“Over the span of about a century, as the remnants of their empire crumbled around them, the partnership between these Byzantine teachers and their Italian students literally saved ancient Greek literature from destruction at the hands of the conquering Turks. The Byzantine contribution of the Greek classics allowed the promise of Renaissance humanism to be fulfilled, by letting the West reclaim the body of literature that makes up the foundation of Western civilisation. How frightening it is to contemplate a world without these works, and how unsettling to make out the slenderness of the thread by which they dangled over the void.”
– Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World, Colin Wells (2006)
It didn’t take long after the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed II (thereafter called “the Conqueror”) in 1453AD for things to turn against the few remaining remnants of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire.
The now-wholly independent regions of Morea (in the Peloponnese) and Trebizond were conquered themselves in 1460 and 1461AD respectively.
And with that, the Byzantine Empire was no more.
Thomas Palaiologos and his son Andreas claimed the title of Emperor(s)-in-exile until one died in 1465, and the other in 1503AD; both were guests of the Pope in Rome. But the line of rulers stretching back to Constantine the Great, and through him all the way to Augustus and the founding of the Roman Empire in 27BC is generally accepted to have ended with Constantine XI Palaiologos’ death during the defence of Constantinople.
But like other empires before and since, it could be argued that despite the loss of its territories and political independence, the Byzantine Empire lived on in its institutions, its traditions, and its legend.
Several of those nations who had taken religious and political cues from Byzantium, including Bulgaria, Serbia, and most successfully, Russia, claimed for themselves the title of the “Third Rome”, trying through rhetoric and suggestion to position themselves as the successors to the Byzantines.
The Ottomans too felt they should lay claim to the traditions of the Romani, allowing the Byzantine-Greek religion and culture to continue under their rule.
Meanwhile, in the West, those academics, scholars and theologians who had escaped the Fall of Constantinople brought with them copies and understanding of classical Greco-Roman literature not seen for centuries, helping initiate a resurgent interest that would eventually fuel the Renaissance in Italy and beyond.
The contribution Byzantium made to the world should not be underestimated. In the fields of art, science, medicine, civil and military administration, theology and culture, they had a far wider-reaching effect than most realise (or some care to).
For a thousand years they kept alive the traditions of the Roman Empire that had preceded them, and made a direct contribution to our understanding of a past that could otherwise have been forgotten.
Their fortunes fluctuated like the tide; sometimes, they rose high; and sometimes, they fell low. But always, even unto the end, they fought for their ideals, their history and the promise of the future.