Book Review: Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus (1404–1453): The Last Emperor of Byzantium

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by Marios Philippides

New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. xiv, 390. Notes, biblio., index. $159.95. ISBN: 9781138483224

The Last of the Caesars

"…the last of the Greek Caesars was a fascinating figure, not so much because he was a great statesman, as he was not, and not because of his military prowess, as he was neither a notable tactician nor a soldier of exceptional merit…. Yet in sharp contrast to his numerous shortcomings, his military defeats and the various disappointments during his reign, posterity still fondly remembers the last Constantine”. (p. ix)

Myth and legend make for good nationalist propaganda, but poor history.

Sadly, a thicket of myth and legend has grown up around emperor Constantine XI, who fell in the final Turkish assault on Constantinople on 29 May 1453. Before throwing himself into the hopeless fight with sword in hand, the Emperor cast off his imperial garb and died as a common soldier. His body was never identified, and he left no heirs. This event is often viewed as a historic turning point that brought an end to the last remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire, which 17th century Europeans mislabeled “Byzantine,” (a term never used by its Greek Orthodox Christian inhabitants, who called themselves Romaioi – “Romans”.)

During the long, bitter centuries of Ottoman misrule, Greek folktales grew up telling how the Last Emperor never really died, but miraculously remains sleeping in a secret underground chamber, from which he will one day emerge to restore the glory of his people.

Constantine was a younger son of emperor Manuel II (reigned 1391-1425) a gifted scholar and skilled diplomat. Little is known about his mother, Helena Dragaš, a Serbian noblewoman, but he was evidently fond of her, since he added her family name to his formal nomenclature.

When Constantine succeeded his childless elder brother, John VIII (reigned 1425-1448), the empire was in a sorry state. Most of its territory had been lost to the Turks. Venetians, Genoese and other Italians monopolized Constantinople’s once lucrative trade. John VIII’s desperate attempt to win Western support by negotiating a union of Greek Orthodoxy with the Roman Catholic church had alienated much of the Empire’s dwindling population. After Ottoman Sultan Murad II crushed a Polish-Hungarian crusader army at Varna (1444) the fall of Constantinople was only a matter of time.

This book is a work of masterful and meticulous scholarship. There are extensive translations from primary sources, with the Greek text provided in the notes to each chapter. Readers unfamiliar with medieval history may find it tough going. A few maps would have been helpful, and sadly, there are no illustrations, although the text references numerous works of art. The list price is shockingly high, but that is what academic publishing has come to in our times.

The author, Marios Philippides, is Emeritus professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His previous works include a translation of the Chronicle of George Sphrantzes (1980), an important source on late Byzantine history, and The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies (2011) the definitive academic study of this event.

 

Note: Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, is also available in several e-editions.

 

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors.) He has previously reviewed To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort, and Governments-in-Exile and the Jews During the Second World War

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Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


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