For ancient civilisations, the erection of monuments—whether they were obelisks or honorific columns—implied, from a symbolic point of view, a correspondence or intersection between the horizontal or earthly/terrestrial and the vertical or heavenly/celestial realms.1 In this way, columns were considered axes mundi, centres of the world, or imagines mundi, images of the world, since they both intersected and recapitulated a civilisation’s particular view of the cosmos; especially as reflected by the imperial court, since it was either emperors or empresses that had these columns erected (either that, or senators erected them in their rulers’ honour). The very act of erecting freestanding columns—made of porphyry or marble or any other such ‘permanent’ material—could therefore be seen as an attempt to intersect heaven and earth. When a statue was placed on such a column, it was to glorify the figure represented in the statue as master of the world, or to depict them in relation to the narrative etched into the column. This was especially the case with ‘historiated’ columns that retold events in a spiral pattern along their length. In light of this, and since the ancient Romans believed their emperors (since the rule of Augustus) were gods, then the statue of an emperor on top of a column would signify their position as a deity governing the world; the latter represented by the column itself.
Although such beliefs were not tenable after the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity, Constantinople (today called Istanbul, in Turkey), the capital of the Eastern Roman empire otherwise known as Byzantium, also included many honorific columns. This brief article, which is in two parts, will address the extant columns of Constantinople in order to demonstrate their symbolic significance as axes mundi, as well as to show forth the extent to which they embody important episodes in the empire’s long history. Indeed, whether they were objects of bitter conflict between Church and state or were connected to rulers who had a large role to play in the convocation of councils and the Church’s formulation of doctrine, these columns—some of which are still extant—remain tangible links to Istanbul’s Byzantine past. Indeed, we cannot hope to appreciate Byzantine civilisation unless we explore the mindset of its inhabitants, which from the vantage point of the present can only be accomplished via a rigorous analysis of their texts and material or symbolic culture. And many of these columns—as striking examples of the material culture—emphatically reflected the Roman Christian worldview via the symbols etched into them. Beginning with an analysis of Constantine’s column in his Forum, this article will also address the columns of the following rulers–Theodosius, Eudoxia, Marcian, Phocas and Justinian—as well as a few other columns located in significant places like Constantinople’s cathedral church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The present part will address the columns of Constantine, Theodosius, and Eudoxia, thus encompassing the fourth-to-early fifth centuries AD.
The Column of Constantine
The founding of Constantinople in AD 330, which took place amidst much pageantry and pomp, included the erection of a column and statue of the emperor Constantine—who began construction on the city in 325—in the guise of the sun god Apollo, with Christian relics inserted into its base. Constantine purportedly altered the face of the statue to look like himself. It wore a radiate crown and held a spear in its left hand and a globe in its right hand. The relics in its base ostensibly included: pieces of the crosses upon which the thieves on either side of Christ were crucified, loaves that had been multiplied by Jesus, and an alabaster jar of ointment used by Mary Magdalene to anoint the feet of Christ. Relics of the true cross that Christ was crucified on were also said to have been embedded in the orb held in the statue’s right hand.
According to other sources, including the History of John Malalas2 and the Chronicon Paschale,3 the statue was solemnly processed during the city’s foundation ceremony on the 11th of May 330 AD from the Hippodrome, the city’s main circus, to the centre of Constantine’s Forum where the porphyry column erected to support it stood. It was subsequently paraded through the streets every year during the city’s anniversary celebrations, at least until sometime in the sixth century AD. There is obvious syncretism here, an attempt to placate both pagans and Christians in the city. For our purposes, however, that both Constantine’s statue and column were considered the meeting place between heaven and earth—an axis mundi—was further reinforced by the placement of the Palladion—a statue of the goddess Athena that was believed to have fallen from heaven—at its base.4 The Palladion was believed to have acted as a stabilising force for both Troy and Rome, and now their successor, Constantinople.
Elsewhere I have argued that, given Constantine’s extensive church-building activities in and around Rome, the Holy Land, and his New Rome—and his legislating on behalf of Christians—that the syncretism of his Forum does not necessarily denote his adherence to paganism.5 Instead, it is clear that he was incorporating soft ruler-cult imagery into his new capital that was part-and-parcel of city building since the earliest civilisations in the historical record. This means that Constantine, like many rulers before him, actively utilised age-old symbols—such as columns topped with statues—to demonstrate his mastery over the Roman empire, and thus a master, like Apollo, over the world understood as axis mundi.
Constantine’s statue no longer exists, but its fate is more-or-less well known. It fell from the column in 1106 AD, an event which is described in almost superstitious tones in the Patria Constantinoupoleos, which is a tenth-century compilation of texts comprising a guidebook for the city:
This statue fell from the column and caused the death of the men and women who happened to be there, about ten in number, on the fifth of April of the fourteenth indiction, in the year 6614 (1106), the twentieth year of the reign of the lord [the emperor] Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118). About the third hour, it became dark and a violent southern wind blew fiercely, for a comet, which is called the Spear, had caused this disturbance in the air. It appeared in the evening of the Friday of the first week, on the ninth of February of the fourteenth indiction, in the year 6614, and then stayed.6
Here, the anonymous author seems to be picking up on the relationship between disruptions in the firmament affecting, positively and negatively, the fate of kings, which is reflected not only in literature by the pagans on this subject—the latter even believed that Constantine’s death was heralded by a comet7—but also in the Christian narrative: Christ after all is born under the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12)! In any case, by the mid-eleventh century the emperor Manual Komnenos had replaced the statue that was on top of the column with a monumental cross, such that the base of the column’s pedestal still bears the inscription in Greek: “[Τὸ θ]εῖον ἔργον ἐνθάδε φθαρὲν χρόνῳ καινεῖ Μανουὴλ [ε]ὐσεβὴς αὐτοκράτω[ρ].” This translates into: “Manuel, the pious ruler, restored this divine work destroyed by time.” So central did the column remain to the consciousness of the city that there arose a legend—interpreted by the fifteenth century historian Doukas post-factum—that associated it with the ‘last emperor’ motif which was part of the Byzantine apocalyptic tradition.8 In trying to account for why the Byzantines flocked to Hagia Sophia during the final siege against Constantinople when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks on the 29th of May, 1453, Doukas states:
When the Turks broke in, the Christians rushed to the Great Church [Hagia Sophia], monks and nuns, men and women carrying their babies and abandoning their homes. The street was packed with people making for the church. The reason for their stampede was this: there was an ancient and false prophecy that the city was destined to be violently captured by the Turks, who would slaughter the Christians as far as the column of Constantine the Great. At that point, however, an angel bearing a sword would come down and hand over the sword to an unknown man, a very plain and poor man, standing beside the column. The angel would say to him: ‘Take this sword and avenge the Lord’s people.’ The Turks would then take flight … and the Christians would drive them from the city and from the east and west as far as the borders of Persia, to a place called Monodendrion. The people had long believed that they would be safe if they put the column of the Cross (or of Constantine) behind them.9
Of course, none of this transpired, and the final emperor of the city—also named Constantine—died valiantly near the St Romanos Gate in the Theodosian walls where the fighting was thickest. The cross atop the column was removed by the Ottomans when the city was captured. This column is known in Turkish as Çemberlitaş, which means “burnt pillar,” because in 1779 a fire in the neighbourhood surrounding the column left it with scorch marks. It was restored by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid I, who added its present masonry base, in the late 1700s. The column has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
One is left to wonder as they gaze upon the base of the column, if the layers of masonry and the protective veil of time has preserved the relics that Constantine was believed to have inserted there intact… The column remains, in any case, to this day a palpable connection to the first Christian emperor and the city he founded and named after himself; right where Yeniçeriler Caddesi (Street of the Janissaries) adjoins the Divan Yolu (the Road to the Divan), with the latter roughly following the course of Constantine’s mese odos, the main arterial road of Constantinople.
The Column of Theodosius
The fourth century was tumultuous for the Roman empire, especially the so-called inter-nicene period between the first ecumenical council held in Nicaea in AD 325 by emperor Constantine, and the second ecumenical council held in Constantinople in AD 381 by emperor Theodosius I. This period saw the persecution of St Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria—the defender of the Nicene tenet that Christ is of “of one essence” with God the Father—by the Arian son of Constantine, Constantius. The civil strife between Constantius and his brothers, Constantine II and Constans, was accentuated by the fact that the latter two were orthodox, or “right-believing,” in their views on Christ. The rival theological positions among the brothers in fact points to contrasting underlying mentalities regarding kingship. This is because Arianism, in its radical subordination of Christ to the level of a creature, allowed for the emperor to be worshipped as divine,10 something that was not permitted by the Nicene position.11
The oscillation of various emperors between Arianism and Orthodox or Catholic Christianity—and even paganism as reflected by the rule of Julian the Apostate—was effectively put to an end by the former-general Theodosius I when he came to power. In concert with bishops like St Gregory of Nazianzus, Theodosius restored Nicene Christianity within Constantinople when he convoked the second ecumenical council in the capital. Effectively, this council reaffirmed the Nicene position, condemned Arianism and Macedonianism—a position that, in a manner akin to Arianism, subordinated the Holy Spirit to the Father—and led to the completion of what traditional Christians recite—with some variations—at every divine liturgy, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.
Theodosius I also left his mark on the city in terms of architecture. Since Roman times, various emperors would construct Fora—public meeting places or squares that comprised marketplaces, temples, etc. (the Greek equivalent was the Agora)—as focal points for societal or community organisation. We have seen that Constantine even began construction on his New Rome with his Forum. He also laid the foundations for what would become Theodosius’ Forum, naming it the Forum of the Bull (Tauri), because of a statue of a huge bronze bull in the middle of it. Beneath this statue, sacrificial animals and even, under the reign of Julian—Christians—were roasted.12 According to Sarah Basset, the Forum of Theodosius:
…straddled the Mese at a point about a mile west of the Forum of Constantine … in the late 380s and early 390s, the emperor oversaw the construction of a large architectural development that included a grand pair of entrance arches over the Mese that gave on to the plaza on its east and west sides, a basilica on its south side, and a historiated column commemorating the emperor’s military successes on its north. As the erection of the historiated column suggests, the Forum appears to have been conceived on the model of the Forum of Trajan in Rome.13
Trajan was in fact the first Roman emperor to erect a historiated column mounted by a statue that symbolically demonstrates that the emperor mastered and was the central focus of the narrative depicted on that column, which itself was an axis mundi. 14 Indeed, the modelling of New Rome’s Fora on Trajan’s in the old Rome comprises the continuation of an age-old tradition (since Julius and Augustus Caesar also had their own Forums). For an eye-witness description of both Theodosius’ statue atop the column—modelling, to some extent the column of his predecessor and founder of the city, Constantine (whose column was not historiated)—as well as the latter’s arch in Rome (see below), we turn once again to the Patria:
A statue of Theodosius the Great (I, 279-295), which was formerly silver, stands in the Tauros [the Forum of the Bull] where he used to receive those who came from the foreigners. Formerly, palaces and a hostel of the Romans were there, that is, at the place called the threshing floor (Halonitzin). His sons are above the lofty great quadruple columns: Honorius (395-423) stands on the stone arch to the west, Arkadios (395-408) on the stone arch to the east. In the middle of the courtyard is a huge equestrian statue, which some people call Joshua son of Nun, others Bellerophon. It was brought from Antioch the Great. The four-sided stonecut plinth of the rider has relief narratives of the final days of the city … And that impediment, which is a very short man-shaped bronze object tied in a kneeling position under the left foot of the huge horse, signified the same as that which is depicted there. Similarly, both the huge, hollow column there and the Xerolophos [a district near the Constantinian walls] have the story of the final days of the city and its conquests depicted as reliefs.15
Apart from some details in relation to the figures adorning the column, that is, Theodosius as master of the axis mundi, and the arch bestrided by statues of his sons, in this Forum we have strange significations attributed to reliefs—which the author of the Patria obviously could not interpret according to their original meanings—but which he associated with the final days of the city. Indeed, the Patria often interprets occult—as in “hidden” (either because of the author’s lack of understanding or intentionally so)—inscriptions on statues, marble reliefs, etc., as foreboding the city’s doom, as we saw in a previous article16 in relation to statues of two Gorgons facing each other in a region of Constantinople known as “the bakeries.” These, according to the same Patria, were inscribed with “all the future fates with their names, this having been done by Constantine the Great.”17.
The Column of Eudoxia
While the emperor Theodosius I put an end to Arianism in Constantinople and its Eastern territories, this did not mean that the imperial hubris did not crop up from time to time within the Byzantine context, only to be refuted by saints of the Church. To give just one example of this in relation to the built environment—specifically, in relation to a column—it can be discerned in the conflict between the empress Aelia Eudoxia, wife of the emperor Arcadius, and St John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople. According to the author of the Funerary Speech for St John, “divine grace had chosen the man for the episcopate of the city,”18 and so much so was he desired by the people that purportedly the public acclamation of ἄξιος or “he is worthy” did not cease even after the consecration of John to the bishopric had taken place. This prompted the author to suggest that angels miraculously resounded in the chorus, much to the shock of the emperor Arcadius, son of Theodosius, who was present at the event.19
The circumstances that led to John’s conflict with Eudoxia—and to his eventual second exile and death in AD 407—are related to his tenure in Constantinople. We need not concern ourselves now with his first exile, except to say that it was facilitated by Eudoxia and Arcadius who allowed a rival bishop to falsely excommunicate John at the notorious Synod of the Oak in AD 403, after which Eudoxia’s child was stillborn within hours of John’s exile,20 and “a great earthquake” took place.21 These circumstances, along with the revolt of John’s flock22 led within a few days23 to his recall from exile by the imperial couple. Without being ‘officially’ reinstated, John was restored to his flock in Constantinople, before once again incurring the wrath of the empress after he publicly criticised her for erecting a silver statue of herself atop a porphyry column near the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, which “was celebrated there with applause and popular spectacles of dances and mimes, as was then customary on the erection of the statues of the emperors.”24
This scenario can prompt one to ask why it was less of a scandal for Constantine to erect a pagan statue of himself to Christian acclamations of “Lord have mercy!” on the day his city was founded,25 than for Eudoxia whose statue is not described as being in the visage of a pagan goddess? This question would be all the more pressing and controversial from a feminist perspective, but one must keep in mind that when Eudoxia erected her statue, almost a century had passed since Constantine’s day, and we know from the relevant sources—the Byzantine historians Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret—that the city had been further Christianised since then. Thus, the erection of a statue accompanied by pagan fanfare would have caused more of a scandal.
Thus, when we investigate John Chrysostom’s reaction to the statue, it is not so much that the object itself was a problem for him, as there were others in the city, whether mounted by Apollo (as in the case of the Constantinian column) or winged Tyches, embodiments of Fortune or ‘destiny.’ Rather, and to reiterate, the problem was with the pagan-like festivities that took place in front of the statue and column just outside the cathedral church, which was the holiest place in the city. In any case, neither the statue of the empress nor the column survive. However, Eudoxia was so incensed that she became determined to convene another council against John, but he
did not yield, but added fuel to her indignation by still more openly declaiming against her in the church; and it was at this period that he pronounced the memorable discourse commencing with the words, “Herodias is again enraged; again she dances; again she seeks to have the head of John in a basin.”26
The comparison of Eudoxia with Herodias, Herod’s wife at whose instigation St John the Baptist was martyred (Matthew 14:1-12), was too much for the empress. John Chrysostom was again deposed after a synod in AD 404. Two murder attempts against him27 were made after his deposition, and the cathedral church—Hagia Sophia—burnt down, purportedly on account of a mysterious fire that began in the middle of John’s empty episcopal throne.
Behaving, according to the Speech, in a sentient manner, the fire destroyed the church and much of the senate house,28 pointing “with the edge of the fire, just as with a finger, at the guilty neighbours,” i.e. the senate representing the empire.29 Eudoxia had a second miscarriage,30 and died soon after,31 whereas John was harried from place to place until he died in exile near Comana on the 14th of September, AD 407.32 His last words were “Glory to God for all things.”33 And while the factors that led to St John’s persecution and repose are multifaceted, and have as much to do with providence they do with the machinations of his enemies, it cannot escape us that the topography of the city—the cathedral and the senate house—were punished as a sort of divine retribution for his sufferings; nor that the statue and column of Eudoxia had an integral role to play.
We have seen that, since the founding of Constantinople, statues as columns were used to augment a particular ruler’s position in relation to the capital they ruled from; and that they did so in such a way that intersected heaven and earth in the column itself as an axis mundi. Indeed, if the column is considered a summation of the Byzantine worldview that comprised heaven and earth (along with an underworld, or Hades), then the position of the statue reinforced the emperor or empress’ role as master of the world, or at best an intermediary between God—who is far above the ruler and the column/world—and the inhabitants of the empire. With Constantine’s column this was not so clear, owing to the syncretism of his self-representation as the sun god and the Christian relics embedded in the pedestal or plinth. However, when considered in light of his other building activities in favour of the Church—which could never worship the emperor as divine—it is clear that this statue incorporated soft ruler cult imagery into the capital for its founding ceremony. Besides, the inhabitants of the city would have equally comprised pagans and Christians, a situation which had dramatically changed by Eudoxia’s time, when Christianity took ascendency in Constantinople. Thus columns—even when they were bereft of the ruler cult imagery of Constantine’s column or the esoteric apocalypticism of Theodosius’—were nevertheless still seen as axes mundi; and in the case of Eudoxia the festivities associated with the erection of the column outside another axis mundi, that is, the first Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom,34 inevitably led to conflict between her and the main representative of the Church and Christians in the city, its bishop John Chrysostom. In part two of this article, we shall address several other columns in the city that belong to subsequent epochs of the empire: those of Marcian, Phocas, and Justinian, as well as the column of the Goths and that of St Gregory Thaumatourgos (the “Miracle Worker”), before offering concluding remarks on the enduring significance of the columns of Constantinople.
Dr Mario Baghos is Adjunct Lecturer in Theology in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University, teaching at St Mark’s National Theological Centre. From 2010 to 2022, he taught Patristics and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College (Sydney College of Divinity). He has also lectured in the disciplines of Studies in Religion and Biblical Studies at the University of Sydney and the University of Notre Dame (respectively). His most recent book is entitled From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021).
- Mario Baghos, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), 30, 206.
- The Chronicle of John Malalas 13.8, trans. Elizabeth Jeffreys (Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1986), 175.
- Chronicon Paschale 330, trans. Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1980), 17-18.
- Mario Baghos, ‘The Founding of Constantinople: An Interdisciplinary Approach,’ Ancient West and East 19 (2020): 135-136.
- Baghos, ‘The Founding of Constantinople,’ 129.
- Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria 1.45a, trans. Albrecht Berger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 27.
- Aurelius Victor, Liber de Caesaribus 41, trans. H. W. Bird (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994), 51.
- For a comprehensive analysis of Byzantine apocalypticism, see Paul J. Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition, ed. Dorothy deF. Abrahamse (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985.
- Doukas, Istoria Turco-Byzantinā (1341-1462), ed. V. Grecu (Bucharest: Academia Republicii Populare Romîne, 1958), trans. H. J. Magoulias, in Doukas. Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975), 363-365.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus 2.37, trans. A. C. Zenos, in Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories, NPNF 2nd series, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 62.
- For more on this topic, see Mario Baghos, ‘The Traditional Portrayal of St Athanasius according to Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret,’ in Alexandrian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache, Philip Kariatlis, and Mario Baghos (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 139-171.
- Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin, Constantinople in the Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai 42 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), 115, 117.
- Sarah Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 82.
- This is clear from the fact that the column depicts the emperor’s successful wars against, and conquest of, Dacia (modern day Romania). James E. Packer, ‘Trajan’s Glorious Forum,’ Archaeology 51:1 (Jan/Feb 1998): 32-34.
- The Patria 2.47 (Berger, 83.
- Of Saints and Gorgons: Multivalent Aquatic Symbolism in Late Antique Constantinople, published on The Symbolic World website on 23/06/2022.
- The Patria 2.46 (Berger, 81
- The Funerary Speech for John Chrysostom 16, trans. Timothy D. Barnes and George Bevan (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), 47.
- The Funerary Speech for John Chrysostom 16 (Barnes and Bevan, 48.
- The Funerary Speech for John Chrysostom 66 (Barnes and Bevan, 77).
- The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret 5.34, in Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus, trans. Blomfeld Jackson, NPNF (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 154.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus 6.16 (Zenos, 149.
- Palladius, Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom 9, trans. Robert T. Meyer (New York: Newman Press, 1985), 57.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen 8.20, trans. Chester D. Hartranft, in Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories, NPNF 2nd series, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 412.
- The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai 56 (Cameron and Herrin, 131, 133.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen 8.20 (Hartranft, 412.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen 8.21 (Hartranft, 412-413.
- Palladius, Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom 10 (Meyer, 67-68.
- The Funerary Speech for John Chrysostom 112 (Barnes and Bevan, 101.
- The Funerary Speech for John Chrysostom 121 (Barnes and Bevan, 104-105.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen 8.27 (Hartranft, 417.
- J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom—Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 284.
- Palladius, Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom 11 (Meyer, 73.
- The second was built by her grandson, Theodosius II, and the third by Justinian.