Column of Arcadius
The Column of Arcadius was a monumental column in Byzantine Constantinople that was built in the early 5th century. It is named after the emperor Arcadius (383-408), who became sole ruler over the eastern part of the empire in 395 (after the death of his father Theodosius I). Work on the column began around 400, but it was inaugurated only in 421.
The monument originally consisted of a massive column, decorated with spiral reliefs, set on a square pedestal, and crowned by a colossal statue of the emperor. It was modeled on the earlier Column of Trajan and Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, and on the Column of Theodosius I in Constantinople. The Column of Arcadius seems to have been around 40 meters tall, roughly the same size as the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. It was located in the Forum of Arcadius, which was situated on a hill called Xerolophos and one of several fora located along the Mese, the main street of late antique and Byzantine Constantinople. It also had other variant imperial names due to the fact that the forum was finished only in the reign of Arcadius’ son Theodosius II.
The pedestal with the base and the beginning of the column shaft are extant. The surviving structure is around 11 meter high and 6 meters long. This gives us the general location of the Forum of Arcadius, though its shape and extension remain unexplored. Due its dangerous condition, most of the column was demolished in 1719, however not before it had been documented in several drawings of the 16th and 17th centuries. The most reliable of these drawings is the Freshfield Album made in 1574, which depicts in convincing detail the west, south, and east faces of the pedestal. An early 17th-century drawing by Sandys is reliable in terms of the structure as a whole, but with only a summary representation of the reliefs.
After the Ottoman conquest it was located in what became known as Avrat Pazarı (“Women’s Market”). It was also viewed as one of the many talismans of Istanbul. Evliya Çelebi described it as having an ancient a fairy-cheeked female figure on its summit, which brought birds to the area that subsequently fell to the earth and provided the city with food.
From the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection
Reconstruction by Gurlitt
Reconstruction by Gurlitt
One the pedestal with the base and the beginning of the column shaft are extant. The surviving structure is 10.82 meter high and 6 meters long. This gives us the general location of the Forum of Arcadius, though its shape and extension remain unexplored. Due its dangerous condition, most of the column was demolished in 1719, however not before it had been documented in several drawings of the 16th and 17th centuries. The most reliable of these drawings is the Freshfield Album made in 1574, which depicts in convincing detail the west, south, and east faces of the pedestal. An early 17th-century drawing by Sandys is reliable in terms of the structure as a whole, but with only a summary representation of the reliefs.
The most complete written account of the monument is that made by the French traveler Pierre Gilles (Petrus Gyllius), who described and measured the column in the early 16th century. The measurements taken by Gilles, translated into the metric system by Gurlitt in 1909, formed the basis of scholarly research in the 20th century. The most recent record of the ruin by Konrad in 2001 in the main confirms the accuracy of Gilles’ account.
Of the original monument, the pedestal with the base and the very beginning of the column shaft are still in situ, though in a very poor state. The ruin is a square-plan structure made up of eight courses of massive marble blocks (only two per course): seven of these courses make up the pedestal, the eighth the base of the column with a small portion of the shaft. Gilles, who saw the entire structure, counted 21 monolithic blocks of marble above the pedestal, including the column base (the only one to survive). According to the Freshfield drawings, the northern face of the pedestal was the only side not decorated with reliefs, and instead had the entrance door to the staircase. This suggests that the column was situated to the north of the Mese.
Inside the pedestal is a sequence of three small chambers; the entrance chamber has an elaborately decorated ceiling, dominated by a cross within a wreath, and a small niche in its western wall. The column proper, consisting of plinth, column base, shaft, and capital, all with an internal spiral staircase. The lower step of the plinth decorated with garlands and putti, and with eagles at its four corners. In the corners below the garlands, are reclining male figures, probably representations of river gods. Round column-base, consisting of a large cushion (torus) decorated with an oak wreath, and a fillet decorated with a floral relief; in the floral relief are mythological hunting scenes (nude hunters pursuing lions, griffins, and birds) and masks.
It had a Doric capital crowning the shaft, with egg and dart ornament on the echinus. The underside of the capital’s top plate (abacus) was decorated with engraved Chi-Rho emblems in each corner. Above the capital, a cylindrical base with smooth shaft and Pergamene capital, probably the base for the crowning statue. On its southern side was the door leading to the spiral staircase within the column.
On top of the column stood a statue of Arcadius. Nothing is known about the material and the type of the statue. Byzantine sources, however, stress the similarities of the Forum of Theodosius and Forum of Arcadius and of the columns in both places; since it is probable that the statue of Theodosius was a colossal standing bronze image, this is also probable for Arcadius’ statue. It fell during an earthquake in 740, and is lost.
The narrative scenes on the column represent the expulsion of Goths from Constantinople (spirals 2-5), and episodes from the ensuing battles between Gothic and Byzantine forces on both sea and land (spirals 9-12). The narrative is punctuated by several depictions of the emperor receiving reports in camp or holding audiences at the palace in the capital (spirals 6, 10, 13).
This Constantinopolitan monument differed in several basic ways from its Roman precedents. It had fewer spirals, and its overall height was greater. The scenes representing the emperor addressing the army were frontally oriented, static episodes, a trend begun on the Aurelian column, which, by directly engaging the spectator, effectively interrupted the narrative flow of events. A fundamental addition to the traditional military and imperial themes is the Christian imagery, used on the four-registered postament and the under-sides of the platforms on top of the column.
On each of the decorated sides of the base, Arcadius is accompanied by his brother Honorius, stressing the unity of the administratively divided imperium. The west side shows the emperors as generals with military escort. They stand beneath a Latin cross-in-wreath supported by Victory angels flanked by ascendant chariots, symbolizing the two halves of the empire; below are barbarians pleading for clemency and the usual display of war trophies.
The east side shows the emperors as consuls, an office they held jointly in 402; below, the senate presents gold crowns to the co-consuls and is flanked by personifications of Rome and Constantinople.
The south, and main, side shows the emperors again as victorious generals, holding victoriolas; the generals are flanked by high court officials and the imperial bodyguard. Below, personifications of captured cities, wearing mural crowns, offer gifts; above, Victories support a laurel wreath enclosing a Chi Rho with subtended Alpha and Omega; trophies stand at either side. The spoils have been transferred to the top register to avoid breaking into the victory wreath by the window.
The religious and allegorical symbolism combined with the military and civil functions of the imperial corporation express the conception of a Byzantine sempiternal and ever-victorious state under divine patronage. The repetitive imagery here confirms, within a Christian context, the metaphor of victory expressed on Theodosius' obelisk base.
Column depiction of Hippodrome of Constantinople
Drawing by Sandys
Avrat Pazari Miniature
Drawing by Melchior Lorck
Detail of Istanbul by Vavassore (c.1520)
Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity edited by Grig and Kelly
Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls: Byzantion, Konstantinupolis, Istanbul by Wolfgang Müller-Wiener
Seyahatnâmesi by Evliya Çelebi