By Joseph Mosse
Eight thousand Byzantine and Italian warriors, under the command of Constantine XI, had defended Constantinople against two hundred thousand Ottoman Turks for two months. Artillery, a terrifying military innovation, had pounded the once impregnable ramparts into dust, opening several major breaches. In response, the defenders had blocked the gaps in the wall with sturdy barricades build out of rubble, an innovation of the Italian general, Giustiniani. Desperate, yet courageous, the Byzantines held strong under repeated massive assaults by the invaders. Constantine led a reserve contingent wherever the defender’s line grew thin, often turning the tide. Faced with failure on land, Mehmet stunned everyone with a brilliant tactical move. He had a large portion of his fleet dragged overland and into the city’s harbor, bypassing the chain stretched across its mouth. This forced the defenders to man the sea wall, dangerously overextending their meager forces. But with the siege lingering and enthusiasm dwindling in camp, Mehmet knew that morale allowed only for one last assault. Not bothering to keep his plans secret, he sent a message. Whistling in the wind, an arrow zipped over the wall carrying it. There would be one day of rest then the last battle would begin.
Exhausted, the beleaguered people of Constantinople congregated in the ancient Haggia Sophia, praying urgently for deliverance. Constantine gathered his troops and gave a rousing speech, reminding them of their Greek and Roman heritage, their duty to the Orthodox faith, and their honor as men. Going from man to man individually, he asked forgiveness from each, in case he had ever offended them. Having then dismissed them to their posts, he patrolled the wall overseeing final battle preparations. Night engulfed the front as Constantine finally returned to the St. Romanus Gate. Hours drifted by, but the men got little sleep.
At one o’clock in the morning the Ottoman cannons suddenly opened fire and the army advanced against all sections of the wall, from both land and sea. Tongues of flame and flashes of gunfire illuminated the night as the defenders unleashed Greek Fire and men on both sides fired muskets. First, light irregulars charged the walls against a storm of arrows. Carrying little armor, they were no match to the Byzantines, clad in scale mail and iron helms. But when units of heavy infantry advanced, they soon pressed through several breaches. Fierce close combat ensued on and behind the wall as Byzantines, Italians and Ottomans slashed at each other with curved sabers, scimitars and large two-handed swords. Steel rang against steel, men cried in rage and anguish, smoke obscured the battle field and for four hours chaos enveloped the front. However, under the valiant leadership of Constantine XI and Guistiniani, the defense just held.
Enraged, Mehmet sent in his crack troops, the dreaded Janissary corps. Highly disciplined, expertly trained and well armed, they smashed heavily into the defense. Taking advantage of an open postern gate, they flooded behind the walls. Just then, a cross bow bolt thudded through Giustinaini’s breastplate, grievously wounding him. When the Italians saw their chief carried away, they too rushed for their ships in the harbor. With gaps opening in the defender’s line, the Janissaries redoubled their attack. Soon the Byzantine front splintered and the trapped groups were surrounded. Seeing doom at hand, Constantine tore off his royal regalia and roared, “The city has fallen, but I still live!” Drawing his saber, he charged into the fray and was never seen alive again. No one ever recognized him among the slain, and he rests now in a mass grave with his men.
Victorious, the Ottomans pillaged the city, enslaving or killing its inhabitants. Few managed to escape, whether by hiding or sailing away. Mehmet put a stop to the carnage as soon as possible. He intended to rebuild the city into his new and glorious capitol. As the sun dawned on May 29th, 1453, the last living vestige of Roman civilization died and a new age in history began.