SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 1452
Constantine wept. He wept quietly, facing away from the city and looking out over the broad blue expanse of the Sea of Marmara to his right and the Bosporus Sea to his left. From the heights of the extreme northeast corner of Constantinople, near the ancient Acropolis, Constantine could survey the waters leading both directions into the ancient city, meeting at the end of the peninsula and flowing into the natural harbor of the Golden Horn.
Constantine XI Palaiologos, Greek Emperor, successor of the Roman Emperors, was in his late middle age, having turned 48 in the past year. His black hair was peppered with grey now, his beard even more so. He was tall, well built and still in excellent physical condition. His face was careworn. The weight of the world had sat on him for too long.
As he looked out over the serene waters of the Bosporus, gateway to the Black Sea beyond, he felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the impossibilities before him. He ruled an empire that had once encompassed all of the Mediterranean and in ancient times, when the seat of power was Rome itself, had ruled most of Europe as well. Now the empire, if it could be called that, extended barely beyond the walls of the city. Constantine could claim to rule a few scattered islands in the Mediterranean, the Peloponnesus, and a few villages and fortresses near the city itself.
Constantinople itself was a mere shadow of its former self. Built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 330 AD, on top of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, the city became the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. After the fall of western half of the empire, Constantinople carried on the legacy of Rome. With a population of more than 500,000, the city was the largest and most opulent in the Christian world for a thousand years.
The city and the empire fell into decline gradually, and in the thirteenth century Constantinople was captured and sacked by crusaders from Europe who were supposed to be attacking Egypt but were diverted to the city by the Doge of Venice. The Latins controlled the city until 1260, when it was recovered. However, Constantinople never truly rose again. The city was a ghost town, with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants and the vast wealth of the city stripped and carted off to Venice and the west. Constantine wondered what it would have been like to rule during the Golden Age of his empire, with a bursting city and legions of warriors to command.
What would his life have been like if he wasn’t constantly having to scrounge and beg for a few resources to battle the impossibly powerful Ottomans? Would he hold his borders or expand? Build up the treasury? Build great works in the city? He often dreamed of leading the once great empire of the Romans and the Greeks, not the feeble shadow over which he presided.
How much longer could he hold on to even these remaining scraps? His few territories were surrounded for hundreds of miles in each direction by the tremendously powerful Ottomans. He was forced into the humiliation of serving as a vassal to the Ottoman Sultan, and paying a tribute each year for the protection of the Ottomans, a tribute he could not afford and that made it impossible for him to invest in food stores, or arms, or to hire mercenaries, or even to perform the necessary maintenance to the essential city walls. What hope did he have to change anything? He was doomed. His city was doomed. Rome would finally fade into the oblivion of the past.
Constantine felt a hand on his shoulder. A gentle but firm grasp from slender fingers. He turned and smiled. Zophia was here. He looked into her dark eyes, smiling at her youthful, beautiful face and long black hair. Zophia, his love. A daughter of nobility, she was only 24, but so wise. Wise and beautiful. She smiled too, just for him. Knowing. Understanding. Caring.
“Do not weep Lord. I know you weep for our city, for our people. Do not weep Lord. God will protect us. You will protect us. You have always protected us.”
Constantine felt her warmth flow over and through him. He closed his eyes as she embraced him. He felt immediately calm. He felt the warm day, the sound of birds singing nearby and the rustle of the light wind against the trees. He always noticed the little things when he was with Zophia. All the problems of the world would flow out of him. She could always keep the world away, if just for a little while. She was so beautiful. Not tall, yet her powerful presence made her seem taller. She had dark long hair and skin as pale as marble. She was dressed in light blue robes flowing down to delicate sandals on her slender feet.
How could this young woman have such an effect on him? No person ever had before, woman or man. Constantine prided himself on his control, his ability to keep his emotions in check, and to present a strong leadership persona to his people, even to his close friends. He had developed this talent during his exceptionally difficult youth and early adulthood, when he was constantly at risk of kidnapping and even death—not only from the Ottomans, but even from his own brothers, who constantly conspired for the throne.
Somehow Zophia saw through all this. Even worse, he couldn’t seem to even make the effort to try to present this front to her. After she mocked him a few times, he gave up trying to do so. Now he craved the moments when he could be alone with her and let down, let her cradle his head and tell him it would be all right. He knew this peace could not last forever. He was pushed from every direction to marry, marry quickly, and marry for the greatest possible political advantage. The city needed allies, allies that could provide money and troops to defend against the Ottoman attack that must come at any time—that was threatened and had been constantly attempted for more than a century.
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG
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