In my humble opinion, I believe that more than any other empire in history, both Rome and Byzantium are best understood through its art and monuments. Almost every piece of art, whether a monument, sculpture or mosaic can tell us a story about the period of history they represent. All the famous statues of Emperors share the same images of power. Personal vanity of generals, statesmen and emperors are seen in many examples, such as the Equestrain Statue of Marcus Aurelius to the great head of the Colossal Statue of Constantine.
One of the most interesting statues ever commissioned or created is that of the Portrait Statue of the Four Tetrarchs. It is one of the best examples of shared power. It was designed to emphasis the union of the four emperors and their uncompromising stance in the face of internal and external pressures.
Some art historians believe that this portrait seems contrived and awkward. Maybe there is a little bit of awkwardness in their stature. After all the empire had just come out of the crisis of the third century and the hopes or success of the empire hinged on this unity? Emperors are human too, right? Though there are those who also view the statue as a contradiction. How can the four emperors be embraced and yet grasp their swords ready for war?
Diocletian’s creation of the Tetrarchy, the rule of four, was his response to the size of the empire. He believed it was too vast for one Emperor to rule the whole Roman world, particular with so many new threats (from barbarians) along the length and breadth of its borders. Two senior emperors (Augusti) would rule, one in the west and the other in the east, each with a junior emperor (Caesar) to rule underneath or along side them. The model would allow for the junior emperors to succeed their senior counterpart upon their death, and in turn appoint a new junior emperor, continuing the smooth transition of power.
The Tetrarchy was short lived and very quickly became unstable, as the four emperors sought to take power for themselves after Diocletian and Maximian retired or stood down. This tetrarchy lasted until around 324 AD, when following Licinius’ defeat and execution, Constantine suspended the tetrarchy system to rule the empire alone. It is assumed he had intentions to revive a similar system by appointing his sons to share power after his death.
What I love about the Tetrarchs statue is that all four emperors appear united and very alike. Individualism is rejected for a state of conformity. They are dressed in the traditional dress of military commanders with tunics and swords in hand. They all have short hair, severe faces and large eyes. Two emperors have a hinted beard, though this was apparently a later addition. Originally all four emperors had smooth faces. In all honesty I quite like the hinted-at beards of the two senior Augusti ! The choice of red Porphyry also gives off a purplish colour signifying the imperial purple of emperors.
The sculpture was originally set up at a road junction on the Philadelphion in Constantinople. Our friends the Venetians plundered the statue during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It was embedded in the wall of the Treasury of San Marco (see image below). In an amazing archeological find in the 1960’s, the missing original heel of one of the emperors (on the far right) was discovered. This portion of the statue resides in the Istanbul Archeology Museum.