Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Paul Stephenson, The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography. Onassis series in Hellenic culture. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xxii, 275. ISBN 9780190209063. $74.00.

Reviewed by Sarah Bassett, Indiana University (

Version at BMCR home site


The bronze Serpent Column of the Plataian Tripod takes its name from its form, three entwined snakes that rise from a marble base as a 5.35-meter tall shaft. Although now broken off at the top, the great twist of serpents originally fanned out above the break as a triad of hissing snakes' heads. Once part of a larger dedication offered by the Greek allies in the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi to commemorate their victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataia in 479 BC, the Column now stands on the At-meydanı of modern Istanbul, a location it has occupied since its fourth-century removal to the site as part of the emperor Constantine's campaign to ornament his nascent capital, Constantinople. In the course of this 2500-year history, the Column has worn many hats. It has served as a thank-offering, an evocation of imperial power, a talisman against evil with a special knack for repelling snakes, and a draw for antiquarians and tourists. Yet the casual observer might find herself hard pressed to imagine such an impressive record. Rising headless from a base several meters below the current ground level, the Column now looks like nothing so much as scrap metal, the stick for Yeats' tattered cloak. The fenced pit, in which it stands, lined with electrical wires and littered with the inevitable bits of trash that are the stuff of urban life, does nothing to encourage imagination. In the interests of rectifying this sorry state, Paul Stephenson's new monograph should be required reading.

Stephenson, a historian of the Byzantine Empire, has written previously on such human subjects as the emperors Constantine and Basil II.1 Here he turns his interest to history's material record, tracing the fortunes of the Serpent Column from its creation in the fifth century B.C. to the reduced circumstances of the present in nine chronologically ordered chapters.

Chapter 1 describes the Column's lost and surviving parts, and considers the reconstruction of the larger dedication to which it once belonged. The following two chapters address its Greek context. Chapter 2 considers how the Serpent Column acquired its distinctive form. To do so, it marshals the resources of archaeoastronomy to reconstruct the night sky as it turned above Plataia in the hours before the battle. It argues that serpentine constellations (Serpens, Drako and the Milky Way) coiled across the heavens to augur a Persian defeat for those inclined to see such messages in the firmament. It suggests further that these stellar configurations together with the myths and images with which they were associated not only had deep roots in Near Eastern tradition, but may also have given rise to the shape of the Serpent Column. Chapter 3 addresses questions surrounding the Tripod's dedication. Observing the prominence of serpentine motifs in works of Lakonian bronze manufacture and the inscriptions linking the dedication to Pausanias, the Spartan general who commanded the Lakonian and Tegean forces at Plataia, it credits Lakonian artists with the Tripod's creation. It also considers the offering in the context of Greek votive practice, arguing that the Tripod, which also bore the names of the individual Greek poleis that had participated in the battle, was one of a cluster of monuments that promoted a new vision of collective Hellenic identity in the aftermath of Salamis and Plataia.

In 356 BC, Phokians plundered the sanctuary at Delphi, carrying off the golden tripod and leaving the entwined bronze snakes as the victory dedication. In the fourth century, Constantine installed this monument on the central barrier of the Hippodrome in Constantinople. Chapter 4 addresses this late antique context, considering the impetus to the Column's importation together with aspects of its meaning for pagans and Christians. It presents the Column as a victory monument and links its installation to Constantine's defeat of Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324. Once more, the heavens suggest an explanation. Observing that the serpentine constellations were again present before the battle, it proposes that the removal of the Serpent Column to Constantinople may have been a response to that augur. It then considers the Column's urban display in light of Constantine's penchant for solar imagery and Christian exegetical traditions that understood the serpentine imagery as a reference to the expulsion from Paradise.

Chapter 5 introduces the Column's medieval fortunes. Tracking the ways in which it shed its Hellenic and imperial identities to take on other, sometimes nefarious, associations, it connects this shift to a Christian propensity to see ancient sculpture as animate and evil in the wake of the Iconoclastic Controversy (730-846). Chapter 6 continues the exploration of this changed understanding by focusing on the Column's use as a fountain. It examines the miraculous associations that accrued to it in the Middle Ages, looking not only at reports about the Column itself, but also at the ways in which the image of the serpentine fountain emerged in such contexts as the representation of the Annunciation to the Virgin, where it evoked the idea of Mary as the new Eve.

The final chapters tackle the Column's post-medieval history. Chapter 7 examines reports of the Column's talismanic ability to repel snakes in the apotropaic environment of Ottoman Constantinople, together with the ways in which its twisted form and brazen medium supported this magical status. Snakes and healing are next on the docket, in a survey of texts about and images of healers and their serpentine accomplices. Chapter 8 turns to the modern era. It considers the travelers' drawings and Ottoman manuscript illuminations that document the Column in its integral state, ponders the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the serpent heads in 1700, and summarizes C. T. Newton's excavation of the monument in 1855. It ends on a sobering note, stating that the Column was the site of a terrorist bombing in 2016. Chapter 9, a one-page conclusion, reiterates the book's main points.

This is a dense and imaginative book. Its aim, as outlined in the preface, is to consider the layers of meaning that have accrued to the Column over time by writing a "cultural biography," an approach Stephenson considers best served by a process of inference, suggestion and accumulation of evidence rather than systematic argumentation. Stephenson aligns his study with the work of the social anthropologist, Igor Kopytoff. Kopytoff defined cultural biography as a project that observes not only the use and reuse of objects, but also the means of their redefinition over time in processes that involve moments of object sacralization and commodification that in turn build upon ideas about singularity and communality within a given culture.2 Does Stephenson bring this approach to the Serpent Column? Yes, and no. On the one hand, he creates a vivid picture of the Column's fortunes across time. On the other hand, he does so without adhering to his self-imposed standards.

The basic outline of the Column's biography – the Delphic dedication, the removal to Constantinople, and the subsequent accumulation of new meanings – is well known. That said, no one has considered the life of the Serpent Column over the long haul. Most interesting, therefore, is the way in which Stephenson fleshes out this skeletal narrative to give new life to the monument's history. Every phase of the discussion is illuminating; however, not everyone will agree with all of the proposals. Reconstruction of the firmament on the nights before the battles of Plataia and Chrysopolis offers a case in point. Although the observation works well in the build-up of the larger context, for the skeptic, it might also be possible to conclude that nothing about this starry array was unusual given that the two battles took place in late summer and that the constellations Stephenson describes are fixtures in the sky at this time of year.

Of varied effectiveness is the method of presentation. Eschewing the idea of straightforward narrative, Stephenson opts instead to present information in discrete, associative packages. Thus, a series of richly informative individual sections makes up each chapter. Properly juxtaposed and sequenced, the sheer accumulation of these reports' details coupled with the suggestive power of association can work to persuade, but this technique works better in some places than others. Chapters 2 and 3, on the Tripod's Greek context, are most successful, as the information packets build upon and support one another. Other chapters are less persuasive because the various packets are not so mutually sustaining. Thus, in Chapter 7, Stephenson tackles the Column's status as a talisman. He opens by examining reports of the Column's efficacy in repelling snakes, then moves to compartmentalized discussions of the sixth-century equestrian monument to Justinian, apotropaic animals in the Mediterranean world, twisted and brazen apotropaic forms, and biblical apparitions of snakes and snakes in healing contexts before closing with a discussion of a nineteenth-century Siphnian relief depicting the Serpent Column. This array of information never really coalesces, leaving the trees to obscure the forest.

The conclusion is disappointing. On the one hand, it is true that objects, like human beings, have lives without destiny, a fact that suggests the impossibility of conclusions, especially in cases, such as that of the Serpent Column, when the life, however fragile, has yet to end. On the other hand, the absence of any reflection seems a missed opportunity. In particular, the conclusion might have addressed the issues of singularity and commonality, sacralization and commodification essential to Kopytoff's and, by extension, Stephenson's definition of cultural biography. Stephenson gives the nod to these concepts in the preface; however, at no point does he define them or describe how they can be used to understand the Column's history. Thus, while it is obvious that the Column began life as a sacred object, the issue of its commodification, a process that Kopytoff binds to economic and social practice, is less clear. Commodities, Kopytoff writes, are objects with "use" or "exchange value," and the hallmark of commodification is exchange.3 Given this definition, it would have been interesting to learn how Stephenson understands the process with respect to the Serpent Column. That the Column underwent commoditization seems entirely possible, as does a process of renewed sacralization. The question is, therefore, "when and how?" I would love to know what Stephenson thinks. In the absence of explanation, the study falls short of the idea of cultural biography to which it aspires. Instead, it owes more to art historical practice as espoused by the likes of Aby Warburg in the early twentieth century, a scholar who established a long tradition of exploring the lives and afterlives of objects in historical context.

One final observation regarding production: Stephenson has been ill-served by his editors with respect to illustrations. Although ample, the images are often poor in quality. In many instances, images are too small to see the details discussed in the text. In others, photographic resolution is poor and images are hazy. Still other illustrations are of objects photographed at odd angles through museum cases. Because so much of the project rests on the examination of visual materials, the lack of high quality images undermines the work.

These reservations notwithstanding, this is a book worth reading. No study can be everything to all readers, and while it is possible to criticize the project for not following through on its own methodological model, it is also easy to laud its contribution to the understanding of the Serpent Column. Like all good scholarship, it raises as many questions as it answers, and is, as such, something to which we all might aspire.


1.   Constantine: Uunconquered Emperor, Christian Victor (London, 2009); The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-slayer (Cambridge; New York, 2003).
2.   "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process," in Arjun Appadurai, ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1986): 64-91.
3.   Kopytoff, as in note 2: 68-69 and 85.

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