Chapter 1: The most complete Greek account of the origins of the world as they knew it is, appropriately enough, found in one of the oldest of their texts that remain to us: the Theogony of Hesiod, which likely dates from the eighth century BC, making it possibly contemporaneous with the epics of Homer. The Theogony is a tangled, confusing text by any standard, one which seems to mix many incompatible story lines together. The version you find here is by no means definitive, but merely my attempt to create a single coherent tale which serves my purposes. I took parts of the story of Prometheus and his brutal punishment from the play Prometheus Bound, probably by the fifth-century Athenian playwright Aeschylus.
Chapter 2: I have based my account of Zeus’s abduction of Europa on that of the bucolic poet Moschus, who wrote in the third century BC. Europa does indeed seem to have lent her name to the continent, but the process by which that occurred is somewhat obscure; presumably it is connected with the fact that Zeus took Europa from western Asia to the southern edge of modern Europe. The story of Cadmus’s youthful adventures and his founding of Thebes, as well as the early history of Dionysus, is taken from Apollodorus’s The Library, the classical world’s most concerted attempt to compile all of the Greek myths into one reference work, dating from shortly after the time of Christ. The Greeks, who were never overly eager to credit “barbarian” cultures for their innovations, really did claim that not just their alphabet but the very idea of writing had been invented by Cadmus, probably around 1500 BC; we now know it to have been an invention of the ancient Sumerians dating from some point before 3000 BC. My telling of Dionysus’s arrival in Thebes and the series of tragedies that followed is borrowed from the play The Bacchae, which was first staged in the troubled Athens of 405 BC, shortly after the death of its author Euripides. All of the subversive gender-bending found in my adaptation is also present in the original.
Chapter 3: This version of the story of Perseus is based on the account in The Library by Apollodorus and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on the Metamorphoses of Ovid, which is roughly contemporaneous with Christ. The description of Danaë and the young Perseus adrift in the chest draws from Simonides, a poet of the sixth and/or fifth century BC whose work has come down to us only as fragments.
Chapter 4: This chapter is a retelling of the play Ion by Euripides, which was first staged in or around 413 BC. In addition to being the only classical play to be set entirely in Delphi, it’s one of a few plays by Euripides which doesn’t fit neatly into the comic or tragic mold. The skepticism about Apollo’s behavior which I express here is presented in the original only slightly more obliquely — a sign of shifting attitudes toward the gods and their supposed moral infallibility.
Chapter 5: The most famous of all the stories involving Delphi is that of the ill-fated Oedipus, an eternal symbol deployed in the service of many different agendas in literature and psychology. The bulk of my telling here is drawn from the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex, which is rivaled only by the Odyssey for the title of most-read work of ancient Greek literature, what with both works’ ubiquity on high-school syllabi. It had its debut in Athens in or around 429 BC; its searing rendering of the effects of a plague in Thebes was almost certainly inspired by a plague which had recently struck Athens, as described in my Chapter 21. The earlier parts of Oedipus’s life, including his besting of the sphinx, are taken from Apollodorus.
Chapter 6: As was the case with my adoption of the adventures of the earlier hero Perseus, I have drawn my narrative of Heracles’s visit to Delphi and his twelve labors mostly from Apollodorus, and to a lesser extent from Ovid. In their versions, it is the tripod upon which the oracle sat when communing with Apollo rather than the omphalos stone that Heracles absconds with; I’ve taken some poetic license here in that respect. Ditto with respect to the great Athenian hero Theseus, whom Heracles rescues from Hades during the last of his labors according to the original sources, but whom I’ve rather rudely written out of the story here as one hero and one plot complication too many. Pindar of Thebes, a poet famed at Delphi during the fifth century BC for the odes he penned in honor of the victors of the Pythian Games, vividly described the infant Heracles’s battle with the serpents sent to kill him; I’ve borrowed heavily from him for that part of my story. The story of Heracles’s rescue of his family from the tyrant Lycus is drawn from the first half of Euripides’s play Heracles, which dates from approximately 416 BC. (Alas, its ending is not so happy as the one I give the family here, as we shall learn in Chapter 8…)
Chapter 7: The Argonauts’ adventures at sea are drawn from the Argonautica, a long epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BC. But the reason for the Argo‘s voyage and the ultimate fate of Pelias don’t interest Apollonius; I’ve drawn them from Apollodorus.
Chapter 8: This chapter is the most complicated patch-up job of them all; I hope it works for the reader. King Aegeus is a supporting actor in a number of stories, and as such is mentioned often by Apollodorus. Most notably, he is the father of Theseus, the greatest hero and king of mythic Athens. The boy he conceived in Troezen grew up to become Theseus; the latter is otherwise absent from this volume, on the grounds that one has to edit somewhere. Aegeus appears in Medea, a play by Euripides that was first performed in 431 BC, in the same plot capacity he does here. That play, the story of the bloody consequences of Jason’s forsaking of his first wife, provides the crux of my narrative here. The most tragic event of Heracles’s life, meanwhile, is taken from the second half of the Euripides play Heracles, where an apparent happy ending — as depicted at the end of my own Chapter 6 — proves to be a cruel trick the playwright has pulled on his audience. Splitting the play in this way and interpolating its second half with the story of Medea in Corinth forced me to move the two halves far apart in the chronology of Heracles’s life — but then, Greek mythology is seldom internally consistent about such thing. The final scene of this chapter, where a Delphi elder has cause to see his own wife in a different light, is entirely my own invention.
Chapter 9: My story of this most legendary of all ancient wars is drawn from a hodge-podge of sources. Apollodorus provides the main spine of the narrative, with details colored in by others. The horrific image of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, as well as some of the depiction of Cassandra and the vivid final image of the signal fires spreading across the world to announce Greek victory, come from the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus, which was first performed in 458 BC. The span of events from the fateful meeting between Odysseus and Achilles to Achilles’s killing of Hector and desecration of his body are drawn from the Iliad of Homer. Homer also refers obliquely to a prophecy about an argument between Odysseus and Achilles being a portent of Greek victory, but he does not assign it to the Delphi oracle, as I take the liberty of doing here. The Trojan horse and the final sacking of Troy are drawn from the Aeneid of Virgil, although the protagonist of that Latin epic from approximately 20 BC, who is described as escaping from Troy to become the forefather of the Romans, doesn’t appear in person. Finally, the heartbreaking scene of the few female Trojan survivors and the gods looking down upon them comes from the play The Trojan Women by Euripides, which was first performed in the war-ravaged Athens of 415 BC. My depiction of war as an ultimately futile, nihilistic exercise is not entirely anachronistic; while you certainly won’t find such sentiments in Homer, it’s all over the likes of The Trojan Women.
Chapters 10-11: These two chapters constitute a retelling of the Oresteia by Aeschylus, a trilogy of plays, consisting of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, which is often hailed as the finest achievement of Greek drama. First performed in the midst of the Athenian golden age in 458 BC, they express beautifully the new, more humanistic era of history that was dawning. If I have made more explicit the theme of human justice and self-reliance replacing a dependency on the whims of the gods, I have done so only modestly.
Chapter 12: The events described here sit somewhere on the hazily drawn dividing line between myth and history. A real Lycurgus of some sort may well have existed, but we have no firm historical evidence of the great Spartan law-giver to point to. The most detailed source on his life is the prolific biographer Plutarch, who lived and wrote at Delphi around AD 100. We shouldn’t be overly credulous of him; he also treats the mythical hero Theseus as an historical personage. And yet his narrative suits my purpose of fashioning a history of Greece as the Greeks knew it just fine. The musician Thaletas is mentioned by Plutarch as a part of Lycurgus’s life story, but Homer is not. Still, assuming Lycurgus and Homer both lived at all, it isn’t totally inconceivable that they could have met in something like the fashion described here. The story of the origins of Sparta’s odd two-king monarchy and that of Sparta’s search for the body of Orestes come from the Athenian scholar Herodotus, the canonical “Father of History,” who wrote a sprawling history of the Persians Wars and much else besides around 450 BC. He will continue to be a regular touchstone through many of the chapters that follow this one. Note that most of the details of the Spartan system of government are speculative at best in terms of the historical record.
Chapter 13: The Athenian law-giver Solon has a more definite historical presence than his Spartan counterpart Lycurgus, but the details of his life and laws remain hazily defined indeed. For this chapter I have once again relied heavily on Plutarch, who wrote a biography of Solon just as he did of Lycurgus. Herodotus describes Solon’s clever stratagem of exiling himself for ten years after drafting his constitution to ensure that he wasn’t pressured to change it before it had been properly tested. We are now passing into an era where some events, such as the First Sacred War, can be found in traditional books of Greek history. That said, the overall scheme of Athenian democracy, like the Spartan system of government, changed frequently and is only partially understood. What I present here is a possible constitution, not one we can describe with any historical certainty. For no such document, alas, has come down to us.
Chapters 14-18: These chapters about the path leading up to the Persian War and the conduct of that pivotal conflict itself are formed by mixing Herodotus, who provides their more dramatic tales of individual personalities, with the rest of the established historical record, as found in the more sober-minded secondary-source histories of Greece and Delphi which are listed in my bibliography. I have taken the liberty of making more obvious the delicate balance between divine and temporal concerns which marked the oracle’s pronouncements during this period, and have also improvised closures to some narrative threads which Herodotus leaves curiously dangling, such as the ultimate fates of Hippias and Demaratus. I have drawn a few details of the Persian War, especially involving the defeated Xerxes’s return to his own lands, from the play The Persians by Aeschylus, which was first performed just eight years after the end of the war and stands today as the only play from classical Athens dealing with contemporary events rather than myth to have come down to us.
Chapter 19: This brief portrait of Delphi and the rest of Greece between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars draws mostly from our generalized understanding of those decades rather than any specific ancient sources. Pericles’s speech about the virtues of the Athenian way of life is removed from Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War and placed into a different context here. Its deeper truthiness does, I believe, justify doing so.
Chapters 20-21: My narrative of the Peloponnesian War draws extensively from the chronicle by the Athenian general Thucydides, who wrote it at least partially from personal experience immediately after the war was finished. The extended speechifying I indulge in here is very much in tribute to Thucydides, who used this approach, just as I do here, as a way to cogently sum up the pros and cons, merits and demerits, of the decisions made by the leaders of Greece. Thucydides died before he could finish his history; it ends in 411 BC. I thus rely upon the somewhat less accomplished Hellenica of Xenophon, which is explicitly presented as a continuation of Thucydides’s work, for the closing stages of the war. It was the twentieth-century popular historian Will Durant who first called the Peloponnesian War the “suicide of Greece.”
Chapter 22: This chapter about the final decades of a Greece of independent city-states once again draws to some extent from Xenophon, but most of its details can be found in any number of general secondary histories. The anecdote involving Alexander the Great and the oracle in Delphi probably never happened, but was too poetically apt to pass up; I drew it from Plutarch’s biography of Alexander.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)