Hippodrome is a compound name consisting of Greek words Hippos (Horse) and dromos (Road, race, race track), and it means the place for the horse and chariot races. Hippodromes, which are critical social centers of ancient cities, has also witnessed various activities such as gladiator fights, various acrobatics, and dance performances, animal struggles, and exhibiting exotic animals in addition to the races with quadrigae drawn by four horses. The Hippodrome of Constantinople is considered the heart of the city in Antiquity, played an active role in urban life until the end of the 12th century.

Hippodrome of Constantinople

Hippodrome of Constantinople, one of the masterpieces of Late Antiquity architecture, which witnessed countless events in its centuries-old history, was located in the square known as Horse Square in the Ottoman Period and Sultanahmet Square today. We know that the earliest version of the Hippodrome goes back to the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD). Back then, the city’s name was Byzantium, and that makes the Hippodrome the earliest surviving Roman structure of Istanbul.

Constantine the Great and Hippodrome

The fate of the Byzantium, changed in 330 when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (324-337) decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire to this city. By this move, the city, which we call Constantinople from now on, has become the center of the Late Ancient world and the new capital city for the Roman Empire. Constantinople remained as the capital of the Roman Empire for 1123 years, and the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 470 years. Constantine expanded the old, smaller Hippodrome. It became the largest Hippodrome of the Ancient Age, with a measurement of approximately 45,000 square meters.

According to the records, the Hippodrome of Constantinople has a “U” shaped arena of approximately 429 m length and 119 m width. However, it is not possible to reach a certain number regarding the size of the researches. The “Sphendone” part, which is the return part of the Hippodrome, is still visible today. Opposite of the Sphendone was a monumental gate, Carceres, designed to allow chariots to start in 12 lanes. The horses of the bronze chariot statue on this monumental gate were smuggled to Venice during the Latin invasion and are still in St. Mark’s Square.

On the sides of the Hippodrome were staggered steps (with a capacity of 80,000 people, according to some researchers), with about 30,000 seats. The emperors and the aristocrats of the city were watching the races from the balcony, which was the transition to the imperial palace called “Kathisma.” The teams were watching the leaders and fans from the stands next to Kathisma.

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Hippodrome and Social Life

The Hippodrome of Constantinople played a vital role in the daily life of the people living here. These races, held with two-wheeled chariots drawn by four horses called quadriga, were held between four parties named Greens, Blues, Reds, and Whites, but mainly between Blues and Greens. These parties, in connection with artisans’ guilds, had certain roles in the city’s social life, such as civil defense and reconstruction.

Many uprisings in Constantinople started in Hippodrome and with the organization of these parties. The most important of these revolts would be the Nika Revolt against the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Although the church considered Hippodrome entertainment as a bad legacy of the pagan past, the activities lasted until 1261.

In the middle of the Hippodrome, “Spina” was made about 2 m wide and 3-4 m high to divide the track in two. Although many monuments and sculptures on Spina are in the sources of the period, only the Serpentine Column, Walled Column, and Obelisk have reached to date.

Serpent Column (Twisted Column)

The only thing from the Serpent column that we can view today is the body. The heads are unfortunately missing. In the original, we know that the work was a three-foot incense cauldron of the ancient period that the three snakes carried on their heads. In memory of the Greeks defeating Persians in Platea, this column cast by melting the bronze weapons of Persian soldiers, and it was a gift to Apollon. Constantine brought it from the temple of Apollo in Delphi. The names of the 31 Greek city-states fighting allies against the Persians were initially visible on the column, and it is still possible to read them today. One of the heads of the snakes is on display at the Istanbul Archeology Museum today.

Obelisk (Obelisk of Theodosius I)

The Egyptian obelisk erected by Pharaoh III in 1450 BC. It was one of the two obelisks built in the name of Tutmosis and placed in the Amon-Ra temple in Karnak. Constantine decided to bring one of these obelisks to Rome and the other to his new capital, but the project was incomplete after his death. Later, his son, Constantius II, brought the obelisk to Alexandria, and it was up to Julian (361-363) to bring the stone to Constantinople by sea.

The obelisk was erected in 390 by Theodosius I in the Hippodrome. The pedestal of the 20 m high obelisk consisting of two parts is Byzantine, and the solid pink marble itself is an Egyptian work. This obelisk, which is shorter than its twin in Rome, was most likely broken during the transportation or erection process and cut from the bottom. In the reliefs on the base of the Obelisk, the story of the stone erection is still visible.

Walled Column (Constantinus Porphyrogenes Column)

The third monument that survives in the Hippodrome today is the walled obelisk built in the 10th century on the side of sphendone. This 32 m high column was made by carving stones of different sizes. The obelisk had bronze plates covering it entirely, and the bronze coatings of this obelisk were dismantled and melted by the Latins occupying the city and used for weapon casting.

We know from a marble inscription in which the name of Constantine mentioned on its base, to create a more spectacular work than a large monument in Rhodes in the 5th century.

As far as we know from the sources, there were many more sculptures on the spina. On the two sides of the racetrack (pelma), which was about 80 m wide, there were rows of seats in the form of tribunes, rising 30 to 40 steps. Archaeologists unearthed some of these steps in 1950 during the excavations on the north-west side of the Hippodrome. During the Nika uprising that began in the sixth century destroyed the wooden rows and was renovated as marble by Justinian.

Various events such as weddings and circumcision ceremonies, various entertainments, horse races, and javelin competitions were some of the events at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The Ottomans called it the Horse Square, and it was the largest square in the city. This area witnessed numerous political uprisings.