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The Column of Justinian in Constantinople

Gregory DiPippo

Last week, we noted the anniversary of the foundation of Constantinople on May 11th, 330 A.D., and saw the oldest surviving monument from the period of its founding, the column of Constantine. Over its long history as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the city lost many of its early monuments to all kinds of vicissitudes, including a number of severe earthquakes. (The statue of Constantine which originally stood on top of his column was blown off by a storm.) One of the worst of these, however, was not a natural disaster, but a riot that broke out in January of 532 against the Emperor Justinian, who had become very unpopular for his tax policies, for his attempts at governmental and judicial reform, and an unsuccessful military campaign against Rome’s ancient enemy on her eastern border, Persia.

The riot broke out in the Hippodrome, the large chariot racing stadium next to the imperial palace. It is generally known as the “Nika” riot, a Greek imperative form that means “Conquer!”, since this was the chant of the crowd as they first assaulted the palace, and then spread out through the city, bringing mayhem to every corner of it. The ancient sources report that Justinian was tempted to flee the city, but dissuaded from doing so by his formidable wife Theodora. The riots were put down with such violence that 30,000 people are reported to have been killed.

(The site of the Hippodrome in Constantinople, now known as Sultanahmet Square. The two obelisks stood on the long wall down the middle around which the chariots ran. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dennis Jarvis; CC BY-SA 2.0.)

When it was all over, about half the city, including the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had been burnt down; the famous former church which is seen today is Justinian’s rebuilding of it. And indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that he had to rebuild so much of the New Rome that it might well have been given a new nickname, Justinianopolis. (This name was actually given to seventeen different places in the Eastern Empire.)

By 543, Justinian’s military fortunes had changed dramatically; although the campaign against Persia was still bogged down, the Byzantines had retaken North Africa from the Vandals, and were gaining ground in Italy, which meant the return of the Old Rome to the domain of the New. In keeping with the tradition of many earlier Emperors, and as part of his program of rebuilding the city, he set up a column to celebrate these victories in the Augustaeum, the large public piazza between the palace and Hagia Sophia.

Justinian’s column was clearly modelled on two similar columns that survive in Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and has the same basic arrangement of a large stepped pedestal, a column shaft, a platform and a statue. His differs, however, in that the shaft was made of brick, and the decorative frieze that ran up it in a spiral, showing the events of the military campaign which it celebrated, was made of bronze panels mounted onto the shaft. The platform at top was surmounted by an enormous bronze equestrian statue of the emperor, which appears to have been recycled from an earlier monument to one of the two earlier emperors named Theodosius.

The column survived intact even past the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but in the 1420s, the orb in the statue’s hand fell off, which was seen as a harbinger of impending doom. It was of such tremendous height, 70 meters (230 feet) by some accounts, that it could be clearly seen from the sea, but since no one had seen the statue itself close up in so long, its identity had been forgotten, and it was often described as a statue of Constantine or some other emperor. Shortly after the Turkish conquest, the statue was taken down and broken; enormous fragments of it were still in the sultan’s palace in the 1540s, but these were later melted down to make canons. The column itself was taken down in 1515.

(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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