Constantinople – the rise and fall: history of the greatness of New Rome
The Byzantine Empire sprouted imperceptibly on the smoldering shards of ancient Rome. The state was famous, among other things, for its capital, which was Constantinople. The history of the city takes 1700 years and goes back to the times when the Roman Empire was torn by internecine wars. The first inhabitants of the capital of Byzantium considered themselves citizens of the ruined state, part of its history. Only as the empire and Constantinople developed their own culture and notions, with religion being the major divide that led to conflict.
Learn more about the history of the city, which in Rus was called Tsargrad, in 24CMi item.
On the site of legendary Tsargrad – the history of Byzantium
Prior to the foundation of Constantinople, the city of Byzantium (Byzantine) existed in the area where the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn Bay join. The region was developed by the Dorians, members of an ancient Greek tribe. In the VIII century BC, several settlements were founded there: Astac, Selimbria, Chalcedon and Perinth.
Byzantion was the fifth city in the region, which appeared on the map in the VII century BC The founder of the settlement is considered to be the character of Greek mythology Byzantium, which legends call the son of Poseidon and nymph Keroesa.
Ancient sources name the exact year of foundation of Byzantium – 667 BC. According to mythology, Byzantium was parted by the Delphi’s Oracle, who advised the place for the city, indicating that settle should be opposite the colony Chalcedon.
The location proved to be fortunate. Byzantion controlled the Bosporus, so trade boomed. Rich caravans from Europe to Asia passed through the settlement, as well as ships loaded with treasures that were on their way from the Black Sea to the Aegean.
The advantageous location attracted the conquerors. In 515 BC, Byzantion was claimed by the Persian ruler Darius, who conquered the city during his invasion of the Scythians. In the 5th century BC, the Greek-Persian War broke out, in the course of which the alliance of the Athenians and Spartans liberated Byzantium from the Persians.
More than once the city became an occasion for conflict between Athens and Sparta. The settlement passed from one ancient state to another until a revolt broke out in Byzantion, which ended in giving the city autonomy within Athens.
In the second century BC the city’s administration formed an alliance with the Roman Empire, receiving military protection. Gradually Rome integrated the settlement into the state, thanks to which the inhabitants of the city did not know wars for 200 years. When the civil war broke out in the Empire in 193-197, Byzantium was under pressure from the new ruler, Septimus Severus, who had to fight to legitimize his rule.
The city did not recognize Septimus as emperor, so Severus kept the settlement under siege for three years, and after capturing it he ordered the fortifications destroyed and Byzantion stripped of its trade privileges. From this moment historiographers count the moment of the fading of the once prosperous city. In the third century, the inhabitants of the settlement fought off barbarian attacks and, exhausted by a period of instability, found themselves in a dire straits.
The Roman Empire during this period was also in decline after its rapid growth. A major change in the history of Byzantium occurred in the first half of the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine the Great began to develop the city.
The foundation of Constantinople
The ruler appreciated the advantageous maritime location of Byzantium at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, so he undertook large-scale construction. Rome at that time was a turbulent place: noble feuds, struggles for the throne, intrigue and murder. Constantine undertook a series of reforms to save the empire from disintegration, and decided to crown the activity with the creation of a new administrative center of the power.
Architects, painters, sculptors, carpenters, and plasterers were drawn to the city, exempted from state duties. Constantine created a list of privileges for the settlers who remained to live in the city.
By order of the emperor the hippodrome was rebuilt, palaces, the Church of the Apostles and new fortress walls were erected. Works of art were brought into the city. In a few years the population grew at times, and the settlement, which was named after the ruler, became a major administrative center.
On May 11, 330 the capital was officially transferred to Constantinople. But the settlement became the main city of the empire gradually. Even the majestic name of New Rome did not spare the capital from becoming the center of the state step by step.
The Age of Greatness of New Rome
Within half a century after the relocation of the capital, Constantinople swelled with citizens, and new walls had to be erected. Construction took place under Emperor Theodosius, when the Roman state was divided into western and eastern parts.
Walls of Constantinople / Photo: wikimedia.org
The era of prosperity came during the reign of Justinian. But it was preceded by a major revolt called the Nika. The revolt was caused by increased tax burdens and the willfulness of officials. The revolt broke out in 532 and was of a mass character. The suppression was harsh and bloody – 30 thousand people died.
After the pogroms Justinian invited the best architects to rebuild the city. In Constantinople there were new houses, administrative buildings, temples and palaces. The crown was the cathedral of St. Sophia, which was built in 537. The temple for more than 1,000 years was considered the largest in the Christian world before the erection of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
“Golden Age” was accompanied not only by a rebellion, but also by an epidemic of plague in 544. The disease was brought in with grain from Egypt. Every day 5-10 thousand citizens died of the disease, which eventually reduced the city’s population by 40-50%. But Constantinople had enough resources to recover from the epidemic as well. In the 6th century the area of the Byzantine capital reached 30 thousand hectares, and the population was estimated at several hundreds of thousands. For comparison: in European cities of the early Middle Ages lived on average 10-20 thousand people, and 50 thousand people were considered large.
History is cyclical and that is why periods of prosperity are followed by decline. Hard times for Constantinople came when the city was attacked by Arabs, Bulgarians and Russians. The period of iconoclasm is characterized by the destruction of mosaics and frescoes associated with religion.
The second flowering of New Rome came in the IX-XI centuries, when representatives of the Macedonian dynasty sat on the throne. The emperors defeated the Bulgars and Arabs and contributed to the development of science, art, and enlightenment. The missionary work of the brothers Cyril and Methodius fell on this period.
The year 1054 was a turning point for Constantinople, when the Christian church was divided into Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The capital of Byzantium became the center of the Orthodox faith and Rome the center of the Catholic faith.
In the 2nd half of the 11th century Constantinople was attacked by the Seljuk Turks. The city again experienced a decline that lasted a short time and ended with the advent of the Comnenus dynasty.
The rulers brought the city to a heyday, which was the last in the history of the Byzantine capital and not as long as under Justinian and the Macedonian dynasty.
In the last centuries of New Rome’s heyday, enterprising merchants from the Republics of Genoa and Venice arrived in the settlement and settled in the city’s Galata district and took control of the trade.
At the beginning of XIII century there was a new turn of history not in favor of Constantinople. Europe outfitted the Fourth Crusade, whose goal was the Orthodox capital of the Byzantine Empire.
The fall of the city
On April 13, 1204 crusaders captured Constantinople. The event had depressing consequences for the city: civilian deaths, destruction and devastation. The fall of the city led to the dominance of Catholics in the region. Constantinople, where Venetian merchants took economic control, became the center of the Latin Crusader Empire.
Sixty years later the city was taken over by the Nicaea Empire, which expelled the Crusaders, restored the Byzantine Empire, and the Palaeologus dynasty ascended the throne. The advantageous location allowed the city to maintain its economy and remain a commercial center until the middle of the 14th century.
The Venetians and Genoese continued to arrive in Constantinople and build a trade monopoly in the region. Gradually it came to another decline after an attempt to regain at least some of its former greatness.
In the middle of the 15th century Constantinople fell into the sphere of interest of the Ottomans, who called the city Istanbul. The last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI understood the complexity of the situation, so he sought support in the West: he negotiated with Aragon, Venice, Dubrovnik (Croatia), Genoa, Rome.
The Ottoman Empire by that time had conquered Asia Minor and seized most of the Balkan Peninsula. The state was a dangerous opponent, so not everyone rushed to the aid of Constantinople, to the walls of which tens of thousands of soldiers of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror approached.
The capture of the city by the Turks took place in 1453. On May 29 the Ottomans seized Constantinople from the third assault, killing the emperor, who, historiographers claim, personally fought the conquerors when he realized that the city could not be saved. The year 2022 was the 569th anniversary of the conquest of New Rome by the Turks.
At the mercy of the Turks
The Turkish sultan did not break the cultural and religious bond with the defunct Byzantium after the capture of Constantinople. Mehmed supported the Greek Church and even conceived a grandiose project to unite Islam and Christianity within the vast empire under his rule.
Mehmed did not realize what he had conceived, but he identified Constantinople as the new center of the state. The Sultan appreciated the city’s location, considering it an excellent candidate for the role of center where Islam and Christianity, Asia and Europe intertwined.
The city received the status of capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Turks invested in the development of Constantinople on a par with Adrianople and Bursa. Thanks to the policy of the Ottomans, the former capital of Byzantium regained the first place in terms of trade. Merchants and artisans of Jewish origin flocked here, who were being persecuted from Europe, while the Turks, on the other hand, valued cooperation with the Jews.
Constantinople remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until the collapse of the state in 1922. Modern Turkey was formed on the splinters of power, which retained control of the city. But since 1923, Constantinople has been called Istanbul.
The authorities chose Ankara as the capital, but in the 2010s Istanbul bypassed the capital in terms of population – 15 million versus 5.2 million people. However, Ankara surpasses it in area – 25.6 thousand square kilometers versus 5.3 thousand square kilometers. Istanbul consists of new districts and historical, which included Selimbria and Halkedon (Kaldyköy) – a colony of the ancient Greeks.
Features of the city architecture
The crown of the historic architecture of Istanbul-Constantinople is the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. The Church of the Holy Apostles is not inferior in its grandeur. The urban program of New Rome was preserved in the outlines of the city, which residents and tourists see in the XXI century.
There are traces of the architecture of the empire, which ceased to exist half a millennium ago, and in the marble columns with a decor that resemble a “peacock eye”, on the ex-Forum of Emperor Theodosius (square Bayazid).
Hagia Sophia Cathedral / Photo: Pixabay
Similar reminders of Byzantine culture are contained in the structures on Mesa Street (Divan Yolu), the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum, the underground cistern of the 6th century Basilica. The grayish marble for the latter site was quarried and processed in the quarries of Marmara Island, where a palace was built for Emperor Justinian.
Rotunda of the Cathedral of St. Sophia / Photo: wikimedia.org
Between the temple of St. Sophia and the Great Palace on a giant column flaunted equestrian statue of Justinian, but in 1492 during a storm the sculpture was destroyed. Modern craftsmen reconstructed the statue.
In monastery Chora up to now have remained mosaic works of the Virgin cycle which medieval craftsmen have executed in 1316-1321.
Tsargrad in a history of Russia
In Russia Constantinople was called Tsargrad. Since IX century the city attracted attention of inhabitants of the Old Russian state. Russians made their first campaign to Constantinople in 860. At that time the rich capital of Byzantium seemed an attractive target for plunder.
Chroniclers told, how pagans plundered and killed inhabitants of empire, not guessing, that in 120-130 years became Christians and champions of spiritual values. According to the legend, to reconsider the attitude to belief in the God and Jesus Christ Russ has forced one case. Invaders have opened coffin of Sacred George then they have refused hands and legs. The leader was frightened of punishment and has ordered to return the loot in churches on a place.
As part of the Russo-Byzantine War in 907, the campaign of Prince Oleg, nicknamed Prophetic, ended in failure.
Princes of Russia sent to Tsargrad embassy which expressed desire to lead a christening of inhabitants of the state. Business finally has finished Prince Vladimir in 988 when Christianization of Russia under leadership of the Byzantium missionaries began.
However the wife of prince Igor is considered to be the first ruler of Russia who accepted Christianity. Baptism of princess Olga passed in 955 but circumstances of a sacrament remain not clear. It is remarkable, that before wife Igor has made unsuccessful campaign to Constantinople in 941-944.
The fashion on wives-Greek has entered prince Vladimir who aspired to strengthen the authority in Russia and to strengthen the relations with Byzantium. At that time the Byzantine princess, who did not shine in beauty, surpassed the status of beautiful brides from Scandinavia or Transcarpathia. Vladimir married an imperial daughter named Anna.
Vladimir’s trick other rulers of Russia tried to repeat, but luck only smiled on Ivan III. However, marriage to Sofia Paleologue has happened because of falling of Constantinople in 1453. In 1472, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor did not object when she was offered to marry a widower from Muscovy.
The event gave rise to the idea that Moscow was the Third Rome, replacing the fallen New Rome. After Ivan III Byzantium was forgotten, but was recalled in the 18th century when a series of successful wars with the Ottoman Empire created an ambitious “Greek” project. Catherine II set out to defeat the Turks and create on the shards of the empire a restored Byzantium with Constantinople as its capital.
The region was strategically important for Russia, but the main goal was to free Christians from the Islamic yoke. The attempts failed, but the idea lived on until the First World War, when Nicholas II, approving the plan for a hypothetical conflict with Turkey, identified the main targets – the Bosporus, the Dardanelles and Constantinople.
Constantinople, on par with cities such as Rome, Paris, London and Vienna, has accumulated more than a thousand years of history that tells of fearless warriors and greedy conquerors, saints and heretics, epidemics and battles. In May 2030, the city will celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the day Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire and laid the foundation for the rapid development of Constantinople, which continues to this day, even if the city is already known by another name.