#17.1: Column of Phocas

Still standing in front of the Basilica Julia walk into that small fenced-in section between Column Bases 3 and 4 and into the Forum Square. If you're just reading this and haven't been to Rome the bad news is the Forum Square is fenced-off. But this little nook between the columns puts you in the Forum, so I'll point out some of the sites starting on your left and going clockwise to the right. [For reference, the left side fence is West, right side fence is East and the fence connecting them is North]

But first walk over to the left far corner (West and North junction) of this fenced-in area and on the other side of the fence you can see one of the openings for the Gladiator tunnels beneath the Forum Square (it has a metal grate over it). If you are tall and stand on your toes you can look slightly down in it and see the top curve of the tunnel's vault. Also I forgot to mention earlier that in the nineteenth Century excavations of these tunnels 'wooden hoists' (to lift objects/animals/men through these openings?) were found in those square rooms that are shown in that tunnel diagram website you looked at earlier.

Ok now see that large brick base and tall column from the west side fence. That is the COLUMN OF PHOCAS, and here is a photo. Notice its odd location (off-center in the Forum and in front of the Rostra's southern end). The location was puzzling to early archaeologists and historians but later it was discovered that it was designed to fit in visually when approaching the Forum by the Argiletum (the road between the Basilica Aemila and the Curia Julia) since you would see the first Honorary Columns on its right and the second Honorary Columns on its left with this predominant honorary column in-between them.

Also the marble steps part way around it are not square to the base but were made to visually line up with the first and second Column Bases. The steps were once rectangular marble frieze blocks that were cut to make the steps which were then placed over a base of tufa blocks. These steps formed a pyramid-like structure (14.8 m x 14.8 m) around the brick-faced concrete base and were a later addition to this monument. The north side of the steps were demolished in 1903 to uncover the end of the 'Surdinus Inscription' on the Forum pavement.

Atop the square brick-faced concrete base is a Plinth/Pedestal which is made up of marble blocks. There is an inscription on the plinth's north side that we will get to later. On top of the plinth is a 14.8 m fluted Corinthian column of Proconnesian marble.

The column was made in the second Century AD and was relocated and reused here. The seven drums of the column are etched with faint lettering (A-A, B-B etc) so that it could be reassembled here exactly as it was at its original location. The Corinthian Capital on top of the column is mid-second-Century AD and also reused from another site.

On top of the Capital would be where an honorary statue would be placed.

On Aug 1, 608 AD this is the *very last* monument to be *dedicated* in the Roman Forum, after this the Forum is slowly abandoned as the city center except for some churches and Christian buildings built here. But this base and column was actually built in the fourth Century AD and dedicated to someone else who very likely had his statue atop it. It is not known to whom positively but it might have been Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD)? So even when originally built in the fourth Century it was built with recycled materials and then later just rededicated with a new statue and new inscription in 608 AD.

The 608 AD inscription on the north side of the marble pedestal which you can't see from here says:

"To our best, most gracious, most pious lord Phocas <- [name is erased due to a later damnatio memoriae on Phocas], supreme commander in perpetuity, crowned by God, triumphant, emperor forever. Smaragdus, previously Praepositor at the Palatium, Patrician and Exarch of Italy, devoted to his Grace because of the innumerable benefactions of his piety, the peace brought to Italy and liberty preserved, placed this shining statue of his Majesty on top of this sublime column to his perennial glory, on 1 August, 608 AD".

Basically this monument is a Thank You card from Smaragdus and Pope Boniface IV to Emperor Phocas for giving the Pope the Pantheon to be used as a church and for helping Smaragdus get reinstated as the Exarch of Ravenna. [Keep in mind history is written by the victors who in this case have a bias towards Phocas]

[FLAVIUS PHOCAS AUGUSTUS Byzantine Emperor from 602-610 AD]

Described by ancient writers as...well pretty damn ugly :-) (small, deformed, long bushy eyebrows connected together, ugly discolored scar on cheek and a red head :-) ). He was possibly from Thrace and was a Sublatern Officer (Lieutentant) in the Roman Army. Not much is known about his early life but he was sent as part of an army delegation to Constantinople to air their grievances to the Emperor. So he must have been respected by his superiors.

And he also seems to have been popular among his men. In 602 Emperor Maurice orders the army to setup their winter camp on the far side of the Danube River. Dumb move, if attacked they have a cold icy river behind them so no retreat is possible. Any sane commander would always put a river between his winter camp and the enemy. Also the Emperor cut the army's operating expenses just before this. They are not 'happy campers' and the army revolts with Phocas as their leader.

Phocas and his boys capture Constantinople where he is proclaimed Emperor. Maurice had already abdicated and fled the city, he and his five sons have found sanctuary in a monastery. Later Maurice and his sons are dragged out of the monastery where one by one each of the sons is killed before his eyes, sadistically saving the father for last. Their bodies are thrown into the sea but their heads were displayed in the city but later given a Christian burial.

Emperor Phocas cut taxes which made him popular with the people, ordered much needed land reform for farmers and was liked by the Pope and Church. But he took the Empire by a coup which hadn't happened since Constantine made Constantinople the capital almost three centuries before. And this made him some powerful enemies within the Empire.

Also he now has the barbarians nipping at the borders and taking back territory.

It is *claimed* that he killed thousands of his political enemies and seized their property.

So was he a good Emperor for the commoners with his tax cuts and land reform? Or a bad Emperor on border/territory defense, keeping the Empire united (civil war) and a cold blooded murderer of thousands of citizens? Who knows in reality? But he is known today as a brutal Emperor, perhaps he was or wasn't or a little bit of both. And it's not like tax cuts and land reform for the poor are going to make the rich and powerful happy with you.

The Persian King Khosrau II breaks his treaty and claims a son of Emperor Maurice survives (a lie) who he declares is now the real Emperor. The King also supports the Roman General Narses who never accepted Phocas as Emperor. Phocas is now at war (about 607 AD) with the Persians and a Roman General. In 608 the Governor (Exarch) of Africa along with his son (both named Heraclius) start a civil war against Phocas. In 610 Heraclius (the son) reaches Constantinople. Phocas' army at this point has either been defeated or has defected to Heraclius. Outside the city the rich and powerful meet Heraclius as a conquering hero. Even Phocas' own 'son in law' leading the Imperial Guard defects. Heraclius' army enter the city unopposed and capture Phocas.

"And all the officers and senators had taken up a position near the palace, and they were lying in wait for Phocas.
But when Phocas and Leontius the chamberlain became aware that they sought with evil intent to slay them as they had slain the depraved Bonosus, the two arose and seized all the money that was in the imperial treasury which had been amassed by Maurice, and likewise that which had been amassed by (Phocas) himself from the Roman nobles whom he had put to death, and whose property he had confiscated, and likewise the money of Bonosus, and they cast it into the waves of the sea, and so thoroughly impoverished the Roman empire.
And thereupon the senators and the officers and soldiers went in and seized Phocas, and took the imperial crown from his head, and (they seized) Leontius the chamberlain likewise, and conducted them in chains to Heraclius to the church of S. Thomas the Apostle, and they put both of them to death in his presence.
And they cut off the privy parts of Phocas, and tore off his skin right down to his legs because of the dishonor and shame he had brought on the wife of <Photius> because she was consecrated to the service of God, for he had taken her by force and violated her, although she was of an illustrious family.
And next they took the bodies of Phocas and Leontius and Bonosus and they conveyed them to the city of Constantinople, and they burned them with fire, and scattered the ashes of their bodies to the winds, for they were detested by all men"
(CX.4-7). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu.

Phocas' statues are torn down and his inscriptions are erased throughout the Empire.

And if you have binoculars or a good telephoto lens you can see where his name was erased from the inscription on the north side of this monument (you have to be on the other side of the Forum Square in front of the Curia).

For more information and photos, please see Column of Phocas in A Tourist in Rome.

Next: #17.2: Inscription
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