It’s evening in a glorious palace on the Bosporus Strait. The stars are out, and the night is lit not just by them, but also by a sea of torches and campfires that surround the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. This realm was brought into the world by Constantine the Great, made marvelous under Justinian, but then began its slow tragic decline as the medieval age wore on, leaving the legacy of Rome to slowly wither away.
It is now May of 1453, and for decades the Ottoman Empire, a nation of Anatolian Turks, has eaten away at the Byzantines, leaving them with little more than the mighty city itself. Constantinople has withstood 23 sieges in its existence, but the Ottoman army at its gates, commanded by Sultan Mehmed II, hopes to finally wrench total control of the East away from the Christians. A man approaches a bust of Constantine. The man is dressed in an elegant imperial robe. He sets a candle underneath the bust, promising his namesake that the city will not fall under him. He turns and leaves. Behind him, the candle beneath the bust is snuffed out by the wind.
In this new Netflix docudrama, directed by Emre Şahin, one of the most pivotal and symbolically resonant events in world history takes center stage. The series provides a highly nuanced portrayal of the numerous historical developments that led to the fall of Constantinople and the ascendency of the Ottomans as a world power, with the series’ verisimilitude backed up by a highly diverse panel of scholars, lecturers and authors providing analysis and historical context to the dramatic events portrayed onscreen.
In the middle of the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire was a rising tide, not yet the sprawling imperial power it would become under the later Sultans, with power ranging from Belgrade to Mesopotamia, but it has by this point established itself as a significant power, one that might just spell the doom of Byzantium. Upon the death of his father, the new Sultan Mehmed II seeks to fulfill his life’s ambition, to be the Sultan that brought Constantinople to its knees. To this end he gathers an overwhelming army and lays siege to the city.
The city’s defenders, including the emperor Constantine XI and the Genoese soldier of fortune Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, face the overwhelming odds of an Ottoman siege, but have two chief advantages on their side. First is the fact that the rest of the Christian world is all but certain to send aid in the form of ships and soldiers in an attempt to break the siege, which means that the Ottomans only have a limited amount of time to take the city. Second are the legendary Theodosian Walls, 13 miles of many-tiered walls that have broken every siege the city has faced.
The show itself strikes a balance between traditional documentary style filmmaking and historical drama and avoids the mistake of restating information from one side of this equation in the other. The dramatic recreations are faithful to historical detail, to a surprisingly insistent degree. Pay close enough attention and one will notice that on one of Mehmed’s rings is inscribed with his tughra, his calligraphic monogram that acted as his personal seal. This is an example of small details paying off in the long run, lending authority to the narrative as it goes on.
One critically overlooked aspect of this history that finds representation in the series is the notion of Roman legacy, namely that the empire typically referred to as the Byzantine Empire considered itself to be a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, in a direct lineage with Augustus. As much as some readings of this era like to pit the East and West against one another as mutually exclusive groups, the truth is not so simple. The glory of Rome was to go to whoever could claim it, and when Mehmed II finally did take the city, he took for himself the title of ‘Kayser-i Rum,’ literally Caesar of Rome. The Ottomans did not eradicate classical Rome, they merely reclaimed it. In some respects they revived it as well, turning Constantinople from a relative backwater into the cosmopolitan epicenter of the empire.
“Rise of Empires: Ottoman” is at once a riveting historical drama and an enlightening documentary series that portrays and discusses one of the most important events in history, one that has led many scholars to declare its occurrence to have ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern era.