Monday, March 14, 2011

Monarch Profile: Emperor Constantine XI

Monarchy is full of symbolism and monarchs are partly symbolic things and there are few better illustrations of this than the life and death of Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. How is this? From his rise to his fall he was never effectively much more than the over-titled commander of a single city surrounded by a sea of foreign enemies. The world did not change much because of his downfall, but it had a significance out of all proportion due to the fact that it was a tragedy that had been so long in coming. He was the last Eastern Roman Emperor and that mattered, that gave him and his tragedy great significance. For all intents and purposes the East Roman Empire had fallen long before with Byzantine greatness being reduced to the city of Constantinople and a few isolated enclaves. However, just as the fall of Rome was significant to the west even though the Emperor resided primarily at Ravenna, so too did the fall of Constantinople send shock waves across the Christian world. As long as that city and its emperor remained all did not seem lost. Therefore, when it was lost, it was a crushing blow to the moral of the western world and an unparalleled triumph for the still rising Ottoman Empire.

Constantine was born on February 8, 1405 in Constantinople, the son of Emperor Manuel II and a Serbian princess. He did not venture much from the city during his youth and became intimately aware of the workings of the city and the political situation. During the reign of his elder brother, Emperor John VIII, it was Constantine who acted as regent on his behalf when the Emperor was in Rome working out a (temporary) reunion of the eastern and western churches. Constantine received a greater trial by fire when he became Despot of Morea (the Peloponnesus). Always an active and zealous ruler he built up the fortifications of the area and expanded it, to the consternation of the Ottoman Turks who were the overlords of the area. Sultan Murad II led an army in a punitive expedition against Constantine, devastating his fortifications with their new, heavy bombards and Constantine only narrowly escaped. He had seen first hand the metal of his primary foe.

In 1449 he succeeded to the throne as Emperor Constantine XI but it was, as usual in the Byzantine Empire, not an entirely smooth transition. His brother Prince Demitrios opposed him, standing against the reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Christians as his base of popular support. Ironically enough it was Sultan Murad II who was called upon to arbitrate the dispute and, despite their earlier conflict, he took the side of Constantine who was finally crowned East Roman Emperor in 1449 but not in Constantinople. Patriarch Gregory III, seeing Constantinople surrounded by an Ottoman sea, supported the Catholic-Orthodox reunion and this made him very unpopular with most of the clergy who seemed to prefer risking Islamic rule over Constantinople rather than joining hands with Rome once again. This made a grand coronation in the capital rather impolitic. Constantine XI came to his city and began to rule but it was an isolated position, personally as well as politically. He had married twice but both wives died not long into their respective marriages, a third attempt fell through and there would not be time to arrange another. Without a wife and without children, all hopes for Constantinople rested solely on the shoulders of their new Emperor alone.

With little time to settle in to the role a massive threat was soon confronting the new emperor. Sultan Mehmed II came to the throne of the Ottoman Empire and, despite his youth, made it clear that he was a force to be reckoned with and vowed to at last conquer Constantinople and make the Hagia Sophia a mosque. In the spring of 1452 the Sultan took the first steps of besieging the city and Constantine XI was faced with a nearly hopeless position. He had only a relative handful of soldiers with which to defend a massive city against a Turkish army possibly numbering over a hundred thousand. Moreover, the decline of Byzantine civilization was very noticeable in the lackluster nature of the defending force. The fact that only as few as 5,000 men from a city as populous as Constantinople, upwards of 100,000, does not speak well for the fighting spirit of the public at this stage -and three-fifths of those men were soldiers from the Latin west, largely Italian -from Genoa and Venice. Many seemed to have viewed the empire as a lost cause and refused to make much of an effort to defend themselves and many were also more concerned with carrying on the Catholic-Orthodox/west-east feud than they were with defending against the Muslim invasion.

Emperor Constantine, unlike others, made defending the city his paramount concern, reaffirming the Catholic-Orthodox reunion and calling upon the Latin west for help. He was extremely energetic in seeing to the provision of his army and the populace, overseeing the defenses of the city and the distribution of his meager military forces. The Sultan, at the outset, offered the Emperor his life if he would surrender the city but the Emperor bravely refused and fought courageously throughout the siege. He constantly exposed himself to the enemy, defending the walls alongside his soldiers, fighting alongside them, encouraging them and inspiring them. He also showed himself to be an able diplomat and a clear-minded leader in smoothing over the bickering between the Genovese, Venetian and Greek factions of his army and their proud commanders. In this ultimate trial he proved himself worthy to the overwhelming task that confronted him.

However, it was, of course, ultimately a lost cause. The Ottomans, with their modern artillery of German design, battered down the walls and swamped the tiny band of defenders. Emperor Constantine remained true to form. In the final attack on May 29, 1453 legend has it that he stripped off the symbols of his imperial rank, grabbed his sword and led the last desperate charge into the onrushing enemy horde. The exact nature of his death remains unknown. Some say he was so mutilated in battle that his body was never identified. Others say that his body was found and that his head was cut off and carried back to the Ottoman court as a trophy. In any event, his heroic fall marked the final end of the ancient East Roman Empire, with no wife and no heirs there would be no continuation of the Palaiologos dynasty in his line. Constantinople was taken, eventually becoming the Ottoman capital and true to his word the Sultan turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which it remained until fairly recently when it was converted to a museum. The recovery of Constantinople would become the unobtainable goal for western Christendom (at least the Catholic powers) for centuries to come.

Today the legacy of Constantine XI remains in Eastern Europe. Many Orthodox Christians and Greek Catholics regard him as a saint. His name was invoked in the Greek war for independence and the numerous Balkan conflicts. Also, much like King Arthur in England, Emperor Frederick I in Germany or Genghis Khan in Mongolia, Emperor Constantine XI became the great legendary monarch of history for the Greeks with the same story emerging that an angel had rescued him from death and turned him into marble, preserving him so that when his people most needed him, the Emperor could rise again to lead them to glory. The legend of the “Marble Emperor” is itself a testament to what an impression he made on his people during his short reign and his heroic downfall.


  1. The last Emperor of Rome was an singular character he was an defender of the faith, the venetians where the real foe of byzantium they destroyed and sacked the city at 1204 and since that moment despite the restoration of the byzantine empire it never returned to what it was, also Constantine XI never had good subjects, he died saying “There is any christian willing to die here?” he was at the height of Julius Caesar.

    Pd: I recognize that you are right MM the Ottomans where no the inheritors of the title of Roman Emperor.

    Hi from Argentina

  2. I wasnt aware he had made a reunionification attempt. Obvously I am not as knowledgable about the Byzantine Empire as I would like to be. Very interesting article.

  3. Frankly, those who held off aid because of the reunification deserve to be demonized. If there had been more help from the east there would have been no need to go hat & hand to the west for assistance. I have no tolerance for those who would let their empire go down to ruin while arguing over the bone of principle. Nor would I vilify those Italians who were ultimately doing more to defend Constantinople than the locals were. Emperor Constantine, like his predecssor, had to make these tough decisions because the rest of the Orthodox world had either already been conquered or were more concerned with their own interests than rushing to the aid of their Emperor. Do you think any of them, at any time, relished having to go to Rome for help whenever the enemy was at the gates? But what else could be done when no one wanted to be the bigger person? One side says, 'We will not help unless you join with us' and the other side says, 'even though we have not helped so far, if you go elsewhere we will not help either'. The Emperor rightly put these squabbles aside to focus on the paramount issue of degending his imperial city.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I had the privilege to stand in the small church where Constantine XI was crowned in Mistras. A few thoughts--there was no Orthodox East left to assist Constantinople. Bulgaria and Serbia, for example, fell to the Turks many years earlier, and the Rus of 1453 were in no position--either militarily or logistically to head off the Ottomans. By that time, Constantinople was really a shell, and the fact that it had survived as long as it had was a real testiment to Byzantine diplomacy, rather than military strength. And while I don't discount the defense that Italians gave to the City in 1453, the role that the Venetians and Genoese played in draining Constantinope dry in the 2 1/2 centuries leading up to the Fall cannot be denied. Finally, any "reunification" would have been terribly one-sided, given Constantinople's weaknesses, and would have really bean a capitulation of another sort. Their differences with Rome were real and substantative. And besides, I doubt that it would have changed the outcome. The real damage had already been done, and the rot was set.

  5. I simply cannot accept that Constantinople sits in the midst of a Muslim sea, the once vast East Roman Empire is all but totally submerged and it is all the fault of the little city-states of Genoa and Venice. I cannot. And I wouldn't want to think any differently of Emperor Constantine XI. If a religious alliance with Rome was worse than the political domination of the Turks then there should have been simply a surrender and no waste of the lives defending the city. I cannot accept that. I think he made the right decision, the west was his only hope and was going to do all in his power to prevent the fall of his city. Had their been greater unity, less in-fighting and more awareness of the real threat like Constantine XI had it would never have come to such a situation and there would not now be minarets around the Hagia Sophia.

  6. Well, I do not accept that the fall of Constantinople was all the fault of Genoa and Venice, either. But the role that Genoese and Venetian commercial interests played—not to even mention the Venetian’s role in the 1204 capture of the city—definitely contributed to the downfall of the East Roman Empire. The larger and more significant factor, however, was that Constantinople always had to fight a defensive two-front war. They never had the luxury of devoting their undivided attention to the Turkish threat on their east. It seems like they always had to divert troops to the west to head off the latest Frankish assault, when these forces should have been allayed against the Turks. But in all fairness, it wasn’t just the Franks. The Orthodox Serbs and Bulgars were equally anxious to take advantage of any crack they saw in the western Byzantine defenses. And then after the Crusades begin, the Emperor had to deal with both the Muslim East and the equally contentious Frankish Crusader kingdoms. I do not fault Constantine XI at all. His overtures to Rome, however, were out of desperation, and had a slim chance of averting the inevitable. But it was the only chance he had, and of course he was right in taking it. Yes, greater unity would have been wonderful, but I think the only one with awareness of the real threat was the Byzantine emperor himself. Had the Orthodox Serbians and Bulgarians and the Latin Franks and Italian city-states realized that their future was better served by uniting with Constantinople against the common Muslim threat, then perhaps things would have been different. Had they been able to rise about their particular self- interests and/or their religious differences and bolster the Emperor, who was on the front line of what should have been seen as their common battle, then well, the tragedy of 1453 might have been averted. But they didn’t. The issues that divided Rome and the East were more than just minor theological quibbling, and had been centuries in developing. Anecdotally, one sees this in the reaction of the East Romans when the First Crusade marched through Constantinople, the troops being led by Catholic priests. Such a thing was shocking and totally incomprehensible to the Orthodox mind. The Byzantines fought when necessary, but they knew there was no virtue in it. But I agree, looking back from our perspective, it would have been much better had both sides concentrated on that which united them, rather than divided them. And as for the minarets at Haghia Sophia, I agree. In the park between the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque there is a spot, however, where one can stand, and if you position your camera just right, you can capture a good picture of the HS while blocking out all 4 minarets. A small consolation, that.

  7. Whew...Let me state for the record that I did this profile by request, otherwise this is a case I prefer to avoid exactly because of the blame game that always results -and I hate the blame game. Unless I am out of date in my information, whatever religious differences there were and are they have never been enough for either Church to declare the sacraments of the other invalid or to doubt their legitimacy as the Church of Christ and the Apostles. For me, that's enough. If, however, the differences were so vast as for the East to consider the West a totally different religion on the same level as Islam then they never should have expected any help from them nor should the west have cared a bit if the east crumbled to nothing. The Catholic countries were later in the same position, fighting Protestants in the north and Muslims in the south. They never asked nor expected any help from the Protestants nor would any have been forthcoming. The Dutch had a cute slogan about that, "Better a Turk than a Pope".

    If the French or the Italians etc were such a plague on the east they never should have been called on for help. And for that matter they should not have even cared what happened to the Eastern Empire. Either the Muslim threat was more serious than the differences between Catholics and the Orthodox or it wasn't. For me, it's that simple. The Eastern Empire, at the outset, held the cards. The West fell, the East did not so, from where I sit, either the east should have taken care not to fall into such a position of weakness that they could only survive by outside help or the help must be accepted with the good and the bad that goes with it. Similarly, I have had the argument many times before by those who "blame" (if one considers it blame) the Allied victory in World War I and the subsequent peace on the United States. The way I see it, those powers cannot blame the US when it was they who invited, urged and even begged the US to get involved in the first place. Or, those British who blame the fall of their empire on the US when it was they who made the choice to become indebted to a staunchly republican country that was anti-empire. If the other side is that bad you don't go to that side for help. As I recently pointed out regarding the Italians and the House of Savoy making common cause with the revolutionaries -that ultimately came back to bite them- "he who sups with the Devil must have a long spoon". You either have to take care that your spoon is long enough or don't invite the Devil to supper in the first place.

    Given how much bad blood there was (and obviously still is) between the east and the west is it realistic to expect the west to come to the aid of the east with no conditions or no thought of reward? At a certain point, if the west had always been a plague to the east, shouldn't the east have no longer trusted the west or expected any goodness from them? Many obviously did but then we are back to the absence of the other eastern powers in being (first) willing or (later) able to come together in defense of their Emperor and first city.

    I don't like to see any group wasting their energy opposing each other when an even greater threat looms against both. That is why I don't like monarchists fighting with each other (as we are drowning in a republican sea) and also why I don't get too specific into religious issues here because I don't like to see the religious tearing each other up when there is a world full of secularists and atheists willing to do it for them. So, again, for my very simple, damaged mind it is simply this: The East either needed the West or they didn't. Islam was either bigger than the differences between Catholic and Orthodox or it wasn't. One or the other.

  8. I apologize for going on at length about this—Byzantine history (and their royalty) is a particular interest of mine. Let me just say that I think we are talking past each other, for I am largely in agreement with what you write here. I am not trying to play the blame game—believe me, there was plenty of blame to go around. No party was necessarily innocent. But I was just trying to suggest that it was it was more complicated than a bunch of religious zealots in the East who prevented an alliance with Rome that would have saved Constantinople. A few final responses to your comments, and then I’ll shut up. I never implied that the East thought the Roman church was another religion and as bad as Islam. They clearly didn’t, and recognized the validity of the sacraments. But they were not in communion, and each side had significant “issues” with the other. Should they have both recognized their greater commonality in the face of the Ottoman onslaught? Of course. I get the impression, however, that the West was not so overly concerned if the East crumbled—until it was gone. Second, the Franks and the Italians were indeed a plague on the East. There were many factors leading to the First Crusade in addition to Alexios I’s suggestion. I believe, however, had he known what he was getting, he would not have asked, and lived to regard it as a grave mistake on his part. Speaking broadly in terms of Byzantine history, I see no Frankish or Italian involvement that did not reek of commercial or military opportunism. Okay, I’ll shut up now :) Have you ever posted anything on the 12th-century Komnenos emperors?

  9. 1) Of course no one prevented an alliance with Rome -they had it and the city still fell. So the only question is whether more people would have helped had there been no alliance -again, how many hated Catholics more than they loved Constantinople.
    2) My question remains -why should the west have cared if the east crumbled if they were that malicious? When the great Justinian re-conquered parts of the west did he not keep them himself? No one then or now fights wars for charity.
    3) After Manzikert an totally independent policy was no longer possible, for a number of reasons. However, once again, *after* the First Crusade, why invite the vile western plague back again? Why continue to turn to them for help? Why were 3/5 of the troops defending Constantinople Italians? Again, has anyone, at any time in history, sacrificed blood and treasure without any benefit at all?
    4) No I have not, not on this blog anyway and frankly I'm not likely too. As this post has reminded me, the Byzantine Empire, especially after a certain point, is not something I can talk about without catching it from both sides and that's not what I'm about here. There are other topics I have to avoid for the same reason. I am a pan-monarchist and I want those who favor traditional government and traditional values to come together, not point fingers and call names. On some issues I've discovered that is simply not possible.

    And just to add my last point: What really infuriates me about this is that it accomplishes nothing. How many Orthodox monarchies are left in the world? What should be THE most monarchist and Christian region in the world ... all gone. Sad, yes, but more infuriating for me because I expect better.

  10. I can't help but feel... bitter towards the Papacy, Italy, and the Ottomans for their involvement in the fall of Byzantium.

    But I would be a self deluding fool if I placed the blame solely on them. The squabbles of Byzantine splinter states contributed to it. For at the final battle, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Ottoman Muslims,(Turkic Mercenaries) stood together and defended the holy city.

    Oh and I thought you'd be interested in this part of a documentary I like. It talks 'bout when the Byzantines went to Italy to ask for aid. It was there they encountered something that they found totally and wholly disgusting.

    Namely, democracy.
    Here's the link.


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