Friday, September 6, 2013

History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -4

At the west end was the city’s most splendid entrance, the Golden Gate, set in a defensive wall built by the emperor Theodosius II (408-450) to protect the land side of the peninsula from a threatened attack by the Huns. From the Golden Gate a highway led, via Thessalonica (thessaloniki), to the Adriatic coast. This route across northern Greece was trodden incessantly by merchants, travelers, and soldiers. Known as the Via Egnatia, or Western Road, it was one of the most famous highways of the ancient world. Constantinople was built in terraces on the banked-up slopes of the peninsula’s rocky backbone. The terraces were connected by a network of staircases and steep, narrow streets, climbing and swooping through the hills. Tenement blocks five or six storeys high were squeezed together, crammed full of tenants. Self-contained communities developed within the slumland sprawl. Craftsmen grouped together in districts according to their trades: glassmakers, potters, metal-workers, armourers, and tailors.

 The most crowded districts were those on the waterfront. Constantinople was, above all, a maritime centre, and the coastal districts of the Golden Horn to the north of the city, and Propontis to the south, were strung with harbours. In reclaiming much of the old Roman Empire, Justinian had made the Mideterranean a ‘Roman sea’, opening up markets for Byzantine goods along the coasts of North Africa and Italy as far west as the Strait of Gibraltar. Great Warships and cargo vessels vied for space with little caiques, the characteristic fishing vessels of the Aegean. The Golden Horn offered deep and well-sheltered mornings. Ships entered under full sail to unload their cargoes. An immense class of dockland workers came into existence: sailors, carpenters, caulkers, sail-makers, and porters.

They lived in dark alleys, blocked with carts and rank from the strench of fried fish – part of the staple diet of the people, eked out with bread, vegetables and fruit. For all the people, the street was their front parlour: the place where rich and poor spent most of the day. It was also the stage for a cavalcade of entertainers. Public speakers addressed the crowds from street corners. Jugglers, bearkeepers, and performing monkeys entertained passers-by. The rich rode on horseback, for preference on white steeds richly decked out with elaborate saddlecloths and harnesses. They were escorted by liveried servants, usually armed with cudgels to beat a path through the multitude of pedestrians and the streams of asses, oxen, sheep, pigs, camels, and even elephants being driven through the streets to the market. The noblest figures in the empire were borne in gilded carriages drawn by teams of mules. Though all people might be equal in the eyes of the Lord, social inequality on Earth had been pronounced inevitable – even in Justinian’s perfect state – so the church leaders had condoned slavery. Now and then, shuffling columns of slaves became a feature of the street pageant, along with sinister processions of condemned felons. These prisoners faced death or, more commonly, mutilation; assassins or conspirators were slung onto the backs of donkeys and fogged mercilessly as they passed through the town.

For all the public display of vanity and squaltor, religious feeling ran very deep in the people. That was the paradox of Constantinople. Heated theological discussions were as much a feature of street life as everyday haggling over prices. One major controversy divided Byzantium in Justinian’s time, centering on the person of Christ himself. The orthodox view in the church was that Christ embodied two natures, the human and the divine. A heretical group known as the Monophysites, however, held a different belief which had developed in Alexandria. They maintained that Christ’s divine component was so overwhelming that it obliterated the human element. The Monophysites gained recruits at every social level in Constantinople, but especially among the poor. One Byzantine chronicler wrote: ‘This town is full of craftsmen and slaves who are all deep theologians and preach in the shops and in the streets. If you want a man to change some money for you, he will first teach you in what way the Son differs from the Father; and if you ask the price of bread, he will tell you by way of answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you want to know if you your bath is ready, the bath attendant will reply that the Son was created from nothing……’ It was the Byzantines, with their passion for argument about religious matters, who brought two Greek words into widespread use – ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretic’. The public disputes reflected the depth of religious feeling. Icons – wooden panels painted with religious motifs – were set up both in churches and in homes. Many people, the poor in particular, venerated them as sacred, even miraculous, objects. It became the practice to carry icons through the city in torchlight processions, for – like almost everything else – the solemn pageantry of religion was celebrated in the streets. The power of the ecclesiastical leader was subservient only to the dictates of the emperor. In the church councils which met to deliberate on key matters of doctrine, any final decision needed the approval of the supreme authority. To Constantinople and its emperor fell the destiny of shaping the world’s first civilization embracing Christianity as a state religion.


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