17.05.02, Stephenson, The Serpent Column

Main Article Content

Thomas F. Madden

The Medieval Review 17.05.02

Stephenson, Paul. The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography. Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. xxiv, 275. ISBN: 1-1902-0906-3. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Tom Madden
Saint Louis University

Set between Istanbul's two obelisks, still marking the vanished race course of Constantinople's Hippodrome, rests the battered and truncated remains of one of western civilization's most fascinating artifacts: The Serpent Column of Delphi. This twisted bronze statue has been on public outdoor display for more than 2300 years. A product of the Persian Wars, it was crafted from the armor of the vanquished and donated as a votive offering to Apollo after the Greek victory at Plataea in 479 BC. Cast in one piece, the roughly eighteen-foot high bronze depicted three snakes entwined about each other. At its apex, the three heads provided a base for a golden tripod set on top. According to Herodotus the names of the allied Greek poleis who contributed to the victory over the Persians were inscribed on the column's lowest coils.

For the next eight centuries, the column remained at Delphi, quickly dwarfed by larger monuments, yet still remarked upon by ancient authors. In the fourth century AD, to beautify Rome's new capital, Constantine I requisitioned bronze masterpieces from across the empire. As St Jerome noted, to adorn his new city Constantine made all others naked. The Serpent Column was caught up in this dragnet, transported to Constantinople, and eventually erected on the spina of the Hippodrome just opposite the imperial box. There it was accompanied by dozens of bronze statues and fountains amid the Byzantine games. Centuries later, after the conquest of 1204, the crusaders melted down the Serpent Column's companions, yet surprisingly left it unmolested. The column would greet the restored Byzantine Empire in 1261 and the Ottoman conquerors in 1453. With the Hippodrome in ruins, the old racecourse became a public area. By the fourteenth century the column was believed to be a talisman against snakes or snakebites--a power it retained under Turkish rule. It lost one jaw in the late sixteenth century and probably a head in the seventeenth century (likely the one that is today in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum). Finally, on the night of 20-21 October 1700, in an event still shrouded in mystery, the top third of the column disappeared, leaving only the stump one sees today. Although the heads are lost, the tails, now well below ground level, still bear the names of the Greek cities who fought together in that ancient war.

Although many scholarly articles have investigated aspects of the history of the Serpent Column, there has long been a need for a thorough investigation of the artifact itself, as well as the ways in which those who made, moved, admired, or mutilated it understood the column and its place in their worlds. The title of this book promises the investigation, while the subtitle suggests a study of the cultural dialogue between observers and observed. To be sure, some of that is here. But it can be a bit difficult to untangle.

From the outset, the author gives fair warning that this is no ordinary study. He compares his approach to a northern European maypole with "dancers holding the lower ends of the ribbons pranc[ing] back and forth…" (xii).

Every strand is attached somewhere on the pole, but not all equally firmly, and many may appear to be bound too loosely or to unravel too quickly, while others clearly are attached, but not to the top of the pole, covering only part of it. Some readers might have preferred to observe a single ribbon, firmly attached to the top, unwound clearly and cleanly in a straightforward narrative (more like a Roman historiated column than a maypole). The evidence does not allow for this approach, nor is it a helpful way to present the many receptions of a polyvalent object. Chapters often proceed by inference and suggestion, by the accumulation and conjoining of discrete elements, rather than the systematic manufacture of a singular and convincing argument. However, as a matter of style as well as method I have sought to avoid presenting every part of the book as contingent or conjectural (xii).

This is an entirely accurate description of the study that follows. Readers interested in the physical and cultural history of the Serpent Column will quickly find themselves surrounded by a flurry of ribbon-bearing dancers, each waving something, yet few with any clear relationship to the others. Although there is much to praise in this work, too often it becomes a loose collection of serpent-related cultural artifacts excavated across more than twenty centuries and strewn around a history of the column, yet seldom connected to it.

Chapter 1 provides a fascinating description of the excavations of the Serpent Column by the English and Germans as well as the scholarly wrangling regarding its authenticity, the decipherment of its inscriptions, and its original location at Delphi. Chapter 2 begins with an extended narration of the Persian War followed by a description of the events leading up to the Battle of Plataea. The author contends that during the long nights before the battle the Greeks looked to the skies for inspiration and guidance. As they gazed northward, towards the Persians, they spied the constellation Draco, the great dragon, who whirled around and plunged his head downward, seemingly devouring the enemy. They also noticed Serpens overhead and the serpent handler, Ophiuchus. "Were these heavenly signs that the Persian menace would be handled, as the great chthonic beast was defeated, thrown back to the earth whence it came? When the mighty Persian army was indeed defeated and order restored, some may have believed that the outcome was inscribed in the starry sky" (42). Thus, in the heavens above Plataea was found the inspiration for the Serpent Column.

There is good reason to doubt this theory. Unlike modern people spoiled by electric lights, the ancient Greeks on the plains of Plataea were well acquainted with the night sky. They knew that the constellations were seasonal, appearing every year in the same place and at the same time. That is why heavenly divinations are usually based on irregular events, like the movement of the sun, moon, and planets. In any case, there were a great many constellations over the Greeks' heads those evenings--Pegasus, Cygnus, Pisces, Hercules, Perseus, etc. Why the interest in snakes? It should also be noted that at Greece's latitude the constellation Draco is always visible, every night, year-round. There was nothing remarkable about it. The lack of any evidence for this unlikely theory, the author contends, is no reason not to accept it. "There is no indication of this conjecture in the written record, but such information is almost never recorded, and therefore absence of testimony is no proof to the contrary" (42). This seems a rather low bar for a scholarly work.

The remainder of Chapter 2 is given over to the book's ribbons and dancers. They include a detailed description of Babylonian and Persian myths, winding their way serpent-like toward a libation vase from 2150 BC and an Elamite cylinder seal from ca. 1600 BC. How these are related to the subject of the book remains unclear, and the author offers little guidance. "The relationship of this image, if any, to the Serpent Column cannot be ascertained, but the similarities are striking" (66).

Chapter 3 offers a meandering discussion of bronze working in archaic Greece, including various bronze serpents. The author makes a convincing case that the Greek commander Pausanias dedicated the Serpent Column to commemorate his personal victory at Plataea in a manner appropriate for Olympia, yet not Delphi. Given Pausanias' later fall from power, the author sensibly suggests that it was the Spartans themselves who removed his name from the column's dedication and replaced it with the names of the cities on the lower coils.

Chapter 4 contains a perceptive description of the circumstances surrounding the relocation of the Serpent Column to Constantinople. The author expertly places the column within the Hippodrome, setting it into the framework of the now lost statues. Several theories are posited regarding Constantine's placement of the column in so prominent a location, including its association with Apollo, which would have meant something for the former sun-god worshipper. Less convincing is the suggestion that Constantine was inspired by the constellation Draco hovering over Licinius' forces at the Battle of Chrysopolis.

Chapter 5 begins by describing ways in which statues in the Hippodrome could have served as models for Byzantine artists. Thus, a tenth-century ivory of Adam was, as Henry Maguire has argued, likely modeled on the Hippodrome's statue of the exhausted Hercules. Similarly, the author points to a tenth-century silver inkpot now in Padua that depicts columns of twisted serpents (albeit with two, rather than three heads), which may have been modeled on the Serpent Column. The text then returns to the maypole. After a description of the bronze doors of the senate house in the Forum of Constantine, we move to the Life of Andrew the Fool, which transforms the mythological scenes there to a depiction of the Last Judgment. Elsewhere in the Life, Andrew has a vision of a three-headed dragon coiled around a monk's neck. That neckwear is rather like a twelfth-century depiction of the Last Judgment in the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare in Autun, sporting a three-headed snake coiled around a demon's foot. From there, we move to Sinai and St Catherine's monastery, where a manuscript depicts the Heavenly Ladder with a dragon below, then to various other depictions of the Last Judgment in Constantinople and Europe that include snakes. Finally, we come to Cappadocia, where a church painting of hell includes a three headed serpent devouring people. What are the connections between these scattered examples? And how are they linked to the Serpent Column of Delphi? "It is neither possible nor necessary to demonstrate a direct link" (146).

The evidence suggests that at some point in the Byzantine period the column was connected to a water supply and used as a fountain. Chapter 6 is concerned with this function, describing some of the witnesses, none of whom saw the fountain. Several Byzantine fountains with snake images are discussed, yet no connection is made between them and the column. Much more interesting is the author's investigation of the Byzantine practice of depicting Mary near a serpent-shaped fountain at the Annunciation. These could have been modeled on the Serpent Column. A thirteenth-century depiction of a serpent fountain from the Church of Panagia in Moutoullas, Cyprus also looks remarkably like the Serpent Column in Constantinople.

After the fourteenth century, the Serpent Column was widely reported to be a talisman against snakes or snakebites. It is at this point, when the sources for the column become more abundant, that its cultural history could most usefully be explored. Unfortunately, the author chooses to leave them aside: "rather than reproduce a good amount of material that has been discussed elsewhere, I shall place the talisman in a richer context, sketching the apotropaic environment in which it was situated, both within and beyond Constantinople…" (185). This consists of well-known descriptions of the Palladian magic of the Column of Justinian, an exposition on Moses' brazen serpent and the Christian equation of it with the Cross, ancient connections between snakes and health, and finally a nineteenth-century stone relief from Siphnos depicting Constantine in the Hippodrome. Links between any of these and the column never move beyond the speculative.

The final chapter offers a solid analysis of the images of the column during the Ottoman period, yet touches on only a few of the contemporary descriptions. The truncation of the column receives barely two pages (233-235). It is surprising that just as the source material becomes plentiful, the author seems to lose interest. The chapter ends abruptly with a sentence about a suicide bomber, who blew himself up not far from the column in 2016. A conclusion of less than one page attempts to stitch the book together, yet its tight formulation is at odds with the text it follows.

The book ends by stating that the Serpent Column became "a talisman against snakes and snakebites. It is this tale that was told by travelers to Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages, and it is this story that is told to tourists today who visit Istanbul" (241). Yet, as this study makes clear, the anti-snake magic did not materialize until the late Middle Ages and no evidence at all is offered for its survival into modern times. The nineteenth-century ethnographers Henry Carnoy and Jean Nicolaïdès say nothing of such a belief in their Folklore de Constantinople (absent from the bibliography). [1] In the nineteenth century the long-time resident Edwin A. Grosvenor reported instead that people threw rocks at the column to avert the evil eye. [2] Robert Walsh confirmed this: "It is generally a butt for Turkish boys to pelt with stones, an amusement they sometimes vary by pelting Christians in the same place, as I have experienced." [3]

Appropriately for a book on this topic, there are many illustrations and a few maps. It is surprising, though, that Oxford University Press would allow some of the poorer-quality ones to be published. Map 4, for example, depicting Greek and Phoenician colonies, is a black and white photocopy of an uncredited color map unreadable without color. Many of the photos are tiny or poorly executed, sometimes from a museum case or a reading room table (e.g. Figures 1.1, 4.3, 7.2, 7.3). Pieter Coeck van Aelsts' woodcut of the Hippodrome is much too small to be useful (Figure 8.7). On the other hand, the author's photos of the Serpent Column itself are quite good.

As the author states at the outset, this is a book about both a serpent column and a cultural maypole. It is learned throughout. Yet readers seeking a clearer understanding of the ancient bronze from Delphi should also take care that while exploring its rich history and shifting meanings they do not become lost amid this study's bright ribbons and festive dancing.



1. Henry Carnoy and Jean Nicolaïdès, Folklore de Constantinople (Paris: Emile Lechevalier, 1894).

2. Edwin A Grosvenor, Constantinople, 2 vols. (Boston: Robert Brothers, 1895), 1:382.

3. Robert Walsh, A Residence at Constantinople, 2 vols. (London: Frederick Westley and A. H. Davis, 1836), 2:347.

Article Details