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The Next Title in Aleksander's Antiquities

The next title in our Aleksander's Antiquities series--a series of English translations of books by Europe's best-selling writer of popular books on Graeco-Roman antiquity, Aleksander Krawczuk--will be published at the end of this month (March 2023). The book, entitled The Last Olympiad, narrates the story of the last 6 years of the reign of emperor Theodosius the Great, but is really a broad intellectual panorama of the Roman world in the middle of its greatest cultural transmutation: the end of the old civilization and the coming of the new: new mores, new thinking, new priorities, new lifestyles.

Here is a foretaste, from the chapter on chariot races and the famous Hippodrome of Constantinople:

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

When visiting the capital on the Bosporus in 436 A.D., Melania certainly did not miss a huge and magnificent building in the very center of the city, near the imperial the palace. To the saintly aristocrat, it must have seemed to be the seat of all evil, a trap set by Satan for the weak in the spirit, a scandalous place of debauchery, from which the wailing of the sinful and the damned continually resounded. Of course, I am talking about the hippodrome, or—using Latin terminology—the circus.

This was in some ways even older than Constantinople itself. It dated to the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. The city was then called Byzantium, and thanks to the kindness of Emperor Severus, it received well-equipped baths and a hippodrome without which facilities, no citizens of any major urban center could live a normal, worthy life. More than a hundred years later, Constantine the Great, giving Byzantium his name and extending it so that it would be worthy of its great new name, expanded also the hippodrome, modelling it on the example of Circus Maximus, in the capital city on the Tiber. It now measured 400 meters in length and 120 meters in width, and its stalls could accommodate in its 40 rows over 100,000 people. The benches were at first wooden, later replaced with marble. On the outside, on the side facing the city center, the building featured large stone arches, which we know from other Roman buildings of this type.

At the southeastern wall, right by the imperial palace, was the VIP box and in it sat the ruler, his family and his highest dignitaries. It was decorated with a chariot of the god Helios, harnessed to four steeds. This magnificent bronze sculpture, the work of Lysippus (the court artist of Alexander the Great), once stood on Rhodes, then either in Chios or Corinth, later in Rome, in the palace of Nero. From there it was taken to Constantinople just a few years before Melania’s visit. We can judge its splendor not only on the basis of descriptions or copies, because it has partially survived to the present day: the steeds of the chariot still stand over the portico of St. Mark’s in Venice.[1]

In the hippodrome, there were many other excellent works of art, marble and bronze sculptures, brought here from all the lands of the Empire by Constantine the Great and his successors. Thus, during the breaks between races, thousands of spectators had plenty to see. They could also admire the magnificent view of the city and the sea from the top of the hippodrome. The hippodrome was also a sacred memorial: after all, it was right there, around its racing track that a solemn procession took place in May 330 A.D. following special games: the ceremony of the birth of Constantinople symbolically performed before great crowds.

What is left of this building? What will anyone visiting Istanbul today see? Even in the 16th century, a hundred or more years after the city was conquered by the Turks, they were still standing there many significant fragments of the structure; one traveler, however, painfully states that he was witnessed them being taken apart to serve as building materials. Soon everything that had stood above ground was gone. Later excavations revealed only some of the foundations. There is, however, the square itself, faithfully preserving the shape of the former stadium, just like the famous Piazza Navona in Rome reflects the outline of Domitian’s circus.

It is now called Sultanahmet Meydanı and every guest of the great metropolis of Istanbul, anyone who comes to visit it even for a few hours must pass through here on his way to see the gems: the Church of St. Sophia, that is of God’s Wisdom (now a museum), and right next to it, on the former site of the palace of Byzantine Emperors, the Blue Mosque. However, on the square itself, there stand in a line, arrayed along its central axis, known in Greek as spina (spine), three monuments: two stone obelisks and a bronze column.

The bronze column has an unusual shape: it consists of three intertwined snakes. Their heads were perhaps chopped off or fell off by themselves already in Turkish times, probably at the beginning of the 18th century. They had once supported a golden tripod on which an equally golden vase stood. It was the gift of thanksgiving which the Greek states made to the god Apollo at Delphi for their victory over the Persians in 479 B.C. The names of the donor cities still appear among the snakes’ scales. About a century and a half after the donation had been made, the golden elements were removed and melted down, but the column survived in Delphi until emperor Constantine the Great had it brought to the city and placed in the hippodrome, where it stands today. Since the surface of the stadium has risen by at least two meters over the course of the centuries, the column now protrudes from a hollow in the ground; counting from the base, it is over 5 meters high. How many events has that column witnessed! It saw the Nika uprising by the circus parties under Emperor Justinian in the year 532 A.D.–because this is where it all began. Over 40,000 people died in the subsequent fighting.

Later it saw the rampage and robbery of the Crusaders in 1204; the horrible scenes that took place when the city was conquered by the Turks in 1453. And finally, in 1826 the column was splashed with the blood of the Janissaries: thirty thousand of them were surrounded and murdered on the order of the Sultan right here, on the square of the former hippodrome.

On both sides of the column there are obelisks, that is, tall, quadrangular stone pillars narrowing towards the top and ending in a dull point. One of them, the taller one, is 32 meters high. It is known in popular parlance as “the brick.” Indeed, it is easy to see that it is made of limestone blocks. One could no see that in the past, because the entire surface of the pillar was covered with bronze plates, but the crusaders had stolen those. The obelisk is relatively late, it was erected by the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in the 10th century A.D. But the other obelisk, the one standing closer to Saint Sophia, boasts a truly impressive past. Not counting the base, it measures less than 20 meters, but it is carved from a single block of porphyry. This was done by master craftsmen in ancient Egypt, during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III, in the 14th century B.C. His name, inscribed in hieroglyphic signs, can be read to this day on the faces of the monolith. It stood there before the temple of Amun in Egyptian Thebes, where today the settlement of Karnak lies. Who and when took it away from Egypt and carried it off across the sea?

We find the answer on the massive marble base of the obelisk. This was made on the spot, in Constantinople. It has the shape of a cube 6 meters high. The obelisk is mounted on four bronze spheres, recessed into the base in each corner, and four of its walls are covered with bas-reliefs on a very interesting subject. There we see the work of transporting and positioning of the obelisk using ropes, levers and supports(probably the only illustration of this kind preserved on any of the monuments of Roman art); chariot and horsemen racing on the stadium; the emperor in his box, watching the race with his sons and his officials; foreign envoys before the emperor; his son among the mercenary soldiers—the Goths. These bas-reliefs are characteristic of a new style, new representation. In some, crowds of people are seen in front of the scenes; they stand in straight and compact rows, and their heads seem too large in relation to their bodies. Both these and others the details of the work clearly foreshadow some features of Byzantine art.

Old Rome, the one on the Tiber, had also been decorated with Egyptian obelisks—from the times of Emperor Augustus on. He was followed by many successors, including Constantius II. That emperor ordered in 357 A.D. the bringing of the largest monolithic monument of this type from the country on the Nile, wishing to commemorate in this way his short stay in the eternal city. The obelisk still stands today in the square in front of the Lateran palace. Thus, decorating the hippodrome in Constantinople with a porphyry monolith brought from Egypt, was a conscious continuation of an old pattern, and this was the goal: that the new Rome, the one on the Bosporus, may be the equal of the first.

There was, however, one remarkable innovation; it was the placement of bas-reliefs on the base of the obelisk. In old Rome, with so many monuments of this kind, one never sees bas-reliefs on their bases. There one sees only announcements and notices for posterity, under whose reign and by whose hand they were brought from a distant land and erected. Of course, on the base of the obelisk in Constantinople, apart from the bas-reliefs, there had to be an inscription as well. After all, the figurative images themselves, though interesting as illustrations, would not be able to preserve for later generations the name of a ruler who had achieved such a magnificent work. That is why, next to the bas-reliefs, an appropriate inscription was also carved. And even two: one Latin and one Greek. Both are rhymed and both carry the same content, although there are some stylistic differences between them. It is significant that the inscriptions were made in two languages. This fact proves that the new capital of the state was still Roman, and its official language was still Latin, even though the city was truly bilingual. We even suspect that in the everyday life of the inhabitants, Greek was the dominant language.

Here is what the Greek inscription says:

“Emperor Theodosius, he alone, dared to raise this four-sided column that had been lying heavy on the ground for centuries. He entrusted the task to Proculus; and thus the pillar was set up in thirty and two days.”[2]

This about the work performed in Constantinople itself,for the time it took to transport the monument was not included in the calculation. Finally, we add this detail, only seemingly minor, that in both inscriptions, the Latin and the Greek, the name of Proculus was erased almost immediately after it was carved. Erased then carved anew. What were the reasons for both of these corrections? To this matter—behind which there lies a great historical and human drama, we will return later.

[1] No more. The horses have been moved indoors and in their place over the portico was placed a portico. [2] H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (hereafter: Dessau, ILS), nr 821.

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