History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -2
Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora, was no less impressive. The daughter of a humble bearkeeper at the Constantinople Hippodrome, she was endowed with remarkable beauty and an exceptional strength of will. In her youth she had bee a popular actress and courtesan, achieving notoriety for evading a ban on stage in nothing but a minuscule girdle. Justinian married her in 523, four years before he came to the throne.
Theodora seemed to wield considerable power, and with her background she was an easy target for gossip. Yet she exercised her authority with much common sense and political foresight. Her husband saw himself as God’s representative on Earth and his state as an earthly model of the Kingdom of Heaven. Pursuing his dream, he spent many nights studying state files, hoping to become the ‘perfect legislator’. As he walked the corridors of his palace, the shrewd, realistic Theodora was constantly at his side, moderating his wilder schemes.
Justinian was a man of astonishing energy; his citizens called him ‘the emperor who never sleeps’. But the city he inherited presented a daunting challenge even to his titanic capabilities. Though created as the heir to Rome, the city had more in common with the old, densely populated Babels of the East – Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Pergamum – bustling centres of business which survived while the cities of the Western Empire fell. It was overcrowded, and choked with squalor, misery, and disease. As the Roman Empire slowly crumbled in the west, the eastern capital attracted adventures, from refuges and rebels to deserters and prisoners of war. Peasants from neighbouring areas flocked to the city in search of work.
Constantinople still prided itself on its Greek heritage. Greeks held the highest positions in society.
They called themselves the politikoi – the people of the town, the ‘Byzantines of Byzantium’ to distinguish themselves from the alien multitudes.
Among these multitudes were peoples of the Middle East – Syrians, Anatolians, and Jews. When Justinian reconquered Rome’s western provinces, more visitors and immigrants arrived. Egyptians and Africans from Nubia and Ethiopia rubbed shoulders with fair-haired white giants from the north: Germans, and Viking traders and mercenaries who had come via Russia. Barbarians civilized by their settlement in Italy sent their children to Constantinople to study Christianity, literature, law and philosophy.
But Constantinople also sheltered those with smaller ambitions.
Squatters infested the marble porticoes of the city’s great colonnades; in winter the authorities had to nail boards across the entrances to give the vagrants some protection against the cold. Justinian, devout Christian that he was, distributed bread and opened hostels, workhouses, orphanages, and leper hospitals. Theodora founded a house for repentant prostitutes. But charity could not rid the city of its plague of poverty. In Justinian’s mind, another solution was born: to build. He would quite simply expand his busting city.
The scheme was, of course, partly intended to immortalize his own glory that of his Lord. But there was more. Justinian saw in the vagrant multitude an immense pool of manpower. Harnessing the army of the unemployed, he organized the construction of schools, baths, theatres, palaces, gardens, harbours, aqueducts, monasteries, and especially churches.
For Justinian, building became an obsession. Yet vagrancy could not be eliminated. In 539 the emperor was still ordering new public works, but was also applying increasingly strict surveillance: ‘Natives’, he decreed, ‘who are sound in body and have no means of subsistence must be sent without delay to the organizers of public works, to the heads of bakeries, and to those who maintain the gardens and so on. If they refuse, they must be expelled from the city. The physically handicapped and the old shall be left in peace and looked after by the inhabitants who are willing to do so. The others shall be asked why they have come to Constantinople, to ensure that no idlers remain; and as soon as they have finished…they shall be asked to return home.’
The building programme did not get rid of unemployment, but it turned the city into the wonder of its age. The works of contemporary writers and excavations by archaeologists have created a comprehensive picture of the Byzantine capital.
Constantinople borrowed much from the mother city. The public buildings were mostly Roman in style. As chance would have it, the city even included seven hills, like the original. It was also divided into 14 districts for the purposes of administration. Titles of office were borrowed from Roman tradition: magistrate, consul, and so on. There was even a senate house.
The Imperial District, sited at the tip of the peninsula, was the city’s commercial, administrative, and ceremonial hub. The Sacred Palace, begun by Constantine and enlarged by Justinian, was built there amid beautiful gardens that descended in terraces to the sea. It is now the site of the Blue Mosque, built by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I. Today, only a few mosaics remain from Justinian’s palace, but it is known to have consisted of a complex of pavilions, with adjoining churches and barracks.