By: Marc Montes
Delos is a Greek island in the Cyclades archipelago which was both an influential political force and, with its sanctuary to the god Apollo, an important religious centre in the Archaic and Classical periods. The island was also a major commercial and trading centre in the 2nd and 1st centuries CE.
The island of Delos was first inhabitated in the early Bronze Age and many Mycenaean tombs have been found dating as early as the late Bronze Age. During the 6th century, the island began to take on a religous significance in the wider Greek world when Athens, under Pisistratus, took a greater interest in the island. Pisistratus attempted to purify the island by removing and prohibiting burials on the island from c. 540 BCE.
The city further increased its importance when it was chosen to be the meeting place and treasury for the Delian League in 478 BCE. In 454 BCE the treasury was moved to Athens and the Athenians also took over administration of the site. Administration changed hands when Antigonus established the League of Islanders in 314 BCE, which included Delos.
After the Chremonidean War (266-229 BCE), Delos became an independent polis (greek city-state) for the next 150 years until it came to end in 166 BCE when the Romans gave control of Delos back to Athens. When this occurred, the polis also became a free trade port which brought another period of growth. The island became an important centre for the slave trade while its population doubled in size and ethnic diversity.
Delos in Mythology
Delos is a small island without any particular
advantages for habitation due to its barrenness and lack of water. In Greek mythology, this is main reason why Leto, fleeing from the wrath of Hera, was able to find sanctuary here in order to give birth to Artemis and Apollo. In some adaptations of the myth, Zeus (Leto’s lover) called on his brother Poseidon to create the island with a thrust
of his trident, hence the name Delos, which signifies ‘appearance’ or ‘apparent’ in ancient Greek. The ancient Greeks also considered the island the centre of the Cycladic group and as the last resting place of the Hyperboreans – a legendary northern race of Apollo-worshippers.
Importance and Influence on Ancient Greece
The island of Delos, near the centre of the Cyclades archipelago, is one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological site in Greece. The excavations in the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean. For a whole millennium, Delos had a position as a holy sanctuary before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Established as a culture center, Delos had an importance that its natural resources could never have offered.
Delos was also one of the most sacred places of Ancient Greece, and one of the most robust trade centers as well. The island undoubtedly owed its success to its superb location at the very center of the Aegean, allowing seafarers to meet it in the middle of their journey as they sailed from the major commercial centers of the Aegean–Athens, Aegean, Corinth, Macedonia, Hassocks, Samoa, Milepost, Rhodes, and Crete to name a few. Its claim as the birthplace of Apollo gave Delos a strong religious identity that lasted all the way until Byzantine times. In an era when religious festivals were economic engines, attracting thousands of pilgrims and generating healthy economic growth, Delos stood strong at the center of the wealthiest commercial centers and benefited greatly. Its importance also made it coveted by the most powerful maritime powers that strove for control of its harbors and sanctuary.
This island contained beautiful statues dedicated to Apollo, Leto, Artemis, Hera, Zeus, Athena, Hercules, and Asclepius. One of the most significant one was the “Dodekatheon”, which was a temple dedicated to the twelve Olympian gods. A few key events that occurred on Delos was a festival in honor of Apollo, which was held every year on the island. The “Delia” was held every five years and attracted visitors from across the Aegean due to the accompanying athletic games, musical and dancing contests. These events united the entire Aegean and sometimes brought peace during times of war.
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