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Theodosian Walls › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 07 December 2017
Theodosian Walls (Bigdaddy1204)

The Theodosian Walls are the fortifications of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, which were first built during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450 CE). Sometimes known as the Theodosian Long Walls, they built upon and extended earlier fortifications so that the city became impregnable to enemy sieges for 800 years. The fortifications were the largest and strongest ever built in either the ancient or medieval worlds. Resisting attacks and earthquakes over the centuries, the walls were particularly tested by Bulgar and Arab forces who sometimes laid siege to the city for years at a time. Sections of the walls can still be seen today in modern Istanbul and are the city's most impressive surviving monuments from Late Antiquity.


Although the city had benefitted from previous emperors building fortifications, especially Constantine I when he moved his capital from Rome to the east, it is Emperor Theodosius II who is most associated with Constantinople's famous city walls. It was, though, Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE) who began the project of improving the capital's defences by building the Golden Gate of Constantinople in November 391 CE. The massive gate was over 12 metres high, had three arches, and a tower either side. It was entirely built of marble and decorated with statues and was topped with a sculpture of a chariot pulled by four elephants. The Golden Gate probably marked the start of triumphal processions which ended in the Hippodrome. Two decades later, Theodosius II was alarmed at the recent fall of Rome to the Goths in 410 CE and set about building a massive line of triple fortification walls to ensure Constantinople never followed the same fate. The man credited with supervising their construction is Theodosius' Praetorian Prefect Anthemius. The walls extended across the peninsula from the shores of the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, eventually being fully completed in 439 CE and stretching some 6.5 kilometres. They expanded the enclosed area of the city by 5 square kilometres.



The defensive walls were made of a combination of elements designed to make the city impregnable. Attackers first faced a 20-metre wide and 7-metre deep ditch which could be flooded with water fed from pipes when required. The water, once in, was retained by a series of dams. Behind that was an outer wall which had a patrol track to oversee the moat. Behind this was a second wall which had regular towers and an interior terrace so as to provide a firing platform to shoot down on any enemy forces attacking the moat and first wall. Then, behind that wall was a third, much more massive, inner wall. This final defence was almost 5 metres thick, 12 metres high, and presented to the enemy 96 projecting towers. Each tower was placed around 70 metres distant from another and reached a height of 20 metres. The towers, either square or octagonal in form, could hold up to three artillery machines. The towers were so placed on the middle wall so as not to block the firing possibilities from the towers of the inner wall. The inner wall was constructed using bricks and limestone blocks while the outer two were built from mixed rubble and brick courses with a limestone facing. Access to the city when not under attack, besides via the Golden Gate, was provided by ten additional gates.
Cross-section of the Theodosian Walls

Cross-section of the Theodosian Walls

The walls were built on a rising embankment so that the defenders could easily fire down on the structures in front of them if necessary. The plan of the fortifications ensured that the enemy could not place their siege engines anywhere near the all-important inner wall, and even artillery fire from a distance was presented with a much more limited target than in more traditional, single-wall fortifications. The distance between the outer ditch and inner wall was 60 metres while the height difference was 30 metres. A formidable obstacle indeed, especially when the defenders also had their secret weapon, the incendiary liquid known as “ Greek Fire ” which could be poured down upon or fired in grenades at the attackers. Defenders were organised according to the factions of the Hippodrome of the city. The four supporter groups were also responsible for the upkeep of the walls. By stocking up on food, rounding up livestock and with plenty of water in the city's massive cisterns, Constantinople was ready to withstand all comers.
Tower, Theodosian Walls

Tower, Theodosian Walls


The city was severely tested several times in its long history but the massive walls never let down the capital's inhabitants.There was an unsuccessful siege in 626 CE by the army of Persian king Kusro II helped by his Slav and Avar allies. One of the most persistent attacks came with the Arab siege of 674-678 CE when the walls withstood siege engines and artillery fire from massive catapults. Another Arab siege came in 717 CE, this time an all-year-round affair involving 1,800 ships and an army of 80,000 men. Rumours of the approaching army provoked the Byzantine emperor into insisting that any family without three-years' worth of provisions flee the city. In the end, the harsh winter did more harm to the attackers than the defenders, and Constantinople survived yet again. The next to try his luck was Thomas the Slav, who besieged the capital in 821 CE but, predictably, the city held on. In 860 CE, 941 CE, and 1043 CE Russian attacks proved as ineffectual as any that had gone before.
Mother nature was not always friendly to the city either, and repairs from earthquake damage were needed every so often, notably after the destructive quakes of August and September 478 CE after which repairs were made by Emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518 CE). There was another major quake on 26 October 740 CE. The damage was then so severe that the convention of the city's inhabitants, having to club together to maintain their own defences, was overridden and emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 CE) funded the repairs from the state treasury, albeit raising taxes by 8.5% for the purpose. Inscriptions on several of the wall's stone blocks record this work, and they can still be seen today at the end near the Sea of Marmara. Theophilos (r. 829-867 CE) and Michael III (r. 842-867 CE) were other emperors noted for their defence repair projects during the troubled 9th century CE.
Finally, after 800 years, the city's defences were breached by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE, although the attackers got in through a carelessly left-open door and not because the fortifications themselves had failed in their purpose.Byzantine emperor Michael VIII (r. 1261-1282 CE) rebuilt the fortifications in the 1260s CE, but they could not withstand a second successful attack on them when the walls suffered severe damage from Ottoman canon fire in 1453 CE.
Large parts of the Theodosian Long Walls, including many towers, can still be seen today in Istanbul, where portions have been significantly restored. The Golden Gate still stands, too, as it was made part of the castle treasury of Mehmed II in 1453 CE.

Xenophanes of Colophon › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Xenophanes of Colophon (Unknown Artist)

Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570 - c. 478 BCE) was a Greek philosopher born fifty miles north of Miletus, a city famed for the birth of philosophy and home to the first Western philosopher, Thales. He is considered one of the most important of the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers for his development and synthesis of the earlier work of Anaximander and Anaximenes(who followed Thales) but, chiefly, for his arguments concerning the gods. The prevailing belief of the time was that there were many gods who looked and behaved very much like mortals. Xenophanes claimed that there was only one God, an eternal being, who shared no attributes with human beings.
The earlier Ionian philosophers, Anaximander and Anaximenes, were chiefly concerned with identifying the basic substance of `being', of the reality which makes up life and the world. Anaximander identified this substance as the apeiron, the unlimited, or boundless, by which he meant something that provided the underlying form of existence. His student Anaximenes developed this theory by claiming that air was the basic substance in that air was `unlimited and boundless' but that the effects of air (wind, breath) could be observed. Instead of an invisible apeiron, then, one had an observable phenomenon for study.Anaximenes recognized that "by rarefaction, air becomes fire, and, by condensation, air becomes, successively, wind, water, and earth. Observeable qualitative differences (fire, wind, water, earth) are the result of quantitative changes, that is, of how densely packed is the basic principle." (Baird, 12) Xenophanes drew upon both these earlier theories but recognized in them a religious significance. The apeiron of Anaximander and the air of Anaximenes pointed, Xenophanes claimed, to a force greater than either concept which could be behind, or simply be, both: God.
Xenophanes writes that this God "sees all over, thinks all over, hears all over. He remains always in the same place, without moving; nor is it fitting that he should come and go, first to one place then to another. But without toil he sets all things in motion by the thought of his mind." (Robinson, 53) These claims regarding a deity were a radical departure from the anthropomorphic gods of Mount Olympus who were thought to daily interact and interfere with the lives of mortals.Xenophanes' god was transcendent, uncreated, and invisible spirit.


He dismissed the popular understanding of the gods as superstition. Whereas the rainbow was considered a manifestation of the goddess Iris, Xenophanes claimed that, "She whom men call `Iris' is in reality a cloud, purple, red, and green to the sight."(Robinson, 52).He further argued that, “ Homer and Hesiod ascribed to the gods whatever is infamy and reproach among men: theft and adultery and deceiving each other” and,
Mortals suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own. But if oxen, horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and fashion works as men do, horses would paint horse-like images of gods and oxen oxen-like ones, and each would fashion bodies like their own. The Ethiopians consider the gods flat-nosed and black; the Thracians blue-eyed and red-haired. There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or mind." (Diogenes Laertius)
While this may seem a familiar theological understanding in the modern day, it was by no means a common concept in Xenophanes' time. He seems to have framed his one God alongside the accepted pantheon of the many deities of Greece in order to make the concept more palatable to his audience. Though he consistently speaks of `many gods' it is clear that he does not believe they exist anywhere but in the minds of people. As such claims were a serious offense at the time, Xenophanes could have also included his references to the gods simply as a way of avoiding trouble.
Later writers, perhaps influenced by two passing characterizations of Xenophanes by Plato (Sophist 242c-d) and Aristotle(Metaphysics 986b18-27) identified him as the founder of the Eleatic School of philosophy (which claimed that, despite the illusion of the senses, what exists is really a changeless, motionless, and eternal 'One'). This view has been largely rejected, however, and Xenophanes is now seen as a lone figure criticisizing the anthropomorphic deities of his time (with Parmenides, rightfully, acknowledged as the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy). Even so, Xenophanes was Parmenides' teacher and the two philosophers share the fundamental concept that existence comes from a single, unifying force. Recognition of this force enables one to obtain a clearer and more precisce understanding of the world and one's place in it.
Xenophanes traveled widely, reciting his poetry and, in so doing, spread his beliefs. Among these was his recognition of the relativity and limitation of human understanding. He writes, "The gods have not revealed all things from the beginning to mortals but, by seeking, men find out, in time, what is better." (Robinson, 56) It is only by searching for the truth that one will find that truth. According to Xenophanes, one should not simply accept the beliefs of one's community as `truth' without questioning the validity of the concepts held.
Xenophanes' claim most certainly influenced later writers, most notably Socrates and, after him, Plato. Both of these later philosophers insisted on pursuing an individual course in pursuit of truth and wisdom. Xenophanes' concept of the one God, as noted above, influenced Parmenides' and the Eleatics' recognition of unity and their work contributed to Plato's Theory of Forms and Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, providing a philosophical basis for the development of monotheism. Though quite different in specifics, Plato's Forms and Aristotle's Unmoved Mover both posit the existence of a `higher' realm of reality which is responsible for the observable world. Xenophanes most likely would have approved of both these theories but, in keeping with his insistence on the small scope of human understanding, would have suggested both approached truth without being actually true. Xenophanes did not even consider his own views to be objectively true, only more valid than the beliefs of those around him. Regarding his teaching, he writes, "Let these things, then, be taken as like the truth" not as truth itself. Only the one God knows the Truth, Xenophanes claimed, and mortals can only approach, never fully grasp, what that truth is.


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