Roman Empire Ended in 1461

The fall of the Roman Empire might not exactly be breaking news, but it can be a relief to take a break from following the US presidential debates and consider history for a while. Everyone knows that the Western Roman Empire formally ended in 476 and that the Eastern Roman Empire was finally conquered in 1453. Or was it?

While Constantinople duly fell to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, the Empire of Tebizond lasted for eight more years. Trebizond was one of the successor states of the Byzantine Empire after the previous fall of Constantinople to crusaders in 1204. It was founded by Alexios Komnenos, last male descendant of deposed Byzantine Emperor  Andronikos I Komnenos. It’s rulers claimed to be the rightful heirs of Rome and had as their symbol the two-headed eagle.

Situated on both the northern and southern shores of the Black sea, Tebizond was finally subdued by Mehmet II in 1461. The month long siege can se seen as the final stand of the Romans. Nevertheless, a final holdout, the Principality of Theodoro on the Crimean Peninsula, lasted until 1475. Perhaps the Eastern Roman Empire, much like its western counterpart, can be said to have gone out with more of a whimper than a bang. The fate of modern day empires remains to be seen.

Björk’s Salmon Inspires Viking Film

Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgaard and Willem Dafoe are among the actors in the eagerly awaited Viking epic The Northman. The idea for the film, which is apparently about a Viking prince seeking revenge in Iceland, can be traced to a dinner party that Björk held some years ago. Director Robert Eggers and his wife were on a trip to Iceland and, like anyone would, expressed interested in meeting Björk. Unlike most people, however, they were summarily invited for salmon at the Björk residence, even if they had never met before. Björk also invited her friend and sometime collaborator Sjón to the dinner. It turned out Sjón was a big fan of Eggers debut film The Witch, and Eggers was similarly a fan of Sjón’s 2008 novel In the Mouth of the Whale. Both, as it happens, are about 17th century belief in magic, where the supernatural is ingrained in the world view of the characters. This led to the two collaborating on the screenplay for the upcoming film where, as previously mentioned, Björk will play the role of a Slavic witch. This marks the songstress’ first foray into acting since Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark from 2000, and one of few examples of Vikings interacting with Slavs on the big screen. In an interview with Icelandic National Radio, Sjón said he would rather fail to do a Viking film with Eggers than anyone else. The film will no doubt attempt to capture the Viking mindset in a manner not previously seen.

You can hear the interview here, where Sjón also talks about the movement of myths from east to west, from Asia to Europe, in the past 8000 years (Icelandic only).

Viking Societies Were Cultural and Genetic Melting Pots

Peer-reviewed journal Nature has published an article by a team of researchers who have been mapping Viking DNA by examining the remains of 442 people from burial sites all over Europe. It probably comes as little surprise that Norwegian ancestry is found in Iceland, Greenland and Ireland, Danish in England and Swedish in Eastern Europe, Swedish DNA having been traced to the present day Baltic States, Russia and Poland. However, the study also shows that there was a considerable influx of people from southern Europe and even Asia into Scandinavia. This is in line with recent discoveries of objects from far afield found in Nordic excavations. It seems that rather than Vikings emanating from Scandinavia and setting off to conquer, all blond and blue eyed, they may have been a very mixed group, with Picts from Scotland found to have been accorded full Viking burials. The popular conception of what Vikings supposedly looked like is up for re-evaluation, but some researchers point out that as the study only looks at the Viking Age (ca. 750-1050), we don’t as yet know how far back this cultural melting pot goes. The solution would seem to be to dig deeper.

A short podcast discussing the findings with scholars from Norway and Denmark can be found here:

The full article is available here:

International Byzantine Studies Congress Moves From Istanbul to Venice

Much like the Triumphal Quadriga above the porch of St. Marks Basilica in the 13th Century, the 24th International Byzantine Studies Congress has been moved from Constantinople to Venice. The International Association of Byzantine Studies website has announced that the 2021 Congress has been postponed until 2022 and will now take place in Venice and Padua, Italy. The congress was originally to take place in Istanbul in 2021.

The Turkish Duvar Gazette states that while the reason for the postponement was Covid related, the reason for relocating the congress was not. Rather, it was a response to the Turkish government converting the famous Hagia Sophia Byzantine church from museum to mosque. The congress committee quotes Covid as well as “other concerns associated with issues of heritage management” as cause for the move.

The congress has been held every five years since 1948 and over 1000 scholars were expected to attend the 2021 congress. They will now be meeting a year later with the Bronze Horses of Venice instead of the Hagia Sophia as backdrop, with the precise date yet to be announced.

For the International Association of Byzantine Studies website, see:

For the Duvar website, see:

Varangians Could Only Visit Constantinople in Small Groups

At the end of August, Turkish news sources announced that the remains of a Varangian settlement had been discovered outside Istanbul. This is not the first hard evidence of Northmen in what was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the most famous being the runes found inscribed on the walls of the Hagia Sophia itself. But it may tell us a lot more about their activities there.

The team doing the dig consisted of 75 archaeologists led by the Turkish Şengül Aydıngün and including the Polish Viking expert Blazei Stanislawski. The site is in the the ancient city of Bathonea near Lake Küçükçekmece, and findings date from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Bathonea was an international port at the time and among the objects found are a north European ambergris cross and a necklace bearing the symbol of Jörmundgandur, the Midgard Serpent.

Among the theories prompted by the discovery are that the Varangians were not allowed to live within the walls of Constantinople at the time, but could only enter in groups of 35 men at the most and had to be gone by sundown. It seems that fear of the Northmen encouraged social distancing long before our era.

For the news story in Hurriyet Daily news, see: