Murat Can Bilgincan reporting

Bribing the Oracle

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The Greek Definition for Bribing the Delphic Oracle In ancient Greece, the Delphic oracle was so powerful that anybody who gained the support of the Temple at Delphi could gain prominence in the Greek world. The most practical way of gaining this invaluable support was to intimidate Delphi through generous gifts. Even though bribery is blatantly addressed in Herodotus’s the Histories, it is not so simple to make a distinction between bribery and the act of giving Delphi certain gifts. What difference does it make for the enquirer to give the gifts to the Temple at Delphi or to the individual priest? How could the act of bribery have taken place? What could have been the contribution of certain influential Delphians and the families of the priests to the act of bribery? This essay attempts to address these questions by analyzing three examples of exchanges between certain prominent Greeks and Delphians. However, we should start off by explaining the procedure of consultation at the Temple at Delphi, in order to understand the mechanism through which bribery could have taken place.

The Temple at Delphi was the house of Apollo and numerous people, from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds came to Delphi to consult the oracle. There were two separate titles at the Temple: the priest and the Pythia. The priest was the clergyman in charge of logistical aspects of the procedure of consultation, while the Pythia was the mouthpiece of Apollo. Even though the Pythia was initially a young virgin, after the virgin was seduced by an enquirer, the Pythia became an ordinary woman above the age of fifty. (Parke, 35) Before initiating the consultation, the priest would sacrifice a goat to Apollo and wait for the goat to tremble throughout its limbs. (Parke, 31) This trembling was the proper omen necessary for the consultation to begin. If the dead goat did not tremble, the priest could not allow any visitors inside the temple for that day. After getting the proper omen, the Pythia would be admitted to the sanctuary and the enquirer would be asked to cleanse himself with holy water. In order to consult the oracle, the enquirer “was required to offer on the main alter outside a sacred cake.” (Parke, 32) This was the mandatory fee to consult the oracle. In addition, the enquirer had to sacrifice a sheep or a goat on the inner hearth. After the sacrifice, “the enquirer was admitted to the inner sanctuary reserved for the consultation.” (Parke, 33) The enquirer would direct a question at the Pythia and the Pythia, who would be in trance, would answer the question in a varying “degree of coherence and intelligibility.” (Parke, 33) Then, the priest would interpret the Pythia’s utterance for the enquirer. Most commonly, the interpretation would be written down by the enquirer’s envoys.

There are two very important pieces of information in the description above. The first one is that the priest is the one who interprets the Pythia’s utterance. No matter what the Pythia utters, the priest’s interpretation is the valid oracle. This takes us to the logical conclusion that it was sufficient for the enquirer to gain the individual priest’s support in order to receive a favorable oracle. Secondly, all enquirers had to pay a considerable amount of fee in order to be accepted into the temple. This fee could be supported with generous gifts. Moreover, sacrifices were required to start the consultation. Then, what is the difference between a gift and a bribe? Why were not the enquirers who gave away generous gifts, before their entrance into the temple, not always considered to be bribing the oracle? Assuming that there was not a meticulous accountant at the temple, all of the money and the gifts that were given to the Temple actually belonged to the priests. As a result, it would be rational for them to favor the visitors who offer them the largest amount. Another method to gain the priest’s support might have been to use influential Delphians or the families of the priests. An influential Delphian could be bribed with money or by doing them a political favor. An alternative method of intimidating the Delphic priest would be to do certain favors to the priests’ relatives. The priest would later be compelled to return these favors in the form of a long-waited oracle. Let us analyze the methods of bribery employed by the Alcmaeonidae in order to distinguish the Greek method and definition for bribery.

On page 311 of the Histories, Herodotus writes that the Spartans discovered that “the Alcmaeonidae had corrupted the priestess at Delphi and what she had done against Sparta and the Pisistratidae.” Heredotus does not explain how the Spartans discovered this act of “corruption”. It may have happened through the word of mouth or the information may have arrived via a spy. Assuming that the information somehow brought to the Spartans was correct, what is corruption? On page 301, Herodotus describes how the Alcmaeonidae gained Spartan support to drive out the Pisistratidae. The Alcmaenodiae has been exiled by the Pisistratidae. In an attempt to return to Athens, they made a contract with the Amphictyonic Council, a religious alliance that incorporated Delphi. According to their contract, the wealthy Alcmaeonidae family would build the temple at Delphi, which had been destroyed during an earthquake. (Herodotus, 301) The temple was built with “Parian marble” and the Council was very pleased. According to Herodotus, Athenians said that Alcmaenodia family bribed the Priestess during their time in Delphi. (Herodotus, 301) In return for this bribe, the Delphic oracle would tell all the Spartan enquirers who came to visit the temple, “that it was their duty to liberate Athens” by driving out the Pisistratidae. However, the method of bribing is not specified. Perhaps the Athenians considered the Alcmaenodiae’s building the temple bribing. If this is the case, how is this different from giving Delphi a large amount of gifts?

Take Croesus for instance. Believing that “the oracle at Delphi was the only original one in the world”, Croesus was extremely generous in sending gifts to Delphi. (Herodotus, 19) In addition to a statue mostly made of gold, he sent “two huge mixing-bowls” (one of gold, the other of silver), “four silver casks”, “a figure of a woman, in gold, four and a half feet high” and many other gifts. (Herodotus, 20) As Croesus’s Lydian servants brought the gifts to Delphi, they consulted the oracle whether the Lydians should take the campaign against the Persians. (Herodotus, 21) The fact that Croesus consulted the Delphic oracle immediately after the arrival of the gifts, indicated that the gifts were given for a reason, perhaps for a favorable oracle that would relieve Croesus of his worst fears. In the short run, the oracle’s reply did make Croesus feel content. He thought that the Persian Empire was “the great empire” that would be destroyed at the end of the war between the Persians and the Lydians. However, in actuality, the oracle had implied the great Lydian Empire. Despite all the generous gifts he had donated to the temple at Delphi, Croesus had been confused by the oracle and hence lost his power. What would have happened if the Delphic oracle had ordered certain powerful Greek states to dispatch help for Lydia, just as it did for the Alcmaeonidae, and thereby prevented the destruction of Lydia? I believe that such a partial response after receiving so many gifts from the Lydians would have been associated with bribery, just like it happened it the Alcmaeonidaen case. Therefore, the sequence of events is essential for a generous amount of gifts to be classified as bribes in the Histories. A large amount of gifts given to Delphi by an individual or a state, followed by a favorable historical event would most likely be called a bribe in the ancient Greek world, despite the fact that the information about the involvement of Delphi in that particular event may be a mere product of gossip. This is a subjective definition of bribery that depends on the political success of the individual, upon consulting Delphi.

An enquirer who complicates this definition of bribery is Gyges. In an attempt to take over the Lydian throne, Gyges murders King Candaules. (Herodotus, 7) After the king’s death, the Lydians were committed to fight Gyges and his followers. (Herodotus, 7) There was only one way to prevent this war: having the Delphic oracle declare that Gyges was to be the new king. Gyges went to Delphi to consult the oracle and the oracle “was in favor of Gyges”. Consequently, the Lydians accepted Gyges as their new king. “As soon as Gyges made himself supreme, sent a number of presents to the shrine at Delphi; indeed most of the silver there came from him.” (Herodotus, 7) It is highly probable that he had promised the Delphic priests these “presents” even before he received the oracle and once he became a wealthy king, he kept his promise. Interestingly, there is not a single sentence in the Histories that questions the identity of this exchange between Delphi and Gyges. Why is this not considered bribing? Perhaps the timing of the gifts is also an important factor that determines whether a certain gift is a bribe or not. It is highly probable that Herodotus and the Greeks who were aware of the exchange between Gyges and Delphi did not contemplate on the possibility that Gyges might have set a deal with the priests prior to his installment. Herodotus and the Greeks may have thought that giving generous gifts was Gyges’s method of thanking the temple for showing the Lydians the way Appolo. What would have happened if Gyges had the means to give his gifts to Delphi prior to his installment in office?

The Alcmaeonidae experience points in the direction that it would have been likely for Gyges’s gifts to be considered bribes and that Herodotus could have stressed Gyges’s corrupting the Delphic oracle in the Histories. The Alcmaeonidae example showed us that the sequence of generous gifts by the enquirer followed by the Delphic consultation finally leading to the enquirer’s political success could be defined as a procedure for bribery. This definition was supported by the example of Croesus. In this second example the flow was different. Although generous gifts by the enquirer were followed by the Delphic consultation, the Delphic consultation did not lead to the enquirer’s political success. On the contrary, it led to his political failure. However, our third example, the instance with Gyges, complicated the definition of bribery by demonstrating that the timing of gift giving is paramount. Similar to the Alcmaeonidae example, in the instance with Gyges, the Delphic consultation leads to Gyges’s political success. However, unlike the Alcmaeonidae, Gyges presents his generous gifts after achieving political success. As a result, Gyges’s exchange with the Delphic oracle was not identified as bribery in Herodotus’s account of the period. Therefore, the gifts have to be followed by the consultation and the consultation must lead to political success, and the timing of gift giving must remain constant. However, we must admit that this is a definition for one technique of intimidation that may have been used on Delphi. Other techniques may have included the enquiring party’s bribing the Delphic priests’ relatives and certain influential Delphians. Herodotus’s the Histories and Parke’s the Delphic Oracle do not provide accounts addressing the use of the latter two techniques. Further research is necessary to reveal the mechanisms through which these techniques of intimidation may have been used in ancient Greece.



Parke, H. W., D. E. W. Wormell. The Delphic Oracle. Vol. 1. Oxford: the Alden Press, 1956. 2 Vols.

Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Author: bilgincan

Murat Can Bilgincan is a Turkish journalist and filmmaker who has worked for CNN and on PBS' "Frontline." Bilgincan holds a bachelor's degree from Yale College and a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. He teaches an independent journalism seminar at Koc University in Istanbul.

One thought on “Bribing the Oracle

  1. You’re referencing is so bad. I’ve been trying to go through it to find the sources, but it’s horrible. You site Herodotus as a whole section in some parts, but then others have direct numbers. It is awful

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