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Porphyrius the Charioteer

"To others when they have retired, but to Porphyrius alone while still racing, did the Emperor give this honour. For often he drove his own horses to victory and then took in hand the team of his adversary, and was again crowned. Hence arose a keen rivalry on the part of the Greens, hence a shout of applause for him, O King, who will give you both to Blues and to Greens."

The Greek Anthology (Epigram 340)

Of the seven statues originally raised to Porphyrius on the spina of the Hippodrome, the bases of only two survive. Now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, they date to about AD 500 and are the principal examples of an honorific charioteer monument. One was put up by the Blue faction and found in 1847; the second, older monument was erected by the Greens and discovered in 1963. Its left face (in the foreground) shows Porphyrius in his quadriga and, above him, the Tyche (personification) of Nicomedia, a city known for the hippodrome of Diocletian, where Porphyrius presumably won other victories. The goddess of the city carries a cornucopia, indicating the riches being offered to the victor, and wears a mural crown. At each corner are winged Victories, serving as caryatids to support the upper register and its inscription, which is Epigram 356 from the Greek Anthology. In part, it reads "Porphyrius, alone twice gained the splendour of such gifts, not boasting many decades of years, but many hundreds of victories, and all of them akin to the Graces." The lower relief shows faction members engaged in a ceremonial dance, waving banners and playing the flute. Above the relief, there is a prose acclamation, with another, shorter acclamation in the corner of the relief, itself. The other faces of the monument record Epigrams 351, 352, and 353, which still can be read. Epigrams 354 and 355 presumably must have been on the face of the monument that now is worn away. Reading all six, one learns that the still young Porphyrius was the first person ever to win a statue both from the Blues and Greens and recently had changed colors. (The monument erected by the Blues shows a similar scene of a triumphant Porphyrius and the acclamation of his supports. In the upper register is Epigram 340, quoted above.)

Epigrams on both bases correspond to verses in the Greek Anthology, which have been used to infer the existence of five other bases dedicated to Porphyrius. By grouping these verses according to the monuments on which they once were inscribed, Cameron has discerned eleven monuments altogether, seven which honored Porphyrius, who has thirty-two epigrams celebrating his exploits (XV.44, 46, 47; XVI.335-362, 380-381), and one each to four other victorious charioteers. On the assumption that the verses were copied directly from the lost monuments in the same order as they appear in the Anthology and that the monuments were erected in the order in which they were awarded, he even has conjectured where they might have been located on the spina.

The metae or turning posts of the circus were named after the two major factions, that at the southern end nearer the starting gate (carceres) after the Blues, and the one at the northern end, where the track curved (the sphendone), after the Greens. (In the center was the obelisk of Theodosius, which had been erected just over a century before and after which the bases were modeled.) If, as Cameron surmises, the epigrams in the Greek Anthology were copied from the faces of each monument as they were arranged on the spina, those erected by the Blues would be at one end and those erected by the Greens at the other. The justification is that Porphyrius now has a statue from both the Blues and Greens (Epigram 351) and that this is his second monument (Epigram 356, thereby providing a chronology for the other early monuments). The one erected by the Blues would have been at the other end.

From the epigrams, one can discern Porphyrius' career. Born in Africa (Libya), Porphyrius was reared in Constantinople, where he began racing with the Blue faction while still very young but then changed to the Greens under the emperor Anastasius and back to the Blues under Justin I. He continued to race even in his sixties and seems to have adopted Calliopas as his name later in life. As the epigrams proclaim, he was the first charioteer to have his statues erected in the Hippodrome while still competing and the first to have a statue (indeed, at least two) from each faction. Malalas records for the year AD 507 that Kalliopas (Calliopas, the name by which Porphyrius is addressed in five of the epigrams), "an ex-factionarius [the most senior charioteer who drove for either the Blues or Greens] from Constantinople....took over the stable of the Green faction, which was vacant, and was completely victorious," led an attack on the Jewish synagogue in Antioch in AD 507. "They set fire to it, plundered everything that was in the synagogue and massacred many people," setting up a cross there and turning the site into a martyrium (Chronicle, XVI.6). In a fragment, Malalas also relates that Porphyrius helped rally support for the Emperor Anastasius during the revolt of Vitalian in AD 515 (cf. Epigram 350, where the emperor, "with the Greens to assist him, warred with the furiously raging enemy of the throne"). In appreciation, Anastasius, who, himself, favored the Reds, restored the privileges of the Greens and permitted them to erect a new statue of Porphyrius.

Anastasius had banned the venationes (wild beast shows) in AD 498 and the pantomimes in AD 502, leaving only the hippodrome as a venue for the often riotous factions. Cameron argues that Porphyrius was encouraged to changes factions to divert them from rioting and allow both to share in his victories, the proliferation of monuments testifying to this attempt to control the rivalry between factions. The Blues, for example, were allowed to erect a statue to Porphyrius while he still was competing; then the Greens were given permission to erect their own (foreground above). When Porphyrius raced again for the Blues, they, too, put up another one (background above). All these statues were of bronze, but the third statue erected by the Blues added gold. Although the second statue erected by the Greens was bronze, their third was bronze and silver. A final monument was erected by the Blues to Porphyrius when he was in his sixties. These honors were permitted, contends Cameron, because the victory of the charioteer also was an occasion to acclaim the emperor.

Also in the Greek Anthology are two iambic poems (380, 381), written in the ninth or tenth century by someone who was familiar with the epigrams, that accompanied paintings on the gallery ceiling of the Kathisma (the emperor's box at the Hippodrome). They depicted Porphyrius and three other well-known charioteers: Julian (Reds), Faustinus (Greens), and Constantine, the son of Faustinus (Whites). Cameron suggests that the paintings were contemporary with Porphyrius (circa AD 500) and done early in his career, when he, "the wonder of the Blues," raced for that faction.


Cameron works with the other faces of the new monument, as well as the old one, in relating their epigrams to the Greek Anthology. He then considers all the other epigrams to Porphyrius to demonstrate how they, too, can be assigned to the five lost monuments. In admittedly a very scholarly work, with few translations from Greek to English, there does seem to be a mistake in distinguishing between the left and right sides of the Green monument to Porphyrius. The epigram on the right face (p.80) seemingly should be attributed to the left face (p.118).


As to the bronze statues of Porphyrius, they were melted down in 1204, when Constantinople was sacked in the Fourth Crusade, to provide metal for the minting of coins. The two extant bases likely were removed to the Seraglio after the Turkish conquest of the city in 1435. Only three monuments now survive in place on the spina of the Hippodrome: the obelisk of Theodosius, the monument of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, and, remarkably, the bronze Serpent Column.


The epigram quoted above describes a feature unique to chariot racing in Byzantium: the diversium, whereby the winning charioteer would exchange teams with the loser of the morning's race and compete a second time in the afternoon. If again victorious, defeating an opponent with his own team, the winner's success clearly would be the result of skill, not luck. A prose inscription on the base erected by the Blues declares Porphyrius to be the only charioteer to have won the diversium twice, presumably in a single day. (Epigram 374, however, records that Constantine later won twenty-five races in the morning and twenty-one by diversium.)


In one of only two other Byzantine references to the charioteer monuments of the Hippodrome, Nicetas Choniates speaks of a meta for the Reds.

"...very close to the eastern turn of the four-horse chariot course called Rousion [Red], statues of charioteers were set up with inscriptions of their chariot-driving skill; by the mere disposition of their hands, they exhorted the charioteers, as they approached the turning post, not to relax the reins but to hold the horses in check and to use the goad continuouusly and more forcefully, so that, as they wheeled round the turning post in close quarters, they should compel their rival, even though his horses were faster and he a skilled competitor, to drive on the outside of the turn and come in last" (Annals, 653).

Nicetas is unique in speaking of this post. Presumably, there also was one for the Whites, both possibly located opposite one another along the sides of the spina to give warning of the principal turning posts that were approaching. It was then that the whip should be applied to force other drivers to an outside position in the turn.


  In the Regional Archaeological Museum at Palermo is a reconstruction of the entablature of Temple C at Selinunte (Selinus) in southern Sicily. One of its three metopes, which were discovered in 1823, depicts a quadriga and charioteer, who may be Apollo flanked by Artemis and Leto. The frontal view and standing figures, and the outside horses with their heads turned aside anticipate the reliefs on the monuments to Porphyrius a thousand years later.


References: Porphyrius the Charioteer (1973) by Alan Cameron; The Greek Anthology (1918) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); "The Monument of Porphyrius in the Hippodrome at Constantinople" (1948) by A. A. Vasiliev, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 4, 27, 29-49; O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates (1984) translated by Harry I. Magoulias.

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