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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The fall of Byzantium


Constantine XI (1449-1453) and the capture of Constantinople


The Original Greek New Testament
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The Venetians and Genoese took part in the defense of the capital. Constantine and the population of the city relied especially on a Genoese noble of great military reputation, John (Giovanni) Giustiniani, who arrived in Constantinople with two large vessels bringing seven hundred fighting men. Access to the Golden Horn was barred, as had already happened several times at dangerous moments in the past, by a massive iron chain. The remains of this chain, it was supposed, could be seen until recently in the Byzantine church of St. Irene, where the Ottoman Military-Historical Museum is now established.

The military forces of Muhammed on land and sea which consisted, besides the Turks, of the representatives of different peoples whom he had conquered, largely exceeded the modest number of the defenders of Constantinople, the Greeks and some Latins, particularly Italians.

One of the most important events in all world history was imminent. The very fact of Turkish siege and capture of the City protected by God, Constantinople, left a deep mark in the sources, which, in various languages and from different points of view, described the last moments of the Byzantine Empire and allow one to follow, sometimes literally by days and hours, the development of the last act of this thrilling historical drama. The sources which exist are written in Greek, Latin, Italian, Slavonic, and Turkish.

The chief Greek sources vary in their estimation of the event. George Phrantzes, who participated in the siege, an intimate friend of the last Emperor, and a very well-known diplomat, who held high offices in the Empire, was full of boundless love for his Emperor-hero and for the house of the Palaeologi in general, and was opposed to the union of the Churches; he described the last days of Byzantium in order to restore the honor of the vanquished Constantine, his abused country, and the insulted Greek Orthodox faith. Another contemporary writer, the Greek Critobulus, who had passed over to the Turks and wished to prove his devotion to Muhammed II, dedicated his history, which shows strongly the influence of Thucydides, to the greatest emperor, king of kings, Mehemet; he related the last days of Byzantium from the point of view of a subject of the new Ottoman Empire, though he did not attack his Greek countrymen. A Greek of Asia Minor, Ducas, a supporter of the union, in which he saw the only means of security for the Empire, wrote from a standpoint favorable to the West, especially stressed the services and merits of the Genoese commander, Giustiniani, rather belittled the role of Constantine, but at the same time wrote not without love and pity for the Greeks. Finally, the fourth Greek historian of the last period of Byzantium, the only Athenian in Byzantine literature, Laonikos Chalcocondyles (or Chalcondyles), choosing as the main topic of his history not Byzantium, but the Turkish Empire, took a new and vast theme to describe the extraordinary evolution of the might of the young Ottoman Empire which was rising on the ruins of the Greek, Frankish, and Slavonic states; in other words, his work is general in character. Since, in addition to that, Laonikos was not an eyewitness of the last days of Constantinople, it has only secondary significance. Among the most valuable sources written in Latin were several by authors who lived through the whole time of the siege at Constantinople. One was the appeal To All the Faithful of Christ (Ad universos Christi fideles de expugnatione Constantinopolis) written by Cardinal Isidore, who narrowly escaped Turkish captivity. He begged all Christians to rise up in arms to defend the perishing Christian faith. The report to the pope of the archbishop of Chios, Leonard, who also escaped Turkish captivity, interpreted the great distress which had befallen Byzantium as a punishment for the Greeks' secession from the Catholic faith. Finally, a poem in verse, in four stanzas, Constantinopolis, was composed by an Italian, Pusculus, who spent some time in Turkish captivity. He was an imitator of Virgil and to a certain extent of Homer. A zealous Catholic, he dedicated his poem to the pope and was, like Leonard, convinced that God had punished Byzantium for its schism.

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