Constantinople Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Constantine the Great founded Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, which became instrumental in the survival of the Byzantine Empire and the extinction of the Western Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

During the third century c.e., the Roman Empire faced a crisis. Beginning in the year 235, armies around the empire acclaimed their generals as emperors, leading to constant civil wars as each new emperor attempted to gain control of Rome, the capital, for only the emperor who controlled Rome was the legitimate emperor. Furthermore, with the armies engaged in civil wars, the borders were left unguarded, and the empire was attacked on all sides, by Franks and Alamanni on the Rhine, Goths on the Danube, and Persians in the east. During the 250’s, with the empire at its lowest ebb, the emperor Valerian turned the western part over to his son and took the east for himself. This marked the beginning of a trend toward multiple emperors and an administrative splitting of the empire, although officially there was only one empire and only one capital city, Rome. Constantine the Great

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Beginning in the year 284 c.e., the emperor Diocletian was able to reestablish control of the entire empire, defeat all the invaders, and put an end to the interminable warfare. At the same time, he instituted a number of reforms that were so overwhelming that his reign has been called the beginning of the Late Roman Empire. Diocletian formalized the practices of having two emperors (augustuses), each with a junior emperor (caesar), in charge of the eastern and western parts of the empire. As senior emperor, Diocletian took control of the more populous and prosperous eastern part of the empire and established his court at Nicomedia in Asia Minor. Rome, however, remained the official capital of the entire empire.

After Diocletian retired in 305 c.e., civil war broke out again. The victor this time was Constantine, the son of one of Diocletian’s junior emperors. In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius, his last rival, and he continued, and even expanded on, Diocletian’s reforms. Like Diocletian, Constantine the Great recognized that the eastern section of the empire—the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria-Palestine, and Egypt—was strategically, politically, and economically more important than the west. In recognition of this reality—not because of dislike of the Romans of Rome, as some later commentators thought—Constantine decided to establish not merely another court-city but an actual second capital city of the empire, located in the east. This step was a sharp blow to the status and prestige of Rome. By this time, however, Rome was living on its past glories, a backwater area in which nothing of significance happened any longer.

The selection of a site was accompanied by a good bit of soul-searching. After deciding against places such as Serdica (modern Sofia) near the Danube, Thessalonica in northern Greece, and Chalcedon in northern Asia Minor, Constantine initially decided to found his city on the site of ancient Troy. This was the home of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the ancient Romans, and would have been a worthy site for a second Rome. Constantine even went so far as to lay out the city and build the city gates. It was later said, however, that God came to him in a vision and told him to abandon this pagan site and select another. Another legend said that eagles carried the measuring tapes from the proposed site at Chalcedon north to the old Greek city of Byzantium.

Byzantium was strategically located on the north side of the Bosporus, the strait that linked the Aegean and Black Seas and separated Europe from Asia. It was surrounded on three sides by water: the Golden Horn on the north, the Bosporus on the east, and the Sea of Marmora on the south. This was where the land route from Europe to Asia crossed the sea route from the Aegean to the Black Sea. Whoever controlled the site controlled both commercial and military traffic going east and west and north and south. As long as the crossing could be held, Rome’s eastern, and richest, domains were protected from invasion from the north.

The new capital was officially “founded” on November 24, 326, at an astrologically auspicious time with the sun in Sagittarius and Cancer ruling the hour. At this time, only the western wall was laid out. Constantine himself, spear in hand, marked out the remaining extent of the city. According to a later legend, his courtiers thought he was incorporating too much ground and asked, “How much further, my Lord?” Constantine replied, “Until he who walks before me stops walking.” Work then proceeded apace—some said too quickly, for Constantine subsequently was accused of wasting public funds and shoddy construction. The latter charge, at least, has some substance, for some of the buildings had to be propped up, and others soon had to be reconstructed.

The new city was encompassed by a wall that extended north to south and quadrupled the previous size of the city. In many regards, it was an imitation of Rome. Like Rome, it was built, allegedly, on seven hills, and it had fourteen districts and a forum. In the forum stood a porphyry column of Constantine, nearly 100 feet (30 meters) tall, which had on top a gold encrusted statue of Constantine with a nail from the true cross embedded in its diadem and a piece of the cross in the orb that he held. To emphasize the city’s role as the new Rome, Constantine placed beneath the column the palladium, an ancient wooden statue of Athena said to have been brought from Troy to Rome by Aeneas himself, the legendary ancestor of the Romans.

Toward the eastern end of the peninsula, the imperial palace and the 440-yard-long (400-meter-long) hippodrome (racing course for chariots) adjoined each other, just as the imperial palace and Circus Maximus adjoined in Rome. The city was decorated with monuments removed from other famous sites. In the hippodrome stood the famous serpent column, which had been dedicated at Delphi after the Greek victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 b.c.e. Also there was the milarion, the milestone from which the distances of all roads in the east were measured. Many statues of pagan gods, including the Pythian Apollo, the Samian Hera, and the Olympian Zeus, were removed from their temples and brought to the city, where they could be appreciated for their material beauty rather than their divine power. Indeed, Saint Jerome noted in his chronicle under the year 330, “Constantinople is dedicated, while almost all other cities are stripped.”

Unlike old Rome, however, Constantinople was a Christian city from the very beginning. Constantine built three churches in honor of Dynamis (power), Irene (peace), and Sophia (wisdom), the last of these with 427 pagan statues aligned in front. At a later time, the last two were combined into a much larger church of Saint Sophia (Hagia Sophia). The only pagan temples in the city were those of Castor and Pollux in the hippodrome and of Tyche, the patron goddess of the city—and even she had a cross incised in her forehead.

Although it was yet incomplete, the new city was officially dedicated on May 11, 330, and endowed with the name “Constantinople,” that is, “the city of Constantine.” The celebrations lasted forty days, and the pagan writer Zosimus later reported that they included further astrological ceremonies and that the Neoplatonist philosopher Sopatros took part. On the Christian side, processions left the forum singing Kyrie eleison. There were chariot races in the Hippodrome, the Baths of Zeuxippus were officially opened, and commemorative coins were issued—one for the old capital of Rome, showing the wolf and twins, the other for Constantinople, with a depiction of the goddess Victoria.

As for the name of his foundation, Constantine himself stated that he “bestowed upon it an eternal name by the commandment of God.” What this name was is uncertain. It was not “Constantinople,” although it may have been “New Rome” or “Second Rome,” names by which the city was also known. Yet the “eternal name” may have been Flora, Anthusa in Greek, which means “flourishing,” and which also had been the sacred, occult name of Rome itself.

For Constantinople to be a true city, moreover, a population was necessary. Settlement by influential individuals was encouraged by promises of land grants and tax remissions. A later legend recounted, “Wishing to populate his city, and in particular to draw Romans to Byzantium, the great Constantine secretly took their signet rings from senators, one from each, and sent them [to fight] against the king of the Persians, who was called Sarbarus.” Meanwhile, he moved the families of these men to Constantinople and built houses for them, and on their return from the east, they decided to remain there as well. In spite of such efforts, it was not until about ten years later that the city received its own senate. Even this senate had the image but not the substance of the Roman one. The new senators gained social rank and prestige but no political power.

Another thing Constantinople had in common with Rome was an increasingly large population of urban poor who were fed and entertained at imperial expense. The foodstuffs came largely from Egypt, and the entertainment was provided primarily by the chariot races in the hippodrome. The four teams (blues, greens, reds, and whites) each gained large cheering sections. The “blues” and “greens,” as the fans of these teams were known, were the most numerous and most vociferous and given to expressing opinions on matters not merely athletic but political as well.

Significance

In later years, Constantinople justified Constantine’s choice of a site. The population expanded rapidly, approaching one million. In the early fifth century c.e., there were 20 public bakeries, 120 private bakeries, 9 public baths, 153 private baths, and 4,388 houses (not including apartment buildings). Constantine’s walls were demolished in the year 413, and the famous “land walls” were built, doubling the size of the city. During the barbarian invasions of the late fourth and the fifth centuries, Constantinople protected the rich provinces of the east, with the end result that the western part of the empire fell, but the eastern section—later known as the Byzantine Empire—survived. Another reason for the fall of the Western Roman Empire was that the establishment of a second capital effectively split the empire in two, and left each to fend for itself. Thus, it was no surprise that the more populous, more “civilized,” and more financially sound portion survived.

During the same period, Constantinople also appropriated status from old Rome in another way, for the bishops of Constantinople laid claim to first rank among Christian bishops. The result was a festering quarrel with Rome that ultimately led, in 1054, to the Great Schism, and the development of separate Greek Orthodox churches in the eastern empire and Roman Catholic in the western empire.

In 1204, Constantinople was captured for the first time in its history, by treacherous western crusaders with no stomach for fighting the Muslims. When it was retaken by the Byzantines in 1261, it was but a shadow of its former self. The shrunken Byzantine Empire, now under constant attack by the Turks, held out until 1453, when the city finally fell. The last emperor, appropriately named Constantine XI, died defending the walls and was recognized in death only by his red shoes.

Despite its conquest, the city’s importance did not end. Under the name Istanbul, Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire and as such continued to be one of the most important cities in the world. It has been said that the building of Constantinople alone would place Constantine among the great figures of history. Given the significance of the city through subsequent ages, few would deny this claim.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eusebius. Life of Constantine. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1999. A translation of Eusebius of Caesarea’s account of Constantine’s life by Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall. Includes an introduction and commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, Michael. Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994. A biography of Constantine that touches on many accomplishments and his religious conversion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kousoulas, D. George. The Life and Times of Constantine the Great: The First Christian Emperor. Danbury, Conn.: Rutledge Books, 1997. The story of Constantine’s life and his activities as a Christian emperor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lieu, Samuel N. C., and Dominic Montserrat, eds. Constantine: History, Historiography, and Legend. New York: Routledge, 1998. An attempt to examine the life of Constantine with an eye to separating legend and history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mango, Cyril A. Studies on Constantinople. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1993. A collection of studies on Constantinople. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pohlsander, Hans A. The Emperor Constantine. New York: Routledge, 1996. A biography of Constantine that examines his role in history as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire.
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