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Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The oracle and sanctuary of the Greek god Apollo at Delphi were known as the "omphalos"-the "center" or "navel"-of the ancient world for more than 1000 years. Individuals, city leaders, and kings came from all over the Mediterranean and beyond to consult Delphi's oracular priestess; to set up monuments to the gods in gold, ivory, bronze, marble, and stone; and to take part in athletic and musical competitions. This book provides the first comprehensive narrative history of this extraordinary sanctuary and city, from its founding to its modern rediscovery, to show more clearly than ever before why Delphi was one of the most important places in the ancient world for so long.

    In this richly illustrated account, Michael Scott covers the whole history and nature of Delphi, from the literary and archaeological evidence surrounding the site, to its rise as a center of worship with a wide variety of religious practices, to the constant appeal of the oracle despite her cryptic prophecies. He describes how Delphi became a contested sacred site for Greeks and Romans and a storehouse for the treasures of rival city-states and foreign kings. He also examines the eventual decline of the site and how its meaning and importance have continued to be reshaped right up to the present. Finally, for the modern visitor to Delphi, he includes a brief guide that highlights key things to see and little-known treasures.

    A unique window into the center of the ancient world,Delphiwill appeal to general readers, tourists, students, and specialists.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5132-4
    Subjects: History, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. PROLOGUE: Why Delphi?
    (pp. 1-6)

    The love affair began, it was said, during the sacrifices in honor of the hero Neoptolemus. It was conducted in secret: the woman was already promised in marriage to someone else within the community. Eventually, the two young lovers decided to flee. They were helped to escape by a priest, and traveled to the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean world, where, after facing numerous trials and tribulations, they emerged triumphant and together.

    This is the plot of an ancient Greek novel written by a man called Heliodorus.² The two lovers came from Delphi, a small city and religious sanctuary clinging...

  2. PART I Some are born great

    • 1 ORACLE
      (pp. 9-30)

      The appointed day had come. Having journeyed up the winding mountain paths to the sanctuary hidden within the folds of the Parnassian mountains, individuals from near and far, representatives from cities and states, dynasties and kingdoms across the Mediterranean had gathered in Apollo’s sanctuary. As dawn broke, the word spread that it would soon be known whether the god Apollo was willing to respond to their questions. Sunlight reflected off the temple’s marble frontage, the oracular priestess entered its inner sanctum, and the crowd of consultants moved forward, waiting their turn to know better what the gods had in store....

      (pp. 31-50)

      How, when, why did it all begin?

      At some time between the late seventh and mid-sixth century BC, the earliest origins of Delphi were explained in the form of theHomeric Hymn to Apollo. This hymn, which forms part of a larger collection of hymns—attributed at different times to the authorship of Homer, Hesiod, Cynatheus of Chios and, as a result normally left anonymous—praising the different Olympian gods, charts Apollo’s life from his birth on the island of Delos through to his search for a suitable place to set up his oracle:

      And thence you went speeding swiftly...

      (pp. 51-70)

      Fire is all consuming. So easily started, so often uncontrollable in the dry, hot conditions of Greece. In the late eighth century BC, c. 730, fire took hold of Delphi. It spread through the small community clinging to the Parnassian hillside, leaving destruction in its wake. As the smoke ebbed away, as the charred timbers finally began to cool, and as Delphi’s inhabitants began to come to terms with the extent of their loss, Delphi’s precarious position in the Greek world must have felt even more fragile.

      We know that the maison noire—the house recently discovered by excavators just...

    • 4 REBIRTH
      (pp. 71-90)

      In 590 BC, tension boiled over at Delphi. According to the ancient sources, inhabitants of one of the other settlements on the plain leading from the sea up toward Delphi, the town of Crisa, had not only been attacking those en route to the oracle, but had also been extracting heavy tolls from pilgrims arriving by sea, and even making raids on Delphi itself (see map 3).¹ The priests of the oracle at Delphi were said to be desperate to escape Crisa’s malign and damaging influence. At the same time, a religious association of several cities and states, known as...

  3. PART II Some achieve greatness

    • 5 FIRE
      (pp. 93-118)

      In 548 BC—less than thirty years after the Amphictyony had taken control of Delphi; separated out sacred from secular space; built the sanctuary’s first boundary walls; and elaborated, if not built from scratch, its Apollo temple—fire broke out, once again, at Delphi. The new sanctuary, gleaming with its new ivory, limestone, gold and silver dedications, reveling in its busier-than-ever-oracle and brand new Pythian athletic and musical games that had become part of a recognized Panhellenic circuit, was consumed by the flames.¹ The fire was so intense that it was said to have melted the solid gold lion dedicated...

      (pp. 119-138)

      As the Persians retreated from Greece during 479 BC, the victorious cities turned to Delphi to consult the oracle on the right way to celebrate their triumph. The response integrated Delphi more than ever into the fabric of the Greek world. The Pythia instructed the cities to erect an altar to Zeus Eleutherios (the liberator), but not to sacrifice anything on it until they had extinguished every fire in the land (as the altars had all been polluted by the barbarian invaders) and taken fresh fire from the sacred hearth at Delphi to relight the hearths and pyres of Greece....

    • 7 RENEWAL
      (pp. 139-162)

      In the years immediately following Sparta’s great victory over Athens at Aegospotamoi in 405 BC, as Athens was forced to submit to the humiliation of being stripped of its fleet and even the very walls that had for so long protected its city, a young Athenian by the name of Xenophon came to consult the oracle at Delphi. His mind was fixed not on the conflict at home, but on an opportunity presented by a conflict abroad, in Persia. The throne of the Persian empire was up for grabs, and he had been invited to join the army of the...

      (pp. 163-180)

      In the immediate aftermath of Philip’s victory over Athens, his conquest of mainland Greece, and his conclusion of the Fourth Sacred War over Delphi, Philip’s allies continued to dedicate at the sanctuary: Daochus, a Thessalian, erected a statue group of his entire family in the Apollo sanctuary near the cult area of Neoptolemus. The temple construction also continued, indeed its organization became more professional with the instigation of a new level of financial oversight in 337 BC in the form of thetamiai(treasurers). At the same time, Philip reinforced the importance of Delphi in Greek affairs by making it...

  4. PART III Some have greatness thrust upon them

    • 9 A NEW WORLD
      (pp. 183-202)

      At the dawn of the second century BC, the Delphians found themselves in a curious limbo. On the one hand, their sanctuary was overwhelmingly still under the thumb of the Aetolians, who interfered in Delphic civic life, dominated many aspects of the sanctuary and its business, and even appointed informal “overseers” (epimeletai) to keep an eye on things in the city. The Delphians were at pains to honor the overseers (who seem to have been given rights even to keep herds of cattle on Delphic public land) on a regular basis.¹ At the same time, visitors to parts of the...

      (pp. 203-222)

      Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, is not known to have visited Delphi. But the sanctuary did feel the force of the new emperor in three particular ways. First, because Augustus reorganized the Amphictyony. Following his victory over Anthony at the battle of Actium in September 31 BC, Augustus set up a new city, called Nicopolis (the “city of victory”), in the vicinity of the battlefield (see map 2). This new town, according to the geographer Strabo who wrote a tour guide for the entire Mediterranean world in the first thirty years of the first century AD, was bolstered by Augustus with...

    • 11 FINAL GLORY?
      (pp. 223-244)

      In AD 117, Hadrian became emperor of the Roman Empire. Almost immediately, a correspondence began between him and Delphi that would continue for his entire reign, all of which was inscribed publicly on the outer wall of the temple of Apollo. Within a year of Hadrian’s accession to power, he wrote to Delphi twice. The second of these was in response to a letter from Delphi, congratulating him on becoming emperor and asking him to confirm that he would accord Delphi the status of liberty and autonomy accorded by his predecessors. Hadrian replied verifying exactly that. In response, one of...

      (pp. 245-268)

      It is at first sight surprising that we find a Christian writer, Claudian, during the time of the Christian Emperor Honorious in the early fifth century AD, talking with enthusiasm about Delphi and its pagan mythology, a religious sanctuary officially shut down with the outlawing of paganism. As Greece was once again menaced by northern invaders, Claudian imagines that the god Apollo must have rejoiced after his victory in the third century BC over these barbarians, a victory that assured “no barbarian [would drink] with defiled mouth the Castalian waters and the streams which have fore-knowledge of fate.” What Claudian’s...

  5. EPILOGUE: Unearthing Delphi
    (pp. 269-284)

    Ten years of discussion over negotiations to excavate Delphi gave way in 1892 to almost ten years of excavation. The “Trojan War” for Delphi, as the French like to label their long-lasting negotiations, now was to become an epic Odyssey for its discovery. “La Grande Fouille,” the “Big Dig,” lasted from 1892 to 1901 and would play a major part in a key era of discovery about the ancient world. The French excavators wrote down the day-to-day records of their quest in a journal that can be consulted today (and now online) and that provides incredible insight not only into...

    (pp. 285-290)

    The work to understand Delphi, as we have seen, continues unabated. In many ways, as a result, this book can be little more than a snapshot of where we are right now in our comprehension of the number of complex roles it occupied in the ancient Mediterranean world. What I hope the book has done, however, is to open our eyes to the fascinating nature of this small town and sanctuary clinging to the Parnassian mountains of Greece; its extraordinary place in ancient history; and the incredibly complex way in which such a position was achieved.

    Delphi was lucky enough...

  7. GUIDE: A Brief Tour of the Delphi Site and Museum
    (pp. 291-302)

    Here I pick out a few of the highlights of the site and museum at Delphi, which I would recommend you explore during your visit. If you want a full guide to the surviving remains on the site, the museum, and in the surrounding area, I recommend theGuide de Delphesvol. 1 (the site) and vol. 2 (the museum), produced by the French Archaeological School in Athens.

    The Approach (figs. 0.1, 0.2): Many today will approach Delphi by bus and be dropped off right outside the Apollo sanctuary. But if you have time, be sure to walk back along...