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THE great capitals of the world and supreme seats of commerce had hitherto followed the course of the sun. Babylon, Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Rome, had been each in succession a degree. nearer to the west. But when the Gothic hordes poured down on the sunny lands whose shores are washed by the Mediterranean, a re-action set in. Commerce, civilization recoiled, and the seat of the predominant monarchy was transferred from Rome to Constantinople.
The Greeks, with wise discrimination, founded the colony of Byzantium on a point of land where Europe and Asia met, commanding an important sea in each continent, provided with spacious and convenient ports, accessible on all sides to commercial intercourse, and secure in its natural defences. A city thus situated, however humble its origin, would be sure, in any case, to rise to wealth and influence; but its elevation was of course greatly accelerated, and its dignity enhanced, when Constantine chose it as the metropolis of the Roman Empire.
In this selection the Emperor professed to have received divine guidance. He dreamed, one night, that the tutelar genius of Byzantium—a venerable matron, sinking under the weight of years and infirmities-was suddenly transformed into a blooming maid, and that she received from his own hands the symbols of imperial greatness. Constantine accepted the omen, and decreed the promotion of the Greek city to be the Roman capital. On foot, with lance in hand, at the head of a solemn procession, he himself directed the tracing of the new boundaries. His attendants, amazed at the magnitude of the circumference which was being marked out, ventured to observe that the most ample measure of a great city had already been surpassed. "No matter," replied the monarch; “I shall still advance, till HE, the invisible guide who marches before me, shall think proper to stop." Such was the origin of the city which received the name of the
Second or New Rome,
but which has always been known as Constantinople--the City of Constantine.
In form it resembled a triangle, having the port on the north, and the Propontis on the south side. The original Byzantium was contained within the walls of the present Seraglio, which enclose about one hundred and fifty acres. The new boundaries prescribed by the founder embraced only five of the seven hills on which Constantinople, like Rome, is built; but in the course of the next century the two other hills were also included, and the entire area amounted to two thousand acres.
Constantine spared neither effort nor expense to adorn the city. Many cities of Asia and Greece were despoiled of their chief ornaments, in order to enrich the new capital. When all was done, however, the Emperor could add but little to the natural beauty of Constantinople, which has been celebrated by poets in all ages:
"A glorious form the shining city wore,
'Mid cypress thickets of perennial green, With minaret and golden dome between; While the sea softly kissed its grassy shore,
Darting across whose blue expanse was seen
Of sculptured barques and galleys many a score."
A splendid forum crowned one of the hills; in the centre of which rose a lofty pillar of porphyry, on a pedestal of pure white marble, and surmounted by a colossal statue of Constantine, under the guise of Apollo. A magnificent hippodrome, four spacious courts for the meetings of the Senate, fourteen palaces, a school of learning, numerous churches, public baths, and theatres, also adorned the city; which, we are further told, contained nearly four thousand five hundred houses of remarkable size and elegance.
The advantageous position of Constantinople has already been mentioned. The winding Straits of the Bosphorus lead the waters of the Euxine into the Propontis, and separate Europe from Asia. They are about sixteen miles in length, and, on an average, about a mile and a half in breadth. A skiff can cross the ferry in about a quarter of an hour; and once Xerxes spanned it with a bridge of boats. The Golden Horn, the celebrated harbour of Constantinople, is an arm of the Bosphorus, and owes
its quaint title to its resemblance in form to a cornucopia and the riches poured into it from every side. There is so little fluctuation in the tide, that vessels can approach the quays at any time; and the depth of the water enables even those of the largest size "to rest their prows on the houses, while their sterns are floating." The entrance to the port is five hundred yards broad, and used to be protected, when an attack was apprehended, by a strong chain drawn across it. On the western side of the Propontis, the Straits of the Hellespont or the Dardanelles give access to the Mediterranean; and these, with the opposite channel of the Bosphorus, may be deemed the gates of the city.
"When the gates of the Hellespont and Bosphorus were shut," says Gibbon, "the capital still enjoyed, within their spacious enclosure, every production which could supply the wants or gratify the luxury of its numerous inhabitants. The sea-coasts of Thrace and Bithynia, which languish under the weight of Turkish oppression, still exhibit a rich prospect of vineyards, of gardens, and of plentiful harvests; and the Propontis has ever been renowned for an inexhaustible store of the most exquisite fish, that are taken in their stated seasons, without skill, and almost without labour. But when the passages of the Straits were thrown open for trade, they alternately admitted the natural and artificial riches of the North and South, of the Euxine and of the Mediterranean. Whatever rude commodities were collected in the forests of Germany or Scythia; whatever was manufactured by the skill of Europe or Asia; the corn of Egypt and the gems and spices of the furthest India, were brought by the varying winds to the port of Constantinople, which, for many ages, attracted the commerce of the ancient world."
Constantinople, however, carried on very little active commerce of its own. It was simply the great exchange, where the Italians, the Arabs, the Germans, and the Sclavonians, met to conduct their mercantile affairs. The Roman Government lost all its vigour when its head-quarters were transplanted to the East. Languid and inert in its new home, it vegetated, rather than lived. Private enterprise was stifled by imperial monopolies; and the people were
corrupted by gratuitous distributions of corn, and sometimes even of oil, wine, and meat. At the same time, many branches of industry and trade throve by ministering to the wants of the rich and luxurious capital, although no systematic efforts were made by the government to foster and develop them.
With all its advantages, Constantinople did little for the advancement of commerce or civilization. The world, in that respect, owes more to the Arabs, who, fired with religious zeal, carried the standard of the Prophet in triumph over the greater part of the then known world, creating an empire which stretched from India to Spain, and embraced valuable possessions in each of the three continents of the eastern hemisphere. The Koran expressly commends commerce and manufactures, as occupations agreeable to the Almighty, and makes it the duty of all true believers to encourage and protect them. This mission the Arab conquerors did not neglect to fulfil. Wherever they established their dominion, they imparted the arts and sciences, and fostered trade. The Carthaginians had viewed Spain merely as a mine, and the Spaniards as slaves. The Arabs made Spain a garden, and endowed the Spaniards with the civilization which afterwards led them to the front rank among the nations of Europe. The other nations whom the Arabs brought under their sway were no less indebted to them.
Bagdad, the seat of the Caliphs, was the capital of their vast empire. Situated in Mesopotamia, to which the ingenious industry of the Arabs had restored its former fertility, it revived in more than one respect the glories of Babylon. It was not only in the splendour of its palaces, the fantastic beauty of its gardens, and the number and magnitude of its hydraulic works, that Bagdad recalled the ancient Babylon. It was also a city of merchants; the centre of the great caravan routes and of an extensive inland navigation; the scene. of a commercial activity which, through the growth of population and the progress of arts and industry, eclipsed even that of its famous predecessor. This prosperous and splendid capital, the foundations of which were laid in 762, stood on the eastern bank of the Tigris, not far from the ruins of
Babylon on the Euphrates. A double wall of circular form enclosed the city; and such was its populousness, that "the funeral of a popular saint might be attended by eight hundred thousand men and sixty thousand women of Bagdad and the adjacent villages." Bagdad has now dwindled to a provincial town, but its bazaars are large and much frequented.