Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire, occupies a unique space in world history. His reign, though short-lived from 1449 to 1453, concluded with the tragic fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, marking the end of an empire that had lasted for over a millennium.
Constantine XI Palaiologos: The Last Byzantine Emperor and His Final Moments
This article, delves deep into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of this storied monarch.
Context of the Siege of Constantinople
Before understanding Constantine XI’s death, one must first appreciate the dire circumstances he faced. By the mid-15th century, the Byzantine Empire was a mere shadow of its former self, its territories reduced to parts of the Peloponnese and the city of Constantinople. The empire’s decline made it an irresistible target for the ambitious Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, who sought to make Constantinople, the jewel of the East, the capital of his empire.
The Byzantine Empire in 1453, before the fall of Constantinople.
Constantinople was not an easy target. Over the centuries, it had developed impressive fortifications, including the massive Theodosian Walls, which had repelled numerous attackers. Constantine XI, understanding the impending threat from the Ottomans, worked diligently to bolster these defenses. He sought assistance from Christian states in the West, but the help was minimal. Nevertheless, the emperor and his subjects prepared for a siege, repairing walls, stockpiling food, and crafting weapons.
The Siege Commences
In April 1453, the Ottoman forces began their siege. Numbering between 50,000 to 80,000, they dwarfed the Byzantine defenders, who were estimated to be around 7,000 to 10,000. Mehmed II brought with him formidable cannons, capable of battering the once impregnable walls of the city. Over the ensuing weeks, the defenders faced a relentless assault from both land and sea.
Painting of the Fall of Constantinople, by Greek folk painter Theophilos Hatzimihail
Constantine XI’s Leadership
19th-century depiction of Constantine XI with classical Greco-Roman armor
Throughout the siege, Constantine led with courage and determination. He was frequently on the walls, directing defenses, boosting the morale of his soldiers, and even participating in skirmishes. His leadership was a beacon of hope, and he was determined to either save his city or die defending it.
The Final Assault
On the 29th of May, 1453, Mehmed II launched a massive final assault. The Byzantine defenders, though valiant, were exhausted from weeks of relentless battle. The Ottomans launched wave after wave of infantry assaults, with the elite Janissaries forming the vanguard.
In the early hours, after fierce fighting, the Ottomans managed to breach the walls at multiple points. It is said that in the chaos, someone left one of the city’s smaller gates (the Kerkoporta) ajar, which allowed the Turks to pour in. As the enemy closed in, the situation grew increasingly dire for the Byzantines.
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II was famously known as Mehmed the Conqueror
Constantine XI’s Last Stand
Now, the precise circumstances of Constantine XI’s death are shrouded in mystery, with several accounts and legends providing different narratives:
The Heroic Last Charge: One of the most enduring tales is that, seeing his city fall, Constantine removed his imperial regalia, joined his soldiers, and led a final, heroic charge against the invading Ottomans. In the midst of this combat, he was killed, his body never to be found or identified.
Death on the Walls: Another version states that Constantine died while defending the walls, not in a charge. Some sources suggest he was at the St. Romanus Gate, rallying his troops, when he met his end.
Escape and Capture: A less popular, and perhaps less romantic, version suggests that seeing the inevitable fall of the city, Constantine attempted to escape but was captured and executed by the Ottomans.
Negotiated Surrender: A few sources hint that Constantine, in his final moments, tried to negotiate a surrender to spare his citizens further suffering. However, during these negotiations, he was betrayed and killed.
Constantine XI as depicted in 1584 by French Franciscan priest and explorer André Thevet
The Aftermath and Legends
The fall of Constantinople was a momentous event. The city was subjected to pillage for several days, though Sultan Mehmed II, now “Fatih” (the Conqueror), eventually stopped the plunder and declared the city his new capital.
Constantine’s death, given the lack of a verifiable account, became the stuff of legends. One of the most enduring myths was that of the “Marble Emperor”. According to this legend, an angel rescued Constantine before his death, turned him into marble, and hid him in a cave beneath the Golden Gate of Constantinople. It was prophesized that one day he would be reawakened to reconquer the city for the Christians.
Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, Mehmed the Conqueror rode straight to the Hagia Sophia and asked that the building not be harmed. Shortly after he called for an imam to lead a Muslim prayer in the church, which later got converted into a Mosque.
The Legacy of Constantine XI Palaiologos
In the annals of history, Constantine XI is remembered as a tragic figure, emblematic of the end of a glorious era. While he could not prevent the fall of his city, his determination and courage made him a hero in the eyes of many.
Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos symbolizes the end of an empire and an era, a poignant reminder of the ebb and flow of history. His life, his reign, and his death serve as a testament to the indomitable spirit of a leader and his people, standing defiantly in the face of inevitable defeat. Image: Statue of Constantine XI in Athens
In Greece today, he is celebrated as a national hero, a symbol of resistance against overwhelming odds. In Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, memories of the Byzantine Empire can still be found, with Constantine XI’s legacy part of the city’s rich tapestry of history.