How does one set about laying out a new capital city?  We have been arguing throughout this book that the layout of a city reflects the underlying politics, the way that the citizens operate. We need to consider whether a city is laid out around a Palace, or around a market place? What are the priorities of the rulers and the citizens? So, how does the new city of Constantinople measure up?

Aerial view of Constantinople. The Golden Horn left, the Bosphorus right. Courtesy of the Istanbul Museum. Double click on photo to enlarge. At the end of the peninsula the Blue Mosque can be seen right of centre. To the left of the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia- Justinian’s Church of the Holy Wisdom, with the minarets added when it was converted into a mosque.

Constantinople was founded to solve the problem that Diocletian had already faced, that the Roman Empire had become too big to be run from just one centre.  Diocletian had tried to solve the problem by dividing it into four with two Augusti and two Caesars, but the system never really worked.  But Constantine, sensible as always, solved the problem by dividing it into two – east and west, and founding a new capital in the east, which he modestly named after himself, Constantinople.

Map of Constantinople: double click to enlarge

The geography of Constantinople was laid out on seven hills like Rome and the colony built a wall to enclose the first hill.  However at the beginning of the third century Byzantium foolishly opposed Septimius Severus and was sacked.  It was then rebuilt on a grander scale enclosing the first two hills.  When eventually Constantine chose this site for his new city,  he built a new wall which enclosed the first six hills.  But such was the success of the city that it soon spread outside the wall, and a new wall was built by Theodosius in    the early fifth century which was the famous ultra strong defence that enclosed all seven hills and repulsed the attacks of the Muslims until 1453.

Constantinople lies at the mouth of the Bosphorus, the narrow waterway that links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.  From the military point of view, it was central in the Roman empire, being equidistant to the two main problems, the Germans to the north and the Persians to the east. In retrospect the site was an obvious one: it lay at the mouth of the Bosphorus where it could control the shipping, and was superbly defensible because a short deep sea inlet known as the Golden Horn divided off a peninsula, which could be cut off by a single wall. Indeed the eventual wall erected by Theodosius in the fifth century proved so strong that it was impregnable for 700 years.

But though an obvious site in retrospect, it was not obvious at the time.  Diocletian had made his capital at Nicomedia, at the other end of the Bosphorus,  distant from the sea route and on flat ground that was totally indefensible.  The actual site of Constantinople was indeed already occupied by the city of Byzantium founded as a Greek colony in 657 BC.  As a colony it was only a modest success, producing a superb wine that was only appreciated at home.

The geography of Constantinople was laid out on seven hills like Rome and the colony built a wall to enclose the first hill.  However at the beginning of the third century Byzantium foolishly opposed Septimius Severus and was sacked.  It was then rebuilt on a grander scale enclosing the first two hills.  When eventually Constantine chose this site for his new city,  he built a new wall which enclosed the first six hills.  But such was the success of the city that it soon spread outside the wall, and a new wall was built by Theodosius in    the early fifth century which was the famous ultra strong defence that enclosed all seven hills and repulsed the attacks of the Muslims until 1453.

The Palatium restaurant

But how does one lay out a new city? The answer was quite definite: the centre of Constantinople was the palace. It was built in a superb position overlooking the approaches to the Bosphorus from the Mediterranean.  Nothing survives above ground of the Constantinian palace, which  is mostly covered by streets and restaurants.

In the cellars of the Palace

The best relic of the original palace can be found by dining at the Palatium restaurant and then making your way down into the cellars where the restauranteur has quite illegally burrowed into the cellars of the Constantinian palace, and kept going until eventually he came up into the cellars of another restaurant in a different street.  It is a very impressive experience, especially after a good meal.

The site of the hippodrome, today a public park. Note the two pillars that originally stood on the spina, the spine of the race track.

And what is the next most important ornament of a decadent late Roman city? The race track, of course.  By this time the amphitheatre with its gladiators and wild beasts was giving way to chariot racing and the Hippodrome was the biggest and most glamorous of all. There were numerous teams who soon consolidated into two: the greens and the blues, and one of the major tasks of the emperor was to prevent their rivalry turning into a full scale riot (as happened in 532).

The serpent column still in position on the central spine of the Hippodrome. It was originally erected by the Greeks at Delphi

The site of the hippodrome is laid out as a long narrow public square with at the centre several major columns, the most important of which is a twisted bronze column that was originally dedicated at Delphi to mark the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC; Constantine liked it, so he brought it to Constantinople and set it up along the spine of the race track.

Well, how about the forum, which is meant to be the centre of a civilised town? There was a certain amount of schizophrenia over the forum, for there were two, and several auxiliary ones as well. The main one was quite near the Palace, though not actually adjacent. The adjacent building to the palace was the main set of baths,  known as the Baths of Zeuxippus. These were not actually built by Constantine for they were already there, built by Severus, or earlier.  However, Christians were not very enthusiastic about baths – they were places of nudity and some priests suspected them of being dens of iniquity, so the baths were filled with over 80 statues of famous people brought in from all over the empire,  and it became a sort of art gallery or museum.

Constantinople central area: click to enlarge

Adjacent to it however, was a sort of forum known in later days as the Augustaion. It was built originally by Septimius Severus and was called the Tetrastoon, or the four stoas, which were placed to form a square. Originally it came close to being a forum — to the East there was a building given over to the Senate. However its real importance was that on the Western side, the principal road of Constantinople led off. It was known as the Mese, or Middle road, and was  columned on either side. Processions were held down it,  and it led to the Golden Gate, the principal gate through the defences.  And at the beginning of the Mese was the Milion, the mile-stone from which distances were measured. Clearly the Augustaion was a place that performed some of the ritual aspects of the forum.

However, there was also another forum. This was set along the Mese, but half a mile to the north,  just outside the wall of Septimius Severus. This may seem odd, but it was intended to be the central point of the new city. It appears to have been the main market place, and to one side there was another Senate house. It was felt that there should be a Senate in the capital city, but it was little more than a glorified town council, though it had two senate houses, one at each forum. Constantine still wanted to play at being a democratic Roman emperor.

Constantine’s column still survives. The iron hoops were put round it following an earthquake in 416 and it was scorched in a fire in 1779. There was originally a statue of Constantine at the top.

In the centre of the forum was a column of Constantine, which is in fact the only monument of Constantine to have survived. Originally it was surmounted by a statue of Constantine, but the top three drums and the statue were blown down in a gale, but the drums were replaced and a cross was placed on top. The statue was further roughed up by the brigands of the fourth crusade, iron hoops were placed around it in 1515, and it was blackened by a fire in 1776. But it still survives, looking distinctly dishevelled, near the south east corner of the Grand Bazaar, which appropriately lies adjacent to the site of the forum.

This was not the end of it. Three more public squares were laid out along the Mese, which presumably acted as waystations in the processions along the street. How far they acted as markets is not recorded – one appears to have been for horse-trading, though they also seem to have been used as places of execution. But by now these public squares appear to have lost virtually all of the original meaning and function of a forum.

The Hagia Sophia, the greatest surviving building from antiquity, was built a century later by Justinian.

One would expect the other major building to be a church and indeed there is a great church right in the centre adjacent to the palace area, the Hagia Sophia, but this was built a century later by Justinian and still stands as perhaps the greatest building from late antiquity.  The major church built by Constantine himself is the Church of the Holy Apostles, though this was over a mile from the centre.

The aqueduct of Valens still survives in part, striding across the city.

Water was of great importance to Constantinople, and the water supply was always a problem and aqueducts were built, bringing water from the Thracian hinterland. The most impressive surviving aqueduct is that of completed by Valens in the mid fourth century, a fine length of which still survives. It was part of an aqueduct over 150 kms in length.  However traces of numerous other aqueducts have been found in the Thracian forests, one nearly 250 kms long,  and it has been estimated that over 400 kms of aqueducts were constructed.

The basilica cistern that supplied water to the palace. Now drained and restored it is a popular visitor attraction. But note that the pillars mostly spolia, that is spoils recycled from earlier buildings: they could no longer quarry their own stone, but robbed it from earlier edifices.

Within the city many cisterns and reservoirs were built to store the water. The finest was the so-called Basilica cistern that supplied water to the Palace. This was lost and then rediscovered and has recently been restored for visitors with only a small depth of water in its base, so it makes a majestic even slightly intimidating visit.

The walls of Theodosius, which defied enemies for 700 years.

But the ethos of the Roman world was changing.  In the great days of Rome, defence was largely neglected as no enemy would challenge Rome on its own territory, but now invasion was a very real threat and fortification was a major consideration, this indeed why Constantinople was chosen for it defensive abilities. But a wall needed to be built to cut off the peninsula on which it lay.  Constantine built a strong wall to cut off the first six hills, but the great defensive wall was built a century later by Theodosius.

Constantinople was both a great success and a great failure.  It took off like a rocket, growing to become one of the great cities of antiquity, dominating the East Mediterranean and rivalling if not surpassing Alexandria. In the 6th century, it had its last great success with the Emperor Justinian (527 – 565) who briefly reunited the Roman Empire. In the natural world it was a time of disasters.  These began in the 530s, with volcanic explosions, possibly exacerbated by climate change when the long warm period came to an end and the world grew colder.  Then in the 540s a great plague, possibly the bubonic plague swept over the Roman world and possibly even spread to (or came from) China. 

Theodora (basilica San Vitale, Ravenna)

Justinian himself was the last of the great Roman emperors.  He married a wife, Theodora, who was both sexy and dominating – she had previously been an actress. But under him Constantinople flourished.  To the east he made peace with the Persians while to the west, his general Belisarius conquered Italy and Spain, defeating the Vandals and the Ostrogoths who had established barbarian kingdoms in the skeleton of the Roman Empire.

He was also a great administrator and in particular he codified Roman law, and his work is said to form the basis of civil law in some modern states.  And above all he was a great builder, notably building the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, which still stands; a huge church which is the greatest building to come down from Antiquity.

Following Justinian, decline set in.  The seventh century sees the rise of the Muslim world.  Persia was defeated and the Zoroastrian religion, which was one of the few to have resisted Christianity, was replaced by Islam.  The Roman Empire in the east was lost, and what was worse, Egypt fell to the Muslims, and the corn supply which had kept Constantinople going was cut off, and thus the population of Constantinople declined rapidly.  In the following centuries, Constantinople was given over to theological disputes, notably whether images should be allowed in Christian art,  and history falls into a series of complex disputes on which Gibbon sadly wasted his genius. 

A turning point came in 1071 when following the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuk Turks flooded in and Anatolia became Turkey, and Constantinople survived as the Christian bulwark against the Turkish infidels.  Eventually in 1453, the Ottoman Turks  finally broke in and Christian Constantinople became Turkish Istanbul.  Under the Ottomans, the city, now Istanbul, became the  centre of a very different barbarian empire, where the great architect Sinan ornamented the city with magnificent mosques, which set out to rival the achievements of Justinian.

  But little survived of the glories of Constantinople. Often such dark ages are worthy  of study  because in the darkness, new ideas emerge that presage the birth of a new age. But when Constantinople finally sank, it was followed by an inglorious nothing.

On to Constantine, CEO

22nd June 2021