More on the tombs of the emperors at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople

The now-vanished Church of the Holy Apostles stood on a high place in Constantinople with views of the sea to north and south.  It stood in the western part of the city, standing on the main street which connected the Forum of Theodosius with the Charisian gate (Edirnekapi), and which corresponds to the modern Fevzi Pasha cadi.  It was built by Constantine and substantially rebuilt by Justinian, after which it took the form of a cross with a central dome and subsidiary domes, plus a number of buildings in the grounds.  It was in poor repair by 1453, and some of the mausolea were roofless by this time.  The church and its ancillary buildings were entirely destroyed by the Turks after they took the city, and the mosque of Mehmet Fatih – Mehmet the Conquerer – built on its site.[1]  It is described by Procopius in De aedificiis i.4.9-24,[2] and also in flowery terms by Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites, sometime between 1198-1203.[3]

800px-Istanbul_-_Museo_archeologico_-_Sarcofagi_imperiali_bizantini_-_Foto_G._Dall'Orto_28-5-2006_2
Porphyry sarcophagi of the emperors

Outside the archaeological museum in Istanbul stand four huge porphyry sarcophagi.[4]  These seem to have been found in the grounds of the Turkish Topkapi palace nearby, where they were brought, probably for use as building material, and then buried.[5]

That each early emperor was buried in a porphyry sarcophagus – larnax – is attested by the lists of tombs in the church given in the sources.  The first of these is contained in the Book of Ceremonies ii.42 by Constantine Porphyrogenitus.[6]  Mesarites describes the mausoleums – Heroons – in chapters 39-40.  Two other versions of the material appear in the Patria, texts about Constantinople of which I translated a portion last time, and in a manuscript printed by Du Cange.  There is also the Chronicon Altinate, which is included in the MGH but which for some reason I am entirely unable to find online at the MGH website.

Let’s have a look at the version in the Book of Ceremonies.

CONCERNING THE TOMBS OF THE EMPERORS WHICH ARE IN THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY APOSTLES

Heroon of the Holy and Great Constantine.

1. In the principal place, to the east, lies the sarcophagus of St. Constantine, [of] porphyry, or rather ‘Roman’ [stone], in which he himself lies with the blessed Helen his mother.
2. Another sarcophagus, [of] porphyry Roman [stone], in which lies Constantius the son of Constantine the Great.
3. Another sarcophagus, porphyry Roman, in which lies Theodosius the Great.
4. Another sarcophagus, green hieracites, in which lies Leo the Great.
5. Another sarcophagus, porphyry Roman, in which lies Marcianus with his wife Pulcheria.
6. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies the Emperor Zeno.
7. Another sarcophagus, Aquitanian, in which lies Anastasios Dikoros with Ariadne his wife.
8. Another sarcophagus, of green Thessalian stone, in which lies the Emperor Michael, the son of Theophilos. Note that this sarcophagus of Michael is that of the Emperor Justin the Great. It lay in the monastery of the Augusta, below the Apostle St. Thomas, in which the robes of the apostles were found. And Lord Leo the Emperor took it and placed it here for the burial of the body of this Michael.
9. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies Basil with Eudokia and Alexander his son.
10. Another sarcophagus, Sagarian or pneumonousiani, in which lies the renowned Leo with his son Constantine, who died later, the Porphyrogennetos.
11. Another sarcophagus, [of] white, so-called imperial, [stone], in which lies Constantine the son of Basil.
12. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies St. Theophano, the first wife of the blessed Leo, with Eudokia her daughter.
13. Another sarcophagus, Bithynian, in which lies Zoe the second wife of the same Leo.
14. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies Eudokia the third wife of the same Lord Leo, she who was surnamed Baine.
15. Another sarcophagus, Proconesian, in which lie Anna and Anna the daughters of the blessed Leo and Zoe.
16. Another small sarcophagus, Sagarian or pneumonousian, in which lies Basil the brother of Constantine Porphyrogennetos, and Bardas the son of Basil his grandfather.
17. Another small sarcophagus, of Sagarian stone, in which lies . . .

Heroon of the Great Justinian

18. At the apse itself, to the east, is the first sarcophagus, in which lies the body of Justinian, of unusual foreign stone, in colour between Bithynian and Chalcedonian, something like stone of Ostrite.
19. Another sarcophagus, of Hierapolitan stone, in which lies Theodora the wife of Justinian the Great.
20. Another sarcophagus lying to the west, on the right hand, of stone of Dokimion, of variegated rose colour, in which lies Eudokia the wife of Justinian the Younger.
21. Another sarcophagus, of white Proconesian stone, in which lies Justin the Younger.
22. Another sarcophagus, of Proconesian stone, in which lies Sophia the wife of Justin.
23. Another sarcophagus, of white stone of Dokimion, onyx, in which lies Heraklios the Great.
24. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies Fabia the wife of Heraklios.
25. Another sarcophagus, Proconesian, of Constantine Pogonatos.
26. Another sarcophagus, of green Thessalian stone, in which lies Fausta the wife of Constantine Pogonatos.
27. Another sarcophagus, Sagarian, in which lies Constantine, the descendant of Heraklios, the son of Constantine Pogonatos.
28. Another sarcophagus, of variegated Sagarian stone, in which lies Anastasios also called Artemios.
29. Another sarcophagus, of Hierapolitan stone, in which lies the wife of Anastasios also called Artemios.
30. Another sarcophagus, of Proconesian stone, in which lies Leo the Isaurian.
31. Another sarcophagus, of green Thessalian stone, in which lay Constantine, the son of the Isaurian, who was surnamed Kaballinos; but he was cast out by Michael and Theodora, and his cursed body was burned. Likewise his sarcophagus was cast out and broken up, and served for the foundations of the Pharos. And the great blocks which are in the Pharos belonged to this sarcophagus.
32. Another sarcophagus, of Proconesian stone, in which lies Eirene the wife of Constantine Kaballinos.
33. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies the wife of Kaballinos.
34. A small coffin of Proconesian stones, in which lie Kosmo and Eirene, sisters of Kaballinos.
35. Another sarcophagus, Proconesian, in which lies Leo the Chazar, son of Constantine Kaballinos.
36. Another sarcophagus, of Proconesian stone, in which lies Eirene the wife of Leo the Chazar.
37. Another sarcophagus, green Thessalian, in which lies Michael Travlos.
38. Another sarcophagus, of Sagarian stone, in which lies Thekla the wife of Michael Travlos.
39. Another sarcophagus, of green stone, in which lies Theophilos the Emperor.
40. Another small sarcophagus, green, in which lies Constantine the son of Theophilos.
41. Another small sarcophagus, of Sagarian stone, in which lies Maria the daughter of Theophilos.

The Stoa to the South of the Same Church

42. In this lie the sarcophagi of Arkadios, Theodosios, his son, and Eudoxia his mother. The tomb of Arkadios is to the south, that of Theodosios to the north, that of Eudoxia to the east, each of the two porphyry or Roman.

The Stoa to the North of the Same Church

43. In this stoa, which is to the north, lies a cylindrically-shaped sarcophagus, in which lies the cursed and wretched body of the apostate Julian, porphyry or Roman in colour.
44. Another sarcophagus, porphyry, or Roman, in which lies the body of Jovian, who ruled after Julian.

hagia_sophia_islamic_tombs
Islamic Sultan’s tombs in the grounds of Hagia Sophia

The stoa means only a room containing pillars by this period, so may refer to any building within the church or standing outside of it.[7]

I would speculate that perhaps there were a number of mausolea standing in the grounds of the church, rather like the Islamic tombs of the early Sultans now standing in the grounds of Hagia Sophia?

The shape of the Heroon of Constantine is said by Mesarites to be circular, with a dome.  Mesarites tells us that the mausoleum of Justinian had many “stoaed” (i.e. pillared) corners, so perhaps that was octagonal or hexagonal or something like that.

However the arrangement of the tombs within the Heroon, by 400 AD, schematically, was as follows:

heroon_of_constantineEntry to the building was from the west.  Mesarites tells us that, in the principal place, at the east end, was the tomb of Constantine the Great.  To the south was that of Constantius II, while the tomb of Theodosius the Great was to the north.[8]

Let’s hear from Mesarites:

XXXIX. But let us, if you please, go off to this church which lies toward the east, so that we may look at the things in it, in order to admire and describe them–this church whose founder our discourse has already declared to be Constantius.  2. This whole church is domical and circular, and because of the rather extensive area of the plan, I suppose, it is divided up on all sides by numerous stoaed angles, for it was built for the reception of his father’s body and of his own and of the bodies of those who should rule after them.

3. To the east, then, and in first place the body of Constantine,5 who first ruled the Christian Empire, is laid to rest within this purple-hued sarcophagus as though on some purple-blooming royal couch–he who was, after the twelve disciples, the thirteenth herald of the orthodox faith, and likewise the founder of this imperial city.  4. The sarcophagus has a four-sided shape, somewhat oblong but not with equal sides. The tradition is that Helen, his mother and his fellow-worker for the orthodox faith, is buried with her son.

5. The tomb toward the south is that of the famous Constantius, the founder of the Church. This too is of porphyry color but not in all respects similar to the tomb of his father, just as he who lies within it was not in all ways similar to his father, but was inferior to his father, and followed behind him, in piety and in mental endowment.

6. The tomb toward the north and opposite this, and similar to those which have been mentioned, holds the body of Theodosius the Great like an inexhaustible treasure of noble deeds.   7. The one toward the east, closest to this one, is that of Pulcheria. She is the honored and celebrated founder of the monastery of the Hodegon; see how she, a virgin herself, holds in her hands the likeness of the all-holy Virgin.  …

Additional tombs, after Theodosius, were inserted later around the walls.

The Chronicon Altinate gives a list of emperors and their lengths of reigns.  It is of interest to us for what it says about the emperors in the mausoleum.  Starting on p.62 of MGH supplement 14:

Constantine, son of Constantius, born in Britain from the concubine Helena – the city in his name is in Thrace – … died on the 20th of May, a great and most Christian emperor.  His remains were placed in the church of the Holy Apostles in the sacrarium, which he himself also built, in a porphyry “pila”. …

Constantius … son of Constantine reigned for 24 years.  Constantine [sic] died on 3rd November and his body was placed in the church of the Holy Apostles in a porphyry “pila”.

Julian the apostate … His body was brought to Constantinople and placed in the western part in the church of the Holy Apostles in a porphyry “labrum”. …

On the 27th September Juvian [sic] died, most religious emperor, in Thichera a city of Galicia, and his body was brought to Constantinople, in the church of the Holy Apostles, in the porphyry “labrum” of the great Constantine.  After this his wife was placed in the same “labrum”.  He reigned 8 months.

… (the body of Valens was not found) …

[Valentinian]’s body was brought in the time of Theodosius the Great and placed in the church of the Holy Apostles where Constantine the Great [was] in a porphyry “lanarx”. …

On the 7th of January died the emperor Theodosius the Great at Milan.  His remains were brought to Constantinople and placed in the church of all the holy Apostles, in the sacrarium of Constantine the Great, in a porphyry “pila”; where also his wife Pracilla had previously been placed.

On the 1st May died the emperor Arcadius and his body was placed in the church of all the Holy Apostles in a porphyry “pilla” [sic] in the middle portico with his wife Eudokia, who before she died [acted] to the injury of St. John Chrysostom.  …

And so it continues.

There seem to have been several places in and around the church where imperial bodies may have been laid.  Space was no doubt a consideration also.

It is a pity that the site was destroyed.  I think most of us would like to see at least the sarcophagus of Constantine!  When I next go to Istanbul, I shall make sure that I do; if one of those porphyry tombs is his!

  1. [1]P. Grierson, “The tombs and obits of the Byzantine emperors (337-1042)”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 16 (1962) 1+3-63.  JSTOR.  It contains an edition and English translation of the three main sources for the tombs.
  2. [2]Loeb edition: Procopius, Works, vii.48-54.
  3. [3]Glanville Downey, “Nikolaos Mesarites: Description of the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 47 (1957), 855-924.  JSTOR. Text and English translation from Ms. Milan Ambrosianus gr. 350, formerly F 93 sup. and Ambros. gr. 352, formerly F 96 sup.
  4. [4]Photograph by Giovanni Dall’Orto from Wikimedia Commons here.
  5. [5]Cyril Mango, “Three Imperial Byzantine Sarcophagi Discovered in 1750”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 16 (1962), 397-402.  JSTOR. P.398: “The early sultans accumulated a considerable amount of Byzantine sculpture in the grounds of the Seraglio presumably with a view to using it as building material; it is sufficient to recall that some of the imperial sarcophagi that are now exposed in front of the Archaeological Museum were discovered in 1847 in the second court of the Seraglio.  All authorities agree that these sarcophagi must have come from the church of the Holy Apostles.”
  6. [6]Given on p.642-6 of Reiske’s edition in the Bonn series, and reprinted by Downey in the article above.
  7. [7]Downey, p.45: “It should be recalled finally that stoa could well be applied to a building which we should call a mausoleum, since it was used not only to denote a colonnade or portico, but a building or part of a building which was enclosed by pillars or consisted basically of pillars supporting a roof.  Zonaras (xiii 4, 28) indeed calls the Mausoleum of Constantine a stoa.”
  8. [8]Diagram from Grierson, p.23.

8 thoughts on “More on the tombs of the emperors at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople

  1. My understanding is that the bodies and relics of some of the sainted empresses and princesses are now in the Ekumenate of Constantinople’s church. Don’t know about their tombs.

  2. Thanks for this. I believe that there is also a sarcophagus for an Empress Eirene in the exonarthex of the Hagia Sophia.

  3. A significant number of relics of Constantinople found their way to Mt Athos after the fall. The number of Christian relics found there is huge and no comprehensive catalog has ever been compiled, let alone published. Also the monks for good reason keep some secret or at least limit their knowledge. I would not be surprised if it includes the relics of emperors. At Megisti Lavra they have the imperial robe of Nikiforos Fokas, last worn by the emperor Athenagoras on the celebration of 1000 year of Mt Athos in 1961. Perhaps some later faithful considered it proper to send some relics that way

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