December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along a 476-586A.D. timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east lived for another thousand years.

A certain type of politician loves nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own advantage, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of the Dorian city state of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi advised Byzas to build his city “opposite the city of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros“, or “cow-ford”), the narrow channel dividing Europe from Asia and the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, the party judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to have recognized the advantages of the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today one of the ten largest cities, in the world.


Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade at the crossroads of east and west.

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma”:  New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Roman Empire in the east.

Byzantine Empire and its vassal states, as it looked under Emperor Justinian the Great

The eastern and western Roman empires would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be  little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last beyond the birth of Columbus, one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces on the Eurasian landmass.

Theodosian walls
Theodosian walls

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after the child Emperor Theodosius II, these fortifications were built on the orders of the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of antiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Between the mid-5th and early 13th centuries, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in all Europe. Located along the 4,000-mile long “spice roads” at the confluence of east and west, the city was guardian to some of the holiest relics in all Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.  Constantinople was home to some of the architectural masterpieces of the age, including the Greek Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the Golden Gate of the Land Walls. The vast Imperial library of the University of Constantinople was home to no fewer than 100,000 volumes and ancient texts, including some of the last remnants of the ancient library of Alexandria.

Hagia Sophia, interior

The Byzantine empire entered a period of decline in the 13th century, following the devastation of the fourth crusade.  Constantinople would experience a brief recovery following the restoration of Nikephoros Palaiologos as sole Emperor in 1261, as territories and population of the greater Byzantine Empire were swallowed up by the fledgling Ottoman Empire.

Mehmed II
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, “The Conqueror”

By mid-15th century, the former seat of the Byzantine Empire was little more than an island.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell in the wake of a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of 22-year old Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.  It was May 29, 1453.

Constantinople, now Istanbul, became an Islamic stronghold.  Istanbul would remain seat of the Ottoman Empire until joining the losing side in WW1.  The Ottoman Empire was partitioned in the wake of the Great War, creating the modern contours of the Arab World and the Republic of Turkey, with its economic, cultural, and historic center of Istanbul.

Siege of Constantinople, 1453
Siege of Constantinople, 1453

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