World History 1 151 - 10.1.1 Constantinople and the Roman East

The third century was a period of upheaval and change for the Roman government, often referred to as the Crisis of the Third Century. From 235 to 284, a span of only forty-nine years, the empire was ruled by upward of twenty-six different claimants to the imperial throne. New emperors were often declared and supported by Roman soldiers. As a result, civil wars—as well as wars on the eastern frontier—were nearly constant. Economic problems became more apparent after the devaluation of currency, in which coins issued by the government became increasingly less valuable, led to a rapid rise in the price of goods. The high turnover of leadership led to periods of reform and attempts to bring stability to the government and economy, but progress toward securing the empire was limited.

In 284, however, Diocletian, a military official from Illyria in the Balkans, was declared emperor by his troops. His reforms, unlike those of his predecessors, had a lasting impact on the empire and its eventual eastward shift. Diocletian divided his rule with a co-emperor, who like him bore the title augustus, and with two junior emperors given the title caesar. This shared rule between the four emperors was called a tetrarchy. While there was no formal geographic division of leadership, each emperor or tetrarch had his own sphere of influence. Each also had a regional capital city located near the empire’s borders from which he governed and organized military defense. There were familial and legal ties among the tetrarchs, who utilized imagery to send a message of strength (Figure 10.4). Diocletian also aimed to fix the empire’s economy, issuing several edicts to curb inflation and promote trade within the empire. For example, in 301, he issued the Edict on Maximum Prices, which had two goals. First, to curb inflation, the edict placed an upper limit on the price at which certain goods could be sold. Second, to combat currency devaluation, it set specific values for coinage issued by the government.

A picture of a stone carving of four men standing together on a short pedestal is shown on a corner where two marble walls meet. The carving is a maroon color and two of the men face left, while two men are behind them facing right. There is a crack running between the two pairs. All four men are shown in dress armor and capes, flat, round hats on their heads, almond shaped eyes, very flat noses, and holding a sword at their sides with their left hands. Both sets of men show the man on the left draping his right arm on the left shoulder of the other man. The left foot of the man furthest in the background as well as his half of the pedestal is all white. The marble wall behind them is various colors of green, yellow, white, and brown.
Figure 10.4 This sculptural portrait of the Roman tetrarchs from St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice shows the cooperation the four co-rulers hoped to achieve. The figures, carved in about 300 CE, are for the most part indistinguishable, and their rigid features contrast with the idealism of the classical style that had been prevalent in early Roman society. (credit: “Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs” by Jean-Pol Grandmont/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

It is unclear if when Diocletian established his tetrarchy, he expected to eventually abdicate as a means of making the succession of future emperors more uniform. In any case, after he and his co-emperor Maximian formally left office in 305, the remaining two tetrarchs took their place alongside two new junior emperors. Civil wars soon engulfed the empire as infighting among the emperors resulted in the advancement of Constantine, son of the emperor Constantius Chlorus. Upon his father’s death, Constantine claimed the imperial throne in 306. Making his way from the city of York in Britannia, he first gained control of the western provinces before arriving in Italy in 312. In the city of Rome, he defeated Maxentius, his final rival to the throne, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

During his reign, Constantine attributed his victory over Maxentius to the Christian God. According to the emperor’s official biographer Eusebius, Constantine had seen an image of the labarum, the Greek symbols of “Chi” and “Rho” that make up the first letters of “Christ,” in the sky that commanded him, “By this sign, conquer.” Whether this was a message specifically designed to appeal to the empire’s Christian populace is disputed, but Constantine showed clear Christian sympathies. From early in his reign, however, he sent out a carefully balanced message aimed to please Christians and traditional polytheists alike. For example, the design and inscription of the Arch of Constantine in Rome express a new synthesis of Roman tradition with Christianity that balanced the emperor’s competing interests. The arch contains images from existing Roman monuments, while the inscription regarding a divine being is deliberately ambiguous (Figure 10.5).

A picture of the face and one side of a large, rectangular marble arch is shown. There are three bays – a large one in the middle and two smaller ones on each of the sides. Above the middle bay there are words carved into the arch. The right and left sides at the top show carvings of figures in various scenes. The one side shown at the left in the picture has carvings at the top as well. Above the two smaller bays there are two circles with figures at various events carved. The one side shown also has a circular carving and a plain wall below the circular carving. Four carved and decorated columns are positioned on the face of the arch – one on each end and one in between each bay. They run from a bottom pedestal to the top where a carving of a person sits at the top. Inside the bays there are carvings of scenes with people as well as sayings. In front of the arch is a gray spiked fence and eight people walk toward the right. They appear to be older and wear pants and coats. Two people stand to the left holding a camera. In the background there are hills, trees, a pale blue sky and other people walking.
Figure 10.5 The Arch of Constantine in Rome was dedicated in 315 CE. Its incorporation of material from earlier monuments shows Constantine’s desire to place himself at the pinnacle of Roman history, while the deliberately ambiguous inscription caters to a religiously diverse audience by attributing the emperor’s victory to “divine inspiration” and not to a specific deity. (credit: modification of work “"DSC_0787; Arco di Constantino Rome Italy February 2013” by Bengt Nyman/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

To further celebrate his rule, Constantine refounded the city of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) as Constantinople in 330 CE, and it eventually became the new imperial capital. The city’s location on the empire’s eastern frontier was advantageous for its proximity to trade routes and to the sites of many Roman military campaigns (Figure 10.6).

A map is shown with an inset on the right. The map on the left has Europe labeled at the top and Africa and Asia labeled along the bottom with the Mediterranean Sea in the middle. A sliver of north Africa along the Mediterranean Sea is highlighted pink along with Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, small western and southern parts of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, a small southern slice of the Czech Republic, a western area in Slovakia, the western portion of Hungary, a small northern portion of Serbia, and the western portion of Montenegro. This is labeled “Western Roman Empire.” A northeastern sliver of Africa along the Mediterranean is highlighted green along with a small northern portion of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, most of Syria, the western three fourths of Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo, most of Serbia, small slices of southeastern and southwestern Romania, Albania, a small southeastern portion of Bosnia and Macedonia. This is labeled “Eastern Roman Empire. The city of Constantinople is labeled. The city is then shown in an inset to the right. This inset is gray in color and shows the city along the Black Sea with various black squares along the waterways. The inset is labeled “Constantinople.”
Figure 10.6 Constantinople’s location shifted the empire’s geographic focus eastward. The city was near the sites of frequent Roman military campaigns in the lower Danube and significantly closer than Rome to the frontiers along the Euphrates (in modern Iraq). It was also a hub of trade and travel because it was connected to western Europe, the Near East, and the Balkans. (credit: modification of work “Political Europe” by CIA/The World Factbook, Public Domain; credit inset: modification of work “Constantinople. Stambool” by Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Beyond the Book

Constantinople: The “New Rome”?

Though not initially intended to replace Rome, Constantinople (“city of Constantine”) was formally dedicated as a city in 330 CE, and the emperor Constantine was celebrated with various monuments. On the day of the dedication, Constantine erected a porphyry column with a statue of himself as Apollo on top. He collected other pieces of art from across the empire to decorate the newly christened city, including the Serpent Column from Delphi, an Augustan victory monument from Nicopolis, and an Egyptian obelisk. These represented Constantine’s attempt to mark the city as both the continuation and culmination of Roman history to that point, giving legitimacy to Constantinople and to his reign.

The Colossus of Constantine was a massive statue that once occupied the west apse of the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. Constantine may have wanted it to portray him as having an otherworldly or divine quality, apparent in its sheer size—the head alone is more than eight feet high—but also in its enlarged eyes that look toward heaven. The rigid facial features show the changing style of portraiture at the time (Figure 10.7a).

Image a shows a picture of broken pieces of a statue are shown in a row. At the left a piece of a bicep and elbow lean against a pale orange wall with veins shown running in the arm. Next to that is a stone pedestal with a stone neck and face. The chin has a cleft in it and the nose is large. The statue’s eyes are round and look up and there is a crown around the head. A small square is cut out on the statue’s left temple. Next to the head a piece of a knee lies on the ground with a tablet hanging on the wall above it. The rectangle tablet has carvings at the top, a blank space underneath, and faded words carved in the bottom half. To the right on a short pedestal is a statue of a right hand with the pointer finger and thumb pointed up, while the other three fingers point down. The nails are short and there are some cracks in the hand. The wall behind the statue pieces is orange and faded and has water stains all over. The left portion shows an adjoining wall that appears to be stone with some carving at the top. Image b shows a picture of a tall, round, stone column is shown. The column is made up of cylindrical portions with lines running vertically until the last portion on top, where the lines turn horizonal. A small square stone sits at the top. The pedestal is made up of rectangular bricks. Rubble is seen at the bottom and to the left are some wooden looking square objects. A building is in the background on the right with a half circle dome on top, topped with a small round structure with another circular dome. The background shows yellow sky and some trees.
Figure 10.7 (a) The remaining pieces of the enormous statue of Constantine are on view in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. (b) Although the enormous statue of Constantine that once topped this column was destroyed in a fall centuries ago, the two together probably surpassed 160 feet in height. (credit a: modification of work “Fragments of the fourth-century colossal acrolithic statue of the Emperor Constantine” by Michael Squire/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0; credit b: modification of work “Image from page 276” by A History of All Nations from the Earliest Times; Being a Universal Historical Library by John Henry Wright/Flickr, Public Domain)

The Column of Constantine originally served as the base for a large statue of the emperor in Constantinople. Erected after he became sole emperor in 324, the statue, now lost, may have shown him dressed as his favored god Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”). Constantine seemed to hold that his devotion to this god was compatible with his preference for Christianity (Figure 10.7b).

The Serpent Column was dedicated to Apollo in the fifth century BCE by the Greeks in Delphi, then considered the center of the world. Its removal to Constantinople may have been intended to reclaim that status for the emperor’s city and to show again his affinity for the sun god (often equated with Apollo). The column’s original purpose as a monument to the Greeks’ victory over the Persians allowed Constantine to hint at his own victories in the recent civil wars (Figure 10.8).

A drawing and a picture of a column is shown. (a) The first is a drawing of a greenish column made of three intertwined snakes, their jaws open, tongues sticking out, and each facing a different direction. There is a small heart shaped piece missing at the bottom. The floor is brown and the background is pale green. The words “Columna anea friceps m Hippodromo” appear to the left of the column in cursive. (b) A picture of a broken column is shown. The intertwined pieces are dark gray and start out thinner at the bottom and get thicker toward the broken top. The column is shown on a flat, white pedestal, in an oval recess in the ground surrounded by black swirly gates. A shadow of the column is shown at the bottom left of the picture. In the background there is a tall beige spire as well as trees, buildings, and lampposts along the road going from the column to the spire.
Figure 10.8 A drawing from the sixteenth century (a) shows the Serpent Column as it looked in antiquity. The photo (b) shows the column as it stands today in Istanbul. (credit a: modification of work “Freshfield Album, Serpent Column (fol 6)” by Trinity College Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Snake column Hippodrome Constantinople 2007 by “Gryffindor”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • What message did each monument send about Constantine’s reign?
  • How was Christianity incorporated into Constantine’s monuments in Constantinople?

Constantine ruled until his death in 337, and his legacy was cemented during the reigns of his sons who succeeded him. They waged military campaigns to maintain the frontiers of the empire, promoted Christianity, and enacted laws against pagan practice. Only Julian, a nephew of Constantine, attempted a brief resurgence of paganism in the Roman government during his rule, from 361 to 363. He enacted a series of reforms, wrote a number of philosophical works, and carried out a military campaign against the Sasanians. But after reaching the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, Julian’s army was effectively in retreat when the emperor suffered a mortal wound from a spear. Any vision for a renewed polytheist empire ended with his death. Thus, Constantine had effectively ushered in a new era of Christian governance. Rulers for the rest of the empire’s history were explicitly Christian, acting as de facto heads of the church and controlling church policy.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax