Delphi: A Guide to the History of the Ancient Site

Discover main events in the history of the ancient site of Delphi from prehistoric to modern times.

Aug 5, 2023By Anna Gustafsson, M.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA Archaeology

delphi site history


Over the centuries, Delphi turned into a major center of worship and pilgrimage for people from all over Greece and beyond. Rulers and the common man alike wandered to Delphi with their sacrificial goats in tow to ask the oracle’s advice on matters of war, politics, and personal affairs. The influence of Delphi and its oracle diminished in the later years of ancient Greece. Today the site is an important archaeological landmark. Over 600,000 people visit Delphi every year. Get ahead of the crowds and study the main events, archaeological excavations, and finds beforehand.


1. First Inhabitants of Delphi

An axe dating to the Neolithic period, found in Delphi, via the British Museum


According to Greek mythology, Apollo, the god of music, prophecy, and the sun, wanted to find a place where he could communicate with us mere mortals. He found Delphi, which at the time was a wild place inhabited by the evil female serpent Python. Python had been sent by the goddess Hera to guard the area and prevent Apollo from establishing his oracle there.


The Python put up a good fight, but Apollo triumphed and took control of Delphi. He established his temple there and appointed a priestess, known as the Pythia, to act as his spokesperson. The Pythia was said to be able to receive messages from Apollo and could interpret his prophecies for those who sought them.


Mythology aside, archaeological evidence suggests that Delphi was inhabited as early as the Neolithic period, which began around 7000 BCE. Excavations at Delphi have also revealed traces of a Mycenaean settlement. A foundation of a house dating to the 14th to 12th centuries BCE has been found under the sanctuary of Apollo. Tombs dating to the same period have been discovered where the archaeological museum of Delphi stands today.  Small Mycenaean-style female and animal figurines dating to the 13th and 12th centuries have likewise been excavated. These types of figurines are often found at worship sites. Delphi might have been a cult place even before the establishment of the sanctuary of Apollo.

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2. The Golden Years of the Sanctuary

A romantic imaginary illustration of the oracle of Delphi, Pythia entering the sanctuary, printed in England by Henry James Richter, 1797, via the British Museum


The 7th and 6th centuries BCE saw significant economic, political, and social developments for all the Greek city-states. The first significant stone temple at Delphi was built about 650 BCE, and subsequently, various temples were constructed and rebuilt over the following few centuries. Delphi was at the height of its power and influence between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. People from all corners of Greece and the Mediterranean came to consult the oracle and participate in various religious festivals and games.


The first Pythian Games were held in 586 BCE, and, from then on, were organized every four years in honor of Apollo. These games lasted five days, featuring athletic competitions and musical and artistic contests. The Pythian Games were attended by athletes, poets, musicians, spectators, and pilgrims who came to enjoy the spectacle, consult the oracle and make offerings to the gods. Many famous people visited Delphi during its heyday, including the philosophers Socrates and Aristotle.


A rare depiction of the oracle of Delphi, on a red-figured Kylix, used for drinking, found in Vulci, Italy, and produced in Attica 440-430 BCE, via the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Delphi was at the heart of important political events, and control over the oracle even sparked conflicts. The Amphictyonic League met in Delphi twice a year to discuss matters related to the sanctuary. The so-called Fourth Sacred War was fought between the city of Amphissa and the Amphictyonic League. Amphissa attempted to cultivate sacred land that was under the protection of the League. This was seen as a violation of the sanctity of the sanctuary, and the Amphictyonic League declared war. The war lasted from 339-338 BC and ended in the defeat of Amphissa.


3. Alexander the Great at Delphi

A bronze statuette, 45 cm tall, possibly of Alexander the Great hunting with a spear, maybe a small copy of a since lost original statue, circa 250-100 BCE, via the British Museum


In 338 BCE, the Macedonian king Philip II defeated the Amphictyonic League and took control of the sanctuary of Apollo. He appointed his own representatives to oversee the affairs of the sanctuary and used the oracle to legitimize his rule and enhance his stature. During the reign of the Macedonian kings, Delphi continued to be an important center of religious and cultural activity, but its political power and influence declined steadily.


Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, visited Delphi in 336 BCE, shortly after he became the king, following the assassination of his father. According to some accounts, the oracle proclaimed Alexander to be the son of Zeus. Alexander was so impressed by this prophecy that he dedicated a good portion of the loot from his conquest of the Persians to the Delphi sanctuary. This included various gold and silver vessels and a large quantity of Persian state treasure.


Alexander’s visit to Delphi helped to establish his legitimacy as a ruler and to enhance his reputation as a hero and a conqueror. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his generals fought in vain to control his vast empire, and instability spread over Greece. The sanctuary in Delphi was caught up in these conflicts and was damaged and looted by various armies over the years.


4. The Roman Period at Delphi

A bust of Emperor Hadrian, from circa 140 CE, the British Museum


The fourth Macedonian war ended with the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. This marked the end of the Macedonian monarchy and the beginning of Roman rule over Greece. Initially, Roman emperors and generals held Delphi in high esteem as an important religious and cultural center of the Greek world, which they admired so much. Roman rulers took care to preserve the Pythian games and kept some of the political privileges of the inhabitants of Delphi. But Delphi had already started to lose its prestige. Several Roman emperors tried to revive Delphi, and some, such as Emperor Nero, even participated in the Pythian games themselves. Critical political decisions were, however, made in Rome without consulting the oracle.


Emperor Hadrian, who ruled the Roman empire from 117 to 138 CE, admired Delphi and commissioned several statues to be erected at the site of the sanctuary. During the first decades of the 4th century CE, Delphi was seriously looted and lost most of its treasures. Although the athletic games continued until about 424 CE, religious activities lost their importance. Christianity advanced, and the old religions were soon abandoned, as paganism was severely persecuted.


5. Early Excavations at Delphi

A photograph of early excavations in Delphi showing the rediscovery of the statue of Antinous in 1894, via Wikimedia Commons


Delphi was abandoned and remained uninhabited for centuries. The Ottomans rediscovered Delphi during the 15th century CE, and it was briefly studied. It wasn’t, however, until centuries later that actual archaeological excavations took place.


In 1891 a team of French archaeologists led by Théophile Homolle began excavations at the sanctuary. The French were followed by the Greek Archaeological Society, which conducted further excavations from 1892 to 1895. In 1898, the French School at Athens took again over the excavations and continued to dig at Delphi until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The archaeological museum of Delphi, which was established to house the findings, was inaugurated in 1903.


Excavations at Delphi resumed in the 1920s by Greek archaeologists. Since then, numerous archaeologists and teams, including American, German, Greek, and, most importantly, French archaeologists, have conducted excavations and studies at the site. The sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi and its surroundings are considered one of Greece’s most essential and well-preserved archaeological sites.


The Charioteer of Delphi, circa 470 BCE, via the Archaeological Museum of Delphi


Several important archaeological finds have been made at Delphi. The most significant buildings are the temple of Apollo itself and the Treasury of the Athenians. The treasury was constructed in 490 BC by the Athenians, using the loot collected from the Persians after the Battle of Marathon. Other masterpieces found on the site include the Sphinx of Naxians and the Charioteer. The Sphinx of the Naxians is a giant limestone statue of a sphinx, dating to circa 560 BCE. The 2.22-meter-tall statue (approx 7 feet) stood on top of a 10-meter-tall column (33 feet). The people of the island Naxos dedicated the Sphinx, which was guarding the sanctuary’s entrance. The Charioteer, a 1.80-meter-tall bronze statue (6 feet), was commissioned to immortalize Polyzalos, the winner in a chariot race at the Pythian games in either 474 BCE or 470 BCE.


From the Roman period, the statue of Antinous is one of the most important finds. Antinous was a young man and a favorite of the emperor Hadrian. He accompanied Hadrian on the emperor’s visit to Delphi in 129 CE. As he died a year later, Emperor Hadrian had a statue erected in Delphi in honor of his friend.


The Omphalos is a cone-shaped stone that might have been located at the site of the original shrine of Apollo. The first Omphalos was situated in the inner parts of the temple, but several copies were made and placed in different places at the sanctuary. The original is lost, but a replica is housed at the archaeological museum of Delphi today, and one version can be bound at the temple site as well.


6. Delphi as a Tourist Destination

Delphi (tholos building), photo by Nikolay Petrov, via Unplash


The Delphi archaeological site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987. Delphi is a popular tourist destination and continues to be an important center of study and research for archaeologists. According to the latest available data, Delphi received over 670 000 visitors in 2019. The global covid pandemic drastically cut the number of visitors not only to Delphi but to the whole of Greece. Luckily the year 2023 is expected to be another busy year for Delphi and visitors are once again expected to arrive from all over the world.

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By Anna GustafssonM.Sc. Communication & Arts, MA ArchaeologyAnna is a writer and an archaeologist based in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens (NKUA) with an MA in Greek and Eastern Mediterranean archaeology and has an M.Sc. degree in journalism, literature, and art studies. Anna loves to share her passion for history and arts through writing. Her special interests are the Bronze Era in the Eastern Mediterranean area, the visual arts of ancient Greece, and the archaeology of Cyprus. In her spare time, Anna enjoys studying languages, visiting archaeological museums and medieval churches, reading biographies of European royalty, and taking photographs.