Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
It seems to be the billion-dollar question: where will Jeff Bezos, the Emperor of Amazon, establish his new headquarters (to go along with its current capital city, Seattle)?
Whenever I hear this question, I’m always reminded and amazed by two geographical oddities about the Roman Empire: first, that in the fourth century it picked up and seemingly out of nowhere headed East to Byzantium, and, second, that this rather incredible fact is always taken with such a ho-hum sort of response by those who study history, as if moving East was a sort of fait accompli.
To put this in perspective, when Brazil decided to rebuild its capital and move it from the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro to the more central Brasilia—it not only endured endless headaches, logistical nightmares and the rather reasonable pushback of “Is-This-Really-Necessary?!” from the populace, but ultimately met with only middling success. Make that “success,” given that the new capital city is more of a showpiece than a working city. And all this was in 1960!
There are other examples, of course: the reunification of Germany, which brought the capital back to Berlin after a couple generations in Bonn (though Bonn was not happy to give up the title). Then there was Versailles: a swamp-land-cum-oppressive palatial estate that (briefly) usurped France’s capital city, Paris. Then there were the two centuries when Czarist Russian made Saint Petersburg the head of the largest country on earth (before Moscow grabbed the title back). Rome itself suffered further humiliation when the French popes picked up and moved to Avignon. And even here in America, before the compromise District of Columbia between Virginia and Maryland, the capital bounced around between New York and Philadelphia.
So while there is a precedent for such a thing as a Capital City being moved, it must needs be remembered that Rome-To-Byzantium actually set the precedent—and this was in the fourth century!
But why did Rome move?
According to Sir Kenneth Clarke, the macro-answer is that Rome itself was exhausted as a city—and a state—and, in a sense it had ceased to be both. For “Civilization,” according to Lord Clarke, to survive, it must have constant influxes of confidence.
And for this we have to thank the Emperor Constantine, who had confidence in spades. But he also had a precedent: in A.D. 293, the Emperor (and psychopathic Christian-killer) Diocletian had split the Roman Empire into its Western (with Rome as the capital) and Eastern (Byzantium as capital) halves. This was done mainly because the Roman Empire had become so far-flung—from Scotland to the Levant, Gibraltar to Germania—that a single governing city was impracticable. We’d see this idea of a two-headed Empire again in the Austro-Hungarian version that lasted for half a century and had co-capitals in Vienna and Budapest and finally imploded at the end of World War I.
But to return to the move of Rome to Byzantium, soon to be re-Christened “Constantinople” after its re-founder: according to Professor Christopher Bellitto of Kean University, “There’s a little bit of whim here on the part of the Emperor Constantine,” he says. “Constantine was fascinated by the Greek civilization and wanted to return Rome, more or less, to its roots.”
However, no one but God and a very few saints can be in two places at one time and the Emperor had to make a choice: he either had to reside in the “old” capital of Rome, or, the “new” one, of Constantinople—and to absolutely no one’s surprise (and Rome’s chagrin)—Constantine packed up and headed East, while leaving something of a puppet government in the rump state of Rome.
This was no small feat: while Rome was indeed a mess, and things looked a bit brighter nearer the Bosporus, an entire capital had to be reconstructed. It was once said of the Emperor Justinian that “The Emperor Never Sleeps,” but a couple of centuries prior, it was Constantine that poured all his energy into making his city-state the new grandeur that was Greece AND the glory that was Rome—combined.
I’ve also always wondered why Constantine didn’t just dig in his heels and rebuild Rome the way the Renaissance popes did. This topic—among many others—is discussed in the excellent book Two Romes: Rome And Constantinople in Late Antiquity, edited by Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly. In addition to the personal whim mentioned by Dr. Bellitto above, and the fact that Rome was “exhausted” (per Lord Clarke), there was an appeal to going back to the “roots” of the Roman Empire in Byzantium—as well as the fact that it was teeming with trade with the east and was even then renowned for its riches. Rome wasn’t yet ripe for rebirth—at least in Constantine’s eyes.
It’s also easy to think that such a move couldn’t possibly fail (since we already know the outcome)—but it’s a tribute to Constantine, who had the foresight to first tolerate Christianity and then make it the state religion—that he had the seer’s ability to get out of a dying city while it was still breathing, and give his Empire (which was on attack from all sides at all times from every barbarian tribe) new sinew and wings in more Eastern climes. Not for nothing is he known as “Constantine the Great,” as he also assembled the First Ecumenical Council, had himself baptized by St. Eusebius (albeit on his deathbed) and ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the irony of Constantine’s big move East is that he spent no small amount of time in the farthest Western part of his Empire: Britannia, as well as Gaul (France) and Spain.
It would take a couple of hundred years, but by the time of Justinian and Theodora, the Byzantine Empire, as it came to be known, had overshadowed its Big Brother Rome. Through Constantine’s foresight, stick-to-it-tive-ness, and sheer force of will Constantinople had driven out all the barbarians, established an actual Code of Law (finally codified by Justinian himself), and achieved some incredible architectural feats culminating in Hagia Sophia in the sixth century.
Still, one has to say Rome had the last laugh: not for nothing has it been termed “the Eternal City” while Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul continues a downward slide that began with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and shows no sign of stopping. It’s no wonder the Roman Empire wound up headquartered back in… Rome.