BBC Delphi The Bellybutton of the Ancient World

BBC Delphi The Bellybutton of the Ancient World


By the mid 4th century, this was
one of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular places
in the entire ancient world. Its combination of art, religion,
money made it, in modern day terms, the equivalent of the wealth
of the Swiss banks, the religious
power of the Vatican, the advertising potential
of the World Cup and the historical importance of
all the world’s museums combined. This is Delphi, on the slope of
Mount Parnassus in central Greece. Home of the great Oracle of Apollo,
Delphi was the Omphalos, the belly button,
the centre of the ancient world. According to ancient myth, Zeus sent two eagles
from opposite ends of the Earth. And this is where they met. It was several days’ journey
from the main cities of
the ancient Greek world. Yet for centuries, not just ordinary people,
but kings and ambassadors from great cities and empires
struggled up here in search of answers to
their most puzzling questions. Fundamentally, they came here to ask
the Oracle of the god Apollo
about the future. But however unwelcome,
unhelpful, indeed awful, those
responses were, they kept coming. Why? And why do we still
come here as tourists today? For me, it was because Delphi
told the ancient Greeks
something about themselves. Indeed, above the entrance
to the temple of Apollo, where they went to see the Oracle,
was a simple inscription. It said, “Gnothi seauton”.
Know thyself. And that message, I think,
isn’t just important to
the ancient Greeks. I believe that know thyself,
the message of Delphi, and everything that was
incarnate in this place, still has meaning
and importance for us today. What the tourists see here
at Delphi has only been like
this for just over a century. Before that, it was a lost world. Scholars knew that Delphi had
been one of the most important
sanctuaries in ancient Greece. But it was buried beneath earth,
rocks and centuries of legend. The answer was to dig, and just about everybody
had their shovels at the ready. Ever since the Renaissance,
Europeans had looked to ancient Greece as
the foundation of Western culture. By the 1890s, American, French
and German teams were negotiating with the Greek government
for the right to excavate. Eventually, in 1892,
the French won the race. They sweetened the deal
by lowering tariffs on imported
Greek currants and olive oil. Ever since, they have led
the search for ancient Delphi. When I first began studying the
sanctuary as a young postgraduate, French scholars
like Dominique Mulliez
were an enormous inspiration. The first problem for
the archaeologists was that there were people still living right
on top of the ancient sanctuary. Despite the difficulties,
the sanctuary and its lost treasures gradually began to emerge
from the soil. The legend became a real place,
with an iconic reputation. In ancient times it had been
a communal sanctuary, visited freely by people from
all over the ancient world. Now, once again,
people flocked to Delphi. It became a beacon
for internationalism just
like the modern Olympic games, which were founded
at the same time in the 1890s. And, in fact, Delphi still is
a beacon for internationalism. Here’s how ICOMOS,
the UNESCO organisation, described Delphi when they made
it a World Heritage Site in 1986. “This reaffirms that one
of the enduring missions “of Delphi is to bring together men
and women who otherwise remain
divided by material interests.” But is that true? And if so, how and why did
Delphi get such a reputation? The only way to answer that is to
find out what was really going on
at this site thousands of years ago. At its height, the sanctuary at
Delphi covered more than 100 acres. The temple itself was surrounded by
hundreds of votive buildings, treasure houses,
porticoes and statues, all of them built by
grateful visitors. Some of them had come
hundreds of miles. They included rulers from across
the ancient world, from the legendary King Midas
in the 8th century BC, to the Roman Emperor Hadrian,
1,000 years later. And the visitors came
for the Oracle. To ask the god Apollo for answers
to their questions about the future. But what actually happened
when they got here? Well, luckily, one of
the several accounts we have is the writings of a real insider. He was a priest at the temple
called Plutarch. What Plutarch tells us
is that the Oracle operated on only nine days each year. On those days, crowds of worshippers
would queue to ask their question. Now faced with the front
of the temple of Apollo and
the inscription “Know thyself,” the consultant had to decide
what their question would be. Some examples. King Croesus
from Lydia in modern-day Turkey wanted to ask whether he should
attack his next-door enemy empire. Or the Athenians, when they were
faced with the Persian invasion, asked what should they do? But the thing is,
we don’t know exactly how
the consultation took place. But if we can get inside the temple,
perhaps we can get a better idea. And here we are,
inside the sacred temple of Apollo, following in the footsteps
of the people who came to
consult the Oracle. Moving from the public, front end
of the temple, towards the back, the inner sanctum,
the most sacred area. It’s here that
French archaeologists, in their most recent plan
of the temple, have discovered something new. Here, this rectangular structure,
what they’re calling an oikos, which may well be what the literary
sources talk about as the adyton, the home of the Pythian priestess
herself. But the thing is, we still don’t
know for sure the mechanics of what actually happened
in this space. What we do know
is that the Oracle was a woman. The priestess was said to sit on
top of a tripod set over a chasm in the rock,
from which vapours rose. She was reputed to breathe in
the vapours and answer in a trance, as if inspired by Apollo. The priestess gave her answers to
the applicant’s question from within the trance,
and once she had spoken, the applicants then had to try
to understand what she had said. So what was the prophetic vapour
that induced trances in
the priestess? Well, we now know
that Delphi’s geology
produced hallucinogenic fumes. The sanctuary grew up at a place
where two geological faults crossed. And here on the temple
floor you can see the signs of
subsidence caused by the two faults. And right beside the temple and
its Oracle, is a tell-tale deposit. This is travertine, formed when
water releases hydrocarbons, which it can only accumulate
if it exists around a fault line. Another sign, another piece of
evidence that the geological fault line runs right through
the temple at Delphi. Recent tests showed that one of
those hydrocarbons is the gas ethylene, which is known to affect
the working of the brain. That could explain the trance. But geology can only explain
why the priestess was here
in this exact position. It can’t help us explain why Delphi
became such a spectacular sanctuary, and why it maintained its reputation in the ancient world
for over 1,000 years. If we examine Greek religion itself
however, things become clearer. After all, Oracles were
a basic element of ancient Greek religious
traditions, and they included some sometimes
quite bizarre beliefs. And to understand the religion
of ancient Greece you have to
understand that there were gods in everything and everywhere. Poseidon in the sea, Hades in
the underworld, nymphs in the
grottos and caves, Pan around you. Every tree, every bush had a god. And in that world,
the gods had to be worshipped. They had to be prayed to. Demeter to fertilise your
fields, or Athena to watch over
your city or your industry. You had to make sacrifices. You met the gods in your dreams,
they cured your illnesses,
they were everywhere and they could be for you
or against you, so you had to do your utmost to
ensure that they were on your side. These ideas go back to the very
beginnings of ancient Greece. I’m on my way to one of the
oldest sacred places in the area. It lies even higher up Parnassus, behind the Delphi peaks,
right off the tourist map. It was one of the many places
where the ancients came to make
offerings to their many gods. This is the Corycian cave, sacred to Pan, the god of
the countryside, and to the Muses. It was only in 1969, some
eight decades after Delphi began to be excavated, that scholars began
to investigate this place properly. What they found was amazing. Some of the objects had been
put here nearly 7,000 years ago, long before the Oracle
at Delphi began to develop. Most of them weren’t as old as that,
but all of them were very different from the statues and great buildings
the French had found at Delphi. They found lots of things
like this in the cave. Perfume jars, small oil flasks, things like… necklaces, and rings. They’re all very low-key,
very personal, and demonstrate the
close and continuous relationship between the local Delphians
and their visitors, coming here to worship
their local gods in this cave. Offerings in places like this were
designed to keep the gods on-side. But the excavators discovered
the cave was more than just
a place to make offerings. There was something else found here.
In fact, 25,000 knucklebones,
animal knucklebones. Now knucklebones in ancient Greece
were used by kids as part of a game. And they may have been dedicated
here at the cave as part of a ceremony
that symbolised the transition between childhood and adulthood,
on the eve of marriage, for example. But about 20% of these knucklebones
were also inscribed with the names of gods, and some of them
looked like dice. In fact, we also found dice,
ancient dice, here in the cave. Now this is interesting, because
dice are sometimes associated with a cheaper, easier Oracle. So the cave was also used for
divination, a simple kind of Oracle. The aim was to lift the curtain
between the natural world and
the supernatural world of the gods. This cave was an arena for
spiritual communication going back
thousands and thousands of years. But down below, in the sanctuary
of Apollo at Delphi, it was all
on a very different scale. Here you had farmers, shepherds,
local villagers coming to
consult perhaps a dice Oracle. Down below you had tyrants,
cities, emperors, kings,
coming to ask their questions. Questions that would define
the history of the ancient world. Although the Delphic Oracle emerged
from traditions like this, Delphi itself began
as a typical settlement of the high country
of central Greece. And the earliest remains indicate
not a religious centre,
but a prosperous town. According to Catherine Morgan,
one of the leading experts
on early Delphi, it was the geography here
which may have made the difference. It’s a very well-connected area. We’re pretty
close to the major mountain
passes coming down from the North. We’re right on a major east-west
waterway. The really major junction. Here we’ve got an amazingly
fertile plain. We’ve got quite
a nice harbour, and then we’ve
got good pasture land up above. So all the resources are here. It’s a seriously big place. It’s not specifically a place of
pilgrimage and sanctuary, but it is a community
with a religious centre. Its location on long distance trade
routes brought visitors to Delphi in increasing numbers. And the reputation of Delphi’s
local Oracle began to spread. From 800 BC onwards, it began to
attract interest and offerings from further and further afield. At first, they were small
bronze statues of warriors and praying worshippers. Later they ran to giant bronze
cauldrons, and gold and silver, too. The Oracle was heading for stardom. And the economic effects
were enormous. Almost from the minute
you’ve separated the sanctuary
from the local surroundings, you’re creating a cuckoo. You’ve got something that requires
very, very high maintenance. It’s requiring an awful lot
of sacrificial animals,
lodgings, etcetera. Where are you going to get it from? You’re warping
the local economy to do that, and certainly a lot of what we know
implies an increasingly rich, pastoral economy supplying Delphi. So Delphi’s international career
began for real in the seventh century BC, and it’s a career
which still continues today. In one way, modern Delphi
is a reincarnation of
the ancient sanctuary. How you doing? Coming live from Delphi! It still brings people
from all over the world. They come now to learn about the
past, not the future, but they bring
with them stories about the present. Canada’s gotten off pretty scot-free
with regards to the economic crisis. They bring information,
in huge quantities. Huge riots, every single store
front window was smashed. To find out what’s going on around
the world, you hardly need to leave
Delphi’s cafes. The new line that they’ve been
promising for at least five years
now. The cuts are coming in slowly. Ancient Delphi was just the same. A huge mixture of visitors. And the more people who came,
the more information came with them, information which the priests
and the Oracle could use. So Delphi’s answers were
better informed, and much more likely to make sense. But the Oracle’s answers were
also famous for their ambiguity. They were only a basis for
interpretation, and to deal with that,
you had to know yourself. When the Athenians went to ask about
what they should do about the Persian invasion they were told
“Trust in your wooden walls.” Now they had to figure out
what that meant. They decided it meant the
wooden walls of their ships, and that turned out to be right.
But King Croesus, when he asked if he should attack his
neighbouring empire, he was told, “If you attack,
a great empire will fall.” He interpreted
that to mean his enemies. It turned out to be his own. He even complained to the Oracle
about the response he had got, but the response came back
to him saying, “It was your fault,
your misinterpretation.” The ambiguity of the response
forces the question back on us, forces us to know ourselves. Once the Oracle took off,
Delphi took off with it. It became the focus for a whole
range of other activities, as people began to come here
in huge numbers. And it was all good
business for a thriving city, which surrounded the sanctuary. Imagine what this place must
have been like at full capacity. When the games were on, maybe up to
40,000 people in the stadium, here in the theatre watching the
athletic and musical competitions. At night, gathered around
the landscape, with their campfires glittering
all over the valley. The animals that had to be brought
here, not just to sacrifice, but also to feed that many people. The noise, the smell,
all the tourists coming in and out as Delphi became
more and more famous. And in amongst that,
the temple of Apollo. And perhaps the consultants,
waiting desperately for the next
available day to see the Oracle. All that crammed into one
crag of the Parnassian mountains. Perhaps the most important
international event at Delphi was the athletic festival
called the Pythian Games. It took place every four years,
and rivalled the Olympics. At the top of the sanctuary,
there was a spectacular stadium. Here they ran running races. Elsewhere there was boxing,
all-in wrestling and chariot racing. The athletes competed naked
and their struggles for victory attracted spectators
from all over the Greek world. And the winners dedicated monuments
to celebrate their victory. One of Delphi’s most famous
treasures is the Charioteer. It was discovered in
three separate pieces right at
the beginning of the excavation. Six feet high, it’s one of
the few Greek sculptures to survive in bronze, and the statue still
preserves its original inlayed eyes, bits of the silver and copper
headband, and even some
silver teeth. The Charioteer was a magnificent
cry of triumph in honour of a tyrant
from far away Sicily. His horses had won the chariot race,
and he wanted the world to know it. But the triumphant horses
are missing, and all that is left to us is the clothed figure of
the slave who drove them to victory. Athletics and religion may seem for
us like uncomfortable bedfellows, but it couldn’t have been
more natural. People came to sanctuaries
to honour and worship the gods, and athletic and
musical competitions
were a great way of doing that. In fact, over here is one of
the best examples of just how tight that relationship
between religion and athletics was. It’s an instruction, in the wall
of the stadium, saying that wine, “to oinon maerfaren,” may not
be taken out – OUT – of the stadium! Not into, as we might expect. Out of the stadium, because they
were actually making sacrificial
wine inside the stadium to use in sacrifices that would have
preceded the athletic competitions. And if you did take that wine out of
the stadium, you got fined at least five drachmas and had to make
additional sacrifices to the god. Competition in the stadium wasn’t
the only kind going on at Delphi. Down below, in the sanctuary,
peoples and cities vied
with one another to shower the gods with
ever-grander dedications. They turned the whole place into
an echo chamber of competing voices coming live from Delphi,
a giant information exchange. It wasn’t just that information was
coming in to Delphi, it was also being broadcast
in a very public way. In a world without
mass communication technology, Delphi was the
giant notice board – the ancient equivalent of
Piccadilly Circus, Times Square, New York, or even the advert breaks
in Britain’s Got Talent. If you had a message to get across,
Delphi was the place to do it. That message could be carried
in many ways. Through elegant
sculpture, or expensive
buildings or precious vases. But more simply, it could
also be done through a text. Everywhere there are
inscriptions on the buildings. So far, scholars have counted
more than 3,000 individual texts. Some of them running
to hundreds of words. Literally, Delphi
was the Greek world’s notice board. And these dedications, in all their
forms, came from individuals and cities near and far. Dedications arrived from cities more
than 1,000 miles away, like the Greek colony
at Marseilles in France. They came from all kinds of places
and all kinds of people. Plutarch, in this description
of his travels and his visits
to the sanctuary, talks about one evening when he was walking with
friends, and they came across the
dedication of a certain Rhodopis. Rhodopis, from the city
of Naucratis in Egypt. Now Rhodopis was a prostitute,
a courtesan, and she’d made so much
money that she had dedicated piles of iron spits in the sanctuary,
along with an inscription saying
just how she’d earned it. Plutarch’s friends were indignant. So, if the Greeks came
here to “know themselves,”
what did they learn from the myriad of messages which were
being broadcast from this place? Lesson number one seems actually
to have been “show thyself.” And the bigger and bolder,
the better. In around 550 BC, the people
of the tiny island of Siphnos discovered gold
and silver mines on their island. In thanksgiving, they built
themselves a treasure house to hold their offerings
to Apollo at Delphi. It was packed with gold,
silver and other rich gifts. Even in the context of
this opulent sanctuary, it was a spectacular building. But today,
there’s almost nothing left to see. So even though I’m no artist,
I find it helps to try to draw what was once there to get
some idea of its magnificence. What you can see here today
is just the foundations. It was on top of those that they
placed the Siphnian marble, brought
all the way from their home island. This was the first building
at Delphi to be made
entirely of marble. And on top of the Siphnian marble
walls, sculpture in marble, and they didn’t stint there
either with the decoration. They commissioned some of
Greece’s finest sculptors
to adorn the treasury. And they put their most spectacular
scene on the wall facing the path up to the temple
where everyone could see it. It depicted the great Greek
myth about the war between
the gods and the giants. Carved with incredible
depth and skill to make the
figures leap out at the viewer. The ancient equivalent of
the 3D movies. In front, the portico was supported
by two enormous caryatid columns. And unlike what we see today, all the sculpture was brightly
painted and inlaid with precious metals to make the details
of the sculpture stand out. And if that seems flashy, well, that’s exactly
what it was meant to be. Over time this kind of thing gave
Delphi a collection of sculpture almost unparalleled
in the ancient world. But we also have to remember this. For the Greeks,
statues were not just stone. They were potentially animate. They lived,
they breathed, they responded. So when we look around here,
we shouldn’t see statues made of dead stone or bronze,
but statues shimmering with life. The Siphnian treasury marks
the cusp of the classical
age of ancient Greece. An age of which Delphi was
going to be the beating heart. But it was more than that. Delphi was the historical
logbook of the age. As every key moment in history was
represented here in bronze, gold, marble, so that history began
to accumulate a power of its own. And when the Greeks came here,
to ask the Oracle who they were, as the Oracle demanded, Delphi
itself provided a kind of answer, an answer that was growing
all the time. At this time, the answer seemed to
be that they were winners. The sanctuary became a kind of
trophy chest of Greek
victories in war. And, in particular,
their victories in their epic
struggle against the Persians. The initial Athenian victory at
Marathon in 490 BC, and the clinching victories
at Salamis in 480 BC and Plataea the following year. In celebrating these victories,
they created an ideal. That of Greek Unity. And it was first celebrated,
where else, but right here at
the Ompholos at Delphi. I worked beside Anne Jacquemin
when I first began to study
the sanctuary. Now she and her colleagues have made
an extraordinary discovery, which has finally confirmed
the importance of Delphi as a unifying space. It concerns the inscription on the
base of the giant statue of Apollo, which the cities who fought at
Salamis put up outside the temple. Unfortunately, the statue’s
dedicating inscription is damaged. The first word identifying
the dedicator is missing. Until this time, almost all
dedications had been by
individual people or cities. But here we know that the last word,
anethen, is in the plural. And the physical alignment of the
letters cuts down the possibilities. So the Salamis monument was
saying something completely new. That there was a community who
thought of themselves as Greeks, and it was not only united,
but victorious. This is exactly the kind
of unifying message that so excited the original excavators,
and indeed still excites UNESCO and
other international bodies today. The idea that Greece and the ancient
world was one nation, one country,
one idea. And it is an amazing idea. Greece in the ancient world,
most of the Greek cities spent all their time at each other’s
throats, not in unity. And this statue became a crucial
marker in the sanctuary as a result. It was known as Megale Andras,
the Big Man. This idea of Greek unity continued
to inspire dedications at Delphi. On the same terrace, a year or two
later, another dedication went up. It became the most famous of
all Delphi’s monuments. It celebrated the victory against
the Persians at Plataea. And on it were carved
the names of the cities
who had contributed soldiers. It was a huge bronze column made of
three coiled serpents supporting at the top
a golden tripod bowl. The serpent column was
a staggering nine metres high and it was to become the defining
icon of Delphi. But today in Delphi, there’s
only a replica, five feet tall. The victory at Plataea
was an amazing moment. Individual little cities of Greece
had managed to defeat the greatest
empire in the Mediterranean. And from that point, Greek unity
would be sung as an ideal by the poets, praised by
the philosophers, aimed at by the politicians. But it was always an ideal at risk
from the traditional rivalries
that made Greece what it was. Rivalries on display here
in the sanctuary. Even on the terrace surrounding
the serpent column, individual cities put up still
bigger monuments to their own glory. Despite the idealism,
the competition continued. In that competition,
one city took the lead, Athens, which ruled the roost for
four decades from 480BC to 440BC. It was Delphi’s advice
to the Athenians to rely on the wooden walls of their fleet
which had helped preserve the city
in the Persian wars. And that fed an Athenian cultural
explosion which can still be heard today, as classical art, philosophy
and literature were transformed. Modern Greece has always looked
back at that time as a golden age. Even today, there is a nod
to the Delphian way of doing things. Just as in Delphi,
ancient Greeks put up statues and
inscriptions about their victories, Here on the podium of the Parliament
building in Athens are the battle honours
of the modern Greeks, right up to Alamein and Korea. It’s no surprise that the modern-day
capital of Greece is Athens, for in the balmy days
after the Persian wars, it was the city of Athens
that benefited most. They had their fleet, they took
the fight to the enemy and then they created an empire that spanned
much of the ancient Greek world. Success allowed the Athenians
to decorate their city with some of the most beautiful
buildings the world has ever seen. And to fund a political system
whose ideals we still live by today, and even fight wars over
more than 2,500 years later. It was in Athens that democracy
was born and the idea that votes, not wealth or breeding,
should determine politics. Not far from the city centre,
you can climb a hill where
it all happened. Where the state assembly met,
composed of the whole
voting population. And astonishingly enough,
the speakers’ podium still survives, here in the middle of the flat space
where the citizens stood. Most people think of the Parthenon
as the centre of ancient Athens, but I believe that this place
is much more important. This was the assembly of the ancient
Athenians where they came to make every decision
including going to war. This was the place that allowed
Pericles later to claim that Athens
was an education to all of Greece. And, in fact, just centuries later,
it was the governing council at
Delphi who put it perhaps best. “It was the Athenian people being the
font and origins of all things beneficial to humanity, who raised
mankind from a bestial existence
to a state of civilization”. For those who built the modern
state of Greece and for those who excavated at Delphi,
that idea was an irresistible call to unpack the ancient world
and to make it part of their
and our identity. From then on, “know thyself”
meant knowing ancient Greece. Amazingly, we do know an enormous
amount about that democracy. We can actually see it in action. In a remote corner of
the university district is the state epigraphic museum. I like it because
it contains direct evidence of
how the Athenian democracy worked. Here is the machine which decided by lot who was to sit on
the 500-strong grand juries. Rather like a lottery machine today. Here is a list of those, rich and poor, who died
in battle for the democracy. It even names individuals
like Nikostratos and Philokomos, who were killed near the Black Sea. Here are pottery shards,
which bare the names of Athens’ most famous politicians
Themistokles and Pericles. But here, too, is an eight-foot high
list of the cities who had to pay up as members of the Athenian empire. It’s evidence of how the unity
of Greece proclaimed at Delphi was beginning to turn into
domination by one city. For democrats, this is an inspiring
place, coming face to face with the realities and mechanics
of Athenian democracy. But we shouldn’t get too carried
away about Athenian democracy. For one, it excluded women,
foreigners and slaves. And secondly, it was the Athenian
democracy that ran the oppressive Athenian empire, which some cities
saw not as the bringer of freedom,
but of tyranny. From the Persian wars onwards, Athens festooned the sanctuary
at Delphi with monuments in order to hammer
home their dominance over Greece. It began with a new treasury to
celebrate their victory at Marathon. On it, an Athenian hero, Theseus,
slayer of the minotaur, got equal billing with Heracles,
hero to all of Greece. The message of the treasury was,
for Greece, read Athens. But this unsubtle display of ego
didn’t stop there. We’re at the entrance to the
sanctuary, and it was here in the mid-fifth century at the height
of their empire that the Athenians built a monument that would take
pole position, that would be the first thing
that people saw as they came
into the sanctuary. And it was an interesting monument.
It wasn’t just statues of gods, but also statues of the
founding heroes of Athens itself. All these monuments were saying, we dominate the sanctuary,
just as we dominate Greece. The ancient Greeks had a word
for this kind of arrogance – we still use it today – hubris. Athens was riding for a fall. The Athenian expansion was
underpinned by the Athenian fleet. But eventually some of the other
cities of Greece could stand
Athenian arrogance no longer. One of them was Sparta, which had been supreme on land
for most of the century. War broke out. It was a titanic struggle. Battles were fought right across
the Mediterranean, from Sicily to the Black Sea and it changed
the Greek world and Delphi,
too, forever. In the end, after 50 years
of on-off conflict, the Spartans with the help
of Persian money built a fleet that was able to cut off
the Athenian grain supply and then defeat the Athenian
fleet in battle. The result was a famous scene. The Spartans came into Athens
and they forced the Athenians to knock down their own stout walls
that had defended the city. But one of the best ways to see
how the Spartans celebrated their great victory
is back over there, at Delphi. Now, for the first time, the
Spartans began to build at Delphi. And they deliberately targeted
the monuments Athens had built. The Athenian monument at
the entrance was a gift to Apollo. So the Spartans couldn’t
just knock it down. Instead, they upstaged it. They started by deliberately
obscuring the Athenian monument with a collection of 38 statues of
their own victorious generals. Then they built a dominating
portico on the opposite side
of the sacred way. But the struggles between
the Greek cities didn’t stop. And in time,
even the Spartans were defeated. Right on cue, their enemies,
the Arcadians, put up a monument of their own which ruined
the view of Spartan portico. It’s not just that these
real-life wars were represented
by these monuments here. These monuments lived
those battles themselves. Remember I said that for the Greeks,
statues weren’t just pieces of
stone, they shimmered with life. And in the later writers, we hear
stories of these statues actually dying when their real life
dedicators died in battle. So when the Spartan power finally
faded and their general, Lysander, was finally killed, his statue
was said to have crumbled. The battles rolled on. The cities of
Greece were in near permanent
conflict for 100 years. And at every stage,
they put up monuments at Delphi
to celebrate the struggle. Delphi was one of the few places
where Greeks could come together
in common worship. But, ironically, it became the
place where they also expressed
their differences most extremely. “Know thyself.” Increasingly, the story
Delphi told the Greeks was not once as it had been with the
Salamis Apollo about Greek unity. Instead, it was about
ungovernable ambition. A storyboard of mutual hostility. And, so, it’s not without irony
that amongst all these scenes of extravagant put-downs and
one-upmanship, right next door
to the maxim “know thyself” on the temple, was another and it
read simply “Nothing in excess.” Over time, this competition
of excessive display and monument building created
something very special. Nothing could be destroyed
because it all belonged to Apollo. So these monuments had
to remain here for all time. As the centuries unfolded, each one
was represented in the sanctuary. So walking through Delphi
is like walking through
the story of ancient Greece. The story of one of the most
important periods in human history, told in the form of some of its
most spectacular artistic creations. But by mid fourth century,
a new power began to take over
Greece, that of Macedon. Phillip of Macedon and his
son Alexander the Great,
who would come and take over not just much of Greece
but much of the ancient world. In Greece itself,
politics was transformed. These Macedonian Greek kings
and their successors imposed order and peace on
the squabbling Greek cities. The age of competition was over. So they came here to Delphi
to go live and declare their
power directly to the people. For Delphi, that was
business as usual. What’s more, in the sanctuary we
find a new and revealing practice. Beneath the temple terrace stands a
retaining wall of polygonal masonry. And there people came
to write still more messages. But this time, the messages had
legal force. They were contracts. Contracts confirming the freedom
of individual slaves. Dominique Mulliez has been studying
them for decades. The process was this. These slaves
had managed to buy their freedom. But because they had no legal rights
until they were free, the owners gave them to the god,
in order to make them free, and that’s what the contracts
describe. These carvings are certainly not
a declaration of human rights, but it’s telling that even lowly
slaves came to take their place here amongst the great and good who
had been commemorated at Delphi
over 700 years of Greek history. But then, in 168 BC,
everything changed. A new power took over. Rome. For Greeks, the Roman conquest
meant the end of their independence. But Greece’s prestige meant that
Roman leaders still found it useful to emphasise their power at Delphi with a series of
magnificent monuments. More over, their religious outlook
was very similar, so some of the sanctuary’s most beautiful
treasures date from that time. The stadium was rebuilt in stone
and the temple of Apollo restored. They even expanded the gymnasium
and added a characteristically
Roman plunge pool. Yet something had changed. Delphi was no longer
in the political mainstream. By the 1st century AD, we find even
Plutarch and his friends lamenting that the Oracle was no longer
the political arbiter it had been. But even though the Oracle
was no longer being heeded on the international stage,
Delphi still had its place. Even the most important people in
the Hellenistic and Roman worlds tried to justify their importance
by placing themselves here at Delphi. The irony
of those mottos “know thyself”
and “nothing in excess” continued. But then something happened
which did finally bring a halt
to Delphi’s story, and to understand what that was,
we need to go a very long way indeed. In the fourth century AD,
the Roman emperor Constantine
converted to Christianity. He founded a new capital
for the Empire. It’s now known as Istanbul, but the emperor renamed it
Constantinople, after himself. And it was a Christian capital. Not longer afterwards, one of his
successors banned divination
in the political field. And a decade after that, another Roman emperor banned
the ancient gods completely. In 360AD, the last pagan emperor,
Julian, sent a question to
the Oracle back at Delphi. But the sources say that this
was the only response he received. “Tell the king the fair-wrought
hall has fallen to the ground. “The water of speech, even,
is quenched.” The Oracle at Delphi had finally
fallen silent. Now a museum, once a mosque, this building began life
as a great church of Hagia Sophia. It was built by one of Constantine’s
successors as the state church
of the new Christian empire. The emperors decreed that the
centre of the world, the Ompholos, was no longer in Delphi.
It was here. The emperors were crowned here in
Hagia Sophia, in a place they
called the Omphalion. The architecture and symbolism
here show all too clearly how the world of classical Greece
had been transformed forever. This place’s name,
Hagia Sophia, means holy wisdom. But not the kind of wisdom,
that edgy self-awareness,
that was on display at Delphi. Here, that wisdom is part of
monotheistic religious orthodoxy, and the politics it represents isn’t
that of the showing off and elbow
shoving of the classical Greeks. Here, it’s all about an absolute,
incontestable autocracy. And in that very new world,
the Ompholos is now the place where the Byzantine
emperors themselves were crowned. But, astonishingly,
here in this city, there is still a direct link back
to the days when Delphi had been
the centre of the ancient world. In the emperor’s new capital, there had to be a stadium
for chariot races. Bigger and better than racetracks
anywhere else, including Rome. With, in the middle where
everyone could see it, cultural booty
from all round the empire. And from Delphi they brought perhaps
the most potent symbol of all, the serpent column, symbol of Greek
unity and of Greece’s heroic past. And here it is, battered and broken, imprisoned,
overshadowed by the obelisks on either side, forgotten. The serpent column of Plataea,
from the fifth century BC that stood opposite the temple
of Apollo at Delphi. And the names still just barely
legible on the coils of those cities
and states who came together to fight against
the Persian invasion of Greece. You know, I often wonder that
if the bronze and stones of the ancient world could talk,
what would they say to us? This creature would have
a lot of stories to tell. Not just the 800 years it spent at
Delphi, but its history after that. It came here to Constantinople,
modern day Istanbul, and was
placed in the Hippodrome, the charioteers it saw racing round
it, the wars, the crusades, got
turned into a fountain at one point. It’s an incredibly sad sight to
see it now, today, forgotten in something almost
akin to a bit of rubbish dump. But we have to remember, this piece
is almost 2,500 years old. And, for me, that makes it
a miracle that it’s here at all. For this small town
on the side of a Greek mountain, it’s been an astonishing career. Delphi has been a local shrine and
an arbiter of international events. A focus of national unity and an
arena for intense political rivalry. And its messages, “know thyself”
and “nothing in excess,” still reverberate. For me, the message is actually
think about yourselves in relation to others and understand yourselves. Delphi is referred to in the
ancient world often as a theatron, their word for spectacle,
out word for theatre. A place where people
came to watch, but also to be seen, to discuss, to debate,
to think about themselves
and the world around them. And Delphi is still
doing that for us today. It’s broadcasting many different
messages to many different people. But for me, it’s about that
double-edgedness that Delphi has, that ambiguity and yet clarity, that unity and yet rivalry,
the constant reinvention of what Delphi is that forces the
question and reflection back on us. It makes us think about ourselves,
our limitations and, ultimately, about our own humanity. Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd Email [email protected]

4 thoughts on “BBC Delphi The Bellybutton of the Ancient World

  1. excellent documentary. I like his work (like i like michael woods work through the years, like in search of trojan war/troy / Alexander). and he's a good looking lad too 🙂 thanks so much for uploading

  2. Great documentary, don't get me wrong, but my wife and I watched and cringed as our presenter spoke "Greek" without any class what so ever. Could not someone help him speak those few words? Even his "Greek" Prof was linguistically annoying. But, wow, that Constitution. Britian, PLEASE give it back

  3. A hallucinogenic gas? Nonsense. The oracle's "trance" was no different than the "trance" of your run of the mill Gypsy fortune teller. The oracle also never communicated directly with those asking a question. All questions, and final responses went through men who really held the power, and controlled the finances. A woman was made the oracle so that power would not be concentrated in one man's hands. Women had no right to any political power, legal power, none at all. The oracle would have the question asked of her, she would put on her act, and spout a bunch of nonsensical gibberish, and then the men who were the go betweens would "interpret" this gibberish however they felt expedient and most likely to keep them out of trouble. That is why you never got a straight answer out of the oracle. It was a great scam, better than the Catholic church's selling of indulgences, and they kept it going for a very long time. People are suckers for superstition, and there has always been men who can make a living off of it. Hallucinogenic gases…Ha, ha, ha……Ethylene is an anesthetic. You need very high concentrations in the air to get an effect, and it makes one feel drunk. It does not induce hallucinations. Ripening fruit gives off ethylene gas. It is one of the most common molecules on earth. Look hard enough and you will find it just about anywhere. This is like attributing your Gypsy fortune tellers trance to the radon in her basement. Absurd. It's amazing that National Geographic published this nonsense in 2007, even though they distanced themselves from it in the article.

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