10 July, 2006

46. Booty from Byzantium: Part 3

A Byzantine Emperor who was born as the son of a reigning emperor, thus inheriting the title rather than ascending to the throne through violence or cunning, was said to have been 'porphyrogenitos', that is 'born in the purple', a colour only the imperial family was allowed to wear.

This sculpture of two pairs of embracing figures stands a bit less than 1.5m high, and is carved from porphyry, a dark purple stone often used, for obvious reasons, for sculptures of Roman emperors. It shouldn't take you too long to conclude that this, then, must be a sculpture of four Roman emperors.

Was there ever a time when there were four emperors at once? Indeed there was, and one of them was the father of Emperor Constantine the Great, which explains why this sculpture is another of the Byzantine treasures captured by Doge Dandolo after the Venetian sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

In Constantinople it stood in a building called the Philadelphion at a crossroads in the main commercial road, the Mese. Now it is attached to the southern corner of St Mark's Cathedral, and it is known as the Tetrarchs. You would think it would be better called the Quatrarchs, as there are four of them, but one of them is meant to be Emperor Diocletian, who in 293 AD appointed a tetrarchy of three other emperors to help him rule the massive empire that was Rome at its height. The other three are Maximian, Valerian, and Constantius Chlorus – Constantine's father.

This sculpture is not a portrait of four individuals, it is a stylized group symbolic of the unity of their rule, which is why they all look alike and are embracing each other in goodwill. The harmonious sentiment was nobler than the reality, however, because Diocletian's short-lived plan to set up a process for orderly succession started to fall apart soon after he and Maximian stepped down in 305 AD. Constantius died in England in 306 and his son Constantine was proclaimed Augustus, or senior emperor, by his father's troops, an action which set in motion a series of internecine wars with the four other claimants to the throne, which eventually left Constantine in sole charge of the Roman empire.


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