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Designs of a New Capital, the Situation of Byzantium, the Bosphorous and the Hellespont

      The unfortunate Licinius was the last rival who opposed the greatness, and the last captive who adorned the triumph, of Constantine. After a tranquil and prosperous reign, the conquerer bequeathed to his family the inheritance of the Roman empire; a new capital, a new policy, and a new religion; and the innovations which he established have been embraced and consecrated by succeeding generations. The age of the great Constantine and his sons is filled with important events; but the historian must be oppressed by their number and variety, unless he diligently separates from each other the scenes which are connected only by the order of time. He will describe the political institutions that gave strength and stability to the empire, before he proceeds to relate the wars and revolutions which hastened its decline. He will adopt the division unknown to the ancients of civil and ecclesiastical affairs: the victory of the Christians, and their intestine discord, will supply copious and distinct materials both for edification and for scandal.
      After the defeat and abdication of Licinius, his victorious rival proceeded to lay the foundations of a city destined to reign in future times, the mistress of the East, and to survive the empire and religion of Constantine. The motives, whether of pride or of policy, which first induced Diocletian to withdraw himself from the ancient seat of government, had acquired additional weight by the example of his successors, and the habits of forty years. Rome was insensibly confounded with the dependent kingdoms which had once acknowledged her supremacy; and the country of the Caesars was viewed with cold indifference by a martial prince, born in the neighborhood of the Danube, educated in the courts and armies of Asia, and invested with the purple by the legions of Britain. The Italians, who had received Constantine as their deliverer, submissively obeyed the edicts which he sometimes condescended to address to the senate and people of Rome; but they were seldom honored with the presence of their new sovereign. During the vigor of his age, Constantine, according to the various exigencies of peace and war, moved with slow dignity, or with active diligence, along the frontiers of his extensive dominions; and was always prepared to take the field either against a foreign or a domestic enemy. But as he gradually reached the summit of prosperity and the decline of life, he began to meditate the design of fixing in a more permanent station the strength as well as majesty of the throne. In the choice of an advantageous situation, he preferred the confines of Europe and Asia; to curb with a powerful arm the barbarians who dwelt between the Danube and the Tanais; to watch with an eye of jealousy the conduct of the Persian monarch, who indignantly supported the yoke of an ignominious treaty. With these views, Diocletian had selected and embellished the residence of Nicomedia: but the memory of Diocletian was justly abhorred by the protector of the church: and Constantine was not insensible to the ambition of founding a city which might perpetuate the glory of his own name. During the late operations of the war against Licinius, he had sufficient opportunity to contemplate, both as a soldier and as a statesman, the incomparable position of Byzantium; and to observe how strongly it was guarded by nature against a hostile attack, whilst it was accessible on every side to the benefits of commercial intercourse. Many ages before Constantine, one of the most judicious historians of antiquity 1 had described the advantages of a situation, from whence a feeble colony of Greeks derived the command of the sea, and the honors of a flourishing and independent republic. 2
Footnote 1: Polybius, l. iv. p. 423, edit. Casaubon. He observes that the peace of the Byzantines was frequently disturbed, and the extent of their territory contracted, by the inroads of the wild Thracians.
Footnote 2: The navigator Byzas, who was styled the son of Neptune, founded the city 656 years before the Christian aera. His followers were drawn from Argos and Megara. Byzantium was afterwards rebuild and fortified by the Spartan general Pausanias. See Scaliger Animadvers. ad Euseb. p. 81. Ducange, Constantinopolis, l. i part i. cap 15, 16. With regard to the wars of the Byzantines against Philip, the Gauls, and the kings of Bithynia, we should trust none but the ancient writers who lived before the greatness of the Imperial city had excited a spirit of flattery and fiction.

      If we survey Byzantium in the extent which it acquired with the august name of Constantinople, the figure of the Imperial city may be represented under that of an unequal triangle. The obtuse point, which advances towards the east and the shores of Asia, meets and repels the waves of the Thracian Bosphorus. The northern side of the city is bounded by the harbor; and the southern is washed by the Propontis, or Sea of Marmara. The basis of the triangle is opposed to the west, and terminates the continent of Europe. But the admirable form and division of the circumjacent land and water cannot, without a more ample explanation, be clearly or sufficiently understood.
      The winding channel through which the waters of the Euxine flow with a rapid and incessant course towards the Mediterranean, received the appellation of Bosphorus, a name not less celebrated in the history, than in the fables, of antiquity. 3 A crowd of temples and of votive altars, profusely scattered along its steep and woody banks, attested the unskilfulness, the terrors, and the devotion of the Grecian navigators, who, after the example of the Argonauts, explored the dangers of the inhospitable Euxine. On these banks tradition long preserved the memory of the palace of Phineus, infested by the obscene harpies; 4 and of the sylvan reign of Amycus, who defied the son of Leda to the combat of the cestus. 5 The straits of the Bosphorus are terminated by the Cyanean rocks, which, according to the description of the poets, had once floated on the face of the waters; and were destined by the gods to protect the entrance of the Euxine against the eye of profane curiosity. 6 From the Cyanean rocks to the point and harbor of Byzantium, the winding length of the Bosphorus extends about sixteen miles, 7 and its most ordinary breadth may be computed at about one mile and a half. The new castles of Europe and Asia are constructed, on either continent, upon the foundations of two celebrated temples, of Serapis and of Jupiter Urius. The old castles, a work of the Greek emperors, command the narrowest part of the channel in a place where the opposite banks advance within five hundred paces of each other. These fortresses were destroyed and strengthened by Mahomet the Second, when he meditated the siege of Constantinople: 8 but the Turkish conqueror was most probably ignorant, that near two thousand years before his reign, continents by a bridge of boats. 9 At a small distance from the old castles we discover the little town of Chrysopolis, or Scutari, which may almost be considered as the Asiatic suburb of Constantinople. The Bosphorus, as it begins to open into the Propontis, passes between Byzantium and Chalcedon. The latter of those cities was built by the Greeks, a few years before the former; and the blindness of its founders, who overlooked the superior advantages of the opposite coast, has been stigmatized by a proverbial expression of contempt. 10
Footnote 3: The Bosphorus has been very minutely described by Dionysius of Byzantium, who lived in the time of Domitian, (Hudson, Geograph Minor, tom. iii.,) and by Gilles or Gyllius, a French traveller of the XVIth century. Tournefort (Lettre XV.) seems to have used his own eyes, and the learning of Gyllius.
Add Von Hammer, Constantinopolis und der Bosphoros, 8vo. - M.
Footnote 4: There are very few conjectures so happy as that of Le Clere, (Bibliotehque Universelle, tom. i. p. 148,) who supposes that the harpies were only locusts. The Syriac or Phoenician name of those insects, their noisy flight, the stench and devastation which they occasion, and the north wind which drives them into the sea, all contribute to form the striking resemblance.
Footnote 5: The residence of Amycus was in Asia, between the old and the new castles, at a place called Laurus Insana. That of Phineus was in Europe, near the village of Mauromole and the Black Sea. See Gyllius de Bosph. l. ii. c. 23. Tournefort, Lettre XV.
Footnote 6: The deception was occasioned by several pointed rocks, alternately sovered and abandoned by the waves. At present there are two small islands, one towards either shore; that of Europe is distinguished by the column of Pompey.
Footnote 7: The ancients computed one hundred and twenty stadia, or fifteen Roman miles. They measured only from the new castles, but they carried the straits as far as the town of Chalcedon.
Footnote 8: Ducas. Hist. c. 34. Leunclavius Hist. Turcica Mussulmanica, l. xv. p. 577. Under the Greek empire these castles were used as state prisons, under the tremendous name of Lethe, or towers of oblivion.
Footnote 9: Darius engraved in Greek and Assyrian letters, on two marble columns, the names of his subject nations, and the amazing numbers of his land and sea forces. The Byzantines afterwards transported these columns into the city, and used them for the altars of their tutelar deities. Herodotus, l. iv. c. 87.
Footnote 10: Namque arctissimo inter Europam Asiamque divortio Byzantium in extrema Europa posuere Greci, quibus, Pythium Apollinem consulentibus ubi conderent urbem, redditum oraculum est, quaererent sedem oecerum terris adversam. Ea ambage Chalcedonii monstrabantur quod priores illuc advecti, praevisa locorum utilitate pejora legissent Tacit. Annal. xii. 63.

      The harbor of Constantinople, which may be considered as an arm of the Bosphorus, obtained, in a very remote period, the denomination of the Golden Horn. The curve which it describes might be compared to the horn of a stag, or as it should seem, with more propriety, to that of an ox. 11 The epithet of golden was expressive of the riches which every wind wafted from the most distant countries into the secure and capacious port of Constantinople. The River Lycus, formed by the conflux of two little streams, pours into the harbor a perpetual supply of fresh water, which serves to cleanse the bottom, and to invite the periodical shoals of fish to seek their retreat in that convenient recess. As the vicissitudes of tides are scarcely felt in those seas, the constant depth of the harbor allows goods to be landed on the quays without the assistance of boats; and it has been observed, that in many places the largest vessels may rest their prows against the houses, while their sterns are floating in the water. 12 From the mouth of the Lycus to that of the harbor, this arm of the Bosphorus is more than seven miles in length. The entrance is about five hundred yards broad, and a strong chain could be occasionally drawn across it, to guard the port and city from the attack of a hostile navy. 13
Footnote 11: Strabo, l. vii. p. 492, edit. Casaub. Most of the antlers are now broken off; or, to speak less figuratively, most of the recesses of the harbor are filled up. See Gill. de Bosphoro Thracio, l. i. c. 5.
Footnote 12: Procopius de Aedificiis, l. i. c. 5. His description is confirmed by modern travellers. See Thevenot, part i. l. i. c. 15. Tournefort, Lettre XII. Niebuhr, Voyage d'Arabie, p. 22.
Footnote 13: See Ducange, C. P. l. i. part i. c. 16, and his Observations sur Villehardouin, p. 289. The chain was drawn from the Acropolis near the modern Kiosk, to the tower of Galata; and was supported at convenient distances by large wooden piles.

      Between the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, the shores of Europe and Asia, receding on either side, enclose the sea of Marmara, which was known to the ancients by the denomination of Propontis. The navigation from the issue of the Bosphorus to the entrance of the Hellespont is about one hundred and twenty miles. Those who steer their westward course through the middle of the Propontis, amt at once descry the high lands of Thrace and Bithynia, and never lose sight of the lofty summit of Mount Olympus, covered with eternal snows. 14 They leave on the left a deep gulf, at the bottom of which Nicomedia was seated, the Imperial residence of Diocletian; and they pass the small islands of Cyzicus and Proconnesus before they cast anchor at Gallipoli; where the sea, which separates Asia from Europe, is again contracted into a narrow channel.
Footnote 14: Thevenot (Voyages au Levant, part i. l. i. c. 14) contracts the measure to 125 small Greek miles. Belon (Observations, l. ii. c. 1.) gives a good description of the Propontis, but contents himself with the vague expression of one day and one night's sail. When Sandy's (Travels, p. 21) talks of 150 furlongs in length, as well as breadth we can only suppose some mistake of the press in the text of that judicious traveller.

      The geographers who, with the most skilful accuracy, have surveyed the form and extent of the Hellespont, assign about sixty miles for the winding course, and about three miles for the ordinary breadth of those celebrated straits. 15 But the narrowest part of the channel is found to the northward of the old Turkish castles between the cities of Sestus and Abydus. It was here that the adventurous Leander braved the passage of the flood for the possession of his mistress. 16 It was here likewise, in a place where the distance between the opposite banks cannot exceed five hundred paces, that Xerxes imposed a stupendous bridge of boats, for the purpose of transporting into Europe a hundred and seventy myriads of barbarians. 17 A sea contracted within such narrow limits may seem but ill to deserve the singular epithet of broad, which Homer, as well as Orpheus, has frequently bestowed on the Hellespont. * But our ideas of greatness are of a relative nature: the traveller, and especially the poet, who sailed along the Hellespont, who pursued the windings of the stream, and contemplated the rural scenery, which appeared on every side to terminate the prospect, insensibly lost the remembrance of the sea; and his fancy painted those celebrated straits, with all the attributes of a mighty river flowing with a swift current, in the midst of a woody and inland country, and at length, through a wide mouth, discharging itself into the Aegean or Archipelago. 18 Ancient Troy, 19 seated on a an eminence at the foot of Mount Ida, overlooked the mouth of the Hellespont, which scarcely received an accession of waters from the tribute of those immortal rivulets the Simois and Scamander. The Grecian camp had stretched twelve miles along the shore from the Sigaean to the Rhaetean promontory; and the flanks of the army were guarded by the bravest chiefs who fought under the banners of Agamemnon. The first of those promontories was occupied by Achilles with his invincible myrmidons, and the dauntless Ajax pitched his tents on the other. After Ajax had fallen a sacrifice to his disappointed pride, and to the ingratitude of the Greeks, his sepulchre was erected on the ground where he had defended the navy against the rage of Jove and of Hector; and the citizens of the rising town of Rhaeteum celebrated his memory with divine honors. 20 Before Constantine gave a just preference to the situation of Byzantium, he had conceived the design of erecting the seat of empire on this celebrated spot, from whence the Romans derived their fabulous origin. The extensive plain which lies below ancient Troy, towards the Rhaetean promontory and the tomb of Ajax, was first chosen for his new capital; and though the undertaking was soon relinquished the stately remains of unfinished walls and towers attracted the notice of all who sailed through the straits of the Hellespont. 21
Footnote 15: See an admirable dissertation of M. d'Anville upon the Hellespont or Dardanelles, in the Memoires tom. xxviii. p. 318 - 346. Yet even that ingenious geographer is too fond of supposing new, and perhaps imaginary measures, for the purpose of rendering ancient writers as accurate as himself. The stadia employed by Herodotus in the description of the Euxine, the Bosphorus, &c., (l. iv. c. 85,) must undoubtedly be all of the same species; but it seems impossible to reconcile them either with truth or with each other.
Footnote 16: The oblique distance between Sestus and Abydus was thirty stadia. The improbable tale of Hero and Leander is exposed by M. Mahudel, but is defended on the authority of poets and medals by M. de la Nauze. See the Academie des Inscriptions, tom. vii. Hist. p. 74. elem. p. 240. Note: The practical illustration of the possibility of Leander's feat by Lord Byron and other English swimmers is too well known to need particularly reference - M.
Footnote 17: See the seventh book of Herodotus, who has erected an elegant trophy to his own fame and to that of his country. The review appears to have been made with tolerable accuracy; but the vanity, first of the Persians, and afterwards of the Greeks, was interested to magnify the armament and the victory. I should much doubt whether the invaders have ever outnumbered the men of any country which they attacked.
Footnote 18: See Wood's Observations on Homer, p. 320. I have, with pleasure, selected this remark from an author who in general seems to have disappointed the expectation of the public as a critic, and still more as a traveller. He had visited the banks of the Hellespont; and had read Strabo; he ought to have consulted the Roman itineraries. How was it possible for him to confound Ilium and Alexandria Troas, (Observations, p. 340, 341,) two cities which were sixteen miles distant from each other? Note: Compare Walpole's Memoirs on Turkey, v. i. p. 101. Dr. Clarke adopted Mr. Walpole's interpretation of the salt Hellespont. But the old interpretation is more graphic and Homeric. Clarke's Travels, ii. 70. - M.
Footnote 19: Demetrius of Scepsis wrote sixty books on thirty lines of Homer's catalogue. The XIIIth Book of Strabo is sufficient for our curiosity.
Footnote 20: Strabo, l. xiii. p. 595, 890, edit. Casaub. The disposition of the ships, which were drawn upon dry land, and the posts of Ajax and Achilles, are very clearly described by Homer. See Iliad, ix. 220.
Footnote 21: Zosim. l. ii. c. 30, p. 105. Sozomen, l. ii. c. 3. Theophanes, p. 18. Nicephorus Callistus, l. vii. p. 48. Zonaras, tom. ii. l. xiii. p. 6. Zosimus places the new city between Ilium and Alexandria, but this apparent difference may be reconciled by the large extent of its circumference. Before the foundation of Constantinople, Thessalonica is mentioned by Cedrenus, (p. 283,) and Sardica by Zonaras, as the intended capital. They both suppose with very little probability, that the emperor, if he had not been prevented by a prodigy, would have repeated the mistake of the blind Chalcedonians.
To cite original text:

Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. (NY : Knopf, 1993), v. 2, pp. 81 - 88.

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