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In 330, ceremonies were held in Constantinople, inaugurating the city as the new capital of the Roman Empire. In preparation for the ceremonies, the emperor Constantine commissioned a series of monumental buildings including an imperial palace linked to a hippodrome. This hippodrome was central to the ceremonies, signaling its importance for the new capital. In fact, the Hippodrome of Constantinople would be at the heart of the city’s political and social life for almost 900 years. Even after it was destroyed, its arena became the city’s main public square. And though most of it disappeared centuries ago, significant traces of it, including its magnificent Egyptian obelisk, can still be seen today.
The arenas for chariot racing - the Greek hippodrome and the Roman circus - were important across the Mediterranean world long before Constantine became the Emperor. One of the oldest games in the region, chariot racing originated in the mythic past. Important first in the Republic Era, Roman Emperors later took control of the patronage of the circus and, in turn, made the races central to imperial propaganda.
In respond to the Crisis of the Third Century, when the Roman Empire nearly collapsed, the Emperor Diocletian created the Tetrarchy, which divided imperial power among four emperors. This resulted in the creation of multiple capitals, including Nicomedia, Thessaloniki and Antioch. Some of these capitals had a circus built next to the imperial palace – recalling the connection of the Circus Maximus to the imperial palace. This is the model Constantine would later follow when he moved his capital to Constantinople.
The history of the Hippodrome of Constantinople is not very clear. The city - originally known as Byzantium - was seriously damaged when it backed the wrong side in a civil war a century earlier. The victor of the war, Septimius Severus, had its walls and public buildings destroyed and took away its status as a city. Supposedly he later decided to restore the city, even starting construction of a hippodrome which Constantine would later expand and complete more than a century later. This, though, could simply be a story told to bolster the Romannness of Constantinople.
Regardless of its origins, Constantine’s Hippodrome was central in transforming the town of Byzantium into the Imperial New Rome. It was designed and decorated in direct imitation of the Circus Maximus in the Old Rome. It has an imperial box, which directly led to the imperial palace. Like the Circus Maximus, it had victory monuments on the spina. Apparently Constantine planned on erecting a second Egyptian obelisk at the Circus Maximus, while planning on erecting two obelisks at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. While the details are a little unclear, both would eventually have two obelisks, though one in Constantinople was built of masonry on location and covered with bronze plates. Both of these obelisks can still be found in Istanbul.
Many statues and monuments were located from other parts of the Roman Empire. Three of these monuments can still be found on location: the Egyptian obelisk, the Masonry Obelisk and the Serpent Column. The most impressive is the Egyptian obelisk, originally built by Thutmose III about 3500 years ago. The Masonry Obelisk was originally covered with bronze plates. There is also the bronze Serpent Column, built to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians almost 2500 years ago. Today only the column remains, since its serpent heads fell off centuries ago. It might have been built by Constantine or his immediate successors to give the hippodrome two obelisk as the Circus Maximus had. In addition, there is also the Triumphal Quadriga, the four bronze horses in Venice, which seem to have come from the Hippodrome as well.
While it was clearly smaller than the Circus Maximus, the exact size and capacity of the Hippodrome of Constantinople is uncertain. Due to limited archeological evidence, we only have rough guesses about its size. For example, estimates put its capacity from 30,000 to the more unlikely 100,000. It was probably between 400 and 450 meters long. At the southern end, there was a series of massive vaults known as the Sphendone, constructed where the land slopes down to the sea. Later these vaults were sealed and used as a cistern to store water. Today it is the most substantial remains of the hippodrome and gives us some idea of how massive it once was.
On the 11th of May in the year 330, Constantine held official ceremonies to consecrate and inaugurate the New Rome. There was a procession during these ceremonies, where a gilded wooden statue of Constantine was paraded around on a chariot, down the Mese - the main street on Constantinople. It passed the the Column of Constantine, which had a similar statue of Constantine, and eventually end up in the Hippodrome. This procession was repeated on the anniversary of the dedication every year, accompanied with a series of chariot races in the Hippodrome.
At the heights of Constantinople’s power, chariot races were held throughout the year in connection with ceremonies and holidays, making it central to public life in the city. In addition to its function as an arena for games, it also served as a setting for the proclamations of emperors and the celebration of military triumphs, and thus was generally the focus of public life in the city.
In the early years, when chariot races were the heights of popularity, many races could take place in a single day. Starting in the morning and again in the afternoon, a day at the Hippodrome could long and full of a variety of attractions and spectacles, including music, dancing, various dramatic performances, acrobats and wild beast fights. It could also include eating and drinking in nearby taverns, wandering along the colonnaded streets full of shops or spending a few hours at the baths of Zeuxippus. While Constantinople had the most important hippodrome in Late Antiquity, hippodromes were also popular venues in other major cities like Thessaloniki , Antioch and Alexandria. This was accompanied by a decline in the importance and popularity of other forms of entertainment including the Gladiatorial Games and the Olympics, which eventually disappeared.
There were four teams of charioteers – known as factions - which helped making chariot racing appealing. They originated in the city of Rome and later grew in popularity in the Eastern Roman Empire. By the 6th century, the Blues and the Greens were the most popular factions, while the Reds and Whites eventually disappeared. Over time, they became responsible for organizing the other forms of entertainment in the hippodrome as well. They also could be involved in civil affairs including defense of cities. When Attila the Hun approached Constantinople, its walls had recently been damaged by an earthquake, motivating the Blues and the Green to help rebuilt its walls.
Known as the ‘demoi’ – the “people” – in Greek, circus factions created the illusion of popular participation in politics. They could, for example, make direct appeals to the Emperor in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. They also played a role in Imperial power, since these requests gave a chance for the Emperor to show his gratitude and generosity. Arguably, emperors still needed public support, which the hippodrome could give. In this way, the hippodrome could also be a source of political problems.
Circus factions often acted like street gangs and became famous for their hooliganism. They even started several riots which killed several thousands of people on more than one occasion. These are worth mentioning since they are connected to larger events of the time and even anticipate certain features of the Medieval Era.
In 390, during the reign of Theodosius, a riot broke out in Thessaloniki after a popular charioteer was arrested. Because it killed the local magistrate, Theodosius ordered his soldiers to retaliate, resulting in the deaths of 7000 people. The powerful Bishop Ambrose refused to celebrate mass with Theodosius until he repent for these deaths. Theodosius, having recently made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, eventually obeyed his demands – foreshadowing the power struggle between Church and State for centuries to come. Another important riot was instigated by Porphyrius, the most famous charioteer in the early 6th century. He led an attack on a Jewish synagogue in Antioch in 507, burning and plundering the synagogue, and massacring many Jews there.
The most important riot, though, was the Nika Riots of 532, which nearly overthrew the Emperor Justinian. By Late Antiquity, hippodromes had become central to imperial rule. While emperors needed support of the public in the Hippodrome, it was becoming clear that it also posed a risk. While he was a fan of the Blues, the Nika Riots were in part a response to Justinian trying to impose control on the factions. After a circus riot resulted in deaths, the authorities ordered partisans from both the Blues and Greens to be executed. During a race in the Hippodrome, both the factions cried for Justinian to pardon them. When he refused, the two colors united, adopting “Nika” (victory) as their slogan and began to riot. The riots intensified, despite appeals from Justinian made from the imperial box in the Hippodrome. Though contemplating fleeing the city, Justinian eventually ordered his general Belisarius to attack the rioters, resulting in the slaughter of around 30,000 people. Since the city was extensively damaged by fire, Justinian was able to rebuilt significant sections of the city, giving us Hagia Sophia as it is today.
This is not the only role circus factions played during the reign of Justinian. Born commoners, both Justinian and his wife Theodora were themselves major supporters of the Blues. Theodora’s father apparently have been a bear keeper for the Greens years early. While she would later be one of the most powerful women in history, she started her own career as a performer for the Blues in burlesque-like shows, which possibly gave her the connections to meet Justinian later.
Despite the disaster of the Nika Riots, chariot races in the Hippodrome continued to be very important to public life in Constantinople. Since the reign of Augustus, the circus had symbolized imperial victor – and despite the major changes in the Roman Empire, this was true in Late Antiquity as well. In addition to celebrating victories, the Hippodrome was the location of ritual humiliation and public executions of enemies, traitors and even several emperors. One more graphic example can be found with the Emperor Justinian II. He was removed from power for more than a decade partly due to the help of the Greens. After a decade in exile, he was able to come into power again. He had the two previous emperors brought to the Hippodrome. Humiliated first on the streets, they then had to suffer more humiliation when Justinian II presided over the races with his feet on their necks, after which he executed them in the Hippodrome.
Over time, as the Byzantine Empire weakened in the face of multiple threats and invasions, other hippodromes were abandoned and chariot racing continued only in Constantinople, where it eventually became mostly ceremonial rather than a real competition. Still it remained a symbol of the City, as seen in the Cathedral in Kiev, built in the 11th century which depicted the Hippodrome and its races. In Constantinople races continued to be organized, albeit less frequently, until its abandonment during the Latin period when it was used for tournaments/jousts. Even before this period, it was used by the Komnenian emperors for western-style entertainments such as jousts.
It was the Fourth Crusade which finally brought an end to chariot races in the Hippodrome. Instead of going to the Holy Land, as it was supposed to do, the Venetians convinced the Crusaders to go to Constantinople, which they eventually sacked in 1204. Much of the riches of Constantinople was damaged or destroyed by fires or looting, including a huge amount of art and literature. The Hippodrome was also damaged by fire and then its bronze statues were melted down. The space would continue to be used for jousting after the Crusades.
While much of the richest of Constantinople were destroyed or looted in the Fourth Crusade, some portions continued to stand for centuries. Several surviving depiction of the Hippodrome after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, shows significant portions surviving into the 16th century.
Even after the Crusaders destroyed most of the statues, legends continued. Such beliefs were so strong that they survived the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The famous travel writing Evliya Celebi considered pre-Ottoman monuments to be talismans. He counted the three remained columns in the Hippodrome as being among the talismans of Constantinople.
The Hippodrome, while losing its original function after the Crusades, remained the center of the city when the Ottomans captured it. Indeed, it would continue to play this role in the Ottoman Era as well. The Ottomans did not construct great buildings for public use other than mosques. Public events were held outdoors. While Ottoman cities lacked a formal forum or center, the Hippodrome, as an unplanned space, became Ottoman Constantinople’s square. Its name, Atmeydanı (the Horse Square) perhaps is a residual memory. However it is probably the horse races and horse market here which account for the name. Other public parades and festivities could include wrestlers, acrobats and musicians as well as the display of the goods of tradesmen and artisans. It was also used to train soldiers, thus could be the location of both executions and uprisings. As late as the early 20th century, it was used for public hanging. Most importantly, the Sultans held circumcision ceremonies for their sons and wedding ceremonies for their daughters. The circumcision ceremony Murad III held for his son Mehmet in 1582 is said to have lasted 55 days. Just as in Byzantium before, these ceremonies could demonstrate to the public the strength of the empire and the power of the sultan.
While the Hippodrome lay in ruins, much of it still was intact when the Ottomans took Constantinople. However its remaining columns and stones were used in the constructing of such buildings as Topkapi palace and Suleymaniye Mosque. The first major change on the location was the constructing of a palace for Ibrahim Pasha. Perhaps a Greek in origin, Ibrahim Pasha erected a group of statues he had brought from the newly conquered Hungary. Commissioned by the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, they were said to represent Hercules, Diana and Apollo. The last substantial change to the area was the construction of Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which covered the ruins of parts of the Hippodrome and Great Palace and caused the level of the Hippodrome to rise almost 5 meters. An excavation in 1950 uncovered some of the seating of the Hippodrome. Later an illegal excavation in the garden of Sultan Ahmed Mosque exposed some more seating. Seating, including a marble bench with a backrest as well as columns can still be found in the gardens of Sultan Ahmed Mosque. In 1900, the German Fountain was erected around the location of the carceres to commemorate Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Constantinople. It was constructed in a Neo-Byzantine style with golden mosaics and columns.
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Ruins of the Hippodrome Seating
Ruins of the Hippodrome under Ibrahim Pasha Palace
Kathisma on the Theodosian Obelisk base
Copy of the Horses on the Façade of San Marco
Statue group from Buda, Hungary
German Fountain (1898)
Races at the Hippodrome of Constantinople
Chariot race on the Theodosian Obelisk base
Theodosian Obelisk base
Fresco of Kathisma and seating of the Hippodrome
Church of St. Sophia, Kyiv (Google Arts & Culture)
Kathisma of the Hippodrome
St. Sophia, Kyiv (Google Arts & Culture)
Musicians and Acrobats
St. Sophia, Kyiv (Google Arts & Culture)
Musicians and Acrobats
St. Sophia, Kyiv (Google Arts & Culture)
Ivory diptych with Circus Games (c. 400)
At the Louvre
Diptych of the Lampadii
Rome, late 4th-early 5th century
Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, Italy
Mosaic of a chariot race in the circus
Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon
Chariot race at the Circus Maximus from a sarcophagus (2nd century)
At the Vatican Museum
Mosaic of charioteers with horses from each of the circus factions (3rd century)
At the National Roman Museum
Girdle with Coins and Medallions (Late 6th century)
At the MET
Boys playing chariot game
At the Great Palace Mosaics Museum
16th century engraving by Onofrio Panvinio
Madrid Skylitzes (12th century)
Detail of Hippodrome by Vavassore (c.1520)
Detail from a miniature of Constantinople by Matrakçı Nasuh (c. 1537)
Ottoman acrobats on the obelisks from Hünername (c. 1530)
At Meydanı Muslim wedding procession by Aubry de La Motraye (1727)
The Obelisk of Theodosius and At Meydanı by Thomas Allom (1836)
The Atmeidan, or Hippodrome by W.H. Bartlett (1838)
At Meydanı and Sultanahmet Mosque by Thomas Allom (1836)
The Atmeidan, or Hippodrome by W.H. Bartlett (1838)
Photo by James Robertson (1853-1867)
American Red Cross (1919)
Photo by Sébah & Joaillier (Second half of the 19th century)
Sphendone by David Talbot-Rice (1927)
Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia by Solita Solano (1922)
Excavations of the Hippodrome by Duyuran (1950)
Charles W. Cushman (1965)
Indiana University Archives
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Head of the Serpent Column (after 479 BC)
Bases for bronze statues of Porphyrius the charioteer (Early 6th century)
Photo by Brad Hostetler
Capital with Horses from the Hippodrome
First half 6th century
Lion Paws from Hippodrome Seats
Constantinople, 4th century
At the British Museum
This life-sized image of a goose (H 58.42cm) was found on the site of the Hippodrome in Istanbul. The removable neck section and the pipe in the beak suggest that it was more than a simple ornament. Perhaps it was a fountain spout, or even a mechanical device which could produce steam, smoke or even sound through its beak. Certainly it seems to have once been part of a larger group, perhaps featuring geese together with Juno, to whom they were sacred. Byzantium, as the city was first called by its Greek founders, had been a prosperous though unremarkable provincial city in the early Roman Empire. In the early fourth century, however, the emperor Constantine decided to make the city into a new imperial and Christian capital, which he renamed Constantinople. The city was transformed by a massive building programme of churches, palaces, public meeting-places, baths and other public structures, such as the Hippodrome.
Gambling Machine with Scenes of Chariot Racing (c. 500)
At the Bode Museum
Hippodrome bench in the garden of Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Hippodrome/ Atmeydanı: Istanbul’s Stage of History edited by Brigitte Pitarakis
The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople by Sarah Bassett
Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity edited by Grig and Kelly
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium edited by Alexander Kazhdan
Hippodrome (Byzantium 1200)