Having chosen the site of Byzantium as his new capital, in a traditional ceremony performed in 324, a line was ploughed with a lance to mark out the boundaries of a new land wall that Constantine had envisaged that would protect the city. An enclosed area approximately some 8 square kilometres would quadrupled the size of the old city. Of course, over time the city would expand and grow and by the time of the reign of Theodosius II, Constantinople would have new gigantic walls stretching and expanding further than the eye could see. (Though this story is for another time.)
No one at the time could have foreseen, whether or not this new city would be a success. However Constantine was surely going to try ! Edward Gibbon best describes how after having slept within the city, Constantine awoke and conceived the idea of Nova Roma (New Rome):
‘On foot, with a lance in his hand, the Emperor himself led the soleum procession, and directed the line which was traced as the boundary of the destined capital, til the growing circumference was observed with astonishment by the assistants, who at length ventured to observe that he already exceeded the most ample measure of a great city. “I shall still advance”, replied Constantine, “till He, the invisible guide who marches before me, thinks proper to stop.”’
With this audacious beginning, one of his first actions would be to rebuild the Baths of Zeuxippus, commence work on grand new buildings, palaces, a Senate-house, monuments (mostly ransacked from all over the Empire), roads and other infrastructure. More importantly, he also intended to make his new city an imperial residence, where he could greet important guests and dignitaries from all over. Furthermore, no city was complete without an impressive hippodrome for horse and chariot racing.
Nova Roma or Constantinople, as we will come to know her by, in Constantine’s eyes was going to be far greater than any of the other imperial capitals he had resided in. Constantinople’s splender was going to be compared only to Rome, whom Constantine had snubbed as a relic of the past.
To help populate his city, Constantine would invite important and influential Romans as settlers and as an incentive give them each a large estate according to their standing. From senators to drunkards, Constantine slowly populated his city. Only his death would stop him from seeing how in the years ahead the city’s population would boom.
After six years of intensive construction, Constantine proudly announced to the Roman world that his city was complete. On the 11th May 330 AD the new capital was dedicated (consecrated) in celebration and fanfare.
Photo Credit: The header image is the amazing map by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmont (1422). It is the oldest surviving map of Constantinople, and the only one that predates the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 AD. The second image is a detailed map of the city of Constantinople. Although it is a map in the period of the city’s history that exceeds Constantine’s land walls, it nevertheless provides the reader with a vision of what the city looked like. It includes many of the city’s road networks, churches and hippodrome.
Notes and Further Reading
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013.
Dogan Gumas, Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, Do-Gu Yayinlari, 1987.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.