How Historically Accurate is the Rise of Empires: Ottoman Series?

A poster from Rise of Empires: Ottoman series showing Mehmed II.

This article contains SPOILERS. Beware.

Rise of Empires: Ottoman is a docudrama based on the events of 1453 that led to the conquest of Constantinople, then ruled by the Byzantine Empire, by the Ottoman Empire. The series follows Mehmed II (the Conqueror), the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who tries to create a name for himself in the history books by conquering the famed Byzantine capital of Constantinople, which had never been conquered despite more than twenty attempts by foreign armies. On the other side, Constantine XI leads the Byzantines as they defend the city.

Plot

In the beginning of 1453, Mehmed II has become impatient to conquer Constantinople. He had studied Alexander the Great and others and realized they accomplished many of their great feats at a young age. He wants to be like them and have a lasting conquest that can shape his empire and his legacy. The series looks at the events through 1453 and until the fall of the city in May 29 1453, but various flashbacks during the life of Mehmed II and how he grew up and how he was shaped by events around him are explored. Mehmed had come to power at a young age (12 years of age), only to then relinquish the throne back to his father at the age of 14, who had earlier retired.

At the age of 21, he was back in power and eager to prove himself, as his he was forced to give up the throne in his earlier years because he was seen as unready and too rash to make good decisions. Nevertheless, he always wanted to conquer Constantinople, despite his chief adviser or grand vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha telling him otherwise. In fact, it is suggested that most Ottoman notables thought conquering Constantinople would be too costly at a time when the empire had other enemies to think about. Constantinople still had its great walls build by Theodosius II in the 6th century.

Initially, Constantine XI tried to determine what the new Sultan was like, but he learns very quickly that Mehmed II fully intends to capture Constantinople. This leads to Constantine obtaining a group of mercenaries to help protect the city, led by Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, a Genoese nobleman and captain.

On Easter, April 6, 1453, Mehmed's army arrives at Constantinople. Mehmed had a new plan to take the city that had eluded earlier attempts, including by his own father (Murad II). His plan included using canons, among the earliest sieges to deploy canons at a large scale, and a new large mega canon made by Orban, who may have been a Hungarian canon maker. We see various flashbacks of Mehmed as he prepares to attack the city, including that of his childhood where he was taken away from his birth mother and raised by a step-mother. He was educated in several languages, including Greek and Arabic, and had known Serbian in addition to his native Turkish. He was also educated in history as part of his training to become Sultan.

Initially, he was not in line to be the first on the throne, but the deaths of his eldest brother led him to be the next Sultan. Initially, the attack on Constantinople scared the Byzantines because they had not expected the canons, particularly the large canon deployed against the city that had some psychological effect. It seemed that the walls of Constantinople would eventually come down as the canons bombarded the city, but this prompted the Byzantines to mount a raid using the Genoese mercenaries who were battle-hardened knights. They effectively raided and fought off Janissaries, elite Ottoman troops who likely were one of Europe's first full-time standing army after the Romans.

Through the first two weeks, the Ottomans tried to bombard and raid to attack the city and even undermine the walls; however, all these attempts fail. The Ottoman large canon even backfires and is destroyed, with the series suggesting Mehmed nearly died in this mishap. Their undermining attempts were stopped by counter-mining efforts. The Genoese knights successfully fought off Janissarie attempts to attack the walls. Finally, what also lowered the moral of the Ottomans was the successful penetration of Genoese ships around the Ottoman siege, where three ships, with only two being war ships, were able to go through the Ottoman blockade.

Mehmed thought of a bold plan to bring his own ships around a large chain blocking Constantinople's port and the area known as the Golden Horn. He wanted to lift his ships out of the Bosporus and place them in the Golden Horn where the Byzantine ships were. This would force the Byzantines to then have to defend the sea-facing side of the city as well as the land-facing side, spreading their meager soldiers thinner.

At this point, there were probably less than 7000 defenders, protecting more than 8 miles of walls, against the Ottoman army that may have been ten times this size. Mehmed then compels Genoese merchants in Galata, a small trade port next to Constantinople, to not interfere as the ships are transported. This operation is successful and causes panic among Constantine's people. The Byzantines try to counter this by sending their ships to attack but this time the Ottomans, perhaps having been warned, were ready and counter attacked with canon fire on the ships, turning the attackers away. Nevertheless, the siege went on and word soon reached that a Venetian army might come to the aid of Constantinople.

By this time he was becoming more desperate as the Byzantines proved tenacious. This prompted Mehmed to make one last great assault on what he thought was the weakest gate. His advisers were mostly against the plan, but Mehmed had numbers on his side. He sent several waves of attackers, trying to use each wave to tire the defenders. This began to work as the defenders could not keep the elite Janissaries from entering the breach points after successfuling defending against the weaker troops sent. Constantine is killed as he makes a heroic counter-attack with some of his men, while Giovanni is mortally wounded.

On May 29, Constantinople fell and Mehmed sats on the Byzantine throne. He converts the great Hagia Sophia domed church, the largest building in the world at that time, to first great Ottoman mosque in Istanbul. He also then executed his grand vezier, and the Byzantine Grand Duke, perhaps for perceived treachery in trying to stop the attack on Constantinople or, in the case of the Grand Duke, his treachery against his master.

Key Characters

Mehmed II: Shown as a very stubborn character but with great cunning and intelligence. He is well educated and could read and write several languages. He is determined to be a great conqueror like Alexander the Great, who he admires for his achievements at such a young age.[1]

Constantine XI: He is the last Byzantine, and thus Roman, Emperor, who died defending his city and empire. Constantine rules over nothing more than a small city-state, which had once rules most of the eastern Mediterranean and was one of the largest empires in the early Middle Ages. He is, however, powerless to stop the decline of his empire. [2]

Çandarlı Halil Pasha: The main vizier and adviser to Mehmed and his father earlier. Mehmed does not trust him because he feels he is too cautious. There is also suggestion of bitterness due to the fact Mehmed had to give up the throne the first time he ruled and for severe beatings he had to endure under Çandarlı. Mehmed has Çandarlı executed, possibly for perceived betrayal in taking Constantinople.[3]

Giovanni Giustiniani: A brave and skillful tactician who led the defense of Constantinople. His efforts were often successful but in the end the Ottomans were simply too many and their resources too vast for Giovanni to defeat them. He lost his life after the conquest of Constantinople, having being wounded in the final assault.[4]

Loukas Notaras: The last Grand Duke, or chief adviser to the Byzantine Emperor, helped guide the defense of Constantinople. He was executed after the fall of the city because he was seen as deceitful and he had hid treasure that could have been used to defend the city or buy off the Ottomans. [5]

Mara Branković: A Serbian noblewoman who was married to Murad II and became a surrogate mother to Mehmed II. Even though she is Christian and from an enemy state to the Ottomans, having grown up in the Ottoman court and with Mehmed, she attempts to act as a spy and informer to Mehmed when she is back in Serbia, which could be a potential threat to the Ottomans during the siege of Constantinople.[6]

Accuracy

As this 6-part series is a docudrama, it has historians that directly comment on events as they unfold. The series uses correct timeline and description of the attack Constantinople is incredibly accurate from the Ottoman perspective. At times, the show does depict events that cannot be confirmed. For instance, the execution of Çandarlı Halil Pasha happened but the exact reason is unclear. The destruction of the large canon attacking Constantinople is unclear. It may have blown up during the siege, perhaps due to Mehmed pushing the gunners beyond their limit as depicted in the series, but the details are not clear.

While Mehmed was a brave ruler, he probably did not lead some of the assault as shown in one of the scenes during the final attack on the city. We do not know if Mehmed did try to buy off Giovanni, as suggested by the series, although Giovanni must have been seen as one of the key obstacles by Mehmed. Similarly, other discussions and offers to switch sides or avoid given loyalties are not known. For instance, it is unclear if the betrayal by the Genoese traders or others in Constantinople helped bring the city down. However, the timeline of events and key background are remarkably accurate. Both the Ottoman and Byzantine sides were shown as having cruel practices in confronting their enemies and even members to their own side. The series does an outstanding job accurately portraying the takeover of Constantinople, but it balances it with a compelling story that speculates on some plausible explanations for why certain events unfolded.

Summary

The series presents a focus on how the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, one of the greatest cities in the ancient and Medieval worlds. It had been an impossible city to conquer previously, but the use of canons during the siege did usher a new age where city walls now were no longer sufficient in protecting cities.

Now, cannons began to shape modern warfare, and this continued to be so after the siege. The events themselves were critical in developing the course of history as Constantinople then became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, later changing its name (officially) in the early 20th century to Istanbul. Even that name Istanbul references Constantinople, as it means 'in the city,' a phrase used for Constantinople.

References

  1. For more on Mehmed II, see: Babinger, F., Manheim, R., Hickman, W.C., 1992. Mehmed the Conqueror and his time. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
  2. For more on Constantine XI, see: Nicol, D.M., 2002. The immortal emperor: the life and legend of Constantine Palaiologos, last emperor of the Romans. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.
  3. For more on the grand vizier and his role, see: Papademetriou, T., 2015. Render unto the Sultan: power, authority, and the Greek Orthodox Church in the early Ottoman centuries, First edition. ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pg. 27.
  4. For more on Giovanni, see: Philippides, M. and Hanak, W.K. 2011. Ashgate.The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies.
  5. See also Philippides and Hanak 2011, pg. 43
  6. For more on Branković, see: Nicol 2002, pg. 44