Sailing west from Byzantium: Columbus and the fall of Constantinople.

In continuing with March’s theme of the age of discovery, I present to you Sean Munger’s post on the Byzantium and Christopher Columbus.

What does the fall of Constantinople have to do with the Age of Discovery? With the fall of a stable trading ally in the Eastern Mediterranean, trade along the silk road all but dried up for most of Europe. Necessity is the mother of invention. You see where this is going…

SeanMunger.com

columbus byzantium

Five hundred and twenty-one years ago today, as the summer of 1492 turned to fall, Christopher Columbus and his expedition were somewhere on the North Atlantic, several weeks away from the discovery that would make him–and them–famous. Most of us know the story of Columbus’s voyage, his idea to sail west to find a route to India, his difficulty in gaining backing, and the ultimate semi-success of his efforts; I say semi because he failed to find India, although he believed until the end of his life that he had. What fewer people understand is why this epic voyage happened, and it has a lot more to do with the history of Byzantium than most realize.

The Byzantine Empire breathed its last on the morning of May 29, 1453, as Turkish Sultan Memhet II led his troops to sack the city that had so long eluded the Islamic world…

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Fab Five Series – Sean Munger’s Version: Dinner with the GenSek, the Sage of Monticello and More

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev speaking at a news conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. Permission via Commons: RIA Novosti

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev speaking at a news conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986.
Permission via Commons: RIA Novosti

This is the fourth part in our weekly Fab Five Series, where I ask other bloggers, writers, podcasters and friends to give their five favorite historical figures. The criteria is up to them…so is the work!

I’m Sean Munger, a historian, teacher and author. I wrote the historical horror novel Zombies of Byzantium and I run a lot of history-related articles on my website, seanmunger.com. Big thanks to Aaron for letting me participate in the “Fab Five” series, which seemed like a lot of fun from the moment I heard about it! I’ve been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember. After spending years as a lawyer, I chose history as my second career, and I’m very happy to have made the choice.

My selection criteria for my “Fab Five” historical figures is pretty loose and undefined: people from history I’d most like to meet and have dinner with. It may be because of their own accomplishments, their own opinions and personality, or perhaps just the time they lived in. It’s so hard to narrow it down just to five, and if you asked me on any other day my list would probably be very different. But, at the time of this writing, here’s who I would enjoy meeting

The GenSek: Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR.

The only figure on my list who’s still alive, I’m astounded that Gorbachev doesn’t have more historical cachet in the world than he does. I believe Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He was incisive, innovative, and brave enough to seize the bull of history by the horns and do what he could to guide it, regardless of his own risks. Coming to power in the period of Soviet stagnation, Gorbachev recognized that the USSR had to modernize and reform, and he was willing to accept the thankless job of doing that amidst a government and power structure filled with spineless apparatchiks. Furthermore, the personal relationships he formed with Western leaders—Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush—became the basis of lasting change in the world and indeed a more peaceful order. If I had dinner with Gorbachev I would ask him when and how he decided upon his course of reform and whether he suspected it might lead, as it eventually did, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’d also ask him about what he thinks of the course Russian and world history have taken since he exited the stage (for the most part) in 1991. I think this would be a really fascinating conversation.

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War Paint (Part 5): The Third of May 1808

Part 5 in a 10 part series.

Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is an iconic painting by one of the great masters. The image depicts the execution of prisoners following the Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid against Napoleon’s invading forces. The events form part of the Peninsular War. Napoleon was invited into Spain by the Spanish King Charles IV. The pretext was that the two nations would conquer and divide up Portugal. Napoleon had other ideas and the expeditionary force showed no signs of leaving.

On May 2nd, the population of Madrid took to arms. Oddly enough, this is the second painting in a row in this series to deal with an uprising against Napoleonic occupational forces. Once unrest was inevitable, the French gave the order that anyone involved was to be shot. Fighting broke out in the city and the French forces quickly put it down. Some hundred or so French soldiers were killed along with numerous Madrileños.

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