The Rise and Fall of Byzantium

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | May 29, 2014 0


The 29th May 1453 is the most momentous date in the history of Western Civilisation in the second Millennium of the modern age. That is the date which marks the end of the Middle Ages, the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Age of Discovery where the search for an alternative sea route to the Indies led to the discovery of the Americas. That is the date when Christianity lost its mother church and was cut off from the Church of the East. That is the date when Byzantium fell and the line of the Roman Emperors, unbroken for 1,480 years since Octavian Augustus in 27 B.C., came to an end. That is the date when Constantine XI Paleologus, last Emperor of Byzantium and the last Roman Emperor perished at the Lion Gate of Constantinopolis. This is the date which changed our world forever. The ancient, legendary empire of Byzantium – also known as the Eastern Roman Empire – outlasted the demise of Rome by a thousand years. A new order rose to become the last classical civilization of world history, sheltering the vestiges of Western learning during the Dark Ages, thriving off the silk and spice trade from the East, and eventually succumbing to the ruthless advance of crusaders and Ottomans. In the modern age we all stand on the ruins of Byzantium.

St. John’s, Overthecliff, Barbados

The restored gravestone of Ferdinando Paleologus

StJohn1My own personal journey to Byzantium began in the most unlikely of settings. On the spectacular Atlantic east coast of Barbados, just inland from the ocean, there rises a thousand foot high cliff. There in the well named district of “Overthecliff”, in the parish of St. Johns, I found a disconcerting facsimile of an English country church. St.John’s Church is a classic Gothic Revival church spectacularly situated on this cliff overlooking the picturesque Atlantic Coast. This Church was built in 1836 to replace the previous 17th Century church which had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1831.

The flag of Byzantium, the Empire which looked East and West

Wandering through the Church Yard there are fascinating remains including those of a soldier who asked to be buried in an upright position so he could “better enjoy the view”! Also here are the remains of Ferdinando Paleologus, a descendant of the last Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Paleologus, whose family was driven from the throne of Constantinople by the Turks. Ferdinando died in Barbados in 1678, after being a resident here for over 20 years. He was the owner of Clifton Hall House, a magnificent plantation home which boasts a unique historical legacy.

Clifton Hall House

The Great House of Clifton Hall Plantation, Clifton Hall House was first mentioned in historical times in a mortgage recorded in 1656 when it then belonged to Prince Ferdinando Paleologus. Having immigrated to Barbados after fighting for the Royalists during the English Civil war in Cromwell’s time, Prince Ferdinando brought the name Clifton Hall with him from his birthplace in Cornwall, England.

Many years later the body of Ferdinando was exhumed and found to be buried in the Byzantine manner with his head towards Constantinople and a metal icon of the resurrection on his chest. So who was the Last Emperor of Byzantium whose descendant ended up in this remote but beautiful corner of the world in the 17th Century and why is the Fall of Byzantium one of the apocalyptic benchmarks in our history?

The Fall of Constantinople on 29th May 1453 marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of a new epoch in Europe. Many Greek scholars moved to Italy, initiating there the development of European Humanism and the Renaissance, while the legal succession of Byzantium and leadership of the Orthodox Church transferred to Tsardom and the “3rd Rome’” in Moscow. By losing access to the Black Sea, Europe was deprived of the land route to India; the search for a new sea route brought about the overseas discoveries of the New World.

The story of Constantinople and what became known as the Byzantine Empire began 1,129 years earlier in 324 AD when Constantine I becomes sole Roman Emperor. A period of civil war concluded with Constantine I as sole emperor of the eastern and western Roman Empire. He commences construction of New Rome (Constantinople) on the site of the old Greek city of Byzantium. Constantine then instigates a series of legislative changes that favour Christians within the Roman Empire.

Mary as the Theotokos (literally “The God bearer”) depicted between the Emperor’s Constantine and Justinian. Justinian  holds a model of Hagia Sofia which he commissioned

In 325 AD he convened The Council of Nicaea as he was not prepared to tolerate divisions within the Christian Church, a threat to Roman stability that he regarded as “formidable as any war or battle”. An ecumenical (“world –wide”) council of church leaders was convened at Nicaea to debate Arianism; a popular religious doctrine, which holds that Jesus Christ (“the Son”), is inferior to God (“the Father”). The Council counters Arianism with the formulation of Christian belief known as the Nicene Creed, a theological formulation which includes the statement that the Son and Father are of the same substance and therefore equal (Co-substantial). To this day this remains the most ecumenical of Creeds used by the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches. Indeed this creed and the subsequent statements of the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD are the “Orthodoxy” of the Christian Faith and would have been first proclaimed by Constantine, a Roman Emperor, in Latin.

Constantine the Great

Constantine depicted as a deified Roman Emperor with the sun god “Sol Invictus”

“Credo in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem; factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula [Deum de Deo], Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri; per quem omnia facta sunt; qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis, et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est; crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est; et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas; et ascendit in coelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris; et iterum venturus est, cum gloria, judicare vivos et mortuos; cujus regni non erit finis.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre [Filioque] procedit; qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur; qui locutus est per Prophetas. Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum; et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venturi seculi. Amen.”

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the begotten of God the Father, the Only-begotten, that is of the essence of the Father.

God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

Who for us humanity and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, was made human, was born perfectly of the holy virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.

By whom He took body, soul, and mind, and everything that is in man, truly and not in semblance.

He suffered, was crucified, was buried, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven with the same body, [and] sat at the right hand of the Father.

He is to come with the same body and with the glory of the Father, to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there is no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, in the uncreated and the perfect; Who spoke through the Law, prophets, and Gospels; Who came down upon the Jordan, preached through the apostles, and lived in the saints.

We believe also in only One, Universal, Apostolic, and [Holy] Church; in one baptism in repentance, for the remission, and forgiveness of sins; and in the resurrection of the dead, in the everlasting judgement of souls and bodies, and the Kingdom of Heaven and in the everlasting life.”

English version (based on the Armenian text)

Greek Icon of the Emperor Constantine and the Fathers of the Church holding the Nicene Creed

Although the Council apparently “solves” the problem of Arianism, the heresy continues to exist and gain many adherents over the next two centuries, including some of Constantine’s successors. The Emperor Constantine I is known to history as “Constantine the Great” and either one of two decisions he made would have earned him this epithet. By moving the capital of the Roman Empire to the city which bore his name, Constantinople, he ensured it would continue for nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome and by adopting Christianity as the state religion and codifying its beliefs he set the events in train which led to it being the religion which informs the greatest number of adherents to this day. However Constantine was no idealised figure and the complexity of his character is underscored by the ruthlessness and cruelty he also displayed in his life.

Even after his conversion he caused the execution of his brother-in-law Licinius, and of the latter’s son, as well as of Crispus his own son by his first marriage, and of his wife Fausta. He quarrelled with his colleague Licinius about their religious policy, and in 323 AD defeated him in a bloody battle; Licinius surrendered on the promise of personal safety; notwithstanding this, half a year later he was strangled by order of Constantine. During the joint reign Licinianus, the son of Licinius, and Crispus, the son of Constantine, had been the two Caesars. Both were gradually set aside; Crispus was executed on the charge of immorality made against him by Constantine’s second wife, Fausta. The charge was false, as Constantine learned from his mother, Helena, after the deed was done. In punishment Fausta was suffocated in a superheated bath. The young Licinianus was flogged to death. So there is some irony that the agreed beliefs of Christianity in the Nicene Creed were proclaimed by a fratricidal murderer and a divorcee who did not get baptised (which Christians held to absolve all sins) until he was on his deathbed.

Icon of Constantine and his mother, St. Helen, in the church named after them in Elounda, Crete.  After the Rape of Constantinople in 1204 the Island of Crete  was colonised by Venice for over four centuries

In 330 AD Constantinople is formally dedicated as the Roman Capital and this is often treated as a convenient starting point for referring to the Roman Empire in the East as the “Byzantine Empire” or “Byzantium”. The ceremony of dedication is described with awe by a contemporary chronicler:

“The procession was led by the great Roman Emperor, Constantine. And he brought with him a bunch of priests, pagan and Christian ones, and they were all holding an incredible collection of relics. There were twelve baskets filled with crumbs, the residue it was said of our Lord’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. There was the very axe that Noah made the Ark with and there was a statue that the Emperor himself had brought secretly from Rome, the statue of the Greek god, Paris. And at the exact moment prescribed by astrologers, they buried their relics just over there, at the foot of the column. And Constantine renamed the city Constantinople and claimed it as the capital of his grand new empire. For forty years, he killed foes and family alike and when he died, people were so frightened of him that no one touched his body for a week.”

In 410 AD Rome is sacked by Alaric the Visigoth. Although Rome, as a capital city, had long ceased to have any real significance in practical terms, its fall to a tribe of barbarians marks the irrevocable decline of the Roman Empire in the West. Western Roman Emperors continue to be appointed for the next sixty years, but they have little real standing. Byzantium-Map-1

Theodosian Walls

In 413 AD the construction of Constantinople’s triple walls begins. Although commonly known as the “Theodosian Walls” after Theodosios II, the reigning emperor), the walls were actually built on the orders of Anthemius, the Empire’s Prefect of the East, to counter an immediate threat from the Huns.

Agia Sofia with the minarets added after 1453


Icon of St. Sofia and her three Daughters, Faith, Hope and Love

In 455 AD Rome is sacked for the second time in a very systematic and controlled manner, by the Vandals – another tribe of Germanic barbarians. The Vandals go on to establish a kingdom in the Roman provinces of North Africa, whilst the Goths establish themselves in Italy and Spain. The year 476 AD sees the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West as the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, is deposed.In conjunction with Constantinople’s naturally strong location, the Theodosian walls will prove their worth against any number of attacks upon Constantinople through Byzantine history. They will fall to an attacking army only twice, once during the chaos of the Fourth Crusade (1204) and, finally, to the Ottoman Turks, who breach them in 1453 with the help of artillery and overwhelming numbers.

The period from about 641 AD to 1025 AD is considered to be the golden age of the Byzantine Empire. Advances in military strength, religious influence, and the arts made the Byzantines one of the most powerful forces in the world of the Middle Ages. The territories of the empire continued to change. Lands were lost to Islam in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria as Arab forces besieged the Empire.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but the Byzantine Empire’s ruin was accomplished two and a half centuries earlier at the hands of fellow Christians in one of the most shameful episodes in history, The Sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. The City had undergone seventeen sieges, and survived weak Emperors and incompetent generals. The greed of Venice and the venality and gullibility of the Crusaders contributed to the destruction of an Empire that had lasted nine hundred years.

The Sack of Constantinople 1204


Constantinople had been for centuries the strongest bulwark of defence against Asia. The men of the West had every interest to maintain and strengthen it. Instead of doing so they virtually let loose Asia upon Europe.”

(Pears – Introduction to The Fall of Constantinople 1886)
The Venetians, who were to play a major part in the coming tragedy, were trying to take over Byzantium’s rich trade routes. Their Doge, eighty year old Enrico Dandolo, had become almost blind years before in Constantinople, and is thought to have harboured a secret grudge against the Byzantines. It has also been claimed that Venice was negotiating a secret trade agreement with the Egyptians, against whom the Crusade was aimed. Over optimistic about the likely response to the Crusade, or possibly gulled by the Venetians, the Crusade leaders committed themselves to a fleet three times too large, and a debt of eighty thousand marks. To offset the debt, the Venetians persuaded them to attack the Christian city of Zara, (In what is now Croatia) which had rebelled against Venetian control. The Pope, furious at an attack on a Christian city, excommunicated all involved, but recanted so the Crusaders could go to Egypt. The debt was still enormous, and Boniface proposed that the Crusaders deviate to Byzantium and put young Alexios on his father’s throne. In return Alexios offered two hundred thousand marks and an army of ten thousand to aid against Egypt.In 1199, after the failure of the Third Crusade and the loss of the Holy City of Jerusalem, Count Tibald of Champagne conceived the idea of a Crusade to attack Muslim Egypt, and a declaration by Pope Innocent III gave it official sanction. On Tibald’s death in 1201, Boniface of Montferrat took over the leadership. Behind the scenes was a very complex political situation. Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelos had been deposed and blinded by his brother, who took the throne as Alexios III. Isaac’s son, another Alexios, had escaped Byzantium to Swabia, whose lord, Philip, was son-in-law of the deposed Emperor. Boniface visited Philip, presumably looking for support for his Crusade. However, he would hardly have failed to note young Alexios’ presence, and this may have begun a train of thought which was to lead to catastrophe. It is not for nothing that the word “Byzantine” has entered the English language as a code word for political intrigue.

Enrico Dandolo – 41st Doge of Venice

His grave marker on the East Gallery of Hagia Sofia – His actual grave was destroyed when the church was converted to a mosque

After a voyage marked by bitter dissension, the army reached the Bosporus, and camped across the Straits from Constantinople. The Byzantine fleet which should have destroyed them was in ruin. Michael Stryphnos, admiral of the fleet, and the Emperor’s brother in law, had grown rich by stripping it and selling off its equipment. A scouting troop of five hundred cavalry led by Stryphnos landed across the Straits to observe the Crusaders’ movements, but was chased away by eighty mounted knights. The Crusaders sent an envoy to Byzantium to proclaim young Alexios as Emperor, but the Greeks sent him packing, and when Dandolo had Alexios sail past the City to show himself to the people they jeered and threw insults. On July 5, 1204 the fleet crossed the straits and landed at Galata, a suburb across the Golden Horn harbour from the City proper. Their ships were unable to enter the harbour, which was blocked by a fifteen hundred foot iron chain protected by a fortified tower. A combined night attack by the Byzantines across the harbour and from the tower failed disastrously – ending with the Crusaders capturing the tower. They lowered the chain, and for the first time in history, a hostile fleet entered the Golden Horn.

The crusaders looted the whole city of its treasures. The Patriarch left Constantinople with neither money nor shoes, mounted on an ass. A whore was enthroned in the Patriarchal chair. Relics from the churches were distributed throughout Europe – many of the most precious treasures of Venice came from the sack of Constantinople. Not only Christian relics, but also ancient pagan treasures were lost. A bronze of Hercules was melted down, as well as a statue of Pegasus by Alexander the Great’s court sculptor. The bronze horses now at St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice formed part of the loot. The total of plunder came to four hundred thousand silver marks and ten thousand horses, not taking into account the amount “stolen” by the troops.

St Marks Venice with the bronze horses looted from Constantinople

The Pope was horrified when he learned what had happened. The rift between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church was perpetuated. Even 250 years later, when the Turks were besieging Constantinople, one of the City’s last great statesmen remarked “Better the Sultan’s turban than the cardinal’s hat”. The Venetians appointed one of their own as the new Patriarch of Constantinople, without even consulting the Pope.

Although the heart of Empire was torn out by the capture and sack of Constantinople, the Byzantines themselves showed a considerable amount of resilience. Three major “successor states” are set up by Byzantines within the borders of the old Empire. The strongest of the successor states is the so-called Empire of Nicaea. In 1261 the Nicaean Emperor, Michael VIII Paleologus, succeeds in recapturing Constantinople from the Latins.

Michael’s brilliance as soldier and diplomat restores the Empire to some of its former glory, but he remains an ambivalent figure in Byzantine history – he had murdered his way to the top but had committed a still greater crime in the eyes of his subjects. In the interests of securing some form of western alliance, Michael had attempted forced union of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Church union is unthinkable to most ordinary Byzantines – their attitude towards the west permanently embittered by the Fourth Crusade.

The era from about 1025 to 1453 witnessed the decline of the Byzantine Empire and its ultimate destruction. Loss of territory, internal discord, and defeats by the crusaders were blows from which the empire could not recover. There were new enemies in this era—the Petcheneg and Seljuk Turks to the east and north, and the Normans and Slavs to the west. In 1064 the Byzantines lost Belgrade.

Parallel with the decline of Byzantium the Ottoman Empire (establ. in 1301) advanced rapidly until it spread all the way from the Euphrates to the Danube. Osman, a Turkish Emir with his power base in north-western Asia Minor, enhanced his power at the expense both of his Turkish neighbours and the Byzantines. His emerging state, named after him, is known as the Ottoman Emirate. The Ottomans take Nicaea after an unsuccessful Byzantine relief expedition. Byzantium’s position is exacerbated by a protracted civil war, fought out between aristocratic factions and partisans of the Paleologus family. Superimposed upon civil war is the Black Death, which hits Constantinople in the spring of 1347. Little of Asia Minor is left in Byzantine hands. The Byzantine Empire shrivelled away until it was reduced to a few territories and a small enclave around Constantinople. Unlike the Arabs, who thought the use of firearms dishonourable, the Ottomans became masters of artillery. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Byzantium fought for survival for eight centuries until, by the mid-15th century, the emperor Constantine XI ruled a tiny handful of territories, an empire in name and tradition only. However, he had a powerful defensive weapon in the form of his capital – Constantinople, protected by an impregnable wall system.

Constantine XI depicted at the siege of Constantinople

For the Turks in 1453, Constantinople was a fruit ripe for the picking, the conquest of which had been a dream of Islamic armies for many centuries. Despite leading 80,000 men and a massive siege train against the city, Mehmet “The Conqueror” had to besiege Constantinople for four months before the venerable city finally fell.

Ferdinando’s ancestor Constantine XI Dragases Paleologus was the last Byzantine Emperor, strictly speaking the last Roman Emperor, in an unbroken political tradition stretching back to Augustus, almost 1,500 years earlier. In this respect it should be noted that Byzantine is how we now refer to this empire historically. When it was extant they would refer to themselves as “Romaoi” – Greek for Roman and the Western World referred to them as “Greeks”. Constantine had been proclaimed Emperor at Mistra (capital of the Despotate of Morea, now the Peloponnese in mainland Greece) in 1449 and had precious little time to prepare for the Turkish assault. For the defence of Constantinople he has a small army of just over 8,000 men – 3,000 of them foreigners, including, ironically enough, contingents from Genoa and Venice, the two great Italian maritime cities who had done a considerable amount of damage to the Empire over the previous three centuries.

Constantine XI Paleologus – Last Emperor of Byzantium

The defenders, outnumbered at least 10 to 1 by Mehmet’s army, put up an extraordinarily brave and effective defence – differences between Latin and Greek were forgotten in the last few desperate days of the Empire. Finally, in the early hours of Tuesday, 29 May 1453, the Turks launch wave after wave of attackers against Constantinople’s land walls. Turkish soldiers force their way in through a small gate and organised Byzantine resistance finally collapses. Constantine dies at the Lion Gate of Constantinople and most of his Byzantine soldiers die fighting along and around the walls. The aftermath of the City’s fall is rivalled only by that of the Fourth Crusade as the greatest church in Christendom, St. Sophia, is looted and afterwards converted into a mosque. The stuffed head of Constantine XI Paleologus is taken around the Muslim world as proof of conquest.

Mehmet, who is later to make Constantinople the capital of his own great empire, is a dynamic and ruthless 21-year-old. After touring the City’s ruined Great Palace, he is moved to speak a few lines by a Persian poet:

“The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab ….”

The Great Palace, Constantinople.

The Sultan had promised his men the three days looting, as was the tradition, but such was the orgy of violence that there were no protests when he brought it to a halt on the same day as it had begun. He waited until the main excesses were over and then rode along the main thoroughfare, the Mese, to St Sophia. Dismounting, he stooped and picked up a handful of earth which, in a gesture of humility, he sprinkled over his turban. He then entered the church and at his command from the pulpit the imam proclaimed the name of Allah, the All-Merciful and Compassionate: there was no God but God, and Mohammed was His Prophet. This was the moment Constantinople became Istanbul; Cross gave way to Crescent and the Byzantine Empire was replaced by the Ottoman.

Hagia Sophia – for almost a 1,000 years the Mother Church of Christendom

Over the next years the Eastern Mediterranean became a Muslim sea with the sole exception of Rhodes which under the Knights of St John repulsed Mehmet’s Army and Navy in 1480. In 1522 they were to fall to the armies of Mehmet’s grandson Suleiman, known in the west as “The Magnificent” and in Islam as “The Lawgiver.”

See; Rhodes Town

Mehmet The Conqueror

The news of the fall of Constantinople, and with it the Byzantine Empire, was received with horror throughout Christendom. The Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires and others adopted the twin headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire which looked both East and West as their emblem and a sign of fealty to the legacy of Byzantium and rulers styled themselves as Caesar (Kaiser and Tsar) to claim continuity from the Western and Eastern Empires. The Ottoman Empire and its throne, known as the Sublime Porte, became heirs not only to Byzantine and Eastern Roman Empire, but also a rich Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian culture in Anatolia and in the tradition of that Empire different religious communities lived side by side, granted in return for their loyalty – rights and privileges going beyond the Koranic requirements to treat the other “Peoples of the Book” (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) with special tolerance.

And in 1678 Ferdinando Paleologus, a descendant of the Last Emperor of Byzantium, who perished at the Lion Gate in 1453, was buried in a Caribbean churchyard with his mortal remains pointed towards Constantinople and the greatness that once was Byzantium.

Sic transit Gloria Mundi.









The Skibbereen Eagle

In 1898, to widespread bemusement, a small Provincial Newspaper in an equally small town in the South West corner of Ireland sonorously warned the Czar of Russia that it knew what he was up to and he should be careful how he proceeded for “The Skibbereen Eagle” was wise to his game and in future would be keeping its eye on him! It is doubtful that Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, even noticed the Eagle’s admonitions but as history soon proved he should have paid closer attention to the Eagle’s insightful opinions!

Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.
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