October 15, 1454 (Frankfurt)

In the wake of Nicholas V’s call to crusade, papal diplomats sought to persuade the powers of Western Europe to coordinate a military response. Their efforts resulted in what became a longstanding truce in Italy (April 1454) and in Germany a series of diets at Regensburg (April 1454), Frankfurt (October 1454), and Wiener Neustadt (February 1455). One of the most important figures at these diets was Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. Born near Siena to an impoverished noble family and trained as a humanist in Florence, Piccolomini’s skill as a writer and orator drew him into the circles of several leading Italian cardinals as well as to the assemblies of the Council of Basel (1431–49), as they worked to reform and govern the church. He also came to the attention of Germany’s Frederick III, who appointed him imperial secretary. As the Council of Basel’s fortunes waned, Piccolomini eventually came to side with the papacy. Ordained as a priest in 1446, he worked on behalf of Eugenius IV and then Nicholas V, who appointed him bishop of Trieste (1447) and Siena (1450). Piccolomini was one of many humanists who in their writings responded forcefully to the fate of Constantinople in 1453. He authored a series of eloquent letters lamenting the fall of the city, as well as the famous oration whose opening lines are translated here. Delivered on behalf of Frederick III at the Diet of Frankfurt in 1454, Constantinopolitana clades (“The Fall of Constantinople”) was a strikingly effective deployment of humanist style in a crusading context. The address became in many ways a touchstone and a model for the formal crusade oration, a new genre that came to complement the traditional sermon as a key element of crusade propaganda.

Source: Michael Cotta-Schønberg, ed. and trans., “Oration Constantinopolitana clades of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (15 October 1454, Frankfurt), 6th version,” in Collected Orations of Pope Pius II (Saarbrücken Scholars’ Press, 2019), vol. 5, no. 22, pp. 98–223.1

Reverend fathers, illustrious princes, and you others, noble and respectable men:

The Fall of Constantinople was a great victory for the Turks, a total disaster for the Greeks, and a complete disgrace for the Latins. Therefore, I believe, it must pain and hurt each of you – and the more so the more noble and good you are. For what is more proper for a good and noble man than to care for the true Faith, to favor religion, and to extol and spread the name of Christ, Our Savior, as much as possible? But now that Constantinople is lost, and this great city has fallen into the power of our enemies, now that so much Christian blood has been shed, and so many people2 have been carried off into slavery, the Catholic Faith has been grievously injured, our religion has suffered a shameful reverse, and the name of Christ has been grievously damned and abused.

Truly, for many centuries the Christian commonwealth has suffered no greater disgrace than today. Our forefathers often experienced setbacks in Asia and Africa, that is in other regions, but we, today, have been smitten and struck in Europe3 itself, in our fatherland, in our own home and seat. If somebody says that it is many years since the Turks came from Asia4 to Greece, the Tartars settled in Europe on this side of Tanais,5 and the Saracens crossed the Herculean Sea,6 occupied a part of Spain,7 and inflicted many defeats on the Christians, [my answer is that] until now we have never lost a city or a place equal to Constantinople, and never have we, in Europe, lost so much Christian and noble blood to the infidels as now.

Constantinople is almost at the center of all the lands that may be easily cultivated, and it has a very large and safe harbor where ships, nay immense fleets can be armed and provisioned. In one direction, the way is open through the Bosporus to the Euxine Sea, that we today call the Great Sea,8 and all its Northern and Eastern coasts. And in the other direction, you may easily go through the Hellespont,9 that we now call the Arm of Saint George, to the West and to the coasts of the Mediterranean. This place, so advantageous, so useful, and so essential, has now been lost to Christ, Our Savior, and gained by Muhammad, the Seducer, while we were silent, not to say asleep.

Moreover, the Christians had two emperors, one Latin and one Greek. Now that the Greek emperor has been killed together with his nobles, can we not say that one of the two eyes of Christianity10 has been plucked out and one of its two hands cut off? In the whole world, four empires have been considered great and outstanding: the empire of the Assyrians, the empire of the Greeks, the empire of the Carthaginians, and the empire of the Romans. The first one may be called the Eastern Empire, the second the Northern Empire, the third the Southern Empire, and the fourth the Western empire.

In the same way, our forefathers established four patriarchal sees: the Antiochene See they gave to the Eastern people, the Constantinopolitan See to the Northern people, the Alexandrian See to the Southern people, and the Roman See to the Western people. The patriarchal sees of Jerusalem, Aquileia, and Grado that has now been translated to Venice, were founded long afterwards and are not considered as equal to the first four. Of the four principal patriarchates, our forefathers lost two, together with the See of Jerusalem, due to passivity and mutual conflicts.11 Because of the same passivity, but to our greater shame, we ourselves have now lost the third one, the one that is followed by all the Ruthenians and many peoples to the North and East of Tanais. No wonder, nobles, that you are all mourning, shocked and stupefied by this great blow to Christianity, seeing that at one stroke the Greeks have fallen, the Turks are victorious, and the Latins have been thrown into confusion and disorder.

The grief of Holy Emperor Fredrick was just as great as yours. You should have seen him when he was first informed about this catastrophe, crying in his chamber, sorrowful in court, worried in council, praying in church, and everywhere downcast and anxious. For a long time, food gave him no pleasure and sleep no rest. But since the Turks are daily threatening Christendom with greater evils, it does not need moaning and tears as much as vigor and weapons. His Serene Highness has therefore found it worthwhile to summon an assembly of princes and cities of the German nation in order to take counsel on how to protect Christianity. Indeed he remembered the saying: “For, before you begin, there is need for deliberation, and for prompt action after you have deliberated.”12 The convention was asked to assemble in Regensburg, and you all know what happened there. The present meeting is held at the decision of that assembly. During the last days, it has been amply explained why this meeting is not held in Nuremberg, and why the emperor is unable to be present. For he would most certainly have come to the upper parts of the Empire in such an important matter if he had been able to leave his homeland at peace.

Though his desire was frustrated by those who benefit more from strife and war than from peace and tranquility, he did not want to disregard this assembly. Therefore, he sent these princes13 to act in his place and to represent him, and he has given them full and ample powers. They are prepared to negotiate both on the affairs of the Empire and the common matter of the Faith. But since your primary task is to consider and discuss the articles discussed in Regensburg, you wish to know the emperor’s mind on the matter. Therefore, by the authority of my colleagues I am now requested to set forth his mind, his opinion, and his intentions on these issues. As I would rather seem stupid through obedience than clever through defiance, I have taken this almost unbearable burden upon my shoulders, trusting in help from Him who would rather have obedience than sacrificial victims.14 And I do not fear to falter under this great burden since some here will lend me a hand if I stumble.15 And I obey so much more gladly that I see your numerous and kindly disposed assembly.

I am also moved by the fact that the matter on which I am to speak is important and urgent: should we go to war against the Turks who have unjustly conquered Constantinople; who have killed the Greek nobles and their emperor; who have polluted all the holy places; and who are threatening all Christians with chains, whips, murder, and atrocious punishments? If I convince you to do this, we shall easily settle the issues of how large a force is necessary, how the soldiers should be found, what wages to pay, which privileges to issue, how to provision the army, what war machines to prepare, as well as the time of departure, and the route to follow.16 It will also be easy to appoint a captain or leader of the war whom the ancient Romans called imperator. You will not hesitate to choose someone who has expert “knowledge of military affairs, great bravery, evident authority, and luck,”17 and who shows “application to duty, courage in danger, thoroughness in operation, rapidity in execution, wisdom in strategy.”18 I do not doubt that there is such a man among you. And as I shall explain later, you will not have to worry about keeping peace at home if you decide to go to war abroad.

Now you understand, Princes, the substance of my oration and what the matter is all about:19 the whole issue is whether or not to go to war. I have come to persuade you, in the name of the emperor, to go to war, and I have only accepted this burden because I see that the matter is clearly worthy of your courage, your nobility, and your nation. So, do now consider, hear, and examine the issue of undertaking this war for the sake of the Catholic Faith. Noble princes, every senate and every people that has to deliberate on going to war should discuss, carefully and stringently, three things so that it will not do something that it will later regret. For, as the saying of Scipio goes, it is shameful to err and then afterwards to say: “I had not thought of that!”20 So, anyone who is going to war should first ask: is the war just? Secondly, is it useful? And thirdly: is it feasible?21 If these conditions are not met, there is no reason for good men to go to war.22

1 Only the opening passage of the text is presented here, with the permission of the author. Note that the full text (in Latin and English, with a substantial introduction and apparatus) is also available in the public domain (https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01097147/document).

2 Here animae, or “souls.”

3 Note Piccolomini’s geopolitical use of the concept of Europe.

4 Asia Minor. Reference here to the Battle of Gallipoli in 1354.

5 The Don River, in antiquity considered to be the frontier river between Asia and Europe. Reference here to the Battle of Liegnitz in 1241 against the Mongols.

6 The Strait of Gibraltar.

7 Reference to Arabic conquests of the eighth century.

8 The Black Sea.

9 The Dardanelles.

10 The image of Rome and Constantinople as the two “eyes” of the world was coined by Themistius in the fourth century.

11 Alexandria (641), Jerusalem (1187), and Antioch (1268).

12 Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 1.6.

13 Bishop Ulrich Sonnenberger of Gurk; Henry of Pappenheim; Hartung von Cappel; Margrave Albrecht of Brandenburg; Margrave Kar of Baden; and Piccolomini himself.

14 Cf. 1 Samuel 15:22.

15 Cf. Ecclesiasticus 7:36.

16 Cicero, Pro lege Manilia 1.1.

17 Cicero, Pro lege Manilia 2.6.

18 Cicero, Pro lege Manilia 11.29.

19 Cicero, De officiis 2.12.

20 Cicero, De officiis 1.81.

21 Cf. Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 3.8.22.

22 The treatise continues by answering each of these questions affirmatively, at length, in sonorous humanist prose. The full text is available via the link provided in n. 1 above in this document.

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