Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.24

Michael Maass, Das antike Delphi.   Munich:  Verlag C.H. Beck, 2007.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 978-3-406-53631-1.  €7.90 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stefanie A. H. Kennell, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (
Word count: 2075 words

This tidy little paperback by Michael Maass (hereafter M) offers an introduction to Delphi for non-specialist German-speakers. Before joining the curatorial staff of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, the author participated in the German Archaeological Institute's excavations at Olympia in the early 1970s, publishing the Geometric tripods found at that site.1 More recently, he was chief curator of the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe and honorary professor of classical archaeology at the University of Heidelberg, retiring in 2007.2 With two Delphi-related books -- a general handbook and an exhibition catalogue -- to his credit,3 M is a logical choice to provide a concise survey of the site's origins, growth, and significance from antiquity to the Renaissance and the modern period in 13 chapters (outline below). His chatty, allusive text is enlivened by 22 illustrations -- plans, figures, and photos -- and frequent quotations from ancient and modern authors. Chapter 1, for example, features passages from Strabo, Dodwell, Flaubert, Sikelianos, Theopompus, Pindar, Aristophanes, Philostratus, and Plutarch, as well as references to Herodotus and Pausanias. In terms of overall content, the text owes a great deal to M's 1993 Das antike Delphi: Orakel, Schätze und Monumente. The style is graciously traditional, as is much of the select bibliography; post-1993 items seem to have had little effect on M's views (see the remarks on Chapters 6 and 9 below). While not up to date in every detail and only mildly interested in the Delphi's agonistic aspects, the approachable manner of presentation, with a thematic overview followed by major topics in more or less chronological succession, interspersed with not-too-technical discussions on points of historical and artistic interest, and the highly portable package in which it is delivered make this book a good choice for general readers more interested in Delphi's cultural significance than in its archaeological remains.

Contents and Comments:

"Preliminary remarks" (7-8). Invoking the phrases genius loci and saxa loquuntur, M remarks on the difficulties inherent in interpreting Delphi's material remains before turning to "the relationship between matter and spirituality" as expressed in Vergil's mens agitat molem. He affirms that the ideas of Delphic spirituality are still alive today, and that the culture of the place "must above all be understood as an expression of religion," including the great existential questions: "Human history, faith, myth, ethics, and philosophy are bound together in a unique way at Delphi." Certainly, but that Delphi was the god Apollo's most important sanctuary in the Greek world and that its periodic festival, the Pythia, was second in magnitude only to the Olympics might also be worth mentioning.

Chapter 1 (9-23), "The origins." M presents an overview of Delphi, from the natural environment, including seismic activity, gas-exhaling fissures, and various rocks and springs, to the Python, the mistress of the shrine before Apollo took control, the tripod, the Pythia, oracular utterances (including the famous "know thyself") and their associated stories, Delphi as omphalos of the world, and its Nachleben in literature, art, and Greek popular religion

Chapter 2 (23-25): "The rise of the oracle in the 7th century B.C. and the earliest temples." M situates Apollo's temple and altar at the center of the god's cult, points to the "largely fairy-tale traits" of the temples of laurel and wax and feathers, quotes Pindar and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo for the third and fourth temples, and opts for ca.600 BC as the date of the earliest historic temple, which has been inferred from reused blocks of Sikyonian poros.

Chapter 3 (25-34): "The settlement: mountain village -- place of pilgrimage -- cosmopolitan city." M points out that Delphi was a city, not just an assemblage of holy places. He discusses the archaeological evidence for settlement in the area from the Mycenaean period to the end of antiquity. As well, Delphi possessed markets, stoas, cemeteries, springs (Castalia and Kassotis receive special treatment), athletic facilities, and defensive works.

Chapter 4 (34-49): "Delphi as 'navel of the world.'" Beginning with the myth that established the spiritual and political centrality of Delphi, M affirms the "ethical, religious, and political aspects" of its influence with reference to the "know thyself" injunction and the Delphians' need to look out for their own interests and those of Apollo's oracular cult, downplaying the political element of the oracle's operations. He then discusses specimens of early monumental architecture, among them the Sikyonian Tholos and Monopteros and the Cnidian and Massalian Treasuries, before turning to the literary sources for stories of Croesus and other sixth-century patrons of Delphi and the question of oracles in general. The priestess of Apollo known as the Pythia and her oracular responses to various inquiries are front and center (40-49; cf. 15-19, 34-35). Delphi's curious political situation, at once lesser yet autonomous city-state and sanctuary controlled by the turbulent Amphictyons (glossed only as "Kultgemeinschaft") is not satisfactorily explained in this or in any other chapter.

Chapter 5 (50-65): "The shrine acquires a new form." M uses the 548/7 BC destruction of the temple of Apollo to open his exposition on the Alcmaeonid temple with a quotation from Herodotus (5.62). He then describes the temple's pedimental sculpture, followed by a look at the Siphnian and Athenian Treasuries, the Sphinx Column of the Naxians, and Apollo and Dionysos' joint tenancy of the sanctuary as reflected in literary sources and architectural sculpture. M's concentration on architectural details and iconographic programs is particularly evident in the discussion of the Treasury of the Athenians. A metope depicting Theseus and Athena is anachronistically said to recall the "sacra conversazione" motif (56-60, cf. 63), while the peculiarities of the Marathon base are treated separately from the question of the Treasury's date. M argues that it is likely, in view of the date of Marathon and the "old-fashioned" effect of the metopes, that the construction of the Treasury was begun before 490 and completed after the Athenians' victory over the Persians despite the fact that the Treasury's foundation was designed to support the original blocks of the Marathon base.4

Chapter 6 (65-86): "Pausanias, the ancient Baedeker." M briefly introduces Pausanias and explains the value of his periegetic work, which he dates to 160-180 AD, then follows Pausanias' route through the sanctuary, taking time out for the lost artistic glories of the Lesche of the Cnidians; artistic considerations take precedence over factors of political history.5 To represent the magnificence of the Archaic-period dedications viewed by the periegete, M refers to the three life-sized chryselephantine divine figures and a sphyrelaton silver and gold bull, likewise life-sized, found in a late fifth-century deposit in the Halos shortly before World War II (June 1939). As an example of what Pausanias did not see, M mentions the acanthus column dedicated by the Athenians in the third quarter of the fourth century BC, a striking monument adorned by three dancing female figures supporting a tripod; unmentioned, however, is that the omphalos of Apollo on display in the Delphi Museum is now believed to have sat within the tripod at the top of this column.6

Chapter 7 (87-94): "High points of the building culture of the 4th century B.C." Major building activity in the sanctuary was prompted by the earthquake of 373 BC. Largest of the new works was the Temple of Apollo, which conformed to its Archaic predecessors in its ground plan while innovating in other respects. It was joined on the upper site by the post-battle of Leuctra Treasury of the Thebans, the latest of the treasuries, and the poros temple and the enigmatic Tholos down in the Marmaria, perhaps Delphi's most recognized structure. The descriptions highlight significant details in each building's construction.

Chapter 8 (94-97): "Events and monuments to the end of Greek independence (146 B.C.)." In this chapter, M mentions the Gallic invasion and its repulse by the Aetolian League (the date -- 278 BC -- appears only in the timeline at the end of the book), the increase in Roman involvement, culminating in the defeat of Perseus of Macedon at the battle of Pydna, the benefactions of the kings of Pergamum, and the multiplicity of manumission inscriptions in the sanctuary.

Chapter 9 (97-98): "The inheritance of the past under Roman domination (1st century B.C.-4th century A.D.)." M has little to say for Delphi in the Roman period, from Sulla's campaigns and Strabo's words (9.3.4.) on the neglected state of the sanctuary to Augustus' reorganization of the Amphictyony to include his foundation of Nicopolis, and the interventions of Claudius, Nero, and Hadrian, during which time the city continued to issue its own Apollo-themed coinage. No mention of Pausanias here; there is more to the story of Roman Delphi.7

Chapter 10 (98-102). "Festival games: traditions and facilities." In three pages, M covers the mythological and near-mythic ancient traditions concerning the early Pythian Games. The Pythia always differed from the Olympics in featuring musical contests as well as athletic, but both were periodic festivals of the first rank, conferring prestige on victorious competitors and their cities alike. M nonetheless contrasts a Delphic ideal of human self-knowledge in relation to the earthly and divine worlds, which he links to Delphi's divinely established status as the earth's navel, with an Olympic ideal of physical discipline and achievement (100). The physical facilities in which actual agonistic activities at Delphi took place are covered in the remainder of the chapter. No trace of the hippodrome has yet been found. M omits to mention that it lay most probably in the valley below the city, nor does his account of the stadium above the sanctuary make it clear that the Archaic/Classical-period stadium was located elsewhere, also further down. Moreover, the inscription to which he refers was brought from that earlier stadium and recut to fit into the present retaining wall; in the local dialect, it forbids the taking of consecrated wine out of the stadium, rather than bringing it in (Mitbringen).8 Basic information is provided for the gymnasial facilities, located on the terraced slope below the sanctuary, and the Hellenistic-period theatre.

Chapter 11 (103-108): "Delphi amid changing traditions and world-views -- the end of the oracle." M returns to a consideration of the literary sources for Delphic tradition, from Pindar, Herodotus, and Aristotle to Polemo of Ilion, Pausanias, and a host of other writers who now survive only in fragments. Several pages are devoted to consideration of Plutarch's writings on the E, the Pythia's oracles, and other oracular issues. A discussion of the questions of topographical identification, religious tendency, and authorship raised by the "last oracle" delivered to the Emperor Julian concludes the chapter.

Chapter 12 (108-112): "Delphi in comparison with Olympia." M quotes Philostratus' comparison (V A 6.10) of Indian and Greek sages with the charms of the Pythia and the Olympics respectively, then treats his readers to a series of parallels -- political, chronological, and cultural -- illustrated with several quotations from Pindar. Remarks on the Christian tradition's preference for Olympic athletic/agonistic ideals over "Delphic teachings" and the Sibyl over the Pythia close the chapter.9

Chapter 13 (112-113): "The legacy of Delphi." Asking what world culture and history would be without Delphi, M affirms that Delphi is among the places "that live from their past and thereby cultivate an incomparable genius loci in a rare unity of landscape, history, intellectual traditions, works of architecture and visual art," through a wide range of activities from care for the land and tourism management to festivals and conferences. M concludes by mentioning Angelos Sikelianos' Sibylla and reiterating "know thyself."

The book is rounded off with a Timeline "ca.595-585 B.C. to 1821-1833 A.D." (113-115; dates of historically significant earthquakes and the beginning of the French School's "grande fouille" in 1893 would be good to include), "Selected bibliography" (116-118), Index (120-124), and Glossary (124-128).

To conclude, this book's strength lies in its weaving together of literary and art-historical strands to represent Delphi as a nodal point of religious, philosophical, and artistic energies that still resonate today. It appeals to readers by invoking a sublime landscape, age-old traditions of divine inspiration and prophecy, and human creativity expressed through the verbal and visual arts. It is a pity that this emphasis on artistic and literary evidence at the expense of historical and archaeological elements has obscured an essential characteristic of Delphi's identity. Delphi was an agonistic site par excellence, an arena of dynamic interchange and competition among the major powers of Greece and for athletes and musicians from all over the Hellenized world. An appreciation of this aspect would have enhanced the book significantly.


1.   Die geometrischen Dreifüsse von Olympia Olympische Forschungen 10 (Berlin 1978).
2.   According to Wikipedia
3.   M. Maass, Das antike Delphi. Orakel, Schätze und Monumente (Darmstadt 1993; reprinted 1997) pp. 324; M. Maass, B. Bollmann, Delphi. Orakel am Nabel der Welt (Stuttgart 1996).
4.   See J.-F. Bommelaer, Guide de Delphes: Le site (Paris 1991), 133-136, with Figs. 47-48, which appears in M's bibliography (117).
5.   The effect of Lysander's "Admirals" monument in juxtaposition with dedications by other cities passes unremarked. Pausanias was not as oblivious of his contemporary Roman environment as M would maintain. Cf. S.E. Alcock, J.F. Cherry, J. Elsner (eds.) Pausanias: travel and memory in Roman Greece (Oxford 2001); W.E. Hutton, Describing Greece: landscape and literature in the Periegesis of Pausanias (Cambridge 2005).
6.   In M's bibliography: A. Jacquemin, Offrandes monumentales à Delphes (Athens 1999) 177 with n. 156, and (ed.) Delphes: cent ans après la grande fouille: essai de bilan. Actes du colloque international organisé par l'École Française d'Athènes, Athènes-Delphes, 17-20 septembre 1992, BCH Supp. 36 (Athens 2000), 403. Both cite J.-L. Martinez, "La colonne des danseuses de Delphes," CRAI 1997, 35-46. The most recent annual meeting of the French School at Athens (3 June 2008) featured a video illustrating the process by which a three-dimensional reconstruction of the acanthus column has been achieved using high-definition digital scans of all its fragments (producing 214.5 million triangulation points) that lends further support to Martinez' 1997 findings.
7.   Cf. P. Pétridis, "Delphes dans l'antiquité tardive: première approche topographique et céramologique," BCH 121 (1997): 681-695; R.G.A. Weir, Roman Delphi and its Pythian GamesPh.D. diss., Princeton University 1998 (Ann Arbor UMI 1998), now in print under the same title in BAR International Series 1306 (Oxford 2004); idem, "Nero and the Herakles Frieze at Delphi," BCH 123 (1999): 397-404.
8.   P. Aupert, Le Stade (Fouilles de Delphes 2) (Paris 1979), 36-37 and 52-54; Bommelaer, Guide de Delphes (n. 4 above), 215. Cf. S.G. Miller, Ancient Greek athletics (New Haven & London 2004), a useful addition to M's bibliography, which does include several items in English.
9.   Archaeological perspective is wholly absent. C. Morgan, Athletes and oracles: the transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the eighth century BC (Cambridge, 1990), is cited only in Maass' 1993 handbook.

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