Modern day Istanbul with the Golden Horn to the left and the Bosphorus in the foreground.
In around 1000 AD, Constantinople was arguably the greatest city in the Mediterranean world, if not the entire world. Trade, wealth, riches and monuments, churches and palaces, and emperors all resided in what was the glorious city founded by Constantine the Great. Though according to legend, six centuries before Christ, Constantinople was originally known as old Byzantion, named after a Greek king Byza. Rome’s influence over this small peninsula city would not be felt until around 73 AD when Roman Emperor Vespasian incorporated it into the empire. In around 200 AD Septimus Severus razed the small town to the ground and then rebuild it in honour of his son.
During the age of Constantine, Byzantium had come to play a role in his victory against Licinius. Firstly, Constantine had driven Licinius back to Byzantium in 317 after he defeated him in Arda and again in 324, he dug in against Licinius and possibly watched his son Crispus smash Licinius fleet along the peninsula around Byzantium. It is sometimes said that Constantine chose Byzantium as his ‘victory city’ over Licinius. Though generally it is believed Constantine chose Byzantium for its strategic importance.
Constantine realised that the Roman world in the fourth century could not be defended from barbarian attack from Trier, Nicomedia (Diocletian’s Capital), Sirmium nor from the old imperial capital of Rome. By rebuilding, the new capital of Rome, Nova Roma (Byzantium), in the east, it was perfectly situated and within easy reach of both the Danube and Persian frontiers where barbarian incursion and threat was at its greatest. (It is believed that Constantine in the back of his mind realized that the 40 years peace treaty of Nisibis, arranged by Emperor Galerius, was coming to an end in the late 330’s. Conflict between Persia and Rome was almost inevitable. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) would campaign against the Persians in 337 AD, therefore making Constantine’s decision to establish a permanent presence in the east correct.)
It’s location, therefore, in Constantine’s eyes was ideal, situated where Europe and Asia are separated by the strait of water known as the Bosphorus, leading from the Sea of Marmara into the Black Sea. Furthermore, apart from sitting on an elevation, it possessed one of the finest and well protected harbours on the Golden Horn.
Satellite image of the Bosphorus, taken from the International Space Station in 2004. In the foreground is the Golden Horn.
Notes and Further Reading
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.