The martyrs who saved Rome Part 1

The martyrs who saved Rome Part 1

In August 14, 1480, a massacre was perpetrated by Islamist invaders on a hill just outside the city of Otranto, in southern Italy. Eight hundred of the city’s male inhabitants were taken to a place called the Hill of the Minerva, and, one by one, beheaded in full view of their fellow prisoners. The spot forever after became known as the Hill of the Martyrs.

In medieval warfare, the bloody execution of a city’s population was commonplace, but what happened at Otranto was unique. The victims on the Hill of the Minerva were put to death not because they were political enemies of a conquering army, nor even because they refused to surrender their city. They died because they refused to convert to Islam. The 800 men of Otranto were martyrs, the first victims of what was fully expected to be the relentless conquest of Italy and then all of Christendom by the armies of the Ottoman Empire. Because of their sacrifice, however, the Ottoman invasion was slowed and Rome was spared the same fate that had befallen Constantinople only 27 years before.

Mehmet the Conqueror

On May 29, 1453, the venerable city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire since its founding by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, fell to an army of 250,000 Ottoman Turks under the personal command of the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II. Earning his title, el-Fatih (“the Conqueror”), Mehmet completed the centuries’ old war against the Byzantines and made the once-great Christian city the new capital of his Islamic empire and the launching point for his grand plans of dominion over the West.

Ottoman armies were soon once more on the march, this time headed straight for the heart of Europe. Mehmet laid siege to the city of Belgrade, but his troops were repulsed by the Hungarians. Even so, the campaign ended with the Ottoman occupation of Serbia and a strategically strong position to push into the rest of the Balkans, including Wallachia (Romania) and Moldavia. Mehmet was relentless in his next efforts. Defeated in 1475 by Stephen the Great of Moldavia at the Battle of Vaslui, the Sultan merely waited until the next year to launch yet another army into the field. This time he crushed the Moldavians at the Battle of Valea Alba. More progress would have been made had Mehmet not been checked in the mountains of Wallachia by a foe even more determined and just as merciless: the Wallachian prince and one-time vassal of Mehmet, Vlad III Tepes, known to history as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula.

Rebuffed for the moment in the Balkans, Mehmet turned to completing a task he had set himself back in 1453. After the fall of Constantinople, Mehmet claimed one other title alongside that of el-Fatih. He called himself Kayser-i Rûm (“Caesar of Rome”) on the basis that he was successor to the throne of the Byzantine Empire and also a descendant of Theodora Kantakouzenos (daughter of the Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos) who had been married to Sultan Orhan I (r. 1326-1359). Mehmet announced his intention to invade Italy, capture Rome, and bring together both halves of the Roman Empire. The campaign would also mark the final defeat of the Christian cause in Europe by the conversion of the city of the popes. St. Peter’s Basilica would serve as a stable for the Ottoman cavalry.

The Sultan Aims for Italy

Mehmet halted the ongoing siege of Rhodes—brilliantly defended by the Knights of Rhodes—and ordered large elements of the Turkish army and navy there to set sail for the Italian peninsula. The fleet comprised at least 90 galleys, 15 heavily armed galleasses, and 48 lighter galliots carrying over 18,000 soldiers. Their initial target was the Italian port city of Brindisi, in Puglia (or Apulia), the southeastern corner of the peninsula along the Adriatic Sea. The city was an ideal choice as it offered a large harbor for the ships. The commander of the Ottoman force, Pasha Ahmet, was one of the most formidable of Mehmet’s generals. He intended to capture the port and then advance immediately north toward Rome while Ottoman reinforcements arrived to consolidate the seized territory.

The movement of the fleet was aided considerably by the absence of resistance by the maritime power of Venice. The Venetians and the Ottoman Empire had been fighting each other off and on for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean and Adriatic since 1423. Much to Mehmet’s pleasure, the two powers signed a peace treaty in 1479 that ended hostilities, at least temporarily. The Sultan thus attacked Rhodes and then launched his campaign on Italy without fear of the Christian state of Venice blocking the progress of his armies.

The Adriatic’s weather did not cooperate, however, and the famous winds forced the fleet to land not in Brinidisi but some 50 miles to the south, at Roca, near the city of Otranto. The city is located on the eastern shore of the sub-peninsula of Salento, the small bit of land that juts out from the larger Italian peninsula and that has been described as the “heel” of the Italian “boot.” In 1480, the area was Neapolitan/Aragonese, meaning it was under the control of the united kingdoms of Naples and Aragon. Otranto’s cathedral dated to the late 11th century and had been the scene, ironically, of the enthusiastic blessing of some 12,000 Crusaders under the leadership of Bohemond of Taranto just before they set sail to take part in the First Crusade (1095-1099).

The city’s walls afforded a wonderful view of the Adriatic, but on the morning of July 29, an ominous sight appeared on the horizon: The Ottoman fleet had landed nearby. Thousands of soldiers and sailors began marching toward Otranto, where the garrison of soldiers numbered only around 400. Messengers were sent north to alert the rest of the peninsula of the danger that had arrived from the sea.

The castle had no cannons, and the garrison commander, Count Francesco Largo, was aware of the limited supplies and water. Medieval warfare, even after the emergence of cannons, was predicated on stark and often grim choices on the part of the defenders of any city or castle under siege. The defenders could either hope to hold out (especially if a relief army was on the way), or they could negotiate a surrender. Surrender was an option to be considered as early as possible, for the longer a siege went on the harsher the terms might become. Should a city or castle fight to the last and have its walls breached, staggering violence usually followed as the conquering force pillaged, vented its pent-up frustration, and searched for loot and treasure.

Surrender or Die

For the citizens of Otranto, the siege of Constantinople was still well-known. When that city fell, Ottoman troops were allowed to pillage parts of the city, but the key moment came when they reached the famed church of the Hagia Sophia. After breaking down the church’s bronze gates, the Turkish troops found inside a huge throng of Byzantines who had taken refuge and who were praying that the city might be delivered by some miracle. The Christians were seized and separated according to age and gender. The infants and elderly were brutally murdered; the men—including some of the city’s most prominent senators—were carted off to the slave markets; and the women and girls were taken by soldiers or sent into a life of slavery.

At Otranto, the terms of the Pasha were ostensibly generous. If the town surrendered, the defenders would be permitted to live. Otranto was forfeit. The answer to the Pasha’s demands was firm: The Christians would not surrender. When a second messenger was sent to the walls to repeat the demands, he was met with arrows from the walls. To settle the issue, the leaders of the castle defense climbed to the top of the tower and threw the keys of the city into the sea. When the determined defenders awoke in the morning, however, some of the soldiers had fled by climbing down the walls and running for their lives.

The few hundred inhabitants of Otranto now faced 18,000 fierce Ottomans with barely 50 Neapolitan soldiers. The siege engines and Ottoman cannons brought down a relentless torrent of stones, and waves of Ottoman soldiers crashed against the walls and tried to climb up to get at the frantic defenders. The people of the town boiled oil and water to pour down upon the enemy while others hurled rocks, statues, and furniture.

The struggle went for nearly two harrowing weeks until, in the early morning of August 12, the Ottomans breached a part of the wall with their cannons. A spirited defense was waged amid the rubble of the broken wall, but the people of Otranto were hopelessly overmatched, lacking any training in vicious hand-to-hand combat, and exhausted by the ordeal of the siege.