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December 12, 2007

Column of Justinian

Reconstruction of the column, after Cornelius Gurlitt, 1912. The depiction of a helical narrative frieze around the column is erroneous.
Reconstruction of the column, after Cornelius Gurlitt, 1912. The depiction of a helical narrative frieze around the column is erroneous.

The Column of Justinian was a monumental triumphal column erected in Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in honour of his victories in 543.[1] It stood in the great square of the Augustaeum, between the Hagia Sophia and the Great Palace. The column was made of stone, and covered with bronze. The column stood on a marble pedestal of seven steps, and was topped by a bronze equestrian statue of the emperor in triumphal attire (the "dress of Achilles" as Procopius calls it), wearing an antique-style muscular cuirass, a plumed helmet of peacock feathers (the "toupha"), holding a globus cruciger on his left hand and stretching his right hand to the East.[2]

The column survived intact until late Byzantine times, when it was described by Nicephorus Gregoras.[3] At that time, the statue was actually believed to be that of the city's founder, Constantine the Great. It was therefore widely held that the column represented the city's genius loci, and shortly after the Conquest, the Ottomans removed and dismantled the statue as a symbol of their dominion over the city.[4] The column itself was destroyed around 1515. Pierre Gilles, a French scholar living in the city in the 1540s, gave an account of the statue's remaining fragments, which lay in the Topkapi Palace, before being melted to cannons:[4][5]

Among the fragments were the leg of Justinian, which exceeded my height, and his nose, which was over nine inches long. I dared not measure the horse's legs [...] but privately measured one of the hoofs and found it to be nine inches in height.

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