From Byzantium to Istanbul: A Curious Journey through History's Greatest Empires

Step into the enchanting world of Byzantium, witness the rise of Constantinople, delve into the intrigue of the Fourth Crusaders, marvel at the Ottoman splendor, and embrace the birth of the Turkish Republic. Join us on a captivating journey through history's most compelling empires, all in the heart of Istanbul's Sultanahmet area. Our local tour guides will weave curious tales of diplomacy, conquest, and transformation, as we explore the founding and evolution of these mighty civilizations. From ancient prophecies to the birth of modern Turkey, this blog post is your passport to an unforgettable adventure through the ages. Discover the allure of Istanbul's past and its enduring legacy that still resonates today.


Byzantium Before Rome - Byzantium’s Genesis in the Archaic Age

Ancient Byzantium has largely been ignored by contemporary historians, partially due to the lack of classical sources on the polis. On the other hand, though, there is still a number of references from major classical writers (such as Herodotus and Thucydides) which have not been studied to their furthest extent.

The city on the edge of Europe is seen as important and worth studying in accordance with Roman history, Medieval history, and Turkish history. Even though Byzantium did not have the wealth and prestige that Constantinople and Istanbul reached, it was still an important regional power that sometimes even affected the ancient Greek world at large. The highs reached by the Medieval Byzantines and Early Modern Turks were only possible because of the precedents set by ancient Byzantium.

The ancient city was important because of its geographic desirability. The majority of pre-Roman Byzantine history can be understood as a struggle of ridding themselves of undesirable foreign influence. They were fought over by a variety of Greeks because of their access to the resourceful Black Sea and were used by the Persians as a gateway for their behemoth of an Empire to expand into Europe. Byzantium was often taken advantage of because of their geographic location but more surprisingly, their position in the Ancient world also, at times, gained the respect and consideration of other regional powers.

Around 667 BCE, Dorian Greeks from Megara are known to have established the colony of Byzantium. During the reign of Justinian in the 6th Century CE, a chronicler known as Hesychius of Miletus preserved several versions of Byzantium foundation myths in honor of, what was then, the capital city of the world.

All stories agree that the city was named after its legendary founder and leader of the Megarian colonizers, Byzas. One origin traces Byzas’ genealogy to various mythological figures. Inachus, the first king of Argos, is the great-grandfather of Byzas. Inachus’ daughter, Io, mothered a daughter from Zeus, named Ceroessa. Ceroessa, then had a child with Poseidon, who was given the name Byzas.

Interestingly enough, Byzantium was not the Megarians’ first colony on the Bosporus. The colony of Chalcedon was founded around 685 BCE on the Asian side of the Bosporus, only around four kilometers from where Byzantium would be located only two decades later.

Map of the Bosporus and surrounding land featuring Kadıköy, the modern day equivalent of Chalcedon.

This information is available because various Greek authors of the Classical age use this fact as a point of humor. Herodotus, in his Histories, tells us that the land on Chalcedon’s side of the Bosporus was so much inferior to the land of the European side that the 6th Century BCE Persian general, Megabazus, commented that the founders of the settlement must have been blind. The First Century BCE Roman natural philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, colloquially known as Pliny the Elder, wrote that the oracle of Apollo told the Megarians to build their new colony “opposite to the blind”, whom the settlers interpreted to be the Chalcedonians.

For a period, Chalcedon apparently flourished, both independently and alongside Byzantium. According to Strabo, an Anatolian Greek intellectual in the late First Century BCE, the Chalcedonians trade was very successful. The town built “many temples”, including one with an oracle of Apollo. The city even housed a fountain “which contain[ed] small crocodiles”. All of this impressive development would have taken place before the Persian conquest of the area in the 6th Century BCE.

The Greek perception of the Black Sea at the time of Byzantium’s foundation gives some context to the city’s purpose and place. The colonization of the Propontis Sea and Black Sea region was done so mainly for the same reason Greeks colonized other areas: population control and the exploitation of resources. The area did indeed have adequate fishing grounds, an abundance of minerals, good farmland, and trading possibilities but what made the colonization of this region so attractive was perhaps the lack of serious Greek competition or significant backlash from local populations.

The settlement of Byzantium was not the start of the exploration or even settlement of the Black Sea by the Greeks. A few notable colonies were supposedly founded before the Megarians settled on the Bosporus. The Milesian colony of Sinope, for example, located in the center of northern Anatolia, more than 500 kilometers from the Bosporus, could have been settled by Greeks as early as the 8th Century BCE. A good deal of literary and archaeological evidence also suggests that the colony of Trabzon in what is now northeast Turkey, not far from the Caucasus (900 kilometers away from the Bosporus), was also settled in the 8th Century. Trabzon would have had come later than Sinope because it was reportedly settled by Milesian-Sinopians.

Ancient Greek colonies around the Black Sea with a key showing the approximate century of each city’s founding. Megara and Miletus was responsible for the majority of Black Sea colonies.

These two colonies act as good examples because of the amount of evidence of their existence in the 8th Century but it is also possible that other Black Sea Greek colonies were founded in this same century: notably Chele and Sisamos. Scholarship on the foundation of early Archaic Black Sea colonies is still developing but modern work often places the start of Sinope and Trapezus in the 8th Century or early 7th Century BCE.

Over the centuries, Byzantium lost its special connection to Megara and thanks to its geography, became a fighting ground for foreign influence. In the late 6th and early 5th Century BCE, Athens relied on friendly relations with Byzantium because of their vast amount of Oak and grain supply coming through the Bosporus from Scythia and other Black Sea regions.

In this period, a new perception of Byzantium was emerging. Contemporary writers described Byzantium as a rugged and perhaps even dangerous frontier city surrounded by wilderness and Thracian barbarians. The Historian Theopompus of Chios and the Athenian dramatist Menander both implied the city was heavily populated by alcoholic merchants and fishermen who spent all their time at the agora and tavern as late as the later 3rd Century BCE: the time of Alexander. An ancient Greek writer by the name of Stratonius once called Byzantium “the armpit of Greece”.

The descriptions of the city given by contemporaries across the span of Ancient Greece show that it was a notable place that saw plenty of visitors. These visitors though were not likely visiting because of any feature of the city itself other than its geographical position and henceforth its increasing profile as a city of trade and business. The modern historian Thomas James Russell argues that Menander purposefully wrote jokes about Byzantium for a target audience of Athenians who traveled to the city for business and trade.

Byzantium experienced conquest for the first time at the end of the 6th Century BCE by Darius I of Persia and his general by the name of Otanes. Darius famously crossed the Bosphorus with a bridge made up of ships and conquered large portions of southeast Europe including Byzantium, Thrace, Chalkidiki, Macedonia, other parts of northern Greece, the Danube Delta, Crimea, and many Ionian islands. In all likelihood, Byzantium was administered by the Persians in a similar manner as other areas of the empire inhabited by Greeks: by keeping a similar style of pre-conquest local administration but now with Persian tax collection and selected leaders with Persian affinities and loyalty.

Only a few decades later, Byzantium found itself entangled with the trigger of the Greco-Persian Wars: the Ionian Revolt. After Aristagoras of Miletus lost the military support of Athens and Eretria, he looked for support from within the Persian Empire. Aristagoras, in 498, persuaded Caria, Pesos, Abydos, Cios, Percote, Lampsakos, Myrcinos, Tenedos, Dardanos, and Byzantium to declare independence from the Persian Empire. Two years later, in 496, Histiaeus, the newly appointed Persian-affiliated Tyrant of Miletus, conquered Byzantium for Persia and encamped there for the time being. Histiaeus gathered as many forces as would follow him and seized all non-aligned ships which passed through the Bosphorus.

For about two more decades, Byzantium was under Persian control. Allied Greek forces, under the command of the Spartan general Pausanias, captured and freed Byzantium in 478. According to Thucydides, Pausanias’ arbitrary violence in this military action shocked both the allied Greeks and the newly freed Byzantines and ensured Athenian control of the future of military campaigns in the Greco-Persian wars as well as Athenian soft-power dominance over Byzantium. Interestingly, Pausanias returned to Byzantium a year later in 477 and attempted to take control of the city as a tyrant until Athenians banned him from the city.

Because of this early connection with Athens, Byzantium was one of the first cities to join Athen’s Delian League. The city was incorporated in 477, the same year Pausanias was finally expelled. It only took a few decades after its formation for Byzantium, along with Samos, to rebel against the league in 440. It was, however, one of the later cities to attempt a rebellion (Naxos attempted to succeed in 471: only seven years after the formation of the league).

The Byzantines’ distrust of the Athenians probably came from a similar source as other cities under the Delian League at the time. The end of the Delian League and the start of the Athenian Empire is usually considered to be when the treasury of the league was moved from Delos to Athens in 454. The transformation of league to empire was accelerated by several reforms by Pericles which further centralized the alliance’s power and finances in Athens.

Samos received an amount of military aid from Persia. Athens, with the aid of other cities of their empire, sent a fleet to Samos commanded by Pericles. The Athenians successfully besieged the island city and implemented Athens-affiliated democracy. Shortly after this, Byzantium’s rebellion was also put down. Nothing is known about the city’s return to the empire other than that it was consensual. If demands were made and accepted, there is no evidence as to what they were.

Map of the great powers of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE.

Once again, Byzantium started a rebellion against the Athenians. This time, in 411, they joined Euboea, Abydos, Andros, Antandrus, Lampsacus, Chalcedon, and Rodos to join Sparta’s Peloponnesian League in the midst of the Peloponnesian War.

This betrayal of Athens was not completely the doing of the Byzantines themselves as it was in their 440 rebellion. Sparta removed Byzantium from the influence of the Athenian Empire and took control of the city. The Spartans captured Byzantium predominantly to cut off the grain supply chain from the Black Sea to Athens and their allies.

Athens, again, was able to recapture Byzantium for themselves. After a settlement with the Spartans, the great Athenian general, Alcibiades, took the city back in 408/409: only a few years after the Spartans first occupied the area. Athens occupied Byzantium for the duration of the Peloponnesian War and beyond.

Once again, for the time being, Byzantium was tied to Athens. The consequences of the Peloponnesian War, the victory of Sparta and the Peloponnesian League, meant that Athens had hegemonic control over its remaining allies but also that Sparta had jurisdiction and control over Athens and the Greek world in general thanks to Sparta’s alliance with Persia.

The future of Greece was unclear in the early and mid 4th Century. One of the only reasons for Athens’ network of alliances persisting was the fear of Spartan conquest but after the Spartans were continuously defeated in the Theban-Spartan War, many longtime allies of Athens saw an opportunity to escape the firm grip of the Delian League. For this reason, as well as the lack of ships in Athens’ port and depleted Delian League defense budget, Byzantium, along with Naxos, decided to declare independence and secede from the League in 364.

Byzantium would have seen the shift in power in the region shortly before their secession during the turn of the Century with King Cotys I of the Thracian Kingdom of the Odrysians challenged Athenian control over their remaining territory on the northern Aegean coast between Chalkidiki and Byzantium. This coastal territory was full of Greek cities. Each of which was aligned with Athens before Thracians’ military actions. The changing geopolitics showed member-cities of the Delian League, that Athens was not as capable as it once was at defending its allies from foreign attack and invasion. Although Byzantium was an independent polis, it is possible, they put their attention into defending Byzantium and the Bosporus to protect their continual shipment of grain from the Black Sea.

As revolt in the Delian League spread for the next decade, Athens faced a massive war against its own former allies in an attempt to re-subjugate them in a similar manner as they did in the last century.

While the power of Athens fell, another rose to power. Philip II of Macedon conquered the Thracian Kingdom of the Odrysians and started a war with Athens. Philip accused the city of Perinthos (settled on the north coast of the Propontis) and Byzantium of aiding Athens in the conflict.

There are no Athenian sources that indicate what Philip would have meant by this. Some historians believe that Philip’s antagonism of the cities may have been caused by their lack of support and funding of Macedon’s war against their neighboring Thracians. But also Macedon’s conquest of Byzantium would be key to halt Athen’s food supply which would make the defeat of Athens almost inevitable.

Both Perinthos and Byzantium outlasted Philip’s siege. Athens sent 40 ships and a general by the name of Chares to once again forge an alliance between the two cities and to assist in Macedonia’s attempted conquest. Once again, Athens and Byzantium were politically tied because of Athen’s economic reliance on the protection of the Bosphorus.

A slightly overly simplistic depiction of the conquests of Philip II. Perinthus and Byzantium outlasted Philip’s sieges and were either independent city-states or aligned with Athens.

Interestingly Persia was interested in the preservation of an independent Perinthos and Byzantium. Persia funded and allocated materials to the cities during the Macedonian sieges. This may have been because of the Persian king Artaxerxes III’s concentration in the consolation of western Anatolia. Artaxerxes may have wanted to keep its weak European neighbors as buffer states and avoid shifting power around its frontier and borderlands.

Surprisingly there is little information on the alliance of or political affiliation of Byzantium by the time of Alexander’s conquests. It avoided capture from Philip but it is also not referred to as part of the Hellenic League. The city may have been part of the league or may have considered itself independent as it did earlier.

When Alexander entered Asia for his first and only time, he did not even cross the Bosporus, but instead the Hellespont (which was closer in proximity but twice as wide as the Bosporus).

Map of Alexander’s empire and his route.

After Alexander’s death in 323, his generals rushed to claim valuable territory. A “Battle of Byzantium” took place between Alexander’s generals, Antigonus and Polyperchon in 317. Although individual Byzantines may have taken sides, the the city itself wished to stay uninvolved and neutral.

Antigonus and his successor, Lysimachus, had great success in the region, but did not capture Byzantium. Lysimachus’s kingdom consisted of the entirety of Macedonia and Thrace as well as north and east Anatolia, but not Byzantium itself. The city maintained a friendly neutrality with Lysimachus for the time being.

As the Hellenistic kingdoms shifted in power and size, the Byzantines, through diplomacy, statesmanship, and trade, remained an independent country. Difficulties came with their independence. In 220, nearly a century after Alexander’s death, Byzantium’s neighbors in Anatolia, the Galatians, made the city pay them a Danegeld far greater than the debts they ever had to pay to the Athenians demanded two centuries before.

Byzantium ultimately survived the Hellenistic Age in better shape than many of their neighbors. The city didn’t loose their independence until the end of the Roman-Macedonian Wars. In 148 BCE when Rome decided to annex the kingdom they were at war with, they also decided to take Byzantium.

In the grand scope of the Pre-Roman Byzantium, the city was surprisingly, for a significant amount of time, an independent city-state. Only a few incidents interrupted the city’s post-colonial independence: a brief occupation by the Persians in the 5th Century; they found themselves, like countless other cities, in a growingly paternalistic relationship with Athens; a one year occupation by the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War; and Rome’s conquest.

Although ancient Byzantium did not reach the glory it once would in the Medieval period, it still stood out amongst other Greek cities, even in the same region. Athenian (and other cities and states to a lesser extent) reliance on the city to protect their goods in the Bosporus gave Byzantium an advantage which would have continuous positive consequences for millenniums to come. Athens, in this way, institutionalized Byzantium as an intercontinental and international trading hub.

Although the ancient state never expanded or reached the cultural respect as other Greek cities and although there were negative stereotypes about the nature of the city and its inhabitants, they were able to place themselves as a important player in the Greek and Near Eastern world. If nothing else, the Ancient Byzantines proved that their city demands respect and consideration and therefore they built the foundations for the later empires which would call the city their home.

In conclusion, thank you for taking the time to read this article and exploring the ideas and insights shared.