The serpent column in Constantinople in early printed books

More and more early printed books are becoming available online.  Fortunately the German libraries are scanning them at high resolution.  This includes the line-drawings, which have hitherto been difficult to access, and often only available under incredibly restrictive terms that meant only publishers could use them, and only a few.  But now, suddenly, a wealth of drawings is becoming available.

Among these are historically valuable records of now vanished classical monuments.  A couple of days ago there was an interesting series of tweets by @VeraCausa9, including old drawings of the serpent column in the Hippodrome in Constantinople.

This bronze column consists – for it still stands – of three serpent bodies twisted together.  Originally three serpent heads came out of the top, supporting a golden dish.  The column was made to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, and originally stood at Delphi.  It was moved to Constantinople by Constantine; and there it has been ever since.  It is quite incredible that it still survives.

Sadly it is damaged.  But the old drawings show it before the heads were snapped off!  Twitter is a little ephemeral, and I think this series deserves a little more permanence and prominence.

Here are the pictures posted. As ever, click on them to see the full size picture.  Thankfully the author posted references.  I’ve not had the chance to look these up, sadly.  Nor is it clear to what extent these are contemporary truth, or antiquarian imagination.

Here’s the first:

Thevet - 1556
Thevet – 1556

The first is this one, from André Thevet, Cosmographie de Levant par F. André Thevet d’Angoulême. Revue et augmentée de plusieurs figures, Lyon, 1556.  It shows from the left the obelisk of Theodosius, the serpent column, and the column of Arcadius.

Schweigger, 1608.
Schweigger, 1608.

Salomon Schweigger, Ein newe Reiss Beschreibung auss Teutschland nach Constantinopel und Jerusalem, Nuremberg 1608.  This shows: A. column of Constantine I; Β. Obelisk of Theodosius I; C. Serpent Column; D. Column of Arcadius.

Wheler, 1682.
Wheler, 1682.

George Wheler, A Journey into Greece… In Company of Dr Spon of Lyons. In 6 books. William Cademan,Robert Kettlewell /Awnsham Churchill,1682.  Evidently from book 2.

La Mottraye, 1727
La Mottraye, 1727

Aubry de la Mottraye, Voyages du Sr. A. de La Motraye, en Europe, Asie & Afrique…Recherches géographiques, historiques & politiques, 1727.  Also on Wikimedia Commons.

By 1810 the heads were definitely gone:

Mayer, 1810.
Mayer, 1810.

Luigi Mayer, Views in the Ottoman Dominions…from the Original Drawings taken for Sir Robert Ainslie, London, P. Bowyee, 1810.

There is an interesting Wikipedia article, which reveals that – unknown to me – the column is actually inscribed with the names of the Greek cities that fought at Plataea.  It also contains some other pictures.  It also gives the literary sources for the column.

I hope that we will get yet more pictures made available to us.


6 thoughts on “The serpent column in Constantinople in early printed books

  1. The metallurgical skill exhibited in this great bronze casting has long fascinated me and I suspect a message was being sent by the display of technology. Thanks for these additional pictures.
    Here are some further references:
    1) July 1, 2016 The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography, Paul Stephenson
    2) May 6, 2015 Replica to be erected at Delphi:
    3) 1997 AJA The Plataian Tripod and the Serpentine Column, Ridgway:

  2. I remember studying the inscription a long time ago and comparing its list of belligerents against the list of Greek allies given by Herodotus. One or two minor discrepancies, but nothing major. It’s quite an intriguing inscription, when you try to read between the lines. ‘These fought the war’, followed by 31 named cities. Was this simply a good example of Laconism (as Wikipedia suggests)? Certainly the proposal for the column originated with the Spartans, so a touch of Lacedaemonian bluntness might have been in order. But perhaps also the drafters knew that there were bound to be squabbles over which cities had medised and which had remained firm, and that cities which had sat on the fence while the issue was in doubt would rush forward to claim that they had always been ardent supporters of the Greek cause. ‘These fought the war’ (i.e. actually got their hands dirty) may have been the only formulation likely to win agreement from the 31 active belligerents concerned.

Leave a Reply