Book Review: Constantinople: History, Topography, Religion (Albrecht Berger) – By Li Qiang

Berger, Albrecht. Constantinople: History, Topography, Religion, translated by Christ Tsatoulis. Athens: Herodotus, 2013. 203 pp (PB) €23,00 (in Greek). ISBN: 978-9604850433

(Berger, Albrecht. Konstantinopel: Geschichte, Topographie, Religion. Stuttgart, 2011. 206 Seiten, €39,00. In German. ISBN: 978-3777210278)

Constantinople, also called by its contemporary Byzantines “New Rome”, as the capital of Byzantine Empire, has always attracted the attention of scholars and readers. Albrecht Berger’s Constantinople presents a comprehensive history of the city, and is one example of this continued interest. The book focuses on the history of Constantinople starting from its establishment as Byzantium until its decline as a capital in Late Antiquity (beginning in the seventh century C.E.). Rather than an academic monograph, Berger mentions in his prologue that Constantinople aims to present an introduction to the history of the city in the early Byzantine period for non-specialist readers.

The book consists of two sections in eight chapters. The first section is made up of seven chapters, and delineates the history of Constantinople in chronological order, including its establishment and development, urban scale and layout, its religions, the composition of its population, and a vivid guide to the city in the sixth century CE narrated by the author with two plans of the city. Chapter eight comprises the second section, and lists a collection of primary sources from historians in Byzantine period which provide details of Constantinople from different periods.

The first section can be divided into five parts. The first three chapters address the brief history of Constantinople from 660 BCE to the beginning of the seventh century CE. In this part, Berger begins with the history of Byzantium before its reestablishment by Constantine the Great and then follows with two other stages: the history of the establishment and accession of Constantinople (324-356), and Constantinople as capital (356 to the beginning of seventh century). In his descriptions of the history, he highlights the strategic position of Byzantium and the origin of its name in the first stage. As to the choice of Constantinople by Constantine the Great, he stresses its strategic and economic factors. Furthermore, he suggests that “at the beginning, Constantinople was planned just as a city for the Emperor but not a new capital […] until Libanius and Themistius called it new Rome” (26). After these points about the foundation of the city, Berger turns to its topography, religious life and the population size as well as its composition in the city during each stage.

Chapter four shifts attention to the ecclesiastical history of the city. First, Berger narrates the details of the conflict of Arianism in the fourth century CE which is one theological teaching asserting that the Son of God was a subordinate entity to God the Father, and was deemed a heretic by the Ecumenical First Council of Nicaea of 325.   Subsequently, he continues the history of the development of Christianity in Constantinople from Theodosius the Great to the Third Council of Constantinople (680/681). In the end, his focus falls on the famous movement of Monasticism in Constantinople. Monasticism is a religious way of life that involves renouncing worldly pursuits to fully devote one’s self to spiritual work.  In the world many religions have this kind of movement. Here the movement refers to the Eastern Christian Monasticism.

Chapter five concerns the pagans and Jews in the city. Berger discusses the existing conditions of the Greek religions in Constantinople after Constantine the Great. He explains that in the early Byzantine Period, when the empire became an empire of Christianity, there were still temples of Ancient Greek Gods, ancient monuments and ancient Olympic Games. In the second part, because of a lack of sources, Berger only briefly discusses the presence of the Jews in Constantinople during the early Byzantine period. Compared with other chapters, chapter six is shorter and more general. It sketches out the transformation of Constantinople from the period of Justinian the Great to Istanbul in our modern period.

Chapter seven is the most fascinating part of the whole book. In this chapter Berger shows us the city in the voice of a guide who lived in the sixth century CE From six ways he shows us different monuments and great public buildings in the city, the main street of Mese, the place around of Acropolis, the Golden Horn, south of the city and the district of Sykai (Galata). Through the beautiful illustrations and live narration, it seems that a great fascinating “queen city” reappears in front of the readers.

Chapter eight provides a collection of original texts related to the history of Constantinople and forms the second part of the work. In this chapter, Berger selects nineteen texts from different Ancient and Byzantine chronicles and histories, as well as one Medieval Chinese text which describes the walls, buildings, people, and roads and urban life of Constantinople. In this way, he intends to: “let the people of early Constantinople tell about themselves through a series of historical sources” (124). For clarity, he also adds introductions to each text. Considering the value of the texts, doubtless, this chapter is the most important part of the whole work.

Some of the sources selected by Berger have high academic value. Voyage through the Bosporus (Ανάπλους Βοσπόρου) of Dionisious of Byzantium, for instance, is one rare travel note from the second century CE regarded by C. Foss as “one of the most remarkable and detailed of ancient geographic texts.”[1] It describes the coastline of the Bosporus and the city of Byzantium at the same time. Another precious source is Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae which was written between 447 and 450 mentioning a list of monuments, public buildings and civil officials in Constantinople during the mid-fifth century (between 425 and the 440s), during the reign of the emperor Theodosius II. This is the most useful source for the topography of the city in the fifth century, because “in its few pages, the text indentifies more buildings and institutions in more parts of the city than are known from any other single source.”[2] In the end of this section is a text from Jiu Tang-shu vol. 198 describing the geography and the capital of Byzantine Empire (Fulin or Daqin) and shows different views of the city from an Eastern perspective.[3]

The most useful feature for scholars is the collection of sources in the second section of the book. Berger, in the first section, quotes different sources of the collection to support his points. The guide in chapter seven is another highlight. It shows the audience a magnificent view of Constantinople in thesixth century CE. In addition, Berger also provides an up-to-date bibliography which could be quite valuable for scholars. Overall, this book is a concise and practical historical handbook for the undergraduate and postgraduate or even for common readers who have interest in the history of Constantinople. In particular, its abundance of sources and bibliography will be of use to students and scholars alike.

Li Qiang

Li Qiang received his B.A. And M.A. from School of History and Culture at the Northeast Normal University of China. Now he is a third-year PhD student in the University of Ioannina, Greece, where he is writing his dissertation on the early relation between Roman Empire and China: based on Chinese sources. His other interests include relation between Ethiopia and Byzantine Empire, Byzantine historiography, Byzantine historical geography.

[1] Richard J. A. Talbert, Barrington atlas of the Greek and Roman world: Map-by-map Directory, Princeton, 2000, p. 785.
[2] There is one English translation: John Matthews, “The Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae”, published in Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly, Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 81-115.
[3] Jiu Tang-shu was written in 10th century A D, is one of the 24 Chinese official historical books, and also the first classic work about the Tang Dynasty.

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