Greece – The Hidden Centuries by David Brewer and Constantinople – The Last Great Siege by Roger Crowley

Constantinople – The Last Great Siege by Roger Crowley
Greece – The Hidden Centuries by David Brewer
Notes of H3A Non-fiction Reading Group Meeting, Tuesday 12 March 2013

Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453

Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453

Roger Crowley’s intelligence and respect for the people involved in the siege of Constantinople and the way he constructed his story in view of the many unreliable sources was greatly admired.

Greece, The Hidden Centuries

Greece, The Hidden Centuries

One reader was impressed by the fact that both books showed none of his presumptions had been true. These perceptions concerned the powers in the Mediterranean, particularly the Italian states, and in central Europe, how the republic of Turkey arose and, most of all, the disparity of religions and ethnicities of the people involved in the stories told in both books, not to mention that Arcadia was not a paradise but a hellhole centered in the Peloponnese. The other point the same reader made with respect to both books was the insight they provided concerning the quality of individual life – it made him thankful he was born in this age. As he put it, when there wasn’t plague or malaria sweeping through Greece killing off thousands, you worked to pay off your taxes, which were crippling. There was general agreement with this.

The group remarked that the siege of Constantinople showed up some interesting disparities between the two historians. For instance, David Brewer does not seem to have been aware that Urban’s massive cannon had cracked early on in the siege and had presumably crumbled to dust. Overall the first book by Roger Crowley was seen as much closer to what can be regarded as realistic while it was thought that David Brewer appears to have accepted the exaggerations of medieval chroniclers. Given that the Ottoman Empire had six million households in the sixteenth century, it was pointed out that Mehmed the Conqueror could not have fielded more than forty to fifty thousand soldiery so that the hundreds of thousands proposed by chroniclers in order to make the Byzantines appear more heroic more than likely referred to the logistics involved in a siege – such as the transportation of cannons and cannon balls, the making of ladders, arrows, towers and so on, the digging of ditches, latrines and tunnels, not to mention the supply of foodstuffs, removal of garbage and the general cleanliness required to sustain a medieval siege. It was pointed out that this last in particular had not only saved Constantinople on many an occasion but also Rome.

The Ottoman specialty of casting cannons on site also came up. One member remarked that the Ottomans destroyed their cannons when they left, if unsuccessful. Another member noted that removal of weaponry was still a problem in the twenty-first century, such as from Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussion returned to the casting of cannons on site and its importance given that these were generally no larger than present-day Howitzers. Urban’s massive cannon may have been feasible given the relatively short distance between Edirne and Istanbul. The Ottomans were unable to reach Vienna until October and had to leave many of their large siege cannons behind due to the Little Ice Age, which caused the rivers in the Balkans to flood, giving rise to the failure of the first siege of Vienna.

Separately, although he did not discuss their role in the siege at length, Roger Crowley was commended for at least mentioning the presence of dervishes among the troops in the context of their exhortations prior to the final push for Constantinople. It is well-documented that unorthodox Moslem dervishes and their followers joined the regular troops in the siege.

An aspect of Greek life in Constantinople and elsewhere that caught the readers’ attention was the Greek obsession with religion and the role it played in their daily lives. This raised the question of the union of churches and its role in Byzantine relations, which was discussed at some length. Generally the members were amazed at how it hindered political association. The role of religion in the education of Greeks was also brought up, which led to the question as to whether they had enough food to have so much time for the discussion of religious matters, that is, theology. One member objected that spare time should not be interpreted as prosperity, the argument being that subsistence agriculture does not require too much time, as possibly evidenced by Michael Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics. This brought the original remark on the quality of life prior to the twentieth century back into discussion. One member suggested that perhaps because of the precariousness and poverty of life for those not so lucky as to have been born into one of the aristocracies or priesthoods or had the ability and stomach for war, the quality of life after death must have had an overbearing importance. As also discussed at the time, on reflection it seems that it must have been in the interests of the leisured classes, which must have included the priesthood, to publicize religious discussion not only to pacify the masses but also for means to a political end. In his Count Belisarius Robert Graves mentions at some length the various color-coded political parties and their riotous followers vying for power in Byzantium, such as the blues, greens and reds.

The importance of religion in Byzantium led another member to raise the question of what contribution, if any, the better educated Orthodox Greeks had to contribute to the Renaissance, given that David Brewer mentions these all left for Italy. It was suggested that given the Renaissance was at heart a commercial movement and its beneficiaries had themselves painted and sculpted in self-aggrandizing fashion, perhaps the Byzantines contributed to the religious element in such self-glorification.

The importance of religion in Constantinople was further underlined by a member who drew the group’s attention to the masses following icons through Constantinople instead of helping with the siege. This raised the point made by David Brewer that in the end it seems to have been the Greek Orthodox Church that kept alive whatever it meant to be Greek during a millennium when the majority was under Venetian or Turkish rule. One member suggested that this would have been achieved by the Church through the support of belief systems that included many common superstitions and of course through their continued use of Greek as a language. On reflection this very much tallies with David Brewer’s observation that the average Greek Orthodox priest was at the very least ill-educated if not ignorant by the standards of the age. This would also explain the surprise expressed by those Englishmen who came to help the Greeks against the Ottomans that the Greeks had no idea why they were there – namely for Plato and Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. Another point in this context was the Greek Orthodox Church’s active dislike of and continued propaganda against the forcible conscription of Greek children to become Moslems – namely Janissaries. A weapon one member remarked the Russians are now using against the US.

The discussion moved to other aspects of Greek self-awareness that David Brewer may have overlooked, such as the Balkan Wars and the Megali Idea. Given the importance attached by the Greeks and hence the West to the burning of Izmir, the member who raised the issue thought David Brewer had lost his objectivity toward the end of the book because he overlooked the fact that the Greeks had burnt to the ground every village, town and city in their path during their withdrawal from Eskisehir to Izmir, prompting its demise at the hands of the republican army.

The discussion moved back to the siege of Constantinople and the weakness of the Ottoman navy. The group wondered why the Ottomans had not built boats to compete with those of the Italians. This moved the discussion to the overland transportation of the Ottoman navy from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn. The member who raised the point went on to note that he didn’t see what effect it had had, except perhaps psychologically. The member also noted that the Arab siege of Constantinople had been thwarted by Greek fire whereas the Ottoman siege had been concluded on the strength of firepower, underlining the importance of technology in warfare.

This re-opened the discussion of numbers, in particular that there were only eight thousand people in Constantinople. It was pointed out that defenders tend to require to be outnumbered by at least four to one and possibly in the case of walls such as those around Constantinople this ratio may increase to eight to one, which made sense of regular Ottoman forces numbering nearly sixty thousand. However, the group thought given his knowledge and erudition it was a pity Roger Crowley had not spent more time on military considerations such as this and the cutting off of wheat supplies, the threat of a crusade, or indeed the effect the coming summer may have had on sanitation.

After this conversation turned to the Genovese leader of the siege whom no one but the Emperor seems to have supported. It was thought normal of human behavior, if ironic, that when he was wounded the second time and withdrew to receive attention the Byzantines appear to have just given up. It was agreed that in all walks of life a leader is needed to applaud or to blame, depending on the outcome. A parallel was drawn to the later Ottoman sultans who left everything to their Grand Viziers, executing them if they failed and moving them around if successful, and to modern companies where the CEO gets fired. Henry VIII was also mentioned in this context.

On the strength of Constantinople a member recommended Roger Crowley’s follow up book Empires of the Sea. This brought the conversation to the Ottomans’ logistic abilities, which was the envy of western Europeans even at sea. The same member also pointed out that whereas under the Byzantines taxes appear to have been assessed more or less at random under the Ottomans a census was held before taxation was assessed according to religion and means. This prompted another member to point out David Brewer had missed a great opportunity to point out that the Ottomans could not have learnt much from the Byzantines as they did not have much to teach and that in fact the Ottomans had applied institutions and administrative solutions inherited and developed by the Seljuks. The member went on to argue that in any case nomadic pastoral peoples were inherently organized as migration required both co-operation and co-ordination, not to mention law, and that you couldn’t possibly cover the distances that the Oguz covered over periods of time unless they were socially cohesive.

Discussion then turned to Mehmed the Conqueror’s youth and organizational abilities, which it was agreed must in part have been inherited from his father, in effect from Ottoman tradition. However, a member pointed out that until Mehmed’s father appointed the right tutor clearly the world did not fit together for Mehmed in quite the way expected of a future sultan. In other words the Ottomans did not just go through the motions but made sure to appoint individuals who could work the system they had established. It was pointed out that there may have been also the fear of losing your life if you did not take your responsibilities seriously to motivate the young prince. This led to a brief discussion of Ottoman succession before and after Mehmed the Conqueror.

The individual stories were also considered to make Roger Crowley more readable than David Brewer who a lot of readers thought got caught up in too much historical detail in his attempt to set the background to the subject at hand, most likely because of the amount of time he was covering.

A member then remarked that he had not been aware of how close run the siege of Constantinople had been and that in his opinion a crusade would have disrupted it. Another countered, pointing out that in his opinion neither the Venetians nor the Genovese, given their interests in Byzantine lands and their mutual enmity, would ever have joined a Catholic crusade. If there was to be a crusade it would have had to come from the Balkans – but the Hungarians, Serbs and Bulgars who had been crushed repeatedly by Mehmed’s father, great grandfather and great great grandfather were in no longer in a position to mount such a military operation. As a result he proposed that Mehmed’s urgency came from a fear of loss of face. If he failed to take Constantinople he would be hamstrung throughout his reign, losing the support of the war party, namely the Servants of the Porte, and hence perhaps of Rumelia. Nevertheless, general consensus was that if Christianity had been ideologically united they could have put pressure on the Ottomans, making it difficult to complete the siege.

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