The main sources for palaces and administrative centers in Constantinople are contemporary texts. Physical remains of Byzantine palaces can be spotted only in very limited areas in modern Istanbul. What the texts describe about the physical properties of the palace do not fit easily to what little remains archaeology has unearthed. It is even more of a challenge to bring together textual evidence describing the administrative functions of the palace in Byzantium.
In 330, Constantine I had at least one imperial residence with the designation “palace” at the southern side of the tip of the peninsula, next to the new civic center he built right outside the original Byzantium. This was on level ground with the Hippodrome, and the main entrance was a monumental building called the Chalke. As such, this building followed on the line of development of the tetrarchic palace.
The tetrarchic palace was a residence for each of the four rulers of the empire after Diocletian’s reform of the central administration after 295, at such towns as Nicomedia, Thessalonica, Trier. Texts describe the palace at Antioch as a complex of buildings including both private areas for the emperor’s person and family as well as barracks for the body-guards of the emperor and multi-purpose halls and offices for administrative and bureaucratic functions. This complex was cut-off from the urban area of the capital by the bulk of the Hippodrome and the Baths of Zeuxippos. Texts mention a hall named Daphne which was meant to be the main ceremonial hall in the palace. This may be a free-standing building, or a wing of one of the other buildings. It most probably had direct access to the emperor’s lodge, called Kathisma, in the eastern side of the Hippodrome. Physical remains of most of the Constantinian palace are covered by the Sultanahmet mosque. Only within the margins of the Sultanahmet Mosque occasional pieces of the Great Palace were recovered. But problems of interpretation remain, as the texts do not mention everything in the same rate of detail. For example, the peristyle structure with its famous in-situ mosaic panels, south of Sultanahmet, escapes precise dating and consensus has not been reached about its function and relationship with the rest of the palace.
The Great Palace can be described as a complex of buildings which include the imperial family’s apartments and the administrative sections. The administrative sections must have predominantly included the offices needed for the management of the affairs directly related with the emperor. The Roman empire in the early fourth century was not a centrally-administred state that fits the modern concept of central administration. Provinces were all grouped into dioceses and dioceses into praefectures. Imperial government was represented at each level of his hierarchy at various provincial capitals. There were buildings and departments in the capital which housed offices related with the provincial revenues and management. We do not know exactly where.
After Constantine’s reign, the weight and role of the capital gradually increased. Hence during the Theodosian dynasty, the Great Palace started to host high judicial offices and archives. In 409 there was a law which required the demolition of private residences that were too close to the palace grounds. Textual sources take too much for granted and it is quite difficult to delineate the actual buildings and to ascertain their functions and differences from each other.
It needs to be also mentioned that Constantinople at this period hosted many private palaces which belonged to either imperial or other aristocratic residents. Some of these aristocrats were also state officials and their private residences included space which served public functions. During the Theodosian dynasty, the northernmost extension of the capital along the Golden Horn, named Blachernai, also received an imperial palace. This region was simultaneously turned into a major religious hub by the Theodosian princesses.
Other administrative sections of the city were the new Senate house in the Forum of Constantine, law courts near the southern end of the main artery called the Mese. There were apparently two mints: One in the Great Palace, alongside its required institutions like a foundry, and one in the Twelfth Region (near the Church of St Mokios and the Golden Gate on the original Constantinian Walls) as described in the mid-fifth-century Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae, also attested in the Book of Ceremonies (Ninth century). Some coin refuse was found also in the mosaic-floored peristyle building south of Sultanahmet, which may indicate its continued use as the mint in the later centuries.
In the early sixth century, sources indicate other locations as residences in addition to the Great Palace. For examples, Justinian and Theodora had lived in their own maritime palace to the south the Great Palace before Justinian became emperor.
In the sixth century we are lucky as textual material is quite abundant and gives better information about the palace and administrative buildings. After the fire of the Nika riot (532), Justinian built a new Chalke. Procopius describes this in full. John of Ephesus gives unique testimony to ceremony at court. From John of Ephesus and Cyril of Scythopolis’s accounts, it is understood that Theodora had her own quarters with its separate domestic personnel. The women’s quarters were so independent from the rest of the great palace that many sources relate that a couple of anti-Chalcedonian bishops were hiding there although they were searched after for arrest.
By the sixth century the Great Palace also houses a couple of chapels which shows that the palace was also quite a religious locale. The tower called the Pharos in the south was turned into a chapel which had the relics of the Passion of the Christ.
The same textual sources indicate that certain public buildings in the capital were used by the imperial agents for different purposes. For example, the arches of the Hippodrome facing the palace occasionally were used as archival depositories. An abandoned bath building in the city was temporarily used as a court tribunal. Many public buildings, including the archbishopric palace, had lots of space where people could be put into under arrest.
There seems to be a departmental building for the Prefecture of the East in the Forum of Leo, NE of Hagia Eirene, today within the Topkapi Palace courtyards, and it is reported that it lost its main function as those provinces were occupied by the Muslim Arab armies.
After the seventh century a shift happened in the preference of the location of the imperial family and by the ninth century the imperial palace comes to be limited to the area surrounding the so-called Palace of the Bukoleon, on the shore, south of the Hippodrome and the old Great Palace. This was the region overlooking the Marmara Sea, and it had its own port at least from the reign of Justinian on. Here, in addition to the Bukoleon, there was the large ceremonial hall named the Chrysotriclinos. All this section was surrounded by a wall during the reign of Nikephoros Phokas (d. 969). The original sections of the Great Palace above the hill were apparently abandoned. The Book of Ceremonies, also from the tenth century, mentions some old locations (like the Daphne) that are outside this new palace complex but it is not clear whether they were constantly being in use or they were used for the occasional large ceremonies.
This part of the new palace included in the mid-twelfth century an interesting ceremonial building named Mouchroutas which was designed by a Persian/Seljuk architect in the Seljuk style. It should be noted that Seljuk Sultan Kılıçarslan II (r. 1155-92) visited Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-80) in 1161.
After the Latin occupation of 1204-1261, the Palaiologan dynasty shifted the imperial residence to the north of the city closer to the prestigious neighborhood of the Blachernai. Today’s Tekfur Sarayı, named after the emperor (Turkish Tekfur from Armenian Tagavor, “crown-bearer”), was attested as the House of the Porphyrogennetos (“The One Born into the Purple”) refurnished and settled by the Palaiologoi. This was not a single building on its own, but must have had structural ties with the lower-lying Blachernai region and its churches and residences which are today covered by the modern city. The intricate structure of the land-walls in this area, including various fortified towers and the segment of the so-called “Anemas Prisons”, may have formed parts of the imperial palace complex in this region until the end of the empire.
In these later centuries much of the capital (as well as the provinces) was administered to a certain extent by the ecclesiastical authorities. Therefore some part of the administrative burden of the empire was shared by the church. The Komnenoi and the Palaiologoi were aristocratic families among many such families in Constantinople. There were many “palatial residences” which were built in the later centuries of Byzantium by these aristocrats. By such residences it has to be understood that these were complexes of buildings which were residences for the use of the extended families, their domestic servants, and storage facilities for the commercial goods and agricultural products brought in from their estates in the provinces, and moderate fortification as well as barracks for their own guardsmen. These “houses” were described as “cities within a city” by the texts. The “palace” aspect was due to one semi-public ceremonial hall in this complex. Each time the throne passed from one dynasty to another, it may well be expected that the family residence would take its share in hosting some functions of state, just like the church which adopted much of the civic functions of the empire.
After 1261, Tekfur Sarayı was most probably the fortified residence and ceremony hall section of the new palace of the Palaiologoi which must have stretched down into Blachernai. In the absence of archaeological investigation it will be difficult to pinpoint to further pieces of this complex.
Bardill, Jonathan “The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperor and the Walker Trust Excavations,” Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1999, vol. 12 pp. 216-230.
Featherstone, J. Michael, “The Great Palace as Reflected in the De Cerimoniis,” Byzas, 2006, vol. 5, pp. 47-61.
Jones, A. H. M, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey, Baltimore, Md. : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, c1964.
Kelly, Christopher, Ruling the Later Roman Empire, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006.