Constantine resolved to make the city a home fit for an emperor….
- Zosimus, New History, c. 501
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin
Herrin starts at the beginning, with the founding of Constantinople and its namesake, the Emperor Constantine. Looking for a new capital for the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, he found a location well-suited to control land and sea routes between Asia and Europe.
Born in the central Balkans, the son of one of the four rulers established by Diocletian – so divided as an attempt to bring some stability to the vast Roman world – Constantine was declared emperor by his troops upon his father’s death in York in 306. Unfortunately, this would cause a problem as Galerius, the senior emperor in the east, did not recognize him as such.
Three men claimed the western throne, and Constantine would fight and defeat the others, culminating in the victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. He entered Rome triumphant, and was acclaimed by the Senate as emperor of the west. But he did not thank the gods, claiming that his vision of the Cross in the sky offered the promise of victory.
A year later he would meet with Licinius, Emperor of the East. They consolidated their relationship via marriage alliances, and issued the Edict of Toleration, proclaiming all religions could be celebrated freely as long as everyone offered prayers for the well-being of the Roman Empire and the emperor.
Eleven years later, Constantine defeated Licinius, exiled him, and then had him assassinated. He was now ruler of both east and west, having fought his way from the far west in England to the far east of Byzantium.
And here he would build a new capital, closer to the major rival of Persia. Byzantion, as the city was known, was built on an elevation surrounded on three sides by water, therefore requiring fortification only on the western side.
In addition, Byzantion commanded the routes for the lucrative sea-borne transport of amber, furs, metal and wood from the north; oil, grain, papyrus, and flax from the Mediterranean; spices imported from the Far East, as well as overland trade between the West and Asia.
In 324, a line was ploughed to mark the new walls for the city that would bear his name, Constantinople. The city would be inaugurated in 330, with ceremonies and horse and chariot races. Bath houses were opened for public use and money was distributed to the inhabitants.
And then there were the gold coins, perhaps the most remarkable example of stable and honest money in history. Constantine introduced the solidus (in Greek, numisma) in the West in 309. It was a 24-carat gold coin, and it became the most reliable currency of Late Antiquity and the Byzantine world.
Until the early eleventh century, all emperors minted gold coins of comparable fineness and quality, maintaining a stable standard for over seven hundred years, an extraordinary achievement.
Yes, I would say. No doubt contributing to the significant wealth and trade that came to and through the empire. These Byzantine gold coins would be later excavated in places as far away as Scandinavia, western Europe, Russia, Persia, and Ceylon.