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  • Writer's pictureSimon Vincent

Life of Constantinople - the Ancient Metropolis

The centre of Constantinople, by Antoine Helbert.

Constantinople is one of history's most remarkable cities. It was the bridge between East and West, a melting pot of cultures from different ages and origins. The wonders of Ancient Rome flourished alongside the innovations of the medieval age. It was an intellectual powerhouse, an Imperial seat of prestige and the beating heart of the Christian world.

The very existence of this city impacted the fates of both Europe and the Middle East. It motivated military ambitions of Islamic Caliphates and Latin Princes. It began the underlying machinery that created the the Renaissance. It inspired Western kings to elevate their civilization in the pursuit to be just alike Constantinople. It bolstered the Orthodox Church, but also prompted the First Crusade.

How was life like in such a unique, timeless city? Great cities are major pieces on the international chessboard - here is our deep dive into one of history's greatest.


Constantinople was born out of major changes to the Roman Empire in the 3rd century A.D. Not only was the Empire divided in East and West, but Christianity overtook paganism in being the most dominant faith. The Imperial capital in Rome - founded on Roman pagan myths and values - therefore became less relevant.

In 330 A.D, Emperor Constantine the Great, known as the first officially Christian Emperor, selected the small port town of Byzantium on the Bosporus Strait to serve as the new Imperial Capital. Known as the "New Rome", it was forged on Christian Spirituality, not pagan. The city itself was named Constantine's city, or Constantino Polis.

The Western half of the Roman Empire fell to Germanic invasions in the 5th century A.D, but the Eastern half very much survived. Constantinople therefore became the undisputed home of Roman glory - a concentration of ancient heritage and new innovation.

Divine Wisdom, Divine Mathematics

Iconographic mosaic showing Emperor Constantine gifting Constantinople (right) and Emperor Justinian gifting Hagia Sophia (left) to the Virgin Mary and Christ Jesus (centre). Visible today at the Hagia Sophia.

During the reign of Justinian the Great (527-565), the Eastern Romans conquered new territories and developed their capital so as to reach its zenith. Most notably, his reign saw the completion of the remarkable Church of Divine Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, in 537. The Hagia Sophia is commonly recognized as one of the most astounding and perplexing buildings ever constructed by mankind. Mathematically, it is impossible for it to stand, as it remains a mystery how the weight of the main dome is carried. The Christians naturally explained that it was (and is) maintained by divine power. Thus, the building itself - its dimensions, weights and scales - is a living miracle. The formula of Hagia Sophia's impossible design is a mathematical Psalm to God.

It is therefore the essence and pinnacle of Byzantine engineering: science infused with theology. When Emperor Justinian entered the cathedral, he allegedly fell to the floor in awe and marvelled: "Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"

"Each of those structures [in Hagia Sophia] express values and beliefs: perfect proportion, industrial confidence, a unique spirituality. By overall impression and attention to detail, the builders of Hagia Sophia left the world a mystical building. The fabric of the building denies that it can stand by its construction alone. Hagia Sophia’s being seems to cry out for an other-worldly explanation of why it stands because much within the building seems dematerialized, an impression that must have been very real in the perception of the medieval faithful. The dematerialization can be seen in as small a detail as a column capital or in the building’s dominant feature, its dome....Perception outweighs clinical explanation. To the faithful of Constantinople and its visitors, the building used divine intervention to do what otherwise would appear to be impossible." (1)

- Helen C. Evans, Ph.D. writes in Byzantium Revisited (2006).

St. Olga enters the Hagia Sophia, by Igor Mishkov.

Hagia Sophia was the beating heart of Christendom. It was the sacred treasure, the jewel, the pride of the Empire. Considering that Christianity was illegal in the Empire just two centuries before, it was a remarkable testament to the faith's victory over adversity. Christians from around the world flocked to the Cathedral to experience the spiritual potency of the Divine Liturgy.

Cosmopolitan Constantinople

Illustration of a plaza in Constantinople, by Antoine Helbert.

From the 10th to the 13th century, tens of thousands of Romans moved into the city, fleeing the invading Turks in Asia minor. The city contained perhaps 600,000 people in 1200. On a daily basis, one could meet educated Egyptians headed for the Imperial Library to discuss physics with Greeks, or a train of monks headed for the monasteries. Muslims and Jews visited their mosques and synagogues on Friday as the Muslim call to prayer commenced, and on Sunday the entire city rang as the church bells invited the Christians to the Divine Liturgy. From Persians to Franks, diplomats and soldiers, aristocrats and beggars, playwrights, actors, artisans, stonemasons, blacksmiths, dancers, artists, merchants, economists, fishermen - the city was a microcosm of the world.

Heracles, a copy from Lysippos original in Constantinople.

Citizens hung up icons on their doors, decorating the streets with divine art. Beauty was seen everywhere. Plazas and forums were prided by spoils of wars from the ancient past or towering columns detailing the triumphs of past conquerors on spiralling bands of sculpture. Tall statues of Greco-Roman heroes, gods and goddesses and mythological creatures stood as undeniable proof of the authenticity of the Roman identity in Constantinople. These were often some of the world's most renowned art pieces, made purely of precious metals and handcrafted by the famous artists of history.

The Hippodrome kept the thrill of ancient Roman chariot racing pumping through the crowds. The arena could seat up to 100,000 spectators, and was decorated with dozens of Egyptian obelisks, statues and columns. Hooligans sang insults at their rival teams and players, gamblers watched with tension, hoping not to lose their bets. A distraught Christian monk described this obsession accordingly:

"There are those who are in a state of excited distraction over the spectacle of horse racing and are able to state with complete accuracy the names, the herd, the pedigree, the place of origin, and the rearing of the horses, as well as their age, their performance on the track, which horse drawn up against which other horse will be victorious, which horse will begin best from which starting-gate, and which charioteer will be victorious over the course and outrun the opposition."

Unfortunate gamblers could try their luck at the marble gambling machines. They submitted money, and the machine trickled down coloured balls, with bets placed on which one arrived first. If still unlucky, the Carnival would set things right again. The annual festival was celebrated by scores of costume-wearing acrobats, singers, dancers, wild animal shows and drinking parties. Famous songs were played by orchestras of flutes, trumpets, drums and clarinets, and crafted scents and perfumes dosed in the streets. Citizens amused themselves with music concerts, theatres, wrestling matches and Polo games. After a long and eventful day, citizens could relax in the public baths for a massage and a wash. The more promiscuous would spend the night at the brothels.

"[during the Carnival] men from all the races of the world come before the king (Manuel I) and queen with jugglery and without jugglery, and they introduce lions, leopards, bears and wild asses, and they engage them in combat with each other; and the same thing is done with birds. No entertainment like this can be found in any other land.” - Benjamin of Tudela, Jewish visitor to Constantinople during the Carnival.

The schools and libraries brewed on the intellectual ideas of the age, making the city a harbour of technological progress, mathematical Eureka's and philosophical discourse. The Imperial Library preserved ancient knowledge from thousands of years of human history. It kept around 120,000 manuscripts and codices from ancient philosophers, poets and playwrights, as well as theories from mathematicians, astronomers and physicists. Perhaps the scientific community's most famous output was the invention of Greek Fire - firethrowers and fireworks used for both war and entertainment.

Illustration of the Imperial Library, Pinterest.

Constantinople could also be a very congested place. Apartment complexes consisted of several floors of small studios, where squalor from an over-used sewage system proliferated. Black charcoal stained the buildings and polluted the air as families fuelled their ovens with wood to cook supper. Wood and water was usually delivered door-to-door by commercial companies. The property price was high, keeping the stress of urban life very similar to modern day.

Diseases could spread easily, so the city developed a strong network of hospitals and pharmacies. Healthcare was free when run by the churches, but were otherwise business ventures managed by professional doctors. Hospitals were key to job creation, as they were highly staffed. In-house medical schools ensured a steady flow of health practitioners. This knowledge was exported around the world as foreigners came to study medicine and biology. Children were otherwise educated through primary, middle and senior school, yielding a record-high literacy rate in the city at the time (up to 50%).

A piece of Constantinople, by Antoine Helbert.

Based on medieval standards, women lived very fruitful lives in Constantinople. They were doctors, tavern keepers, business owners, actresses and fabric producers. They also received education till the age of 12. Women were celebrated on May 12th, the Agathe Day. Processions of old and young took place, accompanied by music, dancing, competitions and ceremonies.

On a Friday night, the people of Constantinople enjoyed the hundreds of wine bars and taverns available. Constantinopolitans were wine-and-cheese fanatics, but also had a very refined taste for olive oils. A tavern run by the Goudeles family advertised it had "the finest Cretan wines". Another, located in downtown, described its wines as "fit for a king." To buy the best fish, one had to be early at the docks as the fishermen sailed in with the catch of the day. Those who weren't early birds could resort to the meat markets that sold pork sausages, pigeons, blackbirds, goose (often stuffed with herbs and oils), lamb and beef. Snacks consisted of nuts and dried fruits from Syria, Persia, Bulgaria and Italy. Fried foods were also common, but usually sold in kiosks or street-kitchens. The finest restaurants served upper-end plates: caviar from the Caspian Sea, or any food with truffle-oil infused in it.

Lastly, there was the ecclesial sphere of the city. Constantinople was home to scores of beautiful incense-filled Christian churches and iconography studios, making the city itself a spiritual powerhouse. Its monasteries and churches carefully preserved Christendom's most sacred Holy Relics. Among them were Jesus Christs sandals and cape, His Crown of Thorns and a vial with drops of His blood; a dress worn by the Virgin Mary, her belt and a lock of her hair, and countless bones, skulls and relics from Christianity's saints. Miracles were frequently reported in Constantinople. It became a pilgrim destination, a beating heart in Christendom.

Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, by Gaspare Fossetti

Foreign commentary

Foreigners were enthralled by the wealth and spectacles they experienced in Constantinople, helping propel the city to world renown.

Northerners usually came to fight for the Emperor. When Emperor Basil II deployed Scandinavian merchants in battle, he was so impressed by their performance that he wanted them as his own personal Guard. Since then, streams of Scandinavians, Russians and Anglo-Saxons enlisted in the so-called Varangian Guard. For its beauty and wealth, Norsemen called Constantinople Miklagard, meaning The Illustrious City. The Norse chronicler Snorri Sturlason gives us a vivid account of Miklagard's reputation:

"People who have been in Constantinople tell that the Hippodrome is thus constructed:—A high wall surrounds a flat plain, which may be compared to a round bare Thing-place, with earthen banks all around at the stone wall, on which banks the spectators sit; but the games themselves are in the flat plain. There are many sorts of old events represented concerning the Asas, Volsungs, and Giukungs, in these games; and all the figures are cast in copper, or metal, with so great art that they appear to be living things; and to the people it appears as if they were really present in the games. The games themselves are so artfully and cleverly managed, that people appear to be riding in the air; and at them also are used shot-fire (Greek fire-throwers), and all kinds of harp-playing, singing, and music instruments."

Meanwhile, Venetians, Genoise, Sicilians and other Latins eagerly inhabited the Latin Quarter to set up their businesses, which were usually given tax-breaks due to official trade treaties. Muslims also came as traders, many of whom were amazed by the Hagia Sophia in particular:

“O Hagia Sophia that great temple! O the wonders and antiquities in the Hippodrome!... Constantinople is greater even than its name! May Allah make it [an abode] for Islam by His grace and generosity, Allah the exalted willing.” - Al Harawi (d. 1215).

Nothing like it was ever built, neither before nor after.” - Al Qazwini (d. 1283).

Defences and enemies

Such a city is inevitably the victim of assaults from envious enemies. Emperor Constantine foresaw this in 330, and commissioned the construction of advanced Roman fortifications. Located strategically on a peninsula, Constantinople's south and east wings were protected by sea. Its northern front faced the bay of the Golden Horn. To prevent attacks from the Horn, a giant chain was linked between Galata and the city, blocking off the entryway of war ships. It was therefore only the Western front that would face advanced sieges on land.

Emperor Theodosius I (d.395) added a second layer of walls, called the Theodosian Walls, bolstering Constantinople's Western wing. These walls were a perfection of Roman engineering. They had sections of inner wall, outer wall and low wall - three defensive layers, making it nearly suicidal to attempt a frontal assault. Withstanding sieges on multiple occasions, the walls were universally known to be impenetrable. UNESCO has found that these walls are even sturdier than modern repairs, implying an advanced level of architectural brilliance.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The city withstood sieges by Persians (626), Arabs (674, 715 + more), Vikings (907) and Bulgars (913, 921, 923), ensuring their defeat. Even if the Byzantine leadership was poor and the Empire dwindled, the city itself could easily survive. The only threat the walls of Constantinople could not defend against, was betrayal. Unfortunately in 1204, this would be proven true (see my article "Sack of Constantinople: 1204 for the full story).

Further reading

(1) Explanation of Hagia Sophia's beauty, complexity and mystery, by an art scholar:

Frankish impressions of Constantinople:

Snorri Sturlason and the saga of Sigurd the Crusader who visited Constantinople.

On the Imperial Library:

Overview of the Holy Relics once preserved in Constantinople:

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