Edited by Sam Thielman
The winged multitude warbled and flitted around beneath the fresh living
roof of the interlacing branches of the all-overarching tree; and every
leaf of that tree was in shape like unto a scimitar.
Suddenly there arose a mighty wind, and turned the points of the sword-
leaves towards the various cities of the world, but especially towards
– Osman's Dream
I SAW ROME FOR THE FIRST TIME last year, and it was as awe-inspiring as I had hoped. I had the best possible guide in my close friend Adam Serwer, who speaks Italian and knows Rome as well as any non-local can. I saw the Pantheon, walked through the ruins of the Forum, climbed the Spanish Steps, watched a red moon rise above the Olimpico as Roma pulled out a win, and crossed the Tiber at dusk. How could you not feel awe, walking through something like 23 centuries of history?
But hear me out: Constantinople/Istanbul.
I get it. As the United States feels like it's coming unglued, we're all constantly thinking about Rome. The Rome, Rome-Rome, the city on the Italian peninsula that treks a civilizational cursus honorum from petty kingdom to oligarchic republic to Mediterranean hegemon to civil fracture to formal empire astride the Mediterranean world to third-century crisis, stabilization, administrative fragmentation and ultimate collapse wrought by foreign invasion. Rome's mark on three continents is indelible. Its centuries of lessons about social organization, internal reform, institutional capture, political decay, and war are irresistable, varied and contested. I heard echoes of the Catiline Conspiracy in the January 6 insurrection. And for those who want to gender Rome-think as a Thing Men Do, meet Mary Beard.
It's not that you shouldn't be thinking of Rome-Rome. Of course you should—my headline is just ragebait. My point is that you're denying yourself some primo Romeness if you think of the Roman Empire as something that ends in 476 AD.
For the next thousand years, minus some Latin-era dismemberment in the thirteenth century, the glories, infamies and spectacles of Rome continue in Constantinople. No one who lived during what we now call "the Byzantine Empire" thought of themselves as Byzantines. They thought of themselves as Romans. They were part of a historical lineage that withstood a long process of transformation that replaced paganism with Christianity, Latin with Greek and, of course, Rome with Constantinople.
Everything you like about Rome—the operatic allegories for contemporary corruption; the insane stories about how the empire operated; the psychopaths who made it the way it was—is amplified in Constantinople. Justinian and Theodora are one of the greatest political romances in history – him a peasant with an uncle on the make, her an actress/sex worker. With Belisarius, who I can only imagine is their third, and whose martial reputation really should be up there with Scipio, they briefly reconquer Italy and most of the fallen Western Roman Empire. The late antiquity/early-medieval equivalent of soccer firms, the rival Blues and Greens chariot-racing clubs, burned the city to the ground in 532. Empress Irene blinded her own son to get sole possession of the throne, and there would be so many more political mutilations to come. Possibly the foulest Roman ever to have lived is Andronikos Komnenos and let's leave it there. When the city falls in 1204 to the Crusades that it sparked, the blind Doge of Venice betrays his Constantinopolitan hosts. That guy, Enrico Dandolo, somehow became the first person buried in Hagia Sophia, one of the most beautiful structures humanity ever built.
Rome's geographic location, atop seven hills slightly inland of the Mediterranean, is cool and all. But Istanbul, as a planned imperial capital, is sublime. "The diamond between two sapphires and two emeralds" perches between the Black and Mediterranean seas and unites Europe with Asia. Geography destines it to prosper. Istanbul is a plausible perch from which to dominate a region, and possibly more.
And then, when the veteran Eastern Roman Empire finally leaves it all on the court, the Ottoman Empire posterizes it on May 29, 1453 and inaugurates a run whose banner hangs in the civilizational rafters. Absolutely redeemed the Mediterranean franchise, in my opinion. There's no shame in getting wrecked by Mehmed The Conqueror.
Eventually an empire on three continents, the Ottomans self-consciously replaced—can we say outdid?—the Romans. Constantinople was depopulated by the fifteenth century, but the Ottomans rebranded it as Istanbul, attracting a million people and raising the city and its dominions to new heights. While the Ottoman state is its own thing, traces of the Romans are visible. If you squint in Rumelia you can kind of see the millets and the devshirme owing a debt to the (Western) Roman imperial approach, whereby conquered lands enjoy a good degree of autonomy and must primarily produce soldiers for the metropole. The same profound questions and vivid characters that the Roman Empire features are present in the 600 years of Ottoman history. How can you think about Rome and not think about the civilizational achievements of the guys who definitively ended the Roman Empire?
You all know how much I love reading about the Ottomans, and I think we ought to understand the Ottomans on their own terms, not in the shadow of Rome. And while it's clear to the historically literate that "Western chauvinism" cannot help but be tiresome racism—what kind of idiot ranks civilizations? Who you got, the Neo-Assyrians or the Tokugawa shogunate? —I find impossible to believe that familiarity with the Ottoman Empire could leave someone thinking, "yes, western civ is clearly superior to that." When a French delegation visited Istanbul during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, the 16th-century height of Ottoman power, they were stunned that there simply wasn't anything in France to rival the splendor of Ottoman Istanbul. When I was walking through Rome—and I recognize that this was deranged—the book I carried with me was Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul.
When I learn about the Persian empire, though? It's about to be over for y–
SPEAKING OF—well, not really, but bear with me—on October 1, I'll be speaking at Georgetown University-Qatar's symposium on Global Histories and Practices of Islamophobia. I say "speaking of" because I've got a layover in Istanbul that I chose because I figured it would be enough time to see the city I'm horniest for, but nearly everyone I've asked—including people who've lived in Istanbul—say that there's no way I can clear customs and see/eat a single thing in Istanbul I want to see/eat. But anyway, if you're in Doha and attend the panel, say hi. If you've been to Istanbul, tell me about it.
More accessible to Americans, on Thursday September 21—that is, in like two days—from 6 to 8 p.m., me and my friend Eric Battle will be at Everyone Comics & Collectables in Queens signing Eric's variant edition of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #3! You should come for not just my scintillating conversation but because Eric will be bringing pages from his unpublished and very different version of WVW issue 1!
HERE'S AN INTERVIEW with me talking about journalism, book-writing and WALLER VS. WILDSTORM that involves me getting drawn as a superhero. Thanks to Matt Strackbein.
THEY LOST AN F-35. I'm not going to make any jokes about the stealth functionality proving itself. I'm just going to remember how angry military procurement offices got over the years at reporters who pointed out that the Joint Strike Fighter was an albatross. The way I got upbraided at Sea-Air-Space 2012 for writing about the F/A-XX as a naval-aviation hedge on the F-35! Also, same goes for how now it's widely accepted that the Littoral Combat Ship was doomed from the start, but when you wrote about that in real time, the Navy insisted you just didn't understand the "urban-littoral."
RIP TO A LITERAL GIANT. I was saddened to read that C.J. Sullivan passed away on Sunday. I met C.J. in the NYPress newsroom when I was a 19-year old factchecker college student and he would freelance cops-n-courts pieces. Easily the tallest person to contribute to the paper, C.J. would usually post up in the bullpen while waiting for his stuff to be edited or ahead of a talk with John Strausbaugh, Lisa Kearns or Andrey Slivka, and he'd shoot the shit with whoever was around. This was back when you could smoke in the bullpen—it was illegal to smoke indoors but no one at the paper gave a shit, since everyone at the least socially smoked—and so shit-shooting sessions quickly became smoke breaks. Ball-busting was assured, and C.J. showed me the respect of roasting me, as I was easily the shortest person to contribute to the paper. He was as generous with shop talk as he was quick-witted, and in later years it always brought a smile to my face to see his byline, even in the Post, a piece-of-shit paper. RIP to a real one: the Bronx's own C.J. Sullivan.