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Revisiting Delphi, the center of the ancient world

By Alexander Clapp

Its origins may have been shrouded in prehistory, its oracle hopelessly vague and its allegiances hostage to the hegemonies of the day, but no site was more revered by the ancient Greek world than that which was deemed its very center: Delphi. For more than a millennium the sanctuary was a cultural and religious lodestone for Hellenes from Crete to the Crimea. In moments of doubt the Greeks trekked to Delphi to ascertain the will of their gods. In times of triumph they housed their victory spoils in one of Delphi’s many treasuries. In the spring of every fourth year they gathered at the sanctuary to rub shoulders in the celebrated Pythian Games. So embedded is Delphi in the Greek cultural narrative, its history reads like that of ancient Greece writ large.     

That wasn’t always the case. As Michael Scott writes in his deft new book, “Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World” (Princeton University Press), Delphi “was not born into success, but struggled, for centuries, to be anything more than a small and isolated community clinging to the Parnassian mountains.” But in the 8th century the oracle played a pivotal role in two developments that charted the course for subsequent Mediterranean history: the Greek colonization of North Africa and the West, and the rise of the polis, or city-state. Before setting out to found new settlements, Greek communities turned to Delphi for guidance regarding the site of potential new colonies. The priestess’s advice was notoriously perplexing. The city of Aegae was to be constructed at the place where its founder first saw goats. Gela in Sicily was to be founded by a consultant who laughed – “gela” coming from the Greek verb “to laugh.” The prosperity of these early Greek colonies vaulted Delphi onto the international stage. By the 6th century rumors of the oracle’s powers had attracted the attention of a handful of Near Eastern kings and Sicilian tyrants.

The exact procedure for consulting the Delphic oracle marks one of the most contentious debates in Classical studies. Scott doesn’t linger over the arguments, instead focusing his narrative on the oracle’s ability to grease the wheels of constitutional reform in cities such as Corinth, Sicyon and Sparta. He chooses to see the Delphic priestess not as a babbling – or perhaps intoxicated – fortuneteller, but as a “management consultant” for Greek communities reeling in the pains of political growth. According to Scott: “Within a world that was… firmly of the belief that the gods were in charge of everything, the attraction of a system of oracular consultation, which allowed for divine confirmation of community decisions, and therefore the ability to ensure the development of a consensus of opinion for particular courses of action, is eminently understandable.”

Delphi was thus not a bystander in Greek history, but an active participant, fostering and even sponsoring political developments as “a reflector, but also a cultivator, and even occasionally as an instigator, of the changes that so fundamentally shook the Greek world.”

Athens is the case in point. In the late 6th century two rival families competed for control of the city: the Peisistratids and the Alcmaeonids. While the Peisistratids were reluctant to dedicate at Delphi, the Alcmaeonids were some of its most fervent patrons, even decking out the sanctuary’s Apollo temple in pricey Parian marble. Unsurprisingly, Herodotus notes how oracles of this period repeatedly advised the Spartans to liberate Athens from Peisistratid tyranny. In 510 BC they did. Four years later, an Alcmaeonid, Cleisthenes, consolidated his power with that of the Athenian people. This marks the birth of the city’s democracy.

Exploiting the Delphic oracle for political ends grew increasingly common in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. This fact was not lost on the Greeks themselves. As early as the 5th century playwrights were mocking the oracle’s ability to channel divine counsel. “The best seer is the one who guessed right,” quipped Euripides. Demosthenes went so far as to implicate Delphi in Philip II’s conquest of Greece: “The Pythia is Philipizing.”

All the more striking, then, that Delphi continued to matter to the Greeks. As Scott argues, by the middle of the 5th century Delphi came to represent something more than just a divine mouthpiece; located outside the city-state arena, the sanctuary evolved into a neutral venue for Greek states to showcase their achievements to the wider Hellenic world. “In short,” writes Scott, “the value of having a permanent and obvious presence that advertised one’s military and cultural prowess in this sanctuary complex – firmly embedded at the very core of the Greek world, and to which more and more people were coming – was as attractive and useful as the oracle’s ability to provide guidance at moments of difficult decision.” To this day, the victory monuments at Delphi read like a running scoreboard of Greek military engagements. The Athenians celebrated their 5th century dominance with a treasury and a stoa. To mark their victory over the Athenians in 404 BC, the Spartans trumped Athens’s dedications with 38 statues of their own. In the 4th century Sparta’s dominance gives way to that of Thebes and, in turn, Macedonia and Rome – each power relandscaping Delphi to advertise its success.

Ironically, it was this vast accumulation of wealth that presaged the sanctuary’s very decline. In the Hellenistic period Delphi’s treasures bankrolled Macedonian armies. The sanctuary was looted further still by the Gauls, who swept through Greece in the 3rd century. Oddly, it was the Romans who afforded the oracle the most respect in this period. In their campaigns to “free” Greece from the Hellenistic empires, generals such as Aemilius Paulus dedicated monuments at Delphi to mark Greece’s transference from occupation under the Macedonians to liberation by the Romans.

In the first centuries AD Delphi sputtered on as a tourist trap for a series of philhellenic Roman emperors. “This was now a Delphi relying on its cultural worth rather than its financial muscle,” notes Scott. But it was increasingly difficult for Delphi to sustain that cultural capital in an era when Greek triumphs were receding into a distant past. Historians of late antiquity even record Delphi’s guides fumbling over the site’s history, misidentifying buildings and unable to explain why the Sacred Plain was sacred.

“Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World” does well to recover that history. This is an engaging tribute to a site that enjoined its visitors to know themselves – a demand that, in turn, requires us to know the Greeks. 

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday April 22, 2014 (19:54)  
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