Rome and Delphi

The ongoing wars which exhausted the Hellenistic kingdoms financially had also repercussions on the Sanctuary of Delphi, as the number of its ex-votos diminished and its financial power waned. The last ex-voto which was set up at the site to commemorate a military victory was the pillar which supported the statue of Aemilius Paulus on horseback, the Roman general who won the Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. However, in 86 B.C, another general, Sulla, would plunder many of the treasures of Delphi under the pretext of “loan”. Three years later raids by Thracian tribes would bring yet more destruction. Strabo, who visited the area in the 1st c. B.C., renders in his writings an image of abandonment.
After the end of the Republic, however, the Roman emperors undertook the task of maintaining and preserving Delphi. Some of them made sure to renovate buildings, donate new votive offerings and continue the Pythian Games. Not everyone though: Nero, who went to Delphi and competed at the Games (and, obviously, won), took with him approximately 500 bronze statues from the sacred precincts. On the contrary, Trajan tried to restore the glory of the sanctuary. At the end of his reign, Plutarch took on the priesthood at the sanctuary and remained there for thirty years (95-125 AD). The work of Plutarch is a source of abundant information on the rituals, the monuments as well as the visitors of the sacred land.
Yet, the emperor whose name became most closely linked with Delphi was Hadrian, who deeply admired Greece, its art and its philosophy. A great number of statue bases bear his name, but none of his statues has been preserved. Instead, a statue of his protégé, the young Antinous from Bithynia, was preserved. Inconsolable after the loss of his companion's, Hadrian gave orders to place statues of Antinous in almost every spot in the empire. The statue discovered in Delphi, however, is probably the most beautiful of the surviving specimens, an idealized figure, made to last for eternity.
Around 170 A.D. Delphi welcomed one final great benefaction: Herod Atticus is reported to have undertaken the revetment of the stadium with marble benches, as he had done with the stadium in Athens. From then on, the Oracle and the site began to decline. In about the same period, Pausanias visited the site and gave detailed descriptions of the sanctuary which was rapidly degenerating. Without his texts many of the monuments would have been nowadays unknown or unidentified.

Ex-votos of the Roman period
Unfortunately, during the “Great Excavation” the Roman ex-votos were treated as “less significant”, a view that has changed ever since. The stele of Aemilius Paulus is a very important historical token since it portrays on its frieze the Battle of Pydna. The bust of the “melancholic Roman”, none other than Titus Quintus Flamininus (229-174 B.C.), the protagonist of the Second Macedonian War, is consistent with Plutarch's description in his homonymous “Life”.
Extremely interesting is the renowned “Sarcophagus of Meleagros” that was found at the beginning of the 19th c. in situ in the western necropolis, and was later transferred to the Museum of Delphi. It is dated to the 2nd c. A.D. and it is adorned with a relief decoration depicting the myth of the Caledonian Boar and the conflict between the hunters who were chasing it. The lid of the sarcophagus is formed like a bed on which a female figure is lying, most probably the deceased woman.

Text: Dr. Aphrodite Kamara, Historian
Translation: Dr. Metaxia Papageorgiou, Archaeologist