Constantine the Great’s city lasted as the center of civilization and religion for more than 1,000 years. Of the cities of the world, only King David’s city, Jerusalem, compares with its prestige and longevity. The ancient name was Byzantium. The foundation of the city dates back to the seven century b.c.e., and was known as a place of contention during the Peloponnesian War.
Even 150 years before Constantine, the Romans had reduced the city to rubble for its insubordination and then restored it because of its strategic location. But it was Constantine who chose the city, lavishly made it his own, and destined it to be New Rome, capital of the empire.
Constantine at first planned to build his city near the famous city of Troy, but he thought better of it, perhaps because of his Christian sympathies, not wanting to adulterate his new priorities with Homeric religion. Byzantium had many natural advantages: It was surrounded on three sides by water, had excellent harbors, was close to the industrial centers of Asia Minor, and was accessible to the agricultural breadbaskets of Egypt and southern Russia.
Important east-west imperial roads intersected here, including the famous Via Egnatia. The ancient city also was known for its wall, so the wall rebuilt by Constantine could fortify its landed side. Thus, the place was eminently more strategic and defendable than the old Rome of Italy, which was not built on the sea and did not have the same natural barriers to protect it.
Constantine began his project in 324 c.e., and by 330 the new city was ready. The fortification was large enough that the boundaries encompassed empty and undeveloped areas. None of these walls survives today, but their outlines can be imagined from written records. Growth at first was modest, and the population was small. Constantine was determined to turn the city into Rome’s eastern twin.
He doled out the same subsistence subsidies, endowed it with the similar civic titles and offices, and constructed the same infrastructures and monuments. A portion of the grain supposed to go to Italian Rome now went to New Rome, and eventually tens of thousands of its people depended on the free rations of food. Constantine put into place the aristocratic ranks and nomenclature, just like ancient Rome.
On the higher ground he erected the acropolis, the center of community life, the site of his Great Palace and the Capitolium; nearby was the largest gathering place, the Hippodrome, where public games were held. Later all three of these locations would become the locations of wild and bloody imperial intrigues.
Colonnaded roads and markets marked out urban districts. Gates opened up to the important trade roads. New Rome even had seven hills around which the city was planned, as in Italian Rome. The city was not overtly a Christian center by Constantine’s own design.
The old pagan temples already in Byzantium were left undisturbed during his reign. In fact, the dedication rites for the inauguration of the city included pagan prayers and artistic donations from pagan temples. He built no more than a few churches; the famous Church of the Holy Apostles, next to his burial spot, was not his project, but his son’s (Constantius II).
Nor was the city officially the capital of the empire until the time of his son, when Constantius inaugurated the senate and set up a hierarchy of imperial offices. Now old Rome began to be superseded by New Rome, and there was no turning back. In fact within 50 years or so, the Germanic tribes would overrun the old Italian capital, and to its bitter disappointment, Constantinople would not save its predecessor.
Growth and Christian Influence
The city continued to grow prodigiously over the next 200 years. By the end of the fourth century there were some 14 churches, 52 colonnaded roads, 153 bath complexes, and many ground and underground cisterns. The need for water storage pointed to the only thing lacking. Here the Theodosian emperors (or perhaps Valens) rectified the situation in typical Roman fashion.
They engineered a remarkable system that connected water sources in the hinterland as far as 60–70 miles away with vast water reservoirs inside the city. Imperial sculptors even elaborately decorated the underground cisterns. Constantine’s walls were too restrictive for the burgeoning population, so the walls were expanded and the area of the city doubled.
Some 400 defensive towers were constructed along the whole wall and the shoreline. The three-arched Golden Gate, still standing, goes back to these days, as do many of the walls presently standing. Here the Council of Constantinople was held in 381 to affirm the creedal statements of the Council of Nicaea.
By the end of the fifth century the religious dimension of the empire registered itself more strongly. Urban monasticism developed in the city, along with an abundance of Christian artwork. In addition, Oriental and Egyptian influences started infiltrating its urban culture.
Constantinople was no longer only an aspirant to the old Rome, but a new and transformed capital city in its own right. The height of the ancient city was reached under Justinian I and Theodora in the sixth century. It was the most important political, commercial, and cultural center in all of Europe. Lavish religious and imperial building occurred in this period.
The monument that best defined Constantinople’s glory was the Hagia Sophia, a basilica that still dominates modern Istanbul’s skyline. Not only was the domed structure a daring and innovative symbol of Christianity’s official stature, but also it was a statement about Constantinople’s own grandeur. The city probably had between 500,000 and 1 million residents.
An eclectic mixture of architecture and cultures was found in the sixth-century city, imported from the far-flung corners of the globe. Even the Christianity of the emperors was more diverse than Hagia Sophia would lead the observer to believe, as the city offered sanctuary to various non-Orthodox Christians.
A plague devastated the city in 542, and half the population died. The optimism that had marked the city as it grew economically and militarily for the previous 200 years was also soon to be challenged severely by the Byzantine-Sassanid wars, the unsuccessful sieges of the city by the Persians (616) and the Avars (626), and especially the rise of the Muslims in the latter part of the seventh century.
The invasion of the Arabs in 717 and the loss of imperial territory to them brought the city to the brink of disaster. Nonetheless, the Theodosian walls faithfully kept out foreigners for some 1,000 years.
Ironically, there was only one exception: In 1204 the city opened up its gates to the Western crusader “allies” who turned on the city and pillaged it. The treachery caused such outrage among the Byzantines that surrender to the Muslims was countenanced as a better fate. In 1453 the demoralized city gave up to the Ottoman Muslims with hardly a skirmish.