Tag Archives: Greece

The Minoans



Massive spending in a crisis brought bloody consequences in ancient Athens



A steel engraving of the naval battle of Arginusae in 406 B.C.
Allgemeine Weltgeschichte, 1898/Getty Images

Mark Munn, Pennsylvania State University

The jump in federal spending in response to the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic is not a new idea. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the people of ancient Athens had a similar plan – which succeeded in meeting the major threat they faced, but then tore Athenian society apart in a tangle of political recriminations after the crisis had passed.

As a historian of ancient Greece, the most telling parallel I see between current events and that long-ago past is not the plague that broke out in Athens in 430 B.C. I’m more worried by the example of extreme partisan politics that befell Athens a couple of decades later, which I detail in one of my books, “The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates.”

A massive mobilization

In 406 B.C., Athens, a mega-power of the ancient Mediterranean that had built its economy on maritime trade, faced a crisis. Despite recent successes in battle, deep partisan divisions over military leadership had left Athenian forces momentarily vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, rival city-state Sparta had gained the backing of Persia and was building a navy that could challenge Athens’ control of the sea.

When the Spartans struck, they put the weakened Athenian fleet on the defensive, threatening to crush it and bring Athens to its knees.

In the face of near-certain disaster, the Athenians rallied to respond, accelerating a shipbuilding program already underway by mobilizing all the resources of their Aegean empire. A new tax was passed on personal wealth, and additional money was raised by melting down the golden statues of Victory that had been dedicated on the Acropolis. The resulting coins were spent buying Macedonian pine to make oars to power the triremes, the most advanced naval fighting ships the world had yet seen.

To pull the oars, all able-bodied Athenian men, including knights who normally did not serve in the navy, were called up. Even that was not enough. The Athenians offered citizenship to all resident foreigners and slaves who were willing to serve.

In a little more than a month, the Athenians had assembled a fleet of triremes powerful enough to challenge the Spartan fleet and regain control of the sea.

An enormous battle and victory

In midsummer, 406 B.C., the Athenian and Spartan fleets met in battle in the waters between the island of Lesbos and the coast of Asia Minor. It’s known as the battle of Arginusae, after the small islands off the Asian coast that served as a base for the Athenian fleet; today they are the Turkish islands of Garip and Kalem near the city of Dikili.

Athens won decisively, killing the Spartan commander and destroying nearly half his fleet. The victory was costly: Athens lost 25 out of their 150 triremes, each with a crew of 200 men. A few of the ships were sunk close to shore, and their crews were rescued. But most of the ships lost, carrying more than 4,000 men, were adrift farther out at sea, and went down in a storm that came up in the afternoon of the battle.

Athens was saved. Sparta pleaded for peace, but Athens rejected the terms offered, confident that its navy’s proven strength required no compromises with its foe. The fleet’s commanders, eight of the 10 generals elected annually by the people of Athens, were the heroes of the day. In the elections that followed in the weeks after that battle, six of the eight were reappointed to their commands.

The remaining two generals came home to undergo a mandatory part of public service to Athens: a review of their year in office and an audit of their spending on the public’s behalf.

Rowers in a Greek trireme are carved on a monument dating to close to the time of the battle of Arginusae.
Athens, Athens, Acropolis Museum no. 1339/Mark Munn, CC BY-ND

What happened to the money?

As Athens was preparing for battle, all the generals were entrusted with extraordinary amounts of money to finish and outfit ships, to hire and provision crews and more, all at top speed. In the haste to get the job done, not all the money was accounted for.

This was an opening for partisan prosecutors to investigate. One popular politician, a watchdog of the people’s money, filed charges of financial wrongdoing against one of the fleet’s generals.

The investigation revealed deeper evidence of financial abuse and mismanagement involving other generals as well as the original one accused. All the generals who had commanded during the battle were summoned back to Athens so their accounts could be audited. Four of the remaining six returned home; the other two chose not to return, fearing the consequences that awaited them at home.

An attempt to turn the tables

The generals faced prosecution from political opponents, including men who had served as ship captains during the battle and therefore would know about financial malfeasance in the preparations. If convicted, the generals faced having all their property confiscated and their Athenian citizenship revoked – changing them from national heroes to complete outcasts.

Together, the generals decided to defend themselves by attacking: They accused two of their most prominent opponents, popular political rivals who had been officers under their command, of failing to carry out their duties of recovering the shipwrecked crews. It was a serious charge, alleging responsibility for most of the battle’s casualties, that could have rendered the accusers ineligible to prosecute the generals.

The generals’ strategy backfired. Such serious new charges meant the whole matter was referred to the full Athenian assembly, the sovereign decision-making body of 5,000 to 6,000 Athenians. There, the two accused officers defended themselves against charges of dereliction of duty by producing the generals’ own report from after the battle, which made clear the storm – not human negligence – had made the rescues impossible.

That outraged the Athenians, who were angry at the generals for so transparently trying to escape their own accountability that they would accuse their officers of capital crimes. What began as an investigation of financial wrongdoing had become a contest over blame for the loss of life after the battle. The mood of the assembly determined the outcome, which was that all the generals were responsible for failing to save their men after the battle. The surviving records say nothing about the outcome of the charges of financial wrongdoing.

The verdict called for capital punishment: All six generals who had returned to Athens were put to death by hemlock poisoning.

A private grave relief in memory of an Athenian marine who died at sea; the date is uncertain but most likely from a decade or more after the battle of Arginusae.
Athens, National Archaeological Museum, no. 752/Mark Munn, CC BY-ND

Mob anger – or brutal justice?

The writers who recorded these events were, for the most part, Athenians who were appalled by this horrible display of mob anger. They told their story as a miscarriage of justice, a lesson of Athenian democracy at its worst.

But their condemnation of this angry decision obscures the fact that everything began with enormous spending in response to an urgent crisis. Actions that seemed necessary at the peak of the emergency ended up as cover for misappropriations of public money.

But once the crisis passed, people saw those actions in a different light. Those who were found to have used the panic of the moment as an opportunity for personal gain ultimately paid the highest price. No doubt part of the reason they were judged so harshly was because so many of their fellow citizens had been forced to sacrifice their lives in a battle that enriched the powerful few.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Mark Munn, Professor of Ancient Greek History and Greek Archaeology, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Thucydides and the plague of Athens – what it can teach us now



Pericles Funeral Oration on the Greek 50 Drachmai 1955 Banknote.
Shutterstock

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.

These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.

One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.

Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:

Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered

in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded

quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.

Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.

First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go

a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.

The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.

Plague narratives

About 270 years after the Iliad, or thereabouts, plague is the centrepiece of two great classical Athenian works – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Book 2 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.

Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.

Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.

Statue portrait of historian Thucydides outside the Austrian parliament in Vienna.
Shutterstock

A health crisis

The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).

Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.

Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.

He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.

Michiel Sweerts’ Plague in an Ancient City (circa 1652).
Wikimedia

The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.

Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.

Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.

The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.

Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.

As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.

The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.

The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.

Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.

A modern lens

Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.

Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.

Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.

The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.The Conversation

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


2 Kings in Sparta



Hidden women of history: Neaera, the Athenian child slave raised to be a courtesan



Gustave Boulanger, The Slave Market, 1886.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

The ancient worlds of Greece and Rome have perhaps never been as popular as they presently are. There are numerous television series and one-off
documentaries covering both “big picture” perspectives and stories of ordinary people.

Neaera was a woman from fourth century BCE Athens whose life is significant and sorrowful – worthy to be remembered – but may never feature in a glossy biopic.

Possibly born in Corinth, a place where she lived from at least a young age, Neaera was raised by a brothel-keeper by the name of Nicarete.

Her predicament was the result of her being enslaved to Nicarete. While we don’t know the reason for this, we do know that foundlings were common in antiquity. The parents of baby Neaera, for whatever reason, left her to fate – to die by exposure or be collected by a stranger.

From a young age, Neaera was trained by Nicarete for the life of a hetaira (a Classical Greek term for “courtesan”). It was Nicarete who also named her, giving her a typical courtesan title: “Neaera” meaning “Fresh One”.

Ancient sources reveal Naeara’s life in the brothel. In a legal speech by the Athenian politician and forensic orator, Apollodorus, the following description is provided:

There were seven young girls who were purchased when they were small children by Nicarete … She had the talent to recognise the potential beauty of little girls and knew how to raise them and educate them with expertise – for it was from this that she had made a profession and from this came her livelihood.

She called them ‘daughters’ so that, by displaying them as freeborn, she could obtain the highest prices from the men wishing to have intercourse with them. After that, when she had enjoyed the profit from their youth, she sold every single one of them …

The occasion for the passage from Apollodorus is a court case that was brought against Neaera in approximately 343 BCE. Neaera was around 50-years-old by the time of her prosecution, which took place in Athens.




Read more:
The grim reality of the brothels of Pompeii


Trafficking and abuse

The circumstances of her trial are complicated, involving the buying, selling, trafficking and abuse of Neaera from a very young age.

Piecing together the evidence from Apollodorus’ prosecution speech, which has come down to us with the title, “Against Neaera”, it transpires that two of her clients, who shared joint ownership of her, allowed her to buy her freedom around 376 BCE.

Afterwards, she moved to Athens with one Phrynion, but his brutal treatment of her saw Neaera leave for Megara, where circumstances caused her to return to sex work.

A man and a prostitute reclining on a bench during a banquet; Tondo from an Attic red-figure kylix, circa 490 BC.
Wikimedia Commons

Further intrigues involving men and sex work saw Neaera eventually face trial on the charge of falsely representing herself as a free Athenian woman by pretending to be married to a citizen.

The charge of fraud was based on the law that a foreigner could not live as a common law “spouse” to a freeborn Athenian. The fact that Neaera also had three children, a daughter by the name of Phano, and two sons, further complicated the trial and its range of legal entanglements.

While we never discover the outcome of the trial, nor what happened to Neaera, the speech of the prosecutor remains, and reveals much about her life. Unfortunately, the speech of the defence is lost.

We do know, however, that the man with whom Neaera cohabitated, Stephanus, delivered the defence. Of course, he was not only defending Neaera – he was defending himself! Should Neaera have been found guilty, Stephanus
would have forfeited his citizenship and the rights that attended it.

Stephanus had a history of legal disputes with the prosecutor, Apollodorus. He also had a history of being in trouble with the law. For example, he had illegally married off Phano – not once, but twice – to Athenian citizens. Shady “get rich quick” schemes motivated such activities, and it seems that Stephanus was adept at using both his “wife” and his “daughter’ for bartering and personal profit.

Another accusation revealed during the trial alleged that Stephanus
arranged for Neaera to lure men to his house, engage them in sex, and then bribe them. And while Apollodorus provides no evidence for such a scam ever having taken place, judging by Stephanus’ track-record, it does not seem implausible.




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Friday essay: the myth of the ancient Greek ‘gay utopia’


Remembering Neaera

Reading through the long, complex and damnatory speech of Apollodorus, we risk losing sight of the woman at the centre of it. Caught amid petty politics, sex scandals, and personal vendettas is a woman who becomes peripheral to the machismo being played out in court.

Yet, somewhat ironically, this is the only ancient source we have that records not only Neaera and the life she was forced to lead – but the life of a hetaira from infancy, girlhood, middle-age and, ultimately, past her “use by” date.

Had she not been taken to court as part of the factional fighting of ancient Athens, had she not had her reputation annihilated so publicly, we would have never known about Neaera.

Were it not for Apollodorus and his ancient version of “slut-shaming”, Neaera’s story would have been lost.

But it hasn’t been lost. Somewhere, amid the male rhetoric, her story endures. Unfortunately, her voice is not preserved. All we can read in the speech, “Against Neaera” are the voices of men; her prosecutor and the witnesses he calls to the stand.

Ironically, these testimonies and accusations – so casually introduced in ancient Athens, but received so differently today – emphasise the inhumanity of the sex trade in an antiquity too often and too unthinkingly valorised.

The document known as “Against Neaera” is the only record we have of this (almost) hidden woman. It prompts us to remember. And it’s important to remember Neaera.The Conversation

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Ancient Helike


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ancient Greek city of Helike and how it disappeared in an earthquake.

For more visit:
https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2019/06/what-happened-to-ancient-helike.html


Trees, the ancient Macedonians, and the world’s first environmental disaster


Anthony Dosseto, University of Wollongong and Alex Francke, University of Wollongong

It’s a simple enough equation: good soil is the key to good food. And good soil starts with trees.

Alexander the Great conquered a vast empire that extended from Greece all the way to India. However, his ancestors’ fortune was a mixed bag. A new series of studies show the ancient Macedonians may have been struck by one of the earliest environmental disasters linked to human activity.

Ancient sediment records sealed in lakes for thousands of years reveals how logging may have affected erosion, which ultimately destroyed the capacity of the ancient Macedonians to grow food.




Read more:
Soil is the key to our planet’s history (and future)


More trees, on the other hand, appears to have made soil erosion less susceptible to climate change. The lessons for modern people – and our future prosperity – are clear.

Soil is a kingmaker

Something wonderful happens when rocks, formed in the guts of the Earth, come into contact with air and water: they break down into clays (and other things) to form soils. Because of their ability to store water and nutrients, soils are the food basket of land plants and all the animals that feed on them, including us.

Preserving soil has been the key for success to all past civilisations. Those who lost it would rapidly be precipitated into oblivion. This happened everywhere: the Middle East, Greece, Rome and Mesamerica.

Preserving our soil should therefore be at the centre of our concerns (although it rarely gets a look-in on the nightly news).

Erosion isn’t just a problem because the land loses soil. This soil enters waterways, increasing the sediment load of rivers. This high sediment load harms freshwater and coastal ecosystems, including fish population and, ultimately, us. We therefore need to better understand how climate change and humans shape soil erosion.

Macedonian timber and the first environmental disaster

The chemistry of sediments deposited on lake’s bottom records how the environment changed over hundreds and thousands of years. Recently, we have studied sediments from Lake Dojran, straddling the border between Northern Macedonia and Greece. We looked at the past 12,000 years of sediment archive and found about 3,500 years ago, a massive erosion event happened.




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500 years of drought and flood: trees and corals reveal Australia’s climate history


Pollen trapped in the lake’s sediment suggests this is linked to deforestation and the introduction of agriculture in the region. Macedonian timber was highly praised for ship building at the time, which could explain the extent of deforestation.

A massive erosion event would have catastrophic consequences for agriculture and pasture. Interestingly, this event is followed by the onset of the so-called Greek “Dark Ages” (3,100 to 2,850 years ago) and the demise of the highly sophisticated Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation.

Further to the west, at the crossroads between Albania and Norther Macedonia, Lake Ohrid holds a much longer storyline: an international scientific drilling program is uncovering the past million year of climate and environmental stories locked in Lake Ohrid sediments.

We recently looked at Lake Ohrid on a more modest time scale, similar to the Lake Dojran project: the past 16,000 years.

At Lake Ohrid, there are also signs of increased soil erosion around 4,000 years ago. These results are consistent with previous suggestions of a human role on soil erosion at other lakes in Greece.

Overall, there are clear signs that deforestation and the development of agriculture precedes the Greek “Dark Ages”. While the causal link cannot be established with certainty, this timeline could represent the first negative feedback loop where humans depleted environmental resources, which in turn harmed communities.

Trees can make soil less sensitive to climate change

Lake Ohrid tells us another interesting story: until 8,000 years ago, soil erosion was closely following climate change. During dry and cold periods, erosion was shallow, probably as a consequence of dry conditions; while during warmer periods, higher levels of erosion delivered more sediment to the lake.

Around 8,000 years ago, something interesting happens: trees become the dominant type of vegetation cover. While trees were already abundant in previous warm periods (and less during cold periods), from 8,000 years ago onwards, they overwhelm the type of pollen that fell into the lake and became trapped in the sediment.




Read more:
Forest soil needs decades or centuries to recover from fires and logging


This tree dominance has an important consequence for soil erosion: after 8,000 years ago, soil erosion became shallow and remained so, even while the climate continued to oscillate. We can see soil erosion became less sensitive to climatic fluctuations.

We already knew that trees, thanks to their deep roots, help stabilise soil and prevent its loss; what we learn here is that over a certain threshold of tree cover, they also make soil erosion much less sensitive to climate change.

Lake Ohrid provides us with an important lesson, especially as we are increasingly concerned with how our soil and water resources will be affected by global warming. If we want to preserve our soils and rivers (and feed our communities) we need to ensure that enough of our landscape is covered with trees.

Planting trees and forest management should not be a concern for nature enthusiasts only, but for all us – regardless of political inclination – who enjoy eating. Understanding the past is not simply about learning from our ancestors’ mistakes so we do not repeat them, but freeing ourselves from their grip so new paths unfold ahead of us.The Conversation

Anthony Dosseto, Associate Professor, University of Wollongong and Alex Francke, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Seleucid War



Hidden women of history: the priestess Pythia at the Delphic Oracle, who spoke truth to power



File 20190121 100292 1qsueuj.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
An Attic red-figure kylix from Vulci (Italy), 440-430 BC, depicting King Aigeus in front of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi.
Wikimedia Commons

Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

In a time and place that offered few career opportunities for women, the job of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi stands out. Her position was at the centre of one of the most powerful religious institutions of the ancient world. The competing Greek city states had few overarching authorities (political or otherwise), so the significance of her voice should not be underestimated.

Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Pythia was at the core what we today call a “knowledge economy”. Her role may well have involved the gathering, re-packaging, and distribution of information, with the ultimate intent of providing sound advice on the trivial and not-so-trivial questions of life in the ancient world.

Jacek Malczewski Pytia, 1917.
Wikimedia Commons

The “Pythia” is the official job title. We know of several women by name who, during the long history of this institution (from ca. 800 BCE to AD 390/91), held that role, including Phemonoe and Aristonike. Indeed, at some stage Delphi became so busy that three Pythias were appointed to serve in the role simultaneously.

The oracle was consulted by the movers and shakers of the ancient world on a diverse range of problems. For the Pythia, this meant the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues of public and individual concern: cult matters, warfare, the relationships between existing city-states, and the foundation of new ones.

Numerous personal questions were also put to the oracle on matters of lovesickness, career advice, child birth, and how to get offspring. So, by all standards, this job was demanding yet also diverse and rewarding — a position powerful enough to change the course of history.

Yet right from the beginning, efforts to deprive the priestess of her power prevailed, particularly in older classical scholarship. Surely a woman, especially one in such a paternalistic society as ancient Greece, could not hold that powerful a position?

Some scholars suggested that the Pythia actually babbled unintelligible gibberish and that her words were later put into beautiful, deep, and meaningful hexameter verse — by male priests.

Yet in our ancient sources there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was anyone other than the Pythia herself who came up with the responses. To the contrary: she is regularly named as the one and only source of the prophecies delivered at Delphi. There is no word of male priests, beyond those in purely administrative and assisting roles.




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Hidden women of history: Hop Lin Jong, a Chinese immigrant in the early days of White Australia


Insult by oracle

The position of the Pythia seemed to have entailed the extraordinary opportunity to speak unwelcome truth to those in power.

A Spartan once approached the oracle with the intention of being confirmed as the wisest man in the world. In response to this question the Pythia named another person who was wiser.

The Greek city of Megara allegedly asked the Pythia in about 700 BCE who were the best of all the Greeks, hoping to be named first. The Pythia mentioned two better cities , concluding with the line, “[Y]ou, o Megarians, [are] neither third nor fourth.” Surely, the Megarians did not see that coming!

Cleisthenes, meanwhile, the famous tyrant of Sicyon, asked whether he should remove the cult of the hero Adrastus from the city. He received an oracle that came straight to the point: “Adrastus is king of Sicyon, and you but a common slayer.”

This kind of reality check and straight talk would certainly have upset those with egos accustomed to flattery and agreement.

The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi.
Wikimedia Commons

Of course, it is not always possible to tell whether these and other responses of the oracle were authentic or whether the whole incident was part of later historiographic lore. Yet whatever the case: the fact is that it was a woman who was attributed such a sharp, judgemental voice.

And her voice proved extraordinarily unimpeachable. The Greeks thought that it was the god Apollo who conveyed his superior divine knowledge through the mouth of the Pythia, so the priestess herself was largely beyond reproach. While itinerant seers, augurs, and oracle mongers feature in classical literature as corrupt and unreliable, the position of the Pythia seems to have stood above all criticism.




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Hidden women of history: Théroigne de Méricourt, feminist revolutionary


The job and its challenges

John Collier, Priestess of Delphi, 1891.
Wikimedia Commons

Being a Pythia was not always easy. Several ancient enquirers sought to influence the kind of answer they hoped to get from the oracle. Subtle manipulation in how the questions were put, not-so-subtle bribery, and even an attempt to force the oracle to deliver responses on a non-auspicious day are all on record – as are complaints about unfathomable responses.

For instance the Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and horse whisperer Xenophon allegedly enquired at Delphi to which deity he should sacrifice and pray so that the military expedition he was about to join would be a success. He was later reprimanded by the philosopher Socrates for having posed a manipulative question. Socrates felt he should have asked whether it would be a success, rather than how.

Cleisthenes was said to have bribed the Pythia to deliver the same response to all Spartan requests at the oracle, no matter the question: to free Athens from the rule of tyrants.

And after a series of spectacular mishaps based on misread oracles, the Lydian king Croesus complained at the Delphic Oracle about having been misled. The Pythia responded that he himself was to blame for his misfortune: He should have interpreted the Pythia’s word correctly.

We also know of several instances in which the Pythia refused outright to respond to a question that, in one way or another, seemed unreasonable.

Job requirements

Delphic tripod. Paestan red-figured bell-krater, ca. 330 BC.
Wikimedia Commons

What did it take to become the Pythia? Was she a local girl from a neighbouring village? Was any kind of training provided to candidates? Or were they thrown in the deep end?

Unfortunately, the ancient sources are silent. The Nobel prize-winning author William Golding in his (posthumously published) last novel The Double Tongue, written from the perspective of a Pythia, sees her as a local girl who was unable to get herself married and so took on that role.

Yet again, this sounds like speculation designed to downplay the position.

The kind of skills required to be successful in the role are easier to reconstruct. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi served as a marketplace for representatives from all over the ancient Greek world (and beyond) who came for a variety of reasons.

In addition to the oracle, the sanctuary housed regular athletic competitions (the so-called Pythian Games, analogous to the more famous Olympic Games). With its numerous temples and monuments, the site was also a popular tourist destination. All these activities together served to establish a busy hub, where information, news, and gossip of all kinds would have circulated freely.

So perhaps the key to the Pythia’s success was simply to listen closely? There is good evidence to suggest that the fantastic tales of prediction and fulfilment are a matter of the (later) historiographic tradition and that it was mostly quite straightforward questions of everyday life that were put to the Pythia for comment, along the lines suggested by the ancient author Plutarch, who was also a priest at Delphi: Will I win? Shall I marry? Is it a good idea to sail the sea? Shall I take up farming? Shall I go abroad?

If this was indeed the case, it would, more often than not, have been possible to glean the information necessary to answer any particular enquiry from the chatter of those queuing to consult the oracle, to watch or participate in the games, or to take in the monuments. The Pythia may have trailblazed the knowledge economy millennia before the arrival of “big data” and the invention of the internet.The Conversation

Julia Kindt, Professor, Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Thracian History



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