A Brief History of Constantinople

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Podcast Transcript

In the year 330, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided that the capital of the entire Roman empire should be moved. 

The location he selected was a small Greek town by the name of Byzantium located in the middle of the Bhosperous Straits approximately 500 miles or 800 kilometers from Rome. 

From there it grew into one largest and wealthiest cities in the world and was the seat of more than one major empire.

Learn more about Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into the history of the city, I should address the issue of the name. Today, the city is known as Istanbul and it was changed to this in 1930. 

So, when you refer to Constantinople, you are referring to the city pre-1930. This is very similar to the use of Leningrad and Saint Petersburg. If you refer to the Siege of Leningrad, you are referring to Saint Petersburg during the Soviet period when the city was known as Leningrad. 

There is also an issue of geography. Today, Istanbul is a huge, sprawling city. One of the largest in the world. Most of what is Istanbul today was never part of Constantinople. Even if you wanted to be cheeky and say you were flying to Constantinople, you really wouldn’t be. 

The historical city of Constantinople is only a small part of modern Istanbul. To that extent, it is also like Manhattan. Manhattan used to be synonymous with New York, but when the boroughs merged a little over 100 years ago, Manhattan became just a smaller part of a larger city. 

So, when I say Constantinople, I’m referring to both a particular place within the city of Istanbul and a particular time, before the naming of Istanbul.

With that being said, let’s go back to the very beginning. 

Going back over 3,000 years ago, the settlement in the current location was probably a Thracian village by the name of Lygos. 

This settlement was abandoned and was resettled as a colony in the year 657 BC by Greeks from the city of Megara, who called it Byzantium. 

No one is sure of the origin of the word Byzantium, but its origins might have been Thracian. Thrace, by the way, was located in what is today the European side of Turkey and southeastern Bulgaria. 

Byzantium was located directly across the Bhosphrus strait from another community known as Chalcedon, which is also today part of Istanbul.

The city changed hands over time between the Persians, Athenians,, Spartans, and Macedonians, before finally settling into the hands of the Roman Empire. 

The name of the community was changed under Roman rule in the year 193 by Emperor Septimius Severus. He renamed it Augusta Antonina, and also razed the city to the ground due to its part in a civil war.

The fortunes of the city changed, and this story really starts, with Emperor Constantine, aka Constantine the Great. 

Constantine became the sole ruler of Rome in 324 and decided that Rome needed a new capital. The location he selected was Augusta Antonina. 

I have to give props to Constantine because he selected a really good location. The geography of the new capital city, which he dubbed Nova Roma or New Rome, was almost perfect. 

The new capital was located on a triangular-shaped peninsula. On one side you had an inlet known as the Golden Horn. This was wide enough to provide a water barrier for the city, but also narrow enough to easily block with a chain that was stretched across it.

On another side was the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus was also easy to defend as it was extremely narrow and it was possible to build forts up and down it. Its location also allowed for complete sea control of everything going in and out of the Black Sea. They were also able to repel an invasion by sea with their secret weapon, Greek Fire, which I did a previous episode on.

That left only a single side that was exposed to land. On that side, they could build a gigantic wall, and they would only have to defend one side of the city, not everything. 

One of the reasons why Constantinople lasted so long was due to its suburb geography. 

When Constantine made the decision to move the capital, he was able to plan the city basically from scratch. He designed wide avenues, public cisterns filled with water, baths, a forum, a senate house, triumphal arches, and a huge hippodrome. He tempted the nobility to move with free land, and he tempted lower-class people to move with free bread.

He also moved much of the artwork from Rome to Constantinople.

Most importantly, perhaps, he designed Constantinople to be first and foremost a Christian city. 

Even after the eastern and western empires split, Rome was still abandoned as the western capital, with emperors moving the capital to both Milan and Ravenna. 

In addition to New Rome, the city was alternatively called Second Rome and Eastern Rome, before the term, Roma Constantinopolitana settled into use, which simply meant Constantine’s Rome. From there, it became Constantinople.

It was officially established as the capital in 330. 

The city grew and became quite wealthy, although some emperors immediately after Constantine didn’t always spend time there. 

In the early 5th century, Emperor Theodosius II built the giant triple-lined walls which protected the city for over 1,000 years.

As the western empire fell, the eastern empire became much more culturally Greek. Greek became the dominant daily language. Christianity became the dominant religion, eventually to the exclusion of paganism. Constantinople, as the imperial seat, became the center of Christianity in the East, a position which it still holds, at least in theory, today.

This empire, which if you recall from the very first episode of this podcast, always considered itself the Roman empire, even though history called it the Byzantine Empire just to separate this period of Roman history from that which came before it.

In the mid-6th century, the city probably reached its imperial zenith under Emperor Justinian I.  Justinian oversaw the construction and the completion of the structure which defined the city and still does today, the Hagia Sophia, of which I did a previous episode.

The Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world and remained so for over 1,000 years. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that it was built in only five years. 

Justinian also ruled during the Nika riots, of which I also did an episode, which almost destroyed the city. 

Finally, it was also struck by the plague of Justinian, which killed almost half of the city.

The Battle of Yarmouk in 636 marked the high water mark for the Eastern Roman Empire as the Islamic Caliphate eventually conquered much of the land it held in Egypt, North Africa, and the Levant. While the empire began a long slow process of collapse, the city itself was still wealthy and vitally important. 

Over the next several centuries the city was besieged by numerous enemies including Sassanid Persians, Arabs, Avars, and Bulgars. However, the city never fell due to its location and its massive walls. 

In the early 8th century, Emperor Leo III, in addition to renovations to the walls and buildings in the city, outlawed the use of religious icons in worship. A movement that was known as iconoclasm. This period lasted for over a century and greatly shaped the churches in the city. 

In 1054, the Great Schism between the eastern and western churches took place. The Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople both excommunicated each other. This became the formal start of Constantinople as being the seat of Eastern Orthodoxy. 

The seats of the other great patriarchs in the east, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch, had all come under Islamic control. 

In 1204, one of the seminal events in the history of the city took place. The city was sacked by western crusaders, led by the city-state of Venice. They didn’t lay siege to the great walls of the city, rather they entered the city via the sea.

They well and truly sacked the city, looting and destroying many of the cultural and artistic treasures which the city held. 

Over the next 50 years, what became known as the Latin Empire ruled Constantinople. This was a crusader state which was ruled by a Catholic emperor. 

In 1261, it eventually fell when many of the Latin Empires soldiers were off on crusade and a force led by Orthodox troops from the city of Nicea snuck into the city and recaptured it. 

By this time, the Byzantine Empire was reduced to parts of western Turkey and Southern Greece. As a political center of power, Constantinople was basically spent. As a religious center of power, however, Constantinople still was the center of the Eastern Orthodoxy. 

The biggest day in the history of Constantinople occurred on May 29, 1453. That was the day that the Ottoman Turks broke through the city walls, Constantinople fell, and the emperor was killed. 

By this time the population in the city had dropped to about 50,000 people, from a peak of almost 1 million during the reign of Justinian. 

I’ve covered this in a previous episode, but with the fall of the Byzantines and the rise of the Ottomans, the city had a new lease on life. It was once again the center of an Empire. 

The Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, as were most churches in the city, and other large mosques such as the Blue Mosque were built. 

A huge imperial palace, the Topkapi Palace, was built for the Ottoman Sultans.

The Ottomans had an empire on a par with the Byzantine Empire at its height, and now the riches from the empire was once again flowing back to the city.

Within a century of the fall of Constantinople, the population of the city was back up by around half a million people. 

The Ottomans allowed the Patriarch to continue to live in the city and despite being Muslim-controlled, the Patriarch of Constantinople remained preeminent, even though other orthodox centers such as Moscow grew in significance.

Here I should note that the Ottomans kept the name of the city the same, albeit in Turkish. Well before the fall of Constantinople, the Greek-speaking residents of the city began informally calling the city “Istanbul”. 

Istanbul is believed to have come from the Medieval Greek phrase “is tim ?bolin” which means “to the city”. Constantinople was so dominant that everything in the vicinity was defined as being towards or away from the city. 

The Ottoman Empire peaked at about the end of the 17th century when it reached the gates of Vienna. Over the next several centuries, the Ottoman Empire, like the Byzantine Empire before it, began to slowly collapse. 

By the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman empire was down to what is today Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Israel, and parts of Saudi Arabia along each coast. 

The next big change for Constantinople occurred with the end of the first world war. The Ottoman Empire had picked the losing side and it resulted in the end of the empire 

By the end of the war, Constantinople was occupied by Allied forces. The Allies agreed to allow the sultan to continue to rule, but an internal revolt called the Turkish War of Independence, resulted in the final fall of the Empire and the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. 

The new capital of Turkey was moved from Constantinople to Ankara, where it still exists today. 

This removed Constantinople as a political capital for the first time since it was created by Emperor Constantine. 

However, the city was not done. Not by a longshot. 

The population of Constantinople had grown considerably during the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time of the creation of the Republic of Turkey, it had a population of about 818,000 people. 

After the name change to Istanbul in 1930, the city grew in importance as an economic center. 

Over the last century, the population of Istanbul has grown rapidly and expanded well beyond the original boundaries of Constantinople. Today the city had a population of 15 million people and it is home to 20% of the population of Turkey.

It is currently the 15th largest city in the world. 

The Istanbul airport is one of the busiest airports in the world and given its location between Europe and Asia, one of the best-connected airports. 

This city of 15 million people today is there because of a Roman emperor in the early 4th century wanted a new capital city where he could be close to the frontiers of his empire, and still be well defended. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Shoa-lin over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Best ever

Without exception the best podcast I’ve listened to. Well researched and presented perfectly. Just the right length, no extra nonsense, just the facts! The best part is my two boys love it. The youngest told me no need to go to school pops, just need to listen.

Thanks, Shoa-lin! If your kids enjoy the podcast, then you clearly have raised them right.  Given the number of kids who enjoy the show, I should probably open up the Everything Everywhere Academy.  I could undercut private prep schools by tens of thousands of dollars per year and still do OK. 

However, I don’t think we’d have a very good football team.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.