The Flâneur's Archives

Archives from The Flâneur's Arcade (2007-2017)

Tag: constantinople


Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, detail
(Hans Burgkmair, circa 1500)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 351-352
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

Frederick III (1440-93), the first Emperor to show the famous Habsburg lip, and the last Emperor to be crowned in Rome, was as great a nullity as ever played an important part in history. Without any of the engaging gifts of Edward II of England, Frederick was just as little fitted as that unfortunate monarch for the dispatch of business… [This] dull obstinate bigot ruled in Vienna for more than fifty years, leaving no print of mind or will upon the conduct of affairs. The Turks conquered Constantinople and overran Hungary. The rôle of Austria as the chief remaining bulwark of Christianity against the Ottoman Turk became charged with a new significance, which could hardly escape the meanest intelligence. But no event, however, startling, could ruffle the placidity of Frederick, no problem however grave could excite his sluggish mind, or the most alarming prospect inflame his torpid imagination. Inertia was the principle of his life. The most important station in Europe at one of the most critical moments in her history was occupied by a blockhead.

Looking Back at Obama

Ex-President Obama’s last look at the White House
(Source: Pete Souza’s Instagram)

As Obama’s term ends, one cannot help reflect on the legacy of his presidency. While his approval ratings remain highest among exiting chief executives of the recent past, I’m afraid that the sober eye of history will cast a harsh judgment on what he did–or rather, did not do–during his watch. As the glitter of his celebrity tarnishes with time, the deficiencies of his feckless leadership will come to full relief, like that of “dull” and “sluggish” Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, who oversaw the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453). When Europe is finally completely Islamized, and its democracies subjected to Sharia Law, its people will look back on Obama’s failures in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, the rise of the barbaric Islamic State and the mass migration of muslim refugees to Europe, and discover in his inscrutable inertia the root of its decline.










“No problem however grave could excite his sluggish mind”

The Course of Empire

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)

The Mediterranean was a Roman lake

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan

The Empire, as it was finally shaped by Augustus, included Spain, Gaul, Italy, and the Balkans, the north coast of Africa, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. The Mediterranean was a Roman lake. Every people who had contributed to the sum of Western civilization was now subjected to Rome.

(from A History of Europe, H.A.L. Fisher, p. 85)

Found this excellent book on the history of Europe in the discount section of an antique shop in Old Town Goleta. The author, H.A.L. Fisher, was a member of the British Parliament, upon whose retirement became warden of New College in Oxford, where he wrote, among other things, this history. Published in 1935, the trauma of the Great War was still within living memory, and its consequences very much apparent in world affairs, with the Nazi Party having assumed power in Germany just two years prior. It is a 1280-page tome, but easy on the reader with its brisk pace and vivid prose. It is not textbook fare. For example, the following account of the fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War is rendered in a high elegiac tone:

When her fleet had been destroyed at Aegospotami at the end of a long and bitter war, Sparta might have applied to Athens the same terrible penalty which, in a spasm of passionate wrath, Athens had meted out to the little island of Melos. She might have razed the city to the ground, she might have slaughtered or enslaved its inhabitants. In the fierce hatred inspired by Athenian tyrrany, these cruelties would have been popular and were, in fact, recommended; but Athens was saved by the respect which even Sparta was compelled to feel for the brightest ornament of Hellenic civilization.

The city was spared in consideration of her virtues, and not on one occasion only. Seventy years later, when Alexander of Macedon had destroyed Thebes, saving only the house of Pindar, and Athens, which had designed to send help to the Thebans, was exposed to his attack, the same sentiment of homage to the shrine of so much genius interposed its mediation–

                         and the repeated air
Of sad Electra’s poet had the power
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare.

(p. 41)

Leo von Klenze, Reconstruction of the Acropolis
and Areus Pagus in Athens, 1846

The last lines are from Milton’s 8th sonnet, which in turn refers to an episode in Plutarch’s biography of Lysander, the Spartan general who brought Athens to its knees. There was a clamor for “the city be razed to the ground, and the country about it left for sheep to graze.” But during a banquet among the leaders, a Phocian sang the first chorus of Euripides’ Electra, and “all were moved to compassion, and felt it to be a cruel deed to abolish and destroy a city which was so famous, and produced such poets.” (Loeb Classical Library, 1916). Fisher uses this dramatic tension to drive home the cultural importance of Athens even in its decline. The poet’s gentle art had the power to stop the conqueror’s bloodlust with the Miltonian supplication: “Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bowre.”

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1833-36

Again, we hear this elevated tone in his account of the final destruction of Rome, after the long drawn-out war between Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the barbaric Goths that occupied Italy. Atrocities were commited on both sides, but ironically, it was Gothic king Totila who more than once offered peace. He was willing to rule Italy as a servant of the Empire and even to pay tribute, but Justinian was rigid in his orthodoxy and single-minded in his designs. He wanted nothing less than to wipe out the Germanic tribes who had converted to a heretical form of Christianity (Arianism). Having achieved thus, the city of Rome was laid waste in the process.

For the city of Rome, five times besieged, the results of this calamitous struggle were decisive. At the end of the war, the teeming capital, with its luxurious public baths, its system of food doles and popular amusements, had disappeared. In its place a few thousand impoverished beings, many of them clerics, lingered on among monuments of ancient greatness, henceforth and for many centuries to come to be girdled by undrained and malarious wastes. No more was there a Roman Senate. The last circus had been held, the last triumph celebrated, the last consul elected. Trade and commerce were extinct, and since the Goths had cut the aqueducts which had given to ancient Rome as good a water supply as any modern city can boast, the reign of mediaeval squalor which Roman example might have corrected, spread without resistance through the Western world.

(p. 135)

I can see the haunting image of bewildered clergy stumbling among the toppled columns of the Roman Forum at the triumph of their faith. In a feat of both vivid language and sharp compression that characterize his history, Fisher powerfully evokes the irrevocable loss of civilized life, as well as foreboding the misery of the Dark Ages, when the light of Rome was snuffed out.

Theodora (mosaic detail), Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

I think Fisher’s narrative style is borne of his approach to history, which he lays down in the Preface, that sees contingent causes, rather than overarching patterns, moving the fortunes of men.

Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.

Arnold Toynbee, for example, in A Study of History, discerns a general movement (genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration) in the rise and fall of nineteen civilizations from Egypt to China. (Wikipedia) Fisher, on the other hand, dispenses with such theories, and focuses, for example, on the character of the players and their actions, which make for dramatic storytelling. In his account of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian, we get this memorable sketch of Theodora, the Emperor’s wife:

[He] had looked into the gutter for a wife and picked out a diamond. Theodora was the daughter of a Cypriot bear-keeper. She had been an actress and a courtesan, had wandered and suffered, and combined in her person every quality of station and experience certain to give offence to respectable people. But though a thousand scandals were woven around her name, though she was violent in her passions and vindictive in her hates, she appears to have been in a sense a noble being, beautiful and witty, with a high courage, a statesman’s mind, and the precious gift of womanly compassion.

(p. 133)

Though done in quick brush strokes, it is quite clear who this woman was. Theodora became a tempering influence to the extremism of Justinian, and brought some measure of tolerance to his orthodoxy. Fisher’s history is thus about individual actors rather than sweeping structures. The name of so and so should be remembered, he would often say. He is like Herodotus in this sense, as well as in his firm belief in pure happenstance–like the odds of finding a diamond in the gutter. The fates of civilizations, it turns out, are determined more from the fickle outcomes of battles than from abstract, inexorable forces, as evinced in the decisive defeats of the Moslems by the Frankish king Charles Martel in 732 and by Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 718 AD.

Had Leo the Isaurian failed to beat off the imposing armada of Moslemah, the Moslem might have spread like prairie fire through the Balkans and the plain of Hungary and northward and eastward to the Urals. From this danger the great defence of Constantinople in 718, conducted by a young and capable Emperor with the aid of stout fortifications, a superior navy, Greek fire, and the timely assistance of a Bulgar army, delivered European civilization. The name of Leo should be remembered. That the Russian Church is Greek and not Moslem today is one of the results, how fortunate we dare not say, which may, without a great stretch of probabilities, be attributed to his great and resounding triumph.

(p. 149)

American journalist James Foley was beheaded by an ISIS jihadi

But there is no reason to assume that Western civilization will go on forever. Camille Paglia, in a TIME essay, wrote: “The earth is littered with the ruins of empires that believed they were eternal.” As the West faces the resurgence of virulent Islamic extremism in ISIS, it is indeed well to remember the name of Leo the Isaurian (who in some accounts was actually Syrian), his staunch defense of Constantinople, and what its outcome meant for the survival of the Western tradition, both Hellenic and Christian.