The day of May 29th coincided in 2017 with several anniversaries of note. It was 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 fell that year on May 29th.
The Last Emperor
Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last emperor of the Byzantine empire, died on this day in 1453. He is also worthy of remembering on this Memorial Day, although not among the U.S. war dead. He led the 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. 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. Occasional weak and/or venial rulers, disastrous defeats at Manzikert and Myriokephalon, and the horrific Fourth Crusade in 1204 inexorably weakened the Byzantines. By the 15th century the only question was what would finally deal the killing blow.
The First Sultan
Mehmet II was the young and ambitious and the leader of the wealthy Ottoman Turks. He hungered for the fame that conquering this famous city would bring. His great wealth acquired the giant cannon that daily hammered the city’s walls, impregnable until the advent of gunpowder. The giant cannon never did quite destroy the walls, but each night’s efforts to repair the day’s damage sucked out the Byzantines’ last resources the Byzantines.
The End of a Great Empire
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. They swarmed into the city and held it all. The legend is that Constantine, at the end, removed all imperial insignia. He fought and died as a common soldier with the rest of his men. Later, a mutilated body was found with socks bearing the imperial eagle. It was paraded around the city to convince the citizens of his death, but no certain identity was ever made. There was a legend that his men hid his body in the city, to come back to life when Byzantine rule returns.
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”.