Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.):
Hippodrome of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey).
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
388 CE to 392 CE
Red granite obelisk, set upon four solid bronze cubes at the corners of a bipartite marble base. The marble base is made of two blocks; the upper block is carved with figurative reliefs on all four sides, depicting members of the imperial house of Theodosius in an architectural setting usually interpreted as the imperial loge, or kathisma (imperial box) of the Great Palace of Constantinople, which connected to and looked out over the Hippodrome. In these reliefs the emperor is depicted seated, surrounded by his family, with functionaries and magistrates on either side, overlooking rows of spectators. On the west face the emperor is depicted receiving barbarians.
The lower block of the base, the plinth, is carved on two sides (north and south) with reliefs showing chariot racing and the raising of the obelisk; on the east and west faces of the plinth are Latin and Greek inscriptions, respectively, set within large carved tabula ansata. The obelisk that surmounts this two-part base is believed to have been broken in antiquity from its original c. 28m height, preserving only the two thirds of the shaft that were set up on this base (see Kiilreich, The Obelisk Base, p. 20-22 for details).
Height: 19.59 m
Width: 2.41 x 2.30 x 2.57 x 2.21 m
Base (upper block):
Height: 2.39 m
Width: 3.21 x 2.86 x 3.15 x 2.85 m
Base (lower block):
Height: 0.85 m
Width: 3.77 x 3.84 x 3.76 x 3.87 m
CIL III, 737
(SEG 39, 651)
The above inscriptions form part of the base of the obelisk set up by the emperor Theodosius in the hippodrome of Constantinople, in c. 390 CE; together with the relief decoration of the base, which communicates the presence of the imperial house, the inscriptions proclaim the imperial and dynastic ideology of the emperor, and contribute to his efforts to emphasise the importance of Constantinople as the new capital of the empire. Indeed, the location of the obelisk in the hippodrome and the visibility of the inscription and the reliefs of the base, were intended to be understood together, and to communicate the status of Constantinople as a “New Rome”.
The obelisk had originally been set up in Egypt by Pharoah Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BCE) in order to commemorate the thirty-third year of his reign and his defeat of the Mitanni in 1457 BCE, during which campaign he had successfully crossed the Euphrates river. The obelisk may have stood on the south side of the seventh pylon, on the transverse axis of the Temple of Amun at Karnak, but it was ordered to be removed from its original site by Theodosius, who brought it to Constantinople as a symbol of his extraordinary power, and to increase the grandeur and prestige of the monumental landscape of the city (Sorek, Emperor’s Needles, p. 107-114). The lower third of the monolith was most likely damaged in this process of removal, but the measurements of the bottom of what survives and the corresponding dimensions of the base on which it stands indicate that just this part of it was intended for display in the new capital of the empire (Kiilreich, The Obelisk Base, p. 20-21). The relief imagery of the base has generated a wealth of scholarship, much of which has attempted to identify the individual figures of the imperial court that might be depicted there, based on their clothing and attributes (see e.g. Rebenich, “Zum Theodosiusobelisken in Konstantinopel,” p. 447-476; Balty, “Hiérachie de l’empire et image du monde,” p. 60-71). However, for the purposes of our present interests, it is enough to note that the most probable interpretation recognises the emperor Theodosius, surrounded by his imperial retinue in the kathisma, or box, at the hippodrome, which was connected directly to the Great Palace of Constantinople, in imitation of the pulvinar (or imperial box) of the Circus Maximus in Rome, which was connected to the imperial residence of the Palatine. Although each of the fours sides of the upper block of the base depict similar scenes, the scenes with the most identifiable narrative content can be found on the same sides that contain the Latin and Greek inscriptions on the lower plinth: the southwestern and northeastern sides of the block show scenes of the imperial suite, above simple tiers of spectators, but the southeastern and northwestern sides depict the imperial box supplemented by musicians and dancers and above kneeling barbarians, respectively, immediately above the Latin and Greek inscriptions, indicating perhaps some of the more significant activities of the hippodrome - imperial ceremonial and the reception of foreign enemies (Safran, “The Theodosian Obelisk Base,” p. 410-411).
The inscriptions themselves are relatively short, and it has been argued that both were inspired – but particularly the Latin text – by the dedication on the base of the obelisk set up on the Circus Maximus by Constantius II, in 357 CE (see Obelisk of Constantius II; Kiilreich, The Obelisk Base in Constantinople, p. 28). The Latin inscription is composed in classical epigrammatic style, giving personal voice to the obelisk. In full panegyric it celebrates Theodosius’s great achievement in successfully moving the obelisk, noting that it had itself been formerly “difficult” (difficilis quondam), in reference to the challenge faced by moving such a great size and weight of monument, but it had – as all things do – that all things yielded to Theodosius (omnia Theodosio cedunt), and had obeyed the order to “obey fair masters and to carry the palm leaf of the extinguished/subdued tyrants” (dominis parere serenis / iussus et extinctis palmam portare tyrannis). These unnamed tyrants must be the usurpers Magnus Maximus and his son Victor; formerly an officer of Valentinian I, Maximus had risen up against Gratian in 383 CE, defeating him in battle and thus proclaiming himself – with the agreement of Theodosius – Augustus in the provinces of Britannia and Gaul, leaving Valentinian II in control of Italy, Pannonia, Hispania and Africa (see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, XXXI.4.9; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.13). Valentinian II was eventually forced into exile in 387 CE, and Maximus’s son was given the rank of Augustus; this appears to have been unacceptable to Theodosius, who compiled a federate army of Goths, Huns, Alans, Iberians and Isaurians, with which he defeated Maximus’s and Victor’s armies at Siscia and Poetovio, beheading both father in son in the late summer of 388 CE (Pacatus, Panegyric, XII.34-37). Once again, the entire empire was now under the rule of a single emperor, Theodosius, whose power is communicated in the inscription by the use of such words as “obey,” “ordered,” “conquered,” and “tamed,” and through the alliteration of dominis and domitus (Safran, “The Theodosian Obelisk Base,” p. 420). The “extinguished tyrants” can also be understood as the rhetorical partner of the “fair masters” given by dominis serenis (Jones, “The Inscriptions,” p. 44). Most significantly, the inscription draws attention to the new dynasty that the emperor has established, recording that all things yield to Theodosius “and his eternal offspring” (subolique perenni), emphasising the traditional notion of stability that imperial dynasties had historically brought to the empire. The inscription ends with a statement of the length of time that it took to erect the obelisk – thirty days – and that the task had been supervised by the praefectus urbi (Prefect of the City of Constantinople) from 388-392 CE, Proculus. His name has in fact been erased and re-inscribed here, following his fall from grace and subsequent execution in 393 CE, and posthumous rehabilitation in 396 CE (Killreich, The Obelisk Base in Constantinople, p. 25). The Greek inscription on the northwestern side of the base is less poetic in its expression, written in simple third-person pentameter, but it records the same specific information about the “conquest” of the obelisk and the supervision of Proculus, but the length of time it gives for the setting up of the monument differs slightly, recording thirty-two days instead of thirty, which may have fit the elegiac nature of the verse better than the epic Latin rendering of “three times ten”. Linda Safran has further suggested that this “factual specificity” of the Greek may have appealed more to the urban audience of the inscription, to whom the Greek was most likely directed (“The Theodosian Obelisk Base,” p. 421). Whatever the meaning or intention of either inscription, however, it is clear that the presence of their texts alone was significant. Latin was the language of the imperial court, the administration, the army, and of the law; the Latin text of the dedication on the southeastern side of the base faced the kathisma, the imperial box, corresponding not only to the presence of the emperor and his retinue who would look down upon it, but also to the judges and judicial archives which were housed immediately beneath the kathisma. The Greek – the “lingua franca of the eastern Roman empire” – was inscribed facing the northwestern side of the hippodrome, where the partisans of the circus were usually seated, thereby engaging the popular audience in the narrative of the dedication in the language most common to all (Safran, “The Theodosian Obelisk Base,” p. 420). The inscriptions therefore served a number of purposes: in the Latin Theodosius’s defeat of the usurpers was celebrated, the importance of which was emphasised by the reference to the dynasty that such a feat had generated. The “everlasting offspring” of the Latin inscription referred to the sons currently ruling with Theodosius, who may well also have been depicted within the kathisma reliefs of the base; the sons of Theodosius are not named specifically in the inscriptions, nor can they be identified specifically in the reliefs, but their precise roles is perhaps less important than the fact that their general presence indicated that Theodosian heirs were, in essence, guaranteed. Indeed, Bente Kiilreich has rightly suggested that the anonymous nature of many of the figures in the reliefs of the base is probably intentional, and that they thus stand as representatives of their roles in the imperial court; she states that “in order to make the sculpture suggestive of the stability of the eternal Theodosian dynasty, the portrayals had to be typical, not specific: they had to represent whoever held a position at court at any given time…[to be] a most effective ideal image of the aeternitas of Theodosian rule” (The Obelisk Base in Constantinople, p. 138).
By transporting a monumental obelisk from Egypt to Constantinople, Theodosius fulfilled one of the purported aims of his predecessor Constantius II; the obelisk that Constantine’s heir had brought to Rome was one of two that had been intended for locations outside of Egypt, with this latter addition to the hippodrome of Constantinople apparently the completion of a plan that had been devised much earlier in the fourth century CE. Under Theodosius, the setting up of the obelisk in the hippodrome was a clear statement of the importance of the city from which he governed, and a way of demonstrating that “New Rome” was equipped with the kinds of monuments that would characterise her as an equal – potentially even a superior – to the historic capital of the empire. By the late fourth century CE, the city of Rome posed an ideological problem for the imperial government, overrun as it was with extensive monuments, traditions and ancestral customs that were at odds with the new Christian version of imperial Rome. Constantinople could not rely upon the same ideological and historical narrative as the earlier capital, and so was dependent upon creating a monumental, social and political landscape of its own that could convince at least the inhabitants of its immediate eastern provincial neighbours of the city’s importance (for a detailed discussion of the different means by which this was possible, see Van Dam, Rome and Constantinople, p. 47-80). The arrival of Theodosius in Constantinople in November 390 CE represented a major shift in how the city was used by the imperial court; where his predecessors had perhaps passed through the city, Theodosius was the first to be properly resident there, transforming it in the process into a “capital” of politics, culture and administration (Errington, Roman Imperial Policy, p. 145). The setting up of a monument as evocative of Augustan Rome as an obelisk, and in a space that could not be disassociated from the Circus Maximus, was intended to dominate and impress the public perception of the city, “to persuade those who knew “Old Rome” to believe that “New Rome” was also real Rome” (Errington, Roman Imperial Policy, p. 167).
Keywords in the original language: