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column of fornix

Column of Phocas

The Column of Phocas, which was erected before the Rostra in the Roman Forum and dedicated or rededicated in honour of the Byzantine emperor Phocas on August 1 608, was the last addition made to the Roman Forum. The fluted Corinthian column stands 13.6 m (44 ft) tall on its cubical white marble socle and seems originally to have been made about the 2nd century. The square foundation of brick (illustration, right) was not originally visible, the present level of the Forum not having been excavated down to its earlier Augustan paving until the 19th century.

The precise occasion for this single honour is unknown, though Phocas had formally donated the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV, who rededicated it to all the Martyr Saints—to whom Mary was added in the Middle Ages (Santa Maria ad Martyres). Atop the column's capital was erected by Smaragdus, the Exarch of Ravenna, a "dazzling" gilded statue of Phocas, which probably only briefly stood there. In October 610, Phocas, a low-born usurper himself, was treacherously captured, tortured, assassinated and grotesquely dismembered: his statues everywhere were overthrown. Rather than a demonstration to mark papal gratitude as it is sometimes casually declared to be, the gilded statue on its column was more likely an emblem of the imperial sovereignty over Rome, which was rapidly fading under pressure from the Lombards, and a personal mark of gratitude from Smaragdus, who had been recalled by Phocas from a long exile and was indebted to the Emperor for retrieving his position of power at Ravenna.

The column was recycled from its original earlier use supporting a statue dedicated to Diocletian: the former inscription was chiselled away to provide a space for the present effusion.

The column remains in situ. Its isolated, free-standing position among the ruins has always made it a landmark in the Forum, and it often appears in vedute and engravings. The rise in ground level due to erosion had completely buried the socle by the time Giuseppe Vasi and Giambattista Piranesi made engravings and etchings of the column in the mid-18th century.

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