The foundation of Constantinople

Constantine, whose victory over his rivals had been secured by his talents as an administrator and a diplomatist no less than by his military skill, was one of those men whose hard practical ability has stamped upon the history of the world a much deeper impress than has been left by many conquerors and legislators of infinitely greater genius. He was a man of that self-contained, self-reliant, unsympathetic type of mind which we recognize in his great predecessor Augustus.


Though the strain of old Roman blood in his veins must have been but small, Constantine was in many ways a typical Roman. Born by the Danube, reared in the courts and camps of Asia and Gaul, he was absolutely free from any of that superstitious reverence for the ancient glories of the city on the Tiber which had inspired so many of his predecessors. Italy was to him but a secondary province amongst his wide realms. When he distributed his dominions among his heirs, it was Gaul that he gave as the noblest share to his eldest and best-loved son: Italy was to him a younger child’s portion.

There had been emperors before him who had neglected Rome: the barbarian Maximinus I. had dwelt by the Rhine and the Danube; the politic Diocletian had chosen Nicomedia as his favourite residence. But no one had yet dreamed of raising up a rival to the mistress of the world, and of turning Rome into a provincial town. If preceding emperors had dwelt far afield, it was to meet the exigencies of war on the frontiers or the government of distant provinces. It was reserved for Constantine to erect over against Rome a rival metropolis for the civilized world, an imperial city which was to be neither a mere camp nor a mere court, but the administrative and commercial centre of the Roman world.


When once Constantine had determined to make Byzantium his capital, in preference to any other place in the Balkan lands, his measures were taken with his usual energy and thoroughness. The limits of the new city were at once marked out by solemn processions in the old Roman style. In later ages a picturesque legend was told to account for the magnificent scale on which it was planned. The emperor, we read, marched out on foot, followed by all his court, and traced with his spear the line where the new fortifications were to be drawn. As he paced on further and further westward along the shore of the Golden Horn, till he was more than two miles away from his starting-point, the gate of old Byzantium, his attendants grew more and more surprised at the vastness of his scheme. At last they ventured to observe that he had already exceeded the most ample limits that an imperial city could require. But Constantine turned to rebuke them: “I shall go on”, he said “ until He, the invisible guide who marches before me, thinks fit to stop”. Guided by his mysterious presentiment of greatness, the emperor advanced till he was three miles from the eastern angle of Byzantium, and only turned his steps when he had included in his boundary line all the seven hills which are embraced in the peninsula between the Propontis and the Golden Horn.

The rising ground just outside the walls of the old city, where Constantine’s tent had been pitched during the siege of B.C. 323, was selected out as the marketplace of the new foundation. There he erected the Milion, or “golden milestone”, from which all the distances of the eastern world were in future to be measured. This “central point of the world” was not a mere single stone, but a small building like a temple, its roof supported by seven pillars; within was placed the statue of the emperor, together with that of his venerated mother, the Christian Empress Helena.


The south- eastern part of the old town of Byzantium was chosen by Constantine for the site of his imperial palace. The spot was cleared of all private dwellings for a space of 150 acres, to give space not only for a magnificent residence for his whole court, but for spacious gardens and pleasure-grounds. A wall, commencing at the Lighthouse, where the Bosphorus joins the Propontis, turned inland and swept along parallel to the shore for about a mile, in order to shut off the imperial precinct from the city.

North-west of the palace lay the central open space in which the life of Constantinople was to find its centre. This was the “Augustaeum”, a splendid oblong forum, about a thousand feet long by three hundred broad. It was paved with marble and surrounded on all sides by stately public buildings. To its east, as we have already said, lay the imperial palace, but between the palace and the open space were three detached edifices connected by a colonnade. Of these, the most easterly was the Great Baths, known, from their builder, as the “Baths of Zeuxippus”. They were built on the same magnificent scale which the earlier emperors had used in Old Rome, though they could not, perhaps, vie in size with the enormous Baths of Caracalla. Constantine utilized and enlarged the old public bath of Byzantium, which had been rebuilt after the taking of the city by Severus. He adorned the frontage and courts of the edifice with statues taken from every prominent town of Greece and Asia, the old Hellenic masterpieces which had escaped the rapacious hands of twelve generations of plundering proconsuls and Caesars. There were to be seen the Athene of Lyndus, the Amphithrite of Rhodes, the Pan which had been consecrated by the Greeks after the defeat of Xerxes, and the Zeus of Dodona.


Adjoining the Baths, to the north, lay the second great building, on the east side of the Augustaeum — the Senate House. Constantine had determined to endow his new city with a senate modelled on that of Old Rome, and had indeed persuaded many old senatorial families to migrate eastward by judicious gifts of pensions and houses. We know that the assembly was worthily housed, but no details survive about Constantine’s building, on account of its having been twice destroyed within the century. But, like the Baths of Zeuxippus, it was adorned with ancient statuary, among which the Nine Muses of Helicon are specially cited by the historian who describes the burning of the place in B.C. 404.

Linked to the Senate House by a colonnade, lay on the north the Palace of the Patriarch, as the Bishop of Byzantium was ere long to be called, when raised to the same status as his brethren of Antioch and Alexandria. A fine building in itself, with a spacious hall of audience and a garden, the patriarchal dwelling was yet completely overshadowed by the imperial palace which rose behind it. And so it was with the patriarch himself: he lived too near his royal master to be able to gain any independent authority. Physically and morally alike he was too much overlooked by his august neighbour, and never found the least opportunity of setting up an independent spiritual authority over against the civil government, or of founding an itnperium in imperio like the Bishop of Rome.


All along the western side of the Augustaeum, facing the three buildings which we have already described, lay an edifice which played a very prominent part in the public life of Constantinople. This was the great Hippodrome, a splendid circus 640 cubits long and 160 broad, in which were renewed the games that Old Rome had known so well. The whole system of the chariot races between the teams that represented the “factions” of the Circus was reproduced at Byzantium with an energy that even surpassed the devotion of the Romans to horse racing. From the first foundation of the city the rivalry of the “Blues” and the “Greens” was one of the most striking features of the life of the place.


In the Hippodrome the “Greens” always entered by the north-eastern gate, and sat on the east side; the “Blues” approached by the north-western gate and stretched along the western side. The emperor’s box, called the Kathisma, occupied the whole of the short northern side, and contained many hundreds of seats for the imperial retinue. The great central throne of the Kathisma was the place in which the monarch showed himself most frequently to his subjects, and around it many strange scenes were enacted.


Down the centre of the Hippodrome ran the “spina”, or division wall, which every circus showed; it was ornamented with three most curious monuments, whose strange juxtaposition seemed almost to typify the heterogeneous materials from which the new city was built up. The first and oldest was an obelisk brought from Egypt, and covered with the usual hieroglyphic inscriptions; the second was the most notable, though one of the least beautiful, of the antiquities of Constantinople: it was the three-headed brazen serpent which Pausanias and the victorious Greeks had dedicated at Delphi in 479 B.C., after they had destroyed the Persian army at Platzea. The golden tripod, which was supported by the heads of the serpents, had long been wanting: the sacrilegious Phocians had stolen it six centuries before; but the dedicatory inscriptions engraved on the coils of the pedestal survived then and survive now to delight the archaeologist. The third monument on the “spina” was a square bronze column of more modern work, contrasting strangely with the venerable antiquity of its neighbours. By some freak of chance all three monuments have remained till our own day: the vast walls of the Hippodrome have crumbled away, but its central decorations still stand erect in the midst of an open space which the Turks call the Atmeidan, or place of horses, in dim memory of its ancient use.


Along the outer eastern wall of the Hippodrome on the western edge of the Augustaeum, stood a range of small chapels and statues, the most important landmark among them being the Milion or central milestone of the empire, which we have already described. The statues, few at first, were increased by later emperors, till they extended along the whole length of the forum. Constantine’s own contribution to the collection was a tall porphyry column surmounted by a bronze image which had once been the tutelary Apollo of the city of Hierapolis, but was turned into a representation of the emperor by the easy method of knocking off its head and substituting the imperial features.

North of the Hippodrome stood the great church which Constantine erected for his Christian subjects, and dedicated to the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). It was not the famous domed edifice which now bears that name, but an earlier and humbler building, probably of the Basilica-shape then usual. Burnt down once in the fifth and once in the sixth centuries, it has left no trace of its original character. From the west door of St. Sophia a wooden gallery, supported on arches, crossed the square, and finally ended at the “Royal Gate” of the palace. By this the emperor would betake himself to divine service without having to cross the street of the Chalcoprateia (brass market), which lay opposite to St. Sophia.


Between the Palace, the Hippodrome, and the Cathedral most of the important events in the history of the city took place. But to north and west the city extended for miles, and everywhere there were buildings of note, though no other cluster could vie with that round the Augustaeum. The Church of the Holy Apostles, which Constantine destined as the burying-place of his family, was the second among the ecclesiastical edifices of the town. Of the outlying civil buildings, the public granaries along the quays, the Golden Gate, by which the great road from the west entered the walls, and the palace of the praetorian praefect, who acted as governor of the city, must all have been well worthy of notice. A statue of Constantine on horseback, which stood by the last-named edifice, was one of the chief shows of Constantinople down to the end of the Middle Ages.

It was in A.D. 328 or 329—the exact date is not easily to be fixed—that Constantine had definitely chosen Byzantium for his capital, and drawn out the plan for its development. As early as May 11, 330, the buildings were so far advanced that he was able to hold the festival which celebrated its consecration.

Christian bishops blessed the partially completed palace, and held the first service in St. Sophia; for Constantine, though still unbaptized himself, had determined that the new city should be Christian from the first. Of paganism there was no trace in it, save a few of the old temples of the Byzantines, spared when the older streets were levelled to clear the ground for the palace and adjoining buildings. The statues of the gods which adorned the Baths and Senate House stood there as works of art, not as objects of worship.


To fill the vast limits of his city, Constantine invited many senators of Old Rome and many rich provincial proprietors of Greece and Asia to take up their abode in it, granting them places in his new senate and sites for the dwellings they would require. The countless officers and functionaries of the imperial court, with their subordinates and slaves, must have composed a very considerable element in the new population. The artizans and handicraftsmen were enticed in thousands by the offer of special privileges. Merchants and seamen had always abounded at Byzantium, and now flocked in numbers which made the old commercial prosperity of the city seem insignificant. Most effective—though most demoralizing—of the gifts which Constantine bestowed on the new capital to attract immigrants was the old Roman privilege of free distribution of corn to the populace. The wheat-tribute of Egypt, which had previously formed part of the public provision of Rome, was transferred to the use of Constantinople, only the African corn from Carthage being for the future assigned for the subsistence of the older city.

On the completion of the dedication festival in 330 A.D. an imperial edict gave the city the title of New Rome, and the record was placed on a marble tablet near the equestrian statue of the emperor, opposite the Strategion. But “New Rome” was a phrase destined to subsist in poetry and rhetoric alone: the world from the first very rightly gave the city the founder’s name only, and persisted in calling it Constantinople.

(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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