The Eastern Roman Empire fell just 39 years before Columbus sailed to America.

  • Byzantine emperor troops
Byzantine emperor troops
Credit: Nastasic/ iStock

We tend to think of the Roman Empire as an entirely ancient time period. Yet while the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century CE, leaving it firmly in the ancient world, the eastern half of the empire kept going for another millennium — as late as 1453. Emperor Diocletian divided Rome at the end of the third century BCE, believing the empire had become too big to be ruled by just one monarch. The western half encompassed Europe and Northern Africa, and the eastern half covered the Middle East. As the west faltered, the east stayed strong, largely thanks to in-demand exports such as spices. In 395 CE, the Eastern Roman Empire split off entirely, and it eventually even took back some former Western Roman territory.

Historians often refer to the Eastern Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire, but that term wasn’t used until after it fell; the citizens of the empire still thought of themselves as Romaioi, or Romans. The capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul in modern-day Turkey), named after Emperor Constantine I. As Constantine was the first Christian emperor of Rome, the Byzantines adopted Christianity as the state religion. But they also embraced their heritage from ancient Greece, and in the seventh century CE, Greek replaced Latin as the empire’s official language. 

In the 11th century CE, the Byzantine Empire faced escalating threats from both sides — the Crusades caused tension with Western Europe, and the Turks destabilized Anatolia, the point where Asia meets Europe. The empire fell in 1453 when Ottoman Turks breached the walls of Constantinople after a 55-day siege, toppling the last vestiges of the long-powerful Roman Empire. By then, Europe was in the early stages of the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. Christopher Columbus set sail to the Americas in 1492, just 39 years later.

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