Recently a minor debate arose on the Byzans-L listserv as to whether Constantinople was originally named by Constantine ‘New Rome’ (in Greek Νέα Ῥώμη, in Latin Nova Roma). I’ve read this claim uncritically a number of times in a number of sources, some of whom are quite good scholars, but it’s a bit like one of those popular attributions that no one ever bothers to check because Oscar Wilde (or Mark Twain) would have said something like that. We read it enough, we hear it enough, and we trust that the tradition we’ve received is accurate.
A case was made that the use of New Rome as a name for Constantinople was based on a sort of power struggle among the Churches of the East, and while the reasoning is sound and I accept the argument, I’m more concerned with the notion that New Rome was ever considered a name in the early period.
Adherents to the ‘New Rome’ position point to Canon III of the First Council of Constantinople (AKA the Second Ecumenical Council) of 381 CE:
Constantinopolitanus episcopus habeat priores honoris partes post Romanum episcopum, eo quod sit ipsa nova Roma
(The Bishop of Constantinople may have the better parts of honor after the Bishop of Rome inasmuch [the city] is itself a new Rome.)
This does not say that Constantinople was named ‘New Rome’ but that it was a new Rome, i.e., the seat of the Empire, a claim that no other city could make. If Rome was princeps urbium, then so was Constantinople, and it and its officials should be on similar footing.
It’s the city’s status, not its name that matters. By this logic the city council of New London, CT could officially decree for their mayor an equal share in the honors afforded the mayor of London, England. But would they?
The other source often cited does not say New Rome at all, but ‘a second Rome.’ This is the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates of Constantinople (1.16):
ἴσην τε τῇ βασιλευούσῃ Ῥώμῃ ἀποδείξας͵ καὶ Κωνσταντινούπολιν μετονομάσας͵ χρηματίζειν δευτέραν Ῥώμην νόμῳ ἐκύρωσεν·
(After making it known that it was equal to Rome under his administration and renaming it Constantinople, he decreed by law that it conduct its business as a second Rome.)
The crux here is the word χρηματίζειν, which many want to read in the sense ‘to take and bear a title or name,’ but the problem with this is that, again, it makes no sense to say that having changed the name to X, Constantine decreed that it take the name Y.
Think about that again: after he renamed it Constantinople he decreed by law that it be named Second Rome? Apply some thought.
The usual meaning of χρηματίζειν is to to do business, and specifically the business of the βουλή or the ἐκκλησία. Not only is Constantinople on the same footing as Rome, but it will follow the administration of Rome.
All of this talk of a ‘new Rome’ or a ‘second Rome’ has nothing to do with the city’s name, but with its status and administration.