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Cyril Mango

Constantinople: Capital of the Oikoumene?

From Conference ‘Byzantium as Oecumene’ Athens, Greece 2001. Published by the Institute for Byzantine Research, Athens 2005.

Two linked features distinguish Byzantium from most other political entities of the Middle Ages: it remained throughout its existence a bureaucratic state no matter how much its administrative system changed over the centuries, and its centre or capital did not move from Constantinople until it was shut down by force in 1204. I am saying that these features were linked because one implied the other: a bureaucratic apparatus, with its battalions of civil servants and the mounting volume of papers they engender, requires a stable seat for its proper functioning.

In today's usage the word 'capital' reflects this linkage, for it means not necessarily the biggest or most important city of a country (witness Berne, Ankara or Washington, D.C.), but the city which houses on a permanent basis the administrative infrastructure of a sovereign state. It may be objected that this shade of meaning was alien to the vocabulary of the Middle Ages - indeed, the Greek word πρωτεύουσα (as a noun) is a modern coinage(1)- and when the Byzantines spoke of πόλις βασιλίς, they evoked its imperial, not its bureaucratic character. But even if the appropriate word was lacking, the reality was there.

There has been much fruitless discussion as to whether Constantine did or did not intend Constantinople to be the 'capital' of the Roman Empire. The fact of the matter is that for most of the fourth century the Empire did not have a capital. The ministries accompanied the emperor as he migrated from place to place. His court was usually referred to in Greek as 'the camp' (στρατόπεδον). Constantius II resided more often than not at Antioch, which was therefore called civitas regalis and described as being endowed with all amenities thanks to the emperor's presence(2). The Christian apologist Macarius Magnes likewise calls Antioch βασιλική μητρόπολις(3), a clue, incidentally, to the rather indeterminate date of his work. The late A.H.M. Jones, who was not much given to vivid writing, presents nevertheless an arresting picture of the imperial comitatus on the move: "The roads must have been packed for miles with thousands of troopers of the guard and clerks of the ministries ... and choked with trains of wagons piled with boxes of files (scrinia) and sacks of coins and bars of gold and silver"(4). I leave it to historians of Late Antiquity to explain how this acutely inconvenient system, devised by Diocletian, managed to function for a century, but I am sure that everyone concerned breathed a sigh of relief when, in 380, the emperor along with his comitatus finally came to rest at Constantinople and remained there permanently.

That Constantinople had not been a proper capital before 380 - indeed, it took somewhat longer for the transformation to take place -is indicated by several considerations. I shall mention two. The first concerns the Theodosian Code, promulgated in 438. The commissioners who compiled it sat at Constantinople, but made use of Constantinopolitan archives only from the reign of Arca-dius onwards. They would not have gone to the trouble of searching for eastern laws in provincial archives if they could obtain them centrally. Secondly, John Lydus, speaking of the office of the imtrumentarius, i.e. keeper of judicial archives of the Praetorian Prefecture at Constantinople, informs us that one could consult there all relevant cases going back to the reign of Valens (d. 378)(5), but evidently not earlier ones, which either had been lost or, perhaps, left behind at Antioch.

The relocation to Constantinople of the central bureaux as well as the highest courts of justice must have had a major effect on the inflow of population on either a permanent or a temporary basis. Speaking in 384, Themistius already proclaimed that Constantine's city was no longer half-empty, that its fields and hills had been filled with splendid buildings, that what had been a mere sketch (σκιαγραφία) had become a glorious reality(6). Provincials no longer had to be cajoled to move there by free bread rations: they came all the more willingly to obtain lucrative jobs in the administration and the judiciary, to serve in the senate, thus evading more onerous responsibilities at home, or, in a humbler capacity, to service the ruling class as craftsmen, shopkeepers and teachers. They also came to pursue lawsuits and to lobby. Finally, they came as clergy and even as monks. The presence of the government, with its infinite powers of patronage, was the main incentive for immigration, which, however, included very few foreigners (i.e. people from outside the Empire) apart from soldiers (mostly German) and slaves (mostly Scythian).

In the process of 'capital creation' the approximate date of 380 marks, therefore, a clear boundary, and if Gilbert Dagron in his admirable book Naissance d'une capitate (1974) chose to continue the story down to 451, it was largely, I believe, to take account of ecclesiastical developments and the emergence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Yet, the famous 28th canon of Chalcedon, which caused so much trouble, was presented as a confirmation of the third canon of the Council of 381, which had already granted to Constantinople second place after the Roman papacy. It may be added that in terms of urban infrastructure (fortification, water supply, harbours, granaries) the Theodosian period marked a high point that was never exceeded.

If Constantinople had become a true capital, what was it capital of? In objective terms, of the eastern half of the Empire, i.e. of those provinces that were administered by the Praetorian Prefecture of the East; ecclesiastically, since the Council of Chalcedon, of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace. When Justinian reconquered North Africa and Italy, those regions did not devolve administratively to Constantinople, but were organized into separate prefectures. Similarly, when the seat of the Prefecture of Illyricum had to be withdrawn from Sirmium, it moved to Thessalonica, not Constantinople. Only with the gradual formation of the system of themes did some western lands come under central control, although in practice that control was pretty loose.

It would be interesting to enquire where at Constantinople the various ministries were located and how much staff they employed. On this topic the existing bibliography gives little guidance and even ignores the Praetorian Prefecture, which had its own extensive quarters and can be located on the map(7). After the disappearance of that department in the seventh century, it is my impression that all the central bureaux were concentrated within the complex of the imperial palace and that the number of civil servants shrank very drastically(8). I cannot deal with those problems here, although they have a direct bearing on the effectiveness of Constantinople's control over the provinces and adjoining regions.

Yet, when historians today speak of Constantinople as a world capital, they usually have something else in mind, something much loftier than bureaux and civil servants. That something else has an ideological as well as a factual side. Constantinople, they say, was a world capital because it was Rome by another name. At the same time it remained for the greater part of the Middle Ages the most populous and most cultivated city of Christendom if not of the entire developed world (if I may use the modern expression). As Hélène Ahrweiler put it, "Face á Rome dévastée par les barbares, Constantinople devient le centre du monde civilise, la seule capitale de l’Εmpire rοmain"(9). This is not the place to discuss either the size of Constantinople in terms of population (for which there is no hard evidence before the fifteenth century) or the level of its civilization at various times compared to other urban centres. It may be worth, however, saying a few words about the equation Roma/Constantinoupolis, which started as an official name and gradually turned into a myth. We tend to forget that Constantinople was founded as an outpost of latinity and that for the space of two centuries it was Roman not only in its emperors, its officialdom, its judicial system and its army, but also in its monuments and, to an appreciable extent, in its culture. Our knowledge of early Constantinople rests largely on a Latin document, the Νοtitia urbis Constantinopolitanae (c. A.D. 425), while the Chronicle of Marcellinus provides one of the fullest accounts of its urban history down to 548. Priscian's Institutio grammatica, one of the most influential textbooks of the Middle Ages, was written at Constantinople as was one of the most famous Latin manuscripts in existence, the Codex Florentinus of Justinian's Digests. Commemorative inscriptions were put up in Latin without a Greek pendant on the Golden Gate and Marcian's column amongst others. These facts have often been rehearsed(10) and there is no need to repeat them here in full. Rather less well known is the attempt made by Hesychius of Miletus to integrate Byzantium into an over-all scheme of Roman history.

Although he took great liberties with the truth, Hesychius was no ordinary scribbler. An immensely rich benefactor of his native city, a friend of the emperor (probably Anastasius) and an advocate at the court of the Praetorian Prefect, he wrote, inter alia, a 'Roman and General History' covering the timespan from Belus, king of Assyria (a common starting point for non-Christian general histories) to the death of Anastasius (518). Its focus, as stated in the title, was on the story of Rome within a universal context, excluding, as far as we can tell, any biblical element. Alas, the Roman History, still known to Photius(11), has since been lost except for a fragment of about a dozen pages devoted to the origins of Byzantium(12). It opens with the words: "362 years having elapsed in the elder Rome from the sole reign of Augustus Caesar, and its affairs having come to an end (τῶν πραγμάτων αὐτῆς ἤδη πρὸς πέρας ἀφιγμένων), Constantine, son of Constantius, upon assuming the sceptre, raised the New Rome and decreed that it should be equal to the first". Byzantium, therefore, naturally assumed Rome's succession. But why Byzantium? Because, suggests Hesychius, it had been a mirror image of Rome from the beginning. Byzas and his half-brother Strombos were equivalent to Romulus and Remus, the seven strategoi of Byzantium to the seven kings of Rome. Byzantium, besieged by Philip, was saved by barking dogs as Rome had been saved by quacking geese(13). Furthermore, Byzantium had its Roman proto-Constantine in the person of Septimius Severus, who had initiated the monumental adornment of the city. This imaginative construction was picked up in the tenth century when the definitive account of Constantinople's antiquities was compiled (the so-called Patria) and has since remained embedded in the scholarly tradition.

The latinity of Constantinople declined sharply by the end of the sixth century and thereafter disappeared altogether, but the myth of Romanitas, which was the cornerstone of imperial ideology and was still perfectly credible in the age of Justinian, could not be discarded. Indeed, it was carefully nurtured even when it had come to bear no resemblance to reality. Doubtless, medieval Constantinople, after its sharp decline in the Dark Age, grew again into a great city, increasingly more cosmopolitan, although its non-Greek inhabitants were no longer citizens of the universal empire, but foreigners: Italian and Russian traders, Scandinavians, Turks. It excited the admiration of visitors and the praise of rhetoricians. It was 'the eye of the universe'(14), but how far and in what direction did that eye look? Paradoxically, an empire that called itself Roman, that saw itself as standing in direct succession to Caesar Augustus, does not appear to have shown much interest in Rome and the West. Or is that an illusion? For Byzantium still clung to bits of territory in Italy and on the Dalmatian coast, diplomatic missions to the papal and Frankish courts went to and fro, commercial relations were picking up, pilgrims (even from newly converted Bulgaria) regularly visited the tombs of the apostles in Rome. Surely, we might think, the government at Constantinople, if not ordinary people, would have kept a keen watch on what was going on in those parts. It may be accidental that the authoritative Chronicle of Theophanes, which knows all about the Arab caliphs, should be so woefully ignorant of the popes of Rome, and that at a time when the support of the papacy was being sought in the struggle against iconoclasm. Besides, Theophanes did not speak for the government, but Constantine Porphyrogenitus did and, exceptionally, could draw on the accumulated documentation of his ministries. Furthermore, we are told, he missed no opportunity to question provincial officials and foreign envoys(15). What, then, does he have to tell us? As regards Rome, he says in passing that it was no longer part of the empire: it was a separate state, an ἰδιοκρατορία, ruled by the pope of the day(16). Its symbolic importance receives no comment. As for Italy, it used to be inhabited by Romans until such time when the seat of the empire was removed to Constantinople. When the Romans disappeared from Italy is not made clear, except that the Lombards were let in by the patrician Narses in the days of the empress Irene (sic), i.e. 200 years earlier (counting from 949)(17). Not only is the learned emperor hopelessly muddled about Italy; he is also, in what was meant to be a comprehensive treatise on foreign relations and ethnography, only marginally concerned with the Mediterranean lands: the chapters on Spain (23-25) are merely a collection of antiquarian snippets and even the Muslim world is given relatively little attention. Constantinople is now looking in a northerly direction -towards the boundless Scythian plain, Russia, the Caucasus and the Balkans (even if Bulgaria is left out). This is not the classical world any more, but the incipient world of Orthodoxy, of which Constantinople is becoming the spiritual, not the temporal capital.


1. It had, of course, been used earlier as a participle, meaning 'foremost', as, e.g., in Nicander of Corfu, Voyages, J.-A. de Foucault (ed.), Paris 1962, 42, who applies it to Ferrara.

2. Expositio totius mundi et gentium, J. Rougé (ed.), Paris 1966, 158, 165.

3. Macarii Magnetis quae supersunt, C. Blondel (ed.), Paris 1876, 7.

4. The Later Roman Empire, vol. I, Oxford 1964, 367.

5. De magistratibus, III, 19.

6. Oral. 18, 222 c-d.

7. See my Studies on Constantinople, Variorum 1993, Addenda, 1-3.

8. W. Treadgold, The Byzantine State Finances in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, New York 1982, 111-14, estimates that the entire civil personnel of this period amounted to about 600 men, from which we should subtract the 100 or so employed in the bureau of the City Prefect. The Postal Logothete, who had charge, amongst other duties, of communications and foreign affairs, appears to have had a mere 130 men at his disposal, including about 70 couriers. If these figures are at all correct, it is no wonder that the central government was poorly informed of what was going on in the wider world.

9. L'ideologie potitique de l’Empire byzantin, Paris 1975, 16.

10. See, e.g., B. Hemmerdinger, Les lettres latines à Constantinople jusqu'à Justinien, Polychordia. Festschrift F. Dölger,1 = BF l (1966), 174-8.

11. Bibl. cod. 69. See also Suda, Η 611.

12. Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum, Th. Preger (ed.), vol. I, Leipzig 1901,1-18. Cf. Suda, K2287.

13. As pointed out by G. Dagron, Naissance d'une capitate, 14-15.

14. But so also was tiny Amastris: Nicetas Paphlago, Orat, in laudem S. Hyacinthi, PG 105, 421C. We should not take rhetorical texts at face value.

15. Theophanes Continuatus, Bonn ed., 448.

16. De thematibus, 10.4, A. Pertusi (ed.), Studi e Testi 160 (1952), 94.

17. De administrando imperio, ch. 27.

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