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The Sphendone

"It stands on perfectly level ground; but this is more to be ascribed to industry than its natural situation....The whole facade of the Hippodrome is built on arches, which makes it stand on a level table and entertains the spectator with a very delectable view of the Propontis [Sea of Marmara], so that you may not only see men sailing to and fro before you, but you may also see the dolphins frequently tumbling about in the waters."

Petrus Gyllius, The Antiquities of Constantinople (I.7)

At the southern end of the Hippodrome, where the land begins to slope down to the sea, a series of massive vaults were constructed to serve as a retaining wall for the Sphendone, that curved section of the track where it turns back to the starting gates. In 1927, a British expedition led by Stanley Casson spent four months excavating and studying the Hippodrome, especially the foundation of the Sphendone. Behind the twenty-five supporting arches (some still visible above) were found a corresponding number of concentric chambers opening out onto a main corridor. After a devastating earthquake in AD 551 (which also collapsed the dome of Hagia Sophia), these arches were bricked up and a series of buttresses added. Sometime later, the chambers themselves were closed off and converted to a cistern.

Around the entire Hippodrome was an arcade of columns, as can be seen in the drawings below. The itinerary of an anonymous Russian pilgrim records that thirty columns still were standing early in the fifteenth century. When Petrus Gyllius (the Latinized version of Pierre Gilles) visited in 1544-1547 as a deputy of François I, seventeen remained, all of them "supported by arched foundations that lie level with the plain of the Hippodrome but rise above the ground to a height of fifty feet" (II.13). But, he says, they soon were removed by Süleyman (the Magnificent) to build a hospital. "I was concerned to see them thus demolished, not so much for the use they were intended but because some of them were squared out for paving a bath." The Corinthian capitals of white marble, "made after the most exact plans of ancient architecture," were reshaped to cover a bake house, and the pedestals and entablature to build a wall. A section of column found by Casson in the Hippodrome also is the same size and type as those in the courtyard of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (right).

Backed against this arcade of columns were tiers of seats, which the crusader Robert de Clari counted as thirty or forty rows. They, too, seem to have been used as paving stones for the courtyard of the mosque. And some, "which had survived until only a few years ago," were taken by Ibrahim Pasha, Süleyman's grand vizier, to construct his palace across from the obelisk of Theodosius (Gyllius, I.7).

Originally, the tiers had been built of wood and repeatedly were set ablaze during factional violence in AD 491 (Marcellinus, 491), 498 (Malalas, XVI.394), and 507 (Marcellinus, 507, when an arch also collapsed). The last conflagration occurred during the Nika riot in AD 532, when the factions again set fire to the tiers, burning part of the colonnade (Malalas, XVIII.474). No other fires are reported, and it is presumed that Justinian I rebuilt the seats in marble. Although Gyllius comments on the fine view from the top seats, the Sphendone more often was the scene of public executions and so was especially prized by the populace for the political theater it offered.

Under Valentinian I, for example, the chief eunuch was burned alive at the Sphendone during the chariot races, and a prefect being questioned by the senate was tripped up and fell at the turning post, where he was dragged away by the mob (Chronicon Paschal, 369, 465). Others were mutilated, decapitated, and executed. The last was an attendant to a rival of Andronicus I Comnenus, who had the lamentable young man repeatedly thrust by long poles into a fire made hotter still by brush wood and naphtha (Nicetas, 311). Andronicus, himself, perished even more miserably in the Hippodrome, being butchered after every indignity while being suspended by his feet near the she-wolf on the spina (349-352).

 

In the walled garden of the mosque, along the side adjacent to the Hippodrome, a single battered seat still survives.

 

Casson established that the Sphendone was a semicircle, and the diameter of the Hippodrome to be 117.5 meters (385.5 feet) and its length 480 meters (almost 1575 feet). Originally, the track was 4.5 meters (almost 15 feet) below the present surface level, the deposit of earth and debris having accumulated during the construction of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque.

Surprisingly, and in spite of Robert de Clari's remark that "Lengthwise of this space ran a wall, full fifteen feet high and ten feet wide," Casson found no evidence of a spina along the axis and concluded that the monuments, themselves, served the purpose, possibly joined by wooden barriers. Too, the pedestal of the column of Porphyrogenitus was discovered to have been fitted to serve as a fountain, with a spout on each of its four sides. A similar water conduit was found to run beneath the obelisk of Theodosius. The Serpent Column rests on a reused column capital which, in turn, sits on two water conduits sunk into the original clay bedding of the Hippodrome and also served as a fountain. There even was a tradition (reported by Cristoforo Buondelmonti in Liber insularum archipelagi, c.1420) that wine, milk, and water poured from the mouths of the serpents. Although Casson suggests that the column originally might have been located elsewhere in the Hippodrome and moved to its present location only at the close of the Byzantine period, it more likely always has been on the spina.


This detail comes from a woodcut by the Venetian cartographer Giovanni Andrea di Vavassore (c.1520) and derives from an earlier lost original.

The best presentation of the Hippodrome is this engraving from De ludis circensibus (Venice, 1600) by Onofrio Panvinio, which also is copied from a earlier drawing. The view is presumed to be shortly before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and shows the obelisk of Theodosius along the spina, as well as empty statue bases commemorating such charioteers as Porphyrius.


References: "The Hippodrome at Byzantium" (1948) by Rodolphe Guilland, Speculum, 23(4), 676-682; Preliminary Report upon the Excavations Carried Out in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 1927 (1928) by S. Casson; Pero Tafur: Travels and Adventures, 1435-1439 (1926) translated by Malcolm Letts; Pierre Gilles: The Antiquities of Constantinople (1729/1988) translated by John Ball and edited by Ronald G. Musto; The Chronicle of Marcellinus (1995) translated by Brian Croke.

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