Five hundred and sixty-one years ago today the Roman Empire fell to the Turks, the final eclipse for one of the grandest, highest, most gallant and varied experiments in civilization ever undertaken by the creature called man. May 29, 1453, is a date that should not be neglected, for it retains a strong savor of those mystic chords of memory of which Lincoln spoke. We need only let swell the chorus of a Union older and nobler than that for which he appealed to the better angels of our nature — the Union of Greece and Rome.
Here is my Touchstone essay from some years ago about that Fall, that Union, and how the chords of mystic memory play upon my mind, as an American Christian today, contemplating that disaster so many years ago. I should think some deep but potent chords, stretching from very distant battlefields and very strange patriot graves, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, can compass a Memorial for the men who died defending Constantinople, the day Islam snuffed her out.
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.