It’s known that there has been a human presence in Istanbul since the Neolithic period, but when it comes to urbanization Chalcedon was the first settlement in the area known today as Istanbul. Byzantium, the origins of Istanbul, was founded later by the ruler of Megara, King Byzas.
One Helenestic myth about King Byzas’ foundation of Byzantium says that Zeus felt in love with Io who was the beautiful daughter of Inakhos. Zeus was very afraid of Hera, his jealous wife, and he transformed the girl into a heifer in order to protect her from Hera’s wrath. Hera found out about the transformation of Io and sent a monster to kill her, but Zeus sent Hermes to stop it. Then, Hera sent a horsefly to torment Io and she always had to keep on moving to escape it. While Io was passing through a valley, it was suddenly filled with water and the Bosphorus was formed. Every time the horse fly bit Io, she shook her head and shaped the land with her horns. One of the other valley was also filled with water and formed the Golden Horn. Later, Io gave a birth to a girl, a daughter of Zeus, and named her Keroessa. She later made love to Poseidon, god of the sea, and they had baby named Byzas, later to be the founder and king of Byzantion.
Byzas was king of Megara, an ancient port city located in the Attic peninsula, and home of the current capital of Greece, Athens. The Megarans used their port for the wool trade and enjoyed a wealthy life from it. Later, they used their riches to build ships and sailed out to colonize other lands. They colonized Sicily, to the north of Syracuse and the Asian shores of the Bosphorus.
The founding story of Byzantium dates back to the colonists lead by Byzas who left Megara to find a place to settle. The legend says that Byzas consulted the Oracle of Delphi to ask where he should establish his new city. The oracle advised him to go out and raise a settlement opposite the land of the blind, on the other side of the water. He didn’t understand what this really meant at that time. When they came upon Sarayburnu, they saw Chalcedon on the other side of the water, and they all were very suprised by how beautiful the area was. Then, Byzas remembered the words of the Oracle. Byzas thought that the colonists in Chalcedon had to be blind that they hadn’t seen this much nicer land across the water. He founded his new city there on the European coast and named it Byzantion after himself.
Byzantium paid a price for the continued war between the Greeks and Persians and later between the Greeks and the Spartans. It gained its independence back when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. After becoming an ally of the Roman Empire, Byzantium became very Romanized in many ways. The relationship between Rome and Byzantium was ended by Septimus Severus. He destroyed most of the city and massacred its residents because Byzantium had supported his rival. He would later regret his actions and decided to rebuild it. It might have been part of his unspoken apology to the city when he built the Hippodrome where theatrical plays and gladiator fights entertained the masses.
Constantine is credited with directing the histroy of the world towards a new course. He made Christianity the religion of the state and converted Byzantium into a new Christian capital. Constantine was very enigmatic, interested in reform, ambitious and ruthless. He was torn between Paganism and Christianity. It’s said that he was converted to Christianity after witnessing a miracle. He later acquired such a great knowledge of Christianity that he was able to discuss religion with Christian cardinals. Some historians have portrayed him as a pious man whereas others claim that he used ‘faith’ to his political advantage. The truth may lie somewhere in between but he passed into history as the first Christian emperor of Rome and the founder of Constantinople.
Constantine was the son of Helena. His father, Constantius, met with her in Drepanon, a small town in what is the İzmit province of today. Constantius was pagan and Helena was Christian when they met each other. Although his wife had a great effect on him, Constantius still preferred to follow his Pagan practises. Constantine later married with Theodora. After the death of his father, Constantine defeated Maxentius on the western side of the empire and became the sole ruler of the west. He then boldly entered Rome holding a Christian banner which was very surprising.
Constantine was nourished with Christian mysticism during his life in Rome but he was not a happy man. His desires were elsewhere in the eastern part of the empire which was being ruled by his rival Licinius at that time. Constantine set his mind on attacking Licinius. He announced his plan in Rome during a ceremony by saying that there would be “one empire, one god and one emperor.” The message reached Licinius in a very short time.
Constantine spent his time planning his attack on Licinius. He studied his plans well and organized his army. He couldn’t wait for long though. He took his army to find Licinius. When they met on the battlefield, both sides suffered heavy losses so they decided to settle and agree on peace. Constantine became emperor of all the eastern part of Europe and Balkans. He had gained more power but it did not satisfy his desires. He wanted to be the only ruler, not one of two.
Constantine attacked Licinius once more. He defeated his rival. Licinius organized the last of his troops, and took them to seek refuge in Byzantium. Constantine didn’t want to leave his work unfinished so he followed his rival and found him in Uskudar. It’s said that 30,000 soldiers died in Uskudar during the battle that followed. Constantine finally conquered Byzantium and found himself as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
The major change Constantine the Great made was the creation of a new imperial capital, New Rome. Constantine was aware of the strategic and commercial advantages of Byzantium, as it was situated on the border of Asia and Europe and close to the main sources of the glories of many ancient cultures. He decided to transform Byzantinium into his new capital. A massive reconstruction programme began. When it finished, the alternative capital of the Roman Empire emerged. He called his city Neva Rome but the residents insisted on calling it Constantinople.
He built new imperial residence, The Great Palace of Constantinople, located in south-east of the old peninsula between Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome. The emperor built the Valens Aqueduct the Cistern of Philoxenos, the Basilica Cistern and the Theodosius Cistern in order to supply the city with water. He built Hagia Irene as a symbol of the Christian city. He built roads and extended the citywalls. Constantinople took its shape as a unique Roman city where the Greek language was spoken and was under a strong Christian influence. Constantine the Great, the main founder, left behind a rising city which was big, strong and wealthy while its rival, Rome, found itself falling from power.
Photo Credits: Theodore C