The Forum of Constantine in Constantinople: What Do We Know of Its Original Architecture and Adornment?

This huge key stone which was found in Çemberlitaş may belong to a big arch at the Forum of Constantine. The forum was built by Constantine I in the quarter of today’s Çemberlitaş. It was oriented north-south, the forum was oval in its ground plan. Historical sources report that located within the forum was: a Senate House or basilica, a monumental fountain or nymphaeum, and silversmith and chandler shops. The pavement was of marble. On the periphery it was ornamented by statuary and reliefs. An honourific column dedicated to Constantine I was erected in its centre. A place of worship devoted to the emperors, known as Hagios Constantinos, was constructed on the rectangular base of the monument. One of the official imperial ceremonies was held here. Basil I the Macedonian constructed the Church of St. Mary (Theotokos) on one of the porticoes.

By Dr. Anthony Kaldellis
Professor of Classics
The Ohio State University

When the new imperial capital Constantinople was inaugurated on 11 May 330, the forum of Constantine was the single most important space in it for focalizing and articulating that emperor’s image and the symbolic ambitions of his regime.[1] Only the central column survives today, but originally the forum featured many structures and selected specimens of classical art that were all arranged in a particular spatial relation to each other. However, scholarship on the forum tends to be fragmented, consisting of separate studies of the column, the statue that it bore, the Senate House, and the other statues arrayed around the forum. Each of these studies has different goals, follows its own methodology, and approaches the sources in different ways, from skepticism (sometimes excessive) to acceptance (sometimes naïve).[2] For example, one may be an archaeological study, another approaches a building from the standpoint of political history, and a third takes an art-historical approach to the statues. As exceptions to this pattern of fragmentation, one may cite two useful architectural-archaeological surveys of the forum in German.[3] Although they were published twenty years ago, they have not sparked as much discussion as one might have hoped. Why, then, is another survey necessary?

First, some elements can still be added to what we know. Second, the goal of existing surveys is not necessarily to assess whether the elements that we know from the later sources can be attributed to Constantine’s original design, or to interrogate the reports concerning their provenance. And third, they do not weigh the reliability of those later sources for each item that they report. Except for the column (which still survives) and some minor archaeological finds, the forum is known entirely through reports in Byzantine texts, which must be examined and assessed anew and separately in each instance. Discussions with colleagues have revealed a widespread and deep skepticism of the testimony of the sources, which are inevitably later, as almost none survive from the first century of the city’s existence. The present article will argue that this skepticism is usually unwarranted. My ultimate goal (in a separate study) will be to understand the forum’s original symbolic logic, but before that labor of interpretation can begin we need to know what the forum looked like and what its ‘furniture’ was exactly when it was unveiled. The focus is therefore firmly on its original architecture and adornment, not the ways in which the space was used (though aspects of that will inevitably come up) or the changes and damages that the space experienced in its long journey through Byzantine history. In the language of hermeneutics, my concern is original intent and not reception.

The historian Zosimos provides our first reference to the forum that rises to the level of an actual description, and so we may begin with that. In a few words (2.30.4), he says that Constantine built his forum (agora) at what used to be the gate of the ancient city of Byzantion; the forum was circular in shape, enclosed by a two-story colonnade, and had two facing arches of Prokonnesian marble that led into and out of the old city. Zosimos is usually dated to ca. 500, though he could be moved a few decades earlier or later. He lived in the city and had seen the forum countless times. While he was biased against Constantine, he had no reason to lie about these aspects of the forum (though it is interesting that he does not mention the column and statue). The historian and patridographer Hesychios of Miletos (early sixth century) also says that Constantine endowed his forum with two arches.[4] There is no reason to doubt that the forum was circular, and this is confirmed by the tenth-century poem of Konstantinos of Rhodes on the wonders of Constantinople. He adds that its columns were white.[5] Another text that confirms the shape of the forum is the tenth-century Patria of Constantinople. This is a collection of stories about the city and its monuments that must be treated with great caution, and will be discussed below. But while it offers curious interpretations of monuments and stories that are often incredible or wrong, many of its banal factual reports are reliable, such as that the forum was “a circle” or “in the shape of a circle.”[6]

Reconstruction of the column of Arcadius / Wikimedia Commons

In fact, we have pictorial confirmation of the circular shape of the forum that dates from the early fifth century. The column of Arcadius (395–408) in the forum of that emperor celebrated Arcadius’ victory over the Goths in 400 and was finished by ca. 421, under his son Theodosius II (408–450). Part of the fighting in that war took place in Constantinople. The column is lost today, but before it was destroyed its spiral relief was drawn in 1574 (in the Freshfield Album, Trinity College Library, Cambridge). On the bottom register is a clear representation of the circular forum of Constantine.[7]

Unfortunately, we do not know the diameter of the forum. If the foundations found 70 meters to the east of the column belonged to one of the two arches, then the forum had a diameter of 140 meters, but this identification is not certain.[8] It is safer to locate its elements only in relation to each other and not at their exact distance from the column, which stood at its center.[9] A circle, after all, was a distinctive shape for a forum. The imperial forums of Rome were rectangular (or close enough). Jerash was one city that had an oval forum, about 80 meters long, though incomplete at one end. It was built ca. 300, an approximate date that can probably be moved considerably in either direction (so we cannot know if it was a precedent or in imitation of the one in Constantinople).[10] Toward the end of the fifth century, Dyrrachion (Epidamnos, mod. Durrës) was also endowed with a circular forum about 40 meters in diameter, which was likewise surrounded by a colonnade. This may have alluded to the forum of Constantine and may have been built by the emperor Anastasios (491–518), a native of Dyrrachion.[11]

The forum of Constantine is said in later sources to have been paved in stone paving-slabs, and was accordingly known as πλακωτή or πλακωτόν (plaka is a paving-slab).[12] Limited excavations in the forum area in 1929–1930 discovered pavingslabs of Prokonessian marble.[13]

Many sources refer to a Senate House as forming part of the forum complex. The city had two Senate Houses (Senata or Sinata), one at the forum and another adjacent to the palace. The earliest reference to the one by the forum is probably that in the Notitia urbis Constantinopolitanae (early fifth century, but probably based on a late fourth-century draft). This is an early list of the regions, monuments, and amenities of the city. This Senate House is located in the sixth region of the city (where the forum also was), specifically “in the same place (eiusdem loci)” as the porphyry column of Constantine.[14] Hesychios claims that Constantine built two Senata, presumably the one in his forum and the other by the palace (Patria 41). The one by the forum was severely damaged by a fire during the reign of Leon I (457–474), in 464 (or 465). This fire ruined a large part of the city and is mentioned in all the chronicles. Extant reports begin only in the early sixth century, but they were based on fifthcentury information and indicate that the area of the forum was hit hard.[15] The most detailed accounts of the areas destroyed by the fire, however, come from two later chroniclers, Ioannes Zonaras (twelfth century) and Georgios Kedrenos (late eleventh or twelfth century). Their ultimate common source, which they probably used independently albeit through unknown intermediaries, likely antedated the extant sixth-century reports that we have as it is more detailed. The passage of time and this source’s reuse by later writers have not, in this case, diminished the credibility of its testimony. Zonaras was a serious historian and Kedrenos a mere copyist: neither was in the habit of elaborating history with fantastic elements. Everything about their almost identical report of the fire could have come, and likely did come, from a lost fifth-century source, possibly Malchos of Philadelpheia, a late fifth-century historian mentioned as a source for that fire by Zonaras and the Souda.[16] Regarding the forum, Zonaras says that the fire burned “a great house called the Senaton, a glorious and superbly brilliant building, where the Senate and leading men would deliberate, along with the emperor, when he donned consular regalia.” Kedrenos’ version is the same, only in place of the phrase “a glorious and superbly brilliant construction” he has instead “adorned with bronze images and porphyry stone elements.”[17] (Zonaras and Kedrenos also mention the destruction of a Nymphaion in the forum, which we will examine below.)

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in a 945 carved ivory. / Wikimedia Commons

The damaged Senaton was seen and described by the poet Konstantinos of Rhodes in the tenth century. His poem, On Constantinople and on the Church of the Holy Apostles, does not survive in great shape. In fact, what we have may include pieces from different (possibly interlinked) works or from a longer poem. His project, dedicated to the emperor Konstantinos VII Porphyrogennetos (d. 959), was to celebrate the monuments of Constantinople along the lines of the ancient Wonders of the World. But he was not writing from book-knowledge alone: he had clearly seen what he describes (and is one of few Byzantines known to have climbed to the top of the spiral column of Theodosius I to see the view). Concerning the Senaton in the forum of Constantine (89–118), he repeatedly notes the visible damage caused by the flames, which he dates correctly to the reign of Leon I. The building had apparently not been completely destroyed by the fire, or had been somewhat restored. It is not clear from Konstantinos’ account whether we are dealing with an abandoned ruin or a still-functioning building. He describes it as an apsis rising up into the air and an upright wall holding up a roof supported on beams. An apsis can be a dome, an apse, or a curved wall. The building’s porch opened onto the forum to the south and still had its four original porphyry columns. These were damaged but still standing, unlike the mosaics and marble slabs that once adorned the walls, Konstantinos adds. References to the forum Senaton in the tenthcentury Book of Ceremonies compiled at the court of the poet’s patron Konstantinos VII also do not reveal whether the building was functional. It is there used as a reference point for staging events in the forum, as a kind of background prop, but it does not seem that anyone went inside it.[18]

The existence of the Senaton cannot be doubted, nor the fact that it was built (or at least initiated) by Constantine. But was it originally a Senate House? Albrecht Berger has proposed that it was not; instead, it was a temple of the Fortuna Constantini, intended to house a portable statue of the emperor in the guise of Apollo or the Sun, which was processed on a chariot from the forum to the hippodrome on the occasion of the city’s anniversary celebration on 11 May.[19] But the one interpretation need not rule out the other. A Senaton could well contain a statue of the city’s founder intended for use in the annual celebration. If we must choose between the two, we have to opt for the Senate House. That is the unanimous testimony of the sources, starting in the early fifth century (the Notitia), whereas not a single text calls the building a temple for the Fortuna Constantini. Also, while the general form of this anniversary procession is known from many texts,[20] the information that the statue of Constantine was stored in the Senaton during the rest of the year appears only in the single most unreliable of them, the quasi-fictitious Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (eighth century).[21] Its testimony is problematic and, even if it were not, it should still not become the basis for rejecting the unanimous testimony of all the other sources.

A word must be said here about the Parastaseis, as its testimony will be cited repeatedly below. This is a collection of notes and stories about the city’s statues, the latest of which refer to individuals of the eighth century. Some of these stories are clearly erroneous, others are preposterous, romanticized, or supernatural, and they make obvious historical blunders, so that in the past the Parastaseis was seen as an example of Byzantine cultural and intellectual decline in the eighth century. After that it was (predictably) rehabilitated as making (improbably) profound statements about imperial power, the “power of images,” or metatextuality. More recently Paolo Odorico has pointed out that it may not be a ‘text’ to be begin with, but rather a series of notes drawn from a variety of prior texts and collected in one manuscript to serve as material for a larger composition. Its editor, Preger, took these notes and assembled them into a unitary text, though the different sources from which they are drawn are highlighted even in his own edition.[22] To be frank, we still do not know what this thing is that we have been calling the Parastaseis, or how to use it. And I am still drawn to Alexander Kazhdan’s proposal that these notes are a deliberately unserious mixture of fact and fiction, akin—and these are my comparisons, not Kazhdan’s—to the Historia Augusta or the majority of the chronicle of Malalas.[23]

As it happens, many of the stories in the Parastaseis end in the destruction of a particular statue that is not attested elsewhere, and in those cases we may suspect that both the story and the monument may be invented and that the statue’s destruction is a way for the text to cover its tracks. It would therefore be safest not to accept any of its claims that are not corroborated by other sources. But this approach effectively excludes the text from the discussion, and perhaps goes too far. The Parastaseis seems to invent mostly when it comes to back-stories and interpretation, and often uses actual monuments (sometimes known from other sources) to specify the locations of its vanished statues. What if those ‘background’ locators are not attested elsewhere? For example, the text mentions an astronomikon organon in the forum of Constantine only to use it to define the location of some other statues. It is a brief, casual reference, which assumes that its readers knew what that was (even if we do not).[24]

On the east end the medallion contains a depiction of the god Sol driving the sun chariot. / Arch of Constantine, Rome

In the case of the Senate House statue, the Parastaseis says that in pre-Constantinian Byzantion there was a statue of the Sun in his chariot, at a place where Constantine was acclaimed for his victory over Azotios (a confusion). After equipping this Sun with a small statue of the Tyche of Constantinople and parading it in the hippodrome, Constantine then stored it in the Senaton until the next year’s celebrations. Yet the (pagan) emperor Julian buried the statue because of the cross that was carved upon it. That last bit, and likely the entire report as well, is fantasy, relying on the fact that the statue no longer existed when the text was written: the story about Julian conveniently explains the disappearance of the statue. And yet we know from other texts that the anniversary celebration of 11 May did involve a statue of Constantine-Helios that held a Tyche of Constantinople and was conveyed to the hippodrome. It is not clear how long this form of the commemoration endured, whether to the end of the fourth century or the sixth century, but the statue must have been stored somewhere other than the hippodrome for the rest of the year.[25] Constantine’s forum is the likeliest place, even if the back-story in the Parastaseis is bogus. It is possible, then, that the forum Senaton originally held a gilded statue of Constantine, but this is by no means certain.

By contrast, we have detailed and reliable information about the doors of the forum Senaton. Konstantinos of Rhodes claims that its huge bronze doors originally came from the temple of Artemis at Ephesos, one of the canonical Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The doors were sculpted with a frightening scene from the war between the gods and the Giants (the Gigantomachy). Konstantinos provides a poetic ekphrasis of it all, dwelling on the serpentine legs and monstrous aspects of the Giants. He asserts that it was Constantine who had these doors brought to his forum, adding Eusebios’ (false) interpretation of the emperor’s action, namely that his purpose was to expose pagan statuary to public ridicule.[26] This interpretation of Constantine’s motives should be dismissed, but the factual report is credible and corroborated. Konstantinos does not invent city landmarks in his poem. The sculpted doors are described also by Kedrenos (twelfth century). This is not fully independent evidence, as Kedrenos had access to Konstantinos’ poem (some of his entries read like prose versions of it), but he also had an early source on the antiquities of Constantinople that appears to be sober and focuses on fourthcentury monuments. Kedrenos adds that the doors originally had been given to the temple of Artemis in Ephesos by the emperor Trajan (98–117) as an offering for his “Skythian” war.[27] In addition, the writhing serpent-legged Giants are mentioned in connection with the forum Senaton in the tenth-century Life of Andreas the Fool.[28]

Given that these are later sources, and that Konstantinos and Kedrenos were likely relying on the same antiquarian tradition, it is theoretically possible to doubt (a) that the doors were in fact brought from the Artemision at Ephesos (Konstantinos’ theme, after all, was the Wonders of Constantinople, so he would naturally want to link Constantinople to one of the ancient Seven Wonders); and (b) that the doors were brought and installed in the Senaton by Constantine. But little is gained by doubting these claims, especially the second. As it happens, the Giants’ first attestation is likely much earlier than the tenth century. I mentioned above that the column of Arcadius (early fifth century) depicted the forum of Constantine on the lower register of its spiral relief of the battle in 400. It also included images of the statues in and around the forum. Directly to the left of the forum circle it shows a figure holding a club in a position to strike. This has been interpreted as a Hercules or a Skylla, but it cannot be either of those: it is a muscled male torso with coiling serpent legs, exactly the type of figure described by Konstantinos of Rhodes and the Life of Andreas the Fool, and exactly that which is depicted in ancient images of the Giants in the Gigantomachy (e.g. the frieze in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the Pergamon altar frieze, and many others).[29] The column of Arcadius clearly depicts a club-wielding Giant adjacent to the forum, just as we know the Senate House was adjacent to the forum. Finally, even if Konstantinos had not told us that it was Constantine who brought those sculptures to Constantinople, that is still the likeliest scenario: these were the doors for his Senate House, in his own forum, in his city. There is no problem with that scenario, and no evidence or reason to postulate that the doors were a later addition.

Were the doors truly from the Artemision in Ephesos? This we cannot say with certainty. The safest thing to say is that this was believed later, certainly by the tenth century but probably much earlier, namely by the date of the antiquarian source used by Kedrenos. From its contents, it would appear to be a fifth-century work, as the last event it mentions is the fire of 464 under Leon I, and it focuses largely on monuments built or imported during the first century of the city’s existence. After all, the huge sculpted bronze doors of the Senaton were not made in Constantinople. They were taken from some pre-existing pagan monument somewhere else in the Aegean region, as was much of Constantine’s city, including the Serpent Column in the hippodrome and the founder’s statue on top of the forum column (see below). If the doors did not come from Ephesos, they came from a comparable city, and by definition we cannot allow skepticism to rule them all out. Kedrenos’ claim that the doors had originally been given to the Artemision by Trajan can be neither questioned nor supported by outside evidence (we have few and patchy narrative accounts of that emperor’s reign). While proconsul of Asia in 79, Trajan’s father had rebuilt the enclosure wall of the temple, and in the ancient city one can still see the remains of the fountain of Trajan, which was dedicated to the emperor by a local citizen. In 114, the city built a gate in Trajan’s honor near the fountain, possibly on the occasion of his visit to Ephesos during his Parthian campaign, in conjunction with a whole complex of monuments in his honor. An ivory relief of his Parthian campaign has been found at Ephesos, possibly from a magistrate’s seat.[30] A set of monumental bronze doors would therefore be appropriate in the context of such a close relationship between a city and this emperor. The report in Kedrenos is therefore credible because it attributes the doors to a Roman emperor and not—as one might have imagined had the report been invented wholesale—to a famous artist of old, and also because that emperor is known through inscriptions (and not literary sources) to have had a close relationship with the city of Ephesos.

The temple of Artemis was apparently destroyed by fire during a Gothic attack in 262, but it was partially restored afterward. If the doors were part of its complex, they might well have survived that fire just as they survived the fire of 464, when they were part of the forum Senaton in Constantinople. The temple of Artemis was closed again and despoiled by John Chrysostom in 401, and thereafter was used locally as a source for materials.[31] As it happens, the Parastaseis and Patria of Constantinople record many other elements from the Ephesian Artemision that were brought to and reused in Constantinople.[32] We should not take these reports at face value. But it would be wrong to doubt or deny that the designers of Constantinople brought specific ancient monuments to their new city, or that our sources did not know, or forgot, where their monuments had come from and had to make up stories about them later. For example, texts tell us about the transfer of the Delphic tripod base to Constantinople,[33] and there it still is, the very thing. It is standing right next to an actual Egyptian obelisk, brought from Karnak. Similar texts also tell us that the chryselephantine statue of Olympian Zeus was brought to Constantinople in the early fifth century: according to the latest discussion, that remains the likeliest scenario.[34] These monuments should function as control-cases that limit our propensity to skepticism. There is nothing inherently implausible in the claim that Constantine’s designers transported the doors of the Ephesian Artemision to his forum.

Moving from the Senate House to the arches on either end of the forum,[35] we have no specific information about them other than that the western one bore two bronze female statues by the twelfth century (see below). However, in the courtyard of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum there sits a massive archivolt – the keystone of an arch – featuring a large face of a Gorgon (Medusa) on both sides ( fig. 1). It is recorded in the early catalogues as coming from the vicinity of Constantine’s forum, so possibly from one of the two arches leading into and out of it.[36] I suspect, moreover, that its twin (from the facing arch) is currently resting in two pieces at the bottom of the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı), with one of its Gorgon heads lying on its side ( fig. 2) and the other upside-down ( fig. 3). Conversations with colleagues (e.g., Jim Crow, in Istanbul, June 2016) have confirmed that this suspicion is shared by others, but has not to my knowledge been published. The colossal Medusa heads are identical in style and appearance, and their size is roughly comparable too. The two dimensions that I measured (approximately) were the width of the eyes and the length of the face from eyebrows to chin.[37] A pair of matching arches would be an ideal provenance for them (whether made for use in the forum or appropriated from a previous arrangement). If these capstones did come from the forum of Constantine, it would mean that at least one of the arches lay in ruins by the time of Justinian, who built the current version of the Basilica Cistern between 528 and 541,[38] and who (for whatever reason) placed the two Medusa heads at the bottom.


Figures 1 (left), 2 (center), and 3 (right)

There is an alternative possibility regarding the Gorgon heads. A corrupt section of Parastaseis (40) notes the existence of two Gorgons sculpted from marble at or near the Artopoleion, or Bread Market, the one Gorgon on the left and the other on the right, facing each other, “a work of Constantine.” The Artopoleion was near the forum of Constantine, so our surviving Gorgons may have come from there, except that the Parastaseis is clearly referring to two heads, not two pairs of two heads that faced in opposite directions. The notice at least reinforces the idea that Constantine used Medusas as imagery in his monuments.

In their related accounts of the destructive fire of 464 under Leon I (discussed above), Zonaras and Kedrenos also mention among the buildings that it destroyed a Nymphaion (i.e., fountain), located at the southern end of the forum, opposite the Senate House. They note that this Nymphaion was used for wedding celebrations by people who did not have houses big enough to fit all their guests.[39] As we noted, Zonaras and Kedrenos were not inventing the architecture or history of the city’s monuments, but were following more detailed late antique notices that are now lost. If the Nymphaion was truly destroyed in the fire of 464, then the notice about weddings will likely date to soon after that event, within living memory of a custom that was no longer performed. This strengthens the hypothesis that the ultimate source behind Zonaras-Kedrenos was of the later fifth century (Malchos?). A rescue excavation in 1963 in the area of the forum turned up the remains of a marble dolphin, an image suitable for a Nymphaion.[40] And the Parastaseis says that the “right side of the eastern half of the forum” originally featured statues of twelve “Sirens,” each upon its own porphyry column, though they are described more like hippocamps. It adds that only seven can be seen at the present time, three of which were moved by the emperor (unknown) to another part of town.[41] The text unfortunately does not say in which direction we must be facing to see them “on our right.” They would be in the southern half of the forum, i.e. by the Nymphaion, if we were looking toward the palace. Now, as discussed above, the Parastaseis is an unreliable text, but it is here mentioning a prominent set of statues that any resident of Constantinople would have seen hundreds of times. I am inclined to accept that they were there. The forum, therefore, had an aquatic architectural theme.

The Chronicle of Marcellinus Comes (early sixth century) states that in 407 a cistern was dug “next to the porphyry column of Constantine in his forum under the street-crossing of the open space.”[42] This is, unfortunately, our sole evidence for this cistern, and is likely to remain so until such a time as excavations are possible. The cistern was probably hooked up to the same system that supplied the Nymphaion with water. We come to the porphyry column, which is the only part of the forum that still survives in situ, and its colossal bronze statue of Constantine-Apollo, which does not. The column (with the base) was approximately 37 meters tall,[43] and the colossal statue may have added another six or more meters on top of that. This is not the place to rehearse the problems surrounding the exact appearance of the statue. A plausible reconstruction has been made by Jonathan Bardill, who concludes that it was probably a reused ancient statue of Apollo with a radiate crown, spear, and orb, whose face was reworked to resemble the emperor.[44] The statue evoked both Constantine and the Sun-Apollo, and is attributed in the sources to both, in various combinations. Moreover, it was probably a nude. These facts taken together in part explain why the statue, the most visible and symbolically important monument in Constantine’s city, is never mentioned by Eusebios. It spoiled his fictional image of Constantine as a purely Christian emperor and could not be explained by his theory that Constantine brought ancient statues to the city to have them ridiculed. Robert Ousterhout has recently proposed (albeit in cautiously speculative way) that the statue may have faced west rather than east, but this is unlikely.[45] The princess-historian Anna Komnene states explicitly that it faced east. She was twenty-three when it was toppled by a gale in 1106. Also, Ousterhout does not consider the implication of the name by which the people of Constantinople colloquially called the statue: Anthelios, “Opposite the Sun” or “Facing the Sun,” though conceivably it could mean “In Place of the Sun.”[46]

The original Apollo statue was also brought from somewhere else. In the sixth century, Malalas says that it came from Troy in Phrygia. Troy is not in Phrygia proper, but ancient and Byzantine authors used such geographical labels loosely. Trojans and Phrygians had become interchangeable since at least early classical times.[47] We are not in a position to deny or support this provenance, but it established important symbolic associations, so if the claim about the statue’s Trojan origin was invented, it could just as well have been invented by Constantine as by later writers.[48] The tradition that the statue was a work of Pheidias and brought from Athens appears much later, in 1013.[49]

The base and lowest drum of the column has been encased in an Ottoman sheath since 1779. Among the many accounts and drawings of the monument made before then, only one, a 1561 drawing by the generally reliable Melchior Lorck, depicts a sculpted scene on one side of the base. Cyril Mango has made a tentative case that it should be considered reliable (there is evidence that this side of the base might have been covered up at other times).[50] Not every aspect of the drawing need be entirely accurate, of course. We discern in the center top a bust of the emperor wearing a radiate crown and surrounded by a wreath. This replicates the imagery of the column (which is wrapped around by many laurel wreaths) as well as of the colossal statue. The emperor is flanked by two winged Victory figures who are holding up military trophies and admitting tribute-bearers from either side to him and to an enthroned woman in the center, who is likely the Tyche of Constantinople.[51]


[LEFT]: The Column of Constantine in 1912
[RIGHT]: The Column of Constantine in its original form, with the statue of Constantine as Apollo on top

The base is presumably still there, though it has not been seen in centuries. The column of Constantine allegedly had other, hidden accoutrements in Byzantine times. The only people who might have seen these, if they were real, were those present at Constantine’s inauguration ceremonies, but unfortunately we have no comptemporary accounts of them. Starting in the sixth century, a host of pagan and Christian authors claim that Constantine transferred the Palladium from Rome to Constantinople and placed it beneath his column in his forum. The Palladium was the protective talisman of Troy and then of Rome, and it had the shape of a small statue of Athena.[52] The belief that Constantine had done this is an interesting cultural artifact in itself, however: it appears after the fall of the western empire (so of Elder Rome) and at precisely a time when Constantinople needed that kind of ideological validation. Hesychios attests that eastern writers in the early sixth century felt that Elder Rome had somehow reached its limit, therefore a translatio of the Palladium made for good symbolic logic.[53] It was, moreover, a claim that could not be refuted by simple observation. A brief excavation of the forum in the 1930s proved only that it was built directly on top of an old Graeco-Roman necropolis, which (obviously) stood outside the walls of ancient Byzantion.[54] Meanwhile, along a completely different line of thinking, the Patria of Constantinople claim plausibly that Constantine provided his city with drains and sewers that were as deep as the porticoed streets above were tall, and that one of the main arteries passed directly beneath his forum.[55] There is only limited archaeological evidence for these cloacae,[56] but what is interesting is that the author of the Patria of Constantinople made no attempt to reconcile this aspect of the subterranean city with the existence of the Palladium under the column in the forum, which he also mentions, albeit in a different context. What a discordant combination of images that would have been, the Palladium, an ancient necropolis, and the city’s sewer lines, had they been superimposed. There is potential for a Gothic novel in all this.

Moreover, Christian writers began already in the fifth century to imagine that various Christian and Old Testament relics were incorporated into the column and statue ensemble. The number and variety of these claims grew over the centuries,[57] but it is probably safe to say that none of them could be verified, in fact that none of them were true—not only in the literal sense, but also in the sense that Constantine himself probably did not set them into circulation, so we need not dwell on them here. These legends, the product of views of the Christian past that postdated Constantine, were a Byzantine way of Christianizing a monument whose imagery was obviously rooted in the Graeco-Roman past, in some respects uncomfortably so.

Was there an inscription associated with the statue? Later Byzantine sources assert that there was, and they quote different versions of it. This appears, however, to have been a misunderstanding. The historian Hesychios in the sixth century wrote that, in the forum statue, “we see Constantine shining forth over the citizens like the sun.”[58] Later authors took this claim, probably from Hesychios and certainly wrongly, as being an inscription carved upon the statue itself, or specifically upon the rays of its head.[59] The Christian imagination invented a different epigram that was supposedly inscribed upon the statue.[60] These claims could be made and could endure because no one could see what was written upon a gilded statue almost fifty meters up in the air.

We come, finally, to the statues that were positioned around the forum and that should have been visible to all who passed through it. Most of the information and sources about them have been admirably gathered and discussed by Sarah Bassett, though she treats all sources as equal and does not delve into the more problematic reports in the Parastaseis.[61] The statue that captured the most attention and is most reliably attested was a colossal bronze Athena standing outside the Senate House, to the left of the porch as one went in. It is mentioned by many authors, including Arethas (early tenth century), Konstantinos of Rhodes, and the historian Niketas Choniates (early thirteenth century, and highly reliable on this topic). The precise identification of this Athena used to exercise scholars. Was she the Promachos from the acropolis at Athens, the Parthenos, or—the position that has the most support in the Byzantine sources—the Athena of Lindos (on Rhodes)? The most recent proposal, by Titos Papamastorakis, is that Choniates’ detailed description of the statue best matches the Minerva d’Arezzo type.[62] Facing Athena near the Senate House was a Thetis or Amphitrite, reported by Kedrenos and Arethas, and apparently identified on the basis of her crown of crabs. Choniates is also our sole witness—though we need no other—for a statue group of the Judgment of Paris: he mentions Paris, Hera, Aphrodite, and the golden apple, but not Athena as part of this group. This ensemble suggests an interest in the history of Troy, a theme that Sarah Bassett highlights in her analysis of the forum’s mythological repertoire.[63]

There were certainly more statues on display in the forum. But the evidence that we have for them beyond this point is difficult or problematic. Choniates, for example, mentions two bronze female statues that stood on the forum’s western arch and that were popularly identified in the twelfth century as “the Hungarian” and “the Roman.”[64] This is the first we hear of them, and we cannot tell their original identities from these folk names, attested almost nine hundred years after the forum was built. The Freshfield drawing of the spiral relief on the column of Arcadius depicts several statues standing around the forum of Constantine, in addition to the column and statue of Constantine himself. One appears to be an equestrian statue, another seems to be a dog, horse, or pig, but it cannot be an elephant.[65] The Parastaseis, however, does mention an impressive statue of an elephant “to the left” of the column of Constantine. Even if the tale that the text recounts about it is, as so often, rather unlikely, it probably would not have invented the existence of a large elephant in the city’s most frequented place. The Patria of Constantinople then lifts the note about the elephant from the Parastaseis and adds to it a statue of a pig, a naked statue, and slabs with reliefs placed in the middle of the forum (allegedly prophesying the city’s future).[66] The Parastaseis also vaguely mentions inscriptions in the forum.[67] In another passage that is garbled both grammatically and topographically, it mentions two statues of angels (or winged figures) flanking statues of Constantine and Helene, along with crosses (which were probably later additions to the forum), and images of Constantine and his sons.[68] In sum, it is safe to say that the forum featured many statues, even if they were variously identified in later centuries.[69]

Two further problems should be mentioned here. The first is the portability of statues, especially of the smaller ones. A small head of Tiberius I was found in the area of the forum in 1963,[70] but we cannot be sure that it formed part of the original ensemble. The second is the ambiguity of references to the Senata. The Parastaseis mentions statues of Artemis and Aphrodite that stood in or by the Senate House, but it is not clear which one is meant. Scholars prefer the one in the forum rather than the one by the Augoustaion/palace, but the grounds for this preference are weak.[71] Likewise, when Hesychios says that Constantine founded two Senate Houses, he adds that the emperor placed a statue of Dodonian Zeus in them—but in which one?—along with two statues of Athena Pallas—again, in which one?[72]

The goal of this study was to reconstruct the shape and contents of the forum of Constantine, its basic architectural and artistic ‘furniture’, as a prolegomenon to a study of its symbolic import. The following general conclusions emerge from it. First, it is a mistake to reject the testimony of the Byzantine literary sources just because they are late. Choniates, writing in the early thirteenth century, is one of the most reliable and trustworthy when it comes to what was destroyed in the fires and plunder of 1203–1204. Zonaras and Kedrenos reflect earlier antiquarian traditions, especially when they are discussing the fire of 464 and the contents of the city at that point. Scholars who reject the explicit testimony of the sources, even when it is not inherently implausible, may end up inventing alternatives of their own. Second, we cannot expect Byzantine sources to give us comprehensive coverage of the forum. A single sixteenth-century drawing may reveal central reliefs on the column base that are mentioned in no literary text and revealed in no other early modern drawings. Third, as for the forum itself, its original configuration seems to have decayed quickly, especially with the loss of the Nymphaion and partial destruction of the Senate House in the fire of 464. We do not know if the latter building was ever restored or used again after that. It is possible that at least one of the arches was ruined by the early sixth century, if the Cistern Medusas came from it. Finally, it is noteworthy that the forum reveals no Christian associations. Its language was that of Roman imperial power and pagan mythology. But the precise symbolic message of that language remains to be explored.[73]


  1. A. Cameron and J. Herrin, Constantinople in the Early Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (Leiden 1984) 220: “the most important Constantinian public space in Constantinople.”
  2. These studies will be cited below. The unsurpassed study of early Constantinople is G. Dagron, Naissance d’une capitale: Constantinople et ses institutions de 330 à 451 (Paris 1974); for the built city see C. Mango, Le développement urbain de Constantinople (IVe–VIIe siècles) (Paris 1990).
  3. F. A. Bauer, Stadt, Platz und Denkmal in der Spätantike: Untersuchungen zur Ausstattung des öffentlichen Raums in den spätantiken Städten Rom, Konstantinopel und Ephesos (Mainz am Rhein 1996) 167–187; M. Jordan-Ruwe, Das Säulenmonument: Zur Geschichte der erhöhten Aufstelllung antiker Porträtstatuen (Bonn 1995) 126–140, and more briefly in E. Mayer, Rom ist dort, wo der Kaiser ist: Untersuchungen zu den Staatsdenkmälern des dezentralisierten Reiches von Diocletian bis zu Theodosius II. (Mainz 2002) 93–97.
  4. Hesych. Patria 41, ed. T. Preger, Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum (Leipzig 1901–1907) I 1–18, here 17; see A. Kaldellis, “The Works and Days of Hesychios the Illoustrios of Miletos,” GRBS 45 (2005) 381–403.
  5. Konstantinos of Rhodes On Constantinople 120, ed. and transl. I. Vassis and L. James, Constantine of Rhodes: On Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Apostles (Ashgate 2012).
  6. Patria of Constantinople 2.45, 3.11 (ed. Preger, Scriptores II). The standard commentary is A. Berger, Untersuchungen zu den Patria Konstantinupoleos (Bonn 1988).
  7. P. Stephenson, The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography (Oxford 2016) 125 n.93; see the image in S. Bassett, The Urban Topography of Late Antique Constantinople (Cambridge 2004) 228. For the column in general see G. Giglioli, La colonna di Arcadio a Constantinopoli (Naples 1953); G. Becatti, La colonna coclide istoriata (Rome 1960); J. Matthews, “Viewing the Column of Arcadius at Constantinople,” in D. Brakke (ed.), Shifting Cultural Frontiers in Late Antiquity (Ashgate 2012) 211–224, with the relevant image at 220.
  8. Bauer, Stadt 168.
  9. Chron.Pasch. s.a. 328 (p.528 Dindorf): ἐν μέσῳ.
  10. I. Browning, Jerash and the Decapolis (London 1982) 80–88, 131–134.
  11. A. Hoti, E. Metalla, B. Shkodra, and J. Wilkes, “The Early Byzantine Circular Forum in Dyrrachium (Durrës, Albania) in 2002 and 2004–2005: Recent Recording and Excavation,” BSA 103 (2008) 367–397.
  12. E.g. Zonaras Chron. 13.3, 17.4, ed. M. Pinder and T. Büttner-Wobst, Ioannis Zonarae Epitomae historiarum (Berlin 1841–1897); Life of Andreas the Fool 31 (line 1920), ed. and transl. L. Rydén, The Life of St. Andrew the Fool (Uppsala 1995).
  13. E. Mamboury, “Le Forum de Constantin, la chapelle de St. Constantin et les mystères de la Colonne Brulée: Resultats des sondages opérés en 1929 et 1930,” in S. Kyriakides et al. (eds.), Πεπραγμένα τοῦ Θ´ διεθνοῦς βυζαν-τινολογικοῦ συνεδρίου, Θεσσαλονίκη 1953 I (Thessalonike 1955) 275–288, here 276.
  14. O. Seeck, Notitia dignitatum (Berlin 1876) 227–243, here 234; transl. and discussion J. Matthews, “The Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae,” in L. Grig and G. Kelly (eds.), Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity (Oxford 2012) 81–115, here 90.
  15. Marcellinus Comes Chron. s.a. 465, ed. and transl. B. Croke (Sydney 1995), argues (at 99) for September 464; Malalas Chron. 14.43, ed. I. Thurn, Ioannis Malalae Chronographia (Berlin/New York 2000); Euagrios HE 2.13, ed. J. Bidez and L. Parmentier, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius (London 1898); Chron.Pasch. s.a. 465 (p.595), with a possibly duplicate entry s.a. 469 (p.598); Theophanes Chron. p.112 de Boor. R. C. Blockley tentatively attributed Euagrios’ information to Priskos of Panion fr.42, who finished his work in the later 470s: The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire II (Liverpool 1983) 350.
  16. T. Stevenson, “What Happened to the Zeus of Olympia?” AHB 22 (2007) 65–88, at 76–79, for a discussion of the issue.
  17. Zonaras Chron. 14.1 (III 125); Kedrenos Comp.Hist. I 610 Bekker. For both authors, their sources, and working habits, see A. Karpozilos, Βυζαν-τινοὶ ἱστορικοὶ καὶ χρονογράφοι III (Athens 2009) 331–355 (esp. 333–338), 465–534.
  18. Book of Ceremonies 1.30, 2.19, ed. and transl. A. Moffatt and M. Tall, Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies (Canberra 2012).
  19. A. Berger, “Die Senate von Konstantinopel,” Boreas 18 (1995) 131–143, and Konstantinopel: Geschichte, Topographie, Religion (Stuttgart 2011) 15.
  20. Hesych. Patria 42; Malalas Chron. 13.8; Chron.Pasch. s.a. 330 (pp.529–530); and Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai 5, 38, 56 (ed. Preger, Scriptores I 19–73; also ed. and transl. Cameron and Herrin, Constantinople). It was probably from the Parastaseis that the notice passed to the Patria of Constantinople 1.57; cf. Theodoretos HE 1.32.
  21. Parastaseis 38 (Preger I 42); see the commentary in Cameron and Herrin, Constantinople 215–218.
  22. P. Odorico, “Du recueil à l’invention du texte: le cas des Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai,” BZ 107 (2014) 755–783.
  23. A. Kazhdan, A History of Byzantine Literature (650–850) (Athens 1999) 308–313.
  24. Parastaseis 8 (I 25). I will discuss this instrument in a separate study.
  25. N. Lenksi, “Constantine and the Tyche of Constantinople,” in J. Wienand (ed.), Contested Monarchy: Integrating the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century (Oxford 2015) 330–352.
  26. Konstantinos On Constantinople 125–152, relying for the interpretation on Eusebios Life of Constantine 3.54.
  27. Kedrenos Comp.Hist. I 565, part of the antiquarian topographical excursus at 563–568 that does not come from Konstantinos of Rhodes; see Karpozilos, Βυζαντινοὶ ἱστορικοὶ III 346–347.
  28. Life of Andreas the Fool 31 (lines 1919–1933); see P. Stephenson, “Staring at Serpents in Tenth-Century Constantinople,” Byzantinska Sällskapet Bulletin 28 (2010) 59–81.
  29. Stephenson, The Serpent Column 125 n.93; Skylla: Bassett, The Urban Topography 228; Hercules: Matthews, in Shifting Cultural Frontiers 220.
  30. Enclosure: J. Bennett, Trajan Optimus Princeps (London 1997) 19, citing ILS 8797; fountains: G. M. Rogers, The Mysteries of Artemis of Ephesos (New Haven 2012) 194; gate: Rogers 196; ivory: Rogers 389 n.7 and Bennett pl. 13A and 13B.
  31. C. Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity (Cambridge 1979) 3, 32–35, 86–87 (esp. n.84), 113.
  32. Parastaseis 44a, 78; Patria of Constantinople 2.28.
  33. Eusebios Life of Constantine 3.54.
  34. For the statues brought to Constantinople and the claims made about them in Byzantine sources, see, both in general and individually, Bassett, The Urban Topography, esp. 232–238 for the Lausos collection; for Olympian Zeus specifically, see Stevenson, AHB 22 (2007) 65–88.
  35. See Bauer, Stadt 168, for possible archaeological remains of the arches’ foundations.
  36. N. Firatlı, La sculpture byzantine figurée au musée archéologique d’Istanbul (Paris 1990) 132, no. 259, citing earlier reports (it was brought to the museum in 1916); accepted by C. Mango as coming from the forum: Développement 25–26. C. Barsanti, “Note archeologiche su Bisanzio romana,” Milion 2 (1990) 11–72, here 37–38, guesses that they came from a Severan monument, but the two proposals are not incompatible. Cf. the Medusa medallion that possibly also came from the forum: G. Mendel, Catalogue des sculptures grecques, romaines et byzantines des musées impériaux ottomans I (Istanbul 1912) 361– 362, no. 145. For Medusa medallions elsewhere in Constantinople see C. Mango, The Brazen House: A Study of the Vestibule of the Imperial Palace of Constantinople (Copenhagen 1959) 100; Bassett, The Urban Topography 186.
  37. Museum courtyard: 78 x 92 cm; cistern upside-down: 65 x 76; cistern on its side: 71 x 65. We must not forget that, if the Medusa heads came from the forum arches, the latter were separated by a great expanse and may not have been of exactly the same size to begin with.
  38. Malalas Chron. 18.17, 18.91; cf. Prokopios Buildings 1.11.12–15.
  39. Zonaras Chron. 14.1 (III 125); Kedrenos Comp.Hist. I 610. For Nymphaia in late antiquity see I. Jacobs and J. Richard, “‘We Surpass the Beautiful Waters of Other Cities by the Abundance of Ours’: Reconciling Function and Decoration in Late Antique Fountains,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5 (2012) 3–71.
  40. Bassett, The Urban Topography 204.
  41. Parastaseis 15; cf. Bassett, The Urban Topography 204–205.
  42. Marcellinus Comes Chron. s.a. 407; see J. Crow, J. Bardill, and R. Bayliss, The Water Supply of Byzantine Constantinople ( JRS Monogr. 11 [2008]) 15.
  43. C. Mango, Studies on Constantinople (Aldershot 1993) II, 313.
  44. J. Bardill, Constantine: Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (Cambridge 2012) 28–36; cf. Bassett, The Urban Topography 201–204.
  45. R. Ousterhout, “The Life and Afterlife of Constantine’s Column,” JRA 27 (2014) 304–326.
  46. Attaleiates History 310, ed. and transl. A. Kaldellis and D. Krallis, Michael Attaleiates: The History (Cambridge [Mass.]/London 2012); Anna Komnene Alexiad 12.4.5, ed. D. R. Reinsch and A. Kambylis, Annae Comnenae Alexias (Berlin/New York 2001); Ioannes Tzetzes Histories (Chiliades) 8.192, ed. P. A. M. Leone, Historiae (Naples 1968).
  47. Malalas Chron. 4.15; see K. Rigsby, “Phocians in Sicily: Thucydides 6.2,” CQ 37 (1987) 332–335, here 334–335; cf. Verg. Aen. 9.617–620.
  48. Cf. A. Erskine, Troy between Greece and Rome: Local Tradition and Imperial Power (Oxford 2001).
  49. Leon Grammatikos Chron. p.87 Bekker (a scribe copying and embellishing the Chronicle of Symeon).
  50. C. Mango, Studies on Constantinople (Aldershot 1993) II, 308–310; III; cf. Bauer, Stadt 173–175. In support of Lorck’s reliability see also N. Westbrook, K. R. Dark, and R. Van Meeuen, “Constructing Melchior Lorichs’s ‘Panorama of Constantinople’,” Journal of the American Society of Architectural Historians 69 (2010) 62–87.
  51. Various interpretations are discussed by J. Engemann, “Melchior Lorichs Zeichnung eines Säulensockels in Konstantinopel,” in Quaeritur, inventus colitur. Miscellanea in onore di U. M. Fasola I (Vatican City 1989) 249–265, here 249, 258–261. Engemann’s reattribution of the base to a later emperor was refuted by Mango (see n.49 above). For representations of personified Rome and Constantinople see G. Bühl, Constantinopolis und Roma: Stadtpersonifikationen der Spätantike (Zurich 1995).
  52. Malalas Chron. 13.7; Prokopios Wars 5.15.8–14; Chron.Pasch. s.a. 328; Patria of Constantinople 2.45; see Bassett, The Urban Topography 205–206; J. Wortley, Studies on the Cult of Relics in Byzantium up to 1204 (Farnham/Burlington 2009) III, 492–496.
  53. Hesych. Patria 1; cf. K. Olbrich, “Constantiniana Daphne: Die Gründungsmythen eines anderen Rom?” Klio 88 (2006) 483– 509, and “Die Gründung Konstantinopels zwischen Sagenkreisen und Zeitzyklen,” Klio 97 (2015) 176–228.
  54. E. Mamboury, “Les fouilles byzantines à Istanbul et dans sa banlieue immédiate aux XIXe et XXe siècles,” Byzantion 11 (1936) 229–283, here 266.
  55. Patria of Constantinople 1.69, cf. 2.45; Crow, Bardill, and Bayliss, Water Supply 143 (where the text abruptly cuts off).
  56. J. Crow, “Ruling the Waters: Managing the Water Supply of Constantinople,” Water History 4 (2012) 35–55, here 44; K. Dark and F. Özgümüş, Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998–2004 (Oxford/Oakville 2013) 24–25 and passim.
  57. Wortley, Studies III and IV.
  58. Hesych. Patria 41; copied by Patria of Constantinople 2.45.
  59. Leon Grammatikos Chron. p.87, Kedrenos Comp.Hist. I 518; see A. Frolow, “La dédicace de Constantinople dans la tradition byzantine,” RHR 127 (1944) 61–127, here 65–68.
  60. Konstantinos of Rhodes On Constantinople 70–74; Kedrenos Comp.Hist. I 564–565; see Dagron, Naissance 38–39; Bauer, Stadt 176–177.
  61. Bassett, The Urban Topography 188–208; cf. Bauer, Stadt 177–179.
  62. T. Papamastorakis, “Interpreting the De Signis of Niketas Choniates,” in A. Simpson and S. Efthymiadis (eds.), Niketas Choniates: A Historian and a Writer (Geneva 2009) 209–223, here 219.
  63. Bassett, The Urban Topography, 68–71.
  64. Choniates History 151 (not discussed by Bassett), ed. J.-L. van Dieten, Nicetae Choniatae Historia (Berlin/New York 1975).
  65. See the image at Bassett, The Urban Topography 228 (who does not grasp its potential for the forum); and (in more detail) Matthews, in Shifting Cultural Frontiers 220. Elephant: J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops: Army, Church, and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom (Oxford 1990) 275.
  66. Parastaseis 17; Patria of Constantinople 2.103.
  67. Parastaseis 38 (end).
  68. Parastaseis 16; cf. Cameron and Herrin, Constantinople 192–193. This chapter of the Parastaseis seems to be the basis of Patria of Constantinople 2.102 and its shortened doublet at 2.16; cf. 2.18 for the cross (another one?).
  69. Parastaseis 39 and 43 contain especially bizarre material.
  70. Bassett, Urban Topography 207–208.
  71. Parastaseis 8; see Cameron and Herrin, Constantinople 184 (the statues stood where a murder/execution allegedly took place, which may indicate proximity to the city praitorion, which was near the forum); Bassett, The Urban Topography 188. Parastaseis 8 also refers to the statues of two charioteers that were buried by an unspecified emperor Theodosios, more legend.
  72. Hesych. Patria 41; Bassett, The Urban Topography 188, places the two Athenas in the Augoustaion Senate.
  73. I thank the anonymous reader appointed by the editor for valuable comments and corrections.

Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 56 (2016) 714–739