The Rise and Fall of Constantinopleby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Describe the major turning points in the rise and fall of Constantinople.
History saw the dawn of Constantinople in a small settlement called Byzantium, located on the Strait of Bosporus, separating Europe from Asia. It was this village that caught the eye of Constantine the Great as he was seeking a new and better capital for the Roman Empire. On May 11, AD 330, “fresh from the Battle of Chrysopolis” (1) the emperor proclaimed the village of Byzantium as the worthy capital of the Roman Empire, renaming it in honor of its founder – Constantinople (2). After this day, the newborn city started to grow aided by the “various practical measures” undertaken by Constantine to attract people to his new capital (3). It was said that “the emperor had stripped the entire world to ornament this new city” (4). And in fact, it was a beautiful place, modeled in the Eastern style and somewhat resembling Alexandria and Antioch in nature (5). Built entirely out of bluish crystalline marble (6), it joyfully sparkled in the Mediterranean sun as it saw more and more ships navigate into its harbors.
Quite soon, Constantinople became an international commercial center welcoming traders from all over the world. It had an “oriental flavor that distinguished it from the old Rome” since it was located in the East (7). Counters were bursting from the weight of various spices, jewelry, ivory, and furs (8) brought from around the globe, while the extraordinary beauty of China silks which were the “city’s most lucrative product,” (9) dazzled the eyes of tourists. Thus Constantinople was admitted into the hearts of men, bearing the title of both the capital of the Roman Empire as well as the center of commerce.
Constantinople was also the cradle of Eastern Orthodoxy. Even though the final separation between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did not take place until 1054, Constantinople was considered the keeper of Orthodox faith, and the city overflowed with Greek Orthodox Churches built on every corner of the city with Hagia Sophia, or “the Church of the Holy Wisdom,” in the heart of the city across from the imperial palace (10). This was the largest and most splendid church in the entire city. This was the church which approved all newly-crowned emperors.
Many emperors seated themselves in Constantinople, but two of the most important members of this class, Justinian I and Leo III left an unforgettable mark in its history. During the reign of Justinian I (527-565), Constantinople was given the appearance “it would hold for almost a thousand years” (11). Adorning the city with more than 34 churches (12), Justinian I also rebuilt the church of Hagia Sophia into the magnificent masterpiece we see today. Designed by a Greek architect in 537, it was crowned with four enormous domes (13) making it the largest vaulted space both in the ancient as well as the medieval world (14). Justinian also built a grand Hyppodrome, a huge amphitheatre that could hold from 40,000-60,000 spectators (15). He spent almost all the empire’s money on decorating his city. When he died in 565, he left the Eastern Roman Empire in total destruction; “an empty treasury, too much distant territory to protect, [and] a small population after the plague” (16). In addition to all these factors though, he presented the Western World with the Roman Law (which can be compared to much earlier codes). It served as the “basis of imperial law in the Byzantine Empire until its end in 1453” (17). The name of the second emperor, who lived about sixteen generations later, brought fear into the eyes of all true Orthodox Christians. This tyrant was Leo III. His reign (717-741) passed in persecuting those who were against his views, in other words those who were faithful to icons. Three centuries before the final division of churches (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), the clash between those worshipping icons [see "Iconoclasim"] and those considering them as idolatry (like Leo III himself), served as a huge turning point in church history. Being remembered only as a persecutor, however, Leo III’s career as an emperor is frequently overlooked. Nonetheless, he was considered to be a “great general, who broke the force of Islam and foiled the ambitions of the Bulgars” (18). As a matter of fact, not only Bulgars threatened Constantinople. Its main enemies were the Turks.
As time went by the Seljuk Turks, having gained influence through out the East, started advancing towards Constantinople. Romanus IV, the co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire of that time, foolishly stepped forward to meet the Seljuks. The latter though, being more experienced, “rooted the Byzantine army at Manzikert in 1071” (19). This defeat marked the beginning of the decline for Constantinople. Horrified at not being able to stop the Turks, who, feeling no resistance, advanced farther into the empire (20), the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I looked over to the west for help. The result of this was the first Crusade.
Having gathered enough armed men to fight for the Holy Land, Pope Urban II sent the crusaders to fight “against the infidel” (21); to free Jerusalem and help out Constantinople. It is unknown whether Pope Urban II had ulterior motives for the 1096 Crusade. What was declared as a means to bring relief to the Byzantine Empire, was soon understood by Alexius I that the crusaders were running after their own title and power. At this time, by recapturing Edessa, the Moslems proved to energetically fight back. This caused a major outburst of anger in the Europeans, ending in the second Crusade, which “proved to be a total failure” (22). No one stopped at the third Crusade though, which was an effect of the Moslems capturing Jerusalem in 1187 (23); instead, a fourth was organized.
The fourth Crusade, issued by Pope Innocent II, proved to be fatal to the city of Constantinople. At first everything went as planned, and the crusaders and Byzantines got along pretty well, but then something happened. After murdering the previous emperor, Alexius IV, who had provided the crusaders with all the necessary food and money, Murtzuphlus, the new emperor, refused to pay the waiting crusaders what they wanted. This caused all the anger that was already boiling in the crusaders to flow out. “Both sides realized that war was a certainty, and they began to prepare for battle” (24). Finally in 1204, the crusaders “sacked the great capital city… and created a new Latin Empire of Constantinople” (25).
By God’s will, the Byzantine Empire was recaptured and granted two more centuries before its final fall. In 1261 a general from Nicaea, Michael Palaeologus, decided to free Constantinople. His first try was not a victorious one, so he made a truce with the Latins (26). After learning of the garrison’s leave from the city, Palaeologus took the chance to try again and with positive results. Thus the great Empire of Byzantium regained its capital and a new emperor, Michael VIII of Byzantium (27). Constantinople was saved, but it was a wonder how this weakened state could limp into the XVI century. Finally though, its turn had come to step aside and let other empires and nations take its place.
A people known as the Ottoman Turks now stepped into the foreground of history. After having conquered most of the Eastern world, Mehmed II, their sultan at that time, came to the thick walls of Constantinople, knowing that the city’s last minute had struck. It was the year of 1453 when he burst into the city looting, plundering, and killing anyone who got under his blade. Constantinople was taken “by the sword;” 30,000 Christians were enslaved and even more became “food for the sword” (28). This horrible scene saw the sunset of the once mighty Constantinople, the city that had been the object of disputes and wars through much of its history.
The magnificent rise and shameful fall of the great city of Constantinople, at the heart of the Byzantine Empire, was inundated by religious forces at every turn. As such, the will of God served natural consequences to a divided Christiandom which had corrupted itself through political religiosity and theological pettiness.
1. Which water way was Constantinople located on?
a. Strait of Gibraltar
b. Bering Strait
c. Strait of Bosporus
d. Dardanelles (Channel)
2. What was the name of the famous church in Constantinople?
a. Christ the Savior Church
b. Hagia Sophia
d. St. Basil’s Cathedral
3. The first Crusade was the result of Justinian I asking the west for help
4. In what year did the Byzantine Empire regain Constantinople?
(8),(9),(11),(12),(13),(15),(16,(17),(19),(21),(22),(23),(25) Spielvogel, Jackson J. “Western Civilization.” Thomson Learning, Inc. USA. 2003.
(20),(26),(27) Treadgold, Warren. “A Concise History of Byzantium.” Palgrave. New York. 2001.
(1),(3),(4),(5),(6),(7),(10),(14) Mathews, Thomas E. “Byzantium: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.” Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York. 1998.
(2) Norwich, John Julius. “Byzantium: The Early Centuries.” Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1989.
(24) Phillips, Jonathan. “The Fourth Crusade: And the Sack of Constantinople.” Viking Penguin, Inc. USA. 2004.
(28) Mansel, Philip. “Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924.” St. Martin’s Press. New York. 1995.
(18) Diehl, Charles. “Byzantium: Greatness and Decline.” Rutgers University Press. New Jersey. 1957.
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