Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD when it was consecrated by Emperor Constantine the Great. Although the city was the subject of over a dozen siege attempts across the next 1,123 years, it was only captured twice; by the Crusaders in 1204 and the Ottomans in 1453; although it was also taken in 1261 thanks to the discovery of an unguarded passage.
The city was an almost impregnable fortress as it had a number of natural advantages. It was located on an elevated rocky peninsula with the sea on three sides. Enemies could only attack by land on the western side which was protected by the mighty Theodosian Walls. The sea walls prevented would-be invaders from taking the city across the water and the legendary weapon, Greek Fire, helped the Byzantines in times of crisis. In this article, I take a look at eight sieges of Constantinople that ended in failure.
1 – The Kutrigurs (559)
Emperor Justinian is known for his attempted expansion of the Empire. He wanted to restore the Roman world to greatness and re-establish its power. While the legendary general Belisarius was able to retake Rome on two occasions, the Byzantines could not keep hold of it for long. Ultimately, Justinian overstretched the Empire which was surrounded by enemies. The Bulgars north of the Danube, also known as the Huns, were a major threat. They had migrated west from Central Asia and had reached the Volga River in the fourth century AD.
The Bulgars were split into two groups; the Kutrigurs, who were north of the Black Sea, and the Utigurs, who were further east. These groups frequently raided Byzantine territory until finally; they threatened the city of Constantinople itself. In 559, a large number of Kutrigurs reached the Balkan Peninsula, and one of the three spearheads got as far as Constantinople. At that moment, the city did not have an adequate defense, and the desperate Justinian summoned Belisarius out of his enforced ‘retirement.’
The Khagan, or leader, of the Kutrigurs, was a warrior named Zabergan and he advanced on Constantinople with a force of 7,000 men. Before Belisarius was summoned, the Theodosian Walls were manned by young recruits, scholares, and senators. The great general arrived with a small force primarily made up of around 300 of his veterans. Belisarius set up camp in a small village a few kilometers from the city, and his elite troops were joined by a flock of peasants.
Zabergan arrived and rode against the Byzantines with 2,000 horsemen. Belisarius countered by concealing 200 cavalry in a valley; when the Kutrigurs rode by, the hidden men shot the enemy with arrows. Belisarius charged at the Kutrigurs and tricked the enemy into thinking that the Byzantines had a much larger force. The marauding Bulgars fled the scene, and Constantinople was safe from immediate danger. Belisarius was the hero once again, but the city would face multiple sieges over the next 894 years.