Constantinople—The New Rome

Constantine, who figured so prominently in fourth-century church affairs, established a new imperial capital named for himself.

Orley M. Berg is an associate editor of MINISTRY.

With the breakup of the old pagan Roman Empire the eyes of the emperors turned eastward. Diocletian, coming to the throne in A.D. 284, divided the empire and established a second capital at Nicomedia, modern Izmit, in Turkey, on the eastern extremity of the Sea of Marmara. From here he ruled the Eastern Empire, and under his direction the city was enlarged to become the fourth city of the empire.

The new ruler exceeded all others in his efforts to destroy Christianity. When the capital city of Nicomedia burned to the ground, he, like Nero before him, blamed the Christians, setting off the worst period of persecution they had known. Diocletian's imperial decree of A.D. 303 banished the practice of Christianity from the empire, and this policy continued in force under his successors until the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine ten years later, granted full freedom to Christians.

Tradition has it that Constantine's favorable attitude toward Christianity came as the result of a dream in which he saw a cross in the sky with the words in hoc Signo vinces("By this sign thou shall conquer"). When he woke, he had the sign of the cross inscribed on the shields of his soldiers. In A.D. 312, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine defeated Maxentius and became the emperor of the Western Roman Empire. By September, 324, he ruled the East as well, defeating his last rival to the Eastern Empire, Licinius. The battle occurred at what is now Uskudar, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Thereafter he crossed this strategic waterway and, almost without a fight, took the city of Byzantium.

Constantine recognized full well the importance of Byzantium as the meeting place of Europe and Asia. Here, rather than at Rome, lay the future. So, off the shores between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, reuniting East and West, he established the capital city as the "New Rome." It was laid out in an area four times the size of Rome, and, like the old Rome, it was built upon seven hills. The Byzantine Empire that was thus born would span the next eleven hundred years.

Visiting Istanbul today, one can still see some of the remains of the ancient city of Constantine. These include the old walls, although most of them now visible were the work of Theodosius II of the next century. They include, also, the huge aqueduct with its double arches that he erected to convey water for twenty miles into the city. Today Ataturk Boulevard passes beneath it. The bottom arches are 32 feet high, and those above are another 27 1/2 feet high. The project, begun by Constantine, was completed by Valens in 368.

One of today's busy thoroughfares leads a few blocks to the crest of the second hill. Here Constantine had his camp, from whence he directed his short campaign against the city, and here also he erected a magnificent forum.

The forum of Constantine, with its huge central column 125 feet tall and topped by a colossal bronze statue of Apollo, the sun god, was surrounded by curving colonnades and magnificent arches. Constantine, a devotee of the sun, had the head of Apollo removed and replaced with one of his own. The statue, consisting of six large drums of volcanic porphyritic stone, fell in a storm in 1105, and because of its charred condition has come to be known as the Burnt Column. The burnt condition is understandable when one considers that some sixty fires have swept through the city during its turbulent history. A portion of the column is all that remains today.

Constantine had the marble pedestal of the column enclosed with numerous relics. Since the city had previously been under the protection of Apollo, the new emperor, wishing to gain the favor of pagans and Christians alike, chose relics of both paganism and Christianity. These purportedly included the wooden image of the goddess Athene, which had stood at Troy and then at Rome; the ax used by Noah in building the ark; a part of the rock struck by Moses; crumbs from the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus turned the water to wine; frag ments of the cross; and the alabaster box from which Christ's feet were anointed by Mary. As stated in the Newsweek publication Hagia Sophia, "Constantine's column . . . thus served as an appropriate cult object for pagan, Mithraist, and the Christian alike." Page 18.

Down the slope from the forum, toward the Sea of Marmara, Constantine erected his imperial palace, and ad joining it was the great hippodrome. Nothing remains of the palace; however, the hippodrome is easily identifiable. Originally built by Septimius Severus in A.D. 203, Constantine enlarged it to a length of .about 1,300 feet and a width of just under 500 feet. The tiers of seats were increased from 16 to nearly 40, thus accommodating up to 100,000 spectators. Down the middle of the hippodrome was the spina, around which the track ran. This spot is marked today by the 64-foot-high obelisk of Thutmose III. The obelisk of rose-red granite from Aswan was first erected by the Egyptian king in 1471 B.C. in Heliopolis, the ancient sun city of Egypt. In A.D. 390 it was brought by Theodosius I to Constantinople and set up in the hippodrome. On its base are recorded in hieroglyphics the victories of Thutmose III, while the marble pedestal is covered with reliefs of the hippodrome, including a record of the erection of the obelisk. A mate to this monument, almost three and a half millenniums old, stands today in Central Park in New York City, and another along the Thames in London. All three stood originally before the ancient sun temple of Heliopolis, where today one lone obelisk remains to mark the site.

At the far end of the hippodrome the well-worn obelisk of Constantine Porphyrogenitus still stands. It is so named because it was this emperor who re stored it during the mid-tenth century A.D. It is believed to have already been in place when the hippodrome was enlarged and embellished by Constantine. It was originally covered with plates of bronze and decorated with bas-reliefs. The holes into which the pins fitted to clamp the plates in position are still clearly visible.

Also in the hippodrome, and most important of all, was the Serpentine Column. Originally 26 feet high, it was brought over from Delphi, where it had stood on the Sacred Way leading to the Temple of Apollo, where pilgrims had come for centuries to consult the sacred oracles. Set up to commemorate the final defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C., the column consisted of three entwined serpents with their heads supporting a golden tripod. Today all that remains is about eighteen feet of the column, jagged and broken at the top.

The hippodrome was the heart of the secular city of Constantine and his successors. The principal attraction was the chariot race, which was almost an ob session with all classes of people. The emperor would watch from his imperial box, which fronted the palace at the top end of the track. The prestige of winning was more important than the prize about seven or eight pounds in money, a cloak, and a wreath, all of which were presented by the emperor himself before the imperial box.

Not far from the hippodrome Constantine built what is today known as the Underground Cistern. The Turks call it the Underground Palace. Although initially the work of Constantine, what appears today is primarily that of Justinian, dating to the sixth century. Waiter is still in it, glimmering beneath 336 columns set in 12 rows of 28 each, all of them crowned with beautifully carved Corinthian capitals.

Constantine's great desire was to unite the conflicting elements of the empire. This led him to steer a middle course between his pagan and Christian subjects. Although the protector of Christianity, he allowed pagan worship to continue along with the Christian religion. Old pagan temples continued to stand and new ones were erected. One, dedicated to Castor and Pollux, was erected near the hippodrome.

But Christian churches were also built. The first of these was Hagia Irene, occupying the former site of a temple to Aphrodite. It is approached today by entering the Topkapi Gate into the famed Topkapi Palace, then turning sharply to the left. Although believed to have been originally built by Constantine, what we see today is mostly the work of Justinian, who restored it after its destruction in 532, the time of the Nika revolt. It is now the Saint Irene Museum. Adjoining it is the famed Hagia Sophia, planned by Constantine but built by his son and successor Constantius II.

In architectural style Constantine de parted entirely from the pagan temple, adopting rather the design of the Roman secular building—the basilica. This was in keeping with the new political system in which the church and state were united under the emperor. Concerning the spiritual role of the emperor, the authors of Hagia Sophia write, "Constantine became revered as the equal of the apostles and the vice-regent of Christ on earth. Blending the temporal powers of Caesar with the spiritual authority of the church, he ruled supreme over both church and state, an absolute oriental monarch with semidivine status." Page 17.

Constantine's principal work of Christian architecture was the Church of the Holy Apostles, crowning the fourth hill. There Constantine was laid to rest as the thirteenth apostle, and after him a succession of emperors found a final resting place there. The Westminster Abbey of the Byzantine emperors, it was completely demolished in 1453 with the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks.

The New Rome, or Rome of the East, was six years in building, and on May 11, 330 A.D., was dedicated in a splendid ceremony. In the inaugural procession its priests, senators, and imperial dignitaries moved up the second hill to the forum. Then the statue of the emperor, Constantine, in the guise of Apollo, the sun god, was heaved to the top of the central column. A priest proclaimed the new name of the capital as Constantinopolis.

The Christian ceremony over, there followed games in the hippodrome amid pagan celebrations. A gilded wooden statue of Constantine holding in his hand a figure of Tyche, the city's lucky emblem, was borne in procession in a triumphal chariot of the sun, and then placed before the imperial box to receive the emperor's salute. Constantine decreed that the ceremonies be repeated on each anniversary of the city's inauguration.

Constantine's first devotion was to the sun. Because of this, together with his desire to unite the worshipers of the old and the new faith in one religion, he issued in 321 a law enjoining the solemn observance of Sunday, the day honored among pagan subjects as the day of the sun.

Although Constantine's role as protector of Christianity brought persecution of the church to an end, it also inaugurated an era of internal warfare over theological issues that continued for centuries. Increasingly, the debates that raged were turned to political ends. As a statesman whose goal was one empire and one religion, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325, the first of seven church councils convened during the next five centuries. His astute choice of Byzantium as the capital of his empire was reflected in his choice of Nicaea, present-day Iznik, as the site for this large concourse of bishops. Situated on the shores of Lake Ascania, it was within easy reach of all the provinces.

Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, was among the 300 present at the historic council, and he described in vivid detail the proceedings. Many of the delegates showed the scars of the Dioclesian persecution—maimed, without limbs, eyes out of the socket, faces disfigured. From this council emerged the Nicene Creed, a ruling that became supreme in the church, both East and West.

Dominating the council was the emperor, Constantine, representing all authority, both spiritual and temporal, and claiming semidivine status. Although Constantine laid the groundwork for making Christianity the sole religion of the state, a condition to be inaugurated under Justinian, he continued to support both paganism and Christianity. The cross first appeared on his coins, but they carried also the figures of the pagan gods. The title Pontifex Maximus, which he assumed, was that of the chief priest of the pagan state cult. The Roman sen ate, following the old custom, classed him among the gods.

The transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire to the East left the bishop of Rome as the most important personage in that city and contributed much toward his elevation to the position of "head of all the holy churches," a title first conferred upon him by Justinian, who in 533 issued a decree pro claiming Christianity the official religion of the empire. The decree, however, was not enforced until 538, with the expulsion of the Ostrogoths, the last of the Arian powers that opposed the church. With that date, the history of the ancient world came to its end and the period of the Middle Ages began.


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Orley M. Berg is an associate editor of MINISTRY.

February 1981

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