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Remembering the Fall of Rome

Five hundred and sixty-one years ago today the Roman Empire fell to the Turks, the final eclipse for one of the grandest, highest, most gallant and varied experiments in civilization ever undertaken by the creature called man. May 29, 1453, is a date that should not be neglected, for it retains a strong savor of those mystic chords of memory of which Lincoln spoke. We need only let swell the chorus of a Union older and nobler than that for which he appealed to the better angels of our nature — the Union of Greece and Rome.

Here is my Touchstone essay from some years ago about that Fall, that Union, and how the chords of mystic memory play upon my mind, as an American Christian today, contemplating that disaster so many years ago. I should think some deep but potent chords, stretching from very distant battlefields and very strange patriot graves, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, can compass a Memorial for the men who died defending Constantinople, the day Islam snuffed her out.

The Ottoman engineers’ attempts to sap the city walls had repeatedly failed in the teeth of Greek cunning and intrepidity, and finally the Sultan simply hurled his forces against them, in wave after wave, beginning with the least capable mercenaries and ending with the terrible Janissaries.

The slaughter, there on the walls, was considerable, and yet the Christians held out for five further hours. But then the defense finally broke.

A group of Turkish irregulars had discovered an insecurely locked, or perhaps a treacherously unlocked door, plunged through it, and managed to raise the Sultan’s standard on a high tower. This, with the loss of the great Genoese commander Giovanni Giustiniani, brought despair and final defeat.

The emperor and his closest surviving lieutenants flung themselves into the ever-growing mass of Turks, and died there. The City of Constantine was now broken. Constantine son of Helena had founded it; Constantine son of Helena perished in its final defense. The earth stood still and the heavens wept.

The slaughter and rapine that followed need not be dwelt on at length. It was unspeakable. Children raped on Christian altars; women and the elderly impaled; blood running on the streets; St. Sophia a great bloodbath, then a mosque. Legend holds that several priests vanished into the very walls of the church, to return when Constantinople is liberated from the yoke of the Mohammedan.

Untold Greeks were captured and clasped in fetters, the maidens and attractive boys destined for Turkish harems, the strong boys for the barracks of the Janissaries, to repeat the conquest of other Christians in other lands; and the Orthodox Church herself was seized into a captivity under which much of her toils to this day. The slave markets of the world showed a rapid depreciation in their miserable commodity for months to come.

Though he had promised three days of looting (to entice those of lesser piety in his army), the Sultan called a halt to it after one, so terrible was the pillage; few complained. The city was vanquished and violated. He established the Greeks under the standard dhimma contract, Islam’s system of official subjugation and humiliation: a kind of Jim Crow for infidels.

Eventually order was restored, and before long the city was thriving again, after a fashion, under Turkish suzerainty. Human resilience is a remarkable thing. But the Roman Empire was no more. The morning of May 29, 1453, shone with the last sunrise over Greek Rome.

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Comments (10)

Paul, thanks for this remembrance. It is good to recall that an empire that spans a thousand miles and ran a thousand (plus) years can be brought to ruin if we don't pay attention to the things that matter. And many times, the things that matter are composed, one after the other, of many little things like repetitions of charity toward your neighbor, respect for both the letter and spirit of decent laws, etc.

"Some authors were certainly biased and prejudiced towards Islam. They had the staunch belief that Christianity was the superior religion. Islam was false in their opinion and they were tempted to make it look even worse. It was in the nature of polemics to be as accurate as possible since otherwise they would be worthless for the reader" (Stefano Nikolaou, 2007). This writing has some rhetorical writing exercise. Such a disgrace to read such falsify accusation, "The slaughter and rapine that followed need not be dwelt on at length. It was unspeakable. Children raped on Christian altars; women and the elderly impaled; blood running on the streets; St. Sophia a great bloodbath, then a mosque." and "The city was vanquished and violated. He established the Greeks under the standard dhimma contract, Islam’s system of official subjugation and humiliation: a kind of Jim Crow for infidels.".

Paul, I especially appreciate the title. I use "the fall of Rome" for the ending of the Western empire in the late 400's, but of course Rome continued in Constantinople.

JAM, is it false that slaughter and rapine followed the fall of Constantinople? Your evidence?

As for dhimmi status, it's easy enough to research what that is, and the characterization in the main post is entirely apt.

How is the jizya tax any worse than the fiscus Iudaicus? How is dhimmi status any worse than the status of Jews or pagans in the Byzantine empire? If I recall correctly, many Jews welcomed the change.

You mean the tax imposed on Jews after the revolt and destruction of Jerusalem, equal to the tax the Jews paid to keep up the Temple?

Well, just for starters, it wasn't imposed merely because Jews were Jews and no other reason (since it didn't start until they revolted).

Second, the tax didn't run to as much as 20% of assets.

Third, the tax wasn't imposed specifically to indicate that he accepts humiliation of having been conquered, willingly pays in gratitude for his life being spared in lieu of the taxes.

But besides all that: The Romans were conquerors, who imposed Roman rule and exacted tribute on the conquered for the benefit of Rome. We don't think this was laudable in the Romans. We think it was reprehensible in Romans, and we likewise think it is reprehensible in Muslims. So, suggesting that the jizya was "no worse" than the Romans' taxes isn't really a defense of the jizya, or dhimmitude as a whole. Saying "being conquered and let live is better than being conquered and then killed" isn't a strong defense for being conquered.

Good thing previous Christian conquerors of the city, such as the Crusaders, behaved much more admirably: "Thus began the sack of Constantinople, the richest city of all Europe. Nobody controlled the troops. Thousands of defenseless civilians were killed. Women, even nuns, were raped by the crusading army and churches, monasteries and convents were looted. The very altars of churches were smashed and torn to pieces for their gold and marble by warriors who had sworn to fight in service of the Christian faith.
Even the magnificent Santa Sophia was ransacked by the crusaders. Works of tremendous value were destroyed merely for their material value. One such work was the bronze statue of Hercules, created by the famous Lysippus, court sculptor of no lesser than Alexander the Great. The statue was melted down for its bronze. It is but one of a mass of bronze artworks which was melted down by those blinded by greed.
The loss of art treasures the world suffered in the sack of Constantinople is immeasurable." (http://www.roman-empire.net/constant/1203-1204.html)

Thank you for the article. For a nonbiased, or at least non-extremist account of the last days of Constantinople I recommend reading Roger Crowley's book 1453. Although a horrible tragedy for the west, by 1453 constantinople was a shade of it's former glory. Even Paleologos is reputed to have said "the city needs a mayor, not an emperor". The centuries of animosity between the western christians and the eastern inhabitants of the byzantine empire also play a part in the decline of the empire. Many indeed preferred the rule of the turk to the that of the franks. And the fall of the city itself seems to have done in belief in christianity for many of the survivors who converted to islam. The muslim policy of tolerance (though exaggerated by many anti-westerners today) did play a part in their ability to retain their conquered territory. "When the German Arnold von Harff came in 1499 he was amazed to discover two Franciscan monasteries in Galata where the Catholic mass was still being celebrated".

I find it interesting that the response to the claim that Islam ultimately finished the destruction of the Roman Empire and ripped apart Constantinople in the most brutal way imaginable, is "Christians did bad things too!" As if this article ever denied that?

The article had a whole section excoriating Christians for their failures of unity.

That book recommended by Anang was outstanding.
Cannon technology and superior metallurgy was at least as important as any other factors in the eventual breach of Constantinoples' walls.

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