The Byzantine Greeks eventually regained their capital by 1261 but the empire never recovered from its dismemberment. Its twilight did, however, last two more centuries, long enough to facilitate the transmission of the accumulated learning of antiquity to the eagerly receptive minds of the Italian Renaissance before the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Many officials as well as private individuals traveled back and forth to Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome not only for commercial purposes but also to solicit help against the impending Turkish attacks. Some far-sighted teachers not only inspired their students to learn and teach more students, but also translated Greek texts into Latin and vice versa. In contrast with the West, traditional Byzantine education was secular, using ancient Greek pagan texts to teach reading, grammar, and rhetoric. 

For nearly a thousand years residents had been constantly surrounded by secular images and reminded of the glorious pre-Christian past of which they were the possessors. It was only after the massive looting and melting down of bronze statues in 1204 that the secular tradition in Constantinople began to lose its hold. Only in its last centuries, just as Patriarchal control over education was increasing, the texts which had survived for a millennium in scattered libraries were re-discovered and gradually taken by collectors to Italy, where they were a revelation of the accumulated learning so admired by the ancient Roman writers such as Cicero but subsequently lost to the West. That as much of the learning of antiquity had survived the intervening ‘dark ages’ as it did was little short of a miracle. In addition, the mathematician Chioniades traveled to Persia to learn of Arab and Persian advances in astronomy, bringing back manuscripts to Constantinople, and Chioniades’ own manuscripts eventually influenced Copernicus and his proof of the heliocentric solar system. (Paschos and Sotiroudis, Schemata of the Stars, 1998) Thus the transmission of Greek texts from the dying eastern Empire gave birth to the Ages of Discovery and Enlightenment in the West. 

Despite the approaching end of their world in the 1400s, Constantinople’s religious establishment as well as the populace at large became increasingly conservative, even mystical, and rejected the unification of the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches agreed upon at Florence in 1439. “Their most urgent priority was to save their immortal souls, not to preserve what was now an essentially Greek state … The mainstream of Byzantine civilization had already turned toward a better life in the next world while resigning itself to Turkish captivity in this one.” (Wells, Sailing to Byzantium, 2006: 92).

Ironically, the Italian city where most of the refugees from Constantinople settled after 1453 was Venice, which had directed its capture in the Fourth Crusade. Thus it was in Venice in 1495, after the invention of the printing press, that Manutius Aldus began printing the texts of the surviving Greek authors, spreading their availability throughout western Europe. 

After the wrenching loss of their City in 1453, during later centuries of servitude and impoverishment, the era when Greeks had led the world culturally for two millennia came to be regarded by modern Greeks as their lost Golden Age. As the heirs of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Greeks of Constantinople and Anatolia had proudly called themselves Romaioi, as opposed to the pagan Hellenes of the ancient Greek mainland. Moreover, “in much the same way that the Roman Church was the spiritual successor of the Roman Empire in the West during the Dark Ages, the Orthodox Church preserved and nourished the immortal soul of Byzantium after its body had been destroyed by the Ottomans.” (Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1972: 435) By the turn of the twentieth century, Constantinople still had a substantial population of prosperous Greeks, many of whom, however, would have preferred that their Orthodox compatriots in mainland Greece would not keep recklessly rebelling against their Ottoman overlords in Constantinople.