17 June, 2006

25. Booty from Byzantium: Part 2

When Emperor Constantine the Great decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to a more defensible location, he took these beautiful horses with him.

In 330 AD he chose the ancient city of Byzantium as his new capital and named it Nova Roma, but for the next 1600 years until the Turkish Government in 1930 renamed it Istanbul, the city was known to the world as Constantinople – Constantine's city. For more than 800 years (until Venice stole them in 1204) these horses and two others like them, together known as The Quadriga, stood in the Hippodrome of the world's most powerful and opulent city when Constantinople was the very epicenter of civilization.

The thing is, we know Constantine took them with him, but nobody knows where they came from in the first place. In all probability, Constantine didn't know either. They were obviously highly regarded and valuable artworks, but it is unlikely they were made in Rome, and certainly not made for Constantine. The best guess experts can make today is that they are probably Greek, and probably date from about the second century BC. Which means they would originally have been stolen by one of Constantine's predecessors – after a winning battle no doubt – and could have been in Rome for several hundred years before Constantine moved out, taking what was most important with him.

These horses are almost certainly more than 2000 years old, yet they breathe, they whinny, the stamp their feet and swish their tails, they toss their heads and champ on their bits. At least it seems like they do, and the longer you stand in front of them, the more alive they become.

Most guidebooks will call them 'bronze horses', but other, possibly more reliable, sources say that in fact they were cast in almost pure copper, which is harder to cast, but easier to gild, and these horses were at one time spectacularly gilded. Who could have made them? How could such exquisite skills have disappeared until something close to them was eventually rediscovered in the Renaissance?

And where will these horses go after they've had enough of Venice?


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