This is my year 12 ancient history assignment ive just done which had to be on some aspect of the transition in europe from the Roman Empire to the middle ages. I did the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire and evolution of the Roman Empire which allowed it to technically survive right into the 20th Century- Read on to find out!

The Fall of Constantinople 1453

A thousand years after the fall of Rome, the Eastern Roman Empire survived, evolved and flourished and eventually began its slow decline. Its capital Constantinople, founded by Emperor Constantine the Great in AD 330 became the New Rome. Its survival allowed the reign of the Caesars to continue in the east, melding with Greek influences to become the Byzantine Empire. The final fall of Constantinople and Byzantium itself to the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 is generally considered the final destruction of what remained of the Roman Empire. The Fall of Constantinople wasn't the Empire's destruction. Constantinople under the Ottomans was the centre of a Byzantine renaissance, which would allow the evolved Roman Empire to continue until after the First World War.

The City of Constantinople was founded as the new capital of the Roman Emperor Constantine I's reunified and Christian Empire in the early fourth century AD. The site of city lay on top of a Greek fishing community called Byzantion which dated back to the 7th century BC, on a jutted peninsular between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. It lay on the European side of the Bosphorus, an easily defensible location close enough to the Eastern Provinces to maintain command of the more vital areas and the Persian frontier. For a brief time the entire Imperial Court was moved from Rome to Constantinople and then once the Empire split again, it remained the seat of the Eastern Emperors. Constantinople had its own senate, great architectural wonders, baths, cathedrals, palaces, ports and the Hippodrome to rival the Circus Maximus.

Constantinople was protected by elaborate defences and three layers of fortifications and could be supplied by sea. Constantinople's seemingly impenetrable defences allowed the city to avoid the barbarian onslaught that engulfed Rome. Because of this city, the empire in the east survived. Over the centuries the Eastern Romans or the Byzantines as they became known evolved from their Latin roots to adopt a more Greek identity to form a culture unique to their own. The Emperors maintained the titles Dominus and Imperator Caesar after their names. However after the Emperor Heraclius who reigned from AD 610-641, the common title became Basileus, the Greek term for "king" or "sovereign", which replaced Imperator. All the other titles slowly evolved into Greek forms such as Autokrator or Kosmokrator which meant Ruler of the Universe. The historian Hooker supports that the Emperors of Byzantium were of the same continuous line of rulers that spanned back to Augustus: "When Rome was seized by Goths, this was a great blow to the Roman Empire, but it didn't effectively end it. Although Rome was under the control of foreigners who themselves claimed to be continuers of the Empire, the Byzantine Empire continued as before, believing themselves to be the Roman Empire," (Hooker, R, 2007).

As Constantine the Great intended, Constantinople was a Rome completely dedicated to Christianity, theoretically free of it pagan origins. Though a Christian empire they were the founders of the Eastern Orthodox Church which was split from the Roman Catholic Church. For Centuries the Popes in Rome spent more time feuding with the Emperors and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs in Constantinople than actually fighting the Muslims, which would help contribute to Byzantium's fall. The Byzantine Empire reached its height in the reign of Justinian I (527-565). Justinian's reign was marked by attempts to restore the Roman Empire, his armies reconquered Africa and Italy and made peace with the Persians. It would be the last time most of the Mediterranean world would be ruled from Constantinople. Until the fifteenth century Byzantium would act as a protective buffer for barbarian Christian Europe; in its 1100 years Constantinople would survive 22 seiges by Huns, Goths, Persians, Avars, Bulgars, Russians, Arabs and Turks.

While the Byzantines slowly lost most of their territory to growing power of the Ottoman Turks, central Asian tribes that converted to Islam and were pushed into Anatolia, Western Christians devastated Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, division between the Greek and Catholic churches worsened, internal conflicts and dynastic disputes tore the empire apart and in 1347 the plague wiped out a large part of the Empires population. The Byzantines had a saying: "Better the Sultan's Turban than the Cardinal's hat," (Roberts, J. M, 1996, P. 78), to highlight the religious hatred between the western kingdoms and the Byzantines. "The fact was that the thousand year old Byzantine Empire, inheritor of the eastern realm of imperial Rome, had by now lost much of its political importance. At its height, under Justinian in the sixth century, it had ruled almost the entire Mediterranean world; but by the start of the 15th century it had dwindled into a petty principality on the borders of Europe and Asia," (Allan, T. (ed.), 1989, P. 75). The conquests of the Turks limited the Empire in the fifteenth century to Constantinople itself, part of the Peloponnesian peninsular, several towns along the Marmara and Black sea coasts and a few Aegean Islands, (Allan, T. (ed.), 1989, P. 75).

The Emperor Manuel II traveled to the western courts trying to recruit help to save his empire from the Ottomans. Adam of Ulst, a lawyer in the court of England's King Henry IV describes Manuel's visit in 1400 and the implications it had for Byzantium: "I reflected… how grievious it was that this great Christian prince should be driven by the Saracens from the furthest East to these furthest western islands to seek aid against them… O God… what dost thou now, ancient glory of Rome," (Runciman, S, 1965, P. 1). Adam also explains the weaknesses of the Byzantines and their perceptions that Manuel II was: "The last lawful heir of Augustus and Constantine; but many centuries had passed since the Emperor's residing in Constantinople could command the allegiance of the Roman world. To the west they had become mere Lords of the Greeks, or of Byzantium, unworthy rivals of the Emperors who had sprung up in the west," (Runciman, S, 1965, P. 1).

Western Europeans offered only token assistance and Manuel's successor John VIII attempted again, even offering the unification of the Roman and Greek churches, but it wasn't enough. In 1448, John died and was replaced by his brother Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor. Constantine was 43 years old when he was crowned in Morea.

He was a respected veteran, a capable administrator, who supported the ecclesiastic unification with Rome; yet despite his potential as a ruler the real power in this part of the world belonged to the Turks, as supported by the historian Norwich: "Early in December (1448) the Empress sent George Sphrantzes to the sultan's court to obtain his approval for the new Baslieus," (Norwich, J.J, 1995, P. 410). The fact the Ottoman Sultan was require to authorize Constantine's succession proves the sorry state of affairs for the Byzantines but that was not the only problem Constantine had to deal with, as Norwich explains: "When Constantine Dragases first set forth as Emperor in his capital on 12 March 1449- it is a sad reflection on the state of the Empire that he had been obliged to travel from Greece in a Venetian ship, there being no Byzantine vessels available- this whole impossible situation was immediately clear to him; yet Pope Nicholas V, who had succeeded Eugenius in 1447, was either unwilling or unable to accept it," (Norwich, J.J, 1995, P. 411).

The Ottomans now controlled Anatolia and most of Greece and the Balkans. Its young Sultan Mehmet II had decided at last to make Constantinople the capital of new empire. Historian Mansel explains that: "Their aim was not merely political or military. For centuries Constantinople was the large metropolis in the known world, the impregnable core of a great empire, serve by a deep water port that gave access to the sea. Known as the New Rome and the Queen City, it had been built to impress, its magnificent public monuments, decorated with statuary set in an elegant classical urban landscape. Its apparent invincibility and famous reputation made it a great prize," (Mansel, P, 2007, P. 2). Mehmet was also said to be inspired by a prophesy of the Prophet Mohammed which predicts a Muslim conquest of Constantinople: "Have ye heard of a city of which the side is land and the other two is sea? The hour of judgment shall not sound until seventy thousand sons of Isaac shall capture it," (Norwich, J.J, 1995, P. 410). With fate and raw power on his side the war to conquer the remnants of Byzantium began in 1452.

Mehmet gathered a force of 100,000 soldiers from all across his domain. 20,000 were irregular troops that were not only Turks but Christian adventurers, Germans, Hungarians, Slavs and even renegade Greeks. 80,000 were Turkish regulars of which 12,000 were the Sultans elite janissary Corp. Janissaries were Christian boys taken from their homes and raised to become fanatical Muslims who regarded their regiment as their family and the Sultan as their father and commander. They were the most feared soldiers of the time. To prevent Constantinople being resupplied by sea, the Ottomans massed a fleet of 125 ships which was moved into the Sea of Marmara in March 1453. The Byzantines were struck will numerous ill omens like torrential rains and earthquakes. When a Hungarian engineer named Urban offered the Emperor his services to build powerful cannons, he was turned away because of an inability to pay for his services. Urban turned to the Sultan who offered him more than he needed and in turn was provided with huge artillery which could lob 675 kg stone balls a kilometer. In a stroke of luck Urban provided Mehmet with the weapons needed to obliterate Constantinople's land walls.

Constantine prepared an efficient defence through the winter as the city's people cleared the moats and made repairs to the walls. Despite bad tidings the Byzantine people prepared to meet their end with dignity and hope, as historian Runciman explained: "Yet for all the feelings of despair, there was no lack of courage. Even those thinkers who wondered whether in the end absorption into the Turkish Empire might prove less harmful to the Greek people than the present state of division, poverty and impotence, joined whole-heartedly in the preparations for the defence," (Runciman, S, 1965, P. 79).

Against the might of Turkish army was a band of 7000 troops, 2000 were the few foreign reinforcements sent from the West. The lack of foreign support contributed to the downfall: "The Emperor did all he could. Ambassadors had been sent to Italy in the Autumn of 1452 for urgent help. The response was poor," (Runciman, S, 1965, P. 80).

The city withstood a fifty-four day siege and ironically it wasn't Urban's cannons that destroyed Byzantium, it was a simple human error: "800 meters north of the Lycus, a defender returning a sortie failed to bar securely a sallyport in the single Blachernae Wall. An ottoman detachment noticed the lapse, forced a passage through the gate and fought its way into the space between the inner and outer walls," (Allan, T. (ed.), 1989, P.89). The defenders could have retaken the wall, but another disaster unfolded as the Genoese commander Giovanni Guistiniani Longo was wounded resulting in the Genoese abandoning their posts in the confusion allowing, waves of Janissaries to force open an entry into the city. Norwich describes the fate of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI: "Finally, seeing that all was lost, he flung off his imperial regalia and, still accompanied by his friends, plunged into the fray where the fighting was thickest. He was never seen again," (Norwich, J.J, 1995, P. 435).

That moment on Tuesday, 29 May 1453, Byzantium fell. After a day the devastation to Constantinople caused by Turkish looting caused Mehmet to order it to stop rather that to allow it occur for three days. Norwich describes that while the twenty-one year old Sultan who had conquered the last of the Romans walked through the 1100 year old imperial palace he murmured the lines of a Persian poet: "The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab," (Norwich, J.J, 1995, P. 437).

A common misconception however is that the fall of Constantinople was the final destruction of the legacy of Rome. If the Byzantine Empire is to be counted as Roman which is true, then the Ottoman Empire must be considered the next step in that evolution and actually a Byzantine renaissance culturally, politically and geographically. The city of Constantinople was reborn from the ashes of Byzantium, its great cathedrals converted into mosques, wealth and power flooded back into it and its palaces rebuilt for the court of the Sultans. Ottoman Constantinople became an extravagant cosmopolitan center of the world again. An Ottoman chronicler said that the Sultan: "…sent officers to all his lands to announce that whoever wished should come and take possession in Constantinople, as freehold, of houses and orchards and gardens… Despite this measure the city was not repopulated. So then the Sultan commanded that from every land families, rich and poor alike, should be brought by force… and now the city began to be populous," (Mansel, P, 2007, P. 1). In charge of the Greek community remained the ancient Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church who had autonomy over his people. A census taken in 1477 highlighted the multicultural mix in Constantinople: "9,486 households occupied by muslims; 3,743 by Greeks; 1,647 by Jews; 804 by Armenians; 332 by Franks; 267 by Christians from the Crimea; and 31 by Gypsies," (Mansel, P, 2007, P. 2). A primary source example of the attitudes of this multicultural mix is the complaint of a Turkish poet: "If you wish to stand in high honour on the Sultan's threshold, You must be either a Jew, a Persian or a Frank," (Mansel, P, 2007, P. 3).

Mehmet II was not only the Caliph of Islam and Sultan of the Turks, he adopted the title "Kayser-i-Rum" which was the Turkish equivalent to Roman Caesar, signifying that Mehmet considered himself a Roman Emperor and was actively seeking to build on the Empire's legacy, (Allan, T. (ed.), 1989, P.91). One of Mehmet's ancestors, the Sultan Orkhan was given a Byzantine princess as a bride which made the Turkish royal family linked by blood to the Byzantine imperial house of Palaeologus and gave him as much legitimacy to rule as Constantine, (Roberts, J. M, 1996, P. 210). Runciman goes on to discuss the other links the Turks shared with their Western counterparts: "A letter supposed to have been written by Mehmet II to Pope Nicholas was circulating in France a few decades later; and in it the Sultan was made to express his surprise that the Italians should show him enmity, since they were descendents from the same Trojan stock as the Turks," (Runciman, S, 1965, P. 168). Mehmet actively adopted the personification of an Islamic Caesar but since his bloodline was the same as Constantine's he was the remaining heir to the line of Emperors since Augustus. The imperial line of Rome continued through to the Ottoman Sultans.

Byzantium fell with little substantial protest from Christian Europe as Runciman emphasized: "In Germany or in Italy men might shudder for many decades to think that the Turks were so near; but it did not distract them from their civil wars. And when the Most Christian King of France, betraying the part his country had played in the crusades, chose to ally himself with the infidel Sultan against the Holy Roman Emperor, then it was clear to the all to see that the crusading spirit was finished," (Runciman, S, 1965, P. 180). Norwich also commented on the futility of a Byzantine restoration: "From the point of view of Byzantium it hardly mattered. With the Turkish army at its present strength Constantinople could not conceivably be recaptured…" (Norwich, J.J, 1995, P. 445).

As Mehmet was a descendant of the Caesars the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic incarnation of Byzantium, as Byzantium itself was a Greek incarnation of Rome. It began a new imperial renaissance which returned Constantinople as the hub of the world. The Ottoman Empire at its height under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) returned the rule of Constantinople over the same area once ruled by Justinian and further.

The historian Roberts describes the Ottoman achievement: "They were in the end not only to reassemble under one ruler the territory of the old eastern roman empire but add to it far more," (Roberts, J. M, 1996, P. 210). The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural Islamic-Romanesque hybrid which ruled from the city of Constantine most of the Mediterranean. Its rulers were of a continuous lineage that extended as far back as Augustus. The Roman Empire never truly fell in 476 or1453, but continued its evolution until November 1, 1922 when the Ottoman Sultanate was abolished by Mustafa Kamal's Turkish nationalist movement.


Allan, T. (ed.). (1989). History of the World- Voyages of Discovery AD 1400-1500. Time-life Books: Chicago

Cantor, N.F. (1994). The Civilisations of the Middle Ages. Harper Berennial: New York

Hay, J. (ed). The Middle Ages: volume 3. Greenhaven Press Inc: San Diego

Herrin, J. (2002). The Fall of Constantinople. (31/08/2007).

R. (2007). Byzantine Empire. (25/08/2007). N. (1998). Istanbul. Dorling Kindesley Limited: London

Mansel, P. (2007). Europe's Muslim Capital. (31/08/2007). J.J. (1995). Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Alfred A Knopf, Inc: London

Roberts, J. M. (1996). History of Europe. Penguin Books: London.

Robertson, F. (2000). Atlas of the Islamic World since 1500. Equinox Ltd: Oxford.

Rosenwein, B. H. (2004). A Short History of the Middle Ages- second edition. Broadview press: Sydney

Runciman, S. (1965). The Fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge