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The Hippodrome at Constantinople

"Now there was another wonderful sight in another part of the city, for near the Palace of Boukoleon was a place which was called the Games of the Emperor. That place was a full crossbow shot and a half long and nearly one wide. Around this place were fully thirty or forty steps where the Greeks used to climb up to watch the games. And above these steps was a very tasteful and noble box where the emperor and the empress used to sit when there were games with the other important men and ladies....All along one side of this place was a wall which was surely fifteen feet high and ten wide; on this wall were statues of men, women, horses, oxen, camels, bears and lions as well as many kinds of beast, cast in copper, which were so well made and so naturally shaped that there was no master craftsman in Christian or pagan lands who knew how to sculpt or shape statues so skillfully as these statues were crafted. And in the past they used to play by magic. But they no longer play at all. And the Franks looked at these Games of the Emperor in amazement when they saw them."

Robert de Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople (XC)

The credulous wonderment of a simple knight in the Fourth Crusade can be imagined. By then, two thirds of the wealth of the world was said to be in Constantinople, the other third scattered throughout the remainder (LXXXI). A millennium earlier, in AD 196, Septimius Severus had the Greek colony of Byzantium destroyed for its support of his rival Pescennius Niger (Herodian, III.6.9; Dio, LXXV.10-14). After a three-year siege by the Romans, the city was razed and its walls pulled down, to be rebuilt according to a Roman typology. New public works included a forum and basilica, colonnaded streets, baths, and a circus or hippodrome. But Severus died in AD 211 and these monumental projects languished, the Hippodrome still unfinished.

On September 18, 324, Constantine defeated his rival Licinius to become sole ruler of the Roman empire. Two months later, he founded his new capital of Constantinople. He completed the Hippodrome, enlarging the cavea or seating area and "adorning it with works in bronze and with every excellence, and made in it a box for imperial viewing in likeness of the one which is in Rome" (Chronicon Paschale, Olympiad 277). He also constructed a palace next to the track, which he connected to the kathisma or imperial box. And to celebrate the founding of his new city in AD 330, which Constantine proclaimed to be a second Rome, there were chariot races.

Statuary and antiquities continued to be amassed until the time of Justinian (AD 527-565), who provided two horses from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. This conscious imitation of the Circus Maximus gave the Hippodrome a certain patina of age and respectability. Too, the plunder of nations had important symbolic value. Aside from enriching the state, spolia demonstrated the dominion of the victor over the vanquished, and reinforced the humiliation of defeat and the reality of domination. This symbolism is especially poignant when a particular work of art was associated with a conquered people.

At least two statues of Hercules stood in the Hippodrome. A figure of strength and fortitude in accomplishing his twelve labors, one showed him struggling with the Nemean lion, the other (the Herakles Trihesperos, the epithet referring to the three nights that it took Zeus to conceive him) as seated and exhausted after having cleaned the Augean stables. A work by Lysippus from the fourth century BC (the Greek sculptor who had executed the Apoxyomenos), the colossus was reported to be sixty feet high (Pliny, XXXIV.40). It had stood on the acropolis of Tarentum in southern Italy until 209 BC when, as punishment for having sided with Hannibal against Rome in the Second Punic War, it was taken to Rome by Fabius Maximus and dedicated on the Capitol (Plutarch, Life, XXII.6; Strabo, VI.3.1). There it remained until sometime early in the fourth century AD, possibly during the consulship of Julian in AD 325 (Parastaseis, XXXVII; also Suda, under "Basilica"). Just the year before, Constantine had defeated his rival Licinius to become sole ruler of the Roman empire, and the statue was removed to what would be his new capital, first to the basilica and then to the Hippodrome. Constantinople was to be the successor to the power and authority of the old Rome.

The De Signis of Nicetas Choniates (Chapter X of his Annals) is an ecphrasis, a formal description of works of art. Written in exile after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the crusaders, it is a sorrowful record of Byzantium's destruction and cultural losses, including the respite of the Hercules Trihesperos after his final labor.

"Also overturned was Herakles....his right foot as well as his right hand extended as far as possible. He rested his left elbow on his left leg bent at the knee; deeply despondent and bewailing his misfortunes, he held his inclined head at rest in his palm, vexed by the labors which Eurystheus had designated....the statue was so large that it took a cord the size of man's belt to go round the thumb, and the shin was the size of a man. They who separated manliness from the correspondent virtues and claimed it for themselves did not allow this magnificent Herakles to remain intact, and they were responsible for much more destruction" (Annals, 650).

Nicetas tells the strange story of the empress Euprosyne, the wife of Alexius III, who, bemused by magic and divination, had the statue of Hercules flogged. And she had the snout of the Calydonian boar, which also stood in the Hippodrome, cut off (519). By mutilation the boar's tusks, the populace were thought to be rendered incapable of attacking their rulers. This same quality of sympathetic magic, and the fear and superstition that the pagan statues engendered, can be seen in the removal of the boar, itself, from the Hippodrome in 1203 by the emperor Isaac II Angelus, who placed it in the palace "in the belief that he could thus forestall the onrush of the swinish and reckless populace of the city" (558). There, safely under the emperor's control, the mob would be deprived of the passions which it embodied. (Old, blind, and superstitious, he was to be restored to the throne by the crusaders and reign with his dissolute son Alexius.)

This perception that the ancient pagan statues still were vaguely maleficent (indeed, for the early church fathers, they were the very habitation of demons), was demonstrated again that same year, when, in alarm at the approaching crusaders, the populace of Constantinople "smashed the statue of Athena that stood on a pedestal in the Forum of Constantine, for it appeared to the foolish rabble that she was beckoning on the Western armies" (558). Nicetas goes on to say that the bronze colossus was thirty feet high and that the mob, "who were wholly ignorant of the orientation of the points of the compass contended that the statue was looking west and with her hand was beckoning the Western armies," misapprehended the fact that the right hand of the goddess actually was pointing south. The statue has been identified with various Athenas by Phidias, including the Parthenos (the figure of the goddess in the Parthenon), the Promachos (the figure on the Acropolis), and the Lemnia (dedicated by the citizens of Lemnos, also on the Acropolis), but no definite associations can be made.


One Greek bronze did survive both the rapacity of the Latin crusaders and the Turkish conquerors, possibly because it had been converted to a fountain: the Serpent Column from Delphi.


The ecclesiastical histories provide other important references about the statuary that adorned the Hippodrome.

"From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore his name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learnt to renounce their error, when the emperor held up the very objects of their worship to be the ridicule and sport of all beholders."

Eusebius, Life of Constantine (III.54)

"As many nations and cities throughout the whole realm of his [Constantine's] subjects retained a feeling of fear and veneration towards their vain idols, which led them to disregard the doctrines of the Christians, and to have a care for their ancient customs, and the manners and feasts of their fathers, it appeared necessary to the emperor to teach the governors to suppress their superstitious rites of worship. He thought that this would be easily accomplished if he could get them to despise their temples and the images contained therein. To carry this project into execution he did not require military aid; for Christian men belonging to the palace went from city to city bearing imperial letters. The people were induced to remain passive from the fear that, if they resisted these edicts, they, their children, and their wives, would be exposed to evil. The vergers and the priests, being unsupported by the multitude, brought out their most precious treasures, and the idols called diopetê, and through these servitors, the gifts were drawn forth from the shrines and the hidden recesses in the temples. The spots previously inaccessible, and known only to the priests, were made accessible to all who desired to enter. Such of the images as were constructed of precious material, and whatever else was valuable, were purified by fire, and became public property. The brazen images which were skillfully wrought were carried to the city, named after the emperor, and placed there as objects of embellishment, where they may still be seen in public places, as in the streets, the hippodrome, and the palaces. Amongst them was the statue of Apollo which was in the seat of the oracle of the Pythoness, and likewise the statues of the Muses from Helicon, the tripods from Delphos, and the much extolled Pan, which Pausanias the Lacedæmonian and the Grecian cities had devoted,—after the war against the Medes."

Sozomen, The Ecclesiastical History (II.5)

"He [Constantine] decorated the hippodrome most beautifully, incorporating the temple of the Dioscuri [Castor and Pollux] in it; their statues are still to be seen standing in the porticoes of the hippodrome. He even placed somewhere in the hippodrome the tripod of the Delphic Apollo, which had on it the very image of Apollo."

Zosimus, New History (II.31)


Now a park in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, the Hippodrome ("Atmeidan" in Turkish) here is viewed from the northeast. In the foreground is the obelisk of Theodosius I, which he had erected on the spina in AD 390 (Marcellinus, 390). On all four sides of the marble base are reliefs of the emperor and his family in the kathisma of the Hippodrome watching the games, preparing to crown a victor, or accepting the homage of prisoners. Not so immediately apparent are two additional reliefs at the ground level of the track. One, above, depicts the column actually being raised. That only this section of the red granite monolith was erected can be discerned in the relief, where the hieroglyphs break at the same place as on the obelisk. itself. As it stands, the obelisk probably is about two thirds its original height.

On the opposite side of the base is a second relief, which shows four quadrigae racing around the spina, with a meta (turning post) at either end. A tableau above the spina shows the winner being crowned and, on both sides, a triumphal lap on horseback, complete with figures acclaiming his victory. On the other two faces are inscriptions, one in Latin declaring that "...since all things yield to Theodosius and his everlasting offspring, I was conquered and subdued in three times ten days and raised to high heaven on the advice of Proclus [the city prefect]" and, on the opposite side in Greek, "It was only the Emperor Theodosius who succeeded in raising the four-sided column which had ever lain as a burden to the earth. He committed the task to Proclus, and so a great column stood erect in thirty-two days."

Bassett contends that the Theodosian obelisk was one of a pair erected by Thutmosis III in the Temple of Amon at Karnak (Thebes), both of which probably were taken by Constantine, one to adorn Rome, the other Constantinople. Ammianus Maracellinus speaks of a single obelisk being transported to Alexandria by Constantine, who intended to install it in Constantinople. But the emperor died in AD 337 and the monolith, the largest in the world, languished there (XVII.4). Twenty years later, when his son Constantius II visited Rome, he marvelled at its wonders and was "determined to add to the beauties of the city by setting up an obelisk in the Circus Maximus" (XVI.10). That same year, in AD 357, the red granite obelisk was transported to Rome on a huge barge and then dragged on a sledge into the city, where it was erected on the spina, to join the one brought from Heliopolis by Augustus in 10 BC.

In the background is a second monument, that of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. Presumably, it was installed after the obelisk of Constantius had been erected in Rome, so that Constantinople, as successor to that city, would have a second monument as well. And, as the obelisk of Augustus occupied the center of the spina, so the obelisk of Theodosius marks the central position of the Hippodrome. That it does not appear to be so placed is because the curved end of the course (the Sphendone) is yet farther down the track, now almost obscured by the buildings of the modern city.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus also had De Cerimoniis (Book of Ceremonies) composed. A compilation of procedures and protocols, it is a primary source for the activities of the Hippodrome and has not yet been completely translated into English.


"The Byzantines performed many remarkable deeds both while Niger was still living and after his death. Their city is most favourably situated in relation both to the two continents and to the sea that lies between them, and possesses strong defences both in the lie of the land and in the nature of the Bosporus. For the city is built on high ground and juts out into the sea; and the latter, rushing down from the Euxine like a mountain torrent and hurling itself against the headland, is diverted in part to the right, forming there the bay and the harbours, but the greater part of the water flows on with great speed past the city itself toward the Propontis. Moreover, their walls were very strong. The breastwork of the walls was constructed of massive squared stones fastened together by bronze plates, and on the inside they were strengthened with mounds and buildings, so that the whole seemed to be one thick wall on top of which there was a covered passageway easy of defence. There were many large towers constructed on the outside of the wall and provided with windows set close together on every side, so that anyone assailing the wall would be intercepted between them; for as they were built at short intervals and not in a straight line, but some here and some there along a rather crooked circuit, they were bound to command any attacking party from every side. The sections of the wall on the land side were raised to a great height, so as to repel even any chance assailants from that quarter, but the portions along the sea were lower; for there the rocks on which the walls were built and the dangerous character of the Bosporus proved wonderfully effective allies for the Byzantines. The harbours within the wall had both been closed with chains and their breakwaters carried towers that jutted far out on either side, making approach impossible for the enemy. In a word, the Bosporus is of the greatest advantage to the inhabitants; for it is absolutely inevitable that, once anyone gets into its current, he will be cast up on the land in spite of himself. This is a condition most satisfactory to friends, but most embarrassing to enemies.

It was thus that Byzantium had been fortified; and in addition there were engines in the greatest variety along the entire length of the wall. Some, for example, hurled rocks and wooden beams upon any who drew near, and others discharged stones and other missiles and spears against such as stood at a distance, with the result that over a considerable area none could come near them without danger. Still others had hooks, which they would let down suddenly and so draw up ships and machines through the short intervening space. Priscus, a fellow-countryman of mine, designed most of the engines, and for this very reason was both condemned to death and spared; for Severus, learning of his skill, prevented his execution, and later made use of his services on various occasions, especially at the siege of Hatra, where his machines were the only ones not burned by the barbarians. The Byzantines had also got ready five hundred ships, most of them with one bank of oars, but some with two, and all equipped with beaks. Some of them were provided with rudders at both ends, at the prow as well as the stern, and had a double complement of helmsmen and sailors, in order that they might both attack and retire without turning round and might out-manoeuvre their opponents both in advancing and in retreating."

Dio Cassius, Roman History (LXXIV.10-11)


References: "The Hippodrome at Byzantium" (1948) by Rodolphe Guilland, Speculum, 23(4), 676-682; The Chronicle of Marcellinus (1995) translated by Brian Croke; "Ancient Statues in Mediaeval Constantinople" (1924) by R. M. Dawkins, Folklore, 35(3), 209-24; "The De Signis of Nicetas Choniates. A Reappraisal" (1968) by Anthony Cutler, American Journal of Archaeology, 72(2), 113-118; O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (1984) translated by Harry J. Magoulias; "The Antiquites in the Hippodrome of Constantinople" (1991) by Sarah Guberti Bassett, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 45, 87-96; "Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder" (1963) by Cyril Mango, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 17, 55-75; "Ancient Statues in Mediaeval Constantinople" (1924) by R. M. Dawkins, Folklore, 35(3), 209-248; Chronicon Paschale 284-628 AD (1989) translated by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby; Constantinople in the Early Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (1984) translated by Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin; Robert de Clari: La Conquête de Constantinople (2005) translated by Peter Noble; Robert of Clari: The Conquest of Constantinople (1936) translated by Edgar Holmes McNeal; (1995) translated by Brian Croke.

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