The Byzantine state has been considered as an absolute monarchy, where the power of the emperor was definite and he had the only and final say in every aspect of the political life. According to this view the emperor had been ordained by God and all citizens believed and obeyed his authority. However, this old view has been closely questioned in several important scholarly works. Even one author has very recently claimed that the Byzantine empire was a “republican monarchy” and the people was politically sovereign in this republic right from its beginning in the fourth century until its fall in the fifteenth century. This chapter does not attempt to support or to refute that novel argument, instead it will deal with aspects of the secular and ecclesiastical politics in the capital focusing particularly on making and unmaking of bishops and emperors up to the age of Justinian. Apparently, it is not possible to cover (and not necessary either) all the secular and ecclesiastical matters of the early Byzantine capital. Rather, several selected incidents related with Constantinople are going to be examined to form a narrative how the Byzantine secular and ecclesiastical political evolution took shape in the early period.

1- Emperor Constantine (Hagia Sophia)

Secular and Ecclesiastical Politics in the Fourth-Century Constantinople

It is well-known that the city of Byzantium had no real importance within the Roman Empire neither strategically nor as a centre of urban politics before it was converted into a capital between 324 and 330 with the initiative of Constantine the Great, save the civil war between Septimius Severus and Pescennius Niger in the last years of the second century AD. Once it became the administrative centre of the eastern Roman World, it also became the centre-stage of the secular and ecclesiastical politics. In AD 337 when Constantine I died without designating a specific heir, the closest son to the throne was Constantius II. After supervising his father’s funeral, he instigated the army to execute the remaining relatives of the deceased emperor. A blood-bath followed.

After the division of the empire, Constantius, as if purposely anxious not to fall short of his father in impiety, decided to prove his manhood everyone by beginning at home with his relatives’ blood. First he managed to have his uncle, Constantius, murdered by the soldiers, then he devised a similar plot for Delmatius Caesar and Optatus, who had been raised by Constantine to the honour of patriciate.1

The pagan historian Zosimus reported the aftershock of the division of the empire between the sons of Constantine in 337 with these words. All these political murders committed in Constantinople, though we cannot tell in what way the population of the city took part in these dynastic regulations. Almost contemporary with the political murders within the Constantinian dynasty, the city faced an ecclesiastical election turmoil, at which Christian society showed their presence and sensitivity to these competitions either for religious reasons or some other. The aged bishop of the capital had died almost simultaneously with Constantine and according to Christian tradition, for the election of a new bishop public consent was needed. The fifth century church historian Socrates Scholasticus tells us that Christian public had been divided into two parties as the followers of Arius and of the Nicene Orthodoxy2 and the election was therefore very controversial. Although the Nicene candidate Paul had been ordained as the new bishop, a civil disorder forced the emperor Constantius II to expel Paul and to appoint the metropolitan bishop of Nicomedia as the ecclesiastical head of the eastern capital. The imperial intervention was a clear sign that the new emperor had a particular church politics in mind, as he was aware that the doctrinal formula of the council of Nicaea was failed to manage a church unity. On the other hand, it is not evident whether the Constantinopolitan society was only divided on the basis of their religious differences or there were other factors influential in that factional division, however, it is convenient to claim that these two simultaneous events indicate several elements in the secular and church politics in the capital: soldiers, people, emperor and religious tenets.

Soon after the first episcopal election a second public turmoil occurred in Constantinople, because previously elected bishop had died and the Nicene candidate Paul made himself available in the church of Constantinople in AD 341 as an alternative to the Arian nominee Macedonius. They were both among the members of the church hierarchy in Constantinople, and obvious representatives of the different interest groups. Since our sources concentrate only on their theological attitudes it is very difficult to detect any other social and political factionalism among the Christians in the city. The emperor did not again confirm the election of the Nicene figure, because he had a different plan of design for church politics and sent one of his military commanders to expel the Nicene Paul out of Constantinople. However, the supporters of Paul did not let this happened and rioted. Factionalism and street fighting were so severe that the imperial general Hermogenes was killed by the Nicene rioters in 341. The emperor sent another general and experienced state-man, Philagrius, and Paul was once more expelled from the city. When the emperor came to Constantinople later he punished the population by reducing the food distribution by a half for the people. According to sources Constantine the Great had instituted a daily allowance of wheat for 80.000 people, but Constantius reduced it to 40.000 in order not to fill the capital with idle people.3 These two events do not only reflect the active involvement of population and soldiery into the political and ecclesiastical matters but also it reflects the political and theological sensitivities, and the keenness of people to jump into the daily politics in Constantinople.

Constantinople did not become an active political stage or a centre of conflict after the death of Constantius in 361 in the accession of the next two emperors, Julian and Jovian. The former entered the city without any trouble, the latter became emperor in the eastern frontier and did not even see Constantinople as he died on the road to Constantinople. Julian was the last member of the Constantinian dynasty, and when Valentinian and Valens controlled the empire in 364, a new dynasty had been established. Valentinian ruled the western part of the empire, Valens was the eastern emperor. However, his rule was not unchallenged. Procopius, a distant relative of Julian, supported by several units of soldiers in Constantinople threatened the legitimacy of the rule of Valens. People and soldiers in Constantinople were not pleased with the harsh administrative manner of Valens. The contemporary observer Ammianus Marcellinus captured very well how dynastic politics were still a badly needed redeemer for Procopius in these words:

Procopius hit upon a particularly effective way of winning their support by personally carrying about in his arms the small daughter of Constantius, whose memory they cherished, and stressing his relationship with that emperor and Julian. Another favourable circumstance was that Faustina, the child’s mother, happened to be present when he received certain items of the imperial insignia.4

This rebellion continued from September 365 to May 366 and demonstrated the continuation of the sympathy towards the memory of Constantius in the city, but it also showed military solidarity for the new emperors, as Ammianus notes, Valens only dared to send two legions to suppress the rebellion in the capital.

2- The Gold coin minted in the name of Theodosius I (Istanbul Archeology Museum, Coins Section)

3- The Gold coin minted in the name of Arcadius (Istanbul Archeology Museum, Coins Section)

Public opinion was very sensitive not only to internal affairs but also to external politics and military developments. The emperor Valens had organised games in the Hippodrome to have popular support and morale his soldiers just before his military campaign against the Goths in 378, few months before the disastrous battle of Adrianople. However, he was publicly protested at the hippodrome not having gone to stop the Gothic raiding parties instead having had entertainment in the capital. The Goths who fled from the Hunnic pressures had entered the empire two years before and were settled very disorderly in the south of the river Danube on the condition of the conversion to Christianity. The result had been a very severe refugee crisis. Following a food shortage, the Roman officials completely lost control of the refugees and even a leading Roman commander was killed by the Gothic bands. Then the Goths began incursions and the reports of bad news of mass marauding or killing led to the rise of public concern even in Constantinople, where people were considering their Christian brothers/sisters were being destroyed by the barbarian Goths. It was this reason that they protested the emperor, who went to battle and was destroyed by the Gothic cavalries in the battle of Adrianople on 8th of August 378.

Hippodrome as a Public and Political Stage and Factions

The hippodrome of Constantinople was not only a centre of the public entertainment, but it was also the most important place for ordinary people to declare their views. The history of this building goes back to the reign of Septimius Severus, who both demolished Byzantium and then tried to restore it. However, the construction was completed under the reign of Constantine after the declaration of the city as the new capital. Constantine also introduced an innovation because he provided the hippodrome with an imperial box (kathisma), where emperors could attend and watch races and also listen to the people. The imperial box had a special access to the imperial palace through a spiral staircase. The hippodrome served not only as a sports field or an entertainment arena but also it was a stage for the proclamation of a new emperor, celebration of triumphs and centre of the public life. The popular participation and the interest of people in the entertainments of the hippodrome is usually represented as the “bread and circuses” in the ancient historical scholarship. In fact, the followingpassage John Chrysostom explains explicitly and verifiesthe popularity of the hippodrome in the daily life of the early Byzantine public in Constantinople.

The theatre is filled and the entire people is seated in the upper rows often the roof itself is covered with men so you can see neither tiles nor stone slabs –nothing but human heads and bodies.5

4- Emperor Arcadius (Istanbul Archeology Museum)

It was in fact the government that kept the Constantinopolitan society happy by distributing free food, as I have already indicated, and staging huge spectacles. Whatever the religious side and sigh of John Chrysostom had been, the population and the size of Constantinople was remarkably increasing in the decades after the formal opening ceremony of the city in 330. Constantinople showed a remarkable expansion. Attracted by free distributions of bread, by prospectus of employment and the proximity of the imperial court settlers poured in. By 359 the city was sufficiently developed to merit, like Rome, an urban prefect. The supply of drinking water had to be increased. In the cathedral of Holy Wisdom, completed in 360, the bishop of Constantinople was beginning to outstrip in influence and wealth the incumbents of the more ancient apostolic sees. Theodosius I and his successors undertook a further programme of urban construction. In 413 the fortified circuit was again enlarged by the construction of the double land walls. The population increased probably to 300.000-400.000. In the first half of the fifth century Constantinople was probably bigger than Alexandria and Rome. In fact, Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae, a statistical account of the city written in the second quarter of the fifth century, documents the fourteen regions, into which it had been divided and these numbers provide a strong idea about the size of the city, which, according to the list, included 5 imperial and 9 princely palaces, 8 public and 153 privately owned baths, 4 fora, 5 granaries, 2 theatres in addition to the hippodrome, 322 streets, 4388 domus (substantial houses) 52 porticoes, 20 public and 120 private bakeries, 14 churches.

5- The columns of Emperor Constantine and Arcadius

6a- The representational drawings on the column of Arcadius located inwomen’s bazaar (Gurlitt)

6b- The representational drawings on the column of Arcadius located inwomen’s bazaar (Gurlitt)

6c- The representational drawings on the column of Arcadius located inwomen’s bazaar (Gurlitt)

Imagining the hippodrome in the centre of the city, a show-stage for people and emperors must have been thrilling, however it was equally despairing for a sensitive church leader of the fourth century. Crowd in the hippodrome that John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople, sighed and criticised in the quoted passage was not there randomly. The masses had been divided into several factions not only in Constantinople but also in all major cities of the Roman Empire. Needless to say, that these groups had an observable impact both on the local problems and on the religious and secular politics. Nominally those groups were only fans and supporters of competed teams in chariot races. Although they are mostly remembered as only blues and greens, there were four clubs, which were identified with colours: Blues (Venetoi), Greens (Prasinoi), Reds (Rousioi) and Whites (Leukoi). Traditional view for these groups was that they were representing differing religious attitudes and were members of different social backgrounds. However, after Alan Cameron’s scholarly (and modernist) work, titled Circus Factions, old views have been abandoned and those factions began to be seen in the same category with the modern soccer fans, which are not so easy to classify into any distinctive social, religious or ideological categories. Whatever their social backgrounds Reds and Whites lost their importance and fade away from the pens of the contemporary writers, however Blues and Greens remained as the most popular pressure groups. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that at the beginning of the sixth century the monophysite emperor Anastasius was supporting not the monophysite Greens, but the Red faction.

Constantinople under the Theodosian Dynasty: Bishops, Monks and Empresses

The death of Valens at the battle was a disaster for the Roman military and it brought the short-lived Valentinian dynasty to an end. The new emperor of the east was the Spaniard Theodosius (379-95), the founder of the Theodosian dynasty, which controlled the eastern empire until 457 to the death of Marican. The fall of Valens was also a disaster for the Arian party, which had controlled the see of Constantinople since the demise of Constantine. Theodosius I declared his religious position in the same line with the bishop of Rome and Alexandria, in other words he returned to the Nicene form of Christianity. However, this was not achieved without a cost, because common people of the city were involved into the political aspects of episcopal elections and even discussions of dogma in the streets. When Theodosius became the emperor the Nicene community of Constantinople began to be led by a very intellectual Nicene bishop, Gregory of Nazianzus, who came to the capital in 379 and was an official candidate for the bishopric at the second general council. This was not pleased the Arians of the city and they continuously protested Gregory and even ordinary people did not hesitate to stone him. Gregory was not elected at the council. It can be argued that the mass protestations against Gregory had opened the eyes of the emperor, who, as the head of the state, certainly wished a peaceful government in the capital. A contemporary observer of the second council left us his report about the interest of the ordinary people in religious matters in these words.

If you ask for change, the man launches into a theological discussion about begotten and unbegotten; if you enquire about the price of bread, the answer is given that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate; if you remark that the bath is nice the man pronounces that the Son is from non-existence.6

This passage also reflects the density of Arian feelings in the city, therefore the new bishop of the capital must have been an uncontroversial personality in religious terms. In fact, Gregory of Nazianzus was replaced with Nectarius of Tarsus, a popular figure and the former praefectus of the city. Nectarius was also an uncontroversial personality in religious terms. As a praefectus, Nectarius had been a chief organizer of the popular entertainment and might have enjoyed a large-scale support among people. He was even an unbaptised figure and had not been a part of any ecclesiastical controversy. It is also important to note that the official letter of the second council refers to the popular enjoyment at the election of Nectarius.7 It would be safe and convenient to claim that the emperor Theodosius had regarded popular support as a local dynamic in an episcopal election to maintain a good government in Constantinople.

7- Emperor Theodosius (Obelisk)

Local dynamics were not only significant in an episcopal election but they were also vital to maintain a position in the city. The rise and fall of John of Chrysostom, a saintly bishop of the city between 397 and 404, illustrates the role of people, monks, courtiers and leading aristocracy in making and unmaking of bishops, which must be seen both in the context of the wider ecclesiastical politics and of the urban politics, which is more important for our purpose here. John Chrysostom became a part of the political rivalry in Constantinople at the very end of the fourth century. Although it is difficult and needless to narrate the whole episode of the events between AD 399 and 400, a brief detail may be useful to understand political forces in Constantinople. In 399 a military mutiny among Gothic soldiers broke out in Asia Minor and the emperor sent a force under the command of Gainas, who, in turn, persuaded the emperor to remove Eutropius, a grand chamberlain (praepositus sacri cubiculi), to stop the rebellion of the soldiers. In the capacity of the grand chamberlain Eutropius was a very close associate of the emperor and had a force to make political replacements in the imperial bureaucracy, and he also had been an obstacle against the political ambitions of Gainas the Goth, who most likely wanted to become an eastern Stilicho, the most powerful general of the western court. Eutropius had enemies in the bedchamber as well. In the peak of his power he had threatened the empress Eudoxia, with the divorce from Arcadius. The combination of several factors brought the sudden fall of Eutropius, and he took a refuge at the church of Hagia Sophia to ask the protectorate of John Chrysostom. Although the bishop requested mercy from the emperor, Eutropius was first expelled to Cyprus and then was executed. After the execution of Eutropius in AD 400, Gainas returned to Constantinople and forced the emperor to make further replacements in the high positions of the imperial court. However, politics in the Byzantine capital was not free from the intervention of the Constantinopolitan society. Those replacements increased the tension within Constantinople, and in that summer, people began to attack the Gothic soldiers and Gainas fled the city and eventually killed by a Hunnic band in Thrace. In this affair John Chrysostom had lost the trust of aristocracy, who wanted to see the bishop at their side. Soon after this event the capital witnessed the fall of John Chrysostom. The demise of the bishop was also a very multi-dimensional episode. The highest echelons of the Christian society of the capital was not pleased with John, who opted an ascetic life style and was not a part of that high society, and what is worse he did not hesitate to criticise the luxurious life of the empress Eudoxia, whom he compared bad female characters in the Old Testament. However, the bishop was very popular and had a serious following among the ordinary people, even if he was very unpopular among some monastic leaders within the vicinity of Constantinople because the bishop had condemned their power-seeking attitudes around the aristocracy. By this way monks were also attending political life of the city and influencing its course. On the other hand, imperial authorities did not avoid to employ an episcopal meeting to strengthen legal aspect of the removal of John. In the synod of Oaks, where John was tried in default, several bishops and monastic leaders were in the rows of accusers. In 403 he was deposed and exiled, but a riot of ordinary people followed. It is famously known that the first Hagia Sophia was even burned down in that turmoil. The fall of John Chrysostom indicates clearly how multifarious was the politics and society of Constantinople.

The majority of the inhabitants in Byzantium were pagan. Christianity and monasteries, subcultural elements of the city, were not in the agenda at the beginning of its history as the capital of the empire in the first half of the fourth century. However, in half a century the situation had drastically changed. Therefore, it would be very appropriate to shed some light on the arrival of monastic culture and the rise of monasteries as a political element in Constantinople. Monastic leaders played a very distinctive role in the making of politics in the eastern capital between their appearance in the last quarter of the fourth century and the death of Justinian in AD 565. The foundation of monasteries in Constantinople goes back to the last quarter of the fourth century, when Flavius Saturninus, a magister militum (army commander) in the reign of Theodosius the Great and a consul, established the Dalmatou monastery. In the fifth century, the Stoudios monastery was also founded by the auspices of another aristocrat member of the capital. Though founding a monastery encouraged by the early bishops of Constantinople in the fifth century the same bishops nevertheless tried to control the monastic activitiesto hold them under ecclesiastical leadership, because members of the monasteries were a popular source of manpower against disharmonious bishops for both aristocracy and for the external powers. Although the patriarch John Chrysostom had attempted to discipline the parasite monks of Constantinople, he was deposed by the union of forces of the monks of Dalmatou and of some leading members of the upper class, because John was not so successful to establish friendly relationship with the aristocracy.

The fall of Nestorius from the bishopric of Constantinople may also show how multifactorial was the political realities of Constantinople. Nestorius had been abducted from Antioch by the imperial authorities to be ordained for the see of the capital in AD 428. Apparently, it was expected that Nestorius would have had a long tenure, as he had a firm imperial support. However, he was not clever enough to hold on the power. According to the historian Socrates, a contemporary of Nestorius, one of his first acts was to demolish a church of the Arian party, which still had a considerable influence in the city. His second fault was to have the enmity of Pulcheria, augusta and sister of the emperor. Nestorius also challenged the theotokos theology, which claimed Mary as the God-bearer. This theology had found support in the court especially in the person of Pulcheria, a devoted virgin imitating Mary. The traffic of letter between Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople brought the chief bishop of Egypt into conflict with Nestorius. The members of the above-mentioned Dalmatou monastery formed a centre of opposition against the patriarch Nestorius at the instigation of Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, who wanted to discredit the bishop of Constantinople to control the ecclesiastical politics there. The bishop of Alexandria conducted a serious lobbying not only in Constantinople, where he bribed the higher officials and gained the support of several imperial ladies including Pulcheria and Eudoxia. On the other hand, the letter traffic of Cyril managed to draw the Roman bishop Celestinus into this ecclesiastical controversy. The monks of the capital were also in the streets against Nestorius. In fact, the anti-Nestorian vox populi that persuaded the emperor Theodosius II had been formed with zealous efforts of those monks in Constantinople. Although the final and conclusive say belonged to the emperor, however the brief historical summary provided here may reflect the complex background of the imperial decision, at which the role played by the monasteries as a power-breaking factor could not be neglected.

Monasteries had become very popular and their numbers had increased dramatically in Constantinople particularly after the 5th century. About two decades after the Nestorian issue, a church council that attempted to judge a monastic leader was attended by more than twenty hegoumenoi (head of monasteries). Therefore, it would be appropriate to examine their power base and their benefactors more closely. The founders of monasteries were emperors, patriarchs, senators, members of the wealthy upper class and upper-class widows. The founder of a monastery (ktetor) prepared an endowment (typikon) which defined its subsistence, its administration, its sequence of prayer. As to the benefaction of the Constantinopolitan monasteries and their role in the society; they had a wide range of income from the land endowed by the founder, like vineyards, pastures, saline, mills, and fisheries. They had also unmovable riches and various sources of income. Monasteries controlled these large incomes in supporting needy, those who were rejected from the society, discordant, orphan and the care of elderly and any humanitarian aid. As stated earlier the members of the Constantinopolitan aristocracy were among the generous benefactors of monasteries. One example is the case of Stoudios, founded by the consul of 454. He built the church of John Baptist and next to the church a monastery complex was also constructed. This monastery had a central role in the daily urban life of Constantinople, because in every feast day of John the Baptist (Sept. 23, Jan. 7, Feb. 24, May 25, June 24 Aug. 29 in the Orthodox religious calendar) emperors used to visit them in an elaborated ceremony.Consequently, these prestigious and wealthy institutions had naturally a large following among the ordinary people of the capital and they were instruments both to control and to mobilise general public in cases of any urgency to provide a physical strong-arm force in the religious and political conflicts.

8- The coins minted in the name of Anastasius (Istanbul Archeology Museum, Coins Section)

Constantinople was not only a centre that attracted crowds into monastic ties, but it was also the best attractive platform for the gifted individual saints in the eastern Roman world. The best-known example was Daniel the Syrian, a one-person monastery. He was born in Samasota (the present day Samsat in Adıyaman) at the beginning of the fifth century and joined in a monastery nearby his village when he was still a child, and in his mature years Daniel decided to go to Jerusalem, which was the most important house of the monks and was also home of Christ. However, on the road to Jerusalem Daniel was recommended to go to Constantinople, the “second Jerusalem”, and he arrived at the capital in 451 and settled in a deserted temple, that was believed to be occupied by demons, around Anaplous region (modern-day Arnavutköy). Daniel was not only successful against demons but he was also offering service of treatment to people. The most famous person that Daniel cured was the patriarch Anatolius. By this way Daniel managed to get into contact with the influential people in the court. Soon crowds of people began to visithim to get blessings. Among the visitors were the highest dignitaries of the court, the emperor himself and even the king of Lazica. When he foretold the emperor to have a son, his popularity grew enormously and he emerged as a charismatic political figure. According to his biographer Daniel sided with the anti-Gothic camp in the city and had a hand in the breaking the Gothic sway in Constantinople. Daniel also played a considerable political role in the accession of Zeno in 474.

The Theodosian dynasty and the rest of the fifth century may also be characterised by the very conspicuous role of the imperial women in the making of ecclesiastical, internal and foreign politics in Constantinople. In this regard the following names are very important: Aelia Flaccilla (d. 386), Eudoxia (d. 404), Pulcheria (d. 453), Athenais-Eudokia (d. 460) and Galla Placidia (d.450). The power of the Theodosian women in the politics started with Aelia Flaccilla, who intervened in the ecclesiastical affairs and managed to prevent the emperor Theodosius I from compromising Eunomius of Cyzicus, who was the most influential member of the Arian group at that time. Gregory of Nyssa, an anti-Arian theologian and a bishop, composed a funerary speech in her honour and praised her piety and her contribution to the suppression of Arianism. Gregory notes that she also had been a very influential character for the ordinary populace of Constantinople. In this section of the chapter I have already mentioned the names of Eudoxia and Pulcheria in the controversies about the falls of John Chrysostom and Nestorius. Nevertheless, it should not be remembered that Pulcheria had become very influential in the organization of two great ecumenical councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), though she could not manage to control the second Ephesian council of 449, the infamous Latrocinium (Robber-synod). This Pulcheria had also become a rival to the wife of his brother, Athenais Eudokia, who was exiled to Jerusalem twice during the reign of Theodosius II in 438 and 443. It was the same Pulcheria, who, in order to maintain the control of the Theodosian dynasty in the empire, broke her vow of virginity and married to the general Marcian in 450.

One of the most important women of the dynasty was undoubtedly a daughter of Theodosius I, Galla Placidia, who spent most of her life in the West, first married to a Visigothic king Athaulf in 414 and then in 427 she married to Constantius III (d. 421). The eastern emperor Theodosius II did not recognise this marriage and made an unsuccessful attempt to unite the western and eastern courts. Although Galla did not like this a few years after when Honorius died in 423 she fled to Constantinople, where she was the key figure for the eastern court to intervene to the political affairs in the West. Galla Placidia provided a military support from Constantinople and managed the installation of her son Valentinian III as the western emperor. The influence of women in the Constantinopolitan court continued in in the rise of next two emperors, Zeno and Anastasius.

Zeno and Anastasius: Henoticon Politics in Constantinople

The turbulent beginning of the reign of Zeno (his accessionand sudden fall and then regaining of power shortly afterwards) may also be taken as another instance to illustrate the power dynamics in Constantinople to secure the imperial throne. Therefore, some details of the events in 474 and 475 would be useful to understand the roles of different entities in making and unmaking the emperor. Zeno became regent-emperor in 474 after the death of Leo I. The deceased emperor had no son but a grandson, whose father was Zeno, an Isaurian general in the army and also a representative of the Isaurian group in the capital. After less than a year the child emperor (and the son of Zeno) died. Zeno was suspected and accused of murdering his own son by his mother-in-law, who was also keen to control the government behind the curtain.

A plot was made against him (Zeno) by Basiliscus, himself a senator of high distinction. As soon as Zeno learned of the plot, he took some of his wealth and went to Isauria. But soon after his departure, Basiliscus, who, as was said, was plotting against him, seized upon the imperial power.8

Although Zeno had fled from Constantinople after this coup attempt in the palace, a year or so later he returned with the strong-arm support of the Isaurians and with the prayers of Daniel, which provided public support for Zeno in 476, when the western empire was dissolved. Daniel was also infamous among the courtiers because of his political capacity, as his biographer tells us that one day in the street in the hearth of Constantinople someone tripped up him and some courtiers mocked him as saying “our new consul!”. We are told that Daniel kept contact with the government of Zeno until the end of his reign, and Daniel died just at the beginning of Anastasius’ reign in 493.

9- The coin minted in the name of Justinian (Istanbul Archeology Museum, Coins Section)

Zeno died in April 491 without heir. He had followed an ecclesiastical policy that was contrary to the dominant theological position of the church of Constantinople. His policy is widely known as Henetikon (act of union) which aimed at closing the rift between the churches of Alexandria and Constantinople, which had been divided after the council Chalcedon in 451 over the nature of Christ. The Alexandrian tradition was arguing that Christ had only one divine nature (hence monophysite or miaphysite), while Constantinople maintained the view that Christ had two natures, divine and human (hence dyophysite). Unlike Zeno the previous emperors, Marcian and Leo I had been Chalcedonian, and therefore when he died the majority of the Constantinopolitan public was expecting a new Chalcedonian emperor. Zeno was also from the region of Isauria, a barbarous area with the standards of the Roman values upheld by the society of the capital. The selection of a new emperor was therefore important from several aspects, and for our purpose that episode is also important to remind how interlinked were the ecclesiastical and secular demands.

10- The Monument of Emperor Marcellus Leo (Gouffier)

11- Empress Zoe (Hagia Sophia)

In the selection of Anastasius in 491 as the new emperor several factors were considered to meet the expectations of different parties. On April 491, inside palace the leading officials met the patriarch Euphemius and the empress Ariadne, widow of Zeno, to decide a new emperor. In the meantime, populace of Constantinople and soldiers present in the capital assembled in the hippodrome to declare their expectations. When Ariadne and various officials appeared in the imperial box (kathisma) the crowd chanted stipulating criteria which they regarded as important in selecting a new emperor – that he be Roman, Orthodox and not given to greed.9

The above episode is not only important to show what criteria mattered in a new emperor but it was also important to emphasise that various layers of the Constantinopolitan population participated in the selection process in some way or at least they were very willing to participate in the politics of accession. Eventually Anastasius, a courtier aged 61, was decided. He went to the hippodrome and he was raised on the shields by the soldiers, his propagated religiosity also satisfied ordinary people in Constantinople. He returned to the palace, where he was officially crowned by the patriarch Euphemius, who, nevertheless, forced Anastasius to sign the declaration of his religious faith, because the new emperor had monophysite leanings. Anastasius followed a mild henotikon church policy in the first twenty years of his reign, because, apart from his own personal leaning towards monophysitism, he needed to keep the support of a large population in Syria and Egypt in the face of a new Persian threat in the east. However, in the last decade of his reign he maintained a hard-line monophysite church policy. He first deposed Euphemius, the patriarch of Constantinople in 503 accusing him of being a Nestorian, a scape-goat of the time for both Chaledonians and Monophysites. In 511 with the same accusation he also deposed the patriarch Macedonius and appointed monophysite figures in the great cities of the empire. The dissatisfaction and murmuring among the Chalcedonian population of the capital against the emperor exploded when he attempted to introduce an anti-Chalcedonian phraseology (Trisagion) in the church liturgy in 512. This provoked the Constantinopolitan society and a riot started when the statues of Anastasius were taken down and dragged in the streets. The aged emperor displayed a heroic action when he appeared to people in the hippodrome without his diadem and other imperial symbols. This was a skilfully orchestrated show off ostensibly to relinquish the imperial office. The emperor managed to calm people. This event is not only a reflection of the sensitivity of the Constantinopolitan society in their participation of the matters of ecclesiastical politics, but it is also a reflection of the art of governments carried out by the competent policy makers of the imperial court. Anastasius’ hard-line monophysite church policy also led to a civil war. A year after the civil disorder in Constantinople Vitalian, the commander of the Thracian armies challenged the imperial church policy, and he only stopped with the promise of a church unity with the Roman pope, a strong representative of the Chalcedonian form of Christianity. Although Vitalian was defeated militarily in the vicinity of Constantinople in 515, he escaped and maintained his Chalcedonian position.

The Rise of Justin: A Story of Political Craftiness in Constantinople

Amantius the praepositus and his associate Andrew the cubicularius favoured and were friends with Theocritus his domesticus, and after the death of Anastasius he [Amantius] gave him [Theocritus] a considerable sum of gold for this old man Justin, the curopalates, in order to make payments to the scholarii and the other soldiers so that they would make Theocritus emperor. Justin, by giving gold to them won their favour and they made him emperor.10

When Anastasius died in 518 at the age of ninety without a son or designating an heir, a meticulous process started in the selection of another emperor. The making of the new emperor was a real political craftiness; Sources allow us to construct a very detailed story to show the intricacy of the court politics in Constantinople. The main characters in this story were Amantius, senior eunuch of the court, various groups of palace guards and senate of Constantinople, people also were playing walkers-on the hippodrome. One group, excubitores, suggested one of their commanders, a certain John, otherwise unknown. However, his name was not pleased the crowd in the hippodrome. Another unit of the palace guards, scholae palatinae, nominated a general Patricius, who was also disapproved by the excubitores. In the meantime, neither John nor Patricius was approved by palace eunuchs, who were controlling the imperial garments. Amantius, the chief eunuch, was planning to put forward his own monophysite candidate to maintain the control in the court. For this purpose, he gave a large amount of money to Justin, the chief commander of excubitores, to conduct a lobby campaign for his candidate, Theocristus by name. Justin used that money for his own lobbying, because when the senate intervened to solve the deadlock and suggested Justin, his name was applauded by the crowd and leading soldiers, both of whom had clearly received a good amount of payment. Justin was acclaimed as new Constantine. Whether Justin purposefully orchestrated the political deadlock to get through smoothly as the only real candidate is difficult to tell, however, very soon after he came to the power several eunuchs and generals in the staff of the deceased emperor including Amantius and Theocritus were executed by his order. According to Procopius Justin was an illiterate and ignorant soldier, nothing but a puppet of his nephew, the next emperor Justinian.

12- The column of Justinian (Gurlitt)

The emperor Justinian came to the throne rather quietly because he had already been a co-emperor with Justin. Therefore, his accession to power did not produce any interesting story to furnish us to talk about the politics and society in the capital. Nevertheless, his early reign witnessed the Nika riot, a most famous episode in the Byzantine history and some details of this riot provide us with important data to examine various elements in the political fluctuations in Constantinople. As Geoffrey Greatrex, one of the most serious scholars of this particular episode, and one of the contributors of this volume, there is no need to give a detailed story. Instead it would be more useful to dig some aspects of the riot further to show how aristocracy directed ordinary people of the capital to achieve their political aim to overthrow Justinian. The relationships between the emperor Justinian and the established aristocracy of Constantinople were unsavoury after the murder of Vitalian in 520, and Justinian also snubbed influential circles of the capital by appointing not one of their members but outsiders into the high government posts. Furthermore, Justinian proved to be very careful in the collection of taxes. Needless to say, that aristocracy was the most important tax-payer. Probably the rural and low origins of Justinian and his wife contributed to the deepening rift. Although Justinian was very well-educated person, he was born originally in a village, called Bederiana, in Dardania in the central Balkans, and his wife Theodora, according to Procopius, was a daughter of a bear trainer and a professional belly dancer in the hippodrome. It appears that Justinian was not an emperor that aristocracy of Constantinople would tolerate.

Hypatius, Pompeius and Probus, the nephews through his sister of the divine Anastasius, because they were each fired with unworthy ambition, tried to usurp the throne on 13 January (532) after many of the nobility had already sworn allegiance and a whole crowd of troublemakers had been enticed by arms, gifts and guile of their accomplices.11

Marcellinus, a contemporary of the events, reports the role of the aristocracy in beginning of the riot. Although his report may be taken as the official version and unreliable, released by the emperor, the reason why he points out the higher echelons of the Constantinopolitan society is not groundless. This riot actually began on 11th of January with the protestations of the hippodrome factions, famous Blues and Greens, which demanded from the emperor the release their arrested members. When they achieved nothing, the factions very unusually, united very swiftly against the emperor and even declared Hypatius as emperor in the hippodrome. It is a well-known chapter of the Byzantine history that the rioters burned and destroyed several public buildings in the city, and it was suppressed with difficulty after a mass-murdering. This particular event shows very well the public interest in the political developments in Constantinople.

It is generally assumed that the power of the factions was reduced after the Nika riot, in fact up until the fall of Mauricius in 602 we do not hear of any report about the political activities of Blues and Greens.

13- John II Komnenos (Hagia Sophia)

In conclusion, what a chapter of this kind may tell us about the relationships between society and politics in the early Byzantine capital? As the capital of the empire and a key strategical centre between Mediterranean and Eurasia Constantinople had been the centre of the secular and ecclesiastical politics and undoubtedly was to maintain its position until it was conquered by the Ottomans in the middle of the fifteenth century. It is very convenient to observe that in the making of secular and ecclesiastical politics in Constantinople there had been several important factors which must have been taken into consideration by the Byzantine policy makers, such as emperors, aristocracies, church leaders, even imperial ladies. Although it would be easier to assume an undisputed absolute control of the emperor over his subjects, this was not exactly so. Apart from the military support the emperor must have regarded several local dynamics in order to enjoy a wide support for his conduct in Constantinople. Those local dynamics included popular support (despite sectarian differences), bishop, aristocracy, dynasty, group of monks or individual holy men. However, it remains still questionable whether all these factors are sufficient to define the Byzantine empire as a kind of republic in the Roman sense is very doubtful. A brief history of the first two centuries of the city as capital showed that popular support of the crowd was not singularly enough to overthrow an emperor or to keep a bishop in his position. The ultimate column of the political power of emperors was the efficiency of military power as the executive force of the imperial decisions.


I. Primary Sources

Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae (=Libri Rerum Gestarum) (tr. J.C. Rolfe), Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Anonymous Valesianus, Chronica Theodoriciana, Turkish tr. and notes T. Kaçar, Istanbul: Kabalcı, 2008.

Chronicon Paschale 284-628 AD., English tr.Michael Whitby, Mary Whitby, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1989.

The Theodosian Code (CTh), ed. C. Pharr, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Evagrius Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History, English tr. Michael Whitby, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, De Ceromoniis, ed. Io. Iac Reiski, Bonn: Impensis et Weberi, 1879.

Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio De Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti, (= Oration on the deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit), Patrologia Graecae 46: 557; Gregory of Nyssa, The Minor Treatises on Trinitarian Theology and Apollinarism Proceedings of the 11th International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa (Tübingen, 17–20 September 2008), ed. Volker Henning Drecoll and Margitta Berghaus; Leiden: Brill, 2011.

John Chrysostom, An Address on Vain Glory, ed. Max L. W. Laistner, Christianity and the Pagan Culture, in the Later Roman Empire, Cornell: Cornell Univiersity,1951. Malalas, The Chronicle of John Malalas: A Translation, English tr. E. Jeffreys, M. Jeffreys, R. Scott et al, Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1986.

[Marcellinus Comes], The Chronicle of Marcellinus, English tr. B. Croke, Sydney: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1995.

Notitia Urbis Constantinoplitanae, ed. Otto Seeck, Berlin: Apud Weidmannos, 1876.

Sokrates, Historia Ecclessiastica, As Kirchengeschichte, ed. G. Christen Hansen, mit Beiträgen von Manja Širinjan, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995.

Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, English tr. B. Jackson, The Ecclesiastical History, Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1996.

Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, Englishtr. C. Mango ve R. Scott, Oxford: University Press, 1997.

The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, Church and War in Late Antiquity, English tr. R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011.

Zosimus, New History, A Translation with Commentary Ronald T. Ridley, Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982.

II. Secondary Literature

Barnes, Timothy D., “Emperors and Bishops of Constantinople (324-431)”, Christianity, Democracy, and the Shadow of Constantine, ed. George E. Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017, pp. 175-201.

Bury, John Bagnall, “The Nika Riot,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1897, vol. 17, pp. 92-119.

Bury, John Bagnall, History of the Later Roman Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian, II vol., New York : Dover Publications, 1958.

Cameron, Alan, Circus Factions, Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Cameron, Averil, The Byzantines, Oxford : Blackwell Publishing, 2010.

Charanis, Peter, Church and State in the Later Roman Empire, The Religious Policy of Anastasius the First, 491-518, Thessaloniki : Kentron Vyzantinōn Ereunōn, 1974.

Charanis, Peter, “The Monk as an Element of Byzantine Society”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1971, vol. 25, pp. 61-84.

Dagron, Gilbert, Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Dagron, Gilbert, Konstantinopolis Hipodrumu: Oyunlar, Halk ve Politika, tr. İsmail Yerguz, Istanbul: Sel, 2014.

Three Byzantine Saints, Contemporary Biographies of St Daniel the Stylite, St Theodore of Sykeon and St John the Almsgiver, Dawes, Elizabeth & Norman H. Baynes, tr., London : B. Blackwell, 1948.

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of the Monophysite Movement, Chapters in the History of the Church in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, Cambridge: University Press, 1972; Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2008.

Geanakoplos, Deno J., “Church and State in the Byzantine Empire: A Reconsideration of the Problem of Caesaropapism,” Byzantine East and Latin West: Two Worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance, Studies in Ecclesiastical and Cultural History, Oxford: Blackwell, 1966, pp. 55-83.

Greatrex, Geoffrey, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal”, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1997, vol. 117, pp. 60-86.

Grig, Lucy & Gavin Kelly (ed.), Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hatlie, Peter, The Monks and Monasteries of Constantinople ca. 350-850, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Holum, Kenneth G., Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Hunt, David, “The Church as a Public Institution,” The Cambridge Ancient History, XIII vol. 13, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 238-276.

Jones, A.H.M., The Later Roman Empire 284-602, II vol., Oxford: Blackwell, 1964; Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Kaldellis, Antony, The Byzantine Republic, People and Power in New Rome, Princeton : Harvard University Press, 2015.

Kelly, Christopher, Theodosius II, Rethinking the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Külzer, Andreas, “Bizans İç Savaşları Sürecinde Constantinopolis Kuşatmaları,” tr. Kutlu Akalın, Byzantion’dan Constantinopolis’e İstanbul Kuşatmaları, ed. Murat Arslan and Turhan Kaçar, İstanbul,: İstanbul Araştırmaları Enstitüsü, 2017, pp. 149-170.

Lee, A.D., From Rome to Byzantium 363 to 565, The Transformation of Ancient Rome, Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

Maas, Michael (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, Cambridge, : Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Mango, Cyril, Byzantium, The Empire of the New Rome, London: Phoenix, 1994.

McGuckin, J.A., “Nestorius and the Political Factions of Fifth-Century Byzantium: Factors in his Personal Downfall”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 1996, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 7-21.

Millar, Fergus, A Greek Roman Empire, Power and Belief under Theodosius II 408-450, Berkeley : University of California Press, 2006.

Mitchell, Stephen, A History of the Later Roman Empire, Malden : Wiley Blackwell, 2015; Turkish version: Geç Roma İmparatorluğu Tarihi, tr. Turhan Kaçar, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2016.

Nuffelen, Peter van, “Episcopal Succession in Constantinople (381-450 C.E): The Local Dynamics of Power”, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 2010, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 425-451.

Nuffelen, Peter van, “Palladius and the Johannite Schism”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 2013, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 1-19.

Pazdernik, Charles, “Our Most Pious Consort Given Us by God: Dissident Reactions to the Partnership of Justinian and Theodora, A.D. 525-548”, Classical Antiquity, 1994, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 256-81.

Treadgold, Warren, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press,  1997.

Vasiliev, Alexander A., Justin the First: An Introduction to the Epoch of Justinian the Great, Cambridge: Harvard Universty Press, 1950.

Whitby, Michael, “The Violence of the Circus Factions”, Organised Crime in Antiquity, edited by Keith Hopwood, London: The Classical Press of Wales, 1999, pp. 229-253.

Michael Whitby, “The Violence of the Circus Factions”, Keith Hopwood (ed.), Organised Crime in Antiquity, London & Swansea 1999, 229-253


1 Zosimus, New History, tr. and commentary by Ronald T. Ridley, Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982, 2.41

2 Socrates, Historia Ecclessiastica, As Kirchengeschichte, ed. G. Christen Hansen, mit Beiträgen von Manja Širinjan (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995), 2.6

3 The Theodosian Code, tr. C. Pharr, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, 14.16.2; Socrates, Historia Ecclessiastica, 2.13

4 Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae (=Libri Rerum Gestarum), tr. J.C. Rolfe, Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1964, 26.7.10

5 Max L. W. Laistner, Christianity and the Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire together with an English Translation of John Chrysostom, An Address on Vain Glory, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1951, p. 4.

6 Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio De Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti, (= Oration on the deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit), Patrologia Graecae 46: 557; Gregory of Nyssa, The Minor Treatises on Trinitarian Theology and Apollinarism Proceedings of the 11th International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa (Tübingen, 17–20 September 2008), ed. Volker Henning Drecoll and Margitta Berghaus (Leiden: Brill,2011).

7 Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, The Ecclesiastical History, tr. B. Jackson, Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1996, 5.9.

8 Anonymous Valesianus, Chronica Theodoriciana, Turkish tr. and notes T. Kaçar, Istanbul: Kabalcı, 2008, vol. 2, p. 41.

9 Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, De Ceromoniis, ed. Io. Iac Reiski, Bonn: Impensis et Weberi, 1879, 1.92.

10 The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, Church and War in Late Antiquity, English tr. R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), 8.61)

11 Marcellinus Comes, The Chronicle of Marcellinus, tr. B. Croke, Sydney: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1995, p. 532.

This article was originally written in English for History of Istanbul and published in a digitalized form in 2019.

Related Contents