Constantinople, when it was called Byzantium and a Greek settlement, was a relatively quiet place despite its outsized fame in later history. Compared to legendary, almost mythical, Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta, Byzantium was incredibly tame and peaceful. It was renowned for its economy and prosperity but was a relatively quiet settlement. In fact, before the rise of Rome, it was little mentioned in Greek histories.
The man who Christianized the Roman Empire was a somewhat vain fellow; perhaps he missed that commandment. In addition to naming the city of Byzantium after himself, he also erected a Forum Constantine in the center of the town, which featured the Column of Constantine, a 164-foot tall spire that featured a statue of himself at the top, fashioned to look like the Roman god Apollo. The messages about idols and graven images also didn’t affect Constantine much.
Despite Constantine’s enamored relationship with the newly renamed Byzantium, or at least with himself, few Roman emperors actually cared much for Constantinople. It was far from the seat of the original Roman Empire, leaving few Emperors interested in making the long voyage east. In fact, between 337 and 379 A.D., an emperor resided in the city for less than 12 years total. Maybe the Forum Constantine was just a bit too much for the subsequent emperors.
When the Romans took over Byzantium and decided to make it a new source of power for their empire, they decided to do some massive renovations. It took the full might of the Roman Empire over six years to build on top of the foundations of old Byzantium. To save time and money, the Romans literally dismantled many Byzantium buildings just to reuse the materials to make new Roman buildings. While six years may seem like a long time, one wonders about the safety of an entire city built out of recycled material in such a relatively short time.
Between the death of Constantine in 330 A.D. and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Constantinople was sieged at least seventeen times. In a genuinely enviable record, the sieges were only successful twice, with the Byzantines being able to reclaim the city after one of the attempts. As the name would imply, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was ultimately the end of the city as it was known, and the Byzantines never recaptured it.
Even the greatest (or most vain) man’s legacy must come to an end eventually. For Constantine, that end came at the hands of a particularly strong gust of wind. He reigned over the Forum Constantine from atop his tall pillar for over 700 years, until it fell in 1106 A.D. Appropriately for the man who Christianized the empire, his statue was replaced with a cross. The cross stood until the Sacking of Constantinople a few centuries later.
In addition to wanting to name a city after himself, Constantine also had some very prudent reasons for being fond of Constantinople. He viewed Rome as too isolated and decadent, a home to elites and politicians and too far removed from the frontiers of the empire. The city was also notoriously hard to defend, while Constantinople had many geographic advantages against sieges. He viewed Constantinople as a new opportunity for Rome to be closer to its territories and with a fresh sense of leadership and determination.
One of Constantinople’s most significant assets was the Golden Horn. During the city’s height, the Golden Horn functioned as a deep harbor for the city. While allowing a great deal of trade and commerce, the residents of Constantinople also weaponized the Great Horn by adding giant chains to the harbor that could be raised to trap ships already in the dock while preventing new ones from entering.
Constantinople was a rather fanciful city, with a golden gate that could only be used for either the return of triumphant emperors or to honor exceptional guests to the town like Popes. For everyone else, simple gates into the city had to suffice. One illustrious guest given use of the golden gate was Pope Constantine, named after the emperor Constantine himself. Fitting!
As with most ancient cities, Constantinople was surrounded by walls for defense. Walls were historically necessary to repel both bands of raiders as well as larger, organized military forces. When Emperor Theodosius II took control of the Roman Empire, he decided to make Constantinople even safer by adding a second set of double walls that surrounded the entire city and replaced the previous Constantinian Wall.
The massive set of double walls, built under the reign of Theodosius II, became rightly known as the Theodosian Walls. They were considered a marvel of their age, and still highly respected by historians and archaeologists for being an early engineering and construction marvel. The walls withstood numerous sieges through the centuries and were only finally bested by the inventions of gunpowder and cannons.
At its height, Constantinople was indeed a vast city, especially for its era. During the 9th and 10th centuries, it’s estimated that Constantinople had as many as 800,000 residents. Given the relatively low world population at the time, and how much less populated cities used to be, Constantinople was truly a pinnacle of civilization and one of, if not the, largest cities in the world. To put it in perspective, London, which would go on to be one of medieval Europe’s largest cities, had roughly only 40,000 residents at the time.
Unfortunately, after speaking of its majestic size as a city, one must also discuss the massive downfall of its population: the plague. After centuries of warfare, the people of Constantinople were weakened and provided easy pickings for the new emergence of the Black Death. By many estimates, the city was reduced from around 800,000 to only 50,000. That scale of loss of life is almost unimaginable today.
In addition to bearing several proper names throughout the centuries, Constantinople has also had countless nicknames. One of its many names, Megalopolis referred to its size, as it means “great city.” Another, Basileousa, gave it the honor of being known as the “queen of cities.” Vikings, who traveled far further than many realize, named it Miklagard for “big city.” The Arabs referred to it by an Arabic name meaning “city of the Romans,” or Rūmiyyat al-kubra.
After the fall of the Western portion of the Roman Empire, the eastern part endured and rebranded itself as the Byzantine Empire, as influenced by the Greeks who remained in the area. Constantinople was the capital of this new empire, and it attempted to recapture much of what was lost of the western Roman Empire, though they were mostly unsuccessful.
In 717 A.D., the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate attempted to lay siege to Constantinople. This event was the climax of the epic Arab-Byzantine wars. However, the Caliphate found more than it had bargained for in the heavily fortified Constantinople. The city used its Greek Fire and sea chain to keep the Golden Horn open, ensuring they couldn’t be starved into submission.
While Constantinople endured the siege with plenty of food, the Caliphate’s armies were far less fortunate. They held the onslaught until winter, which turned out to be colder and icier than usual, which slowed overland re-supply trains. Thousands and thousands of Caliphate soldiers ended up starving to death outside the walls of Constantinople.
While many are familiar with the famed lost Library of Alexandria, the great Library of Constantinople is lesser known. It was the last of the historic Great Libraries to fall, surviving until the Fall of Constantinople in 1204. Many of the Byzantine residents of the city fled west, eventually settling in Italy and sharing knowledge that sparked the Renaissance.
In a tragic display of human malevolence, every Great Library of the world has been burned. From the Library of Alexandria to the Imperial Library of Constantinople, invading armies have always sought to destroy the wisdom and history of their vanquished foes. Thankfully, enough residents of Constantinople survived its fall and fled to other cities, spreading some of the knowledge of the library and keeping it alive.
Emperor Septimius Severus, an African emperor of the Byzantines, ordered the construction of genuinely magnificent public baths known as the Baths of Zeuxippus. The luxurious baths were a big hit with the public of Constantinople, and large crowds often waited to bathe within. The clergy of the city frowned upon the Baths, as they viewed them as debaucherous. Sadly, they only lasted about four centuries before being destroyed in riots.
The Hagia Sophia was constructed during the reign of Emperor Justinian to replace buildings that had been destroyed in the incredibly violent Nika Riots. It is the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture and is widely heralded as a wonder of the era. The huge freestanding dome was said to be held up purely by the will of God. The building was repurposed as a mosque in the 14th century and is now a famous museum and tourist attraction.
Following in Constantine’s slightly narcissistic footsteps, Emperor Justinian himself attended the official unveiling of the Hagia Sophia in 537 and was overwhelmed by the experience. He reportedly fell to his knees and yelled out that he had outdone the famed lost Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Thanks to the Temple being destroyed centuries before, no one could really disprove his boast.
15. The Original Walls Are Sturdier Than Modern Repairs
In an incredible testament to ancient architecture, many of the walls of Constantinople still stand today. In the late 20th century, the UNESCO world heritage organization decided to attempt a restoration of portions of the wall that had lapsed, trying to recreate the ancient look. Ironically, an earthquake leveled the 20th-century repairs while leaving the old walls intact. It was later found that poor materials and methods were used in the modern maintenance.
14. The Walls Were Almost as High as a Four-Story Building
The famed Theodosian Walls, which were a marvel of early engineering and construction, were truly unimaginably high, especially for the era. They reported stood at least 12 meters high, which is almost 40 feet. Typically, a story of a building is roughly calculated as 10 feet, so the walls around Constantinople were virtually four stories high. It’s no wonder they survived so many sieges!
13. Constantinople’s Fall Marked the End of the Middle Ages
The Fall of Constantinople was a truly momentous event in history. Not only was it the final nail in the coffin of the Byzantine Empire, and thus all of the Roman Empire, but many historians also argue it heralded the end of the Middle Ages overall. Given Constantinople’s size and place in history, it’s perhaps not surprising that its fall signaled the end of an entire era.
The taking of Constantinople became a huge point of pride and success for the Ottomans. From that place of strength, they were able to invade the Balkans and establish the Ottoman Empire. With this area of control and power, they were able to wage war with and threaten Western Europe up until the start of the 20th century.
Anyone who has watched George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, or read the book, is no doubt familiar with the Wildfire. Able to burn on, even underwater, it was used significantly to protect King’s Landing from naval attack. Terrifying, this is no fantasy. The Byzantines had a substance known as Greek Fire that could burn under water. It is still unknown what the compound consisted of, as it was a state secret that creators took to their graves.
Various crusades had been raging throughout the Middle East for some time, but it was the fourth crusade that really ruined things for Constantinople. The fourth crusade found itself in the city during a time of great unrest and regime change and decided to take advantage of that instability and ransack the town. They began their siege in the spring of 1204, determined to take the city in the name of their version of Christendom.
The fourth crusaders were a clever lot. They knew the odds were against them in besieging the well-defended Constantinople, so they looked for any small opportunity to gain an advantage. They found their saving grace in the same wind that had knocked down poor Constantine. The Crusaders took advantage of strong northern winds to attack the towers protecting the Golden Horn.
8. The Crusaders Left Absolute Carnage In Their Wake
With the wind at their backs, the Crusaders were able to reach the city itself which shocked and demoralized its defenders. Emperor Alexios V fled to the countryside, and the city fell. The resulting slaughter was truly horrifying, as the Crusaders rampaged throughout the city for three days and nights destroying priceless artifacts and visiting rape, death, and more upon the citizens of Constantinople.
7. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches Held Grudges
Part of what led to the invasion of Constantinople by the Crusaders was an earlier slaughter of Latins, or western Catholics, during a period of unrest within the city. Western Europeans sided with the Latins and wanted revenge on the Orthodox church for the killings. After the fall of the city, the horrifying violence of the Crusaders led the Orthodox church to hold a strong grudge against the Western church which lasted for centuries.
While Gangs of New York may be a more famous title, the Gangs of Constantinople would make an even more exciting film. While much of history focuses on the architecture and sieges of the city, less often discussed is the fact that the city was home to numerous gangs connected to chariot racing. Political influence and rampant street violence were tied to the groups, in a manner reasonably similar to modern soccer hooliganism.
Two major factions of chariot racing hooligans had developed by the 6th century A.D.: the blues and greens. Much like the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry in baseball, these two factions vehemently opposed each other with feuds often spilling over into violence. However, harsh actions against both gangs by the Emperor Justinian led to a brief truce that united the blues and greens against the empire.
The brief collaboration of the Blues and Greens led to, you guessed it, a sports riot! After some prominent Blues and Greens were executed at Emperor Justinian’s command, the next chariot race saw the two gangs unite to create a disturbance out of the audience in attendance. Senators, unhappy with Justinian, used the chaos as an opportunity to make demands of Justinian, with many hoping to see him toppled as Emperor. The riots are called the Nika Riots due to the chant of “Nika” used by the crowds, which meant victory.
During the height of the Nika Riots, Emperor Justinian was preparing to flee the city to save himself. He knew the mob (and many of the Senators) wanted his head. He may well have escaped, ceding the city and perhaps the empire itself, to an upstart had it not been for his strong and commanding wife, Empress Theodora. She reported told Justinian, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.” These words caused Justinian to stay strong and keep control of the city.
The final challenge to the Byzantine Empire and Christian control of Constantinople came in 1453, at the hands of Sultan Mehmed II. He led a vast army of over 200,000 soldiers and a fleet of at least 100 ships with cannons to besiege the city. Constantinople was greatly outnumbered and lacked the firepower of the Ottoman army.
Despite the superior numbers and firepower, Constantinople was not quick to fall. The city had survived the siege for two months when discontent began to spread among the Ottomans, with Mehmed’s Grand Vizier publicly criticizing the cost of the war effort. Then, a miracle (for the Ottomans) happened: someone left a gate open into the city, allowing the soldiers to walk right in, literally. To this day, historians aren’t sure how or why the gate was left open; if it was a raiding party returning to the city or a repair crew attempting to shore up a door. Regardless of the cause, it was the moment of fatal error that led to the fall of Constantinople.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: