Paging the Past: A compelling gaze into “the belly button of the ancient world”

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World Book Cover Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World
Michael Scott
History
Princeton
2014
Hardcover
440

Note: This book was provided by press.princeton.edu as a review copy, though opinions below are entirely my own.

Living in a world that seems to inject an element of magic in nearly every story of time and place, it's surprising to me that Delphi hasn't attracted more attention to this point in books or film. In "Dephi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World," Michael Scott manages to craft a richly detailed history of this ancient place through an accessible narrative style.

While I confess to a bit of Delphi obsession, my knowledge of it would scarcely fill two pages of this book. The span of history covered is awe-inspiring. Has a historic site—and a relative few individuals (women no less) ever held such influence over world affairs so long a time?

Here are five interesting elements of this book that enlightened my understanding of Delphi, which Scott describes as “the belly button of the ancient world”:

  1. It’s virtually hidden away. Despite its central role in the ancient world, Delphi was never exactly accessible. It lies in the foot hills of the Parnassian mountains, “resembling a fortress that Nature herself had chosen to take care of.” Nature and time have obscured the site even more, but it has never seen more traffic either—about two million visitors per year.
  2. Vapor courage was the secret sauce. The Pythia’s responses were “inspired” by a vapor chasm, over which she sat on a tripod.
  3. It changed hands more often than Chrysler. Nothing speaks to Delphi’s political and cultural influence more than surviving invasions on too many occasions to count. For a small town, it carried tremendous staying power.
  4. It was a monument to heroism (from a certain point of view). Partly because so many cultures occupied Delphi at some time or another, the monuments there are a fairly definitive gallery of world history. It’s regrettable so few have survived, but this book describes them well.
  5. Nero (?!) slept here. Nero was indeed the first Roman emperor to visit Dephi. Initially, he gave much autonomy to the city’s ruling council, and was honored with a statue of himself there. Unsurprisingly, the relationship cooled when Nero claimed some of Delphi’s statues, and the Oracle made a comment to him about mother-murderers.

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There are several aspects of how this book was written and organized that I appreciated:

  • Shakespeare framed its structure (kind of). In his introduction, Scott frames the book’s three parts with a quote from Twelfth Night: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.”
  • It’s chronological, but narrative. The book certainly has themes weaved into its narrative, but it is largely chronological. A wise move for making so much history make sense.
  • The illustrations add value. Quality photos and illustrations abound, always adding to the story without overwhelming it. Favorite images: “The Priestess at Delphi” and anything from the chapter on archaeological excavations of the early 20th century.
  • The end matter is a book unto itself. The story of the modern archaeological record is indeed my favorite part of this book, and it leads elegantly into perhaps the best end matter I’ve seen in any work: An insider walkthrough of the Delphi museum as it appears today, Abbreviations, Notes (about 60 pages) and a detailed index.
  • Top-grade construction. The first thing I noted about this book is the quality of its construction. The weight and feel of the paper, the binding and even the typographical presentation, make it a pleasure to read.

If Delphi intrigues you on any level, this book is a masterwork for your library. It’s authoritative and accessible, and only gets better in the final few chapters. Worth the read, in print format especially.

Question: What’s your favorite fact, story or resource about Delphi? Leave a comment below, or share it on social media with hashtag #voicesofthepast. I’ll be listening!

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