top of page
  • E.G. Maladroit

'The Fall of Constantinople 1453' - Top Quality content

'The Fall of Constantinople 1453' - Stephen Runciman, Cambridge University Press

In 1453 the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, attacked and conquered Constantinople. At the time, Constantinople represented one of the last bastions of the mostly deteriorated and conquered Byzantine Empire, economically and socially burgeoning, with the internal disruptions of the Church Union. Designed to ensure Constantinople had support, it was an agreement of terms between them (orthodox Christians) and the Catholic church, who otherwise saw them as heretics. This union went unsupported by the majority of the common people. Under the reign of Emperor Constantine, it was gradually facing more and more decline.

As largely a newcomer to both the Ottoman and the byzantine empires, ‘The fall of Constantinople’ by Stephen Runciman proved a useful introduction and entry point to both. About 200 pages, it is a skillfully written chronicle of the siege of 1453 – not too long as to take great effort to read, but not too short as to sacrifice detail or character. It is one of the most well-paced and hard to put down historical non-fiction books I have read in a while – Stephen Runciman is an excellent historian with an excellent book.

Runciman sacrifices no detail when providing the background for the siege. For someone perhaps more used to the period this might come across as overkill, but I greatly appreciated it. He begins with an introduction to the Greek origins of the Byzantine empire, running through rulers, Byzantium’s shifting self-perception and the ideological development of Orthodox Christianity (with its relationship with the rest of Christendom). This is an excellent addition - complimenting much of his later details on how this effected Constantinople acquiring European help, as well as the development of Orthodoxy post-siege in remaining Greek communities in Constantinople and in Russia. His account of rulers illustrates the growth of the empire, before its slow decline, and supports his final thesis that Byzantine likely was on its way out anyway. This level of detail continues with a thorough account of Turkish movement into Europe, and the eventual origins and development of the ottoman Empire. Runciman dedicates little more than a couple of paragraphs to each main figure of the Ottoman legacy, and yet constructs compelling and understandable characters for all.

Going on to provide a full background of both Mehmet II and his father Murat II’s lives, the reader is provided with absolutely all the understanding needed to explain the reason for the siege and its importance to both Mehmet and the empire. I think Runciman slightly undersells himself with the title – as the book is almost a full (though agreeably concise) history of Mehmet’s reign, as well as his ancestor’s.

On the siege itself, the book achieves every expectation. Runciman manages to make it immediately immersive, with his rigorous account of the geographical territory and walls of Constantinople providing no confusion and an amazing reference for understanding how the attacks were staged and why Constantinople was so difficult to take. The inclusion of maps was very welcome for someone as geographically challenged as me, but by no means is a detailed memory of this part necessary for reading the rest. Of course, the siege in itself is interesting, with mammoth cannons and transporting boats over land, but Runciman’s careful telling of it makes it even more enjoyable. Despite his introduction including that he kept in mind that the Greeks were the ‘tragic heroes’ of this story, he never creates a narrative for either side deserving to be especially rooted for – instead, both are grippingly easy to empathise with. He shows a tragic honour in the Greeks, who exhibited amazing bravery, whilst one identifies with Mehmet’s almost underdog persona, with a lack of support from his chief advisors. I perhaps over-identify with histories, but I enjoy reading them as unfolding stories rather than foregone conclusions, and Runciman captures the tension of the siege excellently. It would also be a mistake not to acknowledge the way Runciman gives character to absolutely everyone he mentions, so almost every person introduced surrounding the emperor or the sultan is given life to – no shadowy figures floating around our protagonists.

As can only be expected at this point, Runciman gives an exhaustive analysis of the likelihood that any other outcome could have happened, and then a meticulous history of the aftermath. This was particularly interesting, as Runciman looks into the treatment of the Greek inhabitants of the city and Turkish empire post-siege, and how Mehmet II’s original respect for their churches and intellectual lives eventually shifted in future ottoman reigns to become less and less free. At the very end I found he went into slightly unnecessary detail on the fates of a range of Greek and Turkish figures, some mentioned previously only in passing, but it was all the same interesting enough to see the fates of the people he fleshed out so well.

I very much enjoyed the book – definitely a new favourite. I would highly recommend it to most people, as it is a short and easy read – and is deeply interesting the whole way through. I have next to no complaints and feel I have gained much from it.


bottom of page