The Serpent Column is the victory monument set up at Delphi after the defeat of the Persian army at the Battle of Plataia in 479 b.c.e. that marked the end of the Persian invasion of Greece. It originally consisted of a tall, hollow bronze pillar in the form of three entwined serpents terminating in three projecting necks and heads that formed the tripod for a gold cauldron. The cauldron was removed quite early in the monument’s history, but the rest of the tripod remained standing on the east terrace of the sanctuary at Delphi for eight centuries. It was then taken, probably on the orders of the emperor Constantine I, to adorn the newly built hippodrome of Constantinople. Having lost its heads and necks in 1700, the truncated shaft still stands in the At meydanı of Istanbul between the two obelisks. Along with these obelisks, the Serpent Column is all that is left of the crowd of sculptured monuments that occupied the central plinth dividing the racetracks of the greatest entertainment venue of the Byzantine imperial capital. Paul Stephenson begins The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography at the end of this long history, with a chapter outlining the scholarly investigation of the monument in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This comprised the excavation and study of the base, the discovery of an upper jaw from a missing head, the reading and publication of the inscription identifying the monument as a votive offering to Apollo from the Greek cities that had allied against the Persians, and the search for the original location of the tripod at Delphi. The following chapters attempt to chart the existence of the Serpent Column through the ancient, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, despite the difficulty of tracking it in the written sources. In fact, the direct, unambiguous evidence for the column’s existence and impact could be presented within the space of a medium-length journal article. Notably frustrating is the dearth of explicit mention in the long medieval period, when the Serpent Column competed with many other antique bronze sculptures for the fascinated attention of the Byzantine beholder. By contrast, the column became more visible in early Ottoman times, after Mehmed II had cleared the hippodrome of all its monuments apart from the Serpent Column and the obelisks. The monument’s distinctive shape thus caught the eye of Ottoman miniaturists depicting ceremonial events in the At meydanı. It was also remarked on by foreign visitors, one of whom, in 1574, made watercolor and ink sketches that are now preserved in an album in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. These have become the classic illustrations of the monument, and one adorns the dust jacket of the book. Stephenson manages to make a book of the subject despite the scarcity of evidence by contextualizing the monument in the various phases of its existence. He devotes one chapter to the events that gave rise to it—the Persian Wars and the Battle of Plataia—and another to the circumstances of its migration to Constantinople: the foundation and beautification of the new imperial capital. But the most original and engaging aspect of the contextualization is the exploration of the cultural matrix corresponding to the object’s basic physical attributes, its bronze material and its serpentine form. The chapter on the column’s presence in Delphi sets it in the context of bronze working and bronze sculpture in ancient Greece, and later chapters note the significance of bronze in biblical tradition. Yet it is the snakes that steal the show, as they coil and twine—preferably in twos and threes—throughout the book, in visual and textual media, from ancient Near Eastern mythology to Christian iconography, symbolizing a dark force of cosmic chaos that can, however, enhance the divine power that defeats and contains it. Stephenson suggestively explains the functions of the Serpent Column in terms of this symbolism. As set up at Delphi, it imaged not only Typhon and Python slain by Zeus and Apollo, respectively, but also the serpentine constellations in the summer sky above Plataia in 479 b.c.e., whose configuration presaged the rout of the Persian army. In its relocation to Constantinople, it symbolized Constantine’s victory over the dragons of paganism and the Tetrarchy, which Constantine celebrated in public posters. More tentatively, Stephenson makes a connection between the dragon-head spouts of Middle Byzantine fountains and the tantalizing indications that the Serpent Column itself was adapted to serve as a fountain during entertainment events at the hippodrome. Stephenson is on safer ground when he discusses the object as an apotropaic talisman; it is entirely plausible that Mehmed II left it in situ because it was believed to keep Constantinople snake free. Paul Stephenson has set a new landmark and a new benchmark in writing the history of objects and the writing of history through objects. The extraordinary fertility of his research, the subtlety of his arguments, the elegant economy of his prose, and the uniqueness of the object all make this a hard act to follow. But follow we must, because contextualizing objects in their passage through changing times, places, and cultures is an important way forward for professional historians who seek to explain the otherness of the past, especially the ancient and medieval past, in which objects have to tell their own stories. Doing so not only helps to bridge the lingering divide between material history and documentary history (which Stephenson crosses impressively), but it also makes history tangible, by literally making sense of artifacts and the minds of the people who fashioned and lived with them. Stephenson is not alone in taking this approach. He is, however, the first to label his work a cultural biography. It sounds pretentious, but it aptly echoes late antique and Byzantine beliefs in the animation of statues, and effectively states what should be every historian’s ideal: to ensure that the relics of the past get a life however inanimate and truncated they may be. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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