The modern-day city of Istanbul occupies a stretch of land along the Bosporus, the body of water that links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. This place, where Europe and Asia meet, has always been of great strategic value, a fact not lost on Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. In his time, an old Greek settlement, Byzantium, was located there, and Constantine chose this place for his new capital. In May 330, the emperor presided over a solemn ceremony to reconsecrate the city at the mouth of the Bosporus. Named for its mighty founder, Constantinople would become the new center of the Roman Empire and the axis around which power and religion in the Mediterranean world turned for nearly a millennium.
Even before Constantinople’s birth, the city of Rome had already become the central capital in name only. Power in the empire had split
apart as Rome faced foes on its frontiers. In order to keep outside threats in check, strong leaders were needed in different regions of the
empire. By the end of the third century and in the early years of the fourth, there were various de facto capitals—one for each of its four emperors, who held power simultaneously.
Known as the tetrarchy, this system of the shared rule had been created in 293 by the emperor Diocletian. Two emperors were appointed to the lower rank of caesar, and two to the higher rank of Augustus. The cities in which the tetrarchs were based were Mediolanun, modern-day Milan in Italy; Sirmium in what is today Serbia; Augusta Treverorum, modern-day Trier in Germany; and Nicomedia, what is today called Izmit in Turkey, where Diocletian himself had made his home near the Bosporus. These cities were highly developed urban centers, often containing sumptuous public buildings. But none came close to the majesty of Rome, with its exquisite public monuments and sculptures.
Constantine’s father was Constantius Chlorus, one of the Augustus tetrarchs appointed by Diocletian. Following the death of his father, Constantine was declared Augustus by his troops in the year 306. This act almost immediately led to the collapse of the tetrarchy
and plunged the Roman Empire into a civil war.
First, Constantine clashed with Maxentius, who also had a claim to Roman rule. Constantine defeated him at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, a crucial victory that handed Constantine control of the western part of the empire. The battle also took on additional cultural significance when, as some sources report, Constantine credited his triumph to the Christian God, who sent him a vision the night before the battle. This moment would mark the beginning of a major attitude shift of the empire toward the fledgling religion.
Later he took on Licinius, the tetrarch of the eastern part of the empire, finally winning decisive victories in 324. Following his crushing defeat at the Battle of Adrianople (Edirne in modern-day Turkey), Licinius and his troops were forced to take refuge in the fortified city of Byzantium. In September of that same year, Constantine’s forces crushed Licinius once and for all at the Battle of Chrysopolis. Byzantium and the Roman Empire were his.
Now the sole ruler of the empire—as Diocletian had been until 293—Constantine decided to base himself in Byzantium. From here, Constantine could control various key border areas: the frontier running along the Danube River, under threat from Germanic tribes, as well as the eastern border along the Euphrates, which was under continual pressure from Sassanid Persia.
His creation of a grandiose city that would bear his name echoes the founding, 600 years earlier, of that other great city of the eastern Mediterranean, Alexandria, named for Alexander the Great. Constantine was also consciously following the Roman imperial tradition of naming cities after emperors—such as Adrianople, founded in A.D. 125 by the emperor Hadrian. The founding of Constantinople was an attempt to usher in a new era of one empire with one emperor. Just as Augustus had reorganized and embellished Rome at the empire’s beginning, Constantine set out to emulate him and create a magnificent city: a “New Rome.”
Old and New Gods
Constantine’s nuanced understanding of religion brought him great success. Shortly after succeeding his father as a tetrarch in 306, he had declared the Roman sun god, Apollo, to be his divine protector, after a vision of the god promised him dominion over the world and a reign of
30 years. This declaration showed his respect for the Roman gods.
But Constantine was not absolutely loyal to the old gods. He saw the appeal of Christianity as well. From the beginning of his reign, Constantine’s policy toward Christians differed greatly from his predecessors. The great persecution began in 303 when the tetrarchy issued a series of edicts that persecuted Christians for their beliefs. Houses of worship were destroyed, and people were martyred. But after Constantine secured power, he treated Christians more favorably, granting them freedom of worship in 313 with the Edict of Milan.
Constantine needed inhabitants for his new city. Huge numbers of people in the surrounding area, exiled at the hands of his rival Licinius, were encouraged to move there. Pagans were still a demographic majority in the city; Constantine encouraged Christians to settle there as well, creating a “melting pot” from which a new, dynamic political elite emerged. Constantine knew he had to address any antagonism between Christians and pagans. It was vital for the survival of the empire that it did not break out into hostility. Integrating Christians into the new state in a way that pagans could accept would be a delicate balancing act.
As Constantinople began to develop and grow, Constantine made an effort to represent different faiths in a highly visual way. Eusebius of Caesarea, a Christian scholar and a near contemporary of Constantine, wrote of his conviction that the emperor had founded a totally Christian city: a “New Jerusalem” from which he sought to eradicate any remaining traces of paganism.
Other aspects of the new city, however, point to a more fluid religious policy, in which Christian and pagan culture could coexist. For instance, the imperial mausoleum Constantine built for himself reflected both divine influences. Twelve sarcophagi would surround his tomb, each destined to hold relics of Christ’s Apostles. By stark contrast, he erected a huge stone column bearing a statue of himself as the sun god, Apollo, in the middle of the vast central forum.
Adopting a Christian approach when it came to the afterlife (before dying in 337, Constantine has reportedly baptized a Christian on his deathbed)—but using pagan imagery to represent the power he held on Earth—was clearly not only a conscious decision but also a calculated and shrewd one. Ties with the pagan world were too recent, and too important, to be broken too quickly.
In Rome’s city center, there was a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad: the three gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Constantinople’s forum also boasted a sanctuary honoring them. As in the former imperial capital, public life and pagan ritual went hand in hand under
Constantine. The city’s squares and public spaces were soon filled with statues representing the old Greco-Roman gods.
The dual pagan and Christian nature of Constantine’s city owed as much to day-to-day pragmatism as to imperial strategy. In practice,
however, Christianity and the cult of the sun did share similar traits. Both used the “Light of the world” as a central, redemptive symbol. Christianity owed much else to pagan, Hellenist influences, not least the Greek idea of logos: the divine word or holy wisdom—a concept that would become woven into the very fabric of the new city in ways still clearly visible today.
It was Constantine’s son who built the first church dedicated to logos; later, it would be rebuilt as the magnificent structure known to
this day as the Hagia Sophia, the Greek term for “holy wisdom.” The epitome of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for a time.
Cities Rise and Fall
Constantine’s city continued to flourish as Rome continued to decline. At the peak of its splendor, Constantinople extended across an area some five times larger than that of the original city of Byzantium. From one side to the other ran a great central boulevard, crossing the
enormous forum at the center, the entire urban area encircled by walls. The luxurious Baths of Zeuxippus, and the hippodrome where chariot races were held, were improved and expanded by Constantine, and in time this city on the Bosporus really did become another Rome.
The old Rome, meanwhile, had become a faded relic, too weak to defend itself from the devastating attacks by Germanic forces in the fifth century. When the Western Roman Empire finally fell in 476, Rome’s imperial era came to an end. From this point on, Constantinople was no longer the other Rome. It had become the empire itself.