The prestige and political importance of the oracle of Delphi declined over several centuries, and is most explicitly seen in the first few centuries of our era. No longer was Delphi consulted about kingships and colonization, but rather “mules, marriages, and money,” (Arnush 2006, p. 98). As Delphi’s significance was dwindling, the oracles of Claros and Didyma in Asia Minor were experiencing a revival, not only in terms of the sanctuaries themselves but in the types of questions presented to Apollo. Political and state concerns were addressed to the god on the eastern side of the Aegean, as well as questions concerning magic, the nature of god, and theurgic concerns of the soul. AD Nock (1939) has described these latter oracular responses as ‘theological’ and perhaps the nature of the questions presented at Didyma and Claros will help us understand why Delphi, on the other hand, slipped further into silence as the oracles of Asia Minor continued to thrive. In this way, Delphi declined not only as an arbiter of political issues, but also as the center for wisdom of the Greek world.
Much of the scholarship concerning Delphi has focused on the classical and archaic period, with little attention paid to the last centuries of the oracle’s operation. The invaluable efforts of Daux (1936), Parke and Wormell (1956), and Fontenrose (1978) laid the foundation for a more specific focus on the decline of the oracle, notably the recent work of Parker (1985), Levin (1989), and Athanassiadi (1989). These excellent studies clearly show the decline of Delphi, but this phenomenon has not yet been securely placed within the context of other oracular sanctuaries, particularly in terms of these theological responses. Notably, the recent study on the late antique words of Apollo by Busine (2005) was forced to exclude Delphi from the analysis because there simply is not enough archaeological or literary evidence to include this sanctuary in the examination.
In this paper I will examine the decline of Delphi through the lens of these other oracles; by analysing the different practices at the various sanctuaries, we gain a broader perspective as to why there was not a universal decline of oracles. From the extant responses, I will demonstrate the capacity for Claros and Didyma to exercise unprecedented oracular authority in occult matters. This trend of consultation concerning issues such as theurgy, magic, and the nature of god, which were gaining more popularity within a civic context, is not seen at Delphi. After highlighting specific economic, social and political reasons for the disparity in success between the oracles of Asia Minor and Delphi, this paper will then show the difference in the nature of the questions presented to Apollo through several of the ‘theological’ oracles. It is therefore not only the decay from political to individual concerns which illustrates the decline, but also issues of occult practices which we find little evidence from Delphi. For example, the Clarian Apollo prescribed magic to rid Ephesus of the plague; the magical element is unique within oracular responses and the remedy for a communal affliction is also uncharacteristic of any response in the Delphic corpus (Merkelbach 1991, Graf 1992, Várhelyi 2001). This disparity in operation is crucial to understanding why there was no universal decline of oracles, but rather various rates and forms of deterioration. These issues must be addressed both to gain a greater understanding of the decline of Delphi compared to the success of the oracles of Asia Minor, as well as to understand the classical world more generally.
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