The Serpent Column is one of three remaining monuments of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It now stands halfway between the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Masonry Obelisk, revealing the location of spina of the Hippodrome which was once extensively decorated with monuments and sculpture. It was probably brought to the Hippodrome during the reign of Constantine (306-337 AD), though it is possible it was moved to its current location at a later date in the Byzantine era.
The Serpent Column was originally part of a victory tripod, which was dedicated to the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi by the Greeks after their victory over the Persians in the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. This bronze monument consists of three snakes twisting around each other to form the column shaft. Originally three heads branched out from the top of the intertwined snakes of the column, but they were all knocked off by 1700. The headless and neckless column now has a height of 3.53 meters. Although several unreliable legends blaming various individuals such as Sultan Mehmet II or a drunken Polish ambassador, the circumstances in which the column lost its heads are unknown. The upper jaw of one heads - now at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums - was discovered in 1848 and its wide, flat head probably acted as a support for the golden tripod. The precise appearance of this tripod, though, is debated. The tripod or its bowl could have rested on the heads of the snake. Originally the heads had bronze tongues between their open jaws and their hollow eyes once had glass inlay.
Excavations at the Hippodrome in 1855-1856 and in 1927 uncovered numerous water channels. Traces of lead piping were also found underneath the Serpent Column and the nearby Masonry Obelisk, indicating both monuments once served as fountains. It was probably its use as a fountain that saved it from being melted down or looted by the crusaders in 1204 – as was done to other bronzes in the Hippodrome. Interestingly, just before the Ottoman Conquest there was a report that water, wine and milk flowed out of each head – a legend recalling its original use. It is unknown when it ceased functioning as a fountain. The 1927 excavations also revealed that the column rested on a reused capital.
The excavation in 1855-1856 exposed an inscription that was scratched into the surface of the bronze. Written in the Phocian alphabet, it names thirty-one Greek cities that defeated the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479 BC. This allowed for the column to be identified with the tripod Herotodus recorded in the 5th century. Later the historian Pausanias recorded that golden tripod in Delphi was missing, but the Serpent Column still existed. It was removed by the Phocians (the locals of Delphi) during a war in the 4th century. Eusebius reported that several tripods from Delphi were moved to the Hippodrome of Constantinople during the reign of Constantine.
Serpent Head from Pera Museum exhibition in 2015
While the Serpent Column is quite unimpressive today, its significance lies in a larger context. As the only surviving bronze monument in the Hippodrome it provides a glimpse of the great collection of antiquities once was on the spina, which was gathered in part to rival the old capital of Rome. For Constantinople to be seen as the successor to Rome, there was a need to project its Romanitas (or “Romanness”). This was accomplished in part by imperial public building works that included a hippodrome and other public spaces that were extensively decorated with honorific monuments and sculpture. Emulating Rome, its public works and its ceremonies also played a significant role in legitimizing Constantinople and the emperors residing there, which in turn also boosted the civic pride of its citizens.
Constantine enlarged and completed the hippodrome, which supposedly was initiated by Septimus Severus around a century early. Starting with Constantine, the Hippodrome and other public spaces were extensive decorated with a large number of antiquities brought from outside of the city. As St. Jerome wrote, Constantinople was enriched through the stripping bare of almost every other city founded before Byzantium. The use of spolia had long been associated with Roman imperial might and domination, and this association was particularly emphasized in the circus. By moving an Egyptian obelisk to the spina of the Circus Maximus, Augustus emphasized his defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra as well as his conquest of Egypt. The sculptural program in the Hippodrome also emphasized its connection to the Circus Maximus, thus the city’s Romanitas and the might of its emperors.
Images of victory were by far the most common type of antiquity in the Hippodrome. This could include monuments commemorating military triumphs as well as Hippodrome competitors. Some monuments embodied the general concept of victory – which was the case of a group of bronze tripods from the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Traditionally these tripods were used as awards and votive dedications in athletic and dramatic competitions. Even though they originally had specific associations, these were probably lost and thus were transfigured into generic images of victory once they were removed to Constantinople. There were also monuments associated with specific military conquests, as seen in the Ass and Keeper, a statue commemorating Augustus’ victory over Mark Anthony in the Battle of Actium.
The Serpent Column is also linked with a specific military victory. While it lost its golden tripod centuries earlier, the remaining column continued to be associated with the victory over the Persians. It is unclear how much of its original meaning was remembered once it was moved to Constantinople. It seems that Constantine claimed to be the heir of the civilization that defeated the Persians when he moved it to the spina. However it is also possible that its connection to the sun god Apollo (who defeated the serpent Python, banishing chaos and inaugurating an age of peace and fertility) was not forgotten. Even after his conversion to Christianity, Constantine continued to use imagery of the sun god, thus this linked his own victory over his defeated enemies (Maxentius and Licinius) with Apollo’s victory over Python. It is more plausible that Constantine saw it as a trophy after closing the oracle at Delphi, due to its role in convincing Diocletian to persecute Christians starting in 303.
As Delphi had been regarded as the center of the world, it is possible that Constantine was claiming this status for his new capital when he moved the Serpent Column and other Delphic tripods to the Hippodrome. This conception, taken together with its association of order over chaos, might have been underscored by the cosmological order that the circus represented, which had, at the center, the emperor himself. Over time, though, these conceptions of the Serpent Column were lost and instead its apotropaic powers were emphasized. It has also been argued that it was associated with the Brazen Serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, which itself was foreshadowed Christ’s resurrection. By the end of the Byzantine era, it was held to contain snake venom and could cure anyone bitten by a snake. The Ottomans also regarded it as one of the many talismans of Istanbul when it still had its heads. Evliya Çelebi described the Serpent Column as protecting the city from snakes, scorpions and other vermin.
Detail from a miniature of Istanbul by Matrakçı Nasuh (c. 1537)
Ottoman acrobats on the obelisks from Hünername (c. 1530)
At Meydanı Muslim wedding procession by Aubry de La Motraye (1727)
Photo by Vasilaki Kargopoulo (1850-1886)
Reconstruction by Fabricius (1886)
τ̣ο[ίδε τὸν] πόλεμον [ἐ]-
Those who fought the war
Inscription drawing by Hermann Roehl (1907)
From Histories (Book IX, 81) by Herodotus
Then having brought the things [spoils of war] together, and having set apart a tithe for the god at Delphi, with which the offering was dedicated of the golden tripod which rests upon the three-headed serpent of bronze and stands close by the altar, and also for the god at Olympia, with which they dedicated the offering of a bronze statue of Zeus fifteen feet high, and finally for the god at the Isthmus, with which was made a bronze statue of Poseidon ten and one-half feet high,—having set apart these things, they divided the rest, and each took that which they ought to have, including the concubines of the Persians and the gold and the silver and the other things, and also the beasts of burden. How much was set apart and given to those of them who had proved themselves the best men at Plataia is not reported by any, though for my part I suppose that gifts were made to these also; Pausanias however had ten of each thing set apart and given to him, that is women, horses, talents, camels, and so also of the other things.
Map by Bibi Saint-Pol
Reconstruction of the Serpent Column in Delphi
The Omphalos ("the Navel")
Believe to the Center of the World
The Urban Image of Late Antique Constantinople by Sarah Bassett
The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography by Paul Stephenson
“The Monuments and Decoration of the Hippodrome in Constantinople” by Jonathan Bardill
“The Serpent Column of Delphi in Constantinople: Placement, Purposes, and Mutilations” by Thomas Madden
Histories by Herodotus
Chronicon by Jerome
Seyahatnâmesi by Evliya Çelebi