The fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Turks is one of the most significant events in Eurasian history. Some use the date it happened, 1453, as the break point between “Medieval” times and the “Early Modern” era. The threat of the Ottoman Empire was an important thing too. It motivated a lot of the state consolidation and military advancement that gave us modern Western Civilization. The threat of “the Turk” is long passed, but we don’t challenge the basic assumptions that that struggle has left us with. We don’t need the dream of a fallen Constantinople for propaganda purposes anymore. We should acknowledge what actually happened. That’s what this week’s video aims to do.
You all may have noticed that I consciously avoid the term “Byzantine Empire” here. The Byzantines did too. In fact the term wasn’t even invented until centuries after they had gone. They knew themselves as Romans, so that’s how I try to refer to them as well. This confusion has its origin in a bit of archaic racism. The Enlightenment thinkers that drew European History together didn’t like the Greeks much. For them Rome was based in Rome. It was the great civilization of Cicero and Augustus, it spoke Latin and it ended in 476.
The Western bits of the Empire did in fact fall in 476. But the Eastern Half had a full 1,000 years of history ahead of it. The Western European historians of the 1700s found this kind of thing distasteful. Altogether too Eastern. The Eastern Roman Emperors, with their constant murdering of each other, their pretensions to imperial divinity, and tasteless bling weren’t really their sort of Romans. So they invented a whole new name for them, the Byzantines, based on the original Greek name of Constantinople. I’m a big fan of Rome, and I have some of the same prejudices, but I don’t feel the need to distinguish the way the folks in the 1700s did. So I tend to use the term “Eastern Roman Empire” rather than “Byzantine Empire”.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey There, According to Cambridge historian Steven Runciman there was “never a greater crime against humanity” than the sack of Constantinople.
For 1000 years Constantinople had been the repository of the riches of Rome, one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. The Eastern Roman Empire, which some call Byzantine Empire, had had many ups and downs over its centuries of power. But it had never been sacked. Its massive walls, built in the 400s AD had kept it safe. These wall didn’t just preserve the cultural achievements and riches of the Christian Byzantines. As the final capital of the Roman Emperors, it also held the greatest works of Greek and Roman antiquity as well. All of this was burnt, destroyed and stolen.
For centuries the Greeks, and to some extent other Christians, including a lot of folks in my comments, have lamented the final fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Turks finally breached Those ancient walls and took the city. Greek fantasies of taking back this city, and the Aegean coast of Turkey have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths as recently as the last century. The fall of Constantinople has been remembered as one of the greatest crimes Muslims ever committed against Christians. But all this anger, and all of this resentment is based on a myth.
It wasn’t Muslims who destroyed Constantinople. Christians destroyed it. That historian Steven Runciman wasn’t talking about the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he was talking about the city’s true destruction, which took place in 1204. Around 1200 the Eastern Roman Empire was perhaps running out of steam a bit, but it was still tremendously powerful, and Constantinople was probably the most impressive city in the world.
Since the 1070s the Eastern Romans had been threatened by Turkish raiders. So they decided to ask the Christians of the West for help. Those Christians, led by the Catholic Pope, launched what became known as the Crusades to help fight off this Muslim threat. This never worked very well. These militant Christian fanatics were more interested in setting up their own kingdoms than they were in restoring lands to the Eastern Roman Empire. They took Jerusalem for themselves in 1099 and then lost it 100 years later.
But It was the 4th crusade that truly revealed the limits of Christian solidarity in 1204. There’s only one man with a visible grave in Haghia Sophia, the Eastern Roman Empire’s greatest surviving Church. Enrico Dandolo, a Venetian Doge is a surprising choice. He was the man who convinced the Crusaders that sacking Jerusalem again wouldn’t be anywhere near as profitable as taking Constantinople. The inconvenient fact that the city was held by their fellow Christians didn’t hold them back one bit.
First they installed a pretender on the throne, and when that didn’t work, they took the city themselves, destroying everything in their path. Some of Venice’s proudest possessions were stolen at this time, but much more was destroyed than taken.
“In the Cathedral of St. Sophia the ample veil of the sanctuary was rent asunder for the sake of the golden fringe; and the altar, a monument of art and riches was broken in pieces and shared among the captors. Their mules and horses were laden with the wrought silver and gilt carvings which they tore down from the doors and pulpit; and if the beasts stumbled under the burden they were stabbed by their impatient drivers, and the holy pavement streamed with their impure blood.”
Edward Gibbon, who wrote that description, can go overboard sometimes, but the contemporary accounts aren’t much better. It still puzzles me why Dandolo’s grave is visible in Haghia Sophia today. Maybe the Turks want to acknowledge Constantinople’s true conqueror?
The Western Christians held Constantinople for almost 60 years, running the once great city into the ground. The Eastern Roman Empire never fully re-consolidated their three successor states.These states fought each other, and the Western Christians right up until the end. One of them did manage to take Constantinople back in 1261, but the Ottoman Turks began their rise shortly after that. The Ottomans first rose up on land that would probably have been safely Christian if it weren’t for the fourth Crusade. This Christian empire never came back from what Christians did to it. And that’s the crazy thing.
The Eastern Roman Empire invited this horror on themselves. The first crusade was launched back in 1095 by Pope Urban at the invitation of an Eastern Roman Emperor. The emperor thought that the violent religious crusading spirit would save his empire. It ended up killing it. Again and again in history, from the Crusades to modern Saudi Arabia, we see people who think religious fanaticism will help them somehow. It usually ends up hurting their own people most of all. Next up we’ll cover a Muslim myth of Christian evil, the fall of Al-Andalus and the end of Muslim Spain
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and thanks so much to our producers and patrons. If you want to know more about religious myth and religious fanaticism and how it works today, I suggest you check out my essay “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” available in paperback and on the Amazon Kindle.