If you only know one fact about the Roman Empire, it’s that it declined and fell. If you know another, it’s that the Roman Empire gave way to the Europe we know today — in the fullness of time, at least. A good deal of history lies between our twenty-first century and the fall of Rome, which in any case wouldn’t have seemed like such a decisive break when it happened. “Most history books will tell you that the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century CE,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. “This would’ve come as a great surprise to the millions of people who lived in the Roman Empire up through the Middle Ages.”
This medieval Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, began in the year 330. “That’s when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to a new city called Constantinople, which he founded on the site of the ancient Greek city Byzantium.” Not only did Constantinople survive the barbarian invasions of the Empire’s western provinces, it remained the seat of power for eleven centuries.
It thus remained a preserve of Roman civilization, astonishing visitors with its art, architecture, dress, law, and intellectual enterprises. Alas, many of those glories perished in the early thirteenth century, when the city was torched by the disgruntled army of deposed ruler Alexios Angelos.
Among the surviving structures was the jewel in Constantinople’s crown Hagia Sophia, about which you can learn more about it in the Ted-ED lesson just above. The long continuity of the holy building’s location belies its own troubled history: first built in the fourth century, it was destroyed in a riot not long thereafter, then rebuilt in 415 and destroyed again when more riots broke out in 532. But just five years later, it was replaced by the Hagia Sophia we know today, which has since been a Byzantine Christian cathedral, a Latin Catholic cathedral, a mosque, a museum (at the behest of secular reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), and most recently a mosque again. The Byzantine Empire may be long gone, but the end of the story told by Hagia Sophia is nowhere in sight.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.