Zeno (née Tarasis Kodisa Rousombladadiotes) was having a terrible first year on the throne. Upon the death of his son, Leo II, he had become Eastern Roman Emperor on 9 February 474. The loss of his child seems to have heralded months of misery and anxiety. Almost from the get-go, Zeno proved very unpopular with the Senate and the people, who objected to his barbarian ancestry. Foreign invasions, conspiracies involving members of the imperial household, and domestic unrest engulfed the early months of his reign. In January 475, Zeno abandoned Constantinople to save his life from a murderous plot concocted by Verina (his mother-in-law), her brother, and her lover.
It was at that point that the winds of change shifted. A fire started in the middle of the Copper Market (Chalkoprateia) in Constantinople and got out of control. The flames raced through the city and consumed everything in their path. The great porticoes of the Mese (the main thoroughfare) and the Forum of Constantine were destroyed. The imperial library, founded by Constantine and subsequently endowed with more than 100,000 volumes from across the empire, suffered serious damage. The populace attributed the fire to Basiliscus, the treacherous brother of Verina, and opened the gates of the city to their former emperor.
Last god standing
Zeno came back to a city much changed. The ruins of the buildings destroyed in the fire were probably still lying about, for who would be interested in restoring them when civil strife reigned supreme? Many of the emperor’s enemies were gone and his grip on power was firmer. But there was something else missing from his capital, a majestic presence that had captivated the minds and hearts of countless generations of Greeks. The fire that did so much to restore the good fortunes of Zeno also sounded the death knell for the gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus from Olympia.
This statue, considered by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was made by the sculptor Phidias in 435 BCE, who employed the finest materials (exotic woods, precious stones, ivory, and gold). It was almost 13 meters (43 ft) tall and stood at the temple of Zeus at Olympia for eight centuries. In the late fourth and early fifth century, the sanctuary was still a place of worship, despite repeated prohibitions directed at pagan sacrifices. The statue had experienced its fair share of tribulations (earthquakes, lightning strikes, attempts to remove it during the reign of Caligula, theft of golden curls etc.) but other than discoloration and instances of cracking, Zeus still looked serenely upon the world from his cedar wood throne.
The twilight of the gods
As the pagan world crumbled around him, though, even almighty Zeus could not remain unaffected. His temple was damaged by fire in 426 CE, but the statue was almost certainly not there anymore. At some unknown point, it was disassembled and transported to Constantinople. We do not know what emotions this “abduction” caused among the pagan population of Olympia (or Greece in general). Lucian of Samosata may have had already captured the popular attitude towards the statue in the 2nd century BCE when he complained to Zeus that he didn’t have “the energy to wake the dogs or call in the neighbors” when people laid hands on His person.
Constantine the Great and his successors had removed countless statues from the principal cities of ancient Greece to adorn the streets, squares, and palaces of Constantinople. Emperors entrusted subordinate officers (curatores) with the task of securing important statues for the new capital; some of them may have been pagans themselves, but this did not prevent them from doing what was expected of them. Even wealthy individuals (albeit with the right connections to the imperial household) were able to assemble impressive collections.
The statue of Zeus appears to have become part of the collection of Lausus. He was a eunuch and an imperial chamberlain (praepositus sacri cubiculi) during the reign of Theodosius II. This position endowed its occupant with large estates in Cappadocia and the funds that would enable an ambitious individual to acquire valuable statues from pagan sanctuaries and temples under attack by the Christians. Lausus was important enough to receive a collection of stories about Egyptian monks from Bishop Palladius (Lausiac History), while the Patriarch of Alexandria intervened on his behalf when he had fallen out of favor in 431 CE. Five years later, he seems to have distributed almost all of his wealth to the poor.
Zeus on fire
Before he reached this point of humble introspection, though, Lausus erected a large mansion close to the Hippodrome and assembled a collection of statues that included the Athena of Lindus, Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, the Samian Hera by Bupalus, an Eros stringing his bow by Lysippos, and Zeus. Some scholars claim that Lausus had arranged his collection in a meaningful program to suggest the power of virtue over love and chance. The massive statue of Zeus required a large room to accommodate it and the long hall of the so-called Palace of Lausus near the Hippodrome could have sufficed.
Other researchers believe that it was too big for the mansion and was therefore exhibited in the open along the Messe. It is also possible that the statue was sheltered in a building or a portico close by the Messe, away from direct sunlight (absolutely deleterious for the ivory). No matter where it was, though, Zeus was destroyed in the fire of 475, along with the other statues of Lausus’ collection. The son of Kronos, who could make great Olympus quake with the wave of his ambrosial locks from his immortal head, was no more.
The foolish race of Hellas
Other masterpieces survived, and it would be hard for a single conflagration to destroy them all since Constantinople was packed with ancient Greek bronze and marble sculptures. Delphic tripods and statues of the Dioscuri were erected in the Hippodrome; a temple in the agora of the imperial capital that housed a statue of Cybele allegedly made by the Argonauts was restored by Constantine the Great; the statue of Zeus of Dodona was set up on stone pedestals before the Senate-house; the porphyry column of the Forum was topped with a massive bronze statue of Apollo-Helios (the Sun); the baths of Zeuxippus contained eighty antique bronze statues depicting gods, poets, orators, heroes, and statesmen.
Religious, political, cultural, and artistic motives governed the transportation and display of such potent pagan symbols in the imperial capital. The Byzantines were able to appreciate the style and craftsmanship of classical statues. If Constantinople was to be the “new Rome” then it needed the stone and bronze residents that made the old Rome such a wonderful and imposing city. Some authors and intellectuals appreciated the presence of pagan idols as a means to humiliate a religion they viewed as erroneous and defeated. They were “a plaything for the city, a jest to children, and a source of laughter to men”, a proof of the errors that deceived the “foolish race of Hellas”.
Taming the demons
For the population of Constantinople, though, these statues were animated and inhabited by demons, whose malevolent power was slowly transformed into something sinister but harmless, provided you left them alone. Some managed to become talismans that prevented calamities. Bronze figures of mosquitoes, fleas, and mice kept these annoying beasts away from Constantinople; a statue of Aphrodite could expose unchaste women but its good fortune came to an abrupt end when it revealed that the sister of the wife of Emperor Justin II was less pure than people thought.
The Byzantines definitely had a preposterous relationship with ancient statues. When a man was killed by a sculpture that fell from its pedestal, a text by Demosthenes was found stating that the statue was destined to kill someone; the statue was buried because it could not be destroyed otherwise. Two centuries later, Emperor Alexander (912-913) clothed the statues in the Hippodrome with rich garments and burned incense before them to cure his impotence. But these measures were not enough. Alexander needed a talisman, so he provided the statue of a wild boar with its missing teeth and genitals.
In 1203 the mob smashed the great statue of Athena outside the Senate House in the hope of defeating the Crusaders. Athena pointed to the south with her right arm, beckoning to the army that threatened Constantinople; the Byzantines were not bothered by the fact that the Crusaders came from the west. After all, in the early ninth century the Patriarch John VII, (surnamed Grammatikos) was able to protect the city from a barbarian invasion by mutilating a three-headed bronze statue in the Hippodrome; while he recited incantations, three men struck simultaneously at the heads of the statue with their hammers. Two heads were cut off, while the third was damaged but remained attached. Soon, two of the chiefs of the invaders were dead, while the third was seriously injured.
The kidnapping of statues from all over the Greek world and their transportation to Constantinople came to an end during the reign of Justinian (525-567), when two horses arrived from the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. No more Byzantine collectors appeared again (with the possible exception of Theodore Metochites, personal adviser to emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos in the early 14th century). For a thousand years of fire, riots, wars, earthquakes, the weather and time worked to thin out the stone and bronze residents of Constantinople. By the 18th century, there was only one ancient Greek piece of sculpture surviving: the Serpent Column in the Hippodrome made to commemorate the triumph of the Greeks at the battle of Plataea (479 BCE). The heads had been broken off in 1700 but the bodies of the snakes were preserved by the Turks because they considered them a talisman against snake bites. The column still stands in the Hippodrome, sole survivor of a glorious company.
Janette McWilliam, Sonia Puttock, & Tom Stevenson, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia: New Approaches, Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Cambridge, 2011.
Michael H. Harris, History of Libraries of the Western World, Scarecrow Press: Lanham ME, 1999.
A. H. M. Jones, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1971.
Cyril Mango, “Antique statuary and the Byzantine beholder”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 17 (1963), pp. 55-75.
Cyril Mango, “The palace of Lausus at Constantinople and its collection of ancient statues”, Journal of the History of Collections, vol. 4, 1 (1992), pp. 89-98.