byzantine North Africa and his son Heraclius overthrew and executed Phocas in 610 and the son Heraclius was proclaimed emperor. As emperor, Heraclius (r. 610-641) was determined to end the Persian threat by marching out east to the Persian heartland itself and in 622 after raising an army, he left Constantinople and headed east into Persia. Now that Heraclius set off east to defeat the Persians, the Sassanid Persian shah Chosroes II who was still in power till then decided to weaken Heraclius and his army by having a branch of the Persian army attack Constantinople as the Persians already had control of Asia Minor. In June of 626, the Persian army under the general Shahrbaraz laid siege to Constantinople from the south and east both by land and sea, the Persians too got the Avars and Slavs at the north to ally with them and attack Constantinople from the land on the European side. However, even if the Persians had enough troops to take over the city and were masters of siege warfare, the narrow Bosporus was still controlled by the Byzantine fleet meaning Persian reinforcements could not come from that direction. Meanwhile, the city’s defending troops were outnumbered as the rest of the army headed east with the emperor but the city’s defenders fought with such courage led by the Patriarch Sergios I, the patrician Bonus, and Heraclius’ 14-year-old son and successor Constantine III who despite his young age showed skill in commanding the soldiers. Meanwhile in the east, when Heraclius heard of the attack on the capital, he sent a reinforcement army back to Constantinople led by his brother Theodore to attack the Persians from behind. In the end however, the Persians grew outnumbered and could find no means of attacking the powerful walls from either land or sea and the Avars and Slavs attacking in the land side only went as far as damaging the city’s water supply by cutting down the aqueduct but without any means to besiege to high and strong land walls of Theodosius II, they decided to abandon the siege. The Persians too did not have much of a strong navy to attack the walls and as weeks went by, supplies for the 3 attacking armies ran low leading them to all abandon the siege by July, though inside the city, Patriarch Sergios persuaded the people that they were under the divine protection and true enough people had claimed that they saw the Virgin Mary fighting the Persians, Avars, and Slavs herself with a sword and casting out firebolts. By August, the Persian, Avar, and Slav fleet were completely chased out by the Byzantines and 2 years later in 628, a rebellion within Persia overthrew Chosroes II and executed him and Heraclius ended the war victorious with all the lands the Persians captured returned to Byzantium. However, Byzantium’s victory against Persia did not last long as by the 630s, a new enemy came from the south and were once again fatal to Byzantium, which had already been exhausted from the war with Persia. This new enemy were the Arabs motivated by spreading the new religion of Islam and by 651, the Arabs have completely crushed the Sassanid Persian Empire. Heraclius died in 641 seeing most of his empire which were the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria lost to the Arabs.

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Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian I the Great (527-565)
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Fresco of the 626 Siege of Constantinople

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine-Persian war from 602-628 (from Kings and Generals).

 

Umayyad Caliphate Arabs Part1, 674-678- After the death of Emperor Heraclius in 641, the Arabs from the desserts of Arabia began expanding their territory quickly with nothing stopping them, even the Byzantine fleet proved no match for them many times. Heraclius grandson Constans II (r. 641-668) reigned in fear of the Arabs invading Constantinople so he permanently abandoned the capital in 663 deciding to move the capital to Syracuse in Sicily but before doing that, he was assassinated in his bath in Syracuse by a slave wielding a soap dish by orders of a rival general named Mizizios. Following Constans II’s death, Mizizios was executed by orders of Constans II’s supporters and Constans II’s young son Constantine IV (r. 668-685) was proclaimed emperor. By the time Constantine IV came to power, the Arabs have declared a new empire, the Umayyad Caliphate founded by the general Muawiyah I in 661 after defeating the previous Arab Rashidun Caliphate, the first Arab empire founded by Abu Bakr after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The new Umayyad Caliphate under the caliph Muawiyah I was determined to fight and end Byzantium and capture Constantinople for Islam and Caliph Muawiyah I spent his reign warring first with Constans II and next with Constantine IV. The first Arab siege of Constantinople took place beginning 674, 6 years after Constantine IV came to power and at this point, he had already grown wise in warfare despite his young age. According to the Theophanes the Confessor, who chronicles the siege, the Umayyad Caliphate attacked methodically by first securing their fleet along the Marmara coast of Asia Minor and sending fleets one by one to attack the sea walls of Constantinople. Within the 4 years from 674 to 678, the Arabs would rest during winter and send their fleets to attack at springtime but each time the Arab fleet tried to attack, there was no progress as they had no idea on how to besiege the walls by sea as the entire seaside of Constantinople was protected by walls. During the times when the Arabs were gathering their fleet and strength, the Byzantines used it to develop a new weapon that was unheard of back then, an ancient flamethrower that could pump out liquid fire to burn down ships while its flames could even burn in water. This new weapon would be known as Greek Fire and although it is said how this weapon worked, the formula remains unknown but the emperor Constantine IV approved of this invention by the engineer Kallinikos. Thanks a lot to the invention of Greek Fire and both Constantine IV’s leadership and approval of this weapon’s invention, Constantinople was saved from the endless attack of the Arab fleet. With Greek Fire put into action by the Byzantine navy, the Arab fleet attempting to besiege Constantinople was fled in terror of liquid fire blown at their ships and by 678, the Arab fleet turned away from Constantinople being overwhelmed by the Byzantine fleet and Constantinople was saved again. Also, it is said that in this siege, the now aged Abu Ayyub, the standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad led the Arab army in the land attack of Constantinople but because of illness he died when the city was under siege and he was buried outside the city, though after the siege Constantine IV who threatened to destroy the tomb decided not to or else the Umayyad caliph would kill make Christians under his rule suffer, instead the tomb was left untouched until it was uncovered by the Ottomans after they captured Constantinople in 1453. The victory of the Byzantines against the Arab army was in fact even mentioned in Chinese sources of that time including the Old and New Book of Tang. The Umayyad Arabs on the other hand would have to wait decades to attack Constantinople again once they have regained their army, but during the meantime, they instead made their way into Europe through the long way by conquering North Africa first before invading Spain in 711.

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The Arab Umayyad Caliphate (661-750)

Watch this to learn more about Constantine IV and the defence of Constantinople (from Eastern Roman History).

 

Umayyad Caliphate Arabs Part2, 717-718-Almost 40 years after the Arabs last besieged Constantinople but failed in 678, the same Umayyad Caliphate would return in 717 again and try to take Constantinople now with a much larger fleet and army. In the years between both major Arab sieges, Byzantium rapidly declined as Constantine IV’s son and successor Justinian II spent his first reign (685-695) fighting wars against the Arabs and spending all the empire’s money on it until he was overthrown in 695 and the general Leontios replaced him as emperor but when Byzantine Carthage fell to the Arabs in 698, Leontios was overthrown by the army and replaced by Tiberius III who ruled until 705 when Justinian II returned to power with the help of the Bulgar army infiltrating Constantinople by passing through the aqueduct. Justinian II’s 2nd reign was in fact worse than his first one as in his second one he endlessly had his revenge on all those who wrong him in his first reign by executing them being oblivious to the external Arab threat, so in 711 Justinian II was overthrown again and this time beheaded and Philippikos Bardanes replaced him as emperor but in 713 was overthrown and replaced by his secretary Anastasius II (r. 713-715) who in his short reign discovered the Arabs’ plan in planning a new siege of Constantinople which made Anastasius II do all he could he stocking up Constantinople’s food and weapon supply in case of a sige but in 715 he was overthrown by the army and replaced by the reluctant Theodosius III (r. 715-717). Theodosius III did not care to be emperor so when the Isaurian general Konon rose up against him, Theodosius III abdicated and Konon became Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741). Now within the 22 years from 695 to 717, Byzantium had a change of emperor 7 times which led to the weakening of the Byzantine state as a whole and increased vulnerability for Constantinople to actually fall to the Arabs, thus ending Byzantium, but the end still did not come for the Byzantines. In 717, a few months after Leo III became emperor, the Umayyad army and fleet now amassed and headed for Constantinople and within these years, the Arabs were able to amass an army and fleet much larger than the one they had when the previously attacked Constantinople. It is said that the attacking Arabs had an army of 120,000 to 200,000 men and 1,800 to 5,000 ships, though it is unclear how much men and ships the Arabs had, they still outnumbered the defending Byzantine army. This siege however despite the Arabs having more men and ships than the last time lasted quicker and at the end, the Byzantines won once again through the same means as they did, defending against the Arabs the last time. First of all, Constantinople’s walls were still intact and the Arabs still had no means to breach them, second the Byzantine fleet defending the city once again used Greek Fire, and third the strength of the walls delayed the attack of the Arabs by months until winter came and the food supply of the Arabs ran out. The Arabs on the other hand were unfamiliar with winter and this winter was particularly a harsh one and by the time winter came, the Arabs’ food supply ran out and their army died of cold and starvation. The rest of the Arabs and their fleet chose to abandon the siege when all hope was lost for them and as they were retreating, Leo III used diplomacy to help the Byzantines win by asking his ally, the Bulgarian khan Tervel in the north- the same Bulgarian ruler who helped Justinian II come back to power in 705- to lead his cavalry army and attack the besieging Arabs. In 718, Khan Tervel and his army chased the remaining Arab army away forcing them to escape Constantinople by ships and at the end only 5 out of the 1,800 ships were able to escape the winter storms and Greek Fire at Constantinople making it back to the Umayyad lands in the south. Meanwhile, Emperor Leo III too knew the Arab mind and could speak Arabic as he grew up in Byzantine Syria having contact with the Arabs so he was able to help Byzantium win the war as he knew the tactics of the Arabs as well as their culture. Afterwards, Leo III began his long reign and his reign turned out to be successful in fighting off Arab invasions several times despite introducing the Iconoclast movement years later thinking it would save Byzantium from the Arabs as after 718, the Umayyads and in fact the Arabs in general would never attack Constantinople again.

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The Byzantine Empire in 717, after the 20-year-Anarchy period
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Khan Tervel and his Bulgarian army save Constantinople from an Arab invasion, 717-718

Watch this to learn more about the 2nd Arab Siege of Constantinople from 717-718 (from Kings and Generals).

 

Bulgars, 813-814- For the rest of the century after Leo III came to power in 717, Byzantium after successfully defending their capital against the Arabs continued winning more wars against the Arabs in Asia Minor. At the end of the 8th century, with the Arabs becoming less a threat, the new threat came from the Bulgars in the north. The Bulgars began as Nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia originally coming from what is now Russia and by the late 7th century, they migrated to the Balkans defeating the local Slavic and Thracian people and in 681 with the Byzantines failing to chase out the powerful Bulgar invaders, the emperor at that time Constantine IV- who successfully defended Constantinople against the Arabs from 674-78- had instead gave up the fight and recognized the foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans surrendering his territories there in what is now Bulgaria to the first Bulgar khan Asparukh. From then on, the Bulgarians would be both an ally and a threat to Byzantium; although the Bulgarians helped Justinian II return to power in 705 and helped the Byzantines defeat the besieging Arabs in 718 but many times the Byzantines and Bulgarians were at war with each other especially during the reign of Leo III’s son Constantine V (741-775) who spent most of reign warring against the Bulgarians. In 811, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802-811), who had come to power after deposing Empress Irene (r. 797-802), was determined to fight the Bulgars in the north and end the Bulgarian Empire for good so the emperor marched into Bulgaria with a large army. The Bulgarian ruler at that time, Krum (r. 803-814) at first wanted to persuade Emperor Nikephoros I to stop attacking but the emperor did not listen and continued to fight the Bulgars but at the Battle of Pliska on July 26, 811, the army of Nikephoros I was trapped and the Bulgars won a great victory over the Byzantines and the emperors himself was killed in battle while his head was given to Krum who used Nikephoros’ skull as his drinking cup. This battle would be one of Byzantium’s greatest defeats as heavy as the Battle of Adrianopolis in 378, but unlike in 378 when the Goths just fled after defeating the Byzantines, the Bulgars this time would just continue growing strong enough to end Byzantium for good. Nikephoros I’s son Staurakios (r. 811) succeeded his father but abdicated after 2 months due to being paralyzed from the battle that killed his father, Staurakios was then replaced by his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (r. 811-813) who also refused to make peace with Krum so instead Krum marched south with his army ready to capture Constantinople for the Bulgars. On June 22, 813, at the Battle of Versinikia the Byzantines were again defeated by Krum’s Bulgar army and Michael I fled the battle only to be overthrown by his general Leo the Armenian who became crowned Emperor Leo V (r. 813-820) that year. As Leo V became emperor, Khan Krum already made preparations to attack Byzantium but he still persuaded Leo V to make peace and Leo at first seemed to agree to it but his real intention was to kill Krum and end the Bulgarian conflict and as Leo ordered his men to fire arrows at the Bulgarian delegation, Krum fled and returned with a massive army with several siege engines to force Constantinople to surrender to him. Krum was able to capture 10,000 Byzantines but the walls of Constantinople proved to be too strong for his siege engines so in the winter of 813, Krum returned to Bulgaria to gather more men and siege weapons for the final attack. However, on April 13, 814 right when Krum was in the middle of preparing to finally besiege Constantinople successfully, he suddenly dropped dead from high blood pressure with blood bursting out of his eyes, ears, and nose. With Krum dead, his son Omurtag (r. 814-831) succeeded him as Khan of Bulgaria but the siege of Constantinople was abandoned by him and afterwards until the fall of the First Bulgarian Empire with their defeat by Byzantine emperor Basil II in 1018, the Bulgars would never attack Constantinople again.

Watch this to learn more about the Byzantine Bulgarian Wars in 813 (from Kings and Generals).

 

Rebel Army of Thomas the Slav, 821-822- After Khan Krum died in 814 and the Bulgar siege was abandoned, Leo V continued to rule the Byzantine Empire for 6 more years until he was suddenly assassinated during the Christmas Mass of 820 by orders of his trusted general Michael of Amorion who he fell out with. As soon as Leo V was assassinated, Michael’s men freed Michael from prison and proclaimed him Emperor Michael II (r. 820-829) but the throne was still not safe for him. Previously, Michael II as a general helped Leo V come to power in 813 by overthrowing Michael I, but aside from Michael II, another general named Thomas the Slav too helped Leo V come to power and in 820 with Michael II as the new emperor, Thomas the Slav felt he had the right to be emperor and not Michael II. In 821, Thomas in order to claim the throne amassed a massive army and launched a civil war against Michael II going as far as to attacking Constantinople. The civil war from 821-822 was one of Byzantium’s longest and deadliest civil wars and it had had gone as far as to the rebels actually besieging Constantinople itself. Thomas the Slav’s army was said to number up to 80,000 men while the imperial army of Michael II only had up to 35,000 men and the rebel army attacked both by land and sea, and in fact Thomas knew where the weak point of Constantinople’s walls was. Although it took some time for the imperial army to drive away the besieging rebel army, the imperial army of Michael II still managed to win by the help of Michael II’s diplomacy as well as with the advantage of the imperial navy having Greek Fire that was able to force Thomas’ fleet to flee. To fight off the besieging land army, Michael II called for help from the armies of the Byzantine Themes in Greece as well as from the army of the Bulgar khan Omurtag as at this point, Byzantium had already made peace with the Bulgars after the siege of 814. Thomas the Slav then fled north to Arcadiopolis and in 832, his men surrendered to the imperial army and in exchange, the imperial army executed Thomas the Slav.

 

The Rus Part1, 860- Later on in the 9th century, Byzantium had already been growing back into a world power that would be influential in Eastern Europe but a new mysterious enemy would come from the north and pose as a threat to the Byzantines. These new people from the north were the Rus, originally from Scandinavia but settled in what is today Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine and before they established their state in 862, 2 years before it they raided the Black Sea and the Byzantine ports there able to sail all the way down to the Bosporus and appear right outside the sea walls of Constantinople. This attack of the Rus in 860 wasn’t overall a siege of Constantinople as they did not lay siege to the walls of the city but instead their fleet passed through the Bosporus while their men got off the ships and pillaged the suburbs of Constantinople particularly the Asian side of the Bosporus and the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea. The Rus here did not intend to capture Constantinople and takeover it, rather they were interested in looting monasteries as they already knew Byzantium possessed a lot wealth. The Rus raided the Bosporus with about 200 ships and as they looted the monasteries in the city’s suburbs, they killed many people but did not attack the city and kill anyone in side. The Byzantines on the other hand were not prepared for the siege and out of nowhere saw the ships coming into the Bosporus; this had been the first time the Byzantines of Constantinople had encountered Rus raiders, which is why they had called the Rus back then invaders from an unknown state. The Byzantines of Constantinople though not being directly attacked were in fear that they would be since they hadn’t known what the Rus were up to, but a few weeks later, luckily Constantinople was saved as the Rus turned back north as they were only interested in looting Byzantium’s wealth and relics. The Byzantine emperor at this time was Michael III (r. 842-867), the grandson of Michael II but the person who took a large part in defending the city was its patriarch St. Photios I who could not do anything physical to repel the invaders so instead he encouraged the people to pray convincing them they were under the protection of the Theotokos or Virgin Mary. According to one legend, Patriarch Photios dipped the relic of the veil of the Theotokos into the Bosporus and by doing it, it unleashed a power that caused a great wave to destroy the Rus ships. After this, Patriarch Photios thought it would be best to convert the Rus and the Slavs to Eastern Christianity to make them allies instead of enemies to the Byzantines.

 

The Rus Part2, 907- The second time the Rus from the north would attack Constantinople was in 907 by sea again, although details of this siege were unknown as it is only recorded in Rus tradition wherein the story was passed down through generations while Byzantine sources do not at all record this siege. What is known about this Rus attack was that it took place during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) and the leader of the Rus fleet was their prince Oleg of Kiev (r. 879-912), and that it had been the most successful of the 3 naval sieges of the Rus on Constantinople. The Rus however did not succeed in breaching into Constantinople as the gate was locked but the men of Oleg got of their ships and threatened to attack the city. The Byzantines defending the city were shocked that they were invaded so instead they surrendered to the Rus agreeing to pay tribute to them, and because of this the Rus decided to abandon the siege and leave Constantinople with the tribute the Byzantines paid them.

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Map of the greatest extent of the Kievan Rus Empire (blue) next to Byzantine Empire (green)

 

The Rus Part3, 941- In 941, the Rus under the command of their ruler Prince Igor I of Kiev (r. 914-945) set off from the north to attack Constantinople again, and again they attacked Constantinople by sea. Out of all the 3 attacks, this one was the most brutal of the Rus attacks as here the Rus crucified many of their Byzantine captives even by hammering nails to their heads, the Rus too had drowned many of their Byzantine captives. The Byzantines were unprepared for a Rus attack in 941 as most of the Byzantine fleet was out in the Mediterranean fighting the Arabs but the Byzantine emperor at this time, Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) came up with a plan to save the city. As the Rus were attacking from the sea, Romanos I had the 15 ships left at the city fitted with the Greek Fire machines and as the ships departed the city, they burned the Rus fleet together. The chronicler Liutprand of Cremona here writes that when the Rus saw the Greek Fire emitted from the Byzantine ships, the Rus soldiers either fled in fear but with the power of the flames, the ships had no time to escape so many Rus soldiers jumped off into the sea with their heavy armor on and many Rus soldiers died not by the fire but by drowning due to their heavy armor. Once again, Greek Fire saved the Byzantines from a naval invasion and the surviving Rus stranded outside Constantinople were beheaded. This war with the Rus would end in 945; the generals at that time John Kourkouas and Bardas Phokas the Elder, father of the future emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) were responsible for helping Byzantium win this war. The emperor Romanos I on the other hand despite his military successes against the Rus and Arabs did not meet a happy end as in 944 he was overthrown by his sons and exiled to a monastery in the Princes Islands where he died 4 years later.

 

Rebel Army of Leo Tornikios, 1047- For more than a century since the attack of the Rus in 941, with Byzantium under the Macedonian dynasty, Constantinople would never see a siege until a rebel army attacked in September 1047. At this time, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) was in charge of the empire and was a weak and corrupt ruler that generals including his nephew Leo Tornikios wanted to overthrow. In September of 1047, the general Leo Tornikios arrived with an army ready to take Constantinople and be crowned emperor overthrowing Constantine IX and as the army defending Constantinople saw the rebel army attempting to attack the city, they began to panic while only the Saracen mercenaries of the emperor kept their cool and focused on defending the city. The rebel army almost won but instead of breaking into the city, their general Leo hesitated wanting to enter the city in a triumphal procession. The next day however, the emperor actually managed to be active in defending the city by organizing the soldiers in place when in fact he had no military skill and was suffering arthritis and gout. Leo did not expect the emperor to show some courage, though the emperor eventually sent his agents to the camps of the rebels bribing them to lift the siege, the rebels then accepted the bribes and left. Meanwhile Leo did not easily accept defeat so he went up to the defenders himself but instead the defenders began firing arrows at him forcing him to flee. By the end of the year 1047, Leo Tornikios was captured and suffered the traditional punishment for rebels in the Byzantine Empire, which was blinding.

 

Crusaders, 1101- By the end of the 11th century, the Crusades had already begun when the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) asked for an army from Western Europe to help Byzantium get rid of a dangerous enemy, the Seljuk Turks that had defeated the Byzantines heavily at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 almost destroying the empire. The Crusader army from Western Europe set off to the east not really to help the Byzantines but to fight the Turks and Saracens out of religious zeal and to establish their kingdoms in the east, particularly the Holy Land. The Crusaders at the end did not return many territories the Byzantines lost over the centuries back to Byzantium but instead made kingdoms out of them, but it had helped Byzantium in a way that there were other kingdoms out there that the enemy, the Turks and Saracens would have to fight off as well so that Byzantium would not be directly threatened, though the Crusaders too at times would be a threat to Byzantium with their unruly attitude. By 1099, the Crusaders that had previously passed through the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople had achieved their objective by capturing Jerusalem but after that, more Crusader armies kept passing Byzantium and Constantinople itself from Western Europe to reinforce the Crusaders in the Holy Land. One particular Crusader army that showed bad behavior when passing Byzantium happened in 1101 which were made up of a disorganized group of uneducated peasant soldiers from Lombardy in Northern Italy led by the bishop of Milan Anselm IV. When the Lombard Crusader army arrived near Constantinople in 1101, they were starving and instead of asking for food, they instead pillaged the countryside surrounding Constantinople until the emperor Alexios I had the Crusaders escorted to a camp outside the city where they would be fed. The Crusaders though were probably not satisfied with the food given to them so a group of them decided to attack the walls of the city where the imperial Blachernae Palace was. As the group attempted to break open the walls of the palace, Alexios I ordered that a gate be opened in order to release his wild pets which were 3 lions and 7 leopards. The lions and leopards injured and killed a few Crusaders and scared away the rest, though the Crusaders had no experience fighting wild animals they killed a few with javelins including the lions and managed to break into the palace going as far as to killing the emperor’s pet lion inside and probably eating it after as they were starving. The emperor however did not want any trouble so he quickly got rid of these Crusaders by carrying out the plan and ferrying them quickly across the Bosporus to Asia Minor, and after that these, disorganized Lombard peasants would no longer be a problem. This quick siege though in 1101 was nothing significant but is rather something more comedic, but also it proved that the walls of Constantinople at this point were no longer as powerful as they once were and that an army of Crusaders could break into it, and about a hundred years later, the Crusaders would actually manage to breach it.

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Route of the 1st Crusade from Western Europe to the Holy Land

 

The 4th Crusade, 1203-1204- By the end of the 12th century, Byzantium would reach an age of rapid decline with one incompetent emperor after another beginning with Andronikos I Komnenos (r. 1183-1185) who would be deposed and executed by Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) another incompetent ruler who’s reign saw Byzantium lose Bulgaria again while many rebellions rose up against him and in 1195, his older brother blinded and imprisoned him and took over as Emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) and was even worse than his younger brother. With Isaac II and his son Alexios in prison, young Alexios managed to escape and fled to Venice where he asked for the help of the Venetians and the new 4th Crusade which had been launched there to help him depose his uncle and put his father back in power together with him as Byzantine emperor. The Venetians too out of revenge wanted to attack Constantinople as the Byzantines had earlier chased them out years ago from their capital and instead of shipping the Crusader army from Western Europe to Egypt, the Crusaders were instead shipped to Constantinople. The rest of the story of the 4th Crusade and their attack on Constantinople from 1203 to 1204 had been covered in many of my other articles before, so here I will just go straight to the point in the story. Anyway, as the Crusaders arrived with their massive fleet of 210 ships overall containing an army of 20,000 men led by the old doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo, the emperor Alexios III at first managed to defend the city but as the Crusaders started to attack from both land and sea with the Dandolo himself inspiring them to attack, the Crusaders ended up capturing some towers and started launching flaming arrows, payloads, and bolts into the city burning the streets. With the Crusader army overpowering the defending Byzantine army, Alexios III instead of managing to continue defending the city, fled on July 18, 1203 to Thrace. Shortly after Alexios III fled, the siege was stopped and the young Alexios was brought into the city and crowned Emperor Alexios IV Angelos while his father Isaac II was released from prison and even if blind, he returned to being emperor. Now with Alexios IV ruling as the effective emperor while his father as co-emperor, the Crusaders did not leave and for months camped outside the city waiting for Alexios IV to return the favor by paying them 200,000 silver coins as he had promised to Dandolo. Alexios IV turned out to not have that much in his treasury as his uncle fled with the money so instead, he ordered many religious icons and precious objects to be melted down to create gold and make coins, though this turned the people of the city against him. By December of 1203, people began rioting against the young emperor demanding he cut ties with the Crusaders but Alexios IV still thought he needed to pay them off otherwise the Crusaders would kill him.

By the beginning of 1204, the court official Alexios Doukas Mourtzouphlos had deposed Alexios IV and his father Isaac II and put the 2 back in prison and shortly after Alexios IV was executed by being strangled by a bowstring and after hearing about the death of his son, Isaac II died from a heart attack. Now with both Isaac II and Alexios IV dead, Alexios V was crowned emperor but he would not rule long as the Crusaders were still outside the city still demanding that their debts be paid as Alexios IV had only paid half of what he promised. Alexios V tried to persuade the Crusaders and Dandolo himself to abandon the siege but finding out that Alexios V had executed Alexios IV, Dandolo ordered his men to chase Alexios V by horse so the negotiations failed and by April of 1204, Dandolo and the Crusader generals ordered their men to resume the siege of Constantinople. Alexios V in a short matter of time had the walls rebuilt from the damage caused by the attack in 1203 but the Crusader army came too soon, so Alexios V instead of choosing to give up instead rallied the people and the outnumbered army to his cause but none of it worked. The Crusader army were too much in number and with so much anger scaled the shorter sea walls of the city along the Golden Horn and began capturing the towers while the overwhelmed Byzantine forces inside did not know what to do anymore. Alexios V too had fled when nothing could be done anymore to prevent the Crusaders and in only a few days, there was no more resistance against the Crusaders and the city was now theirs. Now what caused the Byzantines to loose here was not so much that they were weaker than the Crusader army but they were outnumbered as in the years before the 4th Crusade, under the emperors Isaac II and Alexios III, the Byzantine army had been cut down but also a large number of the army was away in Asia Minor fighting the Turks. Whatever the case was, the actions of Isaac II and Alexios III in downsizing the army was done at the worst time possible especially since the 4th Crusade was launched wherein the west strongly wanted revenge on Byzantium blaming them for the failure of the 2nd and 3rd Crusades. On the other hand, Alexios IV was largely at fault here since he asked the Crusaders in the first place to put him in power and promised to pay them so much when he didn’t have that much leading to a massive attack by the Crusaders. After Alexios V fled and the city was left in chaos, the Crusaders who stormed the city burned and looted it for days even desecrating churches and killing anyone they saw, but Alexios V at the end did no live long enough as by the end of 1204, he was found and captured by the Crusaders and executed by being thrown off the column of Theodosius in Constantinople. However, there was still hope for Byzantium as the night when the Crusaders were breaking into the walls, the army secretly proclaimed another Byzantine noble named Theodore Laskaris as emperor and a year later when fleeing to Nicaea, he re-stablished the Byzantine Empire there. The 4th Crusade would be one of the worst attack on Constantinople, in fact it was said to be even worse than the final siege of Constantinople later on in 1453 as after it, the Byzantines had lost Constantinople for 57 years and even though returning in 1261, the damage the Crusaders had caused would be too much that Byzantium would never recover again.

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Route of the 4th Crusade (1202-1204), Venice to Constantinople

Watch this for the complete story of the 1203-1204 4th Crusade (from Kings and Generals).

 

Bulgarians and Nicaean Byzantines, 1235- The years following 1204 would turn the Balkans and Asia Minor into a constant battle ground between 4 forces, the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea, the break-away Byzantine state of Epirus, the Latin Empire of Constantinople founded by the Crusaders, and the new 2nd Bulgarian Empire that would begin to grow now that the Byzantines had lost Constantinople. The Latin Empire that had ruled Constantinople would only get weaker and weaker after taking Constantinople as they would be attacked on all sides either by Epirus, Nicaea, and the Bulgarians. By 1235, the Latin Empire was ruled by the young Baldwin II of Courtenay under the regency of John of Brienne (r. 1229-1237) while the Byzantines exiled in Nicaea were ruled by a successful soldier emperor, John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), son-in-law of the first emperor of Nicaea Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1222), and the 2nd Bulgarian Empire on the other hand was ruled by Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241). Nicaea at this point had already grown to be a strong military power and with the strength of their army could already take back Constantinople for the Byzantines, but at the same time the Bulgarians were also making plans to take Constantinople from the Latins. Since both Bulgarians and Nicaea wanted Constantinople, John III and Ivan II decided to make an alliance and together both Byzantine and Bulgarian armies laid siege to Constantinople in 1235. To seal the alliance, Ivan Asen II married his daughter Elena Asenina to John III’s son and eventual successor Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258), although originally it was arranged for Elena to marry the young Latin emperor Baldwin II but instead, she was married to young Theodore II despite being only 11 while Theodore only 13. The siege however turned out to be unsuccessful not because the Byzantines and Bulgarians had no means to attack the city but both allies began to grow suspicious of each other and both Byzantines and Bulgarians could not decide on which of them would take Constantinople, so instead the siege was lifted. John III was suspicious Ivan II would take Constantinople for Bulgaria while Ivan II felt John III would take back Constantinople for himself. If this siege was successful and Bulgaria turned out to be the ones to take Constantinople, then history would turn out very differently now that Bulgaria would be the rulers of Constantinople and Byzantine rule would instead never be restored to Constantinople. However, both Nicaea and the Bulgarians were not greatly affected by this siege as by 1247, the Byzantines of Nicaea had already been able to surround Constantinople and all it would take would be another siege to return Constantinople to Byzantium.

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Division of Byzantium after the 4th Crusade of 1204

 

Nicaean Byzantines, 1261- After the unsuccessful siege of 1235, the Byzantines of Nicaea were still more or less able to be strong enough to take back Constantinople by another siege although they attempted to besiege the city twice but failed. It was mentioned that in 1248 that John III Doukas Vatatzes attempted to besiege the city again but failed although details of this siege are unknown. John III died in 1254 and was succeeded by his only son Theodore II but 4 years later he also died and circumstances for his unexpected death could be that a rival general of his, Michael Palaiologos poisoned him to takeover especially since Theodore II’s son John IV Laskaris was only 7 when his father died in 1258. After allegedly poisoning Theodore II, Michael Palaiologos had Theodore II’s fried and John IV’s regent George Mouzalon killed at Theodore II’s funeral and by the beginning of 1259, Michael came to power as John IV’s co-emperor. It was basically Michael doing all the work in one by one finishing off the Latins and ending their control in Greece when his army won the Battle of Pelagonia before he could actually take back Constantinople. In 1260, Constantinople still under the Latins ruled by Baldwin II would encounter another siege by the exiled Byzantines at Nicaea, this time the army that was to besiege Constantinople was led by Michael himself and from Nicaea Michael quickly headed across the Bosporus and camped outside Constantinople’s north district known as Galata. At the end however, Michael did not really lay siege to the city as he found out he had no means to break through the walls even at the Galata district as he also did not have much of an army so he lifted the siege. The next year, which was 1261, Michael resumed his plans to take back Constantinople so instead of going himself, he assembled a small army led by his trusted general Alexios Strategopoulos and sent them off from Nicaea across the Marmara to Thrace to gather information from Byzantine spies there on another way they could besiege the city. In the town of Selymbria in the European coast of the Marmara, Alexios and his team discovered from spies that the Latin emperor Baldwin II sent his main army out of the city to raid an island belonging to Nicaea in the Black Sea, and using the moment to their advantage, Alexios and his men quickly headed to the land walls of Constantinople while the spies told them they could pass beneath them through the sewers and Alexios and a few of his men passed through the sewers and came into Constantinople for the first time in their lives, afterwards quickly killing the few Latin soldiers left in the city and opening the gate for their army to come in. In a single night, from July 24-25, 1261, the Byzantine army stormed Constantinople forcing the remaining Latin troops there to flee the city in fear, the emperor Baldwin II too escaped the city with his life boarding a Venetian ship back to France leaving behind his crown and sword, which would be surrendered to Michael.

Now that the Latins were forced to abandon Constantinople, the army sent away to the Black Sea could not return and had to take the long way back to Europe and Michael at his military camp thought it was a joke that his army took back Constantinople when hearing the news especially since Alexios’ army was only made up of 800 men. When Michael received Baldwin II’s crown and sword, he now believed it and in August of 1261, he came to Constantinople seeing the city for the first time in his life and was crowned the restored Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282). With Constantinople now restored to Byzantine control, the city’s population over the 57 years of Latin occupation dropped to only 35,000 and the ruin the Crusaders left was still visible including the rubble from the buildings they destroyed were left in the ground and never cleaned up. Michael VIII began his reign cleaning up all the mess the Crusaders brought all the way back in 1204, also he proclaimed his 2-year-old son Andronikos as his co-emperor, but John IV was still left in Nicaea ruling it until the end of 1261 when Michael VIII ordered 11-year-old John IV blinded and imprisoned. Now the story of the Byzantine reconquest of 1261 has been covered a lot in many of my articles, and in fact I even did the 2019 Lego film “Summer of 1261” on this story, which is both factual but at some points exaggerated. The Lego film remains factual in showing that the Byzantines took back the city from Latins by surprise, that Baldwin II fled, and that Michael VIII was crowned shortly after but what was made up in the Lego film and not historically accurate were some scenes such as when Michael actually took part in the attack himself when in reality he wasn’t actually in the city but in his camp when his army took it back, and the part where Michael and Baldwin fight where Michael wins and injures Baldwin was also not factual but made just to exaggerate the story, and also the part of the movie where Michael exiled the empress Elena Asenina, John IV’s mother was not factual cause nothing much is really recorded about Elena except for being from Bulgaria and being Theodore II’s wife and John IV’s mother, although in real history she was most likely already dead by 1261 as some sources say she had died probably by 1255. After 1261, Constantinople returned to being the Byzantine capital but Byzantium’s days would be numbered as less than 200 years later, Constantinople would once again fall and this time for good.

Watch “Summer of 1261” (2019) here to see the story of the 1261 Reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines visualised in Lego (from No Budget Films).

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Reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantines, 1261

 

Rebel Army of Andronikos IV, 1376- Shortly after Constantinople war returned to Byzantine rule, and the threat from the west was dealt with, the new threat, which were the Ottomans which would be a threat till the end of Byzantium had arisen by the end of the 13th century. Now the 14th century was one of Byzantium’s most turbulent times and was more or less the age of Byzantium’s decline being a century full of civil wars and the Ottoman threat growing larger and larger. The emperor John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1391) ruled a long but disastrous reign being overthrown 3 times as well as returning to power 3 times; he first began his reign in a civil war with his regent John Kantakouzenos and lost it as John Kantakouzenos won the war in 1347 being supported by the Ottomans and when becoming Emperor John VI he allowed the Ottomans to take over parts of Europe for supporting him. In 1354 however, another civil war was ongoing and between John VI and John V and the young John V won it forcing John VI out of power but coming into power, John V saw that his empire had been weakened already by so much fighting so he chose to make Byzantium an Ottoman vassal. Because of agreeing to be an Ottoman vassal, John V’s grown up son Andronikos in 1373 rebelled against his father the emperor while at the same time, Savci Bey, son of the Ottoman sultan Murad I (r. 1362-1389) too rebelled against his father. Both sons however lost in their rebellions and Murad I had his son Savci Bey blinded and executed and since John V was his vassal, he ordered John V to blind and imprison Andronikos. John V followed the sultan’s orders and blinded Andronikos in one eye and imprisoned him and afterwards excluding Andronikos from succession as John V made his 2nd son Manuel heir to the empire. Andronikos remained in prison with his wife the Bulgarian Keratsa-Maria and young son John for 3 years until in 1376 when the Genoese from the Galata district of Constantinople freed the 3 from prison. John V meanwhile sold the island of Tenedos in the Aegean to Venice and by that time Venice and Genoa were at war with each other and with civil war in Byzantium getting in the way, both Venice and Genoa to their opportunities used this civil war between John V and his son Andronikos as a proxy war. Here, Genoa supported Andronikos and if he won the Genoese would put him in power while his father John V was supported by Venice and the Ottomans. Andronikos, being released from prison laid a 32-day siege on Constantinople in 1376 with the help of the Genoese and the rebel Ottoman army and won the siege taking over Constantinople. Now Andronikos would be crowned Emperor Andronikos IV Palaiologos and when taking over the capital, he had his father John V and 2 younger brothers Manuel and Theodore imprisoned, meanwhile Andronikos IV also gave Tenedos to the Genoese driving out the Venetians and gave Gallipoli to the Ottomans. Andronikos IV however would be nothing more than a puppet emperor of the Genoese and 3 years later, in 1379 with the help of the Venetian navy and Ottoman imperial army, John V was released from prison and he returned to power overthrowing his son. Andronikos IV meanwhile fled to the Genoese colony of Galata in Constantinople and held his mother Helena and her father- his grandfather the former emperor John VI- and afterwards would be moved by his father to Selymbria where Andronikos would still plot to take back the throne but in 1385 he suddenly died. The war between Venice and Genoa soon ended and the island of Tenedos was depopulated and its structures razed to the ground, while Byzantium was left even more vulnerable and surrounded by the Ottomans for good.

 

Ottomans, 1390-1402- The rest of John V’s reign after he returned to power in 1379 would be nothing but disastrous as the Ottomans were already surrounding Constantinople. Worse than this, Byzantium now surrounded had no more aid from their neighbor empires in the Balkans as the Second Bulgarian Empire had already been weakened by the Ottomans and Serbia which for a short time was a powerful Balkan empire fell to the Ottomans in 1389 when the Serbian army was defeated at the Battle of Kosovo. With Serbia defeated, the remaining 6 Serbian feudal states all became vassals of the Ottomans and even though the sultan Murad I was assassinated in the Battle of Kosovo by a Serb, this still did not stop the Ottomans from growing. Murad I was succeeded by his son Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402) and as sultan he was determined to besiege Constantinople and get rid of the one last problem to the growing power of the Ottomans, which was Byzantium. Meanwhile in what was left of Byzantium in 1390, John V was overthrown again and this time by his grandson John VII (r. 1390), the son of Andronikos IV supported by the Ottomans but 5 months later John V returned to power and John VII fled to the Ottoman court of Bayezid I. John V on the other hand did not want to fight the Ottomans so he had previously sent his son Manuel to be a hostage in the Ottoman court where he would have to go at least once a year and pay tribute to the sultan. With John V back in power in 1390, he had begun repairing the damaged walls of Constantinople but when Sultan Bayezid I heard of this, he ordered John V to raze down the walls he just rebuilt or else Manuel would be blinded and John V still behaving as an Ottoman vassal razed but this action humiliated him so much that he died early in 1391 from it at 58. When John V died, Manuel travelled from the Ottoman court to Constantinople where he was crowned Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) and it was only at this point in life when Manuel had married which he did shortly after becoming emperor. Unlike his father John V, Manuel strongly chose not to be a vassal of the Ottomans believing Byzantium could still grow but Bayezid I had already blockaded Constantinople and when hearing that Manuel II chose not to be a vassal, Bayezid I quickly responded by making preparations to besiege Constantinople. Beginning 1390, the Ottomans had already blockaded Constantinople which means the Byzantines would have to be contained and cannot escape and not help could come for them too and for 12 years it would remain this way. During this time, the Ottomans would at times already begin attacking the walls of Constantinople but would always end up failing to breach the walls of the city which still remained strong after nearly a thousand years, meanwhile the people of Constantinople too had begun to get used to being besieged for so many years. However, the Ottoman siege too would be interrupted which at first would be by the Crusader army launched by the Hungarians and in 1396 at the Battle of Nicopolis in Bulgaria, the European Crusaders and Ottomans would clash but at the end the Ottomans still won and continued surrounding Constantinople. In the middle of the Ottoman blockade of the city, the emperor Manuel II in 1399 quietly slipped out of Constantinople by ship to travel around Europe and ask for help against the Ottomans while appointing his nephew, the former emperor John VII in charge of the capital while he was away for the next 3 years. Between 1399 and 1403, Manuel II travelled to the courts of King Henry IV in England, King Charles VI of France, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, and King Martin of Aragon and this whole time he was worried on what will happen to Constantinople, and in fact Manuel II thought he would never return instead thinking he’d stay the rest of his life in either England or France. Luckily, Byzantium was saved in 1402 when the Turco-Mongol army of the Timurid army led by their emperor Tamerlane (Timur) himself launched an attack against the Ottomans. In 1402, the Ottomans were forced to abandon the siege of Constantinople now that Tamerlane had marched into Asia Minor with his army and at the Battle of Ankara, the Ottoman army was heavily defeated and Sultan Bayezid I too was captured and said to be put in a cage where he was taken all the way to the Mongol capital of Samarkand where he would die the next year. With Sultan Bayezid I gone, the Ottomans after ruling an empire for about a hundred year were more or less destroyed now that Bayezid I’s sons would end up fighting in each other for control of the empire giving Byzantium enough time to recover again. Manuel II returned to Constantinople in 1403 seeing the Ottoman siege gone and seeing more time to rebuilt his empire. Tamerlane on the other hand would not continue helping Byzantium as his main objective was to invade China and fight everyone in his way including the Ottomans.

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Ankara in 1402 and how Byzantium was saved (from Kings and Generals).

 

Ottomans, 1411- Following the defeat of the Ottomans in 1402 at the Battle of Ankara by the Turco-Mongol army of Tamerlane, the Ottoman Empire was shattered and for 11 years from 1402 to 1413, the Ottoman Empire was shattered as chaos reigned over it now that Bayezid I’s sons Mehmed, Isa, Musa, Suleiman, and Mustafa would fight a bloody civil war against each other with each of them claiming the Ottoman throne for themselves. Although Tamerlane (Timur) confirmed that Bayezid I’s son Mehmed was the real claimant to the Ottoman throne, Byzantine emperor Manuel II backed Suleiman as claimant to the throne. Suleiman who was supported by Manuel II battled his brother Musa in 1410 and won but Suleiman’s supporters would end up defecting to Musa’s side and early in 1411, Suleiman was captured and killed by Musa’s orders. As part of having revenge on Suleiman, Musa retaliated by attacking anyone who supported Suleiman which meant even going as far as laying siege to Constantinople as Manuel II had backed Suleiman. In 1411, the Ottoman price Musa Celebi had laid siege to Constantinople for months all because Constantinople backed his dead brother, however Musa never came close to actually breaching into the walls as here Manuel II did not really use force to fight Musa but rather, he used diplomacy. Manuel II instead supported Musa’s rival brother the Ottoman price Mehmed Celebi and asked Mehmed to head over to Constantinople and attack Musa’s army. Later in 1411 or early in 1412, Mehmed and his army defeated Musa in battle and in 1413, Musa was killed and Mehmed I (r. 1413-1421) became sultan ending the long civil war and reviving the Ottoman Empire.

Watch this to learn more about the reign of Manuel II Palaiologos (from Eastern Roman History).

 

Ottomans, 1422- When Mehmed I became Ottoman sultan in 1413, the civil war and years of chaos the Ottoman Empire went through were over but at the same time Byzantium was given time to recover again and even with Mehmed I in power, Byzantium was left untouched as Mehmed I and Manuel II were allies, since it was Manuel II that supported Mehmed I’s claim as sultan. However, Mehmed I did not rule long as in 1421 he died and was succeeded by his son Murad II (r. 1421-1451) who on the other hand was determined to attack Constantinople and end Byzantium for good. In 1422, Murad II set off to Constantinople with an army ready to attack and capture it once more. The Byzantines meanwhile did not have much means to defend themselves this time but Manuel II who was still in power at this time acted quick to save Constantinople and this time he did as he had done 11 years earlier by supporting a rebel in the Ottoman Empire and here, he paid off a rival in the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad II’s younger 14-year-old brother Mustafa. After being bribed by Manuel II, Mustafa started a rebellion against his older brother the sultan, forcing Murad II to abandon the siege to battle his brother’s forces, though Murad II won and Mustafa was executed. With the Ottoman siege lifted, the people of Constantinople believed that the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) had saved them by firing firebolts on the Ottomans, the same way Constantinople was saved in 626 from the Persian siege. 3 years later though, in 1425 Manuel II who had reigned protecting Byzantium died and was succeeded by his son John VIII Palaiologos (r. 1425-1448).

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Byzantine Empire in the 1420s (pink) surrounded by the Ottoman Empire
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1422 Ottoman Siege of Constantinople

 

Ottomans, 1453- The next time the Ottomans would attack Constantinople again would be 3 decades after 1422 and this time, they would finally be able to capture Constantinople, though with such difficulty. Now the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 ending with the fall of Constantinople is a well-known story and one of the most well-known stories in Byzantine and Ottoman history. I have written about the final siege of Constantinople of 1453 many times in previous articles, yet there is just so much to write about this ultimate siege that in this part of the article I will shorten the story of it and basically give out only the important details. To get to know more about the final siege of 1453, the book I read entitled The History of the Byzantine Empire by Radi Dikici in its final chapter focused on the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI describes in detail all 53 days of the final siege. To see it actually visualized, the new Netflix series Rise of the Empires: Ottomans tells the whole story of the 1453 siege of Constantinople through 6 episodes, and although it centers more on the story of the conquering Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, it also shows how the Byzantines bravely defended their city but at the end were still outnumbered and had lost. Constantine XI Palaiologos (r. 1449-1453), son of Manuel II came to the Byzantine throne as the last emperor in 1449, 3 months after his older brother Emperor John VIII died in 1448, and it was through the decision of the Ottoman sultan Murad II that Constantine XI was crowned. In 1451 though, Murad II who attacked Constantinople back in 1422 died and was succeeded by his young son Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481) who since early childhood had the determination to capture Constantinople for the Ottomans and end the Byzantine Empire for good. The Netflix series shows in detail Mehmed II growing up believing he would take over the Byzantine Empire one day but he too was a cultured and highly educated man and by the time he became sultan in 1451 he was set to lead an epic campaign to capture Constantinople, although Mehmed II also had the option to capture Constantinople by forcing its emperor Constantine XI to easily surrender to him so that Mehmed will have Constantinople, but Constantine XI chose not to surrender, instead he chose to fight back Mehmed’s army even if he would die defending the city. Constantine XI barely had an army and resources to defend the capital, while at the same time he had failed to get a Crusader army from Europe to join him but instead was left with only an army of 7,000 including only 26 ships as well as 700 Genoese mercenary soldiers commanded by their general Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. At the same time, Constantine XI could have still chased out the Ottoman invaders if he could afford the massive cannon of the Hungarian cannon maker Orban but without much money to pay for Orban and his cannon, Orban instead offered it to Mehmed II who eventually paid for it and used the cannon to besiege Constantinople.

The epic siege began on April 6, 1453 with Ottoman army numbering up to 100,000 with a fleet of 106 ships arrived before the land and sea walls of Constantinople while the Byzantines had only less than 8,000 defenders including Genoese mercenaries and only 26 ships although the Byzantine and Latin navy had the advantage for they had larger ships and were better sailors than the Ottomans. However, the Ottomans still had much more of an advantage as they had cannons including the massive one of Orban, and although cannons kept firing at the 1,000 year old land walls of Theodosius II, the defenders late at night while the Ottomans were sleeping managed to repair the walls with the rubble while each night the walls were damaged. The cannon of Orban however did not last as it blew up a few days later from overheating but it had still created such damage on the walls killing many defenders as well. Another strategy to break into Constantinople in which Mehmed II came up with was to have his men dig under the walls in order to shatter it, but this plan had failed too as the Scottish mercenaries defending this part of the walls knew something was happening beneath so to fight back, they flooded the tunnels the Ottomans dug. In the 3rd week of the siege, Mehmed II came up with another plan, which was to move his ships over land to bypass the chain protecting the Golden Horn and at the end, this plan was successful as he rolled his ships from the Bosporus over land passing behind the Galata district of the city over wooden logs; the ships then fell into the Golden Horn shocking the Byzantines. The Byzantines though launched a counter attack late one night to destroy the Ottoman fleet that landed in the Golden Horn but the Byzantines were caught by surprise as the Ottomans fired cannons and flaming arrows at the attack ships as the Genoese governor at Galata betrayed the Byzantines to Mehmed telling of the plan Constantine XI came up to secretly attack the Ottoman fleet. After this the Ottomans were sure to be winning and the only hope left for the Byzantines was a reinforcement Venetian fleet sent by the pope and every day the people of Constantinople kept waiting it but it never came. In the last days of the siege, the defenders were still full of enthusiasm with the Genoese general Giustiniani still leading brave attacks on the attackers and Constantine XI still wouldn’t surrender. On May 29, 1453, the final day of the siege, the walls have already been weakened and the defenders outnumbered, but still, Constantine XI still not choosing to give up rallied his men with a powerful speech recalling the glorious past of Byzantium and its emperors reminding the defenders that would die fighting for the legacy of the Byzantine Empire. The defenders now were no match for the Janissaries, the elite soldiers of the Ottomans and as the Janissaries stormed the walls which had now been cracked open by the cannons, the defenders fled in shock while many were killed as well as Giustiniani himself was shot and injured by an Ottoman crossbow bolt. Constantine XI’s last moments also took place at this point as when he saw that all hope was lost, he chose to run straight into battle in a suicidal charge running to the thickest part of the battle where he vanished. The Venetian fleet that promised to reinforce the city too never arrived, so nothing could save Byzantium anymore. Later that day, the Ottomans came in victorious and Mehmed II marched in becoming ruler of Constantinople, thus Constantinople became the Ottoman capital and would remain the capital until the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922. Byzantium at least lived on for about 200 after Michael VIII took back Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 but with the city’s once powerful walls being too outdated, it was no match for the modern gunpowder, also the once powerful weapon of Greek Fire the Byzantines had used before had also proved to be no match to the guns and cannons of the Renaissance era. At the end however, it was not overall courage that led the Ottomans to victory but rather it was skill and persistence and being defeated many times and yet choosing not to give up despite loosing so much. For the Byzantines on the other hand, it was truly courageous especially for Constantine XI to stand up against the Ottomans and fight them off despite having so little men and resources as he did not want to see the thousand-year empire of Byzantium end shamefully. Unlike his father Manuel II and brother John VIII, Constantine XI was more of a warrior than a diplomat but at the end he still lost, though his courage was surely outstanding.

Now, I would say that the 6 episode Netflix series on the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was overall interesting and puts a lot of meaning to both the Ottomans and Byzantines rather than just showing the Byzantines as villains and the Ottomans as heroes, but no, the series shows the Byzantines as courageous despite the moments they fought each other especially with the Grand Duke Loukas Notaras and the Genoese Giovanni Giustiniani almost killing each other over small disagreements, but at least the series shows Constantine XI as courageous and would make the most out of the worst situation. Meanwhile the series too shows Mehmed II as an interesting character being overall dedicated to war and capturing Constantinople but at the same time very cultured and strategic while the Ottomans too were shown as very advanced in military skills. What was however missing in the series was that it did not establish too much on the backgrounds of the 2 empires, the Ottomans and Byzantines making its name misleading as even though it is called Rise of Empires, it already shows the Ottoman Empire as a fully risen empire and not the empire that was about to rise in 1299 with its first sultan Osman. Although it was a good thing it was accurate that the Byzantines were showed as already desperate and poor at that time, the series failed to give hints that Byzantium was once powerful. Also, the series would have been better if it had included more of Mehmed’s attacks on other territories that happened also in 1453 or much better if the series had shown Constantine XI’s younger brothers Demetrios and Thomas who were in charge of Southern Greece and how they would have dealt with the Ottomans. At the end however, I would say that this series was still a good one as it brings so much life to historical figures in the Ottoman and Byzantine empires.

Watch this for the complete story of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople (from Kings and Generals).

Watch this to see the trailer for the new Netflix series, “Rise of Empires: Ottoman”.

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Map of the 1453 Siege of Constantinople

 

Well, once again I conclude another article, but still even by writing one I still learned so much. It is interesting to know and hard to believe that Constantinople in its more than a thousand years of being the Byzantine capital underwent numerous sieges and yet survived many whether it was an attack by foreign invaders or by rebel Byzantines during civil wars. It is said many times, that Byzantium and particularly the walls of Constantinople is what protected Europe for centuries from the rapid conquests of Islam but for the Byzantines, it was in fact not all about courage or the intense might of their capital’s walls that stopped the powerful armies from invading but their skills in diplomacy and readiness to innovate in warfare. Courage was not always key for the Byzantines winning all these wars and defending themselves but rather it was at most times developing new strategies and weapons like Greek Fire which they kept to themselves all this time, and thanks a lot to the Byzantines for keeping the formula of Greek Fire a secret, they were able to use this powerful weapon to their advantage making it their secret to winning wars. In many of these sieges though, it was all about the might of the capital’s walls both in land and sea that was key to their victory especially in winning against the 626 siege by the Persians, the Rus sieges, civil war sieges, and the Ottoman sieges before the final one in 1453. Meanwhile, the siege by the Crusaders in 1204 wherein they were able to take the capital was another story as here the Byzantines were just too overwhelmed and the Crusaders took the easy way into the city by using the sea walls and not the land walls, also if the Byzantines were not too overwhelmed and were more organised here, they could have actually repelled the invasion of the Crusaders. If not for the powerful cannons and gunpowder the Ottomans used in 1453, only the Byzantines would be the only ones to know how to besiege their city by knowing its secrets, which is is how the Nicaean reconquest army in 1261 was able to retake Constantinople. The final siege of 1453 however was ironic since all these centuries, Constantinople stood as the protection force against Islam but in 1453, the city ironically fell to an Islamic army. With whatever the Byzantines had in the final siege, they would still not be able to win as Mehmed II not only had a powerful army but his strategies were too brilliant yet unpredictable. The defending Byzantine under Constantine XI though proved themselves to still be courageous till the end as they did all they could to defend their city, but at the end still lost. If only Constantine XI was more of a diplomat than a warrior, he would still be able to successfully persuade the more powerful kingdoms of Europe to help them and with a combined effort, they would defeat the Ottomans, although Byzantium would still never recover again. The 4th Crusade was surely a very major turning point for the Byzantines as the damage it had done was already so much that nothing would enable Byzantium to be as powerful as it was under Justinian I, the Macedonian, or Komnenos emperors. Now before I finish, another thing I’d like to say is that it was not also all about weapons and advanced warfare skills that helped Byzantium win many times but knowing how to get around things, which was basically by diplomacy. Many times, the sieges on Constantinople were stopped when the emperors thought of a better solution to start a civil war on the attacker’s empire or get a neighbouring kingdom to attack the attackers, and many times this was the best solution to save Byzantium. Anyway, this is it for this article, and just as I had made a Byzantine era Lego movie last year on the 1261 Reconquest of Constantinople, I am now in the process of making one again, this time set in 1282, 21 years after the reconquest where the Latins are set to take back Byzantium again but again because of diplomacy, the Byzantines were able to preempt a Latin invasion and save their empire once again. So stay tuned and subscribe to my Youtube channel No Budget Films to see this movie “War of the Sicilian Vespers” soon come out. Anyway, this is all for this article on The Byzantium Blogger… thanks for viewing!

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