BMCR 2022.02.42

The bronze horseman of Justinian in Constantinople: the cross-cultural biography of a Mediterranean monument

, The bronze horseman of Justinian in Constantinople: the cross-cultural biography of a Mediterranean monument. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xxvii, 451. ISBN 9781107197275 £90.00.


“Justinian’s triumphal column was a colossal monument of empire: the tallest, freestanding column of the premodern world was crowned by arguably the largest metal, equestrian sculpture created anywhere in the world before 1699” (p. 1). (Only on p. 69 do readers learn that the monument was 50 m. tall.) The statue no longer exists; Boeck searches texts chronologically, from the reign of Justinian (r. 527-565) to the 1860s, slowly unearthing features, installation, and a complicated history.

When Justinian arrived in Constantinople ca. 500, he embarked upon urban renewal projects. Just beyond the Milion, the center-point of the city, was his ceremonial forum, the Augoustaion,[1] the huge column (ca. 543) within, the huge dome of Hagia Sophia (532-537) to the left. A triumphal column was absolutely necessary: Constantine’s porphyry column was 40 meters tall, the column of Theodosios was nearly 50 meters tall, and Justinian’s would be slightly taller, the only column with an equestrian statue on top. The statue already existed, but appropriating the statue of an earlier honoree was a long-standing Roman tradition, as were equestrian statues.[2]

In the sixth century, John Malalas thought the equestrian statue had originally represented Arcadius (r. 383-408) (57). But Cyriac of Ancona (1391-1452) climbed the column in 1427, and found an inscription identifying the statue as Theodosios, the artist as Patrophilos.[3] Gregoras (1295-1360) measured a finger of the statue at just over nine inches; Cyriac measured the total height at twenty feet, the emperor’s face at three feet, eye and mouth each six inches (height or width is not specified) (p. 270). Boeck estimates the statue’s height as 24.6 feet (p. 60), its weight 4,425 kg (9,755 lbs or 4.88 tons), comparing it with the weight of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (2,500 kg or 2.75 tons) (p. 65). She draws comparisons with the Colossus of Rhodes (using Pliny the Elder’s estimate of seventy cubits (32 meters, 105 feet, Natural History 34.41, here p. 273), the Colossus of Barletta (original height ca. 5.3 meters, 17.4 feet, pp. 63-65), Charlemagne in Aachen (121 fn. P. 103), Leonardo’s unrealized horse, and Franҁois Girardon’s equestrian statue of Louis XIV in Paris (H 6.82 meters, 22.4 feet) (p. 61).[4] Boeck points out that Leonardo’s equestrian monument honoring Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan (1450-1466), was not cast because Leonardo would have needed almost 72 tons of metal; both metal and skill would likewise have been needed to cast the bronze horseman in Constantinople (p. 61). Boeck does not investigate these points.

Justinian replaced the statue’s original orb with an orb and cross; he moved it 850 meters from its original location in the Forum Tauri, and lifted it 50 meters to the top of the column, turning “the greatest domestic challenge of his reign [the Nika riots] into a spectacular opportunity for promoting his gloria” (p. 70). The column was at the religious center of the city, between Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, but it was not exactly religious, a topic which was debated in the 10th century: Constantine of Rhodes sees the statue as a triumph for the city against external enemies; in the Narrative on the Construction of Hagia Sophia, Justinian is the enemy within the city (ch. 6). In an illustration from a late 12th– to early 13th-century edition of the Book of Job, the statue rides high above the city, but has has no orb, and the rider reaches backwards with the right hand, yet rides towards Job, who lies on a pile of dung. Boeck calls this image “both triumphal and tragic” (p. 168).

Prokopios (ca. 500-565), using “figured speech and safe criticism…indicts Justinian on the charges of gigantomania and obliteration of the past,” (p. 82) and he provides a thorough description of the statue. When George Pachymeres (1242 – ca. 1308) describes the column, he relies upon Prokopios for how it used to look. As time passed, viewers decided for themselves whether the right hand was extended or raised. The column became the “imperial talisman” of Byzantium (p. 96), by means of which “western authors literally and figuratively reimagined the Byzantine past” (p. 195).

Chapter 4 introduces a competing horseman atop an 80-cubit dome, erected in 762 by the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (r. 754-775), whose fall was associated with his statue’s fall. Similarly, anything that happened to the bronze horseman in Constantinople came to be interpreted “as divinatory indications of the future of the Byzantine-Abbasid rivalry” (p. 123). During Theophilos’s reign (829-842), the bronze touphafell off Justinian’s equestrian statue, making Theophilos afraid that he might lose his crown to the Abbasid caliphate, until the headdress was replaced by a brave climber. In another story, the tilted crown was righted to avert plague.

The column lost its bronze cladding during the Fourth Crusade, but the Crusaders saved the statue identifying it as their hero Heraclius, who they believed had taken Jerusalem back from the Sasanians in ca. 628, walked barefoot into Jerusalem, and reclaimed the True Cross. Heraclius brought peace and freedom to Constantinople, and his statue was seen as pointing towards Jerusalem instead of towards an enemy (ch. 8).

After the recovery of Constantinople by Michael VIII of Nicaea in 1261, the horseman became a symbol of survival. Michael reclaimed the city through renovation and restoration. When he was crowned in Hagia Sophia, introducing the Palaiologan dynasty, his coronation included a procession through the Augoustaion and homage to the column (ch. 9).

Pachymeres, unlike Prokopios, describes the construction, condition, and materials of the column, and praises “the protection and the triumphal power of the cross” (p. 226), indirectly challenging Prokopios, but relying on his description. In the late 13th century, some feathers from the toupha were lost, and in 1317, the bronze orb fell. Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282 – 1328) restored it immediately, and Nikephoros Gregoras (ca. 1295-1360) describes the project. Iron supports were added under the belly of the horse, and the rider’s headgear and the orb were removed for regilding. Eventually, the horse had to be chained to its base. Pero Tafur (1410-1487), believing that the statue represented Constantine, reports another restoration of the orb for 8,000 ducats, which Boeck estimates at 1.1 million dollars (pp. 257-8). The statue’s “gesture that for centuries was believed to keep barbarians at bay, now heralded the approaching doom” (p. 260).

In the 1420s, Cristoforo Buondelmonti wrote that the monument was 70 cubits (105 feet) in height, and showed the horseman with a golden apple in the left hand, the right hand threatening “Turkey” and the east.[5] In miniatures, Constantinople was represented primarily by its walls, the column, and Hagia Sophia (p. 292). Usually the monument is taller than the dome of Hagia Sophia..

After defeating Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II took down the monument and it was eventually melted down. Pierre Gilles saw pieces of the statue around 1550, the emperor’s leg taller than a man, the nose and a hoof each 9 inches long (p. 334).

Images of the statue appeared on Florentine wedding chests (1460s), in Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden (1450s), Carpaccio’s Presentation of the Virgin (1510-1520), and a 16th-century Russian icon showing the Intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God. It quickly became a wonder of Constantinople, printed  in Hartmann Schedel’s World Chronicle (1493), and Du Cange’s Historia Byzantina (1680). In a 16th-century Ottoman manuscript, the column appears with Hagia Sophia, the obelisk of Theodosios, the Serpent Column from Delphi, and the masonry obelisk.

This book will be useful for readers interested in a synthetic account of the horseman and the column in the context of the later political and religious history of Constantinople/Istanbul, the city’s rivals, and its visitors. It might be called an object biography, had it begun with a descriptive summary of what is known about the statue: readers need to be able to visualize the statue from the start. How big was it, how tall was the column? Bronze equestrian statues were a staple of Roman imperial sculpture, and it would have been helpful to have learned about that long-lived tradition as a preview to this statue and to the continuing history of this type of monument. A drawback of the strict chronological progression through the sources is that only in ch. 12 do readers learn that Cyriac of Ancona identified the bronze horseman and its maker (p. 270). Boeck relies heavily on other modern scholars, paraphrasing and quoting their points, but not often contributing further to the discussion. She includes many useful primary resources, all translated by others:  this raises questions about the use of “bronze,” “brass,” and “copper” for χαλκός or aes.[6] Apparently only Cyriac described this statue as a cast bronze. Perhaps, while the statue was still in place, nobody talked about it as much as they did about the supporting column because it was too much of a climb to get all the way up to the statue.

Boeck does not mention that the production of a standing statue is very different from that of a horseman, nor does she consider what is known about large bronzes in the 6th century. How might this statue have been cast? Do any sources mention how thick the walls of the bronze leg or finger were? There are still questions about the bronze statue which the early sources may address, even if they do so indirectly.

Table of contents

1. Justinian’s Entry into Constantinople: He Came, He Saw, He Conquered
2. The Making of Justinian’s Forum
3. Defying a Defining Witness: The Bronze Horseman and the Buildings (De Aedificiis) of Prokopios
4. The Horseman of Baghdad Responds to the Horseman of Constantinople
5. Soothing Imperial Anxieties: Theophilos and the Restoration of Justinian’s Crown
6. Debating Justinian’s Merits in the Tenth Century
7. The Bronze Horseman and a Dark Hour for Humanity
8. The Horseman Becomes Heraclius: Crusading Narratives of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries
9. From Exile in Nicaea to Restoration of Constantinople
10. A Learned Dialogue Across the Ages: Pachymeres Confronts Prokopios
11. Orb-session: Constantinople’s Future in the Bronze Horseman’s Hand
12. Justinian’s Column and the Antiquarian Gaze: A Centuries-Old ‘Secret’ Exposed
13. A Timeless Ideal: Constantinople in Slavonic Imagination of the Fourteenth to Fifteenth Centuries
14. The Horseman Meets its End
15. Horse as Historia, Byzantium as Allegory
16. Shadowy Past and Menacing Future
17. After the Fall: The Bronze Horseman and Eternal Tsar’grad
Postscript: The Horseman’s Debut in Print.


[1] Boeck tends to transliterate Greek names and places, though in cases like this one, the Latinized version, Augusteum, is far more familiar.

[2] Pausanias mentions a statue of Augustus in Argos that used to be Orestes (2.17.3) and statues of Miltiades and Themistokles in Athens which have been renamed as a Roman and a Thracian (1.18.3). Boeck incorrectly cites a Roman example of appropriation (59): statues of Domitian were recarved and recast by his successor Nerva, not vice-versa.

[3] Patrophilos is not indexed.

[4] Boeck mentions the bronze equestrian torso from a statue of Augustus now in Athens, but for its gesture, not its size: p. 90.

[5] As per the translation on p. 276, with fn. 30.

[6] Boeck quotes Dewing’s 1954 translation of Prokopios, Buildings I.ii, which refers to a brass column, a bronze horse, and a bronze emperor (85): each time, however, the Greek is χαλκός. The basic ingredients of brass are copper and zinc; bronze consists of copper and tin and/or lead.