The Western Roman Empire disintegrated in the fifth century A.D. However, the eastern half continued for a thousand years. The empire began to disintegrate in the eleventh century. The Ottoman Turks slowly eroded Roman, or Byzantine, power over the course of centuries. By 1453, the Byzantine Empire consisted of the city of Constantinople and little else. In the end, gunpowder eradicated the Ottoman’s final obstacle to capturing Constantinople and toppling the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Eastern Roman Empire survived the fifth century with their superior economy, military, and bureaucracy. Their western brothers lacked these resources and quickly disintegrated. These advantages served Constantinople for the next few centuries. The Byzantine Empire seemed immortal and immune to the same issues that plagued Rome. However, the upstart Turks showed little respect for Roman tradition.
In 1071, the course of Byzantine, and Eastern European, history changed. The Turks won a major victory over the Byzantines at Manzikert. The decisive battle did not destroy the empire. However, it proved a short term setback and long term disaster for Constantinople. The Muslim conquest depleted the empire’s recruiting grounds. As a result, imperial military power waned and Constantinople hoped Christian Europe could help stem the Islamic tide.
In a strange twist, the Muslims enjoyed inadvertent Christian support in their conquest. In the early thirteenth century, Christendom declared a Fourth Crusade against Muslims in the Holy Land. In 1202, the army began their journey to the Middle East. Along the way, they diverted to Constantinople and sacked the city. The attack lasted three days and the westerners destroyed priceless art and the Library of Constantinople. In fact, the Crusaders destroyed or stole everything they could. Then, they reapportioned the empire amongst its leaders creating their own states. Eventually, the Byzantines reestablished control over their territories. However, the attack severely weakened the empire politically and economically as the Crusaders depleted the imperial treasury.
The sack of Constantinople horrified Western European leaders who looked to Byzantium as a bulwark against Islamic invasion. Meanwhile, the Islamic Turks continued their slow march to Constantinople. By the fifteenth century, the Turks had penetrated into Eastern Europe. They won key battles at Varna and Kosovo whittling the Byzantine Empire down to the city itself. The massive city walls remained the only thing for the Ottoman Turks to conquer.
The Ottomans began the final assault on April 6, 1453. The Emperor Constantine XI refused to surrender the city to the Muslims and felt secure behind the city walls. However, the Turks brought cannons and used them to slowly demolish Byzantine defenses. The new technology rendered medieval military defense obsolete. Constantinople’s walls fell and the Byzantine Empire, and Middle Ages, collapsed alongside the rubble.
Constantinople’s demise shocked and horrified Europe. Monarchs began searching for new trade routes to India and China while the Papacy considered another crusade to rescue the city. Meanwhile, the Turks immediately made the city their capitol. The Ottoman Empire continued to threaten Europe with Islamic invasion into the late seventeenth century before beginning its own lengthy decline and collapse.
The fall of Constantinople marked the end of the Roman Empire. While the western half ceased to exist in 476, the eastern portion continued for another 1,000 years. The collapse took centuries to complete. It began in 1076 at Manzikert, continued with the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and completed with the Muslim conquest in 1453.