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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites


  City at the S end of the Bosphorus. The original Greek settlement was located at the elevated E apex of a roughly triangular peninsula bordered on the S by the Propontis (the Sea of Marmara, linking the Bosphorus with the Hellespont or Dardanelles) and on the N by a grand, elongated natural harbor, the Golden Horn (Strab. 7.6.2). The peninsula was in part cut NW-SE by a stream, the Lycus. In late antique times the city expanded W across the hills and valleys of the peninsula, filling it out; the area across the Golden Horn to the N and the nearer European shores of the Bosphorus were built up somewhat, and settlements across the straits in Asia were claimed as suburbs. The commercial significance (shipping, fishing, tolls) of its location and the strategic importance it gained from its superb defensive position (Cass. Dio 75.10; cf. Paus. 4.31.5) explain the considerable role Byzantium played in Classical times and, together with its proximity to the troublesome Danubian and E frontiers, Constantine's decision to devalue Rome's functions and make of Byzantium, henceforth Constantinople, the chief city of the Roman Empire.
  There is evidence for prehistoric settlement on the site, but Byzantium proper was founded, sometime in the 7th c. B.C., by Megarians who were probably assisted by groups from other Greek cities. In the late 6th and early 5th c. B.C. it was under Persian control. Subsequently it was usually an Athenian ally, and as such it strenuously resisted Philip II of Macedon in a celebrated siege (340-339 B.C.). During the 2d c. the town sided with Rome in her E wars, and thereafter strategic and economic considerations commended it to Rome's care. In the late 2d c. A.D., however, Byzantium sided with Pescennius Niger, and as a result was besieged by the forces of Septimius Severus for more than two years (Cass. Dio 75.12); after its capitulation Severus all but destroyed it. But it was too important a site to ignore, and soon afterward he began its reconstruction and even enlarged it, and subsequent rulers gave it additional buildings. During the Tetrarchy Byzantium was overshadowed by Nicomedia, but in A.D. 330, after several years of construction on a much enlarged site, it became at Constantine's direction a new and Christian city, for eleven centuries thereafter the seat of the Eastern Roman, Byzantine Empire.
  Archaeological information about Greek Byzantium is scarce. Little excavation has been done and little can be, largely because of the superimposition of later structures. The perimeter of the site in Greek times, enclosing the heights upon which the Haghia Sophia and the Ottoman Serai now stand, seems to have been a little less than 2 km in length; the exact line of the walls, with their several gates and 27 towers, cannot now be established (Cass. Dio 75.10.3; cf. Paus. 4.31, and Dion. Byz. 6ff). Almost certainly the Megarian acropolis was within the limits of the Serai. Inside the city walls, chiefly in the N part of the town, there were several temples and sanctuaries, among them those of Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and Dionysos. Near the center of the W limit of the walls was a square called the Thrakion (Xen. Anab. 7.1.24). Just to the N of this was a strategion. The agora was in the vicinity of Haghia Sophia Square and contained a bronze statue of Helios (Malalas 291ff), also apparently known as the Zeuxippos, a name perpetuated in the area in Byzantine times. Other Greek constructions, such as cisterns, gymnasia, and a stadium are also recorded; there seems also to have been a theater. All these monuments have disappeared, though remains of shrines to Artemis, Aphrodite, and Apollo have been found in excavations between the Haghia Sophia and the Haghia Eirene.
  Equally little is known of Roman Byzantium, though it is apparent that practical and political buildings were erected by the Roman government; we hear, for example, of an aqueduct built in the time of Hadrian. The plan of the Roman town cannot be recovered, though some facts about the Severan rebuilding are known; parallels with Severus' enlargement and aggrandizement of Leptis come to mind. At Byzantium he doubled the walled area, moving the land-side N-S wall nearly half a km W of the old Greek line--its N extremity reached the Golden Horn at a point a little to the E of the present Galata Bridge. It was perhaps then that the agora was given porticos all around, gaining the name of tetrastoon. From it Severus ran a porticoed avenue W to his new wall, presumably to a gate therein. He also began a hippodrome to the SW of the tetrastoon; this, some 450 m long in its final form, was enlarged and finished by Constantine. Severus also built a theater, probably near where the Serai kitchens now stand, and baths, apparently in the style and toward the scale of the imperial baths of the capital; these were placed hard by the NE end of the hippodrome, next to the tetrastoon.
  Constantine's estimate of the value and importance of the site after he besieged Licinius there in 324 was even more favorable than that of Severus. He razed the latter's walls, and from about 325 vast resources of men and money were provided to frame and pursue his goal of a new capital, an almost entirely new city five times the area of the Severan town. The new land walls were laid out some 3 km W of the Severan walls, and within this huge enclosure there progressed one of the largest and most important exercises in city-making ever undertaken by Western man, to be continued off and on by Constantine's successors for more than two centuries. In a sense Rome was the model--there were seven hills, fourteen administrative regions, a comparable building typology and an idealized distribution thereof--but there were also more specifically Hellenistic and eastern influences at work. Most of this astonishing undertaking has disappeared, but fortunately we have texts that enumerate many buildings and works of art and that describe imperial ceremonies more or less topographically; also, there are precious descriptions by pilgrims and visitors made during and after Byzantine times, and drawings made relatively soon after the Turkish conquest of 1453 which record remains no longer in existence (Richter, Unger, Preger, Ebersolt, Gyllius, Freshfield, etc.).
  There were provided a capitolium, a golden milestone, and two senate houses. The tetrastoon became an imperial square, an Augusteon, and Constantine added a large forum of curved plan about 600 m to the W, just beyond the line of the former Severan wall. There a great column of porphyry was erected which carried a statue showing Constantine with the attributes of Apollo; the mutilated shaft still stands (Cemberlitas). The Constantinian city plan cannot be recovered. We know only that the new forum was connected with the Augusteon, probably by a continuation of Severus' avenue, and that to the N and W of the forum arteries fanned out to the Golden Horn and across the widening peninsula to the major gates in the new land walls.
  Just N of the Augusteon a large church of basilican plan was begun, the forerunner of the celebrated Haghia Sophia of Justinian's time; Constantine began several other major churches. To the S of the Augusteon, toward the present Mosque of Sultan Ahmed (the Blue Mosque), Constantine built his palace, the Daphne, entered from the Augusteon through a bronze gate (the Chalke) and a guards' quarter. The Daphne was also connected with the hippodrome in that the elevated kathisma or imperial loge there was a part of the palace; in these dispositions (as in others in the new city) one can clearly see the inspiration of Rome, in respect to the physical and symbolic relationships there among the forum, the palace on the Palatine, and the Circus Maximus (with its loges high in the facade of the Domus Augustana above). The sphendone or curved SW end of the Hippodrome, raised on powerful piers and vaults above the ground that falls steeply towards the Marmara, was made into a cistern, as were, then and later, a number of declivities in the city, which were cut to rectangular shape and lined, sometimes vaulted over, in the Roman way.
  Everywhere Constantine's people placed works of art and historical monuments brought from other parts of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. At the vast hippodrome one could see, for example, the bronze monument dedicated at Delphi by the victors of Plataiai in 479 B.C.; its spiral stem is still there, standing on the line of the spina of the race course. At the NE end of the hippodrome, near where the fountain of Wilhelm II stands today, the carceres or starting stalls were surmounted by a bronze quadriga, supposedly wrought by Lysippos, whose horses now decorate the facade of San Marco in Venice. Round about, and in the Augusteon, the new forum, and the Baths of Zeuxippos, there were scores of such trophies, giving to the new city the quality of a museum, of being the steward of the past.
  After Constantine's death in 337, work on the new city slowed down. Valens (364-78) added an aqueduct, a grand nymphaeum, baths, and apparently a cistern. The aqueduct, along with the Theodosian walls the most visible of the Roman urban constructions, still stands in a section between two of the hills of central Istanbul; this great arcade is almost 1 km long. Theodosius I (379-95) and his family returned to the policies of Constantine. In the 390s a new forum, the Forum Tauri, was built about 700 m W of Constantine's, along the line of the Mese or High Street leading W from the Augusteon (today the Divan Yolu and its extensions). Supported along its S edge by vaulted substructures, the vast Forum Tauri may have been inspired by the Forum of Trajan in Rome; details are lacking. The Forum Tauri contained a huge sculptured column of the Trajanic type of which only bits and precious drawings remain. There was also an elaborate monumental gateway, perhaps in the form of a tetrapylon, of which fragments have been excavated and restored on the Ordu Caddesi in the vicinity of the modern university. Probably the best known of Theodoslus monuments in Constantinople is the obelisk he caused to be placed upon the spina of the hippodrome in the traditional manner. The shaft proper is from Heliopolis in Egypt and dates from the 18th dynasty. It stands on a tall square marble base, the four faces of which are carved in relief. In the bottom zones the circus games are shown, together with a scene of the triumphant raising of the obelisk. Above, at larger scale, the court is shown at the circus. Between are dancers, organ players, and a dense crowd of spectators. This is almost a definitive monument of late antique art, where the qualities of frontality and diagrammatic hierarchy are softened in a style that has not forgotten the humanism and classicism of the Graeco-Roman past.
  Arcadius (395-408) added still another forum (in the XII Region, towards the S or Marmara limit of Constantine's land wall). Again the details are unknown, but the mutilated base of Arcadius' column there still exists, together with drawings and comments made by intrepid observers after the Conquest. It was Theodosius II (408-50) who gave Constantinople its most stupendous surviving monument, the great land walls of 413 and 447. They were built ca. 1.5 km W of Constantine's walls and nearly doubled the enclosed area of the city. Subjected to numerous earthquakes, to dilapidation, much repair, and understandable neglect, they still stand, traversing some 7 km from the upper reaches of the Golden Horn to the Marmara shore. In the first campaign the prefect Anthemius built the main wall and its massive towers; in the second the Praetorian Prefect Constantine built the outer, lower walls with their towers, and the ditch or moat. Altogether some 400 towers were constructed (including those of the sea walls). In the late 430s a stout single wall was run around the sea perimeter of the city (lengthy stretches are still visible); these Theodosian fortifications traverse in all almost 20 km.
  The main curtain of the great land wall is between 3 and 4 m thick at the base and it rises to an average height of 13 m. Its 96 towers, of varying shapes, are from 16 to 20 m high. To the W of this main construction were the successively lower walls and the moat, the whole system averaging nearly 70 m in width. There were a number of posterns and ten major gates, the most celebrated and elaborate of the latter being the Porta Aurea, quite well preserved today. This, the chief ceremonial entrance to the city, is towards the S extremity of the land walls, about 500 m from the Marmara shore.
  The unsculptured column of the emperor Marcian (450-57), standing in the center of old Istanbul, and the lost column of Justinian (527-65) that stood in the Augusteon, continued the imperial traditions. But the many churches, palaces, mosaics, and individual works of art of post-Theodosian date that are still to be seen in Istanbul (or are known through the writers referred to above) lie outside the scope of this article. The Museum of Antiquities, inside the Serai walls, is exceptionally rich in pre-Classical, Greek, and Roman art and finds, not only from Byzantium-Constantinople but from other sites in Turkey as well. In the courts of the Serai there are major architectural elements of the late antique period, and other fragments of the past are scattered around old Istanbul, often lodged in structures of later date. Also, a number of portable works were removed to Venice in the 13th c.

W. L. Macdonald, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Nov 2002 from Perseus Project URL below, which contains bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.

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Byzantium, Byzantion, Constantinople

Total results on 23/4/2001: 278 for Byzantium, 20 for Byzantion, 459 for Constaninople.

Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities


   A celebrated city of Thrace, on the shore of the Thracian Bosporus, called at a later period Constantinopolis, and made the capital of the Eastern Empire of the Romans. It was founded by a Dorian colony from Megara, or, rather, by a Megarian colony in conjunction with a Thracian prince. For Byzas, whom the city acknowledged, and celebrated in a festival as its founder, was, according to the legend, a son of Poseidon and Ceroessa the daughter of Io, and ruled over all the adjacent country. The early commerce of Megara was directed principally to the shores of the Propontis, and this people had founded Chalcedon seventeen years before Byzantium, and Selymbria even prior to Chalcedon. When, however, their trade was extended still farther to the north, and had reached the shores of the Euxine, the harbour of Chalcedon sank in importance, and a commercial station was required on the opposite side of the strait. This station was Byzantium. The appellation of “blind men” given to the Chalcedonians by the Persian general Megabazus, for having overlooked the superior site where Byzantium was afterwards founded, does not therefore appear to have been well merited. As long as Chalcedon was the northernmost point reached by the commerce of Megara, its situation was preferable to any offered by the opposite side of the Bosporus, because the current on this latter side runs down from the north more strongly than it does on the side of Chalcedon, and the harbour of this city, therefore, is more accessible to vessels coming from the south. On the other hand, Byzantium was far superior to Chalcedon for the northern trade, since the current that set in strongly from the Euxine carried vessels directly into the harbour of Byzantium, but prevented their approach to Chalcedon in a straight course. The harbour of Byzantium was peculiarly favoured by nature, being deep, capacious, and sheltered from every storm. From its shape, and the rich advantages thus connected with it, the harbour of Byzantium obtained the name of Chrysoceras, or "he Golden Horn,"which was also applied to the promontory or neck of land that contributed to form it. And yet, notwithstanding all these advantages, Byzantium remained for a long time an inconsiderable town. The declining commerce of Megara, and the character which Byzantium still sustained of being a half-barbarian place, may serve to account for this.
    At a subsequent period, the Milesians sent hither a strong colony, and so altered for the better the aspect of things that they are regarded by some ancient writers as the founders of the city itself. When, at a later day, the insurrection of the Asiatic Greeks had been crushed by Darius, and the Persian fleet was reducing to obedience the Greek cities along the Hellespont and the Propontis, the Byzantines, together with a body of Chalcedonians, would not wait for the coming of the Persians, but, leaving their habitations, and fleeing to the Euxine, built the city of Mesembria on the upper coast of Thrace. The Persians destroyed the empty city, and no Byzantium for some time thereafter existed. This will explain why Seylax, in his Periplus, passed by Byzantium in silence, while he mentions all the Grecian settlements in this quarter, and among them even Mesembria itself.
    Byzantium reappeared after the overthrow of Xerxes, some of the old inhabitants having probably returned; and here Pausanias, the commander of the Grecian forces, took up his quarters (B.C. 479). He gave the city a code of laws, and a government modelled, in some degree, after the Spartan form, and hence he was regarded by some as the true founder of the city. The Athenians succeeding to the hegemony, Byzantium fell under their control, and received so many important additions from them that Ammianus Marcellinus, in a later age, calls it an Attic colony. The city, however, was a Doric one, in language, customs, and laws, and remained so even after the Athenians had the control of it. The maintenance of this military post became of great importance to the Greeks during their warfare with the Persians in subsequent years, and this circumstance, together with the advantages of a lucrative and now continually increasing commerce, gave Byzantium a high rank among Grecian cities. After Athens and Sparta had weakened the power of each other by national rivalry, and neither could lay claim to the empire of the sea, Byzantium became an independent city, and turned its whole attention to commerce. Its strong situation enabled it, at a subsequent period, to resist successfully the arms of Philip of Macedon; nor did Alexander, in his eagerness to march into Asia, make any attempt upon the place. It preserved also a neutral character under his successors. The great evil to which the city of Byzantium was exposed came from the inland country, the Thracian tribes continually making incursions into the fertile territory around the place, and carrying off more or less of the products of the fields. The city suffered severely also from the Gauls, being compelled to pay a yearly tribute amounting at least to eighty talents.
    After the departure of the Gauls it again became a flourishing place, but its most prosperous period was during the Roman sway. It had thrown itself into the arms of the Romans as early as the war against the younger Philip of Macedon, and enjoyed from that people not only complete protection, but also many valuable commercial privileges. It was allowed, more over, to lay a toll on all vessels passing through the straits--a thing which had been attempted before without success--and this toll it shared with the Romans. But the day of misfortune at length came. In the contest for the Empire between Severus and Niger, Byzantium declared for the latter, and stood a siege in consequence which continued long after Niger's overthrow and death. After three years of almost incredible exertions the place surrendered to Severus. The few remaining inhabitants whom famine had spared were sold as slaves, the city was razed to the ground, its territory given to Perinthus, and a small village took the place of the great commercial emporium. Repenting soon after of what he had done, Severus rebuilt Byzantium, and adorned it with numerous and splendid buildings, which in a later age still bore his name; but it never recovered its former rank until the days of Constantine. Constantine had no great affection for Rome as a city, nor had the inhabitants any great regard for him. He felt the necessity, moreover, of having the capital of the Empire in some more central quarter, from which the movements of the German tribes on the one hand, and those of the Persians on the other, might be observed. He long sought for such a locality, and believed at one time that he had found it in the neighbourhood of the Sigaean promontory, on the coast of Troas. He had even commenced building here when the superior advantages of Byzantium as a centre of empire attracted his attention, and he finally resolved to make this the capital of the Roman world. For a monarchy possessing the western portion of Asia and the largest part of Europe, together with the whole coast of the Mediterranean Sea, nature herself seemed to have destined Byzantium as a capital.
    Constantine's plan was carried into rapid execution (A.D. 330). The ancient city had possessed a circuit of forty stadia, and covered merely two hills, one close to the water, on which the Seraglio at present stands, and another adjoining it, and extending towards the interior to what is now the Besestan, or great market. The new city, called Constantinopolis, or "City of Constantine," was three times as large, and covered four hills, together with part of a fifth, having a circuit of somewhat less than fourteen geographical miles. Every effort was made to embellish this new capital of the Roman world: the most splendid edifices were erected, including an imperial palace, numerous residences for the chief officers of the court, churches, baths, a hippodrome; and inhabitants were procured from every quarter. Its rapid increase called, from time to time, for a corresponding enlargement of the city, until, in the reign of Theodosius II., when the new walls were erected (the previous ones having been thrown down by an earthquake), Constantinople attained to the size which it at present has. Chalcondylas supposes the walls of the city to be 111 stadia in circumference; Gyllius, about 13 Italian miles; but, according to the best modern plans of Constantinople, it is not less than 19,700 yards. The number of gates is twentyeight--fourteen on the side of the port, seven towards the land, and as many on the Propontis. The city is built on a triangular promontory, and the number of hills which it covers is seven. Besides the name of Constantinopolis (Konstantinou polis), this city had also the more imposing one of New Rome (Nea Rhome), which, however, gradually fell into disuse. According to some, the peasants in the neighbourhood, while they repair to Constantinople, say in corrupt Greek that they are going es tam bolin (i.e. es tan polin), "to the city," whence has arisen the Turkish name of the place, Stamboul. Constantinople was taken by the Turks under Mohammed II. on the 29th of May, A.D. 1453.

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