We come now to the last hours of Byzantium. The defenders were weary after defending the city since April 5th 1453. The Emperor’s hope lay with a relief fleet from Venice, but this had failed to appear. On 3 May a Venetian brigantine left the Golden Horn flying a Turkish standard, and carrying a crew of twelve volunteers. It slipped through the Turkish naval defence to go in search of the expected reinforcements.
We ponder the last hours before the final Ottoman assault, and I try to take some of it from the personal perspective of the last true Emperor of the Romans, Constantine XI Palaeologos, also called Dragases …
By Tom Sawford
As the end drew near all in the city must have thought that the ship would not return but on the night of 23rd of May it reappeared hotly pursued by a squadron of Turkish ships. Tacking furiously the superior seamanship of the Venetians resulted in them successfully outrunning the Turks. They reported that they had searched for three weeks throughout the Aegean with no success. The captain asked his men if they wished to return to Venice or to Constantinople. All bar one volunteered to return to the Emperor knowing full well that they would probably never leave the city alive (Note – The Venetian relief fleet sent by Pope Nicholas was on its way. It had anchored off Chios waiting for a favourable wind).
As weariness and hunger set in so did the level of superstition rise. Some spoke of the omens that forecast the last Emperor of the Romans would be a Constantine born of a Helena. On 24 May there was a lunar eclipse; two days later the most precious icon of the Virgin fell to the ground whilst being carried in a procession. It was picked up but then a huge thunderstorm burst over the city, more violent than any could remember. The next morning the whole city was shrouded in a thick fog, and later that night a red glow crept up the side of the Hagia Sophia to the summit and then disappeared. The Turks saw this also and interpreted it as a sign that the building would soon be illuminated by the one true faith. The Byzantines saw only the spirit of God leaving the city. The Emperor was encouraged by his friend George Sphrantzes to leave the city whilst there was still time, but Constantine would have none of it. This was his city; these were his people and he could not desert them.
Mehmet was now getting impatient. Some of his advisers said the siege had been going on too long and should be broken off. His younger generals however agreed with the Sultan who said that the time had come for the final assault and plans were made for an attack in the early hours of 29 May.
There was no attempt at secrecy by the Turks. Why should there be? The site of the preparations for battle of such a large, well equipped and well fed army would be enough to lower the morale of the defenders even more. Ditches were filled, cannon pulled into new positions, catapults ranged in place, food, water, scaling ladders, arrows, bandages, gunpowder and all other weapons and stores required by an army undertaking a frontal assault were prepared. At dawn on 28th May all work ceased. The Sultan wanted his men to rest. Mehmet spent the day inspecting and making final adjustments and giving his orders. All was ready.
That day was a Monday and within the walls the defenders prepared themselves but could get no rest. Imagine their tasks; making all ready at their positions; filling gaps in the walls; bringing up new supplies of arrows; sharpening swords; trying to eat what few rations they had; going back to their homes to see all was well, and then back to their stations on the walls. The most precious of icons processed around the streets in a spontaneous procession of Greeks and Italians, Orthodox and Catholic alike. The Emperor joined this procession and when it was over he called his captains and generals to him to give them his last instructions. He told them all that there were four great causes for which a man should be prepared to die: his faith; his country; his family and his Emperor. They must be prepared now to give their lives for all four. He said he was willing to die for his faith, his family, his city and its people. He then turned to them all, Greeks and Italians alike, and gave a speech which was effectively the funeral oration of the Roman Empire:
“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 shields. 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 his 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.”
Once over he shook their hands asking for forgiveness for any wrongs he had committed against them and moved to the Church of the Holy Wisdom where for one last time vespers were held in the great church built by Justinian nearly nine hundred years previously. Virtually everyone who did not have pressing duties is said to have come to take the Eucharist one last time. Cardinal Isidore, former Metropolitan of Kiev took the service, uniting Orthodox and Catholic as he dispensed the Holy Sacrament. The Emperor took communion and then returned to Blachernae Palace for a last supper with his household. Around midnight he rode the length of the land walls with his friend George Sphrantzes to convince himself that all that could be done had been done for the defence of his city. They talked together for an hour on top of a tower near the palace and then said their goodbyes, knowing that they would never see each other again.