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Constantinople as New Rome

Author(s) : Lampada Despina (8/2/2007)
Translation : Andriopoulou Vera (10/30/2008)

For citation: Lampada Despina, "Constantinople as New Rome", 2008,
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Constantinople
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=11677>

Κωνσταντινούπολη ως Νέα Ρώμη (12/12/2008 v.1) Constantinople as New Rome (12/10/2008 v.1) 

1. Constantinople as the Fortuna of Rome

An anonymous Latin text, possibly of the 4th century, mentions that: ‘Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium Constantinople in order to commemorate his illustrious victory’.1 Indeed, the year 324, when Constantine ‘founded’ Constantinople at the site of Byzantium by defining the limits of the new city, was also the year of his victory over Licinius and the beginning of his sole reign; with Constantine as sole emperor, a possible partition of the empire was also avoided.

It is possible that, already in Constantine’s years, rhetoric was elaborating a link between the newly-founded Constantinople and the name of New Rome. The historian Socrates, continuing Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History in the first half of the 5th century, informs us that Constantine himself issued a law that established the name ‘New Rome’ for his city.2 The accuracy of this source has been disputed. However, there is evidence showing that this source echoes a rhetoric link between Rome and Constantinople, appearing as early as the period 324-330 (year of the founding of Constantinople).3

It is certain that Constantine’s building plan for his city intended to make it an exact replica of Rome. What is more, several institutions that were characteristic of Rome, such as the Senate or the prefect of the city, were transferred in Constantinople; these enhance the opinion that Constantine indeed strived to create a New Rome, a capital for his dynasty and not just a city that bore his name, in the legacy of Alexander the Great which many Roman Emperors had followed. A century later, Sozomenos comments on the name ‘New Rome’, used to justify the primacy of the bishop of Constantinople over all the other bishops, except the bishop of Rome. He believes that it constitutes an old tradition and, in order to justify this tradition, he points out the Roman institutions still existing in Constantinople.4 The transfer of these institutions from Rome to Constantinople certainly singled it out from all the other Eastern cities that had been used as imperial seats in different points in time, such as Nicomedia, during the reign of Diocletian. Already in the 3rd century, Rome had ceased being the emperor’s seat exclusively. However, before Constantine that seat had never been transferred in another city of the Empire.

Constantine did not desire to create antagonism between Constantinople and Rome in any sector, be it political, administrational or ideological. He had already rejected the political ideology of the Tetrarchy and had returned to the ideology of Augustus, which promoted Roman eternity and ecumenical domination of an empire free of the fear of division. Constantine, therefore, presented himself as the promoter of the authentic Roman ideology, the man who restored the unity of the imperium, and who set the return to Roman glory as a political priority.5 Besides, the faith in Rome’s eternity, and its glory and power during the years of the Empire, had always been connected with the idea of unity in all levels: political, social and military.6 Following the same concept, Constantinople was dedicated, among others, to the Tyche of Rome, whose secret name – Flora – inspired the iconography of Constantinople bearing the horn of Amalthea. Consequently, Constantinople became the city of Roman eternal triumph, brought by Constantine with his victory over Licinus.7 Nevertheless, Rome remained the only ‘queen’ city, even though Constantinople was the city of the emperor.8

2. The ‘New Rome’ of Constantine’s successors

The rhetor Themistios, in a discourse dedicated to Constantine, delivered in Rome (357), says that Constantinople is ‘part of the name and Rome’s destiny’. However, his opinion appears slightly farther than the rhetoric of Constantine’s age: now Constantinople is already – as is Rome – a queen city, and they both unify the Roman world together.9 Rome is still considered queen of all cities, on a slightly higher level than Constantinople, which is the second capital selected by the emperor himself.10 This hierarchy, however, does not question the dual form of the ‘Roman capital’ after Constantine; instead it just organises the relations within that duality.

This is especially evident in the iconography of the period, as depicted in coins. It was during the reign of Constantius II, on a solidus of 343 or 344 commemorating the twenty years of his reign and the ten years of Constans’ reign11 that a new iconography appeared: the personifications of Rome and Constantinople were seated on thrones in symmetrical possessions in the same coin, each holding a sceptre and both holding the medal indicating the years of reign of the emperor. Rome was standing facing forward and on the left of the coin (that is on the right of Constantinople, the place of honour), while Constantinople was depicted in profile, turned toward Rome.

Iconography also shows that gradually the depiction of the ‘New Rome’ alone came to be sufficient in representing the Roman capital, without the depiction of Rome herself. Already before 350, Constantinople and Rome were depicted in medals in the exact same position and clothing, while Constantinople even held the emblem of Rome, a Nike (Victory) on a sphere. What is more, Constantinople is seated on a throne with a high back whereas Rome on a Roman sella curulis. The iconographic theme of the throne in Late Antique art was recently the topic of research, and most scholars accept that, generally speaking, the throne with the high back derives from the iconography of seated ancient gods, while the typical Roman imperial throne, and as a consequence the throne of imperial iconography is a seat without back. We cannot read too much into the fact that for Rome we have the throne of imperial rule, while for Constantinople the iconography points towards the divine throne, because the two iconographical themes are not always clearly distinguished; moreover, the use of thrones with back is not uncommon in the depiction of cities. However, we get the impression that Constantinople’s position rose, with the use of different sizes of sceptres; Rome sometimes holds a lower sceptre. This iconographic elevation of Constantinople goes a step further: at the back side of medals from the second half of the 4th century, Constantinople appears alone, resting her feet on a stool shaped as the fore part of a ship, holding the emblem of Roman authority, the Nike on a sphere.12

Indeed, toward the end of the 4th century there is clear antagonism between the two capitals: the Roman court poet Claudius Claudianus (396) reproaches Constantinople, the adversary of the great Rome, in a poem that constituted an attack against Rufinus, praetorian prefect and official under Theodosius I and Arcadius.13 Even more crucial is the reference of the name ‘New Rome’ in the third decree of the Second Ecumenical Council (381), which clearly states that the bishop of Constantinople is second only to the bishop of Rome, based on the fact that Constantinople is the New Rome. By the end of the 4th century, a name that up until that time was just a rhetorical type, has now become institutionalised and could justify a set of privileges for Constantinople. Even more, it became an official name of Constantinople, so much that the bishop – later called patriarch – of Constantinople bore the title of the bishop of Constantinople-New Rome.

3. The Byzantines’ Roman ideology

Already from the 5th and 6th centuries, authors who recorded the history of Constantinople tended to make it appear more ‘Roman’. They systematically ignored Byzantium’s history before it was renamed Constantinople; the only exception was the period of Septimius Severus and his successor Caracallas, when the city of Byzantium became significant for Rome. Septimius Severus initially destroyed the city, as a punishment for its involvement in the civil war with Pescennius Niger (193-194 A.D.). However, shortly after, he acknowledged its geopolitical significance and began extensive building works there. Caracalla considered making Byzantium an advanced post of Rome in a possible division of the empire into eastern and western. Apart from that, a series of anecdotal stories and short narratives are based on the mythical history of Rome; this is particularly evident in the surviving sixth book of the history of the Hesychios, called Patria Constantinopoleos and was included in a 10th century compilation with the same name. Rome becomes the true and undeniable metropolis of Constantinople.14

The founding of Constantinople by Constantine appears as a renewal, a rebirth of Rome, as the old Rome was succeeded by the New one. Constantine’s founding of the city, shows the evolution of Constantinople into the capital of the Empire. At the same time, several myths and legends were used to indicate the legitimacy of the succession of the capitals: Constantine appeared to transfer from Rome the mythical Palladium, which was brought from Troy by Aeneas, and to place it at the foundation of the porphyrite column in his forum (according to John Malalas and the Chronikon Paschale).15

The reference to this relic holds a special meaning: The relationship between Rome and Troy was, from the period of Augustus, an inseparable part of the ideology concerning the eternal survival and power of Rome, as a city and as an empire, through a series of just victories.16 The transfer of this holy relic expresses in a mythical way the Byzantine belief - from 6th century onwards - that Rome passed on her ‘throne’, because of old age and decline. At the same time, however, the Palladium could only be moved to the New Rome, and not in any random city; that was the only way to legitimize and preserve the continuity of the Roman destiny.17 Several of Constantinople’s names, all including the word Rome (Second Rome, Alma Roma, Βυζαντιάς Ρώμη [mean. Rome at Byzantium]18) signify how important an element Rome was for Constantinople’s identity, at least in the eyes of Byzantines. This ideology was further encouraged when the Ostrogoths occupied the Italian peninsula. Justinian I’s efforts to regain these territories (535-553) were aiming to unify the empire; at the same time, they constitute a movement from East to West, from the New Rome the declined old Rome, whose preservation is only a matter of status and prestige.

New Rome was also very closely associated with the Christianisation of the empire. The declined old Rome became a synonym for paganism, while its renewal took place in the Christian New Rome. This act has also been attributed to Constantine, and it is believed to have taken place upon the time of the founding of Constantinople. However, the legend of the Palladium continued to survive, as it was mentioned by Zonaras19 in the 12th century. Constantinople as New Rome was a deeply established topos of perceiving the past: the Byzantine chronicles viewed it through the triumph of Christianity, sealed with Constantine’s own conversion; therefore, this transfer of the capital to the New Rome was the beginning of the last period of the world’s history. New Rome was required to transmit the Christian message to the far ends of the world and conquer heresy before the Second Coming of Christ, which, in Byzantine minds, was not so far in the future.20

4. New Rome and imperial ideology

The name New Rome, given to the newly founded city of Constantine in the 4th century, linked Constantinople to Rome and gave her an advantage over all the other cities in the empire. From 6th century onwards this name included the symbolical weight of Rome as the carrier of the eternal and uninterrupted power. This power could be transferred, together with the name, to another city, without cancelling the destiny of eternal conquest. On the contrary, the transfer of the name to Constantinople ensured the continuity, since the destiny of the Eternal City follows her name, even when it leaves the city. New Rome, for the Byzantines, is not a rhetoric expression or a simple name, but a legacy which specified a clearly defined role for Constantinople.

Constantinople became the bearer of Roman ideology, which would be included not only in Byzantine imperial ideology, but also that of the western Middle Ages.21 The Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 radically changed the ideological direction of Late Byzantium. Until then, the title of the ‘Emperor of the Romans’ was a constant issue of political debate between Byzantium and the West; the Byzantine emperor considered the title rightfully and exclusively his and refused to acknowledge any western ruler, who wished to apply it to himself, whether he was Charlomagne or the kings of the Holy Roman Empire.22 Yet the imperial and spiritual connotations of the Roman idea in Constantinople survived the fall of the Empire to the Ottomans and the name of the «Third Rome» was claimed by the Russian Tsars, Russia being the most powerful Orthodox state remaining after the fall of Byzantium.

1. Anonymus Valensianus VI.30, Mommsen, Th. (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica, auctores antiquissimi IX.1 (1892).

2. Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica Ι.16, Migne, J.P. (ed.), Patrologia Graeca, col. 116C.

3. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της, 330-451 (Αθήνα 2000), pp. 51-52.

4. Sozomenos, Historia Ecclesiastica VII.9.3, Migne, J.P. (ed.), Patrologia Graeca 67, col. 1436C.

5. Curran, J., Pagan City and Christian Capital. Rome in the Fourth Century (Oxford 2000), pp. 80, 114-115.

6. Pratt, K.J., “Rome as Eternal,” Journal of the History of Ideas 26.1 (1965), p. 27.

7. Similarly, the victory of Constantine over Maxentius, as depicted in the arch of Constantine in Rome, was considered to be part of the Roman destiny, through the effort of uniting the divided empire; see. Elsner, J., “Perspectives in Art,” in Lenski, N. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (New York 2006), p. 260. On Constantinople as Fortuna of Rome see Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της, 330-451 (Αθήνα 2000), pp. 29-30, 48-49.

8. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της, 330-451 (Αθήνα 2000), p. 60 and n. 20-23 for the sources. See Alföldi, A., “On the Foundation of Constantinople: a few notes,” Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), p. 12.

9. Themistios, Πρεσβευτικός υπέρ Κωνσταντινουπόλεως ρηθείς εν Ρώμη, 42 a-b, Downey, G. – Norman, A.F. (eds), Themistii Orationes I (Leipzig 1965), III, p. 58: «ἡ κοινωνοῦσα τῆς τύχης καὶ τοῦ ὀνόματος […] συνάδουσι μὲν αἱ βασιλίδες, ἐξάρχει δὲ ὁ κορυφαῖος, ἐπευφημεῖ δὲ ἅπασα γή τε καὶ θάλασσα».

10. Themistios, Πρεσβευτικός υπέρ Κωνσταντινουπόλεως ρηθείς εν Ρώμη, 41 c, Downey, G. – Norman, A.F. (eds), Themistii Orationes I (Leipzig 1965), III, p. 58.

11. Toynbee, J.M.C., “Roma and Constantinople in late-Antique art from 312 to 365,” Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), p. 138.

12. Toynbee, J.M.C., “Roma and Constantinople in late-Antique art from 312 to 365”, Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), pp. 140-141 and pl. xi, 5-9; xii, 1-6. For the iconography of the throne see Mathews, T., The clash of Gods. A reinterpretation of early Christian Art (Princeton 1999), pp. 103-108, and Poilpré, A.O., Maiestas Domini. Une image de l’Église en Occident, Ve-IXe siècle (Paris 2005), pp. 46-49.

13. Claudian, In Rufinum II, ver. 54, Goold, G.P. (ed.), Claudian I (Loeb Classical Library 135, Cambridge Mass. – London 1922, ανατ. 1990), p. 60.

14. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της, 330-451 (Αθήνα 2000), pp. 17-22· Hesychios, Patria Constantinopoleos Ι-XLII, Preger, Th. (ed.), Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum I (Lipsiae 1901; repr. New York 1975), pp. 1-18.

15. John Malalas, Chronographia, Dindorf, L. (ed.), Ioannis Malalae Chronographia (Bonn 1831), p. 320; Chronicon Paschale, Dindorf, L. (ed.), Chronicon Paschale I (Bonn 1832), p. 528.

16. Virgil’s Aenead is the most characteristic expression, in a poetic way, of this ideology; Harrison, S.J., “Survival and Supremacy of Rome: The Unity of the Shield of Aeneas,” Journal of Roman Studies 87 (1997), pp. 70-71.

17. Alföldi, A., “On the Foundation of Constantinople: a few notes,” Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), p. 12. See also Kelly, C., “Bureaucracy and Governement,” in Lenski, N. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (New York 2006), p. 192.

18. Georgakas, D.J., “The names of Constantinople,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 78 (1947), p. 354 and n. 51 for the sources.

19. John Zonaras, Epitome Historiarum ΧΙΙΙ.3.28, Pinder, M. – Büttner-Wobst, Th., Ioannis Zonarae Epitomae historiarum libri xviii 3 (Bonn 1897), p. 18.

20. Mango, C., Βυζάντιο: Η Αυτοκρατορία της Νέας Ρώμης (Αθήνα 1999), p. 235. Constantinople is also associated to this same concept as New Jerusalem. This association was promoted during the reign of Heracleus (610-641), however it dates back to the age of Constantine and the transfer of the Holy Cross to Constantinople by Helena. See Dagron, G., Constantinople imaginaire. Études sur le recueil des “Patria” (Paris 1984), pp. 303f. Sherrard, P., Constantinople: Iconography of a sacred City (London 1965), believes that Constantinople’s capacity as New Rome and New Jerusalem was appointed from the beginning and show a clear duality: the former had an exclusively secular and political character, while the latter a religious and spiritual one. As C. Mango points out in “Review of Constantinople: Iconography... by P. Sherrard,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 86 (1966), p. 307, the two ideologies do not contradict each other; historical approaches show that Constantinople became New Jerusalem because it was New Rome.

21. Hammer, W., “The concept of the New or Second Rome in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 19.1 (1944), pp. 50-51.

22. Καραγιαννόπουλος, Ι., Η πολιτική θεωρία των Βυζαντινών (Θεσσαλονίκη 1992), pp. 10-12. See also Patlagean, E., Un Moyen Âge grec. Byzance IXe –XVe siècle (Paris 2007), pp. 288-291.


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