Numismatics and history are very closely connected. From the earliest coinage to modern commemoratives, coins tell the story of triumph, conquest and tragedy throughout history. They tell the story of kings and of revolutions, exploration and innovation. This series looks at the history of the Modern World through the lense of 20 coins.
History of the World Part 3:
The Fall of Constantinople 1453
â€śLater in the day, when the chaos had died down and some semblance of order had been restored, Mehmet made his triumphant entry into Constantinopleâ€ť.*
The Ottoman Turks were originally from the steppes of central Asia, and arrived in Anatolia around 1300. Over the next 150 years, their power greatly increased, encompassing all of modern Turkey, and a substantial amount of the Balkans. At the same time the Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire, had been in decline ever since the 1204 sack of the city during the 4th Crusade.
By 1453, the Ottomans had bypassed Constantinople, building their empire into Europe. The Byzantines had been living on borrowed time, when Mehmet II ascended to the Ottoman throne. In the two years leading up to 1453, he sent out the summons of troops. His army assembled, bring men from the far away provinces in the Balkans and Persia. The Ottomans, who were at the pinnacle of military innovation, brought giant cannons, with the capability of throwing a stone weighing 1000 pounds, to the walls of Constantinople. The city was protected by the great Theodosian Walls - a series of three walls on the landwards side of the city - which had seen the city through sieges before. A wall protected the city along the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn as well. A giant chain stretched across the horn during war, blocking ships from accessing that waterway. The city held out against the inevitable for seven weeks, but with no relief army coming, the walls were breached and the city and Empire fell.
On the eve of the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantines minted coins which simply cannot compete with their Italian contemporaries. This coin depicts Emperor Manuel II (father of Constantine XI, the last emperor), and was minted from 1403 to 1425. However, in contrast to Venetian and Genoese coins of the period, the coin is very crude. It looks more medieval than modern, symbolic of the ancient and decaying nature of the Byzantine Empire. This coin would have been in circulation at the time of the siege of Constantinople, and coins such as this would have been used to pay the Italian and Spanish mercenaries who were key in defending the city. This coin was silver, worth 1 Hyperpyron. The hyperpyron was the currency of the Byzantines from 1367 to the fall of the empire in 1453. Unlike earlier coinages, it was made of silver, not gold, evidence of sorry economic state of the empire on the verge of its defeat.
After the fall of the city, a great void was left in the eastern Mediteranean. The Venetian rushed into this gap, conquering territory and gaining from trade. This golden age for the Venetians ended when they ran into the Ottoman advance through the Mediteranean. With the fall of Constantinople, the trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands was disrupted. Consequentially, Portuguese and Spanish navigators began exploring west to the Americas and East to India. As a result of the fall of Constantinople, the Age of Discovery began with the need for new trade links with the east.
Next: Part 4, The Age of Discovery
*1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and The Clash of Islam and The West. Page 231
Crowley, Roger. 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Hyperion, 2005.
Image from Numista