The Fall of Constantinople: A Turning Point in Modern History?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

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

Constantinople was deeply weakened by 1453 and its eventual fall to the Ottoman Turks shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Its fall was inevitable, really only a question of time. Yet the fall of Constantinople proved to be a turning point in modern history. So, what were the consequences or effects of the fall of Constantinople?

A painting of Constantinople as seen from across the Bosphorus
The city of Constantinople revived under Ottoman rule, and once again became a center of authority, trade, and commerce. (Image: Ivan Aivazovsky/Public domain)

Apart from the fall of Constantinople itself, its effects, especially on how it was viewed by contemporaries, were shattering. Contemporaries had become used to the notion that Constantinople was always under threat, perpetually in crisis, and yet it had always somehow survived.

There were three clear results of the fall of Constantinople, which proved to be a turning point in modern history. The consequences continue to endure to the present day.

Learn more about the fall of Constantinople.

The Fall of Constantinople Created a Vacuum

The first result was that after the final fall of the Roman Empire, with the fall of Constantinople, much of the world would be haunted by the ghost of the memory of what Rome had been, what it had once achieved, and represented.

Rome had been a universal authority, the archetype of what an empire was and should be. Indeed, it still is the archetype: Think of the Roman neoclassical architecture of government buildings in Washington D.C.

In this earlier age, thinking about the implications of the fall of Constantinople was based on a medieval concept, that of translatio imperii, the transfer of rule or authority, as an organizing principle of history. This transfer of empire resembled the Confucian ideal of the mandate of heaven, which we saw with the Ming dynasty in our previous lecture.

European scholars looking out at the world at the time concluded that all of history was based on a succession of empires, one following on the other based on divine favor and divine will. When an empire had played out its role or had lost what in Chinese tradition would have been called the mandate of heaven, by misrule, a new empire would arise to take its place.

In this scheme of history, the empire of Babylon had given way to Persia, Persia had given way to Greece, and Greece gave way to Rome. Now that Rome was gone, what new power would follow? The gap, the vacuum left by the fall of Rome as Constantinople fell in 1453, was the turning point.

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

The Fall of Constantinople Prompted Successive Bids to become the Universal Empire

The second result of this moment was the recurring bids to inherit the universal empire. Most strikingly, the Ottoman Turkish sultans saw themselves as new Roman emperors, the legitimate inheritors of Rum. Indeed, they called themselves the ‘Sultans of Rum’ to announce this claim.

An oil on canvas painting of Sultan Mehmet II
Sultan Mehmet II, who is also known as ‘Mehmet the Conquerer’, was the commander of the Ottoman army that attacked Constantinople and captured the city in 1453. (Image: Gentile Bellini, National Gallery/Public domain)

In fact, Mehmet the Conqueror, after he had captured Constantinople, next made plans to capture Rome in Italy, to complete his victories. As it turned out, he could not capture Rome in the West and finish this continuity; it was just too big an ambition.

In a way, for the city of Constantinople, the eagerness of the new Ottoman rulers to assert the fundamental continuity with what went before was lucky. Instead of just fading into oblivion as a heap of ruins, the city actually and dramatically revived under Ottoman rule, again becoming a center of authority, trade, and commerce, and assuming once again a pivotal position.

Eventually, the city came to be popularly known as ‘Istanbul’, which may be a Turkish rendering of a Greek phrase meaning ‘to the city’ (eis tin polin), but officially it still retained its name of ‘Konstantiniyye’ until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. It only officially became Istanbul in 1930.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Russia, the Third Rome?

The longstanding dream of inheriting the empire also was deeply influential in Russian history, for Russia had received its Orthodox faith from Constantinople. This spiritual and historic link was expressed in the potent idea of Russia as the ‘Third Rome’.

As Constantinople fell, Russian monks announced to the Tsar—or Emperor—of Moscow, that the first Rome had fallen (the actual city of Rome in Italy), and now Constantinople the second Rome had fallen as well. This meant that now the power of Muscovy would be the third, eternal Rome.

The marriage of Tsar Ivan III to a niece of the last Byzantine emperor was also intended to strengthen this claim. The idea of the Third Rome soon took on a messianic fervor and endured for centuries. The Russian coat of arms, of the Russian empire or of the Russian federation today, shows a double-headed eagle, which had earlier been the emblem of the Byzantine Empire.

That desire to be the Third Rome led to a durable impulse in Russian foreign policy, striving to capture Constantinople, or as it was called in Russian, Tsargrad, or ‘Caesar City’. Over the centuries, Tsars and Tsarinas (especially Catherine the Great) would make this goal one that they would pursue, a spur to the expansionist impulse that has compelled Russian foreign policy to grow in the following centuries.

The Tsars of Russia were not the only ones moved by the dream of standing at the end of the line of succession of the Roman Empire. Many others would find this to be an ambition that deeply stirred them as well. In the German lands, the Holy Roman Empire as it was called in the Middle Ages, claimed to be the successor to Rome.

Later, in the 19th century, the French leader Napoleon, as he swept across Europe, set about creating a Grand Empire, also outfitted with Roman symbols. In a way, it was perfectly apt that Napoleon thought about how he could capture Constantinople as well.

When Russia suggested to Napoleon that they could trade some territories, and Russia could take over Constantinople from the Turkish Empire, Napoleon refused. He announced that whoever holds that city of Constantinople has the key to global power: ‘It is the empire of the world’, he said, adding, ‘Ultimately, the question is always this—who shall have Constantinople’? He wanted it for himself.

It was a geopolitical pivot point of great strategic power. As late as the 20th century, the dream of Rome endured. The German dictator Adolf Hitler, in his attempt at a world empire, also looked back at Roman models.

His Nazi storm troopers stretched out their arms to give the Roman salute. His Nazi empire, which was expected to last a thousand years, also was outfitted with neoclassical architecture that evoked those days of Roman power. Ultimately, the memory of Roman glories has been a spur to many different ambitious leaders and groups throughout modern times.

Learn more about the Russian Orthodox Church.

Fall of Constantinople Prompts the World’s Political Map to Be Redrawn

Finally, the third result of the fall of Constantinople was the redrawing of the world maps in the minds of men. The decline and fall of that great imperial city contributed to a movement that was already taking place in Europe, the Renaissance.

Older history textbooks used to claim a simple formula, that Greek-speaking scholars, writers, and intellectuals had fled Constantinople as it fell, taking with them their most treasured possessions, ancient classical texts, and that these texts fired the Renaissance, that passionate movement to revive classical models and humanistic learning.

Actually, historians point out now, the picture is far more complicated. Canny and realistic intellectuals had actually been leaving Constantinople long before 1453 and the disaster of that year. They’d been transferring texts and their personal knowledge for a long time. It’s estimated that of the 55,000 texts of ancient Greek writings that we possess now, about 40,000 of them come to us by way of Constantinople.

The texts that Byzantine scholars brought with them to the West didn’t so much cause the Renaissance, which had already been going on and earlier had emphasized Roman literature. What their Greek texts did was to feed the second wave of Renaissance activity, which was based on the rediscovery of Greek texts. Most important of all was that the Greek scholars who arrived in the West taught the Greek language to the Italian humanists and enriched their understanding.

Further, the fall of Constantinople presented a geographic problem for Europeans. Trade routes with the Orient, which had run through the Byzantine Empire, were now in the hands of the Ottoman Turks.

These routes were not entirely closed, because trade continued, in part helped by the merchants of Venice and Genoa trading with the Turks. But the desire of Europeans to outflank the Turks and to find alternate routes for the trade would spur European voyages of discovery, including the voyage which led Columbus to what was for him a new world.

This drive to outflank the Turks also had a strategic and religious dimension, which recalled the Crusades. The key geopolitical location of earlier authority, Constantinople, had been lost, and the religious and political imperative was to find a way around that fact, the end of the Roman Empire. The loss of Rome had created a gap in the mental map of the world, and that gap was the turning point.

Common Questions about the Impact of the Fall of Constantinople

Q: Why was the fall of Constantinople so important?

At the time, European scholars believed that all of history was based on a succession of empires. So, the empire of Babylon had given way to Persia, Persia had given way to Greece, and Greece gave way to Rome. However, with the fall of Constantinople, the last remnants of the eastern Roman Empire were gone, and there was no clear vision of the power that would follow.

Q: Why was the fall of Constantinople a turning point in history?

The fall of Constantinople in the hands of the Ottoman Turks in itself isn’t a surprise. However, this historic event had a domino effect on several other issues, including creating a power vacuum in Europe, prompting a succession of desperate bids by various empires to present themselves as the next universal empire, and permanently altering the political map of this region.

Q: What was the impact of the fall of Constantinople?

One of the key impacts of the fall of Constantinople was that trade routes with the east, which had run through the Byzantine Empire, were now in the hands of the Ottoman Turks. While these routes were not entirely closed, because trade continued, in part helped by the merchants of Venice and Genoa trading with the Turks, it did present a major geographic problem for Europeans.

Q: How did the fall of Constantinople affect the age of exploration?

Since the trade routes with the Orient were under the control of the Ottoman Turks, after the fall of Constantinople, the Europeans were in a quandary. They wanted to outflank the Turks and find alternate routes for trade, which sparked off the various famous European voyages of discovery, including the voyage which led Columbus to what was for him a new world.

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