Some achieve greatness

The sun blows down from Parnassus
and unhinges the centre of the world.

—Salvatore Quasimodo, Delphi (translated by Richard Stoneman)



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 by King Croesus of Lydia along with the half-gold brick base on which it stood: four and a half of the twelve talents of gold the monument contained melted away never to be seen again.2

When the flames finally died away and the smoke cleared, the sanctuary was in a poor state. The temple must have been near ruin. Many of the sanctuary’s most extravagant metal dedications, which had been placed around the temple, especially from rich eastern dedicators, were destroyed: only two of Croesus’s offerings, the silver and gold amphora mixing bowls that had stood in front of the temple’s entrance, had been removed in time to save them. A sanctuary, which had increasingly been basking in the full focus of the ancient Mediterranean world, lay in tatters.

We don’t know for sure how the fire started. Herodotus is insistent that it was pure accident. The Greek word he used almost gives the sense that the temple caught fire of its own free will.3 Given the presence of the continually burning sacred fire inside, and the regular use of the larger altar outside for burning sacrificial offerings, it’s easy to see how such a fire may have been an accident. And we do know how Delphi, and its new ruling Amphictyony, responded: by building bigger and better than ever before. Out of the ashes of destruction, they created a sanctuary worthy of its reputation as the center of the world.

The Amphictyony seems to have taken charge of the rebuilding process (we can only imagine the chagrin this must have caused the inhabitants of the city of Delphi as their sanctuary was now rebuilt by an international committee). The upside, however, was a rebuilding program beyond their wildest dreams. What the Amphictyony envisaged was a construction scheme on a par with, if not surpassing, any that had been seen in Greece. Building a new temple was just the beginning. It was to be a bigger temple, which, because of the steep and treacherous mountainside on which Delphi was perched, required also the creation of a new, monumental, supporting terrace that could provide a sufficiently large, stable, flat surface on which to build. At the same time, the opportunity was taken to expand the size of the sanctuary yet again, to push out its (only recently created) boundary walls on all sides, perhaps to the chagrin of the inhabitants of Delphi, as it meant encroaching on what had been residential areas (see plate 2). What is more, even though we have no evidence to suggest the sanctuary of Athena, sitting below the Apollo sanctuary on the same cleft of the Parnassian mountains, had been damaged in the fire, the Amphictyony seems to have decided to expand that sanctuary too and build a new temple there as well (see plate 3).4

This was no mere patch-up of fire damage: out of Delphi’s fiery destruction would come a rebirth of the Apollo and Athena sanctuaries on a scale of size and grandeur never seen before. We should not underestimate the enormity of the project that the Amphictyony conceived of at Delphi in the mid-sixth century BC. Temple building was the largest and most complex economic and management project the Greek world undertook at this time. This project not only sought to build a bigger temple, but to do it on incredibly unstable and difficult ground, requiring every ounce of engineering knowledge the Greeks had at their disposal. And at the same time, they sought to build a second temple in the Athena sanctuary, as well as enlarge both sanctuaries with new, monumental, boundary walls. Every block of stone, every piece of timber, every rope and pulley, every chisel had to be dragged and carried up to the sanctuaries. The stone had to come either from the local quarries in the Parnassian mountains or from farther afield, arriving by land through the mountains, or by sea to the Itean plain and then carted six hundred meters above sea level to Delphi (see fig. 0.1).5 Working areas for the final cutting and shaping of the stone had to be created within and around the sanctuary, and the sanctuary itself became a building site for years. People with the necessary skills had to be found throughout Greece and the Mediterranean world, hired, and brought to Delphi, where they had to be accommodated. And, of course, all this had to be paid for.

For certain, Delphi had seen nothing like it in its history, and the Amphictyony had, almost certainly, never, as a council, undertaken a project on such a scale. It is arguable that the Greek world itself had never been party to such an undertaking, and that the Delphic rebuilding was fundamental to forcing the development not only of new skills in the Delphic and Amphictyonic communities (project management skills and alphabetic literacy, for example), but also the development of legal arrangements for building contracts and account keeping in Greece as a whole.6 It also forced the Amphictyony to become good at raising money. The ancient sources tell us that the estimated total cost for this rebuilding was three hundred talents, which is the approximate equivalent of 3,600,000 days’-worth of wages for an Athenian juryman, or 1,800,000 days’-worth of wages for a skilled hoplite soldier. The Amphictyony took responsibility for raising among its members 225 talents, leaving 75 talents (still 450,000 days’-worth of hoplite wages) to be raised by the city of Delphi itself. This was a tall order for a small city whose main income came from the business of the oracle, and it would have to be done by appealing to the wider Greek world for support; as such, it would be a huge test of Delphi’s popularity in and importance to the ancient Mediterranean community. The response to Delphi’s call for funding is thus fascinating. We don’t have the full picture of where the money came from, but we do know that Amasis, the pharaoh of Egypt, felt it important enough to contribute one thousand talents’-worth of alum—an Egyptian product highly valued in Greece—which could then be sold and the proceeds put into the restoration fund. To get a sense of the magnitude of this gift, the total contribution from Greeks living in Egypt came to twenty minas, one third of a single talent, which was itself thought to be very respectable.7

Raising such a huge amount of money, even with gifts like those of Amasis, must have taken a considerable amount of time. It is no surprise that, given also how complicated a building project this was, the construction of the new temples and sanctuary boundary walls was not completed until 506 BC, over forty years after the fire.8 On the one hand, this left Delphi as a building site for the second half of the sixth century BC. It has been argued that, as a result, dedicators keen to continue their relationship with Apollo during this period went elsewhere, particularly to the sanctuary of Apollo Ptoios not that far from Delphi. Apollo Ptoios saw a leap in dedications of kouroi statues in exactly this period, which faded away in the early years of the fifth century BC as Delphi came back online.9 Yet, on the other hand, this process of fund-raising and rebuilding ensured that, for the first time, all the Amphictyonic members, as well as the inhabitants of Delphi and the wide range of people they tapped for money from all over the Mediterranean world, now had a financial stake in the fabric of Delphi.

Even more interestingly, despite the initial impression that Delphi was out of action at this time, the truth seems to have been quite the opposite. In the second half of the sixth century BC, Delphi, for better or worse, was becoming more and more deeply involved with the politics of ancient Greece. The oracle, despite the fact that the temple from which the Pythia made her responses was in ruins and under reconstruction, continued to prophesize (we have no idea where or how). In part, the questions put to her were business as usual. Questions about the founding of new settlements continued to come to Delphi (e.g., Abdera in 544 BC, Cyrnos in 545 BC); tyrants continued to consult and were (later) recorded as being given the brush off: Polycrates of Samos consulted about whether his new festival on the sacred island of Delos should be called Delia or Pythia, and was told it didn’t matter (he died soon after). Equally important for Delphi’s continued success was that settlements with which Delphi had been involved at the time of their foundation continued to return to the oracle for advice. When Cyrene in Libya suffered political unrest in the second half of the sixth century, it consulted Delphi on how best to manage it, and was instructed to appoint a mediator, Demonax of Mantinea. A little later, King Archesilaus III of Cyrene, keen to reclaim complete control of Cyrene following the process of mediation, consulted Delphi on how best to do so and was told not to attempt to gain too much power. Ignoring the advice of the oracle, he was eventually assassinated.10

Indeed, scholars have noted an increasing boldness of oracular responses in this period (even allowing for their recalibration in later sources), borne out in the oracle’s response to the residents of the city of Cyme in Asia Minor, when they, just after the middle of the century, consulted as to whether or not they should hand over Pactyes, a man who had taken refuge in the city after having betrayed his Persian masters. The oracle is said to have replied that they should hand him over (because that’s what they wanted in reality to do), but that the city itself would be punished for having even considered asking the oracle about breaking such a fundamental rule of the rights of a refugee suppliant. Underlying this chastisement, however, is a sense of Delphi’s understanding of the changing balance of power in Asia Minor, and particularly the growing dominance of Persia after its defeat of Croesus of Lydia. Delphi, after all, told Cyme to give in to Persian demands even though it meant breaking a fundamental tenet of Greek society. Similarly, the oracle is recorded as responding to the Cnidians in Asia Minor, who consulted on how best to fight against the Persians (they planned to dig a canal through the landscape to make their city an island), that it would be best if they not resist.11

Delphi was thus, despite being a building site, still fundamentally active in the affairs of North Africa and Asia Minor in the second half of the sixth century BC. As well, it was consulted several times by settlements in the West during this period, particularly about public and private matters concerning the inhabitants of Croton in southern Italy.12 But it was Delphi’s involvement with the politics of mainland Greece that would be of crucial importance for its immediate future. More specifically, it would be Delphi’s involvement (and noninvolvement) with two rival aristocratic families in Athens that would define the political landscape not only in Athens, but also at Delphi and set the stage for future events.

The first of those families were the Alcmaeonids. Back in the late seventh century BC the would-be tyrant Cylon, having consulted (and misunderstood) the Delphic oracle on how to take control of Athens, had been killed by the Alcmaeonid family. However, after performing such a service for their city, the Alcmaeonids dragged him out from the sacred refuge of a temple to Athena, their family thereby cursed forever because they had not respected Cylon’s protected status while in the religious sanctuary. Despite this curse, however, the family continued to gain in wealth and importance. In the first half of the sixth century BC, Alcmaeon, had, it is claimed by Herodotus, helped the ambassadors of King Croesus of Lydia during their frequent trips to Delphi for consultation and dedication, and had gained great wealth as a result.13 His son, Megacles, married the daughter of Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon (who, too, was very active at Delphi). Their son, also called Cleisthenes, was the famous Cleisthenes of Athens, who would eventually be fundamental in founding democracy in that city at the end of the sixth century.

Yet for most of the second half of the sixth century, the position of the Alcmaeonid family at Athens was far some stable, thanks to the emergence of another powerful family in Athens, the Peisistratids. Peisistratus, the head of this family, emerged in Athens as a powerful commander in the 570s and 560s. In time, he challenged the traditional power blocs in Athens (the “men of the coast” led by Megacles the Alcmaeonid and the “men of the plain” led by Lycurgus) by creating and harnessing the loyalty of a third group, the “men over the hills.” His attempt at taking tyrannical power over Athens in the late 560s eventually ended in his exile. But in 556 BC he returned and married the daughter of Megacles the Alcmaeonid. This time, through trickery (according to Herodotus) or popular support (according to Aristotle), Peisistratus achieved tyrannical power over Athens.14 The result of his ascension to power seems to have been the exile of the Alcmaeonid family (on the grounds of the curse that still hung over them from the seventh century BC), thus conveniently ridding himself of powerful political opponents.

In later times, the Alcmaeonids often claimed they were exiled from Athens for most of the rest of the sixth century BC (a claim important to their eventual antityrannical and pro-democratic credentials). But the inscriptional evidence demonstrates without doubt that their exile was much patchier than that: in 525/4 BC we know that Cleisthenes held the important civic position of eponymous archon in Athens (only possible with Peisistratus’s favor).15 Yet, despite their on-off appearances in Athens, the Alcmaeonids were also increasingly present at Delphi and the surrounding area in the middle and second half of the sixth century BC. In the early days of Peisistratus’s tyranny, Herodotus reports that the Delphic oracle responded to the Dolonchi of the Chersonesus (near the Hellespont in the northeastern Aegean), who had asked a question about being hard-pressed in war, that they should persuade the first man who gave them hospitality to found a colony among them. That man turned out to be Miltiades the Elder, a member of the Alcmaeonids, who had been “disgruntled” with Peisistratus’s tyranny. And in the 540s, BC, the early days of the Alcmaeonid exile, the brother of Megacles dedicated a victory monument for their win in a chariot victory (in Athens) at the sanctuary of Apollo Ptoios.16

Most crucially, however, it has long been argued that, during the second half of the sixth century BC, the Alcmaeonids increasingly built up their influence at Delphi. This picture of their influence is partly based on an argument from silence: Delphi never has anything to do with Peisistratus. Given Delphi’s involvement with tyrants across Greece, the complete absence of any oracle to do with Peisistratus (for or against him) is surprising. More noteworthy is that even though Peisistratus was a great builder and founder of important events in Athens, he did not dedicate a single offering at Delphi. Indeed, he even founded (what many think was a rival) cult of Apollo Pythios in Athens, which would be continued and enlarged by his descendants who also ruled as tyrants. Moreover, according to some late sources, Peisistratus may have hated Delphi so much that he himself engineered the fire that burned the temple of Apollo to the ground in 548 BC.17

Yet the most positive proof of Alcmaeonid influence at Delphi comes in the last quarter of the sixth century. In 514 BC the new temple still lay uncompleted. The long process of securing the money, and then undertaking such a complex working project, had seemingly come to a halt, with the initial contractors responsible for the temple unable to finish the job. In 514 BC the Alcmaeonids stepped in and were awarded the contract to finish the temple.18 This they did, according to Herodotus, not only completing it as required by 506 BC, but indeed going beyond their contract and paying themselves to adorn the east end of the temple (that facing toward the altar) in Parian marble rather than the prescribed poros limestone (fig. 5.1).19 This was a grand gesture—the procuring, shipping, and sculpting of Parian marble was not a cheap undertaking.

Alcmaeonid largess toward Delphi came at the same time as the Athenians were becoming more and more resentful of the Peisistratid tyranny over their city and particularly their current tyrant, a descendent of Peisistratus, called Hippias. And it was also at this time that Herodotus records how the Spartans, every time they came to consult the oracle at Delphi on any matter, were told by the Pythian priestess that, before they did anything else, they must free Athens.20 Alcmaeonid generosity had coincided with the Pythia’s active support for regime change in Athens, a change that could not but benefit the Alcmaeonids. Is this a case of coincidence or the first attested case of bribery of the oracle at Delphi?

It is irresistible to think that Alcmaeonid beneficence did indeed incline the Pythia toward ensuring Spartan help to “free” Athens from the tyranny of the Peisistratids, even if the Pythia’s intervention was only the cherry atop a much longer-lasting series of negotiations between the Spartans and the Alcmaeonids, and something that, thanks to the increasing importance and potential of Sparta’s own political network in the Peloponnese by the last quarter of the sixth century BC, was actually rather attractive to the Spartans themselves. But “freeing” Athens was no easy task: it took four separate campaigns by the Spartans to achieve Hippias’s removal.21 As a result, however, Delphi, more than ever, became an integral player in Athenian and Spartan politics and relations.


Figure 5.1. A reconstruction of the east front of the sixth century temple of Apollo in the Apollo sanctuary at Delphi, with Apollo’s arrival via chariot at Delphi represented in the pedimental sculpture (© EFA [Plate xxii Lacoste/Courby FD II Terrasse du Temple 1920–29])

But while Delphi had become an integral part of the cut and thrust of Athenian politics, and Athenian/Spartan relations, how had Delphi itself been transformed? A visitor to Delphi in 506 BC, at the time of the completion of the temple, would have been hard-pressed to recognize the sacred complex in relation to what it looked like before the fire. In the Apollo sanctuary a gigantic terracing wall had been created to ensure a solid flat foundation for the new temple (see plate 2), and this wall towered over the sanctuary; it is known as the polygonal wall because this was the shape of the blocks of stone that composed it. Such a shape was preferred because the Greeks understood that such blocks would give the wall greater strength than square ones (polygonal-shaped blocks lock together in more complex ways). This new terrace also destroyed and swallowed up many of the old, unidentified structures (often associated with the cult of Gaia) that had surrounded the earlier temple, many of which had been built in the period 580–548 BC (seefig. 3.2).22

On top of this massive new terrace, a new temple was laid out, resplendent in Parian marble at its eastern end with entirely new pedimental sculpture at both east and west. Carved on the western end was a scene of Gigantomachy—the gods fighting the giants; and on the eastern side, the arrival of Apollo in a horse-drawn chariot (fig. 5.1). It has long been debated whether this should be seen as Apollo’s arrival from the Hyperboreans as he returned to Delphi each year, or, more specifically, Apollo’s arrival from Athens, surrounded by Athenians and welcomed by citizens of Delphi. If the latter, then the Athenians, or more specifically the Alcmaeonids, had successfully placed Athens at the very heart of Delphi’s story and cemented their own special relationship with Apollo, in a temple they had completed and that would remain standing for over one hundred years.23

Those responsible for the rebuilding chose carefully: archaeologists have noted that blocks of stone from the pre-548 BC temple (built just after the First Sacred War) were often reused, but only in the “official” new temple complex: the temple, its polygonal wall and associated water conduits. And material from the old sanctuary boundary walls was also utilized to create the Apollo sanctuary’s new perimeter walls, expanded to the south, east, and west by an exact 13.25 meters to create a perimeter some 3 kilometers long (making the Apollo sanctuary alone equivalent in size to a small polis, see plate 1). A new, major entrance to the sanctuary was created in the southeast, at the bottom of what would become the Apollo sanctuary’s sacred way, and followed today by visitors to the site (see plate 2, fig. 0.1). But we should not be led into thinking that the sacred way itself was laid out at this time. In fact, the path taken today is a creation of the last phase of Delphi’s ancient existence in the fifth–sixth centuries AD (see later chapters).24 In the late sixth century BC, in contrast, while the sanctuary’s major entrance was where it is today in the southeast area, there were several other entryways in the new boundary walls at each of the terracing levels of the sanctuary, with short staircases and pathways leading between these terraces inside the sanctuary (see plate 2). Rather than only one path of movement, we thus need to imagine a more complex sequence of movement in and around the Apollo sanctuary for much of its history, allowing visitors more flexibility to engage with and admire the increasing number of monuments that filled it.25

Attention was also paid in this period to the Athena sanctuary, which, despite being undamaged by the fire, perhaps represented the Amphictyony’s first attempt to exercise control over this sanctuary as well as Apollo’s. The Athena sanctuary’s boundary walls were expanded and rebuilt to treble the size of the sanctuary, incorporating what were probably unofficial cult locations to several other deities, including Artemis (see plate 3). A monumental entrance to this newly expanded sanctuary was added in its northeast corner and may have doubled as the official entrance to the Delphic polis (see plate 1). A new temple to Athena was built, and a carbon copy of the pedimental sculpture from the new Apollo temple was probably given to it.26 As a result, Delphi grew in international appeal during this period, and seems also to have expanded not only the number of gods within it, but also the respect with which they were worshiped.

It is almost impossible to map this landscape of divine worship at Delphi with any precise detail, even less to give it a solid chronology. But it is crucial to realize that, by the end of the sixth century BC, and increasingly rapidly from then on throughout Delphi’s long history, Delphi was home to the worship of a large number of gods, goddesses, demigods, and heroes. Alongside Apollo Pythios, Athena Pronaia, Artemis, Dionysus, and Poseidon, inscriptions attest to the worship in and around the Apollo and Athena sanctuaries (as well as at the port of Cirrha, which served Delphi, and in the Corycian cave) of Hermes, Gaia and the Muses, Zeus Machaneus (the artisan), Moiragetus (the master of fate), Polieus (the protector of the city), Soter (the savior), Athena Ergone (the workman), Zosteria (the warrior), Artemis Eucleia (of marriage), Leto, Aphrodite Epiteleia (of birthing), Harmonia (of harmony), Epitymbia (goddess of tombs), Demeter Hermouchus (the carrier of Hermes), Amphictionis (of the Amphictyony), Core, Asclepius, Hygaia, Eileithyia, the Dioscuri, Pan, the Nymphs, the Thries (the nymphs of Parnassus), and, later, Roma.27 In addition to this is the attested worship of a host of demigods, personifications and heroes developed over Delphi’s history: Heracles, Delphus, Castalius, Parnassus, Amphiction, Phylacus, Neoptolemus, Aigle (the cult of the winds), and a later Imperial cult dedicated to Antinous Propylaius (Guardian of the Gates).28 Delphi, as it grew in international appeal, was a place of worship for a relative pantheon of divinities and heroes, reflecting not only its own history and focus, but also that of those who went there. Over the following chapters, we will examine some of the known occasions when these different divinities and heroes came to the fore of Delphic history. In addition, the many festivals associated with them, and that created a packed sacrificial calendar for the city of Delphi (it was a well-known joke in ancient Greece that Delphians always had a sacrificial knife in their hands), will be examined in the context of the time period in which the evidence for their existence derives (most of which comes from the writings of Plutarch in the first century AD).29

What happened to those wanting to dedicate monuments in these sanctuaries during this period of rebirth and expansion? Some, as we have seen, may have rerouted to other nearby sanctuaries, like that of Apollo Ptoios. But many seem to have recognized the opportunity this rebuilding presented. In the Athena sanctuary, the Massalians, from the Greek colony at modern-day Marseilles, used the remnants of the old boundary wall in the Athena sanctuary, along with bits of the old Athena temple, as “ready-made” foundation material for a new treasury building (see plate 3). It was a fascinatingly cosmopolitan structure: Delphi’s most western dedicator building an Ionic, eastern-style, treasury at the center of the ancient world, perhaps reflecting the eastern origins of its settlement founders (the Phocaeans), as well as perhaps commemorating a recent Massalian battle victory over the Carthaginians.30

In the Apollo sanctuary as well, many dedicators seem to have taken the opportunity of the concentration of workmen, materials, and the remnants of the now-discarded old boundary wall to offer treasury structures that would gain height (and thus visibility) by using the out-grown boundary wall as their foundation. And in the last quarter of the century, as the building of the new perimeter walls and the new temple really got under way, two dedicators seem to have bitten the bullet and moved into the newly acquired, expanded space of the Apollo sanctuary. The first were longtime users of Delphi: the Sicyonians. The tyrant of Sicyon, fully involved in the First Sacred War, and responsible for the unique tholos and monopteros dedications in the sanctuary in the first half of the sixth century BC, was gone. As the new temple terrace expanded, his old dedications faced destruction, and so an extraordinary decision seems to have been made. Once dedicated in a sanctuary, each offering belonged to the god; it could not, thus, simply be removed. But it could be used for a different purpose. The Sicyonian people, surely in conjunction with those masterminding the rebuilding at Delphi, thus decided to take down both of its former tyrant’s buildings piece by piece and pack every bit of both structures into the foundations of a new treasury structure, which was placed up against the sanctuary’s new perimeter walls (see plate 2) and faced the new sanctuary entrance in the southeast corner31

Just to the west, in line with the new Sicyonian treasury up against the sanctuary’s new perimeter walls, was the offering of a dedicator new to Delphi. The tiny island of Siphnos in the Aegean, with a population of perhaps two to three thousand people, had, according to Herodotus, recently discovered silver-and gold mines on their island. To begin with, they divided the revenues among themselves. But by 525 BC, they had created a community fund. With a percentage of the profits, this get-rich-quick, nouveau riche island community that had never had any impact on the Greek world stage, launched a program to build the most lavish treasury structure Delphi had ever seen (see plate 2, fig. 5.2). It shipped marble from Siphnos to construct the treasury walls. The Siphnians used the Greek world’s finest Parian and Naxian marble for the treasury’s frieze and pedimental sculpture (because Siphnian marble was too brittle to carve in small detail). They used caryatid (female-figured) columns for their entrance. In the frieze, at the north of the building alongside which visitors would most often pass, they copied the new temple’s pedimental sculpture and carved a Gigantomachy scene in exquisite relief (fig. 5.3). We know they had an eye for showing off to the visitor because the frieze on the other side of the building, which could only be seen from farther away, was not finished in anything like such detail as was the Gigantomachy. The sculpture was also painted, and particular details worked in bronze and other precious metals. This monumental and lavish offering was the most extraordinary confirmation of Delphi’s newfound fame and importance in the Greek world. But it was also an important example of the lengths a dedicator would go in order to shape their “message” for Delphic space. The Siphnians were likely in lengthy discussions with those responsible for masterminding the sanctuary’s rebuilding and expansion over the position of their treasury; they seem to have carefully ensured their sculpture reflected the new themes of the Delphic sanctuary (in their pedimental sculpture they also had a scene of Heracles stealing the tripod, which was, at this time, a popular Delphic motif); and they had even made sure that the offering presented its best side to visitors seeing it up close.32


Figure 5.2. A reconstruction of the front of the Siphnian treasury, dedicated in the Apollo sanctuary at Delphi (© EFA/E. Hansen [G. Daux & E. Hansen FD II Le tresor de Siphnos 1987 fig. 133])


Figure 5.3. A close-up of the north frieze of the Siphnian treasury with detail of the Gigantomachy (Gods versus Giants) scene (Museum at Delphi)

The Siphinian treasury marked the beginning of an upsurge in elaborate Delphic dedications, ushering in an era of building über-rich treasury structures as cities attempted to outdo one another. In the last quarter of the sixth century BC, Croton (a regular consulter of the oracle in this period) likely offered a treasury, as did the Megarians, the Clazomenians, the Etruscans, and possibly the Potidanians. Having a permanent presence at Delphi now mattered, and keeping that presence up to date, it seems, mattered just as much. The Corinthians, who had, by the second half of the sixth century ejected their tyrant rulers (the line of Cypselus and Periander whom we met in the last chapters), were desperate to update the prominent dedications of those tyrants at Delphi and Olympia to reflect their newfound political freedom. We know from inscriptional and literary evidence that they officially petitioned the authorities at Delphi and Olympia to change the name of Cypselus’s treasury to the “Corinthian” treasury, and, while Delphi allowed the name change, Olympia did not.33

The Siphnians, not long after completing their splendid treasury, asked the oracle if their good fortune would continue for long. The oracle’s response is uncertain but both Herodotus and Pausanias offer us a story of what happened next. In Herodotus, the newly acquired riches of Siphnos inspired envy, and some islanders were held hostage for an enormous ransom by the Samians (for one hundred talents—a third of the total cost of rebuilding Delphi). In the writings of Pausanias, the story is darker. Apollo demanded a percentage of Siphnian wealth, but the Siphnians became lax in their payments thanks to their own greed, and so Apollo saw to it that their mines were flooded and their revenue stream lost forever.34

But the oracle was not occupied at this time with only nouveau-riche upstarts. The struggle for power in Athens continued, with the result that the oracle was sucked deeper into Athenian and Spartan politics. Sparta, after four attempts, had successfully removed the tyrant Hippias from power in Athens, on the prompting of the Delphic oracle (in turn probably thanks to the persuasion of the Alcmaeonids). In the political vacuum that followed, Cleisthenes the Alcmaeonid (grandson of Cleisthenes the tyrant of Sicyon), returned to Athens and, among other elite members of Athenian society (such as Isagoras) began to canvas for political support. In the race for political leverage in the last decade of the sixth century, Cleisthenes added “the mass of the people” to his “faction,” promising sweeping constitutional reform.35 But Isagoras seems to have still had the upper hand, leading to Cleisthenes’ exile once again from Athens (on account of the age-old Alcmaeonid curse). In the meantime, however, the Spartan king Cleomenes (who, along with his co-king Demaratus, had been responsible for the ousting of Hippias on Delphic prompting) sought to intervene in Athenian politics still further by invading Athens to bolster support for Isagoras. By 508 BC, following a defeat of Cleomenes’ force by Cleisthenes’ supporters (even though Cleisthenes was in exile), something akin to a riot unfolded in Athens as all sides grappled for power. Because the Athenians felt so threatened by Sparta, Cleisthenes was allowed to return from exile (and the city even asked for Persian support). Cleisthenes’ support was further strengthened by subsequent attempts of Cleomenes of Sparta to intervene in Athenian affairs, first to support Isagoras again, and eventually to reinstate Hippias, whom he had removed in the first place. This melee gave birth to democracy, as Cleisthenes eventually took control and set about a thorough re-formation of Athens, its political constitution and civic system.36

What role did Delphi play in this complex and fast-paced civic change? One of Cleisthenes’ reforms was to organize the Athenians into ten tribes, each named after an Athenian hero. In 508/7 BC, Cleisthenes submitted the names of one hundred Athenian heroes to the oracle at Delphi, and the Pythia picked ten. The oracle of Apollo thus lent its authority to Cleisthenes’ civic reforms. But scholars have also argued for the importance of these reforms in relation to military events. Athens was under threat from Sparta but, in 506/7 BC, was also called onto the battlefield to defend itself against the Boeotians and Chalcidians. The new Athenian tribes were not just civic units, but also served as military units. In turning to Delphi, Cleisthenes thus ensured the Pythia had personally chosen the heroic figureheads for Athens’s new fighting force.37

Thus, when the new temple was completed in 506 BC by the Alcmaeonid family of Athens, the Pythia had already been heavily implicated not only in securing Spartan support for an Alcmaeonid return, but also for implementing the new constitutional system spearheaded by Cleisthenes the Alcmaeonid. In addition, the Pythia was said to have discouraged Athens from pushing its might too far, and discouraging other cities from attacking Athens: in this period, Athens was told to wait thirty years before attacking the nearby island of Aegina (its on-again, off-again enemy), and Thebes is reported to have consulted the Pythia, having suffered defeat in battle with Athens, on how to seek revenge, to which the oracle, in a particularly ambiguous reply, seems to have suggested it not bother.38

At the very end of the sixth century BC, Delphi was thus in an extraordinary position. Its new Apollo and Athena temples and expanded sanctuaries were complete (see plates 1, 2, 3). In place of many of its older dedications, some destroyed in the fire of 548 BCand some purpose-fully destroyed as part of the renovations, these sanctuaries were now quickly being filled with new treasury structures. Some of them pushed the boundaries of sculptural and architectural excess. All of them testified not only to the increasing plethora of gods worshiped at the sanctuary, but also to the vast stretch of Mediterranean from which Delphi commanded offerings, and the care to which these dedicators manipulated their offerings to ensure maximum visibility and appropriateness to Delphic themes. Now, on and around the new temple terrace, marble sculptures from craftsmen who had worked on the rebuilding jostled with kouroi statues from Aegean islands, individual dedications from the king of Cyprus, a new statue of Apollo from the Massalians, precious metal dedications from Apollonia in Illyria, over two thousand shields and several statues dedicated by the Phocians following victory in battle over the Thessalians, the new great altar of Apollo dedicated and paid for by the island of Chios (for which they were given promanteia), and the texts of treaties between states like Boeotia and Locria.39 Hundreds of meters above Delphi, in the Corycian cave (seemap 3, figs. 0.2, 1.2), which had begun to gather momentum as place of cult worship in the early sixth century, the number of offerings increased greatly, marking the beginning of an era of high popularity that would continue for three centuries.40 Delphi was increasingly a place not only in which to worship a variety of gods, and particularly Apollo, but also to advertise and proclaim wealth, military victory, deference to the gods, diplomatic relations, family and civic pride, and membership in the Greek world. And all the while, the Delphic oracle not only continued its role in issues of settlement foundation, but became increasingly attractive to particular cities in the West (like Croton) and in North Africa (like Cyrene), as well as deeply involved in the politics of mainland Greece’s two major cities, Athens and Sparta, a politics that would come to define Greece in the following century.

In the first decade of the fifth century BC, Cleomenes from Sparta was back at Delphi. He had a long history of interaction with the oracle: it was this man who was persuaded by the oracle to oust Hippias, and who, earlier, was famously tried in Spartan courts for not attacking Argos as he’d been ordered to do (and exonerated on the basis of his defense that he had interpreted a Delphic oracular response to mean an attack would prove fruitless). In his subsequent involvement with Athens, first removing Hippias, then trying to oust Cleisthenes, Cleomenes had become increasingly exasperated with his co-king Demaratus, since Demaratus had been reluctant to support Cleomenes’ attempts to influence Athenian politics.41 But in the first years of the fifth century BC, Cleomenes was once again given a chance to become involved with Athens. It seems that Athens had become increasingly worried about the loyalty to Greece of the nearby island of Aegina, given the increasing power of the Persian Empire across the Aegean and its recent attacks on Greek colonies on the shores of Asia Minor.42 Athens requested Cleomenes’ help in “securing” Aegina. But Demaratus was a friend of the Aeginetans and so resisted Cleomenes’ attempts to answer Athens’s call.43

It seems that Cleomenes’ patience finally ran out with Demaratus, and a scheme was hatched to remove him from the throne, a scheme that required the participation of the oracle at Delphi. Cleomenes utilized a local Delphian contact, Cobon, who in turn persuaded/bribed the Pythian priestess Periallus to confirm (in response to a question put forward by a Spartan on Cleomenes’ request) that Demaratus was not the legitimate son of his father (the Spartan king Ariston), hence rendering him unfit to continue in office. The Spartans initially bought the lie, and Demaratus was exiled, fleeing to Persia where he was welcomed by the Persian king. Cleomenes was free to attack Aegina, but his bribery of the Pythia was eventually discovered. His contact in Delphi, Cobon, was exiled from the city; the Pythia Periallus was removed; and Cleomenes himself was forced out of Sparta, only later to return and disembowel himself in what was considered a shameful suicide.44

In 490 BC, one year after the Pythia’s corrupted response, the Persians landed at Marathon, accompanied by none other than Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens who cherished hopes of being reinstated as master of the city. The Athenians, it seems, did not consult Delphi ahead of this battle—there was likely not enough time to do so. Instead, against the odds, the Athenians repelled the Persian invasion on the plains of Marathon. Soon, stories arose that a mysterious figure had appeared on the battle scene to help the Athenians, and that he was slaughtering Persians with his plowshare. The Athenians, in the aftermath of the battle, consulted the oracle at Delphi about whom they should worship in thanks for this divine aid.

The Athenians also chose to commemorate their victory at several sites inside and outside Athens, including Olympia and Delphi. At Olympia, as was the tradition, they offered armor taken from the battlefield, then inscribed with the names of the victors. At Delphi however, they competed in Delphic style with a new and expensive treasury. Knocking down the small treasury that had been at Delphi since the early sixth century BC, the new Athenian treasury was the first treasury outside of Attica made of Attic Pentelic marble; the first to have its columns built in drum form; the first Doric structure to fill all its metopes with carefully carved reliefs, the themes of which (Theseus and Heracles) were brought together for the first time in sculptural history on this building (see plate 2,fig. 5.4). Its position perched on the steep hillside made it an imposing monument (you still get this impression when you visit the rebuilt Athenian treasury at Delphi today), and its architectural style, combined with the forecourt laid out around it, made it almost a miniature copy of the new Apollo temple, which was, after all, Athenian built, too. Linked to this gleaming new treasury, along its southern flank, was a statue group with the ten eponymous tribal heroes of Athens (those picked by the Delphic oracle) and an inscription making clear to all that this monument commemorated the Athenian victory at Marathon. If this was not enough, the Athenians also appear to have hung shields captured on the battlefield from the metopes of the new Apollo temple, making their ownership—of what was supposed to be a temple of Apollo paid for by the Amphictyony, Delphi, and the wider Greek world—even clearer, and even perhaps to have etched an inscription to their victory onto the temple itself.45

While they were building themselves into the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, the decade 490–480 BC saw no letup in the activity of Athenian politics, interpolis Greek relations, or the changing role and position of Delphi in the wider Greek world. The Alcmaeonids in Athens were accused of scheming to act as traitors at the battle of Marathon.46 Megacles, the new prominent Alcmaeonid in Athenian politics, and nephew of Cleisthenes, was exiled in 487 BC, but maintained Alcmaeonid influence at Delphi by winning the chariot race in the Pythian games the following year. His victory was enshrined in an ode by the poet Pindar, the language of which suggests that Megacles, or at least Pindar, realized the need for a more conciliatory approach to the Athenian people, making Alcmaeonid achievements pan-Athenian ones, including the building of the new Apollo temple.47

At the same time, the principal foreign policy issue was preparation for an expected return invasion by the Persians. In Athens, the debates in the assembly focused around whether or not to channel funds from Athenians silver mines into building a substantial fleet. Other cities struggled with the question of whether to submit to such a powerful empire, or attempt (what seemed like) futile resistance. Several put the question to the oracle at Delphi. Argos asked if it should join the anti-Persian alliance, but the response suggested a more defensive, neutral policy. Crete asked if it would be better for them to defend Hellas, and the response suggested that they should keep out of the war entirely. Sparta consulted and was met with the (later-recorded) response that either Sparta or a Spartan king must fall. The Delphians themselves, when the Persians were already marching through Macedonia, consulted on their own behalf and that of Greece, and were told to pray to the winds as allies.48

None of these responses are particularly inspiring: Delphi, the center of the ancient world, seems unenthusiastic about Greece’s chances in the coming titanic struggle. Much has been made of Delphic ambiguity in this period, suggesting that the sanctuary was pro-Persian. Scholars have also pointed to the fact that Gelon, the tyrant of Gela (and later Syracuse), who had been begged for help against the Persians by the Athenians and Spartans but had evaded giving help by attaching impossible conditions to his offer, sent gifts for the Persian king to Delphi.49 Even more questionable in some eyes is Delphi’s amazing ability to survive intact the subsequent Persian invasion. Such a rich jewel, deep in Persian territory for much of the war, survived without a scratch. Later stories insisted the sanctuary had been saved by supernatural aid: the Delphians had consulted on what to do with the sanctuary’s treasures, but were told to evacuate (many seem to have taken refuge in the Corycian cave and the surrounding area) and leave everything to Apollo (a small garrison of sixty stayed in the sanctuary). The invading Persian force was said to have been knocked back by giant rock falls, the subsequent Persian retreat assured by two long-dead local heroes who took to the battlefield once again.50


Figure 5.4. The imposing Athenian treasury in the Apollo sanctuary at Delphi (P. de la Coste-Messelière & G. Miré Delphes 1957 Librarie Hachette p. 98)

Does this amount to a tangible charge of betrayal by Delphi in Greece’s critical hour? Not really—it is more useful to think of the oracle in the context of its surroundings. Much of northern Greece, to which Delphi was historically linked, took the view that it was powerless to resist the Persian invaders. Equally it can be argued that Gelon sent his gifts to Delphi not because it was pro-Persian, but because it was a conveniently accessible point in the middle of Greece (and he sent them on condition that they should be returned if Xerxes did not win).51 It is worth noting that Xerxes himself did not send gifts to Delphi, but instead to the nearby sanctuary of Apollo Ptoios. Moreover, the Persians may never have attempted to attack Delphi, if Herodotus is to be believed, since he reports that Mardonius, the Persian commander, believed in an oracular response given by a different oracle that if the Persians attacked Delphi, the sacrilege would ensure that the gods made their campaign fail.52 The divine defense of Delphi thus spoken of in the literary sources (and for certain promulgated by the Delphians themselves in later years) may, thus, be a made-up story, not to hide Delphic Medism, but to give the city and sanctuary at least some honor and crucial role in what was to become a famous war in Greek history.

Critically, whatever the whispers in the air about Delphi in the run-up to the Persian invasion of Greece in the late 480s, the Athenians, determined to oppose the Persians, prepared a full embassy to be sent, with all the proper rites and rituals, to consult the oracle at Delphi just before the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Having entered the temple, but before they could even ask their question, the Pythian priestess, Aristonice (the replacement for the disgraced Periallus), was said to have addressed them advising them to give up and escape. The ambassadors were appalled and reluctant to return home with such a response. Instead they took the advice of a Delphian, Timon, who suggested they return as religious suppliants of Apollo to ask for a second oracular response. Praying to Apollo, they asked for a “better oracle about our land” and begged the god “to respect these emblems of suppliants which we have come bringing into your presence, or else we will not leave the shrine, but remain here thus even unto death.” The Pythia’s response this time is infamous: that they should trust in their wooden walls.53 Much scholarly ink has been spilled regarding the veracity of this response, but it has all the hallmarks of a traditionally ambiguous Delphic reply, in that it required the ambassadors to return to Athens and submit it for further discussion and debate among the Athenians. Some took it to mean building a wooden palisade around the Acropolis. Themistocles, the Athenian general who had convinced the Athenians some years before to build up their fleet, argued it meant to take to the sea and fight the Persians from their wooden triremes. His proposed interpretation was accepted, and, according to an inscription surviving from the third century BC from Troizen, which purports to be a copy of the decree passed at that fraught assembly in which Themistocles won the day, the assembly agreed, “beginning tomorrow,” to evacuate the city and take to their ships.54

In responding to the Athenians, the oracle is shown to have initially kept to its line of non-opposition but, when pressed, to have offered a traditional response that motivated deliberation and decision. More-over, it is clear that Delphi continued to matter to the Greeks.55 Herodotus records that those fighting against Persia took a roll call of all those who had submitted to Persian authority, and made an oath promising to destroy the Persians and bring a percentage of the booty extracted from those who had submitted to be dedicated to Apollo at Delphi.56 The Athenians also returned to consult again just before the final showdown against the Persians at the battle of Plataea asking which gods they should pray to in order to secure victory.57 And in the aftermath of those battles, which led to the legendary stories of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae, the Athenian sea victory at Salamis and again at Plataea, as Robin Osborne puts it: “‘what did this city do in the Persian wars?’ [became] the first historical question whose answer mattered that couldbe asked of all Greek communities.”58 It is no surprise, then, that stories later circulated about a divinely led defense of the Delphic sanctuary, no surprise that every city, whatever its stance and role in the war, was keen to immortalize (and often realign) the part they had played, and even less a surprise that Delphi, whatever suspicions some may have harbored about the sanctuary, was to be the place where that commemoration would be felt more keenly than anywhere else.

Lord of Lycia, O Phoebus, you who rule over Delos
and who loves Parnassus’ Castalian spring,
willingly take those things to heart and make this a land of brave men.

—Pind. Pyth. 1.38–40

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