Anyone who watched any Roman Empire film at least once would agree that the depiction of horse races is nothing but fascinating. Although horse races in our world today are relatively less enjoyable as they are no longer viewed as the only source of entertainment, what made Roman horse races special was their venues. Being defined as a stadium used for chariots and horse races, hippodromes were located all across the globe, to the very end where Romanian empery reached. One of these hippodromes was located in Constantinople, Bizantion with its modern name İstanbul, Sultanahmet, the capital cities of both Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. So, let’s take a look at how The Hippodrome of Constantinople was significant for the Roman and Byzantine Empires, nearly 1800 years from now.
(An animated representation of horse races took place in the Hippodrome of Constantinople)
Ever since the 3rd century BCE, its inaugural establishment by Emperor Septimus Severus, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was used for various occurrences such as executions, parades, and reprimands for the enemies of the emperor. Later in 4th BCE, The Hippodrome was refurbished by Emperor I. Constantine, then evolved into a fascinating construction. The structure as a whole was an ambitious project and the biggest of its kind back in the day, as it was spread over an area of over 80.000 square meters.
In Ancient Rome, chariot and horse races were the only source of excitement and enjoyment for the Romanian citizens, two of the immensely popular activities one can spend time with in Ancient Rome. Because both chariot races and horse races were highly in demand, the importance hippodromes held in the everyday life of Romanian citizens was quite more than one would expect. Although the primary objective for the Hippodrome was to house the entertainment of chariot races, these races were not only for entertainment but were also a medium for elites to display their wealth and power. Supporting different chariot teams meant being a member of a specific social group, hence why, these races played a significant role in the adjustment of social roles in the society back in Ancient Rome. Therefore, the Hippodromes, played a remarkable role while the societal hierarchies and groups were established in Ancient Rome.
Although the preliminary establishment of the Hippodrome was during the reign of the Roman Empire, following the period of the Roman Empire’s decline, Byzantines were to usurp the control of both the city and the Hippodrome, initiating a new era in the history of the Istanbul Hippodrome. Even after the control of the Hippodrome changed hands, the chariot races still continued, only synthesized with Byzantine aspects of life. During the Byzantine era of the Hippodrome, there were external events hosted, such as political and religious gatherings, processions, and occasional executions. In the history of Istanbul Hippodrome, the most notorious incident was moments in the Nika Riots of 532 AD. This violent and ferocious riot originated from political and social conflicts in the area. The various factions in the working class of the Romanian Empire, all united in their fury against Emperor Justinian I, nearly ruined the whole city in an approximately one-week-long riot. Because the Hippodrome functioned as a central location for such events, it also witnessed a significant amount of destruction. At the end of the day, each of the riots was quelled and resolved, and the city was reinstated, and the Hippodrome still stood as a living part of the city.
Following the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine era was superseded by the Ottoman era for the Hippodrome. After the Ottoman Empire’s conquest, the Hippodrome underwent various changes, primarily its function as an empty area. The chariot and horse races were transformed into archery contests and horseback sports, reliving the area of its social determinant factor.
In the 17th century, the hope for the Hippodrome was edged out. The chariot races were long gone, and the artifacts belonging to the Hippodrome were either stolen or dismantled. However, both the historical and the cultural significance of the Hippodrome stood a chance up until our day today.
(The Map of The Hippodrome of Constantinople)
Fast forward to our day today, the area surrounding the Hippodrome is covered with obelisks and monuments, and these constructions have been moved to various locations around the city, primarily the locations of Istanbul Archeology Museum and Sultanahmet Square.
The Sultanahmet Square has a lively environment, where musicians, street artists, and vendors altogether create a cultural harmony with the Hippodrome itself. Visitors of the Hippodrome can wander through the historical artifacts of archaic obelisks, and enjoy the enriching history of the exceptional atmosphere of the Istanbul Hippodrome.
The Istanbul Hippodrome, with its roots in Roman daily entertainment, its alterations after being ruled over by both under Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and its modern use as a historical site highlights how the city of Istanbul is able to adapt itself and its monuments to the current period. The ancient arena of Istanbul Hippodrome is a remarkable and captivating architectural site, and also a living example of how the city of Istanbul had, and still has an everchanging, and therefore everlasting nature.
Catwright, Mark. "Konstantinopolis Hipodromu" ["The Hiippodrome of Constaninople"]. Translated by Cemre Melis Yordamlı. World History Encyclopedia, Jan van der Crabben, 28 Nov. 2017, Accessed 29 Oct. 2023.
Hendrix, David. "Hippodrome of Constantinople." The Byzantine Legacy, 2018, Accessed 29 Oct. 2023.
"The Hippodrome." Turkey Tours, Scuzo Travel, Accessed 29 Oct. 2023.