The Apollo of Delphi was the god of black jokes. Herodotus says that Croesus, legendarily wealthy king of Lydia, feared an attack from the envious Persians. He couldn’t decide whether to hold fast or launch a pre-emptive strike, so he sent emmissaries to consult the oracle at Delphi. She said that if he crossed the River halys and attacked with vigour he would destroy a great nation. He did, in 532 BC, and he did destroy a great nation, his own. His army was annihilated.
Between the eighth century BC and the second century AD, Delphi became the most beautiful, wealthy and cosmopolitan of Greek sites. It was terraced into the slopes of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, built around a cleft in the rock from which volcanic gas seeped, sending the oracle into a sacred trance in which she transmitted the words of the god Apollo. Her words were often entirely incomprehensible, and were translated into elegant verse by the temple priests.
People came from all over the Greek world, usually bringing gifts, to ask advice of the oracle, the Pythia. Where her words had a happy outcome the custom was to return and express thanks in concrete terms. On a happier occasion Croesus had given a solid silver bullock.
The site acquired magnificent temples, statues, altars and treasure-houses, built in all the Greek orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, and in styles and materials reflecting the donors’ origins. The stone includes marble from the mainland, the islands and Africa. The main temples, of Apollo and Athena, were rebuilt many times, each time more splendidly.
One of the treasuries is said to have held the flax cables from King Xerxes’ pontoon of ships across the Hellespont, his bridge for the Persians invading from Asia into Europe. On that occasion the Athenians eventually realized that when the oracle said they should depend on their wooden walls, she meant their ships, not a higher fence – they defeated the Persians in the great sea battle of Salamis, and finished them off at the Hellespont.
The tholos, a superbly decorated Doric round temple, of the fourth century BC, was known to Vitruvius and inspired several Roman circular buildings, and through them was copied into Renaissance times.
There was so much superstitious weight attached to the idea of the oracle that she was formally banned, by the Emperor Theodosius, in AD 385. It was a symbolic gesture: she had already spoken her last.
Julian the Apostate had sent to ask if the ancient gods could prevail against Christianity. The last elderly Pythia said that Apollo’s sacred olive grove had been felled: ‘Apollo hath no chapel, no prophesying Bay, no talking spring. The stream is dry that had so much to say’.
The site was gradually forgotten. It was rediscovered by 17th-century travellers, whose drawings show a few broken carvings on a green hillside cropped by sheep. The first major excavation was by a French team in 1892, and work has continued on the site ever since, disentangling the layers of ritual worship, from the earliest Mycenaean offerings almost 3,000 years ago. Some of the most important monuments have been reconstructed, including the only monumental Ionic column and capital found intact, given by the island of Naxos. It stood over 9 m (30ft) tall, topped by a splendidly jaunty winged sphinx, and it has allowed the proportions of similar capitals at Ephesus and other sites to be accurately calculated.
The quality of what was found makes art historians and archaeologists wonder what has been lost.
Nero is recorded removing a shipload of 900 statues to melt down for their bronze. Among the handful of survivors was the grave young ‘Charioteer of Delphi’, found in a heap of rubble where he had been tumbled by a fourth-century earthquake. He was almost complete except for his left arm, his hair tied back with a silver inlaid ribbon, his right hand still holding the reins. He is regarded as one of the most outstanding surviving pieces of ancient sculpture, but he cannot have been the most outstanding statue on the site – he was given to commemorate not a great battle, but the victory of a rather obscure Sicilian prince in a chariot race.