Byzantium Yet Fallen
The Critical Lessons for Christians in the Long Shadow of 1453
by Paul J. Cella III
Round about five and a half centuries ago, the Roman Empire was at last extinguished. By then the Empire was, of course, Greek, not Roman; Christian, not pagan; and no longer strong, but pitifully weak. Dispossessed of all of its Anatolian and Asian provinces, and most of its European ones, all that remained was the great city of Constantinople, much of which was reduced by privation, disease, and depopulation to overgrown ruins.
The Ottoman Turks, under a great conqueror, Mehmet II, besieged the city beginning in April 1453, on the day after Easter. They outnumbered the defenders ten to one; possibly the fell Janissaries, the special forces of the world’s finest military, alone outnumbered the defenders.
A pious, brave, and noble man, by grim irony named Constantine, was the last Byzantine Emperor: He led his small force of Greek and Italian soldiers with stoic dignity and courage. He died on the very walls of the city with which he shared a name.
The Last Day
A series of omens shook the city in her last days: a lunar eclipse; thick fog for days, a phenomenon unheard of in those lands; an eerie red glow around the dome of Hagia Sophia. Some historians now attribute this glow to the local effects of a massive volcanic eruption in the Pacific Ocean, but pious and mystical Byzantines naturally interpreted it as the withdrawal of the protection of divine providence from the Second Rome.
A Mass was said at Holy Wisdom on Monday, May 28; at last, in this final hour, Catholics and Orthodox joined together in worship of the Risen Lord. Greeks who had sworn oaths never to darken the doors of a church contaminated by Romish heretics heard liturgy next to Italians who had declared the Orthodox more loathsome than the infidel Turk.
There, in that last agony of the Roman Empire, Christendom was unified, and the Church breathed with both her lungs. There, in the person of the ragged remnants of Constantinople’s defenders, the sons of the Church Universal joined in true fellowship. There, in this greatest of tragedies, and only at the bitter end, was a true Christian brotherhood of Greece and Rome.
The lineaments of the emperor’s final speech are known to us. John Julius Norwich, near the end of his three-volume history of Byzantium, gives us perhaps the most moving construal:
They were, he continued, “a great and noble people, the descendents of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, and he had no doubt that they would prove themselves worthy of their forefathers in the defense of their city, in which the infidel Sultan wished to seat his false prophet on the throne of Jesus Christ.” Then,
It was the last speech of an empire of orators; the last theological counsel of an empire of theologians; the last exhortation of an empire of soldiers—the last day of Rome and the final public words of the Roman Emperor.
The City Falls
The Ottoman engineers’ attempts to sap the city walls had repeatedly failed in the teeth of Greek cunning and intrepidity, and finally the Sultan simply hurled his forces against them, in wave after wave, beginning with the least capable mercenaries and ending with the terrible Janissaries.
The slaughter, there on the walls, was considerable, and yet the Christians held out for five further hours. But then the defense finally broke.
A group of Turkish irregulars had discovered an insecurely locked, or perhaps a treacherously unlocked door, plunged through it, and managed to raise the Sultan’s standard on a high tower. This, with the loss of the great Genoese commander Giovanni Giustiniani, brought despair and final defeat.
The emperor and his closest surviving lieutenants flung themselves into the ever-growing mass of Turks, and died there. The City of Constantine was now broken. Constantine son of Helena had founded it; Constantine son of Helena perished in its final defense. The earth stood still and the heavens wept.
The slaughter and rapine that followed need not be dwelt on at length. It was unspeakable. Children raped on Christian altars; women and the elderly impaled; blood running on the streets; St. Sophia a great bloodbath, then a mosque. Legend holds that several priests vanished into the very walls of the church, to return when Constantinople is liberated from the yoke of the Mohammedan.
Untold Greeks were captured and clasped in fetters, the maidens and attractive boys destined for Turkish harems, the strong boys for the barracks of the Janissaries, to repeat the conquest of other Christians in other lands; and the Orthodox Church herself was seized into a captivity under which much of her toils to this day. The slave markets of the world showed a rapid depreciation in their miserable commodity for months to come.
Though he had promised three days of looting (to entice those of lesser piety in his army), the Sultan called a halt to it after one, so terrible was the pillage; few complained. The city was vanquished and violated. He established the Greeks under the standard dhimma contract, Islam’s system of official subjugation and humiliation: a kind of Jim Crow for infidels.
Eventually order was restored, and before long the city was thriving again, after a fashion, under Turkish suzerainty. Human resilience is a remarkable thing. But the Roman Empire was no more. The morning of May 29, 1453, shone with the last sunrise over Greek Rome.
Captivity & Dignity
It is one thing to recite a great and moving story from history; to remember alone is a worthy endeavor; but it will always be asked what we can take from this history. What relevance has it for us today? Allow me to suggest some principles or lessons.
First, though the Queen of Cities did fall, and though the Holy Orthodox Church was taken into bondage, yet the faith endured. I am not myself Orthodox, but I have dear Orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ. Their church yet stands in dignity and witness. The end of a civilization was not the end of a church. The Orthodox Church has rendered, and still renders to a bewildered world, a stirring witness of suffering and perseverance in the Lord.
None should dare minimize this suffering. None should dare let his theological differences with the Orthodox Church blind him to her agony under the yoke of the Turk. Above, I called the dhimma contract “Jim Crow for infidels.” This was no piece of polemical hyperbole. The similarities are unmistakable, and gather, as it were, around the same points of emphasis.
Both the Jim Crow system in the American South, overthrown relatively peacefully in the Civil Rights era, and the dhimma system, which endures in various locales to this day—and is still, according to some studies, the genuine aspiration of millions upon millions of Muslims—were purposed toward a terrible thing: the degradation and servitude of a people.
This is my second principle or lesson: The full wickedness of the Islamic system of subjection must be perceived rightly. And the analogy with American history is an effective one. The primary differences between the two systems are two in number: (1) Jim Crow was a contrivance of oppression based on race, while the dhimma is, in our vernacular, faith-based; and (2) the oppression of blacks, whether in slavery or in legal subjugation, always stood in tension with the wider political order, while the subjugation of the infidel is the natural issue of the political theology of Islam.
Christians and other reflective men in the South were never really at peace with the system of subjugation. From Jefferson and Washington to Lee and Jackson, great men of the South were repelled by it. Even its defenders called slavery a peculiar institution.
There is nothing peculiar, under Islam, about vengeance against that rebellion against God of which dogged unbelief gives evidence. Under Islam, the system operated effectively without internal criticism. What criticism there was (and it is impossible to imagine there was not considerable discontent in the hearts of many) could only remain muted. The origins of the dhimma were in the eternal word of God and reflected in the practices of his Prophet.
It would be as if the Southern reader found in the letters of St. Paul a counsel between master and slave, not of humane treatment and obedience—“as unto Christ”—within an already extant system, but rather of undying enmity within a noble and just system: to the master a counsel of hardness and suspicion; to the slave one of insurrection, a call to throw off that yoke of oppression and take slaves himself from among the heathen.
To put the matter otherwise: The whole moral revolution of Christianity, the transformation of the human condition which worked itself out over centuries in Christian civilization, positively subverts the idea of the indefinite oppression and bondage of a people, while the whole moral system of Islam, with its implacable antipathy for the unbeliever, buttresses that idea.
The perversity of the Orthodox Christians in clinging to their abrogated religion was always an affront to Islamic piety. In a paradoxical way, it was an affront to that towering dignity of the Islamic principle of equality. Islam is, as Norman Mailer remarked in an interview, at its fundament an “immensely egalitarian religion.” The equality of all men before God is one of its most noble and attractive principles.
But those who reject the call of submission to God tarnish and falsify that equality. Their rebellion must always gall the Islamic sense of honor: There can be little allowance for them. There is no doctrine of grace to balance the rigidity of equality. The hardening of the heart of Islam on this point is evident even in the life of its founder. And the dhimma system is its natural issue.
You cannot argue with the example of the Prophet. There could be no Lincoln, arguing against the system based on the native tradition of the people who enforced it—calling a people away from a sin that their own cherished tradition condemns; calling them home. There could be no call of Islamic conscience against the dhimma. Even in that immense equality, in some ways because of it, the voice of human conscience was stifled.
Third, and perhaps more applicably, we can take from the tragedy of the fall of Constantinople a lesson on the consequences of Christian division. We can estimate the cost of disunion among men of the Cross of Christ. A generation before the fall of the city, Constantine’s father had embarked on a long and dangerous trip to the West, even as far as England, to plead for aid against the menace of the Turk. He was mostly unsuccessful.
His eldest son, John VIII Palaiologos, whose immediate successor was the last Emperor Constantine, had even submitted spiritually to Rome in order to secure aid. This move toward union was bitterly opposed by many Byzantines, who perhaps could not be made to forget older grievances, and the ensuing dissension weakened the remnants of the Empire still further.
In his hour of need, the Emperor of Eastern Christians could secure precious little aid from the West, and his own subjects revolted against his diplomatic efforts toward that goal, hurling invective against the Bishop of Rome and his Church, whispering that Unionism was treason.
It is well documented how much the West was enriched by the flood of refugees from the defeated city, bringing with them the culture of Greece, refined by the faith. It is to be doubted whether Christendom herself was enriched by the collapse of a lung. Nor was the hunger of the jihad for conquest yet satiated. Within eighty years Vienna was besieged; a century and a half later the same city was besieged again, and only rescued by the valor of the Poles.
The razzias of the corsairs, taking slaves and plunder from coastal lands on the Mediterranean, only increased—a terror for Christians by the sea that strikes the modern mind as almost unimaginable. The Turk was the acknowledged master of the eastern Mediterranean, with the great commercial empire of the Venetians generally playing the role not of rival but of subject; and even far to the west, that sea lay under the shadow of the Crescent. Even the rising empire of Spain dared not challenge it openly.
A victory for the West on the Mediterranean would not come until 1565; as it happens, on a portentous day: September 11, on the tiny island of Malta, where a mighty triumph was gained against staggering odds. It would be centuries before the Turkish menace was finally subdued, by which time successive revolutions had sundered the unity of the West utterly.
To my mind, the lessons of this history amount to a challenge: First, as a call to that charity which we owe one another in the Lord. Our theological divisions must be sustained, but so must our brotherhood of love. For we are members one of another.
Second, the lessons point toward the need for what our ancestors might have called manliness, that militancy toward injustice that gives boldness. As Anthony Esolen writes in his new book, The Ironies of Faith, it is humility that allows us to feel the injustice inflicted on another, to set aside our own perspective and pride, and it is manliness that impels us toward outrage and sympathy.
With the jihad a renewed menace, its agents and propagandists abetted by a mass media that has forgotten who we are and where we come from, its threat to the West ever more acute, it would be well to remember the torment Christians suffered at its hands when charity failed. It would be well to remember the heroic stand made by Christians, largely abandoned by their brothers, when the sun rose for the last time over Greek Rome. •
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“Byzantium Yet Fallen” first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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