July 16, 2020

Was Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos A Uniate?

By John Sanidopoulos

Emperor John XIII Palaiologos led the delegation that ultimately signed for the union with the Pope during the Synod of Ferrara-Florence. When the emperor John XIII died in October 1448, the process of electing a new emperor began, who was ultimately John's brother, Constantine XI Palaiologos. Overall, the last Roman emperor reigned from March 12, 1449 until May 29, 1453. Here are a summary of some of the proofs that Constantine Palaiologos was not a Uniate but an Orthodox Christian:

1. The first proof that Emperor Constantine Palaiologos was not at least inwardly a Uniate, though outwardly played the role for diplomatic purposes with the West, is a letter from the known and vocal anti-unionist George-Gennadios Scholarios written in 1450. This letter reveals Scholarios had a good relationship with the emperor and even enjoyed favor within the court of the emperor. If Constantine was a Uniate, there should have been hostility between the two, but there is no evidence for such hostility, and in fact the evidence points to the opposite being true. It is well known how Scholarios felt about the "Latin-minded", yet does not apply this term or anything like it to the emperor.

2. On July 7, 1446, Gregory was proclaimed Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Pope appointed him Patriarch of the Latins of Constantinople as well. But after the death of Emperor John XIII and the rise of Constantine as emperor, a synod convened in Constantinople in 1450 and elected the Athenian anti-unionist Athanasios as Patriarch. Emperor Constantine oversaw this process and never objected to it. Athanasios served as Patriarch till the Fall of Constantinople.

3. No real help was ever sent by the Pope to Constantinople. Instead, Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) sent a letter to Emperor Constantine, saying: "Whoever is outside the ecclesiastical unity with the Pope is severely punished … This brilliant nation [of the Greeks], became the most deplorable of all. Almost all of Greece is in the hands of the enemies of the Cross … We will wait until our letter is really taken into account. If, together with your tycoons and your people, you think better and realize the 'union condition' of Florence, you will find us … willing to help." This harsh letter indicates that the emperor at least was not taking the union as seriously as a true Uniate would, thus losing favor with the Pope.

4. The historian George Sphrantzes was an anti-unionist and Orthodox who chronicled the Fall of Constantinople. It is because of his testimony that we have some of our most accurate information of what took place in May of 1453, because he is the only Greek historian that was actually there and he conversed with Emperor Constantine up until the eve of the Fall. Here are some quotes from his Chronicle:

"The emperor consented to have the pope’s name commemorated in our services, by necessity, as we hoped to receive some aid. Whoever were willing would pronounce the commemoration in Hagia Sophia; the rest would incur no blame and remain peaceful. These services took place on November 12. Six months later we had received as much aid from Rome as had been sent to us by the sultan of Cairo."

"Who knew of our emperor’s fastings and prayers, both his own and those of priests whom he paid to do so; of his services to the poor; and of his increased pledges to God, in the hope of saving his subjects from the Turkish yoke? Nevertheless, God ignored his offerings, I know not why or for what sins, and disregarded his efforts, as each individual spoke against him as he pleased."

"But the emperor went to the most revered Church of Hagia Sophia, prayed with lamentation, and partook of the immaculate and divine mysteries. Many others did so also during that night. Afterward, the emperor returned to the palace for a while and asked to be forgiven by all. Who can describe the wailing and tears that arose in the palace at that hour?"

"My late emperor, the martyr, lived for forty-nine years, three months, and twenty days. His reign lasted four years, four months, and twenty-four days."

Sphrantzes never refers to Constantine as a Uniate nor that he favored union with Rome, but describes him as doing what he had to do to satisfy the Pope to get some aid. Outwardly he made it appear as if he was in favor, but there is no indication that it was an inward reality. Instead, to indicate Constantine was indeed Orthodox, Sphrantzes, an anti-unionist and Orthodox, refers to the last eucharist the emperor partook of as being "immaculate and divine," something he would not have said if it was a Uniate eucharist. From the point of view of Sphrantzes and apparently the emperor, this last Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox liturgy. Furthermore, why would Constantine, on the eve of the Fall of the City, when he knew he was not receiving aid from the Pope, still be a Uniate if he ever was one, and divide his people at a time when a union of all his subjects was most necessary? It doesn't make sense. If Latins received Holy Communion that night also, they did so because they were allowed to do so out of concession, since they were likely going to be killed the next day.

5. Lastly, we have the testimony of tradition. The Greek people never viewed Emperor Constantine XI in a negative light nor did they ever blame him for the Fall of Constantinople. Many even consider him a Saint of the Church, though he is not officially canonized. If he was actually a Uniate, even despite his martyrdom, he would not have been viewed with favor by the Greek people through the centuries.

Thus, Constantine XI Palaiologos, when he held the joint service on December 12, 1452, did not act according to his Orthodox opinion, but succumbed to a brutal blackmail, as his political role forced him to do everything he could to save his subjects. Historical testimony of his Orthodox subjects views him positively as a hero and martyr and even a saint. No one who was anti-unionist ever accused him of being "Latin-minded" or a Uniate. This proves with little doubt that Emperor Constantine XI remained an Orthodox Christian till the end, if only sometimes it was only in his heart while outwardly he appeared politically diplomatic with the West.