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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."

Pierre Gilles, 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 massive retaining wall for the Sphendone, the curved section of the race track where it begins to turn back toward the starting gates. In 1927, a British expedition led by Stanley Casson spent four months excavating and studying the Hippodrome, and the foundation of the Sphendone in particular. Behind the twenty-five supporting arches (some still visible, above) were found a corresponding number of concentric chambers opening out onto a main corridor. Eventually, these arches were bricked up and a series of buttresses added. Sometime later, the chambers themselves were closed off and converted to a cistern.


Casson established that the Sphendone was a semicircle, and the diameter of the Hippodrome therefore to be approximately 385 feet and its length almost 1575 feet. Originally, the track was about 15 feet below the present surface level, the deposit of earth and debris having accumulated during the construction of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque).

Robert de Clari, a knight who participated in the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204, remarked that "Lengthwise of this space ran a wall, full fifteen feet high and ten feet wide" (The Conquest of Constantinople, XC). Surprisingly, Casson found no evidence of a spina along the axis of the Hippodrome and concluded that the monuments, themselves, served that purpose, possibly joined by wooden barriers.

Too, the pedestal of the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus was discovered to have been fitted as a fountain, with a spout on each of its four sides. A similar water conduit was discovered to have run beneath the obelisk of Theodosius. The Serpent Column, too, which rests on an upturned column capital, sat on two water conduits sunk into the original clay bedding of the Hippodrome and also served as a fountain.

In the walled garden of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, along the side adjacent to the Hippodrome, a single battered seat still survives. Clari counted  thirty or forty tiers of seats (XC) backed against the colonnade that surrounded the Hippodrome. Originally, these tiers had been built of wood and repeatedly were set ablaze during factional violence in AD 491 (Marcellinus, §491), AD 498 (Malalas, XVI.394), and AD 507 (Marcellinus, §507, when an arch also collapsed). The last conflagration occurred during the Nika riot in AD 532, when the racing factions again set fire to the tiers, burning part of the colonnade as well (Malalas, XVIII.474). No other fires are reported, and it is presumed that Justinian I (AD 527 to 565) rebuilt the seats in marble. Although Gilles comments on the fine view from the top rows, the Sphendone more often was the scene of public executions and so was appreciated by the populace for the political theater that it offered.

Under Valentinian I, for example, the chief eunuch was burned alive during the chariot races, and a prefect being questioned by the senate was tripped 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 (11831185) who, relates the Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates, had the lamentable young man repeatedly thrust by long poles into a fire made hotter still by brush wood and naphtha (Annals, §311). Andronicus, himself, perished even more miserably in the Hippodrome, being butchered after every indignity while being suspended by his feet near the statue of the she-wolf on the spina (§349-352).

These marble seats seem to have been used as paving stones for the courtyard of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (above), which was constructed from 1609-1616. And some, says Gilles, who visited Constantinople from 1544 to 1547 as a deputy of Francis I, "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 (I.7). A section of column found by Casson in the Hippodrome also was the same size and type as those in the courtyard of the mosque.

Around the entire Hippodrome was a colonnade, which survived only on the Sphendone. The itinerary of an anonymous Russian pilgrim records that thirty columns still were standing early in the fifteenth century. Gilles noted that 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 recently had been removed by Süleyman to build a hospital and now lay on the ground. "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 hollowed out as mortars for a mill house, and the pedestals and entablature to build a wall.

Drawn on vellum, this detail is a panoramic view of Constantinople from the Liber Insularum Archipelagi ("Book of the Islands of the Archipelago"), an illustrated guide to navigating the islands (isolario) by Cristoforo Buondelmonti, an aristocratic humanist and Florentine cleric who enjoyed the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici. Using Rhodes as a base, he traveled throughout the Aegean islands, voyaging to Crete, Mount Athos, and the Hellespont. The original manuscript (before 1420) of his compiled notes and illustrations has been lost, but a version of 1422, written after concluding a visit to Constantinople that year, survives in a large number of later manuscriptsalthough with considerable differences as they variously were interpolated and emended. The earliest representation of the city, it also is the only one that predates its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Here, the Hippodrome, seemingly fortified with turrets, fronts the basilica of Santa Sophia (Hagia Sophia), which was converted to a mosque on the very day that the conquering Mehmed II entered the city.

This detail is from a woodcut by the Venetian cartographer Giovanni Andrea di Vavassore (c.1520) and derives from an earlier lost original. It is one of the very first depictions of Constantinople that can be characterized as realistic. The Sphendone's arcade of columns and supporting arches can be discerned in the lower left.

One of the best presentations of the Hippodrome is illustrated in De Ludis Circensibus by Onofrio Panvinio. Published posthumously in Venice in 1600, it too has been copied from a earlier drawing. The absence of mosques in the scene suggests a mid-fifteenth century original, drawn shortly before the fall of Constantinople. One can see the obelisk of Theodosius along the spina, as well as empty statue bases commemorating such charioteers as Porphyrius.

In this detail from the "Procession of Süleyman the Magnificent through the Hippodrome" one can see the Sphendone as it appeared in 1533. It is the last of seven scenes composed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who visited Constantinople that year in hope of securing a commission for a set of tapestries. "Drawn from life," as the artist states in the first panel, they were to have served as the basis for larger cartoons from which the tapestries themselves would be designed. The hope was that Süleyman would seek to rival monarchs in the West by glorifying his own reign. But the sale never materialized and, twenty years later, the drawings were reproduced in ten woodblocks published posthumously by his wife. Entitled Customs and Fashions of the Turks, the scenes, each separated by caryatids, comprise a frieze about a foot high and almost fifteen feet long.

As Süleyman and his cortege pass by the ancient Hippodrome, the monuments in the background are shown as they appeared eighty years after the conquest of Constantinople. Although they have been rearranged and compressed to fit the scene, many can be recognized. Hagia Sophia is to the left of the Egyptian obelisk erected by Theodosius in AD 390. (From this perspective, the basilica would not have been visible but almost directly ahead of the procession.) To the right of Süleyman is the entwined Serpent Column from Delphi, flanked by the ruined pedestals of former monuments. The other obelisk is that of Constantine VII (d. AD 959), who restored the original pillar. Unlike the monolithic granite obelisk of Thutmosis III, it is constructed of individual limestone blocks that once were clad with gilded bronze plaques. They, as well as all the other ancient bronze statues that adorned the Hippodrome (except for the Serpent Column) were looted by the Crusaders in 1204. The domed building above the sultan's head may be that of Santa Luca Evangelista, as seen in the other two illustrations.

The Corinthian capitals of the Sphendone itself support an ominously cracked entabulature. There also is a stepped stylobate and column basestheir plinth, the upper and lower torus, and concave scotia all precisely measured by Gilles, who visited a dozen years later. The columns were three feet, five digits in diameter and twenty-eight feet high, with an intercolumniation (the distance between them) of eleven feet. Gilles remarks on "the great space" between the columns, which has fractured the entire entabulature, as can be seen in the woodcut. Vitruvius warns that an intercolumniation even three times the width of the column (diastyle) is overly long and that there is the "danger that the architraves may break on account of the great width of the intervals" (On Architecture, III.3.4). The intercolumnar separation in the colonnade of the Sphendone is almost three-and-a-third column widths.

Unlike the aerial panoramas of Constantinople, the drawing by Coecke depicts the Hippodrome from a different perspective: the palace of Süleyman's first grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. It now houses the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, beneath which is the substructure of the Hippodrome.

When Süleyman, the great-grandson of Mehmed the Conquerer, processed through the Hippodrome in 1533, Henry VIII was on the throne in England, Charles V was Holy Roman Emperor, his great rival Francis I was king of France, and Ivan IV (the Terrible) czar of Russia.

In that year, too, Atahualpa, the last king of the Incas, offered to fill the rooms in which he was confined with gold and silver "as high as he could reach" if the Spanish conquistadors would release him. A smaller adjoining room likewise would be filled twice over with silver (Prescott, III.5). When the palaces, temples and public buildings had been stripped of their gold and the ransom collected, Pizarro nevertheless ordered the king to be garroted. The contents of the rooms were melted down and cast into ingots, and the value of the gold calculated to be worth 1,326,539 gold pesos and the silver, 51,610 marks (III.7). Each oro de peso had a weight in gold of approximately 0.16 ounces or one hundred pesos to the pound, which is the equivalent of about 13,265 pounds of gold. Assuming a current value of $1,250 per ounce, this is the equivalent of almost $265,308,000, a windfall from the New World that helped finance the war of Charles V against Süleyman.

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; Pierre Gilles' Constantinople (2008) translated by Kimberly May Byrd; The Chronicle of Marcellinus (1995) translated by Brian Croke; Robert de Clari: La Conquête de Constantinople (2005) translated by Peter Noble; The Chronicle of John Malalas (1986) translated by Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger Scott; O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (1984) translated by Harry J. Magoulias; "Constructing the Image of a City: The Representation of Constantinople in Christopher Buondelmonti's Liber Insularum Archipelagi" (1997) by Ian R. Manners, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 87(1), 72-102; "Customs and Fashions of the Turks" (2014) by Nadine M. Orenstein, in Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry edited by Elizabeth Cleland (museum catalog); The History of Conquest of Peru (1847) by William H. Prescott.

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