The day of May 29th coincides this year (2017) with several anniversaries of note. Most recently, it is the 100th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s birth. Also, in the U.S. the Memorial Day holiday when we remember our war dead falls this year on May 29th.
Although he is not among the war dead of the U.S., Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last emperor of the Byzantine empire, who died on this day in 1453, is also worthy of remembering on this Memorial Day. He led a heroic final defense of Constantinople against the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II starting in the winter of 1452.
Coincidentally, Constantine was the 11th emperor of that name during the Byzantine empire’s 11 centuries, and like the first of that name, his mother’s name was Helena. By the time he reached the throne in 1449 the empire had shriveled to almost nothing. The combination of occasional weak and/or venial rulers, disastrous defeats at Manzikert and Myriokephalon, and the horrific Fourth Crusade in 1204 inexorably weakened the Byzantines so that by the 15th century it was only a question of what would finally deal the killing blow.
Mehmet II, young and ambitious and the leader of the wealthy Ottoman Turks, hungered for the fame that conquering this famous city would bring. He used his wealth to acquire the giant cannon that daily hammered the city’s walls, impregnable until the advent of gunpowder. While the giant cannon never did quite destroy the walls, each night’s efforts to repair the prior day’s damage sucked resources the Byzantines could ill afford to expend.
Constantine XI fought on the walls each day until the end. It was in the very early hours of Tuesday, May 29th, that the Turks finally burst through a small gate, the Kerkoporta, swarmed into the city and conquered it. The legend is that Constantine, at the end, removed all imperial insignia, and did battle and died as a common soldier with the rest of his men. Later, a mutilated body was found with socks bearing the imperial eagle and was paraded around the city to convince the citizens of his death, but no positive identity was ever made.
Some might say Constantine was foolish to stay and fight. Mehmet had given him the opportunity to sail off to a comfortable villa in Greece, but the emperor’s secretary recorded his response:
“To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else’s who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.”
Constantine lived in a time when honor and reputation meant something, when the responsibilities given you at your coronation were ones you carried for life. It likely never occurred to him to slink away, forsaking his great city and its people.
You can read more about the heartbreaking last days of the Byzantine Empire in John Julius Norwich’s fine popular histories of the Byzantines, “A Short History of Byzantium” and “Byzantium – Decline and Fall”. There are also Steven Runciman’s “The Fall of Constantinople” and Donald M. Nicol’s “The Immortal Emperor”.