When did the Roman Empire actually fall?

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, for which apparently there is now a Muslim debate about whether it fulfilled Muhammad’s charge for Muslims to conquer that city.  I can’t say I have any opinion in that particular matter.  But something I do find interesting is that, in describing the event, it’s usually described as the fall of the Byzantine Empire, not as the final fall of the Roman Empire.

Growing up, I was taught that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD.  But that date has long struck me as problematic for a lot of reasons.  Yes, it is when the continuity of imperial government ended for the western empire.  But the eastern empire, under the emperor in Constantinople, continued for almost another millennium, until 1453, when the Ottomans finally ended it.  Although a case could be made that the empire effectively ended in 1204 since there was a prolonged break in continuity and the empire remained fractured between successor states afterward.  But these are both fairly late medieval dates.

Eastern empire at its greatest extent. Image credit: Tataryn via Wikipedia

Eastern empire at its greatest extent. Image credit: Tataryn via Wikipedia

So why then are westerners typically taught that the Roman Empire fell in 476?  It wasn’t because the capital of the empire ceased to be the city of Rome.  Even before Constantinople (whose official name was “New Rome”) became the capital of the empire in 330, Rome itself had not been the capital since 286.  The capital of the western empire when it fell was actually Ravenna.  It also isn’t because the empire didn’t include the city of Rome, since the eastern empire managed to reconquer and hold it for two centuries.

Many say it was because the old empire was pagan and what we now call the Byzantine Empire was Christian.  The transition from paganism to Christianity had started under Constantine, and heated up throughout the 4th century, with paganism increasingly in decline from then on.  (Many pagans blamed Christianity for the empire’s travails in the 5th century.  It’s possible the upheaval of the transition actually was a factor, but that’s a whole other topic.)  But by the time the western empire fell, it was mostly Christian; there hadn’t been a pagan emperor since 364 (and that emperor, Julian, may be more accurately described as neo-pagan).

It’s sometimes noted that the Byzantine Empire had Greek as its official language where the old western empire had used Latin.  But while the eastern empire had always been more Greek speaking than Latin, the transition in official language didn’t happen until the 7th century.

Yes, the culture of what we now call the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century was very different from the culture in 1st century Rome, but I’m not sure what that says, since the culture in 5th century Rome was also very different from 1st century Rome.  It’s worth noting that the culture in the 6th century Byzantine Empire was not too different from the culture of the western empire in the 5th century.

It’s also worth noting that if you had walked the streets of Constantinople in 1100 AD and asked the residents what they called themselves, they would have answered “Romans.”  Throughout its history, the residents of the Byzantine Empire considered themselves to be Romans.

However in medieval times, many in Europe had stopped considering them Roman, often referring to them as “Greeks” and the empire as the Greek Empire.  Some of this might have been because there was a separate state in Europe that called itself “The Holy Roman Empire.”  Somewhat tellingly, it was a German historian who first referred to the later empire as “Byzantine” (long after its final fall), based on the original name of the town that would eventually become Constantinople: Byzantium.

But the name “Byzantine” apparently became more popular after Edward Gibbon separated it in his treatment of the decline and fall of the western empire.  Gibbon himself doesn’t seem to have considered the Byzantine Empire to have been Roman anymore.  But why?

I suspect the real answer here is that the Roman Empire disappeared from western Europe in the 5th century, and was never able to return.  For people living in England, France, Spain, and surrounding regions, the empire had ceased to be a presence, and the eastern empire was simply too distant to regard it as the same entity.  In other words, considering the Byzantine Empire to be a separate political entity from the Roman Empire is largely a creation of history, western history in particular.  (The Islamic societies apparently never made the distinction.)

I’ve noted before that I dislike labeling people differently from how they labelled themselves, although I suppose in history, it’s far from the only case.  We (in the west) often use western names for other countries, referring to Egypt by its western name instead of the Arabic name: Misr, or ancient Egypt by its native name: Kemet.  We use names like China instead of Zhōnghuá or Japan instead of Nippon.

(I sometimes wonder what names people in other cultures have for us.  I’ve heard the name “amerikano” thrown around, either for US residents or residents of the Americas overall, although I can’t recall what part of the world that phrase is used in.)

So, us referring to ancient empires by our names for them instead of their own might be inevitable to some degree.  But I think anyone interested in history should learn how these societies conceived of themselves.

The fall of Constantinople and ascent of the Ottomans had consequences for world history.  A lot of the motivation for Portugal and Spain’s explorations were to find trading routes around the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottoman’s enjoyed prosperity while world trade flowed through them, but increasingly fell on hard times as that trade shifted to the seas in subsequent centuries.

In many ways, the fall of Constantinople, the final fall of the Roman Empire, could be seen as a factor in the development of what we now call the Age of Exploration and the development of the western world.  That development, to a large degree, might be why the middle east ceased to be the cosmopolitan center of the world, with long term consequences for those societies.

It makes me wonder what shift might be in the future.  What might eventually shift hegemony to a different part of the world?

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11 Responses to When did the Roman Empire actually fall?

  1. john zande says:

    Interesting stuff, and a belated Happy Constantinople Conquest Day!

    I read The Great Captains as a kid, and it opens with the very last Roman ship sailing out through the mouth of the Thames, leaving Britain for good. The image of that fascinated and thrilled me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thanks.

      I’ve never heard of The Great Captains. Interesting looking book.

      You have to wonder what the state of mind of the Roman troops were as they withdrew from places they had held for centuries. Many had probably grown up in those lands. But I wonder how many of them, as it became increasingly evident that the empire could no longer protect the local populations, simply ceased being Roman soldiers and focused on taking care of their local community.

      Liked by 1 person

      • john zande says:

        Many, I’d suspect. The last Arthur film (not very good) has him even being a Roman. That is what the Great Captains is about: Arthur emerging through that void.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I saw that movie. I liked the idea of what they were trying to do, but yeah, the execution could have been better. Ultimately though, I suspect trying to come up with realistic portrayals of mythical figures is always going to be a tough sale. People come to see the legend. It might have been better if they had just made a movie about a Roman commander (not Arthur) in 5th century Britain. Then they wouldn’t have been constrained by trying to explain aspects of Arthurian legend.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Brett says:

    Honestly, I’d be fine if other countries wanted to call US locations by different names in their own languages. If Germans want to call St. Louis “Ludwigstadt”, I’d be okay with that for example.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Roman Empire was so incredibly cool.

    One of the things I’ve seen indicated for why the west fell is that the Italian nobility finally decided that you needed to pass a race test to be emperor. Rome had already been saved in hard times by Gaulish emperors, Illyrian emperors and Spanish Emperors. In the Republican period, many of the most important leaders had been Greek or North African. Then, around 400 A.D., A new generation of Gothic leaders found they didn’t pass the race test and sort of lost interest in the continued existence of the empire.

    Then there’s the Abrahamic influence. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews had been probably the main source of division and nasty, to the death struggles in Roman history. Then Christianity took on that role. Then, as you point out, Islam took over that role to finish off the Eastern Empire.

    I wonder if this isn’t just a symptom of monotheism. I mean, if you believe that Jesus is just the coolest God, it’s not that big of a stretch to say, “oh, well he must have just been a God we missed when we made our Pantheon. Welcome to the club.” If you believe that the Torah is THE SOURCE OF ABSOLUTE TRUTH, though, it’s awfully hard to compromise. If Muhammad is THE PROPHET WHO CANNOT BE WRONG, then every little disagreement over theology is literally a to the death struggle. I mention this because polytheistic Rome was a much more united and, generally speaking, culturally advanced place than monotheistic Rome.

    As for names – I don’t have anything deep to add other than to mention the Han Chinese called Rome “Daqin,” which amusingly means “great Qin,” ie, the dynasty the Han had overthrown. Also, Koreans call the US “Migook,” which means “beautiful country.” They also call Australia “Hojoo,” which means “big lake,” so take that as you will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had heard that the late western emperors were particularly snooty toward the barbarians, eager to set themselves apart, but hadn’t heard the part about the racial purity test. Makes you wonder what might have happened if the Goths had been allowed to rise in the imperial system.

      I think the religious transition probably did have something to do with the western collapse. Ancient pagan religions mostly weren’t exclusionary. If you worshipped Isis, no one particularly cared if you also worshipped Apollo. The Jews were the oddballs with their exclusionary religion and refusing to do libations to the imperial cult. But Judaism, apart from motivating a couple of brutal rebellions, wasn’t that big an issue, since it wasn’t evangelistic.

      But Christianity was both exclusionary and evangelistic, and in the 4th century as it came to power, the battle between Christians and pagans set citizens against each other in a major way, probably screwing up the empire’s social cohesion at a time when their border pressures were intensifying. It’s almost certainly not the whole story, but it seems like a major part. By the 6th century, things had probably settled somewhat as Christianity was then the established religion, but that was too late for the western empire.

      Of course, Islam was the bane of the eastern empire from the 7th century on.

      Interesting on the names. Thanks! What historians call us in 1000 years will probably be based on which civilizations come to dominate between now and then.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a lot of fun to think about the Goths. In spite of the way they get portrayed, Alaric, Ataulf and Stillico were all pretty reasonable dudes. Reasonable dudes who had to labor in the shadows of some absolute turds …

        I think you’re underestimating just how bad the Jewish situation was. The Kitos War was an all out genocide and left Cyprus and Libya “depopulated.”

        Orosios wrote “The Jews … waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out.”

        Dio adds the following:

        “‘Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put one Andreas at their head and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would cook their flesh, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood, and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downwards. Others they would give to wild beasts and force still others to fight as gladiators. In all, consequently, two hundred and twenty thousand perished. In Egypt, also, they performed many similar deeds, and in Cyprus under the leadership of Artemio. There, likewise, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Jew may set foot in that land, but even if one of them is driven upon the island by force of the wind, he is put to death. Various persons took part in subduing these Jews, one being Lusius, who was sent by Trajan.”

        The Jewish Encyclopedia more or less agrees, so it’s probably not just ancient anti-Semitism, either.

        Btw, I’m trying to get a project going on Julian the Apostate. You intersted?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of the Kitos War, although I did know about the two national revolts. It’s interesting to speculate about the effect of the first Jewish-Roman war, and the hostility Jews probably faced throughout the empire afterward, on the attitude of the New Testament gospels toward them. Paul’s letters predated that war but the gospels and many other letters are generally dated either concurrently or afterward.

          What kind of project? I’m afraid my knowledge of Julian is pretty cursory.

          Liked by 1 person

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