The Mediterranean region was home to several of the most powerful empires in history. In this lesson, we’ll look at three of them and see where they came from – and why they fell.
The Mediterranean Empires
Maybe it’s the easy access to trade routes, maybe it’s the abundance of natural resources, or maybe it’s just the abundance of wine, but for whatever reason the Mediterranean region has continuously been the focal point of many different imperial pursuits.
Across time, at least three of the world’s greatest empires built their power around the Mediterranean Sea. The Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, and Ottoman Empire each dominated what they called the ‘known world,’ indicating that to them the Mediterranean region was basically all that mattered. Maybe they just appreciated the climate. Whatever it was, they loved the Mediterranean.
We’ll take a look at each of these empires, their rises and then their falls. Let’s get started.
The Roman Empire
The first of the great Mediterranean Empires is that of ancient Rome.
The Roman Empire ran from roughly 27 BCE – 476 CE, and in that time expanded to over a million square miles. They were one of the first truly great military machines.
For nearly 500 years, the city of Rome was a republic, governed by its Senate. However, over time they started expanding their power beyond Rome and eventually fell into a series of civil wars. In the first century BCE, the Senate appointed Julius Caesar dictator of Rome, which Caesar managed to get reworked to be dictator for life.
Unfortunately that wasn’t very long, and Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. In the resulting wars that ensued, Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian, defeated the other political factions and re-stabilized Rome. In 27 BCE the Senate voted to give Octavian virtually unlimited power under the imperial title Augustus. This was the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
For roughly 400 years, the Roman Empire grew and stretched across Europe, although it steadily became more unstable. In 293 CE, Rome created a tetrarchy, a government ruled by four leaders, not just one. This stabilized Rome for a bit, but it also fell apart, resulting in a splitting of the Empire between East and West.
Ultimately, the ruler of eastern Rome, Constantine, reunified Rome under his control, but that wouldn’t last either. Rome was stretched too thin to maintain control over its vast empire, and politics kept turning into coups as various people vied for power. In the early 5th century, Rome was attacked first by the Germanic Visigoths and then later by Germanic Vandals. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustulus was overthrown by the military, which is traditionally seen as the end of the true Roman Empire.
The Byzantine Empire
The true Roman Empire fell in 476 BCE.
But what happened to the eastern Roman Empire? It lived on and became a new power, called the Byzantine Empire.
As Rome was dividing in the 3rd and 4th centuries, the man who briefly united them was the emperor Constantine. Not only did Constantine convert the empire to Christianity, he also formally moved the capital from Rome to the Greek city Byzantium in modern-day Turkey. It was renamed Constantinople in his honor. In 395 CE, the Roman Empire divided into East and West factions again.
They ruled the Mediterranean together, until Rome fell in 476 CE, leaving Constantinople as the last imperial city. In this time, they were renamed the Byzantine Empire. The first real rise in Byzantine power, however, was in 526 CE, when the emperor Justinian rose to power in Constantinople and started a conquest that would stretch across the Mediterranean, recapturing most of the formal Roman Empire.
The Byzantine Empire lasted for almost a millennium as the dominant Christian power in the world. However, it was actually their role in preserving Christian power that eventually led to their decline. In 1054 CE, in what is remembered as the Great Schism, the Roman Catholic Church of Italy and Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople formally split, pitting many European kingdoms against the Byzantines. Throughout the 13th century, Constantinople found itself in the middle of the Crusades and was invaded by both European Catholic armies and Middle Eastern Islamic ones.
Finally, Constantinople was attacked in the 15th century by a new power, a powerful Islamic state called the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453 CE, renaming it Istanbul and putting an end to the Byzantine Empire.
The Ottoman Empire
Reaching over 2 million square miles, the Ottoman Empire grew from a series of Turkish tribes into one of the dominant powers in the world and a leading Islamic empire for centuries.
The Ottoman Empire started as a series of Turkish tribes, most of whom were waging war against the expansive Byzantine Empire in the Anatolian Peninsula. One of these Turkish states was ruled by Osman I. In 1299 CE, he organized his state, and others, into a formal empire.
His heirs expanded the Ottoman Empire into the Balkans, and then turned their attention to Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire, led by Mehmed the Conqueror, defeated Constantinople in 1453, removing their largest enemy and opening the way for nearly unlimited expansion.
For the next several centuries, the Ottoman Empire expanded its borders, remaining one of the dominant world powers all the way into the 19th century. In the 1800s, the Empire was starting to decline and began attempting to modernize in order to compete with powerful economic and imperial powers like Britain and France. Unfortunately, the costs of modernization, coupled with the costs of major wars and internal uprisings in areas such as the Balkans during the 19th century, bankrupted the Ottoman Empire, which had to be bailed out by European banks. Then, after World War I, Istanbul was formally occupied by British, French, and Italian forces. This prompted young Turkish nationals to organize, who in 1919 started the Turkish War of Independence under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The result was the abolishment of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and the founding of the Republic of Turkey.
We’ve just covered thousands of years of history with three different empires, so let’s take a few moments recap what we’ve learned. The Mediterranean region has been home to some of history’s most powerful empires. The Roman Empire, which lasted from 27 BCE – 476 CE, began when the Roman Senate appointed Julius Caesar dictator of Rome.
After he was assassinated, the empire rose when Octavian was renamed Augustus by the Senate. Rome was never fully stable and experimented with concepts like forming the government into a tetrarchy, a government ruled by four leaders, not just one, and managed to reunite one last time under Constantine. But in the late 5th century, the empire collapsed.The Roman Empire fell into factions and was replaced by the Byzantine Empire which lasted from 476 CE – 1453 CE. The Byzantine Empire was originally the eastern part of the Roman Empire but broke off and became the dominant Christian power after the fall of Rome, which put it at odds with other powers – especially after the Great Schism, when the Roman Catholic Church of Italy and Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople formally split.
One of these different powers was the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 CE – 1923 CE. Founded by Turkish tribes against the Byzantine control of Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire rose to be the dominant Islamic power in the world, capturing Constantinople and spreading across the Mediterranean. They eventually were bankrupted by wars and the cost of modernization in the 19th century and were occupied by European powers before being dissolved by the emerging Republic of Turkey, after the Turkish War of Independence lead by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.