(Modern Istanbul). Capital of Byzantium (q.v.) from 324-1453, except for 1204-1261 when it was the capital of a Latin Empire founded by the Fourth Crusade (qq.v.). Constantine I (q.v.)'s motives in establishing the new capital in 324 (dedicated in 330) are not known. He may have viewed it initially as a new imperial residence, similar to those in Milan and Nicomedia (qq.v.). He may have seen it as a Christian capital, untainted by Rome's (q.v.) long association with paganism. In any case, he called it "New Rome," though people preferred Constantinople (literally "City of Constantine"), the name that stuck. Certainly its strategic importance must have been obvious to him, for it lay at the end of the Via Egnatia (q.v.) where one crosses from Europe to Asia Minor (q.v.). From Constantinople one had access north through the Bosporos to the Black Sea (qq.v.), and south through the Hellespont to the Aegean Sea (qq.v.). Once fortified with a land wall, which Constantine did, the city was difficult to take, for it had to be besieged by sea as well. It has a superb natural harbor called the Golden Horn (q.v.), which itself was fortified by means of a chain across its entrance. The massive land walls of Theodosios II (q.v.), stretching some six kilometers, were the most impressive urban fortifications of the Middle Ages. Its triple-defenses involved a deep ditch, with successive outer and inner walls. Indeed, the developed city had no real western competitors in terms of its size, fortifications, sumptuous churches, and public monuments. This explains Geoffrey Villehardouin's (q.v.) description of his fellow Crusaders being struck dumb at their first sight of Constantinople (in 1203). Robert of Clari's (q.v.) description betrays this same sense of wonderment at a city whose population may have been ca. 300,000. Venice (q.v.), the largest city in the West at the time, may have had a population of around 80,000 (Paris not more than around 20,000). What Robert of Clari describes is a city without parallel in Christendom, one filled with both Christian and ancient monuments. Its central street, the Mese, ended at the Great Palace (qq.v.), around which were situated the Hippodrome, the Augustaion (qq.v.), the baths of Zeuxippus, the underground Basilike cistern, and the churches of Hagia Sophia, St. Irene, and Sts. Sergios and Bakchos (qq.v.). Elsewhere in the city, at every turn, were monasteries and churches, e.g., the Stoudios Monastery, the Chora Monastery. Constantinople's importance to every aspect of the history of Byzantium cannot be overemphasized. The city was a bastion of resistance against Arab expansion, in which regard the history of European civilization might have been dramatically different had the Arab sieges of Constantinople in 674-678, and in 717-718, succeeded. Ironically, the most destructive siege of Constantinople came in 1204, when Christian knights of the Fourth Crusade (q.v.) sacked Constantinople and partitioned Byzantium. Constantinople's preeminent role in preserving ancient Greco-Roman civilization lasted until the city's final conquest by the Ottomans (q.v.) on 29 May 1453.

Historical Dictionary of Byzantium . .

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