7 Reasons Why the Byzantine Empire Lasted as Long as it did

en.wikipedia.org (Byzantine Empire at its Largest Extent)
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The Byzantine Empire, Rome’s empire in the east, lasted over twice as long as its more famed Western counterpart but relatively little is known about it. By the 3rd century AD, the Romans had conquered a number of territories in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Southwestern Europe. However, the sheer reach of the empire became too much to handle, especially with the growing instability in Western Europe which was taking up a lot of resources.

From 285 AD onwards, there were attempts to share power with one individual taking care of matters in the West while another ‘Emperor’ handled things in the East. In 330, Constantine I decided to make Constantinople the new seat of the Roman Empire; it could be said that this was the real starting date of the Byzantine Empire. While the Western Roman Empire crumbled and fell by 476, the Byzantine one flourished and lasted until 1453 when Constantinople was finally taken by the Ottomans.

The Byzantine Empire lasted over 1,100 years and in this article, I will look at 7 reasons for its longevity. While it is not an exhaustive list, it does cover the majority of the most pertinent reasons.

www.pinterest.com (Siege of Constantinople)
www.pinterest.com (Siege of Constantinople)

1 – Constantinople

You could say an empire is never truly finished until its capital city has been taken. Constantine I chose well when he picked Constantinople as the new seat of the Roman Empire as it was extremely difficult to conquer. It wasn’t taken until rampaging Crusaders sacked it in 1204 after a lengthy siege. Almost another 250 years passed before it finally ‘fell’ which officially signified the end of the Byzantine Empire.

Its location was one of the reasons why Constantinople was so tough to sack. It stood on a rocky peninsula and attacking it from the sea was exceptionally difficult. The Golden Horn estuary was an excellent place to take shelter while the strong currents of the Bosporus caused enemy ships all manner of trouble. During lengthy sieges, the inhabitants could receive supplies via the sea. The Byzantines knew that enemies would have to take the Golden Horn to have a chance of sacking the city so they placed a 300m long chain to protect it. There were also various sea walls built and they only failed the city once; during the Fourth Crusade.

There was only one way to attack Constantinople by land so they were able to focus on creating an almost impenetrable barrier. In 412, building of the Theodosian Walls (named after Emperor Theodosius II) began. The walls were 6km long and eventually surrounded by a 20m wide x 7m deep moat. There were approximately 90 watchtowers spread around the walls. The main wall was 12m high and 6m thick while a second wall was built later which was 9m high and surrounded the first one! While there were a few vulnerabilities, enemies were never able to take full advantage.

When parts of the wall were destroyed in an earthquake in 447 and Attila the Hun was on his way to attack the city, the Byzantines managed to complete a rebuild with the aforementioned second wall and moat added in just 60 days! Add in the awesome weaponry possessed by the empire (which I’ll cover later) and you have an incredibly well protected city!

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  • There were a number of claims in this articule that I hadn’t heard before so citations would have been nice. Some of those claims seemed possible but most seemed quite spurrious. There were also a large number of errors, too many to list but I will say the currency were not called Bezants, they were called Nomisma.

    Thise unfortunately seems like the breathless ramblings of someone with a cursory interest in the subject, like a history teacher like that garbage writer Lars Bronsworth. I don’t want to seem overly critical, but if we can get impressively written articles on the topic of early Rome then who come we cannot get the same for New Rome?

  • Paul

    Most of this looks reasonable to me. One only has to walk around Istanbul to see what an extra-ordinarily defensible site it is. The Theodosian wall is massive and was not likely to be breached until heavy cannon were available. One might add the multiple cisterns assuring a water supply. The Bosphorus means that supplies could be brought in from colonies on the Black Sea, until the Turks build the throat-cutter fortifications, and had cannon with the range to deny mid channel to shipping. I am awed by Hagia Sophia, so those who have seen nothing larger than a mead hall or modest church would certainly have been.

  • Jim

    The innumerable times Constantinople was seiged unsuccessfully, especially when compared to Rome, is testament that the defensibility of the city is key to the empires longevity.

  • Patrick

    Thanks for reading guys!

    @Paul: I am envious that you have actually been to Istanbul but I’m delighted for you that you have seen the remnants of an Empire up close.

    @Jim: Constantinople seemed to have practically everything a city needed to survive a siege. In a future article I will be mentioning the incompetence of a certain Byzantine emperor that allowed it to be breached in the early 13th century.

  • luke

    Great article…. Like Israel this cross roads of humanity “has been and is” destined to “live in interesting times” until humanity reaches a new enlightenment…. whatever that means… History looking to repeat itself here again and again and verbatim etc.

    Just as a personal interest question could you suggest from a historical perspective why the current Turkish administration is so concerned about the Kurds ? Are they an indigenous people to the area ? I just find it a tad curious, but do not have the time to investigate personally right now.

    Two personal tours of Turkey as a young backpacker and I wish read this article before travelling there then.

    Again,

    great article.

    • Patrick

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for reading and for the kind words! Unfortunately, I haven’t done enough research to answer your question. If I have the time I will try to find out or at least find some decent links to articles on that query.

      I do wish everyone would stop mentioning their awesome holidays and adventures; I am getting jealous 🙂

  • Jack

    Fascinating, thank you Patrick.

    • Patrick

      Thank you for reading Jack!

  • Paul Bishop

    As I understand, there are about 23 million Kurds, arguably the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. They are native to eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq (where they have been autonomous since the first Gulf War) and western Iran. They are sufficiently diverse as to speak four mutually unintelligible Indo-European languages. The PKK, designated a terrorist organisation, wants independence for Kurdish SE Turkey. About 40,000 have died in the conflict. The boundary of modern Turkey was determined by Ataturk, which makes it sacrosanct to many Turks. One might draw parallels between the Kurdish conflict, the Irish Troubles and the Basque/ETA conflict.

    • Patrick

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Paul; interesting stuff.

  • Veso

    Great article!
    Just a few thoughts.
    There is one great achievement the alphabet that enabled record keeping and good administration. Was Byzantine one based on earlier Tracian alphabet? You won’t see this anywhere…
    But I aways wondered why all this war after war?
    Bulgarian kan Tervel destroyed huge Arab army saving Europe and Byzantine 717 A.D. That and earlier mutually beneficial partnership was forgotten. War after war on bulgarians in the same time loosing territory in Asia Minor to the Arabs and than Turks? But O no! The war of attrition must go on! But it goes both ways. And when Ottomans came Bulgarian power was gone so was Byzantine. There is enough facts and leads in ancient texts about common ancestors with other Balkan nations.The Tracians. Every civilization stepped on earlier achievements even the Egyptians. If Spartacus the gladiator was Tracian who were the Spartans? Dorians? As early Rome start comes from the fall of Troy, a Tracian colony( Eneida)., so Byzantine greatness is upgrade of earlier achievements. I hope the Tracian history this intentionally erased chapter to be brought back to light. It’s antidote, the Russian imperialist theory of the Slavs must be forgotten since it’s based on nothing. Up to this day Russia is pouring millions in the Balkans to keep people of same kin fighting each other. Funny thing when Ottomans finaly took over, the byzantine aristocracy intermeried with the bulgarian one emigrated to Italy (bastards) were they used some of the gold they salvaged to build a cathedral in Napoli. Further on some Napolitanian Knights helped expel Turks out of Malta. Byzantine/ Greek achievements are based in big part on the Tracian civilization, but You won’t see this anywhere even if the facts are everywhere. In the same time Slavic faculties are everywhere repeating Russian imperialist lies.Its all over the ancient texts, nobody wants to connect the dots.