Constantinople was the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire (later known as the Byzantine Empire). Located on a triangularshaped peninsula on the western side of the Bosporus, one of the narrow straits* that separates Europe from Asia Minor, the city had great strategic importance. It controlled the sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia made it an important trade center. After the decline of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople replaced Rome as the most important city in Europe. Today, the city is known as Istanbul, and it is the largest city in Turkey.
Early History. The city of Constantinople was founded in A.D. 324 by the Roman emperor Constantine I on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. Constantine had wanted to build a great city near the important industrial centers of Asia Minor and Syria and the agricultural areas of Egypt. He chose the site of Byzantium because of its strategic and protected location and its excellent harbor, which was known as the Golden Horn.
Constantine quickly rebuilt and enlarged Byzantium and constructed protective walls around the city. According to legend, the emperor himself traced the new city boundaries before construction began. It took builders six years to expand and fortify the city, which was formally dedicated in A.D. 330. Originally called Nova Roma, or New Rome, the city soon became known as Constantinople in honor of the emperor.
Like Rome, Constantinople had seven hills. One of these was the old acropolis* of Byzantium. Constantine built impressive public buildings and monuments on these hills. He brought statues and art works from around the Roman Empire to adorn the city. The main imperial buildings of Constantinople, modeled after Roman buildings, included a forum*, a senate house, and a royal palace. Constantine also enlarged the hippodrome, a race course and sports arena modeled after Rome’s Circus Maximus.Later emperors added theaters, baths, granaries*, and aqueducts*.
* strait narrow channel that connects two bodies of water
* acropolis a high, fortified site in a Greek city
A convert to Christianity, Constantine wanted Constantinople to be a great Christian city. To help achieve this goal, he built many churches and basilicas* and brought religious relics from the Holy Land* to place in these churches and around the city. The greatest religious building in the city was the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom in Greek), completed around A.D. 360. In 381, the office of bishop of Constantinople became the second highest office in the Christian church after the bishop of Rome. In later years, Constantinople played a major role in the evolution of Christian doctrine* and belief.
Rise to Greatness. Constantinople rapidly outgrew its original boundaries. By A.D. 413, new city walls had to be constructed to accommodate the city’s expansion. These new walls, a marvel of engineering, protected the city from attack for over 1,000 years.
Constantinople reached the height of its growth and splendor in the A.D. 500s. After fire destroyed much of the city in A.D. 532, the emperor Justinian I rebuilt it on an even grander scale than before. One of his greatest achievements was the rebuilding of Hagia Sophia, which became the largest and most beautiful church in the world. During Justinian’s reign, Constantinople’s population reached about 500,000, and the city became the most important political, commercial, religious, and cultural center in all of Europe. It remained Europe’s greatest city for the next several hundred years until its decline in the late Middle Ages. (See also Aqueducts; Architecture, Roman; Cities, Roman; Forum; Government, Roman; Rome, History of: Christian Era.)
* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings
* granary storage place for grain
* aqueduct channel, often including bridges and tunnels, that brings water from a distant source to where it is needed
* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place
* Holy Land Palestine, the site of religious shrines for Christians, Jews, and Muslims
* doctrine principle, theory, or belief presented for acceptence