The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople were one of the most powerful defensive structures from ancient and medieval times. Built in the early fifth century AD, during the reign of emperor Theodosius II (thus the name), the Theodosian Walls fulfilled their primary task for a thousand years. They protected the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Medieval Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire. However, the Theodosian Walls were more than a defensive bulwark. Their mighty appearance marked the boundaries of the “Queen of the Cities” – Constantinople.
The walls also had a ceremonial role in the imperial, military and religious processions that passed throughout the city. Lastly, the Theodosian walls symbolized the power and endurance of the Empire. In their long history, only once did the enemy breach the walls. When that occurred in 1453, the Roman Empire fell with them.
Theodosian Walls: The Defender of “The City”
For over a millennium, the city of Constantinople flourished thanks in part to the strength of its massive defensive walls – the Theodosian Walls. Around six kilometers of the land wall blocked armies from advancing from the mainland. The triple defensive system included a moat, an 8-9 meters high outer wall and a massive inner wall that was 12 meters high and almost 5 meters thick. Stretching from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the walls had more than 90 towers (square, hexagonal and octagonal). Troops manned the ramparts at all times, ready to rain arrows and projectiles at any enemy that dared attack them. During peacetime, the civilians and the military could enter the city through ten gates piercing the Theodosian Walls, including the monumental and imposing Golden Gates.
The Ceremonial Role of the Theodosian Walls
Besides their defensive role, the Theodosian Walls acted as a powerful symbol of the Empire’s power to anyone who approached Constantinople by land. This was particularly visible at its most monumental entry – the Golden Gates or Porta Aurea. Initially built as the triumphal arch of emperor Theodosius I in 391, the majestic structure was integrated into the Theodosian Walls and became a starting point for all processions that moved through the Mese – the main avenue – to the heart of the imperial capital – Hagia Sophia and the Great Palace. When the Byzantine emperors left for the campaign or returned to the city in triumph, they and their entourage would have to pass the Golden Gate in a spectacular procession.
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The Sacred Boundary of the Holy City
For a millennium, Constantinople was more than the imperial capital. The great metropolis was also one of the holiest places in all of Christendom. Filled with churches and monasteries, Constantinople housed a myriad of relics. Thus, the Theodosian Walls marked the limit between the sacred city and the profane space outside the perimeter. Through centuries, the pious emperors inscribed the Walls with dedications and symbols to protect the holy city – crosses, christograms and monograms.
Particularly important was chi(X) rho(P) symbol, the sign that, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, brought victory to emperor Constantine the Great in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Of special note is the connection between the Theodosian Walls and the Virgin Mary, who, from the reign of Theodosius II onwards, became the protector of Constantinople. The icon of the Hodegetria, the Virgin Mary (Theotokos), holding the Child Jesus, was considered to have special powers, and was used during sieges to provide additional defense.
The Last Hope of the Empire
With or without divine help, the Theodosian walls succeeded in turning back a host of would-be conquerors – from Attila the Hun, Slavs, and Avars to Bulgars, Arabs and Persians. No wonder the Byzantines perceived the Walls as a strong and powerful defense of the Empire. The strength of the walls, protecting the city, reflected the power of the Empire, and if the Walls fell, the Empire would follow. While the armies of the Fourth Crusade managed to conquer Constantinople in 1204, they failed to take the land walls, instead entering the city over the weaker Sea Walls.
The Theodosian Walls were breached only once in their thousand-year-old history – in 1453. As everything connected with the Walls, the event also carried symbolic importance. The use of a new weapon – the cannon – that pierced the mighty ramparts marked the end of the Middle Ages and ushered in the Gunpowder Age. And with the fall of the Walls of Theodosius, Constantinople also fell, bringing an end to the Roman Empire.
Theodosian Walls as World’s Heritage
After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the Theodosian Walls lost their defensive role. Not built to withstand fire weapons, the mighty ramparts turned into a symbol of the past, deteriorating with time. Nowadays, the Theodosian Walls are still standing, albeit part of the perimeter fell in ruin. They continue to be a powerful symbol of the glorious past of the vanished Empire, and are a part of world heritage protected by UNESCO.