Art Monuments and Sites

The Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs.

In my humble opinion, I believe that more than any other empire in history, both Rome and Byzantium are best understood through its art and monuments. Almost every piece of art, whether a monument, sculpture or mosaic can tell us a story about the period of history they represent. All the famous statues of Emperors share the same images of power. Personal vanity of generals, statesmen and emperors are seen in many examples, such as the Equestrain Statue of Marcus Aurelius to the great head of the Colossal Statue of Constantine.

One of the most interesting statues ever commissioned or created is that of the Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs. It is one of the best examples of shared power. It was designed to emphasis the union of the four emperors and their uncompromising stance in the face of internal and external pressures.

Some art historians believe that this portrait seems contrived and awkward. Maybe there is a little bit of awkwardness in their stature. After all the empire had just come out of the crisis of the third century and the hopes or success of the empire hinged on this unity? Emperors are human too, right? Though there are those who also view the statue as a contradiction. How can the four emperors be embraced and yet grasp their swords ready for war?

Diocletian’s creation of the Tetrarchy, the rule of four, was his response to the size of the empire. He believed it was too vast for one Emperor to rule the whole Roman world, particular with so many new threats (from barbarians) along the length and breadth of its borders. Two senior emperors (Augusti) would rule, one in the west and the other in the east, each with a junior emperor (Caesar) to rule underneath or along side them. The model would allow for the junior emperors to succeed their senior counterpart upon their death, and in turn appoint a new junior emperor, continuing the smooth transition of power.

The Tetrarchy was short lived and very quickly became unstable, as the four emperors sought to take power for themselves after Diocletian and Maximian retired or stood down. This tetrarchy lasted until around 324 AD, when following Licinius’ defeat and execution, Constantine suspended the tetrarchy system to rule the empire alone. It is assumed he had intentions to revive a similar system by appointing his sons to share power after his death.

What I love about the Tetrarchs statue is that all four emperors appear united and very alike. Individualism is rejected for a state of conformity. They are dressed in the traditional dress of military commanders with tunics and swords in hand. They all have short hair, severe faces and large eyes. Two emperors have a hinted beard, though this was apparently a later addition. Originally all four emperors had smooth faces. In all honesty I quite like the hinted-at beards of the two senior Augusti ! The choice of red Porphyry also gives off a purplish colour signifying the imperial purple of emperors.

The sculpture was originally set up at a road junction on the Philadelphion in Constantinople. Our friends the Venetians plundered the statue during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It was embedded in the wall of the Treasury of San Marco (see image below). In an amazing archeological find in the 1960’s, the missing original heel of one of the emperors (on the far right) was discovered. This portion of the statue resides in the Istanbul Archeology Museum.


The Statue of Tetrarchy is located embedded in the wall of the Treasury of San Marco.
Photo credit: All photos used here are by Nino Barbieri and are used under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license. 

6 comments on “The Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs.

  1. This is a great post, while I was reading I remember, that I read about this emperors before, about the statues and about the foot missing, but this post refresh my memory, love to learn something every day, thank you for the post!!! 😄😄😄

  2. Great post, an amazing piece of art. And relating to that bottom pic, I immediately said, holy crap, that kid on the left is wearing an Edguy shirt!

  3. Maybe instead of awkwardly embracing, they’re about to strangle each other?

  4. I see them as not embracing but as pulling each other closer for consultation on deep topics. It’s great how many ways it can be interpreted.

  5. It’s a damn shame that someone was so hateful enough to mindlessly chop off the lips and noses on this lovely historical monument. There seems to be a concerted effort to either deliberately destroy or alter the African-looking appearances of ancient and medieval personalities depicted on such structures. From priceless relics of ancient Egyptian history to those of the Biblical Hebrews, the war on BLACK LIPS and NOSES have been relentless! I wonder why?

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