The Spectacle Buildings of Constantinople

The Spectacle Buildings of Constantinople
Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Archaeology Department   
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Abstract:  The fact that the ancient city of Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, lies below modern Istanbul prevents the thorough study of the buildings for spectacles. The only one securely attested is the city's famous hippodrome. It has witnessed plague epidemics, uprisings, changes in government, etc. Much of it is now a city park, while its hillside has been converted into housing estates.

Keywords: Late Antiquity, Constantinople, Spectacle Buildings, Hippodrome


In the city of Constantine it was customary to hold processions, games, feasts so that the different members of society could gather and participate in public life[1]. These events used to be organized in locations built for this purpose, while, at the same time, they required multiple support staff and contractors to maintain them. In Late Antiquity, in addition to chariot races, there were also held theatrical performances[2]. Particularly common was the pantomime[3]. It was so important that banning theatrical performances was regarded as a severe punishment, as when Justin I (518-527) suspended all performances of pantomime following the great revolt in 522 AD[4]. There was also an uprising in the theatre of Constantinople in 510 that cost thousands of lives[5]. Apart from that, there was also an uprising in the theatre of Antioch in 529, after which Justinian (527-565) banned theatrical performances in the city. Due to frequent short-term bans on theatres the audience in the early 6th century was mostly directed to the rest popular entertainment: chariot racing. The Nika riots of 532 AD are the largest and most famous, while during it many buildings, along with St. Sofia, were destroyed. There was also an uprising in 550 in Constantinople and later as well[6]. It is interesting to see what spectacle buildings were in the city.

It is known from Dionysius of Byzantium that on the slopes of the acropolis (First Hill) of Byzantium, in the part facing the sea, were located a gymnasium, a stadium and a theatre (or theatres) [7] (Fig. 1). Probably because of the city's transformation into the capital of the Empire, as well as the limited capabilities of urban archaeology, these sites have not been uncovered. The only discovered spectacle building is that of the Hippodrome, located close to Hagia Sofia.

Amphitheatre. It is known from the Chronicon Paschale that opposite of the temple of Artemis, build a Kunegion (beast-hunt) (Κυνηγοῦ/τῶν Κυνηγῶν) – a place to store (or an amphitheater?) or to display wild animals, which was possibly an amphitheater [8]. The last spectacle with animals held there (venatio)  was organized on January 1, 537 AD, during the reign of Justinian along consular games[9]. However, there is no evidence whatsoever of gladiatorial battles taking place in Constantinople during Late Antiquity in contrast to other cities such as Antioch [10].

Theatre. The presence of three or four[11] theatres is also assumed – Theatrum Maius, located on the plateau or on the slopes of the acropolis, together with the column of Claudius Gothicus (268-270), in its center (First Region); another theatre in the Fourteenth Region; a third theatre is located at Sikay (Galata). It is also known from the Chronicon Paschale that across the temple of Aphrodite, Septimius Severus (193-211) built a theatre[12]. Although no archaeological remains of such a building have yet been found. During the time of Anastasius (491-518), the two most important forms of spectacle were pantomime in the theatre and chariot racing in the hippodrome[13]. A dancing pantomime was performed in the theatre, as Procopius's Secret History testifies. The same writer also mentions that Empress Theodora was not ashamed to appear naked in public when she was a dancer in the theatre.  The pantomime was so important that banning theatrical performances was regarded as a severe punishment, as when Justin I suspended all pantomimes in the Empire after the great revolt of 522 AD.[14] There was an uprising in the theatre of Constantinople in 501 AD that cost thousands of lives, something of which we learn about from the Chronicle of Comes Marcellinus[15]. At the beginning of the 6th century AD due to the frequent short-term bans on performances in theatres, the citizens mainly attended the other popular entertainment: chariot racing [16].

Hippodrome. Unlike most hippodromes/circuses, the one in Constantinople was built inside, not outside the city. Located in the center of the ancient city, now on the eastern side of Istanbul (Fig. 2, 3, and 4), at the place known as Sultanahmet Meydani/At Meydani, south of the first hill. In addition to being a place for chariot racing, it was also a place for ceremonial activities, but not for gladiatorial combat[17]. The same role had also during the Ottoman period. It was considered a symbol of imperial power and was not thought of as a separate place from the imperial residence [18]. Around it was located Hagia Sophia (the cathedral church of Constantinople) along with the adjacent patriarchal palace; the imperial palace, together with the senate building; the baths of Zeuxippus; the Forum of Constantine (306-337); the palaces of two civil servants - Antiochus and Lausus. The building itself is connected by a corridor to the imperial palace in the city. The Hippodrome was built in the time of Constantine, despite the controversy in the scholarly literature that it was begun by Septimius Severus [19]. It consists of a race track (pelma) (Fig. 5, 6, and 7), which is divided in the middle by a barrier – Spina (euripos) (Fig. 8 and 9), start passages (carceres), the sling, the rows of benches, the imperial lodge (katisma)[20]. The dimensions of the track are 430 x 120 m; the width of the track at the start is 79 m and at the south turn is 76 m; the Spina is 230 m long; the entire length of the seats is 1470 m. Statues were collected from many cities and temples of the Empire and placed on the Spina of the hippodrome [21]. The building itself was a place for ceremonies and celebrations - a place for propaganda showing the power of the empire and the emperor [22]. This is also the reason why the Spina was decorated with exquisite monuments. Some of the most important monuments were the Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BC), the bronze altar from the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the statue of Heracles along with the statue of the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Some of the bronze statues were melted down during the Latin Empire to make coins, while others were transported to western Europe. Of the 48 monuments on the spina, the Egyptian obelisk, the masonry obelisk and the serpent column are preserved[23].

In 406 AD a fire destroyed much of the town, together with the entrance to the hippodrome, while in 407 it was repaired by Arcadius (395-408). Actually many uprisings started from there (445, 493, 498, 499, 501, 507, 514, 520, 532), but most of them were during the reign of Anastasius, while the most famous took place under Justinian[24]. In January 532 AD, the Nika Revolt broke out, which started as plain unrest at the hippodrome, but finally swept the entire city and as a consequence, the Forum of Constantine was desecrated. It ended with the massacre of all insurgents in the Hippodrome and lead to a ban on organizing competitions. The “blue” and “green” groups had three important purposes - they used to organize the races, they were part of the imperial ceremony, and in case of danger over the city, they served as local police. [25].

Despite the widespread use of these buildings in Late Antiquity, the hippodrome in Constantinople continued to serve its initial purpose in the 10th-11th centuries, as we learn from the “Book of Ceremonies” of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (913-959), however, the building was used mainly for imperial ceremonies [26]. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Constantinople during the time of Manuel Comnenus (1143-1180) makes no mention of chariot races in the hippodrome, but mentions various spectacles, including fights with wild animals. The last mention of a chariot race is from the time of Alexios III Angelus (1195-1203) in 1200, while in 1203 a fire enveloped the building, after which it was not rebuilt again. The city was then captured by the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade (1204) and the Latin Kingdom was established (1204-1261). During this time the building was looted and various sculptures were transferred to the West, or were just abandoned. In the same year 1204, Robert de Clari described (1170-1216) the place as a square, and called it the “The Emperor's Games”[27]. Following the conquest of the city by the Ottomans, a drawing by Onofrio Panvinio (1529-68), which depicts the sling with the colonnade as well as the monuments on the Spina, is extremely important for the history of the monument (Fig. 10). No buildings were built in the area of the hippodrome and the place was used as a square (Fig. 11). Various activities of the sultans and their families were performed there: horse races and a game called „cirit“ in which horse riders pelted spears to each other; on certain days there was a market for horses known as „Atmeydani“. Furthermore, military training took place there along with various festivals that also included musicians and acrobats [28]. It seems that, without any connection being sought that the Hippodrome, although it had been demolished, retained its public role as a place of attraction, even though it had lost its origi


[1] Rautman 2022, 277-278.

[2] ibid., 284-285.

[3] Puchner 2002, 307, 316-317; Jones, C. 2012, 310.

[4] Parnell 2014, 634.

[5] ibid., 634-635.

[6] ibid., 638.

[7] Freely, Çakmak 2004, 18; Sear 2006, 421.

[8] Freely, Çakmak 2004, 18; Jones, C. 2012, 319; Rautman 2022, 281.

[9] Bomgardner 2000 [2001], 219, 220, 221.

[10] ibid., 205.

[11] Sear 2006, 421.

[12] Freely, Çakmak 2004, 18; Sear 2006, 421.

[13] Parnell 2014, 634.

[14] ibid., 634.

[15] ibid., 634-635.

[16] ibid., 635.

[17] Rautman 2022, 281.

[18] Akürek 2021, 4.

[19] Golvin, Fauquet 2007, 181; Parnell 2014, 635; Akürek 2021, 6-7.

[20] Akürek 2021, 13-14.

[21] Бакалов 1993, 223; Bassett 2004, 212-232; Akürek 2021, 22; Rautman 2022, 281.

[22] Akürek 2021, 40-48.

[23] Akürek 2021, 22-40; Rautman 2022, 282.

[24] Ангелов 1949, 154-157; Jones 1964 (1992), 271-272; Cameron 1976, 276; Ангелов 1991, 61-62; Острогорски 2013, 123-124; Kyle, 338; Akürek 2021, 8-9, 17, 48-58; Rautman 2022, 283.

[25] Akürek 2021, 49.

[26] Akürek 2021, 10-11; Rautman 2022, 282.

[27] Лъсков 2018, 97.

[28] Akürek 2021, 61-65.



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