PYTHIAN GAMES AT DELPHI
*Brooksy Note: the whole of this text is exactly as written. We have added only titles and boldened sentences in an effort to make the text more reader-friendly and easier to comprehend. It wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this a modestly annotated version of the Pythian Games at Delphi; which is considered to be in the public domain along with the entirety of The Great Events By Famous Historians series.
Introduction by Charles F. Horne, Ph.D. & John Rudd, LL.D.
Among the leading features of Greek life, especially those belonging to its religious customs and observances none are more characteristic, and none possess a more attractive interest for the modern reader and student than the peculiar festivals which it was their practice to hold. The four great national festivals or games were: The Olympic, held every four years, in honor of Zeus, on the banks of the Alpheus, in Elis; the Pythian, celebrated once in four years, in honor of Apollo, at Delphi; the Isthmian, held every two years, at the isthmian sanctuary in the Isthmus of Corinth, in honor of Poseidon (Neptune); and the Nemean, celebrated at Nemea, in the second and fourth years of each Olympiad, in honor of the Nemean Juno.
With regard to the influence of these games or festivals upon the political and social life of Greece, much has been written by historians and special students of the Grecian states. While the celebrations do not appear to have accomplished much for the political union of Greece, they are to be credited with marked beneficial effects in the promotion of a pan-Hellenic spirit which, if it failed to produce such a union of the Greek race, nevertheless quickened and strengthened the common feeling of family relationship. Thus a sense of their identical origin and racial traits was kept alive, and the tendencies of Greek development and culture preserved their essential character and distinction. By means of these periodical gatherings, representing all parts of the Greek world, not only was friendly competition in every field of talent and performance secured, but even trade and commerce found through them new channels of activity. So in various ways the national games proved a source of fresh energy and broader enterprise among the various branches of the Grecian people. The particular character and significance of the Pythian games at Delphi, and their relation to the other national festivals, form an interesting subject for study in connection with the general history of Greece.
What are called the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games (the four most conspicuous amid many others analogous) were in reality great religious festivals—for the gods then gave their special sanction, name, and presence to recreative meetings—the closest association then prevailed between the feelings of common worship and the sympathy in common amusement. Though this association is now no longer recognized, it is nevertheless essential that we should keep it fully before us if we desire to understand the life and proceedings of the Greek. To Herodotus and his contemporaries these great festivals, then frequented by crowds from every part of Greece, were of overwhelming importance and interest; yet they had once been purely local, attracting no visitors except from a very narrow neighborhood. In the Homeric poems much is said about the common gods, and about special places consecrated to and occupied by several of them; the chiefs celebrate funeral games in honor of a deceased father, which are visited by competitors from different parts of Greece, but nothing appears to manifest public or town festivals open to Grecian visitors generally. And though the rocky Pytho with its temple stands out in the Iliad as a place both venerated and rich—the Pythian games, under the superintendence of the Amphictyons, with continuous enrollment of victors and a pan-Hellenic reputation, do not begin until after the Sacred War, in the 48th Olympiad, or B.C. 586.
The Olympic games, more conspicuous than the Pythian as well as considerably older, are also remarkable on another ground, inasmuch as they supplied historical computers with the oldest backward record of continuous time. It was in the year B.C. 776 that the Eleans inscribed the name of their countryman Coroebus as victor in the competition of runners, and that they began the practice of inscribing in like manner, in each Olympic or fifth recurring year, the name of the runner who won the prize. Even for a long time after this, however, the Olympic games seem to have remained a local festival; the prize being uniformly carried off, at the first twelve Olympiads, by some competitor either of Elis or its immediate neighborhood. The Nemean and Isthmian games did not become notorious or frequented until later even than the Pythian. Solon in his legislation proclaimed the large reward of 500 drams for every Athenian who gained an Olympic prize, and the lower sum of 100 drams for an Isthmiac prize. He counts the former as pan-Hellenic rank and renown, an ornament even to the city of which the victor was a member—the latter as partial and confined to the neighborhood.
Of the beginnings of these great solemnities we cannot presume to speak, except in mythical language; we know them only in their comparative maturity. But the habit of common sacrifice, on a small scale and between near neighbors, is a part of the earliest habits of Greece. The sentiment of fraternity, between two tribes or villages, first manifested itself by sending a sacred legation or Theoria to offer sacrifices to each other’s festivals and to partake in the recreations which followed; thus establishing a truce with solemn guarantee, and bringing themselves into direct connexion each with the god of the other under his appropriate local surname. The pacific communion so fostered, and the increased assurance of intercourse, as Greece gradually emerged from the turbulence and pugnacity of the heroic age, operated especially in extending the range of this ancient habit: the village festivals became town festivals, largely frequented by the citizens of other towns, and sometimes with special invitations sent round to attract Theors from every Hellenic community—and thus these once humble assemblages gradually swelled into the pomp and immense confluence of the Olympic and Pythian games. The city administering such holy ceremonies enjoyed inviolability of territory during the month of their occurrence, being itself under obligation at that time to refrain from all aggression, as well as to notify by heralds the commencement of the truce to all other cities not in avowed hostility with it. Elis imposed heavy fines upon other towns—even on the powerful Lacedæmon—for violation of the Olympic truce, on pain of exclusion from the festival in case of non-payment.
Sometimes this tendency to religious fraternity took a form called an Amphictyony, different from the common festival. A certain number of towns entered into an exclusive religious partnership for the celebration of sacrifices periodically to the god of a particular temple, which was supposed to be the common property and under the common protection of all, though one of the number was often named as permanent administrator; while all other Greeks were excluded. That there were many religious partnerships of this sort, which have never acquired a place in history, among the early Grecian villages, we may perhaps gather from the etymology of the word Amphictyons—designating residents around, or neighbors, considered in the point of view of fellow-religionists—as well as from the indications preserved to us in reference to various parts of the country. Thus there was an Amphictyony of seven cities at the holy island of Caluria, close to the harbor of Troezen. Hermione, Epidaurus, Ægina, Athens, Prasiæ, Nauplia, and Orchomenus, jointly maintained the temple and sanctuary of Poseidon in that island—with which it would seem that the city of Troezen, though close at hand, had no connection—meeting there at stated periods, to offer formal sacrifices. These seven cities indeed were not immediate neighbors, but the speciality and exclusiveness of their interest in the temple is seen from the fact that when the Argians took Nauplia, they adopted and fulfilled these religious obligations on behalf of the prior inhabitants: so also did the Lacedæmonians when they had captured Prasiæ. Again, in Triphylia, situated between the Pisatid and Messenia in the western part of Peloponnesus, there was a similar religious meeting and partnership of the Triphylians on Cape Samicon, at the temple of the Samian Poseidon. Here the inhabitants of Maciston were intrusted with the details of superintendence, as well as with the duty of notifying beforehand the exact time of meeting (a precaution essential amidst the diversities and irregularities of the Greek calendar) and also of proclaiming what was called the Samian truce—a temporary abstinence from hostilities which bound all Triphylians during the holy period. This latter custom discloses the salutary influence of such institutions in presenting to men’s minds a common object of reverence, common duties, and common enjoyments; thus generating sympathies and feelings of mutual obligation amid petty communities not less fierce than suspicious. So, too, the twelve chief Ionic cities in and near Asia Minor had their pan-Ionic Amphictyony peculiar to themselves: the six Doric cities, in and near the southern corner of that peninsula, combined for the like purpose at the temple of the Triopian Apollo, and the feeling of special partnership is here particularly illustrated by the fact that Halicarnassus, one of the six, was formally extruded by the remaining five in consequence of a violation of the rules. There was also an Amphictyonic union at Onchestus in Boeotia, in the venerated grove and temple at Poseidon: of whom it consisted we are not informed. There are some specimens of the sort of special religious conventions and assemblies which seem to have been frequent throughout Greece. Nor ought we to omit those religious meetings and sacrifices which were common to all the members of one Hellenic subdivision, such as the pan-Boeotia to all the Boeotians, celebrated at the temple of the Ionian Athene near Coroneia; the common observances, rendered to the temple of Apollo Pythæus at Argos, by all those neighboring towns which had once been attached by this religious thread to the Argian; the similar periodical ceremonies, frequented by all who bore the Achæan or Ætolian name; and the splendid and exhilarating festivals, so favorable to the diffusion of the early Grecian poetry, which brought all Ionians at stated intervals to the sacred island of Delos. This later class of festivals agreed with the Amphictyony in being of a special and exclusive character, not open to all Greeks.
But there was one among these many Amphictyonies, which, though starting from the smallest beginnings, gradually expanded into so comprehensive a character, had acquired so marked a predominance over the rest, as to be called the “Amphictyonic assembly,” and even to have been mistaken by some authors for a sort of federal Hellenic diet. Twelve sub-races, out of the number which made up entire Hellas, belonged to this ancient Amphictyony, the meetings of which were held twice in every year: in spring at the temple of Apollo at Delphi; in autumn at Thermopylæ, in the sacred precinct of Demeter Amphictyonis. Sacred deputies, including a chief called the Hieromnemon and subordinates called the Pylagoræ, attended at these meetings from each of the twelve races: a crowd of volunteers seem to have accompanied them, for purposes of sacrifice, trade, or enjoyment. Their special, and most important, function consisted in watching over the Delphian temple, in which all the twelve sub-races had a joint interest, and it was the immense wealth and national ascendency of this temple which enhanced to so great a pitch the dignity of its acknowledged administrators.
The twelve constituent members were as follows: Thessalians, Boeotians, Dorians, Ionians, Perrhæbians, Magnetes, Locrians, Oetæans, Achæans, Phocians, Dolopes, and Malians. All are counted as races (if we treat the Hellenes as a race, we must call these sub-races), no mention being made of cities: all count equally in respect to voting, two votes being given by the deputies from each of the twelve: moreover, we are told that in determining the deputies to be sent or the manner in which the votes of each race should be given, the powerful Athens, Sparta, and Thebes had no more influence than the humblest Ionian, Dorian, or Boeotian city. This latter fact is distinctly stated by Æschines, himself a Pylagore sent to Delphi by Athens. And so, doubtless, the theory of the case stood: the votes of the Ionic races counted for neither more nor less than two, whether given by deputies from Athens, or from the small towns of Erythræ and Priene; and in like manner the Dorian votes were as good in the division, when given by deputies from Boeon and Cytinion in the little territory of Doris, as if the men delivering them had been Spartans. But there can be as little question that in practice the little Ionic cities and the little Doric cities pretended to no share in the Amphictyonic deliberations. As the Ionic vote came to be substantially the vote of Athens, so, if Sparta was ever obstructed in the management of the Doric vote, it must have been by powerful Doric cities like Argos or Corinth, not by the insignificant towns of Doris. But the theory of Amphictyonic suffrage as laid down by Æschines, however little realized in practice during his day, is important inasmuch as it shows in full evidence the primitive and original constitution. The first establishment of the Amphictyonic convocation dates from a time when all the twelve members were on a footing of equal independence, and when there were no overwhelming cities—such as Sparta and Athens—to cast in the shade the humbler members; when Sparta was only one Doric city, and Athens only one Ionic city, among various others of consideration not much inferior.
There are also other proofs which show the high antiquity of this Amphictyonic convocation. Æschines gives us an extract from the oath which had been taken by the sacred deputies who attended on behalf of their respective races, ever since its first establishment, and which still apparently continued to be taken in his day. The antique simplicity of this oath, and of the conditions to which the members bind themselves, betrays the early age in which it originated, as well as the humble resources of those towns to which it was applied. “We will not destroy any Amphictyonic town—we will not cut off any Amphictyonic town from running water”—such are the two prominent obligations which Æschines specifies out of the old oath. The second of the two carries us back to the simplest state of society, and to towns of the smallest size, when the maidens went out with their basins to fetch water from the spring, like the daughters of Celeos at Eleusis, or those of Athens from the fountain Callirrhoe. We may even conceive that the special mention of this detail, in the covenant between the twelve races, is borrowed literally from agreements still earlier, among the villages or little towns in which the members of each race were distributed. At any rate, it proves satisfactorily the very ancient date to which the commencement of the Amphictyonic convocations must be referred. The belief of Æschines (perhaps also the belief general in his time) was, that it commenced simultaneously with the first foundation of the Delphian temple—an event of which we have no historical knowledge; but there seems reason to suppose that its original establishment is connected with Thermopylæ and Demeter Amphictyonia, rather than with Delphi and Apollo. The special surname by which Demeter and her temple at Thermopylæ was known—the temple of the hero Amphictyon which stood at its side—the word Pyloea, which obtained footing in the language to designate the half-yearly meeting of the deputies both at Thermopylæ and at Delphi—these indications point to Thermopylæ (the real central point for all the twelve) as the primary place of meeting, and to the Delphian half-year as something secondary and superadded. On such a matter, however, we cannot go beyond a conjecture.
The hero Amphictyon, whose temple stood at Thermopylæ, passed in mythical genealogy for the brother of Hellen. And it may be affirmed, with truth, that the habit of forming Amphictyonic unions, and of frequenting each other’s religious festivals, was the great means of creating and fostering the primitive feeling of brotherhood among the children of Hellen, in those early times when rudeness, insecurity, and pugnacity did so much to isolate them. A certain number of salutary habits and sentiments, such as that which the Amphictyonic oath embodies, in regard to abstinence from injury as well as to mutual protection, gradually found their way into men’s minds: the obligations thus brought into play acquired a substantive efficacy of their own, and the religious feeling which always remained connected with them, came afterward to be only one out of many complex agencies by which the later historical Greek was moved. Athens and Sparta in the days of their might, and the inferior cities in relation to them, played each their own political game, in which religious considerations will be found to bear only a subordinate part.
The special function of the Amphictyonic council, so far as we know it, consisted in watching over the safety, the interests, and the treasures of the Delphian temple. “If any one shall plunder the property of the god, or shall be cognizant thereof, or shall take treacherous counsel against the things in the temple, we will punish him with foot, and hand, and voice, and by every means in our power.” So ran the old Amphictyonic oath, with an energetic imprecation attached to it. And there are some examples in which the council constitutes its functions so largely as to receive and adjudicate upon complaints against entire cities, for offences against the religious and patriotic sentiment of the Greeks generally. But for the most part its interference relates directly to the Delphian temple. The earliest case in which it is brought to our view is the Sacred War against Cirrha, in the 46th Olympiad or B.C. 595, conducted by Eurolychus the Thessalian, and Clisthenes of Sicyon, and proposed by Solon of Athens: we find the Amphictyons also about half a century afterward undertaking the duty of collecting subscriptions throughout the Hellenic world, and making the contract with the Alcmæonids for rebuilding the temple after a conflagration. But the influence of this council is essentially of a fluctuating and intermittent character. Sometimes it appears forward to decide, and its decisions command respect; but such occasions are rare, taking the general course of known Grecian history; while there are other occasions, and those too especially affecting the Delphian temple, on which we are surprised to find nothing said about it. In the long and perturbed period which Thucydides describes, he never once mentions the Amphictyons, though the temple and the safety of its treasures form the repeated subject as well of dispute as of express stipulation between Athens and Sparta. Moreover, among the twelve constituent members of the council, we find three—the Perrhæbians, the Magnetes, and the Achæans of Phthia—who were not even independent, but subject to the Thessalians; so that its meetings, when they were not matters of mere form, probably expressed only the feelings of the three or four leading members. When one or more of these great powers had a party purpose to accomplish against others—when Philip of Macedon wished to extrude one of the members in order to procure admission for himself—it became convenient to turn this ancient form into a serious reality; and we shall see the Athenian Æschines providing a pretext for Philip to meddle in favor of the minor Boeotian cities against Thebes, by alleging that these cities were under the protection of the old Amphictyonic oath.
It is thus that we have to consider the council as an element in Grecian affairs—an ancient institution, one among many instances of the primitive habit of religious fraternization, but wider and more comprehensive than the rest; at first purely religious, then religious and political at once, lastly more the latter than the former; highly valuable in the infancy, but unsuited to the maturity of Greece, and called into real working only on rare occasions, when its efficiency happened to fall in with the views of Athens, Thebes, or the king of Macedon. In such special moments it shines with a transient light which affords a partial pretense for the imposing title bestowed on it by Cicero—commune Græciæ concilium; but we should completely misinterpret Grecian history if we regarded it as a federal council habitually directed or habitually obeyed. Had there existed any such “commune concilium” of tolerable wisdom and patriotism, and had the tendencies of the Hellenic mind been capable of adapting themselves to it, the whole course of later Grecian history would probably have been altered; the Macedonian kings would have remained only as respectable neighbors, borrowing civilization from Greece and expending their military energies upon Thracians and Illyrians; while united Hellas might even have maintained her own territory against the conquering legions of Rome.
The twelve constituent Amphictyonic races remained unchanged until the Sacred War against the Phocians (B.C. 355), after which, though the number twelve was continued, the Phocians were disfranchised, and their votes transferred to Philip of Macedon. It has been already mentioned that these twelve did not exhaust the whole of Hellas. Arcadians, Eleans, Pisans, Minyæ, Dryopes, Ætolians, all genuine Hellenes, are not comprehended in it; but all of them had a right to make use of the temple of Delphi, and to contend in the Pythian and Olympic games. The Pythian games, celebrated near Delphi, were under the superintendence of the Amphictyons, or of some acting magistrate chosen by and presumed to represent them. Like the Olympic games, they came round every four years (the interval between one celebration and another being four complete years, which the Greeks called a Pentæteris): the Isthmian and Nemean games recurred every two years. In its first humble form a competition among bards to sing a hymn in praise of Apollo, this festival was doubtless of immemorial antiquity; but the first extension of it into pan-Hellenic notoriety (as I have already remarked), the first multiplication of the subjects of competition, and the first introduction of a continuous record of the conquerors, date only from the time when it came under the presidency of the Amphictyon, at the close of the Sacred War against Cirrha, What is called the first Pythian contest coincides with the third year of the 48th Olympiad, or B.C. 585. From that period forward the games become crowded and celebrated: but the date just named, nearly two centuries after the first Olympiad, is a proof that the habit of periodical frequentation of festivals, by numbers and from distant parts, grew up but slowly in the Grecian world.
The foundation of the temple of Delphi itself reaches far beyond all historical knowledge, forming one of the aboriginal institutions of Hellas. It is a sanctified and wealthy place even in the Iliad; the legislation of Lycurgus at Sparta is introduced under its auspices, and the earliest Grecian colonies, those of Sicily and Italy in the eighth century B.C., are established in consonance with its mandate. Delphi and Dodona appear, in the most ancient circumstances of Greece, as universally venerated oracles and sanctuaries: and Delphi not only receives honors and donations, but also answers questions from Lydians, Phrygians, Etruscans, Romans, etc.: it is not exclusively Hellenic. One of the valuable services which a Greek looked for from this and other great religious establishments was, that it should resolve his doubts in cases of perplexity; that it should advise him whether to begin a new, or to persist in an old project; that it should foretell what would be his fate under given circumstances, and inform him, if suffering under distress, on what conditions the gods would grant him relief.
The three priestesses of Dodona with their venerable oak, and the priestess of Delphi sitting on her tripod under the influence of a certain gas or vapor exhaling from the rock, were alike competent to determine these difficult points: and we shall have constant occasion to notice in this history with what complete faith both the question was put and the answer treasured up—what serious influence it often exercised both upon public and private proceeding. The hexameter verses in which the Pythian priestess delivered herself were indeed often so equivocal or unintelligible, that the most serious believer, with all anxiety to interpret and obey them, often found himself ruined by the result. Yet the general faith in the oracle was no way shaken by such painful experience. For as the unfortunate issue always admitted of being explained upon two hypotheses—either that the god had spoken falsely, or that his meaning had not been correctly understood—no man of genuine piety ever hesitated to adopt the latter. There were many other oracles throughout Greece besides Delphi and Dodona; Apollo was open to the inquiries of the faithful at Ptoon in Boeotia, at Abæ in Phocis, at Branchidæ near Miletus, at Patara in Lycia, and other places: in like manner, Zeus gave answers at Olympia, Poseidon at Tænarus, Amphiaraus at Thebes, Amphilochus at Mallus, etc. And this habit of consulting the oracle formed part of the still more general tendency of the Greek mind to undertake no enterprise without having first ascertained how the gods viewed it, and what measures they were likely to take. Sacrifices were offered, and the interior of the victim carefully examined, with the same intent: omens, prodigies, unlooked-for coincidences, casual expressions, etc., were all construed as significant of the divine will. To sacrifice with a view to this or that undertaking, or to consult the oracle with the same view, are familiar expressions embodied in the language. Nor could any man set about a scheme with comfort until he had satisfied himself in some manner or other that the gods were favorable to it.
The disposition here adverted to is one of these mental analogies pervading the whole Hellenic nation, which Herodotus indicates. And the common habit among all Greeks of respectfully listening to the oracle of Delphi will be found on many occasions useful in maintaining unanimity among men not accustomed to obey the same political superior. In the numerous colonies especially, founded by mixed multitudes from distant parts of Greece, the minds of the emigrants were greatly determined toward cordial coöperation by their knowledge that the expedition had been directed, the oecist indicated, and the spot either chosen or approved by Apollo of Delphi. Such in most cases was the fact: that god, according to the conception of the Greeks, “takes delight always in the foundation of new cities, and himself in person lays the first stone.”
These are the elements of union with which the historical Hellenes take their start: community of blood, language, religious point of view, legends, sacrifices, festivals, and also (with certain allowances) of manners and character. The analogy of manners and character between the rude inhabitants of the Arcadian Cynætha and the polite Athens, was, indeed, accompanied with wide differences; yet if we compare the two with foreign contemporaries, we shall find certain negative characteristics of much importance common to both. In no city of historical Greece did there prevail either human sacrifices or deliberate mutilation, such as cutting off the nose, ears, hands, feet, etc.; or castration; or selling of children into slavery; or polygamy; or the feeling of unlimited obedience toward one man: all customs which might be pointed out as existing among the contemporary Carthaginians, Egyptians, Persians, Thracians, etc. The habit of running, wrestling, boxing, etc., in gymnastic contests, with the body perfectly naked, was common to all Greeks, having been first adopted as a Lacedæmonian fashion in the fourteenth Olympiad: Thucydides and Herodotus remark that it was not only not practised, but even regarded as unseemly, among non-Hellenes. Of such customs, indeed, at once common to all the Greeks, and peculiar to them as distinguished from others, we cannot specify a great number, but we may see enough to convince ourselves that there did really exist, in spite of local differences, a general Hellenic sentiment and character, which counted among the cementing causes of a union apparently so little assured.
During the two centuries succeeding B.C. 776, the festival of the Olympic Zeus in the Pisatid gradually passed from a local to a national character, and acquired an attractive force capable of bringing together into temporary union the dispersed fragments of Hellas, from Marseilles to Trebizond. In this important function it did not long stand alone. During the sixth century B.C., three other festivals, at first local, became successively nationalized—the Pythia near Delphi, the Isthmia near Corinth, the Nemea near Cleone, between Sicyon and Argos.
In regard to the Pythian festival, we find a short notice of the particular incidents and individuals by whom its reconstitution and enlargement were brought about—a notice the more interesting inasmuch as these very incidents are themselves a manifestation of something like pan-Hellenic patriotism, standing almost alone in an age which presents little else in operation except distinct city interests. At the time when the Homeric Hymn to the Delphinian Apollo was composed (probably in the seventh century B.C.), the Pythian festival had as yet acquired little eminence. The rich and holy temple of Apollo was then purely oracular, established for the purpose of communicating to pious inquirers “the counsels of the Immortals.” Multitudes of visitors came to consult it, as well as to sacrifice victims and to deposit costly offerings; but while the god delighted in the sound of the harp as an accompaniment to the singing of pæans, he was by no means anxious to encourage horse-races and chariot-races in the neighborhood. Nay, this psalmist considers that the noise of horses would be “a nuisance”, the drinking of mules a desecration to the sacred fountains, and the ostentation of fine-built chariots objectionable, as tending to divert the attention of spectators away from the great temple and its wealth. From such inconveniences the god was protected by placing his sanctuary “in the rocky Pytho”—a rugged and uneven recess, of no great dimensions, embosomed in the southern declivity of Parnassus, and about two thousand feet above the level of the sea, while the topmost Parnassian summits reach a height of near eight thousand feet. The situation was extremely imposing, but unsuited by nature for the congregation of any considerable number of spectators; altogether impracticable for chariot-races; and only rendered practicable by later art and outlay for the theatre as well as for the stadium. Such a site furnished little means of subsistence, but the sacrifices and presents of visitors enabled the ministers of the temple to live in abundance, and gathered together by degrees a village around it.
Near the sanctuary of Pytho, and about the same altitude, was situated the ancient Phocian town of Crissa, on a projecting spur of Parnassus—overhung above by the line of rocky precipice called the Phædriades, and itself overhanging below the deep ravine through which flows the river Peistus. On the other side of this river rises the steep mountain Cirphis, which projects southward into the Corinthian gulf—the river reaching that gulf through the broad Crissoean plain, which stretches westward nearly to the Locrian town of Amphissa; a plain for the most part fertile and productive, though least so in its eastern part immediately under the Cirphis, where the seaport Cirrha was placed. The temple, the oracle, and the wealth of Pytho, belong to the very earliest periods of Grecian antiquity. But the octennial solemnity in honor of the god included at first no other competition except that of bards, who sang each a pæan with the harp. The Amphictyonic assembly held one of its half-yearly meetings near the temple of Pytho, the other at Thermopylæ.
In those early times when the Homeric Hymn to Apollo was composed, the town of Crissa appears to have been great and powerful, possessing all the broad plain between Parnassus, Cirphis, and the gulf, to which latter it gave its name—and possessing also, what was a property not less valuable, the adjoining sanctuary of Pytho itself, which the Hymn identifies with Crissa, not indicating Delphi as a separate place. The Crissæans doubtless derived great profits from the number of visitors who came to visit Delphi, both by land and by sea, and Cirrha was originally only the name for their seaport. Gradually, however, the port appears to have grown in importance at the expense of the town, just as Apollonia and Ptolemais came to equal Cyrene and Barca, and as Plymouth Dock has swelled into Devonport; while at the same time the sanctuary of Pytho with its administrators expanded into the town of Delphi, and came to claim an independent existence of its own. The original relations between Crissa, Cirrha, and Delphi, were in this manner at length subverted, the first declining and the two latter rising. The Crissæans found themselves dispossessed of the management of the temple, which passed to the Delphians; as well as of the profits arising from the visitors, whose disbursements went to enrich the inhabitants of Cirrha. Crissa was a primitive city of the Phocian name, and could boast of a place as such in the Homeric Catalogue, so that her loss of importance was not likely to be quietly endured. Moreover, in addition to the above facts, already sufficient in themselves as seeds of quarrel, we are told that the Cirrhæans abused their position as masters of the avenue to the temple by sea, and levied exorbitant tolls on the visitors who landed there—a number constantly increasing from the multiplication of the transmarine colonies, and from the prosperity of those in Italy and Sicily. Besides such offence against the general Grecian public, they had also incurred the enmity of their Phocian neighbors by outrages upon women, Phocian as well as Argian, who were returning from the temple.
Thus stood the case, apparently, about B.C. 595, when the Amphictyonic meeting interfered—either prompted by the Phocians, or perhaps on their own spontaneous impulse, out of regard to the temple—to punish the Cirrhæans. After a war of ten years, the first sacred war in Greece, this object was completely accomplished by a joint force of Thessalians under Eurolychus, Sicyonians under Clisthenes, and Athenians under Alemæon; the Athenian Solon being the person who originated and enforced in the Amphictyonic council the proposition of interference. Cirrha appears to have made a strenuous resistance until its supplies from the sea were intercepted by the naval force of the Sicyonian Clisthenes. Even after the town was taken, its inhabitants defended themselves for some time on the heights of Cirphis. At length, however, they were thoroughly subdued. Their town was destroyed or left to subsist merely us a landing-place; while the whole adjoining plain was consecrated to the Delphian god, whose domains thus touched the sea. Under this sentence, pronounced by the religious fooling of Greece, and sanctified by a solemn oath publicly sworn and inscribed at Delphi, the land was condemned to remain untilled and implanted, without any species of human care, and serving only for the pasturage of cattle. The latter circumstance was convenient to the temple, inasmuch as it furnished abundance of victims for the pilgrims who landed and came to sacrifice—for without preliminary sacrifice no man could consult the oracle; while the entire prohibition of tillage was the only means of obviating the growth of another troublesome neighbor on the seaboard. The ruin of Cirrha in this war is certain: though the necessity of a harbor for visitors arriving by sea, led to the gradual revival of the town upon a humbler scale of pretension. But the fate of Crissa is not so clear, nor do we know whether it was destroyed, or left subsisting in a position of inferiority with regard to Delphi. From this time forward, however, the Delphian community appear as substantive and autonomous, exercising in their own right the management of the temple; though we shall find, on more than one occasion, that the Phocians contest this right, and lay claim to the management of it for themselves—a remnant of that early period when the oracle stood in the domain of the Phocian Crissa. There seems, moreover, to have been a standing antipathy between the Delphians and the Phocians.
The Sacred War emanating from a solemn Amphictyonic decree, carried on jointly by troops of different states whom we do not know to have ever before coöperated, and directed exclusively toward an object of common interest—is in itself a fact of high importance, as manifesting a decided growth of pan-Hellenic feeling. Sparta is not named as interfering—a circumstance which seems remarkable when we consider both her power, even as it then stood, and her intimate connection with the Delphian oracle—while the Athenians appear as the chief movers, through the greatest and best of their citizens. The credit of a large-minded patriotism rests prominently upon them.
But if this sacred war itself is a proof that the pan-Hellenic spirit was growing stronger, the positive result in which it ended reinforced that spirit still farther. The spoils of Cirrha were employed by the victorious allies in founding the Pythian games. The octennial festival hitherto celebrated at Delphi in honor of the god, including no other competition except in the harp and the pæan, was expanded into comprehensive games on the model of the Olympic, with matches not only of music, but also of gymnastics and chariots—celebrated, not at Delphi itself, but on the maritime plain near the ruined Cirrha—and under the direct superintendence of the Amphictyons themselves. I have already mentioned that Solon provided large rewards for such Athenians as gained victories in the Olympic and Isthmian games, thereby indicating his sense of the great value of the national games as a means of promoting Hellenic intercommunion. It was the same feeling which instigated the foundation of the new games on the Cirrhæan plain, in commemoration of the vindicated honor of Apollo, and in the territory newly made over to him. They were celebrated in the autumn, or first half of every third Olympic year; the Amphictyons being the ostensible Agonothets or administrators, and appointing persons to discharge the duty in their names. At the first Pythian ceremony (in B.C. 586), valuable rewards were given to the different victors; at the second (B.C. 582), nothing was conferred but wreaths of laurel—the rapidly attained celebrity of the games being such as to render any further recompense superfluous. The Sicyonian despot, Clisthenes himself, once the leader in the conquest of Cirrha, gained the prize at the chariot-race of the second Pythia. We find other great personages in Greece frequently mentioned as competitors, and the games long maintained a dignity second only to the Olympic, over which indeed they had some advantages; first, that they were not abused for the purpose of promoting petty jealousies and antipathies of any administering state, as the Olympic games were perverted by the Eleans on more than one occasion; next, that they comprised music and poetry as well as bodily display. From the circumstances attending their foundation, the Pythian games deserved, even more than the Olympic, the title bestowed on them by Demosthenes—”the common Agon of the Greeks.”
The Olympic and Pythian games continued always to be the most venerated solemnities in Greece. Yet the Nemea and Isthmia acquired a celebrity not much inferior; the Olympic prize counting for the highest of all. Both the Nemea and Isthmia were distinguished from the other two festivals by occurring not once in four years, but once in two years; the former in the second and fourth years of each Olympiad, the latter in the first and third years. To both is assigned, according to Greek custom, an origin connected with the interesting persons and circumstances of legendary antiquity; but our historical knowledge of both begins with the sixth century B.C. The first historical Nemead is presented as belonging to Olympiad B.C. 52 or 53 (572-568), a few years subsequent to the Sacred War above mentioned and to the origin of the Pythia. The festival was celebrated in honor of the Nemean Zeus, in the valley of Nemea between Philus and Cleonæ. The Cleonæans themselves were originally its presidents, until, some period after B.C. 460, the Argians deprived them of that honor and assumed the honors of administration to themselves. The Nemean games had their Hellanodicæ to superintend, to keep order, and to distribute the prizes, as well as the Olympic.
Respecting the Isthmian festival, our first historical information is a little earlier, for it has already been stated that Solon conferred a premium upon every Athenian citizen who gained a prize at that festival as well as at the Olympian—in or after B.C. 594. It was celebrated by the Corinthians at their isthmus, in honor of Poseidon, and if we may draw any inference from the legends respecting its foundation, which is ascribed sometimes to Theseus, the Athenians appear to have identified it with the antiquities of their own state.
We thus perceive that the interval between B.C. 600-560, exhibits the first historical manifestation of the Pythia, Isthmia, and Nemea—the first expansion of all the three from local into pan-Hellenic festivals. To the Olympic games, for some time the only great centre of union among all the widely dispersed Greeks, are now added three other sacred Agones of the like public, open, national character; constituting visible marks, as well as tutelary bonds, of collective Hellenism, and insuring to every Greek who went to compete in the matches, a safe and inviolate transit even through hostile Hellenic states. These four, all in or near Peloponnesus, and one of which occurred in each year, formed the period or cycle of sacred games, and those who had gained prizes at all the four received the enviable designation of Periodonices. The honors paid to Olympic victors, on their return to their native city, were prodigious even in the sixth century B.C., and became even more extravagant afterward. We may remark that in the Olympic games alone, the oldest as well as the most illustrious of the four, the musical and intellectual element was wanting. All the three more recent Agones included crowns for exercises of music and poetry, along with gymnastics, chariots, and horses.
It was not only in the distinguishing national stamp set upon these four great festivals, that the gradual increase of Hellenic family feeling exhibited itself, during the course of this earliest period of Grecian history. Pursuant to the same tendencies, religious festivals in all the considerable towns gradually became more and more open and accessible, attracting guests as well as competitors from beyond the border. The comparative dignity of the city, as well as the honor rendered to the presiding god, were measured by the numbers, admiration, and envy, of the frequenting visitors. There is no positive evidence indeed of such expansion in the Attic festivals earlier than the reign of Pisistratus, who first added the quadrennial or greater Panathenæ to the ancient annual or lesser Panathenæa. Nor can we trace the steps of progress in regard to Thebes, Orchomenus, Thespiæ, Megara, Sicyon, Pellene, Ægina, Argos, etc., but we find full reason for believing that such was the general reality. Of the Olympic or Isthmian victors whom Pindar and Simonides celebrated, many derived a portion of their renown from previous victories acquired at several of these local contests—victories sometimes so numerous as to prove how widespread the habit of reciprocal frequentation had become: though we find, even in the third century B.C., treaties of alliance between different cities in which it is thought necessary to confer such mutual right by express stipulation. Temptation was offered, to the distinguished gymnastic or musical competitors, by prizes of great value. Timæus even asserted, as a proof of the overweening pride of Croton and Sybaris, that these cities tried to supplant the preëminence of the Olympic games by instituting games of their own with the richest prizes to be celebrated at the same time—a statement in itself not worthy of credit, yet nevertheless illustrating the animated rivalry known to prevail among the Grecian cities in procuring for themselves splendid and crowded games. At the time when the Homeric hymn to Demeter was composed, the worship of that goddess seems to have been purely local at Eleusis. But before the Persian war, the festival celebrated by the Athenians every year, in honor of the Eleusinian Demeter, admitted Greeks of all cities to be initiated, and was attended by vast crowds of them.
It was thus that the simplicity and strict local application of the primitive religious festival among the greater states in Greece gradually expanded, on certain great occasions periodically recurring, into an elaborate and regulated series of exhibitions not merely admitting, but soliciting, the fraternal presence of all Hellenic spectators. In this respect Sparta seems to have formed an exception to the remaining states. Her festivals were for herself alone, and her general rudeness toward other Greeks was not materially softened even at the Carneia and Hyacinthia, or Gymnopædiæ. On the other hand, the Attic Dionysia were gradually exalted, from their original rude spontaneous outburst of village feeling in thankfulness to the god, followed by song, dance and revelry of various kinds, into costly and diversified performances, first by a trained chorus, next by actors superadded to it.
And the dramatic compositions thus produced, as they embodied the perfection of Grecian art, so they were eminently calculated to invite a pan-Hellenic audience and to encourage the sentiment of Hellenic unity. The dramatic literature of Athens however belongs properly to a later period. Previous to the year B.C. 560, we see only those commencements of innovation which drew upon Thespis the rebuke of Solon; who however himself contributed to impart to the Panathenaic festival a more solemn and attractive character by checking the license of the rhapsodes and insuring to those present a full orderly recital of the Iliad.
The sacred games and festivals took hold of the Greek mind by so great a variety of feelings as to counterbalance in a high degree the political disseverance, and to keep alive among their widespread cities, in the midst of constant jealousy and frequent quarrel, a feeling of brotherhood and congenial sentiment such as must otherwise have died away. The Theors, or sacred envoys who came to Olympia or Delphi from so many different points, all sacrificed to the same god and at the same altar, witnessed the same sports, and contributed by their donatives to enrich or adorn one respective scene. Moreover the festival afforded opportunity for a sort of fair, including much traffic amid so large a mass of spectators; and besides the exhibitions of the games themselves, there were recitations and lectures in a spacious council-room for those who chose to listen to them, by poets, rhapsodes, philosophers and historians—among which last the history of Herodotus is said to have been publicly read by its author. Of the wealthy and great men in the various cities, many contended simply for the chariot-victories and horse-victories. But there were others whose ambition was of a character more strictly personal, and who stripped naked as runners, wrestlers, boxers, or pancratiasts, having gone through the extreme fatigue of a complete previous training. Cylon, whose unfortunate attempt to usurp the scepter at Athens has been recounted, had gained the prize in the Olympic stadium; Alexander son of Amyntas, the prince of Macedon, had run for it; the great family of the Diagoridæ at Rhodes, who furnished magistrates and generals to their native city, supplied a still greater number of successful boxers and pancratiasts at Olympia, while other instances also occur of generals named by various cities from the list of successful Olympic gymnasts; and the odes of Pindar, always dearly purchased, attest how many of the great and wealthy were found in that list. The perfect popularity and equality of persons at these great games, is a feature not less remarkable than the exact adherence to predetermined rule, and the self-imposed submission of the immense crowd to a handful of servants armed with sticks, who executed the orders of the Elean Hellanodice. The ground upon which the ceremony took place, and even the territory of the administering state, was protected by a “Truce of God” during the month of the festival, the commencement of which was formally announced by heralds sent round to the different states. Treaties of peace between different cities were often formally commemorated by pillars there erected, and the general impression of the scene suggested nothing but ideas of peace and brotherhood among Greeks. And I may remark that the impression of the games as belonging to all Greeks, and to none but Greeks, was stronger and clearer during the interval between B.C. 600-300 than it came to be afterward. For the Macedonian conquests had the effect of diluting and corrupting Hellenism, by spreading an exterior varnish of Hellenic tastes and manners over a wide area of incongruous foreigners who were incapable of the real elevation of the Hellenic character; so that although in later times the games continued undiminished both in attraction and in number of visitors, the spirit of pan-Hellenic communion which had once animated the scene was gone forever.