Delphi in the Hellenistic Period

After the turbulent 4th century, Delphi entered a new phase of prosperity and power during the Hellenistic period. The panhellenic sanctuary received its share of the booty gathered during Alexander's campaigns in the East. The rivalries among his Successors and, later on, the Hellenistic kingdoms and confederacies, were often reflected in their effort to surpass one another in lavish and prestigious votive offerings.

The threat of the Galatians and the rise of the Aetolian Confederacy
The third decade of the 3rd century B.C. found the Hellenistic states exhausted by constant fighting; great dangers loomed over Greece. The defeat and death of Lysimachos at the battle of Kouropedion in 281 B.C. and the weakening of his state in Thrace mobilized the Celtic tribes (Galatians) that dwelled in Pannonia to descend towards Greece, possibly driven by famine.
When they reached Northern Greece, their military, a total of about 85,000 men, was divided in three groups. The main group, under Brennus and Acichorius, headed towards central Greece, whereas the other two towards Western Macedonia and towards Eastern Macedonia and Thrace respectively. The initial raids ended once the need of the Galatians for booty was satisfied yet Brennus and Acichorius organised another campaign in 279 B.C. The Greeks joined forces and tried to stop them at Thermopylae. Brennus sent part of his military force to the east, towards Aetolia, as a decoy, in order to force the Aetolians who defended Thermopylae to abandon their positions. The Galatians destroyed Kallion, on the border between Eurytania and Aetolia, committing horrible atrocities, but the resistance of the entire Aetolian population at the site Kokkalia, where even the elderly and the women and children fought, gave a decisive blow to the Galatian threat. The Galatian army was defeated and the planned looting of Delphi never took place. On the contrary, the Aetolian League strengthened its position in mainland Greece and dominated Delphi for about a century. The Aetolians set up a honorary stele on a base which presumably depicts pieces of armoury of the Galatians; they also erected the so-called “Portico of the Aetolians” or Western Portico, one of the largest buildings close to the sanctuary of Apollo. As a token of gratitude, they were accorded the right to participate at the amphictyonic convention. Honorary games were organised too – the Amphictyonic Soteria, which in 246 B.C were renamed “Aetolian Soteria” and later evolved into Pan-Hellenic Games which took place every five years.

The Attalids and Delphi
The Hellenistic kingdom of the Attalids in Pergamon also acquired prestige through its fight against the Galatians who reached central Asia Minor after their defeat in Greece. At about 241 B.C. Attalus I inaugurated the construction of a monumental portico to the east of the sanctuary of Apollo. Part of the sacred precinct had to be demolished to make room for this construction. The Attalids were also given the right to be the only ones who could erect votive offerings within this portico. Later, in ca. 160 B.C., Eumenes II provided the theatre of Delphi with stone benches.

The War of the Allies
The strengthening of the Aetolian League alarmed most of the other Hellenistic states, except for the Attalids, who considered the Aetolians their allies in their common goal of controlling the Galatians. Philip V of Macedonia, eager to put an end to Aetolian supremacy over Central Greece, managed to bring together several Greek powers in the so-called War of the Allies. Although the war did not terminate the Aetolian presence in Delphi, it did weaken their control over the sanctuary and the oracle. Thus, when Sicyon, a member of the Achaean League which was rival to the Aetolian League, asked in 213 B.C. the oracle for advice on how to bury its king, Aratus, the answer was that Aratus should be proclaimed a hero.
Towards the end of the 3rd century B.C., however, a new power, Rome, emerged and became actively involved in the political life of the Greeks. The sanctuary of Delphi foresaw the role Rome was to play and made sure to offer its support. Delphi’s pro-Roman position was going to be long-lasting.

The Hellenistic ex-votos
In terms of art, the beginning of the 3rd century was characterized by a turn towards realism. The first large Hellenistic ex votos is a sculpted composition to which seem to belong the statue of Dionysus and that of a bearded elderly man (known also as the “Philosopher”), as well as the figures of a woman and a girl. If these statues did actually form a group, they must have been dedicated by a priest at Delphi around 270 B.C. In the course of the 3rd century the robust style of the classical period is succeeded by forms of little children, such as the boy holding a goose with both hands (a type which has been amply reproduced in the Hellenistic and Roman period), or the arktos (bear) type of little girl, similar to the votive offerings to Artemis at Brauron, and the sleeping Cupid.

Text - Translation: Dr. Aphrodite Kamara, Historian