On a pre-covid 19 summer day, I explored the deserted streets of the center of Athens. I passed though a typical urban center. Suddenly I came across an immaculate square with a statue of the last emperor of the Byzantine empire Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos. This was the only statue I saw of the last Byzantine emperor in a major Greek city. The architects and monarchy remembered their Byzantine roots. The second is a statue of Archbishop Damaskinos who was Archbishop of Athens during World War II and was Regent for King George II and Prime Minister of Greece in 1946. I was at
the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation (Theotokou). The Cathedral was closed. But the statues. icons over the entrances and architecture gave an insight of the national importance.
Composer Mikis Theodorakis, of Zorba fame, was given a public funeral at the Cathedral from September 6th-8th. The Metropolitan Cathedral remains a major landmark in Athens and the site of important ceremonies with national political figures present, as well as weddings and funerals of notable personalities.
The month of September 2021 commemorates the 99th Anniversary of the “Burning of Smyrna” and end of the 3,000-year long presence of Greeks in Asia Minor. Metropolitan Chrysostomos Kalafatis of Smyrna, canonized as St. Chrysostomos for his death as a martyr, worked in the Cathedral. In an emotional speech, he spoke to the Cathedral community “the dawn of the resurrection of the whole Nation.”1 Like Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, Metropolitan Chrysostomos did not desert his community, when the defeated Greek army retreated, leaving the civilians to the atrocities of an enraged Turkish militia. His torture and barbarous death are graphically recorded in September 2021 Greek media.2 The Western governments watched, did nothing, letting civilians be exterminated. Private, non-government persons saved some of the survivors.
Who was Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos the man? A point overlooked in general history is that the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Constantine Palaiologos, was half Serbian. His mother, Helena Dragas was the daughter of the Serbian magnate Constantine Dragas. When he became emperor, he referred to himself as Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos after his mother Helena. 2021 tennis champion Novak Djokovic gives an insight into the Serbian character. Novak Djokovic said “We have a harder way to succeed in life as Serbs because of the past that we had and because of the history we had…Before I am an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.”
Byzantines had a multi-national character, like the USA, united by Greek language, culture, and Greek Orthodox faith. Emperor Constantine died in battle defending Constantinople. Following his death, he became a legendary figure in Greek folklore as the Marmaromenos Vasilias, the “Marble Emperor” who would awaken and recover the Empire and Constantinople
from the Ottomans. His death marked the end of the Roman Empire
that lasted 1100 years.3
Constantine XI was the ablest, charismatic, and courageous of Byzantine emperor Manuel II’s sons. He was deeply conscious of Byzantium’s long and glorious history. He was determined to uphold its dignity. Constantin XI considered appeasement to be another form of treachery. The last Byzantine emperor would not be humiliated in the eventual destruction.
At 43 years old, he had spent half his life fighting the Turks. He knew his enemy well. He faced the Ottomans’ large cannons in his fight to save Athens. He lost and retreated. This was the age of the cannon. Unfortunately, he did not have the money to ire Urban , the Hungarian cannon maker. Urban went o Ottomans and created 2 huge cannons. Constantine XI knew Byzantium’s fate was sealed. Yet he fought on.4
The imperial ministers begged Constantine to flee and set up a government in exile until the city will be retaken. Exhausted but firm, Constantine refused. These were his people. The emperor would be with them to the end. His funeral oration at he last Greek Orthodox service in Hagia Sophia reminded his soldiers of their glorious history. “Animals may run from animals, but you are men,” he said. “You are Worthy heirs of the great heroes of ancient Greece and Rome.”5
At the end, from his position by the Saint Romanus Gate, Constantine knew all was lost. With the cry, “the city is lost, but I live, he flung off his imperial regalia and plunged in the breach wall, disappearing in history. Constantine XI’s body was not found. In death, if not in life, Constantine XI had eluded his oppressor’s grasp. Shocked and shattered Byzantines were now in permanent exile. But they could reflect their empire came to a glorious and heroic end.
Constantine Dragases Palaiologos chose death over surrender or a diminishment o his ideals. He had found a common grave among the men he led. Proud and brave, the 88th emperor of Byzantium brought the empire full circle. Like the first (Constantine the Great) to rule in the city by the Bosphorus, he had been a son of Helena named Constantine, the founder of Constantinople. This is the factual Constantine Dragases Palaiologos that comes alive in Lars Bownworth unique masterpiece Lost To The West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.6
Mikis Theodorakis image to this writer was negative. My outlook changed on Mach 16, 2018 at the 1.5 million Macedonian rally in Athens, sponsored by the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater N.Y., the Pan Macedonian Association of USA, and the Hellenic American Congress, regarding the opposition to any use of the word Macedonia in negotiations between the governments of Greece and FYROM (now North Macedonia). Dimitris Filippidis, Journalist/Hellas FM radio/President of the Pan Macedonian Association of USA, explained in broadcasts that the leftist faction visited Theodorakis to change his opinion. His home was destroyed by negative graffiti, all to persuade him not to attend the 2018 rally.
Theodorakis went in a wheelchair through the crowds, to show he was a Greek patriot. A man of contradictions, Theodorakis demonstrated he was first a patriot and fought for Greece. I changed my outlook based on Mr. Filippidis positive representation of the composer who said his country came first. The Athens Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation is a monument to the great men who are part of Greece’s history.
4. Brownworth, Lars. Lost To The West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, Crown Publishers, New York, 2009, pp. 287-290.
5. Brownworth, pp. 295-296.
6. Brownworth, pp. 299.