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Constantinople (İstanbul): Hippodrome (2)


The Serpent's Column, İstanbul. Photo Marco Prins.
The Serpent's Column, İstanbul.
Hippodrome (general) Serpents' Column
Obelisk of Theodosius I Obelisk of Constantine VII
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 so-called Obelisk of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.

It had been erected after the Battle of Plataea, in which the Greeks had defeated the Persians (Herodotus, Histories, 9.81). The eighteen feet high column had the shape of three snakes, their tails intertwined, carrying, on their heads, a tripod made of gold. (No marks of joins are visible on the serpent's head that is now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, though.) On the tripod was written a poem that is dubiously 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.
[Diodorus, History, 11.33.2]

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.
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Base of the Greek victory monument at Delphi. Photo Marco Prins.
Base of the Greek victory monument at Delphi.

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 (numbers taken from Herodotus, Histories, 8.28-30).

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

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

Serpent's head, once part of the serpents' column in Constantinople. Arkeoloji Müzesi, İstanbul (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
Serpent's head, once part of the serpents' column in Constantinople (Arkeoloji Müzesi, İstanbul)

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" (Guide to Greece, 10.13.9). 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.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 30 August 2008
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