Constantinople: The Imperial City

Medieval Christendom consisted of Eastern and Western Europe. The former was led by the patriarch of Constantinople, the latter by the papacy of Rome. Despite friction and different practices, the shared belief was that the Church regulated an individual’s life from birth to death continuing its hold in the afterlife. The Church could never be challenged; it was the manifestation of God’s will and presence on earth.

Scholars unanimously hold that religion then was a mere extension of imperial politics and the means to imperial domination. Empires of yore were built with the sanction and encouragement of the Church. The Western Church was so powerful that King John was excommunicated over differences. King Henry II was whipped for the murder of Thomas Becket, who had opposed Henry’s move to erode the Church’s power.

In the early Roman Empire, Christians faced social ostracism and extreme persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian, an ardent believer in the Roman gods, proclaimed Christianity a threat to the Roman political system. It was under him that Christians suffered ‘The Great Persecution’ which saw churches razed to the ground, scriptures burnt and church properties confiscated.

The 312 AD Battle of Milvian Bridge was fought between Constantine I and Maxentius, his brother-in-law. It is said that before this battle Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the Greek words saying ‘in this sign conquer’. That night, Constantine had a dream repeating the message. In the morning, he had the cross engraved on his soldiers’ shields. Having won the battle, Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor.

He soon became disillusioned with Rome as the seat of power due to frequent tensions between him and the city pagans. Moreover, Constantine’s military sense dictated that an easily defendable capital be established in the East. In May 330 AD, he relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium; the city’s name became Constantinople – ‘City of Constantine’. This was the time when the Later Roman Empire took over the personage of the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople became the Imperial City, its inhabitants the Imperial People.

The Byzantine Empire was deemed an earthly manifestation of the divine empire. It united the church and state as the emperor’s seat transformed from the principate of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, into a divine oriental monarchy. The Emperor was believed to be “the sole legislator, ultimate defender of the church; God’s direct representative on earth”. As Christianity spread throughout the empire, Constantine met with Licinius, the Eastern Emperor in 313 and issued the Edict of Milan mandating tolerance for Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

Eusebius of Caesarea, aka “The Father of Church History”, was bishop of Caesarea (Palestine). He authored Constantine’s biography, Life of Constantine, describing Constantine as “this holy Christian soldier who was campaigning around building Christian churches and razing pagan temples”. He also describes Constantine as “the model Christian who completed his mortal duty to the Church and his fellow Christians while ever looking forward to eternal salvation”.

As Western Christianity evolved into the Catholic Church of Western Europe, Byzantine Christianity was evolving into the Greek Orthodox Church. Eusebius and the fathers of the Eastern Church penned a doctrine that was the singular agenda of the Byzantine Empire. It ordained that, “The Empire is a product of divine will and it has a mission to submit the whole world under the scepter of Christianity”.

The Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I is venerated as a saint by the Orthodox Church. On February 380, he along with his imperial colleagues, Gratian and Valentinian II, decreed The Edict of Thessalonica (Cunctos populos). This ‘Edict to the people of Constantinople’ established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire and authorized severe punishment for the practice of pagan rituals.

Theodosian Code XVI.1.2 sealed the fate of all non-Christians. It proclaimed: “Various nations which are subject to our clemency shall continue to the profession delivered by the divine Apostle Peter to the Romans. As for all others (non-Christians), since in our judgment they are mad men, we decree that they be branded with the ignominious name of heretics. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation and in the second, the punishment which in accordance with the will of heaven we shall inflict”.

This punishment, falsely justified by religious dictum, became a widely accepted doctrine. Crusades and holy wars were fought to fulfill religious prophecies. ‘Heretics, heathens and pagans’, an acronym for scientists, scholars and philosophers, were mercilessly killed in the name of religion. Temples were converted into churches, tons of non-Christian books were burnt in city-squares; libraries were razed to the ground.

Over the centuries, the Papal, Roman and Spanish Inquisitions saw the gruesome killings of great scientists including Giordano Bruno, Maximus, Sopatrus, Simonides, Hypatia, Pietro d Abano, Cecco d’Ascoli, Girolamo Cardano, Lucilio Vanini, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Edward Wightman and Basil the Physician. Joan of Arc, canonized a saint in 1920, was accused of witchcraft and violating divine law by dressing like a man; she was burnt alive at the stake. Galileo Galilei, known as the father of modern astronomy, was declared a heretic and sentenced to life in prison.

In 360, Byzantine Emperor Constantius (son of Constantine I) commissioned the ‘Megale Ekklesia’ (great church) in Constantinople at the site of a destroyed pagan temple. In 404, riots occurred because of a power tussle within the family of then Emperor Arkadios; the church was burnt to ashes. In 405, Emperor Theodosios II ordered its rebuilding and it was completed in ten years. During the ‘Nika Revolt’ of 532, this church was destroyed again. The riots, the most violent in Constantinople’s history, claimed 30000 lives; nearly half the city was set afire.

The same year, Emperor Justinian commissioned famed Greek architects Isidore and Anthemius to build a grand new basilica at the same site. On its completion in 537, the huge domed structure was attributed to divine intervention. Procopius, Emperor Justinian’s biographer wrote: “It does not appear to rest upon a solid foundation but to cover the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain”.

The myth of the floating dome was an illusion created by the ingenious use of forty closely spaced tall rectangle windows. At the base of the massive 180 feet high and 108 feet diameter dome, these windows were separated by golden mosaic. Seen from below, as light from the windows hit this mosaic, the dome seemed hovering without any support.

It was this ‘heavenly’ structure built at the site of a destroyed pagan temple that not only became the central church of faith where emperors’ were crowned; it became the symbol of the Byzantine Empire. Roger Crowley, author of “1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West” describes it as “a microcosm of heaven, a metaphor for the divine mysteries of Orthodox Christianity, the mother church; it symbolized the everlastingness of Constantinople and the Empire”. This was Hagia Sophia.


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