Ah the hippodrome! Just imagine it; the roar of the crowd, the thunder of hooves, the rattle of wheels and the flying dust; charioteers risking life and limb for a moment’s fleeting glory.
With the demise of gladiatorial combat as the Roman Empire under Constantine embraced Christianity, the sport of chariot racing was left as the principle source of public entertainment for the Roman masses. In Constantine’s new capital the construction of the new hippodrome was a signature project. Constructed between 324 and 330 AD on the site of an earlier structure created in the reign of Septimius Severus, Constantine’s hippodrome was 450 metres long and had seating for some 30,000 spectators. It was a structure intended to impress and would provide the setting for imperial pageantry as well as popular entertainment.
Artistic treasures from around the Roman Empire were plundered for the beautification of Constantinople and no monument of the pagan past was considered sacred by the new Christian Emperor. The Hippodrome’s central spina; a raised structure around which the chariots would race, featured at its centre the serpent column; a victory monument looted from the ancient sanctuary of Delphi. The column depicted three serpents intertwined who balanced upon their heads a votive tripod dedicated to Apollo in celebration of the Greek victory at Plataea in 479 BC. More ancient still was the obelisk of pink Aswan granite brought from Karnak on the orders of Constantine’s successor Constantius II and eventually erected on the spina in 390 AD under the emperor Theodosius I. This monument was already eighteen centuries old when it was brought to Constantinople and its inscriptions told of the Syrian victories of Tuthmosis III.
A medieval depiction of the Hippodrome's surviving monuments
These two monuments and a second obelisk which was originally clad in bronze and may have served as a giant sundial are all that remain of the sumptuous decoration of the spina. The plinth which supports the so-called column of Theodosius depicts the Kathisma or imperial pavilion which stood on the eastern side of the hippodrome and had a direct link via a tunnel with the imperial palace. Here the emperor attended by a throng of silken toadies would appear before masses to share in the entertainment or to preside over grand occasions of state and sometimes even executions. A new emperor was not considered to be truly crowned until he had received the traditional acclamation of the factions in the hippodrome.
Under Justinian I (527-565 AD) the hippodrome saw some of its most dramatic events. None more so than the Nika Riots which broke out in 532. Chariot races were contested by four teams of which by this time only two were of any real importance; the Blues and the Greens. Their supporters formed rival factions whose detestation of each other knew no bounds and whose political and religious affiliations were often also at odds. Blues and Greens often took to breaking each other’s heads but when Justinian executed leading trouble makers from both factions he succeeded in uniting them against him. Whipped up into frenzy, the mob stormed from the hippodrome and embarked on an orgy of looting, burning and destruction which left much of the city a blackened ruin. Justinian, having contemplated fleeing the city, ultimately decided to send in the army and some thirty thousand rioters who had gathered in the hippodrome to call for the emperor’s overthrow were put to the slaughter.
The factions were not always so unruly. Their leaders were appointed by the state and they carried out ceremonial functions and even formed a militia for the defence of the city in times of crisis.
Three years after the Nika Riots with the city rebuilt, the general Belisarius returned triumphant from the reconquest of North Africa which had been under Vandal rule for a century. He had won crushing victories, liberated Carthage and captured the Vandal King Gelimer. He was permitted a triumphal procession which culminated in the hippodrome where Gelimer groveled on his knees before Justinian who looked down imperiously upon him before pardoning him to a life of comfortable exile. Amongst the captured treasures that were paraded around the arena, was no less venerable an object than the seven branched candlestick looted from the temple of Jerusalem by Titus and thence from Rome by the Vandals.
So much then for the politics, what about the racing?
Four charioteers would contest each race, one for each faction; Blues, Greens, Whites and Reds. The chariots were drawn by four horses. Before the start competitors would draw lots for starting positions. The horses would be released from the starting pens or carceres at the northern end of the hippodrome and would race anticlockwise around the stadium. Races generally lasted for seven laps and a single day’s racing could comprise up to fifty races, divided into morning and afternoon sessions. Sometimes rival charioteers would swap teams from morning to afternoon in an arrangement known as diversium in order to settle for once and all who was the better man or for a particularly dominant charioteer to demonstrate that it was not to his horses alone that he owed his victories. One charioteer named Constantine is recorded as winning all twenty five races of the morning session and then going on to claim victory in twenty one races in the afternoon with a rival’s team of horses.
The most celebrated charioteer of all was named Porphyrius, who was active during the late Fifth Century AD and into the Sixth, continuing to race into his sixties. Porphyrius is described on the bases of two surviving monuments erected in his honour on the spina as having won hundreds of races and was unique in being the only charioteer to be permitted such a monument whilst he was still racing. Even more incredibly, Porphyrius boasts monuments which were erected by both the Green and the Blue factions, having changed his allegiance in mid-career.
A monument to Porphyrius
Porphyrius may have had as many as eleven bronze statues raised in his honour on the spina. These were most likely destroyed and melted down when Constantinople fell to the forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the city was systematically looted. The most famous monument of all to survive from the Hippodrome were the four bronze horses which had stood atop the carceres and which were also looted in 1204. These thankfully were not melted down but on the orders of Doge Enrico Dandolo who led the attack on the city, were transported back to Venice and would for centuries grace St Marks, where they continue to reside to this day.
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