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Constantinople (İstanbul): Hippodrome (3)


The Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins.
The Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome.
Hippodrome (general) Serpents' Column
Obelisk of Theodosius I Obelisk of Constantine VII
The oldest monument of Constantinople is the obelisk in the Hippodrome, which was erected by the emperor Theodosius Iin 390, but is in fact much, much older: it was originally made for Thutmose III, who ruled Egypt from 1479 to 1425. The pink granite stone was, therefore, almost two millennia old already when Theodosius placed it on the spina, the longitudional barrier in the center of the Hippodrome, where it was standing next to the Serpents' Column, right in front of the imperial lodge (kathisma).

The plan to bring this obelisk to Constantinople was not Theodosius's. Constantius II had already toyed with the idea, and the twenty meter tall monument had been taken down from its original pedestal, but had been left abandoned on one of the banks of the Nile. In a letter to the people of Alexandria, the emperor Julian ordered them to make sure that the obelisk would still be shipped to Constantinople (Letter 59). It is possible that the monument was first brought to Athens, left there when Julian was killed, and finally brought to its destination in the capital of the eastern half the Roman Empire. By then, a part of the stone was missing: what had been an obelisk of 28 meter tall was by now 19 long.
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The Northeast Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins.
Erecting an obelisk: relief on the northeast face of the pedestal of the obelisk

A sixth-century chronicler, Marcellinus Comes, states that the monument was erected in 390 and this is corroborated by the inscription on the pedestal (known as CIL 3.737), which states that it happened when Proculus was praefectus urbi, i.e., between 388 and 392. This date helps us to identify several unnamed people. The "eternal descendants" of Theodosius must be his sons Honorius (six years old) and Arcadius (thirteen years old). In 390, one might reasonably expect that the dynasty would be continued. The "subdued tyrants" may refer to Magnus Maximus and his son Flavius Victor, who had been executed in 388.

An interesting aspect of the text is that the word "Proculus" has been erased and restored. In 392, this man lost Theodosius' favor and was executed; his father Tatianus was spared and rehabilitated in 396, and it is likely that at that moment, the damnatio memoriae was revoked.

The Southeast Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins. The Southwest Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins. The Northwest Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins. The Northeast Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins.
The Southeast Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins. The Southwest Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins. The Northwest Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins. The Northeast Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins.
Southeast: Kathisma and Latin inscription
Southwest: Kathisma and races in the hippodrome
Northwest: Kathisma, ambassadors, and Greek inscription
Northeast: Kathisma and obelisk
The Southeast Face of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the İstanbul Hippodrome. Photo Marco Prins.
The Latin inscription on the southeast side of the pedestal of the obelisk.
The text of the inscription:

DIFFICILIS  QVONDAM,  DOMINIS  PARERE  SERENIS

IVSSVS  ET  EXTINCTIS  PALMAM  PORTARE  TYRANNIS.
OMNIA  THEODOSIO  CEDVNT  SVBOLIQVE  PERENNI.
TER  DENIS  SIC  VICTVS  EGO  DOMITVSQVE  DIEBVS.
IUDICE  SVB  PROCVLO  SUPERAS  ELATVS  AD  AVRAS.
(more...)

Once it was difficult to conquer me, but I was ordered to obey mild masters and to carry the subdued tyrants' palm. Everything cedes to Theodosius and his eternal descendants. Thus conquered I was tamed in thrice ten days. When Proculus was judge, I was erected to the skies.

Literature

  • L. Safran, "Points of View: the Theodosian Obelisk Base in Context", in: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 34 (1993) 409-435.
  • H.C. Teitler, "De obelisk van de hippodroom in Constantinopel en zijn voetstuk", in: Hermeneus 68 (1996) 81-85
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 26 July 2008
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