Death & Resurrection of Constantinos Paleologos

by Odysseas Elytis

First, some historical background for the poem:

The Fall of Constantinople

In 1261 the Byzantines finally overthrew the shabby regime established by the Fourth Crusade in the wake of its conquest of Constantinople. However, the recovery of the old capital did not unite the empire. The pocketsized realm left to the heirs of Justinian was pressured from the north by Christian Slavs and from the east by Moslem Turks. The seas around the empire were controlled by the materialist Venetians. The Turks were the greatest danger and in the last half of the fourteenth century the Ottomans spread out from Asia Minor into the Balkans. Only at this late stage did the states of Western Europe realize the value of a strong, Christian empire based on Greece and Asia Minor as a bulwark against threats from the cast. Some feeble attempts were made to push the Turks back, but most ended in defeat or sometimes in disaster, as at Varna in 1444.

Seven years later the energetic Mohammed II succeeded his father, the Sultanate. He had but one dream - to capture Constantinople. During 1452 his ambitions became obvious to the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, when a fort was built on the Hellespont to give the Turks control over the approaches to Constantinople. In the spring of 1453 Mohammed led an army of 80.000 men up to the walls of the great city. The siege began on 6 April.

The defenses of Constantinople were formidable: a double wall, fronted by a 100-foot ditch. protected the landward side. The rest of the city was surrounded by the waters of the harbor and the Bosporus. The harbor was sealed off, the defenders blocking it with a huge chain across the mouth. The garrison, 4773 Byzantine soldiers and around 4000 foreign mercenaries (mostly Italians from Genoa), was heavily outnumbered, but early skirmishes proved its fighting men to be far superior to their opponents.

The Turks chose to batter holes in the walls of Constantinople with their siege train of 70 guns led by a Hungarian renegade named Urban. Twelve of these guns were superbombards that fired heavy stone balls, one being a monstrous piece that fired a 1500-pound projectile. The great weight of shot soon breached the walls. These were assaulted vigorously by the Turks, but each time they were driven back and the breaches repaired by a stout palisade. Turkish attempts to mine the walls also failed, mainly due to the stony nature of the ground under the city. However, a new breach was made in the double wall near the end of May and Mohammed ordered another assault to be made on the 29th. His forces moved into their attack positions in strict silence, the only sounds being made by the rattle of their equipment or their footsteps. At dawn the fighting began and the Turks repeatedly hurled themselves against the walls, only to be driven off at heavy cost. Two hours into the battle, the Sultan sent his elite Janissaries into action. At about the same time the tactical genius of the defenders, John Giustiniani, the Genoese leader, was badly wounded and withdrew from the fighting. His own men wavered and the Janissaries pressed their attacks with more vigor. A toehold was gained and widened. The Turkish weight of numbers finally tipped the balance and they broke through the walls. Constantine was in the thickest of the fighting and was slain. His city fell to the Turks shortly afterward and was given over to pillage for three days. The last physical link with the classical world of Greece and Rome had been broken by the sword.

Death & Resurrection of Constantinos Paleologos
by Odysseas Elytis

As he stood there erect before The Gate and impregnable in his sorrow,
Far from the world Of where his spirit sought to bring paradise to his measure,
And harder even than stone for no one had ever looked on him tenderly -
At times his crooked teeth whitened strangely -

And as he passed by with his gaze a little beyond mankind
And from them all extracted one who smiled on him -
The Real One Whom Death Could Never Seize

He took care to pronounce the word sea clearly
That all the dolphins within it might shine
And the desolation so great it might contain all of the gods
And every waterdrop ascending steadfastly toward the sun

As a young man he had seen gold glittering and gleaming
On the shoulders of the great and one night he remembers.
During a great storm the neck of the sea roared
So it turned murky, but he would not submit to it.

The world Is an oppressive place to live through,
Yet with a little pride it's worth it.

Dear gods what now?
Who had to battle with thousands and not only his loneliness?
He who knew with a single word how to slake the thirst of entire worlds?

From whom they had taken everything and his sandals
With their criss-crossed straps and his pointed trident
And the wall he mounted every afternoon like an unruly and pitching boat
To hold the reigns against the weather.

And a handful of vervain which he had rubbed on a girl's cheek at midnight to kiss her.
(How the waters of the moon gurgled on the stone steps three cliff-lengths above the sea...)

Noon out of night, and not one person by his side.
Only his faithful words that mingled all their colors To leave in his hand a lance of white light.

And opposite along the whole wall's length a host of heads
Poured in plaster as far as his eyes could see.

"Noon out of night - all life a radiance!" he shouted And rushed into the horde dragging behind him an endless golden line.

And at once he felt the final pallor overmastering him
As it hastened from afar and Below.

Now as the sun's wheel turned more and more swiftly,
The courtyards plunged into winter and once again emerged red from The geranium
And the small cool domes, like blue medusae,
Reached each time higher to the silverwork -
The wind so delicately worked as a painting for other times more distant.

Virgin maidens, their breasts glowing a summer dawn,
Brought him branches of fresh palm leaves
And those of the myrtle uprooted from the depths of their Place in the sea.

Dripping iodine,
While under his feet he heard the prows Of black ships sucked into the great whirlpool.
The ancient and smoked seacraft from which still erect with riveted gaze,
The mothers of The Gods stood rebuking.

Horses overturned on dumpheaps a rabble of buildings large and small,
Debris and dust flaming in the air.

And there lying prone, always with an unbroken word between his teeth.

Himself -- the last of the hellenes!