In part one of this article, we addressed the columns of Constantinople—and the statues bestriding them—from the fourth-to-early fifth centuries AD, including the column of the city’s founder Constantine, the columns in Theodosius’ Forum which had apocalyptic undertones, and the column of Eudoxia that pitted the Church against the state. The present part addresses the column of Marcian erected in the fifth century, the column of the Goths (fourth century), two from the reign of Justinian in the sixth century, and that of Phocas in the seventh century (though not in this order), before concluding with remarks on the symbolic significance of these columns as axes mundi.

The Column of Marcian

Other columns in the city did not have such a bad reputation as Eudoxia’s, but are good examples of the symbolism of Church and empire—the worldview they represented—utilised throughout the capital. An extant one that can still be seen in the Fatih district of Istanbul is the Column of Marcian. In Turkish folklore, this is known as Kıztaşı, or “the column of the girl,” and was superstitiously believed to sway in the direction of ‘impure maidens’ as they walked past. The column stands on the fourth hill of Constantinople on what would have been the northwest branch of the mese odos running from the Charisius Gate in the Theodosian walls.

The Column of Marcian on Kizanlık Caddesi in modern day Istanbul (Photo by Author, 2011)

The emperor Marcian reigned from AD 450 to 457, and from the inscription that is still legible on the column’s pedestal we know that the prefect Tatianus erected it. His dates are between 450-452, so the column must have been erected sometime in that two-year period and mounted with a statue of Marcian.

The Colossus of Barletta which is thought to have topped the Column of Marcian, outside the church of San Sepolcro in Barletta, Italy (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The Colossus of Barletta (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Though the statue is now lost, there has been speculation that it can possibly be identified with the so-called colossus of Barletta, which is a large bronze statue of a Roman emperor holding a cross and a globe thought to have been stolen during the fourth crusade that sacked Constantinople in AD 1204. The statue washed up on the shore near Barletta in southern Italy after a Venetian ship carrying it as cargo—which was heading back to Venice in the north via the Adriatic sea—sank. This, however, is difficult to confirm, and is made all the more problematic by the fact that the column is not mentioned in the Byzantine sources. There is speculation that the column and statue might have been placed in the middle of a Forum (a Forum of Leontes was located nearby), though this is impossible to determine with accuracy, especially these days as the column is located within a mass of urban sprawl.

The Column of Marcian in Istanbul’s busy Fatih district (Photo by Author, 2011)

What can be seen today is the column’s Corinthian capital supporting a plinth upon which the statue would have stood. The plinth is decorated with aquilae, which is Latin for “eagles.” These eagles were utilised on military ensigns and standards and set the precedent for the double-headed eagle used prominently during the last centuries of the Byzantine empire by the Palaiologan dynasty (but which seems to have Mesopotamian antecedents also).1

A wreathed ΙΧ monogram on the base of the column (Photo by Author, 2011)

The column itself is of red-grey Egyptian granite and is supported by a square pediment or base that is covered by four marble panels depicting—on three sides—the ΙΧ monogram that denotes the first two initials in Greek for Jesus Christ, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός. These are wreathed, symbolising victory: a concept magnified by the fourth marble face of the pediment depicting two Nikes or winged victories on either side of and holding up a wreath, which, although faded, might have also included the ΙΧ monogram.

Two winged victories depicted on the arch of Constantine, Rome (Photo by Author, 2011)

In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Victory or Νίκη was depicted as winged and usually offering a laurel wreath, made of bay leaves, on those who have emerged victorious either in military campaigns or athletic competitions. It is possible that the statue was erected to celebrate one of the emperor’s military achievements (he fought and was successful against both the Saracens and the Blemmyes). Ιt is worth noting that this imagery could comprise a very early example of the Christianisation of this ancient Graeco-Roman motif. Thus, instead of the figures considered as Victories, they are now viewed as angels holding up a wreath with Christ’s initials denoting that he is the victorious one, presumably over death with his resurrection. This is in fact precisely how this artistic motif would be used in Orthodox and Catholic churches in later centuries, with the ΙΧ monogram often replaced by the chi-rho. Above these figures is an inscription, which would have originally been in bronze letters inserted into the etched characters that are still visible. It reads, “PRINCIPIS HANC STATVAM MARCIANI CERNE FORVMQVE PRAEFECTVS VOVIT QVOD TATIANVS OPVS,” which in English means: “See this statue of the emperor Marcian, and his forum, a work which the prefect Tatianus dedicated.”

The emperor Marcian is in any case very significant for the Catholic and Orthodox churches, for he and his wife, St Pulcheria—the sister of Theodosius II the Younger—presided over the fourth ecumenical council held in the city of Chalcedon, just across the Bosphorus in Asia Minor, in AD 451. In part one of this article we tangentially addressed the first and second ecumenical councils, held in AD 325 in Nicaea and AD 381 in Constantinople respectively, that affirmed the divinity of Christ. The third council, held in Ephesus in AD 431, responded to Nestorius of Constantinople’s dissociation of the divine and human natures in Christ by affirming his oneness in line with St Cyril of Alexandria’s formula that there is “one nature of [God] the Word incarnate” (μία φύσις τοῦ [Θεού] Λόγου σεσαρκωμένη).2 At face value, this statement would seem to imply that there is only one nature in Christ, which is not the case, since Christ, being fully God, is also fully man (apart from sin). But Cyril used the word φύσις, commonly translated as “nature,” to designate “reality” or “personhood,” meaning that we can paraphrase his saying to denote that there is one reality or person of God the Word who became man as Christ Jesus. After his repose, Cyril was misinterpreted by his over-zealous followers Eutyches and Dioscorus—the latter his successor as bishop of Alexandria—who believed that Cyril, in his statement “one nature of the Word incarnate” referred to nature or φύσις literally, so they concluded that if Christ only had one nature that must be the divine one. These were described as monophysites (μονοφυσίτες), believing that Christ’s humanity was overshadowed or subsumed by his divinity. But their position was not accepted by the broader Church, which, together with the imperial couple Marcian and Pulcheria held a council in Chalcedon in 451 to clarify St Cyril’s teaching and, with additions made by the Tome of pope-saint Leo of Rome, developed the following definition of the faith:

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer, as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away from the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single hypostasis; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.3

Traditional Christians believe therefore that there is one Christ in two natures, divine and human: he is fully God insofar as he is divine and has the power of God over life and death, and he became fully human that we might participate in the eternal life that only he can give. And, by convoking the council, Marcian had an important role in the development of this formula, which was in any case written by fathers of the Church. The emperor’s piety in any case cannot be denied. He died in AD 457 after a long religious procession from the Great Palace at the easternmost edge of the city to the suburb of Hebdomon on its southwestern edge near the Sea of Marmara. It is believed that a pre-existing foot condition—possible gangrene or gout—was fatally exacerbated by the journey, which he chose to undertake anyway. He was buried in the mausoleum church of the Holy Apostles next to his wife who had died in AD 453. In the presence of his column in the modern day Fatih district of Istanbul, one comes face-to-face with Church history; with a tangible remnant of the emperor who convoked the fourth ecumenical council.

The Column of the Goths

The Column of the Goths in Gülhane Park (Photo by Author, 2011)

The faded Latin inscription on the pediment of the Column of the Goths

Another column that is still extant within the city is in Gülhane Park adjacent to Topkapı (which means “Cannon Gate”) Palace and is known as the Column of the Goths (Gotlar Sütunu). Made of marble and surmounted, like the Column of Marcian, by a Corinthian capital, the inscription on its pediment, now barely legible, reads: “FORTVNAE REDVCI OB DEVICTVS GOTHOS” or “To Fortuna, who returns by victory over the Goths.” It was the Goths, led by their ruler Alaric, that had been ‘destined’ to sack the old Rome for the first time in AD 410; a devastating event that sent shockwaves throughout the empire. This column however dates from the early fourth century. Some have speculated that it was erected by Constantine, and others that it was erected by Claudius II Gothicus (r. 268-70)—since both emperors were victorious over the Goths. If Constantine erected the statue, does that necessarily mean that he prescribed to notions of predetermined ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ that are so incongruous with the Christian insistence on God’s providence that allows and preserves freedom of choice?

The answer to this is probably no. Since Hellenistic times, Fortuna or Tyche had been associated with cities, a goddess of their respective destinies,4 with the ancient Greek historian Polybius ascribing the rise of Rome in particular to her.5 Later, Rome became full of monuments dedicated to Fortuna, and especially in the imperial period emperors such as Nero and Domitian erected temples in her honour.6 Just as the erection of the statue of Apollo upon Constantine’s column was related to city-building in ancient times, Fortuna symbolism was employed for political rather than specifically religious purposes. Indeed, on this the scholars seem to agree, with A. H. M. Jones,7 Hans A. Pohlsander,8 and Jonathan Bardill9 stating that in this period—i.e. the fourth century—Fortuna was merely a personified abstraction and not considered a literal goddess. In any case, the column is there, harkening to the earliest days of the capital, and perhaps even before its re-founding by Constantine.

The Column of Phocas

When Constantine founded his new capital, tensions would inevitably arise between Constantinople and the old Rome: tensions that were exacerbated by the sack of the latter in the fifth century and the prospering of Constantinople as it accrued to itself more influence, wealth, and prestige. The growing precedence given to New Rome nevertheless was treated diplomatically by emperors who on a political level needed a foothold in Italy, and through it their Western territories, which in the fifth century came increasingly under barbarian control and influence. This was because of the consecutive invasions of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals, to name a few. The emperor Justinian—through the agency of his generals count Belisarius and Narses—reconquered much of this territory, stretching from North Africa to Italy and Spain in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, during the reign of the largely incompetent usurper Phocas between AD 602 and 610, the empire was disturbed by the invading Sassanids in the East while Italy came under increasing threat from the Lombards who had begun to invade from northern Germany in the preceding century.

The Column of Phocas in the Roman Forum (Photo by Author, 2016)

In an effort to overcompensate—and to affirm via propaganda—for Byzantine sovereignty in Italy, Phocas commanded the Byzantine exarch of Italy, Smaragdus, to erect a column in 608 in the Roman Forum, the political and religious centre of ancient Rome. The white marble column sits atop a pedestal with a Latin inscription by Smaragdus that waxes eloquent about Phocas, his ostensible beneficence to Rome, and his reign in general. The column is topped with a Corinthian capital, is 13.6 metres tall and is situated just before the Rostra, which was the main, elevated platform for public speaking in the Forum and also included the umbilicus Urbis Romae, the “navel of the city of Rome,” recorded by a near-contemporary Macrobius in the early fifth century.10

The umbilicus Urbis Romae would have sat on top of this pedestal adjoining the Rostra in the Roman Forum (Photo by Author, 2011)

The erection of the column here could have been a reiteration of the fact that Rome was under the political aegis of Byzantium, and this was represented by a gilded statue of the emperor that stood on the column’s capital and thus soared above the symbols that pointed to Rome as the centre of the empire. The statue no longer survives. Indeed, after his reign came to a bloody end at the hands of Heraclius, who executed Phocas in late 610, all images of the latter were destroyed. Perhaps the statue suffered a similar fate as part of this process. In any case, the column and statue were the last monumental pieces of architecture to be placed in the Roman Forum, representing a fleeting attempt by a Byzantine emperor to exert political hegemony over the city of Rome’s built environment.

The Column of Justinian

A fifteenth century manuscript illustration of the statue of Justinian (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Two more columns need to be addressed, both of which can be traced back to the reign of the emperor Justinian: the column of Justinian and the column of St Gregory Thaumatourgos (the “Miracle Worker”). The first stood seventy metres high in the centre of the Augusteion, which was one of the main public squares in Constantinople. This was modified by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century, creating a mutual space connecting Hagia Sophia and the Great Palace and adjoining the senate house. The column in question was surmounted by an equestrian statue of Justinian, erected in AD 543 to commemorate his victories against the Persians. This may have originally been a statue of Theodosius that was reused and appropriated by Justinian. The historian Procopius gives a succinct and elegant description of the statue:

…on the summit of the column stands a gigantic bronze horse, facing toward the east, a very noteworthy sight. Indeed he holds his left fore foot in the air, as though it were about to take a forward step on the ground before him, while the other is pressed down upon the stone on which he stands, as if ready to take the next step; his hind feet he holds close together, so that they may be ready whenever he decides to move. Upon this horse is mounted a colossal bronze figure of the Emperor. And the figure is habited like Achilles, that is, the costume he wears is known by that name. He wears half-boots and his legs are not covered by greaves. Also he wears a breastplate in the heroic fashion, and a helmet covers his head and gives the impression that it moves up and down, and a dazzling light flashes forth from it. One might say, in poetic speech, that here is that star of Autumn [Sirius]. And he looks towards the rising sun, directing his course, I suppose, against the Persians. And in his left hand he holds a globe, by which the sculptor signifies that the whole earth and sea are subject to him, yet he has neither sword nor spear nor any other weapon, but a cross stands upon the globe which he carries, the emblem by which alone he has obtained both his Empire and his victory in war. And stretching forth his right hand toward the rising sun and spreading out his fingers, he commands the barbarians in that quarter to remain at home and to advance no further. So much, then, for this statue.11

The globe held in the emperor’s hand, referred to as the “apple,” fell to the ground sometime between 1422 and 1427, and was interpreted—in that period of political and territorial decline—as a portent of the empire’s end. In fact, after the catastrophic conquest of Constantinople by the Turks on the 29th of May, 1453, a legend arose that the last emperor of the Romans, Constantine Palaiologos, did not die, but was plucked from the spot where he was last seen alive fighting near the St Romanos Gate by an angel who turned him into marble and buried him in a subterranean cavern beneath the Golden Gate in the Theodosian walls. There he would remain until such a time that the Greeks, the descendants of the Romioi or Romans, would be ready to retake the city. He would awake from slumber and chase his enemies as far as the “Red Apple Tree” (ἡ κόκκινη μηλιά) which in Greek legend can either be interpreted as the globe that fell from the hands of Justinian’s statue, or as the border between Byzantium—encompassing its former territories in Asia Minor—and Turkish lands (which is where the Turks first appeared on the radar of the Romans). The statue itself was in fact dismantled after the Ottomans took the city in May 1453. By 1515, the column itself was also destroyed. No remnants of the “apple” remain. The area of the Augusteion is now paved over and is known as Aya Sofya Meydanı or Hagia Sophia Square.

To end this article on a lighter note, as one enters Justinian’s church of Hagia Sophia and crosses from the narthex into the nave, to the left one can see the pillar of St Gregory Thaumatourgos or “Miracle-Worker,” a third century bishop of Neocaesarea in Cappadocia. St Gregory was a disciple of the famous and controversial Christian teacher, Origen, and spiritual mentor of St Macrina the Elder, the grandmother of the Cappadocian saints Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. It is a square column covered with copper around its base. There is an odd-looking hole in the copper covering that seeps water, so that it is said that if one rubs their finger or thumb in this hole that they will receive a special blessing. This tradition goes back to the construction of the church: it is said that St Gregory appeared within the church, now several centuries after his repose, and touched the column. From that point onwards it was endowed with healing powers, and visitors to Hagia Sophia—at least while it was a museum—would often rub the hole for good luck. I do not know if this practice has continued or ceased since the conversion of the museum into back into a mosque—a function it served from 1453-1935—on 10th of July, 2020.

The Column of St Gregory Thaumatourgos in Hagia Sophia (Photo by Author, 2011)

The Column of St Gregory Thaumatourgos (Photo by Author, 2011)

 

Concluding Remarks

These days, the skylines of modern cities are marked by skyscrapers that do not necessarily attempt to intersect heaven and earth as axes mundi. As stated in a previous article of mine on this website, namely Religious Symbolism and the Modern City, Part Two: Capitalism and Corporations, the main feature of these buildings are “electronic signs that market material products and services while at the same time blotting out the starry canopy through light pollution.” In this way, they do not reach heaven or the firmament but rather, as remarkable testaments to human ingenuity and engineering, direct our attention to the advertisable products in a sort of phenomenological or reflexive relationship between them (i.e. the object) and us (the subject). It is anyone’s guess if this sort of product placement, which usually capitalises on our desires in order to engender commerce, is any more useful than a ruler—an emperor or empress—depicting themselves as divine in a statue erected on top of a column, or even as a mortal demonstrating their mastery over the world understood as an axis mundi.

Perhaps it is not. Yet in relation to the latter, in both the description of them in literature and their extant remains, what is useful is the symbolism of statue and column—and the images etched into their pedestals—and what this symbolism can communicate to us moderns about how ancient and medieval persons perceived the world. The columns of Constantinople offer a rare insight—recapitulations—of the Byzantine worldview at various stages of its history and development: from Constantine’s statue/column and its pagan and Christian syncretism; to the columns in Theodosius’ Forum and their prophecies about the end times; to the nature of the conflict between Church and state represented by Eudoxia’s statue; to the window into the emphatic Christian worldview—and the emerging doctrine of Christ—reflected by Marcian’s statue/column; to Phocas’ imperial posturing in relation the old Rome. All of these are erected in different Byzantine epochs and, while more-or-less consistent in their form of representation, nevertheless reflect the concerns relevant to the empire at particular points in time. This is perhaps most emblematic in Justinian’s statue in the Augusteion in front of Hagia Sophia, where the emperor was depicted in warrior dress (though he himself never went into battle) keeping the terrestrial enemies—also symbolising chaos in general—at bay with outstretched hand.

Yet, in Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, the poet could at least contemplate the “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare” of the Pharaoh’s statue, its “shattered visage” half-sunk in the sands of Egypt.12 In the case of Justinian’s statue and column, nothing remains. The textual descriptions of its association with the end times, inextricably linked, in Byzantium, with the end of the empire, symbolise perhaps the fate of all rulers who—irrespective of their piety—construe themselves as masters of the axis mundi.

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).

  1. Jesse D. Chariton, ‘The Mesopotamian Origins of the Hittite Double-Headed Eagle,’ UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research XIV (2011): 2.[]
  2. Translated from St Cyril of Alexandria’s Second Letter to Succensus in Patrologia Graeca 77, 241.[]
  3. Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils: Nicaea I- Lateran V (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1989), 86.[]
  4. John Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire, ed. H. H. Scullard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), 84.[]
  5. Polybius, The Histories 1.4, in The Histories: Books 1-2, trans. W. R. Paton (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979), 10-11.[]
  6. Martial 8.65, in Martial: Epigrams II, trans. Walter C. A. Ker (London: William Heinemann, 1920), 51.[]
  7. A. H. M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), 191.[]
  8. Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine (New York: Routledge, 1996), 66.[]
  9. Jonathan Bardill, Constantine: Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 252.[]
  10. Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.1, in Macrobius: Saturnalia Books 1–2, trans. Robert A. Kaster (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 195.[]
  11. Procopius, Buildings I.ii, in Procopius VII: Buildings, trans. H. B. Dewing (London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 33, 35, 37.[]
  12. Shelley: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 550.[]