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Analyzing Nicolo Barbaro’s Account 'Diary of the Siege of Constantinople'

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.

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Primary sources provided historians with valuable insight into the nature of warfare as delineated by Nicolo Barbaro’s account Diary of the Siege of Constantinople. A contextual analysis of the primary source exemplified the micro and macro influences on Barbaro. The account snapshotted Christian and Venetian perspectives on the siege while lacking the perspective from the Ottoman Empire and the significance of religion as a motivator of this battle. Battle strategies on the behalf of the Turks were provided by Barbaro which however failed to provide historians with an extensive view on warfare without the support of secondary sources.


Tactics described within Barbaro’s account provided historians with awareness on how the Ottoman Empire succeeded in warfare. While missing details, Barbaro provided historians with valuable knowledge on the use of technology during the battle. Ultimately, Barbaro’s account provided an overview into the factors in warfare.

The Fall of Constantinople

Warfare was organised lethal violence between political entities justified by factors such as religious disputes, while victory was determined by strategy, tactics, and technology. War was organised by who was in command, the collective and the culture, determining how communities used resources while conveying and consolidating power.


Warfare went from horsepower to gunpower whereas armies relied on professionalisation, strategy, discipline, and tactics. The siege of Constantinople was fought between the Turks and Christians. The events were recorded in the eye-witness account Diary of the Siege of Constantinople (1453) in Istanbul while serving as the most prominent source to detail the fall of Constantinople as other sources were lost (Jones 1969, pp. 62-70).


Barbaro was a medical student in a Venetian merchant galley and witnessed the downfall from Bosphorous. The ship was part of a fleet which was anchored in the region (Fleming 2003, p. 73). While the motive for writing this piece was not divulged by Barbaro, the fact it was a diary entry implied it was written for personal fulfillment. Historical developments contributing to the creation of the account included the prominence of Christianity substantially after Constantine ceased the prosecution of Christians in Rome, the rise of Humanism with ideals of the Renaissance thinkers and the developments in travel.


This influenced the production of the account as such inspired loyalty to those of the same faith. Furthermore, the idea of expressing potential in literature was a result of Renaissance thought in Italy, along with ideas of Humanism competing with Church Doctrines (https://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/renaissance1/section1/). Both influences caused the creation of an account filled with sympathy for the victims of the siege which made it unlikely for the source to face censorship once released.


Accordingly, if the account was written for an audience, it was likely for Christians due to the expressed sympathies and alliance with Christianity. The work was written to capture the details of the event while establishing previous Christian distaste of non-Christians through the accentuation on the slaughter of the victims (Jones 1969, pp. 64-65).


Additionally, resources which influenced this source included ships which allowed Barbaro to witness the siege. Consequently, while Barbaro’s account provided historians with the most informative primary source on the siege, its value was limited in understanding warfare holistically.

Barbaro’s account provided historians with a narrow outlook on the perspectives regarding the siege of Constantinople. Essentially, Barbao did not show the motives of the Ottoman Empire, which was useful in providing insight into the Venetian and Christian perspectives.


This conflict between these faiths were captured in Barbaro’s depiction of Turks as wicked enemies of Christianity, which demonstrated how religion was a motivator in societies determining who were threats and outsiders (Jones 1969, p. 63). These sentiments provided reasoning as to why the Greeks and Venetians defended Constantinople during this battle (Jones 1969, p. 63). While this was useful in allowing historians to compare the sentiments regarding the siege, Barbaro failed to provide context on the causation of the attack. According to secondary sources, the Ottoman Empire was motivated by Islamic beliefs of the external jihad, encouraging the expansion of land under the Islamic law to extend the domain of justice (Guilmartin 1988, p. 752) while creating a perpetual war between the House of Islam (dar al-Islam), and the House of War (dar al-Harb), the non-Islamic world (Ahmad 2008, pp. 6-7).

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This highlighted the justification of the Ottoman Empire’s war against the Christians (Guilmartin 1988, p. 737). Hence, the Turks considered the siege as the “Liberation of Constantinople” with the goal of “universal Islamisation” prophesised by the Prophet Muhammad (Fleming 2003, p. 69). Barbaro’s lacking information on this downplayed the impact religion played on the nature of warfare, which was further emphasised by the conversion of churches into mosques and the renaming of Constantinople to Islambol which meant “city of abundant Islam” (Brockett 2014, p. 404).


Therefore, while Barbaro’s account provided an insightful view on how the siege was seen from Christians and Venetians, it lacked fundamental information concerning the Ottoman Empire which made it reliant on secondary sources for in-depth interpretation on warfare.

analyzing-nicolo-barbaros-account-diary-of-the-siege-of-constantinople

Warfare required the implementation of strategies in accordance with the political body fighting, in which Barbaro only briefly mentioned. His account provided an outline of the orders and strategy employed by the Sultan. This included the mention of “three groups of fifty thousand men” who were Christian prisoners, lower class men and janissaries (Jones 1969, p. 62).


Complimenting this source with secondary sources provided an extensive picture on the battle strategies, however individually this provided a limited perspective. Information missing from the account included how janissaries were part of the kapi kulu army, consisting of the “salaried sipahis (armoured horse archers) of the sultan's household, the bombardiers or siege gunners, the sappers, and the cart artillery” (Guilmartin 1988, p. 731).


This provided historians with an incomplete picture of how strategy was used to ensure and consolidate the Ottoman Empire’s success. While Barbaro mentioned janissaries were paid to ensure loyalty, secondary sources were more effective in providing details as to how. This included the exemption from certain taxes, timars for the sipahis, the recruitment of native forces and the special status given to the GDZIS (Inalcik 1954, pp. 107-119).


Conflicting information was also provided as Inalcik failed to support the idea the janissaries were paid specifically. Nonetheless, the account when especially corroborated with Inalcik, showed the Ottoman Empire as highly organised in warfare which showed historians how this empire dominated the south-eastern Europe and eastern Byzantine Empire (Sullivan 2017, p. 31).


Thus, Barbaro’s account proved to be useful in providing basic details on the organisation of the Ottoman army when attacking Constantinople.

Fall Of Constantinople 1453

Further value of Barbaro’s account for historians was established in its detailed summary of the Turks’ battle tactics. For example, Turkish commanders along with officers and the Sultan were behind the janissaries. Christians fought first due to the Sultan preferring Christians perished instead of Turks, which delineated the religious tensions between these groups.


The first group described to attack Constantinople were the Christian prisoners, the second group of lower-class Turks were unsuccessful thus the third group advanced and succeeded (Jones 1969, p. 62). The way in which the battle took three waves of soldiers from the Turks illustrated the difficulty behind breaching the walls of Constantinople. Tactics such as the Turks entering the city by San Romano was described along with the massacre of the defenders and the enslavement of merchants (Jones 1969, pp. 63-64).


Additional information was included such as the Dardanelle invasion of the harbours with the use of ships to acquire treasure and imprison merchants while Turkish ships were loaded with the same (Jones 1969, p. 65), highlighting the spoils of warfare.


This established the pattern of warfare before this period where invaded lands were looted. In this area, Barbaro’s account independently provided historians with valuable and intimate insights on the nature of warfare during this siege along with the Turks’ battle tactics.

Technology played a vital role within the success of warfare and provided historians with insight on how resources were allocated during battle as spotlighted in Barbaro’s account. For example, the Turks attempted to scale the walls with ladders, crossbows and cannons were used by the Christians, repeated canon fire attacks, guns and arrows used on the behalf of the Turks.


The source demonstrated how instrumental the use of gunpowder was with the Turks’ victory through description, “their great cannon… fired a ball weighing twelve hundred pounds” (Jones 1969, p. 63). The heavy use of gunpowder showed how the Ottoman Empire was considered one of the “gunpowder” empires in the sixteenth century (Khan 2005, p. 54). The mention of the canon also provided historians with insight in how gunpowder impacted warfare and provided this siege as an example of how technological advancement affect the medieval world.


However, Barbaro did not mention why heavy firepower was exerted on the behalf of the Turks such as the fact Constantinople was surrounded by three walls which were previously impenetrable and how seventy cannons were built for the Turks by a Hungarian cannon builder (Fleming 2003, p. 70).


Resultantly, the account underscored the pivotal role gunpowder played within warfare, let alone the Ottoman Empire’s success in the siege of Constantinople.

The account written by Barbaro showcased the value of primary sources for historians in determining the contribution of beliefs, strategy, tactics, and technology in warfare. Diary of the Siege of Constantinople was influenced by Christianity, Humanism and transport, accounting for the motive and perspectives in the creation of the source.


Barbaro failed to mention the causation of the siege while providing historians with understanding of Christian and Venetian perspectives. Strategies such as the use of the army was explained using secondary sources in extension to Barbaro’s account while tactics were presented clearly.


The importance of technology in warfare was emphasised by Barbaro’s description of the weapons used to ensure the Turks’ success. Evidently, war shaped the prominence of laws, customs, and the borders of countries in modern society, reflecting the impact warfare has today.

Reference List

Ahmad, Muhamma Mushtaq 2008, ‘The Notions of Dār al-Ḥarb and Dār al-Islām in Islamic Jurisprudence with Special Reference to the Ḥanafī School,’ Islamic Studies, vol. 47, no. 1. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

Brockett, Gavin D. 2014, ‘When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and Its Contribution to World History,’ The American Historical Review, vol. 119, no. 2, pp. 399-433. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

Fleming, K. E. 2003, ‘Constantinople: From Christianity to Islam,’ The Classical World, vol. 97, no. 1, pp. 69-78. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

Guilmartin, Jr. John F 1988, ‘Ideology and Conflict: The Wars of the Ottoman Empire, 1453-1606,’ The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars series, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 721-747. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

Inalcik, Halil 1954, ‘Ottoman Methods of Conquest,’ Studia Islamica, no. 2, pp. 103-129. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

Jones, J. R. 1969, Diary of the Siege of Constantinople, Exposition Press, New York.

Khan, Iqtidar Alam 2005, ‘Gunpowder and Empire: Indian Case Author,’ Social Scientist, vol. 33, no. ¾, pp. 54-65. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

SparkNotes Editors 2005, Italy in the Mid-Fourteenth Century: The Rise of Humanism (mid 14th century), SparkNotes, SparkNotes LLC, viewed 27 December 2021, <https://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/renaissance1/section1/>

Sullivan, Alice Isabella 2017, ‘Visions of Byzantium: "The Siege of Constantinople" in Sixteenth-Century Moldavia,’ The Art Bulletin, vol. 99, no. 4, pp. 31-68. Retrieved 25 December 2021, from JSTOR Database.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Simran Singh

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