History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -1
When Rome perished under barbarian fire and sword, a second imperial capital kept alive the glorious traditions of the fallen city. The new centre of power was Constantinople: luxurious, refined – and seething with poverty on an unimaginable scale.
More than a million people lived in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 6th century AD. Its beauty was renowned far and wide. Suffused with the grey light of the Bosporus – the strait separating Europe and Asia – an undulating skyline of domes rose from a soft shimmering sea of pink brick.
Constantinople’s churches, gardens and palaces, wondrous in their own right, housed some of the finest works of the finest works of classical Greek statuary.
Marbled walls flashed with iridescent mosaics. Despite undercurrents of suffering and depravity that accompanied its affluence, this city at the crossroads of the East and West was farmed as a beacon of civilization – the heir of Rome and guardian of the Christian faith.
Its site is a promontory jutting out from the western shore of the Bosporus where the warm Aegean climate is tempered by cold moist winds blowing down across the Black Sea.
Greeks from Megara are said to have founded a settlement here around 668 BC. Their leader, Byzas, gave it its name – Byzantion, later Romanized to Byzantium. A deep water inlet known as the ‘Golden Horn’ provided the site with a natural harbour, and gradually the city became a focal point for trade, handling timber and wheat supplies on their way to Greece from the steppes of southern Russia. Greek tradition took root, but it was the rise of imperial Rome that began the city’s ascent to glory. In AD 196 Byzantium fell to the legions, and under Rome it developed into a metropolis.
By the 3rd century AD, storm clouds were gathering over the Roman Empire. Warrior tribes of Goths from the Black Sea region, and Franks and Alemanni from along the Rhine, threatened its western frontiers. By the early 4th century Rome was no longer secure, and the emperor Constantine (307-37) looked to Byzantium as an alternative capital.
The city was sheltered geographically from the incursions of the Germanic barbarians, and could also act as a bastion against oriental tribes to the east.
The decision to make Byzantium in imperial capital was followed by a rapid and extensive building programme. A senate house, baths, a palace, and a forum were set up. The empire was secured for splendid monuments, which were imported from Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and Ephesus in order to beautify the city. In 330 Constantine formally declared it the Roman Empire’s second capital. Its provinces were also to be known as Byzantium, and the city itself took on an alternative name – Constantinople, city of Constantine – in honour of its benefactor.
Constantine managed to hold off the barbarian threat to Rome. But persistent onslaughts from tribes north of the Danube continued to plague his successors. Religious and ethnic divisions also began to split the eastern and western provinces. On the death of the Pious Christian emperor Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was formally split into two halves. The eastern capital, Constantinople, increased in prestige as the beleaguered western territories began to crumble in the face of constant invasions by Germanic tribes.
In 410, Rome fell to the Visigoths – invaders originally from the Balkans – and was sacked and burnt. Constantinople now became the main guardian of classical civilization, protector of the Greek and Roman heritage, and of the Christian faith.
It was left to the emperor Justinian to fulfil the city’s potential.
Justinian (527-65) is one of the most imposing and enigmatic figures in Roman history. A country boy from the Balkans, he was brought up in Constantinople by his childless uncles, the emperor Justin I. On his uncle’s death he inherited the throne of Rome. Traces of his Slavonic roots remained with him – it was said that he spoke Greek with a barbarian accent. Yet this upstart was to become the last of the great Roman emperors.
Justinian was a military leader of the highest rank. Brilliantly served by two generals, Belisarius and Narses, he held the eastern frontier of Byzantium against the Sassanian monarchs of Persia. More, he managed to claw back from the barbarian Goths and Vandals much of the territory that they had occupied in North Africa and Italy. The Byzantine Empire ruled by Justinian eventually included many of the territories which had made up the old Roman Empire: the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa.
To his victories in war Justinian added achievements at home. He reconciled, at least temporarily, the warring factions in the Eastern and Western churches. Passionately concerned with the law, he drew together the strands of the existing Roman legal code into four major compilations: the Codex, Digest, Institutes, and Novellae. The code of Civil Law, or Justinian Code as it is generally known, was the means by which Roman law was committed to prosperity.