The city of Constantinople, capital of the late Roman and Byzantine Empire’s, was one of the last great ancient cities. Located at the mouth of the Bosporus straights and controlling access between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, Constantinople was strategically located to control the lucrative trade routes to the east.
Between the cities dedication in AD 324 by Constantine I and the death of Justinian I in AD 565 (generally considered to have been the last Roman Emperor), Constantinople experienced a prolonged period of growth and development.
The study of Constantinople’s development is particularly important as its development represents a bridge between the Greco-Roman models of city planning of antiquity to the period of medieval (i.e. Byzantine) urban development.
In general, we can divide the cities development to three distinct phases. The first, beginning with Constantine I’s choice of Byzantium as his new imperial capital in AD 324 was a massive enlargement of the existing city. During this phase, which consisted mainly of replicated established Roman and Greek conventions of town planning, most the city’s infrastructure was laid down.
These included central avenue (Mese) running east-west through the city, along with numerous forums lined with colonnades, bath complexes, an aqueduct, granaries, and a vast hippodrome to entertain the population.
The second phase of the Constantinople’s development began around AD 405, when a new series of land fortifications known as the Theodosian Walls were built. Though this greatly extended the city’s perimeter, the areas between the old and new fortifications were only sparsely populated.
In time however, a massive cemetery, numerous monasteries, along with several cisterns were established in this area of the city. Thus, the area between the cities two fortified lines became an urban space that was “neither truly urban nor truly suburban”.
The third and final stage of the city’s development occurred after AD 450, and witnessed the steady rise of the Christian churches influence in the city. Throughout the 5th century, the number of churches and monasteries greatly multiplied within the cities walls, and gradually altered the social and cultural make-up of its urban space.
Churches, for example, became the focal point the city’s religious life, as well as serving as centers for social welfare. They were the primary centers of distribution of charity and often functioned as hospitals, hostels, and old-age homes. Over time, the neighborhood church gradually displaced the Roman bathhouse as the primary center of social gathering.
Plan of Constantinople
In many respects, Constantinople was both blessed and cursed by geography. Though easily defended from the sea, Byzantium was vulnerable to attack from land. Lacking any natural land barriers to deter invasion, logic dictated the construction of a land wall in order to defend Constantine’s new imperial capital.
Though Constantine had built the city’s first land walls in the 320s, the rapid expansion of the city necessitated an expanded perimeter with a new series of fortifications.
These were designed by the cities Praetorian Prefect, Anthemius during the reign of Theodosius II (AD 408-450). Known as the Theodosian Walls, these fortifications were to be Constantinople’s primary defensive fortifications for the next 1000 years. The fortifications consisted of three layers.
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Advancing towards the city, an enemy army was first faced with a large moat. On the moats other side was a low wall, separated from a second (though slightly higher) wall of fortifications by a large courtyard. Finally, there was a third, and far more impressive inner wall; over 30 ft. high and roughly 15 ft. thick, this inner wall was also inter-spaced with 96 towers running along its entire length.
Remarkably, the Theodosian Walls were completed in AD 413, merely nine years after construction began. Constantinople was also protected along its vast and exposed coastline by a formidable line of fortifications, known as the Sea Walls. The nature of Constantinople’s defensive fortifications represented the culmination of a trend in the later Roman Empire, in which cities of all sizes increasingly constructed ever more elaborate fortifications to fend of both foreign invasions and barbarian incursions.
Nevertheless, Constantinople’s fortifications were not only the most extensive built in the ancient, and subsequently medieval world, but also the most successful.
The population of Constantinople is matter of some debate. Prior to Constantine’s expansion, ancient Byzantium probably had a population in the vicinity of 20,000. Within a hundred years that number had swelled to roughly 350,000 in the middle of the 5th century. By the time of Justinian’s reign in the middle of the 6th century, the city’s population had probably swelled to roughly 500,000.
The logistical problem of supplying Constantinople’s burgeoning population with food required an equally impressive expansion in the city’s infrastructure. Throughout the period in question, most of Constantinople’s food (including all its grain) had to be imported, principally by sea.
Most of Constantinople’s grain and corn came from Egypt, and it required a vast armada of ships to transport the grain to the city. Indeed, such was the cities dependence on Egyptian grain and corn that even a slight delay in the transport of such food staples that it could lead to starvation and rioting throughout the city.
To accommodate the massive volume of shipping, Constantinople possessed over four to five kilometers of wharves throughout the harbors along both the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea. Though the city possessed two main harbors, the Prosphorion and the Neorion, it is likely that there were many smaller dockyards, as the two harbors listed above only had a combined wharfage 1.5 kilometers, which would have been grossly insufficient.
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In addition, a vast array of warehouses must have lined the docks in order to store the large quantities of food stuff. Taken together with facilities that must have existed to distribute and process the imported food stuff, and one begins to get a sense of the vast logistical problems faced by the late-Roman state in Constantinople.
As befitted an imperial capital, Constantinople contained numerous monumental public buildings. Primary among these were the cities many basilica’s and churches, reflecting the Christian character of the capital. By far the largest, and most impressive, church in Constantinople was the Hagia Sophia, the church of the Wisdom (Sophia) of Christ. The current cathedral is the third such structure to occupy the location. The new Hagia Sophia was built to honor Justinian’s military conquests and to demonstrate his religious piety.
Designed by Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletos, the basilica was built in an extraordinarily short period of time between AD 532 and AD 537. Its design was both breathtaking in scope and innovative in that it marked a clear departure from the traditional basilica layout of a church. It combined the longitudinal layout of the basilica with a domed interior space of a centrally planned structure.
The centerpiece of the church was a massive dome, 31 meters in diameter and rising 62 meters above the floor. However, the Hagia Sophia had to be repaired after its dome collapsed after a massive earthquake in AD 558, and was re-dedicated shortly before Justinian’s death in AD 562.
The Hagia Sophia would become the model for many Eastern Roman (and subsequently Eastern Orthodox) churches, such as the Hagia Irene on Constantinople’s outskirts, and would remain the largest church in the world for nearly 1000 years, until the construction of the cathedral of Seville in 1506.
Another monumental structure that dominated Constantinople’s public space was the Hippodrome. Begun possibly in the late 2ndcentury AD, and only completed in the 4th during the reign of Constantine I, the Hippodrome was the site of chariot races as well as public ceremonies, such as Imperial triumphs.
The Hippodrome was the center of Constantinople’s social and entertainment life for centuries, and played host to the capitals two rival chariot and political factions; the Blues and the Greens. It also provided the citizens of the city to voice grievances against the Emperor en masse; as was the case of where Nika Riots in AD 532. Above all, the Hippodrome was an inheritance of classical Roman town planning, in contrast to the Hagia Sophia and other churches that represented a transition in traditional forms of Roman architecture.
There is considerable controversy over whether or not Constantinople was a regularly planned city. Unfortunately, the modern urban sprawl of Istanbul means that very little evidence is available in order to reconstruct ancient Constantinople’s street system. To date, only one discernible processional avenue has been identified, the Mese, and even this street has only been excavated 100 meters or so.
Nevertheless, there is some indication that Constantinople was designed to be, if not a grid-planned, at least laid out along a logical fashion with some attempts to impose a grid upon the landscape.
Given the layout of the city`s various churches and monumental structures, it is possible to conclude that the city was not planned on a regular grid system. For example, the church of Hagia Sophia runs perpendicular to the main road, while the church of St. Eirene, turned slightly to the south, does not align to the main avenue and would seem to be located in an irregular city block.
The planning of Constantinople was inhibited by a number of factors, the most important of which was the geography of the city itself, which in the words of one observer, was a “continued ridge of hills, each divided by a valley.” Thus, it would have been extremely difficult to apply a unified grid-system throughout the city, given the absence of a continuous flat plain.
It therefore became necessary to use extensive terracing throughout the city in order to create some degree of level foundation for both public and private buildings.
Finally, it must be stressed that the development of Constantinople was a result of its unique geographical conditions, the rapid expansion of the city’s population, as well as to larger trends that affected the development of other late-Roman cities. The geography of Constantinople, with its hilly terrain, meant that a systematic grid plan was impractical.
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This, combined with the rapid growth of the city and the lack of skilled architects meant that Constantinople’s development was at times haphazard, even though some attempts (such as the great processional avenue) were made to impose a degree of order on the cities layout.
The lack of defensible frontiers along its landward axis also dictated the creation of a series of impressive fortification systems. Massive ports, dockyards, and warehouses were required all along the cities coastline in order to accommodate the volume of ships necessary to supply the capital adequately with imported food.
Above all, the development of Constantinople from the 4th to 6th centuries AD can be seen as indicative of many of the transformations that were sweeping through the Mediterranean world and that marked the end of antiquity and the beginning of the medieval period.
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 James Crow, “The Infrastructure of a Great City: Earth, Walls and Water in Late Antiquity Constantinople,” in Lavan, Luke; Zanini, Enrico; Sarantis, Alexander, Technology in Transition: A.D. 300–650, (BRILL: 2008), 268.
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