The Byzantines, the first world empire to identify itself as Christian, came into existence in 330 AD, when Emperor Constantine the Great declared Constantinople (now called Istanbul) the Roman empire’s new capital. The empire was known in its day as Byzantium and wasn’t given the name “Byzantine” until centuries after its fall. Like Rome, the city of Constantinople was built on seven hills and ascended in tiers that surrounded the imperial palace and the cathedral of Hagia Sophia.
During the reign of Emperor Justinian 1, from 527 to 565 AD, the empire reached its financial and cultural pinnacle. Constantinople’s great wealth and artistic artifacts brought a series of attackers from soldiers of Persia to Arab seamen and was eventually captured and looted in 1204 by soldiers of the Fourth Crusade. In 1261 it was reoccupied by Emperor Michael VIII and fell into steady decline from then on.
It was a prime target of the Ottoman Turks from the mid-1300s onwards and finally succumbed to Turkish attackers under Mehmed II in 1453. The civilization that had upheld the faith of the Roman Church for more than a millennium had come to an end.
A visitor wandering the exotic main thoroughfare in the golden age of Constantinople might have the impression of seeing the entire world flash before his eyes. The Avenue wound through the midst of the city for more than 2 miles, from the eastern imperial district to the enormous Golden Gate in the west, which served as the entrance point for merchants and travelers from northern Greece and the Adriatic coast.
The city’s “Middle Street” (called the Mese) supported a swarm of visitors and citizens speaking a clamor of various languages, including Greek, which was the everyday tongue used by the people.
Citizens and sojourners alike would surge along the marble street, passing beautiful porticos and double-story arcades, while crowding the shops and booths that sold luxurious wares, including gold jewelry and ornaments crafted locally. From there, the masses would spill out into the narrow and winding side streets, and open squares.
Silk, Society, and Suffering in Constantinople
Vendors sold cloaks of silk to those customers who could afford them. Silk was originally transported to the city by land from China on journeys that could last as much as 230 days. To solve this obstacle of time, Justinian convinced a pair of Persian monks to smuggle silkworm eggs into the city, hidden inside an empty bamboo shoot, thus securing Constantinople’s lucrative silk industry. The city’s imperial workshops were the exclusive manufacturers of silk items, some of which were kept as gifts for visiting royalty.
The money changers set up their tables next to the street with coin bags full of gold and silver. Clowns, jugglers, and performing monkeys provided open-air entertainment, while pickpockets and prostitutes worked their craft. Mercenaries on the emperor’s bankroll made their way through the crowd, while convicted criminals, hands tied behind their backs, were taken to execution or torture while mounted back-to-front on donkeys, as their captors continually lashed them.
Wealthy women would be escorted by eunuchs to the luxurious baths of Zeuxippus, as servants with cudgels forced a path for them through the crowd. At these baths, the mistresses of high society met with friends, shared the latest gossip, compared clothes and jewelry, and discussed the upcoming events and chariot races at the Hippodrome.
Court officials and wealthy merchants rode by on horses decorated in dazzling embroidered saddle cloths, while, at the same time, there was never a shortage of beggars and paupers plagued by sores and sickness. Orphanages, hospitals, and workhouses lacked the capacity and resources to accommodate all of the sick and homeless among the city’s population of approximately 1 million. Vagrants slept in the covered colonnades that would be boarded up by city authorities in winter to keep out the cold.
In the poorer quarters, away from the city’s center, sanitation was almost nonexistent. Busy stables, crowded inns, and cramped alleys strewn with refuse gave rise to deadly plagues. Corpses of those who had died from disease were a common find, and rumors of ghost sightings of the deceased abounded. It was in these areas that perfumers would erect their sweet-smelling stalls against the stench of decay.
Justinian’s Public Works Project
In an attempt to combat these miserable conditions, Justinian ordered that tens of thousands of extra loaves of bread be distributed to the hungry daily. He also launched a building works program to restore public buildings, such as churches and schools. Employing the labor of local peasants, immigrants, and unemployed citizens for the ambitious project, Justinian announced, “Those who are sound in body and have no means of subsistence, will be sent immediately to the organizers of public works, to the heads of bakeries, and to those who maintain the gardens and public places.” He added, “If they refuse, they will be expelled from the city.”
The new buildings helped to make Constantinople one of the marvels of its day. One notable example was the series of walled harbors which sheltered cargo boats, fishing vessels, and warships that brought commerce and prosperity to the city. The docks would be crammed with every manner of sailor, sailmaker, carpenter, porter, and caulker. The staple diet of the dockworkers was fish, a smell that would permeate every corner of the quayside.
Because Justinian was frequently at war with various nations, like the Turks, Persians, Huns and Goths, the sea approach to the city, known as the “Golden Horn,” was protected against the constant threat of invasion by a strong chain stretched across the entrance. This was accompanied by 13 miles of triple-layered walls up to 25 feet thick, 50 fortified gates, ample watchtowers, all contained within a moat that surrounded the city.
The impressive spectacle of Justinian’s municipal project, however, did not solve the ever-growing problem of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. In addition to Justinian’s international conflicts, uprisings within the city were a threat whenever the harvest was poor or taxes were raised.
Large crowds would often wait starting at dawn before the gates of the Hippodrome, an impressive sports arena fashioned after the Roman Circus Maximus, and which was the highlight of Constantinople’s society and sporting culture. Chariot racing was a regular event among the contests of strength, skill, and bravery. Once the gates were opened people would rush to find a place amongst the tiers of some 60,000 stone seats. Admission was free for all men, from the peasant to the emperor, but women were not allowed entrance to the regular contests.
4-horse chariots called quadrigas, raced around the course seven times, cheered on by spectators who watched the contestants encompass a row of monuments call the spina, which formed a “spine” within the center of the course. When the 1-½-mile race was over, the winner received a palm or crown awarded by the prefect officiating the ceremonies, amidst the deafening praise of the crowd.
Eight races were held daily; four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Between events, entertainment was given in the form of dancing girls, jugglers, acrobats, actors, singers, comedians, and clowns.
The Emperor watched the events with an experienced eye from his imperial box, from which he would both receive adulation from the crowd and command silence as he blessed the spectators. The drop of his white handkerchief was the ancient equivalent of a starter gun and signaled the beginning of the race.
Along with chariot races, other events held at the Hippodrome included bear fights, animal hunts, and sometimes the execution of disreputable city officials. It was also the venue for heated political meetings, important public announcements, and even civil uprising.
The Nika Riots
Small riots were not uncommon at the Hippodrome. On one occasion, however, two social factions sparked one of the largest protests ever recorded in the city. Named for the team colors they bore upon their shoulders, the “Blues” and the “Greens” were fierce political adversaries and fanatical supporters of the chariot races. But on January 13, 532 AD, these team rivals set aside their differences and formed an alliance over their mutual displeasure of Justinian’s tax policies.
Known as the Nika riots (from the Greek for “victory”), the anarchy lasted for nearly a week and saw the Blues and the Greens wreak havoc within the city streets, murdering hundreds and setting buildings aflame. They even sought to overthrow Justinian by declaring Hypatius, nephew of previous Emperor Anastasius I, their new emperor.
After being convinced by his wife, Theodora, to stay and fight rather than flee the riots, Justinian used bribery to play the Blues against the Greens. The resulting dissension between the colors allowed the emperor to muster the necessary Imperial troops who overtook the mob in the Hippodrome and killed the remaining rebels.
Home and Family Life in Byzantium
But thrills and excitement did not define everyday life in Constantinople. Like ourselves, home and work occupied the center of most people’s existence. Many of the upper-class lived in two-story houses of stone or wood with windows that look out onto enclosed inner courtyards, many with decorative mosaic floors. Houses were commonly built with a central hall and staircases that led to the main living area on the first floor.
Cushions, carpets, and curtains provided comfort with a dash of color. A large oblong table surrounded by wooden stools and benches dominated the room in which meals were eaten. After breakfast, lunch and dinner were usually three-course meals, including meat, fish, and a dessert. Although forks, knives, and spoons were present, fingers were still fairly common eating utensil of the day. It was common courtesy for family and guests to remove their shoes before entering the dining room and sitting at the table.
Although the husband was considered the head of the household, the wife assumed the role of domestic manager inside the home. She ensured the cleanliness and care of garden shrines, baths, and lavatories, as well as seeing to it that the underfloor heating system was properly functioning. Both paid and unpaid servants, including children under 10 years of age, assisted her in her work.
However, outside the home wives did not share social equality with their husbands. They were not allowed to take part in such things as protests or processions, and all women, including the wife of the emperor, were required to cover their faces in public.
Marriages were commonly arranged by the parents, sometimes when the betrothed couple were less than six years old. However, by law boys could not be married under the age of 14, and girls had to be 12 or older, resulting in some engagements lasting for more than a decade.
Weddings marked the highlight of a family’s year. Couples about to be married were showered with rose petals by guests and celebrants wearing white. At the subsequent wedding feast, usually hosted at the home of the bride’s parents, men and women ate at separate tables. When it was time for the festivities to end and the newlyweds to retire, they were escorted by their guests to the wedding chamber and awaken the next morning by the same guests singing outside their door.
Conversely, the poor led lives marked by monotony and cheerlessness. Many of the cities impoverished lived in blockhouses as high as nine stories, and which were often packed tightly against the homes of city officials and merchants. Despite appearances, Constantinople did have some unwavering city planning regulations. Main streets paved with stone could not be any narrower than 12 ft. wide. Private residences could not have balconies lower than 15 ft. above the ground, and could not be closer than 10 ft. from an opposing wall.
Public bathhouses were among the most luxurious and decorative buildings in the city and provided some citizens with two or more baths a day. Broad parks and spacious gardens darted the city and offered people relaxation and an exchange of news and gossip. Carnivals and theaters for music, spectacle, and dancing offered entertainment in addition to the Hippodrome. Jousting tournaments were also commonly held in various circuses within the city.
Byzantine Law and Order
Although imprisonment and even the death penalty were rare, some laws which governed daily life would seem barbaric by today’s standards. A person could lose their hands if caught stealing; arsons were sometimes burned alive; slanderers or gossips could have their tongues slit, and death by drowning in a sack was the fate of some found guilty of incest. One traveler from Spain recorded his observations of the punishment given to those found guilty of serious crimes, such as shopkeepers who sold underweight bread and meat. “All such,“ he noted, “are exposed in the stocks, where they remain night and day at the mercy of the rain and wind.“
Constantinople, however, was not without its social reforms. Constantine VII permitted traitors and murderers to serve life sentences as monks in monasteries. Prostitutes were persuaded to join the nunnery.
Emperors, although not outside the law, had the power to alter it to their advantage. In 525 AD, Justinian I changed the current marital laws so that he could marry Theodora, whose history as an actress and prostitute would have otherwise disqualified her from becoming an empress. Four years after their marriage, Justinian would spend the following 36 updating and revising the governing Roman imperial laws in the “Justinian Code,” known as the Codex Justinianus.
Along with his other reforms, Justinian abolished the rights of parents to sell their children into slavery. He also advocated women’s rights by permitting wives to own property equal to the value of their dowries. This gave mothers equal say with fathers in the upbringing of their children and allowed widows to be the guardians of their little ones. This new enlightened and liberal code formed the foundation of civil law in the Byzantine Empire until its downfall almost 1000 years later.
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