12/20/07 - Istanbul

In today's encore excerpt - in 330 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine moves the empire's capital to Byzantium, which is renamed Constantinople and today is known as Istanbul, and is Europe's largest city. Why did he make this move? As discussed in this excerpt, Rome had become a backwater, and Roman Emperors had long had the habit of establishing their courts elsewhere, especially those whose priority was leading military campaigns into the far regions of the Empire. (It is interesting to note that many centuries later, Rome would again become a backwater: the brilliant artist and architect Filippo Brunelleschi, visiting from vibrant Florence in the early 1400s in the aftermath of the Plague, found less than 50,000 inhabitants in the city of Rome):

"When Constantine first set eyes on Byzantium, the city was already nearly a thousand years old. According to tradition, it was founded in 658 BC by a certain Byzas as a colony of Megara; there can, at any rate, be little doubt ... that the Emperor was right to choose it for his new capital. Rome had long been a backwater; none of Diocletian's four tetrarchs had dreamed of living there. The principal dangers to imperial security were now concentrated on the eastern frontier: the Sarmatians around the lower Danube, the Ostrogoths to the north of the Black Sea, and—most menacing of all—the Persians, whose great Sassanian Empire now extended from the former Roman provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia as far as the Hindu Kush. But the reasons for the move were not only strategic. The whole focus of civilization had shifted irrevocably eastward. Intellectually and culturally, Rome was growing more and more out of touch with the new and progressive thinking of the Hellenistic world; the Roman academies and libraries were no longer any match for those of Alexandria, Pergamum or Antioch. Economically, too, the agricultural and mineral wealth of what was known as the pars orientalis was a far greater attraction than the Italian peninsula, where malaria was spreading fast and populations were dwindling. Finally, the old Roman republic anand pagan traditions had no place in Constantine's new Christian Empire. It was time to start afresh. ...

"The advantages of Byzantium as a strategic site over any of its oriental neighbors were self-evident. Standing as it did on the very threshold of Asia ... it had been molded by nature at once into a magnificent harbor and a well-nigh impregnable stronghold ... protected by two long and narrow straits: the Bosphorus to the east and the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) to the west. ...

"Constantine spared no expense to make his new capital worthy of its name. Tens of thousands of artisans worked day and night. ... All the leading cities of Europe and Asia, including Rome itself, were plundered of their finest statues, trophies and works of art for the embellishment and enrichment of Constantinople. ...

"And yet in fact remained there had been no real change. To its subjects it was still the Roman Empire, that of Augustus and Trajan and Hadrian. And they were still Romans. Their capital had been moved, that was all; nothing else was affected. Over the centuries, surrounded as they were by the Greek world, it was inevitable that they should gradually abandon the Latin language in favor of the Greek, but that made no difference either. It was as Romans they proudly described themselves for as long as the empire lasted. ..."


John Julius Norwich


The Middle Sea: A History of the Meditteranean


Chatto & Windus


Copyright John Julius Norwich 2006


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment