Use and Reuse: Theodosian Constantinople

Since I have rather inadvertently written several pieces about the built heritage and history of Constantinople over the past weeks, I thought I would wrap up the theme by considering the context and fate of several sculptural pieces erected in the city by Emperor Theodosius, the last ruler of a united Roman Empire.

Reigning from 379-395 CE, Theodosius presided over an eventful period of Roman history. In the west, the usurper Magnus Maximus had led imperial troops from Britain into Gaul (modern France) and proclaimed himself emperor. Further east, Goths had begun to settle along the Danube, within the empire’s borders, potentially providing manpower to beleaguered imperial armies, but also complicating military loyalties.

Full Theodosius Obelisk

Theodosius' Obelisk, with the minarets of the Blue Mosque at right.

These themes are captured by a spectacular piece of art, known today as the Obelisk of Theodosius. The Obelisk itself originated in ancient Egypt, where it was erected at Karnak by Thutmoses III in 1400s BCE. At the hands of Roman emperors, it was brought first to Alexandria, and then, by Theodosius, to Constantinople. In Constantinople, it was placed in the central barrier of the Hippodrome, where the emperor staged chariot races, executions, and triumphs–pageants celebrating imperial victories.

Theodosian Obelisk Construction-Scene

A scene from Theodosius' sculptural base of the obelisk, showing artisans moving it into place. The feat of engineering was a statement in itself. Note that the artist has represented the hieroglyphs.

Theodosius didn’t simply erect the obelisk as it was, however, but placed it on a finely carved plinth that celebrated the might and grandeur of the empire. On it were not only scenes of the obelisk’s installation, but of the activities of the Hippodrome, at whose centre it now stood. On some sides, these carvings of the festivities are quite generalised, reflecting the fact that they faced the masses in the ‘poor seats’ whose view of the piece was quite distant:

Theodosian Base Crowd

The emperor in his kathisma, or imperial viewing lodge, surrounded by courtiers spectating.

One side even had hydraulics running through it for part of the incorporated fountain, as seen above. Those sides meant to face the emperor or the partisans of the circus (who resemble today’s football hooligans,) however, have more detail. In the image below, the many different members of the court are differentiated by clothing and position, and the architecture of the kathisma is more detailed:

Theodosius Court Detail

The more elaborate side of the base, with diverse figures and a more realised architectural setting. (Wikimedia Commons)

In these portions, we can see the emperor crowning the victor of a chariot race with laurels:

Theodosius Emperor Detail

The Emperor offering a laurel wreath. (Wikimedia Commons)

And even accepting the submission of ‘barbarians:

Theodosius Barbarians

Barbarians kneeling before the imperial box with supplicating gestures. (Wikimedia Commons)

It is in this last image that the triumphal imagery is most easily seen. To a Roman Empire whose sense of mastery had been severely challenged by the influx of barbarian peoples (particularly the Goths at this stage) and whose stability had been rocked by usurpers, these propagandist depictions reasserted the old status quo. The commemorative inscription on the obelisk even alludes to the eventual defeat of Magnus Maximus, although in accordance with tradition he is not named.

Perhaps the most marvellous thing about the Obelisk of Theodosius, however, is that it still stands in its location in the Hippodrome, today one of Istanbul’s public parks. To do so, it survived not only earthquakes, but also the sack of Constantinople in 1204, which saw much of the city’s heritage destroyed or removed to Venice. Another Hippodrome monument, the Quadriga (a group of four bronze horse sculptures,) was removed in this way. Here, the sheer size of the Obelisk probably worked to its advantage.

This was not a case with another of Theodosius’ Constantinopolitan projects. Elsewhere in the city stood the Forum Tauri, established by Constantine the Great himself. Theodosius extensively renovated the Forum, renaming it after himself and installing a large triumphal column and new public buildings. (You can see an excellent digital reconstruction of this monument here, thanks to the Byzantium 1200 project.) Only a few fragments of these works survive, including fragments of ‘knotted branch’ columns.

Theodosius Column Cistern

Decorated column from the Forum of Theodosius, now holding up the ceiling in the so-called Basilica Cistern.

One such column survives in a later Byzantine cistern, where it was incorporated in order to prop up the underground reservoir’s ceiling. What both the obelisk and its plinth, and the column from the forum demonstrate is the power of sculptural re-use. Theodosius borrowed from the ancient sculptural tradition of Greece in order to symbolise the might of Rome, but also commissioned new pieces that became incorporated into the fabric of the later Byzantine city.

Today, these layers of history attest to the eclecticism of empire, as well as to the evolving meaning of monuments in the urban environment.

Learn More: 

Safran, Linda, ‘Points of View: the Theodosian Obelisk Base in Context,’ Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 34:4 (1993).


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