Constantine Xi

For other people with similar names, see Constantine Palaiologos (disambiguation).
Constantine XI Palaiologos
Κωνσταντῖνος ΙΑ' Παλαιολόγος
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Constantine XI Palaiologos
Reign 6 January 1449 – 29 May 1453
Coronation 6 January 1449
Born (1404-02-08)8 February 1404
Died 29 May 1453(1453-05-29) (aged 48)
Predecessor John VIII Palaiologos
Successor Office abolished
Consort to Theodora Tocco
Caterina Gattilusio
Issue None
Dynasty Palaiologos dynasty
Father Manuel II Palaiologos
Mother Helena Dragaš
Religious beliefs Eastern Orthodox

Constantine XI Palaiologos, Latinized as Palaeologus (Greek: Κωνσταντῖνος ΙΑ' Δραγάσης Παλαιολόγος, Kōnstantinos XI Dragasēs Palaiologos; 8 February 1404[1][2] – 29 May 1453) was the last reigning Byzantine Emperor[3][4][5] and the last Roman emperor, 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 Turks.[1][6] 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.[7]


Constantine was born in Constantinople[2] as the eighth of ten children to Manuel II Palaiologos and Helena Dragaš, the daughter of the Serbian prince 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. During the absence of his older brother in Italy, Constantine was regent in Constantinople from 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,[8] was a center of arts and culture rivalling Constantinople.

After establishing himself as the Despot, Constantine worked to strengthen the defence of the Morea, including 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.[9]

In summer 1444, he launched an invasion of the Latin Duchy of Athens from the Morea, swiftly conquering Thebes and Athens and forcing its Florentine duke to pay him tribute. The Duchy was ruled by Nerio II Acciaioli, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan.

The Turks, frustrated by the attempt of the Greeks to expand from the Morea into central Greece[10] started raising an invading army. Two years later, in autumn 1446, Sultan Murad II who had come out of retirement, led an army of 50–60,000 soldiers into Greece to put an end to the pretensions of Constantine.[11] His purpose was not to conquer Morea but to teach the Greeks and their Despots a punitive lesson.[11] 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, leaving the Hexamilion in ruins by 10 December. Constantine and Thomas barely escaped, and Morea was invaded. This put an end to Constantine's attempt to expand his Despotate.


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 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 (Maria 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 Maria 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".[12] Accordingly, the courtship failed and Sphrantzes took steps to arrange for a marriage with a princess either from Trebizond Empire 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.[13] 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 tragic events of 1453.[1]

Reign as Emperor

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. The founder of the dynasty of Palaiologos had been crowned at Nicaea, Asia Minor, John Cantacuzene at Adrianople, Thrace. But they had been thought proper that a second coronation ceremony be held also 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.[14] He sailed from Greece on a Venetian ship arrived in Constantinople on 12 March 1449.[14]

Sultan Murad died in 1451, succeeded by his 19 year old son Mehmed II. Soon afterwards, Mehmed II began agitating for the conquest of Constantinople. Constantine responded to this by threatening to release Prince Orhan, who was a pretender 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 Rumelihisari, 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. This came in addition to the building of Anadoluhisarı, the fortress opposite of Rumelihisari on the Asian side, and gave the Ottomans absolute control over the sea traffic of the Bosporus Strait. For Constantine that was a clear prelude for a siege and immediately started organizing the defence.

He managed to raise funds to stockpile foods 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, while it dangerously estranged him from Loukas Notaras, his chief minister and military commander who was a leading anti-union figure. 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 which took place exactly for that reason. The siege of the city began in the winter of 1452. Constantine faced the siege defending his city of 60,000 people with an army only numbering 7,000 men. Confronting the Byzantine forces was an Ottoman army numbering many times that, backed by state-of-art siege equipment provided by a very competent Hungarian arms maker named Orban.[15]

Fall of Constantinople and death

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 on 29 May 1453, the day the city fell. His last recorded words were: "The city is fallen and I am still alive",[16] and 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.[17]

Soldiers were sent hastily to search amongst the dead and the first that was believed to be the emperor's, a body that had silk stockings with an eagle embroidered in it, the head was decapitated and marched around the ruined capital. However, it failed to gather any recognition from the citizens of Constantinople.[18] There were no known surviving eyewitness to the death of the Emperor and none of his entourage survived to offer any credible account of his death.[19]


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.[20][21]

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.[22]

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.

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.

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.[23][24]

Unofficial saint

Some Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholics consider Constantine XI a saint (or a national martyr or ethnomartyr, Greek: ἐθνομάρτυρας).


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 Turkish film Fetih 1453 (2012).



  • 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
  • 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 Constatinople : 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 9607171918 ISBN 139789607171917 (Worldcat, Biblionet)

External links

  • Great Martyr, the Emperor Blessed Constantine XI Paleologos
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

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