Next month I am going to Athens for a week. All by myself. I’ll be blogging the trip later (getting back into the blogging habit will be easier with so much to write about!) but for now I’m up to my eyes in Trip Prep.
Trip Prep is almost as good as actually travelling for me. By the time I get to each city or site I like to be able to draw maps from memory, quote books and speeches and recognise the key aspects of each ruin on first sight. This frenzied research period coupled with my gruelling itineraries and general balls-to-the-wall tourism approach is why my family generally tolerate rather than enjoy my company when abroad. Mercifully for my long-suffering loved ones I am leaving them firmly in Blighty for this particular trip, more about that in a later post perhaps. (My clients will tell you I am far more relaxed when giving tours!)
Despite my odyssey (Alexsey?) being a solo adventure my nearest and dearest haven’t quite managed to escape Trip Prep. Trip Prep involves me spending dozens of hours with my nose in various books, frantically scribbling down notes, filling in my Lonely Planet and Rough Guides with about a pint of highlighter ink whilst excitedly shrieking when everyone else is trying to watch Game of Thrones. Trip Prep also involves an inevitable influx of new books to my already groaning shelves.
Having booked the Athens trip a mere 6 weeks in advance on a whim I’d quickly decided that whilst I have the rare freedom to indulge my nerdish tendencies unaccompanied I should take the opportunity to visit Delphi. I looked into excursions offered by travel agents etc and decided (unlike other places I’ll be visiting from Athens) that I’m better off getting public transport to Delphi and guiding myself around. For this I knew I wanted to buy a really comprehensive book about the site that I could immerse myself in.
Admittedly I found this book by chance. Earlier I’d watched recent the BBC documentaries “Who Were the Greeks?” and “Ancient Greece The Greatest Show on Earth” by Dr Scott and I’d mercifully kept them on my TiVo. The day after booking my flights I had a day off from work and rewatched every episode, hyping myself up for trekking up the Acropolis and putting on a one-woman show of Lysistrata in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. I follow Dr Scott on Twitter and he’d been kind enough to answer a few questions during his live tweeting of the programmes. I remembered a documentary of his that was specifically about Delphi so I did a quick search to see if some kind soul had put it on YouTube ( and thankfully they have...) I idly wondered if there had been a companion book released as sometimes happens with the BBC. A quick Google later and I discovered that Dr Scott had literally launched his book about Delphi a few days before I came up with the idea of running away to Greece for a week. It was so obviously fate that I immediately put my Amazon order in.
I already own one of Michael Scott’s books (the excellent “From Democrats to Kings: The Downfall of Athens to the Epic Rise of Alexander the Great“) and I’ve been happily rereading it as part of Trip Prep so I had high hopes for “Delphi.” Firstly, the book is gorgeous. It is thick and heavy and has pages that you just know will smell divine after they’ve aged a bit. Book porn aside, I was happy to see that it’s a sizeable volume. It’s so gorgeous I even stopped lamenting that the paperback edition isn’t out yet which I would have been able to take with me without EasyJet forcing me to take out a bank loan.
I’m doing this whole trip on a tight budget (I’m definitely a tour guide for the love and not the money) so I could only really afford one book on Delphi for Trip Prep. I’m also seeing Corinth, Mycenae, Epidavros, Nemea, Rhamnous, Marathon and Cape Sounion on the trip and I need books for at least some of those sites also (not forgetting Athens herself,) so I wanted a single comprehensive book for Delphi. I don’t think there can be much about Delphi’s history that Dr Scott has missed out on in this book. I needn’t have worried that only one book on the subject wouldn’t be enough to give me enough information for my visit. I wanted the definitive book and as far as I’m concerned I picked the right one.
As Scott says in the introduction to his Delphi documentary, by the mid C4thBC Delphi had “the wealth of the Swiss banks, the religious power of the Vatican, the advertising potential of the World Cup and the historical importance of all the world’s museums combined.” On the other hand, it started off as a tiny town perched halfway up a mountain. So how did Delphi become the centre of the ancient world? And what happened to this pagan sacred spot when Christianity took over Europe?
The book is divided into thirds. In his introduction Scott explains that the history of Delphi can be divided into three phases. Each section of the book covers a phase and as a rather charming touch Scott quotes Shakespeare with their subtitles: “Some Are Born Great”, “Some Achieve Greatness” and “Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them.” In this way Scott manages to cover the entire history of Delphi from its beginnings in the late eighth century BC to the present day. The inclusion of the late 19th century excavations of the site and its rebirth as a tourist magnet was a pleasant surprise. I particularly liked the description of what was happening at Delphi during the World Wars and the Greek civil war of 1952. I had not even considered what modern war would mean to the archaeologists trying to work there and the steps they would be forced to take to protect their precious finds. It turns out to be a fascinating period in the history of the sanctuary that includes a bloody battle right in the heart of the site between Nazi troops and Greek partisans. I haven’t been as grateful for such a comprehensive site history since Mary Beard wrote her history of the Parthenon. What happens to ancient sites once they’ve fallen into decline is so often missed out of popular histories. It’s lamentable but hopefully Beard and Scott will set a new fashion.
That said, naturally the majority of the book quite rightly focuses on what was happening at Delphi during her heyday. Scott packs the anecdotes in tightly with countless stories of famous characters from ancient history and their consultations with the ambiguous oracle. As a classics nerd I’d always known that Delphi was an incredibly important place but wouldn’t really have been able to explain how or why. Scott does a great job of explaining how Delphi was instrumental in shaping the ancient world as well as how it was inevitably changed as well by everyone who became involved with it. What a lot of people fail to realise is that Delphi was but one of dozens of religious sanctuaries in the ancient world and even the fact that it offered consultations with an oracle isn’t unique. Those other oracles have fallen into obscurity with the passing of centuries whilst Delphi still grabs the imagination of millions of people in the 21st century. How Delphi managed to rise above the competition and reign supreme is a fantastic story that Scott tells engagingly.
I’m always a little worried that books of this kind will be a quagmire of academic jargon and the assumption that every reader is an Oxbridge post grad. Whilst the book does cover several incredibly complex centuries of history Scott mercifully manages to make this fairly easy to read for the common or garden classics nerd. It does require you to pay attention. It will help any reader to know their Alcmaeonids from their Amphictyonies in advance but Scott usually manages to make his point without patronising the casual reader or (I imagine) alienating his academic peers. Just as I would not have wanted a book too clever for its own good, had this been a book that be idly digested with no effort I wouldn’t have bought it. You can’t rest on your laurels reading “Delphi” but if you stay on your toes it is so rewarding. Moreover I found the points and arguments presented to be balanced and backed up by a hell of a lot of knowledge. This guy knows Delphi like the back of his hand and it’s so delightfully clear that he loves the place dearly.
Next month I sadly won’t have Michael Scott as my personal tour guide for the day. By reading the book before I go I have the next best thing. He has even been thoughtful enough to include a chapter at the back full of tips for anyone visiting the site and museum. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient Greece. The fact that the book is a marathon rather than a sprint is only in its favour. Dr Scott is fast becoming one of those academics who is intent on sharing his knowledge and passion with as wide an audience as possible. So far he’s doing a grand job and is to be commended for it. “Delphi” is comprehensive and satisfying. I’m now even more impatient to actually finally get there to see it for myself and learn even more about this incredible place! Mission accomplished, Dr Scott!