Founded in 658 BCE on First Hill, Byzantium began life as a modest, walled-in city-state populated by Doric Greeks. Its founder was Byzas, a soldier rumored to have been the son of Poseidon and the nymph Keroessa. A devout man, Byzas had chosen the site of his new city based on a promising prophecy uttered by the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
From its earliest days, Byzantium was an isolated colony, a so-called "island" of Hellenic civilization in a sea of barbarian tribes, although its popular reputation as a raucous port town, full of drunk merchants and sots, typically outshined its credentials as a locus of culture. As the playwright Menander wrote in his now-lost play, The Flute Girl: "Byzantium makes all of her merchants drunkards. The whole night through we were drinking, and methinks 'twas very strong wine too. At any rate, I awoke with a head for four."
In later centuries, as Greek civilization dwindled and receded, Byzantium's inhabitants diversified and its rulers came and went in a rotating line-up of hopeful shepherds - Spartans, Macedonians, Athenians, and Romans all took their turns lording over the small city on First Hill. Then, in 324 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine - inspired by a vision from God, he claimed - moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium and, once settled, set about rebuilding it to his strict specifications, adding grandeur and panache befitting a Roman Emperor.
When construction was finished in 330 CE, he had the city rechristened Nova Roma Constantiopolitina - "New Rome, City of Constantine". Native born city-dwellers continued to call the city Byzantium for many generations, but gradually its colloquial name "Constantinopolis" caught on, as did "New Rome", since the men who ruled the city still thought of themselves as "Romans" living in the "Eastern Roman Empire". The moniker "Byzantine Empire" is a more contemporary term that gained popularity some time after the Ottoman conquest of the city.
For over 800 years Constantinople served as the capitol of the transformed Roman Empire, keeping alive a commonwealth that had all but withered in the West under the weight of barbarian attacks and economic hardship. Throughout the Middle Ages, Constantinople burned brightly compared to the darkness that engulfed the rest of Europe, though it too suffered its share of turmoil. In 1204 the city was captured by a Latin army shortly after Pope Innocent III blessed the Vatican's Fourth and final Christian Crusade. But the Latins' brief tenure led to an influx of Venetian and Genoese merchants who took up residence on the south and north side of the Golden Horn, respectively.
In 1261, Michael Palaiologos - Greek heir to the Byzantine throne - marched on Constantinople and won a decisive victory. But the city he had recaptured was faltering, and the Empire he now controlled possessed a mere fraction of its former land and influence. Thus began the two-hundred year decline of a once great city. and though Constantinople continued to flourish as a cultural center, thanks in large part to a healthy system of arts patronage from wealthy residents, the city's population rapidly dwindled.
By 1397 it was clear the city's days as the Byzantine capital were numbered. To the North, East, and South, the Ottoman Empire was expanding and gaining strength, squeezing the city like a ripe grape. The Byzantine Emperors of this ear pleaded with leaders in western Europe for aid, but ongoing wars and the complicated feelings held by the Catholic west concerning their Orthodox cousins led only to a series of half-hearted gestures and weak alliances. At long last, in 1453, the invasion so many Byzantines had feared for nearly a century, came to pass. Led by Sultan Mehmet II - Mehmet "The Conqueror" as he was later known - a massive Ottoman army marched to the walls of Constantinople and laid siege.
From that day forward the Ottoman Turks ruled the city, and they made it their first priority to restore the city to its former glory. With the Sultans adopting a tolerant position with respect to religion, the city became more attractive to all kinds and creeds, and over the next 100 years its population increased tenfold - from 40,000 to 400,000. Constantinople - now called Istanbul by a large number of its residents - was back on the map and destined for greatness once again...