Column of Constantine
The Column of Constantine was once one of the most important monuments in Byzantine Constantinople. It is also virtually the only remaining trace of the city’s founder, Constantine. While it is now only a stump of its former self, it originally served as the base for a gigantic statue of Constantine in the grand circular forum of his newly founded city. Erected by Constantine after becoming sole emperor in 324, it occupied a central place in the history of Constantinople for many centuries.
The Column of Constantine was at the heart of Constantinople. It had a central location in Constantinople, standing along the Mese, the city’s main street, in the middle of the city’s main forum, the circular Forum of Constantine. Being located at the top of the second highest hill of the peninsula, the column was visible from many vantage distant points. Furthermore it played a role in imperial ideology as it was on the route of the triumphal procession, which started at the Golden Gate and ended at the Great Palace complex. The column and its statue became a major symbol of Constantinople, as it is depicted in the Tabula Peutingeriana, an ancient Roman map dating perhaps to the 4th century.
The column was erected when Constantine expanded Byzantium through a series of major construction works between the years 324 and 330. It is made Egyptian porphyry, which was a highly prized imperial purple stone reserved exclusively for members of the imperial family by the 4th century. While it is now almost 35 meters tall, it might have been around 37 meters tall or even taller. It consists of several cylindrical blocks or drums joined together by a hoop imitating a laurel crown that hid the joints. Six drums are visible today, but originally there seems to have been seven drums. One of them is now walled up in the base, which was added to reinforce the column after fire in 1779. Its Turkish name, Çemberlitaş (“ringed stone”), refers to the metal hoops added in the 16th century to stabilize the column due to the threat of earthquakes. A drawing from the Freshfield Album (1574) depicts the platform with a series of steps topped by a pedestal, while another drawing by Melchior Lorick (1561) seems to depict the pedestal with figurative decoration. Excavations in 1929-1930 exposed the steps below the column and provided access to the original pedestal and determined its dimensions.
During the reign of Alexius I Comnenus, the statue of Constantine was knocked to the ground by a violent wind in 1106, causing casualties. It seems that it originally had a Corinthian capital, but this was damaged when the statue fell. It was subsequently repaired by Manuel I Comnenus (1143–1180) and topped with a cross. The emperor also had a commemorative inscription placed under the column, reading: Manuel, the pious ruler, restored this God’s work destroyed by time. The cross was likely removed when the Ottomans captured the city in 1453.
It was also one of the many talismans listed by Evliya Çelebi in the Ottoman era. According to his account, it was built 140 years before the era of Alexander the Great and Constantine placed a talisman on it in the form of starling. Once a year, it flapped its wings and “brought all the birds in the air to the place, each with three olives in his beak and talons”.
The Statue of Constantine
The statue of Constantine seems to have been a very large statue that became one of the major symbols of imperial power in Constantinople. It even seems to have become a symbol of the city itself. While the details are debated, various account allow for us to have a general idea of what it looked like. Nonetheless the exact depiction of Constantine is not completely clear and its significance can even be controversial, leading directly to the question of Constantine’s religious status. There is also the question of its origin. It is unknown whether it was newly cast or a reused statue, though some accounts record it originated in Troy or Athens.
Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun”) became Constantine’s favored god from 310 onward and regularly appeared on his coins until 325. It seems that the statue of Constantine resembled the image of Sol Invictus as appearing on his coin. Interestingly it reportedly faced east, towards the rising sun. The Tabula Peutingeriana depicts Constantine in the nude, though some have suggested the statue was dressed in military attire. It seems to recall imperial colossi, such as the Colossus of Nero in Rome (that gave the Colosseum its name). Records indicated Constantine bore a radiant crown adorned. In addition he held a spear or possibly a scepter in the right hand and in the left hand a globe that was surmounted by a winged Victory, Tyche of Constantinople or possibly a cross. The spear (or scepter) reportedly fell after an earthquake in 557, while the globe seems to have fallen off in 869.
Since the details of the statue are not certain, it is impossible to firmly interpret its significance. However if the statue was modeled on the sun god, then it has important implications. This statue suggests the Constantine viewed his profession of Christianity and his self-representation as the sun god were compatible through his entire reign. It also indicates that he continued the practice of depicting the emperor has a heroic-divine figure. Placing this ambiguous statue at the center of the New Rome does not seem to make his new capital the radical counterpoint to the pagan Old Rome as it is sometimes held.
The Statue and the Founding of Constantinople
The statue of Constantine in the Forum of Constantine was recorded as playing an important role in the inaugural ceremony of the foundation of Constantinople. A gilded wooden statue, which seems to have been a replica of the original statue, also was important in celebrating the anniversary of the official founding of Constantinople on May 11, 330.
We are told that the ceremonies for founding the city of Constantinople were in two phases. First, there was an official procession on the Mese that ended in the Forum of Constantine, when the statue and holy relics were placed on the Column. The festive procession was composed of Christians, led by priests, chanting hymns and entrusting Constantinople to God’s care with the words of a prayer.
The second phase of the foundation ceremony, called pompa circensis (“circle parade”) that took place in the Hippodrome on May 11, 330. On the command of Emperor Constantine himself, this ceremony was repeated annually on the same day in order to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the city. A gilded wooded statue, possible a replica of the one on the column, was solemnly brought in a chariot into the hippodrome. It was accompanied with soldiers holding white candles. The chariot carrying the statue circled the hippodrome and stopped in front of the imperial box, where the currently reigning emperor rose and gave a deep bow before the statue. This was followed by the people chanted hymns. It ended with the chariot carrying the statue, starting a triumphal run, setting off from carceres, circling the spina and coming to a stop in front of the imperial tribune.
Plan by Mamboury
Relics of the Column
The Column of Constantine was recorded as containing a large number of relics in the plinth and atop the column. Many authors claim that Constantine moved the Palladium, a protective statue of Athena that was first in Troy and later in Rome, to Constantinople and placed it under the Column of Constantine. Christian traditions later records lists of relics connected to the column. The number and variety of these claims, which grew over the centuries, included a portion of the True Cross, baskets from the multiplication of bread, the ax used by Noah to make the ark, the rock from which water sprang at the command of Moses, nails from the Passion of Christ, and wood from the crosses of the two thieves. Some of these traditions clearly involve retelling, such as the account that rays of the radiant crown are the nails of the Passion of Christ. A chapel dedicated to Constantine was later built at the base of the column. The statue became a sort of relic; it was said Constantinople would never fall to any of its enemies as long as the sculpture remained in place.
Detail of a map of Constantinople by Braun-Hogenberg (1572)
The Porphyry Column in Constantinople and Тhe Relics of the True Cross by Bralewski
The Forum of Constantine in Constantinople: What do we know about its original architecture and adornment? By Kaldellis
Towards A New Honorific Column: The Column Of Constantine In Early Byzantine Urban Landscape by Arslan
Building Medieval Constantinople by Robert Ousterhout
The Cambridge Companion to The Age of Constantine edited by Noel Lenski
Byzantine Constantinople: Monuments, Topography and Everyday Life edited by Nevra Necipoğlu
Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity edited by Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly
A History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory
Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age by Jonathan Bardill
The life and afterlife of Constantine’s Column by Robert Ousterhout
Seyâhatnâmesi by Evliya Çelebi
Porphyry Column of Constantine (Oxford Last Statues of Antiquity)