Constantinople, Hippodrome, Serpent Column

Serpent Column: Greek victory monument after the Persian Wars. It originally stood in Delphi but was later transported to Constantinople.

Serpent Column

When Constantine the Great had expanded Byzantium and had renamed it Constantinople, he started to decorate the city, and ordered the removal of several ancient works of art and monuments. One of these was the Serpents' Column that had, until then, been in Delphi, and was now placed on the spina, the longitudional barrier in the center of the hippodrome. Here the column still stands between the other monuments: the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Porphyrius monuments, and the Obelisk of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.

It had been erected in 479/478 BCE after the Battle of Plataea, in which the Greeks had defeated the Persians.note The eighteen feet high column had the shape of three snakes, their tails intertwined, carrying, on their heads, a tripod made of gold. On the tripod was written a poem that is (probably incorrectly) attributed to the poet Simonides:

This is the gift the saviors of far-flung Hellas upraised here,
Having delivered their states from loathsome slavery's bonds.note

Delphi, the original column base

The original pedestal has been found in Delphi: the monument stood right in front of the temple of Apollo. This may have been a sneer to the Delphian authorities: during the war, the oracle had often sided with the invaders. Every visitor of the sanctuary will have been reminded of the Greek victory - which had been against the odds, at least according to Apollo.

On the coils of the column, an inscription was written that mentioned the Greek city states that had fought the war. They are more or less arranged according to the number of soldiers and/or money they had contributed to the force that had assembled at Plataea.note

  Twelfth coil Lacedaemonians
Athenians
Corinthians
10,000
8,000
5,000
 
  Eleventh coil Tegeans
Sicyonians
Aeginetans
1,500
3,000
500
 
  Tenth coil Megarians
Epidaurians
Orchomenians
3,000
700
600
 
  Ninth coil Phliasians
Troezenians
Hermionians
1,000
1,000
300
 
  Eighth coil Tirynthians
Plataeans
Thespians
200?
600
1,800
 
  Seventh coil Mycenaeans
Ceans
Melians
Tenians
200?
-
-
-
 
  Sixth coil Naxians
Eretrians
Chalcidians
-
300?
400
 
  Fifth coil Styrians
Eleans
Potideaeans
300?
-
300
 
  Fourth coil Leucadians
Anactorians
Cythnians
Siphnians
400?
400?
-
-
 
  Third coil Ambraciots
Lepreans
500
200
 
Snake head

Herodotus adds the Styreans, Mantineans, Crotoniats, Cephalonians, Lemnians, and Seriphians.

Pausanias tells us that during the Third Sacred War (355-346) "the leaders of the Phocians did not the leave the tripod of gold on its place".note They needed the precious metal to pay mercenaries, because Phocis was threatened by Thebes. Still, the Phocians let the column itself intact; it was left to Constantine to take that to Constantinople. Here, it stood on the spina of the hippodrome. It was later converted into a fountain, and in 1702, the heads were removed - probably by a drunken diplomat. One of the serpent heads has survived and is now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul.