In 590 BC, tension boiled over at Delphi. According to the ancient sources, inhabitants of one of the other settlements on the plain leading from the sea up toward Delphi, the town of Crisa, had not only been attacking those en route to the oracle, but had also been extracting heavy tolls from pilgrims arriving by sea, and even making raids on Delphi itself (see map 3).1 The priests of the oracle at Delphi were said to be desperate to escape Crisa’s malign and damaging influence. At the same time, a religious association of several cities and states, known as the Amphictyony, decided to come to Delphi’s aid. Consulting the oracle over what they should do, they received this reply: “that they must fight against the Crisans day and night, and utterly ravage their country, enslave their inhabitants, and dedicate the land to Pythian Apollo, Artemis, Leto, and Athena Pronaia, and that for the future it must lie entirely uncultivated—they must not till this land themselves nor permit any other.” Acting, according to some of the ancient sources, on the advice of Solon (the famous lawmaker of Athens), the Amphictyony, spearheaded by particular members (Thessaly, Athens, and Sicyon), launched a war against Crisa, which was said to have lasted as long as the Trojan War. The campaign was led, according to differing sources, either by Alcmaeon (head of the Alcmaeonidai family from Athens), by Cleisthenes (the tyrant ruler of Sicyon), or by Eurylochus (the Thessalian). Some sources report that the Pythia herself gave the lead on how to defeat Crisa, others that the Amphictyonic forces, after a long and protracted conflict, resorted to their own form of Trojan horse: they introduced hellebore into Crisa’s aqueducts, subsequently rendering the city’s inhabitants helpless thanks to the poison produced by the plant.2

Finally Crisa was destroyed, and the entire territory of the plain below Delphi was dedicated to the gods as sacred land (see map 3). The ancient sources trumpet how the oracle at Delphi was saved as an institution, freed from malign influence for all of Greece, and instead came under the influence of the Amphictyony, whose members not only safeguarded the sanctuary but instituted a series of athletic and musical games in honor of Pythian Apollo at Delphi, the prizes for the first of which were paid for with the booty seized from ravaged Crisa.3 Delphi, in the first two decades of this new century, had been reborn, not only as a sanctuary free from the influence of any one city or state and instead under the protection of an multiregional association, but also as a sanctuary with games that would soon come to be considered on a par with the Olympics.

This war—known as the First Sacred War—has long been considered a watershed moment in Delphi’s history. Yet in 1978, historian Noel Robertson challenged its existence, arguing that the war was an invention of the fourth century BC (at a time when Delphi was “once again” embroiled in a—now its third—Sacred War). His argument was strong: apart from possible allusions to the war in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (in which, as we saw in earlier chapters, Apollo warns his priests against hubristic profiteering from the sanctuary) and the Hesiodic Aspis, the first reference to this great conflict is from fourth-century orator Isocrates (Plataikos c. 373 BC); followed by a cluster of material in the 340s BC (such as Speusippos’s Letter to Philip 8–9; fragments from lost historians; as well as Aeschines in On the Embassy and Against Ctesiphon). Further references can be found in Diodorus Siculus (who quotes a lost fourth–century BC historian Ephorus) and Strabo, followed by nothing until the second century AD when the war resurfaces again in Pausanias. Indeed, the most detailed narrative of the war comes from the Scholia to Pindar and Hypothesis to thePythian Odes (II 1–5 ed. Drachmann).4

There is a dilemma here. Is the First Sacred War—the moment when Delphi was brutally reborn, at the expense of other settlements in the regions, as a sanctuary with international backing dominating a massive, and now off-limits territory—a necessary and important fiction used as justification for events in later Delphic history, or a later retelling (and potential enlargement) of an event that has its roots in historical truth? Most likely, it is the latter, and as such, we need to be careful in distinguishing between what we can known of what went on in Delphi in the early sixth century BC, from what later centuries portrayed as having happened for their own purposes. The circumstances surrounding the emergence of this First Sacred War in the fourth-century sources will be dealt with in detail in later chapters. For now, our focus is on what we can know to have happened in the early sixth century BC.

Key changes did take place at Delphi in the first half of the sixth century. The Amphictyony certainly came to have a heavy involvement there by, at the very latest, 548 BC.5 The Pythian games were hosted for the first time in this period, although the date of their inception varies between 591/90 BC (according to the Parian Marble inscription) and 586 BC (according to Pausanias 10.7.4–5), with the first festival in which the laurel wreath was a prize occurring in 582 BC.6 And the motivation for their inception is not, either, agreed upon in the ancient sources: some claim they were a celebration of the Amphictyony’s victory in the First Sacred War, others that they celebrated Apollo’s arrival at Delphi or Apollo’s slaying of the serpent (their origins in the latter thus portrayed as funeral games).7

As well, the decision was made to leave the vast plain below Delphi uncultivated around this time, which, given its fertility and thus potential for profit, can only be explained by a significant turn of events like a Sacred War.8 Coupled with this are stories in some literary sources from this period referring to bandits preying on Delphic pilgrims, which seem to echo elements of the Sacred War narrative. Moreover, some scholars have argued for a shift in the ideology underlying oracular responses from favoring Dorian powers to a more even-handed approach possibly tied with Delphi’s rebirth as a “free” international sanctuary. And finally, there are a number of recognizable changes in the archaeological record at Delphi before and after this period that could be explained by the war: Cretan influence at Delphi, for example, which, as we have seen through the eighth and seventh centuries BC had been strong, tapered off by the beginning of the sixth century. Likewise, representations of scenes of Heracles stealing the Delphic tripod—a favorite used to epitomize conflict at (and over) Delphic—become extremely popular in vase painting 560–540 BC in the aftermath of the assumed occurrence of First Sacred War.9

Yet the most critical evidence for change at Delphi in the early decades of the sixth century BC has only recently come to light. As part of the excavations that revealed the series of houses (maison jaune, noire, and rouge) dating back to Delphi’s earliest past, the excavators were able to date the first perimeter wall of the Apollo sanctuary (see fig. 3.2). As was stressed at the end of the last chapter, despite Delphi’s increasingly important and international oracular and dedicatory record during the seventh century BC, there was still no separation between secular and sacred space, no bounded sanctuary or probably temple of Apollo during that time. The latest excavations show that all this changed in 575 BC, with the destruction of the maison rouge, and the building of the Apollo sanctuary’s first perimeter wall over it, to which time should also probably be associated the building of a temple to Apollo (or at the very least the major elaboration of a structure that did not much predate it—see fig. 3.2).10 By 575 BC, therefore, something had happened at Delphi to push the sanctuary headlong into a complete renovation and rearticulation of the settlement, which privileged the definition of a sanctuary space and prioritized the building of structures to worship Apollo.

The narrative of the First Sacred War fits neatly as an explanation for all these changes. Yet while recent scholarship has again become comfortable with the idea of conflict at Delphi in the early sixth century, it has sought to limit its scale and international nature. In particular, scholars have sought to emphasize the particular interests in Delphi of those Amphictyonic members who took the lead in the war (Thessaly, Athens, Sicyon), and the corresponding absence of Amphictyonic members who were less directly related to the sanctuary.11 Thessaly’s long-term interest in Delphi has been noted in previous chapters, but, as a result of this conflict in the early sixth century, the Amphictyony (in which Thessaly held a prime role) became ensconced at Delphi, ensuring that Thessaly also maintained a say in affairs south of its own territory for the future.12 Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon, is equally argued to have become involved in the war over Delphi because it offered a unique opportunity to challenge the supremacy of Corinth, itself long implicated in the sanctuary and surrounding area (not least as an ally of Crisa). This effort resulted not only in Sicyon fighting for the sanctuary, but in its dedicating substantial monuments there during the first half of the sixth century.13 A number of groups in Athens (especially the Alcmaeonid family) have been argued to have been keen, given their rather difficult relationship with the oracle as a result of its involvement in Alcmaeonid as well as Athenian affairs, to reshape Delphi more on their own terms.14

Thus, while the conflict at Delphi in the early sixth century BC was most probably not on the scale of a Trojan War, which saw an international association fight for the freedom of Delphi (as those active in later centuries were keen to portray it), there does seem to have been conflict over Delphi at this time that arose because Delphi was an increasingly important and rich settlement that was not within a particular city’s power but was on a vital trade corridor. The conflict was also the result of Delphi’s being home to an oracle of increasing strategic power and value to an increasing number of city-states and communities with their own agendas. As a result, this conflict had the important effect of drawing Delphi into the auspices of the Amphictyony, potentially motivating the annexation of an extraordinarily fertile territory (the “untouchable” possession of the Delphic gods), most probably kick-starting the celebration of Pythian games, and, most importantly, prompting the final articulation of the Apollo sanctuary space through the building of a perimeter wall and the construction of a temple to Apollo—most likely by the Amphictyony themselves.15

Such an interest from developing city-states in the fortunes of a place like Delphi underscores an important shift in the nature of Greece during the sixth century BC. Internal civic development was still taking place at a scorching, sometimes brutal, rate: Athens suffered a coup, civic crisis, rebirth, and eventual tyranny, all in the last quarter of the seventh century through to the mid-sixth century BC. But that internal combustion was coupled with a perceived need to interact on a larger, comprehensive community scale within an ever-widening Mediterranean world. As a result, there was an increasing desire to have a stake in larger occasions and more international locations through which symbolic capital could be earned by city-state players. This is to say, the sixth century BCwould become the century for the development of pan-Greek community occasions and locations. The use of long-known and increasing international, but still architecturally fledgling, sanctuaries like Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea for a range of interactions (as worshipers, dedicators, and visitors) made increasing sense and was increasingly attractive to Greeks in the sixth century because they provided opportunities for interaction and an accretion of symbolic capital outside the city-state arena. It is no surprise, then, that it was during the first half of the sixth century BC that Delphi’s fledgling Pythian games were joined by those of the sanctuaries at Isthmia and Nemea, and were all linked to the long-standing games at Olympia forming the Panhellenic periodos circuit (see map 2). And crucially, the prize for victory at each of these games was not money but a wreath made with branches of a plant sacred to the particular sanctuary and, with it, assured international renown and civic pride.16

The results of this increasing desire for action and interaction on the international stage were multiple. As we have seen, because communities now had, and sought a stake in, places like Delphi, such locations could expect to be the centers of more major investment and conflict. It is unlikely, for example, that there would have been the enthusiasm for a Sacred War over Delphi in the seventh or eighth centuries BC. As well, this new interest in international interaction provoked a tighter and more complex cultural and political network inside the Greek world. There was a noticeable increase in the development and uptake of a wider number of formal associations, agreements, and alliances between cities, and groups of cities, at this time. Such networks, however, also meant that individual city-states, and individual players within them, found themselves not only involved with the wider Greek world, but also occasionally at the mercy of it (as Crisa found to its cost). And at the same time, the increasing levels of interaction at places like Delphi and elsewhere ensured a growing cultural homogeneity within the Greek world. Regional pottery styles went into decline during the sixth century BC. In the early sixth century, artistic styles converged around the kouros/kore style of free-standing sculpture, and the construction of temples became de rigueur across the Greek world, with architectural sculpture starting to coalesce around a certain number of accepted themes. Coinage, too, first known at Ephesus c. 560 BC, began to diffuse across the Greek world during the course of the sixth century as an accepted style of financial interaction (if still with heavy local attachment, each city minting its own).17

Within this rapidly changing world, the Amphictyony came to have a good deal of control over Delphi. But just what was the Amphictyony and what was it for? These questions have exercised much scholarly debate, not only concerning the Amphictyony’s composition and purpose, but also its nature, impact, and power in archaic and classical (and, indeed, Hellenistic and Roman) Greece. Translated literally, “Amphictyony” means those “who live around,” and the name was given to a number of pluri-regional associations functioning in the archaic period (e.g., the Amphictyonic leagues of Calauria, Onchestus, Itonia, Delos, and Delphi), of which only the Amphictyonies of Delphi and Delos were to survive with any purpose into the classical world.18 Each was centered in a particular sanctuary, and, as a result, the nature of these associations has been thought to have been primarily religiously motivated. The Amphictyony that came to be involved at Delphi, perhaps in the mid-seventh century BC and perhaps only in the run-up to conflict in the early sixth century, was not originally, or indeed, ever, centered entirely around the sanctuary at Delphi. Instead its heart was the sanctuary of Demeter of Anthela near Thermopylae—still not archaeologically located (see map 2), and its own date of foundation as an association varies in the ancient sources from the time of the Trojan War to the eighth century BC. Its traditional heartland was thus in central/northern Greece, and its subsequent involvement in Delphi entailed an increase in its activities farther south. Its move to incorporate Delphi also occasioned a change in its composition, with the result that the Dorians of the Peloponnese, the Delphians, Athenians, and West Locrians all gained membership, reflecting its new role in central Greek affairs.19 And noticeable from this list of new entrants, in addition to the list of earlier members, the Amphictyony was a curious mix of more recent polis city-states, older ethnos tribal groups, and even older loose constructions of people from particular geographical areas. It was, thus, always, an association of its time and and not of its time.

What was its purpose? The ancient sources outline it as anything from ending conflicts that divided Greece, to ensuring its defense against the barbarians, to the more modest protection of the goods of the sanctuary (or sanctuaries) under its jurisdiction, and to stopping conflict between its members. Many have, as a result, sought to portray the Amphictyony as the Panhellenic body par excellence of the archaic period; some have even seen it as a prototype European Union. On the other hand, some scholars have argued that it was little more than an “old boys’ club” and a fairly ineffective talking shop. More recently, scholarly consensus has characterized the Amphictyony as a multiregional but not Panhellenic, old-fashioned, and yet supple institution that lacked permanence and continuity and drifted in and out of usefulness and power as and when it suited the needs of various of its members. As we shall see in later chapters, we hear nothing about the Amphictyony in the fifth century BC, for example, and its role at Delphi in the sixth century only comes to the fore in fourth-century BC sources, when the Amphictyony strove to be seen as a major force (once again) in Greek affairs.20

Why was the Amphictyony interested in Delphi? We have seen why particular members (Thessaly, Athens, Sicyon) had their own interests in Delphi, and some scholars argue that it was the attraction of the sanctuary and settlement as a successful node on an important trade network that may have convinced the rest to decide on official Amphictyonic involvement. But it is clear that the involvement of this large pluri-regional association at Delphi catapulted the sanctuary into a new level of renown, as well as a new (or rather first-ever) bout of serious sanctuary construction, made possible not least in part thanks to new access to a much wider range of raw materials from the Amphictyony’s constituent members.21

How did the management of Delphi change as a result of its incorporation into the Amphictyony during the first quarter of the sixth century BC? Who now “ran” the sanctuary, and what did that mean for Delphi? This is not an easy question to answer, because it is dependent not only on how the city and Amphictyony chose to represent it in later centuries (particularly the fourth century BC), but also on the fact that the available evidence suggests there were regular fluctuations in the management structure. In part it is also difficult because of the—most probably not inconsiderable—difference between the de jure and de facto positions, that is, what was supposed to be the case and what actually was the case. In reality, it is accepted that the Amphictyony was not a permanent body, but a council that met twice a year (and split its meetings between the sanctuaries of Demeter at Anthela and at Delphi). It had no permanent secretariat or bureaucracy (except for a time in the fourth century BC). As a result, while many scholars accept that “financially, politically, and administratively, the Amphictyony were entitled to have the first and final say in what went on,” practically, their reaction times would have been “elephantine.” their capacity to manage “intermittent,” and their leverage power “minimal.”22

In contrast, the authorities of the developing city of Delphi, which surrounded the newly elaborated sanctuary, are argued to have been in day-to-day control.23 Some scholars have also sought to define the way in which the city of Delphi and the Amphictyony chose to carve up responsibility for different parts of the sanctuary’s activities. Its reconstruction in 575 BC (and again after 548 BC) as well as the running of the Pythian games are considered to have been the responsibility of the Amphictyony, whereas the oracle was the responsibility of the city of Delphi. Other scholars have argued that it is impossible to impose such neat divisions, because they never existed, and that the history of Delphi remains continually ambiguous, with, at best, assumptions that there existed periods of tension and forced relations between the Amphictyony and the city.24

Our picture of Delphi in the first quarter of the sixth century is thus uncertain in many ways. We know it was an increasingly important oracular center as well as a site for dedication, and we know that by 575 BC, the first dramatic articulation of the sanctuary of Apollo had been made, possibly combined with the construction of a temple to Apollo, and that by this time the Pythian games were also in existence (see fig. 3.2).25 Yet what exactly sparked this rebirth, and the nature of the players involved, is unclear. We know, however, that Delphi was strengthened by the events of the first quarter of the sixth century BC: its safety and position in the immediate geographical region was secured, its access to a wider number of resources and its existence as a place of importance to a wider number of cities, ethnos states, and geographical areas across Greece were assured. But those same events had also demonstrated the conflicting interests of those who had a stake at Delphi. They had dictated, particularly with the demand for noncultivation of the fertile land below Delphi, that the fate and survival of Delphi’s inhabitants was entirely tied to that of the oracle and the sanctuary. And they had formulated a management system for the sanctuary that in part thanks to its flexibility was open to manipulation and likely to cause tension in centuries to come.26

During, and in the aftermath of this war, who was consulting the oracle at Delphi? We saw briefly in the last chapter how Cylon’s attempted coup at Athens in the late seventh century BC involved the oracle (and a misinterpretation by Cylon of the oracle’s advice). Athens was seemingly racked by political struggle in this period, with political sympathies strongly linked to family ties: the surviving fragments of Draco’s laws from the late seventh century suggest that the social and political instability in Athens at this time required a new and “draconian” legal code. In c. 596 BC, the Athenians were back at Delphi to ask about a plague that had struck the city and how best to alleviate themselves from its grip. This was followed quickly by a number of consultations by the Athenian lawgiver Solon. Solon’s initiatives in Athens—again the subject of bitter scholarly dispute because of the (mostly) later evidence for them—came at a time when political dispute seems to have come to a head in Athens, leading to major social as well as political unrest.27 Yet his changes to the Athenian civic and political system were profound, not only because they offered a renegotiation of the social contract for the different classes of Athenian citizen, but also because they tied Athens, as Sparta had been in the previous century, to Delphi as an important element in Athens’s own civic reform. We don’t have surviving evidence for what Solon’s inquiries consisted of, only that the oracle’s replies advised a straight course from a single herald. At the same time, however, it’s clear that Solon felt the oracle was an important part of his (and Athens’s) decision-making system. In Solon’s constitution for Athens, the chief magistrates of the city were required, upon entering office, to take a public oath in the Agora that, if they transgressed the laws, they would dedicate a life-size golden statue at Delphi. Solon also appointed three exegetai pythochrestoi, officials who were selected by the oracle from a short list of Athenians. Their function was to act as interpreters of the sacred law and ritual (not unlike the Delphic representatives in the Spartan constitutional system), and in practice, their appointment by the Delphic oracle cut across the traditional system of ancestral patronage for such positions, which had dominated in Athens in previous centuries.28 Solon even returned to Delphi again in c. 570 BC to inquire of the oracle about the Athenian attempt to conquer Salamis, and was told to worship particular Salaminian heroes.29 Given that Athens also constructed, or very soon would construct, a small treasury structure at Delphi in this period (on the site of its later marble treasury, whose reconstruction stands at the sanctuary today), it seems clear that Athens felt it had a close relationship with the sanctuary during, and directly following, the First Sacred War.30

Not all those, however, who were involved in leading the conflict over Delphi in the early sixth century BC seem to have been so favored as a result. While the Amphictyony’s longer-term association with Delphi brought Thessaly, which presided over the Amphictyonic council, a say in events in mainland and southern Greece, Delphi failed to portray any real signs of favoritism toward Thessaly in return.31 As well, the sanctuary did not repay another of its main supporters: Cleisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon (who ruled c. 600–570 BC). Cleisthenes is argued to have been spurred into action over Delphi because of his Corinthian enemies’ close interaction with the sanctuary.32 In response Cleisthenes of Sicyon not only took a lead in the war over Delphi, but also seems to have been responsible for two of the most individualized and ornate monumental architectural dedications of the first half of the sixth century within the newly elaborated Apollo sanctuary: a tholos (a round colonnaded structure) and a monopteros (square colonnaded structure).33 While we are not sure where exactly these structures were placed in this new building because they both fell prey to the redevelopment of the sanctuary in the second half of the sixth century (see the next chapter), it’s likely that they were close to the newly built and improved (and perhaps still being built) temple of Apollo. More importantly, though in date the tholos and monopteros seem to have been dedicated some fifteen years apart, stylistically, it’s likely they were planned as a unit. The tholos symbolized a monumentalized version of a traditional form of smaller stone religious dedication (the perirrhanterion), whereas the monopteros replicated the newly emerging temple, complete with carved metopes, each of which keyed in to the newly emerging Panhellenic Greek vocabulary of architectural sculpture themes, whose style and life (the sense of the scenes jumped across metope panels forcing the viewer’s eyes to keep moving around the structure), however, are testament to its sculptural sophistication and individualization.34

Cleisthenes of Sicyon had thus ensured not only a position at the forefront of the fight to “free” Delphi, but had graced the sanctuary with its finest monumental dedications to date. He had even participated in the sanctuary’s new athletic games, winning the chariot race.35 What did it gain him? On the one hand, the first half of the sixth century saw the gradual transference of the allegiance of Corthinian tyrants away from Delphi to Olympia.36 Periander, Cypselus’s successor, dedicated “Cypselus’s” cedar-wood chest, covered in ivory and gold, at Olympia, where it was seen by Pausanias in the temple of Hera in the second century AD.37 On the other hand, Cleisthenes received little for his investment in the sanctuary from the Delphic oracle. The one recorded consultation by Cleisthenes, on how to strengthen his rule at Sicyon by removing the bones of the Argive hero Adrastus that were acting as a focal point for his opposition, met with a stern rebuke from the oracle, who told Cleisthenes he was a mere skirmisher whereas Adrastus had been a king. It is perhaps no surprise that many have interpreted Cleisthenes’ subsequent creation of athletic games in honor of Apollo Pythios at Sicyon—which were supposedly paid for our of his share of spoils from the First Sacred War—in the spirit of direct competition to those newly created at Delphi (rather than in praise of the Delphian games).38

It is testament to the increasing strength of Delphi in the Greek world, and indeed the wider world, at this time, as well as an example of the trend in the ancient literature to mark Delphi’s credentials as increasingly antityrannical, that Delphi failed to treat well several powerful leaders who lavished its sanctuary with dedications when they came for oracular consultation.39 The most famous examples are of Alyattes and his son Croesus, kings of Lydia. We have met this family before. Alyattes, king between 619 and 560BC, had attacked Miletus and burned down a temple of Athena. He had subsequently fallen ill and sent to Delphi for advice. The oracle had apparently refused to reply until the temple of Athena was restored, and when it was, Alyattes recovered, and subsequently sent a huge, silver mixing bowl on a welded iron base to Delphi (one of those Eastern dedications that collected in front of the new temple’s eastern front). Croesus, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. It is his story of oracular consultation at Delphi that is perhaps Delphi’s most famous, and that we touched on in an chapter about the workings of the Delphic oracle as the classic case of how not to ask your question at Delphi and the perils of misinterpreting the oracle’s answers. It was Croesus’s generation that the oracle had foreseen (or was later said to have foreseen) would bear the revenge for Gyges’ slippery usurpation of power (see previous chapters). Croesus, intent on gaining oracular approval for his upcoming military campaign is said to have first tested all the famous oracles around the Mediterranean to find out which one was the most accurate by sending messengers asking what he was doing one hundred days from the day they left Lydia (as Herodotus is keen to highlight, this was a very unusual form of question to an oracle). The oracle at Delphi was said to have answered correctly: Croesus was chopping up a tortoise and a lamb in a bronze cauldron with a bronze lid.40 As a result, Croesus showered Delphi with dedications to sit resplendent in its newly articulated sanctuary. Different ancient sources claim he demanded contributions from individual Lydians, burned three thousand sacrificial victims along with encrusted gold and silver beads, casting the molten residue into 117 half-bricks (4 pure gold and the others white gold) to be surmounted by a lion statue of pure gold weighing ten talents. Nor did it stop there. Croesus also sent two extra-large mixing bowls, one of gold and one of silver, which would in Herodotus’s day play a key role in Delphic temple ceremonies. He also sent four silver jars, two vessels (one of gold, one of silver), bowls of silver, a golden statue of a woman, and many other smaller dedications including the necklace and girdles of his queen.41

All this, scholars have argued, demonstrated not merely a routine diplomatic gesture to a foreign god, but an offer of generosity the likes of which had never been seen in the Greek world.42 It was all also a payment in advance for the answer to the key question Croesus had had in mind all along, the oracle’s answer to which became famous in antiquity. Croesus asked “whether he should make an expedition against the Persians and whether he should make any further host of men his friends?”43 Many ancient writers record the response “Croesus, having crossed the Halys, will destroy a great empire.” It is a reply that has become infamous for its ambiguity and misinterpretation, and subsequently for the danger inherent in consulting the Delphic oracle. Croesus of course did cross the river Halys, and he did destroy an empire: his own. Yet Croesus, interpreting it as meaning his enemy’s empire, was so pleased by the response that he sent further gifts to Delphi (two gold staters for every Delphic citizen), in return for which the Delphians gave him the right of promanteia (the right to skip the queue to consult the oracle), ateleia (the right to not pay the tax to consult the oracle), and prohedria (the right to front-row seats at the Pythian festival). Later, however, so upset was Croesus by what he saw as the oracle’s failure to warn him that he asked permission of his now master—the Persian king, Cyrus—to take the chains of his captivity to Delphi and challenge the oracle to justify its conduct. The oracle is portrayed (in the later sources) as responding that Croesus was bound by destiny to pay for Gyges’ actions, that he himself had misinterpreted the oracular response, and that, all in all, it was thanks to Apollo that he was even alive.44

Yet the oracle at Delphi was not only standing up to some of the most powerful men at the borders of the Mediterranean world at this time, it was also playing hardball with those closer to home. One Spartan, Glaucus, who had denied that his friend had previously entrusted him with his money, was asked to swear an oath to that effect. Glaucus, according to Herodotus, consulted Delphi about whether it was defensible in the eyes of the gods to perjure oneself under oath if material gain resulted. The oracle replied resolutely in the negative and mishap dogged Glaucus’s family for generations. The oracle could also play hardball with the Delphians themselves. One consultation story, reported in Herodotus and dating to c. 563–32 BC, tells how Aesop (of Aesop’s Fables fame), having insulted the Delphians for living off nothing except what Apollo gave them, was tricked by the Delphians into taking a sacred treasure away from the sanctuary.45 Having set him up, the Delphians “discovered” his theft, convicted him, and had him thrown off the Hyampeia cliff high above Delphi. As a result, Delphi was smitten with plague and famine (we might think back again to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo and Apollo’s warning to his priests not to abuse their position). Consulting the oracle, the Delphians were told that finding a relative of Aesop’s was key to their atonement, and they conducted such a search at every major Greek festival till they finally found a candidate.

Among these oracles responding to queries of plagues, famines, world domination, civic rebirth, perjury, and tortoise and lamb boiling in bronze pots, Delphi also continued to answer queries about ritual practice, including the establishment of new rituals to different Greek divinities in various Greek cities.46 Chief among these gods was Dionysus: in fact, there are more oracular responses recorded in the Delphic corpus relating to the worship of this god than any other. Dionysian cult practices may well already have been part of Delphic worship in this period—indeed it may always have been. But it is only epigraphically and archaeologically attested, for certain, beginning in the fourth century BC, whence it would grow into an essential part of Delphic mythology, indeed one that would remain when many other aspects of Delphic business had been forgotten.47

The oracle also continued, as in the previous century, to answer questions concerning the founding of new settlements. It was, after all, in the sixth century BC, that it became necessary to consult the oracle before a colonial adventure became a proverbial tale.48In the first half of the sixth century, Delphi continued to be consulted, for example, on the foundation of Heracleia Pontice by the Megarians and the Boeotians in the 560s BC and, in the same period, on the Athenian expedition to the Chersonesus (see maps 1, 2).49More importantly, foundations with which it had been involved (or, as discussed in the last chapter, with which it later became preferable to different parties to cast the oracle as being involved in) in the previous century, in turn, went back to the sanctuary. Syracuse, for example, is argued to have constructed a treasury at Delphi in this period (its presence known thanks to surviving roofing fragments in bright red Sicilian clay).50

In addition, the dedicatory record shows a swath of Western dedicators offering monumental structures at Delphi in this period, many of which do not seem to have had a direct connection to Delphi through a foundation oracle, but instead seem to represent the eagerness of these dedicators to ensure their presence at this increasingly important center of the ancient world. There are three treasury structures, for example, lined up opposite the western end of the new temple of Apollo, all leaning against the new perimeter wall of the sanctuary (structures C, D, and E in fig. 3.2). One of these (built c. 580 BC) has been associated with the Corcyrians because of its roofing style.51 And two other treasury-like structures were dedicated in the southern part of the Apollo sanctuary behind the early Athenian treasury (see plate 2), which, again because of their roofing styles, have been associated with southern Italian (and probably Sybarite) dedicators.52 All these structures seem to have taken advantage not only of the new perimeter wall, but also of new terracing walls within the sanctuary to claim positions of high visibility and dominate this new sanctuary space.

Also filling this new sanctuary space in the first half of the sixth century BC were a series of other treasury-like structures, whose function and dedicator we cannot claim with any certainty to know. One, perhaps two more structures, traditionally associated with the worship of Gaia but in reality uncertain, were constructed in this period. As well, a building, long labeled the Delphic city’s bouleuterion but now the subject of disputed identification, was constructed near the Athenian treasury. We can also identify another series of monumental, and less monumental but incredibly ornate, dedications that graced the sanctuary at this time. The most ornate treasury yet, constructed c. 550 BC, was dedicated by the Cnidians in Asia Minor (see plate 2). It was the first at Delphi to be built in marble and in the ionic style. No treasury-like structure has ever been found in their home city of Cnidos, but here at Delphi the Cnidians seem not only to have followed the trend for treasury dedication, but to have embellished it considerably. In contrast, the inhabitants of the island of Naxos in the Aegean chose to dedicate c. 570 BC one of the sanctuary’s most famous monuments, the Sphinx (see plate 2, fig. 4.1). This mythological creature with the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the face of a woman was something of a Naxian calling card in terms of artistic choice, as the Naxians had already dedicated a similar sculpture at the sanctuary of Apollo on Delos.53 But it was also perfectly tuned to its location at Delphi: the sphinx’s placement upon a tall column assured it was visible from all parts of the steep hillside.

In fact, we are only just scraping the surface of the ornate and expensive dedications that came from the eastern Mediterranean to Delphi in the first half of the sixth century BC. Herodotus tells us of the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis who chose to dedicate a percentage of the wealth gained from her profession to Apollo at Delphi in the form of iron spits.54 And in the 1930s a whole host of dedications was discovered that date from the eighth to the fifth centuries BC, and had at some point been intentionally buried, it seems, underneath the central pathway through the sanctuary. Among them was the fabulous life-size silver bull (fig. 4.2) now on display in the Delphi museum, which had originally been the gift of an Ionian dedicator. In addition, there were two chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statues (see plate 5), as well as another ivory statue from an earlier date, all also of Ionian provenance.55


Figure 4.1. The Naxian Sphinx, dedicated in the Apollo sanctuary at Delphi (Museum at Delphi).

Delphi, by the middle of the sixth century BC, had thus changed dramatically. In just fifty years, it had been the subject of major international conflict (the First Sacred War); had come under the auspices of the Amphictyony; had had its sacred space of Apollo officially articulated with perimeter walls, a temple of Apollo built, an increasing stream of monumental treasuries constructed within its new sanctuary, alongside a plethora of jaw-dropping gold and silver gifts from eastern rulers and a wealth of ornate dedications from around the eastern Mediterranean. Its oracle had been consulted by eastern kings and by the tyrants and reformers of mainland Greece; had laid down the law with oath-breakers and Delphian misbehavers; had helped guide the institution of rituals of divine worship; had continued to play a role in the ongoing processes of settlement foundation around the Mediterranean, and had enjoyed the fruits of the success of the developing communities it had been involved with founding in the previous century.

Delphi was, without a doubt, a major player in the ancient world by the mid-sixth century BC. But that should not be confused with its having been a sanctuary for everyone. It was available only to those with vested interests in the Amphictyony during the conflict over Delphi, and to those who dedicated richly afterward. Much of mainland Greece did not choose to have a permanent presence within the sanctuary, and of northern Greece, there is almost no trace either in relation to the oracle or in terms of dedication. In contrast, this absence is countered by the overwhelming presence of many individuals and cities from the eastern and western boundaries of the Greek world. Delphi was international for sure, but, again, not open to everyone. Moreover, with its newfound success and importance came the difficult task of trying to negotiate a fast-changing and often cutthroat Greek world. The silver bull and chryselephantine statues discovered buried in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi all showed signs of heavy fire damage. Delphi was soon to be reborn—yet again—through fiery destruction.


Figure 4.2. The Silver Bull, dedicated in the Apollo sanctuary at Delphi and subsequently found buried in the sanctuary (© EFA [Guide de Musée fig. 11])

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