Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire replacing Rome as the heart of imperial power, it maintained influence and stability in the face of the decline of the West.
In 324 AD, Constantine I the Great defeated rival Emperor Licinius at the battle of Adrianople, laying claim to sole mastery over the entire Roman Empire. He recog nized the need for a new capital to replace Rome, which could no longer serve as the center of defense for the widely spread frontiers on the Rhine and Danube and in the East. A new location had to be found, one easily fortified and centrally situated. In addition, Constantine planned not only to expand Diocletian’s Sweeping reforms but also envi sioned an entirely new world for mankind and planned to overcome the dangerous influences of Rome; which had destroyed other emperors, by establishing a new model for the Empire. At the same time, Rome stood for the paganism of centuries, and Constantine’s faith demanded a new setting, where Christianity could flourish.
Bithynia and Nicomedia and other places in Asia had appeal, but none could be defended adequately, and some even presented themselves as targets for Persian attack. Constantine decided on Byzantium, a small city on the edge of the Golden Horn, on the Strait of the Bosporus, a bridge between East and West. Legendary accounts state that Constantine arrived there in November of 324 to march off the measurements for the extended building program, his yardstick being the “Hand of God.” Using the Lance of LONGINUS, the relic that was reported to have pierced the side of Christ while he was on the cross, the emperor started walking from Byzantium; when he stopped two miles later, he gave orders to start construction. Constantinople had seven hills and 14 quarters, as did Rome, and like that city it could not be built in a day. Six years of work followed its founding, and it was not until May 11, 330, that Con stantine could declare the construction completed, and of ficially renamed the city, although changes and modifications never ceased.
Byzantium had been a small community set on a prom ontory between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. In 194, the town had become embroiled in the war be tween the imperial claimants Septimius Severus and Pescennius Niger After a long and bitter siege, Severus took the walls, and the town fell and suffered the humiliations of defeat. Constantine chose the site, in part because the rocks along its southern shore crushed vessels attempting to land outside the harbor, and the currents of the Bos porus made navigation difficult and sinkings frequent. About 3 ½ miles at its widest, the circumference of the city was some 15 miles. Constantine erected his new edifices around the original structures, eventually called the Augusteum, in honor of his mother Helena.
As the most prominent part of the jutting land mass and the most easily defended, the Augusteum became the spoke in a circle of urban growth that housed the most important offices of state. Nearby were the imperial palaces, the hip podrome and several of the great forums. The emperors and their families resided in the palaces, accompanied by government bureaucrats and ministers, the Scrinaris. Also, the Consistorium met there, and close by the Senate convened. The hippodrome served as the entertainment center for all residents. Smaller than the Circus Maximus, on which it was based, the hippodrome offered great games, chariot races and lavish spectacles, and seated over 60,000.
In the finest Roman tradition, several forums were erected to allow public assemblies and shopping areas, and no expense was spared in bringing the finest artisans and intel lectuals to the city. As in Rome, columns adorned the skyline. In the Forum of Constantine the Emperor was made eternal, with his own head mounted on top of a statue of Apollo at the peak of a column. In the Forum Tauri (from the reign of Theodosius I), one of the emperor’s columns towered above the landscape. Other monuments in the city included those dedicated to Arcadius, Aelia Eudoxia and Marcian, as well as those of Justinian, of a later era. Near the Forum Tauri was the city’s seat of learning, the Capitolium. There young studants from the various provinces studied under the foremost rhetoricians, grammarians, philosophers and academicians of the time. In 425, Theodosius II certified the University of Constantinople, which rivaled those of Antioch, Alexandria and, of course, Athens.
Three periods of growth took place within its borders. The first, from 324 to 330 AD, was when Constantine’s Wall established the perimeters from the Propontis to the Golden Horn. The second was from 330 to about 413 AD; when the population expanded beyond the walls and into the adjoining eastern districts. The last period of growth was from 413 AD to a time well beyond the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, when the walls established newer and wider borders.
Access could be gained through the ports, harbors or gates. The Golden Horn entrances included posts along the seawall and in the harbor of Prosphorion. Two main harbors served Propontis, the Theodosius and the Julian. Chains could be used to seal off the mouths of these harbors. As for the walls, the grand portal of Constantine’s Wall was the Golden Gate. Built by Theodosius I, the gate commemorated his victory over Maximus the usurper in 388 AD. A second Golden Gate loomed at the southern end of the Anthemian Walls (eventually renamed in honor of Theodosius). In the wider series of fortifications, the gates could be used either by the civilian population or the mil itary, depending upon classification. There were five entrances for the army and numerous ones for everyone else.
Entering the Golden Gate, a traveler would proceed north along the Middle Way, the road cutting through the city all the way to the Church of Saint Sophia. It crossed the Lycus River near the harbor of Theodosius and passed through most of the forums and many of the other build ings of importance, including the hippodrome and the Great Palace and the Palace of Hormisdas, constructed during Constantine’s reign to house a Persian prince.
As the center of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople had a population to rival Rome’s anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people. Aqueducts supplied the water needs, and Egypt’s fields provided the food. When the number of inhabitants began to outgrow the original boundaries of the city, towns such as Chrysopolis and Chalcedon could assume some of the population burdens. But a more permanent solution had to be found. At the same time, Constantinople needed even more defensive strength in the 4th and 5th centuries A D, as barbarians pillaged in the West and turned on the eastern borders.
Thus, in the first years of the reign of young Theodosius II, his Praetorian Prefect Anthemius took upon himself (c. 408-414 AD) the task of creating the strong fortifications still standing today. Anthemius placed the new wall approximately one mile to the west, along a wider line. Towers and gates, both civil and military, and fortified positions dotted this new structure.
Cyrus, a popular Praetorian prefect and prefect of the city (439 AD), extended the northern wall. No longer relying upon the Blachernae Palace for an anchor, it was linked to the seawall, defending the approaches to the city along the entire coastline. In the middle of the 5th century, a violent earthquake (not uncommon) shook the walls, and a Praetorian prefect by the name of Constantine ordered repairs to be made immediately. Another, smaller outer wall was added. The capacity to withstand attack became essential during the chaotic era of the 4th century. The Huns remained as a constant threat to Constantinople, as did other barbarian tribes. But the city served as a constant bulwark throughout the Late Roman Empire.
Constantine had built his city as a point from which Christianity could spread to the entire world. Thus the city became a center of churches, reflecting the changes within the Roman Empire. The greatest religious structure was Saint Sophia’s Church. Finished around 360 AD, it represented the ideal of Great Wisdom. The church stood until the time of Justinian (ruled 527-565 AD), when the Nika Revolt destroyed it. Its successor was greater than the original. Other magnificent churches included (through the ages) the Holy Apostles, St. Euphemia, Theotokos, St. Irene, St. Thomas, St. Laurentius, St. Diamed, and Theotokos Hodegetria, among others.
A bastion of spiritual authority, Constantinople played a significant role in the evolution of Christian doctrine. From its thrones the Emperors and Empresses directed the implementation of Christianity as the religion of the state. And in bitter theological feuds with such heresies as Arianism, Donatism and Novatianism, the patriarch of Constantinople vied for influence with the Emperors, as Antioch, Alexandria and Rome formed joint and competing alliances.
Theodosius I summoned the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD to reaffirm the Nicene Creed. Theodosius II listened to both sides of a dispute over the nature of Christ but succumbed to the bribes and threats of Cyril of Alexandria over the Nestorians.
Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern Empire until the fall of the West circa 476 AD, and served as the home of the Byzantine rulers until 1453 AD. In that year, it was finally captured by the Turks.