Porphyrius the charioteer

Porphyrius the Charioteer (also known as Calliopas) was a renowned Roman charioteer in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In the time of Porphyrius, Roman chariot-racing was at its height. Charioteers were celebrities, and Porphyrius is famous for having seven monuments built in his honor in the Hippodrome.[1] These monuments serve as a glimpse into the history of the time, and into the life of Porphyrius. The age of Porphyrius is often referred to as the age of the Byzantine Charioteer. The age of his death is not known, but he retired from chariot-racing in his late 50s or 60s.

General information

Born in Libya in 480 AD, the son of a certain Calchas, Porphyrius was a very skilled and clever charioteer. He was described as a handsome youth, so handsome that even a goddess might fall in love with him. He had seven monuments built throughout his lifetime to honor him as a charioteer and a warrior. The statues/monuments contain several inscriptions which contain a myriad of information on Porphyrius; ranging from his physical appearance to the honours received him by the emperor to his success as a warrior. A great deal of the story of Porphyrius, and his history, is collected from these statues. They are described in detail by a selection of epigrams from the Greek anthology, and by The Chronicle of John Malalas.[2]

A great charioteer

Although his precise age is not known, Porphyrius was described as a mature youth, as a youngish man, and as a youth with the first down on his cheeks.[3] Porphyrius was unique in that, at a young age, he was not only victorious in his many races, but he was the youngest charioteer to have a monument built honoring him. Traditionally a charioteer would have a statue built after his retirement (usually in one's mid-40s-50s); Porphyrius was an exception. Porphyrius was the best charioteer of his time. He was the only charioteer to win the diversium twice in one day. The diversium was an honor given to one who would win the chariot race as a member of one team (Blues), and would then win again except that he would be racing as a member of the losing team (the Greens). To win the diversium, one would have to win as a member of the Blues, and then win against the Blues as a member of the Greens. Porphyrius did this twice in one day. He was very well known for his cleverness and ability to win with whatever he had. This is illustrated by his ability to win races regardless of the team that he was on. His most notable chariot-racing accomplishments were in the Hippodrome in Constantinople;[4] he won his highest honors there.[5]

Given Porphyrius' great skill and ability to win, each team would cater to Porphyrius to ensure that he would race with their color. It is also noted that Porphyrius had monuments built in his honor by both the Greens and the Blues, testimony to the fact that he was admired and sought after for his great chariot skills.

Antioch Pogrom (507) & Vitalian's Revolt (515)

Although Porphyrius was often given the celebrity treatment, he was not always the recipient of praise. He lost some of his popularity, especially from the Blues of Antioch, after the atrocities he committed there.[5] The Antioch Pogrom in 507 is one of the two major events in Porphyrius' lifetime.

At the age of approximately 27, Porphyrius led the Greens to Antioch and attacked a synagogue in the suburb of Daphne, slaughtering many worshippers.[6] This illustrates the violent methods practiced by Porphyrius when he was upset or displeased. His stature and fame gave him the leverage and ability to commit such atrocities.

Another event in his life was the suppression of Vitalian’s Revolt in 515.

At the age of approximately 35, Porphyrius helped suppress the Vitalian Revolt by supporting Anastasius.[1]

In popular culture

Porphyrius, driving a 1932 Duesenberg, appears as a chauffeur in Robert Olen Butler's 2009 novel, Hell. The nature of his infernal punishment is that the streets of Hell are so crowded that he can never get the car out of first gear.


  • Reviewed Work(s): Porphyrius the Charioteer by Alan Cameron. J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz. The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 64, 1974 (1974), pp. 233–234
  • The Chronicles of John Malalas. Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, Roger Scott. Melbourne 1986
  • Reviewed Work: Porphyrius the Charioteer by Alan Cameron. Thomas W. Africa. The American Historical Review. Vol. 80, No. 2. (Apr., 1975), pp. 378–379·
  • The Monument of Porphyrius in the Hippodrome at Constantinople, A. A. Vasiliev. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 4. (1948), pp. 27+29-49.
  • The Greek Anthology (English Translation). W.R. Paton. 1918
  • Porphyrius the Charioteer. Alan Cameron. Oxford University Press 1973
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