Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy Birthday Constantinople!

Beyan-i Manazil-i Safar-i Iraqayn-i Sultan Sulayman Khan(View of Istanbul from Sultan Suleiman's Iraq campaign),
Matrakci Nasuhi, 1537-1538 *
(Istanbul University Library)
Founding a city in the ancient world was akin to a God-liked benefaction and in 324, right after defeating Licinius in Adrianople, Constantine the Great (the first Christian Roman emperor) set out to make his new city.  It has been suggested that he considered Troy first but then changed his mind and moved up north to the ancient Greek city of Byzas. Unfortunately, today there is not much left in present day Istanbul, from Constantine's city to give us a substantial picture of how it might have been. The website Byzantium1200 is a great resource to get an idea of how the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire might have looked in the year 1200. We may not have the Forums or the porticoes of fourth century Constantinople but we do have artifacts that we can use to form a composite picture of "New Rome" as it was dedicated on this day in the year 330. 

Hippodrome Looking East
with the Obelisk in the background
where the Spina would have been
Hippodrome looking West
where the Milion would have been.

Miniature of At Meydani (Hippodrome), Matrakci Nasuh, 1537
(Detail from the above miniature)

The Chronicon Pascale 284-628 AD, a 7th century, anonymous chronicle on the history of the world from God's creation of the universe to the time of it's writing gives us substantial amount of our historical details:1

He renewed the first wall of the city of Byzas, and after making considerable extensions also to the same wall he joined them to the ancient wall of the city and named it Constantinople; he also completed the Hippodrome, adorning it with works in bronze and with every excellence, and made in it a box for imperial viewing in likeness of the one which is in Rome. And he made a great Palace near the same Hippodrome, and the ascent from the Palace to the box in the Hippodrome by way of Kochlias, as it is called

Engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in De Ludis Circensibus Ruins of Constantinople's Hippodrome in 1600
today only three of the ancient monuments remain insitu

And he also built a Forum which was large and exceedingly fine; and he set in the middle a great Porphyry column of Theban stone, worthy of admiration, and he set on top of the same column a great statue of himself with rays of light on his head, a work in bronze which he had brought from Phrygia.  
Constantine's Column, Cemberlitas, 2012
The Palladium from Rome, pieces of the True Cross, the axe Noah used to build the Ark
and the remains of the Seven Loaves from the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, are supposed to be buried
around the base of the column. 
Reconstruction of the imperial statue and the porphyry column in Constantine's Forum
ca. A.D. A. Tayfun Oner
The same emperor Constantine secretly took away from Rome the Palladium, as it is called, and placed it in the Forum built by him, beneath the column of his monument, as certain of the Byzantines say who have heard the Tyche of the city renewed by him Anthusa. 
Tyche of Constantinople, 4th-5th century
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The same emperor also built two fine porticoes from the entrance of the Palace as far as the Forum, adorned with statues and marbles, and he named the place of the porticoes Regia. 
Plate with the Presentation of David to Soul, 629-930,
Made in Constantinople
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Rabbula Gospels, 586, Made in Syria
(Biblioteca Mediea Laurenziana, Florence) 

Nearby he also built a basilica with an apse, and set outside great columns and statues; this he named the Senate, and he name the place Augustaeum because he had also set up opposite his own a monument of his mother, lady Helena Augusta, on a porphyry column.
Hagia Eirene, Church of the Holy Peace, 2012
4th century building assigned by Socrates to Constantine and
 it is suggested that the name may be commemorating the peace established by Constantine.2
 Likewise too he completed the bath which is called Zeuxippon, adorning it with columns and varied marbles and works of bronze.3
Map of Constantinople in the Constantinian period, A. Tayfun Oner 4

In his Chronicles, the Greek chronicler Malalas records the dedication of Constantinople:
When he had finished everything he celebrated a race-meeting. He was the first to watch the spectacle there (at the Hippodrome) and he wore then for the first time on his head a diadem set with pearls and precious stones, since he wished to fulfill the prophetic words which said, "You placed on his head a crown of precious stone" (Psalm 20.4); none of the previous emperors had ever worn such a thing.
Solidus of Constantine the Great, 336-337
(Dumbarton Oaks Collection)  
 He also celebrated a great festival on 11th May-Artemisios in the year 378 (AD 330) according to the era of Antioch the Great, ordering by his sacred decree that on that day the festival of the Anniversary of his city should be celebrated. On the same day, 11th May, he ordered that the public bath, the Zeuxippon, should be opened near the hippodrome and the Regia and the palace. He had another statue made of himself in gilded wood, bearing in its right hand the tyche of the city, itself gilded, which he called Anthousa. He ordered that on the same day as the Anniversary race-meeting this wooden statue should be brought in, escorted by the soldiers wearing cloaks and boots, all holding candles; the carriage should  march around the turning post and reach the pit opposite the imperial kathisma, and the emperor of the time should rise and make obeisance as he gazed at this statue of Constantine and the tyche of the city. This custom has been maintained up to the present day.6
Statue of Emperor Valentinian II, 387-390, Aphrodisias
(Archaeology Museum of Istanbul)
Constantine created Constantinople in Rome’s image with monumental spaces including the Great Palace, the Hippodrome and the Forum, decorated with antique statuary and connected to each other with porticoes that would allow for “impressive ceremonies and formulae” of ruler worship. 5 Ancient sources mention Constantine stripping many ancient cities in Asia Minor to transport statues to his new capital. These statues from the Istanbul Archaeology museum's collection can give us an idea of the statues lining up the streets of Constantinople.

Archaeology Museum of Istanbul
Architrave Fragments, 4th c. found near Aqueduct of Valens,
where the Baths of Constantiniana were supposed to be.
(Archaeology Museum of Istanbul)

Statuette of Orpheus, early 4th c. Found in Beyazit,
Vicinity of  the Forum of Constantine
(Archaeology Museum of Istanbul)

Obelisk of Theodosius, The Emperor about to crown the victor with Laurel leaves,4th c.
(Istanbul,  Hippodrome)
 The pedestal of the Obelisk of Theodosius still standing insitu in what used to be the Hippodrome of Constantinople has a depiction of the Emperor standing in the Kathisma surrounded by his court.

Obelisk of Theodosius, the Emperor and his court
Constantine did not get a chance to enjoy his new capitol for long unfortunately. He passed away on May 22 337 and was buried at the Mausoleum he had built for himself, the Church of the Holy Apostles. He had grand plans for this church as well. The church that was completed by his son Constantius II, was supposed to house the relics of the twelve Apostles. It was a circular building, the twelve apostles surrounding Constantine's tomb.  Even at death Constantine aspired for divine kingship, he wanted to place himself in the same place as Christ. 

Porphyry Sarcophagus brought here from the Church of the Holy Apostles after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks Mehmed II built his own mosque Fatih Camii in the place of the Church marking himself as the natural heir to the Byzantine Empire.
(Archaeology Museum of Istanbul)

Map of Constantinople, 1422, Cristoforo Buondelmonti

* Matrakci Nasuhi, Beyan-i Manazil-i Safar-i Iraqayn-i Sultan Sulayman Khan,

1  Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby, Chronicon Pascale 284-628 AD, Liverpool, Liverpool UP, 1989

2  Jonathan Bardill, Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age, New York, Cambridge UP, 2012

3  Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby, "Olympiad 277", Chronicon Pascale 284-628 AD, Liverpool, Liverpool UP, 1989, p. 528-529

4 Ibid. p.254 (A. Tayfun Oner is the creator of

Vasiliki Limberis, Divine Heiress: The Virgin Maryand the Creation of Christian Constantinople, London and New York:  Routledge, 1994, p. 21

6  Jon Malalas, Elizabeth Jeffreys. Michael Jeffreys, Roger Scott and Brian Croke, The Chronicle of John Malalas, Melbourne:  Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1986  


  1. Love it, Sedef! Especially the Miniature of At Maydani and your description of the statues lining the streets. Thanks for creating such a vivid picture of Constantine's city! (Will for sure visit the Milion this summer - assuming you've seen it?)

    1. Hi Karen,

      Unfortunately the Milion is long gone, the structure that sits roughly where it used to be is an old water tower(probably Ottoman) But there is a great simulation in Byzantium1200 (Milion)

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Fantastic article on Constantinople Sedef!


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