The Persians and Delphi

Once the Persians had established themselves past the pass at Themopylae, Herodotus tells us that the Persians ransacked the towns they encountered (not Thebes however as they had already Mendised). While the majority of the Greeks had fled their towns well before and headed towards the mountains, some where caught off guard and were captured by the Persians. The men were slain and Herodotus says the woman were raped until they died and even after death their corpses where continued to be raped.

This act of brutality is in contrast to the Persian forces before they got past Themopylae. Very cordial, respectful, domineering yes, but they did not destroy or plunder the areas in northern Greece. They built roads and even dug up a canal as well. But once past Themopylae they raped and pillaged.

With this being the backdrop, the questions that needs to be asked are:
a) why did the Persian forces have such extreme policies in the areas after Themopylae yet so well behaved before it?
b) as the town of Delphi was in the area after Themopylae and held allot of gold and precious metals what was the Persian policy towards Delphi?

a) Areas north of Themopylae had generally Mendised, either through free will or were coaxed into it. Either way the Persian policy towards the north was to act respectful as best as they could with their large armed forces. The main battle was to take place in southern Greece and a period of occupation was about to happen, the Persians needed the complying north for land access back to Asia Minor, horses and stock, and also more importantly as a source for food over the coming winter period. The Persian army had to endure a long period of 'sitting on their hands' as they made their way through this part of Greece. Once Themopylae was breached the Persian king allowed the built up frustration of his armed forces to run riot through central Greece, especially as the defenders at Themopylae were able to stifle their advance just before.

b) Delphi should be considered the religious hub of Greece at the time, there where other locations that were important for religious reasons as well, such as Dodona, but Delphi was the most important in Greece. Herodotus states that when the Persians where sacking central and southern Greece, the Persian King sent a detachment to take Delphi. This seems logical as Delphi held allot of gold, that would be useful at this time for the Persian King to use and to use as propaganda when he sent the items back to Persia. Herodotus also says that Apollo the patron of Delphi sent large boulders to crash down on those Persian forces and Zeus sent down his thunderbolts to destroy that part of the army. Herodotus does say however, that his sources were from Delphi. He says the army never made it to Delphi and they all died, the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that 'Apollo looks after his own'.

That the Persians did actualy send a force to Delphi there can be no manner of doubt. Herodotus is not in the habit of inventing pure falsehoods for no reason, falsehoods which could be refuted by any of his hearers without a very detailed knowledge of history. No-one would benefit by the suppression of the fact that the Persians did go to Delphi; on the contrary, the Delphins above all would benefit by its publication more than anybody, for it was an admirable opportunity for composing a story which would redound to their credit.

Here is our predicament, we know that Delphi was never sacked by the Persians, they remained intact after the invasion of 480 B.C. What is the real reason the Persians did not end up sacking Delphi?

Let us put aside the far reaching tale of the interference of Apollo and Zeus to the story and at what we know of the situation.

A logical explanation is 'could a contingent of Greeks remained to safeguard Delphi against Persian forces, who engaged them in the mountains before they had a chance to get to Delphi, and destroyed them?' Though this strategy cannot be discounted, it seems very unlikely. Leonidas struggled to find enough able bodies to help defend Themopylae, which was the main and best point to defend against the invasion, what little he did have was sent to cover the pass that would protect his back, he did not have any available men to spare to defend Delphi. We know that Leonidas expressly sent out messages to all the surrounding towns asking for available help. Once Themopylae was taken there was no way of knowing how many Persians would attack Delphi. No, there was not a relevant army left behind in the mountains to safeguarding Delphi, after taking Themopylae, the Persians would have a clear run to the city of Delphi.

It has been argued that 'the Persian might have searched but not found Delphi, being high up in the mountains'. Remember too that the town of Delphi was lost for a thousand years before being discovered again in the 1700's. But Delphi was well know to the Greeks of that day and the city of Thebes had Mendised and with the Greeks to the north also helping Persia, they had ample sources to find out where Delphi was located. So, this argument is not relevant.

We have come to two conclusions here:
Conclusion #1. Xerxes sent a contingent to Delphi to take stock of Delphi's assets.
Conclusion #2. For religious reasons Xerxes did not want to sack Delphi.

Conclusion #1. Xerxes sent a contingent to Delphi to take stock of Delphi's assets.

Based on scholastic work done by S.Casson in 'The Classical Review, Vol.28 No.5 dated Aug 1914, from the British School of Athens. It goes into page after page on the definition of words, that I won't bother to go into here, but in short, the paper makes the arguments that Xerxes had already received submission from Delphi and had received a 'list of assets' held by Delphi in the past. After Themopylae Xerxes sent an expedition to Delphi to secure their neutrality and assess the value of their assets. It also suggests that Xerxes might have joined them and gone to Delphi as well.

Conclusion #2. For religious reasons Xerxes did not want to sack Delphi.

For the second conclusion we will be able to go more indepth. To start with we will have to make a few points.

Point 1 - The Athenians and Euboeans burned down Sardis

Before the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C., ten years prior the Persians fought the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. This was because Athens and Euboea had sent their fleet to help the Ionians against Persian aggression, the fleet landed in Asia Minor and advanced to Sardis and 'accidentally' set fire to parts of the town, including the temple of Mazda, the main Persian god.

Point 2 - The Persian King is bound by heavens law to exact revenge.

We are told by Herodotus that the then Persian King, Darius' main reason to make an attack against Athens (and Euboea), was to take out revenge for the burning of their sacred temple. The laws of the gods and soothsayers deemed that the Persian King had a legitimate right to attack Greece.

Point 3 - Delos left unharmed

The Persian navy, trying to sail to Greece to attack Athens (and Euboea) ransack, rape and pillage every island along the way, expect for Delos. To which the Persians proclaim to the Delian priests not to be distressed as they would not attack their island as they honored the twin gods (Apollo and Artemis).

Point 4 - The Persians defeat Euboea, but fail at Marathon

The Persian push on and succeed at defeating Euboea, but fail to beat the Athenians at Marathon. The revenge against the Athenians has not been forfilled in the eyes of the gods.

Point 5 - Datis blames the idol

Herodotus tells us that Datis the Persian military commander in charge of the Marathon invasion of Greece was on his way back to Persia after the defeat at Marathon, contemplating his loss, 'had a dream' and when he woke he searched his fleet until he uncovered an idol that had been stolen from Delphi, on their way home they replaced the idol back to the island of Delos.

Dishonoring of the Gods

While this might seem as a 'side story' to the story of Marathon, it shows us that Datis and the Persians believed they 'lost' Marathon, because they had unintentionally dishonored the gods by stealing the idol. To rid themselves of the wraith of the gods on their way home they returned the idol, therefore removing the curse that had caused their defeat.
We must remember here too that the Persian mission is a heavenly one, they are to punish the Athenians for destroying the Persian temple at Sardis. This mission 'from the gods' should not be stained by the Persian dishonoring the gods themselves.
Why is this story important? It shows that if the gods are angered they could inflict defeat. A very good reason for Xerxes ten years later, not to send armed forces to 'sack and burn' Delphi, the Persian King would not tempt the gods. Xerxes would not make the same mistake Datis made.

Other evidence No.1, Religious Harmony

Herodotus also tells us in other stories that when the Persians took control of places like Babylon and Egypt that they allowed those areas religions to continue, we can see that too in artifacts such as the Cyrus cylinder, that preserved Babylonian religions beliefs after Persian conquests. While this can be argued otherwise, we believe it shows a tendency for Persia to honour different religious beliefs giving another argument as to why Xerxes would not have sent forces to destroy Delphi, they had not done so with other conquests.

Other evidence No.2, The Persian controlled Delphi after Themopylae

Allot of the gold at Delphi was from the Persians that died at Marathon. Persian gold filled the Delphic coffers. Rather than 'taking back Persian gold'. By leaving it there Xerxes had control of gold by default, he had taken central Greece and the sway with Delphi now lay with him. He had no reason to burn Delphi to the ground and take his gold, after Themopylae, he had control of Delphi.

Other evidence No.3, Propaganda

It also made for a great propaganda device. King Xerxes in his wisdom honored the gods and did not send his men to burn down their town, but honored it be leaving it intact. This line might be useful to him in dealing with the war he was certain to face in southern Greece, a Delphic oracle in his favour might prove to be advantageous.

Other evidence No.4, Unreliable sources

Herodotus said that 'the Persians didn't sack Delphi because when they went to attack it 'Apollo and Zeus' stopped them. He also says his sources are from Delphi. That should have sent alarm bells ringing through Herodotus' head, those sources couldn't be trusted.


The conclusion therefore is that Xerxes and the Persian policy towards Delphi in 480 B.C. was that they allowed Delphi to remain intact after the invasion of Greece, even though the policy towards the rest of central and southern Greece was to rape and pillage as much as possible, the religious hub was to remain intaked.

So, for a number of reasons, I hope I have shown why the Persian never sacked Delphi in 480 B.C.




'Histories' by Herodotus published by Wordsworth 1996






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