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Happy (?) Fall of Constantinople Day

May 28, 2014

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Just a little reminder that 564 years ago today, the Byzantine Empire finally snuffed it – for once not with a whimper but with a bang.  Constantine “You’ll Never Take Me Alive” XI Palaiologos tore of his imperial regalia and declared his refusal to be ransomed and his determination to go out in a blaze of glory.  Forget The Alamo.  This was a biggie.

People who  like putting ludicrously precise dates on broad sweeping historical trends will say that “Medieval Times” ended 564 years ago today. Some will point out that today is also the anniversary of the introduction of Greek learning to Italy in refugee boats and the consequent rediscovery of Plato as a belated challenger to the dominant Latinized Aristotle.  In fact, Greek learning had been seeping into Italy for decades, carried by Byzantine scholars who could see which way the wind was blowing.

Nevertheless, it’s always nice to have a big day when you can confidently declare that something big happened.  564 years ago today, Roman history (what was left of it) ended.  564 years ago today, Ancient Greek Civilisation (what was left of it) went out with a very big bang.

In terms of sheer bloody spectacle, the last day of the empire’s life had a claim to be the most glorious.  It was Gibbon who said of the Byzantine Empire that “its decline was coeval with its foundation”.  Over the centuries it had shrunk and shrunk, been nibbled steadily away until it consisted of nothing more than a few square miles around the city.  The emperor had been advised by Mehmed II that he was welcome to leave the City in peace carrying a reasonable amount of portable property and would be allowed to govern a fairly pleasant portion of Greece.  Rather than submit to such anti-climactic politeness Constantine went for the classic Hollywood “we’re outnumbered a squillion to one so we’d best open up the big doors and run out shouting AAAAARGH!!!” strateg

This is the way empires should fall.

(Although it’s been pointed out to me by an old friend that since Mehmed claimed the empire of Byzantium on behalf of himself and his successors, the Ottoman Empire was a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire and therefore the fall of “Rome” did not really take place until the First World War).

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