This picture from a recent New York Times article about Greco-Roman cartography really struck a chord with me. Partly because I am Greek, and have a certain nostalgia for the glory days of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. But I think it also reminds us that all kingdoms and empires eventually come to an end, sometimes quite abruptly:
The Emperor sits comfortably on his throne, looking out upon the lands under his sway. Pontus Euxinus is the Black Sea. Galacia, Ionia, Caria, Pamphilia, and Lycia are all ancient regions of Anatolia or Asia Minor, which is, more or less, the country of Turkey today. Mare Aegeum is the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. In the bottom left, I see what looks like Euboea, the large Greek island right off the mainland. And to the left of the King, on the other side of the Bosphorus Strait, is written: Imperium Constantinopolitanum, or Constantinople.
But look again at how the Emperor is positioned. He is gazing Eastward, but his expression is unreadable. Is he proud? Is he anxious? Perhaps both. Perhaps he sees the foreign armies that lay just outside his territory. For hundreds of years, the Byzantines dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, and then suffered under a long period of decline and territorial loss until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople, ending the Empire for good.
The names of regions in Asia Minor on the above illustration are hardly used today. If you tour these sites, you will be greeted by ruins of temples and monuments built by Romans, Greeks, and various other rulers of the land through history. All of these rulers once looked out at their land with pride, yet all of their reigns ended, their power and reputation fading through the centuries. I hesitate to sound too fatalistic, but it seems that no empire, no matter how mighty, can escape its downfall.
I’m reminded of the poem Ozymandias, which was recently used as a prominent theme during the final season of Breaking Bad. Here is a video of Bryan Cranston reading it, followed by the text. It is in reference to an Egyptian pharaoh, but it could easily be applied to any number of historical kings or emperors of once mighty realms which have faded and collapsed over the ages.
Below is the text of the poem:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It is worth keeping this poem in mind, along with the above picture of the Byzantine Emperor whose empire eventually fell. All things fade, and we should avoid the pride of those who believed their reign, or even their reputation, would last forever.