Great Martyr, the Emperor Blessed Constantine XI Paleologos

Great Martyr and Emperor, Blessed Constantine XI Paleologos

This page is offered as a memorial to the Blessed Constantine XI Paleologos, the last Emperor of the East Roman Empire, martyred by the forces of Sultan Mehmet during the assault on The City on May 29, 1453. Blessed Constantine, whose feast is celebrated on May 29 (e.g., St. Herman Calendar 2000, p.38), was a man whose personal life was marked by tragedy, but who above all maintained steadfast his Christian faith and his dedication to his duties as the Christian Emperor.

He is venerated among Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics alike, regardless of their positions about his religious views, for his deep faith in Christ, his faithfulness to his people and to his duties as Emperor in the face of certain death at the hands of the Sultan’s forces. A lesser Christian and man not only could have, but would have contrived his own escape, abandoning the people to their own devices. Constantine remained faithful to Our Triune God and Jesus Christ and His Mother, the Holy Theotokos, to his duties as Emperor, and to his people, trying as best as he could to uphold and defend them. Indeed, his sacrifice and efforts should serve as an example to both Orthodox and Catholics alike to abandon their respective pridefulness and delight in intellectualized theological debate and to embrace each other in Christian love and respect, and thus face together as ‘one in Christ’ (John 17:21-22; also I John 3:14, 4:7-16) the many challenges that face the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church today.

Blessed Constantine’s heroic death and the shock of the fall of The City, combined with the fact that his place of burial remains a mystery to this day, led to the spawning of several pious legends about the sleeping Emperor, secluded by God, who would one day return to drive out the invaders and restore the Empire. Regardless of how one views these legends, they are a testimony to the enduring respect as a dedicated Christian Emperor in which Blessed Constantine is held by Byzantine Christians, Orthodox and Catholic alike.

We offer below some excerpts from "The Immortal Emperor" by Donald M. Nichols, Cambridge University Press, copyright © 1992, pp. 66-69, 107-108, which chronicles the last hours of Blessed Constantine’s life, and contain a reflection on the enduring legend about the return of the “Immortal Emperor”.

Excerpts from Nichols, Donald, The Immortal Emperor, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 66-69.

"The only hope left was that the promised fleet from Venice would arrive in time. The hope was dashed when a Venetian ship that had slipped out to reconnoitre came back to report that no fleet was to be seen. Constantine broke down and wept. The whole of Christendom, it seemed, had deserted him in his fight against the enemies of the Cross. He committed himself and his city to the mercy of Christ, His Mother, and the first Christian Emperor, the holy Constantine the Great. (23)

The news that they must fight alone unnerved some of his Italian allies. Violence broke out among the Genoese and Venetian defenders. Constantine had to intervene, to remind them that they had a more important conflict on their hands.(24) Strange signs and portents added to the tension among the besieged. On 24 May, when the moon was full, there was an eclipse and three hours of darkness. Some recalled the prophecy that Constantinople would be taken when the moon was on the wane.

The end seemed to be nigh. Constantine commanded that the most venerable icon of the Mother of God, protectress of the city, should be brought out and carried in procession round the streets. Suddenly the icon slipped off the frame on which it was being held aloft; and almost at once the streets were deluged with torrents of hall and rain. The procession was abandoned. The next day the city was shrouded in thick fog.

At nightfall, when the fog lifted, the dome of the church of the Holy Wisdom was seen to be lit by a mysterious glow that crept slowly up from its base to the great gilded cross at the top. The Turks saw it too from their camp beyond the walls. It could only be an omen, of hope for the Turks and of despair for the Greeks.

On Monday, 28 May, the Greeks knew that their moment of truth was upon them. There was a weird calm from the Turkish camp. The Sultan had ordered a day of rest before the final assault.

Those in the city who could be spared from manning and patching up the battered walls took to the streets in prayer. Constantine ordered that icons and relics from churches and monasteries be carried round the walls while the church bells rang. The crowd of Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic, forgot their differences as they joined in hymns and prayers. Constantine led the procession on its solemn march.(25)

When it was over he assembled his ministers, officers and soldiers and addressed them. There are three accounts of what he said. The first and shortest of them is contained in a letter of Leonardo of Chios, the Latin Archbishop of Lesbos, addressed to Pope Nicholas V on 19 August 1453. Leonardo had been present during the last weeks of Byzantine Constantinople and he reported to the pope some six weeks after the capture of the city, while his memory was still fresh.

The two other and longer versions of Constantine's speech are mainly elaborations and extensions of Leonardo's text. One purports to be from the pen of George Sphrantzes, who must certainly have heard the speech though he makes no mention of it in his memoirs. It is to be read only in the extended version of those memoirs compiled in the sixteenth century by Makarios Melissenos. The third version is given in the Greek Chronicle of the Turkish Sultans, also of the sixteenth century. (26)

The speech as related by Leonardo of Chios is thus the most reliable account, even though the rhetoric of it may be fanciful. It may therefore be worth giving it in full, since it was Constantine's last public speech and can serve, as Gibbon observed, as 'the funeral oration of the Roman Empire. (27)

Gentlemen, illustrious captains of the army, and our most Christian comrades in arms: we now see the hour of battle approaching. I have therefore elected to assemble you here to make it clear that you must stand together with firmer resolution than ever. You have always fought with glory against the enemies of Christ. Now the defence of your fatherland and of the city known the world over, which the infidel and evil Turks have been besieging for two and fifty days, is committed to your lofty spirits.

Be not afraid because its walls have been worn down by the enemy's battering. For your strength lies in the protection of God and you must show it with your arms quivering and your swords brandished against the enemy. I know that this undisciplined mob will, as is their custom, rush upon you with loud cries and ceaseless volleys of arrows. These will do you no bodily harm, for I see that you are well covered in armour. They will strike the walls, our breastplates and our shiellds. So do not imitate the Romans who, when the Carthaginians went into battle against them, allowed their cavalry to be terrified by the fearsome sight and sound of elephants.

In this battle you must stand firm and have no fear, no thought of flight, but be inspired to resist with ever more herculean strength. Animals may run away from animals. But you are men, men of stout heart, and you will hold at bay these dumb brutes, thrusting your spears and swords into them, so that they will know that they are fighting not against their own kind but against the masters of animals.

You are aware that the impious and infidel enemy has disturbed the peace unjustly. He has violated the oath and treaty that he made with us; he has slaughtered our farmers at harvest time; he has erected a fortress on the Propontis as it were to devour the Christians; he has encircled Galata under a pretence of peace.

Now he threatens to capture the city of Constantine the Great, your fatherland, the place of ready refuge for all Christians, the guardian of all Greeks, and to profane its holy shrines of God by turning them into stables for fits horses. Oh my lords, my brothers, my sons, the everlasting honour of Christians is in your hands.

You men of Genoa, men of courage and famous for your infinite victories, you who have always protected this city, your mother, in many a conflict with the Turks, show now your prowess and your aggressive spirit toward them with manly vigour.

You men of Venice, most valiant heroes, whose swords have many a time made Turkish blood to flow and who in our time have sent so many ships, so many infidel souls to the depths under the command of Loredano, the most excellent captain of our fleet, you who have adorned this city as if it were your own with fine, outstanding men, lift high your spirits now for battle.

You, my comrades in arms, obey the commands of your leaders in the knowledge that this is the day of your glory -- a day on which, if you shed but a drop of blood, you will win for yourselves crowns of martyrdom and eternal fame.

Constantine's speech, in whatever form he delivered it, gave new heart to those who heard it. When the shades of evening began to fall people moved as if by instinct towards the church of the Holy Wisdom. The soldiers stayed at their posts on the walls.

But others, Greeks and Latins alike, crowded into the great church to pray together for their deliverance. Common fear and common danger worked more of a wonder than all the councils of the church. Orthodox bishops, priests and monks who had loudly protested that they would never again set foot in their cathedral until it had been purged of the Roman pollution, now came to the altar to join their Catholic brethren in the holy liturgy.

Among the celebrants was Cardinal Isidore, whom many of the faithful had branded a traitor and a heretic. The Emperor Constantine came to pray and to ask forgiveness and remission of his sins from every bishop present before receiving communion at the altar. The priest who gave him the sacrament cannot have known that he was administering the last rites to the last Christian Emperor of the Romans.

To left: icon of the Lamentation of Emperor Constantine

He then went back to his palace at Blachernai to ask forgiveness from his household and bid them farewell before riding into the night to make a final inspection of his soldiers at the wall.

....Later in the nineteenth century the myth of the sleeping emperor became a theme for contemporary Greek poets. George Bizyinos (1849-96) wrote a poem entitled 'The Last Palaiologos' which concludes with the tale of the emperor being woken by the angel and, repossessed of his sword, chasing the Turks all the way to Red Apple Tree. (32)

George Zalokostas (1805-58), in his poem 'The Sword and the Crown' first published in 1854, foretells the day when the crown of Constantine, taken away for safe keeping by the Lord of Heaven, will be restored to rest upon the head of a fair­haired emperor. (33)

The myth was given new meaning when, for reasons best known to himself, the Danish King of the Hellenes George I (1863-1913), had his son and heir baptised as Constantine. Readers of Agathangelos and Stephanitzes were enraptured. The monks of Mount Athos were at their most prophetic. Clearly the heir to the Greek throne was in the direct line of succession from the first and the last Emperors of Byzantium, Constantine I the Great and Constantine XI Palaiologos.

We have seen how the Greeks in Constantinople presented the young Constantine with what they alleged was the sword of the last Christian ruler of their city. When he came to the throne of Greece in 1913 there were many of his subjects who hailed him as Constantine XII. His leadership in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the eviction of the Turks from Thessaloniki fortified the fantasy that the Red Apple Tree would be his next stop. It was unfortunate that he fell foul of his prime minister Eleutherios Venizelos and had to abdicate before accomplishing what many believed to be his sacred mission." (34)

The bubble of the Great Idea was finally pricked by the catastrophic failure of the Greek invasion of Asia Minor in 1922. In the same year Constantine of the Hellenes was forced to abdicate for a second time. The illusion of the sleeping emperor was laid to rest. But the myth itself lives on, as a harmless legend or a fairy tale. Perhaps its most poetic evocation in modern Greek literature is that by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) in his long poem entitled 'The King's Flute' first published in 1910:

King, I shall arise from my enmarbled sleep,

And from my mystic tomb I shall come forth

To open wide the bricked-up Golden Gate;

And, victor over the Caliphs and the Tsars,

Hunting them beyond Red Apple Tree,

I shall seek rest upon my ancient bounds.

The latest version of the legend comes in a popular song of the 1970s, called simply 'The Marble Emperor':

I sent two birds to the Red Apple tree, of which the legends speak

One was killed, the other was hurt, and they never came back to me.

Of the marble emperor there is no word, no talk.

But grandmothers sing about him to the children like a fairy tale.

I sent two birds, two house martins, to the Red Apple Tree.

But there they stayed and became a dream... (36)

NOTES

For footnotes, see Nichols, Donald M., The Immortal Emperor, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 66-69, 107-108.

Statue of Great Martyr Emperor Constantine XI Paleologos in Athens, Greece

A Special Note Concerning the Status of Blessed Constantine XI

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