Comps Insider: Scott Shafer’s ‘Delineating Delions’

Senior classics major Scott Shafer ’22 delves into the history of a sanctuary for the Greek god Apollo built in 430 B.C.E. by the ancient city of Athens.

Ben More '24 11 May 2022 Posted In:
Photo of ruins of a Delian sanctuary site on the island of Paros, Greece

In roughly 430 B.C.E., the ancient Greek city of Athens funded the construction of a sanctuary for the god Apollo at the nearby port of Phaleron. 2,450 years later in Northfield, Minn., senior classics major Scott Shafer ’22 set out to uncover the story behind the shrine.

Shafer did not come to Carleton expecting to study “the ancient Greco-Roman world in all its various manifestations,” as the classics department’s website says. Rather, he tells us that he discovered his passion for antiquity in the classroom after Latin professor Jake Morgan gradually “pulled [him] in” to the discipline.

“When you [study] Greek and Latin,” Shafer explains, “you learn a lot about the cultural context and history that goes with it… I love it when we get glimpses at people’s lives in the past and see how they are similar to us and are still people, even though they lived 2,000, 2,500 years ago.” 

Shafer nailed down his comps topic during a seminar exploring the role of islands in Greco-Roman history. The Aegean Sea, situated between Turkey and Greece, is home to “many, many, many” ancient sanctuaries. Shafer’s studies led him to the island of Delos, Apollo’s birthplace in Greek mythology, which was home to a “panhellenic sanctuary” that regularly drew crowds from “around the Greek world.” This sanctuary had several “outcroppings” that emerged across the Aegean Sea.

Photo of the ruins of the main Temple of the Delians on the island of Delos, Greece.
What remains of the primary Temple of the Delians on the island of Delos.

“I got very curious about… why other Delian sanctuaries were showing up where they were,” Shafer says. He subsequently narrowed the focus of his project to “a single sanctuary constructed near Athens,” aiming to discover the underlying reasons for its emergence.

While nearly all traces of this particular sanctuary are gone, it stood out to Shafer for one reason: Athens funded its construction in 430 B.C.E. This would have been only one year into the Peloponnesian War, which pitted the city-state against its rival, Sparta, in a protracted and brutal conflict.

“I got a little suspicious about the timing,” Shafer says, “and started looking at whether I could use what we know about the war to contextualize this particular shrine.”

The classics major is home to several distinct paths of study. Among these, Shafer is “mostly a historiographer,” someone who studies “ancient texts [and] written history.” He thus based his research in textual analysis. It was here that Shafer encountered an unavoidable stumbling block: “scarcity of information.”

Greek inscription hinting at a Delion sanctuary in Phaleron.
The inscription hinting at a Delion sanctuary in Phaleron.

Shafer could only find a single inscription about his sanctuary, which, ironically, made it the best-documented of all the sanctuaries he looked at. However, grappling with a lack of information is par for the course in classical studies. To Shafer, surmounting that universal obstacle is one of the most engaging parts of the work.

“If all that you have is half an inscription,” Shafer says, “you need to milk that inscription for everything you can” by drawing on sources that provide historical context. “Bringing that information together in new and novel ways is really the bread and butter of what classicists do… [It’s] often very illuminating.” 

Drawing back and focusing on the bigger picture, Shafer began by building a textual model of Greek religion. He focused first on epithets—titles attached to Greek gods highlighting a specific quality or place—and “how they spread” and “operate.” Next came the inner workings of the sanctuaries themselves. Finally, Shafer zoomed out to the whole of Athens, deeply familiarizing himself with the city’s operation and the fifth century’s political dynamics. From there, it was a matter of “how to put those two” models of religion and the city “in conversation.” After diving into the historical writings of ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides and examining archeological data, Shafer reached his conclusion.

As it turned out, the sanctuary’s location was not arbitrary after all.

Map of Greece pointing out the port of Phaleron.
Map of Greece showing the location of the port of Phaleron.

“It was built in this tiny port town… [with] a lot of sailors and a lot of captains,” Shafer says. As “a naval power” about to embark on a military campaign, Athens needed as much maritime support as possible. Thus, Shafer conceptualizes the sanctuary as an attempted olive branch. Using religion to reach potential recruits, Athens was “trying to appeal to its allies on the eve of this major war, calling back to their roots.” 

Though Shafer may have solved the mystery of the Phaleron sanctuary, he believes the broader value of his project is the historical picture it brightens. “What is revealed by… that process is, in many ways, a lot more” than what historians initially set out to prove, Shafer tells us. 

“Before going into this,” Shafer says, “I had a pretty abstract sense of Athens in the fifth century as this imperial power that has… absolute control over most of the Aegean Sea.”

The classics comps, however, showed Shafer a side of Athens far removed from the unshakeable intelligence and unmatched strength its name has come to imply. Shafer’s comps reveals a city-state “frantically [figuring] out how imperial power works… carefully trying to influence its allies and figure out how much of a carrot and how much of a stick [it] can use.”

For instance, constructing the sanctuary may have been a play at recruiting sailors and captains, but certain elements of the plan fell flat: one of Shafer’s funnier discoveries was a series of legal disputes from individuals unsure “what this new sanctuary [was] doing in their town.” 

In mastering a “tiny sanctuary,” Shafer managed not only to shed light on a historical gray area but to recontextualize the political realities of an oft-romanticized era. His work seems proof that no area of historical study is self-contained—it will always tie back to a broader whole.

“Even if the information you’re looking at isn’t necessarily useful or valuable, the process of working through it is really valuable,” Shafer says.

Scott Shafer’s research paper, “Delineating Delions: Factors Affecting the Founding of the 5th-Century Sanctuary at Phaleron,” will be published in Carleton’s classics journal. After graduating, he intends to continue pursuing his love of history through museum studies and collection management. He thanks classics professors Chico Zimmerman and Clara Hardy for their help conducting research and proofreading his work.