How Constantine overcame superior enemies and stalemates

Wed, 1 Jun 2016 Source: Dag Heward-Mills

The story below is a story of a 1000-year long stalemate that was broken by a young man with some new ideas.

Siege of Constantinople

Constantinople (present day Istanbul) had been attacked many times over the centuries. For a thousand years, no one had been able to overcome it. Indeed, new ideas were needed. Constantinople was a great, fortified city that was once the headquarters of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperor Constantine established the city which remained an imperial capital from the time it was created in AD 330. Special walls were built by Constantine the Great.

The walls of Constantinople surrounded the city on all sides, protecting it against attack from both sea and land. King Theodosius, who lived in the 5th century, built a famous double line of walls. When well manned, the walls were virtually impregnable. Even when cannon technology was used, the walls could be repaired between reloading.

For one thousand years, Constantinople was a veritable fortress with impregnable walls. For ten centuries the city was besieged many times but no one had been able to really conquer it. It had fended off attacks from the Latinos, the Arabs, the Serbians, the Bulgarians and the Ottoman Turks. But a good leader knows how to overcome stalemates and superior enemies. When Sultan Mehmed II became the new ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople was threatened again. Sultan Mehmed was a young man of nineteen years with new ideas. Remember, new ideas can help you overcome superior enemies!

New Ideas versus Superior Enemies

His first step was to build an Ottoman fortress set directly across the straits from an older fortress built by his grandfather. These twin fortresses gained full control of the sea traffic for the Turks. Most of all, it cut off access to all ships that would want to come to the rescue of Constantinople.

Another new idea that the Ottomans introduced to the war on Constantinople was its ability to cast canons. This was a new technology and the men of Constantinople had no idea of the extent and power of the Ottoman’s canon.

A third new factor was a secret weapon called the Basilica, which was sold to the Ottoman Empire by an arms dealer called Orban (a Hungarian). Orban had boasted to Mehmed II that his canon could “blast the walls of Babylon itself”. This basilica created by Orban was 8.2 metres long, and able to hurl a 272 kilogram stone ball over a distance of 1.6km. Early on, Orban had tried to sell this weapon to the occupiers of Constantinople but they had been unable to secure the funds to pay for this special weapon.

Given abundant funds and materials, the Hungarian engineer built the gun within three months at Adrianople, from which it was dragged by sixty oxen to Constantinople. Orban’s giant cannon was said to have been accompanied by a crew of over 400 men. Orban’s cannon had some drawbacks. For instance, it took three hours to reload. Mehmed planned to attack the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, which were the intricate series of walls and ditches protecting Constantinople from an attack from the West, the only part of the city not surrounded by water.

Constantinople was confident that the 20km of high walls around the city would hold out. In addition, they had a relatively well-equipped fleet of twenty-six ships that would help to protect the city till help came. Indeed it was claimed that Constantinople was “the best defended city in Europe” at that time.

At the beginning of the siege, Mehmed’s massive canon fired on the walls for weeks, but due to its imprecision and extremely slow rate of reloading, the Byzantines were able to repair most of the damage after each shot, limiting the cannon’s effect.

Constantinople had an internal harbour that was also protected. Emperor Constantine XI had ordered a huge chain placed at the mouth of the harbour. This chain, which floated on wooden logs, was strong enough to prevent any Turkish ship from entering the harbour. The Ottoman fleet, like other ships in the past, could not enter the harbour of Constantinople.

New Ideas and Stalemates

Mehmed came up with yet another new idea. He pulled his ships out of the sea and hauled them across the land to avoid the long chain that was blocking the harbour. Imagine rolling a fleet of ships across the land! The sudden appearance of the Ottoman fleet in the harbour demoralized the defenders of Constantinople greatly. From then on, the siege advanced with several frontal assaults on the land wall.

Shortly after midnight, successive waves of attackers breached sections of the walls and entered the city. A Venetian eyewitness to the siege wrote in his diary that it was said that Constantine hanged himself at the moment the Turks broke in at the San Romano gate.

After one thousand years, the stalemate was broken. The superior and mighty city of Constantinople was finally overcome by a young commander with new ideas. A leader’s key to resolving stalemates lies in his imagination. Think outside the box! Use unexpected, flexible and unconventional methods. It is time to break all longstanding stalemates in your life!

Columnist: Dag Heward-Mills