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.
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?