Estimated reading time: 12 minute(s)
On May 29, 1453, the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II launched their successful final assault on Constantinople, ending a 53-day siege and demolishing the last legitimate claimant to the legacy of the Roman Empire. The last stand of the Byzantines was led by Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (some, including Edward Gibbon, number him XII), who had been on the throne for a mere four years before he fell along with his city on its final day.
Similarly to the Greeks, who made the final Byzantine Emperor a symbol of national resilience during their ultimately successful push for independence in the early nineteenth century, I find the story of Constantine XI’s last stand quite moving. With 567 years having passed since Constantine and the Eastern half of the Roman Empire breathed their last, I thought that it would be fitting, with the aid of some older books and other resources, to make a toast to the last Emperor.
A Note on Sources
Before continuing, it is worth noting that we will be relying on ancient sources, mostly as condensed by the writers of two nineteenth century history books. In so doing, I will note where we are relying on chroniclers and where I am noting passages from nineteenth century historians analyzing the chronicles. I have also provided links to the books and pages that I am using as references, so you will be able to follow along.
Prelude to War
Constantine XI, born in either 1404 or 1405, assumed the throne on January 6, 1449. Unlike Constantine the Great, who some 1100 years earlier reigned from Constantinople over an Empire that stretched from Britain to Syria, Constantine XI inherited the remnants of an Empire that did not extend far from Constantinople itself.
With the ascent of Mehmed II as Ottoman Sultan in February of 1451, it quickly became evident that Constantine’s declining Empire was in existential danger. He undertook to fortify the city and appealed for support from Catholics in Western Europe, but it would be for naught. Constantinople had neither the finances nor the manpower to adequately prepare for a Turkish invasion, and help from the West came in insufficient numbers. When the siege of Constantinople began on April 6, 1453, the Emperor and his 7,000 soldiers were vastly outnumbered – nearly ten-to-one by one account.
The final message from Constantine XI to the Sultan read as follows (p. 138):
“As it is plain thou desirest war more than peace, as I cannot satisfy thee by my vows of sincerity or by my readiness to swear allegiance, so let it be according to thy will. I turn now and look above to God. If it be His will that the city should become thine, where is he who can oppose His will? If He should inspire thee with a wish for peace, I shall indeed be happy. Nevertheless I release thee from all thy oaths and treaties to me, I close the gates of my city, I will defend my people to the last drop of my blood. And so, reign in happiness till the Righteous and Supreme Judge shall call us both before the seat of His judgment.”
The First Attempt to Convince Constantine XI to Flee
Constantinople’s defenders held out bravely, hoping in vain that reinforcements from Hungary or western Europe might relieve the pressure of the Turkish siege. However, slowly but surely, the position of Constantine XI and his army deteriorated. At a council including the Emperor on May 3, his military commanders, and other dignitaries of state and church, several senators, prelates, and the Patriarch of the church pled with Emperor Constantine to flee – hoping that by surviving he would attract volunteers to force the Sultan to withdraw. We are told by a chronicler that the Emperor listened carefully and patiently, pausing to think about what he had heard before responding (146):
“I thank you all for the advice which you have given me. I know that my going out of the city might be of some benefit to me, inasmuch as all that you foresee might really happen. But it is impossible for me to go away: how could I leave the churches of our Lord, and His servants the clergy, and the throne, and my people in such a plight? What would the world say of me? I pray you, my friends, in the future do not say to me anything else but, ‘Nay, sire, do not leave us.’ Never, never, will I leave you. I am resolved to die here with you.’ And saying this, the Emperor turned his head aside, because tears filled his eyes; and with him wept the Patriarch and all who were there.”
Although Constantinople would not fall for another several weeks, the Emperor could clearly see the writing on the city walls. He noted that the pleas for him to escape were motivated by concerns for his personal safety rather than prospects for bettering the fate of the city (“inasmuch as all that you foresee might really happen”). Resolved to die with the city he ruled, he asked his council to not speak of his fleeing again, but rather to plead with him to stay by their side until the very end. This, we are told, elicited tears from both the Emperor and his council.
Averting Early Catastrophe
Although the situation remained grave, the Emperor fought on. We are told by another chronicler than his personal intervention along with additional troops repaired a breach in Constantinople’s defenses on May 13. “If the Emperor had not arrived with fresh assistance, that same night would have been our final destruction.” According to the same account, he had to be discouraged from going to the front lines himself.
Constantine XI Rejects the Ottomans’ Final Offer
By May 23, any hope of the Greeks holding on had all but been extinguished. The Ottomans sent an envoy with a final offer for the Emperor. The Sultan would permit the Emperor, his court, and his noblemen to withdraw from Constantinople and go wherever they wished. Alternatively, the Sultan would offer the Emperor the suzerainty of the Peloponnesus under his jurisdiction. The Sultan also pledged to allow the people of Constantinople who wanted to depart to do so, and he would guarantee the safety and possessions of those who stayed. The alternative, of course, would be the sack of Constantinople.
Regardless of the sincerity of all of the Sultan’s promises, the historian and diplomat Cedomilj Mijatovic noted that the Ottoman’s assessment of the Emperor’s military position consisted of “undeniable facts.” He noted that “[t]he walls on the land side [of Constantinople] were broken through in several places, four towers were quite destroyed, the small garrison could not be otherwise than exhausted, and there was no prospect of a speedy arrival of help from without.” Nevertheless, Mr. Mijatovic observed that “Constantine had a more lofty conception of his own duty and dignity,” one that could not survive by accepting the Sultan’s terms.
The Emperor responded:
“I should praise God if thou wouldst live in peace with us, as thy forefathers did; they treated my predecessors with filial respect, and this city with the greatest consideration. Whoever of them was persecuted by misfortune and came to us was safe; but whoever raised a hand against our city never prospered.”
He continued to lay out his own terms:
“Retain as thy rightful possession the territories which thou has unjustly taken from us, and settle the amount of tribute, which we will do our utmost to pay every year, and then go in peace. Remember that grasping the possessions of others, thou mayest thyself become the prey of others!”
While the Sultan could not settle on terms that did not included his taking Constantinople, Constantine could not make peace on terms that would involve his abandoning it. In the final and most memorable passage of his response as recorded in the chronicles, Constantine explained why he could not abandon the city:
“To surrender this city is neither in my power nor in the power of any one here. We are all prepared to die, and shall do so without regret.”
Wikipedia has slightly different translation of the final passage of Constantine’s response:
“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.”
In Constantine XI’s view, it was his duty to God and to his station to defend Constantinople with his life. He declined the Sultan’s terms with full knowledge that doing so would mean giving his life, for by this point all hope for a miracle had expired, but Constantine was resolved to see his destined path through.
The Inevitability of the Fall Sets In
“[Constantine] listened to the monotonous beating of the drums, and to the wild tumult that prevailed in the Turkish camp. Constantine and the few gallant men who shared with him the burden and responsibility of the defence recognized in that spectacle the precursor to general assault. We are told that while gazing on the illuminated and noisy camp of the enemy, the Emperor remained silent, wrapped in thought, while tears ran down his cheeks. He was not, he had no need to be, ashamed of his tears, as he was resolved bravely to do his duty to the last.”
The Final Attempt to Convince Constantine XI to Flee
During a council meeting on the 25th of May, the Emperor was again encouraged to flee the city. The now-former Patriarch Gregory, we are told, implored the Emperor:
“If the Imperial City could not be saved, let the Emperor be saved! The Emperor should live, because in his person are centered the hopes of his people. We must all bow to the decree of the Almighty, whose mercy might return to our people as it had returned to Israel in olden times.”
Chroniclers report that all those who were gathered were moved by Gregory’s words, and that the Emperor, upon hearing it vocalized that the Church now recognized that the fall of Constantinople as unavoidable, he momentarily fainted. When the Emperor came to, he was again faced with pleas for him to flee. Like he had weeks before, he again asserted his resolve to defend Constantinople to the end:
“My friends, if it is God’s will that our city shall fall, can we escape His wrath? How many emperors, great and glorious, before me have had to suffer and die for their country! Shall I be the one to flee from it? No, I will stay and die here with you!”
Having heard the Emperor’s determination, the council acquiesced, and it would not have the opportunity again to persuade Constantine to abandon his post. Instead, the council provided for some to flee while it made plans for the final defense of the capital.
The Penultimate Day
As the sun both literally and figuratively set on the Roman Empire on May 28, the Emperor addressed his commanders and chief citizens one final time. According to the chroniclers, he urged them to fight with no regrets, for their cause was worthy. Speaking both to the Greeks and to the Italians who had joined the cause, Constantine said:
“Let us work together, my companions and my brethren, to gain for ourselves liberty, glory, and eternal memory! Into your hands I commit now my scepter. Here it is! Save it! Crowns await you in heaven, and on earth your nations will be remembered honourably until the end of time.”
Another account reported his saying (149): “Brothers and fellow-soldiers, be ready for the morn. If God gives us grace and valour, and the Holy Trinity help us, in Whom alone we trust, we will do such deeds that the foe shall fall back with shame before our arms.”
A chronicler tells us that those gathered were moved by the Emperor’s remarks:
“The defenders of the city embraced each other, and through tears kissed one another, asking and giving mutual pardon; no one thought more of wife, child, or property, but only of the glorious death which all were ready to meet for the sake of the Fatherland.”
After addressing his soldiers for the final time, Constantine visited the church of St Sophia where he prayed “with great fervor.” Then Constantine “approached every prelate present in the church, asked them to pardon him if he had ever offended any of them, embraced each of them, and then went to the altar and received the Holy Communion.” Mr. Mijatovic wrote: “As a Christian emperor, and as a Christian soldier, he was solemnly, and in the sight of his people, preparing to appear before his God.” Those present reportedly cried as he left the church, and Constantine himself was not unaffected.
After addressing his Court for a final time, Constantine made his last inspection of the walls of Constantinople. “[A]nd then the last of the Caesars and his nobles went forth to die” (149).
Constantine XI Falls With Constantinople
The next morning, the Ottomans launched the final assault. Constantine, we are told, commanded the defense and encouraged his men to hold the city walls with all they had left. However, the Turks, after vicious fighting, breached the gates and poured into the city.
According to one chronicler, Constantine stood in shock when news reached him that the walls had been breached. However, rather than escape, Constantine prepared to go to the front lines himself:
“God forbid that I should live an Emperor without an Empire! As my city falls, I will fall with it!”
Rather than give an order to the men who remained with him, Constantine offered a choice:
“Whoever wishes to escape, let him save himself if he can; and whoever is ready to face death, let him follow me!”
According to this account, about two hundred men chose to join Constantine for his last stand. Heading for the gate, they engaged Turkish troops and fought until the end. Because no Greeks who survived were with the Emperor in his final moments, the exact circumstances of his end are lost to the tides of time. This account, popular in tradition, suggests that Constantine was, in the midst of battle, separated from his followers and removed from his horse. Wounded, but still ambulatory, Constantine fought until he was struck down by an Ottoman soldier. Mr. Mijatovic wrote:
“The struggle continued some time around the stop, until heaps of slain covered the ground sanctified for ever by the heroic death of the last Greek Emperor.”
Constantinople would not only be sacked and absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, but also renamed “Istanbul,” which it remains today as part of modern Turkey. The Hagia Sophia, one of Christendom’s most hallowed churches, was converted into a mosque before being turned into a museum.
As for Constantine XI himself, his body was never found. Some accounts report that the Ottomans paraded the head of a man that they thought was Constantine, but it was not recognized by the inhabitants of the city. It was likely, as historian Sean Munger suggested in a blog post in 2014, that Constantine likely removed removed royal regalia before he entering the fray (as some accounts reported), leaving the Ottomans with no way of recognizing him among the thousands of dead.
Constantine’s death, however, would spark many legends – likely owing to his courage, the inability to find his body, and the sense of loss of the Greek people. A legend, similar to some surrounding the legendary King Arthur, has Constantine being rescued by an angel and turned into marble, which will awaken when Christians reconquer Constantinople. The legend of Constantine, as I noted earlier, was a rallying cry for the Greeks in their war for independence against the Ottomans in the nineteenth century (Munger, supra).
Constantine XI’s reign was brief, and his dominion, even before the fall of Constantinople, was small. Had he surrendered the city or not volunteered to stand with his men at the very end, he would be remembered, if at all, as a sort of curiosity – similar to Romulus Augustulus, the child who nominally served as the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476. However, by refusing to surrender and fighting bravely with his men until the end, Constantine XI secured a different place for himself in history. Although he could not save his Empire or the physical church in his capital, his last stand inspired others, notably his Greek descendants centuries later.
Finally, although the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine, as it is most often called) had been for centuries a Greek Empire, it still traced its lineage, with a few hiccups, to the Roman Empire established by Augustus. That there is a thread linking Augustus, who became master of the Roman world after prevailing in his civil war against Marc Antony in the latter half of the first century BC, to Constantine XI, the final Greek and Christian ruler of Constantinople, is remarkable in and of itself. The pre-Christian Romans fretted over their final words and revered honorable deaths. Christian Rome and Greece revered history’s martyrs. Constantine’s final days and death, in a sense, honored the traditions of Republican and Christian Rome – and in this sense, served as an equally fitting and tragic end to the Roman Empire.
Or perhaps as the legend goes, Constantine lies marbled, in splendid repose, waiting to rise again.