Constantine XI Palaiologos: Last reigning Byzantine emperor (1404 - 1453) | Biography
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Constantine XI Palaiologos
Last reigning Byzantine emperor

Constantine XI Palaiologos

Constantine XI Palaiologos
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Last reigning Byzantine emperor
A.K.A. Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, Constantine XI Dragases Palaeolog...
Was Monarch Noble Sovereign Emperor
From Turkey
Field Royals
Gender male
Birth 8 February 1404, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Death 29 May 1453, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire (aged 49 years)
Star sign Aquarius
Mother: Helena Dragaš
Father: Manuel II Palaiologos
Siblings: Demetrios PalaiologosAndronikos Palaiologos (son of Manuel II)John VIII PalaiologosThomas PalaiologosTheodore II Palaiologos
Spouse: Theodora ToccoCaterina Gattilusio
The details (from wikipedia)


Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, Latinized as Palaeologus (Greek: Κωνσταντῖνος Δραγάσης Παλαιολόγος, Kōnstantinos Dragasēs Palaiologos; 8 February 1405 – 29 May 1453) was the last reigning Byzantine emperor, ruling as a member of the Palaiologos dynasty from 1449 to his death in battle at the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Previously serving as regent for his brother John VIII 1437–1439, Constantine succeeded his brother, who died in Constantinople of natural causes in 1448, as Emperor following a short dispute with his younger brother Demetrios. Despite the mounting difficulties of his reign, contemporary sources generally speak respectfully of Constantine. Constantine would rule for just over 4 years, his reign culminating in the Ottoman siege and conquest of Constantinople, the imperial capital, under Sultan Mehmed II. Constantine did what he could to organize the defenses of the city, stockpiling food and repairing the old Theodosian walls, but the reduced domain of the Empire and the poor economy meant that organizing a force large enough for the defense of the city was impossible. Constantine led the defending forces, numbering approximately 7,000, against an Ottoman army numbering around 10 times that and died in the ensuing fighting.

Following his death, he became a legendary figure in Greek folklore as the Marmaromenos Vasilias, the "Marble Emperor" who would awaken and recover the Empire and Constantinople from the Ottomans. His death marked the end of the Roman Empire. It had continued in the East as the Byzantine Empire for 977 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. The Empire had begun with the reign of Augustus in 27 BC, 1,479 years previously.


Constantine was born in Constantinople, as the eighth of ten children to Manuel II Palaiologos and Helena Dragaš, the daughter of the Serbian magnate 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.

Seal of Constantine XI as Byzantine emperor

Almost nothing is known of his physical appearance or his character. The surviving contemporary images are highly stylized and include a seal now in Vienna (of unknown provenance, probably from an imperial chrysobull), a few coins, and his portrait among the other Byzantine emperors in the Biblioteca Estense copy of the history of Zonaras. In the latter he is shown with a rounded beard, in noted contrast to his forked-bearded relatives, but it is unclear whether that reflects his actual appearance. Likewise his character, and the image he is known with to posterity, are heavily skewed by the accounts composed after his death; they portray his life with a view to his final fate, and are thus highly eulogizing in nature.

He was governor of Selymbria for a time, until surrendering the role to his brother Theodore in 1443. During the absence of his older brother John at the Council of Florence in Italy, Constantine served as his regent in Constantinople (1437–1440).

Despot of the Morea

Constantine became the ruler of the Despotate of the Morea (the medieval name for the Peloponnesus) in October 1443. He ruled from the fortress and palace in Mistra, a fortified town also called Sparta or Lacedaemon due to its proximity to the ancient city. Mistra was a center of arts and culture rivalling Constantinople. Twenty years before, Constantine had aided his brother John in consolidating Byzantine control over the Morea, campaigning against the Latin princes of the Principality of Achaea who still held parts of it, and except for the Venetian possessions of Modon, Coron, and Nauplion, the entire peninsula came under Byzantine control.

After establishing himself as despot, Constantine strengthened the defences of the Morea by reconstructing a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth called the "Hexamilion" ("Six-mile-wall"), on the suggestion of Constantine's famous teacher, Plethon.

In summer 1444, Constantine marched out of the Morea, invading the Latin Duchy of Athens. He swiftly conquered Thebes and Athens, forcing its Florentine duke, Nerio II Acciaioli, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, to pay him tribute. The Turkish response was inevitable. Two years later, the Sultan Murad II, who had come out of retirement, led an army of 50,000–60,000 soldiers into Greece to put an end to the pretensions of Constantine. His purpose was not to conquer Morea but rather to teach the Greeks and their Despots a punitive lesson. The Ottoman army reached the Hexamilion on 27 November 1446. Constantine attempted to parlay with the Sultan, but, according to the historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, his terms "were not moderate, for he demanded that the Isthmos be allowed to stand as it was for him and that he get to keep all the sultan's lands beyond it that he had subjected".

Constantine and his brother Thomas braced for the attack at the Hexamilion. While the wall could hold against medieval attacks, Sultan Murad used bombards to supplement the usual siege engines and scaling ladders; the bombards breached the wall on 10 December 1446. Murad's janissaries poured through the opening, and the defenders panicked and fled. Constantine and Thomas attempted to rally their soldiers, and failing, barely escaped to Mistra. Murad split his forces, giving one part to his advisor Turahan while leading the other part along the southern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, plundering and destroying as his troops advanced. While neither Patras or Mistra fell to the Ottoman troops, the province was devastated; an estimated 60,000 people were taken prisoner by the Sultan's forces and sold to the slave markets of Turkey. Constantine and his brother Thomas were forced to make themselves vassals of the Ottoman sultan and pay tribute.


Constantine XI married twice. The first time was on 1 July 1428 to Theodora Tocco, niece of Carlo I Tocco of Epirus. She died while giving birth to a stillborn daughter in November 1429. His second marriage was on 27 July 1441 to Caterina Gattilusio, daughter of Dorino of Lesbos, who died in August 1442 after suffering a miscarriage. He had no children by either marriage. After his coronation in 1449, Constantine XI sent a commission under George Sphrantzes asking Mara Branković, daughter of the Serbian Despot Đurađ Branković and Byzantine princess Irene Kantakouzene, to marry him. By then Mara was the widow of Murad II; she 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 Mara 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". Accordingly, the courtship failed and Sphrantzes took steps to arrange for a marriage with a princess either from the Empire of Trebizond 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 to Constantinople for that reason. It was agreed that the next spring, Sphrantzes would sail for Georgia to bring the bride to Constantinople, but Constantine's plans were overtaken by the events of 1453.

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 by opposing the union of 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. Michael VIII Palaiologos, founder of the dynasty of Palaiologos, had been crowned at Nicaea, Asia Minor. John Cantacuzene was crowned at Adrianople, Thrace. Both held a second coronation ceremony 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. He sailed from Greece on a Catalan ship and arrived in Constantinople on 12 March 1449.

Sultan Murad died in 1451, succeeded by his 19-year-old son Mehmed II, who was obsessed with the conquest of Constantinople. Constantine responded by threatening to release Prince Orhan, who was a contender to the Ottoman throne, unless Mehmed met some of his demands. As a result, Mehmed considered Constantine to have broken the truce. The following winter of 1451–52, Mehmed built Rumelihisarı, 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 complemented the Anadoluhisarı fortress on the Anatolian (Asian) side of the Bosporus, built between 1393 and 1394 by Sultan Bayezid I. For Constantine that was a clear prelude for a siege, and he immediately started organizing his defence.

Constantine managed to raise funds to stockpile food 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 signed at the Council of Florence, a condition the Catholic Church imposed before any help would be provided. The union had been overwhelmingly criticized by the strong anti-union ("anthenotikoi") bloc of his subjects. His megas doux Loukas Notaras, Constantine's chief minister and military commander, is alleged to have said, "Better to see the turban of the Turks reigning in the center of the City than the Latin mitre." 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, executed to tie down the soldiers there.

The siege of the city began in the winter of 1452. Constantine faced the siege defending his city of less than 50,000 people with an army only numbering 7,000 men. Confronting the Byzantine forces was an Ottoman army numbering around 10 times that, backed by state-of-the-art siege equipment provided by a very competent Hungarian arms maker named Orban.

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. As preserved by George Sphrantzes, Constantine replied:

As to surrendering the city to you, it is not for me to decide or for anyone else of its citizens; for all of us have reached the mutual decision to die of our own free will, without any regard for our lives.

Constantine 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 Greek troops.

Constantine died the day the city fell, 29 May 1453. There were no known surviving eyewitnesses to the death of the Emperor and none of his entourage survived to offer any credible account of his death. According to Michael Critobulus (writing later in Mehmed's service), he remarked, "The city is fallen and I am still alive." Then he tore off his imperial ornaments so as to let nothing distinguish him from any other soldier and led his remaining troops in a last charge where he was killed.

Mehmed sent soldiers to search amongst the dead for his body. The first body that was believed to be the emperor's, a body that had silk stockings with an eagle embroidered in it, was decapitated and marched around the ruined capital. However, it failed to gather any recognition from the citizens of Constantinople.


An icon of Constantine XI

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.

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.

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.

Regnal number

Regnal numbers, used in many monarchies since medieval times to differentiate among rulers with the same name in the same office reigning over the same territory, were never used in the Roman Empire. Despite the increase in emperors with the same name during the Middle Ages, such as the several Michaels and Constantines, the practice was never introduced. Instead, the Byzantines used nicknames and patronymics to distinguish rulers of the same name. As such, the numbering of Byzantine emperors is a purely historiographical invention, created by historians beginning with Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The name Constantine was particularly common among emperors, showing their connection to the founder of Constantinople and the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. Whilst modern historiography generally recognizes eleven emperors by the name Constantine, numbering Constantine Palaiologos as Constantine XI, older works have occasionally numbered him differently, with Gibbon numbering him Constantine XII, after counting Constantine Laskaris (1204–05) as well. Particular confusion in the correct number of Constantines arises in that there are two different Roman Emperors numbered as Constantine III, the Western Constantine III of the early fifth century and Constantine III of the seventh century. Additionally, the emperor commonly known as Constans II actually reigned under the name Constantine, and has sometimes been referred to as Constantine III.

Counting emperors and members of the imperial families, including those that did not actually wield real power, the total number of imperial Constantines would be 22. Some scholars have suggested that the most appropriate way to number the emperors would be to count and number those who were proclaimed and acknowledged as Augusti (Emperors) or an equivalent title such as basileus, featuring all who held supreme power in the Byzantine Empire either alongside a relative or by themselves. Counting comprehensively those who were officially recognized as rulers under the name Constantine, including those that only ruled nominally as co-emperors but with the supreme title, the total number of emperors named Constantine would be 18. By counting and numbering all previous co-emperors with that name, including Constantine (son of Leo V), Constantine (son of Basil I), Constantine Lekapenos and Constantine Doukas, Constantine Palaiologos would most appropriately be numbered as Constantine XVIII. The same practice, though not recognizing the same amount of co-emperors, have in the past produced numberings for Constantine Palaiologos such as XIII, XIV and XV.

Scholars commonly do not number co-emperors as the extent of their rule was mostly nominal and, unless they inherited the throne later, did not hold independent supreme power as basileus autokrator. By counting the western Constantine III, Constans II and Constantine Laskaris, all emperors reigning with supreme power under the name of Constantine, the numbering of Constantine Palaiologos would be Constantine XIV.

Unofficial saint

Some Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholics consider Constantine XI a saint (or a national martyr or ethnomartyr, Greek: ἐθνομάρτυρας). However, he has not been officially canonized by either Church, partly due to controversy surrounding his personal religious beliefs and partly because death in battle is not normally considered a form of martyrdom by the Orthodox Church. According to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, martyrs are those who voluntarily accept death for their faith, typically in a situation where they have the option to give up Christianity and live, but choose death instead.

In popular culture

  • Emperor Constantine XI was portrayed by Cahit Irgat in Turkish film İstanbul'un Fethi (1951).
  • In his short story The Emperor's Return, Harry Turtledove describes the return of Constantine XI in 2003 after a socialist Greece reconquers Istanbul. (1990)
  • Recep Aktuğ portrays Emperor Constantine XI in the Turkish film Fetih 1453 (2012).
  • Emperor Constantine XI is the protagonist in Constantinopolis, a novel by James Shipman (2013).
  • The novel Porphyry and Ash (2019) set during the fall of Constantinople, depicts Constantine XI as a noble man with an impossible duty.
  • In the 2020 historical fiction docuseries Rise of Empires: Ottoman, Emperor Constantine XI was played by Tommaso Basili.


The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 07 Mar 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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