Monday, October 22, 2012

Soldier of Monarchy: Captain-General Giovanni Giustiniani

The fall of Constantinople must rank as one of the most tragic events in the history of Western Civilization and, contrarily, there were few if any greater and more symbolic victories for the forces of the Ottoman Empire. On the Christian side, the most famous defender of the city was, of course, the great Emperor Constantine XI. However, the commander of his army which defended the last citadel of the old East Roman Empire was an Italian, and from a republic no less; a condottiero from Genoa named Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. It is not known exactly when he was born but he was the son of one of the most prominent Genoese families, related to the famous Doria family. When Constantinople was imperiled by the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mehmed II, Giovanni Giustiniani used his own fortune to recruit and equip some 700 soldiers and a naval armada to carry them. When he arrived at Constantinople, he so impressed the Emperor that Constantine XI named him commander of his land forces. It was a wise decision given that, we are told, Giustiniani was an expert at siege warfare and the defense of fortified places.

His were not the only non-Greek forces to arrive to help. About 3/5 of the defenders of Constantinople were westerners, most of them Italians. Alvise Diedo was the commander of the Venetian naval forces and he and his men decided that they would stay and help defend the city. Another was the Venetian ambassador Girolamo Minotto who was determined, in his diplomatic capacity, to maintain the neutrality of the Republic of Venice yet, in his personal capacity, he was no less determined to prevent the Turkish capture of Constantinople and fought on the walls alongside the other defenders of the city. Cardinal Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev, the Papal Legate, also recruited about 200 soldiers in Naples, with funds provided by the Pope, to aid in the defense of Constantinople. There were also numerous other brave individuals who participated such as Maurizio Cattaneo and the Bocchiardo brothers, Paolo, Antonio and Troilo. All of these men were ultimately under the command of Giovanni Giustiniani and, not surprisingly, he had to prove himself an able diplomat as well as a soldier in prevailing upon the Greeks and the Italians to work together in their common goal of repelling the Turks. Even getting the Italians alone to cooperate was not always easy given the long-standing rivalry between Venice and Genoa at that time.

The courage of Giustiniani and his skill at the art of siege warfare were instrumental in Constantinople holding out as long as it did against the hopelessly large odds against them. When the final attack came on May 29, 1453 Giustiniani was wounded while fighting on the wall to repel the invaders. The exact circumstances remain unknown and sources differ as to whether he was wounded by a crossbow bolt or debris from a cannon shot as well as whether his wound was in the arm, leg or torso but whatever the case may be it was sufficient to put him out of action. This caused morale to drop among the hard-pressed soldiers on the wall and eventually panic began to set in. Giustiniani was helped out of the combat area and as the men began to waver following his absence, Sultan Mehmed II took notice and ordered an all-out assault. The defenders were finally overwhelmed, Emperor Constantine XI falling in the attack as he rushed headlong into the Turkish column pouring into the city. Cardinal Isidore of Kiev was able to escape only by dressing a dead man in red robes and he watched as the Turks decapitated the corpse and carried the severed head through the streets thinking they had killed the Churchman.

Meanwhile, Giustiniani was helped back to his ship by a handful of his men who had survived but he died of his wounds at sea sometime early the next month. His loyal troops took his body back to the island of Chios (a Greek island which then belonged to Genoa) and buried him in the village of Pirgi. Giustiniani and his men were among the most well armed, trained and disciplined that the small garrison had and most were posted at the St Romanos Gate. He, and those with him, played a critical part in the historic battle that saw the city of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who envisioned a great capital city there on the banks of the Bosporus, fall to a non-European foe; irretrievably so it seems. Given east-west tensions, men like Giustiniani and his soldiers who fought to defend Constantinople often seem forgotten. They should not be and deserve to be remembered for their courage and sacrifice alongside Emperor Constantine XI and the thousands of others who lost their lives in the battle for the last citadel of Eastern Rome.

*Note: I have been unable to find any pictures of Giustiniani, those above are images of Condottieri of roughly the same period.


  1. One day, a 21st century Crusade will free the Hagia Sophia from the Islamic yoke, either through conversion or force, God willing.

    1. You are so right! Constantinople belongs to European Union!


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