The Delphic Oracle had foretold the death of a Spartan king and advised the Athenians “to flee to the ends of the earth” but believed Apollo would take care of Delphi. And now, with a Persian army intent on loot having reached the temple of Athena and the locals having all run away, nothing short of divine intervention could save the Oracle and the treasures of Delphi. But would Apollo save his most famous temple or let it be looted and burned?
The Persians Destroy Phokis
After forcing the pass at Thermopylae and getting the better of the sea battle fought at the same time at Artemision (Book VIII.1-18), the Persian army ravaged Phokis (making the Phokians pay dearly indeed for their failure in defending the mountain path above Thermopylae).
VIII. 32. the Barbarians however overran the whole land of Phokis… and all that they came to as they marched they burned or cut down, and delivered to the flames both the cities and the temples… 33. for they laid everything waste… and they destroyed the city of Drymos by fire, and also… Charadra, Erochos, Tethronion, Amphikaia, Neon, Pedieis, Triteis, Elateia, Hyampolis, Parapotamioi and Abai…
Delphi in Danger
Then, while the main body of the army, headed by Xerxes, marched on directly towards Athens, a smaller unit turned towards Delphi:
35. … And for this reason they marched in that direction, parted off from the rest of the army, namely in order that they might plunder the temple at Delphi and deliver over the treasures there to king Xerxes: and Xerxes was well acquainted with all that there was in it of any account, better, I am told, than with the things which he had left in his own house at home…
In particular, Xerxes wanted to lay hands on “the votive offerings of Croesus“, a former king of Lydia and a very rich man in his time. A couple of cracking stories are told by Herodotus about Croesus in Book I: about his encounter with Solon, his dealings with the Delphi Oracle and his rescue from the pyre (clearly this is the point where you ought to hit that subscribe button if you haven’t yet).
The inhabitants of Delphi, hearing that the Persians were on their way to Delphi…
36. … had been brought to extreme fear; and being in great terror they consulted the Oracle about the sacred things, whether they should bury them in the earth or carry them forth to another land; but the god forbade them to meddle with these, saying that he was able by himself to take care of his own.
The Delphians, however, clearly felt that this was not as reassuring as the Oracle thought it to be. If Apollo wanted to take care of his own, that was his outlook; but as Herodotus points out on several occasions, the Persians were no respecters of other people’s temples. (Not to mention houses and women.) With the exception of Delos which they did indeed spare (Book VI. 97), they happily burned everything else down. Including a temple of Apollo himself only a few days earlier in Phokis:
33. …there was a temple of Apollo, wealthy and furnished with treasuries and votive offerings in abundance; and there was then, as there is even now, the seat of an Oracle there: this temple they plundered and burnt.
Any sane Delphian had to ask himself: if Apollo didn’t save his temple in Phokis, could he be counted upon saving Delphi?
Nor could the Delphians help noticing that there was nothing said here as to whether Apollo would include the Delphians and their personal possessions in this definition of ‘his own’. Accordingly, the Delphians prudently decided to let the god get on with his own business as he thought fit while they took care of their own:
Hearing this… they sent their children and women over to Achaia on the other side of the sea, while most of the men themselves ascended up towards the summits of Parnassos and carried their property to the Corykian cave, while others departed for refuge to Amphissa of the Locrians. In short the Delphians had all left the town excepting sixty men and the prophet of the Oracle.
How Apollo Saved Delphi
In due course, the Persians arrived to the mostly deserted town; it was now time for Apollo, if he was going to do anything, to do it.
Gratifyingly, he did.
As the ‘Barbarians’ came within sight of the temple, Akeratos, the Oracle came out of his cell and, to his surprise, found that weapons were laid out in front of him – even though these arms were sacred and nobody was allowed to lay hands on them. He concluded that it was Apollo himself who brought out the arms and was going to address the remaining Delphians upon the meaning of this ‘portent’ but before he had time to do so…
37. … but when the Barbarians pressing onwards came opposite the temple of Athene Pronaia, there happened to them in addition portents yet greater than that which had come to pass before: for though that too was a marvel, that arms of war should appear of themselves laid forth outside the cell, yet this, which happened straightway after that, is worthy of marvel even beyond all other prodigies. When the Barbarians in their approach were opposite the temple of Athene Pronaia, at this point of time from the heaven there fell thunderbolts upon them, and from Parnassos two crags were broken away and rushed down upon them with a great crashing noise falling upon many of them, while from the temple of Pronaia there was heard a shout, and a battle-cry was raised.
Thunderbolts and a couple of minor landslides, nothing less, struck the Persians as they came near the temple of Athena Pronaia. The Persians panicked…
38. …and the Delphians having perceived that they were flying, came down after them and slew a great number of them; and those who survived fled straight to Boeotia.
The surviving Persians subsequently must have found it difficult to explain to Xerxes how some sixty men put them to flight; and claimed that in addition to the thunderbolts and landslides…
…they saw also other miraculous things; for two men (they said) in full armour and of stature more than human followed them slaying and pursuing.
And the evidence for all of this?
39. …the rocks which fell from Parnassos were still preserved even to my time, lying in the sacred enclosure of Athene Pronaia, into which they fell when they rushed through the ranks of the Barbarians.
Apollo had indeed taken care of his own – with some help from the Delphians.