A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics
There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.
But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.
That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.
That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.
He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.
He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.