3 – The East Was a Tougher Nut to Crack
In many ways, an empire is only as strong as its capital city, and while Rome was extremely vulnerable, Constantinople was one of the best-protected cities in history. The city was inaugurated as the empire’s capital in 326, and its dedication took place four years later under the reign of Constantine the Great. It was an exceptional choice for a capital because it was easy to defend by land and sea. As well as being very difficult to conquer, Constantinople’s location meant it was the ideal commercial site as it was on the sea channel between north and south.
As well defended as Constantinople was, it was a natural disaster that helped it become almost impregnable. As I mentioned earlier, the Huns threatened the city and the Eastern empire and were bought off several times. Eventually, Theodosius II refused a demand for higher tributes, and the Huns defeated the Byzantine army at Chersonesus in 446. Attila was just 20 miles from Constantinople and was determined to capture it. In 447, an earthquake destroyed a significant section of the city’s walls, and it was wide open for an attack.
The city banded together to repair and improve the walls which were rebuilt, top to bottom, in just 60 days. The emperor enlisted the help of prefect Flavius Constantinus, and he oversaw what was one of the greatest defense projects ever completed. It was finished so quickly out of necessity and not a moment too soon as Attila, and his men came within a few miles of Constantinople. However, after analyzing the reinforced walls, he decided to go West towards Rome.
Whatever mystique Rome had was long gone by this stage. The Visigoths had shattered the notion of a âpowerful’ Rome by sacking the city in 410. From this point onward, it was a question of âif’ rather than âwhen’ the Western empire would fall. While Alaric’s successor, Ataulf, elected to support the empire, it was only delaying the inevitable. Victory at the Battle of the Catalunian Plains in 451 was the last hurrah as the West lacked the army, defenses, wealth, leadership, or unity to survive. When Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus in 476, it wasn’t so much the end of an era as it was putting a suffering animal out of its misery. For all its other problems, there is no question that location only added to the West’s woes.