A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 10 Constantine The Builder!

In our modern age, Presidents, Prime Ministers and other leaders who serve in political office often hope that they leave behind an enduring legacy when they retire, resign or are defeated (generally in an election). Roman emperors were not much different to our modern politicians. They sort things like conquest and wealth, however if they truly wanted to be remembered they undertook audacious building projects that would survive long after they were gone.

Augustus claim to fame was that he had ‘found Rome of brick and left it in marble’. While Emperor Vespasian could certainly lay claim to commissioning the biggest amphitheatre ever built and arguably the most famous of all Roman buildings: the Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum. Hadrian too, was no slouch, famous for his long continuous defensive land wall in the north of Britain known as Hadrian’s Wall. However, possibly his greatest achievement was the temple of all the Gods, better known as the Pantheon.

In the same vain as his predecessors, Constantine’s building programmes were also vast and spectacular. Whether it was a bathhouse, a secular building or triumphant arch, he spared no expense in restoring the glory and splendor to the empire’s capitals, in Rome and Constantinople and many towns across the empire. For Constantinople, in particular, Constantine ransacked works of art and temple statues to adorn his new capital. Without a doubt, Constantinople would have to be his greatest achievement. Surely, he must have smirked proudly during its dedication in early May 330 AD. To rebuild Constantinople from a humble small town into what would later through the centuries become a metropolis is quite impressive. The city by the Bosphorus will come to play a pivotal role in the empire’s history.

Interestingly, Constantine’s legacy is still dotted throughout modern day Istanbul, even though most of his original vision has vanished. One landmark that still bares any resembles to fourth century Constantinople is Constantine’s Column.

The column, made of ten porphyry drums or blocks, once supported a bronze statue of the emperor showing him as the pagan god ‘Apollo’. Unfortunately, the staue itself was torn down by a storm in 1106 CE.

Originally it stood at about 50 metres in height, which included both the marble base and the statue on top. Legend has it that underneath the column, Constantine had buried important relics such as, the nails of the cross, Noah’s axe and a small statue of the Roman goddess Pallas Athena.

In a stark abandonment of over three centuries of imperial policy, Constantine gave the Christian Church pride of place in his building plans by erecting church after church across the empire. Falling short of razing the old Roman buildings and temples to the ground, he simply stopped funding their repair and maintenance and gave ludicrous amount of money from the imperial treasury to bishops to build churches. All, of course, funded by the heavy taxes payed by the people of the empire.

Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helena, also took advantage of the state’s treasury. The Emperor, according to historian Eusebius, gave his mother full authority over the states treasury to spend money however she saw fit when it came to building programmes across the empire. According to legend, on her visit to the Holy Land, she was responsible for the construction and decoration of the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem and the Church of the Mount of Olives. With Helena in the Holy Land, she also gave projects like the construction of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of Christ’s tomb) the added impetus it needed. Constantine had begun the construction of the Holy Sepulchre around about the time of the conclusion of the First Council of Nicaea. It was a project that he took great personal interest in.

Elsewhere around the empire, Constantine commissioned or personally had involvement in the building of Churches in centres like Nicomedia, Tier, Ostia, and Naples to name a few. The churches of Rome and Constantinople, in particular, were filled with gorgeous objects of gold and silver, beautiful mosaics and marble. The churches of Constantinople we will discuss at a later date, but it is worth mentioning three of Constantine’s greatest churches he built at Rome, that being St.Peter’s Basilica, the Lateran Basilica and the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. St.Peter’s, in particular, was a remarkable basilicia built on the most challenging of sites. Underneath the huge complex is the martyred shrine of the saint.

Unfortunately today, very little of the opulence of Constantine’s churches remain. The passage of time, natural disasters, fire, plunder and over a millennium of reconstruction, in particular by later emperors, for their own prestige, has robbed us of what his churches may have looked like. The modern day Basilica’s of St.Peter, the Lateran and the Santa Croce, would be unrecognizable to Constantine today.


An illustration showing the remains of the Baths of Constantine in the sixteenth century. The complex was once situated on the Quirinal Hill in Rome. The entrance of the baths were flanked by impressive horse tamer statues. 

However, we still have some reminders today of Constantine’s building achievements in places around Rome, Tier, in Germany and Arles, in France. At Rome, Constantine’s baths are long gone, but his statues of horse tamers, which flanked their entrance, are all that remain of the bath complex. These equestrian statues now reside in front of the Quirinal Palace.


Arch of Constantine. Image by Adrian Pingstone. 

The famous Arch of Constantine which was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate his victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge sits proudly besides the Colosseum. Another arch, likely to be associated with Constantine, is the so called Arch of Janus. The four fronted, four-arched design was built to possibly also commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius ? (See below)


Arch of Janus. 


The Basilicia of Maxentius and Constantine in Rome. 

One of Constantine most impressive secular buildings in Rome, is the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. Also known as the Basilica Nova, it is Rome’s largest basilicia, started by Maxentius and extensively realigned, completed and refurbished by Constantine. It was simply one of the most impressive buildings from late anquity. The northern aisle is all that remains of the basilicia. It was also in the apse of the basilicia that the Colossus of Constantine once resided. It was here that the fragments of the statue were later found and removed by artist Michelangelo to the nearby Palazzo dei Conservatori. Today, Constantine’s statue is in the Capitoline Museum.

Another notable building constructed between 326-330 was the Mausoleum of Helena. Originally intended as a tomb for Constantine, it was assigned to his mother, Helena, on her death. It is situated along the Via Labicana. (see below)


Mausoleum of Helena.


Imperial Baths of Trier. 

Outside Rome, at Tier and Arles, are two bath complex, both declared to be part of a World Heritage Site. During Constantine’s reign, the bathhouse in Arles formed part of an Imperial palace known as Palais Constantine. Still visible today, you can see the hot rooms, the pools and ventilation systems. In Trier, stands some of the largest and best preserved baths of the Roman Empire. Once home to Constantine, he embarked on a massive reconstruction project of the city, which included the Imperial Baths of Trier (which may not have been completed when he finally left Trier) and the Basilicia of Constantine.

The Basilicia of Constantine, also known as the Basilicia of Augusta Trevirorum was very likely begun by Constantine’s father Constantius Chlorus. Trier was Constantius’ capital when he was Caesar (junior emperor) and later Augustus of the West, in the tetrarchy created by Diocletian. When Constantius lavishly adorned his new capital, among the new structures was the Basilicia. However, Constantine is credited for completing the basilicia when he held court at Trier between 306-12 AD. Built of solid red brick, it was the Audience Hall of his palace. Amazingly many small sections of the walls and ceilings of Constantine’s creation can be seen still today. Once magnificently covered in marble and mosaics, today it is a completely plain Lutheran Church.


The Basilicia of Augusta Trevirorum.

It is a shame that most of Constantine’s building achievements have disappeared. Though, we all should be thankful for what still exists today. They are a wonderful reminder of not only the glory of Rome, but the majesty of Constantine himself. Historian Michael Grant possibly best sums up Constantine’s building achievements by saying that Constantine’s prolific Church building programmes and other buildings “amounted to an architectural revolution…”.

Photo Credits: The header image is a painting showing a cutaway view of Constantine’s Old St.Peter’s Basilica as it possibly looked in the fourth century. All images in are the public domain.
Notes and Further Reading:
Marco Bussagli (Ed), Rome: Art and Architecture, Konemann, 2004.
Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
Nigel Rodgers, Roman Architecture, Southwater, 2009.

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