Friday, 25 May 2018


When the defenses finally fell in the early hours of 29th May 1453, the fate of those inside the wall was varied. Some, like the firebrand monk Gennadios, even profited from it - within days he had been appointed patriarch. Some, such as two of the three Bocchiardo brothers, even managed to reach the harbour from the front line and get out to safety on one of the remaining boats (the other brother, Paolo, was captured & killed in their attempted breakout). In fact a reasonable company of Genoese appear to have forced their way through the crowds and boarded the boats to escape, taking their mortally wounded leader, Giustinianni, with them. The fate of the Scotsman, John Grant, is not recorded. The Venetian Bailo, Girolamo Minotti, was captured and executed but other Venetians, such as the ships surgeon and diarist Nicolo Barbaro, were able to escape by ship.

Among the Greeks, tradition holds that the emperor threw off his purple regalia and, joined by his closest bodyguard and companions such as Andronikos Kantakuzenos, flung himself into the enemy to die. Almost from that moment, myths began to form about Constantine XI - not unlike those which surround King Arthur in Britain or Charlemagne in Germany - that he is not dead but shall return one day.

Cardinal Isidore, the Greek-born Latin cleric, managed to escape disguised as a beggar. The grand logothete, George Sphrantzes was captured but his identity remained unknown to the Turks (he would likely have been executed if they had recognised him) and he joined the many thousands of Greeks taken to Erdine and sold into slavery. He was fortunate, reasonably well treated, he was ransomed within a year and able to find and free his wife. His son and daughter, however, both died in captivity.

The most notorious incident surrounding those terrible few hours and days immediately after the fall concerns the fate of the Notaras family. The daughters of megas doux, Anna, Euphrosyne and Theodora had all at some point left the city and were safe in exile. Loukas Notaras and his sons were not so fortunate. The truth is clouded in conflicting accounts, many of them spiced for political purposes by the chroniclers. The definitive facts are that Loukas Notaras and around fifty notable Greek citizens were executed three days after the siege ended and his youngest son, Isaac, was taken into the Sultan's household, from which he escaped somewhere between 7-15 years later and made his way to his sisters in Venice. Contemporary accounts pointed the finger of treason at Loukas Notaras (so much so that his daughter Anna commissioned a humanist scholar to write a refutation of the charges) and his death was put down either to Mehmed's distrust of a proven traitor or the megas doux's objection to the Sultan's sexual advances towards his son. It is quite possible that these stories were nothing more than an attempt by Christian chroniclers to horrify their audience with the barbarity of the Turkish bogeyman but it should also be noted that Mehmed was more than likely bisexual, with the Wallachian boyar Radu cel frumos reputed to have been a long standing lover. Whatever the truth of Isaac Notaras's fate, unlike other Byzantines, he does not appear to have entered into formal Ottoman service or risen to a position of authority prior to his escape to Italy.

One of the less well known and yet most incredible stories from those first few weeks of the post-Roman world comes from that slave market in Edirne. Among the busy buyers was a Greek man by the name of Demetrios Apoukakos who would serve as imperial secretary to the Ottoman Sultan. He was not at that time working on Mehmed's behalf, however. The Sultan had enslaved these hundreds and thousands of Byzantines and his stepmothter, the Valide Sultan Mara Brankovic - herself half-Greek and horrified, we might suppose, at the destruction of her culture - used her own money to pay the ransom and free a number of the miserable souls in the slave market. We do not know how many she saved, but one of them is very clearly attested. Dionysius, a Greek nobleman, who some twenty years after the fall would become patriarch in Constantinople, backed by his guardian angel, Mara in that venture as well. His tenure as patriarch was troubled - it was a time of bitter factional fighting between the Constantinopolitan and Trepuzentine Greeks for control of their millet and faith - but on retirement, Dionysius moved to be personal confessor to Mara at her estate near Mount Athos. Following her death in 1487 he once again was elected patriarch in Constantinople, was deposed 3 years later in 1490 and died in 1492.

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