Post-classical history

Constantinople, the Largest City in Christendom

O imperial City, City fortified, City of the great king… Queen of the queen of cities, song of songs and splendour of splendours!

Niketas Choniates, early thirteenth century

In the history of Constantinople, a major crisis occurred fifty years after the death of Constantine I, when the Goths inflicted a massive defeat on the Romans at the battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378. Emperor Valens (364–78) had marched out with a great number of troops to drive back the barbarian invaders without waiting for western reinforcements. In the battle he was killed, together with the most experienced eastern commanders and the political class was decapitated. Only two generals escaped to report the disaster to the young western emperor Gratian (375–83), while the Goths ravaged imperial territory up to the walls of the city of Constantine.

In response to this disaster, the empire drew on its traditional skills of diplomacy while the Byzantines shut themselves up behind their fortifications. Gratian, now the only remaining emperor, sent an appeal to Theodosius, who had retired from a military career to his estates in Spain at the far end of the Mediterranean. Initially, this negotiation concerned his appointment to a military command in the East; but since Valens had no successor and the divided empire required two emperors to work together, Theodosius must have appreciated the underlying significance of the invitation. He agreed to head the army in the Balkans and was later acclaimed as emperor by the troops. After several campaigns against the Goths, Theodosius made peace with the invaders and in November 380 entered Constantinople, which he had never previously seen, in triumph. After a two-year interregnum, New Rome had a new ruler and its future was assured.

Theodosius I (379–95) was a strict Christian, who called a council to condemn the Arian definitions of the faith in 381, and issued laws against the public celebration of pagan rites. But he also left his mark on the city of Constantinople in the most traditional fashion. He constructed a new forum, complete with his statue atop a column, and a monumental weathervane, which served as a public clock, in the manner of the Tower of the Winds in Athens. On the central barrier of the Hippodrome, round which the chariots raced, he also put up the Egyptian obelisk from Karnak, commemorating an Egyptian victory of 1440 BC in the oldest and now long-forgotten religion and language of the east Mediterranean. It became another symbol of Roman military triumph. On the base supporting the obelisk Theodosius depicted himself presiding at the races, flanked by his court, with dancing girls and musicians and serried ranks of barbarian peoples bringing their tribute (plate 6). On the north face, carvings document the technique used for raising such a heavy monolith, which is recorded in inscriptions in both Greek and Latin. Although earthquakes frequently caused buildings in Constantinople to collapse and statues to fall off their columns, the obelisk remains where fourth-century engineers placed it in 390, on four corner supports above the base.

Under the new dynasty founded by Theodosius, the Roman world was transformed. Before his death in 395 the emperor divided the empire between his two sons, so that Honorius became Emperor of the West and Arcadius Emperor of the East. During the early fifth century, the western half succumbed to ever-increasing pressure from non-Roman forces such as the Goths, Huns, Vandals and Franks, who gradually established their barbarian rule in different regions. Rome was twice sacked, in 410 and 455, and the last Roman emperor in the West was deposed in 476, leaving a half-Vandal, half-Roman general, Stilicho, in control of Italy. New Rome expanded and prospered at the expense of Old Rome, indeed some barbarian contingents were paid off by the eastern emperors and encouraged to move west, leaving the East undisturbed. Through this long process, the eastern half of the Roman world became what we now call Byzantium (see chapter 3).

Constantinople grew so fast that in 412 new walls were built 1.5 kilometres to the west of the original Constantinian defences. One year later a massive new triple line of fortifications was completed, 6km long, which still today impress. With an inner wall 11 metres high and towers every 70–75 metres, a lower outer wall, also with towers, an outer wall and deep moat, these fortifications would protect the city against all enemies until 1204. Sea walls were also built along the natural barriers of the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. The land thus enclosed increased the city by about 5 square km and included the old cemeteries, where builders told frightening tales of disturbing graves and finding funerary statues and bones in tombs. Much of this region was devoted to horticulture, with vineyards, orchards and vegetable gardens, which also extended outside the walls. Under Emperor Anastasius (491–518), the Long Walls were constructed between Selymbria, on the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea, a distance of 45km, as an outer ring of Constantinople’s defence, although today historians tend to interpret these as a sign of failure, for once the invaders had advanced to the Long Walls they were only 65km west of the capital.

All emperors sought to add their own monuments to the city, such as honorary columns, to improve its markets and harbours, and to build churches, monasteries and extensions to the imperial palace. In the fourth century, Valens is associated with the construction of a major aqueduct, which brought fresh sources of water from Bizye in Thrace, a distance of 120km as the crow flies (plate 5). While this massive engineering project to secure the city’s water supply can still be seen striding into the old city above ground, a complex underground drainage system channelled the wastewater out of the city. Water was used for public as well as private baths and fountains, and was stored in vast cisterns lined with water-resistant cement. One of the largest open cisterns for the collection of rainwater was constructed in 421 in the newly enclosed area of Constantinople, probably by Aetios, prefect of the city, with a capacity of 250/300,000 cubic metres. Justinian added a covered cistern at the Basilika, with 336 columns, some raised on antique blocks of statuary, like a colossal head of Medusa. It could store about 78,000 cubic metres. A visit to this cavernous monument with appropriate son et lumière is one of modern Istanbul’s tourist attractions. It also transmits a real sense of the city’s capacity to withstand siege.

Within its magnificent defences and with developed capacity to store both grain and water, Constantinople resisted numerous attacks, most notably by combined Avar, Slav and Persian forces in 626, and several major sieges. The attack of 626 was brief but very serious because Emperor Herakleios (610–41) was not in the city. He had undertaken a long campaign against the Persians in the east, leaving Constantinople under the leadership of Patriarch Sergios and General Bonos. The Avars and Slavs blockaded the capital by land and cut off its water supply by destroying the aqueduct, while a Persian force arrived on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphoros. Bonos instructed naval forces to prevent the Slavs from ferrying the Persians across the Bosphoros, negotiated with the Avar Chagan and led sorties against the besiegers. Meanwhile, the patriarch organized the entire civilian population in a procession around the walls of the city, carrying their icons of Christ and chanting the Akathistos hymn, which calls on the Mother of God for divine assistance. When the Avars built siege weapons and attacked the walls, eyewitnesses alleged that they had observed a woman leading the defence, who was identified as the Virgin herself. The survival of Constantinople against such fearsome odds perhaps required supernatural powers. Certainly these became a feature of the city, which already claimed the name ‘Theotokoupolis’, city of the Mother of God, whose relics protected it.

After 626, Arab forces took over the struggle to capture Constantinople, which they intended to make their own capital. Several seventh-century sieges failed. Under Anastasios II (713–15), the Byzantines learned that a major assault was under way, and the emperor ordered every family that could not support itself in foodstuffs for three years to leave the city, a sure sign of preparation for a long siege. Just before the Arab forces arrived (two armies by land and the navy by sea) in the spring of 717, Leo III was sworn in as emperor. He used the same combination of diplomatic and military strategies, persuading the Khazars to harry the Arabs from the rear and directing ‘Greek fire’ against their ships. After an extremely cold winter in which the besiegers were forced to eat their camels, they resumed the attack. But the following summer the caliph ordered them to withdraw and they suffered further defeats on the way back. Byzantium commemorated the victory of 718 in liturgical services held every year on 15 August, which was also the feast of the Virgin’s Koimesis (Dormition or falling asleep, known in the West as the Assumption). While the Church ascribed the city’s survival to the Virgin’s protective powers, Leo III took credit for organizing the defence.

Following internal disputes in the Arab world, the Bulgars took over the attempt to capture Constantinople, making serious challenges in the early ninth century and again in the 920s. But because it was difficult to maintain their long supply lines, they could not plan an extended siege and on both occasions had to withdraw after a few weeks. Later it was the turn of the Russians who sailed across the Black Sea and attacked the city in 860, 941 and 1043. On every occasion, Constantinople resisted successfully. In the early thirteenth century, however, the Latin crusaders’ siege of 1204 finally succeeded in forcing an entry – via the Golden Horn – but only thanks to guile, treachery and internal weakness rather than military strength. This sorry story of the Christian attack on Byzantium is told in chapter 24. Despite the devastating sack and the 57-year-long Latin occupation of Constantinople, the city restored its Byzantine character and some of its previous glory from 1261 to 1453. Finally in May 1453, the fifth-century fortifications were no match for Turkish gunpowder and cannon balls.

Throughout its Byzantine history the city’s population expanded and contracted under different pressures. Constant growth from the fourth century onwards brought the number of inhabitants to around half a million under Emperor Justinian (527–65). While all population estimates are guesswork, the figure of 500,000 is based on the capacity of the grain fleet which brought the basic foodstuff to the city, as well as government and building activity within it. New Rome attracted inhabitants, making it by far the largest city in the world of Late Antiquity, while Old Rome declined. Then in 541, an outbreak of bubonic plague afflicted the entire empire, leaving innumerable deaths as it moved from region to region, carried by rats on ships and in goods transported overland. When the historian Procopius, who witnessed the horrors, tried to describe them, he adapted Thucydides’ famous account of plague in the fifth century bc. To the ancient model Procopius added his own observations, how the living were too few to bury the dead who had to be thrown over the walls and into cisterns. The population must have declined seriously, not only in 541/2, but with recurrent outbreaks of the disease during the seventh and eighth centuries. In addition to this incomprehensible cause of death, a series of earthquakes affected the capital, provoking more terror, destruction and loss of life. In 740, a major tremor reduced the church of St Irene to its foundations and many other buildings collapsed, taking the city’s population at a low point.

Constantine V (741–75) reversed this trend by a dedicated plan of rebuilding, starting with St Irene, which was restored to an even more glorious condition. More important for the revival of the city, in 766 he organized the forced immigration of thousands of workers to repair the major aqueduct, cut during the siege of 626. They were recruited in Pontos, Asia, Greece and the Aegean islands, and probably stayed on in the city when the work was finished. Constantine also had a clock in the Great Palace repaired and he sent an organ as a gift to the Franks in an embassy of 767, reflecting his interest in such instruments. They were probably operated by waterpower, like the fountains and mechanical golden decorations of the Byzantine court. New churches like the one near the lighthouse, the Pharos church inside the Great Palace, reflected his ambitious strategy of regeneration, which attracted new inhabitants and merchants to the city. Through internal expansion and the revival of markets, Constantinople regained its position as a hub of international trade.

As the centre of all imperial administration, diplomacy, court patronage and training in skilled craftwork, the city provided opportunities for people from the provinces and farther afield who sought jobs and patrons, as well as mercenaries and spiritual leaders. In the mid-ninth century, a wrestler and horse-breaker named Basil used his talent to make friends with, and eventually to supplant, the emperor Michael III in 867. Even those who had no particular skills sought employment in the great houses and monasteries of the city. Young girls competed for jobs at court, where numerous ladies-in-waiting attended the empress and attracted the attention of potential husbands. Foreigners, identified by nicknames such as ‘the Italian’ or ‘the Slav’, rose to leading positions. Close relations with the Caucasus added to this multi-cultural society in which military men regularly made successful careers. Emperors Philippikos (711–13) and Romanos I (920–44), a naval commander, were both from Armenia, while Leo III (717–41) came from a Syrian family that had been moved to Isauria in southern Asia Minor. By the ninth century, Constantinople was once again endowed with numerous villas and palaces constructed by individual patrons, as well as patriarchs, imperial officials and administrators.

During the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, as the Seljuk Turks advanced into Asia Minor (see chapter 21), many refugees fled to Constantinople. Even with a clear increase in population the city seems to have been able to feed everyone, a reflection of the efficient exploitation of estates in the western provinces of the empire, many owned by religious institutions like the monasteries of Mount Athos. By the end of the twelfth century one of the largest, the Great Lavra (see chapter 18), had a small fleet of boats in which it transported the surplus grain from its land outside the Holy Mountain to the capital. Though accurate figures for the population of Constantinople are impossible, visitors from the West were astonished at the numbers and the crowded streets. In his history of the Fourth Crusade, Geoffrey Villehardouin, who died between 1212 and 1218, believed there were 400,000 inhabitants, which seems credible. He makes clear his own impression that the city was certainly the largest in Christendom.

Within its walls, Constantinople contained numerous monasteries, churches and shrines, which attracted pilgrims and holy men from all parts of the Christian world. In the fifth century, Daniel, a Syrian monk, mounted his column outside the walls and gave advice from the top, even to emperors. Such ascetics were greatly respected by leading bishops, who administered the Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople directed religious education and collected a great library of theological texts. At the same time there was a serious tradition of secular education, which dated back to earliest times. In 425, Theodosius II strengthened this by establishing thirty-one chairs for teachers of the study of Latin and Greek grammar, rhetoric, philosophy and law in special quarters at the Capitolium. With firm imperial patronage, Constantinople remained the centre of all higher legal studies, as well as the advanced quadrivium of mathematical sciences and philosophy. Meanwhile, Theodosius’ older sister Pulcheria encouraged the cult of the Mother of God with special all-night liturgies.

With the support of Empress Verina, wife of Leo I (457–74), this cult was entrenched at two important shrines in Constantinople, at Blachernai at the northwest corner of the walls, and in the copper workers’ quarter, Chalkoprateia, near the Great Palace. In addition to the relics of her veil, girdle and shroud, particular icons of the Virgin and Child and the liturgical cycle of her feasts, commemorated in sermons and prayers, enhanced popular devotion to her. Some paintings were said to be the work of St Luke and to date back to her lifetime. Subsequent emperors continued to add to the imperial collection of relics; in the early tenth century, Leo VI installed two particularly important miracle-working icons either side of the main entrance to the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia (see chapter 5). Western visitors from the period of the crusades expressed amazement at the collections of important relics and icons, as well as surprise at the number of court eunuchs (see chapter 15).

Muslim visitors also provide fascinating comments about Constantinople and the Byzantines. In the eleventh century, the diplomat and historian al-Marwazi reports:

The Rum are a great nation. They possess extensive lands, abounding in good things. They are gifted in crafts and skilful in the fabrication of [various] articles, textiles, carpets and vessels.

‘Rum’ was his approximation of Roman, the term used by the Byzantines to describe themselves. Al-Marwazi believed only the Chinese surpassed them in applied arts, and since he had visited the court of the Great Khan he was in a good position to judge. He also explained the riches of Byzantium, reporting that the empire drew its revenues from ‘customs which they collect from the merchants and ships from every region… and caravans [that] reach them by land… from Syria, from the Slavs and Rus and other peoples.’ To many visitors from the West the wealth of the citizens of Constantinople, who dressed in silk and ate caviar, appeared something fabulous. To educated inhabitants like Niketas Choniates, who recorded the history of Byzantium from 1118 to 1206, Constantinople was indeed ‘Queen of the queen of cities’, a play on the Greek term basilissa, which means imperial, ruling and empress or queen. Its greatness derived from its beauty, marked by monuments and collections of art works, as well as its wealth. This contributed to a western sense of envy, which was fanned by Alexios IV’s failure to pay the forces of the Fourth Crusade and led to the sack of the city in April 1204.

Although Constantinople never regained its pre-1204 population level, it retained its leading intellectual position right until its fall to the Turks, continuing to attract merchants, artists and scholars, who patronized new building and the redecoration of churches. Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), the statesman and scholar, restored the ancient foundation of the Chora monastery (Kariye Camii) in the northwestern region of the city with magnificent new mosaics and frescoes (plates 26 and 33). Drawing on the history and strength of imperial culture, architects and craftsmen contributed new forms to Byzantine civilization, for instance in the funerary chapels with tombs for their patrons which were added to many churches. The verdict of Arab visitors was still favourable: in the early thirteenth century, al-Harawi reported that ‘Constantinople is a city even greater than its reputation’. He added, ‘May God in his grace and generosity deign to make it the capital of Islam.’ In the fourteenth, al-Qazwini added, ‘Nothing like it was ever built neither before nor after’, while the great historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) characterized it as ‘a magnificent city, seat of the Caesars, containing works famous for their construction and splendour’.

This appreciation contributed to the determination of the Ottoman Turks to make it their capital. After the siege of 1453, Sultan Mehmed II allowed three days of looting and then spent many years rebuilding and repopulating the city. Its domed churches inspired his own foundation, the Mosque of the Conqueror (Fatih Camii), erected on the site of the church of the Holy Apostles to which the imperial mausoleum was attached. Even after its conquest, Constantinople lived on as the capital of the Ottoman Empire. For five hundred years it was known as ‘the Sublime Porte’, a centre of international diplomacy and Near Eastern policy-making. Constantinople embodied the stimulating combination of overseas trade, local commercial activity, bureaucracy and ceremonial.

Today it is no longer the capital of Turkey and its ancient walls are encircled by new motorways and vast suburbs. Atatürk Boulevard passes below and between the arches of the main aqueduct; the tower built by the Genoese in Galata, the northern suburb across the Golden Horn (also called Pera), stands out among the modern buildings which now surround it, while the domes of St Sophia and the Blue Mosque vie for attention in the old city. Yet Constantine’s city is still recognizable with its vistas, public spaces and monuments which continue to evoke the grandeur of seventeen hundred years of history.

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