High Priestess Seized!

High Priestess
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier (1891)






The Third Sacred War and the general who seized the priestess at Delphi and forced her to deliver the so-called oracle: that he could do as he pleased. Whether he did his will or the god’s will, or whether or not there is a difference between the two, we shall leave to the philosophers to settle.

Reasonable people know oracles are unreliable or ambiguous. Nevertheless, almost everyone who has their fortune told would believe that it is custom-made for them even though a particular reading may have so many different meanings that it could be applicable to almost anyone at any time.

Even a negative reading, say, of impending death, can be interpreted positively in order to avoid it, perhaps by moving elsewhere; alas, death is waiting elsewhere. And when the outcome is not the future hoped for, the fault is said not to be with the oracle as delivered in the dice cast, cards shuffled, nor in the hysterical utterance of the Sibyl or Pythia at Delphi, but with the mistaken interpretation of the chance event. That is, the god Chance is never wrong: the fault resides in the priest or supplicating gambler. And when the random result seems too egregious to blame on its hapless victims; well, god works his will in mysterious ways; that is, in ways contrary to the individual’s will.

That was certainly the case for Philomelus, a wealthy man of Phocia who argued the case against Thebes and was appointed its military general. “Let us reply to our enemies by re-asserting our lost rights and seizing the temple; we shall obtain support and countenance from many Grecian states, whose interest is the same as our own, to resist the unjust decrees of the Amphictyons. Our enemies the Thebans are plotting the seizure of the temple for themselves, through the corrupt connivance of an Amphictyonic majority: let us anticipate and prevent their injustice.”

The Amphictyonic Council, an ancient league or “gathering” of only twelve of the Hellenic nations, associated with the guardianship of the worship of Apollo at Delphi and Demeter at Thermopylae, had been politically manipulated by Thebes to impose a huge fine in 357 B.C. on its neighbor, Phocia, after Thebes charged Phocia with cultivating a rather small strip of land in the Crissaean plain that had previously been consecrated to Apollo after the entire population was slaughtered for harassing pilgrims visiting Apollo’s temple at Delphi.

The plain had declared off limits and Delphi turned over to the Delphians by the Amphictyonic Council at the conclusion of the First Sacred War, waged for ten years and ending in 585 B.C. Legend has it that Solon poisoned the water supply with hellebore roots, causing the inhabitants of Crissa to perish miserably from intestinal disorders. The Phocians, who had possession of the temple as late as 450 B.C., lost control, and then, with the help of the Athenians, captured Delphi in 448 B.C., at the outset of the so-called Second Sacred War, but it was retaken and handed back to the Delphians with the help of the Spartans. The tug-of-war continued until a 421 B.C. peace treaty confirmed Delphi’s independence under the Delphians. Thus the number of “sacred wars” varies among historians.

Other pretexts for the Third Sacred War, with Theban forces set against the Phocians, may have been that Phocia had invaded Boeotia, or had started a war by abducting a married Theban woman named Theano. Of course such acts would be violations of the pact between the Amphictyonic members. According to Aeschines’ De Falsa Legatione, the oath anciently taken by the members of the league was “That they would not destroy any city of the Amphictyonic tribes; that they would not cut off their springs of water either in peace or war; that they would turn their arms against any people who did such things, and destroy their cities; that, if anyone committed sacrilege against the god, or formed, or was privy to, any design to injure the temple, they would exert themselves with hand, foot, tongue, and all their might, to punish him.”

Thebes and Phocia were already subject to an ancient animosity over running border disputes, and Thebes, now leading the dominant faction in the Amphictyonic league, had been most recently angered, in 363 B.C., by Phocia’s unwillingness to participate in its Matinea campaign, where the great Theban commander, Epaminondas, was mortally wounded, presaging the decline of Theban influence although Thebes won the battle. The Phocians argued that their pact with Thebes dictated that Phocia assist Thebes in defensive, not offensive wars.

Refusal to pay the unreasonable sanction could itself be grounds for the Council’s declaration of a sacred war against the political heretic, and the Phocians were not expected to pay, especially after it was doubled in response to their objection that it would ruin them. Even so, the fine alone was considered insufficient to provoke Phocia into starting a war and thus take the blame for initiating it. Wherefore under Theban influence the Council also consecrated all Phocian land to Apollo, which would deprive Phocians of the right to cultivate their own land and reduce them to serfs. The Council also declared Apollo’s central temple at Delphi, which was in the possession of the Phocian’s old ‘brothers’, the Delphians, as the rightful possession of the Delphians alone. Wherefore Philomelus was chosen by the Phocians in 356 B.C. to wage war so Phocians could use their land as they pleased, and to repossess Apollo’s temple at Delphi to boot.

The temple was the political-religious center of the Greek world. It served as an international ‘bank’ and catholic gaming hall where treasure was stored in conspicuous national vaults to display relative wealth, and where political fortunes were told, the outcomes being undoubtedly fixed in advance by the powers that be. That is not to say, however, that the gas-intoxicated priestesses raved in vain or that their interpreting priests were entirely corrupt in their more rational renderings of the absurd logos ensuing from the mouths of those Cretan nuns.

Phocia had every right to be especially indignant over the disposition of the temple: According to Homer, the management of the temple belonged by right of ancient privilege to the Phocians. However, it had been expropriated from the Phocians a century prior to the current Council’s mandate, which was now a religious pretext for the Third Sacred War.

General Philomelus lost no time raising funds, patriots, and mercenaries for this sacred war, his enemies being the Thebans, Thessalians, Locrians, Dorians, and Macedonians. He attacked the town of Delphi in 356 B.C., murdering the prominent family that had played a part in imposing the fine on Phocis, promising the rest of the people no harm even though he intended to enslave them. Having made himself master of the countryside, he seized the temple of Delphi, destroying the tablet recording the decree against his people, and setting up his own government. He issued a proclamation reiterating to the high heavens the ancient Phocian right to administer the temple, assuring everyone concerned that the temple’s treasures were secure in his hands. Thus Philomelus’ preemptive blitzkrieg ostensibly saved the sacred political casino and holy bank.

Yet something more spiritual was needed to make Philomelus’ actions official; namely, the rendering of the oracle in favor of his divine cause. Therefore he ordered the Pythian priestess to mount her tripod, the three-legged gambling bowl that had become the Pythia’s sacred seat and a model for trophies bestowed on athletic heroes, and commanded her to deliver the desired oracle.

Diodorus of Sicily, a 1st century historian, said that, “when Philomelus had control of the oracle, he directed the Pythia to make her prophecies from the tripod in ancestral fashion. But when she replied that such was not the ancestral fashion, he threatened her harshly and compelled her to mount the tripod. Then when she frankly declared, referring to the superior power of the man who was resorting to violence: ‘It is in your power to do as you please,’ he gladly accepted her utterance and declared that he had the oracle which suited him. He immediately had the oracle inscribed and set it up in full view, and made it clear to everyone that the god gave him the authority to do as he pleased. Having put together an assembly and disclosed the prophecy to the multitude and urged them to be of good cheer, he turned to the business of war.”

George Grote, whose History of Greece is one of the great masterpieces of modern historical scholarship, rendered this account of the momentous event:

“Philomelus, while taking pains to set himself right in the eyes of Greece, tried to keep the prophetic agency of the temple in its ordinary working, so as to meet the exigencies of sacrificers and inquirers as before. He required the Pythian priestess to mount the tripod, submit herself to the prophetic inspiration, and pronounce the word thus put into her mouth, as usual. But the priestess—chosen by the Delphians, and probably herself a member of one among the sacred Delphian Gentes—obstinately refused to obey him; especially as to the first question which he addressed concerning his own usurpation, and his chances of success against enemies. On his injunctions, that she should prophecy according to the traditional rites, she replied that these rites were precisely what he had just overthrown; upon which he laid ahold of her, and attempted to place her on the tripod by force. Subdued and frightened for her own personal safety, the priestess exclaimed involuntarily that he might do as he chose. Philomelus gladly took this as an answer favorable to his purpose. He caused it to be put in writing and proclaimed, as an oracle from the god, sanctioning and licensing his designs. He convened a special meeting of his partisans and the Delphians generally, wherein appeal was made to this encouraging answer, as warranting full confidence with reference to the impending war. So it was construed by all around, and confirmatory evidence was derived from further signs and omens occurring at the moment. It is probably however that Philomelus took care for the future to name a new priestess, more favorable to his interest, and disposed to deliver oracular answers under the new administrators in the same manner as under the old.”

General Philomelus, thus favored by the oracle, went about the war and enjoyed some brilliant victories, such as that against the Locrian tribe—the founder of the Hellenes was traditionally said to have resided in one of their towns. The Thebans, alarmed by his success in that campaign, proceeded to organized the Amphictyonic states for an assault on Phocia, “to assist the god,” as Grote put it. Philomelus knew his only chance at holding out was to hire mercenaries to help him protect the god from the enemies who wanted to assist the god, so he reluctantly “borrowed” some treasure from Apollo’s vaults at the temple. He gave his forces a generous fifty-percent raise, and there was the usual enrichment of friends and the adorning of wives with precious ornaments and fineries.

Despite the funds so impiously borrowed by the Phocians to increase their forces and the beauty of their women, the Thebans grew more and more confident of their success as this Sacred War dragged on. So confident that, at one point in the conflict, they had all prisoners executed; the Phocians, not to be outdone, did likewise. To make a long story short, Philomelus eventually got his army into a bad position near the town of Neon:

“An engagement took place,” recounted Diodorus, “and then a sharp battle in which the Boeotians (Thebans), who far outnumbered the Phocians, defeated them. As the flight took place through precipitous and almost impassable country, many of the Phocians and their mercenaries were cut down. Philomelus, after he had fought courageously and had suffered many wounds, was driven into a precipitous area, and was there hemmed in, and, since there was no exit from it, and he feared the torture after capture, he hurled himself over the cliff: having made atonement to the god, he ended his life.”

Philomelus’ death at the Battle of Neon on the slopes of Mount Parnassus was not the end of the war. It dragged on with the help of Apollo’s wealth; the Phocians managed to hold onto the temple until 346 B.C. Their final defeat was due to the intervention of Philip of Macedonia, drawn into the war by the Thessalians, who had appointed him their Archon. Making himself the champion of the Delphian god, and taking advantage of the dissension of the Greeks, Philip the outsider would eventually subjugate the Greek nations to “barbarian” i.e. Macedonian domination. The Phocians had been led by other generals, beginning with Onomarchus, Philomelus’ brother, who rallied the troops after the defeat at Neon, doubling the size of the army to 20,000 men. Onomarchus, who was even more generous with Apollo’s treasure than his late brother, was successful for awhile, but six thousand of his troops were killed in a horrendous battle with Philip’s forces, leaving Philip master of Thessaly. Onomarchus was probably crucified; three thousand prisoners were drowned. Another brother would then assume command, followed by other generals.

Once the war was lost, the Phocians were forced by virtue of the Amphictyonic Council, now under Philip’s domination, to pay onerous reparations, at the rate of 60 talents per year, for the damage they had caused, but they were allowed to keep their land, although all cities but one were laid waste to and the inhabitants scattered into villages. Their two votes in the Amphictyonic Council were given to Philip, who had dictated the terms of the peace with the Phocians, and their Spartan and Athenian allies. The Spartans would never submit to paying fines, and the Athenians were not punished since Philip had induced the Athenians, who were weary of the war and more afraid of Thebes than Philip, to make common cause with him against the Thebans while severing their alliance with the Phocians; he then marched into Phocia, where the Phocians surrendered without conditions. This end to the Third Sacred War made Macedonia the leading power in Greece.

The oracle at Delphi had told Philip that, “With silver spears you may conquer the world,” wherefore he seized silver mines and used the precious metal to bribe Greeks to sell each other out. But Philip fell short of conquering the world shortly after a family squabble over succession to the Macedonia throne. Philip, in a drunken rage at a marriage banquet, would even have put his own son Alexander, who had accused Philip of calling him a bastard, to death with his sword, but he collapsed in a stupor instead, whereupon Alexander reportedly said, ” Here is a man, preparing to cross from Europe into Asia, who yet cannot step surely from one couch to another.” Further cause of animosity between Philip and Alexander and certain Macedonian factions ensued, which the king hoped to cure by holding great festival, where in one his own statute as a god was added to the statues of the twelve traditional gods. However, he neglected to resolve the complaint of a royal bodyguard by the name of Pausanias, who had been incensed by some outrage he had been subjected to by the uncle of Philip’s new queen, Cleopatra.

“Unconscious of the plot,” Grote recounts in his Greek History, “Philip was about to enter the theatre, already crowded with spectators. As he approached the door, clothed in a white robe, he felt so exalted with impressions of his own dignity, and so confident in the admiring sympathy of the surrounding multitude, that he advanced both unarmed and unprotected, directing his guards to hold back. At this moment Pausanias, standing near with a Gallic sword concealed under his garment, rushed upon him, thrust the weapon through his body, and killed him.”

Apparently, the noble assassin had not acted at the spur of the moment, but had been put up to the deed by conspirators, which reminds us of something Demosthenes said to the Athenians in his first anti-Philip speech: “Do not imagine that his fortune is built to last forever, as if he were a God. He also has those who hate him and fear him, men of Athens, and envy him too, even among those who now seem to be his closest friends. All the feelings that exist in any other body of men must be supposed to exist in Philip’s supporters.”

Heraclitus nearly two centuries before had said that, “To extinguish hubris is more needed than to extinguish a fire.” Now ‘hubris’ is a classical Greek word so often used that it is a standard word in modern English usage. It is similar to the “false pride” denounced by Christians, and denotes a man’s failure to understand that he is not a god. His hubris blinds him to his proper role, and subjects him to the envy and wrath of the gods, resulting in his ruination. We note that the old gods are all too human in respect to their passions, and that atheists should beware that the feelings that exist in other groups of men also exist in their own closest supporters including their bodyguards.

The priests had Delphi had published a rendering of another one of the Pythia’s declamations, as to who would conquer the world: whosoever could ride a black colt, owned by Philip, that no one could mount. Philip gave the horse to Alexander, who saw that it was afraid of its own shadow, and used that information to mount it and conquer the world.

It is often said that freedom is not in doing what one pleases but in doing what one ought to do. But today liberty seems to dictate that everyone ought to do what one pleases. We may insist that what we would do is “the right thing to do,” or what anyone ought to do, and refer questions about the nature of right to God, conscience, and reason, yet we may do nothing more than what we would have been pleased to have done in the first place without rationalizing our appetite or will. Indeed, how often it is that someone asks us for advice only to go off and do what they wanted to do all along. As for oracles, we recall that the Stoics held that an ethical person does as duty calls no matter what their fate may be, so they did not bother with fortune tellers.

No doubt General Philomelus believed he was doing the right thing by defending Phocia to his own death. He consulted the oracle at Delphi not because he wanted to know the outcome of the war, which would be liberty in victory or death in defeat, but because he wanted to be seen as favored by Apollo, not viewed as an atheist, and as staking a legitimate or traditional Phocian claim to possession of the temple.

Athenian temple at Delphi

The Delphians, who had come into possession of the temple, were Phocians in the broader sense. Delphi was once the Phocian capital, but Delphians did not like to be referred to as Phocians, anymore, and claimed to be a separate people in their own right. In any event, the oracle had often been a political instrument despite the sincerity of the intoxicated Pythias and truth-seeking priests, and Philomelus was moved to use the ultimate political resort, the force of naked arms, instead of a contribution of booty to get a favorable pronouncement. Everyone naturally wanted the god’s blessing. Philomelus embezzled the god’s treasure, but he meant to repay it with booty providing that he won the war with the loot he looted from the temple to support his campaigns. Who can blame him for doing the right thing, provided that he kept the oracle’s prior advice to Sparta in mind?

Love of money and nothing else shall ruin Sparta.


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