Constantine XI Palaiologos

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Constantine XI Palaiologos
Κωνσταντῖνος ΙΑ' Παλαιολόγος
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Constantine XI Palaiologos miniature.jpg
Constantine XI Palaiologos
Reign 6 January 1449 – 29 May 1453
Coronation 6 January 1449
Predecessor John VIII Palaiologos
Successor Office abolished
Born (1405-02-08)8 February 1405
Died 29 May 1453(1453-05-29) (aged 48)
Spouse Theodora Tocco
Caterina Gattilusio
Issue None
Dynasty Palaiologos dynasty
Father Manuel II Palaiologos
Mother Helena Dragaš

Constantine XI[1] Dragases Palaiologos, Latinized as Palaeologus (Greek: Κωνσταντῖνος ΙΑ' Δραγάσης Παλαιολόγος, Kōnstantinos XI Dragasēs Palaiologos; 8 February 1405[2][3] – 29 May 1453) was the last reigning Byzantine Emperor,[4][5][6] reigning as a member of the Palaiologos dynasty from 1449 to his death in battle at the fall of Constantinople. Following his death, he became a legendary figure in Greek folklore as the "Marble Emperor" who would awaken and recover the Empire and Constantinople from the Ottomans.[7] His death marked the end of the Roman Empire, which had continued in the East for 977 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.[8][9]


Constantine was born in Constantinople,[3] as the eighth of ten children to Manuel II Palaiologos and Helena Dragaš, the daughter of the Serbian magnate Constantine Dragaš. He was extremely fond of his mother and added her surname (Dragases) next to his own dynastic one when he ascended the imperial throne. He spent most of his childhood in Constantinople under the supervision of his parents. He was governor of Selymbria for a time, until surrendering the role to his brother Theodore in 1443. During the absence of his older brother John at the Council of Florence in Italy, Constantine served as his regent in Constantinople (1437–1440).

Despot of the Morea

Constantine became the Despotes of the Morea (the medieval name for the Peloponnesus) in October 1443, ruling from the fortress and palace in Mistra. At the time, Mistra, a fortified town also called Sparta or Lacedaemon due to its proximity to the ancient city,[10] was a center of arts and culture rivalling Constantinople.[11] Twenty years before, he had aided his brother John to consolidate Byzantine control over the Morea, campaigning against the Latin princes who still held parts of it, and except for the Venetian possessions of Modon, Coron, and Nauplion, the entire peninsula came under Byzantine control.[12]

After establishing himself as Despot, Constantine strengthened the defences of the Morea, by reconstructing a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth called the "Hexamilion" ("Six-mile-wall"), on the suggestion of the famous scholar and teacher of his, Plethon.[13]

In summer 1444, Constantine marched out of the Morea, invading the Latin Duchy of Athens. He swiftly conquered Thebes and Athens, forcing its Florentine duke, Nerio II Acciaioli, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, to pay him tribute. The Turkish response was inevitable. Two years later, the Sultan Murad II, who had come out of retirement, led an army of 50,000–60,000 soldiers into Greece to put an end to the pretensions of Constantine.[14] His purpose was not to conquer Morea but rather to teach the Greeks and their Despots a punitive lesson.[14] The Ottoman army reached the Hexamilion 27 November 1446. Constantine attempted to parlay with the Sultan, but, according to the historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, his terms "were not moderate, for he demanded that the Isthmos be allowed to stand as it was for him and that he get to keep all the sultan's lands beyond it that he had subjected".[15]

Constantine and his brother Thomas braced for the attack at the Hexamilion, which the Ottoman army reached on 27 November 1446. While the wall could hold against medieval attacks, Sultan Murad used bombards to supplement the usual siege engines and scaling ladders; the bombards breached the wall on 10 December 1446. Murad's janissaries poured through the opening, and the defenders panicked and fled. Constantine and Thomas attempted to rally their soldiers, and failing, barely escaped to Mistra.[16] Murad split his forces, giving one part to his advisor Turahan while leading the other part along the southern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, plundering and destroying as his troops advanced. While neither Patras or Mistra fell to the Ottoman troops, the province was devastated; an estimated 60,000 people were taken prisoner by the Sultan's forces and sold to the slave markets of Turkey. Constantine and his brother Thomas were forced to make themselves vassals of the Ottoman sultan and pay tribute.[17] All hopes of improving Byzantine fortunes by expanding their hegemony in the Morea had failed.[citation needed]


Constantine XI married twice: the first time on 1 July 1428 to Theodora Tocco, niece of Carlo I Tocco of Epirus, who died in November 1429; the second time in August 1441 to Caterina Gattilusio, daughter of Dorino of Lesbos, who also died, during childbirth, in 1442. He had no children by either marriage. After his coronation, in 1451, Constantine XI sent a commission under George Sphrantzes asking Mara Branković, daughter of the Serbian Despot Đurađ Branković and Byzantine princess Irene Kantakouzene, by then the widow of Murad II, to marry him (Mara had been allowed to return to her parents in Serbia after the death of Murad). The proposal was welcomed by her father Đurađ Branković, but it foundered on the objection of Mara herself who had vowed that "if God ever released her from the hands of the infidel she would lead a life of celibacy and chastity for the rest of her days".[18] Accordingly, the courtship failed and Sphrantzes took steps to arrange for a marriage with a princess either from the Empire of Trebizond or the Kingdom of Georgia. The choice eventually fell to an unnamed Georgian princess, daughter of George VIII. He started official negotiations with the Georgian king, who had sent an ambassador in Constantinople for that reason.[19] It was agreed that, next spring, Sphrantzes would sail for Georgia to bring the bride to Constantinople, but Constantine's plans were overtaken by the events of 1453.[2]

Reign as Emperor

Marble relief of a double-headed eagle in the Church of St Demetrios in Mystras, marking the spot where Constantine XI was crowned.

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 childless, 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 decided in favor of Constantine and on 6 January 1449 Constantine was crowned in the cathedral at Mistra by the local bishop. It was rare, but not unprecedented, for an emperor to be crowned in a provincial city. Michael VIII Palaiologos, founder of the dynasty of Palaiologos had been crowned at Nicaea, Asia Minor.[20] John Cantacuzene was crowned at Adrianople, Thrace. But both of them held a second coronation ceremony at Constantinople, performed by the patriarch.

Constantine was the exception. The patriarch at the time, Gregory III, was a unionist, (see East–West Schism) shunned by most of his clergy. Constantine knew that to receive his crown from Gregory would add fuel to the existing fires of religious discord in the capital.[21] He sailed from Greece on a Venetian ship and arrived in Constantinople on 12 March 1449.[21]

Sultan Murad died in 1451, succeeded by his 19-year-old son Mehmed II. Mehmed II was obsessed with the conquest of Constantinople.[22] Constantine responded to this by threatening to release Prince Orhan, who was a contender to the Ottoman throne, unless Mehmed met some of his demands. Because of this, Mehmed considered Constantine to have broken the truce and the following winter of 1451–52, Mehmed built Rumelihisarı, a hill fortress on the European side of the Bosporus, just north of the city cutting the communication with the Black Sea to the east.[23] This complemented the Anadoluhisarı fortress on the Anatolian (Asian) side of the Bosporus, built between 1393 and 1394 by Sultan Bayezid I. For Constantine that was a clear prelude for a siege and he immediately started organizing his defence.

He managed to raise funds to stockpile food for the upcoming siege and to repair the old Theodosian walls, but the poor state of the Byzantine economy did not allow him to raise the necessary army to defend the city against the massive Ottoman army. Desperate for any type of military assistance, Constantine XI appealed to the West reaffirming the union of Eastern and Roman Churches which had been signed at the Council of Florence, a condition the Catholic Church imposed before any help could be provided. The union had been overwhelmingly criticized by the strong anti-union ("anthenotikoi") part of his subjects; his megas doux Loukas Notaras, his chief minister and military commander, is alleged to have said, "Better to see the turban of the Turks reigning in the center of the City than the Latin mitre."[24] Finally, although some troops did arrive from the mercantile city states in the north of Italy, the Western contribution was negligible compared to the needs, given the Ottoman strength. Constantine also sought assistance from his brothers in Morea, but any help was forestalled by an Ottoman invasion of the peninsula in 1452, executed to tie down the soldiers there.[25] The siege of the city began in the winter of 1452. Constantine faced the siege defending his city of less than 50,000 people with an army only numbering 7,000 men. Confronting the Byzantine forces was an Ottoman army numbering around 10 times that, backed by state-of-the-art siege equipment provided by a very competent Hungarian arms maker named Orban.[26]

Fall of Constantinople and death

A popular depiction of Constantine XI.

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; to which, as preserved by G. Sphrantzes, Constantine replied:

To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else's who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.

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

He died the day the city fell, 29 May 1453. His last recorded words were: "The city is fallen and I am still alive."[27] Then he tore off his imperial ornaments so as to let nothing distinguish him from any other soldier and led his remaining soldiers into a last charge where he was killed.[28]

Soldiers were sent to search amongst the dead for his body. The first body that was believed to be the emperor's, a body that had silk stockings with an eagle embroidered in it, was decapitated and marched around the ruined capital. However, it failed to gather any recognition from the citizens of Constantinople.[29] There were no known surviving eyewitnesses to the death of the Emperor and none of his entourage survived to offer any credible account of his death.[30]


Statue of Constantine XI in Athens, Mitropoleos square.
An icon of Constantine XI.

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 to conquer the city back for Christians.[31][32]

While serving as ambassador to Russia in February 1834, Ahmed Pasha presented Tsar Nicholas with a number of gifts, including a jewel-encrusted sword supposedly taken from Constantine XI's corpse.[33]

Constantine XI's legacy was used as a rallying cry for Greeks during their war for Independence with the Ottoman Empire. Today the Emperor is considered a national hero in Greece.[citation needed]

During the Balkan Wars and the Greco-Turkish War, under the influence of the Megali Idea, the name of the then-Greek king, Constantine, was used in Greece as a popular confirmation of the prophetic myth about the Marble King who would liberate Constantinople and recreate the lost Empire.[citation needed]

Constantine Palaiologos' legacy is still a popular theme in Greek culture. The well known contemporary composers Apostolos Kaldaras and Stamatis Spanoudakis have written elegies for the Marble King.[34][35]

Unofficial saint

Some Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholics consider Constantine XI a saint (or a national martyr or ethnomartyr, Greek: ἐθνομάρτυρας). However, he has not been officially canonized by either Church, partly due to controversy surrounding his personal religious beliefs and partly because death in battle is not normally considered a form of martyrdom by the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox martyr is one who voluntarily accepts death for his faith, typically in a situation where he has the option to give up Christianity and live, but chooses death instead.


In popular culture

  • Emperor Constantine XI was portrayed by Cahit Irgat in Turkish film İstanbul'un Fethi (1951).
  • Recep Aktuğ portrays Emperor Constantine XI in the Turkish film Fetih 1453 (2012).
  • Emperor Constantine XI is the protagonist in Constantinopolis, a novel by James Shipman (2013).


  1. In older sources sometimes Constantine XII, if Constantine Laskaris (1204–05) is counted, cf. Alice-Mary Tost, "Constantine XI Palaiologos", A. P. Kazhdan, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 1991 [online 2005]).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Donald M. Nicol, The Immortal Emperor (Cambridge: University Press, 1992)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991
  4. Donald MacGillivray Nicol, The last centuries of Byzantium, 1261–1453 (Cambridge: University Press, 1993), p.369
  5. A.Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, 324–1453, volume 2 (1958), p.589
  6. William J. Duiker, Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History, Volume I (2009), p.378
  7. David Nicolle, John F. Haldon, Stephen R. Turnbull, The fall of Constantinople: the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium, Osprey, 2007, p.191
  8. Donald M. Nicol (9 May 2002). The Immortal Emperor: The Life and Legend of Constantine Palaiologos, Last Emperor of the Romans. Cambridge University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-521-89409-8. Constantine's death marked the end of an institution that traced its origins back to the reign of Constantine the Great in the fourth century, ...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. George W. White, Nationalism and territory: constructing group identity in Southeastern Europe (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), pp.124
  10. Elizabeth Rawson, The Spartan tradition in European thought (Oxford: University Press), p.120
  11. Nicol, Last Centuries, pp. 341f
  12. Nicol, Last Centuries, pp. 346f
  13. N. Nikoloudes, Laonikos Chalkokondyles: a translation and commentary of the "Demonstrations of histories", Books 1–3, Volume 16, Historical Publications, 1996, p. 391
  14. 14.0 14.1 Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations (Cambridge: University press), p. 386
  15. Chalkokondyles 7.19; translated by Anthony Kaldellis, The Histories (Cambridge: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2014), vol. 2 p. 105
  16. Chalkokondyles 7.20-25; translated by Kaldellis, The Histories, vol. 2 pp. 107-113
  17. Nicol, Last Centuries, pp. 364f
  18. Nicol, Immortal Emperor, p.45
  19. Nicol, Immortal Emperor, p.46
  20. Geanakoplos, Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West (Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 17
  21. 21.0 21.1 Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations, (Cambridge: University Press) p.390
  22. Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and his Time, translated by Ralph Manheim (Princeton: University Press, 1978), p. 81
  23. Babinger, Mehmed, pp. 77f
  24. Doukas, 37.9
  25. Babinger, Mehmed, p. 80
  26. Brett D. Steele & Tamera Dorland, The heirs of Archimedes: science and the art of war through the Age of Enlightenment (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005), p.128
  27. Philip Sherrard, Constantinople: iconography of a sacred city (Oxford: University Press, 1965), p. 139
  28. Constance Head, Imperial twilight: the Palaiologos dynasty and the decline of Byzantium, Nelson-Hall, 1977, p. 168
  29. Lost to the West: the forgotten Byzantine Empire that rescued Western Civilization, 2009, p. 299
  30. Marios Philippides; Walter K. Hanak (2011). "The" Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-4094-1064-5. Retrieved 20 May 2013. The fact of the matter is that no survivor had witnessed the death of the emperor and no one from the emperor's immediate retinue survived the last stand to present a credible report of Constantine's actual demise.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Θρύλοι για την άλωση της Πόλης - Ο μαρμαρωμένος βασιλιάς!". Archived from the original on 13 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "Fall of Constantinople, 1453".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Niles' Register, "Russia and Turkey", February 1834. Page 426.
  34. The Marble King (music/video) on YouTube
  35. Μαρμαρωμένος Βασιληάς/The Marble-Petrified King (music/video) on YouTube


  • Roger Crowley, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Hyperion, 2005; ISBN 1-4013-0850-3
  • Jonathan Harris, The End of Byzantium. Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-300-11786-8
  • Donald M. Nicol, The Immortal Emperor. Cambridge University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-521-46717-9
  • Donald M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press, 1993, 2nd edition. ISBN 0-521-43991-4
  • Murr Nehme, Lina (2003). 1453: The Fall of Constantinople. Aleph Et Taw. ISBN 2-86839-816-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 1991.
  • Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. Cambridge University Press, 1965. ISBN 0-521-09573-5
  • Georgios Frantzes, Ioannes A. Melisseides, Rita Zavolea Melisseidou, " Ealo I Polis, To Chronico tes halose tes Konstantinoupoles " ( Constantinople has Fallen. Chronicle of the Fall of Constantinople : Brief History of Events in Constantinople during the Period 1440-1453, Georgiou Frantzi, Ioannis A. Melisseidis - translator : Ioannis A. Melisseidis, Rita Zavolea Melisseidou ) 1998/2004, Ekd.Vergina, Athens. ISBN 9789607171917 (Worldcat, Greek National Bibliography 1999/2004, Biblionet)

External links

Constantine XI Palaiologos
Palaiologos dynasty
Born: 8 February 1404 Died: 29 May 1453
Regnal titles
Preceded by
John VIII Palaiologos
Byzantine Emperor
Office abolished
Preceded by
Theodore II Palaiologos
Despot of the Morea
Succeeded by
Thomas Palaiologos