05 June 2014

What are these stories about?

Sphrantzes wrote: "[In December 1453] the most impious and pitiless sultan, with his own hand, took the life of my dearest son John, on the grounds that the child had conspired to murder him. . . . My son was fourteen years and eight months less a day; yet his mind and body proclaimed a much more mature person."  

Doukas wrote a much longer account about another son.  It begins: "After the tyrant had traversed most of the City, he celebrated by holding a banquet on the palace grounds.  Full of wine and in a drunken stupor, he summoned his chief eunuch and commanded him, "Go to the home of the grand duke [Lukas Notaras] and tell him, 'The ruler orders you to send your younger son to the banquet.'"  The youth was handsome and fourteen years old."

The narrative goes on to report Notaras' refusal, and Mehmed's order to bring Notaras, his son and son-in-law for execution. Notaras'  made a stirring speech of encouragement to the young men, and requested to be executed last.  Their courage and dignity was outstanding. Doukas reports that this was followed by the execution of other chief nobles and palace officials.

Kritovoulos also writes about the execution of the Notarades.  He says, "But the arrows of envy laid that man and his sons low with mortal wounds, and they were condemned to an unjust death.  #285. For some men of great influence . . . moved by envy and hatred . . . persuaded [Mehmed] to put [the prominent Greeks] out of the way . . . those men would no longer hesitate to plot in their own interests . . . And they were all killed, and among them were executed the Grand Duke and his two sons." Kritovoulos goes on to describe their courage, and says that Notaras died with nine companions.   

These stories are problems. The most familiar one, that of Doukas, appears well within the Greek tradition -- dating back to Herodotos -- of seeing the Eastern tyrant through a lens of sex and violence. But it does not have to be. Perhaps sex was involved with John Sphrantzes, but if so and if he knew about it, Sphrantzes was congenitally incapable of writing about sex, and certainly in terms of his son. Certainly he feared it.  Kritovoulos' version of the Notaras story makes it difficult to accept the Doukas version, but then Doukas makes it difficult to accept Kritovoulos. Is it significant that the sons of the two highest officials under Constantine -- Notaras and Sphrantzes -- are killed?  Both Doukas and Kritovoulos say that other leading Greeks from the City were executed. That is to have been expected.

There is a third version of this story, in an anonymous 16thC chronicle (Philippides 1990).  "After five days had passed, they began a search for the magnates, the grand duke, the grand domestic, and the protostrator, the son of the mesazon Kantakouzenos, along with a few other prominent individuals. He had them all beheaded.  He slaughtered the sons of the grand duke in his presence and then he slaughtered him.  The grand duke's youngest son, Isaakios, he sent to the seraglio; shorly thereafter, he escaped from the seraglio in Adrianople and vanished; later he came to his sister [Anna Notaras] in Rome who had been sent there with a countless fortune by her father before the siege."

A third case of slaughter of the high officials, a third case of a specific son. But it wasn't Isaakios who joined his sister but Iakobo; and the son-in-law of Notaras in Doukas was a Kantakouzenos, while Kantakouzenos the grand domestic had been killed on the 29th.  This version clarifies little for my problem, except to add another story where a specific son has been singled out.

But there is another story, probably from 1460 or just after the surrender of the Morea and the transfer of upper-class hostages to Adrianople and Constantinople.  There is an excerpt from a letter originally written by John Dokeianos to Demetrios Laskaris Asan, recorded in mixed Latin and Greek. Dokeianos weeps for the loss of these splendid sons: for the first who shared every wonderful quality, for golden-souled Alexios, for the third and most beautiful whose name reflected the grace with which he was endowed.  The first two died contending for the fatherland. The third, who died in the prime of his life, martyr to a principled decision, left behind children and a widow: he will be added to the choir of martyrs.

Here is another son selectively executed, the son of one of the most powerful men in the Morea, but this time an adult son who is himself a father. Does it involve Mehmed?  Are sons a specific target, or are they primarily a narrative device?  Does it have to be one or the other?

I would be glad to learn of more stories like these, from the time of Mehmed. My ideas are fragmented.  

These frescos are Serbian, from Pec, and Jevandalist.

Several nights after I wrote this entry, I dreamed that I had found a new manuscript of Sphrantzes, one in which he had filled in all the descriptions and explanations he was too old and ill to write.  The young men were standing around me, pointing out the explanations of these stories. 

 [Late note in reply to the question below, as Google is not working properly.  Sphrantzes tells the story of his son in Chron. Min. 3 7.3.]


  1. Very very interesting...I knew of course about the Notarras execution but I was not aware of its exact cause... Some historians put this on Lucas Notarras's will to surrender and Mehmet's dispise for "traitors" which I consider as being a bogus explanation.

    I had no idea Sphrantzes's son was also killed by Mehmet.

    Mehmet sexual behaviour and habits were for sure a central issue and had sometimes dramatic consequences as the execution by longitudinal impalement of tens of thousends of Turkish prisoners by the Romanian prince Vlad III after his brother Radu the Handsome was ... "held" by Mehmet...

  2. Just one more thing, I do not remember Sphrantzes mentionning this in the chronicon minor, what is the source ?


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