The Siege of Constantinople in 1453, according to George Sphrantzes

George Sphrantzes was a courtier in the Byzantine empire, serving as an important diplomat and ambassador for several emperors. Towards the end of his life, Sphrantzes composed a chronicle, known as the Chronicon Minus, which is partly an autobiographical work. In the section republished below, the author writes about the siege of Constantinople, and about the lack of assistance the Byzantines received from their Christian neighbours.

Chapter XXXV

1. On March 26 of the same year 6960 [1452], the sultan occupied the straits with the intention of constructing his castle. I kept postponing my mission from day to day, because a land route was now out of the question and would be dangerous; I had to locate a suitable ship.

2. In June of the same year the war was finally brought to our area; the Turkish army charged, captured all inhabitants found outside the walls, and blockaded the City. When the erection of the castle had been completed, the sultan left on August 31 and attacked the fortifications of the City.

3. On September 3, 6961 [1452], he departed for Adrianople; for two days he had been apparently securing his castle and its position.

4. In autumn of the same year Turahan, with his sons and a huge army, invaded the Morea. At that time the inhabitants of the Morea captured one of his sons.

5. On January 17 of the same year [1453], Lord Andreas Palaeologus was born, the successor and heir of the Palaeologan Dynasty.

6. On April 4 of the same year [1453], the sultan returned and laid siege to the City with all sorts of engines and strategems by land and sea. He surrounded the entire 18 miles of the City with 400 small and large vessels from the sea and with 200,000 men on the land side. In spite of the great size of our City, our defenders amounted to 4,773 Greeks, as well as just about 200 foreigners.

7. I was in a position to know the exact figure of our strength for the following reason: the emperor ordered the tribunes to take a census of their communities and to record the exact number of men – laity and clergy – able to defend the walls, and what weapons each man had for defense. All tribunes completed this task and brought the lists of their communities to the emperor.

8. The emperor said to me: “This task is for you and no one else, as you are skilled in arithmetic and also know how to guard and keep secrets. Take these lists and compute, in the privacy of your home, the exact figure of available defenders, weapons, shields, spears, and arrows.” I completed my task and presented the master list to my lord and emperor in the greatest possible sadness and depression. The true figure remained a secret known only to the emperor and to myself.

9. On Tuesday May 29 [1453], early in the day, the sultan took possession of our City; in this time of capture my late master and emperor, Lord Constantine, was killed. I was not at his side at that hour but had been inspecting another part of the City, according to his orders. Alas for me; I did not know what times Providence had in store for me!

10. My late emperor, the martyr, lived for forty-nine years, three months, and twenty days. His reign lasted four years, four months, and twenty-four days. He had been the eighth emperor of the Palaeologan Dynasty. The first was Michael, the second Andronikos, the third Michael, the fourth Andronikos, the fifth John, the sixth Manuel, the seventh John, and the eighth was Constantine. The Palaeologan Dynasty ruled over the City for 194 years, ten months, and four days.

11. I was taken prisoner and suffered the evils of wretched slavery. Finally I was ransomed on September 1, 6962 [1453] and departed for Mistra. My wife and children had passed into the possession of some elderly Turks, who did not treat them badly. Then they were sold to the sultan’s Mir Ahor (i.e., Master of the Horse), who amassed a great fortune by selling many other beautiful noble ladies.

12. My children’s beauty and proper upbringing could not be concealed; thus, the sultan found out and bought my children from his Master of the Horse for many thousand aspers. Thus their wretched mother was left all alone in the company of a single nurse; the rest of her attendants had been dispersed.

Chapter XXXVI

1. Perhaps one would like to know the emperor’s preparations before the siege, while the sultan was gathering his forces, and the aid that we received from the Christians abroad.

2. No aid whatsoever was dispatched by other Christians. On the contrary, an official of the sultan was sent to the Serbian despot Lord George in order to ask him to be the intermediary for the treaty with the Hungarians. Even though a Christian scribe in the retinue of the envoy had been instructed by certain members of the Turkish Council to inform the despot that the sultan intended to march against Constantinople once the treaty was signed and to delay the conclusion of this treaty, the despot paid no attention to him; the wretch of a despot did not consider the fact that once the head has been removed the limbs perish also.

3. An important meeting of the senate was held in Venice. The doge Francesco Foscari was opposed to dispatching aid not because he was inept (indeed, our emperor Lord John and others who had met him and talked to him maintained that they had not seen a wiser man in Italy), but because of spite and malice; for spite generally overlooks advantage. The reason for his attitude was the following: Foscari had sent Alvise Diedo as his intermediary to Lord Constantine – who was then the despot of the Morea – to propose marriage between his daughter and Lord Constantine, promising a handsome dowry. Lord Constantine agreed to this. betrothal, not so much because of the dowry, but because his territories would be joined to those of Venice. I advised him to agree more forcefully than others, and he took my advice.

4. Once Constantine had become emperor and come to the City, this marriage was out of the question. What nobleman or noblewoman would ever receive the daughter of a Venetian – even though he might be the glorious doge – as queen and lady for more than a short time? Who would accept his other sons-in-law as the emperor’s fellow sons-in-law, and his sons as the brothers-in-law of the emperor? The doge insisted on the marĀ­riage and, after our final rejection, this man became our enemy. Thus during this meeting of the senate, even though the noblemen Alvise Loredano and Antonio Diedo argued and demonstrated that Venetian interests would be hurt if the City fell, they were unable to prevail.

5. In Rome what measures were taken by the Church to prevent our downfall? The cardinal of Russia happened to be in the City and I argued, as his intermediary to my late lord, the emperor, that he should be appointed patriarch in the hope that various advantages would come from him and the then pope, or, at least, that the name of the pope should be commemorated in our services.

6. After many consultations and deliberations, my late master and emperor decided to abandon the first alternative altogether, since the appointed patriarch requires the obedience of all; otherwise riots and war ensue between him and those who are opposed to his appointment; especially at this time, when we were facing extreme war, what a misfortune to have a war inside the City as well! The emperor consented to have the pope’s name commemorated in our services, by necessity, as we hoped to receive some aid. Whoever were willing would pronounce the commemoration in Saint Sophia; the rest would incur no blame and remain peaceful. These services took place on November 12. Six months later we had received as much aid from Rome as had been sent to us by the sultan of Cairo.

7. Although it was possible for the despot of Serbia to send money secretly from many places and, similarly, men, did anyone see a single penny? On the contrary, they provided huge financial aid and many men to the sultan who was besieging the City. Thus the Turks were able to boast in triumph that even Serbia was against us.

8. Which of the Christians, the Trebizondian emperor, the lords of Walachia, or the Georgia king, contributed a single penny or a single soldier to our defense, openly or secretly?

9. The Hungarians, however, did dispatch an embassy with the following message to the sultan: “Assuming that you had a peace treaty with the City, we also concluded the treaty with you. Otherwise, we will annul our treaty.” The embassy arrived almost a week before the Turks launched their final assault. If they took the City, they planned to give them the following response: “The City is ours now; depart and be our friends or enemies, according to your wishes.” This is exactly what happened, and the Hungarians received the above answer. If, on the other hand, the City had held out, the Turks would have lifted the siege and responded as follows: “Because of our affection for you and because of the terms of our treaty, we have lifted the siege.” The sultan would then have arranged a treaty with us, we heard, because he said repeatedly: “If I prove unable to conquer the City, I will conclude a peace treaty immediately and observe its terms faithfully until the day I die.”

10. What did my late lord the emperor not do publicly and privately in his efforts to gain some aid for his house, for the Christians, and for his own life? Did he ever think that it was possible and easy for him to abandon the City, if something happened?

11. Who, besides John Kantakouzenos and I, knew that Janco had demanded Mesembria or Selybria for one of his vassals, who would maintain a large force of his and, in time of war with the Turks, would be their enemy and help the City? When the war began, Mesembria was given to Janco. I personally drafted the gold-sealed document. Michael’s son, the brother-in-law of Theodosios from Cyprus, brought it to him.

12. Who knew that the Catalan king requested possession of Lemnos in order to defend against the Turks by sea and to assist the City when the need arose? He was given Lemnos.

13. Who knew the quantities of money and the many promises our emperor gave and sent to the lords of Chios by way of Galata in order to receive some soldiers, who never came?

14. Who knew of our emperor’s fastings and prayers, both his own and those of priests whom he paid to do so; of his services to the poor; and of his increased pledges to God, in the hope of saving his subjects from the Turkish yoke? Nevertheless, God ignored his offerings, I know not why or for what sins, and disregarded his efforts, as each individual spoke against him as he pleased.

This text is from The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes 1401-1477, translated by Marios Philippides (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980). We thank the University of Massachusetts Press for their permission to republish this portion.

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