22

Why was Constantinople (almost) always the capital of the Byzantines?

I understand they did not have Rome under their control until the AD500's, but is there any specific reason why the Byzantines did not move to the historical Roman Empire capital of Rome?

  • 8
    What research have you done? It's pretty clear from reading a basic history of the Eastern Roman Empire on wikipedia or elsewhere that it never had more than a tenuous hold on Italy, and then for a relatively short period. – Gort the Robot Sep 4 at 21:52
  • 11
    Being honest here...knowing even that the Byzantines (briefly) recaptured Rome is probably better than 99% of humanity. – T.E.D. Sep 4 at 22:30
  • 40
    Why would they move their capital from the center of the civilized world, full of art and culture to a backwater barbarian ruin? – Mark C. Wallace Sep 4 at 23:03
  • 4
    Why would? Did ever the US considered to move its capital to London, the historical capital of the Brittish Empire? – Greg Sep 5 at 8:19
  • 7
    @Greg There are a lot of significant differences between the question and your hypothetical question. First, the US has never had political control over London. Second, the US does not view itself as a continuation of the British Empire, whereas the Byzantines viewed themselves as the direct continuation of the Roman Empire (which is why they are called the Eastern Roman Empire). – Kevin Wells Sep 5 at 21:29
47

The Early Middle Ages were not kind to Rome, and the long destructive war to recapture it didn't help things. By the time the dust settled, Rome had practically ceased to exist as a major city, with population estimates ranging from less than 50,000, to a tenth that*

enter image description here

The rest of the peninsula didn't do much better. According to McEvedy and Jones, Italy was near its lowest population in its recorded history at that time (and would hit it around 600AD). So its not like there was a huge latent reservoir of Italians waiting for a good chance to move back to Rome either.

Constantinople on the other hand was at a population high point, somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 to 500,000 people* (prior to the Plague), making it far and away the largest city in Europe. It wouldn't surpass this level again until after the Turks captured it.

enter image description here

So there wouldn't be much value in moving to destitute Rome from rich Constantinople, and anyone an Emperor left behind to manage the great city after he left would control so many more resources that the tail would capable of wagging the dog.

Yes, an emperor could try to rebuild Rome, with an eye toward perhaps making it capital-worthy in the future. There's even some indication that Justinan was doing the former (if not shoot toward the latter). However, there was only about 16 years to work on that project before the Lombards invaded.


* - I personally tend to lean toward the lower numbers. Sadly, the graphs I could find online seem to prefer the higher ones. However, they should have the rough trends about right, if not the y-axis values.

  • 7
    I'm not sure the population charts tell the story you want them to tell, since they show how puny Byzantium was when Constantine made it his capital. And that is a story repeated throughout history...The City of Washington was basically nothing when it was made the capital of the US. Same thing with Brazilia. Even today many states in the US with large cities have a much smaller city as state capital either because it's more centrally located (Albany NY, Harrisburg PA, Frankfurt KY, Springfield IL, Austin TX) or for historical reasons (Annapolis MD). – C Monsour Sep 5 at 4:00
  • 4
    @CMonsour - Actually, if you want a really good counterexample, I'd go with Peter the Great building his new capital on Swedish territory. But I think the difference here is that he was fairly confident he could defend it. – T.E.D. Sep 5 at 14:04
  • Pity those graphs aren't semi-log, you really can't make much out in the lower values, it would also help if the graphs started at the same date or were combined to show the evolution of both cities in a single graph. – BOB Sep 5 at 15:15
  • 2
    Note that the Rome population graph is uses a linear scale, while the Constantinople graph uses a logarithmic scale. – Stephen S Sep 5 at 15:22
  • 5
    It's almost always correct to plot something like this (always positive, varies over multiple orders of magnitude) on a log scale. Unfortunately we don't teach that in schools any longer. Log and semilog graph paper were wonderful teaching devices. – C Monsour Sep 5 at 17:08
43

No, they did not try to move their capital to Rome, but the Emperor Heraclius at one point--around 620 or so when the war against Persia was going very badly--did consider moving the capital even farther west to Carthage (not quite as strange as it sounds since his father had been exarch of Africa and it had been the power base from which he had seized the throne a decade earlier). By the way, they did of course move their capital after a fashion (to Nicaea) in 1204 when the crusaders took Constantinople.

It may be worth reflecting that, if your capital is the most easily defended city on the planet, moving it if you don't absolutely have to is probably unwise

After Justinian's reconquest of Italy, the Empire didn't even govern Italy from Rome...the exarch of Italy was located in Ravenna.

However, it is NOT true (though a common misconception) that the Empire controlled Rome for only a couple of decades after the reconquest. It was closer to a couple of centuries...Rome was not one of the cities the Lombards were initially successful in conquering when they invaded in 568:

enter image description here

map.

In fact the Byzantine control of Rome was of great historical significance, since it meant the Empire controlled the Papacy. And one of the reasons the Lombards were able to destroy the exarchate of Ravenna in the mid-8th century was that the Papacy split with the Empire over the iconoclasm controversy. Even after that the Empire retained a small foothold in Southern Italy until the 11th century, whilst the Lombards held the northern lands of the exarchate that they had conquered in 750-751 for only five short years before Pepin the Short forced them to give them to the Pope, thus creating the Papal States.

The history of Italy from the mid-6th to the mid-8th centuries is a little more complex than the one sentence "and then the Lombards came" summary that it usually gets in school.

  • 3
    Upvoting this because I considered mentioning it myself. In fact, this incident is why I think the question itself is a reasonable one. He didn't end up DOING it of course, but it shows the thought of moving the capital could be countenanced. – T.E.D. Sep 5 at 5:42
  • 1
    @T.E.D. In the 3rd and 4th centuries it had not only been countenanced but done (once if a capital requires a Senate, many times over if it just meant where the emperor lived). It happened again in the 13th century. – C Monsour Sep 5 at 13:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.