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This Week In History

The New Capital – May 11, 330 AD

The city of Byzantium was founded in the 7th Century BC as part of the Greek colonial expansion. Byzantium had the benefits of a large seaport in the form of the Golden Horn, as well as being positioned on the way between Europe and Asia for trade by land, and the Black and Mediterranean Seas for trade by water.

In 324 AD, Constantine the Great founded on the site of the still-existing city of Byzantium, and began construction of what would be called Konstantinoupolis. Rome was too distant from the frontiers of the empire, so Constantine set about plans to make some drastic changes. Over the next six years, the city grew until on May 11, 330 AD, Constantine officially dedicated Constantinople the new capital of the Roman Empire.

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Constantine the Great, mosaic in Hagia Sophia, c. 1000

The city was divided into 14 regions to emulate Rome. However, at first, the new capital did not have all of the same official positions, such as praetor, quaestor or tribunes. There were senators, but they didn’t have the same powers as those in Rome. It also lacked a lot of the government agencies which dealt with public works, such as temples, aqueducts, etc., and the monumental task of creating all of the new buildings was done in haste. Pieces of buildings were gathered from temples around the empire and brought to the new capital. The same went for great works of Greek and Roman art.

At the center of what was old Byzantium, a new square was constructed and called the Augustaeum. The new Curia was built in a basilica on the east side. On the south, the Imperial Palace was built, with the imposing entrance known as the Chalke, and a suite known as the Palace of Daphne. On the west was the Milion – a vaulted monument from which distances were measured across the Eastern Empire.

Nearby the square was the Hippodrome for chariot racing. It was the sporting and social center and existed as part of Byzantium. Constantine had it renovated and when finished could hold 100,000 spectators. Estimates are the Hippodrome was 1,476 ft long and 427 ft wide. Initially, the chariot races were between four teams, each sponsored by a different political party within the senate. Some of the races became so heated that rival factions broke out into riots within the city.

Also nearby was the famed Baths of Zeuxippus. The Baths were renown for the numerous mosaics, along with the 80+ statues of famous people, such as Homer, Julius Caesar, Plato and Aristotle.

From the Augustaeum ran a street called the Mese, literally translated to “middle street”. It ran up the First Hill and Second Hill, passing the Praetorium. It passed through the Oval of Constantine, which contained a second senate house, as well as a high column surmounted by a statue of Constantine as Helios with a crown of seven rays and facing east. The road continued on to the Forums Tauri and Bovis, until rising the Seventh Hill and through the Golden Gate of the Constantinian Wall.

To commemorate the move of the capital and the dedication of the new city, special issues of coins were minted. The bronze issues are common, with a great many of collectible varieties among their few types. The silver fractional issues are scarcer, but available, and the silver multiples and gold pieces are true works of art that were given out as presentation pieces and rarely come to market.

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