The politics of Delphi

According to himself, Phalaris was a mild, unassuming, public-spirited, and polite citizen of sixth-century Akragas, who used his position as a tyrant to benefit his hometown. His compatriots, though, seem to have had a slightly different opinion of him, as evidenced by the gift he received from the artist Perilaus. He created an exquisite lifelike brazen bull with an opening that allowed Phalaris to shut his enemies in its belly; when he kindled a fire beneath it, his opponents were roasted alive inside the bull. The application of pipes to the nostrils converted the shrieks of the hapless occupant into the most melodious bellowing.

Phalaris wanted to test the effectiveness of the bull, so he ordered that “the music-master be the first to play”. He placed Perilaus in the belly of the beast and lit the fire, but he removed him before he died and flung him from the cliffs. As for the bull, it was purified and sent as an offering to Delphi. He asked that it be set up in a conspicuous part of the sanctuary, but there seems to have been some resistance among the priests on the appropriateness of receiving such a monstrous gift.

Eventually, all objections were overcome; the bringers of gifts had never been scrutinized and all men had free access to the sanctuary. Any censorship of offerings could result in financial ruin, since people would not risk rejection and would, therefore, refuse to send gifts. What is more, in the case of Phalaris Apollo himself accepted the heinous bull; otherwise, it would have been easy for the god to sink the ship that brought it from Sicily.

Statue for statue, treasury for treasury

Delphi was the predominant oracular site in Greece and attracted pilgrims from far and wide. Many brought wonderful gifts as an expression of gratitude towards the god. Offerings in gold, ivory, silver, and bronze dotted the sanctuary and advertised the piety and power of the individuals and the communities that dedicated them. Magnificent treasuries built of expensive marble stood on either side of the winding Sacred Way leading to the temple of Apollo.

Space was limited, so the location of each offering acquired heightened importance from the fact that it had to compete with every other gift in the sanctuary. In a world of diplomacy, military competition, and ever-shifting alliances, a well-placed group of bronze statues or a treasury served as a potent signal of influence and strength. The result was an astonishing collection of works of art that allowed city-states to highlight their latest triumph or exact revenge on an old enemy that had finally (?) been defeated.

What goes up must come down

The naval battle of Aegospotami in 405 BCE was a Spartan triumph. Lysander destroyed the Athenian navy and forced the Athenians to surrender, thus ending the Peloponnesian War. To celebrate his victory, Lysander dedicated to Delphi a spectacular group of 37 bronze statues, which included himself being crowned by Poseidon in the presence of the Dioscuri, Zeus, Apollo, and Artemis. Also present were his seer, his pilot, and 29 allied commanders. The group was set immediately to the left of those entering the enclosure. No visitor to the sanctuary could miss this offering.

Forty years later, the Arcadians erected their own monument to celebrate a successful campaign against the Spartans in the winter of 370/369 BCE. Apollo, Nike, the nymph Callisto, her son Arcas (the eponymous hero of the Arcadians) and his three sons stood immediately across from the group of Lysander and reminded all passersby of the antiquity and independence of the Arcadians. The affront to the fallen power of Sparta was even greater, for the Arcadian group was in front of a stoa built by the Spartans, thus rendering it useless as a seating area. The latter tried to respond by adding a victory epigram to Lysander’s group, but the damage to Lacedaemonian prestige was done.

Athens vs Syracuse

Just a short walking distance from these groups, the Sacred Way took a hairpin turn. Here stood the treasury of the Athenians, a building dedicated to the storage of costly offerings. It was built entirely of prestigious Parian marble. The treasury and a group of ten bronze statues (perhaps depicting the ten eponymous Athenian heroes) on the south bank of the building was a testament to the city’s greatest triumph; the victory against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

Marathon ushered into a long period of Athenian dominance in the wider Greek world. The Sicilian Expedition in 415-413 BCE ended in a devastating defeat and signaled the beginning of the end for the Athenian empire. The Syracusans decided to celebrate their triumph with a treasury at Delphi. Its location is not known with certainty, but it seems likely that it was placed directly opposite the Athenian treasury. Size and visibility were sacrificed to the delectable commemoration of a military accomplishment against a mortal enemy.

The palm tree of Eurymedon

The notion that statues and buildings in Delphi did much more than simply express piety and gratitude towards the gods was reinforced by stories about the fate of these monuments. The Athenian general Cimon had dedicated a large bronze statue of a palm tree to the sanctuary on the aftermath of the Greek victory against the Persians in the Battle of the Eurymedon in 465 BCE. As Athenian power crumbled before the walls of Syracuse, the palm tree fell to pieces. The statue of Lysander was said to have disintegrated at about the time the Thebans defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE. In the minds of the Greeks, there was a natural connection between the condition of a statue and the military or political fortunes of the city-state that offered it. Apollo accepted all gifts but it was his mortal servants who decided where to place them, and there is nothing more human than seeking to excel where the whole world is watching.

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Land of the gods: polis and sanctuary in ancient Greece - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
Link to Land of the gods: polis and sanctuary in ancient Greece – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

Land of the gods: polis and sanctuary in ancient Greece – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

This is the quintessential introduction to the world of the ancient Greeks and their major contributions to the development of western civilization.


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