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The soldiers who defended Constantinople just before the Fall were hopelessly few, because the city's population was small and many young men betook to monasteries in order to avoid the recruitment. When Constantine Palaeologus asked to know about the last general recruitment’s results before the final confrontation with the Ottomans, his close partner Frantzis told him that only 4,937 out of 30,000 men were finally conscripted because the rest of them weren't able to carry arms. The king then sighed and asked him to keep the number secret.
The iron-fenced friend
When the issue of who would defend the central gate of Romanos emerged, against which the huge sultan's cannon was placed, at the walls of Constantinople along with Palaeologus, only Giustiniani, the Genovese from Chios Island was willing to help. "In honour of Christ, me and my men will defend the gate" he bluntly said. Constantine thanked him and promised that if they managed to repel the Turks he would offer him Lesbos Island and he would pronounce him prince.
Giustiniani was a professional warrior with international reputation in his time. When he and his 700 iron-fenced soldiers appeared in Constantinople, everybody was sure that this time the Ottomans wouldn't manage to conquer the city. Indeed, without his help, the city wouldn't have been able to resist and it would have immediately surrender to the Turks.
During those very hard fights the emperor was defending the one side of the gate of Romanos and Giustiniani the other. But in an instant an arrow hit Giustiniani, penetrated his metallic armour and got into his arm. Giustiniani knew that he was not able to keep on fighting and ordered his soldiers to take him to his boat. The Greeks believed that Giustiniani faint hearted because of a small trauma in his hand and accused him for giving up. The emperor begged him to stay, but the Genovese stated weakness.
Injured Giustiniani backed down up to the Golden Horn with his men and they left Constantinople. Two days later, though, he couldn't stand his injury and succumbed to his wounds in Chios. His quick and painful death after the injury confirms that he left the battlefield because he was actually heavily wounded and not because of losing heart, besides, men of his kind never do so. In any case, whatever the truth is, the Genovese warrior is always mentioned in history as a heroic and charming figure.
He was the last one to fall
After Giustiniani's injury and the withdrawal of him and his soldiers from the gate of Romanos, the Town's defence collapsed. The emperor was hearing the Turks coming closer. "I you can save yourselves then do it and if you are ready to come across death then follow me", said he to those who were surrounding him. Before completing his sentence, his cousin Theophilus Palaeologus answered without a second thought: "I'd rather die than live". These words fascinated about two hundred Greeks and Italians, who preferred to follow the emperor to death, than saving themselves.
Theophilus's words also fascinated the poet Konstantinos Cavafis after four and a half centuries, that's how he wrote: "…what a sad speech close to the last emperor. In the despair, in the suffering of his, Mr. Theophilus Palaeologus says: I'd rather die than live. Oh Mr. Theophilus Palaeologus, how much of our genus's grief and how much exhaustion there was in your tragic five words".
When the emperor saw a group of Turkish soldiers running in one side of the wall, he went against them with his horse in order to repel them.
Don Francisco the heroic Spanish and Demetrius Katakouzinos were riding beside him and Ivan Dalmaton behind him. According to Frantzis, the latter decimated the first Turks he saw, as if they were grasses. Theophilus Palaeologus was killed first, then Don Francisco and the others, leaving the king alone, fighting in despair.
When a soldier among the enemies injured him in the face, Constantine screamed: "Isn't there any Christian to take my head?". A few seconds later, a black soldier from the Ottomans, who was right behind him, cut his head with a strong movement of his sword. This soldier wasn’t aware that he had killed the Greek king, because of the battle's mayhem, nor that he marked the end of a glorious empire with this action, an empire that lasted for 1,123 years and 18 days.
He refused to escape
Just like Leonidas from Sparta, Constantine Palaeologus died in the battlefield like a simple soldier, knowing in advance that he would have a horrible death. The last minute, he categorically denied to escape, as his men were persistently urging him to. "It's not possible for me to continue living, while my city has fallen", he answered. If he had escaped, who knows, maybe he would have made a new army and ensured alliances that would allow him to recapture Constantinople in the future. He preferred to die in glory in his 49 years, being the eighth and the last king of Palaeologus dynasty, which reigned over Constantinople for 195 years, than to see his people getting enslaved.
The sultan was seeking the emperor for three days, alive or dead. "Where is the Caesar, where is the Caesar?", he kept asking. A Serbian soldier, who was fighting with the Ottomans, showed a severed head to Muhammad: "That's the head of Tsar Constantine my glorious lord", he victoriously said. He had found it, as he said, in front of the gate of Romanos. The sultan asked the Greek captives, among which Lucas Notaras also was, to recognise it and they burst into tears. The headless body of the king, which was recognised by the imperial leggings, had been trampled by the crowd of the Greeks who were abandoning the town in order to escape from the furious intruders.
The people of Constantinople refused to accept that their king had died. For that, they created a legend, according to which, just before he died, an angel of the Lord took him and led him to a cave deep in the ground, near Chrysoporta (Golden Gate). There, after bathing him and washing his wounds with musk and essence, he
marbled him and put him to sleep on a bed made of fine linen.
When the time comes, the angel will wake up the king and he'll give him the sword he used to carry in the battle. The Turks are aware of that, but they can't find the cave in which the king is hidden. That's why they cemented the gate, as they know that this is where the king will enter the City from in order to drive them away and hunt them up to Kokkini Milia (Red Apple Tree). Kokkini Milia is not a real place; it is a mythical land, where the Turks will be defeated after the liberation of Constantinople. Palaeologus's glory has never been asleep until today and has inspired all the subsequent generations of the Greeks, whether they were enslaved or free.
Palaeologus strongly inspired another great Greek Hero as well, Theodoros Kolokotronis, who often mentioned him as his favourite king. After three and a half centuries, a thousand miles away from tortured Constantinople, on the tops of the Arcadian mountain Maenalus in central Peloponnese, the Old Man of Morea was taking over the fight for the liberation of the Greek Nation using the following words: "When Constantinople fell the darkness got denser everywhere and our tribe went through everything it happens to people at night. But we had always been free and wild in the mountains like the beasts and lusted for our renaissance".
(Editor's note: One of the main sources of the article above is the exciting book "Constantine Palaeologus - The last night of Constantinople", written by the Serbian secretary of state, Tsentomil Mijatovic in 1892 and released in Greece from Dioptra Publications)
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS