Constantinople (Κωνσταντινούπολις, Konstantinoúpolis, or ἡ Πόλις hē Polis, Latin: CONSTANTINOPOLIS, in formal Ottoman Turkish: Konstantiniyye) was the capital of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). Strategically located between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara at the point where Europe meets Asia, Roman Constantinople had been the capital of a Christian empire, see Christendom, successor to ancient Greece and Rome. Throughout the Middle Ages Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city, known as the Queen of Cities (Vasileuousa Polis).
Depending on the background of its rulers, it often had several different names at any given time; among the most common were Byzantium (Byzantion), New Rome (Νέα Ῥώμη, Nova Roma) (although this was an ecclesiastical rather than an official name), Constantinople, and Stamboul.
Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine I on the site of an already existing city, Byzantium, settled in the early days of Greek colonial expansion, probably around 671-662 BC. The site lay astride the land route from Europe to Asia and the seaway from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and had in the Golden Horn an excellent and spacious harbour.
Constantine had altogether more ambitious plans. Having restored the unity of the Empire, and being in course of major governmental reforms as well as of sponsoring the consolidation of the Christian church, he was well aware that Rome was an unsatisfactory capital. Rome was too far from the frontiers, and hence from the armies and the Imperial courts, and it offered an undesirable playground for disaffected politicians. Yet it had been the capital of the state for over a thousand years, and it will have seemed unthinkable to suggest that the capital be moved. Nevertheless, he identified the site of Byzantium as the right place: a place where an emperor could sit, readily defended, with easy access to the Danube or the Euphrates frontiers, his court supplied from the rich gardens and sophisticated workshops of Roman Asia, his treasuries filled by the wealthiest provinces of the Empire.
Constantinople was built over six years, and consecrated on 11 May 330. Although the city was essentially Greek-speaking, Latin was the language of government. It became known as Constantinopolis, "Constantine's City".
Constantine divided the expanded city, like Rome, into 14 regions, and ornamented it with public works worthy of an imperial metropolis. Yet initially Constantine's new Rome did not have all the dignities of old Rome. It possessed a proconsul, rather than an urban prefect. It had no praetors, tribunes or quaestors. Although it did have senators, they held the title clarus, not clarissimus, like those of Rome. It also lacked the panoply of other administrative offices regulating the food supply, police, statues, temples, sewers, aqueducts or other public works. The new programme of building was carried out in great haste: columns, marbles, doors and tiles were taken wholesale from the temples of the Empire and moved to the new city. Similarly, many of the greatest works of Greek and Roman art were soon to be seen in its squares and streets. The Emperor stimulated private building by promising householders gifts of land from the Imperial estates in Asiana and Pontica, and on 18 May 332 he announced that, as in Rome, free distributions of food would be made to the citizens. At the time the amount is said to have been 80,000 rations a day, doled out from 117 distribution points around the city.
Constantine laid out a new square at the centre of old Byzantium, naming it the Augustaeum. The new senate-house (or Curia) was housed in a basilica on the east side. On the south side of the great square was erected the Great Palace of the emperor with its imposing entrance, the Chalke, and its ceremonial suite known as the Palace of Daphne. Nearby was the vast Hippodrome for chariot-races, seating over 80,000 spectators, and the famed Baths of Zeuxippus. At the western entrance to the Augustaeum was the Milion, a vaulted monument from which distances were measured across the Eastern Roman Empire.
From the Augustaeum led a great street, the Mese (Greek: Μέση (Οδός) lit. "Middle Street"), lined with colonnades. As it descended the First Hill of the city and climbed the Second Hill, it passed on the left the Praetorium or law-court. Then it passed through the oval Forum of Constantine where there was a second Senate-house and a high column with a statue of Constantine himself in the guise of Helios, crowned with a halo of seven rays and looking towards the rising sun. From there the Mese passed on and through the Forum of Taurus and then the Forum of Bous, and finally up the Seventh Hill (or Xerolophus) and through to the Golden Gate in the Constantinian Wall. After the construction of the Theodosian Walls in the early 5th century, it would be extended to the new Golden Gate, reaching a total length of seven Roman miles.
The first known Prefect of the City of Constantinople was Honoratus, who took office on 11 December 359 and held it until 361. The emperor Valens built the Palace of Hebdomon on the shore of the Propontis near the Golden Gate, probably for use when reviewing troops. All the emperors up to Zeno and Basiliscus were crowned and acclaimed at the Hebdomon. Theodosius I founded the Church of John the Baptist to house the skull of the saint (today preserved at the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, Turkey), put up a memorial pillar to himself in the Forum of Taurus, and turned the ruined temple of Aphrodite into a coach house for the Praetorian Prefect; Arcadius built a new forum named after himself on the Mese, near the walls of Constantine.
Gradually the importance of Constantinople increased. After the shock of the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the emperor Valens with the flower of the Roman armies was destroyed by the Visigoths within a few days' march, the city looked to its defenses, and Theodosius II built in 413–414 the 18 metre (60 ft) tall triple-wall fortifications which were never to be breached until the coming of gunpowder. Theodosius also founded a University near the Forum of Taurus, on 27 February 425.
Uldin, a prince of the Huns, appeared on the Danube about this time and advanced into Thrace, but he was deserted by many of his followers, who joined with the Romans in driving their king back north of the river. Subsequently new walls were built to defend the city, and the fleet on the Danube improved. Money spoke louder, however, and in 424 Theodosius agreed to pay an annual subsidy to the new Hunnish king Rugila. The latter was shortly succeeded by Attila, who negotiated a doubling of the subsidy. In 441 he took the opportunity to attack while the Roman armies were engaged against both the Persian and the Vandals, and after a successful battle in Thrace not far from the city, secured a further trebling of the subsidy. He invaded again in 447; the Roman response was an assassination attempt, which failed. On 25 August 450 Marcian succeeded Theodosius, and determined to take a firm line with the Huns, stopping the subsidy payments; about the same time Attila received a message from Honoria, a sister of the western Emperor Valentinian III, which he was able to take advantage of as a pretext, and departed from Illyricum to move with all his armies against the West.
Meanwhile the barbarians overran the Western Roman Empire, its emperors retreated to Ravenna, and it diminished to nothing. Thereafter, Constantinople became in truth the largest city of the Roman Empire and of the world. Emperors were no longer peripatetic between various court capitals and palaces. They remained in their palace in the Great City, and sent generals to command their armies. The wealth of the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia flowed into Constantinople.
The emperor Justinian I (527–565) was known for his successes in war, for his legal reforms and for his public works. It was from Constantinople that his expedition for the reconquest of the former Diocese of Africa set sail on or about 21 June 533. Before their departure the ship of the commander Belisarius anchored in front of the Imperial palace, and the Patriarch offered prayers for the success of the enterprise. After the victory, in 534, the Temple treasure of Jerusalem, looted by the Romans in 70 AD and taken to Carthage by the Vandals after their sack of Rome in 455, was brought to Constantinople and deposited for a time, perhaps in the church of St Polyeuctus, before being returned to Jerusalem in either the Church of the Resurrection or the New Church.
Chariot-racing had been important in Rome for centuries. In Constantinople, the hippodrome became over time increasingly a place of political significance. It was where (as a shadow of the popular elections of old Rome) the people by acclamation showed their approval of a new emperor; and also where they openly criticized the government, or clamoured for the removal of unpopular ministers. In the time of Justinian, public order in Constantinople became a critical political issue.
The entire late Roman and early Byzantine period was one where Christianity was resolving fundamental questions of identity, and the dispute between the orthodox and the monophysites became the cause of serious disorder, expressed through allegiance to the horse-racing parties of the Blues and the Greens. The partisans of the Blues and the Greens were said to affect untrimmed facial hair, head hair shaved at the front and grown long at the back, and wide-sleeved tunics tight at the wrist; and to form gangs to engage in night-time muggings and street violence. At last these disorders took the form of a major rebellion of 532, known as the "Nika" riots (from the battle-cry of "Victory!" of those involved).
Fires started by the Nika rioters consumed the basilica of St Sophia, the city's principal church. Justinian commissioned Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to replace it with a new and incomparable St Sophia, located at the north side of the Augusteum. This was the great cathedral of the Orthodox Church, whose dome was said to be held aloft by God alone, and which was directly connected to the palace so that the imperial family could attend services without passing through the streets. The dedication took place on 26 December 537 in the presence of the emperor, who exclaimed, "O Solomon, I have outdone thee! Hagia Sophia was served by 600 people including 80 priests, and cost 20,000 pounds of gold to build.
Justinian also had Anthemius and Isidore demolish and replace the original Church of the Holy Apostles, built by Constantine, with a new church under the same dedication. This was designed in the form of an equally-armed cross with five domes, and ornamented with beautiful mosaics. This church was to remain the burial place of the emperors from Constantine himself until the eleventh century. When the city fell to the Turks in 1453, the church was demolished to make room for the tomb of Mehmet II the Conqueror. Justinian was also concerned with other aspects of the city's built environment, legislating against the abuse of laws prohibiting building within of the sea front, in order to protect the view.
During Justinian I's reign, the city's population reached about 500,000 people. However, the social fabric of Constantinople was also damaged by the onset of bubonic plague between 541–542 AD.
In the early 7th century the Avars and later the Bulgars overwhelmed much of the Balkans, threatening Constantinople from the west. Simultaneously the Persian Sassanids overwhelmed the Prefecture of the East and penetrated deep into Anatolia. Heraclius, son to the exarch of Africa, set sail for the city and assumed the purple. He found the military situation so dire that he is said at first to have contemplated withdrawing the imperial capital to Carthage, but relented after the people of Constantinople begged him to stay. While the Great City withstood a siege. Maslama, were met with the city's impregnable walls, the stout resistance of the defenders, freezing winter temperatures, chronic outbreaks of disease, starvation, and Bulgar attacks on their camp. Meanwhile, their fleet was ravaged by the newly devised Greek Fire of the Byzantine navy, and its remnants utterly destroyed in a storm on the return home. The crushing victory of the Byzantines was a severe blow to Caliph Umar II, and the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate was severely stunted during his reign.
In the 730s Leo III carried out extensive repairs of the Theodosian walls, which had been damaged by frequent and violent attacks; this work was financed by a special tax on all the subjects of the Empire.
Theodora, widow of the emperor Theophilus (d. 842) acted as regent during the minority of her son Michael III, who was said to have been introduced to dissolute habits by her brother Bardas. When Michael assumed power in 856 he became known for excessive drunkenness, appeared in the hippodrome as a charioteer and burlesqued the religious processions of the clergy. He removed Theodora from the Great Palace to the Carian Palace and later to the monastery of Gastria, but after the death of Bardas she was released to live in the palace of St Mamas; she also had a rural residence at the Anthemian Palace, where Michael was assassinated in 867.
In 865 an attack was made on the city by a new principality set up a few years earlier at Novgorod by Rurik, a Varangian chief: two hundred small Russian vessels passed through the Bosporus and plundered the monasteries and other properties on the suburban Prince's Islands. Oryphas, the admiral of the Byzantine fleet, alerted the emperor Michael, who promptly put the invaders to flight; but the suddenness and savagery of the onslaught made a deep impression on the citizens.
In 980 the emperor Basil II received an unusual gift from Prince Vladimir of Kiev: 6,000 Varangian warriors which Basil formed into a new bodyguard known as the Varangian Guard. They were known for their ferocity, honour and loyalty. It is said that in 1038 they were dispersed in winter quarters in the Thracesian theme when one of their number attempted to violate a countrywoman, but in the struggle she seized his sword and killed him; instead of taking revenge, however, his comrades applauded her conduct, compensated her with all his possessions, and exposed his body without burial as if he had committed suicide. However, following the death of an emperor, they became known also for plunder in the imperial palaces. Later in the 11th Century the Varangian Guard became dominated by Anglo-Saxons who preferred this way of life to subjection to the new Norman kings of England.
The Book of the Eparch, which dates to the 10th century, gives a detailed picture of the city's commercial life and its organization at that time. The corporations in which the tradesmen of Constantinople were organised were supervised by the Eparch, who regulated such matters as production, prices, import and export. Each guild had its own monopoly, and tradesmen might not belong to more than one. It is an impressive testament to the strength of tradition how little these arrangements had changed since the office, then known by the Latin version of its title, had been set up in 330 to mirror the urban prefecture of Rome.
In the eighth and ninth centuries the iconoclast movement caused serious political unrest throughout the Empire. The emperor Leo III issued a decree in 726 against images, and ordered the destruction of a statue of Christ over one of the doors of the Chalke, an act which was fiercely resisted by the citizens. Constantine V convoked a church council in 754 which condemned the worship of images, after which many treasures were broken, burned, or painted over with depictions of trees, birds or animals: one source refers to the church of the Holy Virgin at Blachernae as having been transformed into a "fruit store and aviary. Following the death of his son Leo IV in 780, the empress Irene restored the veneration of images through the agency of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.
The iconoclast controversy returned in the early 9th century, only to be resolved once more in 843 during the regency of Empress Theodora, who restored the icons. These controversies contributed to the deterioration of relations between the Western and the Eastern Churches.
In the late 11th century catastrophe struck with the unexpected and calamitous defeat of the imperial armies at the Battle of Manzikert in Armenia in 1071. The Emperor Romanus Diogenes was captured. The peace terms demanded by Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuk Turks, were not excessive, and Romanus accepted them. On his release, however, Romanus found that enemies had placed their own candidate on the throne in his absence; he surrendered to them and suffered death by torture, and the new ruler, Michael VII Ducas, refused to honour the treaty. In response, the Turks began to move into Anatolia in 1073. The collapse of the old defensive system meant that they met no opposition, and the empire's resources were distracted and squandered in a series of civil wars. Thousands of Turkoman tribesmen crossed the unguarded frontier and moved into Anatolia. By 1080, a huge area had been lost to the empire, and the Turks were within striking distance of Constantinople.
Under the Comnenian dynasty (1081–1185), Byzantium staged a remarkable military, financial and territorial recovery. In what is sometimes called the Comnenian Restoration, with the establishment of a new military system, the Empire recovered nearly half of the lost Anatolian lands.
In response to a call for aid from Alexius I Comnenus, the First Crusade assembled at Constantinople in 1096, but declining to put itself under Byzantine command set out for Jerusalem on its own account (there is an excellent source for these events: the writer and historian Anna Comnena in her work The Alexiad).
John II built the monastery of the Pantocrator (Almighty) with a hospital for the poor of 50 beds.
With the restoration of firm central government, the empire became fabulously wealthy. The population was rising (estimates for Constantinople in the twelfth century vary from approximately 100,000 to 500,000), and towns and cities across the realm flourished. Meanwhile, the volume of money in circulation dramatically increased. This was reflected in Constantinople by the construction of the Blachernae palace, the creation of brilliant new works of art, and general prosperity at this time: an increase in trade, made possible by the growth of the Italian city-states, may have helped the growth of the economy. Certainly, the Venetians and others were active traders in Constantinople, making a living out of shipping goods between the Crusader Kingdoms of Outremer and the West while also trading extensively with Byzantium and Egypt. The Venetians had factories on the north side of the Golden Horn, and large numbers of westerners were present in the city throughout the twelfth century. Towards the end of Manuel I's reign, the number of foreigners in the city reached about 60,000-80,000 people out of a total population of about 400,000 people. In 1171, Constantinople also contained a small community of 2,500 Jews.
In artistic terms, the 12th century was a very productive period. There was a revival in the mosaic art, for example: mosaics became more realistic and vivid, with an increased emphasis on depicting three-dimensional forms. There was an increased demand for art, with more people having access to the necessary wealth to commission and pay for such work. According to N.H. Baynes (Byzantium, An Introduction to East Roman Civilization):
In the course of a plot between Philip of Swabia, Boniface of Montserrat and the Doge of Venice, the Fourth Crusade was, despite papal excommunication, diverted in 1203 against Constantinople, ostensibly promoting the claims of Alexius son of the deposed emperor Isaac. The reigning emperor Alexius III had made no preparation. The Crusaders occupied Galata, broke the chain protecting the Golden Horn and entered the harbour, where on 27 July they breached the sea walls: Alexius III fled. But the new Alexius IV found the Treasury inadequate, and was unable to make good the rewards he had promised to his western allies. Tension between the citizens and the Latin soldiers increased. In January 1204 the protovestiarius Alexius Murzuphlus provoked a riot, probably to intimidate Alexius IV, but whose only result was the destruction of the great statue of Athena, the work of Phidias, which stood in the principal forum facing west.
In February the people rose again: Alexius IV was imprisoned and executed, and Murzuphlus took the purple as Alexius V. He made some attempt to repair the walls and organise the citizenry, but there had been no opportunity to bring in troops from the provinces and the guards were demoralised by the revolution. An attack by the Crusaders on 6 April failed, but a second from the Golden Horn on 12 April succeeded, and the invaders poured in. Alexius V fled. The Senate met in St Sophia and offered the crown to Theodore Lascaris, who had married into the Angelid family, but it was too late. He came out with the Patriarch to the Golden Milestone before the Great Palace and addressed the Varangian Guard. Then the two of them slipped away with many of the nobility and embarked for Asia. By the next day the Doge and the leading Franks were installed in the Great Palace, and the city was given over to pillage for three days.
The great historian of the Crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, wrote that the sack of Constantinople is “unparalleled in history”.
“For nine centuries,” he goes on, “the great city had been the capital of Christian civilisation. It was filled with works of art that had survived from ancient Greece and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen. The Venetians wherever they could seized treasures and carried them off. But the Frenchmen and Flemings were filled with a lust for destruction: they rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine-cellars. Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared. In St Sophia itself drunken soldiers could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred books and icons were trampled under foot. While they drank from the altar-vessels a prostitute sang a ribald French song on the Patriarch’s throne. Nuns were ravished in their convents. Palaces and hovels alike were wrecked. Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes continued until the huge and beautiful city was a shambles. Even after order was restored, citizens were tortured to make them reveal treasures they had hidden."
For the next half-century, Constantinople was the seat of the Latin Empire. The Byzantine nobility were scattered. Many went to Nicaea, where Theodore Lascaris set up an imperial court, or to Epirus, where Theodore Angelus did the same; others fled to Trebizond, where one of the Comneni had already with Georgian support established an independent seat of empire. Constantinople was taken from its final Latin ruler, Baldwin II, by Byzantine forces under Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261.
Although Constantinople was retaken by Michael VIII, the Empire had lost many of its key economic resources, and struggled to survive. The palace of Blachernae in the north-west of the city became the main Imperial residence, with the old Great Palace on the shores of the Bosporus going into decline. When Michael VIII captured the city, its population was 35,000 people, but by the end of his reign, he succeeded in increasing the population to about 70,000 people. The Emperor achieved this by summoning former residents back who had fled the city when the Crusaders captured it during the Fourth Crusade and by relocating Greeks from the recently reconquered Peloponnese to the capital. In 1453, Constantinople contained approximately 50,000 people when the Ottoman Turks captured the city.
Constantinople was the largest and richest urban center in the Eastern Mediterranean during the late Roman Empire, mostly as a result of its strategic position commanding the trade routes between the Aegean and the Black Sea. It would remain the capital of the eastern, Greek speaking empire for over a thousand years. In its heyday, roughly corresponding to the Middle Ages, it was the richest and largest European city, exerting a powerful cultural pull and dominating economic life in the Mediterranean. Visitors and merchants were especially struck by the beautiful monasteries and churches of the city, particularly Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom: a Russian 14th-century traveller, Stephen of Novgorod, wrote, "As for St Sophia, the human mind can neither tell it nor make description of it."
It was especially important for preserving in its libraries manuscripts of Greek and Latin authors throughout a period when instability and disorder caused their mass destruction in western Europe and north Africa: on the city's fall thousands of these were brought by refugees to Italy, and played a key part in stimulating the Renaissance, and the transition to the modern world. The cumulative influence of the city on the west, over the many centuries of its existence, is incalculable. In terms of technology, art and culture, as well as sheer size, Constantinople was without parallel anywhere in Europe for a thousand years.
The city provided a defence for the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire against the barbarian invasions of the 5th century. The 18 metre (60 ft) tall walls built by Theodosius II (413-414) were essentially impregnable to the barbarians who, coming from the Lower Danube, found easier targets to the west than the richer provinces to the east in Asia. From the 5th century the city was also protected by the Long Walls, a 60 kilometre (37 mi) chain of walls across the Thracian peninsula. Many scholars argue that these sophisticated fortifications allowed the east to develop relatively unmolested, while Rome and the west collapsed. With the emergence of Christianity and the rise of Islam, Constantinople became the veritable gates to Christian Europe that stood at the fore of Islamic expansion. As the Byzantine Empire was situated in-between the Islamic world and the Christian west, so did Constantinople act as Europe’s first line-of-defense against Arab advances in the 7th and 8th centuries. The city, and the empire, would ultimately fall to the Ottomans by 1453, but its enduring legacy had provided Europe centuries of resurgence following the collapse of Rome.
The influence of Byzantine architecture and art can be seen in the copies taken from it throughout Europe. Particular examples include St. Mark's in Venice, the basilicas of Ravenna, and many churches throughout the Slavic East. Also, alone in Europe until the 13th century Italian florin, the Empire continued to produce sound gold coinage, the solidus of Diocletian becoming the bezant prized throughout the Middle Ages. Its city walls were much imitated (for example, see Caernarfon Castle) and its urban infrastructure was moreover a marvel throughout the Middle Ages, keeping alive the art, skill and technical expertise of the Roman Empire.
Constantine's foundation gave prestige to the Bishop of Constantinople, who eventually came to be known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, vying for honour with the Pope, a situation which contributed to the Great Schism that divided Western Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy from 1054 onwards.
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