What an exceptional start to 2019! On Thursday night we welcomed a record-breaking audience of 310 members, visitors and guests to AKS Lytham for the highlight of our fifth year – our annual Presidential lecture and Celebration Dinner with academic, author and TV historian, Professor Michael Scott.
As well as delivering an excellent talk on Delphi at the centre of the ancient (and modern) Mediterranean world, Michael also reflected on the success and growth of the branch since its inception in 2014 and we were able to thank to our incredible committee, dedicated volunteers and ambassadors, and of course, Michael, whose ongoing support and enthusiasm has allowed us to reach a membership of over 400 people of all ages as we build our classics community.
2018 has seen Michael appointed as a Professor in Classics at the University of Warwick; uncover the secrets of Athens, Cairo and Istanbul in his BBC Two series Ancient Invisible Cities; launch a new module in Global History to allow students to expand their view of the ancient world; and he also finds the time to engage new audiences with his weekly Q&A Facebook live sessions. Our Chair, Katrina Kelly, was thrilled to feature on Michael’s livestream this week as they tackled a range of fascinating questions encompassing the ethics of the Agamemnon, the availability of modern garum sauce, and Roman Gardens! You can watch the full video here.
After enjoying the tasty homemade cakes made by our super volunteers, Michael brought us into the New Year by offering us a fresh perspective on the ancient and modern role of Delphi. Eleanor Anderton, one of our Classics Ambassadors from Runshaw College, here summarises his excellent lecture:
“After initially producing his first documentary about Delphi in 2010 and publishing A History of the Centre of the Ancient World in 2014, Professor Scott was appointed an honorary citizen of Delphi in 2015 and his love and interest in the city shone through in his lecture.
In 1987, Delphi was described by UNESCO as a place which had united people in the ancient world, despite being divided by material interest, and Professor Scott suggested that this sense of a united ancient world was due to Delphi’s many different functions. It is very easy to associate Delphi solely with Apollo’s oracle but it had other, somewhat ambiguous, origins and practices as well. Delphi was believed in the fifth century BC to have been founded at the beginning of time, when the likes of titans such as Gaia were roaming about, contrasted with a belief in the first century BC that goats had fallen into a cavern in Delphi and were consequently very suspiciously affected by certain gases, resulting in the institution of the Pythian oracle! However strange and bizarre the beginnings of Delphi are believed to be throughout ancient history, this indeed proves Delphi to be a multifaceted place surrounded by mystery and uncertainty.
Oracular consultation was, and still arguably is, a very important aspect of Delphi; there is evidence of an oracle at Delphi spanning thousands of years which suggests that consultations were not only a key feature of religious ritual but were also believed to be accurate and influential. Professor Scott showed that the ancients would have so easily believed in the oracle because divine communication was a huge aspect of Greek religion, as seen with the sheer amount of oracular locations within the ancient world, another famous example being the rustling trees of Dodona. But the oracle at Delphi could be very obscure since it never offered a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to people’s questions, and instead famously offered riddles such when, during the Persian Wars, Athens was told to trust in their wooden walls – very ambiguous indeed – and their subsequent evacuation of the city led to their historic victory at Salamis.
However, as mentioned previously, Delphi was not just an oracular site, as from the 4th Century BC onwards, the number of questions being asked at the oracle severely declined. Thus, the sanctuary needed a functional make-over in order to keep running for another 800 years, and its establishment of the Delphic Amphictyonic League ensured that an association of Greek tribes had responsibility for the Delphic sanctuaries. Thus, there was always large-scale interest in Delphi, as seen in its rebuilding in 400 BC after a terrible fire. As well as being a place of oracle and a unique form of government, Delphi was also a cosmopolitan place where anyone who was anyone could display their prestige whilst also bribing the Gods for good favour.
Delphi was brimming with dedications made by its visitors, all of which are very usefully listed by the travel writer Pausanias. This underscores another important aspect of ancient Greek culture – the need to express success and superiority, as is reflected in the musical and athletic contests that took place at Delphi every four years, something that is usually automatically associated with Olympia. Professor Scott showed that Delphi was the first place in which an elaborate gymnasium was built, and for a time, was the only sanctuary with a theatre. It was a centre for investment as well as philosophy and religion and even during the period of Roman occupation, as well as modernity, it had symbolic status and was a vibrant tourist attraction.
Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. Even though this pagan site endured through the age of Christian enlightenment, the ultimate demise of Delphi was due to invasion. Many of the buildings and dedications were torn down and used as make-shift barricades during times of conflict and as a result, Delphi was very much forgotten from the 7th Century AD, and eventually was even built over and became a village.
However, all was not lost for Delphi, as excavations began in the 1890s to uncover the lost city and its former prestige returned once again, with the whole of Europe being desperate to get involved in the discovery of its ancient treasures. Eventually though the French won the political battle to excavate in Delphi and in 1895 alone there were 160,000 wagons of earth moved during excavations. Thus, Delphi was reborn, but it still challenges and surprises us. In the words of Professor Michael Scott, Delphi is no stranger to questions, discussion and confrontation, but it is a place that helps people develop their ideas and change their futures.”
After the lecture, 100 members and students headed to Gusto Restaurant in Lytham for a tasty Celebration Dinner in a beautiful setting and a chance to take part in our annual Classics Quiz – congratulations to the winning table, Team Amazon, with 29 points! We enjoyed spending a lovely evening with our fantastic President and giving him a little gift of his own: a special LSA CA calendar of some of our favourite memories over the past five years. We can’t wait to see Michael again soon – he’ll be back on 9th February to judge our Classics Competition Grand Final. Do come along!