The Establishment of Constantinople

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  • 0:08 A New Rome
  • 1:07 Cultural Differences
  • 2:54 Establishment
  • 4:56 Decline of the West
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Constantinople may have existed before Constantine, but it was that emperor who made the city one of the most important in the world. From the 300s until today, Constantinople (now called Istanbul) has been the center of much trade and power.

A New Rome

By the reign of Constantine in 306 AD, Rome was in shambles. While the imperial capital was still safe from invasion, it had simply not been the same place since the reign of the last emperor anyone really liked, Marcus Aurelius, more than 130 years earlier. However, Constantine wanted to change that, and he saw his first problem whenever he stepped outside.

While Constantine may have been a breath of fresh air for Rome the Empire, Rome the city stank and not just from overcrowding. True, Rome was a city that had grown to be much larger than any planners had ever thought possible, but it was also the politics and corruption of the city that made Constantine hate it so badly. Also, Rome was far away from the Eastern provinces, an area that Constantine had great interest in maintaining as part of the Roman Empire.

Cultural Differences

The Eastern half of the Empire was markedly different from the Western half. For starters, in the East, people bathed regularly, while in the West, most people stank. Already, Constantine was giving the Empire breathing room. This itself was a sign of something with even more significance: that people in the Eastern half of the Empire had been living in cities and, therefore civilized, for much longer than those in the West. The largest cities in the West, outside of Italy, may have had 20,000 people, while in the East there were cities with over 100,000 residents.

Another sign of this increased city size was increased wealth. Some cities in the Eastern half of the Empire sat aside some of the most important trade routes in the world, with goods from as far away as India and China coming in daily, while equally valuable goods from Rome's provinces and beyond went East. Being so far away from this wealth meant that there was a greater likelihood of corruption, meaning less tax money for the Emperor and his government.

Finally, the East was safer. Sure, Rome's most deadly enemy, the Persian Empire, was to the east, but if anything, the movement of the capital would mean more legions on the border to protect from that threat. Also, with shorter distances came decreased time for diplomacy, which further lowered the likelihood of war. In the West, while there were no large empires to threaten Rome, many people hated being told to live in cities - and as an extension of such civilization, to bathe - and therefore threatened revolt.


Of course, Constantine had not been the first to notice this. In fact, his predecessor, Diocletian, had ordered the Empire split into two halves, East and West, to allow for more efficient governance. However, Constantine now ruled the whole empire, and while he hated divided rule, he recognized the benefits of being closer to the East. In searching for a capital, he looked throughout Southeastern Europe and Turkey before ultimately deciding on the old Greek city of Byzantium. The site seemed perfect, since the city itself was surrounded on three sides by water, was already on a major trade route and was within a few days' sail of anywhere in the East. Thus, in 330, he renamed the city Constantinople , or Constantine's City.

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