The Column of Constantine in New Rome

Gregory DiPippo

Two days ago, we marked the anniversary of the dedication of Constantinople in 330 AD as the “New Rome.” In the nearly 17 centuries that have passed since then, the city has undergone innumerable vicissitudes which have done tremendous damage to its monuments, and very little now remains from the days of Constantine himself. The most prominent and oldest surviving monument of his era is a large column which was built a few years before the dedication ceremony.

This was set up in a circular forum also named for him, which was part of the “Mese hodos – the middle way”, a great thoroughfare that ran through the new city from the imperial palace directly to a gate in the city walls. In the latter part of the 4th century, the Emperor Theodosius would build another forum along the Mese, likewise decorated with a column dedicated to himself, but even taller; this was demolished at the end of the 15th century.

The column of Constantine is made of several drums of porphyry, an Egyptian stone which is extremely heavy and hard, difficult to work with and to transport, but much prized by the Romans, since its color was the color of royalty. It stands on a large pedestal which is now buried beneath the level of the surrounding piazza, to a depth of about 8 feet. When it was first constructed, it supported a statue of the emperor; this remained in place for almost eight centuries, until it was knocked over in 1106 by a storm, which also brought down the top three drums of the column itself. The total original height is estimated at about 50 meters or 164 feet, which would make it taller than either of the similar columns in Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dmitry A. Mottl, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The monument was also damaged by two of the great fires that broke out in Constantinople in antiquity, one in 475, and another in 532, during the famous episode known as the Nika riots, in the wake of which much of the city had to be rebuilt. In 1779, it was blackened by another fire so notably that it came to be known as “the Burnt Pillar.” But well before then, the Ottomans had it reinforced by a cage of iron hoops to prevent it from collapsing, and the piazza in which it stands is now known as “Çemberlitaş”, Turkish work for “hooped stone.”

Sometime after the original statue was brought down, the Emperor Manuel Comnenos (1143-80) had it replaced with a Cross, which was removed by Turks after the taking of the city in 1453. Later Byzantine sources report that the statue itself had held an orb in its hand with a piece of the True Cross in it, and that several other relics were kept in a shrine at the base, including the crosses of the two thieves crucified with Christ, and (rather more improbably) the baskets used at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Mary Magdalene’s alabaster jar, plus (more improbably still) the ax of Noah and the staff of Moses. Likewise, it was also said to include the Palladium, a statute which the Romans believed had been brought from Troy to Italy by Aeneas himself. This was kept in the temple of Vesta in the Forum, and served as a protective talisman for the city. Although it is perfectly possible that Constantine could have moved such an object from the old Rome to the new, it is not known if he actually did so.

(A reconstruction of the column’s original appearance, from Die Baukunst Konstantinopels, by Cormelius Gurlitt, 1912: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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