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The Serpent Column

"He [Constantine] brought forth their images into public view to ornament the city of Constantinople, and set up the Delphic tripods publicly in the Hippodrome."

Socrates Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History (I.16)

The monument erected on the spina of the Hippodrome at Constantinople, which originally had been dedicated at Delphi, represented three serpents, their intertwined bodies forming a serpentine column and their heads, the jaws open, stretched out to support a golden tripod. The tripod was stolen, desecrated by the Phocians in 355 BC, but the bronze column survived until the sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, led by Mehmed II, who at age twenty one, was given the sobriquet "Conqueror." It was then, relates Gibbon, that "In the hippodrome, or atmeidan, his eye was attracted by the twisted column of the three serpents; and, as a trial of his strength, he shattered with his iron mace or battle-axe the under jaw of one of these monsters, which in the eyes of the Turks were the idols or talismans of the city" (LXIX). And, indeed, Turkish miniatures of the sixteenth century show the column with the jaw of one serpent missing. In 1700, the heads and necks of all three snakes were lost, leaving only the column itself, which has remained in situ since the founding of the city in 330 AD.

Given the rapacity of the crusaders, it is surprising that the bronze was not melted down during the Fourth Crusade (1204). After the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the entwined serpents were considered a talisman against snakes, the apotropaic power of the image being thought to turn the fearsome quality of the creature back upon itself. The mutilated trunk now is the only remnant still standing in situ of one of the greatest collections of ancient sculpture ever to have been assembled.

 

Now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, only a single upper jaw remains of the three serpent heads. Cast of heavy bronze, the edges of the fragment suggesting a natural break, it still is an impressive artifact. A small hole in the upper palate of the jaw has been identified as the attachment point for the serpent's tongue.

Twenty-nine coils of the column still survive, standing almost eighteen feet high, the last one measuring two feet in diameter. Six more coils are thought to have been at the bottom of the shaft, which now sits forlornly in a littered well at the original ground level of the Hippodrome.


The illustration is from "The Book of the Festival" (Surname-i Hümayun) and shows musicians performing in the Hippodrome at the circumcision festival of Prince Mehmed in 1582. The manuscript, itself, is in the Topkapi Palace Museum, which is closed for renovation until the end of 2007.

 

Ménage relates that the lower jaw of one serpent was missing as early as 1512, when an early history speaks of Constantine setting up the serpentine column in the Hippodrome

"and by making and designing that talisman he stopped up the source of the mischief of snakes, whose poison is fatal to life....Before this talisman (a rarity of the age, designed on a wondrous plan) was made, it was impossible to walk in those regions for poisonous snakes. This strange fact too is reported: they say that when the bodies of those snakes (of which the jaw of one has now fallen off) were complete, no snakes were to be seen in the city."

No mention is made of the jaw having been broken by Mehmed II who, indeed, was said to have been so solicitous of the column that he destroyed a mulberry tree growing at its base. The three heads survived until 1700, when a French visitor recounts in his travels that the Polish ambassador, who was lodged in the palace of Ibrahim Pasha next to the Hippodrome, had mysteriously ordered the death of one of his compatriots and that "Some little time after, the two heads remaining on the Serpentine Pillar were broken off and carried away one dark night." But Ménage cites a primary Arabic source that on Wednesday, October 20, 1700,

"all three heads of the bronze serpents in the Hippodrome, which had stood firm for 1,500 years, broke all together at their necks and fell to the ground; yet there is no question of their being struck and smashed, for there was not even anyone nearby. They broke with a noise as if a powerful man were chopping down trees, and people who heard the noise reported what had happened."

No conquering sultan or drunken Pole damaged the serpents' heads. After almost twenty-two hundred years, the ancient bronze simply weakened and gave way.


One other monument on the spina of the Hippodrome originally had been dedicated in celebration of a specific victory: a statue of an ass and its keeper commemorating Octavian's victory at Actium in 31 BC. Nicetas Choniates writes that, when the crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204," they pulled down the ass, heavy-laden and braying as it moved along, and the ass driver following behind. These figures had been set up by Caesar Augustus at Actium (which is Nikopolis in Hellas) because when going out at night to reconnoiter Antony's trrops, he met up with a man driving an ass, and on inquiring who he was and where he was going, he was told, 'I am Nikon and my ass is Nikandros, and I am proceeding to the camp of Caesar'" (Annals, 650). Regarded as having been a favorable omen, the encounter was memorialized in a shrine at the newly founded city of victory in Epirus.

Suetonius relates the story in his Life of Augustus. "At Actium, as he was going down to begin the battle, he met an ass with his driver, the man having the name Eutychus [Prosper] and the beast that of Nicon [Victor]; and after the victory he set up bronze images of the two in the sacred enclosure into which he converted the site of his camp" (XCVI). Plutarch adds that, when the beaks of the ships were displayed as tokens of victory, the figures of an ass and a man were set among them (Life of Antony, LXV.3). Aside from the continuity with Rome that the statue provides, it may be that, like Nikopolis, Constantinople also was a city of victory and Constantine a new Augustus, having repudiated the tetrarchy and assumed solitary rule.


References: "The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople" (1991) by Sarah Guberti Bassett, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 45, 87-96; "The Serpent Column in Ottoman Sources" (1964) by V. L. Ménage, Anatolian Studies, 14, 169-173; O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (1984) translated by Harry J. Magoulias.

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