Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

Herodotus and the invention of history
Herodotus and the invention of history

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.1 The oracle at Delphi

After describing the transfer of power from Candaules to Gyges, Herodotus turns to an oracle to underline the importance of this opening episode for thinking about Croesus. This is the oracle at Delphi, which once prophesied, according to Herodotus, that ‘vengeance would come to the Heraklidai [the sons of Heracles and ancestors of Candaules] in the fifth generation after Gyges. Yet, as Herodotus adds, ‘This utterance the Lydians and their kings took no notice of (poieōlogon oudena), until it was fulfilled’ (1.13.2). In his sideways manner, Herodotus sets up Croesus’ downfall from the start: it is because his ancestor, Gyges, was a usurper to the throne of Lydia that he, Croesus, will in turn be overthrown.

It is significant that Herodotus uses an oracle to make the connection. Oracles were a kind of intelligence community for the ancient world that provided assistance in making plans for the future. Typically, they are associated with Apollo who, among other things, was considered the god of prophecy. One such oracle was this one at Delphi, where the chief priestess of Apollo (who was sometimes known as the Pythia) would answer questions about the future, as if the god himself could speak through her. References to, and representations of, people consulting the oracle at Delphi occur consistently through the Histories. Why that should be so, and how these oracles function within the Histories, you are going to explore by accompanying Croesus on his consultations at Delphi.

Two figures are presented in profile, bordered by a Greek keys pattern that creates a circular outside frame. One figure, a bearded male, naked to the waist, stands facing to the left (as the viewer sees it), wearing a full-length robe, sandals, and a laurel-leaf crown on his head. His arms hang by his side, in a waiting pose. A second figure sits opposite him on a high stool, wearing a robe that entirely covers her body. Her partially veiled head is bent forward, as she studies a bowl that she has in her left hand. In her right hand she holds a laurel branch. Her feet are naked.
Figure 22 The mythical king of Athens, Aigeus, receiving an oracle from the Pythia at Delphi. Attic red-figure kylix (a cup for drinking wine), ascribed to the ‘Kodros Painter’, 440–430 BCE, found in Vulci (Italy). Altes Museum, Berlin, ID: F 2538.