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The hippodrome


“We fled the soldiers pursuing us by running towards the large stadium a few blocks away.  The cheering we heard roaring from within its massive facade told us we could lose ourselves in the crowd if we could only make it inside before being caught.  Darting into one of the arched entranceways, we stormed the gloomy main aisle where we pushed and threaded our way through the thicket of people bunched together in front of the dozens of concession stands lining the walls.  Spotting a stairwell, we bolted up the steps two at a time before once again finding ourselves in sunlight.  Gasping for breath, I followed Peter down a marble staircase that lead to a parapet at the base of the bleachers.  There, we sped to another set of steps that we briefly climbed before exiting onto a random row of seats where we slid past the cheering throng and squeezed ourselves into an open spot halfway down the row.


Furiously clapping in an effort to blend in, Peter shouted at me to do the same.  After waiting what seemed an interminable amount of time, we concluded that the danger had past and for the first time since entering this arena we could finally relax.”

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Like the ancient city of Constantinople itself, very little remains of its hippodrome. Outside two obelisks, the lower portion of a serpentine column and the ruins of the sphendone no other trace of the grand stadium still exists - at least in situ.  Marble fragments and bits of sculpture can be found in museums but the only thing within the footprint of the hippodrome today is Sultanahmet Square. Because of this, I not only needed to rely on the archeological reconstructions of others, but add a great deal of my own ideas as to what a 6th century visitor to the hippodrome might have experienced.  Of the three paintings in this triptych, the hippodrome painting was the most challenging and the most fun to create.  


Chariot racing in the 6th century was as important to the people of Constantinople as football is for many people today - perhaps even more so.  The races had been such an integral part of Roman culture that over time factions developed that allowed a fan of the sport to identify with and support a particular team.  Originally there were four factions: the Reds, the Whites, the Blues and the Greens but by the 6th century there were only two.  The Blues absorbed the Whites while the Greens incorporated the Reds.  By the time of Justinian I, the Blues where typically supported by the upper classes while the Greens got the majority of their support from the working class.  This factionalism wasn’t restricted to just chariot racing but rather became a dominant feature of everyday life.  It affected who your friends were, where you shopped, dictated your religious beliefs and even played a role in the Nika revolt.  Because of this extreme fealty to the factions, it could make life very difficult or even dangerous for a person who happened to wander into the wrong part of town.  I’m mentioning this idea of factionalism because as you will see, it is an ever present theme throughout the painting of the hippodrome.

Points of Interest

1. References to the Factions

In Constantinople, the seating in the stands were divided between the Greens and the Blues.  The Blues occupied the seats between the carceres and the kathisma on the NE side of the stadium and the NE half of the SW side. The rest were occupied by the Greens.

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A rough approximation.  This sketch from Wikipedia has elements in slightly different places than I have them portrayed in the painting.

Because it was entirely likely that fights could break out between the factions, I thought it a good idea to include physical barriers that kept the two sides apart.

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A fence on the left side.

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Two gates on the right side.

The differences extend to the people on the racetrack as well.  The tunic the charioteers are wearing alternate between blue and green, the two banner carriers are wearing garments with the color of the their faction and the banners they are carrying show the mascot for their particular team. The rest of the ground crew wear garments that are either in the style of the Blue team or the Green. 

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I've also shown a difference in the color schemes between the icon tapestries for each faction and the handmade banners draped over the railing that taunt the other side in Latin and Greek.

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Besides factionalism, Christianity was an ever present part of everyday life. Images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or saints would have been found throughout the city no matter whether the location was secular or sacred.

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Since I understand neither Latin nor Greek, I typed taunts like "Death to the Blues" into Google translate and painted the result.  I'm sure what I've painted is close to gibberish.  To those of you who do understand those languages, I extend my sincerest apologies.

2. Differences Between the Classes

I mentioned earlier that during this time the Blues were primarily upper class while the Greens were working class.  This didn't mean they were exclusively that way.  Like modern political parties, they had wealthy and poor members on both sides of the divide. Keeping that in mind, I designed the layout of the stadium so it would reflect that class distinction.  On either side of the kathisma are fenced seating areas with actual seats and armrests (unlike the bleachers everyone else has to sit on). Each side is occupied by the wealthy and well connected members of that particular faction.  There's a door visible on the side of the kathisma, implying that it is through this door that these upper class seats are reached. Therefore, in order to gain access to them you had to have an affiliation with the emperor.

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On the left side of the stadium are two pavilions. Like the upper class seats on the right, these pavilions are reserved exclusively for the upper class members of the two factions; the Greens closest to us and the Blues behind that. 

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Another visual difference between the upper and lower classes is the upper class people aren't cheering but instead act rather aloof.

3. The Carceres

The carceres was the slightly curved building from which the chariot races began.  It consisted of twelve gated cells (cerceres means "prison cell" in latin) flanking a processional archway in the center.  Behind the carceres were stables, corrals and an oval training arena.


At the top of the middle tower were four bronze horses that were probably sculpted originally as a quadriga pulling a chariot.  The origin of the horses is unknown but they were at least a couple of centuries older than the hippodrome itself. As a result of the sacking of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade in 1204 CE the horses (along with many other artistic treasures) were looted and brought back to Venice. The horses can be seen today inside St. Marks basilica in Venice.

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The collars around the horses necks where added after they were brought to Venice.  In order to get the horses aboard ship from Constantinople, their heads had to be cut off then reattach later.  The collars hide the seam. credit

No one has been able to figured out how the mechanism that operated the starting gates worked.  One idea is that they used layers of dried animal sinew like a wound up rubber band as a kind of spring loaded hinge.  I actually watched a documentary that tried to recreate this kind of theoretical mechanism but the results were less than underwhelming. I came up with an idea of my own as to how they might have operated and hinted at that idea in the painting.  When I get some free time I'm going to make a proof of concept prototype by reusing the model I made of the carceres for my film.

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Another feature of the carceres was the lap counter that aided the charioteers. Each race (and there where several throughout the day) consisted of seven laps around the track. On each end of the spina (which I will talk about below) was a lap counter for the spectators to keep track of the race by but on the carceres itself where seven egg shaped orbs that aided the drivers. It was easier for them to see how many laps were left by looking at the remaining eggs on the carceres than the counters whizzing past them on the spina.

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4. The Kathisma

The kathisma was a large building built into the side of the hippodrome. It more or less served as the royal residence for the emperor while he attended the races as well as other events held within the stadium.  Needless to say it had the best seats in the house. The finish line just happened to be right in front of it. The kathisma was comprised of several rooms that served duties ranging from dining to greeting guests but the predominant feature of the building was the covered porch that served as a private loge from which the emperor could view the races. Above this loge was a veranda from which members of the royal family or other privileged guests could watch the festivities and below was one the four "gates" that lined the stadium. This one in particular was called the Karea Gate and lead directly to the walled palace region located along side the hippodrome.  


On the roof of the kathisma were equestrian statues of the emperors Diocletian and Justinian I. To the right of the Karea Gate was the judges tent which had representatives from both factions officiating over the races. 

5. The Spina

The spina or "spine" was the barrier that divided the two sides of the racetrack.  Reports conflict on how tall this barrier actually was.  In certain paintings and in movies such as Beh Hur, the spina is portrayed as this massive overbuilt island in the middle of the arena.  While visually dramatic it wouldn't have made much sense in the real world to construct something so large that it would keep half the race from being seen by most of the people sitting in the stands.  It's more likely that it was just tall enough to serve its intended purpose and no higher.

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Chariot Race by Alexander von Wagner 1873 credit

6. Meta

At both ends of the spina were semicircular pylons with three golden cones perched on top.  These were called the meta and are what the charioteers had to maneuver around in order to change direction on the racetrack.  If a crash was going to happen, it was practically guaranteed to happen around one of these. 

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These were my primary reference sources for the design of the metas in the painting.

7. Lap Counters

Close to the ends of the spina were lap counters. One in the form of eggs which were lowered one at a time after each lap and the other in the form of stylized dolphins which were tipped forward, allowing water to spill out of their mouths.  In the early days of Roman chariot racing, both counters used sculpted egg shapes but sometime around 33 BCE the dolphin shape was introduced. In the actual hippodrome of Constantinople, the dolphin counters would have been where I have the egg counters and vice versa. I placed them where I did because I thought they looked better that way. Can't let reality get in the way of aesthetics : )

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8. The Obelisk of Theodosius I

The only object to remain relatively intact from the days of the hippodrome is the obelisk of Theodosius I. Originally erected at the temple of Karnak in Egypt in the 15th century BCE, it was taken by Constantius II and moved to Alexandria where it remained for several decades before being moved to Constantinople by Theodosius I and erected on the spina in 390 CE. In its original form, the obelisk was about 30 meters taller but the lower portion was either accidentally broken or intentionally cut to the size we see today.  More likely it was broken which explains the overly large, multi sectional pedestal its sits on. It needed that extra height in the base to keep the obelisk from looking weirdly disproportionate. Carved into the pedestal are scenes from the hippodrome. On the very bottom is a bas relief of a chariot race on the south face and the erection of the obelisk on the north.  Above that is a bas relief of "Theodosius I bestowing a crown of victory to a charioteer with a crowd of spectators, musicians and dancers assisting in the ceremony." credit

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The pedestal is the primary resource for what we think parts of the hippodrome might have looked like. Its crudely sculpted and is weather worn by time but it still gives us tantilizing clues as to what certain features looked like such as decorative marbel panels and metalwork railings.  Below is what I used as reference for the marble and metal railings seen throughout the painting.

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9. Masonry Obelisk

Located in the very center of the spina was a 32 meter obelisk made of brick and sheathed in brass plating. In an attempt to create a hippodrome that mirrored the Circus Maximus in Rome (which had its own obelisk in the center of its spina), this masonry monument was probably one of the first things erected in the arena. There's debate as to whether the obelisk of Theodosius was meant to eventually replace the masonry obelisk but that plans were scrapped once the lower half broke off. Though plausible, this is unlikely given the Circus Maximus had two obelisks along its spina as well.

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10. Other Tall Columns

The spina was comprised of seven water filled pools.  I tried to design the layout of my spina so that each pool had a dominant sculptural or architectural feature in the center of it.  In two of the pools I've placed tall columns with the  emperors Constantine I and Arcadius posed on top.  As it turns out, by the 17th century many of the larger monuments along the spina where still intact and it was a woodblock engraving of two of these columns that I used as reference.  

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Column of Constantine, Obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpent Column, Column of Arcadius

by Salomon Schweigger 1608 credit

11. The Labors of Heracles

The Labors of Heracles were twelve tasks given to Heracles to atone for his sin of murdering his wife and children. In the painting I have depicted three of these labors, the most prominent being the aftermath of labor number five, the Cleaning of the Augean Stables. A participant in the 4th Crusade named Nicetas Choniates gave a description of this sculpture with impossibly large dimensions. For example he described Heracles' thumb as being so large that a man's belt could barely equal its circumference.

This sculpture is believed to have been created in the 4th century BCE by the Greek sculptor Lysippus to be placed on the acropolis of Tarentum in southern Italy. A century later it was taken to Rome where it remained for about five hundred years before eventually being relocated to Constantinople by Constantine I. First to a basilica then later to the hippodrome. credit


I decided to make my version of Heracles a more manageble scale.

12. The Phialé

An indispensable resource for me in creating this painting was a short work written by 19th century American author Edwin Augustus Grosvenor.  It's called "The Hippodrome of Constantinople and its Still Existing Monuments".  The most remarkable thing about this book is in it he describes features of the Hippodrome (and the spina in particular) that I haven't been able to corroborate anywhere else. Whether he was privileged with information no one else had or he just had a vivid imagination didn't really matter to me. In either case his descriptions made my job a whole lot easier.  One instance in particular is his description of what he calls the "Phialé". A phialé is a shallow Greek bowl resembling a Roman patera and according to Grosvenor there was a spot along the spina that had "a broad, round basin of running water.  This water was devoted to the victims of accidents, and was of frequent use."  He then goes on to describe the marble structure that surrounded this basin.  It's from his description that I designed what's in the painting.


There's a few Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the statuary along the spina.  The Apollo Belvedere atop this structure is one of them.

13. Other Statuary

Below are statues named in written sources that are interspersed with statues I added to fill space.

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1. She-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.

2. The Goddess Diana

3. The Wrestlers

4. One of the eight Egyptian Sphinxes

5. Castor and Pollux

6. The weathervane

7. The Poisoned Bull

8. Plutus

9. The Serpent Column

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10. Hecate

11. Elephant

12. Heracles Fighting the Nemean Lion

13. The Brazen Ass with Rider

14. Eagle and Serpent

15. Bear

16. Maiden holding an armed horseman            on his steed

17. The Calydonian Boar

18. Heracles fighting The Lernaean Hydra

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14. Chariots

The chariots used in racing were nothing like the lumbering war chariots we see in movies such as Ben Hur.  The whole point of the race was to be as fast as possible and to maximize speed the chariots themselves where designed to be as light as they could be without falling apart.  In fact, driving one of these actual racing chariots would have been far more terrifying than the kind seen in the film.  There aren't any surviving racing chariots from this time period so I designed my chariots after the one depicted in this 2000 year old toy chariot discovered in the Tiber River. credit

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As if speeding around a racetrack on one of these flimsy contraptions wasn't dangerous enough, the charioteers of this time didn't hold the reigns to their horses but had them tied securely around their waists.  In the event of a collision; resulting in one of them being ejected from his chariot and dragged across the ground by his horses, the driver had to reach for a knife that was strapped to his leg and cut himself free before being trampled to death by the other horses around him.

15. Porphyrius

And finally we come to Porphyrius whose presence in the painting is what it is all about.  He's the reason the crowds are cheering so enthusiastically and why he has the distinguished place of honor as the leader of the other chariots.

Porphyrius was unquestionably the most celebrated and decorated charioteer in the entirety of the Byzantine era.  His victories made him beloved by both factions no matter who he was racing for.  A fact that enabled him to switch his allegiance between the Blues and the Greens on a regular basis - sometimes on the same day.  There was an honor given to a charioteer who won the Diversium.  To win this honor, a charioteer had to win a race as a driver for the Blues then win another race as a driver for the Greens on that very same day.  Porphyrius won that honor twice on the same day meaning he raced for the Blues, did the same thing for the Greens then switched back the Blues and then the Greens again - winning each time. He was the only charioteer in history to ever do that.


While the other charioteers are waving at the crowds, I wanted Porphyrius to be all business.

Note the reigns tied around his waist.

The greatest praise a charioteer could receive was a monument built in his honor.  This usually happened after he finished a long career as a decorated driver.  Living to retirement age, however, (usually mid 50's to mid 60's) wasn't something most drivers were able to do so having one monuments built in their honor was rare enough.  Over the course of Porphyrius' career he had seven.  All were displayed at the ends of the spina and were placed there by both the Blue and Green factions.

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All that remains of the monuments to Porphyrius.

Istanbul Archeological Museums.

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