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Friday, May 21, 2021

Kritovoulos: On the Fall of Constantinople

Michael Kritovoulos, the Greek politician and scholar, who was in the service of the Ottoman Emperor Sultan Mehmed II, when the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453, wrote a history of the Ottoman Empire. The book has an account of the siege and fall of Constantinople. Even though he was employed by Mehmed II, Kritovoulos was sympathetic to Byzantine culture and its last emperor Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos. He viewed the fall of Constantinople as an event far more worrisome than the fall of the last Crusader stronghold of Acre in 1291. Here’s an excerpt from Kritovoulos’s elegy over Emperor Palaiologos: 

“The Emperor Constantine himself, as I have said, died fighting. He was wise and moderate in his private life and diligent to the highest degree in prudence and virtue, sagacious as the most highly-trained of men. In political affairs and in matters of government he yielded to no one of the kings before him in preeminence. Quick to perceive his duty, and still more quick to do it, he was eloquent in speech, clever in thought, and very accomplished in talking of public affairs. He was exact in his judgments of the present, as someone has said of Pericles, and usually correct in regard to the future, a splendid worker, who chose to do and to suffer everything for the fatherland and his subjects. Therefore, when he saw with his own eyes the evident danger threatening the City, and was able to save himself, he did not choose to do so, although there were many who begged him to, but preferred to die with his country and his subjects, or rather to die beforehand himself, so that he might not see his country captured and all the inhabitants either cruelly murdered or made captive and ignominiously taken away. For when he saw the enemy pressing in on him and coming into the City through the broken wall, he is stated to have cried aloud this last word: “The city is taken and it is useless for me to live any longer.” So saying he hurled himself into the midst of the enemy and was cut to pieces. He was a splendid man and the guardian of the common good, but unfortunate all through his life and doubly unfortunate at its close.” (Source: Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. Charles Riggs)

Kritovoulos’s book includes an account of the past Ottoman conquests. He saw the crossing of the Hellespont (the capture of Gallipoli) in March 1354, by the troops led by the Ottoman Emperor Orhan Ghazi, as a symbolic beginning of the Ottoman expansion into Europe. He uses Herodotus’s terminology to describe Orhan Ghaz’s crossing of the Hellespont, comparing that event with Xerxes’s foray into Ancient Greece. He even uses the term “Persians” to describe the troops led by Emperor Orhan Ghazi.

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