Zoning an Empire

As any good historian knows, the Romans were quite the city planners – with walls, markets, aqueducts, sewers, public baths and municipal buildings integrated into a planned scheme, a well-planned Roman city was a marvel of civic engineering. Nevertheless, I was struck by this passage I read recently in a history of the founding of Constantinople by emperor Constantine. Mind you, by this point the old Roman Empire was in quick decline, Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD.:

“But as early as the second half of the fourth century, numerous estates of great gentlemen spread in the suburbs outside Constantine’s Wall, presumably interspersed with middle-class housing, and by 412 these suburbs had become so heavily populated as to require the construction, ca. 1.5 kilometers further west, of the new Theodosian Wall. The inner city, covering the surface of the Greek, Roman, and Constantinian town, was so overbuilt as to need zoning regulations by 450, forbidding housing more than ten stories high. Under Constantine that day was still far off.”
(From “Three Christian Capitals: Topography and Politics” by Richard Krautheimer)

What I found surprising was the height of the restriction – I didn’t know buildings of wood and stone commonly went that high in the ancient world, even if their “story” was shorter than ours. It’s also ironic that it’s about equal the height limit currently in effect for Ann Arbor 1,600 years later – the initial proposal by the developer for the “Corner House Lofts” at State and Washington was only 10 or 12 stories – versus the approved 8 stories.

Constantine, however would have been motivated by both hygienic and aesthetic reasons he wouldn’t want the housing to overburden the sewer or water system, or overshadow his newly constructed civic monuments: the hippodrome, his palace, and the first incantation of Hagia Sophia. Indeed, in later years disease would hit the Byzantine Empire hard, along with the rest of Europe. I wonder if they capped building size at only a few stories because they were worried about losing the quaint “character” of their streets they visited when they got tired of visiting the restaurants out in the suburbs, although thinking nothing of building scores of 7 and 8 story chariot parking structures. Probably not – the Romans were too logical for such ridiculous inconsistencies.

Author: Rob