Sarah Bassett’s ‘The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople’

[Note: This is an informal and unpublished book review that I did for a graduate course a while back. I’m re-posting it here in the hope that it will be of some use to someone.]

Bassett, Sarah, The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xix + 291. Hardcover: $79, Paperback: $59. ISBN 978-0521030847.

Sarah Bassett’s The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople posits to examine the antiquities that were placed and arranged in Constantinople from the fourth to the sixth centuries. This is done in two major parts. The first half of the book is the argumentative section. Here, Bassett outlines the major programs of collection, divided into sections on Constantine, the Theodosians, the Lausos collection, as well as Justinian. Wisely choosing not to believe Eusebius’ statement that Constantine set up pagan monuments in Constantinople to be mocked, Bassett convincingly argues for a careful program of selection and placement of antiquities which was designed to give Constantinople an imperial history by creating stronger links with the great figures of Graeco-Roman antiquity (75-8). She outlines the development of the city and provides a good history of its often confusing foundation, but clearly demonstrates that the city was not designed to be a Christian capital, but rather one expressive of Constantine’s dynasty (71-3). Furthermore, she argues that when the Theodosians enacted laws against cult statues they defined the ones in Constantinople as art, allowing them to appeal to both pagans and Christians (112). Although these laws were empire-wide, they appear to have been more effective in Constantinople than elsewhere, as the city did not suffer from any of the violence against classical cult statues such as those in Gaza or Alexandria did (119-20). Under Justinian, Bassett argues that the program of collection was effectively abandoned, and the harmony of the earlier programs were damaged when he shifted works around the city (128-31).

The second half of the book is comprised of a catalogue of the known antiquities in Constantinople, and is prefaced by a brief discussion of methodology. While it is primarily made up of literary sources, archaeological evidence (usually accompanied with a plate), and drawn images of antiquities from the Ottoman era are all used. 179 antiquities appear, and it seems likely that this section of the book will remain a standard reference for some time to come. While some further discussion of the literary material would have been much appreciated, its inclusion may have simply repeated much of what has already been written in modern translations of the texts under scrutiny. Despite its important arguments and useful catalogue, there are a few issues of concern in this book.

An issue of some concern is Bassett’s treatment of the obelisks in the hippodrome in Constantinople. The “Built Obelisk” is not referred to during Constantine’s hippodrome construction program by Bassett, and it only appears in this book in the context of the Theodosian Egyptian obelisk (85-87). The problem that this creates is that Bassett shapes the history (which she admits is “obscure”, 86) to suit her thesis of the Theodosians continuing Constantine’s plans to reshape Constantinople in order to imitate Rome. As Rome was the only city in the empire with two obelisks in its circus, it seemed fitting that Constantinople should have two, which is what Bassett argues. The problem is that the evidence does not support this. The Chronicon Paschale, a good source for information on Constantinople, makes no mention of Constantine building an obelisk in the hippodrome, but instead only states that he filled it with works of bronze and constructed a box for imperial viewers to enjoy the games from (trans. Whitby and Whitby, Liverpool, p. 16). Similarly, Zosimus talks of sculpture and metalwork in the hippodrome, but no obelisk (trans. Ridley, Sydney, p. 38). Perhaps in a reflection of the sources, the catalogue that makes up the latter half of this volume says nothing whatsoever about the “Built Obelisk,” a curious omission if indeed it was part of the Constantinian or Theodosian decoration programs as Bassett asserts. While the actual history of the obelisk is very uncertain, the failure of late antique sources to make any mention of it, combined with literary material commemorating its redecoration by Constantine VII in the tenth century (“Hippodrome of Constantinople,” in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. Kazhdan) does suggest that it is a later creation. The main issue that this raises is one of attribution. Albeit most of the antiquities reported to have been in Constantinople are known only from scanty literary references, the blatant misuse of one of the most notable and visible monuments from pre-Ottoman Constantinople does raise questions about how Bassett uses some of the more obscure materials in relation to her thesis.

A number of especially relevant monuments are absent. The Column of Marcian does not receive even a mention in this volume, despite the fact that it is still standing today and has visible (though badly damaged) sculptural reliefs. Considering Marcian’s shaky elevation to the throne and loose connection to the Theodosian house, his choice to erect a column in an attempt to stamp his mark on Constantinople is not surprising. What is surprising is Bassett’s choice to simply skip this phase of the development of Constantinople and move on to Justinian’s program. Similarly, the so-called Column of the Goths is also neglected. It is located in an area in which Bassett notes the textual evidence is quite poor (26), but the importance of the column should not be understated for its direct relevant to Bassett’s thesis. If the column is that of Claudius II, it’s relevant given Constantine’s invented links to that dynasty. If it’s a column of Constantine’s, then it is part of imperial program of representation in the city and cannot be ignored.

Another curious absent monument is the aqueduct. Bassett’s focus is primarily on sculpture and other structures designed around an imperial propaganda program. Nonetheless, more mundane aspects of Constantinople receive some brief discussion onto how they fit with this scheme, such as various fora or the Theodosian walls. Given that the aqueducts that fed Constantinople were the largest ever constructed by the Romans and even today several hundred meters of it fly across a major roadway in Istanbul, the complete lack of any mention is notable. Fountains appear in the work, but Bassett gives no indication on where the water for those fountains came from. The omission of three major works, two of which were imperial works of art, which all have happened to survive to the present day is a significant problem. Given that any student or scholar who has done a decent tour of the Roman remains in Istanbul will have seen these monuments, Bassett’s choice to condemn them to silence and not even argue why she is not discussing them is a matter of concern for the integrity of the entire volume. It forces the reader to wonder just how many pieces of art she may be neglecting to mention from documents such as the Patria or the Parastaseis given how many significant standing remains were not mentioned at all.

As a physical volume, the book is solidly constructed, opens flat, and has a good selection of relevant and clear plates. The writing is clear and fluid, although the two sections are occasionally detached from one another. The argumentative portion of the book is filled with technical terms that would be familiar only to classicists and art historians, while the catalogue does a better job of explaining such terms. While this is probably most effective based upon the assumption that this book’s primary use is as a catalogue of antiquities in Constantinople, it may confuse those attempting to read the book cover to cover. The publishers should be commended for cleaning up the text in the argumentative section quite well: only a single error (the book read caraceres for carceres, 58) was found. However, they do not seem to have applied such exacting precision to the catalogue, where a few minor errors remain: psuedo for pseudo (p. 175) and PRLE for PLRE (182). A small homonymic problem appears on 227 where the text reads tales but should instead have tales. Curiously, Bassett refers to the Mango-Scott translation of Theophanes throughout, but the abbreviation she uses fails to appear in source abbreviation section, where instead she has a reference to Turtledove’s translation, which is surprising given the general low esteem in which scholars hold the latter.These sorts of faults cannot be assigned to the author, but rather to Cambridge University Press. Given the average price of their academic publications, particularly upon release, such minor errors are unforgivable and the expected editorial standard has not been met.

As a whole, this volume is a very important contribution to both our knowledge of the antiquities that were placed in Constantinople, as well as how the Constantinian, Theodosian, and Justinianic dynasties used those antiquities to foster a particular message about Roman imperialism. Students and scholars of the later fate of Roman art or propaganda and representation cannot afford to pass this volume by, despite its omissions. The catalogue will certainly see a great deal of use in the future, and it is a notable and useful contribution, although those who choose to use it merely as a reference volume will be missing out on a thoughtful and well-argued book.

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