Golden Gate, base for colossal statue on elephant quadriga of Theodosius II, or possibly Theodosius I, emperor. Constantinople. 388-425

The Golden Gate, the principal gateway into Constantinople, derived its name from its gilded bronze doors. The structure, and consequently the colossal imperial statue that stood on top of it, have normally been attributed to Theodosius II, during whose reign the land walls of Constantinople were built (in 408-13), because the gate was assumed to be contemporary with the walls. This contemporaneity has, however, recently been called into question, with the suggestion that the gate is in fact an earlier free-standing structure, erected, not by Theodosius II, but by Theodosius I (379-95)

Two hexameters over the central arch of the gate: (a) on the eastern (inner, or city) side; (b) on the western (outer) side (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum III, 735):

(a) Haec loca Theudosius decorat post fata tyranni.

'Theodosius decorates this place after the death of the tyrant.'

(b) Aurea saecla gerit qui portam construit auro.

'He rules a golden age, who built the gate with gold.'

Letter height unknown.

The inscriptions were in bronze letters and no longer survive. They are known from literary sources (Weigand 1914, 2), and were probably last seen by Dallaway in 1797 (Mango 1951, 54 no. 4). Strzygowski, Römische Quartalsschriften 1893, attempted a reconstruction on the basis of the surviving holes for fixing the letters.

Neither inscription refers to a statue, but the existence on top of the gate of a colossal imperial statue, in a chariot drawn by four elephants, is recorded by early and middle Byzantine sources, which attributed it to either Theodosius I or Theodosius II (see below, 'Honorand and Date').

DESCRIPTION (from Strzygowski 1893, Macridy & Casson 1931, Meyer-Plath & Schneider 1943, Müller-Wiener 1977, Badrill 1999, and the published photos)
The structure of the gateway is made up of a central arch, flanked by two smaller arches, and two massive projecting towers, all faced in white marble. The whole complex is 66 m wide, over 23 m deep, and over 19 m high (measurements from Strzygowski 1893, 3 n. 2, and Meyer-Plath & Schneider 1943, 45). The masonry of the towers is bonded with that of the gateway, and the whole structure is certainly of one build. On the moulding above the central arch a christogram (the Chi-Rho symbol) was still visible in the late 19th century (Strzygowski 1893, 8), but is now lost. The two recorded inscriptions were set in bronze letters on either face of this central arch (see above, 'Inscription'). The towers were once crowned with a lavishly decorated cornice, possibly with eagles at the corners (Strzygowski 1893, 14-17; Kramer 1968, 10). Within the arches of each gateway, on the outer face, are set marble doorframes (with plain monolithic door jambs, moulded bases, Corinthian pilaster capitals, and moulded horizontal architraves), which stylistically look datable to the earlier 5th century (Bardill 1999, 681-3). Of the original doorframe of the large central arch, only the right-hand door jamb (with its base) survives in situ; the complete doorframe of the left-hand (northern) arch now sits within the central arch, moved there in later Byzantine times when the openings were reduced in number and made smaller in size.

According to our sources, the gate was crowned by a statue of an emperor Theodosius in a chariot drawn by elephants (Cedrenus I, 567: Ὅτι οἱ ἐλέφαντες οἱ ἐν τῇ χρυσῇ πόρτῃ ὅμοιοί εἰσιν ὧν πάλαι Θεοδόσιος ἐπιβὰς εἰς τὴν πόλιν εἰσήλασεν – 'The elephants on the Golden Gate are similar to those which Theodosius drove when he entered the city'. Patria I, 73: … καὶ παρεξέβαλεν τὰ τείχη ἀπὸ τοῦ Ἐξακονίου μέχρι Χρυσείας· ἐξ οὗ καὶ στήλην ἔστησεν αὐτοῦ ὄπισθεν τῶν ἐλεφάντων - '… and he (Theodosius II) built the walls from the Hexakionion to the Golden Gate on which he also set up a statue of himself behind the elephants'). A statue (or statues) of Victory (or Victories) possibly completed the ensemble. One of our sources, Patria II, 58 a (of the 10th/11th century), additionally mentions 'small idols' (μικρὰ ξόανα); these figures may have appeared elsewhere within the general area of the gate (Mango 2000, 183). Of the imperial statue group on top of the gate nothing survives: it will always remain a mystery quite how its sculptor resolved the difference in scale between the emperor and his elephants. There was however a precedent in Rome for a quadriga of elephants on top of an arch: two such quadrigas were set on the Porta Triumphalis as built by Domitian.

The Golden Gate was the southernmost gate in the Theodosian walls of Constantinople, about 300 m from the sea. It was where the principal road to the capital, the Via Egnatia, met the main ceremonial street within the city, the Mese, and where an emperor in triumph entered his city (Mango 1990, 33, 50; Mango 2000, 179-82).

In the 15th century the Golden Gate was incorporated into the 'Yedikulé', or 'Palace of the Seven Towers' (Müller-Wiener 1977, 338-41), and still stands today, substantially intact.

The inscription refers only to an emperor 'Theodosius', without making it clear whether this was Theodosius I (379-95) or Theodosius II (402-50). The Byzantine sources which refer to the statue also vacillate between the two.

Until recently, the majority of scholars attributed the Golden Gate, and the statues that crowned it, to Theodosius II, on the assumption that it was built at the same time as the adjoining land walls which can be dated to the years 408-13 (Speck 1973, 141-2; Müller-Wiener 1977, 297 Stichel 1982; Mango 2000, 179 n. 45; see Bardill 1999, 672 n. 4 with further references). A few dissenting voices believed that the statue was of Theodosius I, but still attributed the gate to Theodosius II (Janin 1964, 270; Meyer-Plath & Schneider 1943, 41). Further support for a dating to the reign of Theodosius II is the following: the scholarly consensus that the pilaster capitals of the doorways, that sit within the arches of the three gateways (see above, 'Description'), are more likely to be early 5th-century than late 4th; the fact that John Malalas attributed the gilding of the 'golden gates' to Theodosius II (Malalas 360), a gilding which is explicitly referred to in one of the inscriptions ('qui portam construit auro', 'who built the gate with gold'). If an attribution to Theodosius II is maintained, then the 'tyrant' mentioned in the inscription must be the usurper Ioannes Primicerius whose rebellion was crushed in 425 (PLRE II, 594-5 Ioannes 6). If so, the setting up of the inscription, and presumably the gilding of the gates (as well, perhaps, as the erection of the statues) occurred around 425, about twelve years after the walls were substantially completed.

However, recently Bardill 1999 has questioned this dating, and attributed the Golden Gate and its statue to the reign of Theodosius I (379-95), a dating first put forward by Strzygowski 1893. Bardill convincingly shows that the towers of the Golden Gate and the adjoining sections of the Theodosian wall are imperfectly bonded, and that the Golden Gate is structurally the earlier building (with the curtain wall abutting it). From this, he argues that the Golden Gate was originally a freestanding triumphal arch, erected by Theodosius I over the Via Egnatia, about 1.5 km outside the Constantinian walls of the city. Bardill dismisses the contradictory dating evidence of Malalas as very late, and unreliable (Malalas wrote in the mid- to later 6th century), and argues that the 5th-century doorways were additions to the original design (which indeed they could be structurally). If this dating to the reign of Theodosius I is favoured, then the 'tyrant' of the inscription will have been Magnus Maximus, whom Theodosius defeated in 388, and whose defeat was certainly celebrated in impressive style (with a triumphal entry into Constantinople in 391).

On balance, we favour the traditional dating to the reign of Theodosius II. The main reason for this, is that the Golden Gate looks like a gate within a defensive wall, with its squat proportions, its massive towers, and its extensive surfaces of plain marble (that find a ready parallel in the roughly contemporary Honorian gates of Rome); while it looks nothing like any triumphal arch that survives from Antiquity. (Bardill admits, and addresses, this problem by arguing that the Golden Gate might have been erected with half a mind towards extending the walls of Constantinople, already under Theodosius I - but, if so, it is somewhat surprising that nothing further was done for almost 20 years.) We accept that the facing of the Golden Gate is poorly bonded to that of the adjacent curtain wall, and is structurally earlier, but think this may only reflect the sequence of building within a single project (and wonder whether, behind the facing, the bonding was more satisfactory).

We are indebted to Dr Georgi Parpulov, Oxford, for advice on this monument and for providing photographs.

Ulrich Gehn

Main Reference

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum; , III, 735

Meyer-Plath, B. & A. M. Schneider, Die Landmauer von Konstantinopel. Zweiter Teil. Aufnahme, Beschreibung und Geschichte, Berlin 1943, pp. 39-64 pl. 27-30

Stichel, R. H. W., Die römische Kaiserstatue am Ende der Antike, Roma 1982, p. 97-8 no. 97

Discussion References

Bardill, J., The Golden Gate in Constantinople: A Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I, American Journal of Archaeology 103, 1999, 671-96,

Janin, R., Constantinople byzantine : développement urbain et répertoire topographique, Paris 1964,

Jones, A. H. M. et al., The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Vol. I 260-395, Cambridge et al. 1971 (1975),

Kramer, J., Skulpturen mit Adlerfiguren an Bauten des 5. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. in Konstantinopel, Köln 1968,

Krischen, F., Die Landmauer von Konstantinopel. Erster Teil. Zeichnerische Wiederherstellung mit begleitendem Text, Berlin 1938, pp. 11-12 pls. 19-22, 41-4

Macridy, T. & S. Casson, Excavations at the Golden Gate, Constantinople, Archaeologia 81, 1931, 63-84,

Mango, C., Le Développement urbain de Constantinople (IVe-VIIe siècles) (Travaux et Memoires du Centre de Recherche d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, Collège de France, Monographies 2), Paris 1990,

Mango, C., The Byzantine Inscriptions of Constantinople: A Bibliographical Survey, American Journal of Archaeology 55, 1951, 52-66,

Mango, C., The Triumphal Way of Constantinople and the Golden Gate, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54, 2000, 173-88,

Martindale, J. R., The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Vol. II A.D. 395-527, Cambridge 1980,

Müller-Wiener, W., Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls, Tübingen 1977, pp.338-41

Speck, P., Der Mauerbau in 60 Tagen. Zum Datum der Errichtung der Landmauer von Konstantinopel mit einem Anhang über de Datierung der Notitiae urbis Konstantinopolitanae, Studien zur Frühgeschichte Konstantinopels (H.-G. Beck ed.) (Miscellanea Byzantina Monacensia 14), München 1973,

Strzygowski, J., Das goldene Thor in Konstantinopel, Jahrbuch des Kaiserlich Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 8, 1893, 1-39,

Strzygowski, J., Die Weih-Inschrift Theodosius d. Gr. am Goldenen Thore zu Constantinopel, Römische Quartalschrift für Christliche Alterthumskunde und für Kirchengeschichte 7, 1893, 1-3,

Weigand, E., Neue Untersuchungen über das Goldene Tor in Konstantinopel, Mittheilungen des Kaiserlich Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, Athenische Abtheilung 39, 1914, 1-64,