On this day in 330 AD, the emperor Constantine presided over the dedication of a new capital of the Roman Empire, after six years of building on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium. Herodotus places the founding of Byzantium in 656 B.C., and in 334 AD, Constantine also presided over celebrations of its millennial anniversary; this indicates that he did not view his new city as a complete erasure of the old one, and indeed, its older name never dropped out of use. But of course, it was as “Constantine’s city – Constantinople” that it would become one of the greatest cities of human civilization, although its official name was always “New Rome.” It would continue as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and remains the spiritual capital, so to speak, of Orthodox Christianity to this day.
Much has been written and debated as to why exactly Constantine felt the need to create a new capital at all, but some things seem very certain. Despite its prestige and antiquity (which were in many ways synonymous concepts for the ancient Romans), the old Rome was no longer the empire’s political center of gravity. And indeed, in the period of the Tetrarchy which preceded Constantine’s accession to the throne, the emperors often kept their capitals elsewhere. Byzantium had never served in this role, but had the advantage of being a Mediterranean port with access to the Black Sea, and the crossing of major roads running both East and West, by which an emperor could quickly reach the frontiers of either the Danube in Europe or the Euphrates in Asia.
Historians have often represented the founding of New Rome as Constantine’s project to recreate the ancient capital as a purely Christian city. This is unquestionably an exaggeration, although one which has unfortunately driven other historians to the opposite exaggeration, the complete denial of his Christian faith. Constantine unquestionably favored Christianity, granting it a privileged status and acting as its benefactor in a way which is not true of any other religion.
(A coin minted in 330AD to commemorate the founding of Constantinople; the image of Romulus and Remus being nursed by the she-wolf on the reverse is clearly a sign of continuity between the new and old Rome. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ancientcointraders, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Last week, we saw a bit of the novelist Evelyn Waugh’s treatment of the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, St Helena. Here is how he imagines the emperor’s decision to found the new city.
“ ‘Take the place,’ said Constantine to Pope Sylvester. ‘It’s all yours. I am leaving and I shan’t come back – ever. When the time comes my sarcophagus … must lie in Christian surroundings. Rome is heathen and always will be. Yes, I know, you’ve got the tombs of Peter and Paul. I hope I have not shown myself insensible to that distinction. (This refers to his construction of the first Christian basilicas over the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul.) But why are they here? Simply because the Romans murdered them That’s the plain truth. Why, they even thought of murdering me. It’s an ungodly place, your holiness, and you’re welcome to it.
One must start something new. I’ve got the site, very central; it will make a sublime port. (This is a pun on one of Constantinople’s many nicknames, ‘the Sublime Port.’) The plans are drawn. Work will start at once on a great Christian capital, in the very centre of Christendom; a city built round two great new Churches dedicated to – what do you think? – Wisdom and Peace. (Constantine did in fact build a church dedicated to Holy Peace as the new city’s cathedral, but the first Holy Wisdom, or ‘Hagia Sophia’ was built by his son.) … You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations;” …
“Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church,” said Pope Sylvester. (Another pun, on a famous saying of the Christian writer Tertullian, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”)
(The column of Constantine, built in 328 AD, and dedicated along with the rest of New Rome on May 11, 330; this is the oldest monument that survives in the city from the era of Constantine himself. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dmitry A. Mottl, CC BY-SA 4.0)