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A throwback to the last Byzantine Emperor

Billy Cotsis takes us back to 1453 and imagines what the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine Paliologos would have to say

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Statue of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (1404-1453 AD).

02 June 2017

Disclaimer: Billy Cotsis intends no offence by travelling back in time to imagine what interviewing the hero of 1453 would be like in the year the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople.

Emperor, you have resisted the Ottomans with the bravery of a million souls. Tonight, being 28 May, 1453 must be a tough one as tomorrow could be your last? What are you feeling, how is the city coping?
Thank you for the chance to tell my story and that of our resistance. This evening we have prayed to God and marched to Agia Sophia in a holy procession. The city has come together to honour our protector, the Virgin Mary. We have held mass and I took the time to thank every man, woman, and child of our city, our friends and allies who are supporting our efforts to hold off the Sultan Mehmet.

On the way to Agia Sophia, a large icon fell to the ground. Is that a bad omen?
I would pay little attention to this minor incident. I know the people discussed its meaning. I do not believe that God will abandon our city, not tonight, not tomorrow. We have solid defences, the walls built by Theodosius in the fifth century have been reinforced many times and we have held out the Avars, Scythians, Arabs, Persian Sassanids, and the Ottomans before. Europe should be grateful that we have held all these invaders out, for if we did not, Europe would be different. I hope Europe never forgets what the Hellenes have done in Constantinople. We are brave and with the help of the Greek liquid blast, our secret weapon, we will hold off our adversaries.

As you know, 120,000 Ottomans and over a hundred ships have surrounded our city since 6 April. The Hungarian Orban has provided them a weapon called the cannon which they blast into our walls every day.

Emperor, I understand that Orban tried to sell you the cannon first.
That is indeed correct. We do not have the funds to pay for extravagant military machinery. Ever since the Venetians betrayed us in 1204, our city has declined economically. The Pope and the Italian entities have consistently undermined Constantinople to further their own agendas. If they had helped us, we could have defeated the Ottomans and rid them from Europe and Asia Minor. Instead, they, along with numerous civil wars, have brought our millennia-old empire to a virtual end. One day, history will tell us that the cannon of Orban was the precise end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of a modern epoch.

You have been emperor since 1449 of an empire that once ruled almost the entire Mediterranean, Balkans, Black Sea, and into Asia. How did you feel when you were coronated in January that year?
It was a bittersweet experience. I was coronated at Mistra in the Morea (Peloponnese). This is one of the best towns in the world, full of learning and brilliant architecture. Our empire by this stage included the Morea and small areas in the Balkans. Not what it once was. I was also trying to reunify the Orthodox Church with the Pope. I see this as a necessary evil as we need Christendom to be together. My empire will not survive unless we have one church, and as the representative of God on earth, I believe that this is the best strategy for survival.

I must add this: the Ottomans are beatable. When I was a young military leader and then despot of the Morea, I defeated many an enemy, including the Latins and also Ottomans in open battle and skirmishes. Our problem is lack of funds and shortage of manpower.

This siege has lasted for six weeks. I believe it will be remembered forever.
Yes I think you are correct. We started with some skirmishes in Thrace which we won. Every attempt by the enemy to breach our defences has been repulsed. Every attempt to climb our walls has failed. Our only defeat thus far came in the harbour when someone within our camp betrayed us to the Sultan at the end of April when we set out to sink their fleet. Had this betrayal not occurred, we would have been in an even better position.

How many people are defending the city?
We are of course completely surrounded. There are enemy ships in the harbour. Each side of our land walls are facing not a sea of water, but a sea of the enemy. The enemy includes Janissaries, the former Christian slaves, Ottomans, a battalion of Serbians who are fighting with the Sultan, and people seeking their fortunes including some rogue Hellenes. I take pity and forgive them all, as they do not know any better.

On our side, we have a population of 50 thousand in the city, including children. Our forces number 7,000 - 8,000, with the majority being Hellenes. We have 400 archers sent by the Pope, Cretans - they are our fiercest warriors, Catalans, Ukrainians, 700 men from Giovanni Giustianini Longo. Here is an Italian who leads as a natural leader. I am proud to fight alongside him and his Genoese troops. We are also joined by . . .

And one Scottish engineer!
Yes we do have Johannes Grant the Scot fighting with us. His heroic deeds in locating enemy mines and launching counter-mines beneath the City walls saved Constantinople four weeks ago. Grant is a Scottish adventurer and engineer who made his name in Germany. As Scotland is not widely known in Constantinople, he fascinated the city.

There is a rumour that the Latins will be sending a large fleet.
We sent a small vessel to the Aegean to scout any friendly vessels. These brave men evaded the Ottoman navy and returned with the sad news that no-one is sailing to help us.

If the Sultan offers you the chance to go into exile, will you take it?
He has already through his Hellenic-born Grand Vizier, a man who has a level head. Unfortunately, despite the promises of goodwill from the Sultan, I will not leave my people. I will either die here or live on as the XI Constantine of this great city, re-founded by Constantine in 330 and founded by Byzas in 667 BCE. If anything, the Sultan needs to retreat.

Emperor, I wish you well and hope we meet again!

Postscript: A few hours later, a fierce and final battle took place. Wave after wave of Ottoman troops attempted to breach the walls. The few thousand defenders beat off numerous attacks. The Sultan was close to quitting. In an act of fate, a light was seen hovering above Agia Sophia and then vanishing into the sky. The Ottomans interpreted that as the city ready to be taken, giving them extra reasoning to continue. Guistiani was injured and taken to his ship. Had he stayed in post, his men would have had a leader, instead they panicked and fled. A small door that opened one of the walls (Kerkoporta) was also unwittingly found unlocked, allowing some Ottoman troops to sneak in. By 5.00 am, the Ottomans had gained the advantage and began breaching the walls.

The Emperor threw off his purple regalia and flung himself into the enemy, killing dozens. His fighting skills were superior, arguably one of the best that Byzantium ever produced. No-one actually verified his death. This has created the myth, that one day, the Immortal Emperor will return to Constantinople. The myth is heightened by the following episode. A final sermon took place as the Ottomans entered Agia Sophia. The priests told the frightened congregation that they will return one day to finish the sermon and promptly disappeared into the walls of the Church. They were never found.

Constantinople was pillaged and innocent people killed or rounded up. The ferocious Cretans held out, and they were allowed free passage to leave on the strength of their valour. The Sultan, upon entering the city, soon put an end to any further misery. He quickly appointed Gennadius Scholarius as Patriarch to oversee Christian affairs and set about enticing Hellenes back to their city.

The date of 29 May, therefore, marks the end of the Byzantine Empire. Had the Latins provided real support, the empire would have been saved and Constantinople would have remained Elliniko. Ironically, the Pope had convinced the Venetians to send a fleet. Had this occurred earlier, Constantinople would not have fallen on that date. There are statues of Constantine Paliologos in Athens where he is deemed a Saint.

* Billy Cotsis is the author of 'From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom'.

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