Did Byzantine Constantinople ever attain the status of a global city? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider the Byzantine capital as part of the larger history of the world. Admittedly world history in the period before the age of geographical discoveries and the period of colonization was something quite different from how we define the term now. We have to define what we mean by “global history” and “global city” more than once when we consider the history of a long-lived city such as Constantinople. Perhaps the original standing point would be to refer to world history in the pre-modern era by emphasizing that there was a veritable interconnection, especially for the Mediterranean, southwest Asia, and north Africa, as well as southeast Asia. All of these regions were connected to each other through land and maritime channels in economy, trade, religion, and politics. In modern history, global cities are treated as actors in a globalized network of production, investment, and consumption; but what are the means of declaring the same for Constantinople in its history of a thousand years?

There are a number of themes that we can apply in order to claim the designation of global city for Constantinople for various periods. The first is the Roman tradition of the universality of the empire and the exalted rank its capital, Rome, held in it, as other articles in this series explain. One has to remember that the Roman Empire had a claim to the political unity of the oikoumene, the Greek term meaning the inhabited world, and as such, the capital of the empire was meant to be its global center. But late Roman realities can barely stand to prove that this was actually so. Before Byzantium was elevated to the head of the empire, many different towns had officially been called capital, along with the traditional center, Rome, but their role within the Roman universe could scarcely compete with that of Rome.

Before reviewing the conditions under which Constantinople evolved into a global city, therefore, we should remember briefly why Rome is considered the first global city in the western half of the Old World. Apart from cultural and artistic (mostly literary) claims to Rome being the center of the world, we can see that it had become so through economic and social developments. First, it had become the most crowded city in Europe and western Asia. Thanks to the political and military development of the Roman Empire, due to its imperialistic measures, which had already started in the Punic Wars (264–146 BCE), Rome as the capital started acquiring wealth and saw an increase in the consumption of luxury goods. These required the maintenance and protection of long-range commercial networks. Each new province that joined the Empire, especially those in the Near East, starting with the bequest of Pergamum and culminating with the annexation of Egypt, added new dimensions to Rome’s intricate means of holding its empire in check. Provincial aristocrats were aligned with the native Roman aristocracy and its narrow entourage.

Rome had to be satiated by these provincials—not only through direct taxation, but also because as the capital city grew, it was turning into a voracious center of consumption for various provincial goods, not only luxury items but basically anything from olive oil to timber. This is most poignantly symbolized in the so-called annona fleet, which was the means of feeding the capital with grain brought directly from Sicily and north Africa and later from Alexandria. These circuitry demands from the center of the empire turned various provincial cities into direct producers of materials that otherwise would not have had a market. In this respect Rome was different from the other large cities of the Mediterranean, like Alexandria, Antioch, and even Ephesus. This superficially created increase in demand for various goods and services for the population of the capital resembled the way an industrial capital in modern Europe would come to stimulate production of raw goods in its colonies and divert investment into it. It has to be emphasized that, compared to modern empires, the Roman Empire had a minimal bureaucracy [A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social Economic and Administrative Survey, volumes 1–2, Baltimore, Maryland, 1964; Christopher Kelly, Ruling the Later Roman Empire, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004].

Constantinople for the most part followed the same quasi-parasitic path of development as ancient Rome, with the significant difference that in the mid fourth century there was already a well-established and expanding imperial bureaucracy that found a position within the elite of the empire. The old ruling elite had depended on ties of loyalty within their echelons, sharing more or less the same elite culture that came to find adherents in the newly acquired dominion from around the Mediterranean upper classes in order to govern the empire. There was a true give and take in this cultural interaction. Rome did not impose its culture and norms unilaterally; rather, it adopted many elements of provincial cultural heritage in a way that integrated the urban communities under its sway. All these urban communities, whether at the center or on the periphery, had the overarching common ideal of keeping the Roman Peace. The propaganda that highlighted the elimination of piracy in the Mediterranean, and the freedom and increased well-being this brought to life in general, created the secular devotion which the capital needed from the provinces.

Recent work by John F. Drinkwater [The Alamanni and Rome 213-496 (Caracalla to Clovis), Oxford, 2007] has traced the roots and the development of the ideological dimensions of the myth of the barbarians. In brief, Rome advertised its claim of defending civilization against the barbarians so well that even communities far away from the alleged barbarian threat found it expedient to keep feeding the Roman military machine for their security. Thus, not only the material demands of the ever-growing capital city, but also the ideological and psychological definition of a shared identity, which was invented in and emitted from Rome, tied the provinces around the Mediterranean into a large and strong network of communities. In addition to the solid economic and social realities, this feeling of unity and its maintenance in the political capital helped establish Rome’s status as a global city.

Rome attained this super-urban status long before Constantinople was founded. By the fourth century, this notion of a city as the display-case of the civilized world, not only governing it but also exhibiting within it the various facets of that civilized world, had been firmly established in the social world-view. This idea therefore contributed directly to Constantinople’s claim to the status of a global city. But how exactly did Constantinople manage to attain this status?

The first range of material qualifications were satisfied in the circumstances in which Constantine elevated Byzantium to capital-city status and rearranged the flow of goods and services in the Roman world for the realization of this claim. In the beginning it was just an over-rated town, which happened to be one of the two capitals of the empire. In roughly a generation, Constantinople became a genuinely global city. Then, of course, we need to define what sort of a “globe” it happened to find itself in.

First of all, various political and social factors increased the city’s population. Initially, Constantine established a grain fleet for Constantinople by diverting the supply lines that had originally run from Alexandria to Rome [Cyril Mango, Le Développement Urbain De Constantinople, IVe-VIIe Siècles. Paris, 2004; Cyril Mango, “The Development of Constantinople as an Urban Centre” first publ. in the proceedings of The 17th International Byzantine Congress, Washington, D.C., August 3-8, 1986, re-printed in Mango, Studies on Constantinople, Aldershot, Hampshire, UK, 1993; Paul Magdalino, Constantinople Médiévale: Études Sur L’évolution Des Structures Urbaines, Paris, 1996]. As long as that arrangement was maintained, the city did have the potential to sustain a boomtown.

Second, imperial ideology demanded the construction of various amenities in the city—which required, of course, much building material of the standard fare (there was ample marble from the island of Proconnesus). But whatever the total amount of resources that was required, and however many buildings were constructed, Constantinople’s true claim to imperial status found its kernel in Constantius’s enterprise of bringing the Egyptian obelisk to Constantinople, probably intending to place it in the middle of the Hippodrome. Its twin was sent to Rome [Sarah Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople, Cambridge, England, 2007]. It was destined to be added to the diverse statuary at the same spot [Brigitte Pitarakis, ed., Hippodrom/Atmeydanı: İstanbul’un Tarih Sahnesi = Hippodrome/Atmeydanı: a Stage for Istanbul’s History, 2nd ed., Istanbul, 2010; Jonathan Bardill, A. Tayfun Öner, Hippodrome of Byzantium, Istanbul, 2010]. This collection had the tremendous symbolic value of distinguishing Constantinople’s claim to becoming a real center of the Roman world from the claims of other contemporary centers such as Thessalonica, Nicomedia, and even Antioch and Alexandria. Constantine and his son and successor Constantius II (r. 337–361) saw to it that other imperial Roman administrative and civil services were introduced into this new capital, such as a new senate, law schools, temples, baths, and aqueducts. All this “furniture” confirmed the status of an emerging global city, and Constantinople had ample opportunity to show off the cultural identity inherited from its mother city.

1- Constantinople (1493) (Schedel)

Constantine and his new Rome had an advantage that the original Rome had not enjoyed to the full. That was Constantine’s personal advocacy for the Christian cause, and the accompanying freedom of belief of Christians everywhere in the Roman world. This factored in as a new cultural force which bound the Roman universe together, not only within the empire but also with large communities outside it. Therefore, the “globe” of which the old Rome claimed to constitute the center had now expanded, thanks to Constantine’s conversion, and the new Rome became the capital of a larger “globe.” One of the most important supports for Constantinople’s claim to be a global city was the cultural and social function it came to play as the capital of the new Christian empire. By the time Constantinople was founded, Constantine had ensured the stability of the institutions of this new religion. Rome and Constantinople emerged simultaneously as twin global centers of this new religious culture. The conversion of the Roman Empire into a monotheistic society introduced new levels of identity and cultural interaction in Mediterranean society. It was a new network in which church hierarchy, monastic formations, and the social dimensions of the cult of saints formed the backbone of the ecclesiastical establishment. The ancient pagan culture slowly changed and gave way to this monotheistic cultural code as the main shared identity, not only of the communities around the Mediterranean but also increasingly communities beyond it.

Rome and Constantinople competed for the domination of this new global network. There are two areas in which this network functioned and made a fresh mark on the Old World. The first was the re-fashioning of the ancient cities as status symbols of the new religion; the urban culture of the Mediterranean had long assumed that cities had to be ornamented with public buildings. The second was that Christianity quickly became a large portion of the cultural baggage of the Roman world; literary circles and the intelligentsia expanded to include ecclesiastical figures. The literary products came to include long treatises and voluminous correspondences and disputes of a purely religious nature. Rome and Constantinople were the twin hubs of this new cultural sphere. Rome had already developed a revered religious status in Christendom as the site of the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul. This advantage augmented Rome’s already established global status. Quickly the old Rome assumed the character of a Christian holy city due to its construction of religious buildings and its bishops and other clerics, assumed to have the last say in religious disputes [Richard Krautheimer, Three Christian Capitals: Topography and Politics, Berkeley, California, 1983].

It may look like in the beginning Constantinople faced stiff competition from other large cities around the Mediterranean, like Alexandria (which was certainly larger than Constantinople in the fourth century), Antioch, Ephesus, and of course Jerusalem. All of them also vied for religious prestige similar to that of Rome, but they lacked the social and historical importance of Rome. Alexandria and Ephesus had already been outpaced by Rome economically and socially during the pre-Christian centuries. They did have impressive urban architecture, but it was not comparable to what Rome offered. It was mostly thanks to central imperial incentive and financial direction that the important religious buildings of Jerusalem, for example, came into existence. Local funding for the erection of shrines and churches in Alexandria and Ephesus was not on a par with the imperially directed activities of the center.

We know that Constantine aimed to build a truly Roman and imperial capital at Constantinople, not a model Christian capital, but although the founding of Constantinople had more to do with military concerns than the religion of its founder, religion happened to be one of the ways in which Constantinople exerted its importance in the new Christian empire, thanks to its founder’s achievements in this field. An earlier step taken by Constantine that had a true global effect was the convocation of the Council of Nicaea in 325; one definite result that this had in the Christian world was its decision, implemented in practice, on the dating of the feast of Easter. This was an unambiguous success achieved by Constantine. Although the same Council of Nicaea proved to be the first of a lengthy ecumenical (i.e., global) chain of disputes of a purely theological nature, it succeeded in establishing a resonant channel of religious cultural exchange, which strongly linked various opponents to each other for centuries to come. There was a second major process which Constantine himself had started that placed Constantinople firmly in the middle of the emerging Christian network. Constantine started the long-lived practice of collecting relics of saints (starting with the apostles) in the capital. In the Christian world, Constantinople became a major repository of relics for centuries to come. The accumulation of this spiritual treasure increased Constantinople’s power in the cultural rivalries that continued throughout its history until the fourth crusade in 1204. Constantinople became the next ring in this chain in 395, with the second ecumenical council.

Antioch briefly rivaled Constantinople as an imperial residence, but during the reign of Theodosius I, Constantinople became the single capital of the Roman Empire and thereafter remained the single hub of its cultural and economic networks. For in 410 the old Rome fell. The sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410 was one of the many stages in which the old Rome had been losing its predominance as a global city. For the previous 150 years it had been increasingly difficult to maintain it as the practical political capital. Although it still had a large population that depended on the outside for its survival, it was thanks to its strong footing as the imperial capital for many centuries that it maintained a partnership with Constantinople, together forming the head of the Roman world, during these last decades.

2- Hagia Sophia, the symbol temple of Constantinople (Bunduri)

3- Constantinople and the world cities (Map: Oğuz Kallek)

The old Rome and the western provinces surrounding it had long been under the stress of having to defend the (somewhat artificially created) northern borders of the empire. It is now generally accepted that this overextension had proved to be too much in the late fourth century and caused the political fragmentation of the western half of the empire. But because Rome had long since created a commercial and cultural network reaching deep into the lands beyond its northern border, it was not replaced by a thoroughly different, let aside “barbarian”, establishment in the west. The kingdoms that emerged in these territories adopted Roman customs (or at least their interpretation of them) and did not in any way challenge the status of Constantinople as the imperial capital. In contemporary sources it may not sound like the Romans took this simply as a situation “under new management,” but it mattered more or less only politically. In economic, cultural, and religious aspects, there had been only a slight change in quality, although many things suffered in quantity. The West was not a rich part of the Roman Empire, and whatever wealth the provincial cities developed was mainly thanks to their being members of the large imperial network that fed large cities and kept goods and men in circulation, which meant circulation of wealth. Now smaller royal networks replaced that large imperial network, while ecclesiastical networks persisted; urban life contracted, and life in the countryside became much poorer than before. Especially after the Vandals settled in north Africa, the old capital lost its grain basket and struggled to support its large population.

How did this matter to Constantinople? The successful conversion of the relatively unimportant town of Byzantium into Constantinople by Constantine and his successors starting in the mid-fourth century, coupled with the more or less lucky survival of its first generation [C. Mango and G. Dagron, ed., Constantinople and Its Hinterland: Papers from the Twenty-Seventh Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford, April 1993, Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain, 1995], placed the city in an immensely advantageous position during the reign of Theodosius I. They not only survived but laid the foundation for Constantinople’s future global status. This status was prefigured in the base of the Egyptian obelisk mentioned above, now located in the middle of the Hippodrome, across the emperor’s box, which shows a variety of foreigners bringing tribute from distant lands as symbolized by their headwear.

The fifth century saw the construction of the land walls, which quickly became one of the enduring physical symbols of Constantinople for outsiders and are still standing today. The Theodosian dynasty invested so much in adding to Constantinople as a great urban center, such as the construction of the Forum of Theodosius (the modern Beyazıt Meydanı) and the large harbor south of the capital, that has now been excavated at the site of Yenikapı. They established a sedentary court culture and dedicated their efforts to dominating the cultural atmosphere of the empire. This primarily meant the expansion of the bureaucratic elite as well as the clergy. The Theodosian Code, promulgated in 438, became a monument of late Roman legal tradition, one of the few original contributions of the Romans to global culture [John F. Matthews, Laying Down the Law: A Study of the Theodosian Code, New York, NY, 2000].

In the religious realm, Constantinople continued to enjoy it albeit the rivaled ecclesiastical prestige. In the late fifth century, all of the Mediterranean and the Middle East reverberated with theological arguments. Constantinople was an active participant in these, not only because it housed the most important ecclesiastical hierarchy in the eastern Mediterranean, rivaled in prestige only by Rome. This hierarchy also depended on a large network to replenish its ranks. For example, Gregory of Nazianzus from Cappadocia served as its archbishop under Theodosius I (379–381) and was later followed by John Chrysostom from Antioch (398–404). When Nestorius of Antioch started preaching in Constantinople (428–431), theological disputes became part of the cultural activity around the Roman-Christian world. Nestorius’s opponent Cyril of Alexandria had to send special functionaries to the court of Constantinople with detailed instructions to bribe certain court officials in order to curtail Nestorius’s influence.

These religious networks and their rivalries shaped Christians’ shared identity. In lands now firmly under non-Roman rule, like Anglo-Saxon England, bishops told their congregations that being Roman and being Christian were the same thing. This was preached by the likes of Augustine (later of Canterbury), sent to England by Gregory the Great, who himself had spent years in Constantinople (579–585) as the representative of the pope from Rome.

Constantinople’s claim to religious and hence cultural domination was equaled by the increase of its population to more than a million around 500. The city thrived in its services to this population, thanks to an ongoing building program that had been adopted by the Theodosians, who were basically following the traditional Roman urban and imperial custom of building as many versatile and monumental public buildings as possible. Another traditional Roman activity was efficient taxation of the provinces, which apparently yielded a tremendous amount by the time Anastasius died in 518.

All these developments culminated in the long reign of Justinian (527–565). Almost everything he set out to do became an enduring monument to Constantinople’s global status and enhanced it. He started with the ideal of the codification of Roman law right after coming to power. In 533 the first part was promulgated; this was followed by three more installments, each with different functions for the training and practice of law. The main center for education in law in the Roman world was Berytus. But it took imperial commission to bring about this codification effort.

Around the same time, in 532, the Constantinople city center was burned down in the famous riot of Nika, including the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, which itself was the second edifice built at the same spot, erected in 415 after the original cathedral church of the city burned, also during a riot, in 404. Hagia Sophia, as inaugurated by Justinian, had the largest dome of any church for almost a thousand years. Unsurprisingly, this monument became the best-known symbol of Constantinople, which gave rise to many different interpretations, both then and later.

Constantinople in Justinian’s reign became a major center for the proliferation of Christianity. Because of the nature of government, church leaders, parish representatives, and even foreign kings requesting imperial sponsorship at their baptisms would come to Constantinople. Sources attest to visits from kings of Georgia and Lazica, who arrived in Constantinople for baptism and were given many presents by the emperor. Two popes of Rome, John (in 525) and Agapetus (in 536), came to Constantinople on embassy from the Ostrogothic king of Italy. Later on, pope Vigilius spent considerable time in Constantinople, engaging in further religious disputes with the emperor. Justinian sought to implement his own policy also on the Christians of the eastern provinces of the empire. Major disagreements had started at the Council of Chalcedon of 451, and from then on, successive waves of clerics arrived from the eastern provinces of Syria to protest imperial policy and to promote their cause. During Justinian’s reign, a second ecumenical council of Constantinople was convened in 553. Justinian also sent missionaries to the Arab tribes of the Near East and hosted Al-Harith ibn Jabalah of the Ghassanids in Constantinople in 563. Constantinople’s importance for these client-kings was so well established that Justinian did not care that the Ghassanids converted to an anti-Chalcedonian interpretation of Christianity. John of Ephesus also wrote that in Justinian’s reign, missionaries were sent to the Kingdom of Ethiopia to preach Christianity. Various legends gained currency due to the global position Constantinople enjoyed in this era. A famous legend of the introduction of sericulture also dates to this era, crediting Christian monks from central Asia with smuggling silkworm cocoons into the empire, thus enabling the Romans to produce silk rather than having to buy it at high prices from Persian intermediaries; until then it had been believed that silk could only be produced in China.

During Justinian’s reign, Constantinople’s claim to global-city status reached its maximum extent. It was much harder in later centuries for the city to achieve the same level of fame, wealth, cultural and religious activity, and successful intervention in neighboring cultures. Constantinople in Justinian’s reign secured a lasting image in the cultures of contemporary societies, to be amplified in future generations. Not only in the northern reaches of Europe, but also across all of Asia, Constantinople was equated with an imperial image.

It is probably not possible to find any other period in the history of Byzantine Constantinople that would be on a par with the Justinianic city in its claim to global impact. But there were certainly subsequent issues and eras that brought the city to the front of the global stage.

One such issue is the monopolistic production and use of so-called Greek fire in warfare. Any society in world history, until the military use of gunpowder in the modern era, would have immediately associated the use of Greek fire with Constantinople. It came to historical attention in the seventh century, when it was used to prevent Arab/Umayyad military supremacy over the Roman/Byzantine empire. Byzantine historians stated that its manufacture was a state secret. Most recently, John Haldon argued that the chief ingredient must have been naturally occurring crude oil acquired from areas near the Black Sea. Military adversaries occasionally captured vessels that contained the siphons used to discharge Greek fire, but they were unable to operate them or produce a similar weapon.

A broad period in which Constantinople reclaimed some semblance of global importance occurred in the ninth century during the conversion of the Slavic people. This happened during the patriarchate of Photius (p. 858–893). Brother monks Cyril and Methodius were sent to Moravia at the invitation of the Moravian king in the 860s. Cyril had previously been employed by the empire in diplomatic relations with the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad; he was also sent to the Khazar Khaganate by the emperor Michael III (842–867) to discover ways to Christianize the Khazars. At the Moravians’ request, both brothers were sent to central Europe, and when their mission succeeded, a cultural relationship of unprecedented influence started between the Slavs of Europe and the Roman/Byzantine empire of the Middle Ages. Christianity as promoted by the court and church of Constantinople elevated the Slavs from obscure tribal communities to a civilization. A predecessor of the Cyrillic alphabet called the Glagolithic was also invented by Cyril during this mission. The cultural and literary capital at the disposal of Constantinople was, of course, the predominant arsenal for diplomatic relations between the Slavs and the Byzantines from then on; when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies in 1453, Moscow claimed to have become the Third Rome, largely due to ties of faith between Constantinople and the northern Slavs.

Constantinople continued displaying an aura of wealth and status to communities in the northern reaches of Europe. In the high Middle Ages of Europe, Constantinople was accessible to everyone, in particular to traders, pilgrims, and mercenaries. The Varangian Guard in Constantinople was made up of soldiers from various northern European locations, basically employed for the personal protection of the emperor. It was formed in the 10th century and employed Scandinavians, Normans, and Anglo-Saxons. Harald Sigurdsson, who later became the king of Norway as Harald III Hardrada, served in his youth (1034–1042) in Constantinople as a member of this force. After the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, a number of Anglo-Saxon noblemen came to Constantinople offering their military services.

The image of Constantinople as a jewelry box existed in parallel with its perception as a center of immense spiritual importance. As discussed above, it had over the years collected a variety of holy relics. This was one of the most enduring images of Constantinople in the monastic and clerical world. One of the promises made by Emperor Alexius (1081–1118) in 1095 to western Europeans, to persuade them to fight against the Seljuk Turks, was a share of this large spiritual treasure. The city paid dearly for this promise in the Fourth Crusade of 1204, when all its riches, material and spiritual, were taken away to Europe. It never recovered from this loss.

4- Kıztaşı (Column of Marcian) and Çemberlitaş (Column of Constantine) (on the right) some of the symbols of Constantinople (Gurlitt)

5- Hippodrome and Obelisk, the places of imperial ceremonies in Constantinople (Allom)

The importance of networks and shared identities to the claim of global importance for any institution, be it a city or a community, has been discussed before. During the Crusades era, despite all the differences between the Byzantine/Roman Empire and western Europeans (the Franks), a common notion was forged of the defense of Christianity against invading Muslim armies. Probably the last particular factor that contributed to the global importance of Byzantium was then seen to have been there from relatively the earliest periods. Constantinople’s walls had never been stormed, and the city had never fallen except by cheating. In military terms, therefore, the walls of Constantinople had stood as the paragon model. Both Ottomans and western Europeans tried to breach this defensive structure. Even after the Ottoman armies had conquered Constantinople, the land walls of Constantinople remained as a reminder of its past glory.


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This article was originally written in English for History of Istanbul and published in a digitalized form in 2019; and its Turkish translation was published in 2015.