Mehmed the Conqueror and the Equestrian Statue of the Augustaion

Mehmed the Conqueror and the Equestrian Statue of the Augustaion

By J. Raby

Illinois Classical Studies, Vol. 12:2 (1987)

Introduction: One of the landmarks of Constantinople was the colossal equestrian statue which stood on top of a hundred-foot-high column outside Hagia Sophia. Known as the Augustaion from the square in which it stood, the bronze statue was erected by Justinian, although in all probability it was not his own but a re-used work of Theodosius I or II, The statue’s size alone — some 27 feet in height—would have ensured its fame, but it was particularly esteemed as a symbol of Byzantine dominion and a talisman of the City. Christianity’s triumph over the world was signified by the globus cruciger which the rider held in his left hand, while with his extended right he was believed to gesture apotropaically towards the Orient, commanding the Eastern enemy, successively Sasanians, Arabs and Turks, to stay back behind the Byzantine border. The statue was so prominent, its symbolic and magical character for the Christians of Constantinople so commonly acknowledged, that it is hardly surprising it failed to survive under the Turks.

Some time between 1544 and 1550 Peter Gyllius saw fragments of the statue, which he claimed had long been kept in a courtyard of the Sultan’s palace, being transported to a cannon-foundry, which was presumably the one at Tophane; and he furtively measured a few of these disjecta membra, the rider’s nose and the horse’s hooves being nine inches long, the rider’s leg taller than Gyllius himself. It has never been satisfactorily explained how the statue came to be removed to the imperial Saray. The answer, however, is to be found not in European or Greek, but in Ottoman, sources.

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