Boundaries, Topography, and Strategic Location
The area extending northward from present-day Yedikule all the way to the Golden Horn is also contained within the land wall constructed in the time of the Roman Emperor Theodosius II (402-450). Known as the “historical peninsula” (or the “area within the walls”), this area forms the approximate boundaries of Istanbul in antiquity. Kadıköy, now a district of Istanbul, was a separate colony and city-state in antiquity, bearing the name of Chalcedon. Both Byzantium and Chalcedon were founded in the first half of the seventh century BC by Megarians from Central Greece. Both cities had villages (known as komai or katoikiai) within their borders, which were affiliated with them. We know the names of some of these villages; the most well-known village settlements included Rhegion (Küçükçekmece), within the city limits of Byzantium, and Chrysopolis (Üsküdar), within the city limits of Chalcedon. Selymbria (Silivri), a district in present-day Istanbul, was also a separate colony, like Chalcedon. This city retained its importance during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, but lost its power and significance under the Roman Empire; in all likelihood, it attempted to maintain its own existence in the shadow –or under the hegemony– of Byzantium, which grew larger and stronger as time went on.
The city of Byzantium was a colony founded on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait (which separates Europe from Asia) on the spot where Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia currently stand. Present-day Sarayburnu (Bosporios Akra) and its hinterland made up the kernel of Byzantium in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods. During those eras, the city only extended westward to the present-day neighborhood of Beyazıt; research has shown that the city’s graveyard (necropolis) reached this point. Byzantium grew under the Roman Empire, spreading to the area occupied by the present-day districts of Eminönü and Fatih, and beyond. The expansion of Byzantium to the present-day Theodosian Wall occurred after the renaming of Byzantium as Constantinople in the fourth century and its proclamation as the new capital of the Roman Empire. Accordingly, we can say that Byzantium under the Roman Empire began at what is now Sirkeci and Sultanahmet, encompassing Çemberlitaş, Beyazıt, Laleli, and Aksaray to the west, and, generally speaking, some neighborhoods lying in the eastern part of the district of Fatih. Indeed, this area was already contained within the wall constructed by Constantine the Great (which probably began at Yenikapı and extended northward to the Golden Horn). This shows that the eastern half of the “historical peninsula” was the site of settlement of the population of Byzantium, while its western half saw expansion under the Late Roman Empire, i.e. during the city’s new incarnation as Constantinople.
Istanbul was known to ancient historians as the “Queen of the Bosphorus” or the “Pearl of the Bosphorus”; there is ample evidence that these titles were well-deserved. However, the city’s most important asset was its location, on which its other advantageous features depended. Byzantium was located on the Thracian (European) shore of the Bosphorus – which divides the Black Sea (Pontos Euxeinos) from the Sea of Marmara (Propontis) – and more specifically at its southern extremity, as it opens onto the Sea of Marmara. This location was also known to ancient authors as the narrowest part of the Bosphorus. Previously, passage through the Bosphorus – i.e., on the Mediterranean-Aegean-Black Sea route – had been the most important issue. As passage from one side of the Bosphorus to the other – i.e., between Thrace and Anatolia – became more frequent, Byzantium’s strategic location, from which it controlled Bosphorus traffic, became more crucial.
According to Polybius, Byzantium’s maritime location was more secure and profitable than that of all known cities in the world. When it came to its location on land, however, the opposite was the case. Due to its maritime location, Byzantium possessed the advantage of being able to completely blockade the mouth of the Black Sea: no one could pass through the Bosphorus without its consent. In other words, Byzantium controlled the entry and exit of numerous goods and products which were imported from or exported to the Black Sea region (Pontus), and which were necessary for daily life. Thanks to its strategic position upon the Bosphorus, Byzantium was the focal point of trade between the Black Sea and the world of the Aegean. However, this strategic location was insufficient protection against outside attacks. Indeed, Polybius saw it as a disadvantage that the city was open to potential attacks from the west, i.e., from Thrace. And in fact, Byzantium was long subject to attacks by the Thracians and Galatians. These tribes plundered its lands, seizing its crops and taking them back to their own homelands. In order to be spared from these incursions, Byzantium was forced to pay tribute to the Thracians and Galatians; nevertheless, it was extremely difficult to prevent such attacks.
Byzantium’s strategic importance was not solely due to its natural setting on the Bosphorus. Starting in the Late Hellenistic period, it also became more significant, in terms of both transportation and commerce, thanks to the Via Egnatia, a Roman road built in the second century BC. The Via Egnatia was known as such due to the fact that its construction began under the administration of G. Egnatius, the proconsul (governor) of the province of Macedonia. The road started at Dyrrachium (present-day Durrës) on the Adriatic coast, and continued eastward all the way to Byzantium. Although its width varies in places, the Via Egnatia is 6 meters wide on average, and over 1,000 kilometers long.
The city closest to Byzantium was Chalcedon (Kadıköy), on the opposite shore. According to information provided by ancient authors, Chalcedon was founded some time in the early seventh century BC, prior to the founding of Byzantium. The historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, makes the following remarks on this subject:
This Megabazos left behind a saying which the peoples of the Hellespont will always remember. When he was in Byzantium, and learned that the Chalcedonians had founded their city 17 years before the Byzantines, Megabazos said that the Chalcedonians must have been blind at the time; for if they had not been blind, they would not have chosen this unfavorable spot when a more favorable one lay right before them.
The same information is found in the works of the geographer Strabo, from Amasya (Amaseia), as well as those of the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56-120 AD). The fact that Chalcedon was known as the “land of the blind” was a familiar story in antiquity. These tales from Herodotus, Strabo, and Tacitus – as well as the dates provided by Eusebius – make it clear that Byzantium was founded after Chalcedon. The history of Chalcedon essentially followed the same course as that of Byzantium, albeit with some differences. After the founding of the province in Asia by the Romans, and under the Roman Empire, Byzantium and Chalcedon generally retained their status as free cities.
The Bosphorus Current
The current of the Bosphorus made the setting of Byzantium even more suitable and advantageous. According to Polybius, the Bosphorus current made it easier for ships to reach Byzantium; its setting also served as a natural harbor for ships. Similarly, it was far easier to travel to the Black Sea or the Dardanelles from Byzantium than from Chalcedon. Polybius states that ships coming from the Hellespont (Dardanelles), propelled by the south wind – or ships voyaging from the Black Sea to the Hellespont, carried by the breezes – could chart a straight, easy course all along the European coast. This was equally true whether they were traveling from Byzantium to the beginning of the strait between Sestos and Abydos, or making the return voyage to Byzantium. According to Polybius, the voyage from Chalcedon along the Asian coast was just the opposite; sailors had to hug the coast of this deep gulf, and the cape of Cyzicus (Erdek) was quite far away. Polybius emphasizes that the same difficulties are present in the voyage from the Hellespont to Chalcedon, stating that all these factors show why Byzantium’s location was auspicious from a maritime point of view. Another advantage which the Bosphorus current provided Byzantium was that it caused bonito fish (pelamydes) to swim to the city from Chalcedon.
Modern oceanographic, hydrographic, and geomorphological studies have shown that there is a two-way current in the Bosphorus, of which writers in antiquity were unaware. One current flows from the Black Sea towards the Sea of Marmara, while the other flows in the opposite direction. However, each current flows on a different level: while the north-south current (from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara) flows on the surface, the south-north current (from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea) flows on the bottom. The main reason for the surface current which goes from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and from there to the Aegean and Mediterranean, is the difference in elevation between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara: the water level in the Black Sea is 30-40 centimeters higher than that in the Sea of Marmara (the barotropic effect). The most important factor in the difference in elevation between the two seas is the fact that abundant fresh water enters the Black Sea, unlike the Mediterranean which receives little. The importance of this current – which has an effect on ship voyages in the Bosphorus, as well as on fishing – for Byzantium can be seen in the fact that it was noted by ancient societies, and is mentioned in extant works by ancient authors.
The Name of the City and its Founding
Etymological and philological suggestions regarding the origins of the name “Byzantion” (Byzantium) have been made since the late 19th century. The commonly-held view could be described as follows: the name “Byzantion” was derived from the name of Byzas, the founder (oikistes-ktistes) of the city – or, in other words, Byzas was the eponymous figure who gave his name to the city. The names “Byzas” and “Byzantion” were of Thracian and Illyrian origin. However, it is difficult to decide whether Byzas was a legendary figure or a real one. From its founding until the time of Constantine the Great (i.e., during the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods), the city was known as “Byzantium”; from the time of Constantine the Great until the destruction of the Byzantine state by the Ottomans in 1453 (i.e., from the Late Roman Empire until the end of the Middle Ages), it was known as “Constantinopolis” (Constantinople); during the Ottoman period, it was known as “Kostantiniyye” as well as (for roughly 100 years) “Islambol”; and, from the establishment of the Turkish Republic to our day, it has been known as “Istanbul.” Throughout all this time, the city has been the site of dense settlement. However, the practice of referring to the city as “Istanbul” – or variations thereof – dates back to the Byzantine era. It has been thought that the name “Istanbul” arose from the expression stin polin or eis ten polin (into the city).
Most of the colonies in the region of the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) were founded by colonists from Miletus. Likewise, Byzantium was also founded by colonists from Megara, a Dorian city in Central Greece. However, in all likelihood, the Megarians were joined by colonists from Argos, Corinth, and Boeotia, and especially from Chalcedon and Miletus. Krister Hanell, the author of a study of Megara and its colonies, has revealed links between the mother city of Megara and Byzantium, its colony.
The historian Herodotus (5th century BC) has the Persian commander Megabazos state that Chalcedon was founded 17 years earlier than Byzantium. The bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (Palestine), who lived in the third and fourth centuries AD, gives the date of the founding of Chalcedon as 685 BC, and that of Byzantium as 659 BC. However, there is no doubt that these dates may not be accurate. Consequently, we can say that Byzantium was founded in the middle of the seventh century BC, after the founding of Chalcedon and Selymbria (Silivri).
The Roman author Pliny, who lived in the first century AD, states that there was a previous settlement called Ligos on the site of Byzantium. It can thus be inferred that before the Megarians founded Byzantium (or, to be more precise, before they colonized it), there was a place of settlement there which was the size of a village (kome).
As we mentioned above, ancient sources write that Byzas was the Megarian leader who founded Byzantium; the name of the city comes from the name Byzas, which is claimed to be of Thracian origin. The founding of Byzantium by Byzas is recounted as a legend, which exists in a few different versions. Ancient sources and legends supply the following information concerning the identity of Byzas: (a) he was a Thracian king who was the son of a local nymph (water fairy) named Semestra; (b) he was the son of Poseidon and Keroessa, the daughter of Io; (c) he was the leader of the Megarians.
Of these commonly heard legends, the best-known is the second. According to this legend, Io, the daughter of the Argive king Inachus, was the priestess of the Temple of Hera in the city of Argos. One day, the god Zeus saw Io and fell in love with her. On learning that her husband Zeus was enamored of another woman, Hera became consumed with jealousy, and sought ways to separate Io from Zeus. In order to protect Io from Hera’s wrath, Zeus turned her into a cow. However, Hera asked that the cow be given to her; she took Io, and set the thousand-eyed giant Argos to guard her. Zeus then sent Hermes, the messenger god, who put Argos into a trance, and then killed him. Io was freed from the giant; however, this time Hera sent a horsefly to harass her. Whenever the fly bit her, Io – in the guise of a cow – felt great discomfort; she came from Thrace to the Bosphorus, and crossed to the Asian side, arriving at what is now the neighborhood of Eyüp at the end of the Golden Horn. After crossing the Golden Horn (Chrysokeras), Io gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Keroessa. Keroessa had a child, Byzas, with the sea-god Poseidon. Byzas was brought up by a nymph named Byzia; when he became a young man, he went on to found the city of Byzantium.
Because of the story of Io crossing the Bosphorus in the form of a cow, the Bosphorus acquired its name (Bosporos literally means “Cow Crossing”). This anecdote was well-known in antiquity. Though it would appear, according to this legend, that the place where Byzas and the colonists decided to found the city of Byzantium was at the site of present-day Sivritepe on the shore of the Golden Horn (the location of the Altar of Semystra), the legend nonetheless indicates Sarayburnu (now occupied by Topkapı Palace) as the place where the city was founded. As Dionysius of Halicarnassus has recounted, upon deciding to found the city, the colonists sacrificed an animal; as they were cooking it, a crow snatched a piece of its meat from the flames and flew away with it into the sky. However, guided by a shepherd – who watched where the crow went from a high hill – they discovered that the crow had taken the piece of sacrificial meat to the Bosphorus Cape. The colonists regarded this as a divine portent, and founded the city on the cape (today’s Sarayburnu). On the obverse of Byzantium’s coins minted under the Roman Empire, there is a helmeted, bearded bust of Byzas, along with an inscription indicating his name in Greek (ΒΥΖΑΣ).
The Mother City and its Colony: Megara and its Origins
Megara, a Dorian city in Central Greece, founded four colonies in the Propontis region in the seventh century BC: Chalcedon, Astakos, Selymbria, and Byzantium. Their ties to Megara are evident by the similarities in terms of proper nouns, calendars, religion, festivals, clan groupings, and institutions. The gods and goddesses who were worshipped in Megara were also worshipped in Byzantium. Generally speaking, when a colony was founded, it would at first maintain the political and social structure of its mother city; however, differences would emerge over time.
As Megara was a Dorian city, the Dorian alphabet was predominant; we can see the Dorian dialect used in Byzantium’s inscriptions as well. The clearest instances of this can be seen in the decisions of the People’s Assembly, in which the words demos and boule are written as damos and boula; this can also be seen in the names of individuals found in grave inscriptions. Similarly, the festival of the “Bosporia,” which was celebrated at Byzantium, and the Megarian provenance of the month Bosporeios found in the calendar of Byzantium, point to this relationship. Indeed, the fact that certain names unique to Megara can be found as months on the calendar of Byzantium furnishes proof regarding the latter’s ties to Megara. Similar names of months used on the calendar of Byzantium, as well as that of Chalcedon on the opposite shore, include Maksaneios, Petageitnios, and Dionysios. A month which is missing on the calendar of Byzantium can be filled in from the calendar of Chalcedon, and vice versa; in this way, one can determine the names of all twelve months. Since Byzantium was founded (or colonized) by Megarians from Central Greece, Ancient Greeks (Hellenes) undoubtedly made up its core population; consequently, the spoken language and written language (alphabet) was Ancient Greek (Hellenic). As Megara was a Dorian city, the Dorian dialect was prevalent, and the people of Byzantium used the Dorian dialect as well.
The Golden Horn
The Golden Horn is the name which was given in antiquity to the estuary known in Turkish as the Haliç, which separates the plateaus on which the old city of Istanbul and present-day Beyoğlu are located. As mentioned earlier, bonito constituted the city’s most important natural resource, and the Golden Horn (Chrysokeras) was where they were mostly frequently found and caught. Many ancient authors referred to this estuary as a “horn”; Strabo likens it to the horn of a deer. The Latin author Pliny, of the first century AD, refers to it as the “Golden Horn”; explaining why he chooses to give it this name, he writes,
At the narrowest point in the Thracian Strait (the Bosphorus) which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and separates Europe and Asia, in the vicinity of Chalcedon on the Asian side, there is a magnificent white rock which shimmers through the water, from the depths up to the surface. Whenever the bonito see this rock lying before them, they always become frightened, one after another. They make their way in a school directly towards the cape of Byzantium, on the other side. This is why this place is known as the “Golden Horn.” In the end, they are all caught by fishermen in Byzantium.
Thus, according to Pliny, the place called “Keras” (Horn) is known as the “Golden Horn” due to the fact that this stream is teeming with fish. Likewise, Strabo states that the current forced bonito to enter this estuary in a school, and that in a narrow part of the stream, they could even be caught by hand. Thus, in Byzantium, the fruit-filled “horn of plenty” (cornucopia) of antiquity was transformed into one filled with bonito; the term “golden” referred to the bonito themselves.
The Structures of the City and the City Walls
Because the ancient city of Byzantium lies beneath modern dwellings, it has not been possible to conduct ongoing, systematic archaeological excavations. At most, some small-scale excavations have been carried out since the mid-19th century, for the purposes of information, understanding, and discovery. However, from the beginning of the 20th century onwards, archaeological rescue excavations have also been performed at sites which ran the risk of harm from modern construction and roadwork. In particular, our understanding of the history of Byzantium has been greatly enhanced through excavations in the districts of Sultanahmet (i.e. excavations of the Hippodrome, the Court Building, and the old prison), Çemberlitaş, Beyazıt, and Saraçhane, and on certain sections of the wall from Yedikule to the Golden Horn, as well as rescue excavations performed at Sirkeci and Yenikapı in connection with the Marmaray and Metro projects.
To touch briefly on the aforementioned excavation projects, one of the oldest excavations carried out in the historical peninsula was C. T. Newton’s 1855 excavation of the Serpent Column in the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet.
Excavations of the Hippodrome performed under the leadership of S. Casson and D. Talbot Rice, on behalf of the British Academy, began in 1927 and lasted for two years. Despite the fact that for the most part they were concerned with the Byzantine period, these excavations were important in that they led to the discovery of findings dating to the Roman period.
One of the most important excavation projects in Istanbul was carried out during the foundation excavations for the buildings of Istanbul University’s Faculties of Science and Letters in Beyazıt between 1946 and 1952. These excavations turned up numerous findings belonging to a graveyard in ancient Byzantium. The grave stelae unearthed in these excavations and in other parts of Istanbul have been published by Nezih Fıratlı. Moreover, since the 1930s, reports on excavation projects in Istanbul focusing on the city’s early history have been published in the volumes of the Almanac of Istanbul Archaeological Museums and, in part, in the relevant volumes of the Bulletin of the Turkish Historical Society.
Excavations carried out in certain places along the wall which extends northward from Yedikule to the Golden Horn, and which dates back to the era of Theodosius II, have also turned up findings dating back to Byzantium and Constantinople under the Roman Empire.
Archaeological excavations conducted at the Church of St. Polyeuctos in Saraçhane between 1964 and 1969, under the leadership of R. M. Harrison, brought to light a number of artifacts from the Roman period; the excavation, however, was actually concerned with a Byzantine monument.
The biggest rescue excavations in recent years were carried out at Sirkeci and Yenikapı, in connection with the excavations beginning in 2004 for the Marmaray- Metro, one of the world’s most important transportation projects. Although most of the remains and findings belonged to the Byzantine era, they were noteworthy in that they also included material from the Roman period.
Since its founding, Byzantium has witnessed continual settlement and development. It has been quite difficult, and at times even impossible, to conduct archaeological excavation projects aimed at bringing to light the city’s pre-Byzantine structures. Structures from the Byzantine period are still standing, to an extent, and are suitable for excavation projects. Structures from antiquity (i.e., the Hellenistic and Roman periods), on the other hand, are beneath the soil; due to human habitation in these areas, it is nearly impossible to carry out excavations. However, we can obtain information from ancient sources (especially ones from the Middle Ages) about structures in ancient Byzantium.
The nucleus of Byzantium consisted of the area now occupied by Topkapı Palace and the Hagia Sophia. The location of Topkapı Palace (Sarayburnu, or Bosporios Akra) was once the city’s acropolis. On the Acropolis, and in the surrounding area, there were temples to Athena Ekbasia, Poseidon, Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, and Aphrodite. Herodotus also mentions temples to Artemis Orthosia and Dionysus. Other temples included ones to Hecate, Rhea, and Tyche. At the tip of Sarayburnu, there was a temple to Poseidon, as well as the temenos (sacred precinct) of Ge Anesidora and Kore. Ancient authors state that there were various sacred spaces and altars along the Golden Horn.
Dionysius and Hesychius of Byzantium mention gymnasia and cisterns in the city. Similarly, Dionysius of Byzantium and Cassius Dio also speak of the city’s harbors. These harbors were closed with chains, and there was a breakwater, as well. There are several harbors whose names are known to us: Prosphorion and Neorion among others. Two new harbors were built in the fourth century AD, one at present-day Kadırga, the other at Yenikapı. Of these two, the Harbor of Theodosius was discovered in recent years during the rescue excavations related to the construction of the Marmaray-Metro at Yenikapı; this was one of the biggest discoveries of the last century. In the works of Xenophon and Zosimus, there is mention of a gallery with four pillars and an enclosed agora. Malalas states that a statue of Helios, the sun god, stood within this agora. Xenophon also informs us of the presence of a large square known as the Thrakion. To the north of the Thrakion, there was an area inhabited by high-ranking state officials, which was known as the Strategion, and is mentioned by Hesychius. Under the Roman Empire, the city did not remain confined to Sarayburnu, but expanded further. Construction of an aqueduct was begun in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138). Meanwhile, construction was also begun on the Hippodrome; however, this structure was not completed until the time of Constantine. The city also contained a theater built during the reign of Septimius Severus. Sources relate that Severus also commissioned the building of the Baths of Zeuxippus. The most important baths were the Baths of Achilles, located near the Strategion, and built in the pre-Roman period. However, virtually nothing has survived of these structures.
In all likelihood, Byzantium had been surrounded by a wall from the very earliest period; however, no trace of these walls remains today. Almost nothing is known about the earliest wall. In the time of Constantine the Great, the western land wall probably stretched from Yenikapı towards the Golden Horn. The walls which remain partially standing today extend from Yedikule to the Golden Horn and were built in the reign of Theodosius II; Pausanias, Cassius Dio, Dionysius of Byzantium, Codinus, and Herodianus all mention these walls. Hesychius of Miletus states that the walls were built by Byzas, the founder of the city, with the aid of Poseidon and Apollo. Pausanias describes Byzantium as a well-fortified city. According to Cassius Dio, Byzantium’s walls were very strong, and the battlements were constructed from huge square blocks of stone, with sheets of bronze fastened together; there was also a covered walkway, as well as numerous towers placed at irregular intervals. Dio notes that the walls on the land side were quite high, while those on the sea side were quite low, due to their having been built on top of rocks which were nearly at the bottom of the Bosphorus. In his work, Dio also mentions the defensive weapons deployed on top of these walls in what turns out to be an intriguing discussion. The people of Byzantium used certain machines to hurl huge stones and javelins at the approaching enemy. Dionysius of Byzantium, who lived during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565), states that the wall surrounding the city was 35 stadia (about 6.5 kilometers) in length, and that a 5-stadion (one-kilometer) portion of the wall was on the land side. There were 27 towers on the wall. Dio relates that the seven towers which extended from the Thracian Strait to the sea had superb acoustics, and that when someone let out a cry from one of these towers, that person’s voice would echo from tower to tower all the way to the seventh tower. As for Codinus, he provides details about the course of the wall surrounding Byzantium.
The Emperor Constantine I (306-337), after choosing Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire, partook in architectural activities there, and fitted the city with monuments. Above the forum which he had built in present-day Çemberlitaş, which bears his name, he erected a porphyry statue of himself. This monument was damaged as early as the Byzantine era; much later, it was supported and reinforced by iron hoops, and has survived to this day as a pillar. Constantine I began construction on the Great Palace (Palatium Magnum) in the area between present-day Sultanahmet Square and the Marmara seacoast; he also presided over the completion of the construction of the Hippodrome. Among the monuments in the Hippodrome is a cauldron standing on top of three snake heads wrapped around one another, which the Hellenes (allied Greeks) presented to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi as a token of gratitude for their victory against the Persians at Plataea (479 BC). This monumental cauldron is known today as the “Serpent Column.” The snakes are believed to be a reference to the aid provided by the heroes of the Battle of Plataea. Moreover, the names of allies who served valiantly and died in this battle are carved on the monument. It is assumed that it was brought from Delphi to Constantinople shortly after the construction of the Hippodrome which was also used as a fountain for a certain period.
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