Welcome, as always. A little while ago, we talked about the “siege of Gondor”, which really wasn’t a siege in the formal sense, at all, but rather an assault. (We suspect that JRRT liked the sound of “siege” and so used it, not caring if it were strictly accurate or not.) In this posting, we want to look at a real siege and examine what might be parallels with events in Middle Earth.
Before we do, we want to take a moment to talk about the word “siege”. It comes into English through Old French asegier, which comes from Latin ad + sedeo > adsideo, adsidere , literally, “to sit down at”. The northern French who passed the word on to England must have liked to say what’s called a y-glide when certain consonants came before e, so, though it was spelled asegier, it would have been said “ah-see-YED-jier”. And that’s why English today has what can be a confusing spelling. (In our experience, lots of native speakers have trouble distinguishing between the ie of “siege” and the ei of “seize”). The stress on the word in English would have been away from the initial a, and so that would have disappeared from the word as it moved from being a borrowing.
[As what we think is a cool footnote, Latin also has the verb obsideo “to sit down right before=to besiege” and we can see that used in English in the word “obsession”, with the idea that something bothers you so much that it’s like you’re being besieged by it. You can also see it on this wonderful bit of 17th-c. English history.
Although it doesn’t look like a modern coin, this is a form which used to be called “half-a-crown”—that is, 30 pennies (that’s what those three xses mean), or two shillings, sixpence. This coin was struck in the town of Newark-upon-Trent, when it was besieged during the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).
And that’s where obsideo comes in. The back (the “reverse” in coin language—the front is called the “obverse”) says:
OBS: Newark (with a date, either 1645 or 1646, depending on when the coin was struck)
OBS = Obsessa Newark = “Newark Besieged”
There were a lot of coin-substitutes struck by various besieged towns, but, apparently, those from Newark are the most numerous.]
In the medieval western military world, sieges were more common, it seems, than pitched battles. As castles and towns were focal points for the possession and control of land—think of the hundreds of early castles, called “motte and bailey”, which the Normans built all across England in the first years after their conquest–it’s not surprising that they would have been a focus of attack.
As well, we can imagine that, ultimately, they would have been cheaper, in terms of the most irreplaceable manpower, sparing the highly-trained, hard-to-replace, knights and men-at-arms.
Battles like Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415), cost the French dearly as their brave knights threw themselves at their English opponents, whose longbows shot them and their horses down.
In a siege, although there was the occasional combat, including the exploitation of a break in the enemy’s defenses,
most of a siege would be spent in using machinery of various sorts to aid you in breaking down the walls—and the resistance of the defenders, as well.
This brings us to the real, historical siege we want to examine: Constantinople, 1453.
Constantinople had begun life as a Greek colony, called Byzantium, on the European side of the narrow passageway between the Black Sea and the northeastern Mediterranean.
It had been refounded and greatly expanded by the Roman emperor, Constantine I, to be a new capital in the east.
Although it was supposed to be called “New Rome”, everyone in the east called it after its refounder, and so it was “Constantinople”, becoming the capital of an eastern empire which we call “Byzantine”. Even with setbacks and a number of unsuccessful attacks over the centuries, it was, for a long time, a very wealthy and powerful city.
But even the wealthiest and most powerful cities will fade—especially when faced with ambitious enemies. Constantinople had had a number of those, but, finally, in its last years, perhaps its most ambitious and most powerful arose in Asia Minor: that of the Ottoman Turks. As you can see from this map, its beginnings were modest: one Turkic-speaking group among many.
This was a period of instability, however. The Ottoman leaders quickly took advantage of that instability to grab power and territory, so that, by 1400, they had spread beyond the shrinking Byzantine world, into the Balkans, and, soon, Constantinople was surrounded.
This surrounding took place in an increasingly-methodical way. In 1393-4, the ruler of the Ottomans, the sultan Bayezid I
built a small fortress on the Asia Minor side of the Bosphorus, the name for the northern stretch of the passage which led from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. It was called Anadoluhisari, “the Anatolian fort”.
You can see from the map that this was the beginning of setting up a choke point upstream from Constantinople.
In 1451-2, the sultan Mehmet II finished the job with the Rumelihisari just opposite, on the European side (and that’s what its name means, “the Roman—that is, European—fort”).
Guns were mounted
and any help which might have come from the Black Sea was blocked.
And here we want to take a minute to look at our imaginary city and its danger—because we see some easy parallels here. First, of course, the Ottoman empire was an eastern threat—so was Mordor. Mordor had taken the east bank of the Anduin, just as the Ottomans had taken the Asian side of the Bosphorus. And, in the capture of the European side and the building of Rumelihisari, we might see the taking of Osgiliath and the west bank of the Anduin. Then there is the massive city of Minas Tirith and the attack upon it.
Constantinople was also a massive city.
It was, basically, on a triangular piece of land, with two sides protected by water. The original Greek town had had a wall, but it was long gone and almost all of Constantine’s land wall had long disappeared, as well. The latest walls are called the Theodosian, after their originator, the emperor Theodosius II (408-450AD), but the walls included bits of the Constantinian walls and many repairs, over the centuries. The main land defenses included three lines of wall and a moat.
This sounds very impressive until one considers two things: first, is there a garrison big enough to defend what are, in fact, a number of miles of wall? And, second, although the walls have withstood previous attacks, including one made by the Ottomans in 1422AD, how will they stand up to the threat of modern artillery?
At the height of its power and prosperity, it is estimated that Constantinople had had a population of anywhere from 500,000 to 750,000 (although scholars argue over this). At the time of the final siege, the population had fallen to as low as 40,000. Thus, large parts of the city were empty—just like Minas Tirith:
“Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city…Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.” (The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)
The garrison of Constantinople was perhaps about 9,000, in all, which meant that they were very thinly stretched. We don’t know just how many troops were in Minas Tirith. Some reinforcements had come from South Gondor, as we noted in an earlier posting, but only a few thousand and the defenders were powerfully outnumbered, just as those of Constantinople were, when the forces of Mordor began to arrive. The Ottoman army is thought to have had between 50,000 and 80,000 men, but just how many Orcs and others marched down the causeway from Osgiliath isn’t known–they are just a horde—something which the Jackson film shows very well.
Then the assault begins, the Orcs having giant stone throwers, siege towers, and, finally, a giant, fire-breathing ram, Grond.
If you’ve been following our postings (and we hope you have!), then you know that we’ve discussed the use of what appears to be gunpowder, both at Helm’s Deep and at the Rammas Echor. The Orcs who attack the walls of Minas Tirith don’t appear to have such a weapon, but, unfortunately for the defenders of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks do, in the form of plentiful modern artillery.
Attacks wear down the small garrison and huge, stone-throwing weapons knock down the walls, so that, finally the city falls, on 29 May, 1453.
Its conqueror, Mehmet II, rides in—
which is something the witch king of Angmar never gets to do, perishing instead, at the hands of Eowyn and Merry.
And there the parallels end, as does our posting. Did JRRT have the fall of Constantinople somewhere in the back of his mind? What do you think?
Thanks, as always, for reading.