Return to Serpent Column

The Serpent Column at Delphi

"When all the booty had been brought together, a tenth of the whole was set apart for the Delphian god [Apollo]; and hence was made the golden tripod which stands on the bronze serpent with the three heads, quite close to the altar"

Herodotus, The Histories (IX.81, also VIII.27)

Six hundred years later, in the second century AD, Pausanias described the Column at the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi: "The Greeks in common dedicated from the spoils taken at the battle of Plataea a gold tripod set on a bronze serpent. The bronze part of the offering is still preserved, but the Phocian leaders did not leave the gold as they did the bronze" (X.13.9). With the loss of the golden tripod in 355 BC at the beginning of the Third Sacred War, only the entwined bronze serpents remained, and it was this monument that later was understood to have commemorated the victory at Plataea.

Although restored, the topmost drum of the monument base is missing, and it is uncertain how the tripod actually related to the serpentine column that supported it. Presumably, the legs of the gold tripod rested on the heads of the three serpents, high above the column base, a reconstruction that is represented by the model at Delphi. Ridgway, however, has suggested that the legs extended all the way to the ground, the bowl itself cradled by the serpents' outstretched heads where the necks began to uncoil from the entwined column. Given the size of the bronze shaft, itself, such a tripod would seem far too large to have been made of gold. Too, the three cuttings in the stone base, which can be seen above, seemingly are too close together to be the foundation for a tripod that, given the missing coils and necks and heads of the lost serpents, would have extended well over twenty feet in height.

Situated in front of the Temple of Apollo, the base for the Serpent Column still can be seen in situ. The picture above, which allows the fix points to be seen, was permitted by a sympathetic guard. The view below, in front of the rope barrier, is more typical.

This model from the museum at Delphi gives a better perspective. The Column can be seen in front of the Temple of Apollo, the dark bronze of the cauldron barely visible. Here, the legs of the tripod rest on the heads of the entwined serpents.

Reference: "The Plataian Tripod and the Serpentine Column" ( 1977) by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, American Journal of Archaeology, 181(3), 374-379.

 Return to Top of Page