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When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II (who would subsequently be known as Mehmed the Conqueror) decided to bestow upon himself the title of Caesar (Kaysar-i Rum, in Persian). It seems pretty obvious that, although today we think of the “Fall of Constantinople” as the end of the Byzantine/Roman Empire, in 1453 the Ottomans didn’t see it that way.
Partly this is because the Ottomans were always happy to add a new royal title to their list of epithets. In the early decades when Osman I and his descendants were just building their dominion, they didn’t have the easiest time legitimizing themselves as rulers. They weren’t caliphs, though they also adopted that title after conquering Egypt. They didn’t descend from either Genghis Khan or Timur, the two great conquerors (and therefore progenitors of ruling dynasties) of the age. They didn’t have a spiritual claim to power like the Safavids would later assume in Iran. And until they captured Constantinople they didn’t even have a particularly impressive capital. They did incorporate some pre-Islamic Turkic mythology into their origin legends, but mostly they just kind of were, a fact of life in a sense. But “we’re in charge because we say so,” or (for the religiously-minded) “don’t look at us, God must want it this way,” hadn’t done much to legitimize the Umayyads, and the Ottomans seem to have understood that they needed to grab on to anything that gave their reign a sense of purpose and destiny.
So an Ottoman ruler who conquered Constantinople would naturally be inclined to anoint himself the new Roman Emperor. What made this even more enticing is that there were apocalyptic prophecies milling about the Islamic world about the ruler who finally conquered “Rome”—Constantinople being, in this case, the “new Rome.” Being known as the new Roman Emperor and the guy who was maybe about to bring about Judgment Day and a glorious new age for all mankind sounded pretty great! Unfortunately for Mehmed, his conquest of Constantinople didn’t bring about Judgment Day, and nobody in Christian Europe was going to concede that he was actually the new emperor of Rome, at least not voluntarily. So he apparently had more work to do.
The next steps in Mehmed’s reign make sense if you start from this place. If there are prophecies about conquering “Rome” and conquering the “new Rome” doesn’t trigger them, then one obvious conclusion is that you actually need to conquer the “old Rome,” which was, well, Rome. And if you’re trying to make the case that you’re the new Roman emperor, what better way to do that than to put the old Roman Empire back together? And what better place to start putting the old Roman Empire back together than the city of Rome itself? And so it was that in 1480, the Ottomans invaded southern Italy with a plan to march north and seize the birthplace of the Roman Republic—still, by the way, the center of Latin Christendom.
The landing point for the Ottoman invasion force, commanded by a former grand vizier named Gedik Ahmed Pasha, was Otranto, in the “heel” of the Italian “boot.” This was actually a two-pronged offensive—another Ottoman army besieged the Knights Hospitaller on the island of Rhodes from May through July, 1480, but ultimately failed to capture the island and had to withdraw. Gedik Ahmed Pasha’s army laid siege to Otranto on July 28. They offered the defenders clemency if they surrendered, but the city’s militia vowed to resist, so the siege was on. There’s not much to tell about the actual battle—the Ottomans were eventually able to breach Otranto’s walls on August 11 and the city was lost. But those mere couple of weeks delayed the Ottoman offensive and gave Naples, the first major city to Otranto’s north, time to organize its defenses, which meant a lighting march on Rome was no longer an option.
Things get a little murky at this point. In the aftermath of the battle, the Ottomans were said to have rounded up the remaining men in Otranto, which turned out to be roughly 800. These men were offered the choice of conversion to Islam or death, at which point one of the 800, a man named Antonio Primaldo, is said to have declared that he would die for Christ just as Christ had died for him. This was enough to win the whole group over to the idea of martyrdom, and so they were all executed. The 800 martyrs were beatified in 1771 and were canonized only very recently, by Pope Francis in 2013. They were reportedly executed on August 14, which may be off by a couple of days in either direction. But the Catholic Church designates August 14 as their feast day, so we’re sticking with that. The 800 martyrs are considered the patrons and protectors of Otranto.
A great photo of the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, in the Otranto Cathedral (Laurent Massoptier via Wikimedia Commons)
We’ll get to the historicity of the martyrs in a moment. The story is less murky at the level of imperial politics. Mehmed’s great invasion of Italy ended largely because Mehmed himself did. Gedik Ahmed Pasha tried to press north but met stiff resistance, and as winter was approaching he elected to leave a small garrison in Otranto and take the bulk of his army back to secure, well-supplied Ottoman territory in Albania. Meanwhile, Pope Sixtus IV (d. 1484), understandably freaked out by the presence of Ottoman soldiers on the Italian peninsula, called for a Crusade. An army, primarily of Neapolitan soldiers with support from Hungary, besieged Ottoman Otranto in May 1481.
The Ottoman garrison held out, but it was expecting Gedik Ahmed Pasha to return with reinforcements, and any plans to do so were scrapped when Mehmed died on May 3. He was only 49 and was probably poisoned, either by a Venetian agent or by his physician, possibly on behalf of Mehmed’s son and successor, Bayezid II (d. 1512). Gedik Ahmed Pasha had to hightail it back to Istanbul because Bayezid and his brother Cem were disputing the succession, and Gedik Ahmed Pasha wanted to support Bayezid (which won him nothing, as Bayezid had him executed anyway in 1482). When it became clear that no reinforcements were coming to Otranto, the Ottoman garrison negotiated the surrender of the city and fled Italy for Albania. The Ottomans would never seriously threaten Italy again.
As for the martyrs, it’s complicated. The reason I said that things got murky above is because, while thousands of people died during and right after the siege of Otranto, it’s not clear that these particular 800 men were killed for resisting conversion. “Convert or die” wasn’t typical practice for the Ottomans, at least not in the 15th century. They had countless Christian subjects living in their empire and were perfectly fine with that, particularly insofar as they could tax Christians at higher rates than Muslims and conscript Christian boys for their devşirme slave program (this is where they got “recruits” for the Janissary Corps). They could also, if they were feeling really vindictive, sell their captives into slavery. In other words, there was no obvious reason for the Ottoman to conduct a mass execution here and several reasons not to do so. It went against their normal, very well-documented, behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not impossible that these particular 800 men may have been ordered to convert or die, but on the other hand they may have been singled out for execution as punishment for the city’s resistance, in which case conversion (or lack thereof) wouldn’t have had anything to do with it. The earliest sources don’t say anything about conversion playing a role in their executions. There’s also the possibility that they weren’t singled out at all. As best as historians can figure, contemporary Christian sources don’t say anything at all about a mass martyrdom at Otranto—the “earliest sources” were written well after the fact. There is a reasonable explanation for this, which is that the Ottoman occupation of the city would have prevented news of any alleged massacre from making its way out to the Christian world until after they abandoned the city. But then you still have to explain why the Ottomans would have acted so uncharacteristically in this instance.
None of this, of course, changes the fact that these men were killed at Otranto, but we simply can’t be sure why they were killed or whether they were actually martyred by the strict meaning of the term.