4 Key Cities in the Eastern Roman Empire

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

14 Jan 2020

In 395 AD the Roman Empire was divided between east and west for the final time, never to be united again. While the western half quickly crumbled, in the east the descendants of Augustus experienced a new lease of life, remaining a dominant power in European and Near Eastern affairs for a further millennia.

Here are 4 key cities in the Eastern Roman Empire.

1. Ephesus

Asia Minor map. Ephesus.

Map of Asia Minor in the 8th century. Ephesus is visible on Anatolia’s eastern shoreline (Credit: Cplakidas /Commons). 

Ephesus was founded by Ionian Greek colonists in c. 1000 BC, at the base of Mount Pion’s twin peaks. Though initially situated by a gulf, over time the inlet was filled with silt.

Ephesus was a notable city in Classical times. It was home to the extraordinary Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Its prestige soon attracted the unwelcome attention of several powers: the Cimmerians, Lydians, Persians, Alexander the Great and his Successors for instance.

By the time the Romans occupied the polis in 133 BC, Ephesus had grown to become the leading city in Asia Minor. It would retain its title as Anatolia’s most important city for over 500 years of Roman rule.

The 'terrace houses' at Ephesus

The ‘terrace houses’ at Ephesus, showing how the wealthy lived during the Roman period.

By the time the Roman Empire had divided between east and west, Ephesus had undergone a notable social change. Over the 3rd century AD the city’s pagan following had weakened dramatically. Christianity continued to grow and by the mid-4th century Ephesus had become a bulwark of the Christian faith.

Nothing evoked Ephesus’ new-found prominence in the Christian sphere more so than in 431, when the city hosted the Council of Ephesus – a convene of Christian bishops that both confirmed the Nicene Creed and recognised the special status of the Virgin Mary (as ‘birth giver of Christ’) as official doctrine.

Eastern Roman Emperors continued to repair and improve Ephesus until the end of the 6th century. Yet a steady decline gripped the city during the 7th century, its fall catalysed in 668 when an Arab fleet pillaged the city en-route to Constantinople.

2. Antioch

antioch highlighted on Asia Minor map

Map of Asia Minor in the 8th century. Antioch is visible in northern Syria (Credit: Cplakidas / Commons).

Antioch was founded in the wake of the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, when the Successor King Seleucus took control of Syria as the spoils of war and founded the city. Antioch, named after Seleucus’ father Antiochus, became the capital of Seleucus’ namesake empire and flourished.

A Roman army led by Pompey the Great annexed Antioch and the remnants of the Seleucid Empire in 64 BC. Its former capital status ensured it became an important provincial seat in the Roman east, experiencing prosperity in the face of irregular threats from first the Parthians and later the Sassanians.

Similar to Ephesus, the city became an important bulwark of Christianity in late antiquity, before the Empire split between east and west. But it was after this seismic split that Antioch officially became a major Christian centre, when Emperor Justinian recognised the city as one of the 5 patriarchates.

From the middle of the 5th century onward Antioch became subject to further invasions from the east. For over 500 years the city was hotly-contested between the Byzantines, the Sassanians and later the Arabs. Ultimately this struggle helped spark the First Crusade.

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3. Alexandria

Founded by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, Alexandria was developed by the Ptolemaic dynasty into one of the greatest cities in the Mediterranean. It became a centre of trade, power and learning and was perhaps the first city to reach a population of 100,000.

Its power and importance outlived the city’s Ptolemaic rulers, becoming a key city in the Roman east that was visited by several emperors.

Following the empire’s division, Alexandria’s importance increased further – becoming the second city of the Eastern Roman Empire after Constantinople.

Just as in Antioch and Ephesus the social strata of Alexandria was radically transformed by the rise of Christianity.

Jews and Christians had long lived in Alexandria as minor sects of the mainly pagan population. Yet by 330 AD, following the rise of Constantine and the subsequent split of the Roman Empire, the Christian sect began to grow.

Nevertheless the city remained a place of Pagan pilgrimage until the end of the 4th century; travellers continued to visit sites such as Alexander the Great’s tomb and the Serapeum.

In 391 however the Roman emperor Theodosius officially banned Paganism throughout the empire and ordered the eradication of all pagan sites. The Serapeum was torn down; Alexander’s temple was either converted or destroyed.

Remains of the Serapeum of Alexandria

Remains of the Serapeum of Alexandria (Credit: Daniel Mayer / Commons).

Alexandria experienced a natural disaster on 21 July 365. A huge tsunami, caused by the 365 Crete earthquake, hit the city:

Some ships, after the anger of the watery element had grown old, were seen to have sunk, and the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down. Other huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses, as happened at Alexandria.

The Alexandrians commemorated 21 July as a ‘day of horror’ until the end of the 6th century.

Roman rule of Alexandria came to an end in 641, falling to Arab forces after a swift siege.

4. Constantinople

Constantinople map Asia Minor

Map of Asia Minor in the 8th century. Constantinople is highlighted in the top-left (Credit: Cplakidas / Commons).

Formerly Byzantium, a Greek colony founded by Megarian colonists in the 8th century BC. Bordering Thrace, the Bosporus and the Black Sea it held one of the most strategic positions in the known world.

Byzantium bathed in mediocrity during the golden age of Imperial Rome, until Constantine arrived in 324 and identified the site as the place for his new capital.

The city quickly became adorned with the hallmarks of a capital city: an imperial palace, a cathedral, stately houses, courts, a monumental hippodrome, strong walls. Within 100 years it had become the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, a dominance it retained for c. 800 years.

Constantinople experienced several catastrophes. Over the centuries the city experienced deadly outbreaks of plague, destructive fires and intermittent sieges from rival powers. Yet on many occasions, Constantinople’s strength and power revived. The Hagia Sophia, for instance, was constructed in the wake of the seditious Nika Riots in 532.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia (Credit: Nserrano / Commons).

One of the city’s most infamous moments occurred in 1204, when the Venetian-led Fourth Crusade stormed and sacked the city. The Byzantines eventually recaptured their capital in 1261.

Constantinople was besieged more than 20 times in its long history. In 1453 it fell for its final time to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed, marking the final fall of the Roman Empire.