Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.27

Marios Philippides, Walter K. Hanak, The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2011.  Pp. xxiv, 759;  36 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781409410645.  $220.00.  

Reviewed by Mark Bartusis, Northern State University (


The siege and fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 continue to capture both the popular and scholarly imagination. Based on decades of research and a mastery of the sources, Marios Philippides and Walter K. Hanak have written a big book, not, as one might expect, a narrative of the siege and fall but rather studies of “the sources relating to or purporting to relate to the events linked with the two-month siege and the ultimate fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks” in 1453, and "of the military planning and operational approaches in the course of the siege” (p. xiii).

The book is divided into eleven chapters. The first three deal with the sources. Chapter 1 (pp. 3-91) lays out the twelve known eyewitness accounts of the siege, plus thirteen contemporary non-eyewitness accounts, sixteenth- century Greek accounts, and what little can be gleaned from patriarchal and Ottoman documents, and Turkish sources generally. Chapter 2 (pp. 93-137) deals with four alleged eyewitness accounts. The authors conclude that the account of “Riccherio,” often used by scholars as an eyewitness account, is actually a scholarly work written by a sixteenth-century Frenchman, and that the Russian eyewitness account of Nestor-Iskander should be regarded as reliable.1

Chapter 3 (pp. 139-91) focuses on the memoirs of the Byzantine official George Sphrantzes, a participant in the siege and close friend of the emperor, and the much longer work (called the Chronicon maius, or the Pseudo-Sphrantzes, or Pseudo-Phrantzes) that was once attributed to Sphrantzes, but now is known to be a sixteenth-century fabrication by Makarios Melissourgos, one-time bishop of Monemvasia, who also forged some Byzantine documents. In a long section (pp. 160-87), the authors quote many passages from Pseudo-Sphrantzes, as well as from other accounts of the siege, to show that they are all based on the authentic eyewitness account of Leonardo Giustiniani, the Italian archbishop of Mytilene. While adding little to our knowledge of the siege, the account of Melissourgos, they conclude (p. 152), nevertheless should be regarded as one of the most important Greek literary works of a very dark era.

Chapter 4 (pp. 193-288) makes the transition from historiography to topography. It begins, as its title promises, with the “Myths, Legends, Tales” that emerged in reaction to the fall of Constantinople, whether lamentations over the cultural loss or stories about the fate of well-known personages, first and foremost the Byzantine emperor himself. But over half of the chapter examines the legendary burial places of Constantine XI and the site of the execution of the high official Loukas Notaras. Chapter 5 (pp. 297-357) continues the topographical theme by describing the four miles of the land walls, the civil and military gates (the former for leaving the city, the latter for communication between the inner and outer walls), the towers, and the curtain walls between them.

Chapters 6 through 10 involve a variety of subjects connected with the siege: a study of the diplomatic maneuvering following the accession of Mehmed II (pp. 359-73); a study of the life and death of the Genoese condottiere Giovanni Longo Giustiniani (pp. 377-87, 515-46), who came to Constantinople in late January 1453, was mortally wounded and left the field, causing his troops to withdraw, thereby allowing the Turks to enter through that part of the land walls;2 a study of the construction of the fort of Rumeli Hisar on the straits north of Constantinople (pp. 399-412); a long study of the role of artillery in the siege (pp. 387-96, 413-27, 475-92, 502-05, 551-60), including discussion of Urban, the (probably) Hungarian engineer who, unable to receive a satisfactory salary from the Byzantine emperor, entered the employ of the Turks, and of the bombards, including the “monster” which, according to one source, fired stone balls of 1200 pounds. In addition there are brief treatments of what is known of skirmishing outside the walls (pp. 492-501), mining and countermining (pp. 505-12), and the construction and destruction of a single siege tower (pp. 512-15); and several studies of naval operations around the Golden Horn (pp. 429-73). The authors conclude that the fall of Constantinople had little to do with gunpowder, but rather the versatility and adaptability of the sultan in his tactical thinking. Even then it was only the absence of Giustiniani that made the sultan’s success possible.

After a brief concluding chapter (pp. 561-68), there are a number of appendices which includes a useful chronology of the siege (pp. 571-78) and a list of some 222 men who are known to have been inside the city at the time of the fall (pp. 625-61). An extensive bibliography is followed by indexes of all the proper nouns used in the book (people, places, titles of written works); there is no topical index.3

The first three chapters are the most successful. This section may be far too long, wordy, and poorly organized, but nonetheless it is a thorough treatment of the sources and the scholarship (which at times overlap) up through the middle of the twentieth century. The authors have scoured the libraries and archives for all sorts of manuscripts and the earliest of obscure printed editions. There is nothing else like it, and I can’t imagine it being superseded any time soon.

As for the topographical studies, which begin a third of the way through Chapter 4 and continue through Chapter 5, the extensive and detailed discussions of churches, walls, monasteries, and gates, are strengthened by the many photographs, but marred by the absence of useful maps and plans. Only a small fraction of the geographical and topographical features listed in the index are shown on the three maps of the city and sometimes the maps do not agree among themselves or with the text.4

Chapters 6 through 10 are devoted to military studies.5 The authors conclude that Mehmed II was a brilliant strategist (pp. 434, 500, 553) who employed an “elastic offense” demonstrating “flexibility” (pp. 553, 554). By this they mean he was willing to try new ideas when his earlier plans did not succeed, but this could just as well be interpreted as evidence of his incompetence as a military planner and tactician. As for the defenders, the authors state that they employed an “elastic strategy” as well, reacting to changes in the sultan’s tactics with an “elastic response” (p. 497). However, the word “elastic” is not used here in its normal military sense implying defense in depth. In fact the defenders in 1453 used a traditional linear defense, as was almost always the case in medieval siege warfare, and because there were not enough men for both the inner and outer land walls, they were forced to abandon the layered linear defense that the land walls were originally intended to provide and position themselves solely along the outer wall.6 Oddly, the decision is both commended and condemned by the authors: “In our view, the defense of the outer and lower wall was more efficient as a strategy precisely because it was easier for the defenders to organize sorties and to harass the enemy continuously” (p. 492), though later they write that the Byzantines committed “a fundamental error in planning their defensive strategy” by “position[ing] their men on these lesser walls,” which “proved detrimental in the final outcome” (pp. 566-67).

Some very basic questions about the siege are not addressed or addressed only briefly: Why did Mehmed II decide to take Constantinople? How many defenders were there? How large was the Ottoman army, what was its composition, and how was it deployed? Given Mehmed’s resources, and given that the Turks outnumbered the defenders by something like ten to one,7 why did it take almost eight weeks to take the city? And why was Mehmed so hesitant to order general assaults (the authors mention four, including the final successful one)?

Finally, there are some minor mistakes,8 and the book could have used more editing: there is much repetition and many awkward turns of phrase. Perhaps as much as a third of the text consists of quotations from the sources along with their English translations. And the book was typeset cheaply.9

Despite my many reservations about the book, it will be justifiably a central reference point for anyone who has a serious interest in the fall and the historiographical tradition that followed it. The work of Philippides and Hanak, here and elsewhere, is a necessary step toward future synthesis and narrative of one of the most famous events ever.


1.   It is unclear to me why the short treatments of the eyewitness account of the Florentine merchant Tetaldi (Tedaldi) and of an “influential” pamphlet on the siege by Aeneas Silvius, the future Pius II, composed not long after the fall, appear in this chapter and not Chapter 1.
2.   The authors regard the mercenaries serving with Giustiniani, along with a contingent of soldiers, mainly from Chios, raised by Cardinal Isidore who arrived in Constantinople to implement the union of the Eastern and Western churches which the Greek church had agreed to at the Council of Florence in 1439, as the core of the city’s defenses (p. 377).
3.   It appears that someone else did the indexing; at least this is the only way I can explain why there are separate entries for synonyms such as “Pera” and “Galata” (and no cross-references).
4.   The authors state repeatedly that the outer wall terminated just above the Adrianople Gate (pp. 302, 307 note 39, 308), and that the moat, if it extended beyond the Adrianople Gate at all, did so “intermittently” (?) (pp. 302, 307 note 39, 310). Yet Maps 2 and 4 show the outer wall extending all the way up to the southern corner of the Tekfur Saray. As for the moat, Map 2 extends it all the way up to the western side of the Tekfur Saray, while on Map 4 the moat terminates at the Adrianople Gate but then resumes for a little stretch in front of the Tekfur Saray.
5.   Fully one-third of the second half of the book is based on two earlier articles by the authors, reprinted here for the most part paragraph by paragraph and with only slight revision and without acknowledgement. W. Hanak, “The Constantinopolitan Mesoteikhion in 1453: Its Topography, Adjacent Structures and Gates,” Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines, n.s. 4 (1999), 69-98, and M. Philippides, “Urban’s Bombard(s), Gunpowder, and the Siege of Constantinople (1453),” Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines, n.s. 4 (1999), 1-67. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to state at the beginning of the volume which parts had been published previously.
6.   Had the defenders abandoned the outer wall and its towers without rendering them unusable, these fortifications would have been occupied by the Turks during the siege and turned against the defenders.
7.   M. Bartusis, The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453 (Philadelphia, 1992), 129-31.
8.   In a book with “military studies” in its subtitle, there are certain mistakes one should not make. All of the mercenaries fighting with Giovanni Giustiniani are called condottierri (pp. xvii, 389, 505, 555, 560). We are told that artillery “triangulation” has something to do with “not firing head on but at an angle” (p. 488), and that this method of aiming will somehow “achieve more impressive results” against stone walls (p. 370). In another passage we learn that the Turks had “rifles” (p. 486).
9.   Until one gets to the bibliography (p. 667 to be specific), there is a complete absence of hyphenation, and this leads to some unattractive composition (see, e.g., p. xix). Breathings on capital Greek letters often seem to just float in space (e.g., pp. ix, 117). In a curious lapse, throughout much of the book the Greek character stigma ϛ appears wherever a final sigma ς is called for (and at least once vice versa [p. 361]). In the bibliography the two characters are used almost interchangeably (e.g., p. 707).

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