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 all the necessary accoutrements for its survival. And at the same time, Augustus reengineered the composition of the Amphictyonic council at Delphi to give his new city a seat in this ancestral grouping; he also formally instituted a bureaucratic position in the Amphictyonic hierarchy—the epimeletai, “overseers”—effectively the emperor’s agent attached to the Amphictyonic council.1

On top of this rather domineering insertion, Augustus and his wife, Livia, are said to have sent dedications to the sanctuary at Delphi. Livia’s was especially atuned to the particularities of Delphic practice and belief. Alongside the wise maxims said to have been inscribed on the pronaos of the temple of Apollo at Delphi (“Know thyself,” “Nothing in excess,” “Give an oath and face perdition”) was the mysterious letter “E.” Plutarch, who, in the early second century AD, was a priest of Apollo at the temple, recorded an entire discussion about the meaning of this letter, about which none of his friends could agree. But he relates the fact that the original letter “E” had been made in wood and attached to the temple, that the Athenians had replaced this wooden letter with one in bronze, and that Livia, in turn, replaced it with one in gold, although he does not relate what drew her to be particularly interested in—of all things at Delphi—the mysterious letter.2

Augustus’s final link with Delphi revolved around the increasingly close relationship between the sanctuary and Athens that had blossomed in the final quarter of the second century BC, at which time not only had Athens reinstituted its ceremonial procession festival, the Pythaïs, but the Amphictyony had also heaped praise on Athens as the savior of civilization. Now, just over a century later, under Augustus, the Athenians chose to rename the Pythaïs the Dodekais. In so doing, they linked the sacred procession to the date of the new emperor’s birthday, the twelfth day of the Athenian month Boedromion. By extension, because the month of Boedromion was also Apollo’s birthday, the Athenians were able to underscore the Apollonine nature of the emperor (who liked to think of himself as under the protection of Apollo) and to link the emperor to both Athens and Delphi.3 Once again, Delphi had proved extremely useful to the Athenians in helping them navigate and articulate their position in this new world and power hierarchy.

Yet, despite these actions and interactions, and despite that some scholars have claimed Augustan monuments in the east seem to have deliberately copied the style of dedication epitomized by the famous serpent column at Delphi from the fifth century BC, Augustus never showed particular interest in the oracle or temple of Apollo at Delphi, especially in contrast to the “lively interest” he took in the Olympics and Olympian sanctuary. Some scholars have seen this as a sign of things to come. Emperors, because of their all-powerful positions, did not have need of oracles to help them in times of difficult or contested decisions (and if they did, there were forms of oracular divination much closer to home than Delphi). Others have argued that Delphi, despite its fantastic collection of art and architecture, lacked the one thing that always fascinated a Roman world obsessed with Greek cultural achievement: a chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue made by a famous sculptor, like the statue of Zeus made by Pheidias at Olympia, which captured the imaginations of a host of Roman writers.4 Others still have argued that longer-term Imperial interest in Olympia rather than Delphi was the result of Olympia’s claim to be the original home of Greek athletics, which continued to play a part in the culture and power-broking of the Roman world.

But perhaps Augustus’s actions need also to be seen in the wider context of his attitude toward Greece and indeed to the whole of his empire. After 27 BC, he reorganized the provinces of his world. Greece, which had hitherto been part of the province of Macedon, was established as its own province (Achaea, covering mainland Greece and the Aegean islands) and put under the governorship of the Senate. As a result, Achaea, unlike other provinces under direct political and military control, was given the privilege of having no Roman army stationed within its boundaries. At the same time, Augustus’s move to place Nicopolis within the Amphictyonic council underlines the importance he attached to the council and its famous sanctuary and its ability to act as a source of legitimization for his new creation. More crucially, it also highlights what would be a continuing misunderstanding within the Roman world of what the Amphictyony was supposed to represent. The Amphictyony had never, in its history, represented all of Greece, but instead had always been a partial representation composed of a mixed assembly of some of Greece’s oldest tribes, more recent poleis, occasional Macedonian rulers and the Aetolians, and nearly always been dominated by cities and states from northern Greece. Nevertheless Augustus, and the Romans more generally, seem to have understood the Amphictyony, in the Roman writer Pliny’s words, “as the general council of Greece.”5 Such a view not only helps us understand why Augustus was so keen to ensure his new city had a voice in this “general council,” but also to understand why the Romans—over the next centuries—would pay it so much attention when interacting with the province. Delphi, and its governing Amphictyony, had—in Roman eyes—a role it had never had at any point during its already long existence. Indeed, rather than Delphi occupying a meager role in Imperial history, thanks in part to the Roman confusion over Delphic and Amphictyonic history, the sanctuary was set to play a much bigger role than even the Delphian authorities could have hoped for or anticipated. Delphi, thanks to a Roman misunderstanding, was to have greatness thrust upon it.

Despite the continuing and increasing importance in what was now a much bigger world, however, there is no getting away from the fact that, especially in comparison to its active centrality in centuries past, Delphi was no longer quite the place it had been. It is telling that in the first centuryAD Delphi stopped paying performers who had been hired to entertain the crowds at its festivals in between the sacred athletic and musical competitions in cash, and rewarded them only with civic honors and titles. This was now a Delphi relying on its cultural worth rather than its financial muscle (much like the rest of Greece in this period). So keen perhaps were the Delphians to ensure that those receiving these new honors did not realize the change or feel cheated by it, they seem to have erased the mention of fees paid to performers in inscriptions already set up in the sanctuary. Polygnota, who had been paid to perform during the difficult Pythian festival of 86 BC in the midst of Sullan robbery and barbarian invasion, for example, had her fee erased in the inscription testifying to her performance, as did Antipatrus of Eleuthernai, who had been similarly paid for his playing of the water organ during the Pythian festival in 90 BC.6

At the same time, the list of dedications at Delphi from the first century AD makes rather sad reading. The overwhelming majority are from Delphians or the Amphictyony, the two communities with a direct connection to (and interest in) the sanctuary. Yet neither of them seems to have put up a statue to Augustus. It is perhaps more than a little surprising that this latter was done instead by one of the exceptional “outsider” dedicators of this period, who had made an active effort to incorporate their honoring of Augustus into their relationship with Delphi: the city of Athens, who erected a herm in honor of the emperor in the Apollo sanctuary.7

We know relatively little about life at Delphi under the first Emperors. In AD 15 the Emperor Tiberius, who maintained Augustan interest in the Olympics by participating in the equestrian races, took the province of Achaea away from the Senate and made it an Imperial province under the control of the legatus of the northern province of Moesia, only for it to be restored again to the Senate by Claudius (AD 51–54) as part of his show of respect for the Senate and Augustan ancestral ways.8 At the same time, the city of Delphi and the Amphictyony seem to have fallen into a pattern of honoring the emperor, which mirrors most towns around the empire. Both the city and the Amphictyony, for example, put up statues of Tiberius in the Apollo sanctuary, and the Amphictyony also put up a statue to the grand matriarch related to Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero: Agrippina Major.9 At the same time, the city of Delphi seems to have embraced both Augustus’s new epimeletai (his overseers attached to the Amphictyony), and Tiberius’s choice of governor relatively quickly. The city put up a statue in honor of Poppaeus Sabinus, the governor, with an accompanying inscription in which they honored him for “saving the Greeks.” And they put up a statue of Theocles—the first of the epimeletai whose name survives to us (from the reign of Tiberius AD 14–37)—in the sanctuary while he was in the post, and then another after he retired. It is not without irony (or indeed design) that Theocles was son of Eudamus of Nicopolis, Augustus’s new city, only recently itself a member of the Amphictyony, and that the link between Nicopolis and the epimeletai would continue all the way through to the end of the second century AD. The very last of the epimeletai we can identify in the surviving records is M. Aurelius Niciadas, from none other than Augustus’s city of Nicopolis.10

The Emperor Caligula (AD 37–41) was even more honored with statues, this time not only by the Amphictyony (who also put up a statue of his sister Drusilla), but also by a koinon (a “community alliance”) of Achaeans, Boeotians, Locrians, Phocians, and Euboeans, who must have felt Delphi was the appropriate place for such a gesture.11 Yet it was under Claudius, who had returned Greece to the control of the Senate, that we first see sustained interest by the emperor in Delphi itself. A series of measures seems to have been undertaken by the senior Roman administrator, L. Iunius Gallio, at the emperor’s instigation, to help repopulate the town surrounding the sanctuary and restore its former territory. Claudius himself, in the spirit of the Roman generals and the senators who had written to Delphi during the second and first centuries BC, wrote about these measures in an open letter to Delphi, marking the beginning of an almost unbroken chain of correspondence between Delphi and the emperor from the time of Claudius right through to the rule of Gallienus in the second half of the third century AD. This correspondence with Claudius—after the splendid isolation of Delphi during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula—clearly meant a lot to the Delphians. It was inscribed publicly in the sanctuary, not just anywhere, but rather as part of the first set of correspondence inscribed on the western end of the south wall of the temple of Apollo (see plate 2).12 Previously reserved for the records of the most serious moments in Delphic civic history, it now became the place for demonstrating the connection between Delphi and the emperor, not least because it was one of the most visible corners of the temple to visitors. Delphi was once again making sure that any greatness thrust upon it was as conspicuous as it could be.

Claudius seems to have been seen, particularly by the Delphians, as something of a heroic refounder of the sanctuary and city, not least because he had planned the city’s repopulation and helped bolster its reputation as a place of importance even for the emperor. That gratitude is most evident in terms of dedications within the sanctuary. While no evidence for a statue of Claudius erected by the Amphictyony has survived, he was most certainly honored by the city of Delphi with a plethora of statues (including one set up 150 years after his reign). This makes sense: it was, after all, the city that benefited most from Claudius’s patronage. Claudius, in response perhaps to the city’s worship, even seems to have taken on the position of eponymous archon (chief magistrate) in the city, and by so doing he became the first Roman emperor to hold an honorific magistracy in Greece.13 The city of Delphi had managed to secure its own greatness and renown by attracting, involving, and holding onto Imperial attention and interest.

It is perhaps to this period, too, that we should date something of a reshuffle and revival in Delphic organization and fortune. New officials, like the “secretary of the archives,” were appointed. The inscribed records of honors given out by the city of Delphi in this period also show Delphi once again playing to a much wider, more international and cosmopolitan field, especially courting those who were stars of the stadium or the theater. It was in this period, too, that the theater at Delphi seems to have been embellished with a new frieze representing a series of mythical events (seeplate 2). And perhaps most innovative of all, it is in this period that the first records appear of women competing, not in their own separate games, but on a par with the men in the same competitions. In the 40s AD, a surviving inscription attests that a woman called Tryphosa had victories in the running races at Delphi and Isthmia, the “first of maidens to do so.”14

The arrival of the Emperor Nero to the throne, and subsequently in Greece, and indeed, at Delphi after AD 54, must have been something of a shock for the sanctuary and its citizens, not least because he was most probably the first emperor actually to visit Delphi. Nero’s desire, many have argued, was to achieve the status of a periodonikes (a victor in at least four of the six “Panhellenic” festivals). To that end, he began a tour of Greece, during which, he entered competitions at several of the Greek periodos games, inevitably winning, even in contests that were specially inserted into the competitions just for him. At the end of his tour of Greece, in a speech at Corinth on 28 November AD 67, Nero is reported to have declared the freedom of Achaea from financial tribute to Rome. It was an action, which was said later by Plutarch to have won Nero a reprieve when being judged for his other harsh actions in the underworld, but was, in the world of the living, quickly revoked by his successor Vespasian in AD 69.15

At Delphi, Nero had been honored with a statue of himself by the Amphictyony in the sanctuary in the first year of his reign, and his mother, Agrippina Minor (who had been the fourth wife of Claudius) was similarly honored with a statue by the city of Delphi. The Amphictyony’s move to honor Nero seems to have paid off, as he reorganized the Amphictyony, returning it to its “ancestral order,” in particular giving the presidency and a majority of seats back to the Thessalians. On his visit to the sanctuary, Nero entered the athletic and musical competitions at the Pythian festival, and, not surprisingly, won. He was also said to have consulted the oracle. The Pythia’s response, according to later sources, was said to have warned Nero to beware the seventy-third year. In return for this oracular advice, Nero gave ten thousand sesterces to the sanctuary, probably the largest sum given for an oracular consultation since King Croesus of Lydia had showered the sanctuary with gifts in return for his oracle responses in the sixth century BC. And just as that response had not turned out to be so straightforward (or indeed positive) for Croesus, so it was to be with Nero and, in part, for Delphi. It was not Nero’s seventy-third year that turned out to be the difficulty. Rather it was his rival’s, Galba’s, who, in his seventy-third year, revolted against Nero and became his successor. Once again, it seems, the oracle’s ambiguous response to Nero had been “proved” right. But any increase in the oracle’s reputation must have been marred by the fact that Galba also reclaimed for Rome the ten thousand sesterces originally given by Nero to Delphi.16

Yet whatever Nero had given (or tried to give) with one hand, he had taken away with the other. He sent veteran soldiers to live on the Cirrha plain, on what had been for centuries land sacred to the god Apollo. He also took, according to Pliny, some five hundred statues from the sanctuary at Delphi to adorn his Golden House in Rome. In some cases this action simply led to the removal of dedications from the sanctuary altogether—as if they had never been there. In others, it left a forlorn reminder of the removal and a confused, if not meaningless, role for the remainder. Nero, for example, was said to have taken a shine to one of the statues from the group of Scylla and Hydna, dedicated by the Amphictyony after the sea victory against the Persians at Artemisium in 480 BC. Now, over five hundred years later, Nero chose to remove the statue of one of these mythological heroines, leaving the other behind.17 The damnatio memoriae that took place after Nero’s death only placed emphasis more strongly on the negative aspects of Nero’s interaction with Delphi. Later sources speak of a further series of oracular responses to Nero: that the oracle had told Nero it would prefer some poor man’s meager offerings to the emperor’s lavish gifts, and that it had alluded to Nero’s murdering of his own mother (whose statue stood in the sanctuary) by saying “Nero, Orestes, Alcmaeon, all murderers of their mothers.” In response, according to these later sources, Nero’s uncontrolled fury led him to attempt to block the mouth of the cave (from which vapors emerged to inspire the Pythia) with the bodies of slaughtered men.18

Delphi fell into a lapse again after Nero’s self-serving (or victimizing) attentions, symbolized more broadly by the reyoking of Greece to the Roman cart following Vespasian’s reversal of Nero’s declaration of freedom. In fact, scholars have pointed out that Nero’s desire to compete in Greek games was unusual not least because he was one of very few ethnic Romans (as opposed to Greeks under Rome or who were given Roman citizenship) who chose to compete at Delphi. Most ethnic Romans who chose to compete in Greek games (and there were never many) chose Olympia rather than Delphi. Delphi’s games—though continuing in their popularity—were popular, it seems, only with the inhabitants of the wider Greek world, not its Roman masters.19

Yet Delphi’s isolation did not continue for long. The Emperor Titus, who came to power in AD 79, followed in Claudius’s footsteps and became the eponymous archon of the city of Delphi, for which he too seems to have received a statue from the city of Delphi in the sanctuary. This “seems” qualification is necessary because many scholars disagree over whether this statue is of Titus, or of his successor, Domitian, who also held the archonship at Delphi. The latter’s investment in the sanctuary has long been recognized. Indeed it is unavoidable. A gigantic inscription, measuring 4.75 meters by 0.65 meters, etched into stone plaques, has been found at Delphi. It can be dated to between 6 January and 13 September AD 84, and testifies to Domitian’s undertaking of the refurbishment of the temple of Apollo at his own expense (the restored inscription can be seen in the Delphi museum today). Scholars are undecided whether this inscription was placed upon the eastern architrave of the temple, or set up on the ground by the temple. There has also been recent significant debate about exactly what refurbishments Domitian undertook. Traditionally, they have been thought to be those needed for well over one hundred years, since the temple of Apollo was damaged during the barbarian raids on Delphi in 84 BC. Yet, more recently, the argument has been made that the damage Domitian undertook to repair was caused more recently, perhaps during the earthquake that struck Greece in AD 77 and which, we know, caused significant damage at Corinth. It is, however, telling that at least one of the plaques onto which the inscription was placed had a series of older inscriptions on the reverse side. The plaques had, it seems, been appropriated from a former dedication thought by some to be the Cnidian treasury originally built in the sixth century BC (see plate 2), which, by this period, may well have fallen into disrepair and thus been seen as a convenient source of material. Domitian may well have restored the temple, but he made his motivations clear, it seems, by taking material from monuments he chose not to restore.20

Both Titus’s and Domitian’s reengagement with Delphi may have been part of a bigger picture of a return to more earnest ancestral religious observance as a result of a string of the disasters that befell Rome and Italy: there had been fire and an outbreak of plague in Rome in AD 80, and Pompeii and Herculaneum had been destroyed by Vesuvius in AD 79. Furthermore, Domitian’s interest in the sanctuary did not end with the restoration of the temple. He was involved in the sacred procession festival between Athens and Delphi, renamed the Dodekais, as indicated earlier, to honor Augustus in the last years of the first century BC. He engaged in correspondence with the city of Delphi when they asked him about the organization of the Pythian festival, and his response belies something of the importance he attached to traditional religious observance: “it is naturally right and pious to keep to the appointed time of the Pythian contest in accordance with the Amphictyonic laws and not to tamper with any part of the ancestral customs.” This letter, like all Imperial letters, was inscribed publicly at Delphi, and in AD 86, it seems Domitian introduced the Capitoline games to Rome, which were themselves based on the model of the Pythian games at Delphi.21

Yet, at the same time as he likely imported the Delphic model to Rome, his influence at Delphi seems to have started a process of returning the Delphic games to Greek control. Since the time of Augustus, alongside the introduction of an emperor’s overseer (the epimeletai) attached to the Amphictyony, it is indicated that the position of an agonothetes (president of the games) was created. Yet it was during and after the time of Domitian that this role began more regularly to be filled by Greeks, and particularly citizens of Hypata, chief city of the Ainianians (part of Thessaly). This coincided also, from the time of the Flavian dynasty onward (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian), with the appointment of more and more Delphians as epimeletai.22 Delphi, under the Flavians, is reputed to not only have been physically restored, engaged with, and encouraged to uphold its ancestral customs, but also to have had its games actively copied in Rome, and their organization and management restored to more local groups.

Domitian was also likely honored with a statue erected alongside the temple he restored (and that mirrored in style and placement the monument of Aemilius Paullus from 168 BC) as well as perhaps with a second statue set into a niche created in the northern wall of the Apollo terrace (see fig. 1.3).23 Perhaps this gratitude was more well deserved than we have already recognized. Delphi itself also seems to have been the beneficiary of much other new construction during Domitian’s reign and in the period immediately afterward. The gymnasium, for example, was given a new bathhouse in the later first century AD/early second century AD; a library and a dining room were added to the gymnasium complex under the auspices of the epimelete Tiberius Flavius Soclarus, and the covered running track (the xystos) was also given a new colonnade (see fig. 7.3). Too, just outside the sanctuary of Apollo, along its eastern boundary wall, a large house was erected at the end of the first century AD, 100 square meters, with an ionic colonnaded courtyard at its center. Known as the “peristyle house,” it has been interpreted as either the new home of the Pythian prietess (we know from inscriptions that the epimelete of the period, Tiberius Flavius Soclarus, built a new home for the Pythia), or as the new prytaneion council house for the city of Delphi (see the “Roman house” in plate 2).24

The end of the first century and beginning of the second century AD were an important time for Delphi. The writer and orator Dio Chrysostom (Dio “the golden-mouthed”), while in an exile forced on him by Domitian for his overzealous support of the emperor’s rivals, visited the sanctuary and undertook a consultation of the oracle in the period AD 82–96. The Emperor Nerva, who would eventually end Dio’s exile, received a statue from the city of Delphi, as did Trajan from the Amphictyony, and several other dedications by the Amphictyony and the city of Delphi suggest the sanctuary was both well plugged in to the wider political world, and the beneficiary of a number of visitors, especially its games. The Amphictyony honored the proconsul of Asia, T. Avidius Quietus, with a statue in AD 91–92, and the city of Delphi honored his successor Caristanius Julianus in the same way in AD 99.25 The Amphictyony honored an agonothete from the city of Nicopolis (who just happened to be a member of the Amphictyonic council as well), and the city of Delphi also honored the wife of one of the epimeletes in this period, as well as two of the Greek-born (Hypatian) agonothetes and a grammarian. But Delphi also attracted new dedicators in this period. The city of Gortyn made their only dedication at Delphi in the sanctuary’s history around AD 100: to commemorate a victor in the Pythian aulos competition from their city. In addition, Hypata, whose citizens were increasingly involved with the games as agonothetes, offered a statue of Trajan in the sanctuary, and a group of sophists dedicated a set of statues to different individuals at Delphi at the same time. And in the early second century AD, a certain Memmia Lupa, seems to have made a large enough contribution to the sanctuary to receive no less than ten reserved seats in Delphi’s theater, each inscribed with her name, as well as a statue in her honor (see plate 2).26

The Emperor Trajan responded to a number of Delphic letters during his reign, including accepting their request for him to reconfirm Delphi’s status as an independent city and sanctuary during his reign. Yet he also seems to have been responsible for sending in a series of financial administrators to ensure the books were balanced.27 At Delphi, this cor-rector, as he was known, was C. Avidius Nigrinus, and in AD 116–17, he, according to inscriptions engraved onto the temple of Apollo, arbitrated yet another series of disputes over land boundaries between Delphi and Ambryssus, Amphissa, and Anticyra, with the resulting decisions inscribed in both Latin and Greek.28 Nigrinus however seemed to have fallen foul of the new emperor, Hadrian, soon after he came to power in AD117: he was executed on a charge of conspiracy.29

Yet Nigrinus is not the only individual we know of at Delphi from this period. Much better known, in fact, is Plutarch, son of Autobulus, from the city of Chaeronea, not far from Delphi, and famous for being the site of a series of decisive battles in Greek history. It was where Philip of Macedon won hegemony over the Greeks by beating the Athenians and Thebans in 338 BC; and the place in which the Roman general Sulla defeated Mithridates in 86 BC. The inhabitants of both Delphi and Chaeronea were often close friends. Plutarch’s grandfather Lamprias had been good friends with a doctor called Philotas, who had settled and practiced in Delphi, and an inscription was even set up at Delphi during the first century AD to commemorate the homonoia (the “equality”) between the two cities. Plutarch himself was born in AD 47 and later became a Roman citizen, thanks to being recommended for the honor to Trajan by his close friend the Roman L. Mestrius Florus, from which Plutarch took his Roman name: Mestrius Plutarchus. Plutarch was well educated and traveled extensively across Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Italy, and his philosophy and learning was widely respected. He was well connected to powerful men in both the Greek and Roman worlds: he was friends with Sosius Senecio, a friend of the Emperor Trajan and consul in AD 99, 102, and 107; and he was also friends with the son of Plutarch’s brother, who became a stoic philosopher and was a tutor to the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius.30

Yet Plutarch is especially important for our story because he spent a great deal of time at Delphi. Though there is no evidence that he possessed a house or land in the city, we can first place him there at the time of Nero’s visit to Greece, when he visited the sanctuary in the company of his brother. From that time on, Plutarch seems to have taken a keen interest in Delphi, and throughout the rest of his career worked in a series of important civic and religious roles in the city and its sanctuary: he was an agonothetes, aproedros of the Amphictyonic council, as well as an epimeletes of the Amphictyony, and even, in very old age, he was procurator of Greece. He became a citizen at Delphi, and was a priest of Apollo at the sanctuary at the time of the arrival of Trajan’s corrector, Nigrinus, with whom Plutarch became friends (indeed he dedicated one of his philosophical writings, on the subject of brotherly love, to Nigrinus). And following his death in AD 120, just after Hadrian became emperor, he was honored by both Chaeronea and Delphi with a portrait bust in the sanctuary (fig. 10.1).31

Yet Plutarch is even more important for our story because, in addition to being a well-connected and active member of the Delphic community, he was also a great writer, publishing two weighty tomes known collectively as the Moralia and the Parallel Lives. The Lives is a series of individual biographies that paired particularly important Greeks and Romans because of their similar characteristics or achievements. It was a masterwork of historical and psychological analysis drawing on a wide range of previous sources, and has often provided critical insight for modern scholarship, not least for our understanding of Delphi as a place many of his personages passed through or impacted.32

His Moralia, however, is, for our understanding of Delphi at least, perhaps an even more precious survival. It is composed of sixty or so individual treatises on a wide range of subjects from religion to philosophy, ethical matters, politics, science, and literary criticism, some of which are responses to official requests and others notes of his philosophical dinner conversations at his home in Chaeronea and those of his friends. Within this sprawling feast of intellectual abundance lie three treatises explicitly located at, and concerned with, Delphi. All seem to have been written before Plutarch became priest of Apollo (circa AD 95) and were sent by Plutarch as a first installment of his musing over Delphi to Sarapion, a poet living in Athens who wrote verse on scientific subjects.33 The first is a discussion of the meaning of the mysterious letter “E,” one of the philosophical maxims attached to the pronaos of the temple (which, as indicated above, Augustus’s wife, Livia, as Plutarch tells us, replaced with a version in gold).34 The text takes the form of a discussion, at first initiated by Plutarch’s son in conversation with strangers at Delphi and later with Plutarch, who, in turn relates a previous discussion he had on the matter when he was a young man with his friends and a priest of Apollo, and which concludes, after offering several explanations motivated by logic, metaphysics, and mathematics, that there is no certain interpretation of the symbol.


Figure 10.1. Bust of a man of Delphi, often identified as Plutarch but now labeled simply as a philosopher type, dating to the second century AD (© EFA/Ph.Collet [Guide du musée chapter 2, fig. 101])

The second treatise concerns the issue of why the Pythian priestess no longer gives oracles in verse.35 Plutarch is not present in the discussion, which takes place just outside the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Instead, his friends meet, one of them having been on a tour of the sanctuary that included in the group a rather overzealous questioner from the city of Pergamon in Asia Minor. The tour discussion is repeated ranging over a series of issues including the particular color of bronze at Delphi (said to be affected by the unique quality of the air); reasons for the bad verse responses of the Pythia and particular statues and dedications within the sanctuary. The final treatise has been entitled “On the obsolescence of oracles” and also does not include Plutarch, but is a discussion once again among his friends in the sanctuary.36 The occasion for the discussion is the meeting at Delphi of Demetrius, who is at Delphi en route from Britain to Tarsus in Asia Minor; and Cleombrotus, who is en route to Sparta having come from the Red Sea. The discussion is once again far ranging—covering issues of spiritual inspiration, depopulation in Greece, Demetrius’s experiences in Britain—and ending with a discussion about how the Pythian priestess at Delphi is inspired.

These texts have been fundamental (as we have seen in earlier chapters) for our reconstruction of how the oracle at Delphi functioned, and particularly how it continued to function in Plutarch’s time at the end of the first century AD.37 Yet what I want to concentrate on here is how these texts are also fundamental in opening up for us a sense of how the sanctuary as a whole was engaged with, understood, and enjoyed by visitors and locals at the end of the first century AD. Most important, Plutarch’s dialogues show us that there were a steady stream of visitors to Delphi, and that Delphi still acted in some ways as the center of the world (the meeting point of a man coming from Britain and another from the Red Sea). There were enough people coming to Delphi to ensure the need for guides to lead tours, even if those guides are characterized by Plutarch as being fairly ignorant and unwilling to engage in serious philosophical discussion. The dialogues also show us that there was a huge range of interpretation over the practices of the sanctuary, and the many dedications that were on display there. Some visitors reacted with horror and disgust to dedications such as the iron spits offered by the prostitute Rhodopis, which had lain at Delphi since the sixth century BC; and others were mystified by the artistic and architectural choices made by dedicators, such as the island of Tenedos choosing axes as their symbol.38

What this opens up for us is a Delphi that has become a popular tourist location, a place in which to engage with history and memory as much as, if not more than, a place that was the focus of religious pilgrimage. This comes on the back of a, by now, long-standing tradition of texts written about the many magnificent dedications seen (or rather, not seen) at Delphi, starting with analyses by Theopompus in the fourth century BC and Anaxandridas at the beginning of the second century BC of those objects pillaged from Delphi, followed by more general discussions of Delphic treasures by Polemon of Ilion, Alcetas, Apollonius, Melisseus, and Apollas from the second century BC through the first century AD. The guides present at the sanctuary by the end of the first century AD seem to have had a set tour that always started with the Spartan monument to victory at Aegospotamoi (404 BC; see plate 2; fig. 6.2). Similarly, the presence of a number of small terra-cotta lamps from this period at the Corycian cave up above Delphi suggests that it too (see map 3, fig. 0.2), having fallen into decline as a place of religious observance by the end of second centuryBC, was reborn as a tourism venue, perhaps with lamps (which were discarded, or dedicated, there afterward) provided so that visitors could see into the depths of the cave.39 In short, Delphi, had begun to feel a little like the commercial theater it does today, where tours also often start with the Spartan monument for Aegospotamoi.

It is also through Plutarch, indeed sometimes only through Plutarch (although at other times combined with various epigraphic and literary sources), that we hear about many of the different festivals that made up the religious calendar at Delphi, and indeed the division of the Delphic year into the periods when Apollo and Dionysus were respective masters there. Some of the festivals had been celebrated for centuries, like the Pythian games, and some of them continued right through Delphi’s lifetime.40 Others were begun in response to special events and may have petered out in turn, like the Soteria, started in 279 BC, taken over by the Aetolians in the later third century BC, and, after their fall, by the time of Sulla in the first century BC, likely forgotten.41 Others were begun as the result of particular donations to the sanctuary, like the Eumeneia and Attaleia following donations from the Pergamon rulers, or the Alcesippeia on the back of a donation of Alcesippus of Calydon. Others reflected the current political climate: the Romaia was introduced following Rome’s victories in Greece after 189 BC, and the Sebasta seems to have been introduced at Delphi in honor of the Roman emperors, possibly linked to the conversion of the tholos in the Athena sanctuary into a temple of Roma and Augustus and the shrine for Imperial cult.42

These were, however, but a handful in the midst of a heavy festival calendar. Most months in the Delphic calendar had at least one annual festival celebration, many named after the month itself, like the Theoxenia in the month of Theoxenius (our February), which celebrated the return of Apollo to Delphi from the Hyperboreans and his resumption of mastership of the sanctuary. Others were conducted by only certain members of the Delphic priesthood, like the secret rites for Dionysus mentioned by Plutarch and conducted by the hosioi. When Apollo left Delphi each year in the winter, Plutarch tells us there was another ceremony in which the Thyades—young female worshipers of Dionysus, under the leadership of the Thyia, the priestess of Dionysus—“woke Licnites” (what this entailed we don’t known) and the hosioi made secret sacrifices to Dionysus.43

These were in addition to the festivals, which were celebrated every two, four, and eight years. We have already discussed the festival held every two years in honor of Dionysus, in which the Thyades of Delphi and Athens came together to revel in honor of the god in the Parnassian mountains. The Pythian games were famously held every four, and there were also at least three festival celebrations performed every eight years: the Septerion, the Herois, and the Charila. Little is known about the Herois, which seems to have involved once again a set of secret ceremonies known only by the priestess of Dionysus and involved worship of Semele, the god’s mother. In the Charila, for which Plutarch is our only source, the priest of Apollo distributed barley and pulses in front of the temple, received a doll from the priestess of Dionysus, struck it, and gave it back to the priestess who buried it in the mountains. In thus doing, this festival supposedly replayed a myth in which the local king dispersed grain during a time of famine but refused to give any to a small boy (Charila) who later hung himself, for which the city suffered plague and pestilence.44

The Septerion, however, celebrated Apollo’s victory over the Python serpent and was an elaborate affair. In the open space below the temple terrace (see plate 2), a wooden hut was constructed. A boy, chosen to represent Apollo, went to the wooden hut at night, with an escort, and they proceeded to burn down the hut and overturn nearby tables. The participants then turned and ran out of the sanctuary with the boy having to re-create Apollo’s supposed journey to the valley of Tempe in order to secure forgiveness for the murder of the serpent (see map 2). The boy eventually returned with gifts of laurel from Tempe, which was used later in the year, at the Pythian games, for crowns. Yet it is interesting to note that even regarding these established Delphic festivals, there was much dispute. Plutarch himself discusses doubts over the association of the ritual with the serpent, and that some thought the hut represented the palace of a king.45

All this points to a Delphi in the first decades of the second century AD poised on the brink of, if not a return to its former glory, then certainly a golden age of a different kind. While its oracle may not, as Plutarch’s dialogues make clear, have been functioning as it had in the past (and he famously comments that now only one priestess is needed rather than two or three), the sanctuary (and city) of Delphi was doing a good business as a place of cultural memory and history as well as of religious celebration, which placed it in good stead of having an unusually high degree of contact with, and attention from, the emperor.46 It had highly respected and well known individuals like Plutarch undertaking its important civic and religious positions. The city itself was relatively stable, with at least three well-respected and Romanized Delphic families exerting strong influence for much of the period, many of them, according to one surviving inscribed “dramatis personae” list, taking most of the important roles in the Septerion festival celebrations if not others.47 Moreover, in the fading years of Plutarch’s life, it fell to him to honor and welcome to Delphi an emperor whose love of Greek culture would lead to an even greater Delphic renaissance: Hadrian.

Such in my day are the objects remaining in Delphi
worth recording.

—Pausanias 10.32.2 (second century AD)

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