Cyril Mango, in the introduction to his book Le développement urbain de Constantinople (IVe- VIIe siècles)1, has stated that we have nearly reached the limit of what we can learn about Byzantine-era Istanbul; in his view, any further information will come from archaeology, or from remarks by Ottoman sources about Byzantine-era buildings and the topography of the city. To date, scholarly studies of the history of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, have primarily focused on the city’s archaeology, art history, architectural history, topography, and urban development, while paying scant attention to the question, “What kind of administration did the city have under the Byzantine Empire?”. Behind this question lies a paucity of information from Byzantine-era historical sources. However, some new studies promise to fill in the gaps on this subject.2 In 324, the Eastern Roman emperor Constantine I began his project of establishing a new imperial capital on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium. As a result, on May 11th, 330, Constantinople was officially consecrated as the empire’s new capital. This new capital became the permanent administrative and religious center of the Byzantine Empire, which would rule over a significant portion of the Mediterranean world – albeit with periodically altered borders – for more than a thousand years. Constantinople’s growth as a capital – its reaching the status of a megalopolis (by the standards of the Middle Ages) – was due to its being made the administrative center of the empire. There is no question that the various forms of beneficence bestowed upon this new capital by all the emperors following Constantine played a large role in the growth of the city, as similar forms of beneficence had in the growth of ancient Rome. With its Imperial Palace, Senate, and all the social, economic, and administrative institutions of a large city, Constantinople – or the New Rome, as it was also called – soon became a metropolis whose wealth, prestige, population, and cultural influence vied with the great centers of the Mediterranean world such as Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. Along with its thousands of officials, the city was home to the members of the Imperial Court. At the same time, Constantinople was the administrative center of the Eastern provinces – the place where the empire’s wealthiest dioceses were governed – and the Eastern headquarters of two armies answering directly to the emperor. Lawyers frequented the imperial high courts and the courts administered by the imperial bailiffs, along with the lower-level courts; the capital saw a constant stream of plaintiffs from every province. These plaintiffs came to the city in droves from every corner of the empire, hoping to have their complaints addressed, to receive pardon, to obtain this or that privilege, or to be appointed to a post. Despite Constantinople’s geographical location, Byzantine sources rarely mention its merchants or its significance as a commercial center. The city could never compete with Alexandria – one of the most important harbors in the Mediterranean – in terms of commercial significance; similarly, throughout the Middle Ages, it never became a great center of industry. Constantinople’s growth, as well as the fame it acquired in other areas, was directly tied to the fact that the Palace and the government had been established here. Despite this advantage, the schools of Constantinople were rivaled by ones in Athens, Alexandria, and Beirut, which were still flourishing in the sixth century, and were probably of higher quality. The Church, too, faced wealthy and powerful rivals in other Eastern centers of the Patriarchate. Until the tenth century, Constantinople retained its features as an early Christian city, features which evolved over the 250 years following its founding, and were completed by Justinian and his successors. All of these were undoubtedly the main reasons for Constantinople’s greatness.
During the Byzantine period, Constantinople was shaped by three institutions: the Hippodrome, the Church of Hagia Sophia, and the Great Palace. These structures represented civic tradition, divine authority, and imperial power, respectively – the three institutions forming Byzantine identity. The Hippodrome was notable for being an institution which had been passed down from Rome, so to speak, while Hagia Sophia was the most conspicuous image of the new faith. The Church of Constantinople amassed a great fortune due to donations from emperors and senators; bishops used the secular prestige of the New Rome in order to establish and increase their own spiritual authority. The Great Palace was a palace complex spread out over quite a wide area, made up of hallways, rooms, chapels, barracks, service buildings, corridors, and courtyards. Thus, administering Constantinople depended on the harmonious interaction of these three institutions and the smooth functioning of all their constituent elements. The Church of Constantinople greatly benefited from the generous donations of Emperor Constantine. It steadily increased its wealth from generation to generation, supporting thousands of clergy, widows, virgins (both orphans and priestesses), and paupers. Constantinople’s holy places attracted the pious, as bishops and clergy who complained vocally about the growing authority of the pope – and who were eager to amass followers for themselves – were drawn to the city in increasing numbers. At the beginning of the fifth century, the Eastern capital featured 4,388 freestanding houses (or domus) – roughly 2.5 times more than there were in Rome – chiefly inhabited by a relatively extensive middle class consisting of bureaucrats, lawyers, and professionals.
Before discussing the administrative makeup of the city, it will be useful to say a few words about the fluctuations in its population – which is mostly a matter of guesswork – over time. When the emperor, in an official ceremony, proclaimed Constantinople the capital in 330 AD, the city is estimated to have had a population of 200,000. Similarly, the population was probably more than 300,000 in the fifth century, reaching 500,000 in the era of Justinian (527-565). In the middle of the eighth century, the population is estimated to have fallen as low as 30,000-40,000, due to an outbreak of plague and other causes. In the twelfth century, it reached 400,000 again; by the time the city was conquered by Mehmed II, it is believed to have fallen once more to 40,000-50,000 people. This extraordinary growth experienced by the city from time to time was primarily due to the presence of the emperors and their palaces. However, one should not forget that all of these figures are debatable.
Constantinople’s population figures appear to have been quite unstable: from time to time, the city attained the status of a metropolis (by the standards of the Middle Ages), only to lose this status periodically. The true owner of Constantinople was the emperor; in addition, there was an administrative council known as the Curia (Senate), just as in Rome. The Senate was founded by the emperor Constantius II (337-361), whose reign saw the beginning of diplomatic plots involving the imperial guards, as in Rome. The members of the Senate were chosen from the city’s prominent citizens, government officials, high-ranking officers, large landholders, and its increasingly wealthy people. The Senate’s duties included pledging to maintain and repair the city on a volunteer basis; setting the tax base for local revenues (in accordance with the demands of the emperor); collecting these taxes; and transferring them into a fund used to cover the state budget. The Senate’s approval was required for every emperor who took the throne, in order to legitimize the choice made by the people and the army. Playing such an important role in the choice of emperor, the Senate was often forced to approve the coronation of candidates who took power through a coup or by the use of force. As a result of these powers, the members of the Senate, over time, came to constitute an aristocracy with considerable influence in political affairs. However, it appears that the members of the Senate had recourse to various tactics, from time to time, in order to free themselves from their responsibilities, especially their financial ones. The Senate in Constantinople possessed privileges, allowances, and financial advantages similar to those of the Roman Senate. It convened in a palace next to the square known as the Augustaion, under the leadership of the eparch (urban prefect).
The Senate continued to exist for centuries, playing a key role in the administration of the empire. It was a very wealthy institution which was held in high esteem by society. Constantinople was the Senate’s permanent home, and many senators, including some of the wealthiest members of the Palace, had houses in the center of the city, living there for part of the year. This class possessed numerous slaves and clients, who not only represented a significant addition to the city’s population, but also made up a market for local tradesmen and artisans, along with merchants who imported luxury goods from every part of the empire as well as from outside the empire. The games which the senators put on attracted large numbers of people to the city: charioteers, ostlers, actors, singers, and similar professions.
The main function of the Byzantine administrative system – whose civil administration was indistinguishable in many respects from its fiscal administration – was to identify financial resources for the maintenance of the state, to collect them, and to distribute them as needed. The high-level bureaucrats who conducted these tasks and were responsible for administering the city most probably had their offices near large churches. In the words of the twelfth-century Byzantine historian John Zonaras, those who served in the city administration “could own residences which were just like palaces, the size of cities.” The aristocrats wished to live in close physical proximity to the Imperial Palace. Until the sixth century, notary offices continued to be in close physical proximity to churches. The first section of the Book of the Eparch describes the structure of the legal profession within the city. The book explains where expert lawyers (nomikoi) gave lessons along with their assistants, both in notary offices and in additional locations. Each nomikos, prior to becoming the leader of one of the traditional offices known as nomes, was chosen by his colleagues, and was appointed the head of his society by the eparch. The work known as The Deeds of Iviron mentions five law offices in the capital:
1. A nome attached to an office in the Church of the Forty Martyrs.
2. A nome attached to an office in the Church of Blachernae.
3. An office in the Church of the Virgin in the Forum of Constantine.
4. An office in Hagia Eirene Church.
5. An office in the Church of the Theotokos of the Diakonissa.
In addition to the aforementioned notary offices, it is known that legal documents were prepared by officials from other churches, who held the title of tabellion or notarios. It seems evident that the administration of the city and legal tasks were conducted around churches.
The patrons who endowed churches arranged for notaries to carry out every manner of state business. Similarly, those who served in the city administration were probably affiliated with a church. In the Great Palace, built by Emperor Constantine I on a hill with a fantastic view of the sea and of the city, there was a council chamber (consistorium) and a reception hall (triklinos) with 19 tables. This octagonal hall, with a dome featuring 16 windows, was the most beautiful reception hall in the palace, and was where most ceremonies were conducted. This palace complex was thus isolated from the rest of the city, not only by its walls, but also by virtue of the high status and high salaries of its residents.
The emperor himself assigned houses to the religious and civil officials who administered the city. At no time did these houses become the property of their inhabitants. The city’s population was maintained through an obsolete system of food assistance known as the annona. Partly due to inertia and partly due to its emotional ties to the people of Rome, the imperial administration carried on with this free distribution of food, which had begun in the Roman period as a form of bribery, and was continued and expanded by the first emperors. Thus, the most significant feature of the Byzantine capital was the fact that it met all of its inhabitants’ needs for food and water right from the day of its founding: on May 18th, 332, Emperor Constantine I began to provide food assistance to the people of the city. According to the work known as the Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae (Register of the City of Constantinople) (#117), this policy resulted in bread being distributed to 80,000 people at specified locations. Emperors Constantine the Great and Constantine II promoted the growth of their new capital by providing rations of bread to those who built houses in the city. If the house was sold, then this right, known as the panes aedium, was transferred to the new owner. At the end of the fourth century, such assistance was still being provided to those who built new houses. In 392, Emperor Theodosius I increased the daily distribution of grain by 125 modii (approximately 1,100 liters), thus adding roughly 1,000 people to the existing recipients of this handout. No other such increase is on record. In 372, Emperor Valens outlawed the sale of annonae populares. As a result, if a recipient left the city, his ration would be transferred to the state; these expired rations (annonae caducae) would be distributed to other applicants who were qualified to receive this handout. Moreover, it seems that if a recipient died, his ration would also be transferred to the state. These rules do not seem to have remained in effect for very long. By the end of the fourth century, annonae could legally be inherited or sold. Towards the end of the fifth century, many such rations were accumulated by the Church.
In this sense, the capital and its rural hinterland need to be considered a single administrative unit in terms of meeting the needs of those living in the city. Constantine I was the one who began the tradition of distributing free bread to everyone who built a new house in the city. Food assistance was also provided to the poor on Easter Sunday, in particular. Hence, after the city was founded, importing a sufficient amount of grain from Egypt became one of the state’s most fundamental responsibilities towards its citizens. Employment was thus procured for the owners of grain ships; for the sailors who made annual journeys to Alexandria; for the captains of ships; and for the shipping agents who unloaded their cargo at Constantinople after having stored it in large silos on the island of Bozcaada (Tenedos) at the entry of the Dardanelles, transporting it from this rest stop to the capital when the winds blew in their favor. Grain which reached the capital from North Africa, Thrace, and various locations in Anatolia was distributed to millers’ and bakers’ guilds, which provided a supply of daily bread. However, this service could be disrupted from time to time due to religious and political conflicts. Upon the death of Eusebius, the bishop of Constantinople, in 341, Paulus and Macedonius both strove with one another to become the new bishop, leading to turmoil in the city. Emperor Constantine punished the people of Constantinople for this turmoil by reducing the distribution of free bread by half.
Our information about regulations concerning bread production in Constantinople is quite limited. There were public bakeries run by a state official known as the comes horreorum (the overseer of the granaries). According to the Notitia, there were only 20 or 21 of these public bakeries; each one must have been a very sizeable facility, meeting the needs of 4,000 people and providing a daily supply of about 500 modii (roughly 4,500 liters, or 2,000 kilograms, of grain). The approximately 120 private bakeries must have been on a similar scale in order to meet the needs of the remaining population. Constantine created the baking sector in his new capital by building large public bakeries, and, perhaps, by encouraging private bakeries with certain concessions and assistance. The bakers’ guild, known as the corpus mancipium, did not play an influential role in the making of important legislation.
There was a meticulously organized system for meeting the city’s water needs, just like those for bread. This entire system is generally agreed to have been divided into directorates individually responsible for water, bread, oil, meat, and wine. During the Roman period, large cities all over the empire were fitted out with numerous aqueducts; as a result, the duties of this directorate only consisted of tending to the aqueducts which provided water to Constantinople, and storing the water. The officials known as the consularis aquarum and the comes formarum were responsible for performing necessary repairs and preventing the growth of trees within a distance of ten paces from the aqueducts. Cleaning the aqueducts was the responsibility of the owners of the lands over which these waterways passed; in return for performing these duties, they were exempted from a number of other important responsibilities. As the population of Constantinople grew, building new aqueducts became the most pressing task faced by its emperors. According to the fourth-century source Themistius, Constantinople suffered from a serious shortage of water until Emperor Valens (364-378) completed the city’s main aqueduct. Another aqueduct was built by Theodosius I; a set amount of money was generated to finance its construction, in place of the games normally put on by the city’s high-ranking officials. In the time of Emperor Arcadius, some high-level officials received orders to hold the games once more; however, it appears that they continued to make payments into the aqueduct fund. In the end, this payment became permanent. The emperor Marcian assembled the consuls and ordered them to pay 100 pounds of gold for the repair of the aqueducts, rather than distributing money to the people; the emperor Zeno set up an honorary consulship with the same responsibility. At the same time, there were fixed taxes collected in the harbors of Constantinople, to be used for the repair of the aqueducts. There were also technicians known as aquarii who worked full-time in the city, checking the aqueducts and performing routine maintenance, as well as identifying private individuals who illegally drew off water from the aqueducts. In order that people might recognize these officials, they bore markings upon their hands, and had the status of the military officials known as the militia. Some aqueducts were allotted to public buildings. The Aqua Hadriana in Constantinople was assigned to the imperial palace, to the public baths (thermae) and to the great ornamental fountains known as nymphaea. One administrative problem faced by Constantinople was providing water for the baths, one of the most important social spaces for the city’s inhabitants. Most of the water which the aqueducts carried to the city from various sources was taken to cisterns or to water depots (lacus) sufficient to meet the people’s needs. Thus, meeting the needs of Constantinople’s inhabitants was a key responsibility of its emperors, who – as the true owners of the city – had a duty to develop its civic institutions. For example, the last iconoclastic emperor, Theophilus (829-842), built an extensive, visually striking hospital bearing his own name on a hill overlooking Zeugma (present-day Unkapanı). A private water supply could only be obtained through an imperial grant; there was careful supervision of the gauge of water pipes installed in houses for this purpose.
A law promulgated in 425 created a food distribution network for the public as well as for private individuals. A bronze stamp was issued to those who were able to document residence in the city; in order to receive free bread, these stamps needed to be shown at predetermined distribution points. It should be noted that free bread was not distributed according to people’s income levels; rather, it was only given to those who could prove that they lived in the city. Five large warehouses were created to store grain coming from Egypt, which was able to supply nearly the entire capital, as well as the imperial armies, with provisions. In addition, Egypt was the only Eastern state with a large agricultural surplus. The distribution of free bread continued in Constantinople even after the loss of Egypt, with the emperors being constantly forced to look for new sources of grain in order to be able to preserve this custom. Meat and fish – after bread, the most basic sources of nourishment for the people of the city – were always sold in squares at the Strategion; sheep were sold at the Amastrianon; pigs, as well as Easter lambs, were sold at the Forum of Theodosius. Mutton, beef, and pork were provided by three different guilds. Bakeries and taverns were located to the south of a stretch of the Mese (the city’s main street) running between the forums of Constantine and Theodosius. From the Chalke (the ceremonial gate in front of the palace) all the way to the Milion, one could find various kinds of spices, essences, perfumed trees, musk, amber, and perfume dealers. On the great avenues where commerce took place – as well as on the adjacent streets – one could see a crowd of merchants from various places: Arab merchants, local artisans, money changers, chandlers, bakers, fishmongers, butchers, carpenters, and oar makers. Booksellers could be found near the Milion, around the stoas where the courts were located.
The most decisive factor in the history of the city’s administration was its continual besiegement: by the Avars in 626, by the Umayyads in 674-678 and 717-718, by the Bulgars in the tenth century, and by the Russians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Thus, the continual fortification of the city walls – Constantinople’s most important architectural structure – was the most pressing issue in the administration of the city. However, the construction of large religious edifices, in particular – as well as the neglect of repairs to the city walls while spending a large portion of treasury revenues on such projects – caused great discontent among the people. Nonetheless, prior to the eras of the great invasions, the first duty of the emperors was to repair the city walls. Aside from the Fourth Crusade of 1204, the city’s success at resisting all these sieges was largely due to the sturdiness of its walls, as well as its geographical setting.
In each of the city’s 14 districts, there were security forces under the command of an official responsible for nighttime security. In 535, this commander was replaced by a people’s judge with broadened powers. The city had to rely on an amateur night watch in order to ensure nighttime security.
As the city had been founded on the Roman model, its administrative system also resembled that of Rome to a certain extent. As long as no crises arose, Roman laws remained in force in the administration of the city. Rather than creating new laws, the Byzantine emperors provided an administrative framework for the city by improving existing legislation. However, due to the long-lasting hegemony of the Byzantine Empire, the old institutions of Constantinople were abandoned, over time, in favor of new ones which developed gradually. Accordingly, the city can hardly be said to have been administered in the same way from its founding until its fall. As new needs arose from time to time, new institutions were created. Christianity was the most fundamental factor in determining these needs. In fact, the government of Constantinople was made up of all the institutions of an ideal Christian city.
Constantinople had been founded in the cultural region of the Eastern Mediterranean; as a result, official positions with Latin titles also possessed Greek equivalents. For instance, in the sixth century, there was an official named the commentariensis, whose main duties as part of the secretariat consisted of filing official records. The commentariensis was also responsible for keeping prisoners’ records; thus, he appeared with the security forces whenever someone was arrested. Likewise, there were officials named taksiotes who acted as sergeants or police commissioners during arrests. These two groups were both referred to with the general term domestikoi (“domestics, i.e., “officials”). At the end of the sixth century, we see several military units known as the Skholastikoi and Excubitores – who constantly guarded the emperor and his family in the palace and its environs – being used from time to time as a security force within the city, at the emperor’s orders.
The eparch was in charge of carrying out all administrative matters in Constantinople, including architectural works and many others. The position of eparch comprised a number of high-level posts; the eparchy was the most important administrative institution in the Byzantine Empire, with the eparch being the single most important person in the administration. This continued to be the case until the thirteenth century. Accordingly, of the first 60 high-level positions in the empire, the eparchy was ranked 18th. It was a position which possessed a lot of influence in the Byzantine administration, in addition to conferring membership in the Senate. Although the eparch was a member of the Palace, he was not permitted to wear purple; he could, however, wear a toga.
The early-period Islamic geographer Ibn Khordadbeh (died 912/913), in his work Kitāb al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik, informs us that there were as many as 400 high-ranking administrators in Constantinople, and that one of them had the duty of carrying out the business of the city. In all probability, the person to whom Ibn Khordadbeh is referring is the eparch. The eparch resided in Constantinople due to the fact that it was the capital of the empire; he was the most powerful individual after the emperor, even when the latter was absent. In the words of Emperor Constantine VII (Porphyrogenitus), the eparch was effectively the “father of the city.” Indeed, under the command of the eparch, Constantinople has been referred to as the “city of the eparch” in various sources.
The eparch of Constantinople played an important role in the life of the capital. As the city’s highest judicial authority, he had the right to pronounce judgment, when necessary, in criminal cases both in the center of the city and in outlying areas. In such situations, the eparch presided over the court. In addition to pronouncing judgment, the eparch was also responsible for the security of the city in every sense, being the head of its security forces. One of the eparch’s most important duties was the supervision of the ambassadors and statesmen who frequently came to the capital and forged ties between different states. Indeed, the eparch and his assistants were responsible for protecting such visitors and meeting their needs.
The eparch had numerous other duties, which we will touch on briefly. Tradesmen in the Byzantine Empire were organized into guilds, which were responsible for supplying the city’s provisions. In order to prevent problems with food supply – one of the city’s most pressing issues during certain eras – the eparch’s duties included procuring sufficient quantities of these provisions. The fact that tradesmen in the Byzantine Empire were members of guilds and were subject to certain requirements had the effect of strengthening imperial control over them. The eparch needed to exercise proper control over the tradesmen, and all of the latter’s activities needed to be carefully monitored.
The economic life of the city, its commerce, and all kinds of industrial activity were supervised by the eparch. Indeed, commercial goods entering the harbors of Constantinople were taken to warehouses (the commercial marketplaces of the era), where they would be put on the market after their taxes and purchase and sale prices had been set under the supervision of the eparch. If necessary, the eparch could also fix the prices of products. The economic life of the Byzantine Empire was based on a policy of self-sufficiency; as a result, the empire’s subjects could only produce as much as was needed for the population of the empire. The government put strict limitations on exports; conversely, it passed a law which systematically encouraged imports. As in the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire outlawed the sale of certain “strategic” goods (salt, weapons, purple silk, and raw materials used to make Greek fire). The silk trade, in particular, needed to be strictly regulated, and the eparch was the one who did so on behalf of the empire. Moreover, the eparch was also responsible for setting units of weight and measurement, the most important factor in the sale of a product. Those who violated the government’s (and thus the eparch’s) rulings on measurements and purchases and sales were expelled from their guild, and suffered punishments like being beaten on the soles of the feet, as well as exile. Thus, the most important duties of the eparch included monitoring and, when necessary, intervening in the importation of international goods into Constantinople from numerous locations.
The eparch also organized the communal entertainments which the Byzantine emperors put on in the capital; religious holidays; and funeral ceremonies in the event of the death of the emperor or one of his people. Another important issue was the production of bread, the basic source of nourishment for the population. Providing the raw materials for making bread, i.e., wheat and other kinds of grain, was of great importance to the empire, which largely procured these materials from far-off regions. An inability to obtain the raw materials for making bread – and thus bread itself – due to any kind of scarcity or natural disaster could lead to serious problems. Consequently, the state had to account for every contingency; ensuring the supply and distribution of these foodstuffs was thus a very high priority. Wheat and other kinds of grain which arrived at Constantinople from various locations were weighed, put in warehouses, and distributed to bakeries, all under the supervision of the eparch and his assistants. It was of the utmost importance for the empire that this system should be carefully supervised in the event of any kind of shortage. Thanks to the powers invested in him, the eparch played an important role in regulating the communal life of Constantinople. According to information from existing sources, the eparch of Constantinople continued to have a great say in the administration of the city until the 13th century. However, after 1261, the eparch’s most important task was no longer the construction of impressive public buildings or imperial forums, but rather having necessary repairs done to the city walls, repairing or constructing churches, monasteries, and charitable institutions, and making additions to the Great Palace. In building houses within the city, it was compulsory to leave a space of two to three meters between the house and the street.
There has not yet been a detailed study regarding the city’s financial bureaus under the Byzantine Empire. Nonetheless, it is known that the bureaus in charge of financial affairs consisted of three branches known as the Genikon, Idikon, and Vestarion. When we examine the geographical position of these bureaus, it appears that they were clustered around the northeastern corner of the Great Palace. Most of the arches which can be seen today on the side of the Hippodrome facing the Great Palace are known to have been used as archives for official documents in the sixth century, at least. Over time, the Forum of Leo (which today is located inside the First Courtyard of Topkapı Palace) came to be called the Pittakia, a word meaning “receipts and written communications”; therefore, there must have been a number of government buildings there.
The treasury of Constantinople was known as the Sakelle or Sakellion, and the person who oversaw it was called the sakellarios. The chief duty of the sakellarios was inspecting the finances of the court. The fact that the sakellarios, the emperor, and the court had close ties to one another demonstrates the increasing financial centralization of Byzantium. With this process of centralization, which was perceptible from the seventh century onwards, the emperor took on a more dominant role, administratively speaking. This process was brought about due to the economic and political crisis into which the empire descended starting in the 640s. As a result of this crisis, Constantinople began to shrink in size during this period, as did many cities under Byzantine rule. There were many different reasons for this shrinking, the most basic of which was the increasing tendency of Constantinople’s rich inhabitants – from the second half of the sixth century onwards – to spend their wealth on sacred buildings or objects, along with a corresponding decline in the upkeep of civic architecture in the capital.
In Byzantine Constantinople, imperial and church ceremonies played a key role in the life of the people. Thanks to numerous sources from this period, we possess considerable information about these ceremonies. Imperial ceremonies were of the utmost importance to the state ideology of Byzantium, serving as a stand-in for its invisible constitution, so to speak. Whenever the emperor appeared before the people of the city, this turned into an ostentatious ritual staged for their benefit. These impressive ceremonies were put on even along the short route the emperor took from the Great Palace to Hagia Sophia, where he went to worship. Many ceremonial events were held in the Hippodrome – one of the city’s three most important sites – in order to entertain the people and celebrate Christian holy days. The great majority of the city’s people took part in these ceremonies. In addition, there were military parades, triumphal processions held after winning a battle, and ceremonial displays of slaves and booty. The emperor took part in these ceremonies in person, while the streets of the city were sprayed with scent and decorated in various ways. These ceremonial processions took various routes; the most important was along the Mese – the city’s main artery, beginning at the Imperial Palace and Hagia Sophia – or along an important street running parallel to it, which went towards the Golden Gate. Religious and imperial ceremonies generally followed the same itinerary along the Mese and the streets forking off it. The eparch was in charge of organizing these ceremonies, and possessed the authority to order any house located along the route of the procession to contribute by hanging costly fabrics and tapestries. The Hippodrome had been used for these purposes since the founding of the city; over time, it chiefly became a venue for formal ceremonies. In the sixth century, races were held in the Hippodrome almost daily (apart from holy days), with more than 20 races being held each day. By the eleventh century, there were only a few races every year. Albeit with some interruptions, horse races were always part of the secular ceremonies in which the emperor took part. These races provided an opportunity for the people of Constantinople to socialize, while also serving as an effective space for the emperor to display his power to the people. Starting in the twelfth century, the Byzantines’ wild enthusiasm for watching horse races became replaced by an interest in the game of polo and jousting tournaments, which were fashionable in the West. This change became evident in the Hippodrome, too, as games began to be held at Blachernae Palace from the twelfth century onwards.
Public baths were also one of the most important places where the people of the city could socialize. Men, women, and children – including members of the clergy – regularly went to the baths, where they spend considerable amounts of time washing and performing other rituals. The emperors put great importance on the construction, repair, and maintenance of the baths, as well as on supplying them with sufficient amounts of water.
The periodic fires which raged throughout Constantinople were the greatest disaster experienced by the city during the Byzantine period, and later under the Ottomans. Due to the high risk of earthquake, it was necessary to use large amounts of wood in constructing governmental and non-governmental buildings; this magnified the damage caused by fires, as well as the area over which they spread. In the face of this great threat, it was crucial that there always be a fire brigade present in the city. The Konstantinopolis Notitiae Episcopatuum, which lists the cities of the Byzantine Empire in hierarchical order, states the number of collegiati (guild members) from various guilds in each region who were assigned the task of providing assistance in the event of a fire. In all, there were 560 such individuals, with the number of those on duty in each region varying from 17 to 90. The Byzantine administrator and writer John the Lydian (born in 490), known as “the Lydian” on account of having been born in the Lydian city of Philadelphia (Alaşehir), tells us that in his own day, whenever a fire broke out in Constantinople, there arose a cry of “omnes collegiati.”3 The use of this Latin expression indicates that this system was imported from Rome and was already in place before the founding of Constantinople. Symmachus mentions that Roman guilds acted as fire brigades; the section of the constitution of 369 concerning the eparch of the city refers to the corpus centonariarum, one of the guilds which normally put out fires. During the reign of Justinian, the office of the praefectus vigilum was explicitly stripped of its duty of putting out fires, becoming a magistracy that dealt with minor offenses (particularly theft) in addition to being responsible for the night watch.
At the same time, the capital was an important center for education, one of the basic concerns of the senatorial class. Theodosius II (408-450) brought the city’s university under imperial patronage. The schools of Constantinople attracted the interest of ambitious young men from all the Western provinces, and even from the Greek East, who wished to learn the ancient art of rhetoric and Roman law from the source, thus becoming part of the upper crust of society. A more religiously-based education was provided at the monasteries, the city’s most basic educational institutions; in the eleventh century, students came from the West to learn Greek in the school at Hagia Sophia.
The Imperial Palace also functioned as a center of learning. In the fourth century, at the senate’s suggestion, the emperor appointed salaried teachers of rhetoric in Constantinople. In 425, education in the capital was made more organized. Teaching in public places was outlawed (with threats to deport unlicensed teachers) and those who gave private lessons were only permitted to do so in their own houses. In addition, a law school was founded by Constantine Monomachus, with a library attached to it; there was also a hospital offering medical training, established in order to provide the city with a supply of doctors. Thanks to the opportunities provided by these educational institutions, Byzantium became a society which greatly valued reading and writing as well as rhetorical training. Education in the capital served the purpose of training highly qualified people for the government, the army, and the church. Since all positions in the state hierarchy were given to qualified individuals, education was the most important vehicle for social mobility, the attainment of high-ranking posts, and a chance to join the aristocracy. The emperors and patriarchs continued to support higher education in Constantinople until the fifteenth century.
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1 Paris : Diffusion de Boccard, 1985.
2 Mango and Dagron, who made their mark on 1970s studies of Byzantine Istanbul, later co-edited a book entitled Constantinople and Its Hinterland, published in connection with the 27th Byzantine Spring Symposium, held in Oxford in April of 1993. The book consists of a total of 28 articles (including the introduction) on topics such as the geographical location of the city; how it met its needs for water, grain, vegetables, and fish; its government, defense, and relationship with its hinterland; its residents, immigrants, production, and exports; and its cultural interactions. The second section of the book is about the administration of the city.
3 John of Lydia is estimated to have composed his work De Magistratibus Reipublicae Romanae (Greek: Περὶ ἀρχῶν τῆς Ῥωμαίων πολιτείας) (On the Magistracies of the Roman State) – which provides valuable information about the administrative structure of the reign of Justinian – in the year 550.