Week 7 of Greece at a Crossroads: History, Landscape, and Material Culture

15 May 2024

By Henry Petrini

No surprise here, another great week in Greece. We spent our weekend on a trip through central Greece, going to a range of sites. My favorite site was Delphi, which I’ve heard about over and over again despite never having been, or learning about why specifically it was so important to the Ancient Greeks. I left with a strong sense of the degree of interconnectedness between city-states and societies in the Greek world, which has been steadily strengthened during this program. 

What remains of Delphi is almost entirely stone, but when we entered the site, we were told to imagine it being covered in a forest of bronze. In its heyday, it was an epicenter of votive monuments, dedicated statues and inscriptions, temples, and treasuries – meaning it was filled with bronze statues. If you wanted to commemorate an important aspect of your city-state’s culture or society at Delphi and you had the money for it, you would ask the ruling commission of Delphi (the amphictyony) for permission. If they permitted you, you would erect a bronze statue. Considering that the process happened hundreds of times over the course of several centuries, it’s no wonder that the site was a hotbed of bronze statues.

Site Map

Victories and military campaigns could also be commemorated at Delphi. Near the entrance of the sanctuary, right next to one another, there used to be monuments to (and this is wild) Athenian victory over the Spartans, and Spartan victory over the Athenians. It did not matter that these monuments directly contradicted the military might of both participating city-states – as our visiting lecturer, Dr. Edward Harris, put it, Delphi was where all Greeks could go to “feel” Greek, to celebrate a sense of panhellenism. It was a node at which all kinds of contradictory histories, faiths, and beliefs existed at once. Having that mindset as we prepared to enter the site allowed me to understand how important it was to the Ancient Greeks.

Temple of Apollo

It was an immensely important business center that allowed the flow of goods and money between Greek societies. This led to a sense of competition between Greek city-states that placed their monuments in the sanctuary – the question of who would build the tallest or most elaborate monument was at the front of many Greeks’ minds. 

The treasury of Siphnos is a perfect example of this. Constructed by the wealthy island of Siphnos, it is made of marble from Naxos, Paros, and Siphnos itself. The natural wealth of Siphnos, filled with valuable metals, helped pay for the treasury, which was more elaborate and grandiose than others. Dr. Harris suggested that the Siphian treasury was the apogee of the architectural form of the ancient treasury since they went out of fashion shortly after the most important features were added to it. While panhellenism could be used to promote a sense of unity, there also came with it a strong sense of competition – what better way to prove your material success and grandeur than to display it in front of a space where all Greeks could see it?

Omphalos – or, belly button – signifying the place the Greeks thought was the center of the world.