The Martyrs who saved Rome Part 2

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The Martyrs who saved Rome Part 2

Turkish troops slaughtered the stalwart defenders and then rushed through the city killing anyone in their path. They made their way to the cathedral. As in the Hagia Sophia, the invaders found the church filled with people praying with Archbishop Stefano Agricoli, Bishop Stephen Pendinelli, and Count Largo.

The Ottomans commanded the archbishop to throw away his crucifix, abjure the Christian faith, and embrace Islam. When he refused, his head was cut off before the weeping congregation. Bishop Pendinelli and Count Largo likewise would not convert and were also put to death, reportedly by being slowly sawed in half. As was the custom, the priests were murdered and the cathedral was stripped of all Christian symbols and turned into a stable for the horses. The Ottomans then gathered up the surviving people of Otranto and took them as captives. Their ultimate fate was in the hands of Pasha Ahmed.

The people of Otranto faced the same end as the Christians of Constantinople. All of the men over the age of 50 were slaughtered; the women and children under the age of 15 were either slain or sent away to Albania to be slaves. According to some contemporary sources, the total number of dead was as high as 12,000, with another 5,000 pressed into slavery. (These numbers are almost certainly an exaggeration as Otranto did not likely have a population that high.) Nevertheless, worse was still to come.

Death before Apostasy

The Pasha Ahmet ordered the men of Otranto, 800 exhausted, beaten, and starved survivors of the battle, to be brought before him. The Pasha informed them that they had one chance to convert to Islam or die. To convince them, he instructed an Italian apostate priest named Giovanni to preach. The former priest called on the men of Otranto to abandon the Christian faith, spurn the Church, and become Muslims. In return, they would be honored by the Pasha and receive many benefits.

One of the men of Otranto, a tailor named Antonio Primaldi (he is also named Antonio Pezzulla in some sources), came forward to speak to the survivors. He called out that he was ready to die for Christ a thousand times. He then added, according to the chronicler Giovanni Laggetto in the Historia della guerra di Otranto del 1480:

MY BROTHERS, UNTIL TODAY WE HAVE FOUGHT IN DEFENSE OF OUR COUNTRY, TO SAVE OUR LIVES, AND FOR OUR LORDS; NOW IT IS TIME THAT WE FIGHT TO SAVE OUR SOULS FOR OUR LORD, SO THAT HAVING DIED ON THE CROSS FOR US, IT IS GOOD THAT WE SHOULD DIE FOR HIM, STANDING FIRM AND CONSTANT IN THE FAITH, AND WITH THIS EARTHLY DEATH WE SHALL WIN ETERNAL LIFE AND THE GLORY OF MARTYRS. 

At this, the men of Otranto cried out with one voice that they too were willing to die a thousand times for Christ. The angry Pasha Ahmed pronounced his sentence: death.

The next morning, August 14, the 800 prisoners were bound together with ropes and led out of the still-smoking battleground of Otranto and up the Hill of Minerva. The victims repeated their pledge to be faithful to Christ, and the Ottomans chose the courageous Antonio Primaldo as the first to be executed.

The old tailor gave one final exhortation to his fellow prisoners and knelt before the executioner. The blade fell and decapitated him, but then, as the chronicler Saverio de Marco claimed in the Compendiosa istoria degli ottocento martiri otrantini (“The Brief History of the 800 Martyrs of Otranto”), the headless corpse stood back upright. The body supposedly proved unmovable, so it remained standing for the entire duration of the gruesome executions. Stunned by this apparent miracle, one of the executioners converted on the spot and was immediately killed. The executioners then returned to their horrendous business. The bodies were placed into a mass grave, and the Turks prepared to begin their march up the peninsula toward Rome. Otranto was in ruins, its population gone, its men dead and thrown into a pit, seemingly to be forgotten.

The Second Seige of Otranto

All of Italy was by now in a state of alarm. Pope Sixtus IV was reportedly so concerned for the safety of the Eternal City that he renewed the call first made in 1471 for a crusade against the Turks. Hungary, France, and a number of Italian city-states answered the plea. Not surprisingly, Venice refused, still bound by its treaty. The pope also made plans to evacuate Rome should the Turks arrive near the gates of the city.

Time was now of crucial importance to the safety of the Italian peninsula, and the king of Naples, Ferdinand I, quickly gathered his available forces and charged his son Alfonso, duke of Calabria, with the campaign. The two weeks that were purchased through the sacrifice of the people of Otranto became the key to organizing an effective response to the invasion, for the Neapolitan forces now had the chance to bottle up the Turks in Apulia rather than battling them across Italy.

Toward the end of August, Pasha Ahmed sent 70 ships of the Ottoman fleet to attack the city of Vieste. Turkish troops pushed on and destroyed the small church of Santa Maria di Merino and in early September set fire to the Monastery of San Nicholas di Casole. The monastery’s famed library was reduced to ashes.

In October, the Pasha attacked the cities of Lecce, Taranto, and Brindisi. He left behind a garrison at Otranto of 800 infantry and 500 cavalry. But time and the weather were now against the Turks. Ahmed had lost his chance to strike northwest, and he was finding supplies and food difficult to find in Apulia. He was also aware of the impending advance of the Neapolitan forces. He therefore decided to set sail from Italy before the winter storms in the Adriatic cut him off completely from all communication with Constantinople. The garrison at Otranto would remain, and the Pasha intended to return after the winter with an even larger army.

Duke Alfonso led his army into Apulia in the early spring of 1481. He was assisted by a force of Hungarian troops that had been dispatched by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, a longtime foe of the Turks and a monarch eager to deliver them a defeat in Italy. Like the people of Otranto a year before, the Turkish troops retreated to the rebuilt defenses of the city as the Christian army arrived at the gates on May 1. The city was thoroughly invested. The siege of Otranto continued apace for several months, culminating in two large assaults, in August and then September 1481. The city fell with the second attack, but the last vestiges of Otranto were destroyed in the vicious fighting. None of the Ottoman troops were left alive.

The Sacrifice That Saved Italy

While the siege engines of the Neapolitans rained down on the Ottoman defenders, across the Adriatic on May 3, 1481, Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror died suddenly at the age of 49 at his military headquarters at Gebze, while planning his next war. It was believed that he had been poisoned, perhaps by the Venetians.

Any thought of a relief force sailing from the Ottoman Empire for Italy died with Mehmet, for his heir, Bayezid II, was forced to engage in a bitter struggle with his brother Cem for the throne. Pasha Ahmed fell out of favor at the court and was recalled to Constantinople by Bayezid and imprisoned. On November 18, 1482, the one-time great general was executed at Adrianople.

The Ottoman ambitions in Italy were ended. Had Otranto surrendered to the Turks, the history of Italy might have been very different. But the heroism of the people of Otranto was more than a strategically decisive stand. What made the sacrifice of Otranto so remarkable was the willingness to die for the faith rather than reject Christ.

The martyrs of Otranto were not forgotten by the people who returned to Apulia after the fighting was over. The bones of the martyrs were gathered up, placed in reliquaries, and installed in a chapel just off the main altar in the restored cathedral. Some of the relics were also sent to the church of Santa Caterina in Formello at Naples.

On October 5, 1980, Pope John Paul II visited Otranto and said Mass in honor of the martyrs in the cathedral. Twenty-six years later, in July 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave his formal approval for the promulgation of a decree by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that the Martyrs of Otranto were killed out of “hatred for the faith” (in odium fidei) in Otranto on August 14, 1480. This was the formal recognition that they were martyrs.

In speaking of the sufferings of the martyrs of Otranto, Pope John Paul II touched upon the challenges of martyrdom for Christ, but he also stressed the example of the 800 to modern Christians, especially those enduring hardships and sufferings in hostile lands where persecutions and even death are commonplace. He declared,

MANY CONFESSORS AND DISCIPLES OF CHRIST HAVE PASSED THROUGH THIS TEST IN THE COURSE OF HISTORY. THE MARTYRS OF OTRANTO PASSED THROUGH IT 500 YEARS AGO. THE MARTYRS OF THIS CENTURY HAVE PASSED AND ARE PASSING THROUGH IT TODAY, MARTYRS WHO ARE UNAPPRECIATED, OTHERWISE LITTLE KNOWN, AND WHO ARE FOUND IN PLACES FAR AWAY FROM US. 

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