December 12, 2007

Baths of Zeuxippus

Byzantine Constantinople.
Byzantine Constantinople.

The Baths of Zeuxippus, built sometime between 100 to 200 AD, destroyed by the Nika revolt of 532 and then rebuilt several years later,[1] were popular public baths in the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. They were so called because they were built upon the site where a Temple of Jupiter (Zeus) had formerly existed.[2] The original baths were famed primarily for the many statues that were built within, and the famous people they each represented. However, they were later used for military purposes, during the seventh century. Excavations of the site and the Baths were made in 1928.


The original Baths, which were founded and built by Septimius Severus,[3] and adorned by Constantine[4] were magnificently built; adorned with many mosaics and over eighty statues,[1] mostly those of historical figures, with Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Demosthenes, Aeschines and Virgil all among them,[3] as well as the figures of gods and mythological heroes[5]; the Baths were a true splendor of architecture and art, even inspiring works of literature. These statues were taken from various places worldwide, including regions such as Asia and the surrounding areas, Rome, Greece and Asia Minor.[6] The Baths did, indeed, follow a trend of architecture during the period; places such as the Palace of the Senate, that of the Forums, the Palace of Lausus were all adorned with similar statues, of heroes (mythological and not), historical figures, and powerful people, becoming part of a contemporary form of artful architecture.[7]

For a relatively small fee, entrance could be gained by any member of the general public to the Bath complex. While the area was obviously primarily used for public bathing, one could exercise and enjoy a variety of recreational activities. Attendants were paid to oversee these activities, and the happenings of the complex, enforcing opening and closing times, and the rules of conduct. Men and women were not allowed to bathe together; they would either be in separate baths, or bathe at different times of the day.[8]

The popularity of the Baths of Zeuxippus was very great among the citizens, despite the numerous number of baths that had been available for public access at the time in Constantinople[9], and therefore, the great competition that existed in that commercial area. even the likes of clergy and monks were seen there, despite the insistence by their superiors that the baths were places of impious behaviour.[8]

Map showing the hippodrome and the Palace quarter, in close proximity to the Baths of Zeuxippus.
Map showing the hippodrome and the Palace quarter, in close proximity to the Baths of Zeuxippus.


The 12th century scholar Zonaras tells of how Severus connected the baths to the Hippodrome and, in doing so, built it on the site of the Temple of Jupiter. However, Leontius, who was more accurate in his writings (which also predate those of Zonaras), instead asserted that the baths were not actually joined to the Hippodrome, but was simply close to it:

Between Zeuxippus' cool refreshing baths,
And the famed Hippodrome's swift course I stand.
Let the spectator, where he bathes himself
Or sees the struggling steed panting for breath
Pay a kind visit, to enhance his pleasures;
He'll find a hearty welcome at my table.
Or if more manly sports his mind affects,
Practice the rough diversions of the stadia.[2]

In addition to this, the Baths of Zeuxippus were also close (most probably adjacent) to the Great Palace grounds.[10] This evidences their popularity, as such a location would have attracted many people, being in such great proximity to such significant places. The square of the Augusteum and the basilica of Hagia Sophia were also close to the Baths.

The map to the right shows the Baths' approximate location within Constantinople, as determined by excavations made there. As can be seen, the Baths were roughly quadrangular in shape, and were, indeed, very close to, or even "connected" to the Palace, as Zonaras indicated.

Destruction and later use

As a result of the Nika revolt of 532, which constituted the worst uprising Constantinople had seen at the time, and which left half of the city in ruins and thousands of people dead, the original Baths of Zeuxippus were destroyed in blazing fire.[1] While Justinian took action to rebuild the Baths, he could not recreate or restore the marvelous statues or the antiquities that were lost in 532.[3]

Soon after this however, in the early 7th century, as a result of extreme military and political pressure on the Byzantine Empire, public bathing changed from being a common luxury to a rare and infrequent one, and many public facilities and venues began to be used for the austere purposes of the military. It was during this time that the newly rebuilt Baths of Zeuxippus were used as a military barracks and, later on, as a prison.[8][11]

Almost 1000 years later, in 1556, the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan built the Haseki Hürrem Hamam on the same grounds. Later still, in 1928, excavations were made at the site, and many historical relics were recovered, such as earthenware and glazed pottery, giving unique insights into the architectural designs and social interests of the people and culture of Constantinople at the time.[12]

Most particular of the objects found at the site were two statues which were inscribed with the words 'Hekabe' and 'Aeschenes' [sic] on their bases, giving rise to the theory that tells of how Christodorus of Coptus effectively wrote the six epigrams on the many statues of the Baths, and lending further plausibility to the writings of both Zonaras and Leontius.[13]

Inspired Literature

Christodorus of Coptus, an Egyptian poet and writer wrote a lengthy (416 lines long) hexameter piece of poetry inspired by the glory of the statues housed within the halls of the Baths of Zeuxippus.[14] This poem actually consisted of a number of short epigrams (six in total), each focusing on one or a small group of statues within the Baths, designed to combine to form one work. While it has been suggested that the epigrams of Christodorus of Coptus may actually have been inscribed on the (bases) of the statues themselves, this is unlikely because of his use of the ekphrastic medium, and the presence of the past tense in the text.[13]

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