You are here

Defending Delos: The Role of the Temple of Apollo in the third century BCE

Michael McGlin

State University of New York at Buffalo

Over the course of Delian political independence (314-166 BCE), the Temple of Apollo at Delos took measures to protect the island sanctuary from threats of physical violence and miasma. The temple’s ability to ensure its territorial sovereignty and religious sanctity rested upon the military protection external powers provided the island and the mutual Greek understanding of the inviolability of sacred property (Gawlinksi, 2015; Nevin, 2016). The confederation of the Nesiotic league, initially headed by the Antigonids (ca. 313-ca. 286/5 BCE), then by the Ptolemaic dynasty (ca. 286/5- ca. 258 BCE) and, finally, reconstituted on Tenos by Rhodes (ca. 200-170 BCE) patrolled the sea lanes around Delos and provided protection against raiding and pirate attacks (Étienne 1990; Reger 1994; de Souza, 1999; Constantakopoulou 2012). Neither the city-state of Delos nor the Temple of Apollo could provide this service for themselves because there was a sacred prohibition against bloodshed and death across the island. Delos, by consequence, never developed the institutions of a citizen-hoplite force or its own naval fleet. Concurrent with Delian reliance on foreign military aid for defense, the sacrosanct status Greek temples and sanctuaries held begins to falter (Miles 2008). In the late Classical and Hellenistic periods, both temples and sanctuaries intermittently fall victim to military incursion, occupation, and spoliation such as the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by the Phocians (357-46 BCE) and the Aetolians (279 BCE), and the sanctuary of Thermon by Philip V (218 BCE). Delos, as an island sanctuary, rested in a geographically precarious position. With the disappearance of the Nesiotic League (ca. 260-200 BCE) and the protection it afforded, and the declining recognition of sacred status for sanctuaries, civic and sacred officials at Delos were left with a serious dilemma: how does one provide security for a sanctuary, its property, and its worshippers against opportunistic, external threats without recourse to military force or naval protection?

I argue that the Temple of Apollo at Delos developed a series of non-violent strategies to secure itself as a pragmatic response to either faltering or an absence of external protection. Over the course of the third century BCE, the Temple of Apollo at Delos paid guards and laborers to protect the sanctuary and public spaces from theft and miasma (IG XI,2 145, 40; ID 316, 117; IG XI,2 158, 51; IG XI,2 287, 80), extended a loan to Delos for protection against pirates (IG XI,2 148 l.73-4: 297 BCE), used temple offerings to ransom individuals kidnapped by pirates (IG XI,4 1054a: ca. 230-220 BCE), and erected a sacred law forbidding the theft of island property (IG XI,4 1296A+B, ca. 250 BCE). Delos transitioned from using solely financial means of protection of salaried officials and a loan to relying upon its religious authority to preserve its sanctity and property. This sacred law proved to be the most effective protectionary measure: it calls down curses upon any individual, his family, and his house who takes property from the island (l.10-12) and also upon those who had knowledge of the act and did not come forward (l.8-10). This law (forcibly) enlists the cooperation of the island’s population to prevent theft, uses the greatest possible punishment against an individual (cursing) without physical violence, and does so at no monetary cost to the island itself. Sacred officials disseminated this law to ensure maximum exposure; they had it inscribed opisthographically and erected it in a public location which all could see. The success of this sacred legislation directly challenged commonly held, island-wide notions of the sanctity of sacred space.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Religion

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy