What we think of as the Roman Empire lasted from 27 BCE to 476 AD. But the end of the Roman Empire is way more complicated than that, with some putting the official end at 1453, some at 1806, and some – though this is a massive stretch – claim that it was actually World War 1 that finally did the Romans in. Whenever you may think it ended, it makes you think about the complexity of history, and why we are still so obsessed with this long-ago civilization.
One of the big internet memes of the last couple of years is this sudden revelation that apparently men are constantly thinking about the Roman empire.
It’s just like this app that’s constantly running in the background of our brains and we don’t even know it’s there until someone asks, “How much do you think about the Roman empire?” and you realize… to a very weird amount.
It’s like we all got history-ceptioned without knowing it.
But I’ve begun to realize that I actually think about world war one like… way too much.
It’s come up in multiple videos lately the insane amount of change that took place at the turn of the last century. Technological, geopolitical, societal, all the things.
It’s just fascinating to me, but as all this Roman empire stuff started going around, I ran across an idea that kinda shook me up – my fascination with World War one IS a fascination with the Roman Empire.
Because it was World War One that officially ended the Roman Empire. Kind of. From a certain point of view.
At the very least, the Roman Empire lasted way longer than you thought it did so I’m going to talk about that today, and if you weren’t already obsessively thinking about the Roman empire, well… You will be.
An Empire Divided
The Roman Empire as we usually think of it, with the wreaths and the marble statues and bald guys in togas, lasted from 27 BC to 476 AD. But this was nowhere near the end of Rome, as we’ll get to in a minute. But it also wasn’t the beginning.
The Roman Empire was actually the third iteration of Rome. The Roman Empire began with the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE. the Roman Republic formed in 509 BCE at the fall of the Roman Kingdom, which was a series of monarchies that ruled over the city of Rome beginning in 753 BCE. So for about 250 years they had kings, then managed a representative democracy for 500 years and then went back to kings. For another 500 years.
But it is this second monarchical period that we think of as the great height of civilization that everyone has compared themselves to ever since. This is when the empire reached its furthest shores, running the entire Mediterranean including most of Europe and North Africa.
But by the late 200s, things were getting hard to maintain. Considering the communication and transportation technology of the time, it was getting extremely difficult to effectively rule all that land from Rome. So in the year 293, the Emperor Diocletian created the Tetrarchy, which divided up the running of the kingdom between four people – two emperors, called Augustii, and their designated successors, the caeseres.
Yeah, Caesar and Augustus were so beloved that their names became the words you use for King or Ruler. It would be like if we called all presidents “Washingtons”
Anyway, this worked about as well as you would think, leading to endless generals and politicians declaring themselves augustus and waging war against a sitting augustus in a grab for power that… sometimes worked.
But it was Constantine who shook things up by getting rid of the Tetrarchy – and the traditional Roman religion. He converted to Christianity around 312, he was the first Roman emperor to do so.
He also built an imperial palace in the formerly Greek city of Byzantion on the Bosphorus Strait. From there he could control the flow of goods between the Black sea and Mediterranean sea, which made it a strategic location to manage the Eastern half of the empire. And he liked the idea so much he renamed the city after himself, Constantinople.
And from here on out, you had two different major seats of power in the Roman empire, one that spoke Latin and one that spoke Greek, both being led by different Co-emperors… I mean a split was inevitable.
And that’s exactly what happened in 395 AD, with the death of Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius had two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from Constantinople, and Honorius ruled the Western Roman Empire from, obviously… Milan.
Yeah, the city of Rome was in such bad shape that they moved the capital to Milan in 286 – they called it Mediolanum back then. It moved back later, but kind of shifted around a bit. It’s complicated.
The Fall of the West
Really, everything was messy in the West after 395. So messy, the Western Roman Empire wouldn’t last another 100 years.
They were constantly under attack by various “barbarian” Gothic tribes, the Visigoths, the Ostragoths, not to mention the Vandals and Lombards and Attila the Hun. By 476, after crisis after crisis, the last Emperor of the West was deposed when the capital of Rome was captured. The capital being neither Rome or Milan, it was Ravenna at this point.
And this is where most history books will tell you that the Roman Empire fell. And yes, the city of Rome was in ruins. But… what about those guys in the East?
Today we call this left-over Greek-speaking part of the empire the Byzantine Empire. Obviously after the original name of Constantinople. But that’s not what they called themselves.
The term “Byzantines” didn’t come up until way, way later, in the 15th century, first used by a Greek historian named (Lon-ick-os Chalk-o-CON-dill-es) Laonikos Chalkokondyles. It was further popularized by the German historian Hieronymous Wolf. But this was well after the fact. The “Byzantines” themselves? They called themselves Romans.
They believed they were the unbroken continuation of the Roman Empire. Hearing that the Roman Empire had fallen would be very confusing to them.
In fact, they tried to put the empire back together again under Justinian the first. They successfully recaptured the peninsula from the Ostrogoths in the Gothic War and even reclaimed land in Europe and North Africa for a short time.
And though that didn’t last, the government in Constantinople saw themselves as the protectors of Rome for hundreds of years, not just geographically, but culturally and historically.
So they weren’t exactly thrilled when Pope Leo the Third named a new Emperor in the West in the year 800. King Charles the first of the Franks had protected the pope against the Lombards so in return the pope named him the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles the first became known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne.
Two empires, both claiming to be the legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire, who both lasted twice as long as the Roman Empire that they were always comparing themselves to. But the Eastern Empire was really more of an “Empire” than the sloppy mess in the west, and it was an unbroken line; the caesares in Constantinople could trace their lineage directly back to the classic Roman emperors.
And while the empire shrank over time and changed demographically and socially, they did all consider themselves Romans… And then the Ottomans came.
Enter the Ottomans
It was the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 that was the final nail in the Eastern Roman Empire. And it marked the beginning of the age of the Ottoman Empire.
Actually, the Ottomans started kicking around a hundred years before that. They hailed from Anatolia, home of the Biblical Hittites, and their name comes from their founder, Osman I, who was ethnically Turkic, so they were called Ottoman Turks.
They had been growing in power in the region for decades as the Eastern Romans faded from glory. It was Osman’s great-great-great-great grandson, Mehmed II, who decided Constantinople was ripe for the taking and finished the job.
So if the Eastern Roman Empire fell in 1453, and the Holy Roman Empire fell in 1806… Why did I suggest it was World War One that actually did it? From a certain point of view?
I mean… Did the Ottomans think of themselves as Romans? Was the Ottoman Empire basically just a Muslim version of the Eastern Roman Empire?
Let me just spoil the answer right now, no, it was not, the Ottoman Empire was its own thing. They were a different ethnicity, different language, different religion, and they already existed as their own civilization before they took over the Byzantines. They weren’t a logical evolution of what was already there, they were an outside group that came in and conquered fair and square.
By the way now might be a good time to shout out the Premodernist here on YouTube, he has a couple of very good videos on this question of whether the Ottomans were Romans and it was a huge inspiration for this video. I’m pretty sure if he’s watching he’s cringed a couple of times because he’s very against the premise of this whole video but I’ll get to the right place, I promise! Anyway, if you haven’t checked out the Premodernist, definitely go do so, he has an awesome channel. And I’ll put links to his videos below.
Caesars of Rum
Here’s the thing though. If the Ottomans really were clearly not Romans, there’s at least one guy who didn’t get that memo… And that’s Mehmet the second.
After conquering Constantinople, Mehmet took to calling himself kayser-i Rûm, which literally means Caesar of Rome.
By the way, the German word kaiser is also an interpretation of the word caesar. Seriously, it’s everywhere.
But yeah, many of the early sultans followed his lead, they called themselves the “leaders of Romans.” They were also sometimes called basileus, which is a Greek word for emperor that was used before they took over.
They considered themselves “leaders of Romans” because the land they were ruling was called Romanía. Not to be confused with modern day Romania but it was Rome. It had been Rome for hundreds of years, the people who lived there lived in Rome. They were Romans. And the Ottomans were ruling over them.
Like many conquerers throughout history, when the Ottomans took over, they adopted many of the customs of the people they conquered. They changed a lot of rules but for the most part let people be culturally who they were. People go along with things a little better if you let them keep their culture.
That culture obviously changed over time so 450 years later when we get to World War one, the number of Ottomans that thought of themselves as Romans were vanishingly small.
But still there are people who make this argument, that because the Ottomans inherited the Roman Empire, they were an extension of it. Hell some even make the argument that it’s racist not to consider them Romans because they were a different skin color and this is European gatekeeping.
I for one will always defer to the consensus of the experts and as of right now anyway, most experts on Roman history believe that the Eastern Roman Empire effectively ended with the fall of Constantinople. With the exception of a few small areas that lingered on for a few decades. But there’s one more argument though that’s pretty good.
When the Holy Roman Empire fell in 1806 – to Napoleon, actually – it splintered into dozens of various kingdoms and dynasties, eventually coalescing into the German Empire in 1871 under the Emperor Wilhelm the first. So the Holy Roman Empire ended… but it just spawned another empire.
Just to put a bow on that point, Wilhelm the first is also known as Kaiser Wilhelm the First. Kaiser… Caesar.
And in the east, whether or not you think Ottomans were Romans, they did continue that monarchical rule that the Romans had. One empire giving way to another empire. And they continued that way… Right up to World War One.
The Ottoman Peak
The Ottomans peaked in the mid 1500s during the reign of a sultan who was so great, Great was an insult, so they called him Suleiman the Magnificent.
If you know anything about the Crusades, you know Suleiman. He was the besieger of Rhodes, who sent the Knights Hospitaller packing after 200 years. During his life, he captured so much territory, the Ottoman Empire looked a lot like the East at its peak.
The Slow Decline
Suleiman’s death began a long slide downhill. By the late 1600s, the most distant territory had been lost or turned into vassal states.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, the Ottoman Empire existed, but it had been shoved out of Africa and much of Europe, being confined to modern Turkey and the Middle East.
Still, it was an empire, ruled absolutely by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. But like many places in the world, the tide was turning, and democratic movements were thriving.
A group called the Young Ottomans pushed through the Constitution of 1876 that would give more power to the lower House of Deputies, which was popularly elected. That only lasted for a couple of years though so at the turn of the century, a new, more militant group had formed called the Young Turks, and they were going for an all-out revolution.
They held meetings in secret, and by 1908 had found powerful allies in the military. Those allies mutinied, and they were able to force the Sultan to reinstate the 1876 Constitution.
Five years later, internal disputes lead to a series of violent coups that brought to power a radicalized faction of the Young Turks called the Committee for Union and Progress.
While all this was happening, the Ottoman Empire was experiencing devastating losses in the Italo-Turkish War, which lost them almost all of their land in Northern Africa, and the Balkan War that lost all their holdings in Europe.
Their empire was hanging on by a thread and nationalistic forces surged in popularity as they clung to their identity as a relevant empire. And they had one last chance to prove that in June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Europe plunged itself into World War One.
The Ottoman Empire officially entered the war in October of that year, siding with the Central Powers, which included the German Empire.
So… If you’ve been paying attention… The descendants of the Holy Roman Empire in the west… And the descendants of the Eastern Roman Empire… Came together one more time, the grandchildren of the great Roman Empire together again; reunited in the war to end all wars… And got their asses kicked.
After losing the war, the Ottoman empire was partitioned and the current nation of Turkey was created in 1922, which marked the official end of the Ottoman Empire, and if you ever wondered exactly how people react when their empire of 500 years is falling apart around them, the answer is… It gets ugly.
The Ottoman Empire had always had various minority Christian populations living in their borders – as I said before, the early Sultans were actually quite tolerant of people they were taking over in the beginning. But when the walls came crashing down, and people started looking for someone to blame, well… they had a nice little scapegoat.
Waves of violence directed by the CUP broke out toward Christian Greeks, Assyrians, and especially Armenians.
Armenians were Russian Orthodox Christians and had long-standing cultural ties to Russia, who was on the other side of the war, so it was easy to accuse them of siding with the Russians or even spying for them.
This fear, paranoia, and xenophobia spiraled into one of the most horrific genocides in the history of the world. It was called the Armenian Genocide and by the time it was over, up to 1.2 million Armenians had been murdered.
It was in a very real way the first genocide because the word genocide was first used to describe what happened to the Armenians. Genocide did not exist as a concept until it happened to the Armenians during the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
That, by the way, is a dark and sad and important story that deserves a video of its own. So, I did one. And you can watch it over on Nebula.
Over on Nebula
Why on Nebula? Because this story has a lot of murder and torture and rape and drowning and starvation and infanticide and about a hundred other things that YouTube won’t let me say without age-restricting and throttling the video. And I don’t want to sugar-coat it.
It’s actually part of a whole series of videos called Forgotten Atrocities, where I talk about some of the worst moments of human history and how they got swept under the rug and forgotten. And the Armenian Genocide is the perfect example of that because the Turkish government is still refusing to acknowledge that it happened, 100 years later.
But yeah, it’s a crazy story, you can see it over on Nebula, where you can also see my Mysteries of the Human Body series, you can see all my videos ad-free and with extra content. And early. You can see next week’s video right now on Nebula.
So yeah, let’s just do this, Nebula is the streaming service built by creators like and including myself. It’s a place where we can do the kind of projects we really care about outside of the limitations of YouTube.
Like I get asked all the time what’s the best way to support the channel and honestly, it’s to patronize the sponsors because you actually get something – something cool, the sponsor gets paid, I get paid, it’s a win-win-win.
But that’s especially true with Nebula because you get all that extra stuff that I talked about with my channel and over a hundred of the top educational channels on YouTube. Plus you get Nebula classes where you can learn skills from those same creators, and there’s all kinds of exclusive stuff you can’t see anywhere else
And that’s what’s exciting for me as a creator on Nebula, not only are they getting into some ambitious like feature films, which… I’m working on something… but it’s a distribution platform that we get to control, that we own. Look, YouTube’s been good to me, but it’s a little nerve-wracking to have all my eggs in one basket. Especially when that basket relies on an algorithm that makes decisions nobody understands and can change priorities at the drop of a hat.
So, subscribing to Nebula makes that happen so if you go to nebula.tv/joescott and sign up for the annual plan you’ll get 40% off, that comes out to about $2.50 a month. It’s a crazy deal really.
And I think if you just want to check it out, you can watch one video for free. So you can go see the Armenian Genocide video, which fills in some holes in this one actually, so yeah, go watch it.
The Definite End
So World War One had ended and with it the world was forever changed. Six different long-standing monarchies fell during the first world war, and two of them were the last, final, mutated dregs of the great Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire was finally, completely, dead and buried. And nobody would ever try to revive it again until immediately after that.
Because of course the Nazis claimed that the Third Reich was the rightful heir of the Roman Empire, they adopted the Roman salute, said it would last 1000 years, and by the way the first of the three Reichs was the Holy Roman Empire. They appropriated tons of Roman culture as part of their lore.
Thankfully their prediction that they would last 1000 years was off by about 985 years.
And now we find ourselves today – for some reason – thinking a lot about the Romans. The Roman empire seems to be everywhere.
Everywhere. What is it about this relatively short period of history that we’ve been chasing for two millennia? Was it their literature and philosophers? Was it their engineering brilliance? Was it just that they spread themselves so far and wide that they just influenced the majority of the Western World… Which is now a dominant force in global culture?
Or maybe all the instability of the world today has us thinking about a previous most powerful civilization that collapsed. People do tend to gravitate toward autocrats in anxious times.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. And it didn’t fall in a day either. It fell multiple times in multiple ways over multiple centuries. It also existed in multiple forms. What “Rome” is and when it ended depends on why you care about Rome to begin with. And if you like that closing line, you really should go check out the Premodernist because he literally sent that to me in a message when I reached out to him. So I just stole it. Seriously, his videos are linked down below; go watch them, he’s great.