The Serpent Column (Greek Τρικάρηνος Όφις (trans. Trikarenos Ophis), Turkish, Yılanlı Sütun) — also known as the Serpentine Column, Delphi Tripod or Plataean Tripod — is an ancient bronze column at the Hippodrome of Constantinople (known as Atmeydanı "Horse Square" in the Ottoman period) in what is now Istanbul, Turkey. It is part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod, originally in Delphi and relocated to Constantinople by Constantine I the Great in 324. It was built to commemorate the Greeks who fought and defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). The serpent heads of the 8-metre high column remained intact until the end of the 17th century (one is on display at the nearby Istanbul Archaeology Museums).
The Serpentine Column has one of the longest literary histories of any object surviving from Greek and Roman antiquity — its provenance is not in doubt and it is at least 2,490 years old. Together with its original golden tripod and bowl (both long missing), it constituted a trophy, or offering, dedicated to Apollo at Delphi. This offering was made in the spring of 478 BC, several months after the defeat of the Persian army in the Battle of Plataea (August, 479 BC) by those Greek city-states in alliance against the Persian invasion of mainland Greece (see Greco-Persian Wars). Among the writers who allude to the Column in the ancient literature are Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Diodorus Siculus, Pausanias the traveller, Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch.The removal of the column by the Emperor Constantine to his new capital, Constantinople, is described by Edward Gibbon, citing the testimony of the Byzantine historians Zosimus, Eusebius, Socrates, and Sozomenus.
Battle of Plataea
The invasion, a combined land and sea expedition, which began in 480 BC, fell under the command of the king himself Xerxes I and his brother-in-law and cousin Mardonius who was a close confidant of Xerxes' father Darius. He led the first invasion 10 years previously until he was wounded and subsequently called back by his friend Darius. He was replaced by Datis and Artaphernes' son who after initial success were decisively beaten at the hands of the Athenians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Mardonius eventually persuaded Darius to mount a second invasion. It had the twin objectives of forcing the submission of those city states on mainland Greece, who refused the symbolic tribute of ‘earth and water’ to the Persian king, and of punishing those cities (Athens and Eretria) who had supported the Ionian Greeks, in their revolt against the Persians, begun in 499 BC, under the leadership of Aristagoras of Miletus. The Athenians had sent 20 triremes and the Eretrians, 5 triremes. This struggle lasted until the defeat of the Ionians in a naval battle outside Miletus in 494 BC. The Battle of Plataea followed the defeat of the Greeks at simultaneously fought Battles of Thermopylae, and Artemesium. In the latter the, in comparison to the storm buffeted Persians', much smaller fleet of Greek naval forces retreated to Salamis after several undecisive clashes during at least 3 days in August, 480 BC, after the news of the defeat on land left the strategy of the Greek allies in ruins. Nothing could prevent the Persian advance and the occupation and pillage of Athens. Only the brilliant planning and reasoned actions of the Athenian general, Themistocles, to evacuate the inhabitants of Athens to the island of Salamis, his stratagems, in persuading the reluctant Peloponnesian cities to stop and fight a naval battle in the Straits of Salamis rather than retreat to the Isthmus, and his guile in influencing Xerxes to attack the Greek fleet in the straits (September, 480 BC) gave the Greeks the respite they needed to recover. After Salamis, Xerxes withdrew to Sardis, but left a land force in Thrace, under the generalship of the experienced campaigner, Mardonius. He re-possessed Athens in the spring of 479 BC, and after the failure of diplomacy conducted by Alexander of Macedon on behalf of the Persians, to persuade the Athenians to a separate peace, the war continued. On learning that a Spartan force was on the march from the Peloponnese, Mardonius set fire to Athens again and removed his force to a strategic position in Boeotia, north of the river Asopus. The Greeks under the leadership of Pausanias, Regent of Sparta, drew up on high ground in defensive positions south of the river Asopus and above the plain of Plataea . After days of skirmishing and changes of position on the Greek side, Mardonius launched a full attack. The result of the complex battle was complete victory for the Spartans, under the leadership of Pausanias. Mardonius was killed and the Persians fled in confusion led by Artabazus, the Persian second in command.
The significance of the Battle of Plataea
The Greek victories at Plataea and contemporaneous naval battle at Mycale, though they did not end the war, had the result that never again would the Persian Empire launch an attack on mainland Greece. Afterwards, Persia pursued its policies by diplomacy, bribery and cajolement, playing one city state against another. But, by these victories, and through the Delian League, Athens was able to consolidate its power in the flowering of Athenian democracy in 5th century Athens, under the leadership of Pericles, son of Xanthippus.
After the Battle of Plataea, the last battle of the Greco-Persian Wars, Greeks built a bronze column of three intertwined snakes (Greek: Τρικάρηνος Όφις, meaning three-headed snake), whose bodies formed the column, to commemorate the 31 Greek city-states that participated in the battle. According to Herodotus, the bronze column was built using the bronze from the melted-down Persian weapons. A golden tripod was also built using the Persian weapons, and the whole monument was dedicated to the god Apollo and was placed next to the altar of Apollo at Delphi. It was placed on top of a stone base, an inverted Byzantine capital.
In ancient writers
After describing the Greek victory at Plataea, in 479 BC, Herodotus recounts the collection of rich spoils, by the Helots, (the Spartan underclass), who had taken part in the battle, and then records the decision to dedicate an offering to Apollo at Delphi:
“When the booty had been gathered together, a tenth of the whole was set apart for the Delphian god, and, from this, was made the golden tripod which stands on the three-headed bronze serpent nearest the altar.” 
In the same chapter, Herodotus records that dedications were also made to Zeus at Olympia and to Poseidon at the Isthmus. It is significant that precedence was given to Apollo at Delphi, despite the ambiguities in the responses of the Delphic oracle about the outcome of the invasion, and a suspicion that Delphi was sympathetic to the Persians.
Thucydides and Demosthenes
An insight into the political squabbles of the victorious Greeks over this monument is given in the following passages. Full of arrogance over his victory at Plataea and the subsequent ease with which he punished the Theban leaders for their support of the Persians, Pausanias ordered a dedication on the column ascribing victory to himself alone. Subsequent events revealed his overweening ambition. He was in negotiation with the Persians and the Helots of Sparta to stage a rebellion, and set himself up as Tyrant, with Persian support. Although his treachery was, at first, disbelieved in Sparta, it was eventually discovered by the Ephors at Sparta through his personal slave, and he was killed. Thucydides, describes the suspicions of the Spartans that Pausanias, the commander-in chief of the Greek forces at Plataea, was on the point of treason and going over to the Persians, citing the affair of the Serpentine column as a ground for such suspicion:” “ He Pausanias provided many grounds for suspicion by his disregard of the laws, his admiration of the Barbarians, and his dissatisfaction with things as they were. They examined the rest of his behaviour to see if he had in any way departed from established norms. They then remembered that in the matter of the tripod at Delphi, which the Greeks set up from the first fruits of the victory over the Persians, he had thought fit, on his own account, to have a diptych engraved upon it:
‘Pausanias, commander-in-chief of the Greeks, when he had destroyed the army of the Medes, dedicated this memorial to Phoebus (Apollo).’
At the time, the Lacedaemonians at once deleted the diptych from this tripod and engraved the names of the cities, who had joined together against the barbarian and set up the offering.”
Demosthenes, gives a significantly different account of the train of events. In a speech, “Against Neiara”, the orator recalls the conduct of Pausanias after the defeat of the Persians in the battle of Plataea over the Serpentine column: “Pausanias, King of the Lacedaemonians, caused a diptych to be inscribed on the tripod at Delphi, [ which those Greeks, who had fought as allies in the battle of Plataea and in the naval engagement at Salamis had together made from the spoils taken from the Barbarians and had set up in honour of Apollo as a memorial to their bravery], as follows: ‘Pausanias, commander-in-chief of the Greeks, when he had destroyed the army of the Medes dedicated this memorial to Phoebus (Apollo)’, as if the work and the offering were his alone, and not from the allies together. The Greeks were enraged and the Plataeans obtained leave to bring a suit, on behalf of the allies, against the Lacedaemonians for 1,000 talents at the Amphictyonic council; and they compelled the Lacedaemonians to erase the inscription and inscribe the names of those cities which had shared in the work”.
The orator goes on to argue that this action rankled with the Lacedaemonians and was a strong motive, 50 years later, in their influencing the Theban night attack on Plataea in 431 BC, which was the first action in the Peloponnesian war described in Thucydides book 2.
- “ The saviours of Greece at large dedicated this,
- having delivered the cities from wretched servitude.”
Pausanias the Traveller
In the 2nd century AD, Pausanias, the travel writer, noticed the monument at Delphi: “The Greeks together, from the spoils taken at the battle of Plataea, dedicated a gold tripod set on a bronze serpent. The bronze part of the offering was preserved there, even at my time, but the Phocian leaders did not leave the gold in place in the same way.” The Phocian General, Philomelus took the treasures in 345/4 BC to pay for mercenaries in the third Sacred War, an act of extreme sacrilege, which resulted in the expulsion of Phocia from the Amphictyonic league, by Philip II of Macedon, and a fine of 400 talents.
Even at the time of Pausanias’ visit, the sacred way, leading up to the temple of Apollo, was lined on both sides with monuments, statues and treasuries commemorating important events in Greek History. “Closest to the altar”, as Herodotus says, was the Serpentine column, the base of which has been found, as has the base of the altar, which was dedicated by the Chians [and Appendix A].Above these loomed the great bronze statue of Apollo, and, on the architrave of the temple, shields commemorating a Greek victory over the Gauls. Pausanias also identified, the offering to Zeus at Olympia, [paragraph above] and listed the names of the cities engraved upon it.
In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), Edward Gibbon refers to the Serpentine Column both in Chapter 17 (on the founding of Constantinople) and in Chapter 68 (on the triumphal entry of Mehmet II, the Conqueror into Constantinople on 29 May 1453):
The Circus or Hippodrome was a stately building about 400 paces in length and 100 in breadth. The space between the two metae or goals was filled with statues and obelisks; and we may still remark a very singular fragment of antiquity, the bodies of three serpents twisted into one pillar of brass. Their triple heads had once supported the golden tripod which, after the defeat of Xerxes, was consecrated in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, by the victorious Greeks.”
... and again...
From the first hour of the memorable 29th of May, disorder and rapine prevailed in Constantinople, till the eighth hour of the same day, when the Sultan himself passed in triumph through the gate of St. Romanus. He was attended by his vizars, bashaws, and guards, each of whom (says a Byzantine historian) was as robust as Hercules, dexterous as Apollo, and equal in battle to any ten of the race of ordinary mortals. The conqueror gazed in satisfaction and wonder on the strange though splendid appearance of the domes and palaces, so dissimilar from the style of Oriental architecture. In the hippodrome, 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 battleaxe the under-jaw of one of these monsters, which in the eyes of the Turks were the idols or talismans of the city.
In other sources
The somewhat chequered history of the monument, after its removal to Constantinople, may be gathered from various sources. According to W. W. How & J. Wells, it was converted into a triple-mouthed fountain by a later Emperor, was seen and described by travellers from 1422 onwards, and was thrown down in 1700, when the serpents heads were broken off. Marcus N. Tod says the level of the ground was raised in 1630, and the inscribed portion of the monument was then hidden. The base of the column was excavated in 1855, under the supervision of Charles Thomas Newton. Fifteen of the serpents’ coils had been hidden and the inscription, beginning at the 13th coil and ending at the 3rd was revealed. It was deciphered by C. Frick in 1856, by Ernst Fabricius in 1886 and by others since. The 13th coil carries the Laconic inscription: “Those who fought the war”, followed on coils 12 to 3 by the names of 31 city states. This contains 8 cities not named in Herodotus, book 9.28 as being present at the battle of Plataea, and excludes Pale, in Cephalonia, whom Herodotus did include. Pausanias, paragraph above, lists the names on the offering to Zeus at Olympus, which exclude 4 cities inscribed on the Serpentine column. Perhaps this is a simple oversight by a copyist. Although the cities inscribed on the column exclude other cities mentioned by Herodotus as participating in the war, it is clear that the memorial relates to the Great Persian War as a whole, not just the battle of Plataea. The lists of states given by the three sources are set out in Appendix B. Coils 12 and 13 have been scarred and dented by sabre cuts, which made the inscriptions difficult to decipher. The dedication, said by Diodorus to have been composed by Simonides [paragraph above] has not been found. One of the serpent heads survives in the Museum of Antiquities, Istanbul. This head has its under-jaw missing, a linkage to Edward Gibbon’s colourful description of the conqueror’s triumphal entry into Constantinople on 29 May 1453.
Pausanias informs us that roughly a hundred years later, the Phoceans used the golden tripod to fund their military during the holy war involving the Oracle of Delphi. Constantine the Great moved the Serpent Column to Constantinople to decorate the spina (central line) of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, where it still stands today.
The top of the column was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl was destroyed or stolen during the Fourth Crusade. Many Ottoman miniatures show the serpent heads were intact in the early decades following the Turkish conquest of the city.
Ahmed Bican, from Gallipoli, has given a short description of the Column in his Dürr-i Meknûn, written around the time of the Fall of Constantinople. He states that it is a hollow bronze of intertwined snakes, threeheaded, a talisman for the citizens against snake bites.
Between fifty to one hundred years after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the jaw of one of the three serpent heads was documented missing. There is a most likely apocryphal legend that Mehmed II, shattered it upon entering the city in triumph as its conqueror. Later, at the end of 17th century, all three of the serpent heads were destroyed. Again, although there is legend that a drunken Polish nobleman knocked them off, Nusretname ("The Book of Victories") by Silahdar Findiklili Mehmed Aga relates that the heads simply fell off on the night of October 20, 1700. Parts of the heads were recovered and are on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
- Battle of Plataea
- Delian League
- Ionian Revolt
- Pausanias (general)
- Pausanias (geographer)
- Sacrificial tripod
- Xerxes I of Persia
- Istanbul Governor's official website - The Serpent Column. web page
- Ionian Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean, subject to Persia.
- Pausanias was regent to his cousin, King Pleistarchus, son of Leonidas, who was still a minor.
- Translated from Herodotus, Book 9.81.
- Folio Society edition of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 1984 & 1990.
- Translated from Thucydides, Book 1.132.
- Translated from Demosthenes, “Against Neaira” 97 [pseudo-Demosthenes?].
- Amphictyonic Council – meeting of 12 city states, with responsibility over the sanctuary at Delphi.
- Translated from Diodorus Siculus, book 11.33.2.
- Translated from Pausanias, Description of Greeks, book 10.13.9.
- A Commentary on Herodotus, How & Wells, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, first published 1912.
- Selections of Greek Historical Inscriptions, Marcus N Tod, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1933.
- Gibbon, Op. cit., Chapter 17
- Gibbon, Op. cit., Chapter 68
- Mavrovitis, Jason C. (2000). "The Atmeidan, or Hippodrome in Constantinople" - web page
- Laban Kaptein (ed.), Ahmed Bican, Dürr-i meknûn, p. 186 and § 7.110). Asch 2007. ISBN 978-90-902140-8-5
- V. L. Menage (1964). "The Serpent Column in Ottoman Sources". Anatolian Studies (Anatolian Studies, Vol. 14) 14: 169–173. doi:10.2307/3642472. JSTOR 3642472.
- Volume 4 of the Cambridge Ancient History
- G.B.Grundy, The Great Persian War [library of US Congress, catalogue card number: 71-84875]
- Broken Bits of Byzantium (1891), by C. G. Curtis and Mary A. Walker, Part II, as referred to in Broken Bits of Byzantium by J. Freely in, Istanbul 1, Myth to Modernity, Selected Themes, p. 23-24.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Serpent Column.|
- Encyclopaedia Britannica Online - Ancient Greek Civilization - The Persian Wars
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- I.M.Varvitsiotis, "The forgotten three-headed snake"
- "Epigraphic Sources for Early Greek Writing"
- The Atmeidan, or Hippodrome -- in Constantinople
- Reconstruction of the tripod of Plataea