For any Byzantinist, today is one of the most important historical anniversaries there is. Five hundred and sixty-one years ago today, on May 29, 1453, the Byzantine capital Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. This article isn’t a retrospective on that event; I did that last year. But it’s also the anniversary of the death of Constantine XI Paleologus, the last Emperor of Byzantium, who is believed to have died in battle fighting the Turks who overran the city shortly after dawn on that fateful day. His body was never found, or if it was, it didn’t find its way into the history books. Whenever a ruler dies in uncertain circumstances–especially in an event cloaked in historical and religious significance like the fall of Constantinople–there are bound to be conflicting stories and rumors about what happened to him or her, and that’s exactly the case with Constantine.
Constantine XI is a strangely shadowy figure in history. Not that much is known about him, which is why the best biography of him, The Immortal Emperor by Donald M. Nicol, is only 128 pages long, excluding notes. Constantine had a sad and tumultuous life. He came to the Byzantine throne in January 1449 with one singular purpose: to stave off the almost inevitable conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, and thus keep the shriveled nub of the Byzantine Empire alive, as long as possible. He probably knew he would be the last Christian emperor to rule from Constantinople. There’s a grim fatalism that surrounds all accounts of his life, and especially his last few days during the siege in the spring of 1453.
The last confirmed sighting of Constantine was near the Gate of St. Romanus, where a huge battle was going on just after the Ottoman troops had surged into the city through another smaller gate called the Kerkoporta (the Circus Gate). Constantine reportedly leaped right into the fray, brandishing his sword, fighting side by side with common soldiers. The odds were hopeless. The Byzantine defenders were grossly outnumbered and had already endured 55 days of withering siege before the final Turkish assault. Thus, Constantine sought to die fighting. But what exactly happened to him and his corpse is the subject of dispute.
This 15th century woodcut is one of the most popular images of Constantine XI, but it is not known if he really looked like this. Note that he bears no resemblance to the Russian-made icon at the top of this article.
According to Nicol, here are the various reports, rumors and theories about what happened to the last Emperor of Byzantium, together with my thoughts on each possibility:
- As the fighting grew worse, Constantine’s courage failed. He asked one of his own men to kill him so he wouldn’t be captured alive, but before this could be done the Turks broke into the city and trampled him. (Leonardo of Chios). My verdict: not likely. Constantine was no coward and certainly wouldn’t want the last Byzantine emperor to be remembered as such.
- After being killed at the St. Romanus Gate, his corpse was found, beheaded and his head presented to Sultan Mehmet II as a prize. (Cardinal Isidore, a survivor of the siege). My verdict: unlikely; Turkish sources don’t corroborate it, and if Mehmet had taken Constantine’s head he would have made sure everybody knew it.
- Constantine bugged out during the fighting and tried to escape the falling city by boat. While in search of a vessel, he happened upon a group of Turkish troops who beheaded him. (Tursun Beg, a Turkish officer). My verdict: virtually impossible. The battle by the Romanus gate was incredibly fierce; how could he have escaped? Moreover, why? Constantine had already implored his own men to fight to the death; he would have taken his own advice.
- Constantine was killed somehow during the fighting, and his corpse beheaded after his death. Three heads, including his and Cardinal Isidore’s, were brought to the Sultan who spoke of it being an emblem of glory. (Heinrich de Soemern, a German-born Papal official). My verdict: almost certainly false. We know Isidore survived and escaped Constantinople.
- Constantine and several nobles of his court did manage to escape by boat, and was still alive in 1454. (Abraham of Ankara, an Armenian poet). My verdict: virtually impossible. Why wasn’t he seen anywhere after the fall?
So what did happen to him? The vast majority of accounts agree that Constantine was killed in a pitched battle somewhere along the walls. The number of accounts that mention him being beheaded after his death suggests this could be what happened, but it seems unlikely to me that the Emperor’s head was ever brought to the Sultan, or if one was, it wasn’t conclusively known to be his. This isn’t farfetched; Mehmet probably had no idea what Constantine looked like, and as the Emperor is said to have cast off his emblems of rank before jumping into the fray, his body was likely not distinguishable from that of any other soldier.
This statue of the last Byzantine Emperor stands in Athens–but again, its face is imagined, as no authentic pictures of Constantine survived.
There are, of course, legends that Constantine did not die at all. Some mystical accounts whispered among the Greeks in the decades and centuries after the fall hold that Constantine is “sleeping,” in some sort of suspended animation in a secret chamber near the Golden Gate of the Theodosian Walls, a gate that was bricked up long before the fall. The legends go that if Byzantium rises again, Constantine XI will “wake up” and come out of his prison to rule again. It should be noted that these legends became especially prevalent in the 1820s when Greece was fighting for its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and thus the legend of the “sleeping” Constantine XI was a poetic piece of romantic Greek nationalism. I don’t think anybody seriously believed it was true.
Nevertheless, the fascinating and largely unknown man of Constantine XI, who had one of the most epic deaths in all of medieval history, remains an attractive figure in late Byzantine history. Whether the interest in him is purely historical, or else religious or nationalistic, Constantine XI can in at least some sense be called the immortal emperor, for his legend and history are not quite dead.