Delphi in History & Today

Although there was an early sanctuary at Delphi, the site gained international importance from the sixth century bc, when the first stone temple was built. This was burned shortly afterwards, lavishly rebuilt by the Peisistratid family from Athens, and restored in the fourth century bc. It is the ruins of this last temple that can be seen today.

Delphi was one of the great meeting places of the Greeks. Some came to watch or participate in the Pythian Games, whose athletic events took place in the stadium (built in its present form by the second-century ad Herodes Atticus), while contests for the Arts were held in the theatre, and chariot races on the plain at Crisa far below. Others flocked to consult the oracle, which gave its response on the seventh day of each of the nine months when Apollo was in residence. Questions ranged widely -from whether the enquirer would have children to whether and where to found a colony.

Many became famous: in the sixth century bc the Lydian king Croesus asked whether he should invade his neighbours, the Persians. The response was that if he crossed the River Halys, the boundary between them, he would destroy a mighty empire. He did. It was his own. At the end of the fifth century bc, the oracle announced Socrates as the wisest man alive (something which the philosopher tried -unsuccessfully – to disprove by posing questions to self-proclaimed experts, all of whom he found wanting). It may have reassured Alexander the Great, arriving imperiously on a non-consultation day, that he was invincible; and in the Roman era, the thirty-year-old Nero was relieved to be told to ‘beware the age of seventy-three’, believing that this was when he would die. Soon afterwards he realized his error, committing suicide rather than face enemies loyal to his seventy-three-year-old general, Galba.

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The process of consulting the oracle remains unclear, but petitioners, having first sacrificed and purified themselves in the Castalian Spring, probably put their questions through the priests to the priestess seated on her tripod above the vaporous chasm, while she moaned in her ecstatic trance. The priests then interpreted what she said, presenting an answer neatly composed in hexameters and almost always so equivocal that they could not be blamed if the advice proved unsatisfactory – one of Apollo’s many epithets was Loxias (‘Ambiguous’).

For much of antiquity Delphi was indeed the centre of the Greek world, one of the richest of all sanctuaries. Offerings included gold-and-ivory statues of Apollo from Ionia; a sphinx from Naxos, crouching on a high column; a gold- and silver-plated bull; a bronze column, 8 m (26 ft) tall (dedicated after the Greek victory over Persia at Plataea in 479 bc) in the form of a twisted threeheaded Python, which (tripod-like) supported a gold cauldron; as well as countless statues of Apollo, other gods and the great and good of Greece. Here cities and families conspicuously flaunted their wealth, storing it in treasuries or using it to construct or enhance altars and temples. In time almost every god was honoured with a shrine at Delphi, and the sanctuary of Athene Pronaia (‘In Front of the Temple’), home to the well-known tholos (round temple), became particularly prominent.

With temples, treasuries and statues, some of solid gold, many set on ever-higher pillars, Delphi was a magnet for would-be plunderers. Twice Apollo is said to have sent rocks crashing down on invading armies: the Persians in 480 bc, and the Gauls in 279 bc. In the end, Gaia herself intervened, or perhaps it was Poseidon. When an earthquake closed the chasm’s mouth, the oracle spoke no longer.

Other explanations for the oracle’s demise gained legendary status. Christian writers (wrongly) told how, shortly before ad 15, it gave its final utterance: ‘a Hebrew boy, a god who rules the blessed, commands I leave this house for ever and return to Hades. In silence leave my altar.’ Another account tells how a question from Rome’s last pagan emperor, the fourth-century ad Julian the Apostate, was met with the response: ‘Tell this to the emperor: the well-wrought hall has fallen to the ground. No longer does Apollo keep his shrine, his prophesying laurel or his murmuring spring. Even the waters of his spring are dry.’

Today, the massive base and five more-or-less resurrected columns are all that remain of Apollo’s glittering fourth-century bc temple. Gone are the maxims the god is said to have had inscribed high on its walls (‘Know Yourself’; ‘Nothing in Excess’; ‘Certainty Brings Disaster’), though their wisdom is timeless. The temple pediments which so neatly encapsulated Delphi’s duality exist only in fragments – those on the east side showing Apollo (seated on his tripod) with Leto, Artemis and the Muses, a study in poise and harmony, those on the west showing Dionysus and his maenads. Perfection, the Greeks knew, lay in the reconciliation of two opposites. At Delphi, it came close to being achieved.

There are several parts to the site today. Half a mile east of the modern village, on the left of the main road, the Sacred Way ascends between the remains of once lavish treasuries (including the reconstructed Treasury of the Athenians) on a path formerly flanked by statues. This leads to the partially reconstructed Temple of Apollo with its fine altar, near which a reconstruction of the serpent column is planned. (The remains of the original can be seen in the Hippodrome in Istanbul.) Above is the well-preserved theatre. Still further up is the impressive stadium (no access), rebuilt in stone in the second century AD. To the left of the main road, visitors pass first the shady Castalian Spring (no access). Further on to the right, a track leads down to the precinct of Athene Pronaia containing the foundations of a number of temples, including the evocative reconstucted tholos. Close by is the gymnasium.

Delphi’s rich Archaeological Museum contains a fourth-century BC copy of the Omphalos and sculptures from different phases of the Temple of Apollo (including its fourth-century pediments) and the Siphnian Treasury, as well as many offerings made at the site from throughout the Classical world. These include two kouroi (statues of male youths; c. 580 bc) – identified as Cleobis and Biton – from Argos; the Naxian Sphinx (c. 560 BC); remains of sixth-century BC Ionian gold-and-ivory statues of Apollo, Artemis and Leto; a life-sized silver and gold bull from the same period; and the exquisite bronze charioteer, traditionally believed to have been dedicated by Polyzelus of Gela in Sicily in around 478 BC following his victory at the Pythian Games. There is also a kylix (cup) showing Apollo with his lyre seated opposite a black crow.

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