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 Critical Review of Runciman's: Fall Constantinople, by me
Posted: Mar 25 2009, 07:12 AM

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This is the story of a city fortress with 14 miles of walls, the last vestige of Rome, Constantinople, defended by under 4,983 Greeks, along with slightly under 2,000 foreigners(mostly Venetians and Genoese).(85) The Ottoman army, meanwhile, had according to Turkish sources, 80,000 regular troops, and some 20,000 irregular, Bashi-bazouks.(76) Despite this huge advantage in numbers the Turks had, the siege was difficult and the Turks may not have won in 1453 if not for two disasters: someone forgetting to bar a gate which let the Turks in, and a shot at close range which struck the Genoan Giustiniani, causing him to lose his courage and desert his post. When he deserted his post the other Genoese thought the battle was lost and fled, leaving the area they deserted without enough manpower to deal with the breach, which the Janissaries filled.(138-139)

The impression one gets of the Italians, mainly the Genoese and the Venetians, is that they are antagonistic to the Greeks, but they also are culturally astute. At the Council of Florence, the Italians have the better of the theological debates, which was helped by factors such as promiment Byzantine theologians refusing to condone the Union of Churches by attending.(16) Certain Greeks who went to Florence were impressed by Italian learning.(18) George Gemistes Plethon, was honored in Florence as the leading Platonist scholar and a Platonic academy was founded in his honor.(17) The Italians were not just mere warriors they were also traders(the Fourth Crusade diverted by the Venetians was caused by a desire to take over Byzantine trade and left Byzantine with less economic might to deal with its military foes), and they had an affinity for Greek knowledge.(3) Barbaro, a Venetian is praised as a historical source.(83,195)

The portrait of the Turks comes off as much more one dimensional, despite efforts to go out of the way to be fair to the Turks. The cultural life of the Ottoman dominions seem to be dominated by dhimmis, non-muslims, which makes sense because the muslim or nominally muslim Turkish tribes that invaded Anatolia and eventually founded dynasties such as the Ottoman, were nomadic. Nomads do not create sedentary civilization, they destroy it. So it is little surprise to read that after Mehmet conquers Constantinople, he sends five thousand families from Trebizond and its environs(Pontian Greeks) to help repopulate the city of Constantinople, and rebuild it with mason families.(159) Ultimately Mehmet knew that for this creation he would need Greeks. Mehmet's interest in the sciences were aroused by his Jewish doctor, Jacobo of Gaeta, and his favorite architect, was Christodulus the Greek.(77,157) Urban, a Hungarian, built the great cannons that were used by the Turks in the siege.(77-78) Turkish sources for the events of the siege are dissapointing.(197) The new Turkish master race did not encourage learning among their Christian subjects.(189) Is it any surprise then that the Ottoman Empire, which as this work hints owed a huge debt to its dhimmis for cultural production and creation, is an Empire today remembered more for its wars than its cultural output? From the picture of this book, the Turks have a military power that is out of pace with their cultural production, and the Greeks of the last days of Byzantine are somewhat the opposite.

Throughout this whole book I noticed a constant bias for Islam and the Turks. In the preface, on page xiv, he apologizes to his Turkish friends for refering to the city as Constantinople and not Istanbul! What next, will historians of ancient history also apologize to the modern Turks for calling cities and towns by non-Turkicized names? He says that Mehmet was the heir and possessor of the ancient Roman Empire, after conquering, essentially destroying Byzantine.(144) I cannot agree with this, you do not become an heir to something by destroying and usurping it. One second it seems that the Turks are dependent on the Genoese to ferry them to safety away from Asia and to Europe from the victorous armies of Timur, but suddenly they have built up a huge navy by the time of the siege of 1453.(42,75-76) How did they build a naval tradition so fast? "Studies on Byzantium, Seljuks, and Ottomans" by Vryonis mentions that the Turks were dependant on Italo-Greeks for a certain naval conquest. Dakin in "The Greek Struggle for Independence:1821-1823", remarks many Greeks were oarsmen on Ottoman ships, but not gunners, in late Ottoman times. The Ottomans for their naval tradition owed much to the Greeks, but you would not pick this up from Runciman's work, as they seem to magically build up a naval tradition rapidly from nowhere. He also tries to portray as pious muslims, muslims, who wanted peace with neighboring states, which is in contradiction of the muslim precepts of holy war, peace is only to used in muslim discourse when war cannot be waged successfully. Despite what he says about the smooth transition of Turkish rule and Islamization, Vryonis's and Bat Ye'or's works show that Islamization was due more to destruction and humiliation, especially destruction of non-muslim institutions.

He especially does not do justice to the importance of jihad. With Islam, the Ottomans unlike the Christian powers, thought it was their fate to conquer "Qostantiniya".(79) The rise in power of the Ottomans was largely due to the other ghazi emirs no longer having a border with infidel Christians to raid, so many poured into the Ottoman domain.(31) According the aforementioned work of Vryonis, the Greeks thought the Turks were sent by God as a punishment for their sins. Runciman undermines the importance of jihad in the historical developments of Ottoman expansion. Should not historians point out obvious patterns like the Greek Orthodox world thinking it is their destiny to be conquered, defeatism, while the muslims thought it was their destiny to conquer? Indeed not only the Greeks but also the Russians thought the Greeks being conquered was a punishment for proclaiming Union with the Western Churches.(177-178) Many Latins had the mistaken impression that the Turks were descendants of Trojans, and that Greeks were being punished for sacking Troy long ago by the Turks, this belief greatly harmed the Pope's efforts for a Crusade.(167-168) The Christian world seemed to be fighting itself ignoring the Ottoman threat, the King of Hungary, took the opportunity afforded by Timur's defeat of an Ottoman army, to intrigue in Germany instead of deal with an enemy, that, with its ideology of jihad, eventually did conquer Hungary.(13-14) The Fourth Crusade, Christians fighting Christians, enabled the Ottomans to expand.(27) The Christians were not able to exploit as well rifts among the muslim world as muslims were in the Christian, because even the Latin concept of Crusade had it basis in imperial needs and as a reaction to Islamic conquests of Christian lands, as oppossed to muslims who could justify war, for nothing other than to conquer non-muslims, to spread Islam and collect booty.

The numbers in parentheses, denote which pages in the book I used as sources for facts I mentioned in this review.

[I wrote this back in 2004 when I read the book. It was meant as a review for Amazon but I never posted it there for some reason. I should have it would have been the best review there. I will take it out of the library again because I remember Runciman used as a source alot one Greek dhimmi who was a paid a retainer of Sultan's, using him to make value judgements on Ottoman tolerance[sic].]

Runciman, Steven. The fall of Constantinople, 1453. (University Press, 1965.) 256 p.
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