The fall of Constantinople in AD 1453

Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and subsequent Byzantine Empire, founded in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine the Great at the existing Greek city of Byzantion (more commonly known by the later Latin Byzantium). Constantine named the city Nova Roma, meaning ‘New Rome’, later emerging as the sole capital of the Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
The city was protected by a vast system of defensive land walls, especially by the famous double line of the Theodosian Walls, built form the 5th century AD onwards, which defended the city successfully from several lengthy sieges.

With the advent of the Ottoman Empire in 1299, the Byzantine Empire began to crumble. Constantinople was already in decline, mostly the result of the Justinianic plague (541–549 AD) which killed almost half the population and the sacking by Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204).

By 1450, Byzantine territory had shrunk to just a few miles outside of the city gates, leaving the once powerful Empire that dominated the Mediterranean a mere city state.

When Mehmed II succeeded Sultan Murad II in 1451, he devoted himself to strengthening Ottoman forces in preparation for attacking Constantinople. The siege of Constantinople began in on April 6th, 1453. Byzantine forces defending the city totalled around 7,000 men who stood against a force of between 50,000–80,000 Ottoman soldiers.

Attempts to attack the city from the sea were thwarted by a giant chain that blocked the entrance to the Golden Horn. Mehmed ordered the construction of a road of greased logs and circumvented the chain by dragging his ships overland, forcing the Byzantines to reduce their garrisons on the land wall to protect the city sea walls.
Multiple land assaults against the Theodosian Walls were repelled with large Ottoman losses, resulting in Mehmed to offer lifting the siege if the Byzantines surrendered the city. Mehmed promised he would allow the emperor and the city inhabitants to leave with their possessions, moreover, he would recognise the emperor as governor of the Peloponnese.

Constantine responded by saying: “As to surrendering the city to you, it is not for me to decide or for anyone else of its citizens; for all of us have reached the mutual decision to die of our own free will, without any regard for our lives.”

The final assault began on May 26th, 1453 with successive waves of soldiers that overwhelmed the defenders at several points along the city walls.

The loss of Constantinople was seen as a crippling blow to Christendom, exposing the West to a foe that could match the armies of Europe and lead to centuries of conflict. Many Greeks fled the city and found refuge in the Latin West, bringing with them knowledge and documents from the Greco-Roman tradition to Italy and other regions that helped to propel the Renaissance.

Mehmed declared himself Kayser-i Rum, literally “Caesar of Rome”, that is, of the Roman Empire, though he was remembered as “the Conqueror”. He founded a political system that survived until 1922 with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Constantinople was again renamed to Istanbul in 1930.

Beer in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greeks mostly drank wine, but they may also have brewed beer, according to a study that describes the discovery of two (probable) Bronze Age breweries. The discoveries may be the oldest beer-making facilities in Greece.
'Textual evidence from historic periods in Greece clearly shows that beer was considered an alcoholic drink of foreign people, and barley wine a drink consumed by the Egyptians, Thracians, Phrygians, and Armenians, in most cases drunk with the aid of a straw,' Soultana Maria Valamoti wrote in her study[1].

This suggests that prehistoric Greeks were probably using alcoholic drinks for feasts during the entire year, instead of just on a seasonal basis when grapes were ripe.

Archaeologists found the remains of several buildings that may have been used for beer making: some at Archondiko in northern Greece, and another at Agrissa, a site south of Archondiko on the eastern side of Greece. Both sites had been destroyed by fire, which turned them into veritable time capsules, Valamoti said. After the fire, the prehistoric people appear to have moved out, leaving countless burned artifacts behind, including the remains of sprouted cereal grains.

At Archondiko, archaeologists found about 100 individual sprouted cereal grains that could be dated to the early Bronze Age (circa 2100 to 2000 BC). At Agrissa, they found about 3,500 sprouted cereal grains dating to the middle Bronze Age (circa 2100 to 1700 BC).
The discovery of sprouted cereal grains is significant. To brew beer, a brewer needs to sprout cereals (a process known as malting), which turns the grain's starch into sugars. This sprouting process is then interrupted by roasting the grain. Next, the grains are coarsely ground and mixed with lukewarm water to make wort, which helps convert the remaining starches into sugars. Finally, the sugars in the malt are used by yeast and turned into alcohol. This yeast is potentially present in the air around the brewery, introduced by adding grapes into the liquid, or from other sources, like dates.

In addition, archaeologists found a two-chambered structure at Archondiko that 'seems to have been carefully constructed to maintain low temperatures in the rear chamber, possibly even below 100oC,' Valamoti wrote. Given that a temperature of 70oC is ideal for preparing the mash and wort, it is certainly possible that Ancient Greekse used this structure during the beer-making process, she said.

There were even a number special cups found near the sprouted grains, suggesting they may have been used to serve beer. However, some of these cups were difficult to drink from, so it's possible that people there sipped beer through straws, Valamoti said.

[1] Soultana Maria Valamoti: Brewing beer in wine country? First archaeobotanical indications for beer making in Early and Middle Bronze Age Greece in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany – 2017

Ancient Greek docters prescribed the Mediterranean diet

The Greek physician Hippocrates (~460-370 BC) reputed said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." However history cannot attribute that quote to him[1].

Experts at the University of Exeter studied texts of ancient Greek doctors and found that they believed rich flavours could improve the food’s nutritional potency, while one of them, Galen of Pergamon (129-~216AD ), prescribed food recipes containing garlic and onions to his patients[2]. Galen saw nutrition as an essential part of the medical art, along with pharmacology and surgery.”
As Professor John Wilkins explained, "The ancient diet resembled the modern Mediterranean diet but obviously (still) without oranges and lemons from China and tomatoes from South America. The diet is largely based on regional plants, which the doctors generally preferred over imported luxuries."

Galen’s writings included recipes for pancakes and put under discussion the types of bread and cakes that should be eaten. The physician also warned of the dangers of milk, which, according to him, contains whey and solids that may block the narrow channels in the liver in susceptible individuals. This suggests he already understood the effects of lactose intolerance. His recipes included simple cooking techniques, designed to bring out the flavour of basic ingredients and he even wrote about how snails should be boiled twice to reduce their laxative properties. Galen even recommended spices such as pepper, ginger and cinnamon to his patients, while other doctors recommended fruits and vegetables.

Although each country around the Mediterranean presents its own food choices and traditions, recipes from each culture present a substantial overlap, therefore distinctive cuisines share nutritional attributes and ingredients.

[1] Diana Cardenas: Let not thy food be confused with thy medicine: The Hippocratic misquotation in e-SPEN Journal - 2013. See here.
[2] John Wilkins: Good food and bad: Nutritional and pleasurable eating in ancient Greece in Journal of Ethnopharmacology - 2015

Italian DNA shows Bronze Age migrations

A new study revealed that Bronze Age Italians interacted with people from Eastern Europe[1]. Many ancient humans around Eurasia migrated and mixed with people from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, a steppe-land located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, but until recently, the genetic component of ancient Italian Steppe-related ancestry was unexplored.

The team analysed the DNA of individuals from archaeological sites from Northeastern and Central Italy dated to the Chalcolithic, Early Bronze Age, and Bronze Age.
The study showed that the two populations began sharing genes around 3,600 years ago in Central Italy. This genetic admixture also happened at a similar time when burial practises and kinship structures changed, suggesting the populations shared culture as well as genes.

“We were able to generate the first genome-wide shotgun data of ancient Italians dated to the Bronze Age period and study the arrival of the Steppe-related ancestry component in the Italian Peninsula,” says lead-author Tina Saupe.

The team found that the genetics of ancient individuals from the Italian Peninsula were more like Early Neolithic farmers in Eastern Europe than to farmers from Western Europe, despite the geographic divide.

“Because of the geographical distribution of the archaeological sites of published and newly generated genomes, we were able to date the arrival of the Steppe-related ancestry component to at least ~4,000 years ago in Northern Italy and ~3,600 years ago in Central Italy,” says co-author Luca Pagani, “We did not find the component in individuals dated to the Neolithic and Chalcolithic, but in individuals dated to the Early Bronze Age and increasing through time in the individuals dated to the Bronze Age.”

The end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean was a period of great upheavals. After Troy had fallen, Odysseus needed ten years to get home to his beloved Itaka. History tells us that Minoan and Mycenaen palatial centres were destroyed and abandoned.

This study also shows that even people from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe were displaced during the Dark Age of Greece by (probably) climate change, droughts, crop failure, wars and migrations.

[1] Saupe et al: Ancient genomes reveal structural shifts after the arrival of Steppe-related ancestry in the Italian Peninsula in Current Biology – 2021. See here.

Miltos: the elusive red pigment

Ancient Greek and Roman texts tell that a red powdered mineral, known as miltos (μίλτος), was used for several unrelated applications[1]. Its use is attested to in Mycenaean clay tablets, inscribed in Linear B as mi-to-we-sa and dated around the second millennium BC.
The variety of applications for which it was used was broad: it was used as a pigment, as a cosmetic, in ship maintenance, agriculture, and medicine. It was precisely this diversity that intrigued the scientists[2].

The ancient texts made it clear that miltos could be found (and mined), in only three places in Graeco-Roman world: Kea in the Cyclades, Lemnos in the northeast Aegean, and Cappadocia in Turkey.

The team examined miltos samples at source. The fact that the substance contained a lot of iron-oxide, which gave it its colour, was uncontroversial, but the researchers were keen to know what else was in each sample to see if the additives meant that different mines produced miltos suited for its different uses.
The scientists analysed five samples: four obtained from Kea, and one originally from Lemnos that had been collected during the sixteenth or seventeenth century and is currently housed in the Pharmacy Museum of the University of Basel in Switzerland. No Turkish miltos was available.

The results show that, yes, different samples from different mines have potentially different abilities – the result of both small amounts of various chemicals embedded with the iron oxide and the microbial communities that live in them.

One of the samples from Kea, for example, was found to have 'exceptionally high' lead levels. This could explain a 360 BC Greek inscription decreeing that Kea miltos could only be exported to Athens because of its value not just for decoration but also because of its role in boat maintenance.

The high lead levels mean that Miltos from Kea would make a very effective anti-fouling agent, preventing the growth of bacterial colonies and barnacles on boat hulls. Another sample from Kea had significant quantities of zinc, arsenic and copper, making it ideal as the base ingredient for a biocidal boat paint. Until very recently all marine antibacterial paints contained zinc and copper.

There are several references in Greek and Roman literature to the presence of miltos on farms. It could be mixed with pitch or resin, and probably was used to ward off plant diseases or as a fertiliser. Key were the microbial communities that lived in them.

The researchers found that such applications were certainly not without merit, and that antibacterial effects varied quite widely across the sample range.

The sample from Lemnos, for instance, was found to contain traces of titanium dioxide, a known antibacterial compound. Interestingly, the samples high in lead were not particularly effective, perhaps, the scientists suggest, because lead is toxic and its effect therefore dose dependent.

The different effects produced by the different samples supports the idea that not all miltos was the same.

[1] Photos-Jones: From mine to apothecary: an archaeo-biomedical approach to the study of the Greco-Roman lithotherapeutics industry in World Archeaology - 2018. See here.
[2] Photos-Jones et al: Greco-Roman mineral (litho)therapeutics and their relationship to their microbiome: The case of the red pigment miltos in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports – 2018. See here.

Porphyry: the Royal (Purple) Marble

In Antiquity, purple was the colour of power and wealth, although both were mostly in the same hands. People went to extreme lengths (and costs) to acquire that colour.
[An imperial porphyry column in the Hagia Sophia]

A small sea snail, today known as the purple dye murex (Bolinus brandaris), produces a colourless secretion which turns into a brilliant puple dye when exposed to the air. To colour robes of dignitary purple you needed to harvest some 7,500 snails to obtain one gram of pure dye. This amount could colour just 15 cm3 of cloth. Imagine the costs of a robe for a king or high priest.

But, as always, purple clothes weren't enough to display your status. The most powerful even wanted their palaces built with the colour purple and that was a problem.

In 14 AD, a Roman legionary, discovered hard purple rocks in what is now the Gabal Abu Dukhan quarry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt near the Red Sea. Samples were promptly brought to the Emperor Tiberius in Rome. When Tiberius saw that this purple-coloured stone was solid enough for building and carving, he decreed that 'Imperial Porphyry' would be for the use of the Imperial family only. The term porphyry is from Ancient Greek porphyra (πορφύρα) and means 'purple'..

[Carmagnola, an imperial porphyry head in Venice] 

Tiberius quickly established a quarry on Mons Porphyry ('purple mountain') and began to use the stone for the decoration of Imperial palaces and other buildings. Later emperors continued the tradition. Imperial Porphyry was used for panels, floor tiles, statues, sarcophagi, and for the pillars of official buildings throughout the Roman world.

Perhaps most significant was the large circle of Imperial Porphyry in the centre of the floor of the Pantheon in Rome. For the next 300 years, new Emperors stood in this symbolic circle to be crowned.

This use to convey royalty made Imperial Porphyry truly the stone of Empire, causing it to be more significant, powerful and costly to the Empire than gold.

When the Emperor Constantine established Constantinople (now Istanbul) as the new Roman capital in 330 AD, he erected a 30-meter column of Imperial Porphyry with his statue at the top. The statue did not survive, but the pillar itself still stands. Eight Imperial Porphyry pillars also still support the niches of the Hagia Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian.

In 600 AD the Byzantine Empire lost control of Egypt (and thus of the Imperial Porphyry quarry) to invading Muslim forces. Even its exact location was forgotten for centuries. The ancient quarry on Mons Porphyry was only rediscovered in 1823 by Sir John Wilkinson. It is now a World Heritage site.

An enigma in the Odyssee

Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus finally arrived at his homeland of Ithaca. The swineherd Eumaeus takes Odysseus in as a guest, not recognizing his long lost master. Odysseus gives Eumaios a false biography, before launching into a story about a raid he participated in during the Trojan War. Odysseus does this to test the bounds of Eumaeus’ hospitality, to see if the swineherd will offer him a cloak, whether one of his own or a companion’s. The request for a cloak is the secret message of this ainos, and Eumaeus’ ability to understand it will decide Odysseus’ willingness to trust him.
Odysseus takes on the role of an unnamed Greek soldier at Troy. He refers to this self in the first person, while speaking of 'Odysseus' in the third person, projecting his true identity into a separate character. In the story, the 'beggar' is out on a scouting mission led by 'Odysseus' and Menelaus, who have named him their third in command. When night falls, the 'beggar' realises he has forgotten a cloak and will freeze, so he asks 'Odysseus' for help. Pretending to wake up from a divinely sent (θεῖός) bad dream, 'Odysseus' tells a warrior named Thoas to fetch backup from King Agamemnon, lest his foreboding dream come true and the group be ambushed by Trojans. The dream itself is not explained, leaving us to imagine that it featured a warning about a Trojan ambush. Thoas runs off to get unneeded backup, leaving his cloak behind for the 'beggar'.

Eumaeus, the swineherd, responds to the story with approval. He calls it a good 'ainos', revealing that he understands that this story has a hidden meaning. He then provides Odysseus with one of his own spare cloaks for the night, thus understanding its hidden meaning and proving his hospitality.

The question of exactly what an αἶνος (ainos) was has puzzled historians for ages. The word itself is related to the verb αἰνέω (aineō) ‘to praise’, the word means, 'praising speech', or more basically, 'speech act'. But not all ainoi appear as praise. They can also appear instructions, warnings, or fables.

The word αἶνος (ainos) appears as a sort of doublet in Latin as aenigma ('enigma'), borrowed from Greek αἴνιγμα, itself derived from αἶνος.

So, αἶνος (ainos) is akin to enigma. Perhaps, the telling of an ainos was simply an important part of the ritual of hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. Even today you could tell a 'good yarn' if you repose after a perfect dinner.

Additional reporting by Miriam Kamil.