Five hundred and fifty-four years ago on this day the Roman Empire was at last extinguished. By then the Empire was, of course, Greek not Roman; Christian not pagan; and no longer strong but pitifully weak. Dispossessed of all its Anatolian and Asian province, and most of its European, all that remained was the great city of Constantinople, much of which was reduced by privation, disease, and depopulation to overgrown ruins. The Turks under a great conqueror, Mehmet II, besieged the city beginning in April, the day after Easter. They outnumbered the defenders at least 10 to 1; possibly the fell Janissaries alone outnumbered the defenders. A pious, brave and noble man, by grim irony named Constantine, was the last Byzantine Emperor: he led his small force of Greek and Italian soldiers with stoic dignity and courage. He died on the very walls of the city with which he shared a name.
A series of omens shook the city in its last days: a lunar eclipse; thick fog for days, a phenomenon unheard of in those lands; an eerie red glow around the dome of Hagia Sophia. Some historians now attribute these latter phenomena to local affects of a massive volcano in the Pacific Ocean; but the pious and mystical Byzantines naturally interpreted it as the withdrawal of the protection of divine providence from the Second Rome.
A mass was said at Holy Wisdom on Monday, May 28; at last, in this final hour, Catholic and Orthodox joined together in worship of the Risen Lord. Greeks who had sworn oaths never to darken the doors of a church contaminated by Romish heretics heard liturgy next to Italians who had declared the Orthodox more loathsome than the infidel Turk. There, in that last agony of the Roman Empire, Christendom was unified, and the Church breathed with both her lungs. There, in the person of the ragged remnants of Constantinople’s defenders, the sons of the Church Universal joined in true fellowship. There, in this greatest of tragedies, and only at the bitter end, was a true Christian brotherhood of Greece and Rome.
The lineaments of the Emperor’s final speech are known to us. John Julius Norwich gives us perhaps the most moving construal:
He spoke first to his Greek subjects, telling them that there were four great causes for which a man should be ready to die: his faith, his country, his family and his sovereign. They must now be prepared to give their lives for all four. He for his part would willingly sacrifice his own for his faith, his city and his people. They were a great and noble people, the descendents of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, and he had no doubt that they would prove themselves worthy of their forefathers in the defense of their city, in which the infidel Sultan wished to seat his false prophet on the throne of Jesus Christ. Turning to the Italians, he thanked them for all that they had done and assured them of his love and trust in the dangers that lay ahead. They and the Greeks were now one people, united in God; with his help they would be victorious. Finally he walked slowly round the room, speaking to each man in turn and begging forgiveness if he ever caused him any offense.
It was the last speech of an empire of orators; the last theological counsel of an empire of theologians; the last exhortation of an empire of soldiers — the last day of Rome and final public words of the Roman Emperor.
Sapping attempts on the city walls by Ottoman engineers had repeatedly failed in the teeth of Greek cunning and intrepidity; and finally the Sultan resorted to simply hurling his forces against them, wave after wave beginning with the least capable mercenaries and ending with the terrible Janissaries. The slaughter, there on the walls, was beyond reckoning, and yet the Christians held out for five further hours; but then, when the valiant Genoese general Giovanni Giustiniani fell with a gruesome wound, the defense finally broke. A group of Turkish irregulars had discovered an insecurely locked, or perhaps a treacherously unlocked door, plunged through it, and managed to raise the Sultan’s standard on a high tower. This, along with the loss of the great Genoese warrior, brought despair and final defeat. The Emperor and his closest surviving lieutenants flung themselves into the ever-growing mass of Turks, and died there. Constantinople was now broken. Constantine son of Helena had founded it; Constantine son of Helena perished in its final defense. The earth stood still and the heavens wept.
The slaughter and rapine that awaited the surviving citizens of the city need not be dwelt on at length. It was unspeakable. Children raped on Christian altars; women and elderly impaled; blood running on the streets; St. Sophia a great bloodbath, then a mosque. Legend holds that several priests vanished into the very walls of the church, to return when Constantinople is liberated from the yoke of the Mohammedan. Untold Greeks were captured and clasped in fetters, the maidens and attractive boys destined for Turkish harems, the strong boys for the barracks of the Janissaries, to repeat the conquest of other Christians in other lands; and the Orthodox Church itself was seized into a captivity under which much of it toils to this day. The slave markets of the world showed a rapid depreciation in their miserable commodity for months to come. Though he has promised three days of looting (to entice those among his army of lesser piety), the Sultan now called a halt to it after one, so terrible was the pillage; few complained. The city was vanquished and violated. He established the Greeks under the standard dhimma contract, Islam’s system of official subjugation and humiliation: a kind of Jim Crow for infidels. Eventually order was restored, and before long the city was thriving again, after a fashion, under Turkish suzerainty. Human resilience is a remarkable thing. But the Roman Empire was no more. The morning of May 29, 1453, shone with the last sunrise over Greek Rome.