The Forum of Constantine was the largest square in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire in late antiquity. Eastern Rome, known as the “Byzantine Empire” in modern history, had iconic structures built by Emperor Constantine. The most important of these were the Great Palace, the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Forum of Constantine.
In this article, you can find information about the history and architecture of the Forum of Constantine, the most important square in Constantinople. We will also note the facts about the Column of Constantine, which was erected in the heart of the square by the Romans. According to tradition, there were the holy relics of Christianity buried under this column.
Forum of Constantine and its Purple Column is located in Istanbul today and is known as Cemberlitas. In order to tell the story of the Forum and the Column, we will have to go on a journey through history.
Emperor Constantine the Great
Emperor Constantine had a special place in history as he was the first Roman Emperor to accept Christianity. Having a polytheistic belief, the Roman Empire entered a new period with the reign of Constantine and completed its religious transformation in the following 50 years. (until Emperor Theodosius)
The reforms made by Constantine determined the future of the world and laid the foundations for a new Eastern-centered empire (Byzantine Empire). The ancient capital of Rome, endangered by the endless attacks of the barbarians, lost its importance in the time of Constantine and was replaced by Constantinople.
Constantinople, The New Capital
Constantine’s being the only emperor after the end of the Tetrarchy (Rule of Four) marked a change. Tetrarchy, brought by Emperor Diocletian, lasted only two generations and was replaced by a single emperor. The Emperor Constantine, who was highly respected by the legions that made up the Roman armies, had infinite power after defeating his last rival, Licinius. He was the sole ruler of the Roman lands from Spain to Mesopotamia.
The first thing that Constantine did was to leave Rome, the symbol of the old empire worn out by civil wars. He wanted to establish a capital closer to the trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is rumored that Constantine reviewed Nicomedia and Troy for this purpose. However, he ultimately decided on Byzantium, a small Greek colony. Byzantium is the first hill of Istanbul where historical artifacts such as Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia are located today.
With the order of Emperor Constantine, the construction of the new capital lasted between 324 and 330. The city, named as “New Rome”, would be similar to Rome, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire. Architects, engineers and artists flocked to the new city. At the end of a feverish work, the construction of the new capital was completed on May 11, 330.
Founded roughly on the borders of today’s Sultanahmet area, Constantinople did not cover the entire Historical Peninsula at the time. The city, which was growing and getting richer, was expanded in the time of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450). The famous city walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Walls) were built in 413 and the development of the historical city, which we know as the Historical Peninsula, was completed.
The Forum of Constantine in Constantinople
Many monumental buildings were added to the city during the construction of the New Rome. The main ones were of course the Great Palace, the Church of the Holy Apostles, the Hippodrome and the Forum of Constantine. Not much has remained from these first monumental structures of the city to the present day. However, the Column of Constantine (locally known as Cemberlitas or Burnt Column), which adorns the center of the Forum of Constantine, can still be seen.
When we look at these structures built in the early period of the city, we see that the emperor places great importance on the new capital. He wanted the city to be as magnificent and as sacred as Rome. The Great Palace where the emperors would live and the Hippodrome where the races would be held were built side by side. In addition, The Forum of Constantine, a giant square where people will come together, was designed. A church dedicated to the disciples of Jesus was built to attribute holiness to the city. This building called the Church of the Holy Apostles would also be the mausoleum of Constantine.
However, in Roman culture, where monumental columns were very important, we see that some sort of holiness was attributed to The Forum of Constantine. Because, according to the Christian historians, some sacred relics were buried under the column in the Forum of Constantine. The wooden handle of the ax that allowed Noah to build his ship, the rock from which Moses gushed water, and a piece of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified were buried under the column. Of course, none of these rumors have been proven. However, it still adds some kind of mystery to the Column of Constantine.
The Column of Constantine
Constantine was described as a Christian ruler from the point of view of Christian historians of the period. However, when we examine what Constantine did, we see that he had a unique religious understanding. Christianity, suppressed by the Roman emperors for years, was just released with Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313). In this period when religious lines were still ambiguous, we see that Constantine had a policy that reconciles old and new religion. Constantine did not reject the symbols of the Roman people’s pagan past in the transition to Christianity.
The reflections of this transition period were hidden in The Column of Constantine in the Roman Forum. There was a Statue of Apollo at the top of the column, believed to have been brought from Troy. This statue was of course a pagan symbol. The head of the sun god Apollo was decorated with seven rays. Among the rays, nails symbolizing Jesus’ Passion were placed. In other words, the statue referred to both the past and the future of Rome in a religious sense.
The Forum of Constantine remained as the largest square in the city for many years. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the importance of Constantinople increased. The Byzantine Empire, the only heir to Ancient Rome, lived its most glorious years during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The statue, which witnessed the most beautiful years of the city, was destroyed by a storm in 1104. Instead of the broken statue, a cross was placed on the top of the Column.
Constantinople, despite its ups and downs, managed to remain the world’s largest and richest city until the Sack of Constantinople (Fourth Crusade) in 1204. During the Latin occupation between 1204 and 1261, the city’s most beautiful monuments were plundered. Many valuable items were stolen by the Venetians and taken to Italy.
Forum of Constantine (Cemberlitas) in Istanbul
After 1453, Constantinople came under the domination of the Ottoman Empire. During this period, the cross at the top of the column was removed. Today, there is a porphyry column left in Cemberlitas Square in Istanbul. The reason why the Column of Constantine is called Cemberlitas is that iron clamps were nailed around the column, which was renovated during the Ottoman period.
The clamps prevented the column from being affected by earthquakes and breaking down. These iron circles, starting from the base of the column and reaching to the top, have named both the column and the neighborhood over time. Cemberlitas, the name of the column in the local language, refers to this situation. Please also note that the Column is sometimes mentioned as Burnt Column in the guidebooks and various sources.
Written by Serhat Engul
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