Yeats, 1926. The oul’ fella knew little of Byzantium that he hadn’t read in an Edwardian history of the sixth century. Being another product of The High School, then at the top of Harcourt Street, I declare my personal interest in a passing remark by Norman Jeffares:
R. Ellmann has suggested that J.B.Bury the historian, who was Latin master for a time at the High School, Dublin, may first have interested Yeats in Byzantium.
Except Yeats hadn’t:
sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
His wife had taken him to recuperate in Sicily. There he saw the mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, which — since it’s an early twelfth century construction by Roger II of Hauteville — is some time and space from Byzantium. Impressive, though …
Constantine gave his name to Constantinople (11 May AD330), but its antecedent, Byzantium, had been around for the previous millennium. Byzantium, after all, had been paying fifteen talents to the Athenian treasury since Darius was seen off. That implies a place of some wealth and importance, which then revolted from Athenian control in 440BC and again in 411BC.
Look at the location of Byzantium/ Constantinople/ Istanbul, and recognise it had to be a place of settlement, and an important one, through any period of human development. Over there, just a day-trip south and east, is the site of ancient Troy — and the Greeks didn’t destroy that one for the love of a none-too-honest woman, so much as it could strangle commerce through the Hellespont.
And that was why Constantine fixed on this spot. H.G.Wells’s The Outline of History (1921) includes an outline map by J.F.Horrabin (page 518), showing the world as then appreciated by the western mind:
Socialistic Wells, with that book, was arguing his political point against American ‘exceptionalism’ and the Republican Party’s ‘isolationism’, which he saw as subverting any hopes of a peaceful world.
Some things don’t greatly change.
The Bosphorus, at its narrowest point, is little more than a mile wide. Herodotus described Xerxes bridging it:
They joined together triremes and penteconters, 360 to support the bridge on the side of the Euxine Sea, and 314 to sustain the other; and these they placed at right angles to the sea, and in the direction of the shore cables. Having joined the vessels, they moored them with anchors of unusual size, that the vessels of the bridge towards the Euxine might resist the winds which blow from within the straits, and that those of the more western bridge facing the AEgean might withstand the winds which set in from the south and from the south-east. A gap was left in the penteconters in no fewer than three places, to afford a passage for such light craft as chose to enter or leave the Euxine. When all this was done, they made the cables taut from the shore by the help of wooden capstans. This time, moreover, instead of using the two materials separately, they assigned to each bridge six cables, two of which were of white flax, while four were of papyrus. Both cables were of the same size and quality; but the flaxen were the heavier, weighing not less than a talent the cubit. When the bridge across the channel was thus complete, trunks of trees were sawn into planks, which were out to the width of the bridge, and these were laid side by side upon the tightened cables, and then fastened on the top. This done, brushwood was brought, and arranged upon the planks, after which earth was heaped upon the brushwood, and the whole trodden down into a solid mass. Lastly a bulwark was set up on either side of this causeway, of such a height as to prevent the sumpter-beasts and the horses from seeing over it and taking fright at the water.
And now when all was prepared — the bridges, and the works at Athos, the breakwaters about the mouths of the cutting, which were made to hinder the surf from blocking up the entrances, and the cutting itself; and when the news came to Xerxes that this last was completely finished — then at length the host, having first wintered at Sardis, began its march towards Abydos, fully equipped, on the first approach of spring. At the moment of departure, the sun suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens, and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight, but the sky was clear and serene. Day was thus turned into night; whereupon Xerxes, who saw and remarked the prodigy, was seized with alarm, and sending at once for the Magians, inquired of them the meaning of the portent. They replied: “God is foreshowing to the Greeks the destruction of their cities; for the sun foretells for them, and the moon for us.” So Xerxes, thus instructed, proceeded on his way with great gladness of heart.
Herodotus, so generally an annoying gossip, comes up with precise detail there. And, of course, in ancient history every crucial event deserves an eclipse.
That bridge would have run between modern Çanakkale and Kilitbahir:
Inevitably, that’s where George Gordon, Lord Byron, felt driven to repeat Leander’s swim (3 May 1810). And, the braggart rehearsed it in verse:
If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!
If, when the wintry tempest roared,
He sped to Hero, nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current poured,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!
For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat today.
So it became, two hundred years on, an annual effort. Good luck with that, say I, having observed the shuttling of rust-bucket freighter and tankers through the Bosphorus.