Are We the Byzantines?

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

When Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, the Byzantine Empire and its capital had survived for 1,000 years beyond the fall of the Western Empire at Rome.

Always outnumbered in a sea of enemies, the Byzantines’ survival had depended on its realist diplomacy of dividing its enemies, avoiding military quagmires, and ensuring constant deterrence.

Generations of self-sacrifice ensured ample investment for infrastructure. Each generation inherited and improved on singular aqueducts and cisterns, sewer systems, and the most complex and formidable city fortifications in the world.

Brilliant scientific advancement and engineering gave the empire advantages like swift galleys and flame throwers—an ancient precursor to napalm.

The law reigned supreme for nearly a millennium after the emperor Justinian codified a prior thousand years of Roman jurisprudence.

Yet this millennium-old crown jewel of the ancient world that once was home to 800,000 citizens had only 50,000 inhabitants left when it fell.

There were only 7,000 defenders on the walls to hold back a huge Turkish army of over 150,000 attackers.

The Islamic winners took over the once magical city of Constantine and renamed it Istanbul. It had been the home of the renowned Santa Sophia, the largest Christian church in the world for over 900 years. Almost immediately, this “Church of the Holy Wisdom” was converted into the then largest mosque in the Islamic world, with minarets to follow.

So what happened to the once indomitable city fortress and its empire?

Christendom had cannibalized itself. Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy fought endlessly. Westerners often hated each other more than they did their common enemy.

In the final days of Constantinople, almost no help was sent from Western Europe to the besieged city.

In fact, 250 years earlier, the Western Franks of the Fourth Crusade had detoured from the Holy Land to storm the supposedly allied Christian City of Constantinople.

Then they ransacked the city and hijacked the Byzantine Empire for a half-century. Constantinople never quite recovered.

The 14 th-century Black Plague killed tens of thousands of Byzantines and scared thousands more into moving out of the cramped city.

But the aging and dying empire battled more than the challenges of internal divisions, or an unforeseen but deadly pandemic and the empire’s disastrous responses to it.

The last generations of Byzantines had inherited a global reputation and standard of living that they themselves no longer earned.

They neglected their former civic values and fought endless battles over obscure religious texts, doctrines, and vocabulary.

They did not expand their anemic army and navy. They did not reunite their scattered Greek-speaking empire. They did not properly maintain their once life-giving walls.

Instead of earning money through their accustomed nonstop trade, they inflated their currency and were forced to melt down the city’s inherited gold and silver fixtures.

The once canny and shrewd Byzantines grew smug and naïve. Childlessness became common. Most now preferred to live outside of what had become a half-empty, often dirty, and poorly maintained city.

Meanwhile they underestimated the growing power of the Ottomans who systematically pruned away their empire. By the mid-15th century Islamic armies were ready to exploit fatal Byzantine weaknesses.

The Sultan Mehmed II grandly announced the Ottomans were now the real, the only world power. Ascendent Ottoman armies would eventually move on to the very gates of Vienna in an effort to rule all the lands of the ancient Roman empire.

We should take heed from the last generations of the Byzantines.

Nowhere is it foreordained that America has a birthright to remain the world’s preeminent civilization.

An ascendent China seems eerily similar to the Ottomans. Beijing believes that the United States is decadent, undeserving of its affluence, living beyond its means on the fumes of the past—and very soon vulnerable enough to challenge openly.

Left and Right seem to hate each other more than they do their common enemies.

Like the Byzantines, Americans gave up defending their own borders, and simply shrugged as millions overran them as they pleased.

Our once iconic downtowns, like end-stage Constantinople before the fall, are now dirty, half-deserted, dangerous, and dysfunctional.

America prints rather than makes money, as its banks totter near bankruptcy.

Americans similarly believe they are invincible without ensuring in reality that they are. Our military is more worried about being woke than deadly.

Like Byzantines, Americans have become snarky iconoclasts, more eager to tear down art and sculpture that they no longer have the talent to create.

Current woke dogma, obscure word fights, and sanctimonious cancel culture are as antithetical to the past generations of World War II as the last generation of Constantinople was to the former great eras of the emperors Constantine, Justinian, Heraclius, and Leo.

The Byzantines never woke up in time to understand what they had become.

So far neither have Americans.


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57 thoughts on “Are We the Byzantines?”

  1. Michael Larkin

    I live in a smaller country in Europe. Have for 4 decades now.

    Here, there is not much woke culture – yet. No BLM-type of corrupted, race-baiting organizations.

    Getting into the university system is thankfully still 100% merit-based. No university has a football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse or tiddlywinks team. Sports are ubiquitous though, just join a club.

    If you are male – to mean a real male (no trans culture going on here – yet) – you have a date with military service for close to a year. And you know what, over 80% support this. You will go back for refresher training a time or two, also. You know how to use weapons, fight smart, survive when most others will die from cold, march in time and honor those who died before you, and they are a lot..

    Every single person who makes money is required to pay at least some tax (often a lot too). No free rides, though substantial public welfare programs – that seem to work.

    There is not one single slum that I have seen in this nation, no one is without a fairly high standard of medical care, public transport systems work incredibly well … no Stonehenges. No litter. Clean.

    Public corruption? The best answer is zero.

    Never mind the country’s name though you might guess it. Will the USA every get back to being this way? It’s as you say Professor Hanson, mighty Byzantine looking to me.

    1. Thomas O'Brien

      Am I missing the point of your post? Your’s is a fictitious country, right? But one within our grasp.

      1. Switzerland is my guess, and deluded is your prognosis. Each family in CH is now on the hook for bailing out the banksters in CSuisse. How do you feel about that?

    2. It seems Tina Turner made a good decision too in her senior years.
      Kind of funny and telling that none of her fans understood why.

  2. Hopefully there will come soft rains and “something” new under the sun – else we will will wither . . .


    Dear Dr. Hanson:
    History does seem to repeat itself. I guess that’s why the elites want it modified and forgotten. Thank you for the reminder!

  4. If the view of the historian is one of looking through a darken glass where his perceptions are never as bright and clear as those who were the observers of history at that moment, then the view of the futurist is that as one looking through a kaleidoscope as the years turn the lens and ever newer patterns emerge and change, our futures never clearly defined. From the past we recognize patterns than may be imperfect from the originals but are nevertheless recognizable. The past tells us what was, the present what is, but the future can only point to what may be possible, the effects of our possible choices. On the one hand we might view ourselves as Rome in the fourth century ready to fall into ruin. One the other hand we may be like the Byzantines whose hard shells have grown soft from their cores having decayed to rotten nothingness. The Romans while destroying their political and economic system at least gained a Christian religion. The Byzantines destroyed not only their political and economic systems but “lost” their Christian religion. Eastern Orthodoxy still exists in many forms today but lacks a central point of order. Catholicism in Rome has become the embodiment of the profane and banal thoughts on man having left anything of spiritual value to whither on the vine. China is not the Ottoman empire, but a country in fast decay from within and has only a few years to live before it breaks part. No, our model is Roman for some ideology may take hold.

  5. I would add that the U.S. is also becoming a lot like late Tokugawa Japan, Yangban Korea and Qing China in the late 18th century and 19th century; Contaminated with bureaucratic authoritarianism after a century of relative peace enforcing formality, regulations and status quo over individual talent, drive and fortitude.

  6. This is one of the most insightful and well-reasoned articles on the subject of the societal decay of the United States of America. There is a saying that “the news is the same, only the names change”. I guess we (the USA) resemble that remark. I wonder if we have gone pass the tipping point. I fear we are well pass the old divisions of politics and are now in the times of the totalitarianism of the globalist. Your 2021 article titled “Is America Becoming Rome Versus Byzantium?” was also well reasoned and insightful. I do wonder if the USA will split into different independent regions or countries. I wrote a turn paper in high school in the late 1960’s about the five countries of the USA. It dealt with the regionalism of each. I got a “C” on the paper. My teacher said it was well researched but was a ludicrous topic for an America history class. I guess “the news is the same, only the names change”.

  7. I see it happening. The greed, selfishness and corruption is continuing to rot society. We see the homeless, Drug addiction & lawlessness in the cities. We see the division caused by the marxists elites who promote racisim, sexulize children and destroy their education to control their minds. The federal government is now controlled by corrupt lunatics. I see the way out is for a revival of Christian principles and God’s help in destroying the current structure of rot in our government agencies and our institutions. We can not fight a real enemy when we have isolated ourselves from each other and have corrupt government officials and politicians in charge.

  8. No, Russia and Eastern Europeans are the modern Byzantines. They’ll last much longer against the hordes by maintaining their cultures. We are the Romans.

    1. The Russians are in terminal demographic decline and the rest of Eastern Europe varies between already heading that way and at the tipping point. Putinism is a fabricated culture forced down from the top and Orbanism is mere populism. There are no modern Byzantines.

  9. Striking parallel. However, our most formidable enemies are not the Chinese or the Russians. They are, instead, an oligarchical conspiracy dedicated to undermine and destroy the moral fiber and faith of our youth, deplete our resources, confiscate our people’s wealth via increased taxation, hyperinflation and outright fraud. They have had an ever increasing stranglehold on our political/ military, economic, pharmaceutical, educational and media sectors. The Russians and the Chinese don’t need to attack us militarily. They’re wisely watching us self destruct.

    1. I don’t know. There isn’t a lot of ease in Sub-Saharan Africa, but those nations don’t seem to be benefiting much from their lack of “otium”.

  10. How did we go broke and decadent with some of the cities grinding into homelessness and poverty?
    Slowly and then all at once due to the politicians in charge changing over.
    The lefty loons pushing to defund the police so rioting and thefts are unpunished.
    California passed a law that shoplifting theft up to $950 is not a crime, so now the feral criminals just ignore the $950 limit.
    *Every instance is the Democrat politicians running the places.* Prove me wrong.
    South Dakota and Florida vs California, or New York, or pick another one.
    Biden and Company’s open border policy is for sure a catastrophe now being spread around the country by the Texas governor as Texas cannot deal with the onslaught of illegals that are rewarded with free nice hotels, free food and free cell phones, and free transportation to the nice living conditions. “That which you subsidize you SHALL get lots more of.”



    Where O Where is the mention of GUNPOWDER in any of this? As the Emperor with representatives and nobility of both the Latin and Greek churches are holding a last ceremony of Vespers in the Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans pour in after blasting them with 5000 cannons using 20 tons of GUNPOWDER. The lesson here is HAVE OVERWHELMING FIREPOWER, not hide behind walls which is what they had done for centuries. How did the Heathen get gunpowder? By being exposed to war with Europeans in the Balkans. They adopted it and even refined the practice of artillery. We must never lead the Oriental or anyone else exceed us in airpower, that’s the lesson to me here.

    There is no such analogy to Ottomans and illegal aliens – illegal aliens run the restaurant industries in democrat cities and dominate construction so they can live like bourgeois liberals. They’ve also become a reliable welfare dependent society second only to blacks in this nation.

    1. The Ottomans had the money to buy Venetian cannons and gunpowder. I knew I was forgetting something… What’s with calling them “Heathen” and “Oriental”? If you want to be degrading, you could at least use a proper slur from the time period like “Mohammedian,” or “Malignant Turk,” or “Circumsized Dogs”. Then they can call you “Tri-Theist Frank,” or “Perfidious Greek”.

  13. Are we the Byzantines? I hope not. We’ll be the People’s Republic of America long before we’ll have to worry about being invaded. Seriously! As a minority, I worry for my offsprings if the Wokester Leftist ever gains absolute power in this land we all love so much.


    “Left and Right seem to hate each other more than they do their common enemies.”

    Well, to clarify, the American Left has more in common with America’s enemies than they have with us conservative Americans.

    The Left wants to continue building a totalitarian State, a soft fascism that controls every aspect of its citizen-subjects’ lives. Conservatives want to return as much as is possible to the constitutional republic the founders created.

    What reconciliation is there?

    And for those who’d say, “Well, on 9/11, we all came together”, I say, no, we didn’t. Leftists just shut up for a while, because they knew they’d get their asses kicked if they shot off their mouths. Eventually, though, they returned with a vengeance.

  15. Hmm. I know Victor’s writing a book with a chapter on Constantinople, but this analysis, though it hits all the bases (culture, economy, population, etc.), still feels about 40 years out of date (as do most of Uictor’s statements on the Late Classical Era, and from Late Antiquity up to 1648). I’ll look forward a year from now to mining the bibliography of this particular chapter. We don’t happen to have a Byzantine scholar in our midst who could weigh in, do we?

    1. Craig Brookins

      Hmm. It appears that you find Victor’s analysis of the Byzantine collapse out of date and lacking in detail. I think you owe it to the readership to provide a factual basis as to why his perspective is obsolete. To declare that Victor is 40 years behind the times presupposes you have better and more relevant information. We will all look forward to mining your scholarly information you offer in response.

  16. Eric Hoffer warned us that the end would come if the intellectuals gained influence. All of this WOKE
    crap seems to come from the universities.

    1. Steven Rowlandson

      Possibly if the wrong type of intellectual is too influential but the real rot gets going when the merchants gain power and money and pleasure become the all consuming passion and truth and morality are given the heave ho. once the money runs out comes the chaos, war and rise of the warriors to restore order.

  17. Rarely do I disagree with you Victor (and I’m very thankful for all you do by the way) but this line here got me to say wait a minute…

    “Like the Byzantines, Americans gave up defending their own borders, and simply shrugged as millions overran them as they pleased.”

    To which I’d alter that and say the Democratic Party rather than Americans because I don’t believe Americans like at all what they see. Sadly, I’d also wager that far too many Democrats and the ever whispy Independents’ have much of an idea on just what that party stands for.

    Be well.

  18. Will Napolean come to rescue us from the chaos of the woke revolution? What would have happened to France had he not grabbed the reins and brought order. Are we so far gone into chaos that someone will either be elected and grab the reins from this runnaway train or we will be overrun and become northern Mexico, where we began.

  19. Charles Carroll

    Unfortunately Dr Hanson is spot-on. The Pope and West shortsidely (?) betrayed their “fellow Christians”. I wish he had called attention to the significant role of Christian Hungary’s cannon in breaching Constantinople’s walls. In all fairness, It should also be pointed out that the Genoese siege expert Giovanni Giustianini gave his life in its defense.

  20. Rarely do I disagree with you Victor (and I’m very thankful for all you do by the way) but this line here got me to say wait a minute…

    “Like the Byzantines, Americans gave up defending their own borders, and simply shrugged as millions overran them as they pleased.”

    To which I’d alter that and say the Democratic Party rather than Americans because I don’t believe Americans like at all what they see. Sadly, I’d also wager that far too many Democrats and the ever whispy Independents’ have much of an idea on just what that party stands for.

    Be well.

    p.s. I logged in to make this comment so if you see it twice my bad. Forgot to log in 😉

  21. What an eerie and frightening comparison. Is there still time to correct course, or is the majority of our citizens under 30 too lazy, bored and disinterested to carry the mantle. Yong Americans that hold values consistent with propagating a strong America seem to be a minority. I don’t think they see what is happening as a threat to them, they have meloncholy attitudes and are happy as long as they can watch Netflix, post on Tik tok and work 4 days a week. I feel bad for then minority of this next generation of Americans who will be betrayed and see the valu s we taught them mean nothing when we simply let the Chinese take over

  22. Your essay is a brilliant telling of historical events and the comparison to today’s societal downfall. We all know it’s coming, perhaps sooner than expected. Thank you for the warning we all should heed.

  23. Once again VDH, your knowledge and analysis of nations and cultures is unmatched. It’s a frightening prospect that seems like a real possibility. I find it frustrating that our fellow countrymen would allow this societal decline. If only more Americans would look at history as a guide to learn from rather than to ignore.

    1. They didn’t lose their faith, they just got massacred or enslaved for it. Uicotor’s eliding a LOT of Byzantine history here to make a point. Oop! Trade routes! Did we also mention that they lost their trade routes due to Portuguese and Spanish exploration? That cost them money for defense and repairs.

  24. Thomas Herring

    As our Diocesan Bishop remarked last year, we are witnessing the Great Falling Away (from Christianity) and the effects of that falling away.

  25. Dan E Blaschak

    As usual the Good Doctor has given a brilliant connection between the past and the present. However, he has missed the corruption of the news media in his analysis of the American Quagmire today. As James Madison reminded us: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.” And as Mr. Franklin also reminded us: “You have a republic if you can keep it.”

  26. At first thought, i was going to say yes. But then Rob’s point seems like a higher probability.
    As a nation, we have grown over-confident, disrespectful, and, concurrently, into soft but loud whiners; not helpful qualities for a nation facing nations that carry humility, very hard work drives, and strong intent on domination.

  27. Dear Professor VDH: Excellent as always. Always impressed how good intentions can be “corrupted” (an overused term, and I would appreciate your interpretation. If one accepts that the crusades were motivated by good intentions (not likely from an Islamic perspective), the Fourth Crusade actually CONQUERED CONSTANTINOPLE because the Venetians demanded payment from the crusaders for the transportation fees. The walls weren’t breached, because a traitor opened a gate. It was the deployment of pioneering giant artillery (operated by European mercenaries) that actually breached the previous impregnable defensive wall. But the are minor details. Your overall thesis about the decay from within is a warning for us today.

  28. Professor Hanson; are there any books that you would recommend concerning the Byzantine Empire and it’s fall? This article points to perhaps the preordained fall of our republic. As it seems that throughout history events mirror eachother in eerily similar ways. I’d love to learn more about it.

  29. I agree with much of what was said about the current state of the Western world and specifically the US but with some caveats. Your analysis of China being ascendant overlooks significant weaknesses with China. Relative freedom from bureaucratic dictatorship? China is definitely not free from that! Also China has misused much of it resources building massive cities that a essentially ghost towns despite its massive population. The birth rate is decreasing and it financial situation isn’t realky much better than the US.

    This is my Canadian perspective on this essentially a vassal of the US arguably stuck between the three remaining big powers China, Russia, & the USA.

  30. A 1000 YEAR CHRISTIAN EMPIRE in Europe that we never learned anything about, not in grade or high school. An esoteric sideline of history taught at institutions of higher learning.

    How did Byzantium last for a millennium which no other empire has matched that I am aware of. Could it be that the Justinian codes of civil law helped the nation to survive and thrive. A certain group was by law excluded from engaging in banking and lending, among other restrictions upon their practices. Practices that where all too familiar to the Byzantines who were also originally Romans with first hand experience of the bondage and ruin of their usury that the Romans were forced by law to endure.


    1. England and France have been around for 1,000 years. Byzantium went through many changes and phases over its own 1,000 year history. Which “certain group” excluded from lending are you referring too? Lending at interest has been the power behind wealth creation since time out of mind. Those political entities that exclude it by the letter of the law have had complex ways to do it under other names. Now, if you’re talking about European Jewry, then the Byzantines stand first and foremost in the long list of persecutors of that great people. Charlemagne settled Jewish refugees fleeing Byzantine persecution in the land the Jews called Ashkenaz and La Belle France prospered.

  31. Jonathan Schwartz

    The left keeps telling us that the Constitution doesn’t relate to modern humans and thus needs to be ‘living and breathing’ and ever malleable to their mercurial and destructive whims. In this brilliant essay, Dr. Hanson once again exposes their superficial emotion-based theological teachings as they push us on to the scrap heap of history. Thank you Dr. Hanson

  32. America will, in fact, be destroyed in my lifetime. I see no coherent or powerful resistance to this foregone conclusion.

    It has taken me several years to admit this to myself. If I am right about this, then we just need to focus on the details of how this will happen. A few questions:

    1. The left media is a major contributor to our eventual demise. Will we alter and limit its negative influence before we self destruct?

    2. Same can be said about academia. When “intellectuals” are allowed to run the country, we are doomed. Happens every time. Will we do anything about that before failing completely?

    3. Will bad actors on the left ever go to jail? If not, then our demise will be accelerated.

    4. Will America split according to political/economic lines? Will there be two Americas, Red and Blue? If so, productive people will flock to the Red side and non-doers, talkers, hand-wavers, most lawyers and welfare recipients will go Blue. If this happens, which America will survive?

    What are we prepared to do? We know it is fruitless to attempt to change a Kool-Aid drinker’s mind. That will never happen. It is beyond logic. The programmers have done their job.

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