Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos was the last emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, today more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire. He is not only remembered for being the last Byzantine Emperor who put up a brave last stand against the Ottomans, but also for his last speech to his officers and allies before the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.
Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Christendom during the Middle Ages, the seat of the Byzantine emperor and the centre of a predominately Christian empire, steeped in Greek cultural and artistic influences, yet founded and maintained by a Roman legal and administrative system. Despite the amalgamation of Greek and Roman influences, its language and culture was Greek.
Although the Turkish state presents the Fall of Constantinople as an epic achievement, their narrative often omits that the Byzantine Empire was in a state of decline since the 1204 Catholic Fourth Crusade that destroyed the city. Nor does the narrative mention that it took 53 days for the Ottoman army of 100,000 to defeat the 10,000 Byzantine defenders.
When Constantinople’s walls were finally breached, Constantine XI knew there would be no mercy, as seen by the three day of mass murder, rape and pillage the Ottoman’s committed after the capture of the city. However, the last emperor of the more than 1,000 year old empire did not flee with the Genoese generals and many civilians to Italy, he instead died fighting in the streets of Constantinople – but not before giving one last epic speech:
“Most noble leader, illustrious tribunes, generals, most courageous fellow soldiers and all loyal honest citizens! You know well that the hour has come: the enemy of our faith wishes to oppress us even more closely by sea and land with all his engines and skill to attack us with the entire strength of this siege force, as a snake about to spew its venom; he is in a hurry to devour us, like a savage lion. For this reason I am imploring you to fight like men with brave souls, as you have done from the beginning up to this day, against the enemy of our faith. I hand over to you my glorious, famous, respected, noble city, the shining Queen of Cities, our homeland. You know well, my brothers, that we have four obligations in common, which force us to prefer death over survival: first our faith and piety; second our homeland; third, the emperor anointed by the Lord, and fourth; our relatives and friends.
Well, my brothers, if we must fight for one of these obligations, we will be even more liable under the command strength of all four; as you can clearly understand. If God grants victory to the impious because of my own sins, we will endanger our lives for our holy faith, which Christ gave us with his own blood. This is most important of all. Even if one gains the entire world but loses his soul in the process, what will be the benefit! Second, we will be deprived of such famous homeland and of our liberty. Third, our empire, renowned in the past but presently humbled, low and exhausted, will be ruled by a tyrant and an impious man. Fourth, we will be separated from our dearest children, wives and relatives.
This wretch of a Sultan has besieged our city up to now for fifty seven days with all his engines and strength; he has relaxed the blockade neither day nor night, but, by the grace of Christ, our Lord, who sees all things, the enemy has often been repelled, up to now, from our walls with shame and dishonour. Yet now too, my brothers, feel no cowardice, even if small parts of our fortifications have collapsed from the explosions and engine missiles, as you can see, we made all possible, necessary repairs. We are placing all hope in the irresistible glory of God. Some have faith in armament, others in cavalry, might and numbers but we believe in the name of our Lord, our God and Saviour, and second, in our arms and strength granted to us by divine power.
I know the countless hordes of the impious will advance against us, according to their custom, violently, confidently and with great courage and force in order to overwhelm and wear out our few defenders with hardship. They attempt to frighten us with loud yells and innumerable battle cries. But you are all familiar with their chattering and I need say no more about it. For a long time they will continue so and will also release over us countless rocks, all sorts of arrows and missiles, like the sand of the sea. But I hope that such things will not harm us; I see, greatly rejoice, and nourish with hopes in my mind that even if we are few, you are all experienced and seasoned warriors – courageous, brave, and well prepared. Protect your heads with shields in combat and battle. Keep your right hand, armed with the sword, extended in front of you at all times. Your helmets, breastplates and suits of armour are fully sufficient together with your other weapons and will prove very effective in battle. Our enemies have none and use no such weapons. You are protected inside the walls, while they will advance without cover and with toil.
For these reasons, my fellow soldiers, prepare yourselves, be firm, and remain valiant, for the pity of God. Take your example from the few elephants of the Carthaginians and how they dispersed the numerous cavalry of the Romans with their noise and appearance. If one dumb beast put another to flight, we, the masters of horses and animals, can surely even do better against our advancing enemies, since they are dumb animals, worse even than pigs. Present your shield, swords, arrows, and spears to them, imagining that you are a hunting party after wild boars, so that the impious may learn that they are dealing not with dumb animals but with their lords and masters, the descendants of the Greeks and the Romans.
You are well aware that this irreligious Sultan, the enemy of our holy faith, violated for no good reason the peace treaty we had with him and disregarded his numerous oaths without a second thought. Suddenly, he appeared and built his castle in the straights of Asomatosso so he might be able to inflict daily harm on us. Then he put our farms, gardens, parks, and houses to the torch, while he killed and enslaved as many of our Christian brothers as he found; he broke the treaty of friendship. He befriended the inhabitants of Galata, the wretches rejoice over this, as they are unaware of the parable of the farmer’s son who was roasting snails and said, ‘Oh stupid creature,’ etc.
Well my brothers, since he started the siege and the blockade, every day he opens his fathomless mouth and is seeking an opportunity to devour us and this city, which thrice-blessed Constantine the Great founded and dedicated to the all holy most chaste Mother of God, our lady, Mary the eternal virgin. She became the Queen of Cities, the shield and aid of our homeland, the shelter of Christians, the hope and joy of all wishes to destroy this city, which was once proud and blooming like a rose of the field.
I can tell you that this city mastered the entire universe; She placed beneath her feet Pontus, Armenia, Paphlagonia, The Amazonian lands, Cappadocia, Galatia, Media, Georgian Colchis, Bosphoros, Albania, Syria, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Palestine, Arabia, Judea, Bactria, Scythia, Macedonia, Thessaly, Boeotia, Locris, Aetolia, Arcarnania, Achaea, the Peloponnese, Epirus, Illyria, Lykhnites, the Adriatic, Italy, Tuscany, the Celts, and Galatian Celts, Spain up to Cadiz, Libya, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Beledes, Scude, Numidia, Africa and Egypt.
Now he wants to enslave her and throw the yoke upon the Mistress of Cities, our holy churches, where the Holy Trinity was worshiped, where the Holy Spirit was glorified in hymns, where angels were heard praising in chant the deity of and the incarnation of God’s word, he wants to turn into shrines of his blasphemy, shrines of the mad and false Prophet, Mohammed, as well as into stables for his horses and camels.
Consider then, my brothers and comrades in arms, how the commemoration of our death, our memory, fame and freedom can be rendered eternal.”