Lucas Notaras

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Loukas Notaras (Greek Λουκάς Νοταράς) (executed June 3-4, 1453) was the last Megas Doux of the Byzantine Empire. This position (literally Grand Duke, but more appropriately Lord High Admiral) had been expanded under the late Palaiologid 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 (ie, Constantinople) than the Latin mitre," (Greek "κρειττότερον έστιν ειδέναι εν μέση τη Πόλει φακιόλιον βασιλεύον Τούρκων ή καλύπτραν Λατινικήν") he is often thought to have been in league with the Synaxis and the Orthodox resistance to the Union of Churches established by the Council of Florence. This is in fact not the case, as he worked with his emperor Constantine XI Paleologus to secure Western aid by whatever avenues they could find while simultaneously attempting to avoid riots by the Orthodox faithful. 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, Georgios 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 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, which he had 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 Mehmed had shown to the Emperor's surviving ministers was of short duration.... Five days after the fall of the city [3 June] 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 [Megas Doux] to demand that the boy be sent to him for his pleasure. Notaras, whose 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. (151)

This story was originally recorded by Doukas (XL,381), a Byzantine Greek living in Constantinople at the time of the fall of the city, but does not appear in accounts by other Greeks who witnessed the conquest. However, Doukas was frequently hostile towards Notaras, so there was no reason for him to praise his dignity.

Other explanations for this alleged departure from Mehmed II's nominal amnesty were that Loukas Notaras, a treasury official, had attempted to ingratiate himself with Mehmed II by retaining money from the Byzantine treasury as a gift for the Sultan. Mehmed II was neither impressed nor grateful, instead suggesting it should have been used for the defense of the city and viewed it as treason.

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 Byzantine expatriate community in Venice.

A collection of Lucas Notaras's letters in Latin has been published in Greece under the title Epistulae. It includes Ad Theodorum Carystenum, Scholario, Eidem, Ad eundem, & Sancto magistro Gennadio Scholario.

References and notes

  • The Immortal Emperor, by Prof. Donald M. Nicol.
  • The Fall of Constantinople 1453, by Sir James Cochran Stevenson (Steven) Runciman.
  • Byzantium: Decline and Fall & A Short History of Byzantium, by John J. Cooper, the 2nd Viscount Norwich]].
  • "Le rachat des Notaras apres la chute de Constantinople ou les relations "étrangères" de l'élite Byzantine au XVe siecle", by Thierry Ganchou, in Migrations et diasporas méditerranéennes (Xe-XVIe siecles), Paris 2002.

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