With Athens lying prone at their feet, the Spartans sent a delegation to Delphi to ask what should be the fate of their longstanding foe. The oracle there knew well that this was a loaded question, but she nevertheless screwed up her courage in a way that her immediate predecessor, the oracle who had semi-inadvertently blessed the Spartans’ decision to begin the war, had failed to do. She returned from her inner sanctum bearing a message which these latest Spartan suppliants found as unexpected as they did unwelcome. “The god celebrates your glorious victory alongside you who won it after so many years of struggle,” she said. “Yet he emphatically does not wish to see Athens utterly destroyed in retribution, as many among your number have suggested. For Athens too is a part of the common hearth of Greece, a part of its story almost since the very beginning. Install a friendlier government, by all means… but do not destroy it, lest you become the next Greek city to face the wrath of Apollo.”
When the Spartans told their allies of the oracle’s pronouncement, it prompted an angry outcry. Corinth in particular demanded that the oracle be ignored, that Athens be annihilated forthwith. The Spartans wavered under the pressure, but in the end decided to defer to the god of Delphi. For they remained a pious people in their odd martial way — in fact, arguably the most pious in all of Greece. Defying a god simply wasn’t in their blood. And in addition, they were already beginning to worry about their headstrong Corinthian allies, who saw a bright future for themselves as the inheritors of the Athenian mantle of the dominant Greek maritime power. A pliable Athens might just prove a needed counterbalance.
Whatever other considerations might have influenced the Spartans’ decision, men of later centuries would mark this moment as a melancholy watershed in the history of Greece: the last time that the oracle of Delphi spoke on a major political question and a city listened wholeheartedly. Such simple piety as that evinced by Sparta on this occasion was soon to be a relic of the past.
Sparta prided itself on winning wars, but was less suited to molding the peace that followed them; its interest in the vagaries of a foreign city’s politics was limited at best. The other cities of Greece were therefore unsurprised when its attempt to shape a new Athens went hopelessly awry almost before it had begun. Sparta turned the city over wholesale to thirty men who represented the very worst aspects of the Athenian character: thirty greedy native citizens who had fled during the war and joined with their city’s enemies in an attempt to protect their wealth. Upon being given control of the lives of the people they had abandoned and betrayed, these oligarchs launched a reign of terror so ferocious that, when the people of Athens revolted en masse against them just eight months in, not even the Spartans could muster the will to defend the government they had so recently instituted. Thus, improbable though it may sound, the people of Athens were able to return to a form of democracy there only one year after their city had surrendered. The Corinthians and most of Sparta’s other allies seethed at this apparent reversion to the status quo — this squandering of 27 years of wartime sacrifice, as they saw it — but such was the Spartan way. For the Spartans continued to regard a preoccupation with civilian politics as dishonorable. It was just one more thing to place them at ever-increasing odds with a changing world.
Anyone who looked with concern upon the prospect of a reincarnation of the proud old Athens of the pre-war period, however, needn’t have worried so much. Athens never entirely recovered from the brutality which it had suffered itself and inflicted upon others during the war, never was able to comprehensively reestablish a democratic spirit to go with its democratic laws. Waves of unrest constantly swept through its body politic. In time, these hardened into rigid factions who fought one another with almost as much energy as they had once battled the Spartans, finding ways to pervert the mechanisms of democracy to suit their petty grudges and personal agendas. The fate of Socrates provides a good illustration of just how far the new Athens departed from its old ideals.
Socrates had remained in the city through most of the war, continuing to turn up every day in the central square to guide his interlocutors through long, probing interrogations of their own beliefs; he had done this even as the plague was raging, even as he and his companions were so weak from hunger that it was difficult to speak, even as enemy arrows flew over their heads. But in times of war many men feel the need for certain answers rather than question piled upon question. Thus many in the government and military began to turn against Socrates. Fathers accused him of corrupting the sons who, instead of taking to heart their simplistic exhortations to wartime patriotism, took to questioning them instead. The newer playwrights — the lesser heirs to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides — wrote vicious satires mocking and condemning him. And when the war finally came to an end, the anger directed toward him increased rather than decreased. As a living reminder of what Athens had once been, his very presence irritated the creatures of the debased present age.
In 399 BC, in the latest shabby perversion of the city’s laws, Socrates was arrested and placed on trial after a feckless man of means named Anytus charged him with impiety for questioning the existence of the gods and with sedition for corrupting the Athenian youth. Socrates gave a fiery, unapologetic speech at his trial, saying he regretted nothing, whereupon a jury of his alleged peers — carefully engineered in reality by Anytus to produce the verdict he desired — voted for conviction and execution. Some among his own jailers offered to let him escape, but the old philosopher refused. “No evil can befall a good man either in life or in death,” he said in his inscrutable way. When the day of execution came, he calmly drank the hemlock he was given and died with a solemn smile on his lips. Thus Socrates became both Athens’s eternal pride and its eternal shame.
And yet his legacy proved too great to be dimmed by the shameful manner of his death. For Socrates’s most loyal disciple, whose name was Plato, swore to carry on his master’s work. He began by writing down the contents of many of Socrates’s probing dialogues with others, something Socrates himself had obstinately refused to do — for wisdom, he believed, could be garnered only from the voices of the living, not from the dead hand of an author on a page. Plato did not entirely agree. Likewise, he was willing to pronounce where Socrates was only willing to question; perhaps unsurprisingly given the fate which the democrats of Athens had doled out to his master, he labelled democracy “the worst form of rule under law.” Still, he preserved Socrates’s wisdom for the ages, while adding to it his own considerable store of same. Plato was in turn succeeded by his most brilliant disciple, whose name was Aristotle. This trio became the three greatest minds of Athenian philosophy, their field’s equivalent of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Yet no one, least of all the younger members of the trinity, doubted who among them had had the most impact on the life of Athens. Plato and Aristotle carried on their inquiries as much despite as because of the politics around them, and never achieved the public influence of Socrates. For during their times there were no more friends of philosophy like Pericles to be found in positions of power in Athens — much less Plato’s stated ideal of a ruler, the wise and benevolent “philosopher king.”
The corrupt and divisive politics of Athens were a microcosm of those of the rest of Greece. Just as a now long-dead Athenian ambassador to Sparta had warned his hosts would happen before the war, the other cities of Greece soon grew restive under Spartan hegemony, exactly as they had previously fretted about Athenian dominance. Thus less than ten years after the defeat of Athens, Greece was plunged back into war against itself. This time, Thebes and Corinth joined with Athens and Argos instead of with Sparta. Even the Persians came in again, also fighting this time against the Spartans. After several more decades of on-again, off-again war, Thebes dealt Sparta a crushing defeat in 369 BC. Rather than a lasting peace, however, this event only brought another shuffling of alliances, as Athens and Sparta now went to war together against Thebes, the latest preeminent power in Greece.
Each successive war brought to Greece more confusion and chaos than the one before it; the land was caught in a downward spiral that had no obvious end point. With the delicate philosophical balance between Sparta and Athens that had so long defined the land’s character destroyed, there remained only grievances to dictate relations among the cities of Greece.
As the spiritual center of Greece, Delphi too was diminished by these years of endless war for the sake of war. With the waning influence of Sparta, the last deeply pious of the Greek cities, the opinion of Apollo carried less and less weight with the rulers of the land; consultations with the oracle struck them now as little more than empty ceremony, a sop to the suspicious and the credulous among their citizens. With its many opulent buildings and monuments packed so closely together, Delphi increasingly seemed a place of ostentation for its own sake, a mockery of the words printed on its temple of Apollo: “Nothing in Excess.”
In 373 BC, an earthquake rocked the slopes of Mount Parnassus, splitting the temple of Apollo wide open and all but burying it under rock. The Greeks of an earlier age would have reacted quickly to this clear sign of the god’s displeasure, would have rushed to rebuild the temple and do collective penance for their neglect. In this age, though, neglect begat only disinterest. Although the various cities of Greece all repaired the damage to their own buildings and monuments, the pile of rubble that had been the temple was simply left to lie there as it had fallen; Greece was no longer able to muster the unified purpose, much less the gold, to rebuild it. The oracle now prophesied from a crude hut erected over the crack in the earth where her inner sanctum had once stood, with the omphalos stone sitting on a rough stand next to her. In this fashion she answered the queries of ordinary wayfarers about their trifling personal concerns, like a two-bit fortune teller at a village festival. The men who ran Greece no longer felt a need for her.
Which is not to say that Delphi no longer had value of another sort. It still functioned as a central bank for Greece, loaning out gold from its treasuries. In fact, it was so important in this role that the cities of Greece began another war over access to the town in 356 BC. This altogether too grandiosely named Third Sacred War ground on in fits and starts for ten years, until an ominous changing of the guard brought it to an end, even as it marked the beginning of the end of Greek independence writ large.
Well north of the heart of mainland Greece there had long existed a kingdom known as Macedonia, a hardscrabble place to which the rest of the world had seldom given much thought. Yet the Macedonians liked to consider themselves at least partially Greek; they trained their children in the Greek language in addition to their own, and spoke often of their shared heritage with the peoples to their south. Said peoples were less eager to accept the Macedonians as their brethren, mocking their claim to fellowship as the worst sort of barbarian presumption. “These backward Macedonians are not only not Greek and not related to Greece, but theirs is not even a barbarian land worth mentioning,” said one Athenian orator.
But of late Macedonia had a new ruler, a King Philip II, who was strong, crafty, and extremely ambitious. Looking upon the cities to his south, observing how they weakened one another through their endless wars, he saw an extraordinary opportunity for his own kingdom. From the moment he assumed the throne in 359 BC, he drilled his army relentlessly in the latest battlefield tactics and technology, and remade the entire economic and social structure of his land to support his dreams of conquest.
Philip was as savvy a diplomat as he was a soldier. He used a mixture of threats and bluster to cajole most of the outlying northern cities of Greece into joining an alliance with him, ostensibly with the eventual goal of mounting an invasion of the Persian Empire; thus he was able to penetrate the natural choke point of Thermopylae without ever raising a spear. In 346 BC, his army marched into Delphi and assumed control.
Delphi by this point had a well-established habit of deferring to the powers that held its fate in their hands. Thus when Philip himself visited the town, just in time for the latest edition of the Pythian Games, he was feted lavishly. He took on the mantle of mediator and peace maker, stating that he had occupied the center of the Greek world in order to put an end to the silly war that was being fought over it and secure its future for all the Greeks — a group which very much included Macedonia by his reckoning. To emphasize the point, he wore upon his head a laurel wreath, one of the traditional symbols of Apollo. He nodded approvingly toward the statue of himself which his soldiers had erected there in Delphi, and opened and closed the games with speeches which emphasized the shared heritage of the peoples of Greece and Macedonia and proposed a “common peace” in recognition of it.
Delphi was rewarded for bowing before Philip in this way. New money poured into the city, whose civic coffers had been bled dry by the many decades of war. Roads were built, plumbing dug, statues and pediments polished. And plans were finally set in motion to properly rebuild the central temple of Apollo.
Eager as he was to be accepted as culturally Greek, Philip was saying all the right things about the town and its temple’s importance to the life of Greece. But the peoples of the Peloponnese, of Boeotia, and of Attica knew that Macedonia had never been considered a part of Greece in the past, so why should it be considered such a thing now? They saw something which all of Philip’s pomp and flattery had apparently caused the people of Delphi to overlook: for the first time ever, Delphi was in the hands of a foreign power. Its oracle may not have been a vital political resource any longer, but a large portion of what shared identity of Greece still remained resided in the town. The other cities bitterly criticized Delphi’s bending of its knee to the barbarian invader, even as they demanded that Philip relinquish the town immediately. And when he refused, they went to war — a Fourth Sacred War, as they called it — against him. Just as had the Trojans and the Persians in earlier eras, this latest foreign threat provided the impulse for the fractured cities of Greece to unite in common cause. Only Sparta, even more exhausted by war than the other cities and still angrier at them than at Philip, refused to join the alliance.
Sparta was perhaps the wisest of the lot; the outcome of this war was not to be the same as those legendary conflicts of the past. The Greek cities were old, decrepit, shadows of their former selves; Philip’s Macedonia was young, virile, ready to make a place for itself in the world. At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, his army trounced the combined forces of the alliance. All of these proud Greek cities whose stories we have been following for so long now — Athens, Thebes, Corinth, Argos — went down as one, permanently united at long last in defeat. They received the dubious honor of becoming Philip’s first major conquest on the way to forging a Macedonian Empire — an empire which his son Alexander would build into one of the largest ever seen in the history of the world. Just like that, a thousand years or more of Greek independence passed away.
A telling moment came in the earliest days of the reign of Alexander the Great, when he visited Delphi to seek the approval of the god there for the campaign against the Persian Empire which his father had promised years before. He happened to visit in winter, that time for resting and indulging Dionysian appetites in the Corycian Cave, a time when the oracle was not available for consultations. Upon being given this news, the impetuous young monarch burst into the oracle’s private dwelling and dragged her out by the hair. “I will have an answer today!” he shouted.
Whereupon the terrified oracle yelped, “Apollo recognizes that you are invincible!” And a satisfied Alexander let her drop and continued on his way.
The closest parallel in Delphi’s long history to Alexander’s presumptuousness was that time in the distant past when Heracles had similarly abused the oracle, sparking a scuffle with Apollo himself. But Heracles, of course, had been divine, a son of Zeus. Neither Zeus, Apollo, nor any other god had been seen in Greece in physical form in many a century now. No longer did people worry that a slight to Apollo or his most favored oracle might cause them to be struck down on the spot. If no one else dared to go quite so far as Alexander, it was now out of fear of mortal rather than divine justice. The oracle had less and less of a role to play in this ever more secular world. A consultation in Delphi had become pro forma, a task to be checked off a list by any leader wishing to maintain the proper proprieties.
The rest of Greece experienced much the same diminishment as did Delphi. Only Sparta remained even nominally in charge of its own destiny; it clung as stubbornly as ever to its idiosyncratic version of Greekness, one that had always been somewhat at odds with that of the other cities and seemed positively anachronistic in these changing times. Philip and Alexander allowed Sparta to continue to stand apart, its reward for not having joined the other cities’ brief, inglorious war against their empire. But Sparta was left isolated, a quaint curiosity with little significant role to play in the world.
The rest of Greece was left with even less than Sparta. Its peoples became soldiers in another people’s war — their one consolation being that they got to invade the territory of their old enemies the Persians and subjugate them as they themselves had so recently been subjugated.
Delphi had always been the center of their world, but the center could no longer hold. The Age of Men, like the Age of Gods before it, had passed away. Their land’s aura of exceptionality had been stripped from it by the practical men of the north, and Greece stood exposed as what it would remain from now on: a rugged land of commonplace problems and limited natural resources, whose people must survive as well as they can in an unforgiving world filled with temporal powers far greater than their own. The time for poetry — for epics of gods and heroes — was over. Now, there remained only the sturdy prose of History.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)