The City of Constantinople in the Age of Justinian I


An architectural and civic survey of Constantinople during a particularly important period of its history in the mid 6th century.

The city of Byzantium, an Archaic Greek colony, was totally rebuilt during the reign of Constantine. Indeed such was Constantines attention to Byzantium that, after his death, it was renamed Constantinople in his honour.

With the decline of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople gradually increased in importance and grandeur, becoming the focal point of the Eastern Roman Empire and the seat of its emperors. During the reign of Justinian I (527-565), the city underwent vast growth (perhaps peaking at a population of over 500000 people) and reached new heights of civic prosperity.

Hagia Sophia

Justinians reign was notable in its number of public building projects in Constantinople, most famously the Hagia Sophia church. The instigators of the Nika riots in 532, driven by staunch opposition to heavy taxation among fans of popular chariot racing, had tried to force Justinian out of the city, and in their fervour had burned and destroyed a lot of important civic buildings including the church of St Sophia. This had originally been built under Constantine, and then extravagantly restyled under Theodosius II – it was emblematic of the beginning of Constantinoples current prosperous period of history, and as such was an extremely symbolically important structure.

Only a few days after the burning of the church of St Sophia, Justinian commissioned the physicist Isidore of Miletus and the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles to build a new church, although the latter died shortly after this commission started. Procopius On Justinians Buildings recounts how this construction brought materials from all over the empire: Egyptian stone, marble from Thessaly, yellow stone from Syria, and more besides. The completion of the building was officially celebrated by the emperor in 537, but the mosaic work was not actually finished until the reign of Justin II.

Other building works

The architects Isidore and Anthemius were also commissioned to rebuild the Church of the Holy Apostles, again originally built by Constantine, and this building too featured beautiful domes and mosaics. Justinian was obviously very concerned with the beauty of his city, perhaps reflecting the importance of civic pride during his reign. He was, for example, very keen to protect the laws restricting building work within 100 feet of the sea, so that the beauty of the sea views could be maintained.

Death and disease

Justinians tenure as emperor was also the time of a drastic and horrific pandemic, probably caused by the bubonic plague, which may have killed up to 40% of the population. Due to the money spent by Justinian on the aforementioned building works and on military campaigns in Africa, Persia and Italy, this pandemic had colossal effects on the economy and the revenue from taxes. Justinian himself was one of the very few lucky people who caught the disease and yet managed to survive.