Showing posts with label Constantinople. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Constantinople. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -2

This cosmopolitan population was governed by a pyramid-like bureaucracy headed by the emperor. Like many bureaucracies, it was prone to corruption and inefficiency. Denied any democratic institution through which to air its grievances, the seething mob was always ready to show its resentment. With every bad harvest or increase in taxes, turbulent crowds filled the streets threatening insurrection. The population tended to align itself according to four broad groupings, or factions, known as the Blues, Greens, Rose, and Whites. Members wore distinguishing colours on their shoulders. The factions were partly street gangs, partly political groups. In the time of Justinian, the Blues and Greens were dominant. The Greens represented the merchants, democratic in their political leanings and favouring Monophysite beliefs. The Blues were aristocratic and theologically orthodox. The enmity of the two groups set whole districts at each other’s throats. The Hippodrome became a focus for the rivalry. At foot races athletes from the different factions competed against each other, backed by partisan support from the terrace. It was in this cauldron of political ferment that disorders erupted in January 532. In that month the imperial treasury was empty, and Justinian, whose military campaigns needed huge funds, decreed a further increase in taxes. It was the last straw. Rebellion broke out at the Hippodrome. For once, the Greens and Blues united, channelling their outrage against the government. The two factions proclaimed a new emperor. Under the rallying cry of ‘Nika!’ (‘Victory!’), the rioters spilled into the streets, where they set fire to the Sacred Palace and several other buildings. Swarming into the wealthy districts, the uncontrollable mob pillaged the luxury shops along the Mese. Justinian considered flight into Asia, but Theodora restored his courage, declaring that for herself, death was preferable to dishonour. ‘If you wish to protract your life, O Emperor, flight is easy; there are your ships and there is the sea. But consider whether, if you escape into exile, you will not wish every day that you were dead. As for me, I hold with the ancient saying that the imperial purple is a glorious shroud.’ Not for the first time, the bearkeeper’s daughter showed herself more than worthy to share the throne of the Caesars. 

His resolve now stiffened, the emperor set about dividing the rebels by reawakening the eternal animosity between the two main factions, corrupting their leaders with bribes, and making special overtures to the Blues. Meanwhile, 3,000 veteran loyal mercenaries under the command of General Belisarius marched on the mob through an inferno of flames and falling buildings. The rebellion was drowned in the blood of the people. On January 18, some 30,000 corpses littered the steps of the Hippodrome. The Imperial District had been devastated, but the Byzantine Empire was safe. These insurrectionary tendencies were always least in evidence as soon as the spectre of invasion arose. Faced with the threat of conquest by barbarian horsemen from beyond its frontiers, Constantinople would rediscover its unity. Several times the empire’s boundary on the River Danube had been breached and alien hordes – including Asiatics, Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars – closed in on the city. The most serious invasion came in 558, when Asiatics Huns, the successors of Attila, camped under the city’s very walls. The population was panic-stricken, but once again Belisarius, by now retired but ever faithful, came with his mercenaries to the empire’s rescue. They succeeded in repelling the invaders. On November 14, 565, Justinian died at the age of 82.

His grandiose vision of a Holy Empire was going bankrupt. Exhausted by public works and military expenditure, it was now facing a major war against the Sasssanian kings of Persia – a war which Justinian had been unable to prevent. The chaos and violence of the Dark Ages in Europe were drawing near, too – centuries which were to strip Constantinople of its provinces, leaving it as an isolated bastion of culture and learning in an alien universe. It remained a bastion for more than 600 years after Justinian’s death, until it was overrun and occupied by the Franks in 1204. Even after that it retained its retained its imperial status for a time; its last emperor was not overthrown until 1453, when the city finally fell to the Turks. By then, almost 900 years had passed since the death of Justinian.

But the classical heritage was preserved and the Christian tradition protected. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and the distinctive character of Byzantine religious art, were transmitted from the eastern metropolis to palaces and monasteries, shaping the culture of medieval Europe. The city had a particularly lasting influence on parts of Russia, Greece, and the Balkans. Its religious tradition, developed independently from Rome, survives today as the Orthodox Christian Church. Constantinople was a crossroads in space and time. Here, Europe merged into Asia, the classical era into the Middle Ages. From its narrow promontory jutting into the Bosporus, the city witnessed the death of Western civilization, and its rebirth.

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.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -3

The Hippodrome, next door to the Sacred Palace and connected to if by galleries and staircases, was the venue for lavish spectacles and sporting events, with seating for perhaps 100,000 spectators. It had been restored by Constantine as a slightly scaled-down model of the Circus Maximus in Rome, and embellished by his successors. Near the Hippodrome, the Baths of Zeuxippos provided a fashionable backdrop for socializing. Towering above the other buildings rose the gigantic dome of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Justinian’s supreme achievement and the masterpiece of all Byzantine architecture. To the historian Procopius, perfect of Constantinople at that time, the vast dome 33m (108ft) across seemed not to be supported by masonry at all, ‘but rather to cover space as though it were suspended from the sky by a golden chain’.

 In fact the weight had been spread across the whole structure by the use of arches, semi-domes, vaulted aisles, and galleries. The basilica was all the more remarkable because of the speed of its construction – it was built by 10,000 workmen between AD 532 and 537. The services held inside were of staggering magnificence. On ceremonial occasions the entire court would crowd into the sanctuary. Before them was a curtain embroidered with 500,000 pearls, veiling a massive gold altar inlaid with precious gems. The interior of the church was illuminated by thousands of candles; smoke rose from incense burners. Crimson-clad musicians accompanied huge male-voice choirs, and the curved surfaces of the dome produced extraordinary effects of resonance.

Much of the original ornamentation in the Hagia Sophia has disappeared, but several examples of Byzantine church decoration have survived elsewhere, such as in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Exquisitely carved marble panels would have served as altar-pieces, walls and domes would have been inlaid with coloured-glass mosaics. One characteristic feature of the Byzantine style was the bold presentation, in simple lines and flat colours, of sacred figures gazing upon the worshippers through wide and penetrating eves – eyes deliberately enlarged to enhance the grandeur and mystery of the Christian faith. IN front of the Hagia Sophia, in the heart of the Imperial District, was the Augustaeon, an impressive forum or marketplace whose shady colonnades were the favourite meeting place of Byzantine high society. People gathered there to market their mark, to chat or argue, to parade in the latest fashions, and to watch the comings and goings of the imperial court. The surrounding area was renowned for its luxury and beauty. There were countless bookshops, serving as meeting places for the city’s aspirant intellectuals. Perfume shops were redolent with the whiff of scandal as well as scent, as gossips met to exchange rumours. Only the wealthiest could afford to live in the area: the land-owing aristocrats, for example, who lived in town palaces, away from their country estates.

These nobles were forbidden to engage in business. Commerce was the prerogative of an elite class of magnates who controlled the major businesses, trade, and administrative posts, and may also have lived around the Augustaeon. The imperial government shrewdly assembled these merchants in a single area in order to supervise them more easily. Justinian himself had extensive commercial interests, especially in the manufacture of silk. Until the 6th century, the Chinese had monopolized silk manufacture. The fine silk thread had reached Constantinople along the ancient Silk Road from the East.

How the thread was produced remained a mystery in Europe. Justinian was determined to break the secret. Learning that the knowledge he required had reached the Persian Empire to the east of Byzantium, he persuaded two Persian monks to engage in some officially sponsored espionage. They returned to Constantinople with details of the technique and a few silkworm eggs hidden inside a bamboo. Justinian set up looms in the palace to manufacture the cloth: the entire European silk industry dates back to this beginning. All luxury goods were a major source of wealth for Byzantium, and trade in them was concentrated along a short stretch of a great avenue called the Mese.

 This marble highway ran for some 8km (5 miles) from east to west. At its east end, in the Imperial District, it was lined with two-storey arcades, housing stalls and shops of every kind. Prosperous goldsmiths and jewelers traded along the route between the Sacred Palace and the Forum of Constantine – a distance of about 600m (1,970ft). Money-changers plied their trade there too, often operating in the street itself, sitting at tables piled high with bags of gold and silver coins. The Forum of Constantine was the hub of the Byzantine business world. It was overlooked by the Senate and a splendid statue of the first Christian emperor perched at the top of a porphyry column. From the Forum of Constantine, the Mese ran west to the Forum of Theodosius, dominated by a triumphal arch, and thence to the Amastrianum, the cattle market, and the Forum of Arcadius – thus connecting all the city’s principal marketplaces. The highway then crossed what remained of Constantine’s walls and passed through the Psamathia district. With every step away from the smart Imperial District, the shops became shabbier, the people poorer, the buildings more crowded.

Friday, August 23, 2013

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.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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.