Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Holy Island

"Never saw I so fair a mortal, man or woman," says the shipwrecked Ulysses to the Phæacian maiden Nausicaa, "and but once only as goodly a thing; 'twas in Delos, the young sapling of a palm-tree that sprang up by the altar of Apollo." This takes us back very far; how far we cannot say, but probably, if we are to accept the opinion of the majority of scholars, beyond 1000 B.C.Anyhow we may be certain that long before the dawn of history Delos was a well-known place. An island so insignificant in size—it is little more than five miles in circumference—must have had something special to make it famous, for the poet to mention it in this way, the hero taking it for granted that Nausicaa, a native, it must be remembered, of an island on the other side of Greece, knows the place of which he is speaking. What this special attraction was we learn from the Homeric hymn to Apollo. The hymn is called "Homeric," and was, indeed, believed by the ancients to be of the same date as the great poems. Modern criticism, however, has detected traces of a later origin. Its date is uncertain, but it may be conjecturally ascribed to the middle of the seventh century B.C. In this Hymn we read as follows:

"There are met together the long-robed sons of Ionia with their children and their chaste wives; there in honour of Apollo they wrestle and dance and sing. Whoso shall see them will say: 'Deathless surely they are and Death comes not near them,' so much of beauty would he behold on every side, so full of delight would he be to look upon the men, and the fair-girdled women, and the swift ships, and the riches of every kind. And near them are the maidens of Delos, priestesses of the Archer-God, who celebrate in song Apollo and Artemis and Leto their mother, and the glory of the famous men and the famous women of old, charming with their hymn the hearts of mortal men."

Delos, in fact, was the meeting-place of the Ionian tribes, one of the great branches of the Hellenic race. An immemorial tradition had placed there the birth-place of Apollo and his sister Artemis, and the temple of Apollo, who seems to have had more than his share of the worshippers' homage, became the centre of attraction. A Greek was accustomed to combine pleasure with his religious duties, and the festival was made more attractive by athletic and artistic contests. Again, neither religion nor amusement distracted his attention from commerce. Delos was singularly well placed to be a trade centre; it lay in the line of the great trade routes, whether ending in Italy to the West, or in Egypt and Syria eastwards. Both causes acted together to make it a rich and popular place.

Then came the change, the first of the many vicissitudes of fortune through which the island has passed. The great Ionian cities on the mainland of Asia Minor fell into the hands of their neighbours on the East, becoming tributaries first to the Lydian and afterwards to the Perisan Kings. The festival was dropped; we do not know the precise date of its discontinuance, but, it must have been at some time in the course of the sixth century B.C. Something, however, of its old sanctity still clung to the island. When the Persian generals, Datis and Artaphernes were on their way to Greece in 490, the inhabitants of Delos, fearful of the fate which had overtaken others islanders, fled from their homes. They took refuge in Tenos, which, lying as it did outside the direct route to Athens, would, they hoped, be overlooked by the Persians. Datis sent a herald to them with a conciliatory and reassuring message. It was to this effect:

"Why have ye thus fled, ye holy men? Why think ye so ill of me? Surely I had been sufficiently wise, even without the king's command to spare the land which was the birth-place of the two gods, to spare both the land and them that dwell therein. Come ye back therefore to your homes, and inhabit again your island."

Anxious, it is possible, to atone for any slight, he offered the huge, the almost incredible amount of three hundred talents of frankincense on the altar of the temple of Apollo.

This was in 490, the Persian army being on its way to Attica, where it was to fight the disastrous battle of Marathon. Fourteen years afterwards Delos became, in virtue of its central position, a place of the greatest importance. The defeat of the Persians at Salamis in 480, and at Platæa and Mycale 479, had relieved Greece of immediate fear of invasion, but there were many reasons for continuing hostilities. The invaders had behaved with the greatest barbarity, sparing nothing, sacred or profane, and had thus laid up against themselves a store of wrongs which it would take a generation to expiate. Then again, many Greek communities were still subject to their tyranny. Finally, the danger of invasion, though removed for a time, might revive. As long as Greece consisted of a number of independent states, jealous of each other, and bound together by no common sentiment, so long a powerful enemy would be dangerous to them. The enemy had found traitors among them already, and he would certainly find them again. To oppose him successfully it would be necessary to form a confederation. For some time after the victories of 479 the Greek forces were under Spartan command. But the misconduct of Pausanias and the general incapacity of the Spartans for rule put an end to this arrangement. Athens naturally succeeded to the place thus vacated; and Athens at once set about forming what may be called an Anti-Persian league. Both the sacred associations and the position of Delos, pointed it out as the head-quarters of the alliance, and Athens, which had not yet exchanged its generous patriotism for selfish ambition, willingly assented. An assessment towards the common object—operations against the Persian foe—was made on the members of the alliance. The total amount of the money payment was large, as much as £106,000, and there were also contingents of ships of war. We do not know the details of this assessment, but we are informed that it was made by Aristides, and that it gave then and afterwards universal satisfaction.

It is no part of my plan to relate the history of the Delian confederacy. The materials for such a history, indeed, are very scanty. We know that Naxos revolted about ten years after its formation, and Thasos very shortly afterwards. Both islands were subdued, chiefly, of course, by the power of Athens. The natural result was the aggrandizement of the victorious city. Little by little her relations to her allies were changed. One after another, they were compelled or consented to commute the contingent of warships for an increased money contribution. Before thirty years had passed all the allies, with two exceptions, had become tributaries, content to fulfil their obligations by a money payment, these two being Chios and Lesbos. Meanwhile the first object of the confederation had been receding into the distance. The Persians had almost ceased to be formidable to Greece; any dangers which threatened the country in that direction were only made serious by the unprincipled competition which the leading Greek states carried on against each other. Athens began to use the fleet for her own purposes, for expanding her dominion and pushing her own commerce. Nothing could be a more significant mark of this change, than the fact that the treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens. This transfer took place in the year 454 B.C. Though the island must be supposed to have lost something of its dignity by this change, its splendour and we may say its prosperity, were, it may be said, increased. These were at their height during the twenty years that intervened between 454 and the commencement of the Peloponnesian war in 432. Athens had reached her culminating point of wealth and power, and she delighted to make the embassies sent to the Sacred Island more and more magnificent. One occasion of this kind was long remembered for the splendour which distinguished it. The leader of the embassy was Nicias, son of Niceratus, the chief of the aristocratic party in Athens, and one of the wealthiest men in the country. Commonly the effect of the spectacle was marred by the unmanageable crowd that had assembled to witness the landing of the embassy. Nicias remedied this, by disembarking the previous day on the island of Rheneia, which is separated from Delos by a strait about half a mile in breadth. He had brought with him, from Athens, in separate pieces, a bridge which was to be thrown across the channel. These were put together in the course of the night. The next day the procession, a numerous body consisting of some of the principal citizens of Athens, with musicians splendidly attired, and choruses of youths and maidens clad in white, made its way at a slow and measured pace across the bridge, itself a handsome structure adorned with gilding and tapestry.

With the Peloponnesian war naturally commenced a decline in the fortunes of Delos. The resources of Athens were taken up, and more than taken up, with warlike expenditure, and the cost of the embassies had to be seriously curtailed. Then her attitude towards her dependencies was greatly changed. She became a grudging and oppressive ruler. In 426 the Athenians undertook a complete purification of the island. All remains of the dead were removed, and an ordinance was made for the future, that, as far as could be prevented, no birth or death was to take place upon the island. Four years later all the native inhabitants were removed and settled on the mainland. A part of them, however, were permitted to return after the conclusion of the peace of Nicias, the Athenians attributing their disasters to the wrath Apollo at the ill-treatment of his protégés.

After the fall of Athens in 404, when the dependencies of Athens had their freedom restored to them, the Delians became independent. Their independence however, did not last long. Athens recovered possession of the island when the Spartans' supremacy in Greece ceased to exist. Nor did she lose it when Philip of Macedon became practically the ruler of Greece. This, as has been well remarked, she would hardly have been permitted to do, if the island had been of any great value. The fact is that the first three quarters of the fourth century B.C. were a period of great depression in the history of Delos. The inscriptions from which our knowledge of this history is mainly derived, have very little to tell us. The Athenian embassy, if it was not entirely discontinued had little pomp or splendour about it. Offerings from other states, from princes Greek or Oriental, were no longer sent. The names of Philip and Alexander are conspicuously absent.

Then came another change, brought about by the death of Alexander.

The Generals, who sought to divide among themselves the inheritance of the great Conqueror's empire, proclaimed the independence of the Greek states, in the hope of gaining popularity and prestige, and Delos was thus enabled again to escape from the dominion of Athens. She did more; she became a political power, making herself, on the strength of her ancient name and sacred associations, the centre of an Ægean confederacy. It could not be said that the island became absolutely independent; that it could hardly be, possessing as it did no resources of its own, and commanding no naval or military strength. Nevertheless Delos was a power; the rival monarchies which had divided among themselves the empire of Alexander in turns courted, and, when occasion demanded, protected her, made use of her religious prestige, and availed themselves of her central position for the purposes of commerce.

The first power, however, to enter into friendly relations with the Sacred Island was not one of the monarchies set up by Alexander's generals, but the Republic of Rhodes. Rhodes, gifted with a magnificent climate—it was the island of the Sun-god and never, it was said, missed for a whole day the sight of his face—and a fertile soil, had been wealthy from the earliest times. But it owed its greatness, at least in a large measure, to the political foresight of its people. Towards the end of the fifth century its three cities, putting aside, with an abnegation rare in Greek history, their passion for independence, combined to make one powerful metropolis to which the name of the island was given. For the next eighty years Rhodes sided, as policy seemed to dictate, with one or other of the powers that contended for mastery in the Ægean, with Athens, with Sparta, with Thebes, even with the Carian princes of Halicarnassus. It had to submit to Alexander, and to receive a Macedonian garrison. This it expelled after the conqueror's death, and it resisted all efforts to subdue it. The repulse of Demetrius, surnamed Poliorcetes or besieger of cities, after a siege which lasted for a whole year, was particularly famous. This was the power then that first supported—it is possible that it may even have suggested the confederacy of—Delos. The inscriptions found in the island, which are, indeed, the chief authorities for its history, record magnificent presents sent by the Rhodian Republic to the Temple of Apollo, and honours bestowed by the Delians in return on eminent Rhodian citizens. Rhodes had been on friendly terms with the Greek kings of Egypt. We find, for instance, that among the conditions on which Demetrius raised the siege, was the stipulation that the Rhodians should help him in any enterprise that he might undertake, except against Egypt. It was Egypt that succeeded to Rhodes in the patronage of Delos. Delos was even more essential to the trade of Egypt, lying, as the latter country does, far away in the south-east of the Mediterranean, than it had been to Rhodes. The Ptolemies, accordingly, were liberal in their gifts to the Delian Apollo, while they protected the island and even collected its revenues. The Delians, on the other hand, instituted festivals which they called after their patrons' names, and erected statues in their honour. Not only royal personages, but officers of state and naval and military commanders, even such minor personages as the king's physician or the director of the Great Library were complimented in this way.

Egypt, however, did not monopolize the favour of the islanders. The rival powers of Syria and Macedonia made advances to the priesthood of Apollo, and these advances were graciously received. Delos regarded all these powers with a benevolent neutrality, opened her port to their fleets, and received their gifts with absolute impartiality. Complimentary inscriptions, statues, and festivals were at the service of the Antiochi of Syria and the Philippi of Macedonia, and of their ministers or favourites. Towards the end of the third century, indeed, Egypt was superseded by Macedonia in the place of chief patron and protector; in the beginning of the second, Rhodes regained her old supremacy.

But now a new power appeared upon the scene. Rome, after passing successfully through the long struggle of the Second Punic War, began to push her conquests in the East. Antiochus III of Syria received a crushing defeat at Magnesia, in 190 B.C. Twenty-two years afterwards the Macedonian kingdom came to an end at the fatal battle of Pydna. Roman trade followed Roman conquest, and was not slow in perceiving the natural advantages of the place. The commercial importance of the island rapidly recovered, till in 166 B.C. it was declared a free port. This proceeding gave a vast impetus to its trade, chiefly at the expense of its old patron Rhodes, whose customs revenue sank in three years from £35,000 to scarcely £6,000. But it was the place, not the people, that enjoyed this prosperity. The Roman capitalists, selfish and unscrupulous as ever, procured, along with the decree that made the island a free port, the expulsion of the inhabitants.

Twenty years afterwards the trade of Delos was largely increased by the fall of Corinth. This great trading rival removed—indeed, it was a century before Corinth rose from her ruins—the Island enjoyed something like a monopoly of the Mediterranean trade. The exports of the East, spices and fruits, gems and ivory, besides works of Greek art, filled her markets. When in 133 Asia became a Roman province, this commerce was enormously increased, for Asia, which Tacitus describes as still rich after it had suffered two centuries of spoliation, was then wealthy beyond description. No branch of trade, it is probable, was more lucrative than the slave market, in which, it is said, as many as ten thousand were sometimes sold in the course of a single day. The Roman capitalists, as time went on, shared with other nations, doubtless for satisfactory considerations, the vast business which found a centre in the island. As early as 150 B.C. the merchants of Tyre had a corporation there under the protection of Hercules; while Jews, Syrians, and Egyptians had factories of their own. It was a meeting place, we may say, for the trade of the civilized world.

The end to this prosperity came in the first half of the first century B.C. In the year 87, Arsaces, one of the generals of Mithridates, king of Pontus, sacked the island. The pirates, whose ravages in the Mediterranean were hardly checked till Pompey's masterly strategy cleared them out of it, completed the ruin thus begun. At the beginning of the Christian era the island was almost deserted. To-day, it affords pasture to a few sheep, and is inhabited, for a part at least of the year, by the shepherds who tend them.

A few years ago there seemed to be a chance that commerce, which is ever changing its routes, might give it back something of its old prosperity. When steam-ships first began to traverse the Mediterranean, and it was necessary to find a stopping-place for them, the rival claims of Delos and Syra (the ancient Syros) were considered. Syra was chosen, and the place, which was then almost uninhabited, now numbers nearly fifty thousand inhabitants.

I shall now attempt to give some account of the appearance of the Sacred Island as it appeared to a visitor, say in the earlier half of the second century before our era. Approaching, let us suppose, from the west, he enters the Sacred Harbour, and sees before him a terrace fronting the sea. Behind the terrace is the Temple of Apollo, and behind the Temple, again, rises the famous hill of Cynthus, celebrated in all praises and prayers addressed to the twin children of Latona. The slopes of the hill are covered with buildings, sacred and secular, whose white marble walls stand out against the green foliage of the Sacred Wood. He lands on the left or north side of the harbour, and passing through a stately portico finds himself in an open space adorned with statues. On his left hand is the Commercial, on his right the Sacred City. Determining first to visit the latter he passes under a stately gate, formed of Doric columns, which the city of Athens had given to Apollo in the days of its supremacy. A road leads up to the Temple of the chief Delian god. It is lined on either side with statues, some of them being among the finest products of Greek art. The Temple itself is a small building, measuring only a hundred and four feet by forty-four. But it is of the finest Parian marble and exquisitely proportioned. This also the Delians owe to the munificence of the Athenians, who built it when they recovered their hold of the island, early in the fourth century. It is in the Doric style, but its columns are not fluted. On the left or north of Apollo's shrine is the chapel of his mother, and on the north of this again, that of Aphrodite. In a partial semicircle round the shrine are the Treasuries, crowded with the offerings of the munificent piety of Greater Greece. The enclosure and shrine of Artemis lie more to the west. The whole of the consecrated shore is surrounded by a finely-finished granite wall. It abounds with statues, altars, halls, and colonnades, the "Portico of Philip," king of Macedonia (220-179), being conspicuous among these last for magnitude and beauty; while the most striking, if not the most beautiful of the statues is the Colossus presented by the island of Naxos. If the traveller desires to find a lodging he can be accommodated in one of the hostelries which line almost the whole of the enclosing wall. The hospitality of the priests is supposed to be gratuitous, but he is expected to make some proportionate offering.

The wonders and beauties of the Sacred City having been viewed, the visitor turns his steps to the commercial quarter. This indeed lies on both sides of the consecrated enclosure, but its most stately buildings are to be found on the north side of the island, conspicuous among them being what, to use a modern phrase, we may call the Roman factory or "Schola Romanorum;" if he has a friend among the resident merchants, he will probably find that he has a residence on the western slope of Mount Cynthus.

This is a sketch of what the labours of archæological explorers have discovered among the ruins of Delos. All the treasures of the island have disappeared. Nothing of consequence in either gold or silver has been found, and not a single specimen of the precious Delian bronze in which the great sculptor Myron was accustomed to work. Only fragments of the statues remain. For centuries, indeed, the place was used as a quarry. The Knights of St. John fortified Malta with marble from its ruins; the church of Tenos was built from Delian materials, Greek houses and Turkish courts were constructed out of the inexhaustible store. But the plan of the buildings can be traced, and in some cases the elevation restored. But the most precious survival of all is the magnificent collection of inscriptions. These number more than fifteen hundred, and furnish us with a record, such as literature proper does not attempt to give, of the "Sacred Island" and its people.