The Column of Constantine

Patron/Sponsor: 
Constantine the Great
Original Location/Place: 

Istanbul,the Forum of Constantine (now known as Çemberlitaş Square)

Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Istanbul,on the old Divan Yolu (“Road to the Imperial Council”), between the Hippodrome of Constantinople (now known as Sultanahmet Square) and the Forum of Theodosius (now known as Beyazıt Square).
Date: 
328 CE
Material: 
Porphyry stone and marble
Measurements: 
Originally 37 metres high.
Building Typology: 
Column
Description: 

The column, which originally reached 37 metres high, is constructed from purple porphyry stone, mounted on a white marble pedestal. 34.8 metres of the column are currently above street level. Originally, the column was built at the centre of the great Forum of Constantine, however, the monument currently stands above a tramway stop, and none of the forum remains. The structure is often referred to as the “burnt column” owing to damage resulting from the great fire of 1779, and the pedestal, base, and two lowest drums of the column shaft are still covered in masonry which was installed after the fire. At some point, possibly as early as the fifth century, the column was reinforced with iron rings, which gives rise to the modern Turkish name, “Cemberlitaş” (hooped stone) (Sarah Bassett, Urban Image, 200). The structure stands on a square foundation of roughly 11.25 metres wide and 2.70 metres high, and it is claimed in later Byzantine sources that the column stands on Christian and pagan relics, including the crosses of the thieves executed alongside Jesus, the twelve baskets from the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the Palladium—statue of Pallas Athene from Troy, which Aeneas was said to have taken to the future site of Rome—which it is said that Constantine removed from Rome. The presence of these items under the column is purely legend, however. The column stood on a square socle (plinth) consisting of five steps, roughly 2 metres high in total. Upon the top step of the socle stands a white marble pedestal, which is now encased in masonry. In 1561 Melchoir Lorichs drew a pedestal from Istanbul bearing an intricate relief on one side, which shares some features with the famous Freshfield drawing of Constantine’s column from 1574, currently housed at Trinity College, Cambridge (both can be seen here: http://laststatues.classics.ox.ac.uk/database/discussion.php?id=2831). Lorichs’s drawing of the relief depicts two winged Victories with trophies, flanking a female seated, and the crowned bust of an emperor in a wreath. Barbarian boys offer tribute to the Victories, and two adult barbarians stand at each side of the scene. It is thought that they represent Persia and Germania, traditional enemies of Rome, as one of the figures wears a Persian cap. The porphyry shaft is made up of seven drums, reaching 23.4 metres in height, with the diameter of the lowest drum measuring 290 cm. The lowest drum is covered by masonry today. Laurel wreaths mark the joins between the drums, with the wreaths decorated with medallions. The shaft was once topped by a capital, likely Corinthian owing to the Attic-Ionic base (Ousterhout, “The Life and Afterlife,” p. 307), but presently is topped with marble blocks which were added during repairs in the twelfth century after the column fell in 1106. The repairs were carried out under Manuel I Comnenus, and an inscription to him is found around the third level of marble blocks. Various literary sources describe a giant bronze statue of Constantine the Great that once stood atop the column, with a crown of rays, a lance, and a globe (see Sarah Bassett, Urban Image, p. 200-202). A twelfth century copy of a fifth century road map, known as the Tabula Peutingeriana shows the statue, which is nude, with a spear in its left hand and a globe in its right. The globe fell in earthquakes in the late-5th century CE, followed by the lance in the mid-6th century CE. The statue fell in 1106 CE, and is now lost. 

Commentary: 

The Column of Constantine once stood as the proud centrepiece in the circular Forum of Constantine, marking the point at which the newly founded city of Constantinople joined the older city of Byzantium. The emperor Constantine had ancient Byzantium reinaugurated as the new capital of the Roman Empire in 324 CE, naming it after himself. The new city was dedicated on the 11th of May 330 CE. The giant statue which once stood atop the column, gilded in bronze, would have been a visually prominent reminder of the emperor’s association with the city. In addition to being a significant structure for the foundation of Constantinople, the “signature monument that established the city’s identity” (Ousterhout, “The Life and Afterlife,” p. 305), the column is also of relevance to the discussion surrounding the way in which Constantine integrated traditional imperial ideology with the emerging Christianisation of the empire. The emperor had adopted the Christian religion following his victory over Maxentius in 312 CE, which owing to a vision, he attributed to the Christian God. Indeed, as we shall see, it seems that when it was erected, the emperor chose to fashion the monument to emphasise his relationship to Sol, the sun god (see discussion below), with any overtly Christian features being somewhat absent. This forms a notable contrast to his colossal statue in Rome, which if Eusebius is to be believed, held a ‘trophy’ of the cross of Christ, and was accompanied by an inscription making clear that the Christian deity was responsible for Rome’s freedom from tyranny.

The column is notoriously difficult to interpret, largely due to the fact that it has undergone extensive damage since it was built in the fourth century, and has been repaired and refashioned in places at various points through the centuries. We are largely reliant on later Byzantine sources to reconstruct the column’s original appearance, as no texts contemporary to Constantine’s day appear to refer to it. Eusebius mentions the foundation of the new capital of Constantinople in his Life of Constantine, but only in rather vague terms, and does not mention the column or the statue which topped it. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the fact that the statue, modelled after a pagan god, retained an “odor of lingering paganism” (Ousterhout, “The Life and Afterlife,” p. 308). Indeed, he does seem to explain the placement of pagan statues in the city very oddly, making the unlikely claim that they were erected simply for Christians to mock (Life of Constantine III.1-7). However, Timothy Barnes argues that Eusebius simply does not mention the statue because as it depicted Constantine as a “traditional Roman emperor,” it was “neither noteworthy not problematic for Christians” (Constantine: Dynasty, Religion, and Power, p. 24-25, quotation at p. 25).

The specific form of the statue which once sat on top of the column is described variously in Byzantine sources, with some indicating it was a statue of emperor, and others alluding to a statue of the sun god, or the emperor in the guise of the sun god. Indeed, Sol Invictus was Constantine’s personal deity (see, for instance, Follis depicting the head of Constantine and Sol Invictus; see Bardill, Constantine, p. 84-104). As Barnes argues, the statue has been frequently drawn upon by scholars wishing to assert that Constantine remained devoted to the solar cult after his adoption of the Christian religion, but the situation remains uncertain. Barnes himself in fact argues for the specifically Christian character of the new city of Constantinople, and claims that the statue, if it did once represent a pagan deity upon its purchase, would have been remodelled for its new location (Constantine and Eusebius, p. 222). Socrates Scholasticus, an ecclesiastical historian writing in the fifth century tells us that the statue on top of the column was of Constantine (Ecclesiastical History I.17.8). It is this same author who also states that the column had a relic of the True Cross of Christ underneath it. Moreover, another fifth century writer, Philostorgius, also speaks of a statue of emperor himself atop the porphyry column (Ecclesiastical History II.17). The 6th century writer Hesychios writes that Constantine “shines like the sun God on the mountains over the citizens” (Patria of Constantinople 41), and John Malalas, also of the 6th century, notes that the statue had seven rays, and had been purchased from Ilion (Troy). It is also the latter author who claims that Constantine took the Palladium from Rome to place it below his statue in Constantinople. This seems to be an attempt to create a legendary past for the city, and place it within Roman history (Ousterhout, “Life and Afterlife,” p. 310), with Constantinople envisaged as the new Troy, and/or the new Rome (Sarah Bassett, Urban Image, p. 69-71). The Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12th century copy of a 5th century map of the Roman empire depicts a crude drawing of the statue, which is nude, with an orb in its right hand and a lance or spear in its left hand (the map can be viewed here: http://laststatues.classics.ox.ac.uk/database/discussion.php?id=2831). The globe was dislodged by earthquakes in 477 CE, and the spear fell in the mid-6th century CE (this is attested by the 8th century Theophanes in his Chronicle). Scholars such as Sarah Bassett and Jonathan Bardill argue that the ‘heroic nudity’ of such depictions represented the superhuman status of the emperor (Bassett, Urban Images, p. 201-204; Bardill, Constantine, p. 28-34). The drawing does not depict any headgear on the statue, which could suggest that it originally had none, but that this was added by the time it is referred to by John Malalas in the 6th century (Barnes, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion, and Power, p. 24).

If indeed the column hosted a statue of Constantine in the guise of Sol, then it would seem that on the surface the monument bore no distinct Christian features at all. However, there were associations between Christ and Sol as far back as the 3rd century CE. The famous tomb of the Julii below St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City contains a mosaic widely considered to represent Christ as Sol, with a globe in his hand, representing Christ as the New Light who has dominion over the entire world. Perhaps, therefore, Constantine intended to tap into this comparison, taking advantage of the ambiguity and effectively aligning himself with both the solar deity and the Christian deity. Indeed, Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine I.43 describes Constantine’s generosity in the following terms: “As the sun, when he rises upon the earth, liberally imparts his rays of light to all, so did Constantine, proceeding at early dawn from the imperial palace, and rising as it were with the heavenly luminary, impart the rays of his own beneficence to all who came into his presence.” For Ousterhout, the statue intentionally mimicked the colossal statue of Nero as Sol in Rome (see Ousterhout, “The Life and Afterlife,” p. 312, 318-319).

It is clear that the monument became gradually more Christianised, and indeed mythologised, in the descriptions of it from the early Byzantine period onwards. This is particularly evident from the descriptions of the supposed relics housed underneath the column (unsurprisingly, none have ever been found in excavations). Christian relics were very much a phenomenon that reached the height of popularity after Constantine’s time, and it seems that later authors indulged in creating stories about the relics under the column in order to more closely associate Constantine with Christ (on this issue, see Ousterhout, “The Life and Afterlife,” p. 311). As was seemingly the case with his Colossus in Rome, which was styled in the manner of Hellenistic statues looking up towards the heavens, and according to some scholars, based on statues of Zeus and Jupiter, Constantine wished to maintain a connection to traditional pagan religion when he commissioned the column in Constantinople. If the statue was modelled after Sol, as it seems was likely, then the suggestion is that Constantine viewed his Christianity and the representation of himself as the sun god as entirely compatible, and militates against those who would argue that the ‘New Rome’ radically broke from the paganism of the empire’s old capital. Essentially, it is important to remember that the either/or perspective in relation to Constantine’s ties to paganism and Christianity is misleading. Symbols and representations could have multiple layers of meaning and resonances, allowing them to express ideology which was still very much rooted in previous models, while gradually shifting to a new one.

Bibliographical references: 
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The Column of Constantine
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 08/08/2017 - 13:09
URL: http://judaism-and-rome.cnrs.fr/column-constantine
Visited: Sun, 08/20/2017 - 17:38

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