Reflections of the Fall of a Great City

In my last post (What did the Sahara Desert ever do for us?) I forgot to mention one of those ironies in world history that I find so interesting.

In a post last week, on world history in year 1453, I said that, from the late 15th century onwards, world history sees the initiative pass to the west for several centuries.

If any year marks a turning point in world history, it is 1453; and if any event, it is the fall of Constantinople.


The fall of this great Christian city to Moslem foes is fraught with symbolism. It signifies the final end to the ancient Roman empire. The defenders of Constantinople regarded themselves as Romans – they were the last citizens of a state which stretched back to Romulus and Remus, in the mid-8th century BC.

The fall of Constantinople also brought to an end the Byzantine empire. I know this is splitting hairs, because of course the Byzantine empire WAS the Roman empire. Nevertheless in reality it was imbued with a quite different spirit to that of the old Roman empire: Greek in culture and language, Christian in religion, glitteringly monarchical in a way that the Romans of the Republic and early Empire would have found utterly alien, the Byzantine empire is quite rightly seen as a distinct entity by modern scholars..

The fall of Constantinople was also the event which symbolized, if any event did, the end of the European Middle Ages. Although the Byzantine state had never really been part of the feudal world of medieval Europe, it had been universally seen by Christian Europe as the great bulwark against the “infidel”. Its fall sent a shock wave through Christendom – it was the final defeat of those quintessentially medieval phenomena, the Crusades. It laid bare the impotence of the medieval institutions which provided the superstructure of the medieval world, namely the Papacy and Empire.

And finally, the fall of Constantinople was a huge set-back for the Christian West. It allowed Muslim forces in through the breach – and they would not stop until they had reached far into central Europe.

And yet, it was this great setback to European civilization, this final end to the ancient and medieval eras, which marked the dawn of the “European Age” in world history. Byzantine scholars fled the doomed city to Italy, there to give added impetus to the Italian Renaissance; and it was this very event, this great catastrophe, which helped spur Europeans on to sail out into the Atlantic ocean and see it, not as a barrier, but as a link to the outside world. From this development today’s Global civilization sprang.


By Peter Britton