On this date, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was captured by armies from Western Europe during the fourth crusade. The ancient name of Constantinople was Byzantium (Greek: Byzantion), from which the Byzantine Empire’s name was derived. The name had been changed by Roman emperor Constantine I, who had moved the capital of the Roman empire here on May 11, 330 C.E. Constantine wanted to name the city Nova Roma (New Rome), but this name never caught on. Today, the city is known as Istanbul and is the cultural and financial center of Turkey.
Prior to the fall of Constantinople, Western scholars had had access to Latin translations of the writings of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 384 to 322 B.C.E. These translations were based on texts in Arabic, which in turn were based on translations in Syriac from the original Greek. This was because the West, unlike the East (such as Syria), had never preserved Aristotle’s original writings. The structure of the Arab language is quite different from Greek and Latin (which are fairly similar to each other), so there was unavoidable paraphrasing in the passage from the original Greek to Arabic, and then again in the translation from Arabic to Latin. In effect, the first exposure to the full extent of Aristotle’s writings by Western scholars came in the form of Latin paraphrases of Arab paraphrases of (and commentaries on) Syriac paraphrases of second-hand copies of the original Greek texts. Not surprisingly, the resulting Latin renderings were somewhat unreliable.
However, as a result of the fall of Constantinople, Western scholars gained access to Greek texts that were much closer to Aristotle’s original writings. Around 1265, the Flemish Dominican William of Moerbeke (1215-1286) and other scholars translated these Greek texts into Latin, which can almost be done word-for-word, given the structural similarity between the two languages. Later, Thomas Aquinas undertook to integrate and reconcile the Aristotelian principles of reason and rational thought with Christian theology, resulting in his monumental Summa teologica. Thus fused with Christian doctrine into a philosophical system known as Scholasticism, Aristotelian philosophy became the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. The view of Aristotle as the indisputable epitome of reason dates from this time.
Aristotle was called Ille Philosophus (The Philosopher), or “the master of them that know,” and many accepted every word of his writings — or at least every word that did not contradict the Bible — as eternal truth. Consequently, some scientific discoveries in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were criticized simply because they were not found in Aristotle. It is one of the ironies of the history of science that Aristotle’s writings, which in many cases were based on extraordinary first-hand observation, were actually used to impede observational science — a development that Aristotle, no doubt, never intended.