chapter  7
18 Pages

What was lost?

It was recognised after the event that the disparity of forces made the fall of Constantinople well nigh inevitable. At the time, nobody could be so sure. 1 Among the Ottoman leadership there were many who thought that the siege would be a perilous undertaking and believed that conquest would work against their best interests. The West was more complacent and showed very little sense of urgency about the fate of the city. The Byzantines believed that the defences of the city would hold. It was a confi dence based not only on past experience but also on extensive repairs to the city’s walls undertaken by John VIII Palaiologos. 2 That Constantinople did fall, contrary to general expectation, can be blamed on various combinations of circumstances, but fi nally it was the determination of Mehmed II and of those around him to see the siege through to the bitter end which was the decisive factor. The conquest of Constantinople allowed the Ottoman Empire, which already existed in embryo, to develop its full potential as a Mediterranean and then as a world power. This was the most important consequence of the fall of Constantinople. It forced the Ottomans to confront their destiny. Less obviously, this was also true of the Russians, who found themselves the only major Orthodox power left in existence. For the West it was less dramatic. The fall of Constantinople only affected the Venetians and the Genoese directly. It meant that they now had to trade on rather less favourable terms than had been the case under the Byzantine Empire, but more serious than this was the Ottoman determination to use the conquest of Constantinople to establish control over the Black Sea and the Aegean; in other words, to end the Italian Republics’ domination of these seas. The Venetians and the Genoese reacted in very different ways to the ensuing challenge. The Genoese gave up without a fi ght. 3 When in 1479 the Ottomans captured Caffa, the main Genoese entrepôt in the Crimea, and transferred its

inhabitants to Constantinople, it hardly mattered, for by then the centre of gravity of Genoese activities had shifted to the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic. To their cost the Venetians decided that there was more to be gained from resisting the Ottomans. As a result they suffered the indignities of defeat in a long war, which ended in 1479. They lost their main base at Negroponte and were eased out of the Aegean. This left their remaining territories in Crete and the Peloponnese vulnerable to Ottoman attack. The Venetians were increasingly forced back to their territories on the Italian mainland. The Ottoman conquest did not mean that the Venetians and Genoese ceased trading at Constantinople and in the Aegean, but it did mean that they no longer dominated the markets, as they had done before 1453. The Genoese accepted this with greater realism than the Venetians, who were even prepared to participate in unsuccessful papal schemes for a crusade to rescue Constantinople.