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date: 22 May 2018


The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Jonathan HarrisJonathan Harris, Oliver NicholsonOliver Nicholson

Constantinople (mod. İstanbul, Turkey, Graeco-Roman Byzantium) 

Principal city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Following its foundation by Constantine I in 324 on the site of the small city of Byzantium, Constantinople expanded rapidly. One reason for the growth in population was the frequent presence of the imperial court. During the 4th century the rulers of the eastern half of the Empire often resided in Constantinople and lived there permanently from the time of Arcadius (395–408) to that of Heraclius (610–41). About 20,000 people may have been living in Byzantium in 324; by the mid-5th century Constantinople probably had a population of about 375,000. Zosimus, no admirer of Constantine (II, 35; cf. II, 30–2) complained that the streets had become dangerous to walk in because of the sheer number of people and animals, and that the buildings were clustered much too closely together. Land had to be reclaimed from the sea to provide further building space.

Food and water supply

The rapid growth placed great strain on the city’s ability to sustain its population. Its hinterland was not particularly productive agricultural land; grain was imported from Egypt and from 332 onwards a free grain dole was instituted, like that at Rome. This had the effect of placing the imperial administration directly in charge of the city’s grain supply, so freeing the emperor from manipulation by local landowners of the sort which Julian encountered at Antioch in 362. To provide the necessary volume of grain, between 2,400 and 3,600 vessels had to arrive in the city every year, far more than the existing harbours on the Golden Horn, the city’s northern shore, could accommodate. New harbours were constructed on the city’s southern shore, like that of Julian in 362.

Water was a greater problem because Byzantium had only one natural source of fresh water, the small River Lycus, which in any case tended to dry up for six months of the year. There was only one aqueduct, dating from the reign of Hadrian, to bring in water from further afield. A new network of aqueducts had to be constructed stretching 100 km (60 miles) inland, which delivered water to the Nymphaeum Maius reservoir. The vulnerability of the system became apparent after the Battle of Adrianople in 378 because aqueducts could easily be cut if an enemy force controlled Thrace. Three immense open-air cisterns were built with a combined capacity of 1,000,000 litres (220,000 imperial gallons) to provide an uninterrupted supply.

Local government

Constantine founded a Senate for his new city (Origo Constantini Imperatoris, 6, 30; cf. Sozomen, II, 3, 6), but it was his son Constantius II who provided Constantinople with a lasting system of local government. A Proconsul of Constantinople is first attested in 342, and in 359 Constantius appointed the first Praefectus Urbi for the city, an office conceived of as parallel to the Praefectus Urbi at Rome (Socrates, II, 41; Sozomen, IV, 23, 3). He also put the Senate of Constantinople on a formal footing. and by the time of his death it numbered, according to Themistius, fewer than 300 men (Oration, 34, 13).

The Senate of Constantinople differed from that at Rome, which had at its core the ‘Romans of Rome’, men such as Symmachus and Praetextatus. It differed also from a normal city council, comprised of the local landowners, all the men of the city who had a certain property qualification. Especially after the late 4th century, when the court settled permanently in Constantinople and stored their archives in watertight rooms under the seating of the Hippodrome (Circus), the Senate came to be composed of those in the senior ranks of the central imperial administration. The notables who were influential in the local affairs of 4th- and 5th-century Constantinople came from the court, men like the patrons of S. Daniel the Stylite, Marcus the silentarius, Gelanius the chamberlain, Cyrus the Praefectus Urbi and Praefectus Praetorio. Men like Cyrus rose to be senators by achieving high office in the imperial administration; they might own land along the Bosporus, as Gelanius did, but they owed their positions to their service at court. Together with the army and the people assembled in the Hippodrome the Senate took part in dramatic political decisions, such as the acclamation as emperor of Justin I, and in formal ceremonies. But they were also responsible, alongside the Praefectus Urbi appointed by the emperor, for the mundane regulation of local government.

Monumental architecture

The defensive walls built by Constantine for his new city enclosed an area much greater than the former small city of Byzantium; the imperial mausoleum at the Church of the Holy Apostles (on the site of the present Fatih Camii) was inside their circuit. The two principal roads passed through the walls, that coming from Adrianople and the north-west, and, coming from due west and Selymbria, the Via Egnatia, the processional way which passed through the Golden Gate at the Hebdomon. The two main roads met inside the city west of the Forum of Constantine, a large circular square with at its centre a porphyry column (now Çemberlitaş) bearing a statue of Constantine himself, which Constantine contructed immediately outside the former walls of Byzantium. This led down to the Augustaeum, the square flanked by the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom (consecrated in 360), the Senate House, and the entrance to the Great Palace, over the principal gateway of which was a painting of Constantine with the sign of the Saviour behind his head trampling on a dragon (Eusebius, VCon III, 3). The Great Palace was directly connected by a spiral staircase to the imperial box (the kathisma) located opposite the finishing line in the Circus (Hippodrome). The layout of palace and circus was designed for the performance of impressive ceremonies and owed much to the urban plans developed under the Tetrarchy in such cities as Trier and Thessalonica (and probably Nicomedia).

Constantine also beautified Constantinople with works of art brought from elsewhere in the Empire, ‘stripping bare almost all the cities’ (Jerome, Chron 232g Helm). The central reservation of the Hippodrome was embellished with sculpture brought from all over the Mediterranean world, including the Serpent Column from Delphi, cast in bronze in the 5th century bc. The Senate House was decorated with statues of the Muses brought from Mount Helicon; before its doors stood the statue of Zeus from Dodona and Athena from the island of Lindos. Over 80 assorted statues adorned the rebuilt Baths of Zeuxippus. These sculptures were all divorced from their original civic and religious contexts and functions, and were exhibited purely as works of art.

Theodosius I further enhanced Constantinople as a setting for imperial ceremony. Between about 386 and 393 the Forum of Theodosius, previously the Forum Tauri (mod. Beyazit Square), Constantinople’s largest public square, was laid out on land between the walls of ancient Byzantium and those constructed by Constantine. It centred on the tall column of Theodosius and featured a triumphal arch and an equestrian statue. Constantine’s successors also continued to decorate Constantinople with works of art brought from elsewhere in the Empire. An 800-ton obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III (1549–1503 bc) from Egyptian Thebes and a bronze statue of Hercules by Lysippus from Rome were placed in the Hippodrome. With the permanent presence of the court came further grand buildings and public works to reflect the city’s new importance. The Forum of Arcadius, built from 404, was adorned with a column similar to that in the Forum of Theodosius. The Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae compiled around ad 425 catalogues the buildings in the city’s fourteen regions.

Temples, churches, and monasteries

Three civic temples on the Acropolis of the old city of Byzantium were destroyed under Theodosius I (John Malalas, XIII, 39); the site of the Temple of the Sun became a courtyard, that of Artemis was made a gambling den still known in the 6th century as ‘The Temple’, and that of Aphrodite the site of the carriage house for the Praefectus Praetorio, with free lodgings for penniless prostitutes nearby. The only person ever known to have offered a pagan sacrifice at the Temple of the Fortune of the City mentioned by Zosimus (II, 31, 2–3) is the Emperor Julian (Sozomen, V, 4, 8).

Constantine built martyria for S. Acacius and for the local martyr S. Mocius, on the anniversary of whose execution, 11 May, he chose to dedicate the city. The Notitia lists only fourteen churches in the city of Constantinople. Two of these were the large imperial basilicas of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), completed and consecrated in 360 and rebuilt at the beginning of the 4th century, and the Church of the Holy Apostles which had been the burial place of most emperors since Constantine. This number expanded rapidly during the 5th century with the encouragement of the Empress Pulcheria. In his Buildings, Procopius mentions 33 churches built, embellished, or repaired through the efforts of Justinian I (527–65).

At the same time the importance of Constantinople increased in the Church at large. Bishops came to the city for three Œcumenical Councils; the first Council of Constantinople in 381 convened by Theodosius I, the second in 553 convened by Justinian I, and the third in 680–1 convened by Constantine IV. The first Council of Constantinople gave the Patriarch of Constantinople, because the city was New Rome, precedence immediately following that of Rome (Sozomen, VII, 9, 2–3) and Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon confirmed this honour.

Monks began coming to the city and its environs in the late 4th century; S. Isaac the Monk is said to have been the first, and Ss. Alexander the Sleepless (d. 430) and Daniel the Stylite (d. 493) were famous holy men of the next century. By the mid-6th century, there were also some 80 monasteries in the city. Some of these had formed spontaneously around individual holy men and their disciples, others had been established as formal institutions by a private patron, such as the patricius Studius who set up his Monastery of S. John the Baptist (mod. Imrahor Camii) in 463 or Anicia Juliana who built her enormous Church of S. Polyeuctus in 524–7. It was partly in this tradition that the Empress Theodora gave shelter to monks who shared her Miaphysite sympathies.


Following the Sack of Rome in 410, greater thought was given to the defence of Constantinople. The geography of the site on a narrow promontory with sheltered harbours made it easily defensible on three sides. The current in the southern Bosporus was also a defensive advantage; running at three to four knots or more, it made it very difficult to bring ships close inshore to mount a naval assault. Successive rulers built on these advantages. Constantine provided a set of defensive walls across the promontory and in 378 these were enough to deter the victorious Goths from following up their victory at Adrianople with an attack on the city. By the early 5th century, however, settlement had spread out far beyond the limits of the original fortifications. In 413 Anthemius who was acting as regent for the young Theodosius II ordered the construction of a new set of walls that stretched 7 km (nearly 5 miles) across the peninsula and incorporated a considerable new area into the city. Walls along the seaward sides were added in 439 and the Land Walls were reinforced by an outer wall and moat in 447. Three-tier defences therefore enabled Constantinople to survive the determined sieges of the Avars and Persians in 626, and of the Arabs in 674–8 and 717–18.

Fire, earthquakes, and civil unrest

For much of the period, however, external attacks were a lesser danger than natural catastrophes. As buildings were packed ever closer together, accidental fires were a constant hazard during the summer months. The first serious fire, recorded by Marcellinus Comes, devastated the area alongside the Golden Horn in August 433. In September 464 a fire which broke out in one of the dockyards of the Golden Horn damaged eight of the city’s fourteen regions.

Situated close to the North Anatolian fault, Constantinople experienced regular earthquakes. In 396 an earthquake had emperor and people praying together in public. A series of tremors over four months during 437 forced thousands to flee the city for the safety of suburban Hebdomon. A single long earthquake in 480 brought down the statue on the Column of Theodosius, as well as levelling many houses, porticoes, and churches. Liturgical commemorations of the city’s deliverance from these earthquakes subsequently entered the civic religious calendar.

Outbreaks of civil unrest among Constantinople’s tightly packed and volatile population were equally destructive. The Hippodrome could hold 100,000 people, and especially after the emperor and court settled permanently in Constantinople, it became a political meeting ground as much as a place of entertainment, as is apparent in the dialogue between the factions and the emperor’s spokesman in the Acta per Calopodium. This meant that the chariot races in the Hippodrome were often a flash point where the rivalry between the Blue and Green factions would spill over into violence. In 498, a riot led by the Greens caused considerable damage to the stadium and the area round about. The Nika Riot of 532, when the Blues and Greens made common cause, was perhaps the most devastating of these popular uprisings.

Reconstruction under Justinian

Constantinople’s buildings, infrastructure, and monuments received significant restoration and embellishment during the reign of Justinian I, following damage caused by an earthquake in 526 and the Nika Riot of 532. The Buildings of Procopius, written to praise the emperor, provide a voluble record of these improvements. The Church of the Holy Wisdom had been severely damaged in 532 and was replaced by a radical design with a dome 55 m (180 feet) high. Although damaged by an earthquake in 558, the building has stood ever since. The Church of the Holy Apostles and numerous other churches which had not been damaged in the disturbance were rebuilt anyway; many of Justinian’s churches boasted domes, the churches of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus and the Church of the Holy Peace (Hagia Eirene) being two surviving examples. The Senate House and the portico around the Augusteum were reconstructed. A column was erected in the Augusteum, topped by an equestrian statue of Justinian himself. The Bronze Gate (the Chalke Gate) of the Great Palace was rebuilt and provided with mosaics depicting Justinian, his wife Theodora, and his generals’ victories over the Vandals and Ostrogoths. Justinian also made earnest efforts to improve the water and food supply. Several new cisterns were constructed, underground rather than in the open air, greatly increasing the amount of water that could be stored. A vast granary was built on the island of Tenedos so that grain ships could deposit their cargoes there when adverse wind conditions made it impossible for them to pass through the Dardanelles (Procopius, Aed. V, 1, 7–16).

The problems of food and water supply were never completely overcome: there was a severe grain shortage in May 555 and a drought in November 562. Constantinople’s population began to decline during the 6th century. In the spring of 542, the Justinianic Plague arrived in the city from Egypt and took a severe toll on the urban population. The epidemic subsided the following year but further outbreaks followed in 558, 573, and 599 culminating in another major outbreak in 747.

With the loss of Egypt in the early 7th century the grain dole ended and the population began to decrease. After 600 no monumental building was undertaken till the closing years of the 8th century. In 626 Avar and Persian armies cooperated to besiege the city and it was saved, so it was believed, by the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Half a century later in 674–8 came the first Arab sieges and in 714 the Emperor Anastasius II, foreseeing the siege which was to transpire two years later, ordered out of the city all those who could not lay up supplies for three years. Only in the 9th century did Constantinople’s population start to grow once more and new building resume.

Jonathan Harris; Oliver Nicholson


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