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The Pompeii Mosaics: A Rare Look into Roman Life

by May 16, 2022

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Pompeii Mosaics: The Volcano Erupts
For nearly 2000 years Pompeii and its destruction has captivated the minds of historians, archaeologists, and tourists alike. Although lost beneath rubble until rediscovered in 1748, writings from Pliny the Younger clued us in to a massive volcanic eruption that shook the Bay of Naples. The date of the Mount Vesuvius eruption is generally 79 CE, though recently research has been carried out to refine this date, even down to the exact day.
The volcano erupted and layered the Bay of Naples, especially Pompeii, in a thick layer of ash and debris, acting as a preservation blanket over the people, buildings, and material of the site. Because of the chemical makeup of the volcanic ash and its special properties, what archaeologists have uncovered in the past 250 years is nothing short of a completely intact, Roman city at the height of the Roman Empire. While much ink has been spilled on the impressive preservation and casts of bodies, the mosaics from Pompeii are equally as stunning and deserve an in-depth look of their own.
Painting of Mt Vesuvius
Jacob More, Mount Vesuvius in Eruption, 1780, National Gallery of Scotland
Mosaics are common installations on floors depicting either geometric or figurative motifs. They are constructed using small pieces of stone, tile, glass, or enamel in very refined and deliberate ways. Originally being simple geometric motifs like meanders, artists were able to refine the craft to depict battle scenes, animals, and distinguishable human faces. Mosaics are found throughout the ancient world, but the Pompeii mosaics are par none.
The Alexander Mosaic
Perhaps the most famous of the Pompeii mosaics is the so-called Alexander Mosaic. Found during excavation at Pompeii in 1831, the mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and king Darius III of Persia in 333 BCE, although some argue that it actually shows the Battle of Guagamela in 331, but between the same actors.
The Alexander Mosaic, dating from circa 100 BC, is a Roman floor mosaic originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, that is allegedly an imitation of Apelles’ painting.
The date of the mosaic fluctuates between the 3rd century BC and late 4th century, very soon after the battles would have taken place. The mosaic measures 5.82 by 3.13 meters and is located in the House of the Faun. The mosaic shows two armies in the middle of battle, Alexander and his troops coming from the left side of the installations (and poorly preserved, unfortunately), and Darius and the Persians on the right (incredibly preserved in detail). The spears and shields of the Persian army are raised in attack, while several horses are shown in gallop. A blonde commander rides on a horse on the left side and it is commonly thought to be Alexander himself.

The Plato’s Academy Mosaic
Another near perfectly preserved mosaic is the Plato’s Academy mosaic. Dating to sometime in the 1st century BCE or right before the eruption itself, this mosaic is situated in the villa of T. Siminius Stephanus. In the mosaic there are a group of seven men. It is assumed that Plato is at the helm, although accurately designating one of the figures as Plato is near impossible; there is no distinguishing factor of rank represented. Some scholars such as G.W. Elderkin have suggested that the seven men depicted are not part of a philosophical school, but rather a reference to the Seven Sages of ancient Greece (Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Cheilon).
Mosaic of the Philosophers
Plato’s Academy mosaic (from Pompeii)
Athens is shown in the background, as well as a sundial and a gate, which is suggested to be the Dipylon Gate based on the bronze amphora at the top. The border of the mosaic contains repeated patterns of bunched fruits and leaves with 8 different theatrical masks interspersed evenly throughout. The combination of the philosophy-centered focus and the theatrical masks on the border potentially could be the artist attempting to amplify the wisdom and thought that philosophy brings.
The Cave Canem Mosaic
Perhaps one of the more interesting mosaics to a modern audience is the Cave Canem mosaic, or “Beware of the dog.” The finely preserved mosaic was placed at the entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet. A highly realistic dog, shown in active motion like it is preparing to pounce, baring teeth and with a chain and collar around its neck, is superimposed over a backdrop of repetitive diamonds, and bears the words very clearly in Latin “CAVE CANEM.” This is the first thing that visitors would have encountered upon entering the house, and it is not unlike any modern sign hung on a fence or door claiming the same thing. In the remains of Pompeii, there is a dramatic cast of a dog caught in the destruction. While this dog was surely not the one depicted in the mosaic, it too had a collar on and was likely a pet.
Beware the Dog mosaic
Cave Canem Mosaic, House of the Tragic Poet
Dog cast
Dog in chains cast Pompeii Museum Boscoreale.
While these three are not the only mosaics preserved at Pompeii, they are certainly some of the more interesting and stimulating. Mosaic installations were incredibly common forms of decoration, but it is rare that we see this level of near immaculate preservation. Looking at these mosaics allows us to see the artistic interests of the occupants at the time and what themes were important to their daily life. Current excavations at Pompeii are still unearthing architectural elements like balconies and allies, as well as bodies, frescoes, inscriptions and mosaics- shedding more invaluable light onto daily life in the Roman Empire.
Top Image: Mosaic, House of Marcus Lucretius in Via Stabiana, Roman Pompeii, UNESCO World Heritage Site, near Naples, Campania, Italy, Europe

Etruscan Art: Not Just a Transition

by April 27, 2022

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Etruscan art
Detail of two dancers from the Tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi
Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up to the Greeks and a foreshadowing to the Romans. But casting this ancient society as a sideline character might not do them enough justice.
Indeed, despite the importance of Etruria (the wider region of the Etruscans) in its context as a link between the ancient worlds of the Greeks and the Romans, modern thought considers Etruscan civilization ‘far superior to the traditional picture of a poor relation of Greece and a mysterious prelude to Rome.’
This new found appreciation of the Etruscans can be most clearly seen in its art and architecture – and distinguishing where they leave off from the Greeks and create their own individual style.
Of course, Etruscan art did owe a great debt to Greece. Even in its primitive form, we are able to draw comparisons between the miniature statues of Etruscan native warriors and Greek Cycladic art (Quick note: the Cyclades is a group of islands including and north of modern Santorini). The unnaturally thin limbs and square faces, although not being a direct copy, certainly look as if the Etruscans must have been aware of the Cycladic statues.
Etruscan sculpture
Warrior with helmet, originally holding a spear. Etruscan art, Southern Umbria, 5th century BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace, NM-H10 4787.
This very early example gives us the impression that trends in the art world, in general, evolve in tandem and that ‘picking and choosing’ Greek elements may not have been a conscious decision by Etruscan artists. Instead, the vast trading links with Greece would have provided constant contact with the art of different peoples.
For example, red and black pottery were introduced into the Etruscan world in the 6th century BC when Greek artists began to settle in towns such as Veii and Cerveteri. This would have made good fiscal sense, as it was far easier, safer and cheaper to relocate one gifted artisan than transport 500 pots. We see this evidence in the discovery of bird, ring, and animal shaped vessels found in Greece and Cyprus, but which are made of native clay. Such items are technically Greek rhytons, a type of drinking horn, despite their Etruscan origins.
Additionally, we can see that the antefix, a type of ornament that hides the joints of a tiled roof, from the temple of Portonaccio at Veii is designed in the image of a gorgon, and can be a direct copy of the Greek style prominent on the pediment of the temple of Artemis at Corfu. Also striking is that the two examples are within only a few decades of each other, implying that not only were ideas from Greece to Etruria transferred, but they were done so relatively quickly.
We can also see these cross cultural transfers in painting, particularly in the practice of portraying females in white and males much darker. This made sense in Greek painting as women were supposed to remain within the oikos, or house, whilst men went about their business outside. However, Etruscan women were given no such restrictions (though more about them later) and therefore this shows us an artificial depiction brought to the Etruscans from Greece.
But in many ways Etruscan art was different to that of Greece. For instance, the roofing techniques found in Etruria were not in Greece, and this can be taken further as we examine Etruscan dwellings in general. An Etruscan funerary urn (8th century BC) depicts a wattle and daub hut most unGreek in style. Also, even if some materials and techniques may have had Greek origins, we still have a good deal of subject matter that is uniquely Etruscan.
Etruscan house
Urna cineraria a capanna forse da Vulci, VII secolo a.C., Museo nazionale di Villa Giulia, Roma
For instance, there is little exaltation of local heroes in the art and no attempt to use it as a tool of fear or propaganda. This may be one of the reasons why the Etruscans are thought mysterious to modern archaeologists and dangerous to Greeks and Romans, as they felt identity was more precious than all else.
There are other ways in which the Etruscans revealed their own unique style. For example, in pot making. While the technique may be Greek, Etruscans introduced their own shapes into the art, making it no challenge to tell apart a Greek from an Etruscan pot. Additionally, more unGreek scenes appear, such as the mauling of a blindfolded man by a dog, and the occurrence of elaborate gold jewellery, which has more in common with the Celtic Le Tene culture, than with Hellenistic artwork. There is also a good deal of material whose origins could be said to be more Egyptian than Greek, such as the appearance of ‘human feline’ statuettes and hieroglyphic markings.
But it is the women in Etruscan art that make it really unique from Greece.
In both Greek and Roman societies even the highest bred women were subject to a greatly diminished status, both domestically and within the state. Whilst we have little to tell us of the official role of women in Etruscan society, we can see through the artwork that they enjoyed a much more even social status.
Etruscan art detail
Etruscan Boccanera Plaques Cerveteri, 560 BC – 55 BC
‘Etruscan woman ‘went out’ a great deal. We see them everywhere, in the forefront of the scene, taking a considerable place in it and never blushing from shame’ (J. Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans). There are several wall paintings of feasts and banquet scenes that feature both men and women enjoying their meals together. The Greeks, rather unreasonably and rudely, used this as evidence that Etruscan women were all drunkards and promiscuous.
This domestic interaction between the sexes is something that is seen nowhere in Greek art. Women are either interacting between themselves, performing sexual acts, entertaining, working or taking part in a festival in Greece. These domestic scenes, therefore, would be wholly bizarre and unnatural to the Greeks.
Etruscan sarcophagus
Etruscan sarcophagus from Cerveteri c. 520 BCE. Terra cotta, length 2 m. Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome.
In Etruria we see the women reclining along with their husbands in what the Greeks presumed to be a readiness to perform sexual acts, but seems far more probable to be merely an affectionate sharing of time together. This is supported in the grave markers, where the sculptures of a man and wife lie in peace together. We see one example of a couple with the woman holding a baby on her knees in a scene where presumably libations are about to be poured for the child’s safety. Domestic intimacy like this is an alien concept to Greek art.
Though we can clearly identify a good deal of Greek artistic traits in the art of the Etruscans, we could just as easily claim to identify Egyptian ones (to a lesser extent) and on this tack we could claim that any Greek art is not truly Greek but merely a bastardisation of near Eastern art.
That said, Etruscan art can clearly be identified as an art unto its own. Saying it is merely the evolution of Hellenistic art seems rather patronising towards the Etruscans. Regardless of to what extent the Greeks managed to influence Etruria, it seems that the Etruscans were more than capable of firmly stamping their own individuality on their artistic culture.

War and Greek Tragedy (Part Three: Euripides)

by April 25, 2022

by Andrew Aulner, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Euripides is unique among the three tragedians in that, unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, there is no historical record that he ever served in the Greek military. Admittedly, Euripides was able to describe actual battle techniques in Phoenician Women and Children of Heracles, despite the lack of a record of him fighting in any battles. Hanson argues that it is probable that Euripides would have seen military service like his contemporary Sophocles; while there may be no hard evidence that Euripides ever served in combat, he did live through all but the final two years of the Peloponnesian War. In any case, this conflict led him to question his society’s martial values, while also showing him the toll of war upon civilians and returning soldiers.
Euripides lived under the dark specter of constant warfare, and his plays are correspondingly dark in their realism. Apart from being critical of established values, Euripides also subverts those values in reaction to contemporary events. Tritle writes that “…the outbreak of extreme violence [i.e. the Peloponnesian War] in 431 [BC] may have energized Euripides”, who is believed to have written the violent Medea in that same year. As city-states that had formerly been allies against mutual enemies like the Persians turned against each other, and Greek soldiers went off to war against those who had once been their countrymen—all of which suggests a confusing loss of values and morality—it seems fitting that Euripides would write a play in which a character feels justified in murdering her own beloved children in order to hurt her unfaithful husband. Each main party in the conflict, Athens and Sparta, could be viewed as harming their own blood relatives—their fellow Greeks—in order to inflict petty harm against the other. Euripides’ most popular play may never have come to be if not for the war that served as a historical backdrop to it.
This was not the only instance of military events influencing the playwright. The defeat of Athens at the Battle of Delium, as Hanson says, “helped shape Euripides’ developing disgust over the war—and his growing propensity to use his drama to critique contemporary culture even in Athens’s darkest hours”. By the time of the writing of Orestes, Euripides, who had witnessed over two decades of Greeks killing Greeks, goes so far as to condemn war as “‘a friend to lies’”. Even as he questioned Athenian values, Euripides used his stagecraft to declare his own firmly held anti-war beliefs while the world around him continued to crumble.
Another major theme of Euripides’ work is his sympathy for both the civilians who have no choice but to live during the ravages of war—particularly the wives of soldiers—as well as the fighters who must live with what they have done once they return home. In Heracles, a great warrior returns home and commits an act of violence upon his wife and children, shattering his own life even as he ends theirs in a fit of madness. This is a crystallization of the daily lives of the Greek women and children who bid their soldier husbands and fathers farewell, suffering their absence, and living in ignorance of how altered many of the men were upon their return.
For all of his anti-war sentiment and concern for civilians, Euripides is also painfully sympathetic toward the men who are called to fight in war. Euripides was even hired to write odes to the war hero Alcibiades after his successes at the Summer Olympics of 416 BC, during an “Olympic Truce” between the warring Greek city-states. For all of his anti-war sentiment, Euripides nevertheless showed an appreciation for valor both on and off the battlefield. Still, he feared the damage that unrestrained violence could do to men’s souls. There is even a suggestion of war-induced trauma—perhaps even a disturbance on par with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—within the psyche of Menelaus in Euripides’ Helen. Euripides uses his plays to honor those who fight in war, even as he confronts the long-lasting damage caused by war itself.
As different as the three tragedians were in style and in personal background, they all felt the impact of both the heroic and the horrific aspects of warfare. Whether through personal combat experience or life as a civilian bearing witness to warfare, each man came to an understanding of the immediate and ongoing dangers of armed conflict and subsequently grappled with those dangers through their art. The genre of tragedy was shaped by its writers, and its playwrights were shaped by the wars of their time. Aeschylus, who fought a victorious battle against the Persians at least once and perhaps even twice, sought to balance lofty idealism with gritty realism. Sophocles witnessed the suffering caused by ongoing conflict, as well as the relationship between society and its imperfect leaders, in both the Samoan revolt and the Peloponnesian War. Finally, Euripides was led to critique his world’s values as it became mired in the darkness of a seemingly endless struggle, while he also bore witness to the men, women, and children whose lives were irrevocably harrowed by that same conflict. War, a force that is harshly impersonal in abstraction yet deeply personal in actuality, shaped the elemental force that is classical Greek tragedy.
Works Cited
Hanson, Victor Davis. Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight,      How We Live, and How We Think. Doubleday, 2003. Print.
Krentz, Peter. The Battle of Marathon. Yale University Press, 2010. Print.
Leahy, D. M. “The Representation of the Trojan War in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.” The      American Journal of Philology, vol. 95, no. 1, 1974, pp. 1-23,            https://www.jstor.org/stable/293815. Accessed October 12, 2017.
Sommerstein, Alan H. Greek Drama and Dramatists. Routledge, 2002. Print.
Stoessl, Franz. “Aeschylus as a Political Thinker.” The American Journal of Philology, vol.73, no. 2, 1952, pp. 113-139, https://www.jstor.org/stable/291809. Accessed October 11,   2017.
Strauss, Barry. The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece—and Western Civilization. Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.
Tritle, Lawrence A. A New History of the Peloponnesian War. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.
Woodbury, Leonard. “Sophocles Among the Generals.” Phoenix, vol. 24, no. 3, 1970, pp. 209-         224, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1087241. Accessed October 12, 2017.

War and Greek Tragedy (Part Two: Sophocles)

by April 24, 2022

by Andrew Aulner, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The next of the three great tragedians to be born was Sophocles, who, like Aeschylus before him, served in the Greek military. Sophocles was a general during the war against the island of Samos and later lived through the Peloponnesian War. Both of these events exposed Sophocles to the realities of human suffering, as well as to both the successes and the shortcomings of even the greatest of leaders.
Sophocles served as a general alongside Pericles in 441/0 BC during the Samian revolt, likely serving aboard a small squadron of ships sent to collect reinforcements off of the islands of Chios and Lesbos during naval operations against Samos. According to Woodbury, despite the fact that “Sophocles had no especial political or military claims beyond those of any other member of his class”, the playwright nevertheless “was certainly prominent in the earlier campaign” against Samos. Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles was more valued as a playwright than as a soldier, though he was still respected for his public service.
There is no question that Sophocles was influenced by his roles as both a participant in and a viewer of the effects of war. Martial violence and leadership are both expressed in the playwright’s examinations of survival and human nature in the face of death and suffering. As Tritle explains, “From Sophocles we hear the bitter and plaintive cries of Philoctetes, the wounded survivor of violence, while from Oedipus come cries of another kind as well as lessons on leadership and knowledge”. Sophocles’ protagonists are written with a keen awareness of deep suffering and pain.
As a military veteran and a witness to a war that lasted decades and claimed thousands of lives, Sophocles was constantly reminded of man’s mortality. According to Sommerstein, “the power of the dead over the living is an idea that perpetually haunts Sophocles”; in his works, there is a “recurring motif…of the dead destroying the living”, which is unsurprising for a man who fought in and lived through warfare for most of his life. An example of this motif is found in Oedipus Rex, in which the titular protagonist is consumed with uncovering the truth of King Laius’s murder, only to be undone after learning the truth behind his own previously unknown role in the killing. This concern with death is made even stronger when considering the possibility that, as postulated by Tritle, Oedipus Rex may have been composed shortly after the death of Pericles near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. In his most famous play, Sophocles theatrically explores the issues of a plague-ravaged city and a fallen ruler, the very things that his home of Athens was undergoing in contemporary history; the playwright ultimately concludes that such things happen, as Tirtle puts it, “because we are humans, and suffering is the nature of the human condition”, a conclusion reached after Sophocles had faced the ever-present reality of death in wartime.
Philoctetes
Philoctetes
In addition to his fixation with the influence of the dead upon those yet alive, Sophocles also examines, in Sommerstein’s words, “the responsibilities of leaders, military and political, to those whom they lead…the tendency in Sophocles is rather to emphasize the dependence of the community on their leader’s guidance and protection,” . This stands in contrast to Aeschylus’ juxtaposition of the virtuous democrats and the selfish leader, as evidenced in Orestes’ legal triumph over the usurpers in Eumenides. This difference in literary approaches to leadership may be due to the fact that Aeschylus was a foot soldier, while Sophocles was an elected general. Each man brings a different perspective to the issue of leadership thanks to his own unique military experience.
However, this is not to say that Sophocles necessarily had an idealized view of leadership. Tritle notes the possibility within the historical record that Sophocles chafed under Pericles’s leadership during his time spent as a general; Tritle also states that Antigone, which was written while Pericles was still alive, may be interpreted as a subversive commentary “on Pericles, his leadership of Athens, and his harsh suppression of Samos”. Furthermore, Sophocles’ high valuation of a community’s dependence on its leaders does not automatically imply a disregard for the plight of the common person. Antigone, the very same play that may subtly criticize the ruler Pericles through its antagonist Creon, is also a celebration of a strong, morally superior female protagonist; Hanson theorizes that this depiction was influenced by the role of real-life “stalwart women in Athenian society” whom Sophocles observed during the wars of the mid-fifth century. Thus, while Sophocles highlights the importance of leadership, particularly during times of strife, he also presents a nuanced view of governance that allows for a leader’s failings as well as the importance of community members outside of official leadership roles.

War and Greek Tragedy (Part One: Aeschylus)

by April 22, 2022

by Andrew Aulner, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Warfare had a profound impact on life in the ancient world. Greek theater reflected this reality, as well as the experiences of its writers; all three of the surviving Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) were influenced in some way by war. We’ll be taking a look at each of the three in turn, beginning with Aeschylus, and seeing how warfare shaped the beginnings of theater.
Aeschylus, chronologically the first of the three great ancient Greek tragedians, fought against the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC; it’s also possible he fought at the Battle of Salamis ten years later. These wartime experiences gave him an insight into the true nature of power and informed his exploration of the tension between realism and idealism in drama. There is no question that Aeschylus placed a high value upon his service in the Greek army at Marathon. His epitaph, believed to be self-composed, makes no mention of his theatrical career, yet it describes his service in the history-making battle quite prominently: “The dead Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian / this tomb covers in wheat-bearing Gela; / the grove of Marathon can attest his famed valor, / and the long-haired Mede who knew it well”. Evidently, Aeschylus viewed himself as a veteran first and as a playwright second.
The playwright’s military service did more than give him memorable material for an epitaph, however. Power is at the center of many of Aeschylus’ plays. The Persians, a historical play that centers upon the Persian loss at the Battle of Salamis, is unique in that the playwright himself may have participated in the story’s historical events; Strauss cites Ion of Chios, a contemporary of Aeschylus’ who claims that the playwright was indeed present at Salamis.
In any case, Aeschylus uses a split chorus to depict two opposing parties, one in favor of war and the other pacifistic. This thematic division reflects Aeschylus’ observation of the civil strife in Persia following their defeat at Salamis. Such an interweaving of the two halves of a theatrical Greek chorus with the struggle between two real-life opposing political groups demonstrates that, for Aeschylus, tragedy centers around power struggles. Thanks to his firsthand wartime experience, the playwright was well-suited to depict such struggles.
Depiction of a performance of Aeschylus’ Persians
Such a focus on power is not limited to the historically inspired Persians, however. The Oresteia, centered on the curse upon the House of Atreus as seen through Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, explores the role of a ruler, the existence of military opposition, and the legality of leadership, issues with which Aeschylus was familiar due to his military service and observations of post-Persian War politics in Athens.
Much of Agamemnon has an air of uncertainty due to the long-gone nature of the city’s sovereign, only for that void to be filled by the usurping Clytemnestra and her lover, Aesgisthus. Such usurpation means havoc for the land until Orestes avenges his father’s murder and is ultimately exonerated by a court of law. Power changes hands from a military monarch to a pair of usurpers before finally resting with a man who is declared innocent according to rule of law. This theme of the relationship between martial strength and political power is also explored in Aeschylus’s lost Theban trilogy, which was written while two leadership parties of Athens—led by Themistocles and Cimon, respectively—were in conflict regarding how to deal with Sparta following the Persian Wars. War and its aftermath provided much fuel for the fire of Aeschylus’s examination of power.
In addition to sharpening his focus on authority in the military and political spheres, his firsthand observations also gave Aeschylus the opportunity to introduce the tension between realism and idealism in his works. The playwright was not limited to his imagination when describing the realities of war. The conflicts of Aeschylus’s times enabled him to imbue his plays with lyrical descriptions of warriors, battles, and bloodshed, all of which the playwright saw for himself.
Aeschylus’s Athens idealized both military defense and conquest. Yet Aeschylus does not shy away from gritty details in favor of abstract ideals. Instead, he uses his experienced, well-informed eye for detail to draw the attention of his audience to things that they would not necessarily notice if they were to hear the story only from a civilian propagandist. He includes the other more contemptible, inglorious aspects of warfare. The readers and hearers may cheer for the glory of their country, but Aeschylus ensures that they must then confront the realities of exactly how that glory is won.
Roman mosaic depicting Aeschylus
Roman mosaic depicting Aeschylus
At one moment, Aeschylus can evince a trust in the greater purpose of warfare, writing that “The city of Athena will be rescued by the gods” and describing a battle cry at Marathon calling for the liberation of “the fatherland,” as well as children, women, homes, and ancestral graves. Any Greek parent would be proud to hear their children show such patriotism in defiance of the enemy. At another moment, Aeschylus can unflinchingly describe the gory slaughter of trapped Persians at Salamis: “And we [Persians] were trapped without a thing to do…In the end they rushed upon us as one, striking us, hacking like meat / Our unhappy limbs until the lives of all were utterly destroyed”. For Aeschylus, eloquent idealism and blunt realism lie within the same poetic bosom. Thus, real-life experience serves to elevate the playwright’s art.

The Oracle of Delphi: More than a legend

by April 16, 2022

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Centuries ago, from every corner of the Mediterranean, people traveled to Greece to get answers about their life and future by the Oracle of Delphi. It was there that the god Apollo, through different women named Pythia chosen by local priests, sent his messages to those who needed them… as well as to those who could afford them. This was how it happened for the 12 centuries the oracle was active.
Dephi
How was life at Delphi?
Delphi, along with Olympia and Nemea, was considered an inter-urban sanctuary but also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary: “they were located away from major cities, although they were under the administrative control of their nearby city-states or amphictyonies, they had an aura of neutrality”.
While at least four temples were built for Apollo at Delphi, there were many more around the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, Delphi was not even the only ancient city with an oracle, however it was one of the most significant.
Delphi
Delphi by Christian Hardi – pixabay.com
While the oracle was active, wealthy people and leaders from different territories occasionally paid to get to the front of the line to see the oracle. Indeed, there are records that state that the Pythia was sometimes forced to take her position on the tripod by the temple priests in order to satisfy rich clients.
At Delphi, there were always a lot of people waiting in line to see it. We know about them because the ones who paid a lot of money are immortalized in stone inscriptions.
Interestingly, these aren’t the only stone inscriptions… Despite wars, the rise and fall of different empires, two messages still survive to this day on the entrance of the temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much”.
Inscriptions at Delphi
Ancient Greek inscription on stone, near the Archaeological Museum. Main archaeological site of Delphi.
The Oracle and its messages
According to some records, the oracle delivered its pronouncements on an annual basis; the day chosen for the event was the seventh day of Bysios, Apollo’s birthday.
Other records state that nine times each year the woman went to the tripod, initiated the trance state, and gave Apollo a voice to deliver his messages. These sessions were held on the seventh day after each new moon in spring, summer, and fall. It did not occur during winter because Apollo was believed to have gone north to the land of the Hyperboreans (giants who lived “beyond the North Wind”).
Sculpture of Apollo
Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares. Found in the late 15th century.
The Pythia was always a woman from Delphi, regardless of her age or social class. While she was serving as oracle, she lived in the sanctuary, abstained from sexual activity, and fasted on or before the days scheduled for oracular sessions.
During days of oracle activity, the Pythia would initially be brought by priests of the temple from a private residence and led through a series of purification and religious rituals before her performance. Eventually she was led down into the inner sanctum of the temple (the adyton).
Painting of the Pythia
Priestess of Delphi, John Collier, 1891
Rulers and wealthy citizens of the known world (as well as famous philosophers) made the journey to this mountainous site to make the most important decisions of their lives… and the lives of those around them. Indeed, war and peace were determined by these messages.
The Vapors of Delphi
The Pythia delivered their oracles on a tripod over the cleft in the ground of Apollo’s temple, which was constructed around 800 BCE on Mount Parnassus. Over the years different women would take on the sacred role and pronounce their prophecies, but they were always inspired by the same vapors.
For centuries, different researchers underestimated the theory of the cleft and vapors because they couldn’t find any geological indicators that led them to their location. However, ancient writers such as Plutarch, Homer or Euripides described the vapors and modern studies are finally validating their reports. Evidence from a chemical analyses of water samples and travertine deposits in the adyton have shown that the springs on site have in the past and continue at present to emit small volumes of hydrocarbon gases.
Fall of Delphi and its Oracle
Painting of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi
Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), as imagined by Eugène Delacroix
The Oracle started its decline in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. In 389 CE, Theodosius I started persecutions against Old Religion and prohibited the cult of Apollo and the celebration of the Pythian games in honor of Apollo. In 391 CE, Christianity was the exclusive state religion and older temples were closed.
Even though temples were shut down and the oracle was “silenced”, splendid structures still stand today, preserving the magnificent, if not fantastic, history of the Pythia and the Oracle of Delphi.