Mapping the capitals of the Roman Empire

“After celebrating the council [of Nicaea] the Emperor [Constantine the Great]… fortified the walls of Byzantium and embellished buildings, and made it equal to Imperial Rome, and gave it his name of Constantinople, ordering that it be named Second [New] Rome. The law was engraved on a column in the Strategium, by the equestrian statue of the Emperor.” 

(Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, Chapter 16)1

The Roman Empire is one of the most eminent states in the history of the world, and maybe the longest-existing one (BC 753 to AD 1453.) Its centrality and view of the notion of capital city was at the foundation of our view of capital cities and seats of government today. Rome was of course the founding city and the first capital of the Empire, and it was followed by New Rome (Constantinople.) Yet the reality is more complex and other cities did host Roman “capital-ness” as we shall see later. In this article we will map the capital cities of the Roman Empire as seen by Roman citizens themselves. At first we need to proceed to our subject by a theoretical question: what is a capital city, after all? And how Romans defined it? What was the Roman Empire anyways? 

ROMAN CAPITAL CITY

There is no comprehensive definition of what a capital city is. In general, a capital city is a city holding privileges over other cities in a given political system. Usually (but not always) a capital city is home to the country’s government. The modern definition seems to stem from the Greco-Roman tradition and the one in the Justinian Code. In AD 533, the Deo Auctore, first preface of the Digest of Emperor Justinian, gives a clear definition of what a capital is, a city that primes over others within the same body politic:

However, by no means do We allow you to insert into your treatise laws that appearing in ancient works have now fallen into desuetude; since We only desire that legal procedure to prevail which has been most frequently employed, or which long custom has established in this benign City; in accordance with the work of Salvius Julianus which declares that all states should follow the custom of Rome, which is the head of the world, and not that Rome should follow the example of other states; and by Rome is to be understood not only the ancient city, but Our own imperial metropolis also [Constantinople], which by the grace of God was founded under the best auguries.

Thus the capital city is the place or settlement from which operates the central sovereign command of a polity. In the world of today all capitals are cities or towns: but it was not the case in the world of the past, where many political structures were nomadic or where the seat of the government “wandered” in different places. 

Yet do our definitions cover all capital cities and seats of government today, and all of them in the past eras to? We do need to point out to the spatio-temporal differentiation in the spectrum of capital cities in space and time: mapping capitality and capital cities is sometimes a non distributio medii, but it is necessary to begin mapping somewhere then later introduce necessary nuances to reduce errors. Later this year or next year we will also publish a post proper to mapping capital cities of today with all the nuances and reflections on the question. 

THE REPUBLICAN AND MONARCHICAL ROMAN STATE

The old Roman Formula Senatus Populusque Romanus was the description of the Roman Republic as the Senate and the People were the two pillars of sovereignty. Later, the Emperor came to be the representative of the People vis-a-vis the Senate, as this last represented the senatorial class of the elite. In pre-Imperial times the Roman Assemblies were depository of sovereignty, and were composed of the citizens. After the ascent of the Imperial establishment the sovereign powers of the assemblies were transferred to the Emperor, and some to the Senate. In other terms the SPQR motto came now to represent Rome in its diarchy: the Emperor of the People, and the Senate of the elite. Republicanism was not contrary to monarchy: this distinction is modern and made no sense back then. Thus the republican nature of the Roman State continued till at least the year 1204 and maybe till 1453.

How a city is sovereign over others? What are the powers that a Roman capital must have in order to be sovereign over the whole rest of the corpus rei publicae? The Roman political institution was complex and we are short of space to explain it in one post. Nonetheless, we can say that the sovereign part of the Roman body politic went around two centres: the first is the deliberative assembly that represented the interests of the governing elite, the Senate/Senatus/Σύγκλητος; and the second is the Imperial institution, the Emperor Augustus, Imperator/Αυτοκράτωρ or the Augustus/Αύγουστος (Σεβαστός). The first represented the establishment, and the second the “popular” classes. In this the old formula of the Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome, becomes concrete. Both centres intertwined and were so connected that sometimes it is hard to separate what belonged to the first from what the second was. It was also common to see both parties in conflict. Yet in general the Roman State worked in ellipse with two centres of its body politic: the Emperor himself was the “First citizen” of the Senate/Princeps Senatus/Πρώτος της Συγκλήτου. As it is clear, emperors took their titles from the ones of the State. 

THE NAMES OF THE ROMAN STATE

At first we need to point out to the fact that standardised state names and politonyms are the result of modernity and Westphalian-logic world. Thus in the time of the Roman State (till AD 1453) every state could have numerous official names, depending on the political or legal contexts, and they were all regarded as legitimate. Throughout history, all the names used for the Roman State stemmed from the 

The Roman State was known as the Res publica Romana/Ῥωμαίων Επικράτεια. Its most proper name of the political system was the Republic of the Roman People/Res publica Romanorum/Πολιτεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων: it officially was a Republic. The Imperial dimension was asserted in the international relations of the Empire as Imperium Romanum/Ἀρχὴ τῶν Ῥωμαίων. Some sources refer to Authority of the Romans/Auctoritas Romanorum/Eξουσία τῶν Ῥωμαίων when it is the legal context of the State. 

In the context of international relations the Empire was known by the name of the military head of state and its popular sovereign, the Emperor, and the sovereign power he/she held over the state, the imperium/αυτοκρατορία, thus the Empire was known as the Imperium Romanum/Αυτοκρατορία Ῥωμαίων. Since time immemorial the Emperor was known as Basileus/Βασιλεύς (literally “sovereign”) in the East. The Empire was then known as the Basileia Rhomaion/Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, Realm of the Romans; Heraclius formally added the title to his traditional Imperial ones when, around 630, he entered Jerusalem with the Real Cross after his war with Persia2.

In all ages the most used name for the Empire by its own inhabitants and in the popular and legal context was Romania/Ῥωμανία, that is, “Romanland” or Land of the Romans3. There are also other names that were common in some periods, like the very common Ηγεμονία Ῥωμαίων (The Roman Realm),  and other names. 

 

MAPPING ROMAN CAPITALS

We choose to map by “time snapshots.” We also opt for the Common-Era calendar as it is easier and more known. We are aware of the fact that there was a mistake in calculating the CE Calendar between the founding of Rome and the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet the effect of this error is minimal in our calculations.

In our mapping process we will map the two institutions: the seats of the Senate (as squares) and the seats of the Imperial institution (as circles). We shall see the complexity of the State and how it transformed many a time during its history. We will map the capitals according to historical eras and by “snapshots.” 

AD 14: Rome caput Mundi, ruled by the Diarchy Emperor/Senate

 

The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ; Jean-Léon Gérôme; c.1852-1854, Getty Museum.

Since its beginning Rome, the founding city of the Roman State, had been the seat of all powers of the body politic and is the caput Mundi, that is, “capital of the world”, according to the Romans. The Senate administered some provinces, the rich ones around the Mediterranean and with no internal tensions or border challenges.  

Augustus accumulated powers as the principes of the Roman State. He also inaugurated what later came to be known as a “diarchy”, that is, shared rule between him and the Senate. This “diarchical” formula of the Roman State, formally governed by both the Emperors Augusti and the Senate, would last till at least the Thirteenth Century. Astonishingly enough, the age of the first emperor witnessed the birth of Jesus, who would later become the god of the Roman Empire. Before the Imperial era the Roman Assemblies were supposed to the representative bodies of the Populus, and the depository of sovereignty of the Roman State. With the Empire most of their powers were transferred to the Senate, and some, of course, to the Emperor himself. The distinction between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire is theoretical and a later construction: for the Romans themselves the Roman Republic continued as monarchy was not contrary to republicanism. For the Romans themselves the Roman Republic lived until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

AD 212: The world outweighs the City

Officially the Senate still has the same powers and governs from Rome. But by now emperors could be from everywhere in the Roman Empire, the Res publica Populi Romani/Πολιτεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων is still governed by the diarchy of both the Imperial establishment and the Senate. There are less senatorial provinces and emperors are the de facto rulers of the State. Under Emperor Caracalla, the Empire grants Roman citizenship to all free citizens of the Roman Empire in the famous “Antonine Constitution” or the Edict of Caracalla: Roman emperors, augustae, generals, and senators came from everywhere. Rome has become everywhere; Rome indeed became the Oecumene she had wanted to be. As Jerome of Stridon put it two hundred years later, Si auctoritas quaeritur, Orbis maior est Urbe, if you seek authority, the world outweighs the City. 

AD 300: Rome of the multiple Imperial seats

 

The Aula Palatina or the Basilica of Constantine, who had it built in Trier c.310 as his augustan hall. Today it is a church.

Diocletian became emperor in 284. Upon his ascent to the Imperial dignity he instated a system later called the tetrarchy, when four emperors, two senior Augusti, and two minor Caesares, shared the rule of the Empire. After the Third-Century crisis in which generals and local leaders tried to dismember the Roman State, it was essential to keep the unity, thus the four emperors ruled according to the patrimonium indivisum principle. Four seats shared the imperium: Mediolanum (Milan in Italy today) and Nicomedia [Iznik in Turkey today] were the seats of the two Augusti. Augusta Treverorum [Trier in Germany today] and Sirmium [Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia today] for the two Caesares. Antioch [Antakya in Turkey today] was also a second Imperial residence for Diocletian, and Thessalonica for Galerius. The senatorial powers remained in Rome, still the only official capital of the Roman Empire but now home to the Senate only as a sovereign power and locally governed by her praefectus Urbi/ἔπαρχος τῆς Πόλεως. The Senate in Old Rome never gave up its sovereign powers and kept being the sovereign deliberative body of the Roman State for a while.

Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops in Eboracum (Today’s York) in Britannia, on the 25th July 306, succeeding his father Constantius Chlorus. Constantine governed the said westernmost part of the Empire in which Trier was the Imperial seat. Therefore in the Rhenish part of the Roman Empire the Constantinian era began. 

337 AD: New Rome is becoming Rome

A scene from the film “Constantine and the Cross” also known as “Costantino il Grande,” 1961. Cornel Wilde plays the Emperor.

Constantine’s reign was maybe the most significant in Roman history. His role in legalising Christianity is well-documented and well-debated. The rule of Constantine as emperor witnessed a shift that proved to be the most eminent one in Roman history: the founding of New Rome, Nova Roma, Νέα Ῥώμη, also known as Second Rome, Secunda Roma, Δευτέρα Ῥώμη. Since Constantinian times it was known as Constantinople, Constantinopolis, Κωνσταντινούπολις. This new Rome, the New Rome, would become the longest-serving seat of the Roman State, as we will see later in this text. Constantine inaugurated his new capital on the 11th of May 330. 

The Founding of Constantinople, a painting by Rubens, c.1623, at the Museum of Karlsruhe.

Old Rome was still home to the only sovereign Roman Senate of the Empire: the Constantinopolitan Senate created by Constantine had provincial powers, but not Imperial sovereign ones. At the death of Constantine he was deified by the Roman Senate and was canonised by the Church (In spite of some un-Christian aspects of his life.) Constantine’s sons had different Imperial residences. From west to east: Constantine II had his residence in Augusta Treverorum to govern Germania, Gaul, Britannia, Hispania, and Mauretania. Constans I had his Imperial residence in Sirmium and Thessalonica, and later moved it to Mediolanum when his brother Constantine II was killed in 340 so he inherited his part. Constantius II had his residences in Antioch and Constantinople while making passages in Caesarea of Cappadocia. 

Later a major change would be introduced east: Constantius II gave the Constantinopolitan Senate powers that made it equal to the Senate of Old Rome. Thus the Roman Senate had by now two sovereign assemblies: the Old Roman Senate in Rome, and the New Roman Senate in Constantinople. 

AD 412: Two Romes and one Ravenna

Times have indeed changed. The reign of Theodosius (AD 380-395) did centralise the government. After some hesitation, Theodosius moved from Thessalonica to Constantinople which is by now an uncontested capital over the whole Empire. Theodosius divided the Roman Empire, administratively between his sons Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. The East Roman Empire is governed by the Emperor and the Senate in Constantinople. The West Roman Empire was governed by the Emperor in Mediolanum and the Senate in Rome. In 402 Emperor Honorius son of Theodosius moved the Imperial court to Ravenna, which would continue to be the Imperial seat till the fall of the Western Empire and in this quality will have the mausoleum of Galla Placidia (†450) daughter of Theodosius, the most eminent augusta of the Western Roman Empire. 

In 410 Rome itself was sacked by the Goths, an unprecedented act for eight hundred years. That time the panic out of this sack spread over the whole Roman world and pushed Jerome of Stridon to wonder if the world was ending as “it is sinking into ruins.” It also made Augustine of Hippo (†430) write his De Civitate Dei, one of the founding texts of the Christian West. Following the Rescript of Honorius of 410 or 411, Roman cities in Britannia had to be in charge of their own safety and administration, the Imperial protection was no more valid. The Britons remained Roman in their culture, but for now they had no more imperium to protect them: they turned into a sub-Roman “rump” part of the Empire. This weakening and collapse of the central administration were felt everywhere in the Western Empire. Barbarians penetrated deep into the Empire and appropriated lands for themselves. In the Eastern Empire, the central administration could survive the Barbarian advances and could manage to keep the Eastern part almost intact for two more centuries. 

Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch as they are depicted in the Tabula Peutingeriana.

This age also witnessed the last modifications introduced on the Tabula Peutingeriana, one of the very few surviving maps from Roman classical times. The last modifications would have been made at the first decades of the Fifth Century. The astonishing part, already discussed in the site, is not Rome and Constantinople: both Romes have their Tychai as the two capital cities of the Empire (Even if Rome was no more home to emperors, but her Old Roman Senate was still sovereign and it was still the formal seat of the state.) Yet the presence of Antioch as equal to the two Romes is the most intriguing feature of the map. 

AD 451: Western Rome is falling apart

A coin with the effigy of Pulcheria Augusta, crowned by a Hand of God. The inscriptions read AEL[IA] PVLCHERIA AVG[VSTA]. On the obverse Constantinople is personified as the Roman capital, seated with a globus cruciger. From the NumisBids collection.

The Eastern part of the Empire is rather healthy in spite of the numerous economic and political torments. Constantinople is the only formal seat of the Empire, governed by the New Roman Senate on one hand, and by the ruthless and popular augusta Pulcheria and her husband Marcian on the other hand. Constantinople was expanded during the imperium of Theodosius II (†449), who ruled jointly with his sister Pulcheria. Theodosius built new walls around the enlarged city, later known as the Theodosian Walls, protecting the Imperial City for the next thousand years. 

The Western Roman Empire is ailing. Rome is still the seat of the Old Roman Senate, and Ravenna the Imperial court. Yet the lands of the Empire are being dislocated: Britannia is formally abandoned since the times of Honorius and its inhabitants had to face the Barbarian invasion by their own means. The Vandals marched on Africa and occupied all territories of Carthage and Tripolitania, the Visigoths installed their federated kingdom in Toulouse in southern Gaul, the Franks are federated in northern Gaul, and other peoples are sweeping across the Imperial lands. And above all the Huns are pillaging the Rhine and northern Gaul and northern Italy… But, in spite of the torment, Flavius Aetius could stop the Hun alliance in the battle of the Catalaunian Plains, in today’s Champagne in France.

The Theodosian Walls from inside

In the East New Rome is really Rome: it has the very same prerogatives of Old Rome, and its capital status is as strong as the Old one. ًWe quote the resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon as a primary source attesting to this. In 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon convened under the auspices of Pulcheria and Marcian, decided that the New Rome be given the very same prerogatives as Old Rome, a sign that the political sovereign prerogatives of Constantinople were by then equal to those of Old Rome. The reference to the diarchy of sovereignty Emperor/Senate is clear in the Canon 28 of the Council’s resolutions:4

The fathers rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of new Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honoured by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equalling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her. 

AD 480: New Rome is the only Imperial Rome

A radical change happened to the Roman Empire: the Western imperium collapsed in 476 when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Barbarian chief Odoacer. Later in 480, near Salona, the capital of Dalmatia and of the rump part of the Western Empire, the de iure emperor, Julius Nepos, was killed. The Old Roman Senate sent the Western regalia to the Eastern Emperor Zeno: the administrative division of the Empire was officially abolished. But the Eastern Emperor, now the only Roman Emperor, reigned effectively over the Eastern part and had no effective power over the Western half. Later, Emperor Anastasius recognized Clovis as a legitimate king of the Franks and conferred an honorary consular dignity on him.

Rome still had her Old Roman Senate, but now without imperium and without an Augustus so to implement whatsoever decisions, a mere legislative body without executive powers. In the East, Constantinople centralises all the powers with emperors having their permanent court there, and the New Roman Senate being the sovereign deliberative assembly with executive powers of the whole Roman State now. Since then and till the end, Constantinople will remain the main court city and Imperial residence of Roman emperors.

The Britons were still attached to their Romanness in spite of the loss of any form of central rule. In northern Gaul Syagrius governed around Soissons in continuity with the Roman past and kept his allegiance to Constantinople. But his rule was destroyed by the Frankish chief Clovis in 486. This very Clovis was granted an honorary consulship after his baptism in the Nicene Christianity (An honorary one, he was never appointed a real consul so to appear in the Consular lists.) New Rome, the only capital of the Roman Empire, certified the birth of the Frankish polity as a legitimate successor to some Roman rule to the north of the Alps. Gregory of Tours mentions this honorary consulship in his Book II of the History of the Franks:5

Clovis received an appointment to the consulship from the emperor Anastasius, and in the church of the blessed Martin he clad himself in the purple tunic and chlamys, and placed a diadem on his head. Then he mounted his horse, and in the most generous manner he gave gold and silver as he passed along the way which is between the gate of the entrance [of the church of St. Martin] and the church of the city, scattering it among the people who were there with his own hand, and from that day he was called consul or Augustus. Leaving Tours he went to Paris and there he established the seat of his kingdom. There also Theodoric came to him.

AD 565: Make Rome Great Again

The mosaics of Justinian and Theodora at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

In this year Emperor Justinian passes away. During their reign, Justinian and his spouse Theodora (†548), cosovereigns, began a reconquest plan of the western parts of the Empire and could succeed in Italy, North Africa, Dalmatia, and southern Hispania. Justinian promulgated the first comprehensive codification of Roman law, known later as the Corpus Iuris Civilis. This most comprehensive collection of Roman Law is still the mother of all civil codes in the world. Justinian also built Hagia Sophia in its current form, the greatest church of the Roman Empire and the biggest church in Christendom for almost thousand years. In spite of the plague and the many problems in the Justinian legacy, the Lebanese historian Assad Rustum does exclaim about the Emperor “Is there more grandiose than the Collection of Law and Hagia Sophia?

Constantinople is home to the emperors and to the New Roman Senate; while Rome still has its Old Roman Senate, now again a part of the Empire. In the Justinian Law, as we have seen above, Rome and Constantinople are both Roma caput Mundi, that is, Imperial capitals. 

Hagia Sophia, seen from the ancient placement of the Augustaion and the Hippodrome. all in the very central place of Constantinople during Roman times.

The Old Roman Senate is beginning to disappear. After Justinian’s death and the Lombard invasion of Italy many Senate members left the Eternal City or were killed and the old Roman senatorial class was decimated by wars and almost annihilated by the Goths, then by the Lombards. Old Rome became a shadow of its glorious past. It is maybe no coincidence that Pope Gregory the Great was the last to bear the name of an illustrious Roman gens, the Anicii. Gregory himself was the praefectus Urbi6thus presided the Old Roman Senate and was very knowledgeable about it. After being elected to the Petrine Ministry and in his Homilies on Ezekiel he laments the disappearance of the Senate in Rome7:

Cities have been destroyed, forts overturned, fields deserted, the earth emptied in solitude… For since the Senate has failed, the people have perished, and the sufferings and groans of the few who remain are multiplied each day. Rome, now empty, is burning. 

AD 630: New Rome is the only caput Mundi 

The Heraclian era witnessed an event that was a great landmark in Roman history: the Old Roman Senate in Rome ceased to convene. Under the usurper Phocas and the last years of Gregory the Great’s Pontificate it was still present, though collapsing as we saw in the homilies of Gregory. But it ceased to exist later and the Curia Julia, the Senate house, was converted into a church around the year 630 when Honorius I was pope. It is very probable that the institutions of the Old Roman Senate merged into those of the Holy See. 

The Emperor Heraclius carrying the Cross into Jerusalem, by Giovanni Palma, c.1620, Chiesa dei Gesuiti in Venice. Picture by Didier Descouens.

Constantinople is by then the only capital city of the Empire: the Imperial residence, and home to the New Roman Senate which is by now the only sovereign deliberative body in the Roman State. After 350 years of “multi-capital state”, all powers of Emperors and Senate are again together in one place, this time the New Rome on the Bosphorus.

The year 630 was a break, a rest, between two very turbulent times. After the assassination of Emperor Maurice in 602 Persian armies swept across the eastern parts of the Empire. Jerusalem fell in 614 and Persians carried away the True Cross. Later, they attacked Egypt and Asia Minor and raided the Asian outskirts of Constantinople. On the other side, in the Balkans, the Avars raided the whole space between the Danube and the Mediterranean. Cities like Thessalonica, Corinth, Athens, Serdica, and Patras could hardly withstand the shock. But the countryside was submerged. Constantinople could hardly be kept safe thanks to its Theodosian and Anastasian Walls. In 626 the Avars and the Persians tried to kill the Roman State in Constantinople, laying siege to the city. But they failed and the Roman world survived these years8. Since then and out of such horrors the Roman Empire in the East gradually thought itself as the “chosen people”, and its capital New Rome as also the capital chosen by God for the Romans. During this time Emperor Heraclius thought of moving the Imperial seat to Carthage, where his father Heraclius the Elder served as exarch of Africa: but the plan was never implemented. The status quo ante bellum peace with the Persians gave the Roman Empire a Pyrrhic victory and could not save the Persian State, sinking into chaos. In the extreme west Imperial possessions in Hispania were taken over by the Visigoths. The Empire had no sufficient manpower to stop it, and because of the Visigoths’ conversion from Arianism into orthodox Catholic Christianity in AD 589 (They were no more “enemies”.)

Beginning in 633 the Roman Empire faced a new invasion, this time stronger and more far-reaching: the Arab tribes of Arabia invaded the Fertile Crescent. Damascus fell in AD 636. Antioch, once an Imperial residency, followed in 637, and Jerusalem in AD 638, surrendering to the Caliph Omar himself so to protect the Holy Places. The invaders continued to occupy Egypt, and one decade later Cyrenaica, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, and Armenia, were subdued. Yet and in spite of all the calamities of the Seventh Century the central government of the Romans in Constantinople kept functioning: the Imperial court and the Senate worked together to secure the survival of the Roman Empire. The Roman State could survive what no other state in history could during this period. The years have left an important legacy in the liturgies and religious rituals of the Roman Empire, notably in the troparion of the Feast of the Cross (14th September) which emphasises the relation between emperor, people, and the politeia9

O Lord save Thy people

And bless Thine inheritance,

Granting victory to our Emperors over the Barbarians,

And by the power of Thy Cross,

Preserve Thy Republic [commonwealth]10

Much much later, these words written in the Roman context were and are still used in times of misfortune. These are the very words that open the Overture 1812 of Tchaikovsky, in a praying mode, and conclude it in the triumphal one. Here is the version sung by the Cappella Romana ensemble, from Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812:

 

AD 663: Between New Rome and Syracuse

Emperor Constantine IV Pogonatus, with his co-emperor brothers Justinian and Heraclius, handing privileges to Ravenna (c. AD 700.) The image is property of the Italian government.

The Arab invasion is clearly seen in this map: the Roman Empire lost all that lies between Armenia and Tripolitania. Carthage and the Exarchate of Africa were still Roman. Constantinople is the seat of the New Roman Senate and where reside most members of the Imperial family. But Emperor Constans II son of Heraclius resides in Syracuse in Sicily. The Emperor left Constantinople in 660 for a long visit west in which he passed by Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, then Italy. For him, Syracuse might have been the most strategic place to organise war operations of the Lombards to the north in Italy and the Saracens to the south in Africa. After his visit to Rome (the first Roman emperor to do it in almost two centuries and the last to do it before the 14th Century), he relocated to Syracuse. Rumours said that he wanted to make it the new Imperial official capital. The Senate prohibited other members of the Imperial household of leaving Constantinople. Constans II was killed in Syracuse in 668. After him and till the reign of the two last Palaiologoi no Roman emperor thought of changing the official capital from Constantinople. 

Constans’ Syracusan residency was quite well-known that more than fifty years after his death John Damascene, the greatest eastern Roman theologian of his time and when writing his work Against those who decry icons, called Constans “Constantine of Sicily.” Constans’ son, Constantine IV “the Pogonatus” (†685) would become the emperor abolishing the Monothelitist theological controversy and to stop the Arabs on the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.  

AD 730: New Rome about to lose Old Rome

The Roman capital Constantinople underwent two Arab sieges: in 677-680 and in 717-718. During the “chaos” between 695 and 717, in spite of the succession of numerous antagonist emperors, the Roman State could function and its central administration was kept intact, undoubtedly thanks to the Senate. Leo III the Isaurian, born in Germanicea in Syria, was elected emperor and managed to save the City. Yet he later introduced iconoclastic policies that caused unrest in the Roman Empire for more than hundred years and led to growing bitterness between the patriarchates of Old Rome (the Papacy) and New Rome. At first, Pope Gregory II refused Leo’s policies and severed his relations with him. 

In 731, following the iconoclastic decree of Leo III, the Syrian-born Pope Gregory III severed ties with the Emperor in Constantinople and rendered Old Rome quasi-independent from the Roman Empire. Thereby was born the nucleus of the Papal States. In answer, Leo III annexed the eparchies of Illyricum (Continental Greece and most of the Archipelago): thus Old Rome had no more territorial possessions, even Church ones, in the Roman Empire. Again Old Rome belongs no more to the Roman Empire: the world outweighs the City, again and again. This fact of Old Rome itself being outside the Roman Empire weighed a lot in the later problems between Easter and Western Churches. Agapius of Hierapolis (†10th Century) describes that11:

In that year [AD 726] [Emperor] Leo ordered that images of martyrs be taken off from churches and buildings and places. When Gregory [II or III] the patriarch of Rome knew he became angry and prevented the People of Rome and of Antioch from paying tribute to Leo. 

We do not know how the Popes had power over Antioch. But they did over Rome, and that was the essential in Agapius’ testimony. 

AD 800: New Rome contested

After the adventure of Constans II in Sicily no emperor changed his or her official Imperial residency: all lived, theoretically, in Constantinople, protected by the Theodosian and Anastasian Walls. In the year AD 800 a woman was ruling alone and was alone vested with the imperium, Irene of Athens. After being the augusta of her husband Leo IV the Khazar, Irene became regent over her son Constantine VI. In this capacity she convened a Church council in Nicaea in AD 787, later known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The council condemned iconoclasm and restored icons to churches. But later Irene or her partisans had Constantine blinded so she be alone the augusta and the empress regnant. But Irene’s ascendance to the senior Imperial dignity was later used as a pretext to justify the papal act of coronating Charlemagne a “Roman” emperor. An emperor would never be chosen by a clergyman alone (like the Pope), but elected by the Senate, acclaimed by the People and by the armies. The papal precedent began a history of rivalry between the old true Roman Empire and a newly-created Germanic one.12

After Irene Emperor Nicephorus I generalised the theme system almost all over the Empire: this defensive mode of administration would govern the Empire till at least AD 1204. During this time the Roman State began to recover parts of the Peloponnese and of Hellas.

AD 900: The Roman Empire of the better times

Constantinople is the uncontested capital of the Roman Empire, the seat of the Emperors and the home to the Senate. It is the richest city in the whole world and the most elaborate and sophisticated one. The Roman Empire began by now to recover from the huge challenges of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries. After the death of Emperor Theophilos (†842), his wife Theodora became regent over their son Michael II and restored the icons, rendering obsolete the state iconoclasm. Later, Theodora was canonised and her relics were translated to Corfu, a fact that would make her one of the very few “surviving” emperors and empresses. The important territorial losses of the Ninth Century were Crete (827) and Sicily (827-902.) The loss of Crete to Andalusian pirates was a big blow to the Empire as it did expose the Aegean Sea to piracy acts for a long time. The loss of Sicily to Aghlabid emirs of Tunisia led to the loss of maritime hegemony beyond the Sicilian Straits (Scylla and Charybdis). Naples and Gaeta become autonomous under Imperial authority. In the north, the Venetian Duchy expanded and became more autonomous, always under the sovereignty of the Empire. After killing Michael III and being proclaimed emperor by the Senate, the Army regiments and the people of the Imperial City (according to the very old Roman tradition), Emperor Basil I expanded Imperial borders beyond the mountain passes east of Asia Minor and destroyed the Paulician sect in Tephrice.

Empress Theodora with the Senate, a depiction in the History of John Skylitzes, c.12C, now in Mardid.

An important change was introduced at the very centre of the Empire. Emperor Leo VI the Wise had a new collection of Laws, mostly consisting of translating the Justinian Law into Romaic Greek. But the Emperor introduced new laws, that is, “Novels”. In the Novel XCIV the consular dignity was abolished and its powers merged into Imperial prerogatives, as since Justinian all consuls were the reigning emperors. In the Novel LXXVIII the powers of enacting laws are taken from the Senate “since the supreme power was acquired by emperors.” This qualitative important change meant that the Imperial court now, de iure, prevailed in most matters over the Senate. Yet this last retained most of its sovereign powers and would continue to do so till 1204.

The testimony of Al-Masudi (†956), the Arab geographer, is precious as it provides us with one of the first mentions of the name Istanbul as seat of the Roman Empire. Al-Masudi’s arguments in his book Al Tanbih wal Ishraf [The Attention and the supervision]  – dating back to the beginning of the Tenth Century – prove that this name of the City is not only Romaic Greek, but it is also originated in the Roman tradition of Constantinople capital of the Roman State. We quote the Arab geographer13:

After three years he [Emperor Constantine the Great] built the city of Constantinople on the bay of the Maytos [Pontos], known today as the Khazar sea, to the Roman sea [the Mediterranean] and the Sham [Syria or Levant] and Egypt. [He built it] in the place called Tabula [Damalis?] of the town of Byzantium, and he fortified it and adorned it with buildings. And he made it his seat of rule, and added his name to it. After him, the Emperors of the Romans reside in it till today. The Romans call it Bulin [Polis, ἡ Πόλις], and when they want to talk about it as the seat of the Empire, out of its greatness, they say Istin Bulin [Stin Poli, στην Πόλη] and not Constantinople.  

AD 976: The new Roman renaissance

Depiction of Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas at the church of Saint Titus in Heraklion, Crete.

The Roman Empire is expanding. Again the Romans reached the lower Danube in their expeditions against Bulgaria, unprecedented since the reign of Heraclius. Under Emperor Romanos (†963) the leader Nicephorus Phocas reconquered Crete and established a new theme in it. After Romanos’ death Nicephorus was proclaimed emperor in Caesarea and marched to Constantinople. His reign was that of a real territorial regains. After three centuries Cilicia and northern Syria returned to the Roman Empire. Antioch, once a seat of emperors and a city essential in the history of Christendom, returned to the Empire in 969. Cyprus was reincorporated into the Roman Empire after three centuries of the condominium between Romans and Arabs. The only territorial loss was to the extreme west: Gaeta becomes a de iure independent duchy (with some Imperial will), and the Aghlabids occupied Taormina and Rometta in Sicily ans thus Roman rule was confined to the Italian Peninsula.

Roman emperors like Nicephorus II Phocas (†969), John I Tzimisces (†976), and Basil II (†1025) spent their lives in military operations far from the Queen City. Yet Constantinople is the only official capital of the Roman Empire, its only official Imperial residence and the place of the Senate. The capital role is established and by now written not only in law but also in Imperial diplomacy and tradition, as writes Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in his De administrando Imperio14 

In the past, all the territory of Italy, Naples, Capua, Benevento, Salerno, Amalfi, Gaeta, and all Lomabrdy were possessions of the Romans, I say when Rome was the Imperial capital. But, after the moving of the capital to Constantinople, all these territories were divided into two governments, two patricians were usually sent by the Emperor of Constantinople, one of the patricians to govern Sicily, Calabria, Naples, and Amalfi, and the other with his seat in Benevento to govern Pavia, Capua, and all the rest.  

In spite of some inaccuracies, the essential part of the paragraph by the Emperor is valid: the Imperial capital was moved to Constantinople. 

AD 1034: Eastern Rome at a new peak

Basil II, a modern depiction by JFoliveras from DeviantArt

Constantinople reigns supreme over the vast territories extending from the Sicilian Straits to the Caucasus, and from the Danube and Scythia to the Syrian steppe. The military operations of Emperor Basil II (†1025) consolidated the Imperial rule in northern Syria and annexed the Bulgarian State. By that time sister Empresses Zoe and Theodora, daughters of Constantine VIII, reigned. In spite of their shaky government, they were popular and on numerous occasions, people took to the streets to show their support of the Macedonian sisters. The sisters resided in Constantinople, where the Senate was also active and usually backing the sisters against their husbands, maybe following the people, who endeared the sisters as rightful monarchs and mothers of the people. The republican dimension of the Roman State is expressed, negatively, by the contemporaneous historian Michael Psellus (†1078), who wrote about the times of the Macedonian emperors. In his point of view expressed in the Chapter 134 of his Book VI of the Chronography, the equality followed by the Roman State is rather negative and inherited from Romulus15:

Here I will deviate somewhat from the main narrative for one moment. In well-governed cities there are inscribed on the citizen-rolls the names not only of the best persons and men of noble birth, but also of people whose origin is obscure, and military authorities observe this custom no less than civil magistrates. That, at all events, was the system followed by the Athenians and in all those cities which emulated their form of democracy. In our polity [Republic], however, this excellent practice has been contemptuously abandoned, and nobility counts for nothing. The process of corruption has been going on in the Senate for a long time: it is, in fact, a heritage of the past, for Romulus was the first to encourage the kind of confusion we see now. Today the citizenship is open to all. No doubt you would find not a few wearing civilized clothes, who formerly covered themselves in a goat’s-hair cloak. Many of our government are, I am sure, ex-slaves whom we bought from barbarians, and our great offices of state are entrusted not to men of the stamp of Pericles, or Themistocles, but to worthless scamps like Spartacus.

The notion of tradition, as it is described by Hannah Arendt in her 1961’s essay “Tradition and the modern age” is direct and clear in Psellus’ text. What we today find as a great attribute of democracy, equality among all citizens, did not find grace in the author’s eyes. Yet his text is an important insight of our mapping: the Senate moved from Old Rome, and the absolute republican equality among citizens was still holding and rendering the Roman Empire a res publica in the old sense of the word. Astonishingly enough, an ideal state of today is exactly what Psellus criticised in the Roman State of his time: not only a polity ruled by the demos δήμος, but also by the laos λαός. 

AD 1096: New Rome without Asia Minor

Constantinople is the Imperial and senatorial capital. Yet two major changes happened between 1050 and 1100: at first, the “popular” government of the Macedonians ceased to exist with the death of Theodora in 1055 and the failure of the Macedonian line. Aristocrats seized power and kept it till 1453 (with the exception of the rather-old-style Roman polity of the Lascaris in Nicaea and in which the populus played a major role.) The second change is the arrival of the Seljuk Turks. After the battle of Mantzikert in 1071, the Seljuk Turks swept across Asia Minor and occupied most of the interior lands. Some of the Roman possessions were lost for good. 

Theodora Porphyrogenita, the last empress of the Macedonian dynasty. Depiction in the book “Rulers of the Byzantine Empire” by Kibea.

Other important changes happened west: in 1082 the Venetian polity had obtained a chrysobull by Alexios I, and thus became de iure quasi-independent. The Venetian jurisdiction was also extended to the Dalmatian cities, so since then, the Dalmatian coast was also administered by the Serenissima. In southern Italy all the Roman possessions were lost to the Normans, except the tiny Duchy of Naples, still under nominal Imperial authority and surrounded by Norman polities.

Another event happened in 1054 and when it did almost nobody could know how catastrophic it would be in the future. Cardinal Humbertus (the Papal legate) and the patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius excommunicated each other. The excommunication was never extended on the whole Patriarchates of Rome and of New Rome. Plus the Pope was by that time, thus the excommunication was null. But much later the event was remembered as the “Great Schism” that divided the orthodox Catholic Church into a Roman/Latin Catholic West and a Roman/Greek Orthodox East. The mutual excommunications of Cerularius and Humbertus were withdrawn on the 7th of December 1965 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras

But Constantinople is still home to Emperors and Senate. The confirmation of this fact, established by the texts of the Council of Chalcedon as we saw above, is also mentioned by Anna Comnena, daughter of Alexios I and the most prominent female historian of the middle ages. In her Alexiad, Anna argues that since Constantinople is the capital city of the Romans, her bishop must also be the supreme bishop of the Romans, and not the bishop of Old Rome. We do not agree with this argument of Anna as it contradicts the texts of the Ecumenical councils. Yet her text on the movement of supreme political power of the Romans from Rome to Constantinople is the most valid:16

For when the imperial seat was transferred from Rome hither to our native Queen of Cities, and the senate, and the whole administration, there was also transferred the arch-hierachical primacy. And the Emperors from the very beginning have given the supreme right to the episcopacy of Constantinople, and the Council of Chalcedon emphatically raised the Bishop of Constantinople to the highest position, and placed all the dioceses of the inhabited world under his jurisdiction.

AD 1170: The last decades of the uninterrupted Antiquity

Mosaics of the Mother of God between Emperor John II Komnenos and his spouse and Augusta Irene of Hungary. 12th Century, Hagia Sophia.

The Roman Empire recovered partially from the years of the 1090s. The economy is still strong, the Imperial court of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (†1180) benefited from the territorial regains of Manuel’s father, Emperor John II (†1143.) Later, John’s age was viewed as a golden one, and Constantinople was still the most magnificent capital in Christendom. Manuel exercised a certain loose and indirect suzerainty over the Latin states in the Levant. The Nativity Church restoration inscription says:

The present work was finished by the hand of Ephrem the monk, painter and mosaic worker, in the reign of the great emperor Manuel Porphyrogenitus Comnenus and in the time of the great king of Jerusalem, our lord Amalric [Amaury], and of the most holy bishop of holy Bethlehem, the lord Ralph, in the year 6677 [AD 1169], second indiction.

Constantinople is still the incontestable seat of the Roman emperors and the last capital of Antiquity in a medieval world, also the capital of all eastern Christians, “Latin” and “Greek”. The Senate is still alive and active but with even more reduced powers since the reign of Alexios I.

AD 1203: The fall of the Res Publica of the Romans

Enrico Dandolo, the doge of Venice, a depiction from the 19th Century.

Antiquity is living its very last days: contrary to what is generally thought Antiquity continued after the fall of Rome and after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Helleno-Roman world. Clearly, the political formula of the diarchy, emperors and senate, is Antiquity. But this Antiquity was by then dying, it could survive the attacks of Barbarians from the north and from the south, but apparently no more. Constantinople had no clear single imperium, numerous emperors were elected or proclaimed by the Roman state elite. Upon the fall the New Roman Senate was still alive and one of its last acts was to elect an emperor. After the fall of 1204, no permanent senate is attested: the sovereign powers of this deliberative assembly are over. Venetians and Franks had a plan to divide the “empire of Romania” as they called it. Enrico Dandolo, the very old doge of Venice, styled himself Dominus quartae partis et dimidiae totius Imperii Romaniae, Lord of the quarter and a half-quarter of the empire of Romania. Venice did know very well the eastern Roman context and politics as the Venetian Republic itself was the daughter of the Empire as we already mapped it in this site. Even the Frankish warriors of Champagne and Flanders “went Roman’ and adopted local style and traditions.  

The fall of the Politeia/Res Publica of the Romans in Constantinople is of course not the result of the immediate events, but these events are rather its outcome. Nicetas Choniates (†1217), the great eastern Roman historian of the Fourth Crusade, points out to this anomaly in the Roman State in his Annals. For him, the emperor is to be elected by the people, the senate, and the army, in the purest old Roman tradition17:

The officials of the State [Republic, Πολιτεία]  had already declared for him, his entry had been made ready by his wife Euphrosyne, and at least a faction of the senate had happily accepted the outcome of events. When the citizens heard the proclamations, they engaged in no seditious act but remained calm from the beginning and applauded the news, neither remonstrating nor being inflamed by righteous indignation at being deprived by the troops of their customary right to elect the emperor.

AD 1220: Roman successor states

In 1220 the Roman State was not there, there were Roman states around, successor states claiming to be the embodiment of the continuity of the Roman State from times immemorial. The most Roman of these rump states is the one centred at Nicaea in Asia Minor, where Theodore I Lascaris built an Imperial-like government and was crowned by the legitimate patriarch of Constantinople after being acclaimed by the people and by senators who fled Constantinople. It was said that his brother Constantine was elected emperor in Constantinople by the remnants of the body politic there the day Crusaders stormed the City. In addition to the seat in Nicaea, the Lascaris leaders built their secondary residence in Nymphaeum, not far from Smyrna and Ephesus in Ionia, on the western shores of Asia Minor. In Nymphaeum important treaties were concluded between the Roman rump polity and Italian states.

In Trebizond, as we have seen before, an Imperial-like government was erected there since before the fall of the Empire in Constantinople. The Trapezuntine State covered the southern shores of the Black Sea and the Crimean possessions of the Empire. A third polity appeared in Epirus where Michael Komnenos-Doukas (Angelos) set his court and government in Arta, and where his successors would continue to rule till 1449. In Constantinople itself reigned a Latin “empire of Romania” that was created on the ruins of the Roman Empire. The sovereigns of this polity claimed full Roman legitimacy as emperors, even if they were in clear rupture with the Roman tradition that preceded them.

AD 1270: The lesser New Rome

The Roman Empire is again in Constantinople: New Rome is again the seat of the imperium. Yet no deliberative assembly in a senatorial manner exists now, the Roman Empire is governed by Imperial powers. Apparently the rest of the republican powers – existent in the Nicaean Roman state – were dropped by Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, who governed more like a feudal than an Augustus of old. The diarchy disappeared, but still emperors were formally there by the will of the people, at least theoretically.

Again the Empire extends from the Adriatic to the Black sea, but it is a shadow of what it was before 1204 and twenty-five times smaller than the Empire of Septimius Severus. Most parts of continental Greece (Hellas), the Morea (Peloponnese), and the Archipelago (the Aegean isles) are not under Imperial Roman authority. Plus, the Empire’s access to the Adriatic is blocked by Dyrrachium (Durazzo), disputed between the Epirotes and the Angevins. The Imperial navy was reduced to a tiny fleet, compared to the important one that the Angeloi inherited in 1185. Yet the Roman Empire was still an international political player; Michael VIII could actively participate in the Sicilian Vespers so to set into chaos Charles Anjou’s project of occupying Constantinople again. Mich

The chrysobull of Alexios III and his wife Theodora Kantakouzene, emperors in Trebizond, to the Vatopedi monastery of Mount Athos, c. Mid-14th Century. The Empress has Double-Headed Eagles on her vetsments.

ael also erected a column to immortalise the reconquest of the Roman capital, in this regard he was like the Romans of old.

But Constantinopolitan politics made the Imperial establishment neglect the Asian side of the Empire: the Akritai warriors, ancestral defenders of Asia Minor in continuity of the millennial Roman tradition of the limitanei, were left for their own.

Other centres of imperia existed, Trebizond for the Trapezuntine Roman state; the sovereign of Trebizond bore the title of Emperor Autocrator of the East. Trebizond still controlled the Crimean possessions (Perateia.) Arta was the centre of the Epirote state. The Roman state in Thessaly stemmed from the Epirote one and was centred around Neopatras, today known as Ypati, in central Greece. 

The Palaiologian period witnessed the generalisation of the Double-Headed Eagle as symbol of the Roman State, and the introduction of the tetragrammatic cross as an emblem of the Roman State. These two symbols adorned coats of arms, emblems, clothes, Imperial bulls and decrees, and buildings. Trapezuntine emperors and Epirote governors used the Double-Headed Eagle too. 

AD 1350: The Roman petty Empire

On the map, the Roman Empire looks like a small state whose heritage and name are much bigger than its present. The Ottoman Turks occupied most of the rest of the Asian possessions of the Empire and became sovereign of territories off Constantinople the Imperial capital. The two Imperial residencies of Nicaea and Nymphaeum fell. Nicomedia, an old Imperial residency, followed. The Roman possessions are now reduced to some disparate towns like Pegai, Heraclea in Bithynia, Amastris, and Philadelphia as we will see later. In the Morea, Mystras is by now a seat of a “despotate” that looked more like a typical western apanage, yet it still followed Imperial nominal rule and some powers were never devolved from Constantinople (like for example legislative powers, the Morea didn’t introduce new laws.) Constantinople, the Imperial capital, still commands most of Thrace and the city of Thessalonica. We do know that the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos is still called ΒΑCΙΛΕΥC ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΩΡ ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ ΚΑΙ ΑΕΙ ΑΥΓΟΥCΤΟC, and his spouse Empress Helena Dragasis ΑΥΓΟΥCΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΟΡΙCΑ ΡΩΜΑΙΩΝ on the miniature of the family, given by Manuel Chrysoloras to the royal abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris circa 1408

Emperor Manuel II depicted as Augustus in the Tres Riches Heures (c.1415)

Emperor Manuel II depicted as Augustus in the Très Riches Heures (c.1415) ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda.

Trebizond is still the seat of a Trapezuntine Imperial state, Arta of the Epirote one. Philadelphia in Asia Minor is still Roman but governed by its own bishop who, with the citizens, set self-rule in the Roman manners. Thus the isolated city commanded its own imperium while theoretically remaining under the Imperial authority. In the Crimea, Gothia is by now autonomous and under its own princes of the Gabras family (that governed Trebizond under the Komnenos emperors in Constantinople.) The prince still paid nominal allegiance to the emperor in Trebizond and still considered themselves Romans. But they kept their reduced imperium in Theodoro/Mangup in the mountains of southern Crimea, between the Genoese and the Tatars.

In 1400 Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos goes to the west in a journey to gather what is necessary to stop the catastrophe and save the Roman Empire. For the first time since Constans II “of Sicily” a Roman emperor in direct continuity with Antiquity visits the western countries, and the first to set foot in Britain for thousand years (The last was Theodosius the Great.) The journey of Manuel II was not fruitful as western monarchs seemed more eager to fight each other than to save the ailing Roman Empire. Yet the prestige of the Roman continuity continued to fascinate: in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, one of the best and most complete late medieval manuscripts (made in the 1410s), depicts Manuel II as Octavian Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, praying Virgin Mary with the prophetess Sibylla of Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Folio 22.) Manuel is still the direct line from Augustus. The same document also depicts him in its Folio 51, as King Melchior, one of the three Magi kings in the Biblical story of the Nativity. New Rome is still the augustan seat. 

Simultaneously, the agonising Roman Empire became a centre of a cultural renaissance. Savants like Bessarion, Manuel Chrysoloras, John Argyropoulos, Constantine Lascaris, and Gemistos Pletho taught Greek and Greek literature and science in Italy and were at the origin of the Italian Renaissance. Chrysoloras (+1415) taught in Old Rome and wrote a description of both Old and New Romes. The inscription on one of his images, kept at the British Museum, reads Patria Roma Nova est; Vetus altera patria Roma: In Latium per me Graecia docta venit, that is, “My homeland is New Rome, my other [homeland] is Old Rome, I am in Latium to teach Greek knowledge.” 

AD 1449: The Roman Empire in agony

The last moments before the Fall of 1453: Constantine XI Palaiologos between Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great. By Rana Venturas

The first page of the Bergshammar Armorial, c.1440, with the two monarchs of Germany and of Constantinople as emperors, followed by the kings of France and of Denmark.

The Roman Empire looks more like a city-state. Constantinople is still the formal seat of the Roman Empire, but the last emperor, Constantine XI, was elected and crowned in Mystras of the Morea, which by now grew into a court almost as important as the City of Constantine’s. New Rome commanded Thrace only up to the Anastasian Wall, with a very thin strip of coastal lands to the north. But in Christendom it is still the Empire, Constantinople is still somewhat the Roman Empire, of course added to the Germanic one that claimed to be Roman and holy. This could for example be seen in the armorial rolls like the Bergshammar Armorial, edited in Brabant around the year 1440 and today available online at the National Archives of Sweden. The Emperor in Constantinople is still mentioned at the beginning of all Christian monarchs, along with the German Emperor. 

Arta, and with it Epirus, fell to the Ottomans this year. Trebizond and Theodoro are still the seats of the Trapezuntine empire and the Gothian principality, respectively. 

AD 1460: Post-Imperial Roman successor states

Constantinople as depicted by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, c.1422 in the Liber Insularum Archipelagi. The book was published after the Fall but still depicts the City as the Roman capital known by the cartographer.

The Roman Empire is no more, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans on the 29th of May 1453. The last Roman emperor, Constantine XI, died defending his capital city and his people. He was assisted by the megas doux Lucas Notaras and by Giovanni Giustiniani Longo and some others. Some days after the fall Lucas Notaras was beheaded, and Giustiniani Longo died in Chios, out of his wounds. The Roman State died after more than 2200 years, born in Rome to pass away in New Rome. The Last of the Romans, Constantine XI, is revered as a martyr by Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. 

But there are still Roman states around, commanding some form of imperium without being the Roman Empire. Mystras was still a formal seat of the Palaiologoi despots of the Morea, Roman successors; Trebizond was still the seat of the Trapezuntine empire and of an emperor whose legitimacy stems directly from the Roman State (soon to fall); from Theodoro the Gabras princes of Gothia were still resisting. In May 1460 Mystras fell to the invaders while its population fled to Monemvasia and Venice; Trebizond followed in August 1461 and with it all imperium stemming from the Roman Empire of old; in 1463 the last emperor of Trebizond, David II Megas Komnenos, was beheaded with his three sons and nephew, and he is also revered as a martyr by Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. Theodoro/Gothia was left as the last Roman state in direct continuity with the Roman Imperial uninterrupted tradition, but of course without being Imperial itself. Theodoro fell to the Ottoman invaders in December 1476.

In the Italian Peninsula Cardinal Bessarion championed his native Romanland and its capital Constantinople. Anna Notaras, the savant daughter of Lucas Notaras, lived in Rome and then Venice after the fall, where she became the founder of the local church and the local Romioi Ρωμιοί (literally Roman) Greek community…

And even in the 20th Century Melina Merkouri could sing Είμαι Ρωμιά! And Constantine Cavafy could write his poem Πάρθεν18 :

I have been reading demotic [popular] songs,

I have also read mourning songs about the loss of the City [Constantinople],

“They took the city, they took it, they took Thessalonica.”

…..

But, alas, “A fateful bird comes from Constantinople,”

Romania is taken

Cavafy’s poem is based on popular songs from the Pontos and elsewhere. Popularly, Constantinople still lives as the capital of Romania. The 1500 years of Romanitas/Ρωμιοσύνη still lives in popular songs, in the Kalanda traditions, in the eastern Church calendars, in literature, and among serious historians. 

THE ROMAN CAPITAL CITIES 27 BC – 1461 AD

We map all the capitals of the Roman Empire between 27th CB and 1461 AD. We map the capital cities of the Roman Empire by imperium and by senatorial powers. Yet the mapping is not exclusive: some cities hosted simultaneously Imperial sovereign functions, and in full legitimacy. 

Cities seats of Imperial powers

Constantinople is the longest-serving capital of the Roman People. Rome follows. Milan, Ravenna, Thessalonica, Trier, Antioch, Nicomedia, Sirmium, and Syracuse were Imperial seats. Some were for more than hundred years, and Syracuse only for six years. Of this group, only Rome and Constantinople were enshrined in the Roman legal codifications, as we saw above in the Digest of Justinian. Some cities are seats of some imperium powers, but not full ones. We list them too:

Cities seats of rump or partial Imperial powers

Trebizond was the seat of a Roman empire, the “Empire of the East” between 1204 and 1261. Arta was also the seat of a Roman state in Epirus. Nicaea and Nymphaeum jointly were the seat of a Roman empire that could gain back Constantinople. Constantinople itself was the seat of an empire of Romania. 

In the west only Salona was the seat of Julius Nepos, the last de iure Western Roman emperor, between 476 and 480.

Cities with senatorial powers

The two Romes are the only cities that served as seats of senatorial powers. The Old Roman Senate lived longer than the New Roman Senate if we take into account the mythical accounts, while if we only consider historically documented times the New Roman Senate served longer. 

Capitals of the Roman Empire

By superposing the three maps we get the comprehensive map of the capitals of the Roman Empire.

We can draw some conclusions for further research:

1)Ubi Senatus, ibi Roma?

There were numerous Imperial seats, the classic of Ubi Caesar, ibi Roma as we saw it before does exist. Yet Rome lasted where the Senate resided, first in old Rome and then in Constantinople. Ubi Senatus, ibi Roma? That is possible. The mapping that we did does confirm the hypotheses of Anthony Kaldellis in his Byzantine Republic: the longevity of Constantinople as capital of the Roman Empire seems to be rooted in her senatorial role. Emperors changed residences, the Senate did not. 

2)New Rome is the longest surviving Rome

New Rome did survive Old Rome. It became the centre of the Roman State and the epicentre of the Roman world, even the last stronghold of Antiquity in the world. The Roman Imperial (or, we would say, “popular”) seat did prove to be resilient, its movement between the Third and the Seventh Centuries was not fatal for the Empire. Undoubtedly, the role of the Senate is essential here: where a New Roman Senate was created and edified, emperors could withstand the shock for eight hundred years with the Senate and two hundred years without it. The resilience of the Roman Empire was also manifest in a dialectic of change and continuity. 

The Digest of Justinian, one of the most important codifications of Roman Law, answers to that, here we quote Justinian in the Book V of the Digest:19

For a legion is considered to be the same, even though many of those belonging to it may have been killed, and others put in their places; and the people are deemed to be the same now as they were a hundred years ago, although not one of them may at present be living; and also, where a ship has been so frequently repaired that not even a single plank remains which is not new, she is still considered to be the same ship. And if anyone should think that if its parts are changed, an article would become a different thing, the result would be that, according to this rule, we ourselves would not be the same persons that we were a year ago, because, as the philosophers inform us, the very smallest particles of which we consist are daily detached from our bodies, and others from outside are being substituted for them.

 


The article and maps are the intellectual property of the author. You may use all the information, text, and maps with proper citations. You may use the maps and information for academic purposes and academic articles. 


I am very thankful to Eugene Dalianis, from Achaia in Greece, a historian and specialist of eastern Roman/Byzantine history (Especially the post-1081 Empire.) We had a long fruitful dialogue about the successor states of the Roman Empire in Greece (The Frankokratia), and he gave savant insights on the matter. 

 


Footnotes

  1. In the Greek origin: Ὁ βασιλεὺς δὲ μετὰ τὴν σύνοδον […] ἐποίει τε τοῦτο κατὰ τὰς ἄλλας πόλεις καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτοῦ ἐπωνύμῳ͵ ἣν Βυζάντιον καλουμένην τὸ πρότερον ηὔξησε͵ τείχη μεγάλα περιβαλὼν͵ καὶ διαφόροις κοσμή σας οἰκοδομήμασιν· ἴσην τε τῇ βασιλευούσῃ Ρώμῃ ἀποδείξας͵ καὶ Κωνσταντινούπολιν μετονομάσας͵ χρηματίζειν δευτέραν Ρώμην νόμῳ ἐκύρωσεν· ὃς νόμος ἐν λιθίνῃ γέγραπται στήλῃ͵ καὶ δημοσίᾳ ἐν τῷ καλουμένῳ στρατηγίῳ πλησίον τοῦ ἑαυτοῦ ἐφίππου παρέθηκε. []
  2. The title is known even in the Bible. In the Gospel of John Before Pontius Pilate the multitude exclaims “We have no king but Caesar!” Οὐκ ἔχομεν βασιλέα, εἰ μὴ Καίσαρα, undoubtedly not a rhetorical answer but an oath of allegiance []
  3. Neighbours of the Empire called it by this name. The Arab-speaking neighbours used a loan translation of the word, Bilâd al-Rûm, while medieval Westerners used Romania, Romanie, and Romagne []
  4. In the Greek origin: Καὶ τῷ αὐτῷ σκοπῶ κινούμενοι οἱ ἑκατὸν πεντήκοντα θεοφιλέστατοι ἐπίσκοποι, τὰ ἴσα πρεσβεῖα ἀπένειμαν τῷ τῆς Νέας Ῥώμης ἁγιωτάτῳ θρόνῳ, εὐλόγως κρίναντες, τὴν βασιλείᾳ καὶ συγκλήτῳ τιμηθεῖσαν πόλιν, καὶ τῶν ἴσων ἀπολαύουσαν πρεσβείων τῇ πρεσβυτέρᾳ βασιλίδι Ῥώμῃ, καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἐκκλησιαστικοῖς ὡς ἐκείνην μεγαλύνεσθαι πράγμασι, δευτέραν μετ᾿ ἐκείνην ὑπάρχουσαν. []
  5. In the Latin origin: Igitur ab Anastasio imperatore codecillos de consolato accepit, et in basilica beati Martini tunica blattea indutus et clamide, inponens vertice diademam. Tunc ascenso equite, aurum argentumque in itinere illo, quod inter portam atrii et eclesiam civitatis est, praesentibus populis manu propria spargens, voluntate benignissima erogavit, et ab ea die tamquam consul aut augustus est vocitatus. Egressus autem a Turonus Parisius venit ibique cathedram regni constituit. Ibi et Theudericus ad eum venit. []
  6. C.579-585 before becoming the Papal apocrisiarius to Constantinople of Emperors Tiberius II Constantine and Maurice []
  7. In the Latin origin: Destructae urbes, euersa sunt castra, depopulati agri, in solitudine terra redacta est… Quia enim Senatus deest, populus interiit, et tamen in paucis qui sunt dolores et gemitus cotidie multiplicantur, iam uacua ardet Roma. []
  8. The Persian-Avar siege of Constantinople brought the Roman world to a stalemate. After the fall of Old Rome many thought that New Rome was about to fall and the Helleno-Roman Antiquity would be killed by a coup de grace. But Constantinople held and the Persian and Avar attack failed and both armies had to retreat on the 7th of August 626. The event and its horrors is still remembered in eastern Roman (Byzantine) rite, especially in the Akathist Hymn Ἀκάθιστος Ὕμνος, the “unseated hymn” as it was sung by the people themselves defending their own city. []
  9. In the Greek origin:

    Σῶσον, Κύριε, τὸν λαόν σου

    καὶ εὐλόγησον τὴν κληρονομίαν σου,

    νίκας τοῖς βασιλεῦσι κατὰ βαρβάρων δωρούμενος,

    καὶ τὸ σὸν φυλάττων διὰ τοῦ Σταυροῦ σου πολίτευμα. []

  10. The word used in the Greek origin is πολίτευμα, related to the word πολιτεία, and can be translated as “body politic” or “the active part of the republic or polity”, or even “government of a political body”, all in reference to the Roman State. []
  11. In the Arabic origin: وفيها أمر لاون بقلع صور الشهداء من الكنائس والأعمار والديارات، فلما بلغ غريغوريس بطريق رومية ذلك غضب، ومنع أهل رومية وأنطاكية أن يؤدوا له الخراج. []
  12. The popes needed a “nearby” emperor to defend Italy and their possessions that time. Charlemagne was the son of king Pepin the Short and the grandson of Charles Martel, mayor of the palace. He was then an “eldest son of the Church” in the west. []
  13. In the Arabic origin: ولثلاث سنين خلت من ملكه بنى مدينة القسطنطينية على الخليج الآخذ من بحر مايطس، ويعرف في هذا الوقت ببحر الخزر إلى بحر الروم والشأم ومصر، وذلك في الموضع المعروف بطابلا من صقع بوزنطيا وبالغ في تحصينها وإحكام بنائها، وجعلها دار مملكة له أضيفت إلى اسمه ونزلها ملوك الروم بعده إلى هذا الوقت غير أن الروم يسمونها إلى وقتنا هذا المؤرخ به كتابنا بولن وإذا أرادوا العبارة عنها أنها دار الملك لعظمها .قالوا إستن بولن ولا يدعونها القسطنطينية وإنما العرب تعبر عنها بذلك []
  14. In the Greek origin: Ἰστέον, ὅτι ἐν τοῖς παλαιοῖς χρόνοις κατεκρατεῖτο ἡ πᾶσα ἐξουσία Ἰταλίας, ἥ τε Νεάπολις καὶ Κάπυα καὶ ἡ Βενεβενδός, τό τε Σαλερινὸν καὶ ἡ Ἀμάλφη καὶ Γαϊτὴ καὶ πᾶσα ἡ Λαγουβαρδία παρὰ τῶν Ῥωμαίων, δηλονότι βασιλευομένης τῆς Ῥώμης. Μετὰ δὲ τὸ ἀνελθεῖν τὸ βασίλειον ἐν Κωνσταντινουπόλει διεμερίσθησαν ταῦτα πάντα εἰς ἀρχὰς δύο, ἐξ οὗ καὶ παρὰ τοῦ βασιλεύοντος ἐν Κωνσταντινουπόλει ἀπεστέλλοντο πατρίκιοι δύο· καὶ ὁ μὲν εἷς πατρίκιος ἐκράτει τὴν Σικελίαν καὶ τὴν Καλαβρίαν καὶ τὴν Νεάπολιν καὶ Ἀμάλφην, ὁ δὲ ἕτερος πατρίκιος ἐκαθέζετο εἰς Βενεβενδόν, καὶ ἐκράτει τὴν Πάπιαν καὶ τὴν Κάπυαν καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ πάντα. []
  15. In the Greek origin: Περὶ τῆς εἰς τὸν βασιλέα ἐπιβουλῆς. Ἀμέλει καὶ πλείστων τοῦτο κακῶν ἐγεγόνει ἀρχὴ, ὧν ἓν ἢ δύο θέμενος, ἐντεῦθεν καὶ περὶ τῶν ἄλλων εἰκάζειν τοῖς ἀναγινώσκουσι δίδωμι· ἐρῶ δὲ βραχύ τι τῆς ὑποθέσεως παρεκβατικώτερον, ὅτι ταῖς μὲν εὖ πραττούσαις πόλεσιν ἐκ τῶν ἀρίστων καὶ τῶν εὐγενῶν τε ἅμα καὶ ἀγενῶν οἱ κατάλογοι, κἂν ταῖς πολιτικαῖς τάξεσι, κἂν τοῖς στρατεύ μασιν· οὕτω γοῦν Ἀθηναῖοι ἐπολιτεύσαντο καὶ ὁπόσαι πόλεις τὴν ἐκείνων δημοκρατίαν ἐζήλωσαν· παρ’ ἡμῖν δὲ τουτὶ τὸ καλὸν ἔρριπται καὶ ἠτίμασται, καὶ λόγος οὐδεὶς εὐγενείας, ἀλλ’ ἄνωθεν ἐκ κλήρου διαδοχῆς, Ῥωμύλου πρώτου ἀρξαμένου τῆς τοιαύτης συγχύσεως, ἥ τε σύγκλη τος διέφθαρτο, καὶ ὁ βουλόμενός ἐστι δημοποίητος. Ἀμέλει πλείους ἂν εὕροι τις παρ’ ἡμῖν σισυροφόρους τὴν στολὴν μεταλλάξαντας· ἄρχουσι γοῦν πολλάκις ἡμῶν οὓς ἐκ τῶν βαρβάρων ἐωνησάμεθα, καὶ τὰς μεγάλας πιστεύονται δυνά μεις οὐ Περικλεῖς, οὐδὲ Θεμιστοκλεῖς, ἀλλ’ οἱ ἀτιμότατοι Σπάρτακοι. []
  16. In the Greek origin: Μεταπεπτωκότων γὰρ τῶν σκήπτρων ἐκεῖθεν ἐνθάδε εἰς τὴν ἡμεδαπήν τε καὶ ἡμετέραν βασιλίδα πόλιν καὶ δὴ καὶ τῆς συγκλήτου καὶ ἅμα πάσης τῆς τάξεως μεταπέπτωκε καὶ ἡ τῶν θρόνων ἀρχιερατικὴ τάξις. Καὶ δεδώκασιν οἱ ἀνέκαθεν βασιλεῖς τὰ πρεσβεῖα τῷ θρόνῳ Κωνσταντινουπόλεως, καὶ μάλιστα ἡ ἐν Χαλκηδόνι σύνοδος εἰς περιωπὴν πρωτίστην τὸν Κωνσταντινουπόλεως ἀναβιβασαμένη τὰς ἀνὰ τὴν οἰκουμένην διοικήσεις ἁπάσας ὑπὸ τοῦτον ἐτάξατο. []
  17. In the Greek origin: Ἤδη γὰρ καὶ τὸ τῆς πολιτείας αὐτὸν ἀνευφήμησε πλήρωμα καὶ πρὸς τῆς γυναικὸς Εὐφροσύνης ἡ τούτου προητοίμαστο εἴσοδος τό τε τῆς συγκλήτου μέρος, εἰ καὶ μὴ ἅπαν, ἱλαρῶς ὅσα οἱ ξυνενήνεκται ἤνεγκε καὶ τῶν ἐκ τοῦ δήμου πρὸς τὴν ἀκοὴν τῶν ἠγγελμένων οὐδέν τις ἀτάσθαλον ἐνεόχμωσεν, ἀλλ᾿ ἠρέμησαν πρῶτα μὲν πάντες καὶ συνεπηυδόκησαν τοῖς ἀκουσθεῖσι, μήτε βατταρίσαντες, μήτ᾿ ἀναφλεγέντες πρὸς δικαίαν ὀργήν, οἷς εἰωθὸς αὐτοῖς βασιλέα χειροτονεῖν, ὑπὸ τῶν στρατοπέδων καὶ τοῦτο ἀφῄρηνται. []
  18. In the Greek origin:

    Αυτές τις μέρες διάβαζα δημοτικά τραγούδια,
    Για τ’ άθλα των κλεφτών και τους πολέμους,
    Πράγματα συμπαθητικά δικά μας. Γραικικά.
    Διάβαζα και τα πένθιμα για τον χαμό της Πόλης:

    «Πήραν την Πόλη, πήραν την, πήραν την Σαλονίκη».
    Και την Φωνή που εκεί οι δυό εψέλναν,
    «ζερβά ο βασιλιάς, δεξιά ο πατριάρχης»,
    ακούσθηκε κι είπε να πάψουν πια
    «πάψτε, παπάδες, τα χαρτιά και κλείστε τα βαγγέλια»
    πήραν την Πόλη, πήρα την πήραν την Σαλονίκη.

    Όμως απ’ τ’ άλλα πιο πολύ με άγγιξε τα άσμα
    Το Τραπεζούντιον με την παράξενή του γλώσσα
    Και με την λύπην των Γραικών των μακρινών εκείνων
    Που ίσως όλο πίστευαν πως θα σωθούμε ακόμη

    Μα αλίμονον μοιραίον πουλί «απαί την Πόλην έρται»
    Με σο «φτερούλιν άθε χαρτίν περιγραμμένον
    Κι ουδέ στην άμπελον κονεύ’ μηδέ στο περιβόλι
    Επήγεν και εκόνεψεν στου κυπαρίσ’ την ρίζαν».

    Οι αρχιερείς δεν δύνανται (ή δεν θέλουν) να διαβάσουν.
    «Χέρας υιός Γιανίκας εν» αυτός το παίρνει το χαρτί,
    και το διαβάζει κι ολοφύρεται.
    «Σίτ’ αναγνώθ’ σίτ’ αναγκλαίγ’ σίτ’ ανακρούγ’ την κάρδιαν.
    Ν’ αοιλλή εμάς να βάι εμάς η Ρωμανία πάρθεν». []

  19. In the Latin origin: Nam et legionem eandem haberi, ex qua multi decessissent, quorum in locum alii subiecti essent: et populum eundem hoc tempore putari qui abhinc centum annis fuissent, cum ex illis nemo nunc viveret: itemque navem, si adeo saepe refecta esset, ut nulla tabula eadem permaneret quae non nova fuisset, nihilo minus eandem navem esse existimari. Quod si quis putaret partibus commutatis aliam rem fieri, fore ut ex eius ratione nos ipsi non idem essemus qui abhinc anno fuissemus, propterea quod, ut philosophi dicerent, ex quibus particulis minimis constiteremus, hae cottidie ex nostro corpore decederent aliaeque extrinsecus in earum locum accederent. []

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