The ruins of The Church of Saint Polyeuktos were found during the construction of a road near the Valens Aqueduct in the 1960s. Although only ruins remain from the church, it is very important in terms of shedding light on an important period in Byzantine history.
The church was built by Anicia Juliana, daughter of Olybrius, a former Western Roman emperor. The church, which was the most magnificent structure of Constantinople in the years it was built, was dedicated to a Christian martyr named Saint Polyeuctus.
In order to understand the history of the church, it is necessary to take a short journey in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire. Because The Church of St. Polyeuktos was built due to a political conflict between the Roman aristocrats and the future emperor Justinian.
We will have to rewind a little bit to tell the story properly. We will briefly talk about the 4th and 5th centuries, when the power center of the Roman Empire shifted east.
Photo Credit: By Dosseman from Wikimedia
The New Capital of the Empire: Constantinople
After Constantinople became the capital, many things had changed in the Roman Empire. Although the most important of these is the Hellenization of the Latin cult in Rome, this is a process that would last for centuries. The fastest change after the Emperor Constantine was that Christianity gained more power in the Roman Empire.
Rise of the Christianity in the State
The bishops, whose powers were determined by the decisions taken in the Council of Nicaea, began to overshadow the authority of the Roman emperors. We see that Theodosius (379-395), who reigned about 50 years after the Emperor Constantine, kneel before Saint Ambrose (Archbishop of Milan) for his sins.
In the period of Leo I (457-474), the tradition of raising the new emperor on the shields of the soldiers had ended. Instead, the Archbishop of Constantinople began crowning the emperors. Constantine, Theodosius and Leo were the emperors who accelerated Rome’s transition from Paganism to Christianity. For this reason, they were called “Great” by the Church.
However, after moving to the capital Constantinople, religious beliefs were not the only thing that changed. The rule of choosing Emperors only among Romans ended. The end of this tradition with the crowning of Emperor Zeno was the result of the rise of barbarian soldiers in the Roman army.
Rise of Barbarian Soldiers in the Roman Army
Rome had clashed with barbarians on the northern border for centuries, but lost this war during the reign of Emperor Valens. In the war with the Goths, Emperor Valens (364-378) died on the battlefield and Rome was on the brink of collapse. Emperor Theodosius, who came to the throne in such a period, decided to be friends instead of fighting barbarians.
This policy was politically successful and brought prosperity. On the other hand, it led to the rise of foreign soldiers in the army, such as Goths, Vandals, Germans and Isaruans. For example, General Aspar of Germanic origin played a major role in the crowning of Emperor Leo I.
If it were possible, Aspar himself would have wanted to become an emperor. However, it was still not acceptable for a barbarian to come to the throne at that time. However, this rule would change only one generation later. An Isaruan general who married the daughter of Emperor Leo changed his name to Zeno. He would be the first barbarian-born emperor in Roman history.
Ruling between 474 and 491, Zeno was never approved by the Roman aristocracy and its people. So the next emperor was expected to be identical with the values of Rome. So the new emperor should have been both “Orthodox” and “Roman”. The codes of Orthodox Christianity were determined by Emperor Constantine, and all of the aristocrats were Orthodox. Barbarians, on the other hand, represented Arianism.
Reign of Emperor Anastasius I
After the death of Zeno, the person whose Empress Ariadne would marry would be the new emperor of Rome. Ariadne married the 60-year-old charismatic bureaucrat Anastasius. Both the public and the senate were satisfied. Anastasius, a charismatic and noble bureaucrat, showed a successful administration between 491 and 518.
However, he did not leave an heir to wear a crown after him. Since the Empress was no longer alive, the army would have to choose the person who came to the throne. In such an environment, the name of Justinus, the commander of the palace guards, was put forward. Justinus, who was crowned in the presence of tens of thousands in the Hippodrome, was Roman and Orthodox, but not even literate!
Reign of Emperor Justin I
The Roman senate and aristocrats were again complaining. Because the new emperor was a peasant immigrated from Thrace! But no matter how uneducated, Justin I was a successful man. In Constantinople, where he came as a young man, he was able to rise to become the commander of the palace guards. He was an excellent soldier and was highly respected by the army.
While the Roman aristocracy waited for Justin I to make a mistake, it turned out how far-sighted the new emperor was. Because while Justin was a senior officer, he brought his nephew Petrus Sabbatius from his village in Thrace and provided him to have an excellent education in the capital.
Of course Justin knew that he did not have the training to run state affairs. For this reason, he chose his nephew Peter as “Consul” and handed over the bureaucratic works to him. Peter, an excellent statesman, soon became the co-emperor with the title of “Caesar” and it was certain that he would become the next ruler. Meanwhile, he changed his name to “Justinian“.
Daughter of Emperor Olybrius, Anicia Juliana
Anicia Juliana, whose father served as the Western Roman Emperor for a short time, was one of the most established members of the Roman palace. When his son Olybrius (named after his grandfather) married the nephew of Emperor Anastasius, she was planning to make him an emperor in the future.
However, Anastasius had not declared any successor as “Caesar” before he died. Anicia Juliana was disappointed that Justin was unexpectedly crowned. However, Anicia still believed that one of her own family could take the throne after Justin I. However, after the young nephew Peter was declared a successor under the name of “Justinian“, Anicia had no hope.
When she realized that she could not claim any rights on the throne of Rome, she decided to show a symbolic reaction. She would spend her family’s great fortune on making a magnificent church and reveal the superiority of the Roman aristocracy. So she attempted to build the most beautiful church of Constantinople. The church was dedicated to Saint Polyeuctus, one of the early Christian martyrs.
This attempt by Anicia Juliana was clearly a challenge to Justinian and his wife Theodora. Because it was known that Anicia also despised Theodora. Theodora, the daughter of a servant working in the Hippodrome, was famous as a dancer before marrying Justinian. Yet after entering the royal family, she proved how strong she was.
Justinian, who became emperor with the death of his predecessor Justin I, declared his wife Theodora as co-ruler with the title of “Augusta”. As if this was not enough, they had also built a church that would rival Anicia Juliana’s Church of St Polyeuktos. They chose the name of the church, inspired by Christian martyrs, just as Anicia Juliana did.
This new church, dedicated to the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, two Roman soldiers who were martyred due to their beliefs near Syria, is known as “Little Hagia Sophia” because of its similarity to Hagia Sophia. Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus has survived to the present day.
Justinian and Theodora’s Church
The Church of Saint Polyeuktos
The 6th century, when The Church of St Polyeuktos was built, marks a major change in Roman architecture.
All Roman churches built since the reign of Emperor Constantine were inspired by the “Basilica” plan. Basilica, which was actually an ancient Roman building, were rectangular structure with three naves.
These buildings, which functioned as a court building in the history of Rome, were converted into churches in the period of Constantine. Basilica planned churches marked the first 200 years of Christianity. But it was time for a major change.
St. Polyeuktos VS Sts. Sergius and Bacchus
The Church of Saint Polyeuktos, the first example of this change, had a central dome while preserving the three-nave structure. The dome rising above the nave in the middle was placed on the thick walls separating the main space and the side naves. As in Hagia Sophia, it had two half domes over the entrance gate and the apse.
The Church of St Sergius and Bacchus, built as an answer to the arrogance of the aristocracy. It brought a new order to the Roman architecture with its octagonal dome. It was built by Anthemius, one of the architects who would build Hagia Sophia.
The Church of Saint Polyeuktos, built between 524 and 527, and the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, built between 527 and 536, paved the way for a new era. Thanks to the new dome plans developed by the two churches, Hagia Sophia, the most magnificent structure of the Byzantine Empire, was built.
Sack of Constantinople (1204)
The Crusader armies that set off from Europe in 1204 looted the capital Constantinople. During this occupation, the columns of The Church of Saint Polyeuktos were also stolen. Columns decorated with exquisite embroideries are in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice today.
Anicia Juliana’s Legacy
The Church of Saint Polyeuktos was one of the groundbreaking structures in Roman-Byzantine architecture. Although centuries have passed since its collapse, it is still remembered among the legendary Byzantine Sites in Istanbul. It is a chance that Empress Theodora and Anicia Juliana, the two most powerful women in Byzantine history, lived at the same time.
The Church of St. Polyeuktos also inspired the architecture of the Hagia Irene Church, which was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt centuries later. Hagia Irene, which is located in the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace today, is the most similar structure to the famous Church of Saint Polyeuctus of the past.
Church of the Saint Polyeuktos by Serhat Engul