Written by Anthony Portulese
Edited by Miray Eroglu
Athleticism carried immense social popularity throughout the ancient world. For centuries, Athens and Rome orchestrated and held public sporting competitions for the enjoyment of its denizens. These events comprised of gladiator fights, wrestling boxing, and most graceful of all ancient sports, chariot racing. Over the last thirty years ancient spectacle culture has become a popular area of research, much of which discusses its importance in Rome, which often cites the famous observation of poet Juvenal about the Roman people: “those who once gave power… now restrain themselves and hope anxiously for two things only, bread and circuses.”
Juvenal’s comment on the centrality and esteemed status of sport culture in quotidian Roman life spread across all regions of the Empire. When the Occident collapsed in the late fifth century, eastern dominion under Constantine I and his successors remained prosperous and resilient to external forces throughout the subsequent millennium. The Roman Empire became henceforth centered at Constantinople, and its entertainment industry carried Greco-Roman athletic practices into a new age. Contemporary textual accounts assert how most early Constantinopolitans designated themselves as both Roman and inhabitants of the Basileia tôn Rhōmaiōn – the Roman Empire – as the historiographical terms “Byzantine” and “Eastern” Roman would only come to be in the sixteenth century. Despite this continuing trend of Greco-Roman sporting traditions in Constantinople, the money that had supported earlier institutions had largely evaporated in the wake of the various late-third-century crises – barbarian invasion, military catastrophe, civil war and inept fiscal policy – therefore, new “Byzantine-born” athletic institutions had to replace them.
From the reigns of Constantine to Justinian, one method with which Byzantium asserted its fortitude was through the compelling, cogent visual culture present in the Hippodrome. Conceivably the single largest gathering place in the entire empire, it showcased several antiquities and relief sculptures that communicated the praised imperial ideals of resilience, dedication and strength of body and mind. The arena environment displayed the power of the organizers through an interaction between the spectators and both the contenders it hosted and the monuments it housed. Images of athletes at the zenith of their competitive supremacy were scattered across the Hippodrome, especially the extant relief sculptures of early Constantinople’s most celebrated charioteer Porphyrius. The strategic organization of sport imagery – this relationship between the athletes and spectators and the emperor to the monuments and texts that documented them – illustrates the prime point I wish to argue. The physical and mental control highlighted in the imagery of the athlete, coupled with the layout of the arena that showcased his talents, demonstrates both civic virtue and imperial glory. I propose that art, architecture and sport all worked in unison through a “body athletic”, a tool of personification meant to convey the transcendence of imperial power through the corporality of the athlete.
Few artefacts documenting athletic life and culture survive from the early Byzantine era. The first piece of sport paraphernalia that shall be deciphered will be the Theodosian base for the Obelisk of Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III, along with an additional two bases dedicated to the esteemed Porphyrius. These artworks shall be analyzed alongside the Hippodrome itself, which for this argument’s sake shall also be critiqued as a work of sporting art. Other individual cases of sporting imagery outside Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire shall be moreover examined to discern how visual sport culture was perceived and utilized to project power.
Part I: The Visual Tactics of the Bodies Politic and Athletic
In order to properly understand how the corporality of the athlete came to embody imperial glory, my research must first elucidate how the notions of power were expressed to the populace though the original socio-political metaphor of the body politic. Physical embodiment of glory through the body of the emperor is blatantly present in the Hippodrome, upon the Theodosian obelisk base (fig. 1). Carved and installed during the reign of Theodosius I in 390 CE, the monument was one of many sculptures in the Hippodrome, meant to propagate the outreaching authority of the empire by conquering foreign lands and collecting spolia – or spoils. The four faces of the Theodosian obelisk base are distinguished by the costumes and physiognomy of the figures. Yet it exhibits a repetitive visual language on each of its sides: the emperor and his administration, prominent faction members, or other functional dignitaries. Each respective spectator in the seats would only have been able to see two sides at most due to the distance and chariots racing past. Strategic political imagery shows different classes of spectators in relief on the sides of the base, each of which would mirror the class of spectator it faced, seated in the arena. The sculpture was carved in situ at the Hippodrome with full cognizance of the encircling seating arrangements, and therefore the specific placement of this base (as well as the Porphyrius bases that shall be discussed) speaks to a deliberate usage of the body politic to convey imperial might.
Textual records from the Book of Ceremonies include early as well as tenth-century information on the seating plan of the Hippodrome, enabling scholars like Linda Safran to determine which societal groups faced which side of the Theodosian base (fig. 2). The southeastern side of the base is believed to have been partially or directly facing the kathisma – the personal loge of the emperor in the Hippodrome that directly connected to the Great Palace on the southeast of the arena (fig. 1a). This private box and its adjoining seats for the emperor and his retinue would have been positioned across the seats for members of the circus factions, who would have been in line to see the northwestern face of the Theodosian base (fig. 1b). Both these faces bore inscriptions from the Anthologia Graeca (Greek Anthology) commemorating the commission. The engraved Latin text – used only by the Constantinopolitan court, the bureaucracy and the army – communicates power with the repetition of such words as “ordered”, “obey” and “mastered.” Field testing and proportional observations furthermore indicate that the reliefs of these two particular sides would have been visible to audiences on the southeast and northwest sides of the Hippodrome, and the spectators in these sections, of elevated rank and probably well versed in Latin, would have had little trouble reading the inscriptions.
The southeastern and northwestern faces of the Theodosian obelisk base are the most finely and deeply carved with the most individualized figures and faces. These two sides portray the most varied draperies, the sharpest relief, and the most solid architecture with the most inventive grillework. The southeast face shows the emperor – tall and imposing – awarding the victor with a wreath, surrounded by his retinue of soldiers, advisors, dignitaries, and musicians. The northwestern face depicts the emperor once again, this time seated between several circus partisans, above a register of barbarians who kneel and supplicate the emperor and his council with offerings. The carving of their bodies and the architecture is less refined than the opposing side facing the kathisma, but has rather sensitive portraits. Only on these two sides of the Theodosian base is there some compositional modulation, as the guards and dignitaries turn their heads and shoulders away from the emperor, adding movement and sense of convergence to otherwise centrifugal and static reliefs. Such meticulous artisanal technique enable the images of the southeastern and northwestern sides to be more easily visible from the kathisma and faction seats respectively, and adhere to a visual discourse of imperial power through the centrality and almost innate corporal superiority of the emperor through his composure and physical dominance over the other figures.
In contrast to the high artistic quality of these two sides, the figures on the southwestern side (facing the looped sphendone which seated the masses) and the northeastern side of the Theodosian base (which faces the carceres where the chariot starting gates were located and held no seats other than those possibly for circus functionaries) all possess identical hairstyles, body types and bland expressions (fig. 1c & 1d). The carving is very shallow and the figures are monotonous, and remains rather planar and the figures outside the carved kathisma are all frontal and stiff, a weak visual dialogue which corresponds to the lack of importance of the groups of citizens who may have barely seen these sides from their seats. These sides of the base would also have been blocked from sight by the other assortment of apotropaic and classical statuary along the spina – or median – of the Hippodrome.
A native sculpture to decorate one of Constantinople’s most public venues, the Theodosian obelisk base ultimately adopted Greco-Roman visual cues to denote imperial glory and laid the framework for subsequent artworks that would aim to convey the same message through the body of the athlete in sport imagery rather than through the body of the emperor in political imagery.
Part II: Sport and Celebrity
At the turn of the fifth century, less than one-hundred years after the erection of the Theodosian Obelisk and its monumental base in the Hippodrome, one Constantinopolitan athlete was graced with renowned recognition and adulation for his supreme athletic ability: Porphyrius the Charioteer. Various accounts regard him as Byzantium’s most venerated professional athlete, with a total of seven monuments constructed in his honour during and after his lifetime. While various contemporary accounts placed these seven monuments to Porphyrius at the Hippodrome, only two survive, both of which were excavated at the Ottoman court of the Seraglio in the mid-nineteenth century. The secondary scholarship of Alan Cameron and Alexander A. Vasiliev speculates that these monumental white marble bases (which would have each supported a large bronze statue of the athlete) were translocated sometime after the Ottoman Conquest, the bronze melted down for coinage and weaponry during the Fourth Crusade of 1204. Art historians have been able to identify the frontal faces of the two extant bases from metallic residue on the top of the stone that outlines the feet of the lost bronze statues. Dubbed commonly in scholarship as the “old” and “new” bases” respectively, both stood along the spina of the Hippodrome, along with five other lost monuments. These relief sculptures were produced a century after the Theodosian obelisk base, yet they implement similar visual methods to exude ideas of imperial glory, might and control, only this time through the body athletic.
The “old” and “new” bases present a repetitive iconographic flair on all its sides. The upper registers show an idealized portrait of Porphyrius in the same costume and stance, at the moment of triumph with his lifted right hand bearing a wreath, and his left hand holding a palm branch, both emblems of victory. On the old base (fig. 3) two Nikai float above him – winged female personifications of triumph – and two Eros-like figures stand at the bottom of the upper register, holding the heads of the outer horses and directing the viewer towards the central figure of Porphyrius. He stands tall, broad-shouldered and wide-chested, with a somewhat hefty disposition. Despite significant damage done to the face on the frontal side (fig. 3a), the same imagery on the backside of the old base suggests the sculptor devoted much effort to the refined, sharp carving of Porphyrius’ features, customary to the greater individualization ascribed to male beauty in Byzantine visual culture. With the backside portraying a larger and hyper-detailed Porphyrius presented without his horses (fig. 3b), the pronounced carving of both the front and back sides suggests that (like the Theodosian obelisk base) these were the two sides to face the southeastern kathisma and the northwestern circus faction seats in the Hippodrome, though the specific orientation remains uncertain.
On all four sides of the new base and on two sides of the old base, the athlete stands on his quadriga – chariot pulled by four horses – which renders him the tallest, most central and hierarchically prevalent figure in the reliefs. Standard visual motifs like the wreath and palm convey a message of victory and glory attained from challenge that could not be less conspicuous. Reliefs on the lower registers of the front sides of the old and new bases showcase a revered sporting tradition of the Hippodrome known as diversium, where charioteers would swap their quadrigae and race their opponent’s horses, a difficult task which Porphyrius twice won. Such imagery highlights Porphyrius as a symbol of masterful skill and supreme intellect, qualities that were exalted within Byzantine imperial ideology. Engraved in a common language, Greek epigrams on different sides of both bases from the Planudean Anthology moreover praise the most celebrated auriga of the fifth and sixth centuries, Porphyrius Calliopas.
The “new” base erected in honour of Porphyrius is almost identical to its older counterpart in terms of both iconographic imagery and size. The new and old bases respectively measure 2.26 and 2.30 metres in height, 0.78 and 1.06 metres in length, and 0.64 and 0.81 metres in width. Like the Theodosian obelisk base, such large dimensions would have made these bases and their reliefs visible to the rows of spectators in the Hippodrome. The costume, wreath, palm leaf, and strong stances of the Nikai and Eros-like figures are all employed in the same fashion as the old base. The only visual motif unique to the new base is the depiction of a Tyche – a city goddess – above the head of Porphyrius (fig. 4a). This winged female could allude to the visual allegory of the Tyche of
Constantinople, and refer therefore to Porphyrius’ cultural and quasi-patriotic contribution to Byzantium. The gallant movement and anatomical beauty of Porphyrius in all of these stelae present upon both bases ignites its viewership with a sense of action and the will to dignify the grace and nobility of their local athletes. Athleticism was the most charged form of male beauty in Byzantium, which effervesced from the static stone upon which it was often depicted. The physical prowess of the athletic body, with reward and recognition for their ennobled feats alludes to a long tradition of imperial supremacy through vanquishing adversity and any opposition of imperial civilization.
Throughout the discussion of the power of male beauty in John Zonaras’ twelfth-century Epitome Historion, the reoccurrence of the term “agalmatias” – or statuesque beauty – as an analogy for the beautiful athletic body is striking. These relief sculptures of Porphyrius ultimately serve as a symbol of agalmatias – a chiseled, marbled ideal type of male beauty which encompasses both physical and mental fortitude, an amalgamation of imperial Byzantine values. The immense size, structure and arrangement of the reliefs on both bases is clearly influenced by those of the Theodosian obelisk base, suggesting links between the Porphyrius stelae and imperial iconography. What proves so masterful in this visual imagery is that the charioteer stereotype of magnificence was in all probability much more familiar to the typical Constantinopolitan sports enthusiast than more the imperial motifs on the Theodosian base. When the everyday citizen would gaze at the monuments of Porphyrius, he may have seen not a charioteer symbolizing in his moment of triumph the victories of the emperor and the empire – but just Porphyrius himself, as an allusion to an ideal of human, Byzantine excellence. The body athletic hereto assembles this Constantinopolitan might within every Byzantine denizen, perfectly presented in the medium that best described the durability and resilience of the male athlete: tough rock.
Part III: The Perceptual Discourse of the Byzantine Arena
An ancient stadium that could seat up to one-hundred-thousand people, the Hippodrome of Constantinople served as the city’s gathering place par excellence and as the nexus for interaction between the emperor, athletes and the public. Its competitions took on an elevated rank of entertainment, as described in an excerpt of the Theodosian Code in 399, under the rule of Arcadius:
Hence we decree that, according to ancient custom, amusements be furnished to the people, but without any sacrifice or any accursed superstition… whenever public desires so demand.
This proclamation shows that the Byzantine Orthodox Church literally accommodated itself to the public sporting events of the city, despite the rejection of pagan rituals, such as sacrifice or polytheistic worship. Thus in practice, the people were able to adopt the sporting rites and spectacle traditions of their ancient ancestors – like the Hippodrome – but without the pagan connotation. Sport thereby became a legitimate way for Constantinople to establish a valid cultural identity.
The architecture of the Constantinopolitan Hippodrome was designed to imitate the Circus Maximus in Rome (fig. 5), and its structure and seating arrangement created a specific relationship between the competing athletes and their audience. Visual sporting culture came not just from sculpted imagery of Byzantine athletes. It also consisted of living competitors being watched by spectators. Sport and games took place in the Hippodrome as a massive sensual demonstration of its own heroic virtues personified by the athlete – strength, courage, skill, stamina, patience, good judgment, quickness of mind, style and expertise – all in the noble struggle of the athlete to excel and attain their most sterling potential. All of these venerable traits would have been on display on race days in Constantinople, through both the artworks that decorated the spina as well as the living, breathing athletes whose “call to action” permitted them to face challenges with grace and dignity in the midst of competition. The human qualities of the body of the athlete are exhibited, expressed and tested to be enjoyed, judged and admired for their own sake by the body of the audience, which correlated well with the qualities of imperium.
All that survives of the Constantinopolitan Hippodrome is the looped sphendone which would have seated the masses of commoners. The diameter of this semicircular structure tells modern historians the dimensions of the tracks and rows of seats alike. The tracks are believed to have measured 38.5 metres in width (which would have allowed for about a dozen charioteers to compete in a since race), its U-shaped design about 370 to 450 metres in length. Linda Safran used the Pythagorean Theorem to determine the distance spectators would have been from the spina, which she concluded would have been roughly 61 metres at the highest seats and 38.5 metres at the lowest seats on the track level. Secondary research speculates that in spite of these distances, both the monument bases and the competing athletes would have been visible to the audience.
When the stadium was filled with people, the tightness of the stands and mass of spectators would have locked the athletes within an arcade of shouting and cheering. This sea of noise would have created an intimate atmosphere for the games, odd considering the size of the Hippodrome. In the heat of competition, when the suspense and thrill of sport are at their most palpable level, these two bodies would become entwined. In this moment the audience would have been vitalized identified with the athlete, but are nevertheless reminded of their passive, observatory stature in the spectacle. Through their audiences, comprised of members of various classes and factions, local champions became emblems of community. Much like an empire, in order to be glorious, the athlete must stand out, not only against defeated or disgraced rivals but against those who are not even “in the race”: the ordinary run of humankind. The Hippodrome played host to an energized, living body athletic and captured glory and the universal love for championship. While most contemporary Byzantines would not have been aware of the imperial implications of sport and its accompanying imagery, one must not disregard the subliminal presence of imperial might through praiseworthiness of the few by the many.
Part IV: The Body Athletic Abroad
Pictorial motifs of athletes served as a primary tool to disseminate imperial power in the early centuries of Byzantium. This body athletic was so effective as a visual metaphor that it gained popularity outside of Constantinople and its dominion, where objects from across Europe and the Levantine coast speak to the employment of the same visual strategies to denote their own respective power through Byzantium’s distinct body athletic and sporting iconography. Coins have been discovered that date back to seventh-century Syria, at a time when the region was ruled by the Arab Umayyad Caliphate. Their imagery, much like other empires, would showcase socio-politically charged symbols to illuminate the virtues of their land and its people. It is therefore curious that several coins, believed to be minted under this Islamic regime, display images of charioteers and wrestlers, with Greek inscriptions along the perimeters. The Arab-Byzantine coinage could possibly allude to an early Islamic minting practice which incorporated Byzantine-style images, legends or commemorative tales to endorse their own imperial power and identity. A niello medallion found in Treves, Germany displays more explicit images of an athlete, with the iconic quadriga, and tall, imposing charioteer (fig. 6). Inscribed on the tokens are the words “Porfyr” and the obverse side and “Purfyrius” (Porphyruis the Charioteer) and “Fontanus” (the lead horse) on the reverse, crediting the medallion with its Byzantine origin or influence. Whether this medallion was produced in Germany or Byzantium is uncertain, but its presence in Northern Europe indicates is that the legendary acclamation of Byzantine athletes through the might of their physicality and corporeality – scions of a Greco-Roman tradition of imperium and athleticism – held force far beyond the walls of Constantinople.
Part V: Closing Remarks
Following the Nika Revolt of 532 under the reign of Justinian I, the once joyous and triumphant atmosphere at the Hippodrome was forever tainted. The mass slaughter of thirty thousand people in the stands over outrage to military tax hikes left the stadium’s imperial pride plagued with anger and bitterness, from which it never fully recovered. According to mid-sixth-century Byzantine chronicler John Malalas, no races were organized “for a long time” following the bloodshed. Centuries had passed since paganism had been outlawed, and after experiencing such domestic carnage, the people of Constantinople began to turn towards their Christian heritage for a fresh, new take on their Byzantine identity. The body athletic had fallen out of favour, replaced with more Christocentric imagery to establish a novel, pious identity for Byzantium.Used in the nascent times of the Byzantine Empire to solidify its imperial power, the body athletic carried its potent iconographical efficiency throughout early Byzantine culture and imprinted itself within scholarship
Used in the nascent times of the Byzantine Empire to solidify its imperial power, the body athletic carried its potent iconographical efficiency throughout early Byzantine culture and imprinted itself within scholarship guised under the body politic. It is my hope that this research paper has been able to illustrate their close relation (aiming to achieve the same ideological goal), but ultimately differentiate the two. The body politic personifies the glory of imperium through the emperor in relation to lesser others. The might of the emperor in visual imagery would not be as forceful if it were not for the figurative belittlement of other subjects depicted around him. In spite of the emperor’s exclusivity and imperial prestige, the body athletic does something quite different. The athlete’s body, harmonious and symmetrical, echoes the power of a non-imperial figure. While the athlete is a prime exemplar of human greatness, he may have begun with modest means and was not instantly blessed by the same divine affiliation the emperor was believed to possess. The power of the emperor would mean very little if his subjects could not feel that sense of power for themselves. The best medium through which the everyday Byzantine would understand the imperial virtues of bravery, strength and perseverance was through the might of the athlete, and not solely through that of the emperor.
 Newby, Zahra. Greek Athletics in the Ancient Roman World: Victory and Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 21-2.
 Ibid., 22.
 Epstein, Annabel & A. P. Kazhdan. Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 1.
 Potter, David. The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 309.
 The reigns of these two specific emperors between the early fourth and early sixth centuries denote the chronological endpoints of this paper’s discussion of Byzantine sport imagery. All the analyzed works of Byzantine art will have been produced during these two particular centuries.
 Poliakoff, Michael B. Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence and Culture. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 109.
 The body athletic is a term of my own invention. It is a metaphor akin to the body politic, and employs similar visual tactics to convey imperial power. The body athletic, as shall be thoroughly discussed hereafter, encompasses both physical and mental prowess in the face of athletic adversity to denote bodily and spiritual vigor, and by extension, the strength of the Byzantine Empire and the rectitude of its culture.
 Safran, Linda. “Points of View: The Theodosian Obelisk Base in Context,” Roman and Byzantine Studies 34.4 (Winter 1993), 409.
 Bassett, Sarah. “The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople,” Dumbarton Oak Papers 45 (1991), 92, 95-6.
 Safran, “Points of View”, 414.
 Ibid., 415-16.
 Ibid., 419-20.
 Ibid., 425.
 Ibid., 422.
 Bassett, “The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople”, 88.
 Cameron, Alan. Porphyrius: The Charioteer. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 4-5.
 Vasiliev, Alexander A. “The Monument of Porphyrius in the Hippodrome of Constantinople,” Dumbarton Oak Papers 4 (1948), 33.
 Cameron, Porphyrius, 12. Despite the implication that the “old” base was carved long before the “new” one, both these bases were in all likelihood produced within a year of each other, around 500 CE, when Porphyrius was believed by historians to be aged somewhere in his early twenties. The “old” base is speculated to be the newer of the pair, but is given its namesake due to the fact that it was first to be uncovered at the Seraglio. Both bases were commissioned by different circus factions, the “old” by the Blues and the “new” by the Greens. It must be borne in mind that every detail of the new base must have been known to the craftsmen making the old base, as the iconographic style of both bases bare significant resemblance to each other. Both bases are currently housed in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.
 Vasiliev, “The Monument of Porphyrius in the Hippodrome of Constantinople”, 34.
 Hatzaki, Myrto. Beauty and the Male Body in Byzantium: Perceptions and Representations in Art and Text. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 30, 32, 53.
 Cameron, Porphyrius, 17.
 Ibid., 31.
 Vasiliev, “The Monument of Porphyrius in the Hippodrome of Constantinople”, 32.
 Cameron, Porphyrius, 13.
 Ibid., 28.
 Hatzaki, Beauty and the Male Body in Byzantium, 49.
 Ibid., 52.
 Newby, Greek Athletics in the Ancient Roman World, 127-28.
 Cameron, Porphyrius, 26.
 Ibid., 26-7
 Safran, “Points of View”, 413.
 Potter, The Victor’s Crown, 311.
 Bassett, “The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople”, 93.
 It should be noted that while the emperor’s seat in the Hippodrome was clearly defined by the kathisma, it was most probably not visible to the audience on the entire southern side of the arena, therefore for the purpose of this portion of the paper, the emperor shall be discussed as another member of the audience.
 Skillen, Anthony. “Sport: An Historical Phenomenology,” Philosophy 68.265 (Jul. 1993), 347.
 Ibid., 367.
 Safran, “Points of View”, 424.
 Ibid., 423-25.
 Skillen, “Sport”, 354.
 Ibid., 352.
 Goodwin, Tony. “Arab-Byzantine Coins – The Significance of Overstrikes,” The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-) 161 (2001), 92.
 Cameron, Porphyrius, 5, 24.
 Ibid., 179.
Hatzaki, Beauty and the Male Body in Byzantium, 64