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The Siege of Byzantium

The Crescent and the Cross, The Fall of Byzantium: May, 1453

by David Dereksen
Putnam’s, 315 pp., $5.95

In 1453 Constantinople was the capital of a Byzantine emperor who had no empire. Outside the city his authority was accepted in parts of the Peloponese, and nowhere else. Eastwards in Asia Minor, westwards in Thrace and beyond, the lands ruled by his predecessors were firmly held by the Ottoman Turks, who during the fourteenth century had extended those conquests which were to make them, for five hundred years, the major power in south-eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Constantinople was isolated from the rest of Christendom, except by sea. Its population had shrunk to a fraction of its earlier level and some of its finest buildings were in ruins. The fall of the city to the Sultan Mehmet in 1453 was an event which had long been expected and which changed nothing. It was certainly not the starting point of the Renaissance, or of voyages of discovery, or of modern times, or of any of the other phenomena which have been attributed to it.

Yet it is a famous event in world history. It marked the final demise of one empire, the Roman, and a decisive stage in the building of another, the Ottoman, of which Constantinople, as Istanbul, became the capital. It was one of the world’s great cities. It stood on that peerless site on the narrows which divide Europe from Asia, a point of entry into the Mediterranean for trade routes from Russia and the East, Among its churches was Santa Sophia, the greatest in Christendom; its land walls were the most scientifically organized system of defense of any city, ancient or medieval. Since its foundation in the fourth century by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, it had been the capital of the eastern part of the Roman empire, and then of the attenuated remains of that empire, which although it suffered heavy and permanent losses of territory by the inroads of Arabs and Turks in the east, and of Avars and Bulgars in the west, maintained itself down to the end of the twelfth century as the wealthiest, the most civilized, and the best organized and governed of Christian states.

In 1453 Constantinople was already separated from its greatest days by its conquest in 1204 at the hands of western crusaders, by the unhappy episode of the Latin Empire, by the civil wars within the imperial dynasty of the Palaeologi and the irresistible advance of the Ottoman Turks; but it did not succumb without a struggle which measured up to the most heroic episodes of its past. The young Sultan Mehmet formed the siege in the first week of April 1453. After a long bombardment and many attacks by land and sea, and the astonishing feat by the Turks of transporting part of their fleet overland from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, the city was taken by storm on 29th May. The garrison, partly Greek and partly Italian, was overcome by superior numbers and superior technological skill. The last Byzantine emperor, another Constantine, refusing to surrender, desert, or survive his city, chose to meet his death in hand-to-hand mélée during the final Turkish assault.

Both Sir Steven Runciman and Mr. Dereksen have taken this seven-week siege as their theme. Neither is breaking new ground, for no important new sources of information have come to light since Edwin Pears published his thorough reconstruction of the siege in 1903, but each brings qualifications to his task which his predecessor could not offer. And in these qualifications, as in the books they have written, they differ not only from Pears, but from each other. Sir Steven is a Byzantinist and one of the best known medieval historians now writing: his reputation is firmly based on the ten books he has published during the past thirty-five years, and especially on the three volumes of his History of the Crusades, the first full-length, scholarly study in English of this great subject. He is a professional whose unusually wide knowledge of languages has enabled him to use the whole range of the sources of Byzantine and crusading history. Mr. Dereksen, by contrast, writes under a nom de plume which conceals, we are told, the identity of one of America’s leading writers of fiction. He lacks Sir Steven’s close acquaintance with the original sources, telling us with engaging candor that “since I do not read Greek (or for that matter Serbo Croat, Polish or Russian), and my Latin is on a lapidary level, I have had to consult most of them (i.e., the original authorities) either quoted in secondary sources or in translation, or with a crib.” What he does offer to illuminate this historical episode are “the skills of the novelist.” This book presumably stands apart from the main body of his work; Sir Steven’s, by further contrast, is closely connected with both of the main themes about which he has previously written. The fall of Constantinople is the last episode in the history of Byzantium, and almost the last in the crusading movement.

Byzantine history is a subject which has been given a new look since the days of Gibbon and Voltaire. Then it was oversimplified to the point of caricature, and was presented as a process of decline uninterrupted through a millenium, marked throughout by treachery, intrigue, and irrelevant theological disputatiousness. It was a view which long continued to color historical writing. Only in the present century have scholars made it possible for the rest of us to appreciate Byzantium’s mastery, through most of its existence, of the art of government, the adaptibility which enabled it to survive through so many centuries, so many threats to its existence, the strength and range of its religious and intellectual life. Sir Steven Runciman is one of those scholars, and in this latest book he helps us to understand, as only a Byzantinist can, how in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries “this period of political decline was accompanied by a cultural life more eager and more productive than had been known at any other time in Byzantine history.” And he clarifies another matter which has given difficulty to many western European students in the past: the point of view of the many Byzantine opponents of the union of their Church with the Church of Rome.

Of all this there is little sign in Mr. Dereksen’s pages. His viewpoint is that of an older generation, less sympathetic and less well-informed. In his lengthy historical introduction to the story of the siege, he offers no serious survey of Byzantine policy or institutions; there is instead a wealth of anecdote and disparaging wisecrack. Byzantine religion, although it was the focus of the people’s deepest loyalties, and although it was embodied in a Church which still survives all opposition and persecution, is too often derided in these pages, and no opportunity is lost to score off the clergy. There are modern books in Mr. Dereksen’s short bibliography which take a very different view of these matters, but he does not seem to have paid them much attention. The author to whom he refers and from whose work he quotes most frequently is George Finlay, who was born only five years after Gibbon died and who in his youth was a friend of Byron.

Sir Steven has written not only Byzantine history, but also that of the interaction between that empire, Islam, and the Latin West in the framework of the crusading movement. In 1095 Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade partly because the Byzantine Empire, and even Constantinople itself, seemed to be threatened by the Seljuq Turks. In 1543 Constantinople was in far greater danger from the Ottoman Turks. Would the Pope once again rally the West for the defense of Byzantium and to bring about the reunion of the Eastern and Roman Churches? In the event there was no substantial western aid to Constantinople and Sir Steven passes severe judgment on those who failed to send it. To readers of his History of the Crusades this judgment is predictable. The pages of that work are peopled with cultured and sophisticated Byzantine emperors, beautiful Byzantine princesses, wise and tolerant Muslim rulers, and foolish, bigoted, quarrelsome western Europeans. They all reappear in The Fall of Constantinople. In the earlier book the West is castigated for the crusades which it launched, for the Holy War which “was nothing more than a long act of violence in the name of God…a tragic and destructive episode.” But in this book the West is indicted because its people showed “how unwilling they were to fight for their faith.” The last Christian emperor was “abandoned by his Western allies…It was clear for all to see that the crusading spirit was finished.” Sir Steven takes good care that the Western dogs should not have the best of it. Whether they go crusading, or whether they stay at home, they are equally in the wrong.

Are these two judgments compatible? And, so far as 1453 is concerned, on whom is the judgment to fall? On the Papacy, which tried to organize help for Constantinople, but which, since the years of Avignon and the Schism, had lost much of its old power to inspire and to command? On the kings and princes of the West, most of whom knew from recent experience the impoverishment which followed large-scale warfare? On the Italians, with their commercial empires at stake? Or on larger groups of the population, who could no longer be moved to those frenzies of Christian hatred against the ogre of Islam which Sir Steven elsewhere condemns, but which alone had made the major crusades of the past possible? Was the West guilty in 1453, or was it simply that times had changed?

Mr. Dereksen, too, raises problems. As a novelist, why is he so uninterested in people? Why is he content to present them, either as individuals or as a community, in crude caricature? He is at his best in his account of the siege. He has some contact with the sources and, like all modern writers, has the admirable Pears as a guide. The result is a lively, vigorous, often entertaining and generally reliable narrative. For some tastes it may be too richly flavored with homely metaphors. The Sea of Marmora “on the map has the shape of a chewy candy wrapped in paper.” Turkish princes “wore a red felt cap wound around with muslin, the effect being that of a Wisconsin loaf cheese imbedded in an angel food cake.” Does a subject which has so much built-in drama and excitement of its own really need such artificial coloring? Comparison with Runciman’s account of the same events suggests that it does not. For Sir Steven uses to the full two of his outstanding gifts: for lucid summary in sketching the historical background and for beautifully handled narrative in recounting the siege. The arts of the novelist have not, on this occasion, provided an adequate substitute for the art and science of the historian.

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