Constantinople, or Byzantium, was a city unlike any other in the medieval world. Modern equivalents don’t spring to mind, though perhaps readers will spot one.
The city was walled and inbred to a high degree. Geography shaped its character. Surrounded on three sides by salt water, it had only one natural freshwater river. Since ancient times, the city had built a system of underground aqueducts. Some municipal cisterns, located under city streets, were as large as modern sports fields.
The side of the city that was accessible by land could be defended very, very heavily since the other sides didn’t need fortification. It had concentric walls that were never breached except by treachery until the Turks brought in a huge cannon.
The social city had a mindset to go with these traits: it was heavily developed internally, in ways that the outside world never saw, and it was walled against outside social order. Social class was rigid, with rare individual exceptions like Empress Theodora. Sumptuary laws governed what fabrics the lower classes could wear, so that no lower person could be mistaken for a prince.
The lowest classes lived in squalor and darkness that horrified outsiders when they saw it. Their neighborhoods grew like shanty towns, but up to four stories of rickety height. While the upper classes had the finest urban planning, the shanty towns had no sanitation or sunlight.
Foreigners were not welcome. When they were permitted to enter the city at all, they were restricted to closed neighborhoods where they could be watched. These closed neighborhoods kept all Venetians, Jews or Arabs away from the native population. Only the ghettos had mosques or synagogues.
But the city also had more public works than any other city of its time. In addition to the water system, the city kept up Roman traditions of public entertainment like chariot races. They had large, centrally administered prisons. They also had hospitals that went far beyond the standards of any other time. Maintained on public money, hospitals offered the poor not only old age care and nursing, but some limited surgeries.
The city’s wealth was based in collecting tolls for passing in and out of the Black Sea, but it was also a manufacturing center, shipping its own goods to the rest of the world. It operated like Willy Wonka’s factory, keeping craftsmen virtual prisoners so that their trade secrets could not become known. Silk-making and fine glass were among its secrets that eventually got out.
Rich and poor never met in the city, except when the poor rioted on occasion, and then there were atrocities and fire. The Byzantines did atrocities like nobody else until modern times. Rich and poor, they all flayed alive, cut out tongues, and poisoned people.
Medieval Constantinople reminds me of The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.