What If ... Constantinople still held sway

With only weeks left until it is decided who will host the 2018 World Cup, the field has narrowed to the two favourites. England has the facilities and
the sporting history, but it remains very doubtful whether that will be enough to trump its rival's money, glamour and sheer geographical sweep.
For many observers, the possibility of World Cup football in Sofia, Salonica and Smyrna is almost too good to resist, and the prospect of a final played on the shores of the Bosphorus, on the hinge between Europe and Asia, is simply mouth-watering. The only fly in the ointment is a possible Italian boycott over the centuries-old naming row. Apart from that, though, the Roman empire would seem to have it in the bag.

As it happens, I spent this summer on a walking holiday in the empire's eastern provinces, where I trudged one afternoon into the dusty Armenian town of Manzikert. This was the site of a long-forgotten battle, fought in 1071 between the Emperor Romanus IV and an invading force of Seljuk Turks, and won convincingly by the former.

Thanks to a few tattered vestiges of schoolboy Greek, I chatted to the aged battlefield curator, who was obsessed with a historical what-if. Had the emperor divided his forces, he said, the Seljuks might have won, opening up Anatolia to Turkish conquest and fatally undermining the empire.
For a few happy moments, I pondered how history might have been different: an Islamic empire on the Aegean, the end of centuries of Roman imperial tradition, the fragmentation of eastern Europe. But never having been one for counterfactuals, I soon resumed my journey.

As an idle fantasy, though, the thought of a Seljuk victory is not a bad way to spend an hour or two. If the Romans had lost, the superpower that still dominates eastern Europe and the Mediterranean might have fallen apart. It is hard to picture a world without Constantinople's great sea of skyscrapers, and harder still to imagine the Middle East without Greek as its everyday lingua franca. Naturally, the disappearance of the empire would mean no long-running schism with Italy over the title "Roman". The terrible bloodshed of the Twenty Years War with the Persians, which
so dominated the 1970s and 1980s, might have been avoided. And there would be no long-running row with Amnesty International, either, over the tradition of employing eunuchs in the imperial civil service.

The sabre-rattlers, of course, insist that the Romans are not merely Roman, and even use the politically incorrect term "Byzantine", oblivious to the offence it causes to visitors from Ancyra, Chalcedon or Philippopolis. But I take the position that when a state has been going for 2,000 years, it can call itself whatever it likes.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?