10 October 2009

Constantine Palaiologos

I was showing my grandson, Senan, the statue of Constantine Palaiologos in the plateia in front of the Athens cathedral.

This statue is reproduced in various places around the country and it shows him wearing an arm-confining cape, a crown that would fall off with the slightest exertion, and holding his sword in a position from which he cannot defend himself. This may be a metaphor.

A man at the next table leaned into the conversation and said loudly, "Konstantinos Palaiologos is the greatest emperor the Greeks ever had!" I thought to myself: Nikeforas Fokas? Basil II? Alexios I? Manuel II? Senan likes heroes and dragons, and I was trying to tell him that this was another kind of hero and another kind of dragon; that Constantine knew he was going into great anguish and sure death, but he chose to follow out his inherited fate with dignity and courage.

When his brother John VIII died, on 31 October 1448, the news reached him in early December. His brother Thomas, who had gone to Constantinople on his behalf, stayed to hold his place against their remaining brother, Demetrios. In January, two old friends arrived from Constantinople with the formal announcement and to escort him back to Constantinople, Alexios Philanthropenos Laskaris and Manuel Palaiologos Iagros. Constantine was crowned at Mistra -- the Empire had no single ceremonial crown and we know nothing about this Mistra ceremony -- in the little cathedral of Ag. Demetrios where this modern plaque marks the event. He was not able to leave the Morea until late February, presumably because of the problems of winter sailing, and he arrived in The City on 12 March.

The City was nearly deserted, the population a tenth of what the walls could contain. Sphrantzes was sent off to Trebizond and Georgia, and someone else went to Serbia, to find him a third bride, because an imperial marriage with its prospects of children would demonstrate hope for the future. None of these efforts came to anything. His mother died. Sultan Murad who was on reasonable terms of friendship with The City died. Presently the Patriarch, Gregorios Mamas, fled. Then Mehmed occupied the straits and began building a castle.

No one was surprised. It had been assumed for more than fifty years that the Ottomans would be unstoppable. His parents' close friend, Demetrios Kydones, had written them before 1400 about

this dark cloud which is closing in over the land of the Romans. . . this plague which does not let us catch a breath but is drawing us to death . . . little by little, like a consumption, weakening the body of our community . .
Constantine asked Sphrantzes to take a census of the resources available to them, and to keep the results private. Sphrantzes found 4,773 Greeks and about 200 foreigners, mostly Genoese and Venetian, for the 14 miles of walls around the triangle of The City. Constantine also had such men as the judge and priest, Giorgios Scholarios, who had trimmed his sails to every prevailing wind for the past 25 years. And he had the Grand Duke, Loukas Notaras who had been treating with the Turks for years.***

Mehmed had 200,000 men and 400 ships for those 14 miles of walls, and everyone knows how The City fell. Constantine disappeared into myth on the morning of 29 May 1453.

His father had written:
But a ruler’s and an emperor's duty is to accept any risk in order to save his people, and to regard dying a light burden, whenever freedom is at stake and whenever the risk concerns. . .Faith.
The time for great emperors had come to an end twenty-five years before Constantine got to Constantinople, but he gave evidence on the limited stage of the Morea that he could have been one. He was a successful military commander, taking Patras and then the territories of Carlo Tocco, and later a series of territories north of the Gulf of Corinth. Alone of the brothers, he left a record of long-term planning, such as when he exchanged territories with Thomas so he would be poised for his subsequent conquests across the gulf, or when he talked to Sphrantzes about his concern for justice, and his organization of the Moreote administration. He rebuilt the walls of the Hexamilion, and with Thomas took an army there to oppose yet another Ottoman invasion, but the army panicked and fled, and the brothers barely escaped alive.

For fifty years there had been regular protests from the small Venetian territories on the periphery of the Morea at the violent raids of the despotate's robber archons who raided and burned Greek farms. During Constantine's five years as Despot, there were no complaints, but within two months of his leaving for Constantinople the raids had begun again.

He is more difficult to grasp as a person than his brothers or father. He was probably, like them, a slight man, but unlike John, Andronikos, and Theodoros, physically tough, having ridden and hunted from childhood. Theodoros had described him in a poem as:

one who breathed war and slaughter in battle
eminent in appearance and the depths of thought,
the dread warrior, Constantine the despot.
This was a praise poem: not courtroom evidence, but as it was circulated among people who knew him, it has to have had some basis in fact. His self-control is always in evidence, and one myth of what happened to him after on 29 May calls him "The Marble Emperor." But there are glimpses of his enjoyment of hunting, of his courtesy to guests, and he took Cyriaco to watch an athletic contest in Sparta.

We have evidence for three Palaiologos brothers --John, Theodoros, and Constantine -- of deep, passionate attachments to their wives, and the single clue to Constantine's emotional life comes by way of the death of his wife, Theodora Tocco, who died in childbirth, When Constantine became Despot of the Morea, he had Theodora's body moved from its grave at Clarentza and reinterred in Ag. Sophia at Mistra. When he went to Constantinople as emperor, he had her body brought to Constantinople. He had another marriage, to Caterina Gattilusi, who died a year later from what Sphrantzes says were the results of a miscarriage, but he did not move Caterina's body.

A gravesite
in Constantinople has been suggested as possibly that of Theodora, the grave in the Kariye Djami with the richly-colored fresco above. Two elements together contribute to this suggestion. The first is that her supposed burial site at Mistra is marked with a ruinous fresco of the Virgin and Child -- appropriate for a woman who had died in childbirth -- and this site also has a Virgin and Child. The second is that the woman in this fresco is wearing a gown of Western fabric, and the style of painting is Western, with the pattern following the folds of the fabric instead of being painted flat as with other frescos in the Kariye Djami. But her grave, like his, is unknown.

Constantine was a just and rational despot,
a dedicated emperor, a good man.

Some small justice came, though. Notaras did not understand that in Mehmed's world, Mehmed ruled.: Mehmed despised traitors and Notaras was executed early on. Despite the portrait of her in the Kalomoiris-Kazantzakis opera, Constantine Palaiologos, Notaras' daughter Anna had left The City for Venice with a fortune in money and jewels, letting it be believed that she had been secretly married to Constantine, a belief that allowed her to dominate and squeeze the Greek community of Venice for years. Scholarios had trimmed successfully enough to be made Orthodox Patriarch.


  1. Very interesting post, thank you.
    Your blog is amazing, and I hope you continue the excellent work!

    Greeting from Patra,Moreas

  2. My surname is Palaiologos and reading things such as this make me very proud to bear the name...
    However Constantine wasnt the Greatest Greek Emperor..Without a doubt it was and forever will be Alexander.

  3. Nonsense. Alexander was a megalomaniac, alcoholic killer. He gutted Greece of men to make his empire across Asia, undid the unifying work his father did, left Greece vulnerable to a series of civil wars and foreign conquerors, and left his family to be murdered. Not one single benefit accrued to Greece in his lifetime because of him, though I admit he has been terrific for a sanitized portrait for tourists produced by a tourist enterprise that totally ignores actual archaeological and historical evidence.

    1. Your ignorance about Alexander is beyond measure. The greatest legend of all and the commander who never lost a battle. He founder over 70 cities and brought the Hellenic culture and philosophy to all people there while never forbidding them to retain their identity. A true visionary.

  4. The details about Constantine's devotion to his wife Theodora Tocca after she died are extremely touching. To know that she meant so much to him, for him to move her body near him every time is a love story that should be talked about and immortalized, as another of the world's great love stories. We wouldn't have known about it without such a great article such as yours. Thank you.


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