In the High Renaissance, the feuding Italian city states were constantly at war with each other, when they weren’t at war with France or Spain. Perhaps the greatest rivalry of the city states was between Papal Rome under Cesare Borgia and Pope Alexander VI, and the idealistic (and relatively corruption free) Republican Florence under Piero Soderini, Niccolo Machiavelli, and the various merchant families (notably the recently deposed Medici).
For decades, the Office of Works for the Florence Cathedral wanted a series of Old Testament statues for the tops of the Duomo’s buttresses, but for various reasons little came of them. They were concerned for the hugely expensive block of magnificent Carrara marble exposed in the sacristy courtyard. At the behest of Leonardo Da Vinci, they commissioned 26 year old Michelangelo to sculpt Florentine David in direct defiance to Rome’s Goliath.
On 13 September 1501, Michelangelo began sculpting the colossal five m/17 ft David, which became one of the greatest achievements of High Renaissance art. The statue is of the young shepherd in the moments after he decided to fight the massive Philistine warrior Goliath, but before combat began. The tense, frightened, but observant David is poised but about to spring into action. The exquisitely and meticulously crafted sculpture took two years to finish.
A commission led by Da Vinci and Botticelli was so impressed with David that instead of placing it on Il Duomo, it be given a place of greater prominence. Michelangelo protested briefly because David was proportioned to be seen from below, but his concerns were dismissed. On 25 January 1504, David was unveiled at the entrance of the town hall in the Palazza Vecchio, gazing defiantly toward Rome.
The Fall of Trebizond and the End of Rome
In 753 BCE the semi-mythical twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded Rome on the site where they were supposedly suckled by a she-wolf as orphans. A thousand years later in the 4th century CE, the unwieldy Roman Empire was split into its eastern and western halves. The Western Roman Empire would fall to the Barbarian invasions of the next century. While the eastern half, or Byzantine Empire because it was centered on the city of Byzantium, which was renamed to Constantinople after the eastern half’s first emperor, Constantine, would last until 1204.
Orthodox Constantinople was captured by Catholic crusaders during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 due to the various political machinations of Venice, the Byzantines, and Crusaders. The Byzantine Emperor was deposed and a Latin Crusader state was established. This fractured the Byzantine Empire into a series of successor states (similar to the fall of Alexander the Great’s empire), most notably the Despotate of Epirus, and the Empires of Nicaea and Trebizond.
Immediately, all vowed to restore the Byzantine Empire and declared war on the Latin State of Constantinople. Nicaea reconquered the city in 1261 and reestablished the Byzantine Empire, but the power of the Empire was broken forever.
The New Byzantine Empire was unable to withstand the Ottoman Turks and most of the successor states were subsumed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Constantinople itself fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.
Mehmed II then turned his attention to the last remaining Byzantine successor state, the Empire of Trebizond, in the mountainous northeast of Anatolia. On 15 August, 1461, David Megas Komnenos, the last Byzantine emperor surrendered the city of Trebizond (modern Trabzon, Turkey), to the besieging Turks.
With the fall of Trebizond, 2,214 years of Roman history came to an end.
The Battle of Marignano
In the summer of 1515 during the Revolution in Military Affairs known as the Italian Wars, France’s Francis I crossed the Alps at the head of 30,000 troops in a feat comparable to Hannibal’s crossing 1600 years before. Francis’ bold movement over an inadequate, treacherous, and unguarded pass completely unhinged the Papal/Swiss/Imperial/Spanish defenses and they fell back to Milan.
Like his grandfather Charles VIII, who seized the Kingdom of Naples, and every French King since the fall of the Roman Empire, Francis saw the Italian peninsula as his political playground. He desired Milan for some overly complicated scheme, and his French gendarmes (knights), cannon, and German Landsknechts (pike and halberd armed mercenaries) lined up outside the city to begin a siege. On 13 September 1515, just outside of the ruins of the village of Marignano, Duke Sforza of Milan attacked the French with three massive columns of Swiss pikemen.
The battle was fought for 28 hours over the 13th and 14th. The Swiss routed the landsknechts on Francis’ left but they rallied, and held the baggage train with the camp followers in an impromptu wagon fort. On the French right the Swiss and Germans were locked in bloody stalemate between pike phalanxes that would not have been out of place in the Diadochi Wars after the death of Alexander the Great. The center was destined to be decisive.
In the center, a Swiss “Forlorn Hope” (there’s a docturnal term we need to bring back, it’s essentially an initial attack by a body of troops that expects to either die or gain great glory in the initial charge) quickly seized the French siege guns. But before they could destroy them, the forlorn hope was massacred by a charge of the Gendarme led by Francis himself, and The Black Band, a group of halberd and arquebus armed German mercenaries intensely loyal to Francis. As the Swiss main body approached, Francis ordered the cannon, which he brought to fire on the walls of Milan, to fire on the Swiss phalanxes. The halberdiers and arquebusiers fixed the Swiss, the cannon broke up the Swiss formations, then the gendarmes charged into the chaos. However, the charge was not decisive. Inevitably, the Swiss would reform and attack again. This cycle continued for the rest of the battle. Francis himself took part in 30 charges over 24 hours. On the afternoon of the 14th, the Swiss finally broke when a Venetian army of condottieri (mercenaries), allies of the French, appeared on their flank.
At the time, the Battle of Marignano was considered a triumph of the armored knight. But in actuality it was the knight’s last hurrah, and signaled the coming of age of cannon. Marignano was the first large scale use of cannon against troop formations, and the battle was the first example of cannons’ use in combined arms warfare in a modern sense. Finally, after the battle, the Swiss signed an agreement of “Eternal Peace” with the French, which began the Swiss tradition of neutrality in all world affairs, which holds to this day.
The Great Siege of Malta: The Assaults
After the fall of Fort Saint Elmo at the end of June 1565, the Turks maintained a constant bombardment and launched a series of joint landward and seaward attacks against the Maltese Knights’ main defenses of the town of Birgu, Fort St. Michel, and Fort St. Angelo.
The attacks were devastating but uncoordinated due to the death of the most competent leader, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut Reis who was killed by an errant cannonball during the final assault on Fort St. Elmo. The other two Ottoman commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha, despised each other, and their various schemes undermined the efficient and effective use of the Ottomans’ remaining resources, after losing 1/4th their force at St. Elmo. Nonetheless, they still had 30,000 troops and complete command of the harbor.
The Knights held through these attacks, but only by the slimmest of margins. Many of La Vallette’s subordinates wanted to trade fortifications for time, but La Vallette disagreed. He knew the only wany to defeat the Turks will to fight was to fight for every inch of the defense. Every Turkish assault that was thrown back degraded the Turkish will to continue, and more importantly, delayed the next Turkish assault, as they reorganized.
In the beginning of July, the Turks launched a surprise amphibious attack against the seaward side of the Senglea Peninsula, combined with a landward attack on Fort St. Michel. St Michel was exposed on its harbor side due to the fall of St Elmo, but an enterprising older French knight, Chevalier de Gurial, on his own volition, ordered a battery from the wall of St. Angelo to the shore. The battery waited until the Turks were within 200m before firing and their grapeshot and chainshot killed almost a thousand elite Janissaries. Fort St. Michel would have almost certainly fallen without the actions of de Gurial’s battery, and it allowed the Knights the time to build a palisade along the shore to protect against future attacks.
At the beginning of August, Fort St. Michel was again the focal point of a massive Turkish assault after a mine was exploded underneath one of the bastions creating a breach. The Turks stormed the fort and through sheer numbers forced the remaining defenders back to the chapel. As they were about to be overwhelmed, the Turks inexplicably (to the chapel defenders) fell back in disarray. A raid from the small outpost of Maltese Knights at Mdina, in the center of the island, which was never captured by the Turks, attacked the undefended Turkish camp and gave the impression that the relief army from Sicily had arrived, prompting the Turkish retreat. The Knights and Maltese engineers and citizens immediately repaired the breach and filled the mine. In mid-August, another mine detonated opening a breach in the Birgu wall and the Turks flooded into the town. La Vallette ordered the guns of St Angelo to fire on the town while the 70 year old commander personally led the counterattack to the breach. Despite fierce fighting and many irreplaceable defenders lost to both the Turks and “friendly” cannon, La Vallette and his body guard fought their way to and held the breach as the citizens of Birgu filled it in. An Italian mercenary wrote of La Vallette,
“de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired”.
After the failure of the mines, Mustapha placed his faith in two giant siege towers. On 18 August, he attacked the wall of Birgu again but this time with a great siege tower filled snipers which cleared the top of the wall. But as the tower slowly lumbered forward, La Vallette ordered the base of the wall hollowed out. As the tower neared, laborers removed the few remaining stone blocks, and two cannon were pushed forward. They fired chain shot point blank into the base of the tower, toppling it. The second tower’s base was hastily reinforced against the repeat of the same tactic but as it approached the Maltese removed the blocks and instead of cannon, Knights streamed out and stormed the tower, eventually capturing it.
The tower attacks were Mustapha’s last serious attempts to seize the forts. La Vallette maintained that the Turks were losing will after the repeated failed even though the cost to the defenders was dear. La Vallette was right. On 28 August he moved his army to the small outpost of Mdina, where there was a water source so they could winter there. But as they approached, the few knights and Maltese citizens fired all of their cannon recklessly, using up all of their powder. Mustapha thought this meant they had powder to spare, and having none of his own, fell back to his camp near the harbor. Out of gunpowder, and nowhere to winter on the island, the Turks launched one final assault on 1 September, which was beaten back with heavy losses.
On 7 September Don Garcia of Sicliy landed in St Paul’s Bay on the north side of the island with a relief army. Mustapha took the Turkish army to the southern shore and boarded his galleys the next day. The Siege of Malta was over and the fragmented and petty kingdoms of the “soft underbelly of Europe” were safe from Islamic conquest. The Maltese would rebuild the capital of their island and name it Valletta, after the indomitable Jean Pairsot de Vallette, Grand Master of the Order of St John and Defender of Malta.
The Battle of Fornovo
In the late 15th century, French monarch Charles VIII standardized and increased the mobility of his siege cannon and ushered in a true revolution in military affairs. No medieval castle could withstand his guns. He seized castles “in the time it took to seize a villa.” In 1494, at the behest of Milan and Venice, Charles blitzed down the Italian peninsula to press his claim to the Kingdom of Naples, which he successfully took in February 1495. The Middle Ages came to a close.
Charles VIII’s 1494 campaign horrified the Italians. No one had traversed the length of the Italian peninsula as quickly since Hannibal crossed the Alps. During the Renaissance, the Italian boot consisted of dozens of super rich merchant republics, prosperous petty kingdoms, independent city-states, Papal States, and ultra-wealthy families, who vied with each other for political power. If an outside force intervened, such as Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, or France, the invader was usually fixed at fortress cities in northern Italy. While they sat outside the walls of Milan, Florence, or Mantua, the Italian petty rulers had time to buy them off, hire mercenaries known as condottieri (literally: “contractors”) to discourage any advance, or work political angles to turn back the invaders. Or they could just wait for the cold, muddy, and miserable Italian winters to break the will of even the most resilient invader. Charles VIII changed all that, and the Italians concluded they had to defeat him, lest he conquer them all with his cannon.
Charles’ erstwhile allies were the first to recognize the danger. The Sforza’s of Milan saw no reason for Charles not to seize their city on his way back to France. The Merchants of Venice knew they were next if Milan fell to the French. Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo de Borja, had already been defeated by Charles and forced to flee Rome. He put his considerable diplomatic and political skills to work. Not that much incentive was needed, everyone saw what Charles’ troops, particularly his Swiss mercenaries, were capable of. Any town that offered resistance was massacred, looted, and put to the torch. In March 1495, Alexander VI formed the Holy League with Venice, Milan, Ferdinand of Aragon and Sicily, most of the northern Italian city-states, and Emperor Maximillian I of the Holy Roman Empire to oppose the French.
Naples wasn’t worth being trapped there, so Charles gathered his army and immediately departed for France. His army was wracked with syphilis (brought back by Neapolitan sailors of Columbus’ expedition to the New World and subsequently passed onto the city’s prostitutes, and then to the French), heavily laden with booty, and although his cannon were effective against walls, they were not as effective in a field battle. Furthermore the longer Charles delayed, the stronger the Italian army grew. And, even worse, it looked as if the Italians meant to fight.
The Holy League chose famed condottiero Francesco II Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, then in Venetian employ, to lead the League’s army against Charles, at least in theory. In reality, the League’s army was actually controlled by Francesco’s uncle Rodolpho, the commander of the army’s reserve, and led by committee, with the Venetian Senate the most influential.
The squabbling among the League’s members continued until Charles’ army reached Florence, and even then Francesco wouldn’t move until he had nearly a 3 to 1 superiority over the French. Charles had no idea how large the League’s army was or even where it was: his spies were forced into hiding, and his efforts at reconnaissance thwarted by the League’s stradioti, fearsome light cavalry recruited from the Balkans. When Parma threatened to side with the approaching Charles, the League’s army finally advanced. Just south of Parma, the League’s army encamped around the village of Fornovo on the right bank of the Taro River to wait for Charles.
As Charles approached Parma from the south on the road paralleling the right bank of the Taro River, he stopped as soon as he came into contact with the League’s army. He waited for a few days for news of a French army in the vicinity of Milan, and Francesco obliged him. On 5 July, 1495, Charles learned no reinforcements were coming, and decided to bypass his adversaries.
On the morning of 6 July 1495, Charles nonchalantly continued negotiations with the condottieri heavy Italian army, while his own crossed over the shallow Taro River to the left bank and proceeded north. The maneuver took the Italians by surprise, as normally no further movement was permitted until pre-battle negotiations were concluded. By the time the Italians reacted, they were forced to attack across the river to reach the French. The river was swollen, and the fords limited which effectively neutralized the League’s greater numbers. Charles didn’t want to fight a battle in any case: he planned for his vanguard to fix the Italians in their camp, while the rest continued to Parma following the left bank north.
Charles’ vanguard consisted of the best troops in the army: his cannon, Swiss halberdiers, and the Gendarme, the heavily armed and armored noble French knights. His cannon shrugged off the obsolete Italian cannons’ volleys from across the river and pummeled the League’s camp. The Italians hastily form battlelines at the river’s edge, and searched for fords. Unfortunately for the French, the stradioti and other Italian light cavalry raced upstream, and more importantly, downstream to cross were the French crossed that morning. They fell upon the heavily laden but lightly guarded baggage train, ponderously attempting to keep up with the fighting troops. The League’s light cavalry slaughtered the guards and spent the day looting, taking them out of the battle.
Charles could not react because the Italian right wing found a ford and attacked the vanguard, while he watched the League’s massive center battle attempt to find a suitable place to cross. The League’s right wing however could only cross piecemeal, and they were defeated in detail: the Italian knights were torn apart by Swiss halberds, and then the Italian infantry was run down by the Gendarme.
The center force, which was supposed to attack simultaneously with the north, finally crossed, and the battle engaged in earnest. However, they took too long to find a ford, and the French were prepared for them. Though the fighting was fierce, the issue wasn’t really in doubt: the superior cohesion of the French units overcame the disorganized Italians, many of whom deserted to go loot the French baggage train. The League’s only real chance at victory was when Charles was briefly vulnerable and exposed on the battlefield. However, the opportunity was missed by Francesco and passed quickly. His failure to capture the enemy commander was just another example of Francesco acting less the army commander and more of a unit commander. Despite the losses in the north, center, and baggage train, he still had numerical superiority, but he didn’t know it since he was so consumed with the fighting. A strong reserve, nearly half of the army, was still on the right bank uncommitted. Francesco was only entrusted with half the army; the other half belonged to Rodolpho, the commander of the “reserve”.
Disaster struck when Rodolpho was killed. As commander of the reserve, no one else had authority to order the reserve into battle, even Francesco. Thus nearly half of Francesco’s army never saw fighting that day.
The French pushed the Italians back to the river and gave no quarter. With no support from the reserve, a river behind them, and certain death in a losing battle, the Italian condottieri called it a day. They withdrew to the fords, then across the river and back to camp.
The French recovered what was left of the baggage train and continued on their trek, leaving the Holy League in possession of the field.
Despite the French successes, Francesco declared the Battle of Fornovo a great victory for the Holy League, and initially there was much jubilation in Venice and Rome. Not only had the French “fled” the field, but 300,000 ducats worth of booty was looted from Charles’ baggage train. After a few days though, Francesco Gonzaga’s condottieri competition began evaluating the battle with professional, calculating, and sober eyes.
The Holy League outnumbered the French nearly three to one, but took nearly three times the casualties as the French. The loot was good, but the purpose of the army was to prevent Charles from escaping to France, where he can raise an even bigger army to return. Gonzaga utterly failed in that objective. Moreover, his personal battle command was found wanting since he acted as a field officer instead of the commander of a great army. He was blamed for the looting of the baggage train which siphoned much needed troops away from the battle. He was blamed for the death of his uncle, and not committing the reserve. In the eyes of his peers, Francesco Gonzaga’s personal conduct had allowed the French to defeat the Holy League and escape.
Charles VIII of France did not return with a larger army, French debts prevented him from rebuilding the army he almost lost. Spain retook Naples shortly thereafter. He wouldn’t get another chance to return to Italy, Charles VIII died 2 ½ years after his retreat. He accidentally knocked his head on a door frame, fell into a coma, and never woke up.
Charles’ death was not the end of the troubles for the Italians. In fact, they had just started. Thousands of French, Swiss, and German soldiers and mercenaries returned home with stories of a weak, prosperous, and divided Italy, ripe for plunder and conquest. The myth of the fighting ability of the Italian condottieri died on the banks of the Taro. It seemed as if the condottieri would rather negotiate than fight, retreat at the first sign of difficulty, withdraw at the slightest disadvantage, and would not attack unless they had overwhelming odds. The command of any condottieri army would always be fragmented. The condottieri’s northern adversaries no longer respected them. Their Roman legacy was lost and the condottieri’s professional reputation was forever tarnished.
After the Battle of Fornovo, France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, even the Ottoman Empire salivated over potential Italian conquests and loot. They ended the Italian Renaissance and ravaged the Italian boot for the next 75 years, a time known collectively as the Italian Wars
The Fall of Fort St. Elmo
For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.
Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.
The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.
That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.
The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.
The Great Siege of Malta
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took up the banner of Sunni Islam and their jihad exploded across Europe, Asia, and Africa for the next 100 years. By 1565, Ottoman expansion by land had slowed considerably. After conquering the Balkans, the Ottomans ran into the powerful Hapsburg Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the north. To the south lay the Sahara Desert and jungles of Central Africa. And to the east were the powerful Shia Safavid Persians. These obstacles required more deliberate preparations. Only to the West, via the Mediterranean Sea, would an advance prove relatively easier. In 1564, the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, authorized the seaborne invasion of Italy.
The Eastern Mediterranean was already an Ottoman lake, but to cut off Italy from Hapsburg Spain (flush with gold from the New World) required the domination of the Western Mediterranean. Once done, the isolated warring city states and petty kingdoms of the Italian peninsula would be easy prey. There was only one problem: the tiny island of Malta. Malta was situated in the narrowest part of the Sea between Sicily and Tunisia, which blocked any real access for large fleets to the West. Malta was like a fishbone stuck in the throat of the Mediterranean, doubly so because it was the possession of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the crusading orders.
The Knights of Malta, as they were known, were Christianity’s rear guard in the disastrous crusades of the last 500 years. Created to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, they were at the forefront of every major battle and present at every major retreat. They were thrown out of the Holy Land, off the island of Rhodes, and found their new home on the island of Malta, from which they continued the fight against Muslim expansion.
In the sixteenth century, the Knights of Malta no longer went to war on horses, but in galleys. The white cross on blood red background was a feared sight to Ottomans, whose warships were given no quarter, and merchant ships were turned over to their newly freed galley slaves (which invariably meant the slaughter of the Muslim crew). Moreover, they were on the forefront of sixteenth century military efficacy. The Maltese Knights blended a unique mix of Western land technology and Eastern naval technology. Though few in number, they were the Pope’s and Christianity’s first and only reliable defense against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
In May 1565, the Knights of Malta were on their own. Their leader, the indomitable 71 year old Jean de La Valette amassed 700 Maltese Knights, 600 Spanish and Italian knights, 2700 men at arms, and 3000 armed Maltese civilians to defend island. They occupied the three forts, Fort St. Michael, Fort St. Angelo, and the exposed Fort St. Elmo, that guarded the all-important harbor on the north side of the island (Valetta Harbor today). On 18 May 1565, La Valette’s archrival, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut-Reis, arrived off Malta with Grand Vizier Mustapha Pasha and 213 ships and 48,000 warriors, including 8000 of the Sultan’s own Janissaries.
The last land battle of the Crusades had begun.
The End of the Middle Ages
Many people and medieval recreation organizations assume that the Middle Ages and the Medieval Era ended with the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558, but that’s only because we speak English and English speaking historians like to place themselves at the center of the universe. Most medieval historians place the end of the Middle Ages 64 years earlier with France’s Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494 and the beginning of The Italian Wars.
During the Middle Ages, warfare was dominated by sieges of castles and fortified towns. Contrary to popular belief, medieval open field battles were rare: they were just too risky. Knights were expensive, soldiers were needed for the harvest, the fighting season was short, castles and walls were relatively cheap, it was difficult to corner an adversary, and most importantly, both commanders in an open field battle had to believe they could win or they wouldn’t risk it. Defenders almost always had the option of just waiting behind their walls until disease, lack of supplies, reinforcements, or the winter defeated the attackers. The list of sieges during Middle Ages dwarfs the relatively few, albeit dramatic, open field battles. This all changed in 1494.
For a thousand years since the end of the Roman Empire, the French considered the Italian peninsula their political playground. Italy at the end of the 1400s was in the midst of the Renaissance but was made up of a myriad of ultra-rich merchant families, Papal States, petty kingdoms, tiny principalities and small dukedoms. Playing politics with these small states was a French pastime. One of the largest and richest was the Kingdom of Naples, far down the Italian boot, which was reaping the benefits of Spain’s discovery of the New World. Charles the VIII of France wanted a piece of this new action. So he crossed the Alps in November of 1494 and invaded Italy.
The Pope and the Italians weren’t too worried. The French had done this before and always got caught up in sieges of the northern Italian city states, such as Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Venice. As they had dozens of times before, the French were sure to eventually go home when they ran out of money and couldn’t pay their Swiss pikemen, German landsknechts, or Italian condottieros (mercenaries). Even if they had the money, the wet and freezing Italian winters usually sent all but the most resilient home. But this time the French had a new weapon: siege cannon.
Cannon and gunpowder had been around for a few hundred years, but Charles VIII was the first to standardize it and make it mobile enough to accompany a marching army. Charles inherited the fruits of France’s victory in the Hundred Years War in the form of expanded Crown lands to the point that France was a proto-national state. He amassed the best metallurgists, artillerists, iron workers, bell makers, and wagon makers in the realm to improve the effectiveness and mobility of the massive medieval bombard. What they came up with was an 8 foot long bronze cannon on an integral carriage that fired fitted solid iron shot which was a great improvement over the ill fitting and time consuming to produce stone shot of the bombard.
Medieval castle walls were no match for his new guns. The speed in which Chalres’ gunners had the cannon in position amazed the Italians. Whereas medieval bombards requires days to position, Charles bronze cannon were in place and firing within hours. Moreover, the fitted solid iron shotwere more accurate, flew further on less gunpowder, and did more damage than the stone balls the Italians were used to. Even the thickest castle walls crumbled after a few volleys. Cities that normally took months to reduce through siege were taken in an afternoon. The Neapolitan fortress of Monte San Giovanni fell in eight hours; it had once withstood a siege for seven years. The French blitzed through northern and central Italy, and seized every major city in less time “than it would take to seize a villa”. It was truly a Revolution in Military Affairs.
The massive and beautiful castles of Europe, around which all medieval power was based, were instantly obsolete.
On 22 February 1495, Charles VIII triumphantly entered Naples, and his army celebrated their tremendous and historic success. But the Neapolitans got the last laugh: many of their sailors had just returned from Columbus’ expeditions to the New World. Along with their discoveries, they also brought back syphilis, common among the native Americans but unknown in Europe. They immediately gave it to the prostitutes of the city, whom then passed it on to the French soldiers. Charles’ Army took it back to France where “the French Disease” spread throughout Europe.
Along with syphilis, Charles’ invasion of Italy sparked fifty years of warfare on the Italian peninsula. Because of Charles’ cannon, it was much easier to take a city than it was to defend it, resulting in the resurgence of open field battle. Exactly thirty years after his capture of Naples, Charles’ son, Francis I, lost the Battle of Pavia on 24 February 1425. Pavia saw cannon used to great effect not only on walls, but also on troop formations. Unwilling to wait for his cannon to reduce the attacking Austrians, Francis unleashed his knights. The gallant charge of his gendarmes was the stuff of legend but it was of limited effectiveness. Much more importantly, the riders masked Francis’ cannon and cost him the victory. The Battle of Pavia was the last time that the heavily armored knight would play a major role on the field of battle.
The Battle of Parabiago
The Fall of Constantinople
The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.
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