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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of the Column of Marcian in Istanbul

What is the Column of Marcian?

The Column of Marcian is an impressive honorific column to the Emperor Marcian, once famous for his military triumph and religious reform.

Column of Marcian

Dosseman, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Column of Marcian History

Most of what we know about the Column of Marcian, it tells us itself. On its base is a very prominent Latin inscription which even at some 1,600 years old remains relatively legible. It reads:

‘Behold this statue of the Emperor Marcian, and his forum, a work which the Prefect Tatianus dedicated.’

Roman Emperors had a thing for columns and statues – two of the most famous are the still standing columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome. In Constantinople itself, Constantine, Theodosius and Arcadius had all built famous columns before Tatianus built this one for Marcian. An astonishing example of Byzantine social upward mobility, Marcian rose from the ranks as a common soldier to become emperor. Marcian is not much remembered today, but his short seven-year reign was eventful. He won notable victories against the Huns, convened the famous Council of Chalcedon which declared that Christ had two natures, human and divine, and was an efficient and fiscally prudent administrator who inherited a bankrupt empire and left a full imperial treasury to his successors. Even if he’s not well remembered today, he was by the Byzantines: the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor called his reign a golden age and his piety was seen as comparable to Constantine and Theodosius I. He was even reputed to have participated on the eve of his death in a ten-kilometre religious procession, such was his faith!

The column occupied a prominent position in the geography of Late Antique Constantinople. It was near the famous Church of the Holy Apostles and sat on the Mese, the most significant thoroughfare of the ancient city and the processional route of the most prominent imperial and religious ceremonies.

The column itself is a 10-metre-high granite monolith. Mined near Aswan in Egypt at the southernmost boundaries of the empire and brought here to the centre, the column is witness to the breadth of the Byzantine Empire in the 5th century. In days long before rail and reliable international shipping, it’s worth remembering just what an astonishing feat it would have been to haul such a massive, awkward object out of the earth, along the Nile and across the Mediterranean, where we know from shipwreck archaeology many such columns were lost.

Its iconography is a combination of the traditional trappings of Roman power with more novel Christian symbols. The two winged victories holding a shield aloft (beneath the inscription) and the eagles which sit at the four corners at the top, were historic symbols of imperial might. The ‘IX’ monograms around the base, which in Greek spell the first letters of Jesus and Christ respectively, were part of the new developing iconography of state Christianity. Taken together the column is a fitting monument to an emperor as powerful as he was pious.

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