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A New Capital For a New Empire

On May 11, A. D. 330, Constantine's new Eastern capital was dedicated amid much celebration. The city was built upon the site of the old Greek town of Byzantium, but Constantine had the city renamed Constantinopolis in honor of himself. The city's name in English became Constantinople, and it was later renamed Istambul by the Turks who conquered it in 1453. Constantinople became known throughout the Middle Ages as a city of fabulous riches and culture, far more civilized than the rude capitals of European kingdoms. Great though the city was, it was the small Greek city of Byzantium that gave its name to the Eastern Roman Empire, which cane to be called the Byzantine empire by European historians long after the West had fallen. The Byzantines, much more Greek and Oriental in culture than Latin or European, continued to call themselves Romans many centuries after Rome had become a medium sized Italian town in a culturally backward Europe overrun by barbarian invaders.

Constantine's new Christian capital took over five years to build. It had some of the strongest walls of any city in the world, many public baths, two senate houses, wide streets, and many beautiful public buildings. It was situated at a military crossroads between East and West, Europe and Asia. Constantinople was also ideally located to control and profit from any water-borne trade that passed between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Eastern Roman and later Byzantine merchants became immensely wealthy from trading with all nations from the farthest corners of the globe. Silks, gold, salt, slaves, grain to feed her multitudes, gemstones, spices, amber, furs, papyrus, pilgrims visiting the holy sites, and travelers from a hundred nations and tribes passed through the gates of Constantinople. Kings of mighty nations and warlords of remote barbarian tribes stood gazing in awe at the riches and opulence of this city, or camped outside her gates, hoping to seize her treasures by force. But so well defended and prepared for any kind of siege was Constantinople that she dodn’t fall to any invading army until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks dismantled the sad remains of the Byzantine Empire, by then merely a hollow parody of the greatness of bygone days. The modern, efficient Byzantine Navy and a triple wall on the landward side built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II in the first half of the Fifth Century A. D. helped to make this fortress-city virtually impregnable and invulnerable to direct military attack, though the city fell to treachery from within her own walls several times during the 1100 years as capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The image at the top right corner of this page is the emperor's palace at Constantinople from an illustration that shows how the city was probably laid out during the Eleventh Century.

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