Witness the might of an ancient civilization so powerful and resonant that 566 years after it passed into legend, a dictator in Turkey continues to battle its ghost…
I refer to the ghost of ancient Rome, officially extinguished 566 years ago this week, on May 29th, 1456 when Mehmed the Conqueror’s hordes finally pierced Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls, murdering the last Roman Emperor (Constantine XI Palaiologos), and completing the Turk’s conquest of the Roman Empire. Of course the Empire had ceased to exist in any recognizable form centuries before, and yet, in that still exceptionally grand city on the Golden Horn – in its libraries, churches, palaces, and in the memories of its denizens, the ancient world had lived on even as the West plunged into its miserable Dark Ages.
Many in the West (perhaps most of us except for the truly obsessed or fortunate) were taught in school that Rome “fell” in 476CE when the teenage Emperor Romulus Augustulus handed his crown to the Goth warlord Odoacer, formally ending the Western Roman Empire. In fact that is only half the story. In the East, on the Bosporus, in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) where Constantine the Great had moved the capital of the Roman Empire in 330CE, a Roman Emperor had ruled continuously from 330 to 1453. The Western Empire bowed out early, the but East continued, and thrived for many centuries and its existence played a critical role in the shape of the world that we occupy today.
Constantinople’s fall in 1453 sent thousands of refugees from fleeing westwards (principally to Italy) where their knowledge of ancient science, art, and history would prove essential to sparking the Renaissance. The very idea of the Renaissance was, of course, a misnomer, because in the East the ancient world had never died – only in the West had the past been forgotten.
This news of Rome’s fall in 1453 is long-in-the-tooth, to say the least, and yet its impact is still very keenly felt in certain circles! Specifically, in the old Roman city of Ankyra, in Turkey, a dictator reigns (the current Turkish President Recip Erdogan) – and each year without fail that man makes a very great deal of the fact that the Turks defeated the Romans 566 years before.
This year was no exception.
As reported this week in the popular press, Erdogan tweeted about the Turks’ victory:
“…the conquest of Constantinople changed the course of world history. May Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottomans and his army rest in peace…”
That autocrats still celebrate a centuries old victory says something meaningful about the enduring legacy of Rome itself, even the latter-day Eastern Roman Empire that we in the West refer to erroneously as the “Byzantine Empire”.
Still resonant, and relevant, six centuries after it finally disappeared from the face of the planet.
Long live Rome…