IN the year 335 the Emperor Constantine, feeling the nearness of death, called his sons and nephews to his side, and divided among them, with the folly of fondness, the government of the immense Empire that he had won. To his eldest son, Constantine II, he assigned the West—Britain, Gaul, and Spain; to his son Constantius, the East—Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt; to his youngest son, Constans, North Africa, Italy, Illyricum, and Thrace, including the new and old capitals—Constantinople and Rome; and to two nephews Armenia, Macedonia, and Greece. The first Christian Emperor had spent his life, and many another, in restoring the monarchy, and unifying the faith, of the Roman Empire; his death (337) risked all. He had a hard choice: his rule had not acquired the sanctity of time, and could not ensure the peaceable succession of a sole heir; divided government seemed a lesser evil than civil war.
Civil war came none the less, and assassination simplified the scene. The army rejected the authority of any but Constantine’s sons; all other male relatives of the dead Emperor were murdered, except his nephews Gallus and Julian; Gallus was ill, and gave promise of an early death; Julian was five, and perhaps the charm of his age softened the heart of Constantius, whom tradition and Ammianus credited with these crimes.1 Constantius renewed with Persia that ancient war between East and West which had never really ceased since Marathon, and allowed his brothers to eliminate one another in fraternal strife. Left sole Emperor (353), he returned to Constantinople, and governed the reunified realm with dour integrity and devoted incompetence, too suspicious to be happy, too cruel to be loved, too vain to be great.
The city that Constantine had called Nova Roma, but which even in his lifetime had taken his name, had been founded on the Bosporus by Greek colonists about 657 B.C. For almost a thousand years it had been known as Byzantium; and Byzantine would persist as a label for its civilization and its art. No site on earth could have surpassed it for a capital; at Tilsit, in 1807, Napoleon would call it the empire of the world, and would refuse to yield it to a Russia fated by the direction of her rivers to long for its control. Here at any moment the ruling power could close a main door between East and West; here the commerce of continents would congregate, and deposit the products of a hundred states; here an army might stand poised to drive back the gentlemen of Persia, the Huns of the East, the Slavs of the North, and the barbarians of the West. The rushing waters provided defense on every side but one, which could be strongly walled; and in the Golden Horn—a quiet inlet of the Bosporus—war fleets and merchantmen might find a haven from attack or storm. The Greeks called the inlet Keras, horn, possibly from its shape; golden was later added to suggest the wealth brought to this port in fish and grain and trade. Here, amid a population predominantly Christian, and long inured to Oriental monarchy and pomp, the Christian emperor might enjoy the public support withheld by Rome’s proud Senate and pagan populace. For a thousand years the Roman Empire would here survive the barbarian floods that were to inundate Rome; Goths, Huns, Vandals, Avars, Persians, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians would threaten the new capital in turn and fail; only once in that millennium would Constantinople be captured—by Christian Crusaders loving gold a little better than the cross. For eight centuries after Mohammed it would hold back the Moslem tide that would sweep over Asia, Africa, and Spain. Here beyond all expectation Greek civilization would display a saving continuity, tenaciously preserve its ancient treasures, and transmit them at last to Renaissance Italy and the Western world.
In November 324 Constantine the Great led his aides, engineers, and priests from the harbor of Byzantium across the surrounding hills to trace the boundaries of his contemplated capital. Some marveled that he took in so much, but “I shall advance,” he said, “till He, the invisible God who marches before me, thinks proper to stop.”2 He left no deed undone, no word unsaid, that could give to his plan, as to his state, a deep support in the religious sentiments of the people and in the loyalty of the Christian Church.
“In obedience to the command of God,”3 he brought in thousands of workmen and artists to raise city walls, fortifications, administrative buildings, palaces, and homes; he adorned the squares and streets with fountains and porticoes, and with famous sculptures conscripted impartially from a hundred cities in his realm; and to divert the turbulence of the populace he provided an ornate and spacious hippodrome where the public passion for games and gambling might vent itself on a scale paralleled only in degenerating Rome. The New Rome was dedicated as capital of the Eastern Empire on May 11, 330—a day that was thereafter annually celebrated with imposing ceremony. Paganism was officially ended; the Middle Ages of triumphant faith were, so to speak, officially begun. The East had won its spiritual battle against the physically victorious West, and would rule the Western soul for a thousand years.
Within two centuries of its establishment as a capital, Constantinople became, and for ten centuries remained, the richest, most beautiful, and most civilized City in the world. In 337 it contained some 50,000 people; in 400 some 100,000; in 500 almost a million.4An official document (c. 450) lists five imperial palaces, six palaces for the ladies of the court, three for high dignitaries, 4388 mansions, 322 streets, 52 porticoes; add to these a thousand shops, a hundred places of amusement, sumptuous baths, brilliantly ornamented churches, and magnificent squares that were veritable museums of the art of the classic world.5 On the second of the hills that lifted the city above its encompassing waters lay the Forum of Constantine, an elliptical space entered under a triumphal arch at either end; porticoes and statuary formed its circumference; on the north side stood a stately senate house; at the center rose a famous porphyry pillar, 120 feet high, crowned with the figure of Apollo, and ascribed to Pheidias himself.*
From the Forum a broad Mese or Middle Way, lined with palaces and shops, and shaded with colonnades, led westward through the city to the Augusteum, a plaza a thousand by three hundred feet, named after Constantine’s mother Helena as Augusta. At the north end of this square rose the first form of St. Sophia—Church of the Holy Wisdom; on the east side was a second senate chamber; on the south stood the main palace of the emperor, and the gigantic public Baths of Zeuxippus, containing hundreds of statues in marble or bronze; at the west end a vaulted monument—the Milion or Milestone—marked the point from which radiated the many magnificent roads (some still functioning) that bound the provinces to the capital. Here, too, on the west of the Augusteum, lay the great Hippodrome. Between this and St. Sophia the imperial or Sacred Palace spread, a complex structure of marble surrounded by 150 acres of gardens and porticoes. Here and there and in the suburbs were the mansions of the aristocracy. In the narrow, crooked, congested side streets were the shops of the tradesmen, and the homes or tenements of the populace. At its western terminus the Middle Way opened through the “Golden Gate”—in the Wall of Constantine—upon the Sea of Marmora. Palaces lined the three shores, and trembled with reflected glory in the waves.
The population of the city was mainly Roman at the top, and for the rest overwhelmingly Greek. All alike called themselves Roman. While the language of the state was Latin, Greek remained the speech of the people, and, by the seventh century, displaced Latin even in government. Below the great officials and the senators was an aristocracy of landowners dwelling now in the city, now on their country estates. Scorned by these, but rivaling them in wealth, were the merchants who exchanged the goods of Constantinople and its hinterland for those of the world; below these, a swelling bureaucracy of governmental employees; below these the shopkeepers and master workmen of a hundred trades; below these a mass of formally free labor, voteless and riotous, normally disciplined by hunger and police, and bribed to peace by races, games, and a daily dole totaling 80,000 measures of grain or loaves of bread. At the bottom, as everywhere in the Empire, were slaves, less numerous than in Caesar’s Rome, and more humanely treated through the legislation of Constantine and the mitigating influence of the Church.6
Periodically the free population rose from its toil to crowd the Hippodrome. There, in an amphitheater 560 feet long and 380 wide, seats accommodated from 30,000 to 70,000 spectators;7 these were protected from the arena by an elliptical moat; and between the games they might walk under a shaded and marble-railed promenade 2766 feet long.8 Statuary lined the spina or backbone of the course—a low wall that ran along the middle length of the arena from goal to goal. At the center of the spina stood an obelisk of Thothmes III, brought from Egypt; to the south rose a pillar of three intertwined bronze serpents, originally raised at Delphi to commemorate the victory of Plataea (479 B.C.); these two monuments still stand. The emperor’s box, the Kathisma, was adorned in the fifth century with four horses in gilded bronze, an ancient work of Lysippus. In this Hippodrome the great national festivals were celebrated with processions, athletic contests, acrobatics, animal hunts and fights, and exhibitions of exotic beasts and birds. Greek tradition and Christian sentiment combined to make the amusements of Constantinople less cruel than those of Rome; we hear of no gladiatorial combats in the new capital. Nevertheless, the twenty-four horse and chariot races that usually dominated the program provided all the excitement that had marked a Roman holiday. Jockeys and charioteers were divided into Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites, according to their employers and their garb; the spectators—and indeed the whole population of the city—divided likewise; and the principal fashions—the Blues and Greens—fought with throats in the Hippodrome and occasionally with knives in the streets. Only at the games could the populace voice its feelings; there it claimed the right to ask favors of the ruler, to demand reforms, to denounce oppressive officials, sometimes to berate the emperor himself as he sat secure in his exalted seat, from which he had a guarded exit to his palace.
Otherwise the populace was politically impotent. The Constantinian Constitution, continuing Diocletian’s, was frankly monarchical. The two senates—at Constantinople and at Rome—could deliberate, legislate, adjudicate; but always subject to the imperial veto; their legislative functions were largely appropriated by the ruler’s advisory council, the sacrum consistorium principis. The emperor himself could legislate by simple decree, and his will was the supreme law. In the view of the emperors, democracy had failed; it had been destroyed by the Empire that it had helped to win; it could rule a city, perhaps, but not a hundred varied states; it had carried liberty into license, and license into chaos, until its class and civil war had threatened the economic and political life of the entire Mediterranean world. Diocletian and Constantine concluded that order could be restored only by restricting higher offices to an aristocracy of patrician counts (comites) and dukes (duces), recruited not by birth but through appointment by an emperor who possessed full responsibility and power, and was clothed with all the awesome prestige of ceremonial inaccessibility, Oriental pomp, and ecclesiastical coronation, sanctification, and support. Perhaps the system was warranted by the situation; but it left no check upon the ruler except the advice of complaisant aides and the fear of sudden death. It created a remarkably efficient administrative and judicial organization, and kept the Byzantine Empire in existence for a millennium; but at the cost of political stagnation, public atrophy, court conspiracies, eunuch intrigues, wars of succession, and a score of palace revolutions that gave the throne occasionally to competence, seldom to integrity, too often to an unscrupulous adventurer, an oligarchic cabal, or an imperial fool.