The Course of Empire

by Kiko Matsing


The Course of Empire: Desolation (1833-36, Thomas Cole)
“First freedom and then Glory–when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption–barbarism at last” (Lord Byron)

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

The Western Empire, A. D. 476 (pp. 124-125)

From this moment, the germanization of the West steadily proceeded. Ostrogoths poured into the Balkan peninsula, creating by their restless and turbulent activities a problem similar to that which had taxed the resources of the Eastern Empire a century before. In Italy a succession of phantom and ephemeral emperors reached its close with a pathetic figure, named by the supreme irony of providence, Romulus Augustus, who was deposed by Odovacar, the East German master of the troops (476). Military revolutions were no novelty in the annals of the Roman Empire, and the act of Odovacar had many precedents… It is true that he deposed Romulus, but the lad was a usurper, unrecognized in Constantinople, and the deed condoned by the bestowal upon its author of the high imperial title of patrician. What was original in Odovacar’s action was not that it was revolutionary, but that it was conservative. He refused to appoint a successor to Romulus, calculating that he would have more elbowroom in a united Empire governed from Constantinople as in the days of Theodosius the Great. That unity was in fact and theory preserved until the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in 800.


The Roman Empire at the time of Theodosius I,
Last Emperor to rule the Eastern and Western parts


Barbarian invasions of the 5th century

The Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, A. D. 1453 (pp. 418-419)

Constantine VI (1458-53), the last of the Caesars, though the nominee of Murad and his vassal, shines out in the final crisis of the Empire as a statesman and hero, prepared alike for compromise and for sacrifice. The Greek population of Constantinople, for whom the quarrels of monks were always more important than the clash of races, were unworthy of such a leader. While Mohammed’s artillery was battering at the walls, the public opinion of the capital was inflamed by denunciation of the Emperor who, in the desperate hope of winning the West to his side, had dared to recognize the Roman Church and to permit the celebration of Roman rites in the Church of Saint Sophia. To these wretched theological preoccupations we may perhaps ascribe the fact that the main part of the defence of the city was undertaken, not by the Greeks, but by Spaniards, Germans, and Italians. And as the defending force was not principally Greek, so the attacking army was not wholly Turkish. The levies of Mohammed were largely recruited from men of a Greek and Christian stock. So it happened that on May 29, 1453, by default of the Christians the great city was breached and stormed, the last of the Byzantine Emperors perishing honourably in the death agony of the Empire.


Left: The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410
(1890, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre)
Right: The Entry of Mahomet II into Constantinople
(1876, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant)

Marginal Notes:

Another example of Fisher’s gift for compression–a rendering of complex history vividly yet with great economy. While he describes the final fate of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires at a galloping pace, he does so in evocative language that attends to all that are remarkable and of consequence, and to the peculiar nature of personalities: the pathetic figure of Romulus, ironically named after the Empire’s mythical founder; the germanic military mensch, Odovacar, usurping power from the effete boy-king; the tragic Constantine XI (not VI), last emperor of Byzantium, protecting with his life a city that bickered against him.

While germanic barbarians whittled away at the Western Empire over a period of a hundred years, the Byzantine Empire slowly collapsed under its weight for another thousand years, until the Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople. Fisher dramatizes the immediate causes of the fall by describing how, even as Mohammed II’s army were banging at the walls, the Greek monks were busy publicly denouncing the Emperor for allowing Latin liturgy in an Orthodox church.

These epic historical moments were popular subjects of paintings in the 19th century, with Sylvestre depiciting in Academic mode the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, while Benjamin-Constant employed the lush Orientalist style for Mohammed II’s triumphal entry into Constantinople. In Sylvestre’s painting, brutish barbarians, in their animal nakedness, scale the imposing statue of Caesar to topple it, while Alaric the Bold looked on. The stolid white marble of the Roman Forum, and the imperious demeanor of larger-than-life Caesar, adorned with laurels of victory and bearing a lion shield, contrast effectively with the sanguine beastliness of the German mob. In Benjamin-Constant’s painting, Mohammed II on his black Arabian stallion raises the green crescent flag as he tramples upon the dead Byzantines–patrician women and slaves, monks and knights, even Moors. Smoke billows from the burning Christian city, as a late afternoon light washes the stone archway with a tinge of saffron, the sun setting on the ruins of a once glorious Empire.

While such arcane theological debates that caused so much grief and bloodshed throughout Europe’s history seem quaint today, a new sort of religion has taken its place, especially among the secular Left in the West, in the form of PC activism. While ISIS razes the Middle East and Al-Qaida threaten Western civilization in Europe, the priests and prophets of Climate Change are preoccupied with theological sophistries (carbon emissions causing terrorism?) and persecution of its heretics (plotting civil suits against “deniers”?). Their long incubation in the comforts of civilization have detached them from the grim realities that prop up the conditions of their existence, and like the monks behind the walls of Constantinople, they have lost all sense of proportion.

Cities, however, are not defended by beliefs, but by will and material power. Had the Greeks been resolute and united, had the navies of Genoa and Venice been placed at the disposition of the Imperial Government, had there been among the Greek and Italian peoples a common will to save Constantinople, saved it would have been. (p. 418)

This flight from reality is symptomatic of a decadent exhaustion in the late phases of Empire. What fools they would seem when Europe is finally reduced to the rule of tribal despots and subjected to Sharia Law. The barbarian invasions of the 5th century forever changed the character of Europe; there is no reason it will not happen again.

But while the pagan German invaders converted to Christianity and schooled themselves in Latin culture, the Ottoman Turk did not. At the end of his account of the fall of Constantinople, Fisher writes this coda:

The conquerors were Asiatic nomads and so remained. Sir Charles Eliot, describing the interior of the house of a Turkish gentleman in the nineteenth century, observes that it contained no more furniture than could be carried off at a moment’s notice on a wagon to Asia. A certain dignity of bearing, coupled with a grave exterior polish and a sense of humor and irony, were noted by Western observers as favourable traits in the Turkish character… But the culture of the West was not valued. The Turk remained an alien in Europe, having no part in its traditions, and limited in his notions of imperial government to the philosophy of a slave-owning oligarchy in a world of potential slaves. (p. 419)

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