Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
(Redirected from Byzantine)
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire is posterity's name for the eastern continuation of the Roman Empire, ruled from Constantinople (today's Istanbul) until the city fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.


The Labarum of Constantine I

In 330, the Roman emperor Constantine I moved his seat east to Byzantium, renaming it Kōnstantinoupolis, "Constantine's city". In 395, Theodosius I officially divided the empire into two between his sons: the Western Roman Empire based in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire with its seat in Constantinople.

At its time, the Byzantine Empire was known as the East Roman Empire or Romania, a name surviving in today's Romania, and the inhabitants never saw themselves anything other than Romans proper — the term "Byzantine" (derived from Byzantium, the oldest name of Constantinople/Istanbul) was coined after the fall of the empire, in 1557, by German scholar Hieronymus Wolf to distinguish the mainly urban, Greek-speaking, and Eastern Orthodox empire from its less urban, Latin-speaking, and Roman Catholic counterpart in the west.

The Byzantine Empire is one of few political entities in Europe to have survived for more than a thousand years, throughout the period known as the European Middle Ages, and its legacy is still visible in today's Balkans, Greece and Turkey. Prejudices about the Byzantine Empire (cf. the adjective "byzantine" negatively describing a bureaucracy, or the "Byzantine generals problems" in information science, alluding to the frequent treason in the armed forces) would have one believe that it was a hopelessly corrupt, terminally declining polity, but the fact that it held on to as much territory as it did for a millennium, adeptly navigating a world of numerous would-be destroyers of the empire, without the possibility of relying on overwhelmingly crushing military supremacy as the old Western Roman Empire could, shows a fascinatingly advanced and complex society.

Being the foremost Christian empire of its day, religion played a large part in Byzantine history; often domestic conflicts were clad in different interpretations of Christianity, and to this day some schisms dating to Byzantine era conflicts remain. Later on, the Byzantine Empire would see itself as the "last bastion" of Christendom against the Islamic expansion in the east, but adept Byzantine diplomacy made alliances with Christian, Muslim and even pagan rulers, for example Vladimir, ruler of Kievan Rus — the earliest iteration of the Russian Empire — who converted to Christianity, married Anna Porphyrogenita, sister of emperor Basil II Bulgaroktonos (the Bulgar-Slayer), came back to his capital and officially baptized his subjects in the Orthodox Christian faith by the Dnieper River in 988. After the end of the empire, prince Ivan III "the Great" of the Rurikid dynasty and princess Sophia Palaiologina of the last Byzantine dynasty were married on 12 November 1472. Their grandson Ivan IV "the Terrible" was the first prince of Muscovy to style himself "Tsar", aka "Caesar", and would lay Moscow's claim of "the third Rome that shall not fall".

Map of Constantinople during the empire

The Eastern Empire conquered large parts of the former West - most prominently the Exarchates of Ravenna and Africa - under Emperor Justinian with his able general Belisarius. However, his dynasty was the last whose primary language was Latin; Maurice, Phocas, the Heracliads and all subsequent dynasties were Greek speakers, calling themselves not "Augustus" but Βασιλεύς "Basileus" — following the establishment of the rival Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe in 800, the use of the title Αὐτοκράτωρ "Autokrator" became prevalent. The Pope justified his crowning of Charlemagne as "emperor" (of which there was supposed to be only one) by the fact that at the time the Eastern Roman Empire was governed by a woman and according to the sexist mores of the time, a woman could not possibly be emperor (the official biography of Charlemagne, written by his courtier Einhard claims that the crowning came as a surprise to Charlemagne and he did not want it, but had to accept it). At this time, the empire was already engaged in a long struggle against the expansion of Islam and sometimes even against other Europeans, particularly the Roman Catholics, as the Byzantine Empire became Eastern Orthodox following the schism between the East and West in 1054.

From the conclusion of the reign of Justinian in the 6th century until the beginning of the 13th century, the empire went through alternating periods of military or economic success and decline, varying from dynasty to dynasty. Following the August 636 Battle of Yarmouk, a decisive Muslim victory that ended Byzantine rule in the Levant, it spent the next few hundred years holding onto its possessions in present-day Greece and Asia Minor until the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, which opened Asia Minor to Turkish invasion and a new Crusader influence from the West, and furthered the decline in the empire's sphere of influence.

The biggest calamity to befall the empire before its ultimate fall was not at the hand of any "heathen", but the Christian crusaders of the 1204 Fourth Crusade, led by the greedy Venetian merchants who owned the boats. As a result, the Byzantine Empire temporarily lost control of Constantinople to the Latin Empire, a puppet of Venice (Doge Enrico Dandolo was buried inside Hagia Sophia; his tombstone can still be seen), which would've spelled the end of any lesser polity. However, the empire recovered and reconquered its capital in 1261. It soldiered on and called itself "Roman" until 29 May 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks after a 53-day siege and the last emperor was killed in action, last seen fighting the attackers after he had removed all rank insignia to die as a Roman.


Map of Byzantine Empire
The Hagia Sophia
  • 1 Constantinople (Byzantium), Istanbul. A part of the Roman Empire from 73 AD, it was besieged and reconstructed by Septimius Severus (no one would dream of surrendering this supremely strategic site). In the 4th century, it was reconstructed by Constantine the Great as his Nova Roma, a status the city mantained for more than a millenium. The Hagia Sophia former cathedral, now a mosque, the adjacent Hippodrome square, Hagia Eirene and the Archaeology Museum inside Topkapi Palace, the Valens Aqueduct and the Theodosian Walls are must-see here. These streets are not short of surviving Byzantine antiquities.
  • 2 Vize (Bizye) (Eastern Thrace). This is the site of the Little Hagia Sophia of Bizye, a perfectly preserved Byzantine church from the 6th century. Nearby Kıyıköy (Medea), enclosed in Byzantine city walls, is home to the contemporary Monastery of St Nicholas, carved into a rock cliff.    
  • 3 Izmit (Nicomedia) (Eastern Marmara). Founded by Nicomedes I of Bithynia in 264 BC. It has ever since been one of the most important cities in northwestern Asia Minor. Diocletian made it the eastern capital city of the Roman Empire in 286 when he introduced the Tetrarchy system. Nicomedia remained as the eastern (and most senior) capital of the Roman Empire until Licinius was defeated by Constantine the Great in 324. Constantine mainly resided in Nicomedia as his interim capital city for the next six years, as he rebuilt nearby Byzantium as Nova Roma; he moved there in 330. Historical monuments in Izmit include the remains of the ancient walls of Nicomedia and a Byzantine fortress.
City wall in Iznik
  • 4 Iznik (Nicaea, Nikaia) (Eastern Marmara). Site of the First and Second Councils of Nicaea, the first and seventh Ecumenical councils in the early history of the Christian Church. Nicaea's Roman and Byzantine city walls, 4,426 m (14,521 ft) in circumference, remain almost entirely intact around the city. The 4th-century St. Sophia Cathedral, site of the Second Council of Nicaea, still extant as well, has been converted into a mosque. The town was the capital (along with Kemalpaşa, see below) of the Empire of Nicaea, the rump Byzantine polity existed during the 1204–61 Latin occupation of Constantinople.
  • 5 Tirilye (Trigleia) (near Mudanya, Southern Marmara). The town was under patronage of the Byzantine emperors — fish caught off its shores made it to the imperial palace tables in Constantinople. It is the home of several Byzantine churches and monasteries; the best preserved is the Church of St Stephen, now the Fatih Mosque. Panagia Pantobasilissa is known to be the first church decorated with frescoes. It is partly ruined but the title deed passed in 2011 to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is expected to rebuild it.    
  • 6 Ephesus (Central Aegean). The capital of Asia Proconsularis province, now a large world heritage-listed archeological site and one of Turkey's major tourist attractions. Mary the mother of Jesus and St. John the Apostle are said to have lived and died here; the ruins of St John's basilica, built upon his tomb on orders of emperor Justinian, and razed by Tamerlane's troops in the 14th century, are particularly moving.
  • 7 Alaşehir (Philadelphia) (Central Aegean). A prosperous Byzantine city, called the "little Athens" in the 6th century AD because of its festivals and temples. In about the year 600 the domed Basilica of St. John was built, remains of which are the main archaeological attraction in the modern city. Philadelphia was the last Byzantine city in the interior of Asia Minor to be captured by the Ottomans, in 1390.
  • 8 Izmir (Smyrna) (Central Aegean). Always famous as the birthplace of Homer, thought to have lived here around the 8th century BC. Its central market place from Roman times is now an open-air museum.
  • 9 Kemalpaşa (Nymphaion) (near Izmir, Central Aegean). The co-capital of the Empire of Nicaea. The prominent Byzantine/Nicene ruins include the Laskaris Palace, named after the dynastic family.    
  • 10 Pamukkale (Hierapolis) (Southern Aegean). Home to the Martyrium of St. Phillip, a pilgrimage site that is supposedly the site where the apostle Philip was martyred and buried. The church at the site is in ruins, but its foundations reveal an unusual octagonal plan. Together with the unbelievable hot springs on calcium-coated cliffs and pools of Pamukkale, used as a spa since the 2nd century BC and literally a few steps away, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • 11 Ankara (Ancyra) (Central Anatolia). Former capital city of the Galatia Roman province. Emperor Julian "the Apostate" visited in 362, and a commemorative column is still standing at Julian Sütunu (Julian's Square). The Ankara Citadel's present walls are Byzantine, commonly held to date from the 620s and the reign of Heraclius. There are also the Temple of Augustus and Rome, a bathing complex thoroughly excavated, and a theater.
  • 12 Sinop (Sinope) (Western Karadeniz). The birthplace of king Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus and seminal philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Its historic fortress, started in the 7th century BC by colonists from Miletus, was extended and repaired several times in its history by the Persians, the kingdom of Pontus, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Genoese. The Archaeology Museum's open-air section features the tomb of a Seljuk princess and ruins of a Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the combined Hellenistic-Ancient Egyptian deity Serapis, unearthed onsite, during excavations in 1951.
Aqueduct and city walls of Trabzon
  • 13 Trabzon (Trapezus, Trebizond) (Eastern Karadeniz). An important Imperial trade hub in the Black Sea. After a Turkmen attack on the city was repelled by a local force in the 1080s, the city broke relations with the empire and became an independent state, the Empire of Trebizond ruled by the Komnenos family, which also provided several emperors to the Byzantine throne. The longest surviving rump Byzantine state, the empire of Trebizond was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1461, almost a decade after the fall of Constantinople. Most of the city's defense walls and a few towers remain standing, showing sections of Roman, Byzantine, Trebizond and Ottoman stonework.
  • 14 Giresun (Kerasos) (Eastern Karadeniz). As this colony of Miletus was the first harbour to export cherries to Europe, during Roman times, the city and the fruit are homonymous in Latin (cerasus), originating the fruit's name in most later languages. It was ruled by the Miletians, Persians, Pontics, Romans, Byzantines and Empire of Trebizond. The older parts of the city lie on a peninsula crowned by a ruined Byzantine fortress, sheltering the small natural harbour.
  • 15 Sardis (Central Aegean). Founded by native, pre-Roman Lydians, and famously associated with King Croesus, Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, one of the important cities of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, the seat of a Seleucid Satrap, the seat of a proconsul under the Roman Empire, and the metropolis of the province Lydia in later Roman and Byzantine times. It features the ruins of a Roman-era synagogue, one of the oldest in the Jewish diaspora. When the Turkish government allowed for excavations in 1910, several Byzantine-style churches were discovered, including the so-called "Original Basilica" which may have been built in the middle of the 4th century AD, nearly a century before the first Christian building of its kind was erected in Constantinople.
Side Theatre
  • 16 Side (Pamphylia). Possessing a good harbour for small-craft boats, it was one of the most important places in Pamphylia and one of the most important trade centres in the region. Arab fleets, nevertheless, raided and burned Side during the 7th century, contributing to its decline. The combination of earthquakes, Christian zealots and Arab raids, left the site abandoned by the 10th century, its citizens having emigrated to nearby Attalia. The great ruins are among the most notable in Asia Minor and include the largest theatre in Pamphylia, a temple to Apollo, and a gate, in fairly good condition.
  • 17 Silifke (Seleukeia, Cilician Seleucia, Seleucia ad Calycadnum) (Cilician Mountains). Its center is home to an intact Roman bridge, and the ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. There are also the prominent remains of the castle high on a rock above the town, the city walls, a large water tank (Tekir ambarı) cut into the rock, an extensive necropolis of rock-cut tombs with inscriptions and an archeological museum. Seleucia was famous for the tomb of the virgin Saint Thekla of Iconium, converted by Saint Paul. She died at Seleucia, and her tomb was one of the most celebrated in the Christian world, restored several times, among others by the Emperor Zeno in the 5th century, and today the ruins of the tomb and sanctuary are called Meriamlik.
  • 18 Urfa (Edessa) (Southeastern Anatolia). Supposed to originally be Ur, the birthplace of Biblical patriarch Abraham. Its location on the eastern frontier of the empire meant it was frequently conquered during periods when the Byzantine central government was weak, and for centuries, it was alternately conquered by Arab, Byzantine, Armenian and Turkish rulers. There is an ancient ruined castle with some Roman columns that remain.
One of the oldest churches of Christianity, the Church of St Peter at Antakya was where the Christians openly called themselves Christians for the first time
  • 19 Antakya (Antiocheia, Syrian Antioch, Antioch ad Orontes) (Hatay). After the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Seleucus I Nicator won the territory of Syria. He proceeded to found four "sister cities" in northwestern Syria, one of which was Antioch, a city named in honor of his father Antiochus. The former capital of the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom, and of Syria Palaestina province in the Roman and Byzantine empires, is famous as an important centre of early Christianity, with some of the first non-hidden churches and the seat of a patriarchate on equal terms with the Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople ones, an autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church to this day. The city swapped hands between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanids in the 3rd century, and was the battleground for the siege of Antioch where Shapur I defeated the Roman army, and a later Battle of Antioch (613) where the Persians were successful at capturing the city for the last time. Heraclius retook it later.
  • 20 Athens (Athenae) (Attica). The 4th Byzantine emperor, Julian "the Apostate", spent his youth as a student of philosophy here. He schemed with returning to the old pagan religion, but died in campaign. Later on, Justinian ordered the closure of the Athenian philosophy schools.    
  • 21 Kavala. One of the most beautiful Greek cities with Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman sights. Nearby the World Heritage Site Philippi.    
The Byzantine Empire at its largest extent
  • 22 Mount Athos (Agion Oros, "Holy Mountain") (Chalkidiki). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this peninsula of 390 km² houses some 1,400 monks in 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Inhabited since ancient times, it's known for its long Christian presence and historical monastic traditions, which date back to the Byzantine era. On a chrysobull of emperor Basil I, dated 885, the Holy Mountain is proclaimed a place of monks, and no laymen or farmers or cattle-breeders are allowed to be settled there. An autonomous state under Greek sovereignty, entry into the area is strictly controlled and only male residents are allowed to live there and only male visitors are allowed.    
  • 23 Meteora (Trikala). A collection of Greek Orthodox monasteries started by monks from Mount Athos in the 13th and 14th centuries. They were built atop huge, pillar-like boulders, originally deliberately hard to access.    
  • 24 Thessaloniki (Thessalonica) (Central Macedonia). A city with a continuous 3,000-year history, preserving relics of its Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman past. Thessaloniki was the Symvasilévousa, "co-reigning city" of the Byzantines, the second capital after Constantinople.    
  • 25 Corfu Town (Kerkira, Kerkyra, Korkyra, Corcyra) (Ionian Islands). The largest and most important town on the famous island. Its old town, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, features a Byzantine fort rebuilt under Venetian rule, the Byzantine Museum housed in a small former church dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin Our Lady of Antivouniotissa, and an amazing archaeology museum. From 1386 to 1797, Corfu was ruled by Venetian nobility; much of the city reflects this.    
  • 26 Mystras (Myzithras) (Laconia). From the 14th century, this was the capital of the Despotate of the Morea, an appanage and training ground to the princes next in succession line. Presiding over the Peloponnese, the despotate was geographically disjointed from the rest of the empire, which by then was restricted to Thessaloniki (until the 1430 Ottoman takeover) and the environs of Constantinople, and was only nominally an empire anyway. After the Fall of Constantinople, the despotate ruled by the last emperor Constantine XI's two brothers heavily contesting with each other became a vassal to the Ottomans, before completely being subjugated by them in 1460. The Despot's Palace and Pantanassa Monastery are two fine buildings from that period.    
  • 27 Ohrid (Lychnidus). The town as we know it today was built mostly between the 7th and 19th centuries. During the Byzantine period, Ohrid became a significant cultural and economic center, serving as an episcopal center of the Orthodox Church and as the site of the first Slavic university run by Saints Clement and Naum at the end of the 9th century. At the beginning of the 11th century, Ohrid briefly became the capital of the kingdom ruled by Tsar Samuel, whose fortress still presides over the city today.    
The ruins of St. Sophia church in Nesebar
  • 28 Nesebar (Mesembria) (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). Originally a Greek colony on a former island, which has sunk under water. However, some remains from the Hellenistic period are extant. These include the acropolis, a temple of Apollo, a market place, and a fortification wall, which can still be seen on the north side of the peninsula. During the final two decades of the empire, Nesebar and nearby Burgas (Pyrgos) were the only significant communities alongside the imperial capital that stayed in Byzantine hands till the very end, the Fall of Constantinople.
  • 29 Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica - that is, "Apollonia on the Black Sea", the ancient Pontus Euxinus - and Apollonia Magna, "Great Apollonia") (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). A part of the ancient seaside fortifications, including a gate, have been preserved, along with an amphitheater.
  • 30 Plovdiv (Philippopolis, Trimontium) (Upper Thracian Plain). Historic capital of Thracia. Several ruins can be seen in or near the downtown area, including an aqueduct and a very well preserved theater.
  • 31 Varna (Odessus) (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). Home to the remains of a large bathing complex, and an archeological museum.


  • 32 Constanța (Tomis) (Northern Dobruja). Originally a Greek colony.
  • 33 Mangalia (Callatis) (Northern Dobruja). Started to exist as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC. Today, it's a rich archeological site, with ruins of the original Callatis citadel and an archeological museum.


Ruins of Chersonesus near Sevastopol
  • 34 Cherson (Chersonesus Taurica; "Taurica" stands for the Crimean Peninsula) (Sevastopol, about 3 km from the city centre). Founded by settlers from Heraclea Pontica in Bithynia in the 6th century BC. Justinian II, after being deposed and having his nose cut off, was sent to exile here (he would return in triumph to the throne, with a golden prosthetic nose). It's also the site where Vladimir the Great, aka St. Vladimir of Kiev, the first leader of the Kievan Rus to convert to Christianity, was baptised. Here are various Byzantine basilicas, including a famous one with marble columns. It's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • 35 Kerch (Panticapaeum, Pantikapaion). Founded by Greek colonists from Miletos in the 7th century BC, Panticapaeum subdued nearby cities and by 480 BC became a capital of the Kingdom of Bosporus. Later, during the rule of Mithradates VI Eupator, Panticapaeum for a short period of time became the capital of the much more powerful and extensive Kingdom of Pontus. Its archeological site features ruins from the 5th century BC up to the 3rd century AD.    
  • 36 Feodosiya (Theodosia). Founded by Greek colonists from Miletos in the 6th century BC. It was destroyed by the Huns in the 4th century AD. In the late 13th century, the city was purchased from the ruling Golden Horde by the Republic of Genoa; the present city's main historic attractions date from this period.    
Byzantine mosaic in Ravenna
  • 37 Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna). Capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until its collapse in 476, and later retaken by emperor Justinian I with his right-hand man, general Belisarius. Famous for its 6th-century churches with exceptional and very well-preserved Byzantine mosaics.
  • 38 Column of Phocas, inside the Forum Romanum, beside the arch of Septimius Severus (Rome/Colosseo). Erected in front of the Rostra and dedicated or rededicated in honour of the Byzantine emperor Phocas on August 1, 608. It was the very last addition made to the Forum Romanum.    
  • 39 Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, 12 (Rome/Esquilino-San Giovanni). Originally commissioned by emperor Constantine's mother Helena (St. Helen) and consecrated circa 325 to house the supposed relics of the Passion of Jesus she "discovered" in Jerusalem. They include two thorns of his crown, part of a nail and three small wooden pieces of the Cross.    
Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs on the façade of St Mark's Basilica, Venice. The lower right corner's missing foot is displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum
  • 40 Venice (Venetia, Venezia). The last and most enduring immigration into the north of the Italian peninsula, that of the Lombards in 568, left the Eastern Roman Empire only a small strip of coastline in the current Veneto, including Venice and Ravenna. Charlemagne besieged the city but withdrew after losses by swamp fever; in the aftermath, an agreement between Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus in 814 recognized Venice as Byzantine territory, and granted the city trading rights along the Adriatic coast. In 828 its prestige increased with the acquisition, from Alexandria, of relics claimed to be of St Mark the Evangelist; these were placed in a brand new basilica of totally Byzantine architecture. Venice would eventually sack the mother city in 1204, bringing back countless spoils, of which the most famous, the porphyry Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs and the four bronze horses from the Hippodrome, have long been highlights of the façade of St. Mark's Basilica.    
  • 41 Carthage (15 km north of Tunis). The capital of the Exarchate of Africa, one of two exarchates established following the western reconquests under emperor Justinian. A UNESCO World Heritage List site.
  • 42 Alexandria (Lower Egypt). Capital of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt for almost 1,000 years, the second most powerful city of the ancient world.
Shrine of St. John the Baptist inside the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus
  • 43 Damascus. Considered by some to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus belonged to the empire until 634. The Great Umayyad Mosque started out as a local deity's shrine rebuilt as a Roman temple of Jupiter, which became a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist housing his relics (to this day, they're still there, inside a gilded marble shrine of obviously Byzantine craftsmanship). Its overhaul into the monumental Umayyad mosque, from 706 to 715, is reported to have employed 200 skilled Byzantine decoration craftsmen, architects, stonemasons and mosaicists, sent by emperor Justinian II at the personal request of Umayyad caliph al-Walid.
  • 44 Jerusalem/Old City. The holy city was an imperial possession until 614, when it fell to Sassanid Persia. It was retaken by emperor Heraclius in 629. He famously entered barefoot through the present walled-up eastern gate of the Temple Mount, aka the Golden Gate, built for this occasion, to restore the True Cross to the Holy Sepulchre church in a majestic ceremony, on 21 March 630. Jerusalem was conquered by the Arab armies of Umar ibn al-Khattab in 638.

See also

This travel topic about Byzantine Empire is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.