Constantine XI

Constantine XI

Constantine XI (Constantine Palaeologus), d. 1453, last Byzantine emperor (1449-53), brother and successor of John VIII. To secure Western aid against the Turkish assault on what remained of the empire, he proclaimed (1452) the union of the Western and Eastern Churches. No help came, however, and in 1453 Constantine, with some 8,000 Greeks, Venetians, and Genoese, faced 150,000 Turkish besiegers under Sultan Muhammad II. After almost two months of heroic defense, directed by the emperor, the city and the empire fell. Constantine died fighting with the last of his men.
Constantine XI Palaiologos or Palaeologus (Greek: Κωνσταντίνος ΙΑ' Δραγάσης Παλαιολόγος, Kōnstantinos XI Dragasēs Palaiologos, February 8, 1405May 29, 1453) was the last reigning Roman Emperor. A member of the Palaiologos dynasty, he ruled the Byzantine Empire from 1449 to his death.

Early life

Constantine was born in Mistra as the eighth of ten children of Manuel II Palaiologos and Helena Dragaš, the daughter of the Serbian prince Constantine Dragaš of Kumanovo. He spent most of his childhood in Constantinople under the supervision of his parents. During the absence of his older brother in Italy, Constantine was regent in Constantinople from 1437-1440.

Despot at Morea

Constantine became the Despotes of Morea (the Medieval name for the Peloponnesus) in October 1443, ruling from the fortress and palace in Mistra. At the time, Mistra was a center of arts and culture rivaling Constantinople.

After establishing himself as the Despot, Constantine worked to strengthen the defense of Morea, including reconstructing a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth called the Hexamilion, "the Six Mile Wall."

In the summer of 1444, he launched an invasion of the Latin Duchy of Athens from Morea, swiftly conquering Thebes and Athens and forcing its Florentine duke to pay him tribute. The Duchy was ruled by Nerio II Acciajuoli, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan.

However, his triumph was short-lived. In the fall of 1446, the Ottomans advanced on Morea with 50-60,000 soldiers. Constantine and his brother Thomas braced for the attack at the Hexamilion, which the Ottoman army reached on November 27, 1446. While the wall may have held against medieval attacks, Sultan Murad had cannons to supplement the usual siege engines and scaling ladders, leaving the Hexamilion in ruins by December 10. Constantine and Thomas barely escaped. The winter prevented a full conquest of Morea, and Murad left that to another day, but put an end to Constantine's attempt to expand his Despotate.


Constantine XI married twice: the first time on July 1, 1428 to Maddalena Tocco, niece of Carlo I Tocco of Epirus, who died in November 1429; the second time to Caterina Gattilusio, daughter of Dorino of Lesbos, who also died (1442). He had no children by either marriage.

Reign as emperor

Despite the foreign and domestic difficulties during his reign, which culminated in the fall of Constantinople and of the Byzantine Empire, contemporary sources generally speak respectfully of the emperor Constantine.

When his brother, Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, died, a dispute erupted between Constantine and his brother Demetrios Palaiologos over the throne. Demetrios drew support for his opposition to the union between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Empress Helena, acting as regent, supported Constantine. They appealed to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II to arbitrate the disagreement.

Murad chose Constantine, who was crowned at Mistra on January 6, 1449. It was unusual to crown an emperor outside of Constantinople (and without a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church), and no ecclesiastical coronation was ever performed. Constantine was forced to seek passage to his capital on a Catalan ship, arriving in March 1449. Constantine XI attempted to marry a distant cousin, Maria Branković, the widow of Murad II, but the courtship failed.

Sultan Murad died in 1451, succeeded by his 19 year old son Mehmed II. Soon afterwards, Mehmed II began agitating for ownership of Constantinople. Constantine threatened to release Prince Orhan, a pretender to the Ottoman throne, unless Mehmed doubled an annual payment. To Mehmed, this was the last straw, and he considered Constantine to have broken the truce. The following winter of 1451-52, Mehmed built Rumelihisari, a fortress on a hill at the European side of the Bosporus, just north of the city, as a prelude for a siege.

Desperate for any type of military assistance, Constantine XI appealed to the West and reaffirmed the union of Eastern and Roman Churches which had been signed at the Council of Florence. However, the union was overwhelmingly rejected by his subjects and it dangerously estranged him from Loukas Notaras, his chief minister and military commander. Although some troops did arrive from the mercantile city states in the north of Italy, the Western contribution was not adequate to counterbalance Ottoman strength. While Constantine also sought assistance from his brothers in Morea, any help was forestalled by an Ottoman invasion of the peninsula in 1452. The siege of the city began in the winter of 1453.

Fall of Constantinople

Before the beginning of the siege, Mehmed II made an offer to Constantine XI. In exchange for the surrender of Constantinople, the emperor's life would be spared and he would continue to rule in Mistra. Constantine refused this offer.

Instead he led the defence of the city and took an active part in the fighting along the land walls. At the same time, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain the necessary unity between the Genovese, Venetian, and Greek troops.

As the city fell on May 29 1453, Constantine is said to have remarked: "The city is fallen but I am alive". Realising that the end had come, he reportedly discarded his purple cloak and led his remaining soldiers into a last charge where he was killed.

Death and Mythologising

It is claimed by some that his corpse was identified after the battle by his purple boots, while others claim that the Turks were never able to identify his body, and that the last Byzantine emperor was very likely buried in a mass grave alongside his soldiers.

A legend tells that when the Ottomans entered the city, an angel rescued the emperor, turned him into marble and placed him in a cave under the earth near the Golden Gate, where he waits to be brought to life again .

While serving as ambassador to Russia in February 1834, Achmet Pacha presented Tsar Nicholas with a number of gifts, including a jewel-encrusted sword supposedly taken from Constantine XI's corpse .

Constantine XI legacy was used as a rallying cry for Greeks during their war for Independence from the Ottoman empire. Today the Emperor is considered a national hero in Greece

Unofficial saint

Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholics consider Constantine XI a saint, but he has not been officially recognized as such. One of the reasons for this was that in the centuries of Ottoman rule, any effort on the part of the Orthodox Church to officially glorify Constantine XI as a saint would have been seen as an act of rebellion, and hence decidedly ill-advised. After the Greek War of Independence (1821-1831), when the Greek Orthodox Church once again had freedom to act, an official act of glorification was thought to be superfluous, on account of longstanding veneration as a saint and martyr, specifically, a national martyr or ethnomartyr, (Greek: ἐθνομάρτυρας). However, the erection of the statue of "Saint Constantine XI the Ethnomartyr" in the square in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, with the formal blessing of the Church authorities, appears to be a semi-official act of recognition. His feast falls on 29 May.


See also


  • Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1453; Cambridge University Press, 1965; ISBN 0-521-09573-5
  • Donald M. Nicol, The Immortal Emperor; Cambridge University Press, 1992; ISBN 0-521-46717-9
  • Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 1991.
  • Roger Crowley "1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West"; Hyperion, 2005; ISBN 1-4013-0850-3


External links



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