Western Europe Finds itself in a Privileged Position
“In today’s world, Western Europe finds itself in a privileged position, with many of the world’s most prosperous nations found within its continent, it often serves as a proponent of freedom and affluence around the globe. When admiring the prestige of Western Europe, one must wonder, how is it that the world’s smallest continent has birthed many of the modern world’s most powerful nations? As you may expect, the answer to this question is quite subjective, but certainly, much of the credit can be attributed to the cultural and economic awakening that took place during the Italian Renaissance between the 14th and 17th centuries. Prior to this cultural awakening, Western Europe found itself in a period of stagnation, while a few instances of progression did emerge, none were able to attain the eminence which was once held by the illustrious Roman Empire. This predicament changed rapidly, however, with the coming of the Italian Renaissance, scholars acquired a newfound interest in the classical texts of Greece and Rome, inspiring a new wave of ideas, these ideas would awake Europe from its slumber, fostering in a new age, which saw a period of progression the likes of which the world had never seen. Therefore, the key to understanding the prestige of modern Europe is to understand the Italian Renaissance.
The questions we should be asking are, what sparked this phenomenon? What events contributed to this cultural awakening? I believe the answer to this question can be attributed to one specific event, and that is the fall of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, on May 29, 1453. I believe this siege is not only the most important event in the history of Western civilization, but it is perhaps the most important event in the history of the world. In this paper, I will peel back the layers of this event, first providing the reader with an understanding of the world in which this siege took place. Then, I will provide an observation of the siege itself. Concluding with the effects this siege had on the Italian Renaissance, and why I believe this siege is the most important event in the history of Western Civilization.
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it is a common misconception that the Roman Empire vanished following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In reality, the Roman Empire lived on, with its Eastern half remaining a power both militarily, and commercially for a near thousand more years. (Geanakoplos 11) While the people of the Eastern Roman Empire certainly were considered Roman, up until their demise, modern scholars have noted the many Greek influences on Eastern Roman society, which has caused them to distinguish them from Rome, calling them “Byzantines” instead. Despite this name having no historical validity, I will use this name for the rest of this paper, since it is the name most commonly used among modern scholars.
After serving centuries as a bastion for Christendom, positioned where the eastern world meets the west, the Byzantine Empire was in its twilight years. By the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire was experiencing political turmoil, and with the mighty Ottomans pushing from the east, the borders of the Byzantine Empire experienced a major contraction. (Runciman 2) So much so that the Byzantine Empire found itself practically surrounded, still holding their capital, Constantinople, and a small amount of land surrounding it, along with a few territories in Greece. Christendom was on edge, fearing further Ottoman expansion, Pope Eugene IV called a Crusade against the growing Ottoman Empire, in hopes of once and for all pushing Islam out of Europe, back into the Middle East. An army consisting primarily of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and troops from various German states answered the call. After fighting in a few battles across the Balkans, the Crusade ended in failure, when at the bloody Battle of Varna in 1444, the Christian army experienced a crushing defeat at the hands of the Ottomans. (Crowley 41-42) This defeat destroyed any hopes that the Christian states would save the Byzantines from the grasp of the Ottoman invaders.
By the 15th century, The Turks were a rising regional power, formulating the mighty Ottoman Empire. Despite existing for many centuries prior, the Turks, whose ancestors originate from beyond the Black Sea, stretching as far as China, were always considered a mere annoyance to the mighty Byzantine Empire. Being a somewhat unorganized nomadic culture, the Byzantines never considered them a grave threat to their sovereignty. (Crowley 23,24,25) But this all changed when the Turks began slowly organizing into a united entity, and as the power of the Byzantines slowly declined, the Turks grew stronger and stronger. Until finally the balance of power was in their favor. Now setting their sights farther west, onto the rich cities of the Balkan peninsula.
The main objective of the Ottoman Invasion into Europe was the city of Constantinople. The city was the nexus of the Western world, despite many attempts, Constantinople was only captured one time up until that point, two centuries earlier, by Christian soldiers during the Fourth Crusade. (Crowley 32) It served as a gateway between two worlds and was responsible for distributing many of the goods received from the silk road, therefore, it was an extremely wealthy city as well. The city contained magnificent examples of Eastern Roman architecture, including the famed Hagia Sophia, which at the time served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, before being converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of the city. The city had an infamous system of fortification, with a very complex wall system, which made it astonishingly difficult for any invading army to conquer the city. Islam had always believed that the city was rightfully theirs, “Islam’s desire for the city is almost as old as Islam itself.”(Crowley 9) After defeating the Christian army at Varna, the Ottomans knew that Christian aid was practically eliminated, and the remnants of the once powerful Byzantine Empire were alone. Therefore, they quickly began preparing for what would surely be a difficult siege, in hopes of finally bringing the city of Constantinople under Islamic control.
The Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, began pondering strategies for the siege, but it would certainly prove difficult, “throughout the last months of 1452 the sultan brooded over his plans. No one even among his ministers knew exactly what he intended.”(Runciman 73) When Mehmed II finally began to formulate a proper plan, he became aware of the fact that to conquer Constantinople, you need to have control of not only the land but the sea as well. Therefore, he began constructing forts on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, this provided the Ottomans with complete control over the water lanes. The Ottoman fleet that was to be deployed at the siege was quite large, including “six triremes and ten biremes, about fifteen galleys with oars, about seventy-five fustae and twenty parandaria, together with a number of sloops and cutters, used mainly for carrying messages.”(Runciman 75-76) The Ottoman standing army was immense, with some eyewitnesses exaggerating their numbers in the hundreds of thousands, when in actuality, the Ottoman army most likely numbered around eighty thousand soldiers, not counting irregulars, who could have added as many as twenty thousand troops. (Runciman 76-77) Although the most vital aspect of the Ottoman military was not their navy, nor the infantry, it was their state-of-the-art siege engines that had been built specifically for the mighty walls of Constantinople. Mehmed II, a man fascinated by the sciences, hired a Hungarian engineer by the name of Urban to develop these new pieces of artillery. Urban had initially offered his services to the Byzantines, they refused due to lack of funds and materials, so he instead offered his talents to the Ottomans. Mehmed II accepted, paying him large amounts of money to build him cannons strong enough to bring down the walls of Constantinople. (Runciman 77-78) He achieved this, developing massive cannons, which would prove to be one of the essential elements in the Ottomans siege.
Other than Constantinople’s robust walls, the Byzantines were in no way ready for the siege. Their army contained a fraction of the Ottoman forces, fearing that they were running out of time, the Byzantines sent envoys to the Italian states begging for assistance. The responses were all quite vague, Pope Nicholas wished to assist in the siege, but in January 1453 a revolt broke out in Rome, and until he settled that issue, he would be unable to provide any considerable assistance. (Runciman 80) The Byzantines did have a bit of success with the Venetians, with Venice agreeing to send two transport ships, containing four hundred men each to assist with the defense. (Runciman 81) While the government of Genoa refused, some Genoese, ashamed by their government’s timidity decided to travel to Constantinople and defend the city anyway. With the Ottoman army approaching the city, the emperor of the Byzantines, Constantine had a census taken of every man within the city able to fight. The census showed that Constantine had less than seven thousand men at his disposal, compared to the eighty to one hundred thousand troops for the Ottomans, the situation was certainly grim. (Runciman 85)
The siege began on April 6, 1453, the city’s defenders stood in horror upon viewing the Ottoman army preparing their attack. But they snapped into action quickly, with Nicolo Barbaro, a Venetian soldier present at the siege saying, “Now that the Turks had taken the field with a great army against the city, preparations began to be made, so that this heathen enemy of Christendom should not succeed in his plans against us, and by the order of the Most Serene Emperor, every officer in charge of a gate or tower or any other command went to his post with his men to keep guard against our enemy.”(Barbaro) The Ottomans planned to deploy their fleet surrounding the city’s docks, with orders to not allow any supplies into the city. With the main element of the siege being the Ottomans massive cannons, Barbaro describes the immense size of these cannons in his diary, “One of these four cannon which were at the gate of San Romano threw a ball weighing about twelve hundred pounds, more or less, and thirteen quarte in circumference, which will show the terrible damage it inflicted where it landed. The second cannon threw a ball weighing eight hundred pounds, and nine quarte in circumference. These two cannon were the largest that the Turkish Khan had, the other cannon being of various sizes, from five hundred pounds to two hundred pounds, and smaller still.”(Barbaro) Mehmed II knew that Constantinople’s walls were its greatest asset, with many armies prior to his, succumbing to their sheer size and strength. So, he would make it his mission to smash the walls, day and night, with the force of his artillery.
The siege lasted for several weeks, with a few instances wherein the defenders made some significant progress against the Ottomans. Particularly in the harbor, where the defending ships were able to fend off the Ottoman fleet. Also, the men stationed on the walls were able to push back a few small Ottoman offensives. But these small victories would prove trivial, for when Mehmed II decided to gather his forces for a full assault, the sheer power of his army would overcome the city’s defenders. By this point, it seems that Nicolo Barbaro had lost all hope, saying “our men of Venice did marvels of defence in the part where the bastion was, where the Turks were concentrating their attack, but it was useless, since our eternal God had already made up His mind that the city should fall into the hands of the Turks; and since God had so determined, nothing further could be done, except that all we Christians who found ourselves at this time in the wretched city should place ourselves in the hands of our merciful Lord Jesus Christ and of His Mother, Madonna Saint Mary, for them to have mercy on the souls of those who had to die in the battle on this day.”(Barbaro) The Ottomans smashed their way through the walls, bloody fighting ensued, with the Turkish soldiers finally penetrating. Thereafter, thousands of Ottoman soldiers funneled into the city, Barbaro writing, “We Christians now were very frightened, and the Emperor had the tocsin sounded through the whole city, and at the posts on the walls, with every man crying.”(Barbaro) As one would guess, the seizure of the city was brutal, soldiers showed no mercy to the populace, slaughtering men, women, and children without discrimination. (Runciman 145) Finally, the Ottomans destroyed any remnants of Christianity within the city, burning books, destroying mosaics, and removing crucifixes. The Islamic dream of conquering Constantinople had finally been realized, and the bastion of Christendom had finally fallen.
Now that we understand the fall of Constantinople, we now move on to the question, how did the city’s demise influence the Italian Renaissance? The fall of Constantinople marked the end of old Europe, with the remnants of the Roman legacy, after flourishing for more than a thousand years, finally fading into history. As the Ottomans annexed the remaining Byzantine territories, Greeks now found themselves treated as secondary citizens. This propelled many of them to seek refuge within the Italian peninsula. Bringing with them many of the classical texts of which they cherished.(Geanakoplos 112,113,114) While the genesis of the Italian Renaissance remains a matter of debate, one of the leading theories is that it was these texts, brought by the Greek scholars during their exodus from Greece, that sparked a new found interest of classical literature, fostering in a plethora of new ideas that would transform the cultural, political, and economic landscape of Europe.
If this theory is, in fact, true, and it is reasonable to assume, based on the history, that at the very least it had a significant influence on the revival of European curiosity. The fall of Constantinople becomes an event steeped in irony, with the Ottomans destroying the bulwark of Christendom, and putting an end to the legacy of the Roman Empire. This should have put Europe into a state of dismay, but instead, this event caused a resurrection of European thought. From this resurrection, the world saw a revival of European art, architecture, music, engineering, and curiosity. Birthing the age of discovery, which saw the nations of Europe traveling into the unknown, establishing faraway colonies, which brought back with them untold fortunes. Later, many of these colonies, particularly those in the Americas, would go on to produce some of the most powerful nations the world has ever known. Many of which, pay homage to their classical ancestors, carrying forth the torch of western civilization, with countless examples of classical influence which include the admiration for elements of both the Greek and Roman political systems. As well as architectural influence, with the U.S Capitol in Washington D.C, and the Supreme Court building both erected in classical fashion.
Without the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, the world would look far different. Perhaps Europe would never have experienced the Renaissance, therefore never awakening from its slumber that was the Middle Ages. As I elaborated on prior, the Renaissance defined the Modern world, with many of the ideas of which the Western world holds dear, erected from its scholarship. Including, freedom of thought, humanism, and the equality of man. In many ways, the fall of Constantinople symbolizes one of the most integral stories in the Western tradition. The story of Jesus Christ, the Byzantine Empire perished with the fall of Constantinople, marking an end to the legacy of the Roman Empire. But with its demise, came a resurrection of European thought, harboring in a new era of Western prominence, with which, still dominates the world today.”