Loukas Notaras

Loukas Notaras (Greek: Λουκᾶς Νοταρᾶς) (5 April 1402 - 3 June 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.


Loukas Notaras was descended from a Greek family originally from Monemvasia; his earliest ancestor whom we can identify in the surviving sources was one sebastos Paul, who captured the island of Kythera from the Venetians for the Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos in 1270. Other members of the Notarades can be identified over the following decades. In the middle of the 14th century one branch relocated to Constantinople, where they rose to political and social prominence by supporting Andronikos IV Palaiologos, who was rebelling against his father John V Palaiologos, and then, after Andronikos's death, by supporting his son John VII Palaiologos.[1]

Loukas Notaras' father was Nicholas Notaras, who served as interpreter to emperor Manuel II Palaiologos; his mother's name is not recorded. Loukas had at least one brother, who was captured in a skirmish during the 1411 siege of Constantinople and decapitated. Nicholas ransomed his son's head and buried it with the rest of his remains in a public funeral.[2]

In 1424, Notaras was one of three emissaries—along with Manuel Melachrenos and George Sphrantzes—who negotiated a treaty of friendship between Emperor John VII Palaiologos and Sultan Murad II of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the Ottoman Interregnum.[3] His continued importance as an imperial official is attested by his presence at the marriage of the future Emperor Constantine Palaiologos to Caterina Gattilusio 27 July 1441.[4]

Because of his famous phrase "I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the City (i.e., Constantinople) than the Latin mitre",[5] he is often thought to have opposed 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 to secure Catholic aid by whatever avenues they could find while simultaneously attempting to avoid riots by the Orthodox faithful.[6] 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 Sphrantzes, for instance, seldom has a charitable word for Notaras and Sphrantzes' antipathy was repeated in turn by Edward Gibbon.

Fall of Constantinople

During the siege of Constantinople, Notaras led the troops along the north-western Sea Wall.[7] Some accounts of the siege have him deserting his post after the Ottoman banner 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 Mesotechion rendered his efforts 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 abroad in Venice in the form of dowries for his children.[1] Nonetheless, he was executed shortly after along with his son and 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 Steven 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 Andronikos Palaiologos Kantakouzenos, 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.[8]

This story was originally recorded by Doukas,[9] a Byzantine historian who was not 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.

Mehmed's final words to Notaras before he ordered his execution :

"Inhuman half-breed dog, skilled in flattery and deceit! You possessed all this wealth and denied it to your lord the emperor and to the City, your homeland? And now, with all your intrigues and immense treachery, which you have been weaving since youth, you are trying to deceive me and avoid that fate you deserve. Tell me, impious man, who has granted possession of this City and your treasure to me?" Notaras answered that God was responsible. The sultan went on: "Since God saw it fit to enslave you and all the others to me, what are you trying to accomplish here with your chattering, criminal? Why did you not offer this treasure to me before this war started or before my victory? You could have been my ally and I would have honoured you in return. As things stand, God, not you, has granted me your treasure."[10]


The reports that all Notaras sons were executed are most likely an error. Most historical accounts only note execution without alluding to the fate of the youngest son of Notaras in the sultan’s seraglio. Jacob who was sent to Mehmed’s harem, was the only one male survivor of the Notaras family,[11] who eventually escaped Constantinople from Adrianople in 1460.

The wife of Notaras, who was on her sickbed during the final Ottoman assault, died a slave along the way to Adrianople, the former Ottoman capital; she was buried near the village of Mesene.[12] 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, along 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 and Sancto magistro Gennadio Scholario. He figures as a character in the book Johannes Angelos by the Finnish author Mika Waltari (1952, Eng. translation The Dark Angel, 1953). In the novel he is depicted as leader of a group of Byzantine nobles who vainly try to collaborate with the enemy after the fall of Constantinople.

In popular media

References and notes

  1. 1 2 Klaus-Peter Matschke, "The Notaras Family and Its Italian Connections", Dumbarton Oaks Papers: Symposium on Byzantium and the Italians, 13th-15th Centuries, 49 (1995), pp. 59-72
  2. Doukas, 10.9; translated by Harry J. Marguoulias, Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1975), p. 109
  3. George Sphrantzes, Chronicon Minus, 12.4; translated by Marios Philippides, The Fall of the Byzantine Empire: A Chronicle by George Sphrantzes, 1401-1477 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1980), p. 28
  4. Sphrantzes, Chronicon Minus, 24.10; translated by Philippides, Fall of the Byzantine Empire, p. 52
  5. Doukas, 37.10; translated by Margoulias, Decline and Fall, p. 210
  6. Stephen Runciman notes, "It was almost certainly Lucas Notaras who handled the negotiations with great tact; but he received no thanks for it." Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge: University Press, 1969), p. 69
  7. Donald M. Nicol, The Immortal Emperor (Cambridge: University Press, 1993), p. 63
  8. Runciman, The Fall, p. 151
  9. Doukas, 40.6-7; translated by Margoulias, Decline and Fall, pp. 234f
  10. Makarios Melissenos, Chronicon Maius, 3.10-12; translated in Marios Philippides, Fall of the Byzantine Empire, p.132
  11. [Marios Philippides, Walter K. Hanak: “The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography, and Military Studies”]
  12. Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, edited by William C. Hickman and translated by Ralph Manheim (Princeton: University Press, 1978), pp. 95, 102

Further reading

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