Myths about the Fall of Constantinople

No historical event generates more myths than the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.

In fact, I argue the Fall of Constantinople was the most overrated event in human history. Many writers turn the Conquest of a small and decrepit city state by Sultan Mehmed II’s armies into a watershed in history.

In reality, the conquest of Constantinople had little long-term effect. Yet we still see articles and claims that the Fall of Constantinople was the beginning of a “new age in human history.”

Myths about the Fall of Constantinople

Some of the greatest myths about the Fall of Constantinople include:

1. The Fall of Constantinople was the end of the Roman Empire

Nobody in 1453 thought Constantinople was the capitol of the Roman Empire. Nor did anybody in 1453 think the Roman Empire still existed. Yet we still see articles that claim the Fall of Constantinople was the fall of the Roman Empire.

Constantinople was the capitol of the Second Byzantine Empire, one of several 14th century polities that claimed to be a successor state to the Roman Empire. Byzantine Empire is the name historians use for the Eastern Roman Empire, of which Constantinople was the capitol.

What we think of is as the Roman Empire ended around 379 CE when the empire split into two parts. The Western Empire ended in 476 CE, but the Eastern Empire survived.

The Arabs overran most of the Eastern Empire in the 7th Century, but a small portion of the Empire in Greece and Asia survived. Yes, Constantinople was the center of an Empire with an Emperor but it was not Rome. Notably, Constantinople’s language and culture were Greek, not Latin. Instead,by 1453, Rome was an independent city state controlled by the Papacy.

Notably, Sultan Mehmed II himself and the Holy Roman Emperor also claimed to be the successor to the Roman Emperors in 1453. The truth is, the Roman Empire was long gone by the time Mehmed rolled his artillery up to Constantinople’s walls.

2. 1453 was the first time the impregnable city of Constantinople fell to an enemy army

Not true. In 1204, Constantinople fell to the Christian armies of the Fourth Crusade. The Crusaders pillaged Constantinople, overthrew Emperor Alexius IV, and replaced the Greek Byzantine Empire with the Latin Empire ruled by a Catholic Emperor.

Thus, Constantinople had fallen before and the Byzantine Empire destroyed. However, 1453 marks the first Islamic conquest of Constantinople, which explains modern hysteria about the event.

3. The Conquest of Constantinople was the End of the Byzantine Empire

Sort of true. What Mehmed II conquered in 1453 was the Second Byzantine Empire. That Empire dated only to 1261 when Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus conquered Constantinople with the help of merchants from the Italian city of Genoa.

Hence, the true Byzantine Empire was long-dead by the time Mehmed’s Janissaries set up camp outside Constantinople’s walls. In fact, think in 1453, Constantinople was nothing but an Italian trading post in the ruins of the old Imperial Capitol.   

To explain, the Second Byzantine Empire comprised Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and a small area around it. The great Byzantine Empire of history was long dead by the time Mehmed II moved his capitol to Constantinople. Instead, there was a petty warlord in Constantinople who arrogantly called himself “emperor.”

4. The Fall of Constantinople was a Major Catastrophe for Western Civilization or Europe

The Islamophobic version of history teaches that the fall of Constantinople was a disaster for Western Civilization. In reality, the Ottoman Capture of Constantinople had little effect on Europe or Western Civilization.

The Ottoman invasion and conquest of Europe did not follow the Collapse of Constantinople. Instead, Mehmed unified his holdings in Greece and made a half-hearted effort to invade Italy 26 years later in 1479.In the “invasion,” Turkish troops occupied one city, Otranto, before Italian mercenaries drove them out.

Notably, none of Europe’s mid-15th century leaders saw the Ottoman occupation of Constantinople as a threat to their nations. Notably, no major European state sent troops or significant aid to Constantine XI Palaeologus in his defense of Constantinople. Instead, there the European mercenaries in Mehmet’s armies may have outnumbered the city’s defenders.

Hence, contemporary European Christians did not regard Constantinople’s fall as a major catastrophe or a security threat. Notably, Pope Nicholas V could not persuade a single European king to join his crusade to retake Constantinople. In fact, some European rulers, including the King of France, formed alliances with the Turks.

Instead of invading Europe, the Ottomans turned their armies South to the Middle East where there were easier conquests. The Ottomans did not launch a major offensive into Europe until 1529, 76 years after the fall of Constantinople.

The Fall of Constantinople was a catastrophe for the Greeks, but not for Europe. The presence of Turkish forces in Constantinople did not affect the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of Europe to global dominance.

5. The Fall of Constantinople marked the beginning of the Renaissance

A popular fallacy is that the Renaissance began when Greek scholars fled to Italy after Constantinople’s fall. In reality, the Renaissance was already a century old when Mehmed II attacked Constantinople. Most historians believe the Renaissance began in the 14th century (the 1300s).

Moreover, Greek scholars had been moving to Italy, where the pay was higher, long before the fall of Constantinople. Hence, the seizure of Constantinople had little effect on the Renaissance.

In fact, European culture had moved far beyond reliance on the Byzantines decades before Constantinople’s capture. Critics can argue Constantinople was a barbarous backwater in 1453, rather than a center of culture. It’s fall had no effect on the cultural life of Europe beyond giving the Pope an excuse to send out fund-raising letters for a new Crusade.

An Overrated Historical Event

The effects of Constantinople’s fall have been exaggerated. The conquest of a small city state by an ambitious emperor had little effect on the long-term outcome of European history. Although it was a watershed moment for the Turks.

The true momentous events of the 15th century were Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of a printing press in 1447, Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America in 1492, and Vasco de Gama’s trip to India in 1498. Gutenberg, Columbus, and de Gama transformed human civilization. The Fall of Constantinople did not.