Walls, Gates, and a Marble King: The Symbols of Theodosian Constantinople
This brief article will demonstrate how the Theodosian walls surrounding the city of Constantinople, built by Theodosius II the Younger in the fifth century AD, while fulfilling the practical purpose of extending the city’s boundaries and keeping enemies at bay, were also endowed with symbolic significance. This is because Constantinople—the capital of the Byzantine empire for over a thousand years—was seen as a sacred space, to be distinguished from the profane space outside its walls. This article will explore how the transition from the profane to the sacred was marked on the lintels of gates into the city—with crosses, christograms and the ΙΧ monogram—and nowhere is this best seen than in the Golden Gate built (most likely) by Theodosius II. Marked with Christ’s name, the gate also displayed political images of empire—quadrigas, Tyches and winged Victories (Nikes)—along with mythological scenes depicting Hercules and Prometheus, again pointing to Constantinople’s preservation of the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Golden Gate has been its permanent association with the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaiologos, who was said to have been turned to marble and buried at its base; one day to return to reclaim the city. The symbolic implications of the walls, gates, and the Marble King, will be explored below.
Background and Context
In 410, near the beginning of the reign of Theodosius the Great’s nephew and namesake, Theodosius II, an unprecedented event took place which shattered the consciousness of many, especially in the Western territories of the Roman Empire. The city of Rome, considered in the mythology of the pagans—and in the political propaganda of the empire—as the ‘eternal city’ which preserved the stability of the world1—was sacked by the Visigoth Alaric and his invading army. The reasons for this event have been variously interpreted.
For many decades the Romans had relied upon barbarian mercenaries who began to occupy higher levels of military and government administration. Alaric was one such figure under Theodosius I and his son, Honorius, who governed the Western Roman Empire (r. 393-423), while Theodosius II (though still a child) ruled in the East from Constantinople. It was due to Honorius not giving Alaric territory in Italy in which to settle his people that the latter took reprisal against the city of Rome. Some of the ancient Byzantine historians even interpreted the sack of Rome by Alaric and his army as a sign of divine disfavour against the inhabitants of the city and empire.2 Even saints of the Church like Jerome bewailed the fall of “the mother of nations,”3 although he was not-so-subtly reminded by others like Augustine4 that—in line with the Pauline adage—Christians await “the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14), namely the heavenly Jerusalem anticipated within the Church. The Eastern emperor in Constantinople, New Rome, responded to this catastrophic event by holding three days of mourning for the elder Rome, and by beginning construction on the western, landward side of the promontory on a tripartite series of fortified land walls that extended the size of the city to encompass the suburbs beyond the Constantinian walls—as well as vacant areas of land—described succinctly by Stéphane Yerasimos as follows:
By 422, the walls were nearly finished: they were 6646 meters long (more than 4 miles), 11 meters (36 ft) high and 5 meters (almost 17 ft) thick. They reached from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, and were secured by 96 towers (74 rectangular, 1 pentagonal, 5 hexagonal, 2 heptagonal and 14 octagonal). Constructed at 55-meter (180-ft) intervals, the two- to three-story towers ranged between 15 and 20 meters (50-65 ft) in height, and served in peacetime as barracks for the soldiers. There were five public gates and five emergency gates. The walls were an imposing defensive structure that was enhanced by a ground-level passageway that gave the guards access to the towers. Behind the passage was a second circular wall, 8 meters (26 ft) high with 82 towers, with a second passage. In addition, a moat 15 to 20 metres (50-60 ft) wide was dug to 7 meters (16-23 ft) deep in the rock. Altogether, the defenses extended over a breadth of up to 70 meters (230 ft).5
In late 447 and early 448 AD, fifty-seven of the ninety-six towers—along with entire sections of the wall—were destroyed by earthquakes. It is said that the inhabitants of the city—which had grown from an estimated 100-150,000 people at its founding to 400-500,000 by Theodosius II’s time—rebuilt the walls in sixty-days, defending this city from enemy attacks and repelling, in this context, the threat posed by Attila the Hun and his forces. So formidable were the Theodosian walls that consecutive attacks over the centuries by Avars, Arabs, Rus’, and Bulgars were unable to penetrate them. In 1204, when the Venetians and Franks captured Constantinople during the ill-fated fourth crusade, they only managed to climb over the northward walls towards the Golden Horn (which Theodosius II built, along both the Horn and the Sea of Marmara, after the completion of the landward walls).
Symbolism of the Walls
Of special note is the connection between the Theodosian walls and the Virgin Mary, who, from the reign of Theodosius II onwards—and on account of Theodosius’ sister Pulcheria’s endorsement—was increasingly venerated in Constantinople. Indeed, Pulcheria was patron to churches dedicated to the Mother of God in the suburbs of Blachernae (Βλαχέρνα) and Chalkoprateia (Χαλκοπρατεῖα), as well as the Hodegon (῾Οδηγῶν) Monastery. All of these purportedly contained sacred relics associated with the Virgin: the Blachernae had her robe or funeral garb,6 the Chalkoprateia her girdle,7 and the Hodegon the miraculous icon known as the Hodegitria or “She who leads the way” (Παναγία ἡ Ὁδηγήτρια).8 When the Avars invaded and attacked Constantinople in 626 AD, the Patriarch Sergius, to whom defense of the city was entrusted while the emperor Heraclius was on campaign, each day made a circuit of the Theodosian walls while holding the icon of the Hodegitria, and it was to her that the victory against the Avars was ascribed. After this event, a new proemium was added to the Akathist hymn, chanted to this day in the Orthodox Church, which entreats the Mother of God as follows:
Unto you, O Theotokos, invincible champion,
Your city, in thanksgiving ascribes the victory for the deliverance from sufferings.
And having your might unassailable,
Free me from all dangers, so that I may cry
unto you: “Hail! O bride unwedded.”9
Henceforth, the Virgin Mary was considered Constantinople’s special protectress. The Theodosian walls were likewise inscribed with dedications and talismans that were also intended to protect this liminal space, symbolising transition from the profane or neutral space beyond the city (which, in keeping with the multivalent nature of symbolism, was also full of churches), to the sacredness inhering within the city itself. To choose just one example which is extant and can be viewed to this day, we turn to the third military gate of the city—with gates symbolising precisely the transition outlined above—namely, the Rhegium or Porta Rhegiou (Ῥηγίου). This gate was sometimes called the Porta Rhousiou (τοῦ Ῥουσίου), which was the Red circus faction that comprised one of four teams that competed in races in the Hippodrome (along with the Whites, the Blues and the Greens).
The former name of this gate—Rhegium—is due the fact that it led to a town of the same name (now Küçük Çekmece), which was twelve miles away upon the shore of the Sea of Marmara. The gate was connected to this town via a road leading westward away from the city and was located approximately in the middle of the landward walls. There are five inscriptions on this gate, with two on its southern tower. The gate’s marble lintel is marked by a cross, which also appears on the left and right of the underside of the door frame, symbolism that as one passes under this gate they take on themselves the protection of Christ’s cross which is endowed with life-saving power (since it was through the cross that Christ defeated death with his resurrection on the third day). The Greek and Latin inscriptions on the horizonal face of the lintel are themselves bracketed on either side by crosses. These inscriptions denote the dedication and restoration of the walls. In the case of their dedication, on a marble relief beneath the horizontal section, the wall is acknowledged in Latin as having been erected by the prefect Constantine at the command of Theodosius II—who commissioned the walls—and on the horizontal section itself there is the Greek inscription comprising a summary of the Latin already mentioned, as well as a lengthier acknowledgement of the restoration of the wall during the reigns of Justin II and his wife Sophia (in the 550s).
Sadly, the walls could not resist the technological advances in the late Middle Ages which the Byzantines, due to the truncation of their borders and the gradual yet inevitable collapse of their age-old empire, could not afford to implement themselves. When in 1452 a Hungarian engineer by the name of Urban solicited the last emperor of Constantinople, Constantine Palaiologos, for a salary as a designer of heavy artillery, the latter could not meet his financial demands. Urban then went to the Ottoman capital at Edirne that, under Sultan Mehmet II, was preparing to besiege the Byzantines, and was promptly hired to design a giant bronze canon—with a barrel more than eight metres long—which was called the “great bombard,” and which was destined to level the walls of Theodosius that had stood impregnable for over a thousand years.
Indeed, it was in the early hours of the 29th of May, 1453, that the final siege of the Ottomans against the city, on its landward side, began. Sometime just after midnight, the Turkish canon bombardment started at the St Romanos Gate, which was to the north of the Rhegium. The Sultan sent his irregular troops to attack the Theodosian walls, but they were cut down by the Byzantines, and approximately after two-and-a-half hours of slaughter, Mehmet called them back. At around 4am, a second wave of troops—many of whom were former Christians from Asia Minor—attacked but was also repelled. About an hour later, the third wave, Janissaries made up of former Christian boys converted to Islam and trained as the Sultan’s elite guard, was sent to attack. Constantine Palaiologos led the defence which seemed to be holding ground, until—according to some sources—two things happened on the walls that changed the course of the battle. A small gate near the Blachernae district and close to the Golden Horn, called the kerkoporta (κερκόπορτα) or Wooden Gate, was used by the Bocchiardi brothers from Genoa—who had come to the defense of the city under their commander, the mercenary Giovanni Giustiniani Longo—for small skirmishes. In the heat of the battle, they forgot to lock it when returning from a skirmish. Soon approximately fifty Ottoman soldiers entered this gate and raised the Ottoman banner on the rampart.
This of course gave enthusiasm to the Ottomans. Giustiniani Longo was injured while defending the area near the St Romanos gate; the second time he had been injured in two days. He asked the emperor for keys to the gate so that he could re-enter the city. Constantine reluctantly obliged, but when the Genoese saw their master being carried away, they thought they were retreating and ran to follow him, leaving the Romans to fight on their own. Constantine XI Palaiologos, “King and Emperor of the Romans,” was last seen alive near the St Romanos gate, where the fighting was thickest. The city was then taken, and the last ruler of Constantinople passed into legend as ‘the Marble King.’
The Golden Gate and the Marble King
The legend of the Marble King, which we will turn to below, is irrevocably linked to the Golden Gate (Χρυσεία Πύλη) that essentially superseded the main entrance reserved for the emperor and his retinue into the city when Theodosius II extended its boundaries. There is debate as to whether or not the gate was an existing triumphal arch erected by Theodosius I outside of the city to commemorate his victory over the usurper Maxentius in AD 388,10 and that was later incorporated into his nephew’s new walls.11 In any case, the Golden Gate was set towards the southern edge of the wall and, according to Sarah Bassett:
…consisted of two separate stages, an inner portal and an outer, or propylon gate. The inner gate was a triple-arched marble entry recessed between two marble-faced pylons. Across the city and the country sides of this central arch ran the inscription that gave the place its name … The outer, or propylon, gate was a single arched entrance…12
This inscription, now lost, was on the western side of the recessed gate or arch, “AVREA SAECLA GERIT QVI PORTAM CONSTRVIT AVRO,” which means: “He who builds a gate with gold rules a golden age.”13 In this context, references to the “golden age” would have brought to mind the paradigmatic cycle of ages typified by Hesiod’s Works and Days, with the golden one, in this Greek cosmogonic text, appearing just after the world was shaped into order from chaos.14 For the Greeks, the golden age degenerated through the consecutive ages of silver, bronze, the heroic, and finally iron, whereas in imperial Roman times this motif was utilised by Augustus’ chief propogandist Virgil, who asserted that the golden age was re-established within this emperor’s reign.
Theodosius I, if he was the originally builder of the gate, was probably hinting at something similar: that his reign had inaugurated a new, golden age, was reflected by statues—on top of the inner gate—of a monumental quadriga drawn by elephants and charioted by none other than an image of the emperor himself.15 This appeared atop the inner portal, over the centre of the arch. In any case, the inner, triple-arched portal—which was bricked up in later Byzantine times (in the Palaiologan period)—was based on Roman triumphal arches that commemorated victories of Roman emperors in battle or conquests. Examples of these include the arch of Titus in the Roman Forum that commemorated the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 71, or, better still, the arch of Constantine—also triple-arched—erected in 315 AD, well before he founded Constantinople, to commemorate his victory over his rival Maxentius at Pons Milvius in 312.16 (The erection of such arches in ancient Rome was usually associated with the celebration of a “triumph,” which I have described elsewhere.)17
As the arches of Titus and Constantine are clearly adorned with reliefs and statues that communicate in religious and symbolic imagery the narrative of the events they commemorate, so too was Theodosius’ Golden Gate adorned with a winged victory symbolising its namesake, and further implying that the gate was built by Theodosius I originally as a triumphal arch. It also included a Tyche of Constantinople, which was a motif frequently used by the city’s founder to symbolically demonstrate that it was ‘destined’ to supersede Rome.12 Pierre Gilles and English travellers in the seventeenth century noted that the outer portal or wall was adorned on either side with broken marble reliefs, arranged in two tiers, that depicted mythological scenes including the Labours of Hercules and the Punishment of Prometheus.18 With the exception of small fragments in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, most of these have been lost; but they do symbolise the ongoing appreciation of classical pagan literature by Byzantine Christians.
What is significant is that one can still see, both on the lintels of this external or outer gate and the inverse side of the interior gate (that is, facing the gate’s portal from within the land walls), forms of the christogram or the chi(Χ) rho(Ρ). According to Eusebius of Caesarea’s Life of Constantine, on the night before the battle of Pons Milvius the emperor dreamt that Christ told him to place the chi-rho on his shields and standards as a sort of talismanic protection against his foes.
Constantine in fact set up a portrait of the Christian labarum over the entrance of his palace in his New Rome. While the only evidence that survives for this is Eusebius’ testimony in his Life of the emperor, there is a symbolic importance to the appearance of the chri-rho over lintels.19 This is true whether we are addressing Constantine’s palace or, for our purposes here, the inner and outer portals of the Golden Gate (the latter is adorned with an ΙΧ monogram, the first two initials in Greek of Ἰησοῦς Χριστός/Jesus Christ). One in fact had to, either consciously/deliberately or unconsciously, pass under the name ‘Christ’ when entering through these portals. In this case, since the Golden Gate was reserved for the triumphal entrance of the emperor and his retinue after military campaigns, then they would submit themselves to Christ by crossing the threshold marked by the first two initials of his epithet—the chi-rho—while becoming imbued with the divine protection offered by that name which simultaneously was believed to keep both spiritual and physical evil away from the city.
We have stated that the Golden Gate was constructed from marble, and at this juncture must return to the theme of the “Marble King” mentioned above. After the catastrophic conquest of the city 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. There he would remain until such a time that the Greeks, the descendants of the Orthodox 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 is either associated with a statue of the emperor Justinian that once stood in front of Hagia Sophia (see my previous article), or the border between Byzantium—encompassing its former territories in Asia Minor—and Turkish lands.
For the credulous, the legend of the “Marble King” was inadvertently confirmed by the fact that the Golden Gate was bricked-up, even though this had taken place before the Turks conquered the city. But the portentous character of the Gate was not only associated with the last emperor of Byzantium. Donald M. Nicol records another interesting legend that conflates the Gate with the city’s ultimate fate (an understandable connection given the Gate’s significance for the Byzantines, and its sheer magnitude):
Other versions of the legend had it that the sleeping body at the Golden Gate in the castle of the Seven Towers was either John Palaiologos [Constantine’s older brother] or St John the Evangelist who, in Orthodox tradition, was also the author of the Book of Revelation and so a unique authority. He was said to be an old man with a long white beard; and he held in his hand a book in which he recorded all the sins of the Turks as well as the Christians. Access to the Golden Gate was strictly forbidden. But those who got anywhere near the old man could hear him muttering: ‘The time has not yet come. The hour has not sounded. The remission of sins has not occurred.’ It was said that the Turkish guards lit a candle here every night and draped the body in a coverlet which they renewed once a year. They foretell that the day will come when Constantinople is besieged and captured by seven nations who will fight among themselves for possession of the city … it will be the worst disaster since the beginning of the world. Then the sleeping John, Evangelist and Emperor, will awaken from his long sleep and, standing in the midst of the city, he will shout to the seven nations: ‘Stop! Enough blood has been shed.’ The fighting will cease and John will reign in glory for three days and three nights before disappearing. Peace will then prevail in Byzantium.20
In this account, along with that pertaining to Constantine Palaiologos,21 we discern several tropes that are part of the Byzantine apocalyptic tradition going all the way back to a seventh century Syriac text The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, which was ascribed to a fourth century saint, the bishop of Patara (or Olympus in the Greek translation). This text attempted to address the socio-political and religious anxiety experienced by Christians in the wake of the Islamic conquests by contextualising the latter within a broader historical narrative. In this narrative, the final undoing of the Islamic armies would take place at the hands of a last Roman emperor of the Greeks. Considered as one “dead and good for nothing,” the last emperor would suddenly be “aroused like a man from drunken sleep” to defeat his enemies and restore the empire.22 This legend, which has its antecedents in the fourth century Latin Tiburtine Sibyl, where the enemies of the Christians are the pagans, would crop up again and again—in both Eastern and Western Christendom—at times of social upheaval to give hope to beleaguered, world-weary and conquered Christians, and in the later Byzantine context is forever linked to Golden Gate: its marble rigidity perhaps symbolising the persistence of their kingdom which, after a brief period of occupation, would arise along with the ‘sleeping emperor.’
In 1458, five years after the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, work on the Yedikule Hisarı—or Fortress of the Seven Towers—was completed around the Golden Gate, with its two original towers incorporated into the additional ones erected under the order of Mehmet II. These towers were used as storage depots for arms, coins, documents, etc. It also functioned as a dungeon where political rivals, plotters of intrigue, and ambassadors of foreign nations were held as prisoners. Prisoners were also executed there, and across from the outer wall of the Golden Gate, which can still be easily distinguished from the remaining towers of the Fortress, there is an Ottoman cemetery. And so, while no emperor sleeps beneath the Golden Gate awaiting to be roused for combat, the Gate nevertheless remains in close proximity to those who sleep, to the dead; a poignant symbol of the Byzantine empire’s fate on an imperial level.
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).
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- In the eighth century, the venerable Bede wrote his famous epigram: “While the Colosseum stands Rome will stand [Quandiu stat Colisaeus, stat et Roma]. But if the Colosseum falls Rome will fall [quando cadet Colisaeus, cadet et Roma], and if Rome falls the world will end [quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus].” Howard Vernon Canter, ‘The Venerable Bede and the Colosseum,’ Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 61 (1930): 150-164, esp. 150.
- The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen 9.6, trans. Chester D. Hartranft, in Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories, NPNF 2nd series, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 423.
- St Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel: Preface to Book III, in The Idea of Rome: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, ed. David Thompson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), 123.
- St Augustine, City of God 5.16, in Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans IV-VII, trans. William M. Green (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 219.
- Stéphane Yerasimos, Constantinople: Istanbul’s Historical Heritage (Potsdam, Germany: H. F. Ullman, 2000), 34.
- Holger A. Klein, ‘Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople,’ BYZAS 5 (2006): 77-99, esp. 87.
- Cecily Hennessey, ‘The Chapel of St Jacob at the Church of the Theotokos Chalkoprateia in Constantinople,’ in Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2, ed. Roger Matthews, John Curtis et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012), 351-66, esp. 352.
- John A. McGuckin, ‘Hodegitria,’ in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, vol. 1: A–M, ed. McGuckin (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 307.
- Vasiliki Limberis, Divine Heiress: The Virgin Mary and the Creation of Christian Constantinople (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 149.
- Jonathan Bardill, ‘The Golden Gate in Constantinople: A Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I,’ American Journal of Archaeology 103:4 (Oct., 1999): 671-696, esp. 687-88.
- Sarah Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 95-96.
- Bassett, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople, 95.
- Thomas F. Madden, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2017), 96.
- Hesiod, Works and Days, in Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White (London: William Heinemann, 1914), 11.
- Cyril Mango, ‘The Triumphal Way of Constantinople and the Golden Gate,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000): 173-188, esp. 181.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 84-85.
- Mario Baghos, ‘The Founding of Constantinople: An Interdisciplinary Approach,’ Ancient West and East 19 (2021): 146-148.
- Mango, ‘The Triumphal Way of Constantinople and the Golden Gate,’ 182-183.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, 122.
- Donald M. Nicol, The Immortal Emperor: The Life and Legend of Constantine Palaiologos, Last Emperor of the Romans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 104-105.
- It should be noted that before Constantine Palaiologos and John, this myth was associated with St John Vatatzes, emperor of the Byzantine state in exile in Nicaea
- The Apocalypse Attributed to Saint Methodius 13, in Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and An Alexandrian World Chronicle, trans. Benjamin Garstad (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 129.