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THE Byzantine peninsula has been regarded from a very early date as an ideal situation for a capital city. Placed at the junction of two great seas which wash the shores of three continents, and possessed of a safe and extensive anchorage for shipping, it might become the centre of empire and commerce for the whole Eastern hemisphere. Yet, owing to an adverse fate, the full realization of this splendid conception remains a problem of the future. Byzantium as an independent city was little more than an outpost of civilization; as a provincial town of the Roman Empire its political position allowed it no scope for development; as the metropolis of the same Empire in its age of decadence its fitful splendor is an unsubstantial pageant without moral or political stability. Lastly, in the hands of the Turk its growth has been fettered by the prejudices of a nation unable to free itself from the bondage of an effete civilization.





The first peopling of the site of Constantinople is a question in prehistoric research, which has not yet been elucidated by the paleontologist. Unlike the Roman area, no relics of an age of stone or bronze have been discovered here; do not, perhaps, exist, but doubtless the opportunities, if not the men, have been wanting for such investigations. That the region seemed to the primitive Greeks to be a wild and desolate one, we learn from the tradition of the Argonautic expedition; and the epithet of “Axine”, or inhospitable, applied in the earliest times to the Euxine or Black Sea. By the beginning, however, of the seventh century before the Christian era these seas and maritime channels had been explored, and several colonies had been planted by the adventurous Greeks who issued from the Ionian seaport of Miletus. Later than the Milesians, a band of Dorians from Megara penetrated into these parts and, by a strange choice, as it was afterwards considered, selected a point at the mouth of the Bosphorus on the Asiatic shore for a settlement, which they called Chalcedon. Seventeen years later a second party from Megara fixed themselves on the European head­land, previously known as Lygos, nearly opposite their first colony. The leader of this expedition was Byzas, and from him the town they built was named Byzantium. The actual limits of the original city are now quite unknown, but doubtless they were small at first and were gradually extended according as the community increased in wealth and prosperity. During the classic period of Greek history the town rose to considerable importance, as its commanding position enabled it to impose a toll on ships sailing to and from the Euxine Sea; a power of which, however, it made a very sparing use. It was also enriched by the countless shoals of fish which, when the north winds blew, descended from the Euxine and thronged the narrow but elongated gulf called, most probably for that reason, Chrysoceras or Golden Horn.

Ultimately Byzantium became the largest city in Thrace, having expanded itself over an area which measured four and a half miles in circumference, including, probably, the suburbs. It exercised a suzerainty over Chalcedon and Perinthus, and reduced the aboriginal Bithynians to a state of servitude comparable to that of the Spartan Helots. Notwithstanding its natural advantages, the town never won any pre-eminence among the Hellenic communities, and nothing more unstable than its political position is presented to us in the restless concourse of Grecian nationalities. In the wars of Persians with Greeks, and of Greeks with Greeks, it always became the sport of the contending parties; and during a century and a half (about 506 BC to 350 BC) it was taken and retaken at least six times by Medes, Spartans, Athenians, and Thebans, a change of constitution following, of course, each change of political connection. In 340 BC, however, the Byzantines, with the aid of the Athenians, withstood a siege successfully, an occurrence the more remarkable as they were attacked by the greatest general of the age, Philip of Macedon. In the course of this beleaguerment, it is related, on a certain wet and moonless night the enemy attempted a surprise, but were foiled by reason of a bright light which, appearing suddenly in the heavens, startled all the dogs in the town and thus roused the garrison to a sense of their danger. To commemorate this timely phenomenon, which was attributed to Hecate, they erected a public statue to that goddess and, as it is supposed, assumed the crescent for their chief national device. For several centuries after this event the city enjoyed a nominal autonomy, but it appears to have been in perpetual conflict with its civilized or barbarous neighbors; and in 279 BC it was even laid under tribute by the horde of Gauls who penetrated into Asia and established themselves permanently in Galatia. After the appearance of the Roman legionaries in the East the Byzantines were always the faithful friends of the Republic, while it was engaged in suppressing the independent potentates of Macedonia and Asia Minor. For its services Byzantium was permitted to retain the rank of a free city, and its claim to indulgence was allowed by more than one of the Roman emperors, even after AD 70, when Vespasian limited its rights to those of a provincial town.

Of all the ancient historians one only has left us a description capable of giving some visual impression as to the appearance of old Byzantium. “This city”, says Dion Cassius, “is most favorably situated, being built upon an eminence, which juts out into the sea. The waters, like a torrent, rushing downwards from the Pontus impinge against the promontory and flow partly to the right, so as to form the bay and harbors, but the main stream runs swiftly alongside the city into the Propontis. The town is also extremely well fortified, for the wall is faced with great square stones joined together by brazen clamps, and it is further strengthened on the inside through mounds and houses being built up against it. This wall seems to consist of a solid mass of stone, and it has a covered gallery above, which is very easily defended. On the outside there are many large towers, perforated with frequent loopholes and ranged in an irregular line, so that an attacking party is surrounded by them and exposed on all sides at once. Toward the land the fortifications are very lofty, but less so on the side of the water, as the rocks on which they are founded and the dangers of the Bosphorus render them almost unassailable. There are two harbors within the walls, guarded by chains, and at the ends of the moles inclosing them towers facing each other make the passage impracticable to an enemy. I have seen the walls standing and have also heard them speaking; for there are seven vocal towers stretching from the Thracian gates to the sea. If one shouts or drops a pebble in the first it not only resounds itself or repeats the syllables, but it transmits the power for the next in order to do the same; and thus the voice or echo is carried in regular succession through the whole series”.

At the end of the second century the Byzantines were afflicted by the severest trial which had ever come within their experience. In the tripartite struggle between the Emperor Severus and his competitors of Gaul and Asia, the city unfortunately threw in its lot with Niger, the Proconsul of Syria. Niger soon fell, but Byzantium held out with inflexible obstinacy for three years and, through the ingenuity of an engineer named Priscus, defied all the efforts of the victor. During this time the inhabitants suffered progressively every kind of hardship and horror which has been put on record in connection with sieges of the most desperate character. Stones torn from the public buildings were used as projectiles, statues of men and horses, in brass and marble, were hurled on the heads of the besiegers, women gave their hair to be twisted into cords and ropes, leather soaked in water was eaten, and finally they fell on one another and fed on human flesh. At last the city yielded, but Severus was exasperated, and his impulse of hostility only ceased with the destruction of the prize he had won at such a cost in blood and treasure. The garrison and all who had borne any public office, with the exception of Priscus, were put to death, the chief buildings were razed, the municipality was abolished, property was confiscated, and the town was given over to the previously subject Perinthians, to be treated as a dependent village. With immense labor the impregnable fortifications were leveled with the ground, and the ruins of the first bulwark of the Empire against the barbarians of Scythia attested the wisdom and temperance of the master of the East and West.

But the memory of Byzantium dwelt in the mind of Severus and he was attracted to revisit the spot. In cooler moments he surveyed the wreck; the citizens, bearing olive branches in their hands, approached him in a solemn and suppliant procession; he determined to rebuild, and at his mandate new edifices were reared to supply the place of those which had been ruined. He even purchased ground, which had been previously occupied by private gardens, for the laying out of a hippodrome, a public luxury with which the town had never before been adorned. But the hateful name of Byzantium was abolished and the new city was called Antonina by Severus, in honour of his eldest sons; a change, however, which scarcely survived the life of its author. Through Caracalla, or some rational statesman acting in the name of that reprobate, the city regained its political privileges, but the fortifications were not restored, and for more than half a century it remained defenseless against the barbarians, and even against the turbulent soldiery of the Empire. Beginning from about 250 the Goths ravaged the vicinity of the Bosphorus and plundered most of the towns, holding their own against Decius and several other short-lived emperors. Under Gallienus a mutinous legion is said to have massacred most of the inhabitants, but shortly afterwards the same emperor gave a commission to two Byzantine engineers to fortify the district, and henceforward Byzantium again appears as a stronghold, which was made a centre of operations against the Goths, in the repulse of whom the natives and their generals even played an important part.

In 323 Licinius, the sole remaining rival of Constantine, after his defeat in a great battle near Adrianople, took refuge in Byzantium, and the town again became the scene of a contest memorable in history, not for the magnitude of the siege, but for the importance of the events which it inaugurated. Licinius soon yielded, and a new era dawned for Byzantium, which in a few years became lastingly known to the nations as the City of Constantine.

The tongue of land on which Constantinople is built is essentially a low mountainous ridge, rising on three sides by irregular slopes from the sea. Trending almost directly eastward from the continent of Europe, it terminates abruptly in a rounded headland opposite the Asiatic shore, from which it is separated by the entrance of the Bosphorus, at this point a little more than a mile in width. This diminutive peninsula, which is bounded on the north by the inland extension of the Bosphorus, called the Golden Horn, and on the south by the Propontis or Sea of Marmora, has a length of between three and four miles. At its eastern extremity it is about a mile broad and it gradually expands until, in the region where it may be said to join the mainland, its measurement has increased to more than four times that distance. The unlevel nature of the ground and reminiscences of the seven hills of classical Rome have always caused a parallel to be drawn between the sites of the two capitals of the Empire, but the resemblance is remote and the historic import of the Roman hills is totally wanting in the case of those of Constantinople. The hills of the elder city were mostly distinct mounts, which had borne suggestive names in the earliest annals of the district. Every citizen had learned to associate the Palatine with the Roma Quadrata of Romulus, the Aventine with the ill-omened auspices of Remus, the Quirinal with the rape of the Sabine women, the Esquiline with the murder of King Servius, the Capitol with the repulse of the Gauls by Manlius; and knew that when the standard was raised on the Janiculum the comitia were assembled to transact the business of the Republic. But the Byzantine hills are little more than variations in the face of the slope as it declines on each side from the central dorsum to the water, and have always been nameless unless in the numerical descriptions of the topographer. On the north five depressions constitute as many valleys and give rise to six hills, which are numbered in succession from the narrow end of the promontory to the west. Thus the first hill is that on which stood the acropolis of Byzantium. Two of the valleys, the third and fifth, can be traced across the dorsum of the peninsular from sea to sea. A rivulet, called the Lycus, running from the mainland, joins the peninsula near its centre and then turns in a south-easterly direction so as to fall into the Propontis. The valley through which this stream passes, the sixth, hounds the seventh hill, an elevation known as the Xerolophos or Drymount, which, lying in the south­west, occupies more than a third of the whole area comprised within the city walls. From every high point of the promontory the eye may range over seas and mountains often celebrated in classic story—the Trojan Ida and Olympus, the Hellespont, Athos and Olympus of Zeus, and the Thracian Bosphorus embraced by wooded hills up to the “blue Symplegades” and the Euxine, so suggestive of heroic tradition to the Greek mind. The Golden Horn itself describes a curve to the north-west of more than six miles in length, and at its extremity, where it turns upon itself, becomes fused with the estuary of two small rivers named Cydarus and Barbyses. Throughout the greater part of its course it is about a quarter of a mile in width, but at one point below its centre, it is dilated into a bay of nearly double that capacity. This inlet was not formerly, in the same sense as it is now, the port of Constantinople; to the ancients it was still the sea, a moat on a large scale, which added the safety of water to the mural defences of the city; and the small shipping of the period was accommodated in artificial harbors formed by excavations within the walls or by moles thrown out from the shore. The climate of this locality is very changeable, exposed as it is to north winds chilled by transit over the Russian steppes, and to warm breezes which originate in the tropical expanses of Africa and Arabia. The temperature may range through twenty degrees in a single day, and winters of such arctic severity that the Golden Horn and even the Bosphorus are seen covered with ice are not unknown to the inhabitants. Variations of landscape due to vegetation are found chiefly in the abundance of plane, pine, chestnut, and other trees, but more especially of the cypress. Earthquakes are a permanent source of annoyance, and have sometimes been very destructive. Such in brief are the geographical features of this region, which the caprice of a prince, in a higher degree, perhaps, than its natural endowments, appointed to contain the metropolis of the East.

When Constantine determined to supplant the ancient capital on the Tiber by building a new city in a place of his own choice, he does not appear to have been more acute in discerning the advantages of Byzantium than were the first colonists from Megara. It is said that Thessalonica first fixed his attention; it is certain that he began to build in the Troad, near the site of Homeric Ilios; and it is even suggested that when he shifted his ground from thence he next commenced operations at Chalcedon. By 328, however, he had come to a final decision, and Byzantium was exalted to be the actual rival of Rome. This event, occurring at so advanced a date and under the eye of civilization, yet became a source of legend, so as to excel even in that respect the original foundation by Byzas. The oracles had long been lapsing into silence, but their place had been gradually usurped by Christian visions, and every zealot who thought upon the subject conceived of Constantine as acting under a special inspiration from the Deity. More than a score of writers in verse and prose have described the circumstances under which he received the divine injunctions, and some have presented to us in detail the person and words of the beatific visitant. On the faith of an ecclesiastical historian we are asked to believe that an angelic guide even directed the Emperor as he marked out the boundaries of his future capital. When Constantine, on foot with a spear in his hand, seemed to his ministers to move onwards for an inordinate distance, one of them exclaimed: “How far, 0 Master?” “Until he who precedes me stands”, was the reply by which the inspired surveyor indicated that he followed an unseen conductor. Whether Constantine was a superstitious man is an indeterminate question, but that he was a shrewd and politic one is self-evident from his career, and, if we believe that he gave currency to this and similar marvelous tales, we can perceive that he could not have acted more judiciously with the view of gaining adherents during the flush of early Christian enthusiasm.

The area of the city was more than quadrupled by the wall of Constantine, which extended right across the peninsula in the form of a bow, distant at the widest part about a mile and three-quarters from the old fortifications. This space, by comparison enormous, and which yet included only four of the hills with part of the Xerolophos, was hastily filled by the Emperor with buildings and adornments of every description. Many cities of the Empire, notably Rome, Athens, Ephesus, and Antioch, were stripped of some of their most precious objects of art for the embellishment of the new capital. Wherever statues, sculptured columns, or metal castings were to be found, there the agents of Constantine were busily engaged in arranging for their transfer to the Bosphorus. Resolved that no fanatic spirit should mar the cosmopolitan expectation of his capital the princely architect subdued his Christian zeal, and three temples to mythological divinities arose in regular conformity with pagan custom. Thus the “Fortune of the City” took her place as the goddess Anthusa in a handsome fane, and adherents of the old religion could not declare that the ambitious foundation was begun under unfavorable auspices. In another temple a statue of Rhea, or Cybele, was erected in an abnormal posture, deprived of her lions and with her hands raised as if in the act of praying over the city. On this travesty of the mother of the Olympians, we may conjecture, was founded the belief which prevailed in a later age that the capital at its birth had been dedicated to the Virgin. That a city permanently distinguished by the presence of an Imperial court should remain deficient in population is opposed to common experience of the laws which govern the evolution of a metropolis. But Constantine could not wait, and various artificial methods were adopted in order to provide inhabitants for the vacant inclosure. Patricians were induced to abandon Rome by grants of lands and houses, and it is even said that several were persuaded to settle at Constantinople by means of an ingenious deception. Commanding the attendance in the East of a number of senators during the Persian war, the Emperor privately commissioned architects to build counterparts of their Roman dwellings on the Golden Horn. To these were transferred the families and households of the absent ministers, who were then invited by Constantine to meet him in his new capital. There they were conducted to homes in which to their astonishment they seemed to revisit Rome in a dream, and henceforth they became permanent residents in obedience to a prince who urged his wishes with such unanswerable arguments. As to the common herd we have no precise information, but it is asserted by credible authority that they were raked together from diverse parts, the rabble of the Empire who derived their maintenance from the founder and repaid him with servile adulation in the streets and in the theatre.

By the spring of 330 the works were sufficiently advanced for the new capital to begin its political existence, and Constantine decreed that a grand inaugural festival should take place on the 11th of May. The “Fortune of the City” was consecrated by a pagan ceremony in which Praetextatus, a priest, and Sopater, a philosopher, played the principal parts; largess was distributed to the populace, and magnificent games were exhibited in the Hippodrome, where the Emperor presided, conspicuous with a costly diadem decked with pearls and precious stones, which he wore for the first time. On this occasion the celebration is said to have lasted forty days, and at the same time Constantine instituted the permanent “Encaenia”, an annual commemoration, which he enjoined on succeeding emperors for the same date. A gilded statue of himself, bearing a figure of Anthusa in one hand, was to be conducted round the city in a chariot, escorted by a military guard, dressed in a definite attire, and carrying wax tapers in their hands. Finally, the procession was to make the circuit of the Hippodrome and, when it paused before the cathisma, the emperor was to descend from his throne and adore the effigy. We are further told that an astrologer named Valens was employed to draw the horoscope of the city, with the result that he predicted for it an existence of 696 years.

After the fall of Licinius it appears most probable that Constantine, as a memorial of his accession to undivided power, gave Byzantium the name of Constantinople. When, however, he transformed that town into a metropolis, in order to express clearly the magnitude of his views as to the future, he renamed it Second, or New Rome. At the same time he endowed it with special privileges, known in the legal phraseology of the period as the “right of Italy and prerogative of Rome”; and to keep these facts in the public eye he had them inscribed on a stone pillar, which he set up in a forum, or square, called the Strategium, adjacent to an equestrian statue of himself. To render it in all respects the image of Rome, Constantinople was provided with a Senate, a national council known only at that date in the artificial form which owes its existence to despots. After his choice of Byzantium for the eastern capital Constantine never dwelt at Rome, and in all his acts seems to have aimed at extinguishing the prestige of the old city by the grandeur of the new one, a policy which he initiated so effectively that in the century after his death the Roman Empire ceased to be Roman.

Constantine is credited with the erection of many churches in and around Constantinople, but, with the exception of St. Irene, the Holy Cross, and the Twelve Apostles, their identification rests with late and untrustworthy writers. One, St. Mocius, is said to have been built with the materials of a temple of Zeus, which previously stood in the same place, the summit of the Xerolophos, outside the walls. Another, St. Mena, occupied the site of the temple of Poseidon founded by Byzas. Paganism was tolerated as a religion of the Empire until the last decade of the fourth century, when it was finally overthrown by the preponderance of Christianity. Laws for its total suppression were enacted by Theodosius I, destruction of temples was legalized, and at the beginning of the fifth century it is probable that few traces remained of the sacred edifices which had adorned old Byzantium.

After the age of Constantine the progress of New Rome as metropolis of the east was extremely rapid, the suburbs became densely populous, and in 413 Theodosius II gave a commission to Anthemius, the Praetorian Prefect, to build a new wall in advance of the old one nearly a mile further down the peninsula. The intramural space was thus increased by an area more than equal to half its former dimensions; and, with the exception of some small additions on the Propontis and the Golden Horn, this wall marked the utmost limit of Constantinople in ancient or modern times. In 447 a series of earthquakes, which lasted for three months, laid the greater part of the new wall in ruins, fifty-seven of the towers, according to one account, having collapsed during the period of commotion. This was the age of Attila and the Huns, to whom Theodosius, sooner than offer a military resistance, had already agreed to pay an annual tribute of seven hundred pounds of gold. With the rumor that the barbarians were approaching the undefended capital the public alarm rose to fever-heat, and the Praetorian Prefect of the time, Cyrus Constantine, by an extraordinary effort, not only restored the fortifications of Anthemius, but added externally a second wall on a smaller scale, together with a wide and deep fosse, in the short space of sixty days. To the modern observer it might appear incredible that such a prodigious mass of masonry, extending over a distance of four miles, could be reared within two months, but the fact is attested by two inscriptions still existing on the gates, by the Byzantine historians, and by the practice of antiquity in times of impending hostility.




II. Topography