A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No.7 Nova Roma (Constantinople).

In around 1000 AD, Constantinople was arguably the greatest city in the Mediterranean world, if not the entire world. Trade, wealth, riches and monuments, churches and palaces, and emperors all resided in what was the glorious city founded by Constantine the Great. Though according to legend, six centuries before Christ, Constantinople was originally known as old Byzantion, named after a Greek king Byza. Rome’s influence over this small peninsula city would not be felt until around 73 AD when Roman Emperor Vespasian incorporated it into the empire. In around 200 AD Septimus Severus razed the small town to the ground and then rebuild it in honour of his son.

During the age of Constantine, Byzantium had come to play a role in his victory against Licinius. Firstly, Constantine had driven Licinius back to Byzantium in 317 after he defeated him in Arda and again in 324, he dug in against Licinius and possibly watched his son Crispus smash Licinius fleet along the peninsula around Byzantium. It is sometimes said that Constantine chose Byzantium as his ‘victory city’ over Licinius. Though generally it is believed Constantine chose Byzantium for its strategic importance.

Constantine realised that the Roman world in the fourth century could not be defended from barbarian attack from Trier, Nicomedia (Diocletian’s Capital), Sirmium nor from the old imperial capital of Rome. By rebuilding, the new capital of Rome, Nova Roma (Byzantium), in the east, it was perfectly situated and within easy reach of both the Danube and Persian frontiers where barbarian incursion and threat was at its greatest. (It is believed that Constantine in the back of his mind realized that the 40 years peace treaty of Nisibis, arranged by Emperor Galerius, was coming to an end in the late 330’s. Conflict between Persia and Rome was almost inevitable. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) would campaign against the Persians in 337 AD, therefore making Constantine’s decision to establish a permanent presence in the east correct.)

It’s location, therefore, in Constantine’s eyes was ideal, situated where Europe and Asia are separated by the strait of water known as the Bosphorus, leading from the Sea of Marmara into the Black Sea. Furthermore, apart from sitting on an elevation, it possessed one of the finest and well protected harbours on the Golden Horn.

Satellite image of the Bosphorus, taken from the International Space Station in 2004. In the foreground is the Golden Horn. 

Having chosen the site of Byzantium as his new capital, in a traditional ceremony performed in 324, a line was ploughed with a lance to mark out the boundaries of a new land wall that Constantine had envisaged that would protect the city. An enclosed area approximately some 8 square kilometres would quadrupled the size of the old city. Of course, over time the city would expand and grow and by the time of the reign of Theodosius II, Constantinople would have new gigantic walls stretching and expanding further than the eye could see. (Though this story is for another time.)

No one at the time could have foreseen, whether or not this new city would be a success. However Constantine was surely going to try ! Edward Gibbon best describes how after having slept within the city, Constantine awoke and conceived the idea of Nova Roma (New Rome): “On foot, with a lance in his hand, the Emperor himself led the soleum procession, and directed the line which was traced as the boundary of the destined capital, til the growing circumference was observed with astonishment by the assistants, who at length ventured to observe that he already exceeded the most ample measure of a great city. “I shall still advance”, replied Constantine, “till He, the invisible guide who marches before me, thinks proper to stop.”’

This amazing map was created circa 1422 by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmont. It is the oldest surviving map of Constantinople, and the only one that predates the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 AD. 

With this audacious beginning, one of his first actions would be to rebuild the Baths of Zeuxippus, commence work on grand new buildings, palaces, a Senate-house, monuments (mostly ransacked from all over the Empire), roads and other infrastructure. More importantly, he also intended to make his new city an imperial residence, where he could greet important guests and dignitaries from all over. Furthermore, no city was complete without an impressive hippodrome for horse and chariot racing.

Nova Roma or Constantinople, as we will come to know her by, in Constantine’s eyes was going to be far greater than any of the other imperial capitals he had resided in. Constantinople’s splender was going to be compared only to Rome, whom Constantine had snubbed as a relic of the past.

To help populate his city, Constantine would invite important and influential Romans as settlers and as an incentive give them each a large estate according to their standing. From senators to drunkards, Constantine slowly populated his city. Only his death would stop him from seeing how in the years ahead the city’s population would boom.

After six years of intensive construction, Constantine proudly announced to the Roman world that his city was complete. On the 11th May 330 AD the new capital was dedicated (consecrated) in celebration and fanfare.

This detailed map of the city of Constantinople exceeds Constantine’s land walls, but it nevertheless provides the reader with a vision of what the city looked like in the centuries after his death. It includes many of the city’s road networks, churches and hippodrome.
Notes and Further Reading
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013.
Dogan Gumas, Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, Do-Gu Yayinlari, 1987.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.

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