Horses, A Column & The Battle That Changed The World

Mark David
Jun 21, 2015 · 19 min read

by author Mark David

By Mystery Thriller author Mark David

You can sign up for the occasional Elements newsletter, follow Mark David on Twitter @authorMarkDavid. You can read more about his fiction on The Elements homepage or here on medium.

Discovering connections

Objects are often passed by, unnoticed Tourists often fail to appreciate the significance of ‘old objects’ — what the object is and more importantly — what it represents.

This article is about the ‘Serpent Column’ at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and the events surrounding it’s existence and present physical state. It explores history by finding the connections between objects and the events that formed them, and the deeds of people that change the world as we know it. Without the column, Europe and possibly the world would be a very different place today.

This has been put together from various articles on Wikipedia, supplemented by more links to Wiki articles and my own explanations, having visited places and having an understanding of the connections through a study of history in connection with research into the conspiracy thriller series The Elements. It provides a much more interesting and complete picture and understanding of a very modest but most significant object left at the Hippodrome of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), where it was carried by Constantine the Great during the founding of his city on the Greek colony of Byzantium.

The serpent column

copyright Assassins Creed: Visualisation of the Hippodrome decaying in Ottomon Constantinople. The serpent column can be seen between the two Egyptian obelisks.

On the history trail, I was in Istanbul back in 1997 for a wonderful autumn holiday in the historical old centre of Constantinople. One of the impressions left was of the last remains of the Hippodrome, the curved end wall visible walking down the hill into the old harbor district, and the remains of a peculiar bronze column, broken at the top.

This I knew vaguely, was called the Serpent Column — also known as the Serpentine Column, Delphi Tripod or Plataean Tripod. The top of the column was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads on top of an 8-metre (26 ft) high column remaining intact until the end of the 17th century, as can be seen above in an Ottomon illustration of the 17th century. During my visit, I came across one of the missing serpent heads, the relevance of the tripod becoming apparent as I put the story together, piece by piece — being on display at the nearby Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

The Byzantine Hippodrome, Constantinople

The Serpentine Column survived, miraculously surviving both the Nika riots in Constantinople in 532 AD and the tragic burning and sacking of the city at the hands of other Christians, the Crusader army of the Fourth Crusade under the Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice in 1204 AD, when the golden bowl held aloft of the three serpentine heads was destroyed or stolen. Enrico Dandolo’s tomb can be seen today on the southern first floor gallery of the Hagia Sophia and the original quadriga, the four bronze horses placed on top of the entrance to the Hippodrome, stolen by the Venetians can be seen inside St. Mark’s Basilica, in Venice. (Where they were taken by Napoleon to Paris to put on top of the new Arc De Triomphe, returned to Venice in 1815 by Dumaresq.

The four bronze horses: The Quadriga, stolen from Constantinople by the Venetians at the time of the Fourth Crusade, 1204. On display at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice.
Image Copyright © 2009 Byzantium 1200

The bronze column was created from melted-down Persian weapons, acquired in the plunder of the Persian camp after the battle of Platea, erected at Delphi. It commemorated all the Greek city-states that had participated in the battle, listing them on the column, and thus confirming some of Herodotus’ claims.

The Snake Column

This is an ancient bronze column, formed of three snake heads, the column being their bodies intertwined, unwinding into the heads that held aloft a great bowl, in classical Greece terms a great tripod, the word “tripod” coming from the Greek meaning “three-footed”, used for making offerings or other ritual procedures to the Greek Gods. This ancient sacrificial tripod, originally came from Delphi, later relocated to Constantinople by Constantine I the Great in 324. Along the sides of the column are inscribed the names of more than 24 Greek city states, Greece at the time being no nation, but a land of cities sharing variations of classical Greek culture and religion.

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 eight 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 four 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.

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.”

Nusretname (“The Book of Victories”) by Silahdar Findiklili Mehmed Aga relates that the heads simply fell off on the night of October 20, 1700

Images Copyright © 2009 Byzantium 1200


The amazing thing about this unassuming column is what it signifies — built to commemorate the cities as they combined to fight and and defeat the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The Persian general Mardonius meeting the combined Greek armies of primarily Athens and Platea, Sparta and Tegea, who had combined forces with many other lesser city states to defeat the Persians.

The remnants of the Persian army, under the command of Artabazus, tried to retreat back to Asia Minor. Travelling through the lands of Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace by the shortest road, Artabazus eventually made it ironically back to the city of Byzantium, the future Constantinople, the cithy where the victory serpentine column would be taken by Emperor Constantine in late-Roman times, though losing many men to Thracian attacks, weariness and hunger.

Background to the battle at Platea

After the famous stand of the 300 Spartans and other Greek soldiers at Thermopylae, Xerxes wished for a final crushing defeat of the Allies to finish the conquest of Greece in that campaigning season; conversely, the allies sought a decisive victory over the Persian navy that would guarantee the security of the Peloponnese. The ensuing naval Battle of Salamis ended in a decisive victory for the Allies, marking a turning point in the conflict.

Following Thermopylae Xerxes sacked the abandoned Athens, then following the defeat of his navy at Salamis, retreated to Asia with the bulk of his army. According to Herodotus, this was because he feared the Greeks would sail to the Hellespont and destroy the pontoon bridges, thereby trapping his army in Europe. He thus left Mardonius, with handpicked troops, to complete the conquest of Greece the following year. However, the Greeks were still divided, the Athenian navy refusing to join the Spartan, fearing for the future of Athens.

Mardonius moved to break the stalemate by trying to win over the Athenians and their fleet through the mediation of Alexander I of Macedon, offering peace, self-government and territorial expansion. The Athenians made sure that a Spartan delegation was also on hand to hear the offer, and rejected it:

The degree to which we are put in the shadow by the Medes’ strength is hardly something you need to bring to our attention. We are already well aware of it. But even so, such is our love of liberty, that we will never surrender.

The rest is history. Upon this refusal, the Persians marched south again. Athens was again evacuated and left to the enemy. Mardonius now repeated his offer of peace to the Athenian refugees on Salamis. Athens, along with Megara and Plataea, sent emissaries to Sparta demanding assistance and threatening to accept the Persian terms if it was not given.

The Battle of Platea

Print from Vinkhuijzen Collection of Military Costume Illustration

According to Herodotus, the Spartans, who were at that time celebrating the festival of Hyacinthus, delayed making a decision until they were persuaded by a guest, who pointed out the danger to all of Greece if the Athenians surrendered. The Spartans sent 45,000 men — 5,000 Spartiates (full citizen soldiers), 5,000 other Lacodaemonian hoplites (perioeci) and 35,000 helots (seven per Spartiate). This was probably the largest Spartan force ever assembled.

The Greek army had been reinforced by contingents of hoplites from the other Allied city-states, as shown in the table. Diodorus Siculus claims in his Bibliotheca historica that the number of the Greek troops approached 50,000 men from twenty four city states facing a Persian army of approximately double in strength, numbering 100,000, supported by other Greeks favoring the Persians, amongst them Thebes, though the figures are disputed.

The Greek army, under the command of Pausanias, King of Sparta, subsequently followed him there, and at first stationed themselves on the lower slopes of Mount Cithseron. Their force was composed of about 25,000 hoplites, and about as many more light troops, and was scarcely inferior in numbers to the enemy, but it had no cavalry of any kind. Several days passed in skirmishing without definite results, Mardonius fearing to let his Asiatic troops attack the heights held by the heavy Greek infantry, and Pausanias alarmed lest his men should be crushed by the Thessalian and Persian horse if he ventured down into the plains. Want of water at length obliged the Greeks to move slightly westwards, their right wing descending as far as the spring of Gargaphia, and their left to the bank of the Asopos. But this position facing east, exposed them so seriously to the attacks of the light Asiatic horse, that after enduring it for ten days they raised their camp and fell back in the night on Platæa.


When Mardonius learned of the Spartan force, he completed the destruction of Athens, tearing down whatever was left standing. He then retreated towards Thebes, hoping to lure the Greek army into territory that would be suitable for the Persian cavalry, creating a fortified camp on the north bank of the Asopus river in Boeotia covering the ground up to the lands of Plataea.

The Victory Serpentine Column

All the names of the participating city states are inscribed up the sides of the column, which can be said to represent the birth of a nation — in the most important battle of Europe.

After describing the Greek victory, 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.”

So a tripod of gold held aloft the sacrificial bowl, the Serpentine Column left still possessing one of the longest literary histories of any object surviving from Greek and Roman antiquity — at least 2,491 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 at Plataea 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.

Greek fighting over the inscriptions on the tripod

Insight into the political squabbles of the victorious Greeks over this monument is fascinating. The leader of the victorious Greek army was Pausanias, who subsequently punished the Theban leaders for their support of the Persians, ordering a dedication on the column ascribing victory to himself alone.

Subsequent events revealed his overweening ambition. He was, unbelievable after such a victory, in actual negotiations with the Persians and, together with the lower class Helots of Sparta staged a rebellion, setting 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, citing the affair of the Serpentine column as a ground for their later action.


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 Spartans deleted the diptych from this tripod and engraved the names of the cities as can still be seen to this day, those that had joined together against the barbarian and set up the offering.

Diodorus Siculus, writing in 1st century BC, says that a couplet composed by the poet Simonides, replaced Pausanias’ unlawful personal dedication:

“ The saviours of Greece at large dedicated this, having delivered the cities from wretched servitude.”

The Battle in Detail

In some ways the run-up to Plataea resembled that at the Battle of Marathon; there was a prolonged stalemate in which neither side risked attacking the other. The reasons for this stalemate were primarily tactical, and similar to the situation at Marathon; the Greek hoplites did not want to risk being outflanked by the Persian cavalry and the lightly armed Persian infantry could not hope to assault well-defended positions.

Photo: Joe Alblas, History Channel

Mardonius sought to break the stalemate by sending his cavalry to attack the passes of Mount Cithaeron; this raid resulted in the capture of supplies intended for the Greeks. Two more days passed, during which time the supply lines of the Greeks continued to be menaced. Mardonius began to cut the supply of troops going to the Greeks and launched another cavalry raid on the Greek lines, which succeeded in blocking the Gargaphian Spring, which had been the only source of water for the Greek army (they could not use the Asopus due to the threat posed by Persian archers).

Image Corinthian Helmet: copyright Mark David

Coupled with the lack of food, the restriction of the water supply made the Greek position untenable, so they decided to retreat to a position in front of Plataea, from where they could guard the passes and have access to fresh water. To prevent the Persian cavalry from attacking during the retreat, it was to be performed that night.

Neither the Persians nor the Greeks would attack; Herodotus claims this is because both sides received bad omens during sacrificial rituals. The armies thus stayed camped in their locations for eight days, during which new Greek troops arrived.

However, the retreat went wrong. The Allied contingents in the centre missed their appointed position and ended up scattered in front of Plataea itself. The Athenians, Tegeans and Spartans, who had been guarding the rear of the retreat, had not even begun to retreat by daybreak. A single Spartan division was thus left on the ridge to guard the rear, while the Spartans and Tegeans retreated uphill; Pausanias also instructed the Athenians to begin the retreat and if possible join up with the Spartans. However, the Athenians at first retreated directly towards Plataea, and thus the Allied battle line remained fragmented as the Persian camp began to stir.

Despite this defensive move by the Greeks, it was in fact the chaos resulting from this retreat that finally ended the stalemate: Mardonius perceived this as a full-on retreat, in effect thinking that the battle was already over, and sought to pursue the Greeks. Since he did not expect the Greeks to fight, the tactical problems were no longer an issue and he tried to take advantage of the altered strategic situation he thought he had produced. Conversely, the Greeks had, inadvertently, lured Mardonius into attacking them on the higher ground and, despite being outnumbered, were thus at a tactical advantage.

The Battle

Battle map of Plataea by Du Bocage 1784

How can I describe a battle? The clash of shields? The quick stabbing of swords? The push of men from all around you? Inside the phalanx you are trapped with nowhere to go. All around you are spearheads sthrusting and swords flashing. We crash against the enemy in full run. Men all around me fall, either dead, injured or just tripped over by the pushing tide of armoured men. My helmet is blocking my sight. I cannot see the enemy spears that crush against it, making this hideous sound of ringing inside my head.

An account of battle as witnessed by Timomachos, son of Pandion, lochagos of the Athenian Agema of logades, also nicknamed as agema “Rhadamanthus” :

According to Herodotus, Pausanias refused to advance because good omens were not divined in the goat sacrifices that were performed. At this point, as Greek soldiers began to fall under the barrage of arrows, the Tegeans started to run at the Persian lines. Offering one last sacrifice and a prayer to the heavens in front of the Temple of Hera, Pausanias finally received favourable omens and gave the command for the Spartans to advance, whereupon they also charged the Persian lines.

The numerically superior Persian infantry were of the heavy (by Persian standards) sparabara formation, but this was still much lighter than the Greek phalanx. The Persian defensive weapon was a large wicker shield and they used short spears; by contrast, the hoplites were armored in bronze, with a bronze shield and a long spear. As at Marathon, it was a severe mismatch. The fight was fierce and long, but the Greeks (Spartans and Tegeans) continued to push into the Persian lines. The Persians tried to break the Greeks’ spears by grabbing hold of them, but the Greeks responded by switching to swords. Mardonius was present at the scene, riding a white horse, and surrounded by a bodyguard of 1,000 men; while he remained, the Persians stood their ground. However, the Spartans closed in on Mardonius; a Spartan soldier named Arimnestus saw him astride his horse, picked up a large rock off the ground and threw it hard at Mardonius; it hit him squarely in the head, killing him. With Mardonius dead, the Persians began to flee; although his bodyguard remained, they were annihilated.

On the opposite side of the battlefield the Athenians had triumphed in a tough battle against the Thebans. The other Greeks fighting for the Persians had deliberately fought badly, according to Herodotus. The Thebans retreated from the battle, but in a different direction from the Persians, allowing them to escape without further losses. The Allied Greeks, reinforced by the contingents who had not taken part in the main battle, then stormed the Persian camp. Although the Persians initially defended the wall vigorously, it was eventually breached; the Persians, packed tightly together in the camp, were slaughtered by the Greeks. Of the Persians who had retreated to the camp, scarcely 3,000 were left alive.


Aristodemus: The lone Spartan survivor of the slaughter of the 300 at the Battle of Thermopylae had, with a fellow Spartiate, been dismissed from the army by Leonidas I because of an eye infection. However, his colleague had insisted on being led into battle, partially blind, by a helot. Preferring to return to Sparta, Aristodemus was branded a coward and suffered a year of reproach before Plataea. Anxious to redeem his name, he charged the Persian lines by himself, killing in a savage fury before being cut down.

Although the Spartans agreed that he had redeemed himself, they awarded him no special honor, because he failed to fight in the disciplined manner expected of a Spartan.

After the victory at Mycale, the Allied fleet sailed to the Hellespont to break down the pontoon bridges, but found that this had already been done. The Peloponnesians sailed home, but the Athenians remained to attack the Chersonesos, still held by the Persians. The Persians in the region, and their allies, made for Sestos, the strongest town in the region, and the Athenians laid siege to them there. After a protracted siege Sestos fell to the Athenians, marking the beginning of a new phase in the Greco-Persian Wars, the Greek counterattack. Herodotus ended his Histories after the Siege of Sestos. Over the next 30 years the Greeks, primarily the Athenian-dominated Delian League, would expel (or help expel) the Persians from Macedon, Thrace, the Aegean islands and Ionia. Peace with Persia came in 449 BC with the Peace of Callias, finally ending a half-century of warfare.

The major lesson of both Plataea and Mycale (since both were fought on land) was to re-emphasise the superiority of the hoplite over the more lightly armed Persian infantry, as had first been demonstrated at Marathon. Taking on this lesson, after the Greco-Persian Wars the Persian empire started recruiting and relying on Greek mercenaries. One such mercenary expedition, the “Anabasis of the 10,000” as narrated by Xenophon, further proved to the Greeks that the Persians were militarily vulnerable even well within their own territory, and paved the way for the destruction of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great some decades later.

By Mystery Thriller author Mark David

You can sign up for the occasional Elements newsletter, follow Mark David on Twitter @authorMarkDavid. You can read more about his fiction on The Elements homepage or here on medium.

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