The ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople reflected beauty and power, captivating onlookers while symbolising the power of old Constantinople city. From chariot races to cultural events, the Hippodrome was an integral symbol of extraordinary Constantinople, that was envied the world over. Many modern sports, such as horse racing and NASCAR, are based on the races, and the Hippodrome also inspired art and literature, including the famous Ben Hur movie chariot race. Standing in the Sultanahmet square of Istanbul, these days, the hippodrome’s use is no longer, but it is one of many famous landmarks to visit. So what makes the Hippodrome of Constantinople so unique, and why does the structure stand out among other ruined hippodromes of ancient Greece?
About the Hippodrome of Constantinople
Forget About Circus Maximus
Some books about Istanbul's history say the Hippodrome was modelled on the 6th century BC Circus Maximus of Rome. Circus Maximus and Constantinople Hippodrome were ancient stadiums, but each had distinct architectural features and historical significance. The Circus Maximus seated up to 250,000 spectators and hosted events like public executions, gladiatorial games, and religious processions. The Hippodrome of Constantinople was smaller, with a 30,000 seating capacity, but still grand and impressive. Both stadiums had different architectural styles and historical significance.
Who Built the Hippodrome of Constantinople?
The Byzantine Empire followed the Eastern Roman Empire that emerged after the 5th century AD collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In 324 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great built a new capital city. He chose Byzantium as the site for his new capital, and he renamed the city Constantinople. Constantinople sat at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and its Bosporus Strait position boosted trade and commerce. In addition, the heavily fortified walls and defensive structures protected the city.
The Empire became influential, with a sophisticated bureaucracy, strong military, and rich culture. The Byzantines faced numerous challenges throughout history, including invasions from foreign powers like the Persians, Arabs, and Turks. Despite these challenges, the Byzantines held onto Constantinople for centuries, partly thanks to their impressive military and defensive capabilities.
To reflect the prestigious status and keep locals entertained, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus built the Hippodrome in 203 AD, but several other emperors expanded and renovated it over the centuries. Later versions of the Hippodrome were primarily the work of 4th century AD Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great, who rebuilt and enlarged it. Such was the importance of the structure both to social society, and to reflect, Constantinople’s importance.
Chariot Races in the Hippodrome
The Hippodrome featured various public events, including chariot races, a popular form of entertainment and sport during the Byzantine Empire. Four factions participated in chariot racing: the Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites. Each section had its own team of charioteers, horses, and supporters. The Blues and Greens were rivals. The Blues represented aristocracy and the emperor, while the Greens related to ordinary people. The less popular Reds and Whites often aligned with one of the two major factions.Each faction's devoted followers had deep-rooted rivalries that sometimes became violent.
The fast and dangerous races saw charioteers driving chariots at high speeds around the track, trying to overtake rivals and be the first to cross the finish line. The skilled charioteers became famous for their prowess. Races were more than entertainment and reflected political and social life. The factions often aligned with different political factions and winning bought prestige and influence.
There were other chariot races, but the most popular, the quadriga, involved four horses. The dangerous races meant accidents were common. Charioteers had to navigate sharp turns and avoid collisions with other chariots. The competitive races meant winning was about great pride for factions and supporters. Despite their popularity, chariot races declined in the 11th century as the Empire experienced political and economic decline.
The Nika Riots of Constantinople
The significant Nika Riots started in the hippodrome in January 532 AD. The riots began during a chariot race between the rival blue and green factions. The riot quickly escalated into a full-blown rebellion, called the Nika Revolt, that nearly toppled Emperor Justinian I from power. The riot broke out after blue and green supporters united against high taxes and his choice for the next Eastern Orthodox Church patriarch.
The two factions chanted "Nika", meaning victory, and demanded the removal of Justinian I from the throne. The riots quickly turned violent, and several buildings caught fire. Justinian considered fleeing Constantinople but his wife, Theodora, encouraged him to stay and fight. Ultimately, Justinian quelled the riots through force and executed the leaders. The violence resulted in thousands of dead and caused significant damage.
The Nika Riots had substantial implications. Justinian took steps to prevent future riots, including rebuilding Constantinople and constructing the Basilica Cistern to provide the city with water during times of crisis. The riots also led to a more centralised and authoritarian government.
The Serpent Column of Istanbul
The 5th century BC Serpent Column was constructed in Delphi's ancient Greek city to commemorate the victory over Persians in the Plataea Battle. In the 4th century AD, the column was moved to the Hippodrome in Constantinople by the emperor Constantine. Originally topped with a golden tripod, later replaced by a cross, the Serpent Column featured three bronze snakes, with their heads supporting a golden bowl to represent the three Greek tribes that fought in the Battle. The 8-metre-tall Serpent column symbolised Constantinople, and urban legends said anyone who touched it received good luck.
Another legend claims the snakes were alive and protected Constantinople from harm. The Serpent Column has undergone several restorations over the centuries. In the 18th century, the snakes' heads were replaced with new ones, and in the 19th century, the column was reinforced with an iron rod. While the original golden tripod and bronze heads are now lost, the column remains an important artefact from ancient Greece.
The Walled Obelisk of the Hippodrome
The 105 feet high Walled Obelisk, made of red porphyry and marble, was initially built by 4th century AD Emperor Theodosius I but later restored and fortified by the 10th century AD Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII. The structure resembled an ancient Egyptian obelisk, with hieroglyphic inscriptions on its sides. The Walled Obelisk was covered with marble slabs that encased the red porphyry structure to protect against damage from earthquakes and other natural disasters. Despite the name, the Walled Obelisk is not actually walled in but surrounded by a low railing, and everyone can admire the intricate carvings and inscriptions. Today, the Walled Obelisk, Theodosius Obelisk and Serpentine Column still stand.
The Four Bronze Horses of Saint Mark
The 4th century BC Horses of Saint Mark, also called the Triumphal Quadriga, are four ancient bronze sculptures created in ancient Greece. The sculptures depict four horses in full gallop. The Horses of Saint Mark sat on top of the Hippodrome in Constantinople as part of a bronze chariot group. They were taken to Venice, Italy, in the 13th century after the Venetians sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. They were placed on the facade of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, where they remained until the late 20th century. These days, the Horses of Saint Mark are kept inside the St. Mark's Basilica Museum in Venice, Italy.
The Most Famous Chariot Racer of Constantinople
Porphyrios, a legendary charioteer with skill and excellence, lived in the 6th century AD. Porphyrios won many races, and the locals of Constantinople adored him. Successful Porphyrios retired young and lived comfortably. However, he did not forget his love of chariot racing and continued to support the sport throughout his life. Porphyrios's legacy is as the best charioteer of all time, and his name is associated with excellence and success. His legacy inspired athletes and fans of chariot racing. Curious history buffs can see monuments to him in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum.
The Imperial Byzantine Family
The Imperial Box and seating area were reserved for the emperor and his family in the western section, close to the race starting line. The grand and ornate structure, covered in gold and adorned with precious stones and intricate carvings, reflected power and prestige. The box raised above other seating areas, gave the emperor and his family excellent views of races and official ceremonies. The Box was also used for other imperial ceremonies and events, such as imperial coronations, parades, and religious processions. During these events, the emperor waved to crowds below. Little remains of the Imperial Box, but visitors can see the seating area and starting gates ruins.
From Hippodrome to Sultanahmet Square
The Hippodrome declined after Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans used the Hippodrome for other purposes, and it eventually fell into disrepair. The square was later renamed Sultan Ahmet Square in honour of Sultan Ahmet I, who commissioned the 17th-century Blue Mosque. These days, Sultanahmet Square attracts millions of tourists annually who visit the surrounding historical landmarks. It is the most visited place in the whole of Turkey.
The north side Blue Mosque, also called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, boasts beautiful blue tiles and an impressive dome. On the square's south side is the Hagia Sophia, a former Christian Basilica, mosque, museum and once again mosque. Finally, on the square's west side is the German Fountain, a beautiful fountain gifted by German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. These landmarks date from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods of Istanbul's history. More about visiting the landmarks of Sultanahmet square, including the Blue mosque, Topkapi palace, and Hagia Sophia.
Summary and Further Reading
Constantinople's Hippodrome testifies to the Byzantine Empire's power and influence. Not only did it represent sporting, cultural, and political events, but also competition for control between empires over the years. The Hippodrome ruins are potent reminders of Constantinople's grandeur. If you have enjoyed this article, you might like to read about more famous spots in our Istanbul blog. Talking about the historical landmarks and current day features, the blog discusses all areas of Istanbul.
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