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Foundation of Constantinople, 330

Author(s) : Kamara Afroditi (11/21/2008)
Translation : Kamara Afroditi

For citation: Kamara Afroditi, "Foundation of Constantinople, 330",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Constantinople
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=11667>

Ίδρυση Κωνσταντινούπολης, εγκαίνια, 330 (4/18/2007 v.1) Foundation of Constantinople, 330 (12/26/2009 v.1) 

1. The institution of “imperial capital”

According to the political practice of Late Antiquity the re-foundation of a city as “imperial capital” was not something unusual, particularly from the age of the Tetrarchy and forward. The emperors chose a city of their preference, depending on the focal point of their external affairs’ policy, and built their palace there in order to stay while they were not traveling or campaigning and to govern the empire from there. Thus Diocletian had chosen Nicomedia and Galerius Thessalonica. Rome, however, continued to be the capital of the State and center of the Empire.

A few months after his final victory over Licinius and particularly on the 8th of November 324, Constantine chose to set the stepping stone for the foundation of his own imperial capital in the former Megarian colony of Byzantium, right on the spot where the Bosporos met the Sea of Marmara and Europe nearly touched Asia.1

2. Constantinople as “New Rome”

The transfer of the capital of the state to a new city was not initially within Constantine’s scope. It was in Rome that the emperor built his Triumphal Arch in order to commemorate his victory over his dynastic rivals, and it was there that he celebrated in 326 the anniversary for the twenty years from his first proclamation as Augustus (vicennalia). During the festivities, however, there were fits of unruly behaviour which revealed to the emperor the fact that the people of Rome perhaps was not entirely on his side. Nor was part of the Senatorial order, which saw in the face of the dynamic emperor a threat for its status quo. Thus, four years after the official “foundation” of the city Constantine decided to proclaim once more its foundation, this time as “New Rome”, as new capital of the state (November 4th 328). Philostorgios, transmitting an early Christian tradition, relates that he undertook the task of tracing the city’s new boundaries himself. As he had gone far beyond the older boundaries, the members of his court and the architects who followed him asked him how farther he intended to go. His answer was: “Up to the point where will stop the one who marches in front of me”, thus insinuating that he acted under divine guidance.2

3. The “encaenia” of New Rome

Constantine waited until the completion of the most important works which would attribute to the new capital the necessary prestige; he also waited for the right omens to be given by the official soothsayers of the imperial court. The official inauguration of the new capital took place on May 11th 330, on the namesday of St. Mocius, thus culminating a series of festivities which had lasted for 40 days.

Actually, as Gilbert Dagron has shown, the foundation of Constantinople was a long proceedure over many years, which gradually was epitomized in the tradition into this date.3 The choice of this particular date is very interesting, since May 11th was the nameday of St. Mocius, who was martyred in Byzantium in the years of Diocletian.4 St. Mocius, who was considered the parton saint of the city in the early period, before it became «the City of the Theotokos», had a martyrium in Constantinople from early on. According to the tradition, Constantine I had built it on the site of a temple of Zeus, but it is rather difficult to verify the accuracy of this information.5

3.1. The sources

The building of New Rome attracted the attention of early Christian writers, particularly those who wrote historical works. The aim was to attribute a teleological character and to identify the foundation of the new city with the prevailing of the new religion. Socrates Scholasticos, originating from Constantinople, relates that Constantine gave the city his name, but he promulgated a law, according to which the city was to be called “New Rome” and that he built two churches, Hagia Eirene and the Holy Apostles, the latter of which he had chosen as his own mausoleum.6 Eusebios, on the other hand, is less eloquent, and focuses mainly on the personality and the choices of the emperor and not on the “mundane” events which accompanied the transferal of the capital.

The information we have on the celebrations of the “encaenia” of the new city come mainly from later sources, authors of the 6th and the 7th century, and this has as a result the doubt on whether they rely on real events or whether they are the product of the imagination of the authors or the reflection of local folklore, aiming at vesting the event with more splendor than it actually had in its own days. The basic narrations are those in the Chronikon Paschale7and the Chronographia by John Malalas.8 Some information is also preserved in Patria Constantinopolitana.9 Based on those sources modern historians attempted to reconstruct the atmosphere on the shores of the Bosporos in that spring of 330, tending perhaps towards exaggeration.10

3.2. The celebrations

According to the sources and the historical reconstruction, the celebrations for the inauguration of the new city started on April 2nd 330. The emperor, accompanied by the members of the imperial court, went to the centre of the new agora (Forum Constantini), where they performed a ceremony for the “dedication” of the column which was built on the spot where Constantine had seen the divine vision which led him to set the boundaries for the new city.11 After forty days of festivities and demonstration of imperial generosity to the inhabitants of the city, the court came back to the same point for installing the statue of the Emperor as Sun-Apollo on the top of the column.12This column was a kind of talisman for the city: its seven drums, made of porphyry, had been transferred from Troy, whereas it was said that in its foundations there were placed objects of particular symbolic value, both for the Christians and the Pagans. Among those objects was the stone which Moses had stroke so that water sprang out in the desert, some straw from the baskets in which the disciples of Jesus had transported the bread and the fish for the miracle at Galilee, as well as the Palladium, i.e. the statue of Athena which Aeneas had brought with him to Rome. The statue of Constantine as Sun was made of gold and contained a part of the Holy Cross, whereas the seven rays which constituted the crown bore kernels made of the seven nails which had been used at Christ’s Crucifixion.

After the attendants saw the installation of the statue at the top of the column while chanting “Domine”, they proceeded to the Hippodrome. Constantine was dressed in full majesty and he wore, as they say, for the first time a diadem, ornate with precious stones and pearls. Before the chariot race began, in the arena entered a chariot bearing a golden statue of Constantine carrying a statuette of Tyche; the chariot was escorted by a squadron of the imperial guard, dressed in ceremonial and luxurious clothes. According to the sources, this statue was carried around in the Hippodrome at the anniversary of the city’s inauguration for at least 200 years later and all the emperors paid their respect to the founder of the city.

After the procession the emperor once more handed away money to the people. It is possible that special coins had been issued for this purpose and several scholars think that they might have been the coins with the personification of the city and Victory.13The ceremonies close with ceremonial processions and parades in the entire city as well as with a liturgy which took place in Hagia Eirene. The sources, Christian in their majority, do not refer to specific pagan ceremonies for the encaenia, apart from the dedication of the statue. It is, however, rather improbable that no such ceremonies took place, yet it is possible that they did not entail animal sacrifices, since Constantine had already expressed his detest for this kind of religious ceremony. 14

4. The aftermath

In spite of the fact that the descriptions of the inauguration of the city acquired quasi-mythical dimensions and were vested with a providential character, the truth is that the way of celebration and the specific ceremonies created a new model. It seems that Constantine himself was persuaded about the power of propaganda which the impressive ceremonies held. Similar ceremonies took place during the inauguration of the churches built in the Holy Land. In this way there was established a practice which had started already in Diocletian’s times and aimed at stressing the elements which made the imperial court unique, while at the same time they made it look remote from everyday life. This model was followed by later Byzantine emperors. The “proscynesis” (prostration) of the city’s founder in particular remained a living issue for at least two more centuries, whereas the practice of bowing low in front of the emperor was established ever since.

At the level of historical consciousness, on the other hand, the ceremony of the encaenia of Constantinople acquired a particular meaning through the studies of the historians. For many among them it marked the beginning of a new era, the detachment from the old center of power of the empire, namely Rome, and perhaps from the West in general, and the invigoration of “New Rome” and the East. Naturally such a distinction did not take place until 395, i.e. 65 years later, with the political testament of Theodosius I and even then the Roman Empire was not meant to be two states, but rather two territorial entities. Several historians, though, in their search for landmarks, considered the date of the inauguration of Constantinople as the starting point of the history of the Byzantine Empire.15 This tendency is particularly evident today, and tends to substitute the earlier version of 324, when Constantine started his reign as sole emperor.16

1. The Christian writers attributed the choice of the position to a divine guidance. According to Sozomen, Eccl.Hist. 2.3, Constantine had initially chosen Troy, due to its symbolic value for the Romans (hometown of Aeneas). The works of the new fortifications of Troy had already started, when God appeared in Constantine’s dream and asked him to chose another location, probably less closely connected to the empire’s pagan past

2. Philostorgius, Eccl.Hist. 2.9.

3. Dagron, G., Naissance d'une capitale. Constantinople et ses institutions de 330 à 451 (Paris 21984), p. 33; see also «Chronological table».

4. St. Mocius, a priest in macedonian Amphipolis, was arrested during the persecutions of Diocletian and was submitted to torture (fire, amphitheatre with wild beasts), but God always protected him and he remained unscathed. Finally he was sent to the city of Byzantium, where he was decapitated.

5. Janin, R., La géographie ecclésiastique de l'Empire byzantin I: Le siège de Constantinople et le Patrircat Œcumenique, tome iii: Les églises etles monastères (Paris 21969), pp. 354-5. Dagron, G., Naissance d'une capitale. Constantinople et ses institutions de 330 à 451 (Paris 21984), p. 395. Supposedly Constantine built a church in his honour, where he transferred the relics of the saint, probably in an effort to restitute his memory and to stress the fact that the persecutions of the Christians were a thing of the past. See also Sozomen, Eccl. His. 8.17. For later sources related to the cult of St. Mocius as well as the erection of his church on a former pagan temple see Patria, Preger Th.(ed.), Scriptores Originum Constantinopolitarum, v. Ι (Leipzig 1901), p. 19.

6. Socr. Schol., Eccl. Hist. 1.16. The church of the Holy Apostles was situated on the site of the present-day Fatih Camii. Doubts have been formulated as to whether this was actually a church or simply a mausoleum. According to descriptions, the interesting point was that in the building were placed sarcophagi made of porphyry, which were representing the tombs of the Apostles, whereas one among them was destined for the burial of the emperor, who thus wanted to be considered as one of the apostles.

7. Dindorf, L. (ed.), Chronicon Paschale (Bonnae 1832), also in English translation by Whitby, M. and Μ., Chronicon Paschale 284-628 A.D. (Liverpool 1989).

8. Dindorf, L. (ed.), Ioannis Malalae Chronographia (Bonnae 1831).  See also Jeffreys, E., Jeffreys M., Scott, R., The Chronicle of John Malalas (Sydney 1986).

9. Preger, Th. (ed.), Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum, v. I-II (Leipzig 1901), particularly the “Parastaseis syntomai chronikai” and the “Patria Constantinopolitarum” by Hesychios. See also Dagron, G., Constantinople imaginaire : études sur le recueil des Patria (Paris 1984).

10. The earliest such effort was by Lathoud, D., ., “La consécration et le dédicace de Constantinople”, Echos d’ Orient 23 (1924( p. 289-314 and 24 (1925) p. 180-201. Next came the description by Janin, R., Constantinople Byzantine: Développement urbain et répertoire topographique (Paris 19642 ) p. 18-19, 23-26 and finally the landmark book for the study of Late Antiquity by Dagron, G., Naissance d’une capitale: Constantinople et ses institutions de 330 a 451 (Paris 1974).

11. This is the column Çemberlitaş which still stands today in the homonymous area on the central street Divan Yolu. The column suffered extensive damage by a fire and was supported with iron rings. The statue of Constantine is not extant, whereas the column itself  has been under restoration for several years

12. For this statue as well as for the identification of Constantine with Sol Invictus see Preger, T., “Konstantinos-Helios”, Hermes 36 (1901), p. 457-469

13. Odahl, C.M., Constantine and the Christian Empire (London-New York 2004), p. 243-244 and fn. 21.

14. Although it has become the issue of an extensive scholarly debate, the article 16.10.1 of the Theodosian Code, which constitutes the only testimony on the anti-pagan legislation of Constantine himself, speaks clearly of a ban on sacrifice for private purposes, in an effort to reduce superstition. Sacrifices were allowed only in cases when public buildings were damaged by naturaldisasters and thus there was need for figuring out the gods’ will for the common welfare

15. It is indicative that this date was adopted by a contemporary important exhibition on Byzantine Art, which is now running in the Royal Academy of Arts in London(http://www. royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/byzantium/about/ ) as well as the guidebook of the exhibition, edited by Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki, Byzantium 330-1453, in which are featuring more than 100 prominent Byzantinists.

16. The date of 324 was first proposed by A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine empire, 324-1453 which was published for the first time in the ‘20s and has been ever since translated in several languages


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