An Island Without An Anchor

Classics Ambassador Tracy R takes us on a voyage of discovery through 1000 years of history on the island of Delos, following a brilliant talk by our President, Professor Michael Scott.

On Thursday 13th January, it was a pleasure to welcome Professor Michael Scott to Lytham St Annes for his eighth annual presidential lecture, live and in-person once again, which felt particularly appropriate on national ‘Make Your Dreams Come True’ day! The new year brought a new venue, as the Association moved for the first time to Lowther Pavilion for his talk on Ancient Delos – an Island Without an Anchor. Accessible by boat from nearby Mykonos, this ‘tiny speck of an island’ nestles at the centre of the Cyclades, so named because they encircle Delos. In just an hour, Professor Scott took us on a tour of the fascinating history, mythology and archaeology of Delos, explaining its role not just as a prominent religious site – ancient poet Callimachus called it ‘the most sacred of all islands’ – but as one of, if not the most, important commercial centres of the entire ancient Mediterranean world.

Every great sanctuary has a backstory, and we find that of Delos in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, written by an unknown author in the 6th-7th centuries BCE. Professor Scott recounted the story of Zeus, king of the gods, whose affair with the goddess Leto resulted in her pregnancy with twins Apollo and Artemis. Hera, Zeus’s wife, was so infuriated that she took out her anger not on her husband but on Leto, denying her a place to give birth. Rather than face Hera’s wrath, Zeus raised an island out of the sea, a neutral space for his children to be born. Promising that she would anchor the island with four great chains and ensure the island’s future prominence and prosperity, Leto was permitted to stay. But Hera had other plans. Kidnapping Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, Leto was forced to endure labour for nine days and nights before the midwife goddess was freed to deliver the twins, and the island’s long association with Delian Apollo began.

Delos was inhabited long before the Homeric Hymn was written. Evidence of settlements on Mount Cynthus, the highest point on the island, dates as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE, but it is around 700 BCE, earlier even than the sanctuaries at Delphi and Olympia, when we start to see archaeological evidence tying in with the island’s mythological beginnings. Temples dedicated to Apollo and Artemis were built in the area that would become their sanctuaries, and another, dedicated to Hera, was set in an unusual position on high ground apart from the others, where it remained throughout the island’s long history. Professor Scott described Delos’s rise to prominence, which began in earnest with the arrival of the Naxians in around 600 BCE. Determined to make their mark on the island, they constructed temples and other buildings, such as the famous Lion Passageway lining the route to the sanctuary from the old port at Skardhana Bay, and a colossal nine metre tall statue to Apollo, towering over the island of his birth and visible to all who sailed nearby.

Delos became the centre of an Ionian confederacy, and its art and architecture spoke of the importance of the island – and the Naxians – to the gods and to the wider Greek world, but by the end of the 6th century BCE Naxian dominance had given way to Athenian control which lasted until the island gained its independence in 314 BCE. As Professor Scott showed, the influence of Athens from the 5th century BCE onwards had a profound effect on Delos. In 478 BCE, Delos became the centre of the Delian League, created by Athens to take the fight back to Persia following the Greco-Persian wars, and acted as its treasury to store the money paid in by the other city-state members of the league. The Delian League later morphed into the Athenian Empire, and despite 20 years’ successful guarding of the money it was moved to Athens ‘for safekeeping’ and appropriated for the building of the Parthenon.

Apollo, as the island’s patron god, gained three more temples, bringing his total on the island to four compared to Artemis’ one, and a hippodrome for chariot racing was added as part of a new athletic festival – the Delian Games; quite a feat for a tiny island with no horses, which had to be brought across the frequently choppy seas just for the Delian festival. On regaining their independence after the decline of Athenian influence in the late 4th century BCE, a whole host of new temples sprang up, dedicated to Olympian gods such as Poseidon, Aphrodite and Dionysus, and others in the Greek pantheon. Professor Scott explained that this was not a slight to the primary deities; this diversification spoke of a need to retain the favour of all the gods during the turbulent and uncertain nature of the times.

Interestingly, a sanctuary to Asclepius, god of healing, was added, on an island where it was forbidden to die! This led to unfortunate individuals who appeared near to death being unceremoniously transported by boat to the nearby island of Rhenea, which served as the cemetery for the inhabitants of Delos and where memorial stones depicted the moments preceding death, rather than celebrating the individual’s achievements in life, images unparalled throughout the entire Greek world. Professor Scott movingly described what these stele tell us, a painful, raw demonstration of the grief of the loss of a loved one, placed by the community they left behind.

In the Hellenistic period, following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Greek world was ruled by monarchs who added their own colonnades, writing themselves into the history of Delos. Hera’s isolated sanctuary became surrounded by the Terrace of the Foreign Deities, filled with elaborate sanctuaries dedicated by traders to their gods from Samothrace, and Egypt, and from across the wider ancient Mediterranean world. Mount Cynthus became littered with cults to Syrian gods, and we start to see interesting syncretisations, overlaps between worship of the Greek gods and their equivalents not seen anywhere else. Professor Scott described Delos at the height of its success; a thriving centre of architectural and artistic innovation, boasting a theatre, stadiums, sanctuaries and commercial buildings shared by people travelling from all over the ancient Mediterranean world. But it wasn’t to last.

In 88 BCE and again in 69 BCE, Mithridates raided Delos, destroying this prosperous trading hub and striking a dagger blow to Rome who now controlled the Mediterranean, from which the island never truly recovered. There were however two more additions still to be made to this diverse religious centre; between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE a synagogue and Christian basilica were built, making Delos home to virtually every known religion in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Hosting a population of some 24,000 inhabitants at the height of its popularity in the 1st century BCE, today the island is home to just 24 employees of the Greek Archaeological Service, caretakers of the site and museum, and a temporary cohort of French archaeologists. There are no hotels nor modern architecture, and tourists are not permitted to stay on the island overnight. Having experienced life working alongside the archaeological team, Professor Scott described a side of Delos that few today get to see. Sharing his memories of deserted beaches, dramatic sunsets and moonlight wanderings amongst the temple ruins, the basic accommodation and very real threat of poisonous snakes seemed a small price to pay for a taste of idyllic island life and a share in Delos’ incredible history.

But what of Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis for whom the island itself was born? Seemingly forgotten, an inscription surviving from 202 BCE reminds people not to throw rubbish into her one temple. Lost amidst the countless others dedicated to gods from across the Mediterranean world, worship of the mother goddess declined. Maybe Hera, whose uniquely placed sanctuary was developed and expanded throughout the centuries, got her way after all.

We are extremely grateful to Professor Scott for his excellent and thought-provoking lecture, which ‘anchored’ our attention and brought to life the little-known but fascinating history of Delos. For an all-too-brief time we felt like virtual inhabitants of this incredible little island, certainly another ‘must-visit’ for many of us when travel permits once again. We look forward to welcoming our President back to Lytham St Annes in 2023!