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This Week In History

Byzantium, Nova Roma. May 11, 330.

Byzantium was the Greek capital city of Thrace, situated in the Western part of the entrance of the Bosphorus Strait, actually Istambul. It has occupied an outstanding part in History since its founding, around 668 BC, according to Herodotus.

Byzantium suffered, as did all Greece, Rome´s tutoring. The city entered a period of decline, although all of the Greek cities in this period were well supplied. During the Macedonian Wars, between Rome and Philippus V, Romans awarded Byzantium with the title of confederate city for their help. In 191 BC the city was a Roman ally and acknowledged as a free city, although it lost this status in 100 BC.

Emperor Claudius reduced the city taxes to make up for its losses in the war against Thrace. Vespasian integrated Byzantium in the Roman province of Thrace.

The Antonine period was of great economic prosperity, although the city never recovered its past splendor. Letters between Trajan and Pliny the Younger describe a fully developed city, cosmopolite and busy of travelers in the ports and markets.

All changed in 192 as a consequence of the civil war that broke in after Commodus´ assassination. At the time, Byzantium got involved in the feud between the Roman emperor Septimius Severus and Pescennius Niger, with whom the city sided. Severus besieged the city for 3 years, until the Byzantines finally surrendered. The annoyed emperor massacred the garrison and the magistrates, looted and destroyed the city walls and dismantled the city, deprived it from its privileges and reduced it to a mere village subdued to Perynthus, the city that upgraded to metropolis until the Constantinian Era.

Dio Cassio, a contemporary historiographer that visited the city during that period, describes a broken Byzantium, in such a devastated and ruinous state that anyone would think it had been taken not by Romans, but by Barbarians. Nevertheless, shortly after, Severus, to satisfy his son Caracalla, rebuilt great part of the city, embellished the Thermae, the arcades and other public buildings, and renamed it “Augusta Antonina” after Caracalla. Caracalla restored the rights of the city and its citizens. The new name, though, didn´t became popular and when Caracalla died, the city reclaimed its original name.

The role of Byzantium has remained a mystery during the period of the Goth invasions (from 238). Deprived from its walls since 196, Byzantium was defenseless against the expeditions of Barbarians coming from Thrace and through the Bosphorus. Nevertheless it remained intact, while other cities of Propontis where totally annihilated. For this reason it is widely believed that Byzantium came to some kind of agreement with the invaders.

The 3rd century is poorly documented in what concerns the history of the city, although records such as those of Dio Cassio and Herodian do mention it from time to time. It mantained the privilege of having its own coinage until the reign of Galienus. In 262 Galienus hounded the city. He ordered a massive killing of citizens and all the ancient families disappeared, except for those that where not in the city at that time. Byzantium, was rebuilt one more time shortly after.

At stake during the fights between the Tetrarchy that followed the abdication of Diocletian, the walls of Byzantium were reinforced and the city sided first with Maximian and with Licinius afterwards, who gave up after the Battle of Adrianopolis and the siege of Byzantium by Constantine until the city finally surrendered. This way, Constantine became the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, ruling from then on as sole emperor. He decided to make the city the capital of the Roman Empire and therefore started works of embellishment, rebuilding, and protecting. For this he employed about 40.000 men, most of them Goth slaves. Architects and sculptors were free to adorn the old Greek city and upgrade it to the rank of Imperial residence. Byzantium was embellished with hundreds of artworks, a selection of the best sent from each province. On May 11, 330, a ceremony ratified the creation of the city of Constantine: Constantinopolis, Constantinople or Nova Roma.

The ideological concept of Nova Roma has transcended history, and consists of the intangible heritage of Ancient Rome transferred to a new space that intends to restore the mythical virtues of the Roman civilization. The first city to be named Nova Roma was Constantinople (Byzantium), becoming the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in charge of its protection until its end in 1453.

The title of Third Rome was reclaimed by the city of Moscow, as the Russian Empire intended in the 15th century to perpetuate the Empire, but taking distance from the city of Constantinople that was invaded by Ottoman Turks in 1473.

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