June 3, 2021

Loukas Notaras, Known as the "Pillar of the Romans", Was Executed By the Sultan Five Days After the Fall of Constantinople

Loukas Notaras was the last Megas Doux of the Roman Empire. This position (literally Grand Duke, but more appropriately Lord High Admiral) had been expanded under the late Palaiologoi emperors and functioned as an unofficial Prime Minister, overseeing the Imperial Bureaucracy in place of the Megas Logothetes who had previously exercised this function.

Because of his famous phrase "I would rather see a Muslim turban in the midst of the City than the Latin mitre," he is often thought to have been in league with the Synaxis and the Orthodox resistance to the Union of Churches established by the Synod of Ferrara-Florence. This is in fact not the case, as he worked with Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos to secure Western aid by whatever avenues they could find while simultaneously attempting to avoid riots by the Orthodox faithful. You could say he was against the Union, but he was not fanatical and looked for pragmatic solutions. Unfortunately for his memory, this pragmatic middle course led to his vilification by both sides of the debate, attacks which were not lessened by the intense politicking going on among the late Imperial hierarchy. Constantine's close friend and personal secretary, George Frantzis, for instance, seldom has a charitable word for Notaras and his antipathy was adopted by Edward Gibbon in turn.

During the siege of Constantinople, Notaras led the naval troops along the north-western Sea Wall, as well as the incredibly successful anti-mining efforts near the Blachernae Palace. Some accounts of the siege have him deserting his post after the Turkish flag was raised on the tower above the Kerkoporta; again, however, this may have been politically-motivated slander. In any case, he was able to hold the Sea Wall - which had been the point of entry of all earlier successful attacks on the city - against the Turkish fleet until the breach along the Mesotekhion rendered his services moot.

Notaras, his Palaiologina wife and his son were all captured by the Turks and originally granted clemency in the name of reestablishing order and in exchange for much of Notaras's fortune, for which he had the sense to invest elsewhere. Nonetheless, he was shortly executed along with his son and Kantakouzenos son-in-law. This may have simply been due to the capricious Sultan rethinking the wisdom of allowing a noble with ties to the Vatican and Venice to live; Gibbon believes he was caught already in the middle of such intrigue. The more common story, however, is that given by Runciman:

The kindness that Mehmet had shown to the Emperor’s surviving ministers was of short duration. He had talked of making Lucas Notaras governor of the conquered city. If it had ever been his real intention he soon changed his mind. His generosity was always curtailed by suspicion; and counsellors warned him not to trust the Megadux. He put his loyalty to the test. Five days after the fall of the city he gave a banquet. In the course of it, when he was well flushed with wine, someone whispered to him that Notaras’s fourteen-year old son was a boy of exceptional beauty. The Sultan at once sent a eunuch to the house of the Megadux to demand that the boy be sent to him for his pleasure. Notaras, whose two elder sons had been killed fighting, refused to sacrifice the boy to such a fate. Police were then sent to bring Notaras with his son and his young son-in-law, the son of the Grand Domestic Andronicus Cantacuzenus, into the Sultan’s presence. When Notaras still defied the Sultan, orders were given for him and the two boys to be decapitated on the spot. Notaras merely asked that they should be slain before him, lest the sight of his death should make them waver. When they had both perished he bared his neck to the executioner. The following day nine other Greek notables were arrested and sent to the scaffold.

Loukas Notaras was executed on the 3rd of June 1453. The three heads were brought to the Sultan, while their bodies remained unburied. Notaras, popularly known as the "Pillar of the Romans", and had once said, "I would rather see a Muslim turban in the midst of the City than the Latin mitre," had received his wish, though always with the understanding that it was the better of two evils in the long run.

This story of his execution was originally recorded by Doukas, a Roman living in Constantinople at the time of the fall of the city, but does not appear in accounts by other Romans/Greeks who witnessed the conquest. However, Doukas was frequently hostile towards Notaras, so there was no reason for him to praise his dignity. Other accounts which try to place the blame on Notaras for his own death tend to be based on Turkish sources or personal hostilities against Notaras.

The wife of Notaras died a slave along the way to Adrianople, the former Ottoman capital, in the city of Messene. Two members of his family were on the passenger list of a Genoese ship that escaped the fall of the city. His daughter Anna became with her aunt the focal point of the Roman/Byzantine expatriate community in Venice, devoting what money she had to the relief of her compatriots. Among his later grandsons was Saint Gerasimos Notaras of Kefallonia.

Runciman further writes of him: "Of the Greek correspondence that has survived the most important is that of George Scholarius Gennadius, for the light that it throws on events and personalities in the years immediately preceding 1453. In particular it enables us to appreciate the policy of Lucas Notaras, about whom Phrantzes, Ducas and the Latin sources are consistently unfair."