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The New Capital: Constantinople A. D. 306-532

EMPEROR Constantine’s decision to build a new capital for the Roman Empire in the East did not come as a surprise to the people of the empire. Rome had lost much of its influence as the seat of government and emperors avoided the city. They preferred to build castles for themselves in distant provincial cities. Emperor Maximian, for example, had ruled from Milan. Emperor Diocletian had moved to Nicomedia, far to the east in Asia Minor and ruled from there.


Constantine had many good reasons for turning eastward in searching for a site for his new capital. Most of the important activities and interests of the empire lay far to the east of Rome. The great trade centers at Ephesus, Antioch and Alexandria were all in the East. For centuries, the kingdoms beyond the eastern frontiers had been weak and peaceful. Now the Sassanids, a new royal family of Persia, had risen to power and become a serious threat. The East German tribes, particularly the Goths, had also become a threat, building up their strength on the Danube.

As a man of the sword, Constantine knew well that the empire was in danger of being invaded. A capital city in the East, within striking distance of the Danube and the eastern front, would help the empire standoff attacks from either direction. There was also an advantage in having the capital city close to the Balkans, for there the empire recruited its finest soldiers. Constantine himself had come from there.

His personal pride may have been still another reason. Many Roman emperors were great builders. They were proud men and they liked to build roads and great buildings which would stand for centuries as memorials to their greatness. A new capital city would bring him fame and glorify his memory for centuries to come.

As a site for his new imperial city, Constantine chose Byzantium. This ancient Greek town lay at the entrance to the Bosporus, more than eight hundred miles to the east of Rome. Constantine had attempted to capture Byzantium in one of his military campaigns some years earlier and knew very well that a city located there could be easily defended. Byzantium was on a point of land jutting out from Europe, a point which separates the Sea of Marmora on the west from a long, natural harbor called the Golden Horn on the east. The harbour offered safe haven for a large fleet of fishing boats, merchantmen and warships. The city could be defended from attack by land with a stout western wall across the peninsula.

The location of Byzantium was perfect for commerce, too, for it lay at the very crossroads of world trade routes between Europe and Asia. Ships sailing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean had to pass within sight of its docks. By land, one of the most important trade routes from west to east passed through the city and over the Bosporous, at that point a mile wide.


Constantine began construction on the western wall of the city in November 324. On May 11, 530, he dedicated the new capital, calling it New Rome. It soon came to be known as Constantinople in honour of its founder. In building his new capital, Constantine laid the foundation for the Byzantine Empire, which was to endure for eleven hundred and twenty-three years. Yet he had no intention of creating a new empire. He meant it to be merely a continuation of the old Roman Empire. To accomplish this he set up a government in Constantinople similar to the one in Rome. His armies continued to follow the familiar Roman military customs. He operated under Roman laws, many of which were centuries old. The new government had a senate patterned after the one in Rome, though it was less powerful. He persuaded some of Rome’s best known citizens to move to the new capital by offering to build them exact reproductions of their homes and palaces in Rome. To attract a large number of people from the countryside and from other cities, he followed the Roman custom of offering free games and public shows at a gigantic stadium or circus and 80,000 loaves of bread free every day. In short, he did everything possible to make his new capital another Rome.

Constantine was also concerned about binding the empire more firmly together. This he this he attempted to do in various ways. He tried to do it by adopting the Christian religion as the religion of the empire. Only about one fifth of the people of the empire were Christians at the time, but the church was well organized and growing rapidly. Emperor worship had failed and was dying out. Most of the other religions of the East had little appeal in the western half of the empire.


Constantine wanted his imperial city to be the Christian capital of the world. His vast empire contained peoples of many different nationalities, but he hoped to bind them all together with one religion. He saw to it that the churches were the most magnificent buildings in Constantinople. The finest of these were the Holy Wisdom, the Holy Apostle and the Holy Peace. To give the Bishop of Byzantium more importance within the family of bishops, he gave him the title Patriarch of Constantinople.


The empire was also divided culturally. The West spoke Latin, the East Greek. The West provided the leaders and men of action, but most of their ideas came from the East. In the eastern part of the empire the civilization was a blend of Greek, Jewish and Iranian influences. In the arts, the empire was still following old Greek models.

Constantine hoped to bring all branches of art and culture together in his new city and establish a cultural center there for the entire empire. He made Latin, the language of the West, the official language of the city. To stress the importance of Greek art he looted the cities of Greece and “Asia Minor for their most outstanding art treasures. These he placed about the city, giving it the cluttered look of a museum. He placed a whole army of statues, some four hundred in all, in front the Church of the Holy Wisdom People could look in almost any direction and be reminded of their Greek heritage. To make Constantinople a center of learning and to strengthen the influence of classical Greek, he built libraries and filled them with Greek manuscripts.

Constantinople was, therefore. a  city of  many influences unlike any other. Its population was largely made up of Asians from various eastern provinces. They spoke Greek in the streets and Latin in the government offices. Most of them soon became Christians and they all called themselves Romans.

The peoples of the East had long been accustomed to absolute monarchs‚ kings with complete power over their subjects. Constantine and the emperors who came after him felt a new sense of freedom in the new capital. No longer bound by the traditions of Rome, they ruled with a stronger hand than any of the earlier emperors.

The West paid heavily in wealth and manpower to build and support Constantinople. Most of the empire’s armies were stationed in the East to defend  the capital and the eastern borders. This left the West  poorly protected.

The East lost its art treasures to the new capital. Its churches also paid a price, for they came under state control and so lost much of their independence. Constantine cared for them generously, giving them public funds to enlarge and repair their buildings. He also built new churches in many of the larger cities.


The Pagan religions rapidly lost ground in Constantinople for they were not approved by the government. Constantine closed a few of the large pagan temples and looted all the others for gold. According to tradition, he also prohibited the making of sacrifices to false gods.

During his reign, Constantine tried to reduce unemployment and prevent the mass shifting of populations by binding his subjects to their jobs and to their lands. He encouraged commerce with the countries to the east. One of his greatest achievements was to give the empire a sound money system. The gold coins issued by his government remained the standard money of the empire and of the entire commercial world for many centuries.


When Constantine died in 337 he left his three sons to succeed him. They were followed by a victorious general, Julian, who won a place for himself in history by turning against the Christians. He tried to bring back the pagan religions, but failed. Julian was killed in a battle on the Persian front in the summer of 363.


The army then elected a Christian soldier named Jovian. On his death the following spring, the army elected Valentine. He preferred to rule in the West and appointed his brother Valens as co-emperor in the East. Valens made the mistake of allowing the Visigoths to cross over the Danube into the empire to save themselves from the advancing Huns. Almost at once the Goths quarreled with the emperor’s officials and set out to capture Constantinople. Valens led his army out to meet them and was killed in battle at Adrianople in 378.

Gratian, then emperor in the West, appointed a Spaniard named Theodosius as the eastern emperor. Theodosius came to an understanding with the Goths and made them useful servants of the empire. Next he turned to the east and made a treaty with Persia in 387, thus establishing peace on that front.

His army was no longer up-to-date. The Roman infantry had been hopelessly outclassed by the Gothic horsemen in the defeat of Valens at Adrianople. Some cavalry units had been added since, but many more were needed. Wishing to rebuild the army as quickly as possible, Theodosius recruited whole tribes of barbarian horsemen and allowed them to serve the Romans under their own leadership. It was a dangerous experiment, for the barbarian leaders often acted on their own and could not always be trusted.

In religious matters, too, Theodosius was active. He closed all pagan temples and made Christianity the only legal religion in the empire. Furthermore, all Christians had to accept the faith as it was taught in the church. Those who refused were called heretics and had their citizenship taken away from them. Thus, for the first time in history, belief in the Christian faith became the price of citizenship. This gave the churches political power to some extent and therefore led to more confusion between politics and religion.

After the death of the western emperor in 392, Theodosius took over control of the West. It was the last time in history that one man ruled over the entire empire, from Britain to the Euphrates. With his death in 595, his two sons took over. One of them, Theodosius II, built a new western wall for Constantinople to take in the rapidly growing suburbs and built a connecting seawall.

Barbarian invasions by the Visigoths, Huns and Ostrogoths during the fifth century threatened the empire. The barbarians mounted attack after attack across the Danube and struck glancing blows at the eastern half of the empire. Finding it well defended, the barbarians moved on and carved out kingdoms for themselves in the West. Italy was overrun. In Europe, a Germanic people called the Vandals swept down from the north took over Gaul and Spain, conquered Rome in 455 and settled in Africa. After the death of Julius Nepos in 480, no one in the West ever again bore the title Roman emperor.

For many centuries the Mediterranean had been a Roman sea. It provided Constantinople with trade routes to some of its most important markets in the West and in Africa. When the Vandals established themselves in Africa and sent out fleets of ships from Carthage, the flow of commerce to and from Constantinople was seriously threatened. The port cities on the Mediterranean now had to build fortifications to defend themselves.

The East was further cut off from the West by religious struggles over Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Eastern emperors, anxious to keep on good terms with the popes, sided with Rome and supported the traditional faith. This caused a break with the churches of Egypt and Syria‚ which favored Monophysitism. When the emperor attempted a compromise, he turned the pope against him and failed to satisfy Egypt or Syria.

Thus, at the end of the fifth century, the eastern empire had lost most of its ties with the West. It was beginning to live a life of its own under strong eastern influences.

Like other countries in the East, it had a strong centralized government. The church used the Greek language and tended to become more and more independent of the church in Rome. Slowly the features of the Byzantine Empire were beginning to take shape. Out of the blending of eastern and western cultures came a new and unusual civilization with its own way of doing things and its own patterns of thought and art. The Byzantine Empire became the center of the civilized world unlike any other and it lasted for more than a thousand years.

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