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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?

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    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.
    – user15620
    Sep 4, 2019 at 21:52
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    Being honest here...knowing even that the Byzantines (briefly) recaptured Rome is probably better than 99% of humanity.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 4, 2019 at 22:30
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    Why would they move their capital from the center of the civilized world, full of art and culture to a backwater barbarian ruin?
    – MCW
    Sep 4, 2019 at 23:03
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    Why would? Did ever the US considered to move its capital to London, the historical capital of the Brittish Empire?
    – Greg
    Sep 5, 2019 at 8:19
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    @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
    Sep 5, 2019 at 21:29

3 Answers 3

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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.

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    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, 2019 at 5:42
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    @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, 2019 at 13:27
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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.

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    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, 2019 at 4:00
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    @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, 2019 at 14:04
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    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, 2019 at 15:15
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    Note that the Rome population graph is uses a linear scale, while the Constantinople graph uses a logarithmic scale.
    – Stephen S
    Sep 5, 2019 at 15:22
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    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, 2019 at 17:08
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Well, for a short while-(during the 400's & 500's), the Northern Italian city of Ravenna, was, in a way, a type of quasi Byzantine capital...that is to say, Ravenna, during the early Middle Ages, was a type of, Byzantium of the West.

The Church of San Vitale, for example, is one of the best preserved early Byzantine style Cathedrals. It was built around the same time as the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople and was commissioned by Emperor Justinian.

There is also a surviving Byzantine Palace in the city of Ravenna dating back to the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth-(around 1600 years ago).

As to why Ravenna was the Western capital-(or Western counterpart) to Constantinople remains unknown.

With regard to relocating the Byzantine Empire to city of Rome....this would have made no geopolitical or commercial sense.

Constantinople, was the ideal location for the Eastern half of the Roman empire to thrive and succeed; it was (and is still), a bridgeway between Europe and Asia, plus it had-(and still has) access to major waterways, such as The Black Sea, The Bosporus and the Dardanelles/Hellespont, which lead directly to the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. In terms of commerce and geopolitical positioning, the city of Constantinople had advantages which Rome, was not able to match.

While the city of Rome had access to major European land and river routes, as well as the greater Mediterranean sea (and even the Straits of Gibraltar), its proximity to Asia-(and its famous Silk Route), was more distant than Constantinople. The Silk Route-(from West to East), began on the outskirts of Constantinople and ended in Xi'an, China-(Central China). Having direct access to the world's longest and most prosperous trade route, would have been very important to the success and longevity of your empire. The (Western) Roman empire lasted about 500 years.....whereas the Byzantine Empire lasted for over 1000 years.

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  • The reasons why Ravenna eas chosen as administrative center of Italy are pretty clear IMHO. Roman access to the Mediterranean is just as good as Constantinople's. Access to river routes seems considerably worse (300 km to the Danube vs. 400 km to the Rhone?)
    – Jan
    Jan 9, 2023 at 9:58
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    The Western Roman Empire lasted from 395 AD to 476 AD, which is 81 years, not 500.
    – Jan
    Jan 9, 2023 at 9:59
  • I am sorry, but you are totally wrong with regard to the longevity of the Western Roman Empire. The Empire that was based out of Rome, from the time of Augustus Caesar and the beginning of the Pax Romana in 27/26 BC/BCE, until the year 476 AD/CE, when the Western Empire officially "collapsed"....was, last I checked....a 500 year long empire.
    – Alex
    Jan 9, 2023 at 20:04
  • With regard to Ravenna and its close proximity to and access to, the greater Mediterranean Sea, that may be true, though it does not explain why the city itself and not other Italian cities or other South European cities, were selected as a, "Byzantium of the West". The city of Venice, for example, was just starting to come into its own during the early 500's AD/CE....so why not have chosen Venice? One could have selected-(or built up any major town) along the neighboring Dalmatian coast-(present-day Croatia), which had access to the Mediterranean, Adriatic and nearby Ionian sea.
    – Alex
    Jan 9, 2023 at 20:08

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