Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World by Michael Scott

Book Review by Josho Brouwers

Delphi was one of the Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries of ancient Greece. It was dedicated to the god Apollo and famous, from an early period onwards, for the Pythia or oracle, a priestess who gave prophesies supposedly transmitted to her directly from the god himself. The site possesses remains of a number of temples, treasuries, a stadium, and other structures. Delphi was considered the centre of the Classical world: visitors to the museum on the site will be able to see the omphalos, a large worked stone that represents the ‘navel’ of the world.

Due to its importance, much has been written about Delphi. In the book under review, Michael Scott presents a narrative history of the site and the sanctuary. The book starts with a prologue entitled ‘Why Delphi?’ Scott begins with a discussion of an ancient Greek novel by Heliodorus to introduce Delphi and its dramatic location in the landscape, before turning to a discussion of the aim and content of the book. The book is very much a history of Delphi that requires little or no foreknowledge, and is therefore suited for those who want a good – and somewhat beefy – introduction to the site. Addressing specialists, Scott emphasizes that the book is ‘a manifesto for how we should study this (and indeed other) crucial locations from the ancient world’ (p. 5), emphasizing a more holistic – ‘global’, Scott calls it – approach, rather than focus on particular activities, categories of evidence, or periods.

The meat of the book consists of twelve chapters divided into three parts of four chapters each, with each part’s title based on a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Part I, ‘Some are born great’ (which makes little sense when applied to a site rather than a person, but that is a minor point), deals with the earliest history of Delphi. Chapter 1, ‘Oracle’, immediately discusses the thing that is perhaps most striking about this site: its oracle. The main thrust of the chapter concerns how the oracle actually functioned and why it functioned for so long. We don’t really know how the oracle operated; the priestesses took their secrets with them. Scott nevertheless attempts to piece together as much as he can, leading to some interesting observations. For example, we traditionally assume that the Pythia breathed in noxious fumes from a chasm, but the evidence for this is actually slight, and Scott provides alternative interpretations with references.

Chapter 2, ‘Beginnings’, deals with the origins of Delphi itself, starting with a discussion based on written sources, which offer varying stories as to the founding of Delphi. Scott suggests that all these sources were made after the fact and ‘all seem to have been oriented toward explaining, justifying, and mirroring its later, central position in the Greek world, the dual nature of the site and its god, and even perhaps toward defending and buttressing that position in the face of increasing competition from other oracular shrines’ (p. 41). To better understand the earliest history of Delphi, we have to turn toward the archaeological evidence, and Scott does a good job summarizing the results of more than a century’s worth of excavations in the remainder of this chapter.

Chapter 3, ‘Transformation’, starts with a discussion of important changes at Delphi in the late eighth century BC, when it ‘seems to have taken a quantum leap’ (p. 53), as indeed did many settlements in Greece around this time. For this period, there is no archaeological evidence to suggest the oracle had already been installed. Scott emphasizes that the sources for the Archaic period are often not without their problems, since many events ascribed to the eighth and seventh centuries BC by later authors may have been entirely invented. Nevertheless, he puts forth a valiant effort, using Herodotus, Strabo, and other authors, with a good deal of archaeology thrown in for good measure. The end result is a good, if probably not definitive, overview of Delphi in the eighth and seventh centuries BC.

Chapter 4, ‘Rebirth’, kicks off with a discussion of the First Sacred War of the early sixth century BC, which was long believed to have been a key event in the history of Delphi, but which others have suggested was actually fictitious. Scott avoids spending too much time to discuss historical quandaries and instead turns to the archaeological evidence, which points to significant changes at Delphi in the first half of the sixth century BC, and suggests that ‘the First Sacred War fits neatly as an explanation for all these changes’ (p. 74). The remainder of the chapter tracks other developments in Delphi down to about the middle of the sixth century BC. Part II, ‘Some achieve greatness’, focuses on Delphi’s golden age, during which it actually became the centre of the Classical world.

Chapter 5, ‘Fire’, starts with Delphi ablaze in 548 BC. The sanctuary was rebuilt in a much grander way. Scott focuses on how money was raised to pay for the reconstruction; at the same time, the site seems not have lost any importance. New offerings were made and treasuries were constructed by various cities to house their lavish gifts; the Siphian treasury, for example, dates to this period.

Chapter 6, ‘Domination’, deals with Delphi after the defeat of the Persians in 479 BC. This is the period during which Delphi gained new splendour and probably achieved the height of its power. Scott sketches the importance of Delphi after the Persian Wars and further through the fifth century BC. Special emphasis is placed on the strained relationship between Athens and Delphi when the former built its empire and got involved in the Peloponnesian War. Chapter 7, ‘Renewal’, continues the story and picks up immediately after the Spartan victory over Athens in Aegospotami, up to the Fourth Sacred War, which ended in victory for Philip of Macedon in 338 BC. Chapter 8, ‘Transition’, bridges the gap between Philip and the end of the third century BC.

The third and final part of the book is entitled, ‘Some have greatness thrust upon them’. This part focuses on Delphi from the Hellenistic period onwards and into the nineteenth century. The emphasis is very much again on providing a historical overview, and as such the contents of these chapters don’t warrant, I think, as much comment as earlier parts of this book did. Chapter 9, ‘A new world’, begins by saying that, in the early second century BC, ‘the Delphians found themselves in a curious limbo’ (p. 183). The scene is set for Roman intervention and the chapter ends with Octavian. In chapter 10, ‘Renaissance’, Scott deals with Delphi under the Early Roman Principate. Chapter 11, ‘Finaly glory?’, focuses on Hadrian and later Roman emperors, with the final pages devoted to the role of Delphi in an increasingly Christianized Roman Empire. Delphi’s further is the subject of chapter 12, ‘The journey continues’. After a few comments on Delphi in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, Scott skips ahead to the fifteenth century and puts a heavy emphasis on interest in the site in the nineteenth century, and the start of excavations in 1892.

After part III follows an epilogue and a conclusion. The epilogue deals with the excavations at Delphi that started in 1892. The conclusion returns to the argument presented in the prologue. Scott argues that Delphi ‘continues to matter today’ (p. 290), which I always find a contentious thing to say and which is not, I believe, actually true: most people presumably don’t really care much about ancient Greek sites, and the fact that its ruins are depicted on postage stamps does not make the site relevant to the average man on the street (whoever that might be). Nevertheless, Scott has succeeded in crafting an erudite and interesting history of this site and the Panhellenic sanctuary, and that is what the book must ultimately be judged on.

The book is more than 400 pages in length, of which 100 pages are taken up by notes and bibliographic references. But this reviewer cannot help but wonder if a more rigorous editor would not have been able to distil the contents down to less than 300 pages in total, making it an easier-to-read handbook. As it is, some of the text tends to feel a little long-winded at times. The author also uses a number of colloquialisms that tended to take me out of the narrative. For example, on page 85, the oracle of Delphi is said to ‘play hardball’ with some Greeks, and on page 108, we are introduced to ‘an era of building über-rich treasury structures’. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile overview of an important sanctuary, and modern visitors will appreciate the brief guide to the site and its museum on pp. 291–301. Despite a few minor niggles, this is a good book and definitely worth a spot on your shelf.

Written by Dr Josho Brouwers, editor of Ancient Warfare magazine.

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