Byzantium the Lost Empire:
Forever and Ever
(Part 4)
Mark Merlino - Home page

"Forever and Ever," the last of John Romer's monumental episodes on Byzantine
history, tells the story of the last flowering of Byzantine civilization before its
destruction by the armies of the Ottoman Turks. He argues that by the 14th and
15th centuries, Byzantines, living in the sad vestiges of their once great Empire
new that they were doomed. Nevertheless, this sense of impending annihilation
did not lead them to despair, rather they created many of the greatest works that
Byzantines had ever produced.

In order to show something of Late Byzantine civilization, Romer visits the
remarkably beautiful tiny Byzantine town of Mistra in the Pelopponese. Here, the
Platonist philosopher and teacher Plethon, whose students helped to inspire the
Italian Renaissance, had his academy. Here too in Mistra, emperors would retire
in their old age and the last Emperor, Constantine XI was crowned. Romer also
takes time to show the great late Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantokrator in
Haghia Sophia, the climax of Byzantine art. Also, he visits the monastery church
of St. Savior in Chora, near the late imperial palace on the city walls. The
frescoes show the late Byzantine meditation on eternity. He also shows how the
Emperor John VIII's trip to Florence to secure western aid helped to redefine the
Latin West for a time, though without bringing needed military assistance.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this episode is Romer's vivid narrative of the
final days, siege and conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II. He shows the
siege from both the points of view of the Sultan in Edirne and the Emperor in
Constantinople. To do this, he reads from the actual correspondence between
Sultan Mehmet II and Emperor Constantine XI. He then shows a fifteenth
century frescoes of the fall of Constantinople in Romania, to describe the siege.

To his credit, Romer does not simply stop in 1453, but goes on to describe the
transition from Byzantine Constantinople to Ottoman Istanbul. How the city once
again became the center of a great and powerful empire. How Mehmet II made
one Gennadios patriarch to all Orthodox Christians in his realm. How too many,
though not all, of the city's churches were converted into mosques. And how
Byzantine refugees like one Bessarion, who was made into a Cardinal in Rome,
established an academy in the eternal city to preserve something of Byzantium.

For Romer, the one enduring legacy of Byzantium that still influences the world
today is the vision of heaven's order. The idea that there is law and authority, the
just and the unjust, and the elixir of life. The vision that Byzantines inherited from
the Ancient world and have passed on to both those in the East and in the West.