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Defining the Middle Ages

Part 3: Empires


Once, when political history defined the boundaries of the past, the date span of 476 to 1453 was generally considered the time frame of the medieval era. The reason: each date marked the fall of an empire.

In 476 C.E., the Western Roman Empire "officially" came to an end when the Germanic warrior Odoacer deposed and exiled the last emperor, Romulus Augustus. Instead of taking the title of emperor or acknowledging anyone else as such, Odoacer chose the title "King of Italy," and the western empire was no more.

This event is no longer considered the definitive end of the Roman empire. In fact, whether Rome fell, dissolved, or evolved is still a matter for debate. Although at its height the empire spanned territory from Britain to Egypt, even at its most expansive the Roman bureacracy neither encompassed nor controlled most of what was to become Europe. These lands, some of which were virgin territory, would be occupied by peoples that the Romans considered "barbarians," and their genetic and cultural descendants would have just as much impact on the formation of western civilization as the survivors of Rome.

The study of the Roman Empire is important in understanding medieval Europe, but even if the date of its "fall" could be irrefutably determined, its status as a defining factor no longer holds the influence it once had.

In 1453 C.E., the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end when its captial city of Constantinople fell to invading Turks. Unlike the western terminus, this date is not contested, even though the Byzantine Empire had shrunk through the centuries and, at the time of the fall of Constantinople, had consisted of little more than the great city itself for more than two hundred years.

However, as significant as Byzantium is to medieval studies, to view it as a defining factor is misleading. At its height the eastern empire encompassed even less of present-day Europe than had the western empire. Furthermore, while Byzantine civilization influenced the course of western culture and politics, the empire remained quite deliberately separate from the tumultuous, unstable, dynamic societies that grew, foundered, merged and warred in the west.

The choice of Empires as a defining characteristic of medieval studies has one other significant flaw: throughout the course of the Middle Ages, no true empire encompassed a significant portion of Europe for any substantial length of time. Charlemagne succeeded in uniting large portions of modern-day France and Germany, but the nation he built broke into factions only two generations after his death. The Holy Roman Empire has been called neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, and its emperors certainly did not have the kind of control over its lands that Charlemagne achieved.

Yet the fall of empires lingers in our perception of the Middle Ages. One cannot help but notice how close the dates 476 and 1453 are to 500 and 1500.

Next page: Part 4: Christendom


Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice

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