The Last Stand of Constantine XI
(The following article is excerpted from my full-length piece on the last stand of Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine XI in Constantinople in May 1453.)
Constantine XI’s reign as Byzantine Emperor was brief, and his dominion, even before the fall of Constantinople, was small. Had he surrendered the city or not volunteered to stand with his men at the very end, he would be remembered, if at all, as a sort of curiosity – similar to Romulus Augustulus, the child who nominally served as the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476. However, by refusing to surrender and fighting bravely with his men until the end, Constantine XI secured a different place for himself in history. Although he could not save his Empire or the physical church in his capital, his last stand inspired others, notably his Greek descendants centuries later.
Finally, although the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine, as it is most often called) had been for centuries a Greek Empire, it still traced its lineage, with a few hiccups, to the Roman Empire established by Augustus. That there is a thread linking Augustus, who became master of the Roman world after prevailing in his civil war against Marc Antony in the latter half of the first century BC, to Constantine XI, the final Greek and Christian ruler of Constantinople, is remarkable in and of itself. The pre-Christian Romans fretted over their final words and revered honorable deaths. Christian Rome and Greece revered history’s martyrs. Constantine’s final days and death, in a sense, honored the traditions of Republican and Christian Rome – and in this sense, served as an equally fitting and tragic end to the Roman Empire.
Or perhaps as the legend goes, Constantine lies marbled, in splendid repose, waiting to rise again.
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