The Fall of Constantinople Was the True End of the Roman Empire

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Many history books say that the Roman Empire ended in the 5th century, and that is true in one sense. However, the reality, as always, is a bit more complex. The true end of the Roman Empire didn’t materialize till about a thousand years later, with the fall of Constantinople. So, why has Constantinople considered a continuation of the Roman Empire and why did it eventually fall?

A two-layered section of the walls of Constantinople that have been restored.
Constantinople was surrounded by thick ramparts or defensive walls, which were over a thousand years old when the Ottoman Turks attacked the city in 1453.
(Image: Bigdaddy1204/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Imagine that we are standing on the ramparts of an ancient imperial city. It’s a spring day in the year 1453, and below us are uncountable, shouting, surging crowds of enemy soldiers who are massing for an attack on our city. High above those frenzied masses, we are standing on great thick walls that are already a thousand years old. Until now, the walls have always held, repelling siege after siege, attack after attack.

Shortly, we hear a new sound, louder and more frightening than any we have heard before—the booming thunder of siege cannon, beginning to pound, shatter, and then breach these great walls. That rumble of great cannon we hear in the distance announces the true end of the Roman Empire.

Many educated people think they know about the fall of the Roman Empire, long ago at the start of the medieval period. They believe that the glory that was Rome collapsed when in 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome, or in 455 when the Vandals sacked Rome again, or when finally in 476 Germanic tribes slouched into the imperial capital in Italy and simply deposed the last Roman emperor in the west.

Those bare facts are true, but the real story is much more complicated, and actually comes much later. The real end of the Roman Empire as a whole actually happened a thousand years later, at the dawn of our modern age, with the fall of the great imperial city of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. Today this is the city of Istanbul in Turkey. In 1453, it was the focus of a dramatic turning point.

Learn more about the turning points in modern history.

The Roman Empire in the East Was Called the Byzantine Empire

Part of our difficulty in recognizing that the fall of Constantinople was the true end of the Roman Empire, is that later historians imposed a name on the surviving Roman Empire in the east that was not used by those people themselves. Historians called it Byzantium and referred to the Byzantine Empire.

The name comes from the older Greek name for the settlement that had stood on that spot before. But in fact, the so-called Byzantines, at their time called themselves Romans.

Long after the Roman Empire in the west had fallen, the survivors in the great Roman Empire in the east thought of themselves as the true remaining Romans (even though they mostly spoke Greek). They saw their state as, self-evidently, the real Roman Empire.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Story of Constantinople

A tall cylindrical column sitting on top of a thick frustum, with several pigeons sitting on and around the structure.
Emperor Constantine I, or Constantine the Great, commissioned the construction of a Roman monumental column to mark the birth of the city of Constantinople in A.D. 330. (Image: Sandstein/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

Constantinople had been established in the year 330 by Emperor Constantine, not far from where legendary Troy had once stood. Constantinople was to be the Roman capital of the East, and so it remained.

It was set on a crucial, pivotal geopolitical spot, the meeting place of two oceans and two continents. This one spot straddles Europe and Asia, and the Turkish Straits (also called the Dardanelles and Bosporus) links the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

These were key places in the horizons of the ancient, classical world. Whoever ruled in this city seemed to bestride much of the known world. But all this came crashing down in 1453, as the last remnants of the Roman Empire in the east crumbled and fell. 

Learn more about the fall of Constantinople.

Constantinople at its Height Versus Constantinople in 1453

An essential fact to keep in mind is that by 1453, once-great Constantinople was in very bad shape. Centuries before it had flourished.

Imagine for a moment what its streets and market squares had been like when it was at its height. Here, where trade routes crossed, you could hear a multitude of languages of Europe and Asia. Walking in the alleyways, you could smell exotic spices imported from far away, wine of the very choicest vintages.

Throughout the city were splendid churches, with dark interiors glowing with gold and rich icons and crosses. You could hear the chanting of monks, and smell the wafting of incense. The imperial palaces radiated power. They were, in a way, dreams of marble and gold and silk in the imperial purple color.

By 1453, this picture was much reduced, and much poorer. The last two centuries had not been kind to Constantinople. In a terrible irony, in 1204 a Christian Crusader army had actually sacked Constantinople, fellow Christians devastating a Christian city. The Venetians, whose navy had brought the Crusaders on this mission, engaged in a massive pillaging of relics and art from Constantinople. Today, many tourists in Venice admire the bronze horses atop the Basilica of St. Mark, but few know that those horses were robbed from Constantinople.

For well over a thousand years, Constantinople had been a symbol of power and impenetrability. It had adapted to changing circumstances and continued to shine bright. When, finally, Constantinople fell in 1453, it was a major shock for Europe. It also signaled the end of an era, the end of the Roman Empire.

Learn more about the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Common Questions about the Fall of Constantinople

Q: Who ruled the Byzantine Empire?

The Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople, was ruled by Emperor Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great or Constantine I. Incidentally, the final ruler of the Byzantine Empire was also named Emperor Constantine or Constantine XI.

Q: What caused the fall of Constantinople?

Constantinople had become weak by 1453. Over the past two centuries, before its fall in 1453, Constantinople had faced several attacks, including one orchestrated by a Christian Crusader army in 1204. These attacks had made them once impenetrable walls of Constantinople vulnerable and were the cause of its eventual fall.

Q: What is Constantinople called today?

Constantinople was established in A.D. 330 by Emperor Constantine as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today Constantinople is called Istanbul and is a major city in Turkey.

Q: Did Constantinople fall to the Ottomans?

Yes, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, under the leadership of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II. The Ottoman army carried out an eight weeks-long siege of Constantinople to capture it.

Keep Reading
The Making of Constantinople: Constantine’s “New Rome”
The Sack of Rome, 410 A.D
How Did Constantine Alter the Course of the Roman Empire?