The summer break offers a welcome opportunity for busy academics to return to research projects long postponed. In the next few weeks it is my intention to complete, at least insofar as any book is ever complete, a monograph I have been working on for six years: The Serpent Column: a cultural biography, which will appear in the Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture, published by Oxford University Press. I am incorporating the last important insights that emerged during my Onassis lectures at Penn and The Ohio State University.
The Serpent Column today is one small part of a large monumental complex, the archaeological park inscribed in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, “Historic Areas of Istanbul.” This includes the late Roman and Byzantine hippodrome, now landscaped and planted, where the column, a bronze stump, stands between two rather more impressive obelisks. The Serpent Column has its origins in another monumental site, the Panhellenic sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. It is first recorded following the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Plataia in 479 BC. The names of the victorious Greek cities were scratched onto the lower coils. These can still be seen through a good lens . The towering sculpture was a common votive offering to Delphic Apollo by the victorious Greek poleis at one of the two Panhellenic shrines (the other being dedicated to Olympian Zeus), created in the aftermath of the battle, which Herodotus (IX.81) describes in this manner: “When all the stuff [i.e. Persian spoils] had been collected, a tenth was set apart for the god at Delphi, and from this was made the gold tripod which stands next to the altar on the three-headed bronze snake.” It is interesting to note what Herodotus does not say: that the bronze serpents were made at this time. However, this is implied by Pausanias (X.13.9), writing in the second century AD, who reported that “The Greeks in common dedicated from the spoils taken at the battle of Plataia a gold tripod set on a bronze serpent. The bronze part of the offering is still preserved, but the Phocian leaders [when they seized the sanctuary during the “sacred war” in the fourth century BC] did not leave the gold as they did the bronze.” On this basis, various reconstructions of the composite monument have been proposed.
Some scholars have maintained that the date at which the Serpent Column reached Constantinople, as well as its original location in that city, cannot be known. It is true that we have no unequivocal written or visual confirmation that the column stood in the hippodrome before the fourteenth century. Yet, by the sixteenth century, it was well established in the accounts of those who visited Constantinople that the column had been placed where it now stood by Constantine. As Pierre Gilles (Petrus Gyllius) showed, a solid case can be made that the column arrived in Constantinople during the reign of Constantine I (306-37). In 324, at the Battle of Chrysopolis, Constantine defeated his imperial rival Licinius. Constantine believed that all past victories, including his own at the Milvian Bridge in 312, had culminated in that moment. To celebrate his victory he refounded the city of Byzantion, and filled it with monuments to earlier victories, thus collapsing all past triumphs into the moment when his “victory city” (nikopolis), Constantinople, was dedicated by the emperor in its hippodrome on 11 May 330.
Christian and non-Christian sources concur that monuments from Delphi were placed in the hippodrome, at the victorious heart of Constantine’s nikopolis. Hence, Eusebius of Caesarea, no apologist for pagan statuary, tells us that “Delphic Tripods” were placed in the hippodrome. In this observation he is followed by Socrates Scholasticus, who wrote of a single “holy tripod”(ὁ σεμνὸς τρίπους), and Sozomen in the first half of the fifth century. A sixth-century reference by Zosimus, which must be attributed to his fourth-century source Eunapius, writes that Constantine “even placed somewhere in the hippodrome the tripod [singular, τόν τρίποδα] of Delphic Apollo, which had on it the very image of Apollo.” A scholion in an eleventh-century manuscript which has preserved Thukydides’ history preserves similar information, although without mentioning Constantine: “The tripod: not that with which Apollo divined, but another one which the Roman emperor took and transported to the hippodrome of Byzantion.” It has been suggested that Constantine’s attachment to the Delphic Tripods was related to his desire to conquer Persia, and for this reason, interest in it was sustained so long as the Persians threatened. This cannot be proven.
An idea of the Serpent Column’s origin was preserved, largely through its inscription, through the Byzantine centuries. In the early eighth century the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai refers to the “Epigram of the Medes” (τῶν Μήδων τοῦ ἐλεγείου), which may well refer to the column, although its inscription is no epigram. Only a few notable bronze statues were inscribed – marble bases were generally used for inscriptions – and the inscription on the column was legible. A second patriographical work – that is, another semi-mythical account of Constantinople and its landmarks – the Patria Konstantinoupoleos, is the last source to mention the Delphic Tripods. Compiled at the end of the tenth century (c. 995-1006), during the reign of Basil II, but employing many far earlier sources, it did so in the following manner: “Similarly, both the tripods of the Delphic three-legged cauldrons and the equestrian statues have inscriptions, and for this reason they were set up and signify something.” The equestrian statue of Justinian that stood in the Augusteion, between Hagia Sophia and the hippodrome, also bore an inscription on the horses’ rump. This was too high up for most to be able to read it. The Patria, by its reference to the inscriptions, suggests also that the Serpent Column was still known to some to have been one of the “Delphic Tripods.”
It has frequently been claimed, since the start of the fifteenth century, that the Serpent Column was once a fountain. Reports to this effect have always been fantastic, but they deserve our scrutiny, since the column clearly did once spout water from its base. The earliest preserved account is by the Italian traveler Buondelmonti, who visited Constantinople in the 1420s, and related that on festival days each snake-head disgorged a different liquid: one water, one wine, one milk. The symbolic value of such an adaptation is clear: water, wine, and milk all have meanings that we do not have time to explore in this chapter. It would not have been beyond the wit of a Byzantine engineer in any period to fashion a device to distribute water, wine and milk from the mouths of the Serpent Column on certain days. This would not even have required a tower and siphons. For example, it might easily have been achieved by placing on top of the column, in the manner of the original golden tripod, a tank with its interior divided into three sections containing different liquids. Three taps emerging from the bottom of the tank might be positioned at or near each serpent’s head. Securing such a device to the top of the serpents’ heads might have required solder. There is, however, no indication that this method was ever employed, nor did Buondelmonti see such a fountain functioning. Rather, he was reporting a folk tale, which was repeated in a slightly different form shortly afterwards by the Spanish traveler Pero Tafur (c. 1435-9). At the end of the fifteenth century, Wolf von Zülnhart wrote that the three serpent mouths had once gushed “wine, oil and milk,” but also that, “it is said, Virgilius made it with his arts,” presumably his magical arts, for here is meant the legendary Virgil, who was both sorcerer and poet. It is possible that the story of this magical fountain inspired others. A remarkable fountain, spouting water, wine, mares’ milk and mead, was indeed made and observed at the court of Möngke Khan (1209-59) in spring 1254. It was described by the Franciscan William of Rubruck, who attributed it to the Parisian goldsmith Guillaume Boucher
The magical properties of the column were widely known and may have saved the column on two occasions: in 1204, Constantinople was sacked by the forces of the Fourth Crusade and much bronze statuary was destroyed or transplanted. Niketas Choniates composed a threnody for the city’s lost works of art, which did not include the Serpent Column. A reason for its survival is suggested on a later occasion, when Mehmed II “The Conqueror” captured Constantinople. The text of the Hünername, written in the 1580s, claims that Patriarch Gennadios visited Mehmed to tell him that if he damaged the column the city would be infested with snakes, and a miniature was painted showing the patriarch giving this warning as the sultan throws his mace at a jaw. Following Mehmed’s attack on a serpent head, there was a plague of snails. Mehmed, duly chastened, is said to have cauterised the roots of a mulberry tree that was growing within the column and threatening its integrity. the column, therefore, survived to be painted many more times by Ottoman miniaturists, notably the team of artists which produced the Surname-i Hümayun, also a product of the 1580s.
The Serpent Column was regarded as a talisman against snakes long before the 1580s. A version of the legend is reported by Kemal Pashazade, writing before 1512:[“Constantine son of Helena] caused to be made that bronze statue in the hippodrome which is the representation of three serpents twined together, and by making and designing that talisman he stopped up the source of the mischief of snakes whose poison is fatal to life.” Indeed, the column’s apotropaic powers were known to Russian travellers to Constantinople between c. 1390 and c. 1430, three of whom reported that “serpent venom is enclosed in the column.” This is also reported in 1403-6, by the Spanish ambassador Clavijo.
At a time when the Ottoman court had abandoned Constantinople (Kostantiniyye/Istanbul) for Edirne, the Serpent Column lost its heads. Various tales emerged, including one blaming an errant Pole, a member of a Polish ambassadorial delegation. Yet the most likely story is that related in a contemporary Ottoman chronicle: the metal which had supported the overhanging serpent heads for more than two millennia fractured on the evening of 20 October 1700. A head discovered a century and half later, during excavation and restoration work at Hagia Sophia, suggests that the heads were spirited away that night, but perhaps not so very far away. A close examination of the remaining head, in fact only an upper jaw, shows signs of hacking with a sharp object, suggesting that those who heard the heads fall with an almighty crash quickly set about it with axes, sharing the spoils as once crusaders had distributed other ancient works in bronze.