The Hippodrome of Constantinople. Part 2 – The Obelisk of Theodosius

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hello everyone i’m robin pearson and i’m here to show you what remains of the hippodrome of constantinople [Music] [Music] in today’s video we look at the most visually interesting monument from the spina the obelisk of theodosius if you haven’t yet check out part one of the series where i introduce the hippodrome and explain the significance of the spina entering sultanamet square from the north the obelisk of theodosius is the first byzantine monument that you will encounter it’s made up of two parts the egyptian obelisk and the byzantine stone bases let’s talk about the obelisk first it was originally commissioned by the egyptian pharaoh footmosis iii in the 15th century bc he was commemorating the 30th year of his reign and the obelisk was part of a pair which stood at one of the entrances to the temple of karnak at thebes in upper egypt the obelisk was 29 metres high but at some point during its journey to constantinople it broke in two the lower part was ditched leaving this still impressive 20 meter tall monument to be erected in the hippodrome our focus is the byzantine era but while we’re here let’s talk briefly about what’s on the obelisk it’s very hard to see the top of it from the ground but the images here show a standing god holding hands with the pharaoh and offering him the sign of life a similar image can be seen on each side the next image down is thutmoses iii making offerings to the god amon ra what do the rest of the hieroglyphs say well i’ll give you a modern translation but you’ll need to hit pause if you want to read them in full got all that good back in rome a similar obelisk had been installed in the circus maximus to mark augustus’s conquest of egypt naturally this trophy from an ancient and glorious civilization was highly appealing to the roman ego so when constantine built his new rome he wanted an obelisk too for various reasons though this project stalled and wasn’t completed for another 60 years our obelisk was finally erected in the hippodrome in 390 a.d by the emperor theodosius the first theodosius saw an opportunity to mark his victory in a recent civil war over the best named general in roman history magnus maximus to hold the obelisk aloft a base of prokonesian marble was prepared with sculpted images on each side they show theodosius and his family presiding over the spectacles in the hippodrome emperors wanted to be seen during the races to remind everyone who was responsible for all the fun this was seen as a vital part of imperial legitimacy as you can see by the effort that went into this sculpture reproducing the emperor’s preeminence at the racetrack this is sculpture of the highest quality and something you don’t get a sense of unless you’re there is just how big the base is it’s about seven square meters despite being quite a distance from the crowds these images were meant to be seen let’s take a look assuming you’ve walked straight towards the obelisk you will be looking at the north eastern side of the base the side facing the german fountain here we see the imperial box at the top and the crowds below this 16th century sketch will give us a clearer view of what was intended on the top row outside the box we can see imperial officials and bodyguards while in the box we see theodosius and members of the imperial family below this level is another wider base with more scenes in sculpture on this side we see the obelisk itself being prepared for its installation you can see it here lying on its side waiting to be hoisted up by a pulley system if we now head to our right we move to the northwestern side of the obelisk so we’re facing the nearby blue mosque here scholars generally identify theodosius flanked by his imperial colleagues the western emperor valentinian ii and his two sons arcadius and honorius below them neil men in supplication these seem to be barbarians presenting gifts here’s an example of the hippodrome being used for political theater just as these monuments testify to roman victories so these foreign visitors must come and bow before god’s vice regent in full view of his people also on this side look at the amazing detail on the faces which has survived after 1700 years on the lower base we see a greek inscription describing the erection of the column we’ll come back to that in a moment moving to our right again we’re now facing towards where we entered the hippodrome the direction of the starting gates here we can see soldiers shields and spears more prominently just outside the imperial box on the lower base we now see the obelisk standing tall and chariot races in full swing completing the narrative begun on the other side of the base where the obelisk was waiting to be pulled up moving around for the final time we come to the south east corner with our backs to the blue mosque here we see theodosius standing holding a wreath which he would present to the victorious charioteer we can also see officials nearby holding the mapper a white cloth which was dropped to signal the start of a race right at the bottom beneath the spectators we also see dancers and musicians with flutes and organs they would provide entertainment between each race on the base below we see a latin inscription marking the erection of the obelisk latin and greek were the two languages of the roman empire hence the dual inscriptions but what’s odd is that they say different things and disagree with one another the latin is poetic and can translate as a statement from the obelisk to the viewer i was formally reluctant to obey the serene masters even when ordered to proclaim the victory over the extinct tyrants but since all things yield to theodosius and his everlasting offspring i was conquered and subdued in 30 days and rose to the skies on the advice of proclass the first line refers to the obelisk breaking in half and various other struggles to get it to constantinople and the extinct tyrants are magnus maximus and his son victor who are not mentioned by name because as defeated usurpers they should be forgotten about proclass was the official who was charged with completing the project okay raised in 30 days in latin now let’s look at the greek translation it’s not written from the point of view of the obelisk but expresses similar sentiments it was only the emperor theodosius who succeeded in raising the four-sided column which had ever lain a burden to the earth he committed the task to proclass and so great a column stood erect in 32 days after all the effort lavished on the sculpture it seems bizarre that no one coordinated these inscriptions they’ve been left to bicker with one another for the rest of time it’s been speculated that the reason the base was carved with images of the kathisma the royal box is that the obelisk was installed in line with it however scholars still aren’t sure about this and some argue that the nearby masonry obelisk is actually the one that lined up with the imperial box either way the beautiful sculpture showing scenes from the hippodrome itself inspired future generations when statues of famous charioteers were later installed on the spinner their marble bases were designed to match the theodosian design with sculpted charioteers waving to the crowds and receiving their victory laurels from the emperor we’ll talk more about those bases in part four of this series something else that’s obvious when you visit the hippodrome is that all three of these monuments start lower down than the modern street this was the original ground level of the spinner modern constructions have pushed the surrounding pavements higher the surviving monuments were excavated in the 1850s and these barriers have been in place since then and no i don’t know where the obelisk was when this photo was taken presumably restoration work was being done that’s it for the theodosian obelisk in our next video we look at the fascinating history of the serpent column if you’d like more detailed information on the monuments of the hippodrome then visit thebyzantinelegacy.com it’s a fantastic website providing breakdowns of the byzantine buildings that can still be seen today and there you’ll find most of the still images and sketches used in these videos if you’d like more information about the chariot races themselves or the famous nika riots then check out these episodes of the history of byzantium podcast




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