Voices of Approval, Voices of Contempt
In October 610 CE, the streets of Constantinople played a major role in the violent condemnation and execution of the tyrant Phokas (r.602-610 CE) whom a later poet condemned as a “sea monster of the land.” This occasion marked the successful conclusion of Heraclius the younger’s revolt and triumphal entry into the capital city. The despised ruler was seized from the Church of the Archangel where he was seeking sanctuary and presented to the usurper, Heraclius.
Shortly thereafter followed a dramatic dialogue between the two rivals in which Heraclius accosted Phokas for his poor leadership, stating “is this how you have ruled, wretch?” To which Phokas sardonically replied, “And you will rule better?” Soon after their fiery exchange, Phokas’ right arm and head were severed and impaled on poles to be paraded throughout the cityscape of Constantinople.
The incensed populace then marched along the Mese from the Forum of Constantine to the Forum of the Ox, brandishing the limbs and head of the abhorred ruler. Upon arriving at the Forum of the Ox, Phokas’ remains were burned alongside those of his closest advisors, publicly erasing all memory of this hated figure and commencing the Heraclian dynasty.
This dramatic episode is just one of many examples of how public spaces and fora were used in late antique cities by both the ruling elite and the masses. Here, we will review the social, economic and political functions of public spaces in Late Antiquity from the 4th to 8th century of the common era to better understand how these spaces functioned in late antique cities as well as the specific meaning they held for those who experienced them.
As they had been in earlier antiquity, the open markets, agorai, plazas and fora of Late Antiquity were bustling centers of social interaction, advertisement and political affairs. Often our sources for these spaces come from unique textual sources. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century Constantinopolitan theologian and rhetor, is one such individual who brings these places to life. In an oration, for instance, he notes that the Athenian agora was at one point a meeting place and social venue for newly inducted university students.
Similarly, a later 11th century source, Georgios Kedrenos, indicates that marriages may have been celebrated in the Forum of Constantine opposite the senate house. These agorai or fora were also spaces of recreation from the evidence of late antique game boards found in situ at Aphrodisias and Perge. Just like Vespasian’s first-century Forum of Peace in Rome, a recreational plaza with its tranquil pond and agrarian aspects, many public places were transformed in late antiquity; Vespasian's forum was likely turned into a manufacturing area later in the 4th century.
Aside from these social functions, agorai and fora also acted as prominent nodes within a late antique cityscape, serving as industrious centers of commerce and production. Often in Late Antiquity, the monumental classical Roman spaces like the Forum of Peace took on economic purposes with their porticoes turning into shops and production centers. In the Alexandrian agora, for instance, a pagan shrine was transformed into a wine store while at Aphrodisias classical columns functioned as ideal places to advertise the price of vegetables, oil, bread and other commodities.
In Constantinople, the Urban Prefect in charge of trade within the city, lived near the Forum of Constantine so that he could properly manage the economic affairs occurring throughout the squares and fora of that city. This Urban Prefect was also in control of where certain products were marketed in the city like young sheep to be sold in the Forum of Theodosius. (A good source for further reading on both the archaeological and textual accounts of public spaces is Luke Lavan’s “Fora and Agorai in Mediterranean Cities during the 4th and 5th C. A.D.”)
Aside from acting as centers of commerce, public squares and fora also were important sites of political ritual and performance, working as major reception venues in which politicians could interact with the populace. A Carthaginian politician, for instance, could bolster his political support by displaying ivory tablets with the names of his predecessors so the public could extol or condemn them. Here, a proconsul such as this one could bolster his political support and popularity by favorably comparing himself with his predecessors.
In addition, agorai and fora were particularly suited for a major role in imperial triumphs and celebrations in the later Roman world. The fora along the Mese of Constantinople, for example, were frequently employed throughout the late antique and early medieval period in military victory processions where the successful emperor would process down this street through the fora of Arcadius, Theodosius and Constantine.
Here, the emperor asserted his legitimacy as ruler through his magnanimous appearance to the public while also linking himself to previous celebrated emperors like Constantine and Theodosius by processing through their fora. In the mid-eighth century, for instance, the Emperor Constantine V celebrated a triumph over the Bulgarian Khan Teletzes in which the emperor processed in full military garb with his soldiers and fettered captives through the fora of Constantinople’s main street as recounted by Theophanes’ Chronographia. Constantine V’s achievements were further amplified through his proximity to the great fora of Constantinople’s founder and early benefactors.
Streets and city spaces were ideal mediums through which rulers could display their authority and link themselves to the past.