Aug. 14 marks the first feast of the Martyrs of Otranto since Pope Francis canonized them May 12. The day honors the 813 men who — on Aug. 14, 1480 — gave their lives for Christ. The men from the city in southeast Italy were killed while remaining steadfast to the Faith under an invading force of 18,000 Turks. They had arrived on orders of Mehmed the Conqueror, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who had taken Constantinople in 1453. The conquest of the Second Rome wasn’t enough — he wanted Rome itself.
Faced with a choice
Gedik Ahmed Pasha led the force and, arriving there July 28, sent a messenger into the town with the terms of peace — give up and everything will be fine; otherwise, expect death. The city’s leaders told the messenger that they would not freely give up the city and warned him not to come back. Ahmed sent a second messenger, who was promptly shot full of arrows. But the 400 men-at-arms garrisoned in Otranto weren’t so resolute. They saw how vastly outnumbered they were, lowered themselves over the wall at night and fled.
On July 30, the bombardment began. The 15,000 citizens had to defend themselves, repairing breaches in the wall, pouring boiling oil and water on their enemies, and fighting without armor.
On Aug. 12, the Turks completely breached the wall. When they reached the cathedral, Archbishop Stefano Agricola greeted them dressed in full vestments, holding a crucifix. Ahmed told him to yield the cathedral to Mohammed and no longer speak the name of Christ, but the archbishop preached repentance. In response, Ahmed lopped off his head. The archbishop’s companions, Bishop Stephen Pendinelli and Count Francesco Largo, were sawn in two while still alive.
Save our souls for the Lord
The Turks rounded up the remaining male citizens 15 and older. The names and occupations of these men are unknown, except for Antonio Primaldo. This elderly tailor served as an apostle to the band of men to whom Ahmed gave a choice — reject Christ and embrace Islam and live, or be massacred.
“Would that all believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and were ready to die a thousand times for him,” Primaldo replied.
“My brothers, until today we have fought in defense of our homeland, to save our lives and for our earthly governors,” he said. “Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for Our Lord.”
On Aug. 14, they were tied to one another and marched to the Hill of Minerva, now called the Hill of Martyrs. Ahmed hated Primaldo and wanted him to die first, but Ahmed got more than he bargained for. Four eyewitnesses testified that after Primaldo’s head was cut off, his corpse stood up and went over to the side and stayed there until the last head was cut off. One of the Muslims, named Berlabei, saw this wonder and was converted on the spot. He loudly proclaimed himself a Christian and was instantly impaled.
With Otranto secured, Ahmed started marching up Italy toward Rome. But then winter approached and food became scarce. He left Otranto occupied, intending to return in the spring. But Mehmed the Conqueror’s death in May 1481 scrubbed those plans. The new sultan didn’t trust Ahmed and had him killed. In the meantime, Alfonso of Naples retook Otranto in September 1481.
Today, the martyrs’ relics in Otranto’s cathedral are a witness to the truth that these men died, first defending their families and city, and then, more supremely, out of love for the Lord.
Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Minnesota.