• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Flagship of Romanitas: Constantinopolitan Statuary



“Thus, for this and many other reasons, one sees just how low sculpture and with it the other arts had fallen by the time of Constantine. And if anything else were necessary to bring about their final destruction, it was the departure of Constantine from Rome to establish seat of his empire at Byzantium by which act he brought to Greece not only all of the best sculptors and artisans of the age… but also an infinity of statues and other examples of the most beautiful sculpture.”[1]

Giorgio Vasari

No doubt much of Vasari’s knowledge of Byzantine statuary (which sounds awfully like a recapitulation of Jerome’s complaint that “Constantinople was enriched as the other cities were denuded”)[2] came from the Eastern Romans who had fled West.


In fulfilling the philological interests of the humanists, Byzantines like Manuel Chrysoloras, John Argyropoulos and Basilios Bessarion spread an awareness of Constantinople’s marvels and the Roman empire’s second millennium (453-1453). Indeed, far from being entirely antiquarian in nature, much of their historical material was used in the ecclesiastical battles of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

This abstract, academic Constantinople (once “us” i.e. Roman, then vilified in the period between the Gothic War and the Donation of Pepin, before being caricatured post-1453) was made physical, real and concrete by a rather sordid turn of affairs in which one historical nemesis, the Franks, made a pact with the other, the Ottomans, during the reigns of Francois I and Suleyman the Magnificent.



One of the few benefits of this Mephistophelian bargain was that the Franks were allowed open access to the Queen of Cities. This bumptious tribe still remembered the Mediterranean sunlight of the Oikoumene, a time when the whole “known” world and Christendom had been – at least notionally – one. Therefore, the French king ordered the old seats of antiquity to be studied and entrusted the task to Pierre Gilles AKA Petrus Gyllius.

A contemporary of F. Rabelais (who translated Hippocrates and Galen) and G. Budé (who wrote a commentary on the Pandects), Gyllius visited Constantinople in 1544-1547 and 1550. These lengthy sojourns produced De Bosporo Thracio libri tres (1561) and the more famous De topographia Constantinopoleos et de illius antiquitatibus libri quatuor (1561).


The second title formed the first scholarly account of the city. By applying a fifth-century catalogue, the Notitia Urbis Constantinopolis, to his contemporary surroundings he was able to lament losses and praise survivals as he traipsed the city’s ancient wards. Most impressively, he used Byzantine texts to reimagine a Roman past that was fast disintegrating. A project C. Du Cange added to in Constantinopolis Christiana (1680), gleaning even more information from texts.


Subsequently the German C. Heyne published an article entirely on sculpture (1792). And this encouraged other scholars such as O. Jahn and W. Gurlitt to scour these lists for the most celebrated classical statues (and sculptors) among the collections.



It was R. M. Dawkins (1924), however, who gave Constantinople a second historiographical lease of life, not so much as a receptacle for statues but as the most obvious location to study how the medieval psyche interpreted its own antiquity. A theme furthered by C. Mango (1963), A. Cutler (1968), G. Dagron (1984) and A. Berger (1988).


Despite these studies remarkably little interest was invested in the questions that surrounded why an enormous ensemble of statues might be assembled. The acquisition is always treated as a desperate gesture of legitimation which resulted in a grab-bag of items with almost no discernment involved (if it was simply a bottomless demand for prestige statues, were some rejected in favour of others and if so on what basis?). This may be because so few patterns can be detected which, in turn, may be the result of so little consistency in the descriptions of statues’ properties, provenance and purposes.


Confusion around the basic data can be attributed to cultures having different modes of peacocking. The Eastern Roman intellect shook its feathers and brandished its powers less through the faculties of descriptive analysis than its ability to evoke intense emotions and colourful historical episodes. This means modern scholars must often extrapolate bold theses from the slimmest clauses of evidence. Indeed, even when decent accounts of items are given, too many famous statues can squeeze themselves – with procrustean airs and graces – into the specification.


More annoyingly, the classical themes of many statues were forced through a biblical lens. This custom, for instance, transformed Herakles and the Hesperides sisters into Adam and Eve with Plenty and Famine (Demeter and Limos), Hekate (a female, no less) into Constantine, and Asklepios into a bishop. Only iconographic knowledge that incorporates tiny details rescues the original identities of these statues from anachronism (and oblivion).



These problems are just part and parcel of studying Constantinople’s topography, which remains in many ways a fool’s errand (with so much evidence destroyed and texts being endlessly open to reinterpretation). Fortunately, however, cross-referencing texts such as the Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai, Patria Konstantinopoleos, and Choniates’ De Signis means it is by no means a futile endeavour. Scholars play with real details and locations, not simply conjecture, and can tease habits, attitudes, and a sense of propriety from the other great seats of antiquity: Rome, Antioch and Alexandria.

The most formidable public collections clustered the Augusteion, the Baths of Zeuxippos and the Forum of Constantine. Though a private collection of the first rank – known as Lausos’ – lay midway along the Mese, and there were collections at the Basilika and Strategeion too.

These public displays were first and foremost exercises in cultural continuity (from the elder Rome) employed to maximum effect in legitimating first, Constantine and his heirs, and second, the New Rome as the destination of translatio imperii, the home of aggrandising spoilia.


This had a long history. Perhaps the most famous (western) Roman precursor was Lysippos’ colossal (twenty-two metre-high) bronze Herakles taken as loot from Tarentum by the Romans (after the city took Hannibal’s side in the Second Punic War) and signifying military conquest, urban beauty (kallos) and civic hegemony. Or the Porticus Metelli (replaced with the still-standing Porticus Octaviae) donated by Quintus Caecilius Metellus c. 146 BC, which was adorned with the Granikos monument – the two dozen or so cavalrymen of Alexander the Great, again by Lysippos.



Countless statues were vacuumed into Constantinople. The most evidence for this is slightly later (Prokopios) but nevertheless explicit:


“Narses, being the commander [in Philae, Egypt], tore down the sanctuaries on the emperor’s order and put the priests under guard and sent the statues to Constantinople.”[3]


Some were copies (such as the Doryphoros after Polykleitos) but others (such as the Serpent Column of the Plataean Tripod) were originals.[4] It mattered little given copies rarely had the pejorative connotations they bear today. They came in all sorts of mediums too. Some were marble, others in Egyptian hard stones, as well as porphyry. The most prestigious was bronze, preferably gilt or silvered.


While the focus inevitably falls on those with international allure that hailed from abroad, Constantinople also inherited statues from Byzantion: most notably the Dioscuri in the hippodrome, which probably dated to the Severan period. The big-hitters, however, almost always came from Rome or the holiest sanctuaries of Greece (other than Rome no statuary was brought from the West, including North Africa). According to Eusebios, the major shrines of Apollo at Delphi,[5] the Museion on Mt. Helikon, Apollo Smintheos at Chryse all yielded their fruits. The acquisitions can be split into three main phrases: Constantine’s (largest), Theodosian [I] (medium) and a small effort from Justinian to adorn the Chalke Gate and the Baths of Arkadios.



The statues did not always excite admiration. Indeed, Eusebios spoke for the city’s more puritanical constituency when he wrote that


“The pompous statues of brass were exposed in all the public places, so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo excited the contempt of the beholder…. [These statues] which the deluded victims of superstitions had long vainly honoured as gods… the emperor held up as playthings to be the ridicule and the sport of all who saw them.”[6]


Moreover, statues weren’t the only items that could adorn a place. The Zeuxippos Baths, for instance, alongside its enigmatic Ilioupersis statuary, also contained portraiture. Christodoros mentioned thirty-four portraits, though none shared an underlying theme other than perhaps the Classical Age of the Hellenes or a vague sense of paideia.


Elsewhere, the Hippodrome – which had been used since the second-century but only completed in the fourth – was so large that it was still being ornamented into the sixth century. At its entrance were the aforementioned Dioscuri (Castor the horse-tamer and Pollux the pugilists, both charioteers). Above the carceres the horses of a gilt bronze quadriga looked ready to leap into the race. Lining its euripus were at least twenty-five antiquities: apotropaia (such as Skylla), victory monuments (like the Ass and Keeper), public figures, images of Rome.[7] Perhaps most famous were the two of Herakles, one wrestling the Nemean lion, the other accompanied by the Hesperides.



The Forum of Constantine had two major sights. First, in its centre the porphyry column topped by a bronze nude of Constantine who wore the corona radiata, carried an orb in his left hand and was probably a reused Hellenistic ruler or Apollo. Second, there were few greater talismans than the Palladion, the armed Pallas Athena first associated with Troy. Standing beneath the column, probably beneath some sort of aedicule, it was said to have fallen to Troy from heaven and kept as a guarantee of the city’s safety. Rescued by Aeneas and taken to Rome, it was once kept in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Vesta.


At the Milion, there were the equestrian statues of the three great emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Constantine. At the Strategeion, a statue of Alexander the Great loomed. Meanwhile, the Basilika – another Severan inheritance – also boasted Lysippos’ aforementioned Herakles (once of Tarentum) seated after being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries though this was moved to the hippodrome by one of the Theodosian dynasty.


The Auguesteion was lined with statues of the muses from the Museion on Mt. Helikon, as well as ancient models of Aphrodite, Arcturus, the emperor Carus, Telamone(s), Selene, Zeus and the Zodiac. Its most impressive array, however, stood near its Senate. Zeus from the sanctuary at Dodona in Epiros and Athena from Lindos on Rhodes flanked its entrance.


The Theodosian Forum was less impressive. Its main works being a portrait of Hadrian and the silvered equestrian bronze of Theodosios I. Due to its absence of tack and lively stance, the rider was probably originally a Hellenistic ruler, but repurposed as the Roman emperor it was dedicated to the would-be usurper Maximus.



The Forum of Arkadios had an equally thin smattering of antiquities. A sphinx, a statue of Artemis, a portrait of Severus, and a tripod all stand outside the premier league and possessed an increasing iconographical inconsistency. Perhaps the only reasoning behind the ensemble was the prestige of their heritage as they were all pre-classical.


More formidable was the Golden Gate – erected in imitation of the Porta Triumphalis – completed by an elephant quadriga on the upper cornice of the inner gate. Flanked by Theodosios, Nike and the Tyche of Constantinople (or perhaps the emperor rode the elephant chariot, the evidence is unclear), the quadriga’s origin may have been the Temple of Ares in Athens, or the Byzantines at least thought as much.


One of my personal favourites is the short-lived Lausos collection, which stood on the north side of the Mese immediately to the east of Constantine’s Forum. Assembled in the early fifth century by an aristocrat (and one-time praepositus sacri cubiculi under Theodosios II), Lausos, it contained Pheidias’ Zeus from Olympia and Praxitele’s Aphrodite of Knidos, two of the most famous statues ever created. Other worthies included an Athena from the Rhodian sanctuary at Lindos by the sixth-century sculptors Skyllis and Dipoinos, Bupalos of Chios’ Samian Hera, an Eros (from Myndos) and Kairos – that is the ability to seize the right moment to do something – personified by Lysippos. Of note is the fact Lausos was an ardent Christian who patronised the Lausiac History by Palladios (d. 425) on the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

He seems to have acquired the statuary in much the same spirit as a museum might now house an important Christian icon: stripped of its religious setting (and power) and reduced to an aesthetic curiosity. This is certainly the impression the Theodosian Code (16.10.8) gave when it observed that images be

“Measured by the value of their art rather than their divinity.”



It was also the message of Prudentius to the Senate of Rome, when he chided the


“Romans, who wash your marble statues wet

With dripping splatters of gore

Let these statues, the works of great

Craftsmen, stand undefiled:

Let them become the most beautiful adornments

Of our native city. May no

Depraved rites taint these works of art, let them

No longer service evil.”[8]

Lausos’ collection was likely prized as a work of Greek hands rather than the Hellenistic and Roman models with which most were familiar. It’s curious, however, how the imperial fisc got its hands on the statues in the first place considering they were (unlike temples whose survival was determined on an almost individual basis) considered the main sources of pagan power. Perhaps Lausos’ senior position at court meant he was able to impose his personal agenda on the fate of some.


The sixth century is rarely associated with statuary. Less because of an uptick in the city’s Christian identity than the fact various fires (Chrysostom riots, Chalkoprateia fire, Nika revolt etc.) wiped unique collections from the map. Yet Justinian added an open, colonnaded court to the Baths of Arkadios, which

“Gleamed with an intensely brilliant white light… and is adorned with a great number of statues, some of bronze, others of polished stone… One might surmise that they were the wok of Pheidias the Athenian, or the Sicyonian Lysippos or Praxiteles.”[9]


He also rebuilt the Chalke. Originally built by Constantine but redesigned by Aitherios for Anastasios I, Justinian created a large oblong with four piers supporting a central dome. Its long entrance was lined with imperial portraits. Statues stood on smaller honorific columns of Maximian, the Theodosian dynasty, Zeno, Adriadne and “Belisarius” (probably a Hellenistic statue similar to the one that topped Theodosios’ columns). It climaxed with four gorgoneia from the temple of Artemis at Ephesos inside the vestibule, and the statues of Justin I, Justinian and philosophers in the arcade above the main entrance.


Slowly but surely, however, the old sympathies for statues faded away. The medium that had captured the gods so well could never be the one in which YHWH communicated. It was simply too compromised. Furthermore, the Mosaic prohibition against idolatry appeared to make this definitive. Worse, while God’s relation with (fallen) matter was ambivalent, evil powers such as demons could inhabit statues, and so no degree of beauty could redeem them. There’s some parallels perhaps between pre-Islamic poetry and the Islamic designation of this period as jahiliyyah. On the one hand, praised as cultivating Arabic’s genius and its cultural furniture. On the other, saturated with paganism and ignorance.


In short, statuary became good as something past (tradition) but probably not something deserving of a present (culture), and certainly not worthy of a future (new production). Its post-pagan visual currency had morphed from art into one of eternal victory. But after Justinian not only were these triumphs starting to look thin on the ground (just over six decades after his death Constantinople was besieged by Persians and Avars, then in 674 the Islamic menace arrived at the Bosporus) but successes were articulated in overtly Christian forms (such as the erection of churches and the collection of relics) rather than the plastic arts of paideia. And by this period it wasn’t just statues that attracted ire, parts of the elite had even lined up Christian icons as theologically tainted.

[1] Vite I:15

[2] Chron. 324.

[3] Prokopios, De bello pers. I, 19, 37.

[4] The large tripod originally stood in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi and was dedicated by the Greek allies to commemorate their victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC. Pausanias reported that the tripod (made of gold0 was carried off in 355 BC by a band of Phocians. This left the bronze snakes as the only part of the monument left (Pausanias, X, 13, 9).

[5] This had been plundered several times by predecessors. The dictator Sulla took many of Delphi’s treasures. The emperor Nero is said to have carried off almost five-hundred bronzes.

[6] VC III. 54.

[7] The ass and keeper were originally located at Nikopolis in Epiros. It commemorated Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony at Actium. Suetonius explained the the scene by claiming Octavian was spying on the enemy when he saw a man approaching him with a donkey. When asked to identify himself the man answered that his name was Eutyches (Prosper) and his donkey was Nikon (Victory). After the battle was won the pair was immortalised in bronze (Suetonius, Augustus, 96).

[8] Prudentius, Contra Symmachum I, 499-505.

[9] Prokopios, De Aed. I, II. 6-7.

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