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The Palace of Lausus

A eunuch at the court of Theodosius II (AD 408-450), Lausus had become imperial chamberlain at least by AD 420, when he was addressed as such ("guardian of our godly and religious empire") in the dedication to The Lausiac History, a collection of biographical sketches of the monastic fathers by the bishop Palladius. There, in a play on words and without apparent irony, the bishop says of Lausus that "When all men are gaping after vain things and building their edifice with stones from which they got no joy, you yourself want to be taught words of edification." The devout Lausus also is described as one who has lessened his own wealth by distributing it to the poor. The bishop of Caesarea, in a letter to Lausus, also speaks of his charity and that he was very rich and owned a fine house. Although Lausus was out of office by AD 422, he may have held it again in AD 431 (and possibly in AD 436) and so was in a unique position to acquire for himself the cult statues that were being emptied from the pagan temples of the eastern empire. Presumably, it was during this decade that he acquired the Olympian Zeus and Aphrodite of Cnidus.

The loss of the Aphrodite is recorded by two Bzyantine chronicles, both ultimately derived from a sixth-century history by Malchus of Philadelphia, who had described the fire of AD 475. (The Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, indicates that Malchus wrote a history narrating "the burning of the public library and of the statues of the Augusteum [a public square], lamenting them with great solemnity and in the manner of a tragedy."

Cedrenus wrote at the end of the eleventh century and relates that, among the statues in the palace of Lausus, there was "the Cnidian Aphrodite of white stone, naked, shielding with her hand only her pudenda, a work of Praxiteles of Cnidus. Also...the ivory Zeus by Pheidias, whom Pericles dedicated at the temple of the Olympians." In a second passage, he speaks of the "conflagration in the City which destroyed its most flourishing part... [it] also destroyed the porticoes on either side of the street MesÍ and the excellent offerings of Lausus: for many ancient statues were set up there, namely the famous one of the Aphrodite of Cnidus....The fire extended as far as the Forum of the great Constantine, as it is called."

Zonaras, who wrote in the early twelfth century and is best known as the epitimator of Cassius Dio, repeats the account of Cedrenus, saying that "The fire also destroyed the beautiful palace of Lausus and the statues therein, the Hera of Samos, the Athena of Lindos, and the Aphrodite of Cnidos, famous masterpieces of art," and it spread as far as the Forum, adding that "Malchus, who wrote a history of these Emperors, also mentions this."

Evagrius Scholasticus, in his Ecclesiastical History (II.13), offers a poignant image of such destruction in his account of an even more devastating fire that had occurred just ten years earlier, in which half the city of Constantinople was destroyed. Burning for four days, the city center was completely destroyed.

"Within this area nothing remained of any building, public or privateónot even the pillars or stone vaultsó, but all materials were burned up and reduced to ashes as if they had been easily combustible....To all it offered a miserable and affecting spectacle. Whatever beautiful things had graced the city, all that was built with an eye to unsurpassable magnificence, all that was put to public or private use was at one stroke reduced to hills and mounds of all kinds of rubble, impassable obstacles, the jumbled remains of former beauty. As a result the site did not even allow its inhabitants to recognise what had been there before and where it had stood."

Mango et al. identify the palace of Lausus as occupying the rotunda and adjoining hall situated between the Mese ("middle street," the main thoroughfare running through the city) and the palace of Antiochus, who was chamberlain in about AD 421óan attribution supported by its description in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul. And the collection of pagan statues themselves are to be understood as having been arranged allegorically, Zeus dominating the apse at the end of the great hall and flanked by the Eros and Chronos of Lysippus, their placement signifying the triumph of Virtue over Fortune. On the side of the Eros would have been arranged the statues of Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera (all competitors in the judgment of Paris) and, on the other, statues of animals, both real and imaginary.

Bardill locates the palace of Lausus farther west and north of the Mese, nearer the Forum of Constantine, which would place it in the path of the fire of AD 475. He also suggests that the arrangement of statues may have dictated the position of a cupid on the right hand of Anicia Juliana in the Codex Vindobonensis (AD 512) of Dioscorides. Presented to the daughter of the emperor of the western empire in AD 472, the illustrated frontispiece depicts Juliana seated as Olympian Zeus, facing forward, flanked by the personifications of her virtues. On her right is Magnanimity holding a pile of gold coins and, on her left, Prudence. A tiny winged cupid, identified as Desire of the Lover of Buildings, stands at her right, presenting Juliana with the codex. At her feet is a female figure representing the Gratitude of Art. So does Juliana's magnanimity and prudence govern her desire for building.

If the palace is not to be identified with the great hall and rotunda, then the display and interpretation of the statues within the complex become uncertain as well. Bassett contends that antique statuary was appreciated for its own sake and displayed accordingly, without justification for allegorical interpretation, which, in any event, does not explain the positioning or significance of the other cult images or animals. Rather, the statues should be regarded as spoils, plundered from the great sanctuaries of the ancient world and, in their public exposure, signifying the defeat of what they represented. In this interpretation, possession demonstrates domination. Taken from their temples, deconsecrated, and displayed in public (as was the cult statue of Serapis, which was broken up and the head carried through town before being burned), these ancient and once venerated statues now were witness to the triumph of Christianity.

Located in a small park just west of the Hippodrome, the ruins of the hexagonal hall of the Palace of Antiochus and limestone blocks of the rotunda are still to be seen. The cramped stones on the left are from the rotunda and frame what is now a curved stage in the park. The wall below is from the north niche of the great hall.

References: "The Palace of Lausus at Constantinople and Its Collection of Ancient Statues" (1992) by Cyril Mango, Michael Vickers, and E. D. Francis, Journal of the History of Collections, 4(1), 89-98; "The Palace of Lausus and Nearby Monuments in Constantinople: A Topographical Study" (1997) by Jonathan Bardill, American Journal of Archaelogy, 101(1), 67-95; "Excellent Offerings: The Lausos Collection in Constantinople" (2000) by Sarah Guberti Bassett, The Art Bulletin, 82, 1, 6-25; The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire (1983) by R. C. Blockley; The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus (2000) translated by Michael Whitby; The Lausiac History of Palladius (1918) translated by W. K. Lowther Clarke; The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (Vol. II) (1980) by J. R. Martindale.

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