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Constantinople: The New Rome

Constantinople ImageThe Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) is regarded as the founder of the Byzantine Empire because he transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from the city of Rome to Byzantium, which was later renamed Constantinople. Early in his reign, Constantine recognized that the economic wealth of the Empire was in the eastern provinces. Rome and the western provinces were declining economically. Constantine decided to move his government to a better location in the East. Also, as a newly converted Christian, Constantine wanted to break with Rome's pagan past and dedicate a new capital to the Christian God. Byzantium was an ancient Greek town located on the Bosporus straits which separate Europe from Asia. Founded by settlers in approximately 600 B.C., the city of Byzantium was in a strategically excellent location for both defense and trade. The emperor renamed the city "New Rome."

Constantine spared no expense in making New Rome a magnificent capital. He stripped the Empire of the finest artwork and building materials and sent it to his new city. After his death, the city was called Constantinople - "City of Constantine" - to honor its founder. Like Rome, the city had seven hills and for many centuries, was inspired by Roman civic structures, such as Senate buildings, public baths, forums, basilicas and commemorative columns. Aqueducts brought in fresh water continuously while a network of underground sewers took away the city's waste. Although injustice and poverty existed, Constantinople was mainly a well run metropolis with free hospitals, street lighting, and fire brigades. The gladiator games so popular in Rome were banned under the Christian Byzantines, so horse racing was substituted in the Hippodrome, closely modeled on the Circus Maxiumus of Rome. The crown jewel of the city was, of course, the incomparable Hagia Sophia.

Due to its unique location astride two continents, Europe and Asia as well as the connection between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, trade routes brought immense wealth into Constantinople. Gold, ivory, silver, copper, silk, grain, cotton, furs, wine, and spices poured through the city from as far away as China, Ceylon, and Iceland. The result created the richest and most beautiful city in the world.

At its height, the city numbered nearly 1 million inhabitants, a mixture of Greeks, Bulgars, Khazars, Turks, Armenians, Jews, Russians, and Italians. Outside of the Imperial Palace, there was no particular "fashionable" section of Constantinople: rich and poor tended to live next to each other. To protect the population and its immense wealth the city was enclosed by 13 miles of impregnable walls by both land and sea. So strong were the walls of Constantinople that it finally took the force of gunpowder to breach them. A month and a half of cannon bombardment by the Ottoman Turks finally overcame them in 1453 AD.