Once the capital of imperial Rome; later the greatest city of Christendom, the richest city in the world, the spiritual head of the eastern Church, the treasure house of culture and art; then the opulent capital of Islam…rising so superbly above three seas, looking towards Europe, Asia, and ocean, oriental, occidental

(From Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 1953)

Syracuse had been among the earliest of the new Greek settlements in the West. It took rather longer for Greeks to penetrate north and eastwards from the Aegean, up through the straits of Hellespont (Dardanelles) and Bosporus (‘Oxen-ford’; the spelling Bosphorus is a solecism) into the Black Sea. There were a number of reasons for this. The currents in the Hellespont are generally adverse, and the seasonal wind (now called meltemi) that blows hard from the north-east in the summer was fine for sailing ships coming down from the Black Sea—but exactly the opposite for those wanting to enter it. On the straits themselves lived potentially hostile ‘natives’, Thracians (European side) and Bithynians (Asiatic) in the case of the Bosporus. And what came to be called the Black Sea was known to the Greeks euphemistically as the ‘Hospitable Sea’, a superstitious alternative to the probably original ‘In hospitable Sea’. It was no surprise therefore that the Greeks established permanent settlements in this region crabwise, starting slowly with the Hellespont (Sestus, Abydus), then the Propontis (now Sea of Marmara: Cyzicus, Perinthus), and then the Bosporus.

And hereby hangs a tale that is curious, in a number of ways. The Greeks founded two cities here, facing each other—on the sites of what are today Istanbul (in Europe) and Kadiköy (in Asia). The mother city of (probably) both the new Bosporus cities was Megara in central Greece, a neighbour city, usually uneasily so, of Athens. Megara founded very few settlements abroad, but those it did found prospered exceedingly. In the West the foundation of Megara Hyblaea on the east coast of Sicily somewhere between 750 and 725 was among the first wave of new permanent Greek settlements, taking its name from a combination of the mother city’s with that of a friendly local Sicel king, Hyblon. In the seventh century the Sicilian Megarians laid out a very early instance of a grid-planned civic centre, and the city’s well-excavated architectural and funerary remains indicate wide trading contacts and a generally high level of prosperity. It was presumably this success story involving much emphasis on long-distance seaborne commerce that encouraged attempts to repeat it in the approaches to the Black Sea, where available agricultural land would be relatively restricted but the chance to exploit passing trade almost unlimited.

However, the first of the two cities was not established, as one would have predicted, on the European side, taking full advantage of the wonderful natural resource of the Golden Horn. It was established on the Asiatic side opposite and called Calchadon or Chalcedon—which gave rise to the lovely myth that these Megarian settlers must have been blind: blind to the attractions of the site of what became Byzantion. Today, the two are effectively parts of the same city, Istanbul, linked directly by ferry and indirectly by the magnificent bridge that straddles the Bosporus further north. This is not by any means the earliest such structure across the Bosporus on record—the honour for creating that goes to an ancient Greek architect and designer called Mandrocles, who came from the island of Samos and was in the employ of Persian Great King Darius I (reigned c.522–486). So pleased was Darius with his bridge of boats that he showered Mandrocles with presents. So pleased was Mandrocles with himself that he commissioned a painting of his creation which he dedicated to Hera, the patron goddess of his native island, accompanied by the following commemorative text (preserved by Herodotus):

After spanning the Bosporus teeming with fish

To Hera Mandrocles dedicated this

To commemorate his work on the bridge of boats,

Winning a crown for himself, and glory for Samos,

By fulfilling the will of King Darius.

(Trans. A. Purvis, slightly modified)

But whereas Mandrocles’s bridge had been built from the Asiatic side, for hostile purposes (to enable Darius’s not all that successful invasion of Europe), and was dismantled once it had served its unique purpose, today’s Bosporus bridge attracts traffic chiefly from the east, seeking to draw Asia into Europe, and supports a wholly peaceful intercourse.

After Byzantion’s foundation—traditionally in either 688 or 657—we hear little or nothing of the city’s politics until in 499 it revolted from its Persian suzerain as part of the ‘Ionian Revolt’ (499–494). Byzantion fortunately did not share the sad fate of the Revolt’s ringleader, Miletus, but when the Persians came back in force in 480, crossing from Asia to Europe over the Hellespont by another bridge of boats, it could do nothing but send its required forces—to fight on the Persian side. More Greeks in fact then fought for or at least with the Persians than against them (see further Appendix). The loyalist Greeks’ victories of 479, however, at Plataea and Mycale, presaged the liberation of Byzantion from the Persian empire. Indeed, for as long as Sparta maintained an interest in pursuing a campaign of liberation in Asia, Byzantion served as the allied HQ. But with the official recall of Regent Pausanias by Sparta (disobeying orders in a most un-Spartan way, he returned to Byzantion in a personal capacity and got caught up in accusations of pro-Persian sympathies), Athens assumed control and direction of the anti-Persian campaign; and Byzantion signed up as one of its many allies, agreeing to pay the high tribute of 15 silver talents per annum.

The importance of Byzantion to Athens lay chiefly in its ability to manage, and tax, the annual flow of ships trading in wheat and other staple goods from the black-earth lands of the Ukraine, south Russia, and the Crimea to Athens and other Aegean sites. A revealing documentary inscription found in Athens, set up probably in the early 420s, deals with relations between Athens on one side and the northern Greek city of Methone and the king of Macedon on the other. At two points there is mention of officials called ‘Hellespontine Guards’, based in Byzantion, who are charged with determining which Greek cities (other than Athens) were entitled to acquire how much of the shipped Black Sea grain at any time. Other sources speak of a fixed impost, levied by tax-collectors who were also based at Byzantion, on goods passing in both directions along the Bosporus.

Byzantion thus was a major node in the Athenians’ imperial network. Small wonder that in the concluding phase of the Peloponnesian War and its immediate aftermath, when the Spartans at last acquired a decent fleet (thanks to massive Persian subventions), Byzantion featured as a principal war objective. An essential part of the Spartans’ victory settlement of 404 was the disbandment of the Athenian empire, and the reduction of their once huge fleets of up to 300 ships to a maximum of twelve. But the Spartans had nothing against empire as such, and in order to service their own, newly expanded Aegean empire, they established the external office of harmost (‘fixer’); one of the most important of these officials was based, naturally enough, at Byzantion.

And so the ding-dong over the possession of Byzantion between Sparta and a reviving Athens (thanks to Persia, switching sides against a now hostile Sparta) continued into the later 390s and early 380s—until Athens’s naval power seemed to the Persians to have grown threateningly great again, all too reminiscent indeed of its fifth-century empire, including as it did control of Byzantion and reimposition therefrom of a trade-tax. Whereupon the Persians switched their support back to Sparta, which in the shape of Persian-friendly admiral Antalcidas managed to block off the Hellespont and thereby threaten Athens with starvation again (as in 405/4). There followed directly the King’s Peace of 386, alternatively known as the Peace of Antalcidas, under which Byzantion was prised from Athens’s grasp.

Yet there remained a strong pro-Athenian element in Byzantion, championed by the Athenians’ official representative in the city called Philinus. It was probably he who led the Byzantine side in the negotiations that brought his city into alliance with Athens in 378/7, ‘on the same terms as the city of the Chians’. The islanders of Chios had been loyal members of the Athenian empire for most of the fifth century, even though their constitution was oligarchic not democratic. But by 384, when they allied again with Athens, they did so as citizens of a democratic city, in sympathy with Athens ideologically now as well as strategically, and goaded by Sparta’s flagrant abuse of the terms of the King’s Peace (see Chapter 10). Byzantion was very likely in the same situation. And, as we have seen, Thebes too in 378 became a democracy, and in the summer of that same year these three democracies—Chios, Byzantion, and Thebes—joined with three other cities (Mytilene and Methymna on the island of Lesbos, and the island-city of Rhodes) as the six founder members of Athens’s Second Naval League, an explicitly anti-Spartan alliance (whereas the First League had been anti-Persian in origin and only much later became anti-Spartan).

To begin with, the new Athenian League prospered and grew hugely in numbers, counting some seventy-five states great and small at its maximum. This was because Athens offered leadership where it was wanted and genuinely did seem to be observing the pledges it had signed up to on oath, such as not to interfere with the property-rights or infringe any other legal privileges of its allied cities. However, from as early as 373 there is evidence that Athens progressively—or regressively—reneged on each one in turn, so that by 357 Byzantion was instrumental in fomenting what is known as the Social War, or War of the Allies (357–355). Another revolted ally in the mid-350s was, significantly, Chios, another founder-member, and Athens’s defeat in 355 meant the effective end of the League as a power-unit.

Byzantion, finally (for our purposes), featured centrally in the rise of Philip of Macedon to supremacy. As early as 352 Philip had penetrated close to Byzantion in a hostile way, by a lightning march right across Thrace up to the western shore of the Propontis, at a place called Heraeum Teichos (‘Hera’s Fortification Wall’). But that was just sabre-rattling, showing the flag. Twelve years later, it was the real thing—Philip launched sieges first of Perinthus in the Propontis and then of Byzantion. Both, remarkably, failed—remarkably, not because either was a soft target, but because Philip was the pastmaster of siegecraft, and none of his previous sieges (most famously perhaps that of Amphipolis in 357) had failed. Since his principal opponent at this stage was Athens, what he was aiming to do was repeat what the Spartans had achieved in 405/4 and 387/6: choke off Athens’s wheaten lifeline. If he could not achieve that by the seizure of those two key cities, then he would do it by even more direct action. Using Hierum at the mouth of the Black Sea as his base, he managed in that same summer of 340 to grab hold of an entire grain fleet headed for Athens.

Immediately, Athens had sufficient reserves and sufficient alternative grain sources not to be starved into submission (as in 405/4 and 387/6). But in the all too short run nothing was left for Athens but to risk all on a major direct confrontation with Philip in central Greece. The Battle of Chaeronea in Boeotia in autumn 338 was the consequence—a resounding triumph for Philip (and his 18-year-old son Alexander, commanding the crack Macedonian cavalry), but a total disaster for Thebes (placed thereafter under a Macedonian garrison), for Athens (not garrisoned, but neutralized), and, at first, for Philip’s principal Athenian enemy, the very wealthy but convinced ideological democrat Demosthenes.

To Demosthenes Philip was not only a barbarian but a walking disaster for the future of true—enlightened, democratic, cultivated—Hellenism. Until the end of his days he engaged in an unceasing struggle to rouse the Athenians to outright revolt against their Macedonian overlord. But when an opportunity finally came, in 323–322, with the death of Alexander, and the Athenians did lead a revolt involving some twenty Greek cities, they fared no better than they had in 338 militarily speaking, and far far worse politically, since Macedon under its new hardline rulers decided they had had enough of Athens’s pesky ‘People-Power’ and terminated it forthwith. Democracy in ancient Greece did not quite breathe its last in 322 but it was a relatively feeble thing thereafter. Demosthenes symbolically compassed his own end by taking poison on the island of Calaurea, today’s Poros, evading thereby a worse fate of torture and murder at the hands of his pro-Macedonian enemies.

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