Urban image of Constantinople in the ‘Middle Byzantine Period’

The History of Niketas Choniates has long been recognized for its value in reconstructing the urban image of Constantinople in the Middle Byzantine Period. Niketas often incorporates detailed information on the layout and topography of the city as well as on its monuments and important landmarks. His testimony is particularly important with regard to civic life in the Byzantine capital, its public institutions and infrastructure, as well as its social and cultural milieu.


Yet it is also important in two other respects:

i) precisely because it was written by a resident and not a foreign visitor interested in specific sites, the History evokes a vivid and contemporary image of the medieval city in its entirety;

ii) as the most important Greek contemporary eyewitness account of the destruction wrought by the Fourth Crusade on Constantinople, it documents the loss of monumental architecture and art that was unique to the Byzantine capital.

Niketas’ narration focuses more on the traditional secular elements of the urban landscape such as the Hippodrome, the palaces, the fora and the porticoed streets, along with the monumental features associated with them.

He condemns the tendency of the elite to establish monasteries in Constantinople, extending the warning that ‘this beautiful city situated on the Hellespont should be overlooked as Odysseus [overlooked] the lotus and the irresistible songs of the Sirens’ (v.D. 207).

What Niketas finds particularly reprehensible is the trend of building monasteries in the marketplace and at the crossroads (ἐπ’ ἀγορᾶς τε καὶ τριόδων: v.D. 208). Although individual churches and monasteries are frequently mentioned throughout the narration, these structures most often appear as the geographical setting of historical events unfolding in Constantinople.

Only on rare occasions is their architectural appearance praised, but always with the traditional expression found in encomiastic literature, ‘greatest in size and most beautiful in beauty’ (µεγέθει µέγιστον καὶ κάλλει κάλλιστον: v.D. 178, 206,and 332).

Niketas describes Hagia Sophia as ‘the most beautiful and holy temple which was constructed by the hands of God and adorned as the first and last inimitable work of art, a veritable heavenly orb upon the earth’ (v.D. 241). When the Great Church was desecrated by the Crusaders in 1204, the historian, interestingly enough, singled out the destruction of the altar, ‘fashioned from every kind of precious material fused together by fire and blended with one another into one multicoloured thing of excessive beauty’ (v.D. 573).

In reference to the burial of Manuel I Komnenos in the Pantokrator monastery, he  describes the tomb of the emperor – ‘a stone of blackish colour and because of this mournful in appearance, divided into seven pinnacles’ – along with the relic of the stone of Deposition placed beside it on a pedestal (v.D. 222).

When describing the restoration of the church of the Archangel Michael at Anaplous by Isaakios II Angelos, Niketas notes the adornment of the building with splendid multicoloured marble slabs stripped from the imperial palaces, images of the archangel in ‘works of ancient and wondrous hands’, and the icon of Christ hauled to the cross (Ἑλκόµενος Χριστὸς) taken from Monemvasia, ‘admirable in technique and beauty’. Not surprisingly, this interest in artistic detail is also evident in references to secular monuments and structures, such as the magnificent quadriga of gilded horses that stood at the gates of the Hippodrome or the intricate decoration of the Anemodoulion, the monumental weathervane at Constantinople.


Niketas also seems to have admired greatly the beauty of the traditional urban features of the Byzantine capital. In particular, imperial palaces and aristocratic mansions are often praised for their beauty and splendour.

What is more, the historian laments the loss of the porticoed streets, the fora, the elegant structures of the agoras and the monumental columns destroyed by the fires of the Fourth Crusade (v.D. 554-555). Finally, his famous description of the antique statues melted down by the Crusaders in 1204 reveals his admiration for the ancient aesthetic and perhaps an antiquarian interest (v.D. 647-655).

Although the lamentations and ekphaseis would not have been written were it not for the destruction caused by the Latin conquest, it is significant that Niketas fails to document even a single church or monastery that suffered damage as a result and only refers to the despoiling of the sacred relics housed in the churches of Constantinople in an abstract and rhetorical manner (v.D. 573).

A second point concerning the overview of the city is Niketas’ focus on the central regions rather than the northwest district of Constantinople or the coastline of the Golden Horn. This may seem surprising since the Blachernai palace in the northwest became a favourite residence of the imperial court in this period and the districts along the Golden Horn underwent significant development in terms of the concentration of population and facilities.

The historian’s emphasis on the secular rather than the sacred, and the city-centre rather the newly developed northwest, suggests that the traditional political and ceremonial centre of Constantinople remained as important as the antique heritage it displayed. Furthermore, it could indicate that the complete break with this heritage only came in 1203-4 when this region was devastated by fire and plunder in the course of the Fourth Crusade.

Of course, it should be taken into account that classicizing authors like Niketas were more attached to the idea of the city adorned with public monuments and, in this respect, regarded the ancient city as an architectural ideal.

Yet, even if the erudite Niketas somehow stood apart from his contemporaries with regard to his admiration for antiquity, his focus on the city-centre and its public monuments was dictated by the course of historical events and his own interest in the civic life of the capital.


The Agora

The area in which the commercial activities of the capital were concentrated continued to be called the agora down to the end of the Byzantine period. Although the concept of the agora as an official meeting place for citizens, as it had been in the cities of antiquity, had long since disappeared, the area was still regarded as the centre of public life and still functioned as a place of social gathering.

Niketas employs the term agora, usually without any further qualification, to designate the area along the main thoroughfare, Mese, from the landmark of the Milion to the Forum of Constantine and beyond, where porticoed streets survived as an architectural form until the Latin conquest of 1204 (v.D. 120,332).

His references indicate that the area acted both as a marketplace and a central location where citizens gathered. This is suggested foremost by the propaganda value attached to the location by succeeding emperors in the late twelfth century. In particular, the usurper Andronikos I Komnenos seems to have used the agora most effectively in an attempt to publicize his imperial credentials. According to Choniates, he restored the church of the Forty Martyrs, ‘raised in a pivotal and central part of the city’, and intended to use it as his mausoleum (v.D. 332). This church has, in fact, been located south of the Mese in the area of the Tetrapylon, which stood at the intersection of the main thoroughfare and the porticoes of Domninos. Outside, near the northern gates of the church facing in the direction of the agora, the emperor had himself represented on a large panel dressed in the garb of a labourer and holding a curved sickle around the bust of a handsome young man (v.D. 332).

He also constructed luxurious palatial quarters adjacent to the church, where he was to dwell whenever he visited the shrine (v.D. 333).

Andronikos seems to also have invested greatly in public works in this area, rebuilding at great expense the ancient underground aqueduct channelling fresh water from the Hydrales River to the centre of the agora. According to Niketas, however, while all the dwellings in the vicinity of Blachernai and beyond were supplied with water from this source, the emperor was overthrown before the restoration was complete, so that fresh water was not channelled into the centre of the agora (v.D. 329-330).

The historian also tells us that the emperor, having obliterated the images of the empress Maria-Xene in the city and replaced them with his own, intended to set up his own effigy in bronze on top of a pillar. This was the so-called Anemodoulion, a tall monument of bronze upon which – as Niketas informs us – were represented naked Erotes pelting one another with apples (v.D. 332-333). This monument, destroyed by the Crusaders in 1204, is described by the author in vivid detail in the section of his History conventionally entitled De Signis (v.D. 648).

In a similar fashion, Andronikos as well as his successors, Isaakios and Alexios III Angelos publicized their triumphs in the agora. It was not only the rallying cries of usurpers and grim spectacles showcased in the agora that rendered this area the very centre of public life. On two separate occasions Niketas mentions high-ranking officials making their way through the marketplace amidst the acclamations and applause of the common citizens. The marketplace was an area where imperial officials and their retinues frequently passed and where the citizens had the opportunity to see them first-hand.

If the agora was a place of interaction between imperial officials and the common people, it was evidently also a place for social intercourse amongst the common citizens themselves. In certain cases this proved dangerous. Although Niketas displays a characteristic disdain for those who frequented the marketplace (οἱ άγοραῖοι), he is nevertheless particularly informative on the role of the populace in the turbulent political life of the capital in the final decades of the twelfth century.

Significantly, he also provides us with a vivid and detailed description of the Constantinopolitan mob with its diverse races and trades, fickle disposition, ill judgement and inflammable temperament, which is justly famous (v.D. 232-233). The area functioned as a meetingplace for citizens, and especially so in times of political crises.

It is evident from Niketas’ testimony that the area along the Mese remained at the very centre of the public life of medieval Constantinople. As such, it should be visualized as a vibrant focal point of social gathering for the populace of the city. It was a place where succeeding emperors advertised their imperial credentials and triumphs, where public officials made frequent appearances and where usurpers attempted to gain popular support. It is precisely for this reason that it always remained important to the political establishment and thus to the civic life of the city. It is not coincidental that Choniates singles out the destruction of the porticoed streets along the Mese, the emboloi of Domninos and the Forum of Constantine in his description of the devastating fire set by the Crusaders in Constantinople (Aug. 1203). He notes in particular the destruction of the stoas along with the elegant structures of the agoras and the huge columns, that is, the very architectural and artistic features which defined the area from late antiquity onwards (v.D. 554).


The Hippodrome

Not far off was the Hippodrome, another special location for the public life of Constantinople, as it had been in the cities of antiquity. Although frequent in the late Roman period, chariot races are said to have been reduced to about three a year after the ninth century.

Besides this, there were special occasions when such races were held, most notably at imperial triumphs celebrating military victories and during visits by foreign rulers. Niketas describes one such occasion when the Seljuk sultan, Kiliç Arslan II, visited Constantinople in 1162, also providing us with a brief description of the tower that arose at the centre of Hippodrome gates and was surmounted by a quadriga of gilded horses (v.D. 119).

It is significant to note that Niketas only mentions the tower in connection with the abortive flight attempted by a certain Turkish spectator during the games attended by both the emperor and the sultan. The episode seems to have involved an acrobatic feat gone wrong and soon became a popular anecdote in the streets of Constantinople. For our purposes, it illustrates that stories of the spectacular and the horrific happenings in the Hippodrome could still capture the imagination of the populace.

Following the imperial triumph staged in 1133, Ioannes II Komnenos remained in Constantinople long enough for his subjects to see him and be entertained by theatrical spectacles in the Hippodrome (v.D. 19).

In a similar manner, his successor Manuel relaxed at the horse races following the imperial triumph in 1167 (v.D. 158).

Choniates’ next reference to the Hippodrome is in connection with the collapse of a section of a railing of the imperial box (the kathisma) in 1184 that killed several spectators and enraged the fanatic Hippodrome mob.

On this occasion, Niketas uses the opportunity to provide his readers with a description of the games: first came the horse races to be followed by the gymnastic contests and various other spectacles that included acrobatic feats on tightropes as well as a simulation of a hunt with hares and hunting hounds. He also tells us that the emperor (in this instance Andronikos I) stayed to watch the chariot races and the gymnastic contests, but departed before the various spectacles, presumably intended for the entertainment of the populace (v.D. 289-290).

The tradition of games at the Hippodrome was maintained until the Latin conquest when, according to Choniates, the west wing of the Hippodrome burned down and its antique statuary collection was destroyed (v.D. 555and 647).

According to Niketas, Alexios III on the occasion of the double marriage of his daughters Eirene and Anna to Alexios Palaiologos and Theodoros Laskaris respectively (1200), held the celebratory games in an improvised theatre at the courtyard of Blachernai Palace where entrance was barred to the common people (v.D. 508-509). On this occasion the historian provides us with a detailed description of the games, which he may have personally witnessed. These involved organ music and a sort of comic-play acting whereby a eunuch dressed in fancy attire at first took on the role of the eparch of the city and then that of mapparios, signalling the start of the races. Scions of the nobility took part in the gymnastic contests, running the double-course race and mocking the eunuch by kicking him in the buttocks whenever he signalled for the race to begin. Therefore, this was by no means the games transferred to Blachernai Palace from the Hippodrome, but simply ‘boyish games’ (τὰ µειρακιώδη ταῦτα ἀθύρµατα) viewed only by the imperial family, their relatives, and most trusted attendants.

At the same time, the Hippodrome continued to serve as a site for public executions, albeit on rare occasions, which Niketas graphically describes.

While the populace was perhaps especially avid for such spectacles, the Hippodrome also continued to attract seditionists. The revolt of Maria kaisarissa against the regency regime of the empress Maria-Xene and the protosebastos Alexios Komnenos seems to have drawn to its side almost the entire populace of the city. The entire affair began in the agora where the rebels enlisted the support of the populace, which as though to a prearranged signal, shouted acclamations in praise of Alexios II. Choniates tells us that these activities were not confined to the area of the Milion as the populace soon assembled at the Sphendone of the Hippodrome and looked down into the palace (v.D. 234-235). Thus the Constantinopolitan populace, enlisted in the revolt at the agora, was then assembled – presumably in an orchestrated manner – at the Sphendone of the Hippodrome where they were incited to open rebellion.

In all, it is evident that the Hippodrome, a stage for chariot races and various spectacles, imperial triumphs, executions and rebellions, was intimately connected to the public life of the medieval city and in a sense served as a special meeting point between the palace and the agora, a place not only where the emperor could be applauded and glorified, but also condemned, deposed and even executed. With the destruction that accompanied the Latin conquest, the traditional ‘institution’ of the Hippodrome ceased to exist. In the Palaiologan period, the partly ruined structure, now stripped of its antique splendour, was used mainly for western-style jousts.


The Palaces

Beginning in the late eleventh century, the Palace of Blachernai in the north-west corner of the city is said to have replaced the Great Palace as the primary imperial residence.

It is thus surprising that Choniates spends more time discussing the Great Palace, while his references to Blachernai – although significant in their own right -are sporadic and incidental.

The main reason for this was that political events in the late twelfth century unfolded in the centre of Constantinople and often involved the Great Palace. Since Choniates’ narration follows these events closely, it is only natural that its geographical focus would be this area rather than the north-west corner of the city. Moreover, it is clear from a variety of sources that throughout the twelfth century the Great Palace still possessed important administrative and ceremonial functions. Residence in the Great Palace was mostly associated with certain state occasions such as imperial coronations and triumphs as well as receptions of foreign rulers that were traditionally followed by games in the Hippodrome. In other words, emperors resided in the Great Palace on those occasions when an appearance before a public audience would be expected.

A public appearance by the emperor would also be warranted in times of political crises and more specifically when a usurper threatened the imperial throne. In such cases, it was often a matter of who (either the imperial incumbent or the usurper) would succeed in occupying and securing the Great Palace.

The information provided by Niketas is revealing in the sense that it allows to grasp, if not visualize, the continued significance of the location and function of the Great Palace. However, his testimony is revealing in one more aspect. While Alexios III was sojourning in the Great Palace (February, 1201), the floor before the imperial bed-chamber suddenly collapsed into a wide chasm, evidence that perhaps the Great Palace was allowed to decay (v.D.530).

However, it is well known that both Manuel and Isaakios invested in both imperial residences rather than just the palace of Blachernai (v.D. 206, 442). The additions of Manuel to the Great Palace were possibly the most extensive since the tenth century.

Isaakios is said to have built splendid baths and apartments in both palace complexes as well as luxurious buildings along the Propontis. He also constructed a tower to defend the palace of Blachernai and serve as his residence, using spolia from ancient churches and magnificent dwellings in the city (v.D. 442).

In the Great Palace, however, he stripped the marble slabs of the walls of the palace buildings, the sacred furniture and holy vessels of the Nea Ekklesia as well as the bronze gates of the Chalke in order to restore the church of the Archangel Michael at Anaplous (v.D.442).

The complex perhaps suffered great damage by the destructive plundering of the Constantinopolitan populace during the coup of this emperor in 1185. Further damage was probably inflicted when a large city mob occupied the Great Palace during the revolt of Ioannes Komnenos ‘the Fat (v.D. 526). Yet we must be careful when weighing the evidence since imperial restoration activities often involved the re-use of materials and incidents of urban unrest affecting the Great Palace were not infrequent.

As mentioned above, Niketas’ information regarding the Blachernai complex is largely incidental, but nonetheless significant. Thus we learn of a high vaulted throne chamber with a couch spangled with gold known as Polytimos where Andronikos was acclaimed co-emperor while the official ceremony took place in Hagia Sophia the following day (v.D. 271). Alexios III was perhaps in that same high-vaulted chamber during the crusader siege of the city in July 1203 that is identified as ‘the apartments of the Empress of the Germans’ in a marginal note (v.D. 144). The same emperor had the body of the rebel Ioannes Komnenos ‘the Fat’ (his severed head was displayed in the agora) raised onto a bier and displayed on the southern gates of the palace while he looked down at the horrific spectacle from the palatial suites above (v.D. 527). This last reference is particularly revealing. We know that an aristocratic programme which favoured decentralization and was reflected in the urban landscape of Constantinople took place under the Komnenian emperors. As a result of this trend and various other attractions of the region, many noble families and courtiers preferred residence in the north-west corner of the city. It is thus clear that the morbid display of the body of a Komnenian rebel at the gates of Blachernai was a warning to those imperial relatives and courtiers who frequented the palace.

In addition, Choniates’ references to the church of the Virgin at Blachernai seem to confirm that the entire vicinity was the abode of the aristocracy. In the Blachernai church oaths of allegiance were sworn to Manuel’s heir, Alexios II (24 March, 1171). Here also the powerful official Konstantinos Mesopotamites was promoted from lector to deacon in the presence of Alexios III and the patriarch (v.D. 169 and 489).

Both ceremonies were clearly not public affairs, but would have certainly warranted the presence of high-ranking officials. Can we thus envisage the beginnings of some sort of physical separation between the emperor and the court aristocracy on one hand, and the Constantinopolitan populace on the other? If so, the boundaries were flexible and frequently crossed if we judge by the symbolic as well as very real significance still held by the central regions of the city and the landmarks of the agora, the Great Palace and the Hippodrome.

Moreover, it is important to emphasise that the central regions of the city continued to be the most opulent and densely populated until the entire area was razed by the fires of the Fourth Crusade. After all, Niketas’ own palatial residence, a three-stored building embellished with gold mosaics which was located in the Sphorakion district, close to the Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia, was destroyed in the fire of August 1203 (v.D. 587).


Hagia Sophia

In addition to being the main liturgical centre of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia played an essential role in imperial ceremonial. As expected, this is clearly borne out from Niketas’ conventional descriptions of imperial coronations and triumphs.

Perhaps less expected is the major political role assigned to the cathedral of Constantinople in the final decades of the twelfth century. A mere glance at the content of Niketas’ references to the Great Church in this period is sufficient to warrant further investigation. Most of these concern Hagia Sophia as the setting for the proclamation of new emperors and a place of asylum or refuge for criminals. Although ecclesiastical asylum in Byzantine society was recognized by civil law early on, the evidence for Hagia Sophia as a special place of asylum is concentrated in the twelfth century. In addition to this, the political turmoil of the last decades of that century seems to have increased the role of the Hagia Sophia in the political life of the capital.

Several examples may serve to illustrate this point. In 1181, Maria kaisarissa sought refuge in the Great Church following a failed plot to assassinate Alexios the protosebastos and her subsequent conviction from an imperial tribunal (v.D. 232). Although offered amnesty for her crimes, she proceeded to incite the populace to open rebellion. Niketas tells us that the church was thus transformed ‘from a house of prayer into a den of thieves or a fortified and precipitous stronghold, impregnable to assault. Evenmore reprehensible was the enlistment of mercenaries to garrison the Great Church, which transformed ‘the sacred courtyard into a military camp. Maria’s troops demolished all the dwellings adjacent to Hagia Sophia and adjoining the Augoustaion, and ascending the great triumphal arch which stands at the Milion, they prepared to offer resistance to the imperial troops. A fierce battle was joined (2 May, 1181) in the open courtyard of the Augoustaion and nearby streets, but the outnumbered troops of the kaisarissa were eventually defeated. Niketas condemns the struggle as an ‘inglorious war’ that brought about divine retribution to the residents of Constantinople for the sacrilegious acts committed in the Great Church (v.D. 241).

Besides the fact that Choniates’ narration of the rebellion is rich in topographical detail, it also illustrates the relative ease with which a case of asylum turned to full-fledged rebellion in the precinct of Hagia Sophia. In a similar manner, Isaakios Angelos sought the sanctuary in Hagia Sophia after the murder of Stephanos Hagiochristophorites. According to Niketas, he even ascended a special pulpit known as the ἀνάσταθµος where murderers publicly confessed their crimes and begged forgiveness from those entering and leaving the shrine. Soon enough, the populace streaming into the church was incited to open rebellion and proclaimed Isaakios their new emperor by the following day. For the historian, the effortless manner of Isaakios’ elevation to the throne set a dangerous precedent whereby countless rebels attempted to gain the throne by occupying Hagia Sophia and attempting to rally the assembled populace to their cause (v.D. 423-424). The last of these, a descendant of Anna Komnene, entered the Great Church in yet another attempt to seize the throne, but was quickly apprehended. Niketas bitterly comments that although another (Isaakios?) should have been the last to be punished for seeking the throne by entering the Great Church, henceforth no one followed the same course (v.D. 428).

Still, general disturbances in the Great Church seem to have continued unabated. During the reign of Alexios III, a wealthy banker named Kalomodios attracted the greed of the emperor’s courtiers. He was arrested on some pretext and his property was confiscated in order to be redistributed among the emperor’s men. The news of his detainment, however, stirred up the masses to sedition. They swarmed into the Great Church demanding from the patriarch and threatening to tear him asunder unless he dispatched letters of pardon to the emperorcalling back Kalomodios to them like a lost sheep that had strayed from the flock’. Fortunately, the episode passed without bloodshed as the patriarch managed to gain the release of Kalomodios (v.D. 523-524). The Constantinopolitan masses were once again incited to rebellion by the unlawful actions of the commander of the Praetorian Prison, Ioannes Lagos. This individual had not only appropriated the money donated for charity to the prisoners, but also released inmates during the night to pillage churches on his behalf. When a certain artisan was arrested and maltreated by Lagos, his fellow artisans were stirred to rebellion. They first gathered at the praetorium in order to seize Lagos, but he had already managed to escape. The crowds attempted to enter the Great Church in order to proclaim a new emperor, but this had been occupied in advance by the Varangian guard. The enraged mob burst into to the praetorium and released the prisoners, pillaged a Christian church there and destroyed a Muslim mosque nearby. A street battle followed with the imperial forces, but the Constantinopolitan mob, having suffered many casualties, was eventually dispersed (v.D. 524-526).

These episodes suggest that the main cathedral of Constantinople assumed an important political function in times of instability and weakness, or in cases of perceived injustice on the part of the government. This was finally revealed when on the eve of the Latin conquest an assembly of senators and bishops that included Niketas himself was pressured by the city’s populace to nominate a new emperor in Hagia Sophia (25 January, 1204). When the deliberations failed to produce a new emperor, the populace seized a certain youth, Nikolaos Kannavos, and anointed him emperor against his will. The people’s candidate (δηµοπρόβλητος) remained barricaded in the Great Church along with the Constantinopolitan masses until arrested by Alexios V, who in the meantime had donned the imperial insignia and been proclaimed emperor by his supporters (v.D. 561-564). Thus when we attempt to visualize Hagia Sophia in the late twelfth century, our images of grand imperial ceremonial events and liturgical processions should be accompanied by the frequent presence of large city mobs together with rebel and imperial troops who congregated in the Great Church because of its dual function as a place of refuge and site of imperial proclamations.


The evidence of Niketas concerning the image of Constantinople in the twelfth century strongly indicates that despite the proliferation of monasteries and the mansions of the aristocracy, the Great Palace, the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia and the agora remained the urban foci of the city by virtue of their physical location as well as their political, social, and cultural significance. Only when the regions between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara were destroyed by the fires and plunder of the Fourth Crusade does a new configuration of the city along the north-west axis truly emerge.

The destruction wrought on Constantinople was so great that when Niketas escaped the city several days after the Fall, he described it as ‘a plain of desolation’. Looking back upon its mighty fortifications, he cried out, ‘if those things for whose protection you were erected no longer exist, destroyed by fire and war, why do you still stand?’(v.D. 591).

This is not a mere rhetorical topos but the very real and sorrowful lamentation of a man who had witnessed the devastation of his city. Although the Byzantines recovered Constantinople in1261, they simply did not have the resources to reconstruct the traditional political and ceremonial centre of their city.

The narrative images of Constantinople provided by Niketas Choniates are therefore the very final images of a city which endured a violent break from its physical and cultural origins through warfare and destruction.

(Source: “Narrative Images of Medieval Constantinople’, by Alicia Simpson)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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