S. BASSETT, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004. Pp. xxi + 291. ISBN 0-521-82723-X. STG £55 (Hb).
Review by David Woods
University College Cork
This is an informative and highly readable work whose title conceals its relevance to a far broader readership than specialists in late antiquity. When Constantine the Great refounded Byzantium as his capital in 324, he decided to adorn its public spaces with the finest sculptures available. So he sent his agents to various cities and sanctuaries throughout the empire in order to confiscate their sculptures. Later emperors followed suit as they expanded and adorned the city. The result was that Constantinople acquired many of the most famous sculptures in classical history. These included, for example, the serpent column which the Greek allies had dedicated to Apollo in his sanctuary at Delphi following their victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479BC. Hence this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the art-history of almost any period of classical antiquity.
The book falls into two parts. The first part (pp. 1-136) consists of an introduction followed by six chapters. Chapter 1, ‘The Shape of the City’, surveys the history of the pre-Constantinian city and discusses the expansion and reorganization of the city under Constantine. Chapter 2, ‘Creating the Collection’, discusses the acquisition and reuse of antique statuary in Constantinople by Constantine in general terms. Chapter 3, ‘The Constantinian Collections’, discusses the nature and purpose of the most important collections of sculpture gathered by Constantine, those set up in the baths of Zeuxipppos, the hippodrome, and in the forum of Constantine. Chapter 4, ‘Theodosian Constantinople’, discusses the expansion of the city and the renewed acquisition of antique statuary for its adornment during the Theodosian dynasty (379-450). Chapter 5, ‘The Lausos Collection’, examines the nature and purpose of the collection formed by the grand chamberlain Lausos c.420, perhaps the greatest private collection of antique statuary ever assembled. Finally, Chapter 6, ‘Justinian and Antiquity’, discusses the reuse of antique statuary by Justinian I (527-65) in some of his many building projects, the last emperor to have any serious impact on the physical appearance of the city.
The second part of this book (pp. 137-249) consists of a catalogue of all the classical sculptures ever known to have stood in Constantinople. The arrangement is alphabetical by topographical location. This section also contains 37 plates. For the most part, these are photographs not of the items that once graced Constantinople, but of pieces surviving in various museum collections where these are believed to bear a close resemblance to these lost items. Unfortunately, most of the antique statuary of Constantinople was destroyed either by the army of the Fourth Crusade when they took the city in 1204, or by the Turks when they took it in 1453. Hence any reconstruction of the collection of ancient statuary that once graced the city must rely primarily on literary sources. The major strength of the catalogue is that it provides an English translation of all the relevant primary sources at the head of each entry.
There are a few errors. The author claims that the relics of Ss. Timothy, Luke, and Andrew were transferred to Constantinople in 356 and 357 ‘from their original burial sites in the Holy Land’ (p. 136). In fact, the relics of Ss. Andrew and Luke were supposed to have been transferred from Patras and Thebes of Boeotia repectively, both in the province of Achaia, while the remains of St. Timothy were supposed to have originated from Ephesus in the province of Asia. Furthermore, the extensive list of primary sources cited for the column of Constantine (pp. 192-99) fails to include Philostorgius, HE 2.17, his infamous allegation that the Christians of his day c.425 used to offer sacrifices to the statue of Constantine at the top of his column.
In conclusion, Bassett has produced an extremely useful volume which should appeal to a wide range of readers, both because of the nature of its contents and because of the highly accessible style in which she writes throughout.