A Study on the Statuary Collection in the Baths of Zeuxippus

Categories: Anthropology


The Baths of Zeuxippus could be dated back to 100 AD when Constantinople was still under construction as a normal city and had not yet became the centre of the whole Roman Empire’. According the primary records? the name of the Baths of Zeuxippus came from an ancient architecture, The Temple of Jupiter, a temple that occupied the spot before the baths were built over. However most of the renovations occurred after the year of 330, when Constantine the Great decided to turn this city into the capital of Byzantine Empire.

The reconstruction of the city was tied with the idea of making Constantinople a “New Rome” as the continuation of old Rome, and possibly intended to make it as the new (third) Troy as well. More importantly, during the artistic reconstruction that notion of ‘denuding’ other cities’ antiquities is essential to the discussion of artworks in this essay. The role that Bathing as a social practice played in the Roman world was far more important than what modern spectators like us could image.

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In my essay I will try to draw out a clear picture of the artistic components of the site, especially its statuary collection, at the same time demonstrate how these statues engaged with contemporary civic life in secular, political and ideological terms. To draw out this picture I will examine both textual sources from the past and limited archaelogical evidences that scholars have obtained so far. And when talking of these statues and artworks, their formal qualities, iconographic traditions, and meanings within social history constraints will be considered.

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To sum up, this paper essays a systematic reading of these artworks, sculptures in particular, by analyzing them both as part of city rennovation plan and of political global mapping. And bathing as a continuation of ancient Roman traditions, the new-established Byzantine empire granted it with far more meanings than we could imagine in the early period of Byzantine time.

Continuation of Ancient Rome

Just as its name implies, the Baths of Zeuxippus were considered as a common device in service for public bathing. The routine of bathing was not a new tradition that emerged in the fourth century, rather this tradition could be dated back to ancient Roman period. All Romans bathed regularly at designated public baths, whilst for each person they bathed almost everyday and it consisted a considerable part of the day». However the baths were not merely for practical use, according to Yegül, he concluded the Baths of Zeuxippus as “veritable museum of classical art” (Yegül 184), which somehow indicates that the function of baths also involved educational and intellectual aspects. In the Baths of Zeuxippus its collection of art was mostly studied by art historians and archaeologists, in general the purpose of this setting in baths can be seen in both political terms and propagandistic terms.

The primary source, a poem ekphrasis by a Egyptian Christodoros from Book II of the Palatine Anthology, is almost the only useful textual source when scholars tried to figure out those disappeared sculptures in the courtyard of Baths of Zeuxippus. In the poem the 80 original statues were recorded, whilst most of them were antique bronze sculptures that were passed down from the past or denuded from other states or cities. Just as what the famous quote by St. Jerome stated, “Constantinople was dedicated by denuding almost all other cities.” Early Byzantine use of ancient antique statuary is notable in relevant studies on the study of this particular period of time. In Book II of the Palatine Anthology, it was recorded that the representations of numerous mythological heroes and intellectuals were exhibited in the Baths of Zeuxippus.

Among them there were nine god statues, orators, statesmen, philosophers, and some scholars from other realms of academic world. In addition some of the statues have Roman roots, such as Pompey, Virgil, and Julius Caesar. According to the historical document the Baths of Zeuxippus were burnt down at the year of 532 during the Nika Revolt, and as a result most statues might have perished by the fire. However in 1928 after a series of excavation projects, two statue pedestals were founded by the archeaologists: one of which was Hecuba, a woman who was famous for her identity as Troy’s wife, whilst another statue was an Athenian politician and orator called Aeschines. Interestingly those two statues were all mentioned by Christodoros in his Ekphrasis. By taking special consideration of the recently uncovered statue bases, Hecuba and Aeschines, several discoveries can be found.

Firstly when talking of Hecuba, according to mythological records she was the wife of the King of Troy, that is to say, she was once the queen in the ancient Greek world as well. In Christodoros’ poem, the lines related to Hecuba are from line 175 to 188: … Not even bronze halted your grief, nor did the sculptor’s lifeless art take pity and keep you from agonizing frenzy, but still you stand by, flowing with tears. I think you no longer lament the death …, but the fall of your city; for the cloak drawn over your face shows your pain, and your robe falling ungirt to your sandals proclaims your deep sorrow. Extreme anguish has bound your spirits; tears run from your cheeks, but the sculptor’s art has dried them, decreeing an eternal drought upon your incurable woe. Comparing it to the carving of Hecuba elsewhere, by only basing on the visual qualities of the sculpture derived from Christodoros’ inscription, a conclusion could be drawn: basically in terms of its iconography, Hecuba’s statue in the Baths of Zeuxippus may had followed ancient Greek tradition.

The elements such as “weeping”, “grief” and “sadness” were all being produced by the statue in the Baths of Zeuxippus as well as in that carving. Since there were no records found to demonstrate that contemporary Byzantine people were producing old Roman statues nationally, and in combination with the sources of the historical background of the period these statues were all imported from ancient Rome or elsewhere in the giant empire, this coherence of textual inscriptions and visual conventions reemphasized the authenticity of the notion of denuding’ when talking of this city’s sculptural placement. So what could be the possible relation between the insertion of this particular statue and the significance of the Baths of Zeuxippus within a social constraint?

In Bassett’s article “Culture and Tradition in the Baths of Zeuxippos” she refers to another scholar Reinhard Stupperich’s 1982 study, processing a possibility that Zeuxippos sculpture might in fact reflectes an ideology of constructing Constantinople as “New Troy” (Bassett 492), since it was not common to see such amount of mythological figures that come from the story of Trojan War within a single site. However because of the limitation of the literary and archaeological sources that scholars have obtained, this ‘link’ could only be a possible hypothesis rather than a confirmed historical fact. Another statue base founded, the one which belongs to the statue called Aeschines, in general follows the same rule, whilst Hecuba was categorized under mythological heros, Aeschines was an actual existed famous scholar that could be categorized as statesmen.

The description on Aeschines in Christodoros’ work are from line 14 to 17: “Like lightning Cecropiano Aeschines hurled blooms of intelligent persuasion, his bearded cheeks drawn into a circle as if he were engaged in a struggle with the bustling marketplace; for he was beset by many cares.” If we also put these lines into some ancient Greek representation of the same figure, Aeschines, a simple vague outline of his image could be mapped out in mind. Especially the depiction of his “bearded cheeks” and “drawn into a circle”, the sense of that statue that was conveyed in the poem also works the same when people look at the existing ancient Roman statue -the coherence of textual and iconographic traditions occurs again in this case. But when evaluating this fundamental primary literary source by Christodoros, some shortcomings of this long poem are worth mentioning. In general Christodoros’ narratives were lack of objective visual descriptions of those bronze statues, instead those sculptures were depicted rhetorically that finally became a fusion of personal reflections and interpretations, along with a few of objective descriptions (not much).

At the same time, according to 2014 version of the translation of Greek Anthology, the poem by Christodorus of Coptus was composed during Emperor Anastasius’ reign, which was approximately the beginning of the sixth century. Since it is an emotional output of that single moment as a viewer rather than a historical academic records that combines different kinds of evidences?, this so-called most convincible primary source in fact cannot reset the appearance of Zeuxippus’ statue collection at the very beginning of Constantinople in fourth century. Nevertheless, in this emotional way Christodoros’ words indicate the possible interactions between those statues and ancient viewers, providing us a vivid ‘historical sense’ despite its lack of historical rationalities. And with the assistance of this important literary source, a fact has been confirmed: some of the statues exhibited in the Baths of Zeuxippus indeed followed the Roman iconographic tradition, or else to say, it is more than possible that these statues were brought into the site from ancient Roman period. However, the possible political messages of these statues still remain uncertain.

When it turns to the archeaological evidences of the site, according to the archeaological reports of the rediscover of these bases, in general scholars have been trying to figure out the artistic conventions of this time. The Archeologists R. Stupperich in 1982 and S. Bassett in 1996 (2004 for the second time) have attempted to reconstruct the Baths of Zeuxippus. In excavation project in 1928 one of the revealed antiquities was the Base that measures 1.40×1.08m, which implies that the statue on the top might be at least life-size. Moreover, in Christodoros’ poem he described that all statues were made by bronze, whilst here the cuttings above inscriptions on the base indicate that those statues were bronze indeed (Bassett 499).

Therefore a link between the literary source that has been discussed above and this archaeological source can be drawed, such as Christodoro’s emphasis on the verisimilitude qualities of these statues in his book becomes reasonable. Moreover, according to Bassett’s evaluation of this archeaological source, she stated that the cuttings that appeared in the bottom of Base A are evidence for the notion of ‘denuding’, to put it in a more explicit way, it may imply that these bases had been used elsewhere before they were placed in the Baths of Zeuxippus. However, these sources still have certain things remain unknown to us. For instance, the question of whether those bases were made especially for the baths or were directly taken from elsewhere (or passed down from ancient time) still remains uncertain. Therefore the archaeological discoveries somehow respond to and reemphasis the fact that those statues in the Baths of Zeuxippus are not merely decorations, rather they were intentionally denuded from elsewhere (especially the antiques from ancient Roman period) with a certain type of purposes.

Further Political and Social Meanings

So after a long discussion of the textual and archaeological evidences that survived from the past, now it turns to a deepened analysis of the social, political and ideological meanings of these statues at this particular site. At the very beginning of this paper the practical use of the Baths of Zeuxippus and its coverage of broad population has been stated out, and more importantly, and it is noticeable that in fact the culture and habit of “bathing” itself was the inheritance of ancient Roman period. Therefore this idea of “denuding” the statues from the past really suits into this context of bathing, when bathing can be regarded as the continuation of intangible Roman cultural elements. In Lowden’s book Early Christian and Byzantine Art the author repeatedly emphasized that in the early period of Byzantine empire the aim of political leaders was to construct the new empire as a “New Rome” and create in in a familiar Greco-Roman way.

Therefore as a part of the denuding project, the insertion of these statues greatly demonstrate this popular ideology at the time. That is also to say that these statues were not merely for aesthetic appreciation, rather they should be regarded as the symbol of contemporary political messages within that particular context. Moreover, locationally the atchitecture of the Baths of Zeuxippus were placed at the very center of the city, surrounding by other powerful buildings such as the Great Palace, the Basilica and the Hippodrom, while the baths were also connected to the Great Palace by a private passage (Yegul 184). Here the positioning of the Baths of Zeuxippus is worth considering: it was positioned among these vital architectures of the city. Not regarding the reputation of Baths of Zeuxippus for a moment, the other three sites, the Great Palace was the rest place for the emperor, the Hippodrome was infact the visualization of all Roman emperors from past to future, whilst the Square as a whole represents the body politics of the emperor as well.

According to Martins de Jesus, he concluded that this positioning also means “a new imperial image of power” (Martins de Jesus 3), reflecting the notion of romanitas” when talking of the construction of the new urban frabic. Within Constantinople, a city that was named under the name of Constantine the Great himself, there is no doubt that the constructions or rennovations of these central buildings, including the Baths of Zeuxippus, were all commissioned by Constantine with special orders and intentions. So how the emperor Constantine’s intentions being reflected? Firstly putting the issues of Zeuxippus’ statues aside, when considering the Baths of Zeuxippus as a whole it actually has a close relation to the emperor’s ceremonies. Because of its special location, on some special occasions emperors may have ablutions at the baths as a part of their ceremonies.

Seemingly this site had a friendly relationship with churches in terms of its ritual use, nevertheless some of the churches suggested that clergies should not go to that space for relaxation and bathing because of some erotic implications within that space, whilst the baths were greatly favored by several sacred workers. Secondly when it goes back to the discussion of the statues and art within the Baths of Zeuxippus, some scholars defined these collections as a “thematic gallery on national identity”. As a sculptural gallery, as what Christodoros’ poem indicates, its collection was full of classic historical background knowledge. And by looking at the insctiptions on the three bases that ere discovered during the excavation, another discovery was founded that the inscription on each base was the same, which means that “they were part of a same gallery purpose” (Jesus 6), as what Jesus concludes. Therefore all those statues were placed in a mannered form rather than random storage of old things, and there must be a systematic museological plan for the arrangement of statues.

And there is almost no doubt that these rules of these statues were following the king’s orders. However, as what I have stated in the former section, the specific political message of this collection of statues still remains not that clear, because of the lack of sources. In addition, as a possible guessing, when considering the popularity of bathing culture, the educational purpose of this site may be somehow in relation to the advocation of “pleasure” as well. The bathing space’s giving of pleasure to its users reflects a positive statement of civic identities, which might be somehow coherent to the political educational purposes. These statues could be also regarded as luxurious decorations of the baths that also satisfied the artistic taste of the users, in addition to any serious political meanings. These sculptures and their possible messages that were discussed above greatly demonstrate the bath’s use as educational library that conveys political messages. However, when linking this site to future political shifts and comparing the Baths of Zeuxippus to other baths at the time or some time before, the records of the site are so uncertain and ambiguous that we cannot figure out a determined conclusion.

In Ward-Perkins’ article, the author evaluated the textual evidences of the Baths of Zeuxippus and finally gave a conclusion that the Baths had already disappeared in the sixteenth century. And very interestingly, Baths of Zeuxippus was a rare case that its whole architectural structure disappeared with no traces to go. For many other baths that have much longer history than Zeuxippus does, such as the baths in old Rome and Milan, still have a small part of them remaining until today. Therefore it remains doubtful that whether the disappearance was due to a small structure within that large city, or there were any man-made accidents occurred such as revolts and imperial orders that destroyed the site intentionally.

Along with the political significance that has been implied above, the total vanishing of this site from the urban structure of Constantinople may somehow reinforce the argument that this paper has been made as well –although people have no idea what really happened, it is still certain that some special incidents must have happened and resulted in its total disappearance in the end.


In conclusion, the statuary collection in the Baths of Zeuxippus greatly fited into the political and social context of the early Byzantine periods. Although the literary and archaeological sources are limited, the significance of this site as a visualization of emperor’s orders as well as its catering to public’s pratical needs can still be greatly demonstrated, whilst its significance was much more than a part of contemporary historical flow of “denuding” culture – rather it is obvious that Byzantine kings may have put special attention to the construction of this site, although the content of this “special attention” is still needing to be explored.


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  2. Yegül, Fikret K. Bathing in the Roman World. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.
  3. Gregorovius, Ferdinand, and Karl F. Morrison. Rome and Medieval Culture: Selections from History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1971. Print.
  4. Bassett, Sarah. The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.
  5. Gilles, Pierre. The Antiquities of Constantinople. 2nd ed. New York: Italica, 1988. Print.
  6. Lowden, John. Early Christian & Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon, 1997. Print. Bassett, Sarah Guberti. “Historiae Custos: Sculpture and Tradition in the Baths of Zeuxippos.” American Journal of Archaeology: 491. Print.
  7. Jesus, Martins de. “The Statuary Collection Held At the Baths of Zeuxippus (Ap 2) and the Search for Constantine’s Museological Intentions.” Synthesis 21 (2014).
  8. 5. Old and New Rome Compared, Bryan Ward-Perkins——From Grig, Lucy, and Gavin Kelly. Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. 53-80. Print.
  9. Croke, Brian. “Poetry and Propaganda: Anastasius I as Pompey.” 48 (2008): 447-66. Greek, Romance and Byzantine Studies. Web.
  10. Saradi, Helen. “The Use of Ancient Spolia in Byzantine Monuments: The Archaeological and Literary Evidence.” Int Class Trad International Journal of the Classical Tradition (1997): 395-423. Print.
  11. Rautman, Marcus Louis. Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2006. Print.

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A Study on the Statuary Collection in the Baths of Zeuxippus. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-study-on-the-statuary-collection-in-the-baths-of-zeuxippus-essay

A Study on the Statuary Collection in the Baths of Zeuxippus

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