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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, Ecclesiastical History (I.16)

To commemorate the Greek victory at Plataea in 479 BC a votive offering was dedicated to Apollo at Delphi. Likely cast from the captured bronze weapons and armor of the defeated Persians, the monument 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 by the Phocians in 355 BC but the bronze column survived, only to be appropriated by Constantine to decorate the central spina of the Hippodrome in his newly founded capital of Constantinople. This may have been as early as AD 324, when Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, or as late as AD 330, when the city was dedicated. There the Serpent Column remained intact until its sack by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The conquest was led by Mehmed II, then only twenty-one years old. Gibbon relates that "In the hippodrome, or atmeidan [At Meydani, "Horses Square"], 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" (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, LXVIII).

This detail (right) from a miniature in the Hünername ("Book of Skills"), completed about 1584 and now in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library, shows the mace hurled by Mehmed the Conqueror striking the lower jaw of one of the serpents. As the title implies, the book compiles a number of fabulous stories about the prowess and exploits of the sultans. Later, the blow was attributed to the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha and to other sultans. Given the amount of activity, both games and sports, that took place in the Hippodrome, the jaw likely was broken by accident.

  The snake protome (left) discovered at Delphi and in the museum there shows to better effect how the head might have looked, especially the prominent eyebrows and round eye sockets. The mysterious "beard," which is suggested in some illustrations, may represent either a misapprehension of the distended jaw of a snake's open mouth; a borrowing from Egypt, where the beard signified divine nature; or simply, with its crest and beard, an emblem of masculinity (Aelian, On the Nature of Animals, XI.26). Philostratus hints at its appearance in his description of drakon hunts in India. "Now the dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eyebrows are more prominent than those of the plain, and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance." (Life of Apollodorus, III.8). So, too, the hollow eye socket would have been inset with glass, crystal, or colored stone.

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, where it sits forlornly in a well at the original ground level of the Hippodrome.

"These barbarians, haters of the beautiful, did not allow the statues standing in the Hippodrome and other marvelous works of art to escape destruction, but all were made into coins. Thus great things were exchanged for small ones, those works fashioned at hug[e] expense were converted into worthless copper coins."

Nicetas Choniates, Annals (§649)

An eyewitness of the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade that began on April 13, 1204, the patrician Choniates, his palatial home destroyed, was forced to flee the city as a refugee. Given the rapacity of the Crusaders, it is surprising that the bronze Serpent Column was not melted down, perhaps because it still might have been used as a fountain. The serpents also 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 column is the only remnant of what once had been one of the greatest collections of ancient sculpture ever assembled.

After two-and-a-half millennia, it is difficult to read the names on the bronze coils, which are pitted and badly scratched. But inscribed on Coil 6 (top), one can discern the first crudely incised letters of "Eretria." Before the Persian fleet sailed across the strait to confront the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BC, the polis was conquered by Darius in retribution for having joined the Athenians in burning Sardis eight years before (Herodotus, V.99.1). Eretria was besieged, its sanctuaries plundered and burned (VI.101.3), and the enslaved people transported to Susa in Persia, where they were settled near an oil well—the liquid, which is "black and has a heavy acrid odor," being drawn up in wineskins (VI.119.2). A decade later, Eretria was able to contribute seven ships to fight at Artemisium (VIII.1.2) and then only weeks later again at Salamis (VIII.45.2). Six-hundred Eretrians also fought the next year at Plataea (IX.28.6).

A tenth of the spoils from the Battle of Plataea were dedicated as well to Zeus at Olympia, where a bronze statue fifteen feet high stood on a base inscribed with the names of twenty-seven cities that had fought the Persians (Pausanias, Description of Greece, V.23.1-2). Here, the Eretrians are not mentioned.


Now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, only a single upper jaw remains of the three bronze serpent heads, although the fragment still is an impressive artifact. A small hole in the upper palate has been identified as the attachment point for the serpent's tongue.

Thucydides records that Pausanias, the Spartan commander of the Greek allies at Plataea, had a couplet incised on the offering, "The Mede defeated, great Pausanias raised this monument, that Phoebus might be praised," which the Spartans at once erased and instead "inscribed the names of the cities that had aided in the overthrow of the barbarian and dedicated the offering" (The Peloponnesian War, I.132.2-3). Demosthenes says that the Greeks were so incensed by this presumption that the Plataeans brought suit against the Spartans in the Amphicryonic Council (which administered affairs at Delphi) for one thousand talents and compelled them to remove the offending lines and "inscribe instead the names of the cities that shared in the deed" (Speeches, "Apollodorus Against Neaera," LIX.97-98). Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, records a different dedication: "This is the gift the saviours of far-flung Hellas upraised here, having delivered their states from loathsome slavery bonds" (Library of History, XI.33.2).

Introduced by the now illegible inscription "Those who fought the war" on the thirteenth coil, the names of thirty-one city states, beginning with Sparta, Athens, and Corinth, were incised on coils twelve to three—and so crudely drawn that it has been suggested that they were not part of the original design but added later. They correspond in number to Plutarch's comment that "only thirty-one cities had taken part in the war, and that the most of these were altogether small" (Life of Themistocles, XX.4). If, as Herodotus says, "the Tenians were honored with an inscription, as among those who had assured the destruction of the barbarian, on a tripod at Delphi" (VIII.82.1), there may have been thirty names originally, which would match the original number of coils. Now, there are twenty-nine, thickening as they approach the top of the column, which stands almost eighteen-feet high.

Ménage suggests that the lower jaw of the serpent was missing at least by 1512, when an early Arabic history speaks of Constantine setting up the Serpent 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."

But this may be a later interpolation, as Madden has argued. No European visitor remarked on the loss until 1573, which was confirmed by a detailed drawing the following year (and then it was attributed to Süleyman the Magnificent). Nor does the earliest Turkish miniature of the column (drawn in 1537) depict any damage. Rather than having broken the jaw a hundred and twenty years earlier, Mehmed II was so solicitous of the column that he destroyed a mulberry tree growing at its base to prevent any further injury.

The remaining three heads remained intact until 1700, when Aubry de la Motraye, a French visitor, recounted in his travels that the Polish ambassador, who was lodged in the palace of Ibrahim Pasha next to the Hippodrome, had ordered the beheading of one of his compatriots who drunkenly had converted to Islam. Both head and body were left in the Hippodrome, where they were found the next morning by Turks on the way to morning prayer.

"But not having any Proofs of the Fact, or not daring to accuse his Excellency, or any of his Court, whatever Suspicions they might have, they took it away, and buried it quietly. Some little time after, the two Heads remaining on the Serpentine Pillar were broken off and carried away one dark Night, of which the Turks took no more Notice, than they had done of the Death of their Proselyte" (p. 206).

As to the events of that night, Ménage cites a primary Arabic source that records on 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."

It may be that, after almost twenty-two hundred years, the ancient bronze welds did indeed weaken and give way, as Ménage contends. But the circumstances are mysterious, and Madden suggests that the Poles very well may have been culpable. Just the year before, the defeated Ottomans had signed the Treaty of Karlowitz, ending a war with Poland, Austria, Venice, and Russia. It was to negotiate the details of ratification that brought the Polish ambassador to Constantinople, his entourage contemptuously wearing the very coats of mail that had been taken from Turks killed or imprisoned after the failed siege of Vienna seventeen years before. The vandalism occurred as the last of his retinue was preparing to leave, not with a sudden break but with a repeated chopping sound. Even if the Turks were obliged to overlook the incident, an English visitor was not so circumspect. The next year, he recorded in his diary that "the monument was rudely broken from the top of the pillar by some attendants of the late Polish ambassador, whose lodgings were appointed in this cirque, opposite to the said pillar" (pp. 40-41). And scoring along the break of the surviving head (which was discovered during restoration work to Hagia Sophia in 1848) does suggest that it has been hacked from its neck.

Only fifteen coils are illustrated in the manuscript, which is in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library. The other fifteen were not revealed until 1855, when the base of the column was excavated. The original retaining wall and iron railing of that archaeological dig still surround the well.

  This detail is from a miniature in the Surname-i Hümayun ("Imperial Festival Book"), which was commissioned to document the celebration. It shows musicians performing in the Hippodrome at the circumcision of sixteen-year-old Prince Mehmed III in 1582, a festival that lasted more than fifty days and was one of the most opulent ever staged by the Ottoman sultans. There were processions by artisans and shopkeepers (as well as Christians and Jews), displays of exotic animals, and elaborate performances, including the ecstatic whirling of dervishes. Food was freely distributed and coins scattered by the sultan. In part, such largess was to distract the populace from a war with Safavid Persia that had continued intermittently for the previous four years. A violation of the truce during the festivities led, in fact, to the ambassador being expelled and the Safavids being subject to parody and farce. Such buffoonery did not extend to European envoys, however, who participated in the pomp of receptions and gift giving—although they were reminded of past defeats in the elaborate mock battles that were staged. A fight between the sultan's Janissaries and his cavalry over gifts and pay brought the festival to an early conclusion.


"In the same range of obelisks there stands another pillar. It is made of brass, not fluted, but wreathed around with the foldings of three serpents, like those we see in great ropes. The heads of these serpents are placed in a triangular pattern and rise very high upon the shaft of the pillar. There are many fabulous and trifling reports among the inhabitants concerning the erection of this pillar, which are occasioned by their ignorance of the history of their ancestors."

Pierre Gilles, The Antiquities of Constantinople (II.13)

So Gilles, who visited Constantinople from 1544 to 1547 as representative of the French king Francis I, prefaced his survey of the early church historians who had written about the Serpent Column. Aside from Socrates Scholasticus in the fifth century AD quoted above, Sozomen, his younger contemporary, says that "The brazen images which were skillfully wrought were carried to the city, named after the emperor, and placed there as objects of embellishment, where they may still be seen in public places, as in the streets, the hippodrome, and the palaces," among which were "the tripods from Delphos" (Ecclesiastical History, II.5). Zosimus, writing at the end of the fifth century AD, relates that Constantine "placed somewhere in the hippodrome the tripod of Delphic Apollo, which had on it the very image of Apollo" (New History, II.33). Eusebius, who died just two years after the death of Constantine in AD 337, explains in his panegyric to the emperor why the tripods were exhibited.

"he used every means to rebuke the superstitious errors of the heathen. Hence the entrances of their temples in the several cities were left exposed to the weather, being stripped of their doors at his command; the tiling of others was removed, and their roofs destroyed. From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore his name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learned to renounce their error" (Life of Constantine, III.54).

The spina of the Hippodrome was the central barrier around which races took place. And, like its predecessor at Rome, the space was richly decorated with columns and bronze statuary, with the Serpent Column almost directly opposite the kathisma, the royal box where the emperor presented himself to the populace during races and processions. But, rather than a rebuke of pagan superstition, as Eusebius contends, the monument, a symbol of Greek victory, was a reminder to Constantine of his own.

One other monument on the spina 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. Suetonius tells the story. "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" (Life of Augustus, XCVI.1). 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). 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 troops, 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 Nikopolis, the newly founded city of victory in Epirus. And, like Nikopolis, so Constantinople was to be a city of victory and Constantine its new Augustus.

"This Megabazos [a Persian general] once made a statement that will be remembered forever by the inhabitants of the Hellespont. Once when he was in Byzantium, he learned that the Chalcedonians had settled their colony seventeen years earlier than the people of Byzantium had established theirs. Upon hearing this, he remarked that the Chalcedonians must have been blind at that time, for they would not have chosen such an inferior location when there was such a superior one available, unless they were blind."

Herodotus, Histories (IV.144.1-2)

Founded by colonists from the Greek city-state of Megara in 685 BC (Jerome, Chronicle, Olympiad 23), Chalcedon was situated on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. Byzantium was colonized later (in about 667 BC, according to Herodotus) on the Thracian shore opposite. Polybius discusses the geography of the area at length, determined to "state the facts of the case and explain what is the cause of the singular prosperity of this city" (Histories, IV.38.12). "To look at them indeed you would say they were equally well placed, but nevertheless it is not easy to reach Chalcedon by sea, if one wishes, while to Byzantium the current carries one whether one wishes or not" (IV.44.1). It is this current, flowing out from the Pontus (Black Sea) to the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) between Chalcedon and Byzantium that, together with the prevailing winds, favors Byzantium. For Strabo, the advantage of Byzantium was the great migrating shoals of tuna, which turn away from Chalcedon and, caught up by the current,

"naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue. But the Chalcedonians, though situated near by, on the opposite shore, have no share in this abundance, because the pelamydes [a species of tuna] do not approach their harbours; hence the saying that Apollo, when the men who founded Byzantium at a time subsequent to the founding of Chalcedon by the Megarians consulted the oracle, ordered them to 'make their settlement opposite the blind,' thus calling the Chalcedonians 'blind', because, although they sailed the regions in question at an earlier time, they failed to take possession of the country on the far side, with all its wealth, and chose the poorer country" (Geography, VII.6.2; also Pliny, Natural History, V.149; Tacitus, Annals, XII.63).

On the Asian side of the Strait at the entrance to the Pontus, says Polybius, there is "the so‑called Holy Place, where they say that Jason on his voyage back from Colchis first sacrificed to the twelve gods" (IV.39.6). It was to Colchis, which "lies at the edge of Pontus and of the world," that Jason and his Argonauts sailed in quest of the golden fleece (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, II.417). Diodorus Siculus later speaks of this place and the eponymous founder of Byzantium. "The Argonauts, arriving at the mouth of the Pontus, put in to the land, the king of the country being at that time Byzas, after whom the city of Byzantium was named. There they set up altars, and when they had paid their vows to the gods they sanctified the place, which is even to this day held in honour by the sailors who pass by" (Library of History, IV.49.1-2).

Crossing the Bosporus from Byzantium, Constantine landed at what Zosimus calls the Sacred Promontory and marched south to confront Licinius, who came north from Chalcedon to Chyrsopolis (New History, II.26). There, Constantine defeated his rival in AD 324, to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Six years later, on May 11, 330, ancient Byzantium was dedicated as Constantinople, the Nova Roma (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, I.16).

References: "The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople" (1991) by Sarah Guberti Bassett, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 45, 87-96; The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople (2004) by Sarah Basset; "The Serpent Column in Ottoman Sources" (1964) by V. L. Ménage, Anatolian Studies, 14, 169-173; "The Serpent Column of Delphi in Constantinople: Placement, Purposes, and Mutilations" (1992) by Thomas F. Madden, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 16, 111-145; The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography (2016) by Paul Stephenson; "The Imperial Circumcision Festival of 1582: An Interpretation" (1995) by Derin Terzioğlu, Muqarnas, 12, 84-100; Greek Public Monuments of the Persian Wars (1996) by William Curtis West, III.

O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (1984) translated by Harry J. Magoulias; Demosthenes, Speeches 50-59 (2003) translated by Victor Bers; Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (1912) translated by F. C. Conybeare (Loeb Classical Library); Critobulus: History of Mehmed the Conqueror (1954) translated by Charles T. Riggs; Pierre Gilles: The Antiquities of Constantinople (1988) edited by Ronald G. Musto; Chronicon Paschale: 284-628 AD (1989) translated by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby; A. de la Motraye's Travels through Europe, Asia, and into Part of Africa (1723) by Aubry De La Motraye; Travels in Turkey and Back to England (1747) by Edmund Chishull.

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