NEW YORK – Ancient cities evoke mystery by virtue of the people, artifacts and events associated with them. Unfortunately, they are veiled mainly by ignorance. The Archaeology Committee of The National Arts Club, led by its chairperson, Michele Kidwell, strives to bring them to life with lectures by exceptional speakers.
The focus in June was Constantinople. Author Andrew Novo presented “Constantinople: City of Imperial Power from a Greek Settlement to a Roman Capital,” and signed copies of his novel titled Queen of Cities.
Born in New York, Novo began by noting parallels between New York and Constantinople, both of which rose from humble origins into the dominant cities of their time.
He then reviewed city mythic founding and the enigmatic life of the man who re-founded it as an imperial Roman Capital named for him. Novo said scholars continue to debate the motivation and the faith of Constantine, who was baptized on his deathbed.
Although Constantine turned the city founded by Greeks from Megara from Byzantium into Nova Roma in four years of feverish building, it took a century for political shifts and the arrival of the ancient world’s greatest art for the City to become not only the Mediterranean’s predominant political and economic center but the stuff of dreams. Reports from Vikings caused Scandinavians to believe it was Valhalla.
By 450 AD its population reached 500,000 and Theodosios II expanded it by building the great triple walls which enabled it to resist conquest for 1000 years.
The speaker devoted ample time to Justinian, the emperor who left the biggest mark on the City, primarily through the creation of its greatest monument, the Hagia Sophia.
The compelling story of the rise of a son of peasants to the pinnacle of power and his marriage to the fascinating Theodora has as its climax Justinian’s surviving a revolution only after his wife dissuaded from fleeing and perhaps encouraged him to massacre thousands of his opponents.
Justinian’s brilliant plan to restore the Roman Empire by reconquering the West was in vain. Devastating plagues and earthquakes shattered its economy and enabled the Arabs to sweep in within a century of his death, and Turks followed 400 years later.
But as the empire’s enemies slowly devoured its territory, the grandeur of its capital grew, and Constantinople’s vicissitudes included artistic and intellectual revivals that fueled the Renaissance and which continue to inspire.