home Historical, Religious Delos: The Prominent Pilgrimage Center of Ancient Greece

Delos: The Prominent Pilgrimage Center of Ancient Greece

A significant amount of practical infrastructure became necessary on Delos to accommodate the needs of visitors, especially during religious festivals such as the Greater (every four years) and Lesser (annual) Delia. The hymn to Apollo further avows “…In Delos…the long-robed Ionians gather in your honor with their children and shy wives: with boxing and dancing and song, mindful, they delight you so often as they hold their gathering…” Among Delos’ maze-like ruins, the architectural remains of several palaestrae (primarily for wrestling, boxing), as well as those of the gymnasium (running, other athletics), the stadium and the theater (collectively 3rd or 2nd c. BC) all stand witness to these past activities. Of similar date is the Hypostyle Hall (208 BC), northwest of the sanctuary, which may have served as an enormous dining hall. A forest of forty-four columns supported its roof. Near the theater, a gigantic, roofed cistern with six internal arches was installed to collect precious rainwater.

The Delians’ initial prosperity stemmed mainly from cult-related riches, most clearly discernable in the votive offerings brought in by affluent pilgrims. On religious gatherings, the hymn to Pollo continues: if one: “should…come upon the Ionians so met together,…{he} would be pleased in heart gazing at the men and well-girded women with their swift ships and great wealth.” In addition to the impressive Naxian lions and their colossal Apollo, many other statues with inscribed bases as well as other impressive votive objects filled the sanctuary and lined the route approaching its monumental gateway, or propylon. Polykrates, the tyrant of Samos, went so far as to dedicate the entire island of Rhenea to Apollo (ca. 530 BC), then demonstrated the adjacent islands’ inseparable bond by connecting them with a massive iron chain.

Many objects from Delos have been discovered on nearby Rhenea, due to ritual cleansings of the Apollo sanctuary – during which the contents of prehistoric graves, diascarded votive offerings and other materials were swept up and buried in sacred pits across the channel. The Athenian tyrant Peisistratus conducted the first such purification about 540 BC. After the Persian Wars, Athens took control of Delos (478 BC), making it the headquarters of the Delian League, but never revealed its true exploitative intentions in 454 BC when Pericles removed the League’s treasury and installed it on the Athenian Acropolis. In 426 BC, Athens again purified Delos and henceforth banned all births and deaths on the island. Athenian hegemony in the Aegean waned in the fourth century BC, as Macedonian power waxed. By the mid-third century BC, Delos had come to enjoy a level of independence under the benevolent eye of the Hellenistic kings. It was during this period that the approach to the sanctuary was enclosed with two colonnades: the South Stoa, built by King Attalos I of Pergamon (post 250 BC), and the Stoa of Philip V of Macedonia (ca. 210 BC).

With the rise of Roman power in the region, however, Delos abruptly lost its sovereignty in 167 BC, after backing Rome’s opponent, King Perseus of Macedon, and allowing a pirate commander to use Delian port facilities to lunch attacks on Roman shipping. Rome declared Delos a free port, open to all merchants for trade without taxation, setting the stage for the island to reach new heights of affluence. It’s new status as the Aegean’s leading emporium for the trans-shipment of goods was confirmed when the Romans destroyed Corinth in 146 BC. Newly rich Roman elites sought a vast range of products from the East, many of which passed through Delos, including not only slaves and grain, but also perfumes, unguents, bronze and marble statuary, metal wares, culinary specialties, ornate textiles and fabrics, and other luxury items.


At the peak of its success, Roman Delos was a sight to behold. In the sanctuary itself stood three temples and other shrines of Apollo; five treasury buildings to safeguard offerings; the unparalleled Monument of the Bulls that housed a votive trireme; the lengthy stoa of Antigonos; the Ekklesiasterion for the people’s assembly; and the Artemision, or temple of Artemis, framed by another L-shaped stoa. Outside the main precinct, there were also shrines dedicated to Leto, Hera, Zeus, Athena, Herakles and Asclepius as well as to the twelve Olympian Gods collectively. Foreign deities similarly had temples, including those of the Syrian gods and of the Egyptian Serapis and Isis – the latter’s elegant façade now partly reconstructed and visible from many vantage points.

Colonnaded stoas, warehouses and marketplaces were a common sight in the port and sanctuary area, where the Roman geographer Strabo (early 1st c. AD) reports that the number of slaves traded every day was as high as 10,000. Delo’s multiethnic population of merchants tended to cluster separately in their own club-like market halls and cultural/commercial centers as attested by the Agora of the Delians (4th cent. BC, early 2nd cent. BC); the Koinon of the Poseidoniasts of Berytos, merchants and ship owners from Beirut (ca. 110 BC); and the Agora of the Italians (ca. 110 BC).

Perhaps most evocative of Delian life in late Hellinistic and early Roman times, however, are the many charming villas and other private houses that offer a sense of the individuals who once resided there, and of their diverse tastes and habits. The Delians’ multilingualism and international character were as worthy of note in the antiquity as they are today: “The girls of Delos, hand-maidens of the Far-shooter…sing…of men and women of past days…They can imitate the tongues of all me and the clattering speech: each would say that he himself were singing, so close to truth is their sweet song” (HH3).

Sadly, this newfound prosperity lasted only a century, as the island once again picked the wrong side (this time Rome) in the Mithridatic Wars between Rome and Pontus. Beginning with the massacre, in 88 BC, of 20,000 Delians by the forces of Mithridates, the island was subjected to two decades of repeated assaults. After a final destructive attack by Cilician pirates in 69 BC, Delos went into decline. By the second century AD, the Greek traveler Pausanias describes the island as virtually abandoned: “…Delos, once the common market of Greece, has no Delian inhabitant, but only the men sent by the Athenians to guard the sanctuary.” He could have been describing the Delos of today – its only permanent residents are the archaeologists, conservators and guards who watch over this invaluable cultural treasure, preserving for the lucky, awe-struck visitors.

Source: John Leonard, “The Abode of the Gods”, Greece is Mykonos, Summer 2016 Issue