25

THE ETERNAL EMPEROR

We hope in the “blond” people to save us … We put our hope in the
oracles, in the false prophecies. We waste our time in worthless words.

—TIMOTHY GREGORY, A History of Byzantium (2006)

Within days of the funeral, Byzantine ambassadors were speeding on their way to the Peloponnese. There, at Mistra, in the vale of ancient Sparta, they found John’s younger brother Constantine XI Dragases and informed him that he was now the emperor of Byzantium. The envoys had no authority to crown him—that had to be done by the patriarch in Constantinople—but a simple ceremony was held.* Boarding a Venetian galley—there were no Byzantine ones available—the last emperor of Constantinople made his way to the capital, making his formal entry on March 12, 1449.

Of all Manuel II’s sons, Constantine was by far the most able. Charismatic and courageous, he was deeply conscious of Byzantium’s long and glorious history, and he was determined to uphold its dignity. A true son of his father, Constantine considered appeasement to be another form of treachery. The armies of Islam had been beating against the capital’s walls for centuries, and to cower before them as his brother and grandfather had done would only add humiliation to the eventual destruction.

The emperor, however, had no illusion about the odds against him. At forty-three, he had spent more than half his life fighting the Turks, and he knew his enemy well. Three years earlier, during the initial excitement of the Hungarian Crusade, Constantine had taken advantage of the Ottoman distraction to seize Athens and much of northern Greece from the Turks. After the collapse of the Crusade, Constantine had been left to face the full brunt of the sultan’s anger alone. Murad II swept into Greece, capturing Athens and forcing the Byzantines to take refuge behind the six-mile-long Hexamilion. Safe behind the wall, Constantine expected to hold out for months, but the Turks brought with them a terrifying new weapon—several large cannons. The opening blast tore into the wall, roaring with terrible certainty that the world had changed. Defensive fortifications, no matter how grand, were now obsolete. The age of the cannon had begun.

The Hexamilion collapsed in a mere five days, and Constantine barely escaped with his life. The Ottomans burst into the Peloponnese, and only a fortuitous early winter snow that blocked the mountain passes spared the capital of Mistra. Fortunately for the empire, Murad II was more interested in conquering the Balkans than finishing off the remnants of Byzantium, so the Ottoman armies lumbered off to conquer Dalmatia, and Constantine XI was left in peace to rebuild southern Greece as best he could.*

By the time the new emperor made his entry into Constantinople, the city was a dim reflection of its former grandeur, shrunken behind its walls like an ebbing tide. The streets of the capital no longer murmured with the babble of a dozen languages, merchant ships no longer crowded the imperial harbors, and wealth no longer adorned its palaces and churches. From an imperial height of nearly half a million in Justinian’s day, the population had fallen to around fifty thousand. Deserted fields choked with weeds now covered vast stretches of the city, and half-ruined buildings still slumped in their sprawling decay. And yet, for all that, there was a strange vibrancy in the air. The newly painted frescoes were not as sumptuous as they had been in the past, silver and gold no longer encrusted the icons, and grand mosaics no longer dazzled the eye, but there was a freshness and new vitality to the art that struck out against the waning imperial fortunes. Artisans and scholars found willing patrons in the swirling atmosphere, and new schools of art flourished in the monasteries scattered throughout the fragmented empire. Byzantium had lived in the shadow of the merciless Turk for centuries, and knew with a terrible certainty that it would be destroyed root and branch, but there was a determination to experience life in full even as the hour of doom approached. Materially, the empire may have been reduced to an insignificant speck, but intellectually and culturally it was blooming.

Constantine XI would have liked to give his subjects the welcome diversion of an imperial coronation, but such an event was out of the question. The patriarch was a known supporter of John VIII’s Decree of Union joining the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and was therefore considered little better than a heretic by most of his flock. Having such a controversial figure crown him would almost certainly touch off widespread rioting. In any case, Constantine tacitly supported his patriarch’s position. The emperor’s sacred duty was to preserve his capital’s independence, and if submission to Rome offered even the slightest chance of western aid, then it must be pursued. The last emperor of Byzantium would have to remain uncrowned.

While Constantine was negotiating the complex currents of Constantinople, Murad II was finding the capital of Dalmatia much more difficult to conquer than he had anticipated. Led by the Dragon of Albania—the charismatic Skanderbeg—the Dalmatians frustrated every Ottoman attempt at a siege. In 1451, Murad II gave up in disgust, announcing that the province couldn’t be taken, and retired to Adrianople, where, to the immense relief of Byzantium, he died.

Church bells rang out in celebration throughout Constantinople. The new sultan, Mehmed II, was only nineteen years old, and when the emperor sent ambassadors to congratulate him on his accession, the sultan swore by the Prophet and the Koran that he would devote himself to peace with the empire for as long as he lived. Western powers nervous after the defeat of the Hungarian Crusade eagerly persuaded themselves to believe him. The young sultan, however, was a mass of contradictions. A poet and a scholar fluent in several languages, he was also an unstable tyrant capable of bestial cruelty. A brilliant organizer and strategist, he was so superstitious that he wouldn’t attack without the blessing of an astrologer. Despite this hesitancy, however, there was a touch of Machiavellian decisiveness about him. On becoming sultan, he had strangled his infant half brother to avoid a potential threat, distracting the child’s mother by inviting her to dinner. When the poor woman returned home and found her infant dead, she was given no time to grieve; instead, she was immediately married off to one of Mehmed’s officers. In the sultan’s mind such brutality was the only way to prevent a civil war, and he would later famously explain to his sons that fratricide was in the best interests of “world order.” This example of the new sultan’s character passed unheeded by the West. Europe and Byzantium were studiously looking the other way, happy to believe that peace between Islam and the empire was possible. They were soon to be disillusioned.

Mehmed II only managed to restrain himself for a matter of months before deciding to break his oath. Sending his engineers to the narrowest point of the Bosporus, where Asia is separated from Europe by only seven hundred yards, he crossed the thin sliver of water and set about demolishing the Byzantine town he found occupying the site. There on the spot where two thousand years before the Persian king Xerxes had crossed with his massive army to meet the doomed Spartan king Leonidas, Mehmed built a fortress. His grandfather had built a similar castle on the Asian side to command the straits, and now the two structures would effectively cut off Constantinople from the Black Sea. It was a blatant act of war, and the sultan didn’t bother to disguise his intentions. When Constantine sent emissaries to remind Mehmed that he was breaking his oath and to implore him to at least spare the neighboring villages, Mehmed had the ambassadors executed.

As the walls of the new fortress rose ever higher, a young Hungarian named Urban entered Constantinople and offered his services to the emperor. A specialist in the design and firing of cannons, he offered to start producing guns for the Byzantines. Constantine XI was delighted. He’d seen the deadly new weapons firsthand at the Hexamilion and knew the terrifying power of these deafening monstrosities that could shatter stone and level walls. But there was simply no money to employ the young man. Somehow a stipend was scraped together to keep Urban in the city, but even that was soon exhausted, and the increasingly destitute Hungarian left to offer his services to the Turks.

Mehmed was only too happy to welcome Urban, and after showering him with gifts, he asked the Hungarian if his cannons could bring down a city wall. Urban knew full well what wall the sultan was referring to, and since he had spent long hours surveying Constantinople’s famous defenses, he promised to make a cannon that would demolish the very gates of Babylon. Setting to work immediately, he soon produced a bronze monster that could fire a six-hundred-pound stone ball, and the delighted sultan had it mounted in his new fortress, announcing that any ship wishing to pass would have to stop and pay a toll. The Venetians protested that this would completely cut off trade on the Bosporus, but the sultan was in deadly earnest. When a Venetian ship tried to run the straits, Mehmed had it blasted out of the water. Dragging the shell-shocked crew from the waves, he had them executed, and then impaled their captain, mounting the corpse on the bank as a public warning.

The sultan was pleased with his new weapon, but he wanted a bigger one and ordered Urban to build a cannon more than twice as large. The Hungarian went back to his foundry and cast a twenty-seven-foot-long behemoth that could hurl a fifteen-hundred-poundgranite ball more than a mile. This, Mehmed knew, was the key to a quick knockout blow to Constantinople that would allow him to conquer the city before the West would have a chance to organize a relief Crusade. The only problem now was transporting the great gun the 140 miles from the foundry in Adrianople to the walls of Constantinople. Carpenters and stonemasons were sent scurrying ahead, leveling hills and building bridges, while a team of sixty oxen and two hundred men pulled the cannon across the Thracian countryside at the lumbering pace of 2.5 miles per day. Mehmed himself set out with his army on March 23, 1453. Constantinople’s doom was now at hand.

Constantine XI had done what he could to prepare—clearing out moats, repairing walls, and laying in provisions. He’d seen what the Turks did to conquered cities and understood that there was little chance of survival. One last hope remained: His brother John VIII had promised to join the churches, but an official service celebrating the union had never occurred. Now the pope sent a cardinal promising aid if the decree was formally read in the Hagia Sophia, and the emperor didn’t hesitate. In a poorly attended service held in the great church, the officiating priest declared that the Orthodox and the Catholic churches were officially joined. The heavens, he proclaimed, were rejoicing.

The mood in the city was far from jubilant, but with certain annihilation approaching, there were no riots or public outcries. Two hundred archers had come with the cardinal, and there was the faint hope that perhaps more would arrive after the union was made official. Most of the population simply avoided the ceremony altogether and refused to enter any church “contaminated” by the Latin rite. They wouldn’t add to the gloom by rioting, but they wouldn’t abandon their traditions, either. That Easter, the Hagia Sophia sat strangely quiet and empty as the population drifted away to find churches that still maintained the Greek rite. Five days later, on April 6, the Turks arrived.

The Republic of Venice promised to send a navy to repel the Turks, but no ships were seen on the horizon, and even the most optimistic began to realize that Venetian aid was all words and no action. The appeal to the West had been in vain, and now an Ottoman army that seemed as numerous as the stars was at hand. Looking bitterly down on that vast sea of their enemies and knowing that the Latin Mass was being proclaimed in their beloved Orthodox churches, the Byzantines could ruefully reflect that they had paid the price of union without reaping its reward. The Venetians in the city all gallantly vowed to stay and help, but the gesture was spoiled when a short time later seven galleys carrying hundreds of desperately needed men fled the city under the cover of night. The only bright spot was the arrival of the brilliant siege expert Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa with a private army of seven hundred highly trained soldiers. He had come to gallantly defend the city his namesake, Justinian, had once ruled, but his grand gesture couldn’t dispel a terrible sense of foreboding. Added to Constantine’s meager force, the Genovese brought the number of defenders to just under seven thousand men. These had to be spread over twelve and a half miles of land walls and defend the city from some eighty thousand Ottoman troops. Tension and worry hung thickly over the city, but there was no time to brood. Mehmed rode up to the gates as soon as he arrived and demanded an instant surrender. Receiving no reply, he opened fire on April 6.

The great gun roared, spitting flame, smoke, and a stone ball that made the thousand-year-old Theodosian wall shudder. For ten centuries, those walls had thrown back endless arrays of would-be conquerors, but the age of brick and mortar had passed, and the ancient defenses were subjected to a bombardment unprecedented in the history of siege warfare. The main cannon needed time to cool between each firing and could only be discharged seven times a day, but the sultan had other guns that could take up the slack. Stone balls mercilessly slammed into the walls, shattering the brick and occasionally bringing down whole sections. By the end of the first day, a large part of the outer wall was reduced to rubble, and the sultan ordered an assault. Constantine threw himself into the breach, somehow repulsing the successive attacks, and when night fell Giustiniani devised a way to repair the walls. Driving wooden stakes into the collapsed rubble to provide a loose form, he heaped the broken brick and stone into a makeshift wall. The next day, when the firing resumed, the rubble absorbed the cannonballs better than the solid walls and remained more or less intact. Taking heart, the defenders fell into a steady rhythm. By day, they would do their best to stay out of the way of the stone balls raining death all around them; by night, when the guns were at last silenced, they rushed out to repair the damage.

After forty-eight days of continuous bombardment on the vulnerable spot where the walls descended into the little Lycus River valley, a second attempt to take the city by storm proved just as unsuccessful. Once again the emperor led a heroic defense, and the frustrated sultan vented his anger by impaling his Byzantine prisoners in sight of the walls. Changing tactics, Mehmed decided to attack the imperial harbor where the seawalls were more vulnerable, and ordered his ships to ram the great chain, but it easily held. This was humiliating for the Ottomans, but the situation was made worse when three Genovese ships carrying a much-needed shipment of food to the beleaguered capital managed to smash their way through the Ottoman navy and slip into the harbor—despite Mehmed’s furious order to sink them at all costs.

This public flouting of his authority threw the sultan into his usual rage. He had lost prestige and allowed his enemies to take heart; their cheers at the Genovese display could be plainly heard in the Turkish camp. This obviously couldn’t be allowed to continue, so Mehmed prepared an ambitious response.

The entrance to the imperial harbor was protected by a great chain stretching from Constantinople to a tower in the Genovese colony on the opposite shore. Repeated attempts to force the chain had failed, but there were other options for someone of the sultan’s limitless resources. In a stunning display of Turkish planning and organization, Mehmed transported seventy ships overland on greased logs, bypassed the Genovese colony, and dropped his fleet silently into the imperial harbor.

The fall of the harbor came as a physical blow to Constantine. Not only were the waters no longer safe for fishing, depriving the starving city of its one reliable source of food, but now there were another three and a half miles of walls for his stretched forces to defend. Both sides knew the end was surely at hand, and when Mehmed viciously beheaded more Byzantine prisoners in sight of the walls, the emotionally spent defenders responded by throwing their Turkish prisoners from the ramparts. It was war to the death. If the sultan showed no mercy, then he wouldn’t be given any in return.

The one hope sustaining the defenders was that the promised Venetian fleet would arrive and save them, but as May dragged on, morale and hope began to fade. In desperation, Constantine had sent a ship to search for any sign of an approaching fleet, but after three weeks it returned and sadly reported that there was no sign of any help. Byzantium had been abandoned to its fate. The imperial ministers begged Constantine to flee and to set up a government in exile until the city could be retaken. The crusader empire had eventually collapsed, and the Ottomans would as well; the important thing was to keep the emperor alive. Exhausted but firm, Constantine refused. These were his people, and he would be with them to the end.

In the Turkish camp, Mehmed was preparing his troops for the final assault. The walls that his guns had been pounding were now heaps of rubble, and further bombardment could hardly achieve much more. His attempts at storming the city had resulted in horrendous casualties, and every day that he failed to take the city eroded his prestige. The time had come for a last push. Not bothering to keep the news from his weary opponents, he announced that on Tuesday, the twenty-ninth of May, the final attack would begin.

In Constantinople, the exhausted defenders had reached the breaking point. Subjected to a continuous hellish bombardment, they had to brave the Turkish guns by day and repair the walls by night. There was little time for rest, either emotional or physical, and tensions had begun to flare. But on that last Monday of the empire’s history, the mood changed. There was no rest for the weary, of course, and work continued, but for the first time in weeks, the inhabitants of the city began to make their way to the Hagia Sophia. There, for the first and last time in Byzantine history, the divisions that had split the church for centuries were forgotten, Greek priests stood shoulder to shoulder with Latin ones, and a truly ecumenical service began.

While the population gathered in the great church, Constantine gave a final speech—a funeral oration, as Edward Gibbon put it—for the Roman Empire. Reminding his assembled troops of their glorious history, he proudly charged them to acquit themselves with dignity and honor: “Animals may run from animals, but you are men, and worthy heirs of the great heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome.”* Turning to the Italians who were fighting in defense of Constantinople, the emperor thanked them for their service, assuring them that they were now brothers, united by a common bond. After shaking hands with each of the commanders, he dismissed them to their posts and joined the rest of the population in the Hagia Sophia.

There was no sleep that night for the emperor of Byzantium. He remained in the church to pray until all but a few candles were extinguished, rode out to say a final good-bye to his household, and then spent the rest of the night riding the walls, assuring himself that nothing else could be done. Upon reaching his post at the most vulnerable point in the walls, he dismounted and waited for the attack that he knew must come with the dawn. The sultan, however, chose not to wait for the sun. At one thirty in the morning, the quiet darkness was shattered with a tremendous roar. The Turkish guns erupted, crashing into a section of the wall and sending the defenders scrambling for cover. Within moments, a large gap had appeared, and Mehmed sent his shock troops into the breach before the Byzantines could repair it. For three hours, the onslaught continued, but thanks largely to the efforts of Giustiniani, they were repulsed each time. The Genovese commander seemed to be everywhere, encouraging the men and shoring up the line wherever it wavered. By four in the morning, the exhausted Ottoman irregulars fell back, parting to let the main army pour in. Again the Turks came crashing into the Christian line, clawing their way over the dead and trying to smash their way inside. They fought with an almost maniacal fervor, each man eager to gain the sultan’s favor on earth or rewards in paradise by perishing for his faith. They came within inches of forcing their way in, but Constantine appeared with reinforcements in the nick of time and beat them back. The exhausted defenders slumped wearily down as the defeated Ottomans withdrew, but again there was to be no rest. Sensing his enemies wavering, Mehmed sent in the Janissaries.

Much like the Varangians in the Byzantine army or the Praetorians of ancient Rome, the Janissaries were the elite fighting forces of the Turkish army. Made up of Christians who had been taken from their families while children and forcibly converted to Islam, they were fanatically loyal and expertly trained. Accompanied by the blaring sound of martial music, these disciplined troops came in an unbroken line, seemingly impervious to anything fired at them from the walls. Somehow they were beaten back, but during the assault Giustiniani was wounded when a crossbow bolt crunched through his chest armor. The wound wasn’t mortal, but the stricken Giustiniani was too exhausted to continue. Constantine begged him to stay, knowing what would happen if his men saw him leave, but Giustiniani was adamant and had himself carried down to a waiting ship in the harbor.

The emperor’s worst fears were immediately realized. The sight of their valiant leader being carried from the walls sparked a panic among the Genovese, and they began retreating through an inner gate just as the Janissaries launched another attack. In the chaos, the Turks overran several towers, butchering the panicked defenders who were now trapped between the walls. From his position by the Saint Romanus Gate, Constantine knew that all was now lost. With the cry “the City is lost, but I live,” he flung off his imperial regalia and plunged into the breach, disappearing into history.

The carnage was terrible. Turkish soldiers fanned out along streets that were soon slick with blood, covering the ground so thickly with corpses that in some places it could hardly be seen. The Venetians and Genovese managed to get to their ships and escape—fortunately for them, the Turkish sailors blockading the harbor, eager to join in the looting, had all abandoned their ships—but the rest of the population was doomed. Women and children were raped, men were impaled, houses were sacked, and churches were looted and burned. The city’s most famous icon—an image said to have been painted by Saint Luke himself—was hacked into four pieces, ancient statues were toppled and demolished, the imperial tombs were smashed open to have their contents tossed into the streets, and the imperial palace was left a ruined shell.

As Ottoman flags began appearing on the walls and even the Great Palace, the emotionally shattered inhabitants streamed toward the one place they had always felt safe. An old legend maintained that the Hagia Sophia wouldn’t fall to the Turks, thanks to an angel who would descend from the nearby Column of Constantine to defend the faithful. Inside the cavernous building, a service of matins was being conducted, and the comforting chants echoing under the familiar golden icons reassured the refugees. But the ancient prophecies rang hollow—no angel appeared to save them, and even the massive bronze doors couldn’t keep their berserk enemies at bay. The Turks smashed their way in, killing the priests at the high altar and butchering the congregation on the spot. A lucky few who appeared to be wealthy were spared for the slave markets, but they were forced to watch as the church was defiled. The patriarchal vestments were draped around the haunches of dogs while the Eucharist was thrown to the ground. A Janissary mockingly perched his cap on the crucifix, and the altars were tipped over and used as feed troughs for horses or even worse, as a bed to rape the women and children hostages. Anything that looked valuable was pried from the walls or smashed, and anywhere a cross could be found it was hacked out.

By the end of the first day, there was virtually nothing left to plunder and the twenty-one-year-old sultan called a halt to the slaughter. The Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, its glorious mosaics were painted over with geometric designs, huge wooden shields were hung with verses from the Koran, and a mihrab was hacked into the wall at an appropriate angle.* The bewildered population that was left found themselves prisoners in a city they no longer knew. Mehmed ordered the execution of all males of noble birth and sold the rest of his prisoners into slavery, presenting each of his main supporters with four hundred Greek children. He was especially anxious to find the body of Constantine to reassure himself that his great enemy was truly dead. Men were hastily sent to wade through the gore, washing corpses and examining severed heads. A body was found dressed in silk stockings embroidered with an eagle, but when Mehmed impaled the head and paraded it around the city, it failed to impress those who had known the emperor. Despite the sultan’s best efforts, the body was never found. In death, if not in life, Constantine XI had eluded his oppressor’s grasp.

After 1,123 years and 18 days, the Byzantine Empire had drawn to a close. The Divine Liturgy that had echoed from the great dome of the Hagia Sophia for nearly a millennium fell silent, and the clouds of incense slowly cleared from the desecrated churches of the city. The shocked and shattered Byzantines were now in permanent exile, but they could at least reflect that their empire had come to a glorious and heroic end. Their last emperor had chosen death over surrender or a diminishment of his ideals, and in doing so he had found a common grave among the men he led. Proud and brave, the iconic eighty-eighth emperor of Byzantium had brought the empire full circle. Like the first to rule in the city by the Bosporus, he had been a son of Helena named Constantine, and it was fitting that in his hour of need he had a Justinian by his side.

*Today a double eagle carved into the floor of the cathedral of Agios Dimitrios in Mistra marks the place where the last Byzantine emperor was officially confirmed.

*To ensure the loyalty of Balkan magnates in his absence, Murad II often took their sons as hostages. One particular prisoner was the Transylvanian prince Vlad III, who amused himself in captivity by impaling birds on little sticks. Developing an intense hatred for the Turks in general and the young Sultan Mehmed II in particular, he devoted his life to keeping the Turks out of Transylvania. His cruelty soon earned him the nickname “Vlad the Impaler,” but he always preferred his father’s nickname of “The Dragon,” and it is as Dracula—Son of the Dragon—that posterity remembers him.

*Nicol, Donald M. The Immortal Emperor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 67).

*A Muslim prayer niche that traditionally faces Mecca, indicating the direction for the faithful to face when they pray.

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