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The Hippodrome at Constantinople

"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. Two thirds of the wealth of the world, he marveled, was said to be in Constantinople, the other third scattered throughout the world (LXXXI). A millennium earlier, in AD 196, Septimius Severus had the Greek colony of Byzantium razed to the ground for its support of his rival Pescennius Niger. After a three-year siege, during which the desperate  inhabitants hurled down upon the Romans "stones from the theatres and whole bronze horses and statues of bronze" (Dio, Roman History, LXXIV.12.4), Byzantium was razed and its walls pulled down, "stripped of its theaters and baths and, indeed, of all adornments, the city, now only a village" (Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, III.6.9). Eventually, Byzantium was rebuilt according to a Roman model, with new public works that 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, AD 324 at the Battle of Chrysopolis, Constantine defeated his rival Licinius to become sole ruler of the Roman empire. Two months later, across the Bosporus on the European shore, 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). The palace, too, was constructed next to the track, which could be viewed from the kathisma or imperial box. And to celebrate the dedication of his new city in AD 330, which Constantine proclaimed to be a New 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 in Rome 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.

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, Natural History, 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 of Fabius Maximus, 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, "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.

The De Signis of Nicetas Choniates 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 maleficence (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.


Now a park in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, the Hippodrome is viewed above 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 itself 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. 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 (Roman History, XVII.4). Twenty years later, when his son Constantius II visited Rome, he marveled 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 farther down the track, now almost obscured by the buildings of the modern city.


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; The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (2004) by Sarah Bassett; "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.

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