The legacy of the hippodrome at Constantinople

Ricci, Alessandra
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Bilkent University
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Circuses were among the most popular Roman entertainment buildings from the early seventh century BC up to the sixth century AD. Although they were primarily designed for chanot races, circuses remained closely tied to the public life of a city by incorporating a number of religious, commercial and ceremonial functions. Their role in Roman daily and political life further increased in the late Empire and especially under the tetrarchy when the circus, which was by then physically connected to the imperial palace, has become the major arena for the visual and verbal contact between the emperor and the public, and a sine qua non component of tetrarchic centers. The Hippodrome of Constantinople believed to be started by Septimius Severus at the end of the second century and completed by Constantine in 330 AD, had a peculiar place among Roman circuses, because it was the circus par excellence of the Eastern Roman Empire. On the other hand, up to the twelfth century, it kept alive the tradition of chariot races which gradually became interwoven in imperial ceremonies. Furthermore, the Hippodrome adjunct to the Great Palace of the emperors, represented the fundamental public space of the city which was also a religious, administrative, commercial, ceremonial and entertainment center. Today, the Atmeydani (the place of horses), spanning almost half a kilometer from the Northwest to the Southeast between Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (former Ibrahim Paşa Palace), still recalls the memory of chariot races through its name. The site bears the surviving remains of the structure, limited to two obelisks and a column, namely the Theodosian Obelisk, the Serpent Column and the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, located on the longitudinal middle axis of the arena and the monumental brick and rubble substructures of the semicircular southern end (sphendone) of the Hippodrome. Although such an important building has been continuously mentioned and described by waters and travelers throughout the centunes, neither the constructional history nor the architectural charactenstics of the Hippodrome have been securely reconstructed. This paper encounters two broad questions about the Hippodrome at Constantinople: First, it investigates the role of the Hippodrome in the public life of the city and in the urban memory, from its inauguration up to the twentieth century. This first study is based on the interpretation of the secondary sources, the accounts of ancient authors and chroniclers as well as the pictorial matenal (miniatures, engravings, maps, photographs etc.) that was handed over throughout centuries. Second, it attempts to locate the Hippodrome in the tradition of circus building through a comparative analysis of the available data on a number of late Roman circuses. This second study consists of the evaluation of the archaeological excavations and surveys previously carried out on the site in comparison to the field survey and documentation work we have undertaken at the substructures of the sphendone in 1997, in order to discuss the earliest and subsequent building phases of the surviving remains and thus locate it in a building tradition. Reassessing the urban and constructional value of the Hippodrome in the past and its legacy in the present, we aim at drawing attention to the urgent need of preservation and presentation of the remains to the general public.

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Public space, Entertainment, Imperial ceremony, Circus design, Sphendone, Brick, Building tradition, Urban memory
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