Column of Phocas

Christian Hulsen, 1906.

The Column of Phocas. A square foundation of brick supports a marble base upon which rises a column (44 ft. 7 in. high and 4 ft. 5 in. in diameter) of white marble with a Corinthian capital. The Inscription on the north side of the base informs us that the Exarch Smaragdus, on August 1st, 608 CE, erected on this column “a dazzling golden statue of His Majesty, our lord Phocas, the eternal emperor, the triumphator crowned of God, in return for countless good deeds, for the establishing of peace in Italy, and for the preservation of freedom.”

Phocas, a man of the lowest birth, was proclaimed emperor in 602 CE by the Byzantine army on the Danube, in which he was serving as centurion. By slaying his predecessor Mauricius, and the latters five sons he assured the throne to himself, and thereupon proceeded to disgrace his position by cruelty and excesses of every sort. In spite of this he was acknowledged as emperor at Rome, where any change in the rule seemed to offer the possibility of betterment, harassed as the city was by attacks of barbarians, strife among her own people, and destructive outbreaks of nature. The letter in which Pope Gregory the Great welcomes the usurper to the throne begins with the words: “We rejoice that your gentleness and piety have been raised to the imperial throne. May the heavens be filled with joy, and the earth exult, because throughout the whole empire the people, who were just now so full of sorrow, are glad once more” etc. In one solitary respect Phocas did good to Rome: he gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV, who on May 13 609 CE dedicated it as a church of all the martyrs. In October 610 Phocas was dethroned by treachery and put to death with fearful tortures; the statues of the usurper, whose repulsive ugliness (small deformed body, red hair, long bushy eyebrows grown in together, a terrible scar which disfigured and discoloured his cheek) is most graphically described by contemporary writers, were everywhere overthrown.

The monument itself was not erected by Smaragdus; it is however probably not older than the IV-V centuries CE, and was at that time made of the spoils of older buildings. Judged by their style the column and the capital seem to belong to the second century CE An addition from the very latest period is the pyramid of steps, for the construction of which many of the surrounding monuments were compelled to furnish material. Two of the sides of this pyramid were demolished in 1903: on this occasion, the latter part of the inscription of the praetor Naevius Surdinus was laid bare.

Hulsen, Christian. The Roman Forum, its history and its monuments. Rome: Loescher; New York, G. E. Stechert, 1906.

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