BMCR 2006.01.43

The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople

, The urban image of late antique Constantinople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xxi, 291 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 052182723X $85.00.

This is a useful and provocative book. It brings together the fruits of Sarah [Guberti] Bassett’s research, aspects of which have been published in articles in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, the Art Bulletin and the American Journal of Archaeology over the past fifteen years, but provides a much fuller account of the presence of antique statuary in Constantinople than any of those articles did. The first part of the book provides a detailed overview of the presence of ancient sculpture in the city of Constantinople from its foundation under Constantine the Great down to the reign of Justinian. This section gives a chronological account of the phases of collecting over these two centuries. The second part provides a catalogue of all the recorded statues from the city — a total of 179 — organised topographically. For each entry the relevant sources are cited in translation. Readers are thus presented with the fullest documentary account of the adornment of the city, in a good and accessible form. The book offers a valuable record for future historians and art historians to draw upon.

After a succinct history of the study of the collections of antiquities in Constantinople in the introduction, the first chapter provides a clear description of the early topography of the city, outlining its pre-Constantinian shape and the alterations made by Constantine once he had chosen it as his new city (although it includes a spectacularly unhelpful plan of the baths of Zeuxippos [fig. 5]). It is here we are first introduced to the idea of romanitas as one of the guiding principles for the selection of statues to bring to Constantinople. Chapter Two then covers the mechanics of collecting sculpture from across the empire and bringing it to Constantinople.

The following chapters establish themes for the collections from Constantine down to Justinian. Basssett identifies groups of statues or locations which give clear meanings to their ensembles, appropriating meanings for the new city. In brief, the meanings of the collections are: the proclamation of romanitas (Constantine), dynastic aggrandisement (Theodosios), Christian triumph over nature/pagan religion (Lausos collection), and antipagan military intervention (Justinian). These intended meanings are plausibly argued by Bassett, but as they are often not mentioned by any Byzantine authors they must remain, ultimately, unprovable assertions — the fate of all studies of intentions.

Among its arguments, this book raises three important questions: what is the nature of the collections of statues in Constantinople? How can and should the texts relating to late antique statuary (many of which postdate the destruction of the statues by many centuries) be used? And what role does statuary play in the creation of the urban image of a city?

From the outset Bassett describes all the statues in the city as “The collection” — “a consciously developed ensemble” [p.8]. The Constantinian collection is, she says, “first and foremost an intellectual construct” [p.15]. Later the Lausos collection is presented as an intellectual Christian riposte to Pliny’s writings on art. It is this idea of a coherent, planned corpus of images that provides the core of the book, and Bassett argues her corner as forcefully as the evidence will allow. However, it is an argument with which other historians may well disagree. In Bassett’s eyes, no statues were brought to the city unless they were part of some grander plan. We are presented with consciously collected groups of statues, located in specific juxtapositions to convey messages to the Late Antique audience. There is no room for random acquisition, and every statue mentioned in a Byzantine text is straightjacketed into the required meaning and rationalised to within an inch of its life.

The alternative, that the statues in Constantinople should be seen as parts of collections, or even as random accumulations of objects, dependent on availability and accessibility, necessarily undermines this interpretation. The question is: which interpretation is more feasible? How controlling and manipulative was Constantine? How much Christian rigour lay behind Lausos’s love of classical art? I think that Bassett is essentially correct in her interpretations, but her desire to find meaning everywhere pushes her arguments to extremes.

A second question underlying the work is a methodological one: how can the many, varied texts, drawn from a millennium of Byzantine history be used to reconstruct the presence of statues in Late Antique Constantinople? This is obviously a book which depends utterly on the archaeology of texts. Bassett aims to move away from the study of the reception of the material — how and why the statues are represented by each particular author in each particular text — to a study of the statues themselves and the intentions of those who brought them to the city and set them up. This is very much at odds with the recent trend in the study of this material.1 It relies on the conviction that it is possible to look through the “distorting mirror” of Byzantine literature to recover archaeological reality. There is too strong a belief in the truth of descriptions of works of art in texts, even when, as in the case of the image of Christ Chalkites [p. 127], it has been convincingly argued to be a post-iconoclastic invention.2 Whilst Bassett’s attempts to identify classical works from medieval descriptions are, by and large, successful at an individual level, the problems come when she draws together all these individual statues from disparate sources to create the overall interpretation of the urban image of late antique Constantinople. Bassett has to wipe away too many intervening layers of description and interpretation to get to her “facts”. When authors choose to describe a particular statue, what is the motive, and what else are they not identifying? Moreover, evidence is brought together from too many disparate sources to produce a single clear answer.

The title of the book is also begs an important question: were sculptures really the dominant means of creating an urban image? Bassett’s argument that the urban image of Constantinople was physically determined is well presented, but is not necessarily reliable. After all, visitors to Trafalgar Square in London take their image of the city not from the statues of generals Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier that surround the square — even the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone famously proclaimed that he “didn’t have a clue who the generals were” — but rather from the more immaterial bustle of the site — its memories of parties, pageants and protests — that make it a central space in the life of London. Bassett convincingly argues for a more central role for public art in Late Antique Constantinople, but one must wonder how widely the intentions she attributes to Constantine and his successors were ever shared, and for how long.

The final chapter on Justinian argues that in the sixth century statues were eclipsed by other objects, notably churches and relics, in the construction of an urban image, and as a coda Bassett reminds us that the collecting of relics had already begun in the fourth century with the arrival of the relics of Sts. Luke, Andrew and Timothy at the church of the Holy Apostles. But this is rather a late point in the book to start talking of other facets of the urban image of Constantinople. Many of the texts cited in the catalogue suggest relics were a significantly more important aspect of urban identity than this allows: the majority of descriptions of the statue of Constantine, for example, are as much interested in the relics that the statue was supposed to contain as they are in the origins of the statue itself. The campaigns of relic acquisitions for the city throughout the fifth century suggests that urban identity lay as much in those small fragments of bodies in churches as in the monumental marble bodies in the public squares.

Bassett also raises some interesting questions about how to define public space in Late Antiquity. It is striking that the topographical sections of the catalogue make no reference to the Great Palace. The implication is that behind the statues displayed on the city side of the Chalke Gate, there were no statues. How should we interpret this? Does this mean that the palace was a private space, rather than a public one in Late Antiquity? How did the emperor proclaim his notion of his empire to those who came to pay him court? If the whole city is the canvas on which Constantine and his successors proclaimed themselves, then why is their principal residence excluded, especially when this can be contrasted to the descriptions of statues in the palace of Lausos? In fact, buried in the text, there are references to sculptures in the Great Palace [for example Eusebius places the Muses, no. 18, in the palace], but Bassett sides with Themistos in placing them in the Senate.

This book represents a worthwhile investigation of the creation and collection of statuary in Late Antique Constantinople. The materials gathered together, in particular, are extremely valuable, but the interpretations are too unified to be wholly convincing. The minefield of dealing with Byzantine texts suggests that the reception of statuary in Constantinople will always provide more solid ground on which to work than the intentions behind its collection. Moreover, the decision to study the creation of the urban image of Constantinople by means of statuary alone seems too one-sided an approach to such a complex city.


1. See, for example, C. Mango, “Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963), 55-75; L. James, “‘Pray Not to Fall into Temptation and Be on Your Guard’: Pagan Statues in Christian Constantinople”, Gesta 35/1 (1996), 12-20; both with extensive further reading.

2. M.-F. Auzépy, “La destruction de l’icône du Christ de la Chalcé, par Léon III: propagande ou réalité?” Byzantion 60 (1990), 445-92.