ON THIS DAY, May 29th, in the year 1453 the last Roman Emperor, a remarkable man who ruled under the name Constantine XI (born Constantine Palaiologos) died and with him what was left of the Roman Empire – which at this late date was reduced to the capital city of Constantinople with some minor appendages – was finally extinguished.
Constantine was killed leading troops into battle against a vastly larger Ottoman army led by Mehmed the Conqueror. Mehmed had finally succeeded in piercing Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls after a lengthy siege and years of preparation with the aid of modern artillery. It would be the first time these otherworldly walls were so breached (but for the brief Latin incursion) in their 1,100 year history). Unwilling to live in a world in which Rome had ceased to exist, the noble-hearted Emperor stripped the Imperial insignia from his armor so that he would not receive special treatment and plunged headlong into the melee. His body was never found, and he lives on in legend as the “Marble Emperor” who will one day return to his capital to rescue his subjects and to reestablish the Empire.
Rome was founded in 753 BC by refugees from Troy (according to the myths the Romans told themselves) in a swamp beside the Tiber River. There it had been ruled by foreign (Etruscan) kings until 509BC whereupon it chose self-rule as a republic until a young man named Octavian changed his name to Augustus and succeeded where his uncle Julius Gaius Caesar had failed in 27BC, ending the Republic and ushering in the birth of the Principate, lead by the Imperator. In 330CE Constantine I formally moved the capital from Rome to “Nova Roma”, known as Constantinople among its denizens.
One thousand four hundred and eighty years later both the Principate and the nation of Rome herself died there on the banks of the Bosporus, on May 29th 1453, scant years before Christopher Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue.’
Tell me if that does not spark the imagination?
Humble milestones like the one picture here marked each mile throughout the Roman highway system, spanning the 250,000 miles of roadway that once stretched from modern Scotland to Yemen.
The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.
In what had been Roman Africa, stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast. It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).
At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius (pictured here) met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.
The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations. The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy). If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements. The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome). If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.
Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold. This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian. These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.
This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).
For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog on the subject by clicking here.
BREAKING NEWS – TURKEY DEFEATS THE ROMANS (563 years ago – too late to celebrate?).
Talk about being desperate for good news! Over the weekend the autocratic regime of Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan (image at right) mounted a major celebration to mark the anniversary of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s (“The Conqueror”) victory over the final Roman Emperor, Constantine XI (“the Marble Emperor”). A million people were expected to attend the celebrations and the President’s extravaganza would feature the army, navy (replete with submarines), etc. Just in case the nasty Romans pop up to ruin the festivities?
None can deny that when Mehmed finally pierced Constantinople (now Istanbul’s) Theodosian City Walls on April 6 1453, it marked a turning point in world history. The Turks had spent nearly 700 years trying (unsuccessfully) to take the city that had been the center of human civilization since it was founded by Constantine the Great in 330CE, and thanks to some of the largest cannon ever cast they finally succeeded.
A sad day for lovers of Roman history!
And evidently a very happy day for Erdogan. Nothing like kicking a dog when he’s down, especially when the dog (the Roman Empire) has been down for about six hundred years.
Yet another enduring testament to the power of Rome – still resonant, and relevant, six centuries after it finally disappeared from the face of the planet.
Some images from that fateful day, including one of the Marble Emperor, one of the famous canons, and one of Mehmed entering the city.
A Roman tomb, graffiti clad, filled with water, quenches thirst, lost in Çakırköy, Turkey.
This little snippet (below) fascinated me. How this 2,000 year old Roman tomb was unearthed and somehow wound up as a fountain in this small town in the heart of what once was Roman Anatolia and is now Turkey – somewhere between Istanbul and Ankara – no one knows. But there it is in the picture below, alive, used. Perhaps that is best. One wonders what the thirsty passerby thinks when they lean in to take sip…
“A 2,000-year-old tomb from the late Roman era serves as a fountain in the village of Çakırköy in the western province Afyonkarahisar.
Nike, the god of victory, is depicted on four sides of the Roman tomb, which was discovered in 1986 by the Turkish Grain Board. On one of the long sides of the tomb, the reliefs depict a man and woman, who were most probably the owners of the tomb, and two Medusa heads on the other side. The writings on the tomb have been destroyed, as reported by Aktüel Archaeology magazine. The tomb is thought to have served as an important family grave in the ancient age.
Museum officials say the tomb is used as a fountain in order to keep treasure hunters away from the area.”
March/29/2016 – From Hurriyet Daily News
When you hear the word “Izmit”, what comes to mind?
How about capital of the Roman Empire?
Once known as the Roman city of Nicomedia, founded by refugees from the Greek city of Megara (whose compatriots also founded nearby Byzantium – Constantinople – Istanbul), Nicomedia, now Izmit, sits in modern Turkey on the Sea of Marmara.
In 286 CE, the Roman Emperor Diocletian (right) struggled to containwhat is known as the “Crisis of the Third Century”, when Rome came under ferocious attack along its northern and eastern frontiers. In response to these threats, Diocletian instituted a massive reform in Roman government. He split the power that resided in the office of Emperor into four, creating two senior Emperors, or Augustus (Diocletian and Maximian), and two junior Emperors, or Caesars (Galerius and Constantius, father of future Emperor Constantine the Great).
Diocletian assumed responsibility for the Roman East, establishing his capital at Nicomedia. It would remain the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire under Diocletian and subsequently, under Constantine the Great until Constantine moved the capital across the Bosporus to Byzantium in 330CE (though Constantine would eventually die in Nicomedia seven years later in 337).
Nicomedia, a city lost in time, or at least lost to Western minds, remains a thriving metropolis, now known as Izmit.
And under the streets of Izmit, the Roman city still lies, proof of which surfaced during routine work to recover from a devastating earthquake in 1999. Builders who discovered the headless Hercules in 2001 (pictured below) treated the Roman remains as garbage for fear that their construction work would be stopped by local authorities. Fortunately, that is precisely what happened and the site is now under protection from the local museum and a proper dig to excavate the unearthed remains of Nicomedia begin this month. Archaeologists now believe that that the headless Hercules once sat in Diocletian’s palace which
still rests meters below street level, waiting to be uncovered.
Remarkable stuff, and as surprising as the discovery may be to us, to many local residents it is just as novel. As one of the lead archaeologists on the soon to begin dig stated: “[M]any people living here are unaware that they have been living on a huge palace for centuries,”
For more see the Turkish paper Hurriyet.