Bernard Doumerc

In Venice, ‘the sea was all that mattered’. Truly, this was the founding principle that marked the history of this celebrated city.1 For a very long time historians made the Serenissima a model of success, wealth, and opulence, sometimes asserting that the Venetians ‘had a monopoly of the transit trade in spices from the Orient’ and ‘that they were the masters of the Mediterranean’.2 Such accounts, flattering to the pride of the inhabitants of the lagoons, emphasised the prestige of Venetian navies and the patriotism of its noble lovers of liberty, united to defend the city against the adversities of nature and of men. All this is entirely misleading.

The Venetians were not the only ones who used the maritime routes of the Mediterranean Sea, an area that they were forced to share with great rivals.3 Beginning in the eleventh century, the Venetian government, determined to take a place in international affairs, intervened vigorously against the Normans who had recently installed themselves in southern Italy and Sicily. At that time all of the Christian West, not only the Venetians, was excited by the success of the crusaders, and tried to find advantage in these unsettled commercial conditions. So it was that the drive to establish a trading presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, from Ceuta in Morocco to Lajazzo in Cilicia, began with violence. The Middle Ages were a time of war in which periods of peace were extremely brief. Governments knew how to manage unpredictable economies that were continually buffeted by the repeated conflicts of the age. The Venetians were not the masters in the western basin of the Mediterranean. There the Genoese and the Catalans reigned. In the East they were forced to share the wealth of the Byzantine Empire, the Armenian kingdom and caliphates with their competitors, the Pisans, the Amalfitans, and the Genoese. Though faced with fierce opposition from the other Italian cities, little by little, the tenacity and the communal spirit of the Venetians succeeded in lifting the Serenissima to dominance. They knew how to build the foundations of their maritime power.

From the eleventh century onward, the successive governments of the city wanted above all to take control of navigation in the narrow Adriatic Sea, from the Po Valley with its populous and prosperous cities, and reaching out toward distant lands. It is the Adriatic problem that gave the first impetus to Venetian imperialism. Later, the peace that Venice concluded in 1177 with the emperor Frederick I established the Republic’s ‘Lordship of the Gulf’, which it alone would dominate until the middle of the sixteenth century.4 For some Italian maritime cities the first Crusades in the Near East provided an opportunity for conquest, but the Venetians would wait until the Fourth Crusade when, in 1204, they finally dismembered the Byzantine Empire for their own gain. Their naval power rested upon constantly growing trade, closely following a considerable growth in the demand for maritime transport between the two shores of the Mediterranean. These conditions allowed the creation of an overseas colonial empire, the stato da mar. Radiating outward from major islands such as Euboea and Crete, and from bases at strategic points along the coast, such as Coron and Modon in the Peloponnese or, in the Aegean Sea, from the many islets of the Duchy of Naxos, the enterprise of Venetian colonists and tradesmen grew unceasingly. Great successes, as much in battle as in the marketplace, are the mark of a powerful state. Without a doubt these successes rested on three critical and all-important determining elements. First was the creation of that unique institution, the Arsenal, by the communal authorities. Second was the implementation of vigorous oversight of the Republic’s naval potential as is clearly demonstrated in the establishment of convoys of merchant galleys. Finally, there was the continuing concern for associating the defence of economic interests with preoccupations of territorial expansion aimed at the founding of a colonial empire. These, it seems, were the reasons why Venice became a great maritime power.

There was a technological solution to the new equation that determined the relation between time and distance. This ‘world economy’, as defined by Fernand Braudel, saw new kinds of sailing craft brought into use. In Venice, even as the traditional role of sailors was called into question, the galley remained the preferred vessel. Venetians saw no reason to force cargo ships to evolve in a different way from warships when the galley could fill both these functions that were intimately bound together in medieval deep-sea navigation.5 If the numerous crew of a galley was expensive, it was much less so than the loss of the vessel and its cargo. The galley was the favourite weapon of the Venetians and all means were employed to optimise its capabilities within the parameters dictated by necessity. From a very early time Venice had several shipyards, the well-known squeri, within the city itself. Perhaps from the beginning of the twelfth century – some have suggested that it was as early as 1104 – the ruling elite decided to provide the city with a shipbuilding establishment controlled by the government.6 Archival documentation from 1206 confirms the existence of such a state-controlled naval shipyard and also attests that the construction of ships for the Commune was to be confined to this facility. In 1223, the first evidence appears for the existence of the patroni arsenatus, directors of the Arsenal, elected from among the nobles of the Great Council and salaried by the Commune. Their task was clearly defined: to provide necessary raw materials to the craftsmen, especially wood for ships’ frames, hemp for sails, and cordage, and to see to the timely delivery of sound and robust ships. The details of Doge Enrico Dandolo’s direct intervention in the preparation for the attack on the capital of the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade of 1204 are well known. This intrusion of the public authority into the management of naval construction would continue until the end of the Republic. In 1258, the capitulares illorum de arsena defined the role of the directors. From 1277, after some hesitation, the state attempted to retain its skilled labour force by forbidding craftsmen from emigrating. Within two years, between 1269 and 1271, the government decided to codify the regulations that governed the craft guilds in the Arsenal. The statutes of the caulkers’, shipwrights’, and rope-makers’ guilds also date from this period. By 1265, the districts that produced wood and hemp for the Arsenal were managed by public administrators. Then, in 1276, the government required that at least one squadron should always be prepared to put to sea at a moment’s notice, which required the continual presence of craftsmen at the Arsenal. Finally, in 1278, an arms manufactory completed the complement of activities sheltered within the protecting walls of the shipyard.7

1 F. C. Lane, Venise, une république maritime (Paris, 1985), 96, and in ‘Venetian Shipping during the Commercial Revolution’, in The Collected Papers of F. C. Lane (Baltimore, 1966), 3–24.

2 F. Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II , 2 vols(Paris, 1982), I, 493.

3 J. H. Pryor, ‘The Naval Battles of Roger of Lauria’, Journal of Medieval History, 9 (1983), 179–216, and also in his Geography, Technology, and War. Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean (649–1571) (Cambridge, 1988).

4 G. Cracco, Un altro mondo, Venezia nel medioevo dal secolo XI al secolo XIV (Turin, 1986), 52.

5 F. Melis, I trasporti e le comunicazioni nel medioevo, ed. L. Frangioni (Florence, 1984), 111.

6 E. Concina, La casa dell’Arsenale, in Storia di Venezia, Temi, Il Mare (Rome, 1991), 147–210.

7 G. Luzzato, Studi di storia economica veneziana (Padua, 1954), 6.


Venetian Galley

Bernard Doumerc

In 1302, the Venetian government implemented a revision of ‘the corrections and additions’ to the Arsenal regulations.8 This action was necessary to encourage the full development of the technological revolution that would maximise the Republic’s naval potential. A short time later, between 1304 and 1307, the Arsenale Novo was created.9 By 1325 every sector of maritime activity had been reformed. The speed with which the authorities decided, the promotion of utilitas favourable to the public good, and a real will to innovate gave expression to a powerful movement toward a goal of dominating the sea. In 1301, the Senate declared that it was necessary to arm a permanent squadron for the protection of ‘the Gulf’ (the Adriatic Sea). The cramped port facilities in the lagoon led to a natural expansion with new basins in the Arsenale Novo.10 This expansion of facilities was completed by the creation of naval bases at Pola and Pore? in Istria. Until the final phase of renovation at the end of the fifteenth century, this naval establishment was the pride of Venice’s oligarchy. In 1435, the Senate declared, ‘our Arsenal is the best in the world’ and encouraged visits by the famous and powerful as they journeyed toward Jerusalem. This evocation of the labour, ingenuity, and efficiency of the seamen of Venice resounded all across Europe and flattered the pride of the subjects of the Serenissima. The myth of Venice, forged by the political powers around the Arsenal, helped to elicit respect, fear, and effective administration.11

It is necessary to pause for a moment to consider this assertion of a clever political will that quickly adapted to circumstances. In looking at the overall situation in the Mediterranean basin it is clear that by the late thirteenth century the Venetian position had weakened. In 1261, a Byzantine–Genoese coalition took control of Constantinople and a part of Romania that, up until that time, had been controlled by the Franks and Venetians. Meanwhile, the Republic relentlessly defended Crete, the coastal bases of the Peloponnese, and the important islands of the Aegean Sea.12 In 1291 the fall of Acre marked the final defeat of the Crusaders in the Latin States of the Levant. It appears that the Venetians had already begun a withdrawal toward the west when, in 1274, Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo prohibited investment in agricultural estates on Terra Ferma ‘to oblige the Venetians to take an interest in naval affairs’. A little later, in 1298, their perpetual rivals, the Genoese, entered the Adriatic to support the Hungarians with an attack on Venetian possessions in Dalmatia.13 Naval war within the confined spaces of the Adriatic forced the government to undertake a major reform effort to confront this threat from the enemies of the Republic. This was more than a territorial conflict. It was also an economic war that engulfed the entire Mediterranean basin. The desire to capture commerce and to dominate distribution networks for goods placed great importance on the ability to keep fleets at sea. The last phase in the creation of Venice’s magnificent Arsenal took place between about 1473 and 1475. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, fear seized the Venetians who dreaded a naval assault on their colonial possessions. The defence of the stato da mar was undertaken by reinforcing the defences of the system of naval bases. First, Negroponte and Nauplia, and then, the Arsenal of Candia, an important strong point on Crete, were completely renovated between 1467 and 1470. At home, in Venice, momentous changes in circumstances created a need to augment the Republic’s naval forces. Henceforth, fierce naval war against admirals in the pay of the Ottomans brought unaccustomed reverses. In this context, the senate asked Giacomo Morosini (called el zio, ‘Uncle’) to prepare plans for an extension of the Arsenal in 1473. With an additional eight hectares added to its area, it became the greatest shipyard in Europe and ‘the essential foundation of the state’.14

By demonstrating its undeniable concern for optimising the financial and technical resources devoted to naval construction, the government showed the way for the whole people. The authorities obtained indispensable support from all those social groups whose destiny was tied to the vigour of the city’s maritime activity. At the same time, the desires of those groups corresponded to the announced public policy of giving priority to the naval forces. It is not true that a permanent and effective naval force did not appear until the sixteenth century.15 A navy existed in Venice from the fourteenth century. As described above, the patrol squadron charged with policing the Adriatic was at the heart of that force, but there were other available units. First among them were the galleys armed by the port cities that had gradually come to be included in the stato da mar. In the event of conflict these Dalmatian, Albanian, Greek, and Cretan cities were required, by the terms of their submission to Venice, to provide one or more galleys for the naval draft due to the metropolis. There are many instances of these drafts. One example is sufficient to indicate their nature.16 During the conflict against the Turks during the 1470s, the Arsenal could not quickly provide the thirty galleys demanded by the Senate. All the subject cities of the Empire were required to contribute to the fleet. Crete provided eleven galleys, four came from the occupied ports of Puglia, two from Corfu, eleven from Dalmatia (three from Zara, two from Sebenico, one each from Cattaro, Lesina, Split, Pago, Arba, and Trau). Cadres of loyal ‘patriots’ known to Venetian administrators leavened the crews gathered from these various ports. Neither the ardour of these fighters from ‘overseas’ nor their fidelity to St Mark was taken for granted. The Senate did reward loyal commanders such as Alessandro de Gotti of Corfu, Francesco Chachuni of Brindisi, and Jacopo Barsi of Lesina.

The second Venetian trump card was the initiation of an unprecedented system for the administration of sea-borne trade. This system provided a formidable tool, designed to respond to the needs of la ventura, of commerce, laying a foundation for a dominating and expansionist people. These innovative procedures put in place by the ruling oligarchy were developed to take advantage of an exceptional organisation that would raise Venice into the first rank of Mediterranean naval powers. During the first twenty years of the Trecento, there was a period of maturation punctuated by different attempts to develop a system of navigation that eventually evolved into the galley convoys known as mude. Having achieved this objective with the consensus of all the participants in the financial and business world, it was then necessary to create an efficient system of management. Even if maritime trade was prosperous, it remained fragile and subject to unforeseeable risks. It was always possible that a major conflict with the Genoese or the Catalans, or even a brief outbreak of extreme violence due to piracy, might place the whole economic structure of the Republic at risk.17 Meanwhile, in the city of Venice as well as in the small island market towns of the lagoon, in the warehouses and in the tradesmen’s shops or the craftsmen’s booths, men pursued gain, but they did so without an overall plan and without looking for any really consistent method in their approach. Around the middle of the fourteenth century Venetian patricians came to realise the necessity of undertaking ambitious measures to surmount the major obstacles to a rational exploitation of the merchant fleets by making major changes in their organisation. Perhaps the terrifying War of Chioggia (1379–81) accelerated the rapid development of this concept. The patriciate instituted regulations providing for general communal equipping of merchant fleets to offset the disadvantages of the privately outfitted trading expeditions that had been paralysed during this long conflict. It is clear that the implementation of this new system affected all of the Republic’s economic and social structures. Progress toward fully implementing this model for the unique and exemplary management of Venetian maritime potential took place only slowly, but it was to dominate the Republic’s actions at sea up to the middle of the sixteenth century.18

The founding act of this state-controlled regulation was the Ordo galearum armatarum, decreed on 8 December 1321. It concerned both the galleys and sailing cargo ships. The experimental phase lasted until the end of the Venetian– Genoese war of 1379. The cooperation of several outfitters was needed for a merchant convoy so the galleys received collective financing. This innovative policy originated after the fall of Acre in 1291. The entrepreneurial merchants, far from pulling back from risky undertakings, soon became involved in the conquest of the Atlantic routes to Flanders and England. This rapid expansion encouraged new initiatives, sometimes hesitant and disorganised during the first half of the Trecento, then coordinated by the public authorities under the careful supervision of the city’s aristocratic patriciate. Opening navigation routes toward the west, along with intensification of maritime relations with the Levant, placed the keys to international trade in Venetian hands after 1350. They also profited from a remarkably favourable position in relation to the Alpine passes leading to northern Europe. By this time the system of auctioning the charters of galleys belonging to the Commune had been definitively established. To avoid a destructive confrontation between the authorities and the merchants (even though at Venice it is sometimes difficult to discern a difference between the two groups) the state asked that the Black Sea convoy be managed according to this new principle. After some years it was adopted for all navigation routes, to the general satisfaction of both groups. Besides the galley convoys, there was also a whole sector of maritime endeavour involving sailing round ships with high freeboard (naves). Sometimes their operation is described as free outfitting, because it was subject to fewer regulatory constraints. These naves transported necessary bulk products such as grain, all kinds of raw materials of high volume, construction materials, salt, ashes, and so forth. The primary purpose of the more strongly defended galleys was to transport costly cargoes of spices, silks and precious cloths, metals, and weapons. In the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Church lifted its prohibition of trade with the Muslims, the Venetians had a fleet ready to open trade once again with the Syrian and Egyptian ports of the Levant. In 1366, a sailing route involving both galleys and naves established connections from the lagoons to Alexandria and Beirut, beginning a promising trade. In the 1440s, nearly ninety naves and fifty-five galleys sailed for the Near East, and about thirty for Constantinople. The volume of the goods continued to increase, as did the pattern of massive investment and fiscal returns for the treasury. The reform of maritime statutes that had become obsolete, the creation of new work contracts that imposed a minimum wage, improvements in living conditions on board ships and a mariners’ residence in the city attracted a skilled labour force, mostly from Dalmatia, Albania, and Greece. These immigrants, originating from its overseas colonies, allowed the Republic to raise the banner of St Mark throughout the Mediterranean.19 The Senate, the real architect of this system, far from putting the system of private management in opposition to the one controlled by the Commune, took the best of each of the two systems and combined them. For that reason, some historians speak disparagingly about bureaucracy or state control to describe the Venetian system of trade.

8 F. Melis, I mercanti italiani nell’Europa medievale e rinascimentale , ed. L. Frangioni

(Florence, 1990), 9.

9 E. Concina, L’Arsenale della Repubblica di Venezia (Venice, 1984), 26 ff.

10 Ibid., 28, and E. Concina, ‘Dal tempio del mercante al piazzale dell’Impero: l’Arsenale di Venezia’, in Progetto Venezia (Venice, n.d.), 57–106. Originally the ‘gulf ’ or ‘Gulf of Venice’ referred to that part of the Adriatic north of a line between Pola and Ravenna. As Venetian control of the Adriatic expanded, so did their definition of ‘the Gulf’. See F. C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore, 1973), 24.

11 E. Crouzet-Pavan, Venise triomphante, les horizons d’un mythe (Paris, 1999), 122.

12 B. Doumerc, La difesa dell’impero, in Storia di Venezia, dalle origini alla caduta della Serenissima, vol. II, La formazione dello stato patrizio , ed. G. Arnaldi, G. Cracco and A. Tenenti (Rome, 1997), 237–50.

13 B. Krekic, Venezia e l’Adriatico, in Storia di Venezia, III, 51–81 and P. Cabanes, Histoire de l’Adriatique (Paris, 2000), 191.

14 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 14 for example, and S. Karpov, La navigazione veneziana nel mar Nero (XIII–XV sec.) (Ravenna, 2000), 12.

15 J. Meyer, ‘Des liens de causalité en histoire: politiques maritimes et société’, Revue historique, 614 (2000), 12.

16 A. Ducellier and B. Doumerc, ‘Les Chemins de l’exil, bouleversements de l’Est européen et migrations vers l’Ouest à la fin du Moyen Âge’ (Paris, 1992), 163; Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 161.

17 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, in Storia di Venezia, IV, 11; A. Tenenti and U. Tucci, eds, Rinascimento (Rome, 1996), 113–80.

18 D. Stöckly, Le Système des galées du marché à Venise (fin XIIIe–milieu XVe) (Leiden and New York, 1995), 158; F. C. Lane, Navires et constructeurs à Venise pendant la Renaissance (Paris, 1965).

19 E. Ashtor, Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, 1981), 381; J. C. Hocquet, Voiliers et commerce en Méditerranée, 1200–1650 (Lille, 1976), 442; B. Doumerc, Venise et l’émirat hafside de Tunis (Paris, 1999), 172.



Venetian carrack

Bernard Doumerc

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the reconciliation of economic policy with the constitution as well as with the defence of a colonial empire was no longer appropriate. Then, it was said, ‘the whole navy is devoured by the army’ and numerous voyages of merchant galleys cancelled at the last moment or diverted from their course put an end to the trust of the Venetian merchant partners.31 Henceforth, the fleet of the state, giving priority to the defence of empire, could no longer play a leading role in trade. Venice remained the maritime power that it had always been, but was no longer a first-rank naval power. One after another the sailing routes closed at the turn of the sixteenth century: the Barbary Coast, then Aigues Mortes, and finally Flanders.32 Only the Levant routes continued to be active but even those suffered long interruptions in their traffic. The disaster of 1484 was fresh in everyone’s mind; in that year, French pirates had attacked the muda of Flanders. The consequences were dreadful. The galleys had been captured after a hard fight. A hundred and thirty sailors were killed, three hundred wounded, and, of course, their cargos had been confiscated by King Charles VIII’s representative. A few months later, a major incident provoked a panic around the Rialto, the financial centre of the city. To save the last bit of the Languedoc spice import market, the Senate demanded that the Aigues Mortes convoy depart, knowing that another interruption in shipping would sound the death knell of any claim to trading in that region. It took six auctions before one was successful, and the patroni were able to extract important fiscal advantages from the government for the voyage including the payment of a 3500-ducat subsidy for each patrono and a 30 per cent increase in the charter rate. The voyage was an exceptionally long one because it included stops along the Barbary Coast. This course full of pitfalls made martyrs of the sailors and merchants. When they had returned, the accounts told the story. The cost of stopping for forty-five days to defend Zara, which was besieged by the Turks, was estimated at 10,000 ducats per galley, due to expenditures for the supplementary purchase of victuals for the crews and the payment of higher wages than had been foreseen. The patroni also asked for 8000 ducats for the lack of profit on lost charters and unsold merchandise. All this added up to an indemnity of 25,000 ducats for each patrono who had been forced to make this voyage against his better judgement.33 The government faltered because, in a backhanded way, the difference of opinion at the heart of the system of managing the galley fleet was expressed virulently in debates at the meetings about the accounts.

A census of the naval forces undertaken in 1496 by the Ministers of the Marine (Savii ai Ordini) demonstrated the naval inferiority of the Republic ‘because there are too few armed ships at sea’. This explanation given by the chronicler, Marino Sanudo, is astonishing because, he adds, ‘there are few ships because, until now, we had no fear of the Turks’.34 The result was that the obligations imposed upon the captains of the mude increased continually. In 1496, for example, the galleys of the Barbary Coast convoy participated in a massive counter-attack, launched to limit the audacious actions of the Barbary pirates.

Two dramatic episodes permit an evaluation of the interventionist role of the Venetian government in the management of the fleet. The first concerns the conflict involving the kingdom of Naples during the Italian Wars. In 1495, a league including Venice, the Duke of Milan, the Pope, and the king of Aragon, wanted to oppose the plan of the French king, Charles VIII, to annex a part of southern Italy. The Senate issued a general requisition order ‘to retain all ships and large merchant galleys’. The Captain General of the Sea, Marco Trevisan, could, with great effort, assemble a war fleet of only about twenty galleys. That is why the contribution of eleven merchant galleys was absolutely necessary, so he waited for the arrival of galleys from the Dalmatian cities. The second episode, with more tragic consequences, was that of the Battle of Zonchio in 1499. The animosity between Antonio Grimani, the Captain General and the patroni of the merchant galleys led to a catastrophe in which the disheartened crews’ weariness and the merchants’ rebellion caused a military disaster. Some months later, outside the port of Modon, which was besieged by the Turks, the patroni of the galere da mercato, by their unforgivable refusal to fight, caused the loss of the city. Despite sensational court proceedings and some sentences based on principle, the patroni were absolved since the state was willing to acknowledge its share of the blame because of the incompetence of its representatives in the battle.35 Naval battles in the following years offered further proof of the problem. During the spring of 1500 off the island of Cephalonia Captain General Marco Trevisan, warned by Grimani’s unhappy experience, considered sending back the merchant galleys that he had received as reinforcements because they seemed poorly equipped to fight, and the patroni were outspokenly critical of their mission.36 The weariness of the demoralised crews and the condemnation of the patroni of the merchant galleys, little involved as they were in safeguarding the stato da mar, heralded the end of an exemplary system. The redefinition of the specific role of the muda del mercato had not taken place because of the lack of a clearly expressed political will. Contrary to what had happened in the middle of the Trecento, this crisis of confidence in the Cinquecento quickly turned into open opposition.

In this way it is possible to discern the main lines of power that lead the Republic of Venice to dominate a large portion of the Mediterranean. The senatorial nobility, uniting the most important investors and committed merchants in the maritime economy, patiently forged a tool without equal among the rival nations and competitors: the system of regular navigation routes plied by convoys of merchant galleys. The modest ship-owners, nobles or not, were discouraged by the regulatory and fiscal obstacles that favoured the mude and by the permanent insecurity of sea-borne commerce, but were powerless to compete efficiently against the mixed private and public management of the naval potential. This was all the more true when raison d’État generated an indisputable argument for the use of these convoys, at times in the form of five galleys with 1200 men in each crew ready to intervene quickly in any zone on missions in the public interest. At the end of the fifteenth century and especially at the beginning of the following century, this senatorial nobility, united into the ‘Party of the Sea’, even after having gained considerable advantages, often in violation of the law, was no longer able, considering the circumstances, to protect their essential prerogatives. The nation, threatened by sea and by land, no longer gave priority to this system which for two hundred years had given glory and fortune to those who lived around the lagoon. This was the beginning of the downfall of the Venetian colonial empire in the Mediterranean and, at the same time, of this unique and long-effective system of operating the merchant marine.

31 Girolamo Priuli, Diarii (diario veneto), ed. A. Segre, in Rerum Italicarum Scriptores 24, 2nd edn (Citta di Castello, 1912–1941), 39.

32 Sanudo, Diarii., I, column 302.

33 Priuli, Diarii, 273.

34 Sanudo, Diarii, I, column 30.

35 Ibid., IV, columns 337, 360.

36 B. Doumerc, ‘De l’incompétence à la trahison: les commandants de galères vénitiens face aux Turcs (1499–1500)’, in Félonie, trahison, reniements au Moyen Âge, Les Cahiers du Crisima, 3 (Montpellier, 1997), 613–34, and F. C. Lane, ‘Naval Actions and Fleet Organization (1499–1502)’, in J. R. Hale, ed., Renaissance Venice (London, 1973), 146–73.


The Rules of Naval Warfare – Peloponnesian War

There were eight important rules under which the naval war would be conducted.

First, there were two vital theaters of war: Ionia, meaning both the mainland coast and the islands, and the Hellespont. Ionia was important because so many Athenian subjects were in this region. The Hellespont, a narrow body of water connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean, was the lifeline of Athens; through it flowed supplies and especially food from the shores of the Black Sea that the city needed to survive.

Second, money was vital to a naval war effort. For the Spartans, that meant securing Persian help even if it meant bargaining away Greek cities to Persian control. Persian cash meant pay for Spartan rowers, supplies, and even clothing. The amount contributed was huge: during one period, the Persians contributed 30 talents to keep 55 Spartan triremes in service for one month. Without this money, there would be no Spartan fleet and, consequently, no challenge to the Athenians. For the Athenians, it was vital to control their subjects who provided them with tribute. Their empire ensured that tribute would continue to flow into Athens to finance the Athenian navy, which protected the imports that literally kept the Athenians alive. For the Athenians, continued control of their empire was vital because it provided the necessary funds to finance their navy and offset Persia’s economic aid to Sparta. To supplement their revenues, both Sparta and Athens used their navies to collect extra money from both friendly and hostile poleis. In 411, Athenian forces were operating in Thrace, Thasos, and Macedonia, all in an effort to acquire money, through plunder if necessary. Not surprisingly, the more money plundered or collected, the happier the men and the better their morale.

Third, keeping a fleet well supplied was a very difficult job. Even a modest naval force of 30 triremes would have at least 6,000 men to feed. Money was vital because it paid for the necessary supplies. If tribute collection from states did not suffice, plundering enemy states of money or goods would substitute.

Fourth, it was vital for both sides to protect their allies and subjects from hostile attack so that these sources of goods and tribute would not be lost. This meant helping allied or subject states by providing soldiers or ships when necessary. It was also important to try to detach allies and subjects from their enemy. Various methods were used to seduce poleis. For example, Athens or Sparta could encourage either democratic or oligarchic revolutions through bribery, through a blockade, or by using military force or the threat of force to influence the local people within a given polis to overthrow a hostile government from the inside. Sometimes relatively small forces could bring about the necessary changes; in smaller poleis even three or four triremes with marines might be sufficient. Whatever the methods necessary, it was imperative to win over as many poleis as possible because new allies or subjects could then provide so many things vital to the war effort: supplies of all kinds, especially food, and tribute. At the same time, these things would then be denied to the enemy.

Fifth, possessing and maintaining naval bases was vital to all the operations just listed. A base had to have a good harbor, natural or manmade, to protect ships from storms and from the enemy. The harbor had to be easy to defend from land, and, if necessary, fortifications could be built on the spot. The base must also be close to the enemy or to hostile cities or astride vital sea lanes to permit soldiers to easily spot enemy movements and to launch attacks when the opportunity arose. Bases would provide the necessary space for crews to eat their meals and to sleep, both of which were impossible on board the narrow deck and in the limited space of a trireme. A base would also provide a place to repair damaged ships or merely a place to drag them on to land to dry them out, which was necessary from time to time. Bases could be used as supply depots and also as places to store equipment such as the sails when speed was of the essence. On one occasion, when the Athenians wished to attack Chios, they surrounded the island with a string of four forts: two were placed on the mainland across from Chios, another was built on a small island just off the island, and the last was on the island of Lesbos, to the north. These bases could be used to launch plundering raids on Chios and to intercept any shipping going to or from the island.

Sixth, the gathering of reliable information concerning the enemy’s whereabouts and movements was crucial. Bases could provide a place from which to keep a close eye on the enemy. Small lookout posts could be established in places of vital interest where there was insufficient space to establish a large permanent base. Since fleets usually hugged the coasts, lookouts could be established along the coasts watching well-traveled sea lanes. Because the Hellespont was so vital to their interests, the Athenians stationed lookouts on Lesbos and on the mainland coast across from the island to ensure that no Peloponnesian warships could pass north through the narrow channel towards the Hellespont. They also had lookouts at the entrance to the Hellespont. If an enemy fleet was sighted, they used fires to signal their admirals and the fleet, which were further into the channel, at a permanent base at Sestos. The Athenians also had nine triremes always on patrol in the Hellespont to watch for enemy vessels and to protect their merchant ships. Patrols were often sent out to spy on an enemy or search for an enemy. Information could be gleaned from other sources: neutral merchant vessels or local populations, whether friendly or unfriendly, could be mined for information even if bribery or force was necessary.

Seventh, new naval tactics developed over the course of the fifth century. There was the periplous (“sailing around”), in which fast triremes manned by experienced crews attempted to quickly outflank enemy naval lines and then swiftly change direction in order to ram enemy ships broadside. The diekplous (“sailing through”) was a similar tactic in which fast ships sailed into an enemy line between enemy ships and then suddenly turned to hit one of the ships broadside. The modern trireme Olympias has proven that such maneuvers were indeed possible. Generally, navies with faster ships and better crews preferred to fight in the open sea, where their speed and experience would be an advantage. Through most of the war, the Athenians had these advantages and often attempted to draw the Spartans ships away from coastal refuges. Often, navies would send out small groups of ships first to entice an enemy to sail out away from the coast and then surprise the enemy by having a larger number of ships suddenly appear on the scene. Sometimes entire fleets would sail out in an effort to provoke combat, heckling their opponents in the process; sometimes this type of direct challenge was so humiliating that admirals would feel obligated to fight. Marines also became an integral part of naval war. Hoplites would be stationed with the fleet, as would lightly armed troops and, sometimes, even rowers armed specifically for the occasion. Marines would be stationed on deck to prevent enemy soldiers from getting on board, and they would also seize opportunities to board enemy ships and take possession of them. It was considered a great coup if enemy ships could be captured intact, since they could obviously then be used in future battles. Squadrons in trouble could attempt to outrun enemy vessels, or they could quickly head for shore and beach their ships. They would then rely on their marines to hold off the marines of the enemy and to preserve control of the ships. If things looked dire, sailors often resorted to burning their own ships rather than allow them to fall into enemy hands. Blockades could also be used to trap the enemy ships in a narrow confined space, since without supplies the marines would either have to fight their way out or surrender.

Eighth, naval defeats could never weaken the power of the Spartan army and therefore could not threaten Sparta’s survival or its prosecution of the war. Persian wealth was practically inexhaustible, so the destruction of one fleet simply led to an influx of Persian money to finance a new one. For Athens, though, every naval battle threatened its very existence. After the Sicilian disaster, Athens no longer had the naval or economic resources to absorb more than one major defeat. One Spartan victory and Athens would lose its fleet, control of its empire, and the wealth the empire produced. Without its fleet, and without money to build new ships, the Athenians could not control vital trade routes and the supply lines upon which the city depended. In short, an Athenian defeat on the sea now meant an end to the war.




From earliest times the life of the Slavs has been connected with water. Like most ancient peoples, the Slavs built settlements near rivers and lakes. Fishing provided an important food source and waterways became main transportation arteries. Even in a rough-hewn boat it was easier and safer to travel long distances than it was to cut through a dense forest.

Boat building techniques gradually improved. The canoe-like vessels of the Slavs, which were originally pushed through the water with punt poles, became considerably faster with the introduction of oars and sails.

By the seventh century boat construction had sufficiently advanced to allow the Slavs not only to navigate rivers but also to venture into the open seas. They sailed to Thessalonica, Crete, the southern coast of Italy, and, at the very walls of Constantinople, engaged the Byzantines in naval battles.

Among the most famous of the ancient trade routes was the one called “from the Vikings to the Greeks.” To a large degree Kiev and Novgorod, the principal cities of Ancient Rus, flourished because they were located along the waterways of this important route.

For long voyages these early Russians built a light, open vessel called a lodya. The Byzantines called it in Greek monoxile because it was made from a single tree, usually the hollowed-out trunk of an oak or linden. Layers of planking were secured to the hull to increase its height and oars were affixed to the planking. A single mast with a square sail made the lodya seaworthy, and it was light enough, when the need arose, for portage. Although it seldom exceeded twenty metres in length, a lodya often held a crew of forty.

In the ninth century Kievan Grand Prince Oleg, with a fleet of lodyas, launched an attack against Constantinople, called Tsargrad by the Slavs. His victorious campaign proved the might and independence of Kievan Rus. According to the Chronicles, Prince Oleg “hung his shield upon the Gate of Tsargrad” and sailed back to Kiev with the treasures of his conquest.

In 941 Grand Prince Igor Rurikovich sailed against Tsargrad with a large force of lodyas. In a sea battle off the northeast coast of the Bosporus, the Byzantine galleys, called dromons, decimated the Kievan fleet by using a terrifying instrument of war known as “Greek fire.” (Developed during the Middle Ages, Greek fire consisted of catapulting fireballs at enemy ships.)

Igor Rurikovich retreated back to Kiev; however, in 943, having assembled an even more powerful force, he launched a successful assault against Constantinople and claimed for Kievan Rus the right to trade with the Byzantine Empire. Many of Russia’s earliest heroes-some true historical figures, others purely legendary, or often a combination of the two-emerged from Kievan Rus.

Along with his faithful warriors, Kievan Grand Prince Svyatoslav Igorevich became fabled for his acts of valour. Prince Svyatoslav’s most celebrated deed was his conquest of Khazaria in 966 following a great sea battle. Sixteen years later Grand Price Vladimir, son of Svyatoslav, attacked Byzantium and engaged the Byzantines in yet another naval battle.

The peace that resulted from friendlier relations with Byzantium permitted Kievan Rus to begin to develop craftsmanship, to engage in trade, and to learn how to construct in stone. Nevertheless, advancements in the art of shipbuilding proceeded very slowly. The early Russians continued to ply the lakes and seas in their dug-out boats and to transport their simple goods by river on crude, raft-like vessels.

In 1043 Kievan Rus began its ninth naval campaign against Constantinople. Prince Vladimir, son of Yaroslav the Wise, sailed into the Bosporus with his flotilla of lodyas and utterly routed the Byzantine naval force. This marked the last assault of a Kievan Rus fleet upon Tsargrad. After the death of Vladimir Monomakh in 1125, the struggle for power between the princes of Ancient Rus intensified. Disunited and weakened through internal strife, the princes could give little thought to warring against neighbouring states.

The princes of Rus began to use their fleets of lodyas to fight against one another. In 1151 Prince Izyaslav Mstislavich used a more advanced type of sailing vessel in a battle against the forces of Prince Yury Dolgoruky: Prince Isyaslav’s lodyas had decks and were constructed with rudders in both bow and stern. In the years that followed few other changes were made in the design of this yet primitive sailing craft.

By the end of the twelfth century Vladimir-Suzdal had become a significantly strong princedom. Prince Vsevolod (son of Yury Dolgoruky and nicknamed Bolshoye Gnezdo, meaning “Great Nest”) claimed for himself the title of Grand Prince of Kiev and proclaimed himself Grand Prince of Vladimir as well.

Both Vsevolod and his son, Prince Yury II, equipped flotillas of lodyas and sent them against the Volga Bulgars. During one of his military campaigns Yury II founded the eastern-most of the Russian princedoms, Nizhny-Novgorod, at the place where the Volga flows into the Oka River.

Yury II’s efforts to strengthen the eastern boundaries of fledgling Russia were doubtless inspired by a presentiment of things to come. For it was in the East that the might of the Golden Horde was gathering; it was from the East that the Tatar-Mongols would descend and impose upon Russia the “yoke” that was to last for nearly three centuries.

Age of Exploration – Vessels


Portuguese Galleon The Frol De La Mar

Among the technological advances of the Age of Exploration, one stands out from all the others in the literature of the subject, and everyone tends to agree: there occurred a remarkably fast innovation in ship design and construction that enabled Iberian mariners-and by extension those other Europeans who followed, such as the English, Dutch, and French-to establish a mastery at sea. From Africa to the Malacca Straits, to China, to the Americas, European ships overpowered their competitors-native maritime cultures–and set up a maritime and naval supremacy that pushed Europe to dominate much of the world.

Concomitant with ship design was the adaptation of the gun to naval warfare, a transition so important that Parker noted it constituted a “revolution in naval warfare. . . in early modern Europe which.. . opened the way to the exercise of European hegemony over most of the world’s oceans for much of the modern period.”

The history of ship design and evolution is an immensely varied subject, complicated by the many terms and languages employed, the parallel evolution of ship types in some instances, the various claims of different nationalities that sometimes obscure fact from nationalist myth. For our purposes, the principal breakthroughs came in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when Iberians, for all practical purposes, adapted existing ships and sails to produce two vessels, the caravel and the nao, or ship, that carried the explorers far beyond the confines of European and Mediterranean waters.

By way of background, seagoing vessels had evolved into two general types, the long ship and the round ship. The longship, a descendant of both Mediterranean and Scandinavian forerunners, was propelled most often by oars, was quite maneuverable, and was employed for the most part as a warship. Generically termed “longship,” in Spanish literature it appears most often as a galera. Galeras and variations of the type formed the backbone of the Christian fleet that defeated the Turks at Lepanto on 7 October 1571.

The round ships in the Iberian fleets were relative newcomers compared with the galeras which traced their lineage to the ancient Phoenicians and Vikings. The roundship, or nao, sometimes called nauio by the Spanish, was driven solely by sails, tended to be quite broad in relation to its length, rode fairly deeply in the water, and, compared to the galeras, maneuvered sluggishly in adverse conditions. It was preferred by merchants who could ship large amounts of cargo at a low operating cost, since the crews necessary to man these vessels were a fraction of the sailors and soldiers a galera required. The galleys that fought at Lepanto each carried almost 400 men, prompting one observer to note that “when every man is at his post, only heads can be seen from prow to stern.” The origin of the roundship were probably Mediterranean, although the Arabian maritime culture of the Indian Ocean also produced vessels with similar characteristics.

The breakthrough for the eventual supremacy of the roundship over the longship came some time in -the late Middle Ages. Until then, square sails, set on one or two masts, had been the common means of propulsion. With a following or quarterly wind the vessels moved a decent clip and answered the helm reasonably well. However, winds forward of the beam left these wide, deep merchantmen with little alternative but to wait patiently for fairer breezes and better days. The solution to the problem was the adoption of probably an Arabic invention, the lateen sail, which was added to the after or rnizzenmast. The lateen sad had long been in use in the Mediterranean and its evolution is associated with that area, just as the square sail is thought to have evolved in Northern Europe.

The lateen sail, roughly triangular, could be worked into a variety of positions to catch the wind coming from virtually any direction except dead on. The Portuguese were the first successfully to utilize lateen-rigged caravels that carried explorers slowly down the African coast in the fifteenth century, discovering and colonizing some of the Atlantic island chains as well, such as the Azores and Madeiras. But the lateen-rigged caravels also had some disadvantages. They were hard to come about when tacking and their awkwardness in this respect limited their size, and thus the power they provided. Thus, when lateen sails were combined with square sails, a configuration was achieved which combined power-square sails with maneuverability-lateen sails. Here terms get confusing, for we have various descriptions-carrack, full-rigged ship, nao, nauio, galleon-all which represent various stages in the improvement in this new ship design that came about in the fifteenth century.

Other improvements in hull construction further facilitated the Iberian advantage. Sometime around 1000 AD “. . . instead of putting together the external skin of the ship first. . . shipbuilders put up the internal ribs and then tacked the hull planking to the external framework.” This method of ship construction allowed for a number of clear advantages: larger ships; more flexible hull designs and shapes; and it was less demanding in shipwrights’ time and skills.

This experimentation in hull design and sail configurations was a dynamic process, combining the various traditions to produce the caravels, carracks, and galleons of the age of exploration. All the while this phase of technological improvement was occurring in hull and sails, Iberians and other Europeans were also experimenting with what proved to be a most lethal combination and, indeed, perhaps a “revolution” in naval warfare, by adapting guns on ships.

As we consider the rise of European superiority at sea in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we need to maintain some perspective. It was not an unqualified, meteoric rise, marked by shell-shocked Muslims in the Indian Ocean and Chinese junks drifting to oblivion as Iberian, and later Dutch and English, warships and traders swept the oceans of their competitors. There were setbacks. But there was the near inexorable rise of Iberian superiority at sea, and the ease with which the Spanish conquered much of the Americas. Although disease played as much, if not a greater role, than technology in that part of the world, the role of cannon and technology employed are worth considering in some detail.

It has been fashionable now for some time to emphasize weapons, and specifically, guns, as preerninent factors in the rise of the European dominance, and not without some just cause.” A sampling of the literature is clearly unambiguous on this subject. “Non-European countries never succeeded in filling the vast technological gap [referring to guns and artillery] that separated them from Europe. On the contrary, in the course of time the gap grew conspicuously larger.” “. . . Between 1450 and 1650, the emergence of the heavily armed [with artillery] sailing ship transformed the situation.” And, “. . . one of the most important technological innovations during the fifteenth century was the introduction of artillery at sea.”

While the literature on guns and ships is large, and still growing, we can abstract it for the purposes of this essay. Beginning with small, breech-loading, cast or wrought iron guns, and capable of firing about a 4-pound shot, seagoing cannons evolved in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries into effective weapons. As early as the 1430s, Portuguese caravels carried small guns, some mounted on swivels for aiming, most of them delivering missiles as diverse as stone, iron, and lead projectiles. The names of the various guns are myriad, representing not only an industry or art in rapid transition, but national variances.

One of the earliest technological breakthroughs came with the introduction of the muzzle-loading bronze cannons in the fifteenth century. Here we have to pause in an essay that is not technical, but devoted in some ways to the technological improvements in ships and guns that drove the Iberian advantage. Breech-loaded cannons, or those loaded by opening them at the breech end, were cheaper and easier to fabricate, but had some intrinsic weaknesses: they were prone to bursting the barrel or blowing the breechblock out and could only be built for relatively small charges of powder. Muzzle-loading bronze cannon, on the other hand, possessed increased strength because of the fabrication process (casting them in a single piece) and could deliver a much heavier projectile over a longer distance. Bronze muzzle-loaders were, however, expensive to build and demanded a much higher degree of technical skill. As a result, the usual Iberian ship of exploration was equipped often with a combination of muzzle- and breech-loaders, of different calibers and types.




Fulton’s Demologos (1813 preliminary design).

During the final months of the War of 1812 against Britain, the United States made the first use of a steamship in a military campaign and also laid down the world’s first steam-powered warship. In January 1815 General Andrew Jackson used the Mississippi river steamer Enterprise to transport troops and supplies and to carry dispatches before the Battle of New Orleans. Meanwhile, the American steamship pioneer Robert Fulton, whose earlier river boat Clermont (1807) was the first commercially successful merchant steamer, in June 1814 laid down the steam warship Demologos at New York. The innovative 1,450-ton vessel was designed to defend New York harbor against British ships of the line and frigates. It had a centerline paddle wheel between twin hulls, engines placed below the waterline capable of 5.5 knots, wooden “armor” five feet thick, and thirteen 32-pounders in each broadside. Fulton died shortly before the Demologos made its first sea trial in June 1815; by then the War of 1812 was over, and it was never commissioned. The last of three trials took place that September, after which it was laid up in reserve. The Demologos made only one further voyage under its own power, in 1817, when it ferried President James Monroe from New York to Staten Island. Its engines were removed in 1821 and it served as a receiving ship until it blew up in an accident in 1829.

In the years after 1815, a slow and subtle revolution in naval ordnance coincided with the gradual acceptance of the steamship as a potential warship. Except for Fulton’s Demologos and Cochrane’s Rising Star, the first generation of armed steamers consisted entirely of vessels with side paddles.

With anti-Mexican sentiment running high in the wake of Texas’ successful war for independence (1836), the United States chose not to invoke the Monroe Doctrine in defense of Mexico. If it had, the American navy may have been hard-pressed to do battle on even terms with Baudin’s squadron. After the engines were removed from the Demologos in 1821, the US navy was without an armed steamship until the 1,010-ton Fulton of 1837. This unsuccessful ship was in commission just five years before being laid up for a decade and eventually re-engined. Its failure may have set back the introduction of steam in the US navy if not for the sensation created by the maiden voyage of Isambard Brunel’s Great Western, which arrived in New York in April 1838. The 2,370-ton Atlantic liner was an excellent advertisement for steam power, built to naval standards and equipped with powerful engines, capable of steaming continuously for three weeks. It influenced the construction of large paddle steamers in the British, French, and American navies, the latter leading the way with the Missouri and the Mississippi, 3,220-ton warships designed by a committee chaired by the captain of the Fulton, Matthew C. Perry. Reflecting Paixhans’ concept of the future capital ship, upon their completion in 1842 they were armed with two 10-inch and eight 8-inch guns. The engines, a British-style side lever plant in the Mississippi, an American design in the Missouri, were built by Merrick and Towne, and were capable of almost 9 knots. The vessels were monuments to the progress of American industry but their domestic construction and components made them the most expensive warships of their era. Tragically the Missouri had a very short service life, burning accidentally at Gibraltar in 1843. The loss left the Mississippi as the navy’s only active steamer. Later in 1843, amid rumors of an impending British annexation of Hawaii, the United States defended its interests there by sending the United States and the Constellation, sailing frigates completed in 1797.

Fall Of Constantinople – Ottoman Superguns






Ottoman superguns

It is not without some irony that bombards, all but abandoned as obsolete by most European powers by 1453, played a critical role that year in the fall of Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the East. For centuries the Byzantine capital’s great walls and defenders had repulsed invaders, including an earlier 1422 attempt by Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–1451). Although Murad had employed bombards against the city, they were rather ineffective, and he subsequently withdrew. His successor, however, Mohammad II, sometimes known as Mehmed II (b. 1432; r. 1444–1446, 1451– 1481), and also known as Muhammad the Conqueror, possessed an innate appreciation for artillery and its use in siege craft.

Muhammad, lacking technical experts among his own subjects, subsequently obtained the services of Christian gun founders to design and build cannons especially suited for the siege. Among these was reportedly a famed Hungarian cannon maker known as Urban. Urban (or Orban) had previously been hired by the Byzantines but had deserted their cause after they failed to meet his fees. Muhammad, unlike the Byzantines, appreciated Urban’s considerable, although mercenary, talents and “welcomed him with open arms, treated him honorably and provided him with food and clothing; and then he gave him an allowance so generous, that a quarter of the sum would have sufficed to keep him in Constantinople” (De Vries, X 356).

Urban quickly established a gun foundry at Adrianople where he oversaw the casting of both a number of large iron and bronze guns. These included at least one huge bombard of cast iron reinforced with iron hoops and with a removable, screw-on breech. Typical of such large breechloading cannons, the gun was fitted with slots around the breech’s circumference to accept stout wooden beams. For loading and unloading, these beams were inserted in the slots to act as a capstan and provide the leverage to unscrew the heavy powder chamber. Weighing more than 19 tons, the gun was capable of firing stone balls weighing from approximately 800 to 875 pounds. The sheer size of the bombard, known as Basilica, required forty-two days and a team of sixty oxen and a thousand men to traverse the 120 miles to its firing site at Constantinople.

Muhammad began preparations for the siege in February and ordered the positioning of fourteen artillery batteries around the city. As a further preparation, he ordered his navy, also equipped with artillery, to cut Constantinople off from the sea. For his part, the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (b. 1409; r. 1449–1453), did possess some artillery, but it was for the most part obsolete and numerically insufficient to reply to Muhammad’s forces. The Byzantines had long lost the technological superiority they had held in previous centuries, and they soon found themselves reckoning with their shortsightedness in snubbing Urban the Hungarian.

Muhammad began the bombardment of the city on 6 April 1453. With a keen eye for the city’s weaknesses, he concentrated his guns against its most vulnerable points, including the Gate of St. Romanus, where they affected a breach on 11 April. His success was short lived, however, as the defenders counterattacked and repaired the damage. Muhammad also faced other setbacks when Urban was killed when a cannon he was supervising exploded, and when his giant bombard cracked after a few days of firing, necessitating repairs. The sultan, however, proved his own resourcefulness in the use of artillery and made much better use of his smaller guns—weapons that were capable of a much higher rate of fire than Basilica’s three rounds a day and were also more maneuverable. These included eleven bombards capable of firing 500-pound shot and fifty guns firing 200-pound balls.

The Ottoman barrage continued day and night, wearing down both the city’s walls and its defenders. A witness described its effect:

And the stone, borne with tremendous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby. Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannon-ball. (ibid., X 357–358)

Finally, on 29 May 1453, the walls on either side of the St. Romanus Gate collapsed, and the Turks stormed the city. The Emperor Constantine fought valiantly in the defense of his city, but he was killed as overwhelming numbers of Turkish troops rampaged through the city for three days, killing, looting, and raping. With the fall of its capital, the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and with it the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.


Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. He occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. It lies on the Sea of Marmara, flanked to northeast by the Bosphorus and to the southwest by the Dardanelles, two narrow passages linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. The only direct route from Europe into Asia Minor is at Constantinople, so it has been an extremely strategic possession for land and naval warfare and trade.

Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. It not only was the political capital of much of the Mediterranean and Middle East, but also the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, rival to the power of the pope in Rome for the souls of Christians everywhere. In the end it was that religious rivalry that spelled Constantinople’s doom.

In the seventh century Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam. By coincidence (or divine intervention) he appeared in Arabia just as the two major Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He therefore conquered a massive amount of land hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persia and the Byzantines suffered major territorial losses as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

For seven hundred years the forces of Islam and Orthodoxy struggled, with both sides trading ascendancy. By the fifteenth century, however, the Byzantine Empire had shrunk to almost nothing: Constantinople and a handful of Aegean islands. An earlier Islamic threat to the city resulted in the Crusades in the twelfth century, but that too ended in further alienating the Catholic and Orthodox churches. When in 1452 Sultan Mohammed II, son of Murad II, decided to attack Constantinople, European responses to pleas for help were almost nonexistent. England and France were just winding down the very costly Hundred Years War; Germanic and Spanish princes and kings offered aid but sent none. Genoa and Venice, however, did not want to see Constantinople fall into the hands of Arab merchants, and Rome promised aid if the Orthodox Church would submit to papal will. The emperor did all that he could to prepare for the siege. Envoys were sent to Venice, Genoa, the Pope, the Western emperor, the kings of Hungary and Aragon , with the message that, unless immediate military help was provided, the days of Constantinople were numbered. The response was unimpressive. Some Italians, embarrassed at their government’s impotence, came as volunteers. Reluctantly Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus agreed to Rome’s demand, but it netted him a mere 200 archers for his meager defenses as well as the hostility of his people; many claimed they preferred Turkish domination to Roman.

In the spring of 1452 Mohammed II sent 1,000 masons to the Bosphorus to build a fort to protect his army while crossing the straits. Constantine could do little more than lodge a protest. Among his populace were a mere 5,000 native and 2,000 foreign soldiers. The Venetian colony in Constantinople and many citizens in Pera, opposite Constantinople, also stayed, as did Orhan, the Ottoman pretender with his Turks. Some 30,000 to 40,000 civilians who rendered valuable service by repairing the 18-mile-long walls of the city before and during the siege. He had tradition on his side, however, for the triple walls that blocked the city from the landward side had survived twenty sieges, even though at this point they were not in good repair. As of January 1453, he also had the services of Italian soldier of fortune Giovanni Giustiniani, who brought 700 knights and archers. Giustiniani was well known in Europe for his talents in defending walled cities. Mohammed also had some European assistance in the form of a cannon maker named Urban from Hungary, who provided the Muslim army with seventy cannon, including the “Basilica,” a 27-feet-long canon that fired stone balls weighing upwards of 600 pounds. It could only fire seven times a day, but did significant damage to anything it struck.

As part of the Ottoman military preparations, some 16 large and 60 light galleys, 20 horse-ships and several smaller vessels were constructed in the Ottoman arsenal of Gallipoli. The sultan’s army of 80,000 to 100,000 men was assembled in Edirne, the Ottoman capita l, In the Edirne foundry some 60 new guns of various calibres were cast. Some of them threw shots of 240, 300 and 360 kg (530-793 lb), The largest bombard that the Hungarian master Urban made for the sultan fired, according to the somewhat contradictory testimonies of contemporaries, stone balls of 400 to 600 kg (800-1,322 lb), It was transported to Constantinople by 60 oxen.

A single wall that ran the circumference of the city’s seaward sides defended the rest of Constantinople. Mohammed sent his men across the Bosphorus north of the city, so the southern approach to the Mediterranean was open. A chain boom protected the primary harbor, the Golden Horn, across its mouth supported by twenty-six galleys. Thus, if anyone sent relief, the route was open.

Mohammed II arrived on 6 April 1453. He led 70,000 regular troops and 20,000 irregulars called Bashi-Bazouks, whose sole pay was the loot they might gain if and when the city fell. The premier troops were the Janissaries, slave soldiers taken captive in their youth from Christian families and raised in a military atmosphere to serve the sultans. They were heavily armored and highly skilled, and at this time they were beginning to use personal firearms. Mohammed first seized the town of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. At first this action was little more than symbolic, but it had serious ramifications later. He then deployed his forces on the city’s western face and began the siege. A single wall near the imperial palace protected the northern end of the city. It was there, the Blachernae, that Constantine placed most of his men.

For twelve days the Muslim cannon pounded the city walls, and on 18 April Mohammed decided that had softened up the defenses sufficiently. The Byzantines easily defended a narrow breach in the walls, killing 200 attackers and driving off the rest without loss to themselves. On the 20th, four ships approached from the south: three Genoese transports with men and supplies from Rome and a Byzantine ship hauling corn from Sicily. After a hard fight with the Muslim fleet they broke through, cleared the boom, and entered the Golden Horn. Mohammed decided he had to control the harbor. He could not pass the chain boom, so he ordered ships dragged overland, through the town of Pera, to the harbor. It was a monumental engineering feat and on 22 April thirty Turkish ships were in the Golden Horn. An agent of the sultan betrayed the Byzantine counterattack, which managed to destroy only a single Turkish ship. In spite of this Turkish accomplishment, it had little effect on the siege.

Mohammed continued his cannonade against the walls. By 6 May it had opened a breach at the Gate of St. Romanus, where the Lycus River enters the city. Giustaniani built a new wall just behind the breach, rather than trying to repair the wall while under fire. The Turks attacked on 7 May but their 25,000 men were thrown back after three hours of fighting. On the 12th another force assaulted a breach in the wall at Blachernae; only quick reinforcement by Constantine and the Imperial Guard stemmed the tide. Mohammed then tried mining the walls. Constantine’s engineer Johannes Grant managed to locate each of the mining attempts and either undermine the mines or destroy the attackers inside with explosives, flooding, or the incendiary Greek fire. None of the fourteen mines succeeded.

Mohammed then determined to scale the walls. His men built a siege tower and rolled it into place before the Charisius Gate, the northernmost opening in the city walls. Muslim artillery fire had destroyed one of the defending towers, and the siege tower was able to provide covering fire for Turks filling in the moat. Constantine’s call for volunteers to attack the siege tower produced spectacular results. The sally surprised the Turkish guards and the Byzantines broke pots of Greek fire on the wooden siege tower. Meanwhile, their compatriots spent the night rebuilding the city wall and its destroyed tower. The next morning Mohammed saw the charred remains of his assault machine smoldering before the newly rebuilt tower in the city wall.

In both camps officers debated the progress of the siege. The defenders were exhausted and running out of supplies. In Mohammed’s camp, some factions wanted to end the siege before a rumored rescue fleet could arrive. The sultan favored those who counseled continuation and decided to launch one more attempt before withdrawing. As the most serious damage to the walls had been inflicted along the Lycus River entrance to the city, it was there he proposed to launch his final assault. Constantine learned of the plan from a spy, but could his dwindling force survive another battle? The Bashi-Bazouks began hurling themselves against the Byzantine defenses at 0200 on 29 May. For two hours the Byzantines slew them with arrows and firearms, but grew increasingly tired in the process. With the first attack repulsed, Mohammed threw in a second wave before the defenders could recover. Even though these were regular troops with better discipline and equipment, the narrow breach provided the defenders with less area to cover and they threw back that assault as well.

After another two hours of fighting the Byzantine troops could barely stand. Mohammed sent in the third wave, made up of Janissaries. Constantine’s exhausted troops managed to repulse them as well. During this fighting, a small band of Turks discovered a small open gate and rushed a handful of men through before it could be closed. They occupied a tower near the Blachinae and raised the sultan’s banner, and the rumor quickly spread that the northern flank had been broken. At the same moment, Giovanni Giustiniani was severely wounded. Hearing of his evacuation, coupled with the report from the north quarter, the defenders began to fall back. Mohammed quickly exploited his advantage. Another assault by fresh Janissaries cleared the space between the walls and seized the Adrianople Gate. Attackers began to pour through.

Constantine XI led his remaining troops into the Turkish onslaught, dying for his city and his empire. Almost all his co-defenders as well as a huge portion of the civilian population joined him, for the Turks went berserk. Mohammed II limited very little of the pillage, reserving the best buildings for himself and banning their destruction. He claimed and protected the Church of St. Sophia, and within a week the Hagia Sophia was hosting Muslim services. Thirty ships of a Venetian fleet sailing to Constantine’s relief saw the Turkish flags flying over the city, turned around, and sailed home.

The looting finally subsided and the bulk of the population that was not killed, possibly 50,000 people, were enslaved. The bastion of Eastern Christianity fell after more than 1,100 years as Constantine the Great’s city. Mohammed II proceeded to conquer Greece and most of the Balkans during the remaining twenty-eight years of his reign.

Western Europe, which had done so little to assist Constantinople, was shocked that it fell after so many centuries of standing against everyone. In Rome, the Catholic Church was dismayed that they would now have no Eastern Christians to convert, for they were all rapidly becoming Muslim. The Eastern Orthodox Church survived, however, for Mohammed allowed a patriarch to preside over the Church. It remained a viable religion, now far from the reach of the Catholic Church’s influence. As such, its survival encouraged others who resented the Catholic Church. Within sixty years Martin Luther led a major protest against the Church, starting the Reformation.

The trading centers of Genoa and Venice feared having to deal with hard-bargaining Arab merchants who now controlled all products coming from the Far East. The major cities of eastern Europe began to fear the Turkish hordes approaching their gates, and for the next 450 years Austria and the Holy Roman Empire carried on the European/Christian struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks established themselves as the premier Middle Eastern Muslim power, controlling at their height almost as much as had the Byzantine Empire: the Balkans, the Middle East, much of North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.

The flood of refugees from southeastern Europe, especially Greece, brought thousands of scholars to Italy, further enhancing the peninsula’s Renaissance. Italian merchants, shocked at the prices the Muslims charged for spices and silks from the East, began to search for other ways to get those goods. Certainly the age of European exploration came much sooner because of Constantinople’s fall.