19.01.05 Philippides, Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus

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Jonathan Harris

The Medieval Review 19.01.05

Philippides, Marios. Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus (1404–1453): The Last Emperor of Byzantium. London, UK: Routledge, 2019. pp. xiv, 388. ISBN: 978-1-138-48322-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Harris
Royal Holloway University of London

The Greek capital of Athens boasts not just a single statue of the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI but two. One, in the cathedral square in the centre of town, shows him on foot, clutching his drawn sword defiantly across his breast. The other, on the waterfront of the suburb of Paleo Faliro, is a colossal equestrian monument, and depicts the emperor staring majestically forward with his right arm raised, though whether in blessing, greeting or warning is anyone's guess. It might seem odd that two statues should be devoted to a ruler who reigned for just four years and died in the colossal defeat of 29 May 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the Byzantine empire came to an end. There are no statues of rather more successful emperors, such as Basil II (976-1025) or Alexios I (1081-1118), who won their battles and died in their beds after long and glorious reigns. The explanation lies partly in the myths and legends that began to attach to Constantine not long after his death. Given that no one was certain how or when the emperor had died, tales rapidly circulated that he was merely sleeping, turned into marble by an angel. Like King Arthur and Frederick Barbarossa, he would one day awake and restore Constantinople to Christian rule. But the Nachleben of Constantine XI has gone far beyond folklore, since in the nineteenth century he came to occupy the position of "ethno-martyr," whose dogged resistance to the Ottoman sultan prefigured the birth of the Greek state. Academic historians played a central role in the creation and perpetuation of this nationalist aura. For Apostolos Vacalopoulos (1909-2000) of the University of Thessaloniki, the emperor's brief tenure of power and his earlier reconquest of Latin-ruled territories in the Peloponnese marked a pivotal moment in the development of a Hellenic national consciousness.

Into this beatific vision, Marios Philippides lobs a hand grenade at the very start of his book. He takes direct issue with Vacalopoulos' thesis which, he complains, makes Constantine the equivalent of the ancient hero Theseus who could do no wrong. On the contrary Constantine was neither a great statesman nor soldier. He was ineffective diplomatically and while he had visionary plans, he was unable to inspire his people to support him in achieving them. Philippides is also critical of the most recent previous account of Constantine in English, Donald M. Nicol's 1993 book, The Immortal Emperor,which he regards as hopelessly unbalanced: it devotes a mere fourteen pages to Constantine's eleven-year period (on and off) as ruler of the Morea but ninety-two to his brief reign as emperor in Constantinople (8). So this book aims to provide a portrait of Constantine that both avoids national myth-making and appraises his life as a whole.

Philippides' views should be taken very seriously as very few scholars have his command of the primary source material for fifteenth-century Byzantium. Early in his career, he translated the chronicle of George Sphrantzes, one of Constantine XI's close associates, and subsequently produced a series of translations of various sources for the late Byzantine period and the fall of Constantinople from Greek, Latin and, in collaboration with Walter K. Hanak, Russian. He has also published numerous articles over the past thirty years or more dissecting and analysing those sources. All that accumulated erudition feeds into this book which draws on a huge variety primary sources, many of them neglected by previous authors. For example, Philippides makes good use of an anonymous panegyric of John VIII and Constantine XI that is sometimes attributed to Isidore of Kiev. Delivered in around 1428, the speech contains all kinds of information not recorded elsewhere, notably of a Byzantine naval victory over the fleet of the Italian lord of the Ionian Islands, Carlo I Tocco, which took place off the Ekhinades islands in 1427. A translation is provided of the passage that describes the battle in some detail (107, 109-110). Similarly, Philippides is not shy of using the work of the Brescian poet, Ubertino Pusculo (1431-c.1470), who was in Constantinople in 1453 and left an account of his experiences in Latin verse. The complexity and obscurity of Pusculo's language has deterred many historians from taking full advantage of his evidence but Philippides brings in Pusculo's testimony at a number of points to supplement that of the better-known and more accessible sources such as Nicolò Barbaro and Leonard of Chios (251-253, 273-274, 283, 311-312, 315).

It is from this very solid basis that Philippides proceeds to his assault on Vacalopoulos' idealistic portrait of Constantine XI. The central task here is an assessment of Constantine's achievements between 1427 and 1449 when his was ruler or despot of the Byzantine Morea. It was during this period that he eliminated the last remnants of the Latin lordships in the area that dated back to the partition of the Byzantine empire by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. He had forced Carlo I Tocco to yield the port of Glarentza, taken over what was left of the principality of Achaea and, by capturing Patras from its Catholic archbishop, put an end to the city's long period as a papal fief. As a result, by 1430 almost the whole of the Morea peninsula was now once more under Byzantine rule. These successes certainly appear at first sight to be in stark contrast to the fortunes of the Byzantine empire in other respects. The Byzantine emperor, Constantine's brother John VIII (1425-1448), was an impoverished vassal of the Ottoman sultan, his crumbling capital of Constantinople cut off and surrounded by land controlled by the Turks. It is not surprising then that a nationalist historian like Vacalopoulos should hail Constantine's successes and laud him as "personifying the spirit of the nation."

Philippides is not so sure. He points out that these gains were not made not so much by military victories as by marriage alliances: both Constantine and his younger brother Thomas received much of the recaptured territory as dowries by marrying into the Italian Zaccaria and Tocco families. Besides, the conquest of the Morea was not complete because the Venetians still held Methoni and Koroni at its southern tip. Much of the information about Constantine's "reconquest" comes from sources that were close to him: either from the chronicle of his devoted servant Sphrantzes or from the anonymous panegyric mentioned above, both of talk up the victories. Other contemporaries seem to have been less impressed. An anonymous lament on the fall of Constantinople, sometimes attributed to the Rhodian poet Emmanuel Georgillas, speaks critically of Constantine's acquisition of Glarentza: only shortly afterwards the town was seized by Catalan pirates who only withdrew when Constantine paid them a ransom of 5,000 gold coins. The despot then had the fortifications demolished to prevent the same thing happening again. The poet claimed that the demolition was accompanied by retaliatory measures against the local population who may perhaps have collaborated with the occupying Catalans. The weak and vindictive Constantine of this neglected lament is a very different person from the "incarnation of Ares" in the panegyric and it is Philippides' unrivalled knowledge of the literature that makes him so effective here. On the other hand, there are times when he slips into speculation. He goes on to say that Constantine's campaigns "rendered the peninsula an easier prey for the Turks." That seems to take us into the realm of counterfactuals as no one can tell whether Sultan Mehmed II's conquest of the Morea in 1458-1460 would have been more difficult if the remains of the Latin lordships had still been in place (119-121).

The source-based methodology that Philippides brings to bear on Constantine's period in Morea is deployed to similar effect elsewhere. His discussion of the circumstances of the emperor's death in 1453 is a good example. The numerous sources for the fall of Constantinople give widely differing versions of what happened to him, leaving later historians to take their pick. Vacalopoulos, as one would expect, chooses those versions that have Constantine bravely trying "to stem the torrent of invaders" on one of the breaches in Constantinople's walls. That image is, however, largely found in later texts. Eyewitnesses and contemporaries give a rather different version of events although, as Philippides makes clear when he carefully weighs them up, none of them actually saw what happened. One reported that Constantine had hanged himself, another that he urged his own men to kill him and a third that he rushed into the mêlée and was hacked down by the Turks. George Sphrantzes merely recorded that the emperor was killed: he himself was in another sector of the fighting when it happened. At the end of the day, we cannot be completely sure exactly what happened to him. If he did display exceptional heroism, no one witnessed it: the authors of all our sources merely passed on the rumours that they had heard (315-317).

Philippides' careful analyses of the primary material make this book a very valuable addition to the literature on a neglected period of history. His exhaustive footnotes are a research resource in their own right as they contain vast amounts of information and extensive primary source texts in the original languages. While the door is still open for future scholars to offer a more positive assessment of Constantine XI, Philippides has done them an immense service by opening up the wide range of information that survives and by exposing the problems that it poses.

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