Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)




Towards the end of the Iliad, Achilles finally gives the order to prepare the burial of Patroclus. The pyre is ready, the body is put on it, but then “Achilles thought of something else.” He steps aside, cuts his “blond hair that he had grown for the river Spercheius,” and “looking over the wine-dark sea,” he addresses Spercheius, the main river of his father’s realm, far away in Thessaly. Peleus vowed to offer his son’s hair to the river together with fifty sheep, should his son return from the foreign war. Now that Achilles knows that he will find his grave near Troy, he offers his hair instead to his dead friend. “Thus said, he put the hair into the hands of his dear friend, and all felt the urge for a lament.” The poet leaves it open who it is they are lamenting: the dead Patroclus – or Achilles whose gesture makes plain his imminent fate (Il. 23.138–157).

The ritual Achilles speaks about is strangely ambiguous, to Homer’s audience no less than to us. In a first understanding, he seems to talk about a customary vow Greeks and Romans alike used to make when departing into danger: they promised a sacrifice and a gift, if the god would provide a safe return. The river, the powerful local god who was sometimes the ancestor of a royal dynasty, seems an appropriate protector of the king and his heir; and hair offerings were often associated with the rescue from the dangers of a sea voyage. When Ptolemy III returned from a dangerous campaign in Asia, his young wife Berenice offered a lock of her hair to the gods; when it vanished from the sanctuary, the court astronomer was quick to find it in a hitherto unnamed constellation, still known to today’s astronomers as the Lock of Berenice. There is, however, a second layer of meaning, elucidated by the learned archbishop of Thessalonica, Eustathius (ca. 1115–1195 CE), in his somewhat rambling commentary on the scene:

In antiquity, the young men had the custom to let their hair grow until adulthood, then to cut it for the local rivers…. They regarded the rivers as nourishers of the young (kourotróphoi ) because of their humidity, as they did with Apollo the sun because of his warmth.

Achilles was a young man in transition between adolescence and social maturity; his return from war would have marked his adulthood.

Already Hesiod, in his genealogy of Oceanus in the Theogony, connects Apollo with this rite: his daughters “all over the earth make men out of adolescents, together with Lord Apollo and the rivers” (v. 346f.). Hesiod uses a rare word for what I translated with “make out of adolescents,” kourízein. The underlying noun, koûros, is one of the terms for “adolescent,” and it belongs to the root ker-, “to shear, to cut (hair).” Hair-cutting, that is, defined adolescents. The custom of cutting one’s hair at the moment of social maturity lasted through most of pagan antiquity and was an ritual act of prime social importance. The “ostentatious man,” in Theophrastus’ collection of character sketches, takes his son to Delphi for the ritual hair cut: the hair would stay in the sanctuary, displayed for all of Greece to see (Characters 21). He follows a prestigious example: already Theseus, the role model for all young Athenians, is said to have offered his hair to Apollo in Delphi; or he did so on Delus when sailing home from Crete with his lover Ariadne, before becoming the new king of Athens.

The divine recipients of this dedication varied from place to place. The local rivers and the nymphs, sometimes called koûrai, “girls,” often appear in our sources. In the epoch of the Roman emperors, even Asclepius, Apollo’s son, would receive such a hair offering. One emperor did so in a variation of Theophrastus’ ostentatious man: when Domitian’s favorite boy Earinus came of age, the ritual, performed in the world-famous sanctuary of Asclepius at Pergamum, was duly celebrated by the court poets, Statius (Silvae 3.4) and Martial (Epigram 9.16).

But all over Greece, Apollo was as central to the rite as the nymphs and rivers. Apollo’s image mirrors the appearance of Greek adolescents. He is always shown with long and untrimmed hair, and a common epithet from Homer onwards is “He of the Uncut Hair,” akersekóms. Like Achilles or Theseus, Apollo is a koûros or ephebe. And since the favorite ephebe’s pastime in Greece was athletics, exercised in the nude, Apollo’s favorite statuary dedication in Archaic Greece was the nude, long-haired young male, what the archeologists aptly call a kouros. The archaeological debate on whether this image represents the god or a young man – as it certainly does when a kouros marks the grave of a youth – seems somewhat pointless in this context. But Apollo was not just any ephebe: he was the most beautiful ephebe, the very ideal of male attractiveness in Greek society. And in a society such as the society of Classical Athens where beauty was male and eroticism was articulated in homoerotic terms, adolescent Apollo turned into the bench-mark for all aesthetic perfection. Athens’ cultural achievements meant that this view was transported through the ages, to Rome and beyond. In eighteenth-century Europe, J.J. Winckelmann, the founder of classical art history, again fell under the spell of Apollo’s adolescent beauty (see chapter 7).

It is not just his long hair that marks out Apollo as an ephebe. Like the ephebes, he is a singer and dancer, and sometimes he is not “Leader of the Muses”  but “Leader of the Nymphs” (or “Brides,”  ). We remember that in Archaic Greece the song-dance of young men and maidens was the main occasion for courtship and matchmaking (chapter 2). And like ephebes, Apollo did not fight with the sword, the citizen’s weapon; he fought with bow and arrow. In combat, the young archers fired from behind the front lines. Only the adult citizen fought in the front; they had to be strong enough to carry heavy armor and wield a sword.


Unlike other gods, Apollo is a rather unlucky lover. Just one of Apollo’s love stories is entirely satisfactory, the story of Cyrene, probably his first conquest. Cyrene was a nymph, and no ordinary girl. Instead of staying home and making wool, she guarded her father’s flocks in the mountains of Thessaly. When he saw her valiantly wrestle down a mighty lion, young Apollo fell in love with her. He made a queen out of a wild maiden: the couple moved to Libya, where Cyrene founded the town that was named after her and became its first ruler. Their son was Aristaeus; his father turned him into a god, protector of cattle and bees. The story, told at length by Pindar in his Ninth Pythian Ode commissioned by one Telesikles of Cyrene, resonates with ephebic themes. The world of the ephebes – the males “in the prime of youth, ” – was the mountains and the wilderness along the border of the city’s territory. Here, they served as border guards and advance reconnaissance corps; only marriage civilized them and brought them back into the city. In myth, however, marriage concerns Cyrene only; Apollo did never settle down. Nor did his son Aristaeus; he grew up in the wild as yet another pupil of the centaur Chiron, and his lust caused the death of Orpheus’ newly wed wife.

Apollo’s other love stories turned out much less happily. Daphne, the daughter of the river Peneius, tried to escape his impetuous wooing, but the god raced after her and, since he was so much faster, rape seemed inevitable, had not her father turned her into a laurel tree. This explains why the laurel is sacred to the god. Marpessa, daughter of another river god, was abducted by the mortal Idas; Apollo spotted her and tried to take her away from him. In the ensuing fight between the two rivals, Idas disarmed Apollo, and Zeus had to intervene to restore the hierachy between mortals and gods. With Zeus’s backing, Marpessa chose the mortal husband, a true marriage over a transient pleasure (if pleasure it would have been) – immortal Apollo would never have aged, as she, a mere mortal, inevitably did. He was somewhat more successful with Coronis, at least at first; but when pregnant with his son, Coronis took a mortal husband, and the cuckolded god killed them both and almost lost his unborn child. Ephebes might sire sons, but they do not marry.

Other stories of Apollo’s erotic entanglements have somewhat less unfortunate outcomes. But these are all much more concerned with the sons than with the mothers whose names change from source to source, whether she is the mother of the musician and poet Philammon, of the hero Linus, or the shadowy hero Delphus whose mother remains anonymous. These are not love stories, but genealogies that express some connection with Apollo. The same is true for Apollo’s seduction of Creusa, the daughter of the Athenian king Erechtheus, and their child Ion. As a love story, it is tragic: intercourse with a god always resulted in pregnancy, and Creusa, the unmarried mother, in desperation exposed her baby; Apollo saved it. The main thrust of the myth is genealogical and political: Apollo is the ancestor and protector god of the Ionians, Ion’s people. But between Apollo and Ion, there is an Athenian princess: among the Ionians, the Athenians are supreme, or at least claim to be so. But beyond such political claims, the story could also be read, as in Euripides’ Ion, as an example of how a powerful god could refuse to take responsibility for his actions. Then it becomes disquieting: what are we to make of a god who denies paternity of his own child? We can read the play as an inquest into the deficiencies of traditional gods, the theological defects of mythical narratives, or as an insight into the socially problematic nature of male adulthood.


Ancient gods were not just protecting individuals. Their power penetrated every aspect of life, the political life of a community no less than the private life of a family; personal religion, some scholars thought, was a late development. Thus, Apollo is not only a protector of young adolescents whom he helps to become adults; his worship is connected with many groups, not the least the group of citizen that made up an ancient city-state (polis).

Citizenship in a Greek polis concerned only a small number of people; at least in a large city such as Athens, or later Rome, free residents and unfree slaves must have outnumbered the citizens. The citizen body of any given city, furthermore, was organized in subdivisions and subgroups; in many Greek cities, there were, in descending order, tribes (phýlai), phratries, and clans (gén) and citizens were defined not only by citizenship in their city but also by membership in a subgroup, and by genealogy. In democratic Athens, the key group was the phratry: phratries were mainly concerned with questions of family, descent, and citizenship, and it remained necessary for every Athenian citizen born in Athens to Athenian parents to become a member of the phratry. The main phratry rituals concerned the introduction of the male children of their members into the group; the performance of these rituals was seen as the ultimate proof of belonging. The introduction took place in several steps, and each step was marked with a sacrifice performed together with all the phratry members: at birth, at age three, and at social maturity. This final sacrifice was called koúreion, since it was connected with the ritual cutting of the adolescent’s hair.

These sacrifices could be part of the annual festival of the Apaturia which was held in the month of Pyanopsion, in late autumn. The festival, whose name means “Festival of Common Fathers,” was shared by all Ionians, and defined what it meant to be an Ionian. At the beginning of the Iron Age Ionians had spread from Athens through the Aegean Islands to Asia Minor: since they all share the festival, it must precede this expansion and date back to the Bronze Age. In Athens, the third day of the festival was called Koureôtis, “Day of the koúreion”: this was the customary day for the introduction of the adolescent males into the phratry.

In Classical Athens, Apollo had no role to play in the Apaturia: its main sacrifices were offered to the divinities that represented the Athenian state, Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria. Apollo, however, was not far; after all, the month Pyanopsion was named after his festival that was set on its seventh day, the Pyanopsia or Pyanepsia, “Festival of the Vegetable Stew.” Legend has it that on his return voyage from Crete, Theseus made a vow to Apollo on Delus: if he and his twice seven companions returned safely home to Athens, they would make an offering in Apollo’s honor. They landed on Athenian soil on the seventh day of Pyanopsion, and to fulfill their vow they took whatever was left of their provisions, put it into one big pot, and cooked it into a stew that they then ate together. The myth of Theseus’ return from Crete was an image for the Athenian ephebes who turned into adult citizens, and this rite was both concerned with new citizenship and with the community of the citizen body. There are other familiar themes present as well. The unusual sacrifice of vegetables instead of an animal could be read as reflecting a time prior to the sacrifice of animals, and is certainly a marker of a marginal phase of transition, as is the theme of community. The transition is a double one, to the next festival day and, underlying it, from adolescence to adulthood; the next day was the main festival day of Theseus, king of Athens, with a large animal sacrifice and a meal where meat was now plentiful. At the same time, the festival was an occasion for carrying the  as was the Thargelia: this laurel branch that was adorned with wool, the first fruits of the season, and with small honey pots was a symbol of plenty; it makes as much sense in the context of citizenship and community as it did after the driving out of the scapegoat. In Greek thought, it is harmony among the citizens that guarantees the well-being and wealth of the city. Thus, the main Apolline festival of the month centered on themes that were ritually present again in the phratries’ koureotis day and that were very important for Apollo all over Greece.


At least one phratry in fourth-century Athens introduced the small boys at the Thargelia, not the Pyanopsia, with a sacrifice to Apollo Patroos, Ancestral Apollo (literally “He of the Fathers”) (Isaeus, Oration 7.53). Apollo Patroos had a sanctuary on the Athenian agora, not far from the seat of the Council, the State Archive in the Sanctuary of the Mother, and the Hall of Zeus Eleutherios, “Liberator”: the sanctuary and its god were central to the political life of the democratic city. The first temple of Apollo Patroos on the agora was built in the sixth century BCE. There are no earlier traces, perhaps for good reasons: to replace the many small clan sanctuaries with one central sanctuary of Apollo Patroos gave the democratic city better control over clan cults that could harbor aristocratic resistance against democracy.

The cult also makes a more far-reaching ideological claim. The epithet “Ancestral” had a double meaning. All over Greece, divinities that protected clans or similar associations were designated as ancestral, patrôos: the epithet referred to the divine protection of a common ancestry, not necessarily to a divine ancestor. Not so in Athens, however: here, Apollo was the father of Ion, the name-giving ancestor of the Ionians. Ion’s mother was the Athenian princess Creusa: Ion was an Athenian, and through him the Athenians claimed leadership among all the cities of Ionia. This myth has political resonances, and it cannot be older than Athens’ claim to leadership in the sixth century BCE. This fits the date the first temple of Apollo Patroos was built.


This does not exhaust the ways Athenian Apollo was connected with Theseus, his arrival in Athens, and the ephebes. A short distance outside the city walls, in the green valley of the river Ilissus, lay the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios. Although the epithet was perhaps connected with the root in the Greek word for brother, a-delphós, “having shared the same womb,” Greeks read it as “Dolphin-Apollo.” A story narrated by Pausanias focusses on the moment young Theseus arrived in Athens from Troizen where he was born and brought up, unknown to his father, the Athenian king Aegeus; in a drunken night, the visiting Aegeus had sired a son with the local princess Aethra. Aegeus never had intended to do so: Aethra’s father, desperate to have a grandson from the king of Athens, had slyly pushed his young daughter into his drunken guest’s bed. About sixteen years later, Theseus came to Athens, to seek out his father. He was wearing long hair, as epehebes did, and the long Ionian robe that befitted a prince of the past (the dress only survived with Apollo’s servants, the professional lyre players). When he passed the construction site of the Delphinion in his curls and frock, the workers teased the youth and called him a lovely maiden. Theseus, angry and eager to prove his manliness, unyoked two oxen that by chance were waiting at the yoke of a construction chariot; in one move, he hurled them over the yet unfinished roof of the sanctuary.

The story again leads to Athens’ ephebes. This time, it explains a specific ritual that they were performing during the one year they were serving the city, as Theseus had as Athens’ crown prince: they carried a bull on their shoulders to the altar, imitating Theseus’ mighty throw of two oxen; and like Theseus, they had untrimmed hair and were wearing a black cloak reminiscent of Theseus’ black sail when he sailed back from Crete. Myth, however, is never tidy: in the mythical chronology of events, Theseus’ arrival at the Delphinion preceded his departure for Crete.

Another Theseus story also belongs to this first arrival, and it too is connected with the Delphinion. When Theseus arrived from Troizen, his fame as a powerful hero was preceding him (whatever the oafs constructing Apollo’s temple might have heard or imagined). On his way, he had killed no less than six monsters and highwaymen who endangered the busy route that led from the Isthmus of Corinth to Athens. When he entered Athens, he cautiously disguised his identity; this almost led to disaster. His father, fearful of what he assumed was a dangerous stranger, was talked by Medea, his lover, into poisoning him. Medea had recognized Theseus but, devious as ever, feared for the future of sons she and the elderly king might still have; she wanted to make sure that she would become Queen Mother. Aegeus invited Theseus to a sacrifice in the Delphinion to celebrate the foreigner’s arrival, and, in a signal honor, he asked his guest to cut the meat. To perform this task, Theseus drew the sword he was carrying. The sword had its story: Aegeus had left it in Troizen after that fateful night, hidden under a huge boulder, with the instruction to Aethra that the sword should be Theseus’ as soon as he was strong enough to lift the rock. Aegeus immediately recognized the sword as his own, and with it his son. And he saw the imminent danger: Medea was about to offer to Theseus a poisoned welcome drink. In a quick movement, he knocked the cup out of Medea’s hand. The spilled wine stained the floor; centuries later, the Athenians still showed the red mark to tourists. Aegeus then formally recognized his son as his future heir. This story, told by Plutarch (Life of Theseus 12), perhaps following a lost play of Euripides, is yet another etiological myth: the Delphinion, Apollo’s sanctuary, was the place of a law court that decided on questions of paternity and citizenship.


Apollo Delphinios does not belong to Athens only, nor is his cult in Athens as important as in some other Greek cities, such as Miletus and some of its colonies. Although his Milesian sanctuary was very simple – an open court with a central altar – the political importance of its cult cannot be overrated; this is visible already in the fact that the sanctuary doubled as public archive of Miletus. It was the cult center for a small religious body, the six Molpoi, “singer-dancers.” Their leader was also the political head of the city, at least in archaic and classical times, called the  “ruler.” An inscription from about 475 BCE regulates their ritual duties. Most of their sacrifices were addressed to Apollo Delphinios, and they usually accompanied them by drinking and the performance of a paean, with its combination of song and dance. Their main ritual, however, was a day-long procession from Miletus to Didyma, with many sacrifices and paeans along the Sacred Way: it is a ritual assertion that the Didymaean sanctuary and the vast territory between Miletus and Didyma belonged to Miletus. We know much less about Apollo Delphinios at Olbia, Miletus’ important colony on the Crimea. The god is attested there since the Archaic Age; his sanctuary was the center for Molpoi as well, and formed part of the agora, the commercial and civic center of the colony. It is thus a reasonable assumption that the religious and political function of the Olbian Molpoi was very similar to the one the god had in their metropolis.

Molpoi are known only from Miletus and Olbia; but they have a close parallel in Ephesus, another Ionian city, some forty miles north along the coast from Miletus. Here, inscriptions attest to an association of Kourtes, a group of six leading citizens, and their assistants, mainly musicians. At the time of the inscriptions (first to third centuries CE), this group of ritual performers was associated with the prytaneion, the City Hall, its cult of Hestia on the city’s common hearth on which an eternal fire was burning, and with the worship of the Roman emperors; in these cults, they performed sacrifices and sang hymns. However, the association is older than the Imperial age. A fourth-century BCE text connects them with the main sanctuary of the city, the Artemision, and a local myth, attested in Strabo (14.1.20), tells how their mythical ancestors danced around baby Artemis to protect her from the wrath of Hera, as the Cretan Curetes had danced around the Zeus baby to protect him against Cronus. In memory of this rite, the Ephesian Curetes were holding a banquet and performed a dance in a small sanctuary outside the town where Leto gave birth to her daughter. To a modern mind, it seems somewhat strange to imagine the stately and perhaps somewhat portly gentlemen of Ephesus’s upper class performing an armed dance; but music and dance must have been part of their performance. Their name links them not only with the mythical dancers of ancient Crete, but also with the koûroi, the long-haired adolescents of Archaic Greece, although at the time we meet them, they certainly had outgrown adolescence, as had the six Molpoi, the similarly upper-class “singer-dancers” at Miletus.

The two bodies that we find in two neighbouring Ionian cities, at a distance of four centuries, are close enough to allow us to understand changes and transformations of a body that originally must have had very similar functions and roles. At the heart of these archaic cities, there was a small group of men who combined ritual performance in the city’s main cults with strong political power; these singers-dancers were running the city as an aristocratic group, and they managed to preserve much of their power in more democratic times. But the modernization of society that accompanied democratization slowly led to a separation of religious and political power; in the Imperial epoch, their ritual role had become predominant, although there remained vestiges of political influence and power.


The archaic instiution of the Molpoi has a resonance that one has to explore further. Ordinarily, the complex of musical and dance performance, one of the main provinces of Apollo, is not associated with the leading citizen of a city, but rather with adolescents on the verge of adulthood. The link is old: already in Iliad 1, the paean that appeases Apollo is performed by the koúroi Akhaín, the young men who form the Greek army. The Milesian and the Ephesian groups are phenomenologically too close not to excite curiosity about just how they are related to each other, beyond the transformations just sketched.

The model past scholars used to explain this connection was developed in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ethnology and anthropology. Interest in the social structures of tribal cultures led to work on secret societies, tightly knit groups of men whose coherence was guaranteed by secret rituals and who wielded considerable political power. In other societies, including those of early modern Europe, adolescent males were found to form comparable bands with a more or less closed structure; members of such groups would wear masks and disguise themselves as, or at least call themselves after fearsome predators such as leopards in Africa or wolves in Europe. German scholars who were among the first to pursue the topic, called them Männerbünde, a term that has become somewhat invidious after its adoption by Nazi ideologists; but ideological misuse of a concept does not necessarily prove the concept wrong. In a more hypothetical evolutionary theory, these secret societies were understood as having developed out of tribal initiation rites. Such rites concern either gender and are intended to turn adolescents into adult members of society, equipped with all the ritual and social knowledge that the tribe’s tradition provides and that tribal leaders regard as essential for the tribe’s self-definition. More often in the case of young men than of young women, adolescents were organized in age groups that underwent the rituals together, secluded from the village in a place in the forest or on a remote island where they were introduced into the ritual traditions as well as into the activities of hunting, fishing, and warfare; the return to the village was celebrated by an impressive performance of dancing and singing that displayed bodily abilities and showed readiness for marriage and procreation.

If one locates the Milesian Molpoi and the Ephesian Curetes on such an ethnographic background, one is tempted to see them as phenomenologically related to male secret societies, the German scholars’ “Männerbünde.” Like these, the Greek associations were small groups of adult males; their identity and coherence resulted from common rituals, and they wielded power in their cities. But they lacked one essential characteristic, secrecy: the Molpoi and the Curetes were highly visible in their cities, and no ancient text talks about mysteries or other secret rites in connection with them. There was another group in late Archaic Greece that would come much closer to the phenomenology of secret societies: the Pythagoreans who were organized as a ritual society, had their secrets, and ruled for a while the city of Croton. And it is worth noting that Apollo is connected with the Pythagoreans as well: Pythagoras, the leader of the group, was seen as a human form of Hyperborean Apollo.

Thus, comparativism goes only so far. If we confine our perspective to the Greek world, both Molpoi and Curetes are rooted in the song-dance culture of Archaic Greece and the central role it played in society. In two cities, for reasons unknown to us, these ritual and performative forms associated with Apollo and the young men were transformed into a much more selective institution of aristocratic governance. The Milesian group retained its connection with Apollo, the Ephesian one was tied to his sister – Ephesus, after all, was Artemis’ city; there is a possibility that in other cities, such as Pergamon or Halicarnassus, similar groups were connected with Zeus.


Milesians preserved another venerable institution that points to archaic social structures. According to Herodotus, they were dining among themselves, without their wives; he explains it as a memory of the fact that the celibate colonizers married native women. This is local mythology: Miletus was settled about a millennium before the time of Herodotus, and it is unlikely that historical memory stretched so far.

More importantly, the Milesians shared this radical gender segregation with two other Greek regional cultures, Crete and Sparta. Sparta prided itself on the institution of the pheiditia, the common meals of all its adult warrior citizens. Later philosophers understood it as a moralizing reform by Lycurgus, the Spartan law-giver, to prevent the Spartans from succumbing to luxury dining. The same custom was preserved in Crete: in their cities, “the adult men dine together in what they call the men’s houses (andreîa) so that the poor would eat the same portions as the rich, since all are fed at public expense” (Ephorus F 149). No wonder that Cretan authors believed that Lycurgus had also come to their island to introduce his way of life. Single cities usually had several men’s houses, presumably according to the subdivisions of the population, and they served not only as dining halls but also as a place for political decision-making: during their meals, the assembled men discussed politics, both day-to-day matters and larger issues, in a set agenda.

In both cultures, this institution goes together with a strict stratification of male society according to age, with elaborate rites of passage between the stages. The Spartan educational system was very complex, embraced all free-born Spartan boys, lasted over many years, and trained the boys in order to turn them into members of the most successful army in Greece before Alexander. The Cretan system was looser and contained three stages: pre-agela age (boyhood), age of the agela (“herd”: adolescence), and adulthood. All age classes were closely connected with the men’s house. Young Cretan boys were present in the men’s house as servers; only after this service would they become members of the “herds.” Each house had an adult official who was responsible for the training of the adolescents. He trained them in archery and in the armed dances “which the Curetes had introduced,” and in combat techniques: “On stated days, the herds attack each other and fight to the rhythm of flutes and lyres.”

When Strabo wrote that the Curetes had introduced armed dancing, he was alluding to the well-known myth of the armed dancers who protected newly born Zeus; singing and hitting their shields with their swords, they drowned the baby’s wailing that could have given him away to his evil father Cronus. Behind this myth and the armed dances it explains already native observers noticed the same background of a society whose main educational instrument was the dance of the adolescents, and where adult men, organized as a close community, ruled the city-state. Crete was the one region where these customs survived best. In Sparta, they were turned into an instrument of a militarist state with an almost professional citizen army. In Ionia finally – in Miletus and in Ephesus – some elements survived in new forms that had close connections both with the administration and with the ritual life of the city.

Where does Apollo enter all this in Crete and Sparta? One would expect him to be the divinity who was firmly associated with the complex of singing and dancing. We saw him in this role in Miletus, as Apollo Delphinios, the god of the Molpoi. Apollo Delphinios loomed large in Eastern Crete as well, and he had an important political function; the god’s main festival was so important that some cities had a month named Delphinios after it. Some archaeological contexts are especially impressive. In the small city of Dreros, his archaic sanctuary has been excavated. It is a small building with one room only, with a central hearth and, in the far right corner, a hollow altar filled with the (mostly left) horns of sacrificial goats; on a stone table nearby, there stood three very archaic bronze images of Apollo, Artemis, and Leto. The altar recalls the more famous horn altar on Delus: we must be dealing with a sacrificial practice that may be as old as the Bronze Age, when Ionian Delus and Dorian Dreros were part of the same Aegean culture. The outer walls of the temple were inscribed with the city’s constitution, dated to about 650–600 BCE: this again emphasizes the political importance of the sanctuary. The god continued to be important after the Archaic Age, and the Drerians counted him among their main deities in oaths of Hellenistic times. Another temple of Apollo Delphinios, in the town of Hyrtakina, contained the “common hearth” (hestía ) of the city. Such a hearth with its eternal fire was characteristic of the City Hall, as we saw in Ephesus. In these Cretan cities, then, Apollo Delphinios appeared in the same key position as he did in Miletus, as guardian of the city’s political traditions.

The common hearth is of special interest. Its eternal flames had not only symbolical importance: in an age without matches, the common altar was also the source of all the fires on the public altars of a city, and presumably of those on private altars and in private hearths as well. At the same time, one might tentatively connect the central hearth with the Cretan men’s house: after all, this house needed a central hearth, for cooking as well as for the sacrifices that were connected with the activities of the adult citizen. Thus, Cretan temples with central hearths in the archaeological record were thought to be the men’s houses known from the literary record. The sanctuaries of Apollo Delphinios in Dreros and Hyrtakina, however, seem too small for such a function: they are central sanctuaries of the city, not meeting halls of its subgroups. The temple with one room and with a central hearth, however, might still mirror the men’s houses. Thus, we would better understand the role Apollo Delphinios played in Crete as well as in Ionia. The Milesian Molpoi and Ephesian Curetes appear to be citizen groups whose ancestors were the men’s dining associations as we know them from Archaic Crete and early Miletus, transformed under the conditions of political change through the centuries. The Athenian Delphinion attests to yet another transformation: under more democratic circumstances, the old men’s house turns into a sanctuary closely connected with safeguarding citizenship. The myth of Theseus’ recognition by his father in the Delphinion fits well: the Cretan men’s houses, after all, were the places where the sons were promoted into the position of adult citizen, not unlike Theseus. 

We begin to see, even if somewhat dimly, developments in the role of Apollo Delphinios. (We will explore these somewhat hypothetical alleys further in the next chapter.) In the most Archaic Cretan communities with their direct participatory state, the sanctuary of Apollo was the focus of civic life and mirrored the men’s houses of the city’s subdivisions. Given the importance of armed dancing in Crete, the cult did not only consist of goat sacrifices to Apollo, to his mother, and to his sister, but also of dances and songs, presumably paeans for which the Cretans were famous, performed by the choirs of adolescent boys and of adult men. Miletus shared the institution of common meals of its adult citizens with Crete; but in a less participatory political system, a small group of leading aristocrats, the six Molpoi, took over the cult of Apollo with its sacrifices and its dances and songs. In the more developed democracy of fifth-century Athens finally, political power was devolved upon the organs of the citizens’ assembly, and the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios was reduced to a place where litigation about citizenship took place.


In Sparta, three festivals of Apollo were especially imporant: the Hyacinthia, the Gymnopaidia, and the Carneia. During all three festivals, the Spartans avoided warfare as far as possible. I have already treated the Hyacinthia as an example of a festival that opposed music and war (see Chapter 2). The same holds true for the other two festivals that connected Apollo with the Spartan age groups and with singing and dancing.

Dancing naked: the Gymnopaidia

The Gymnopaidia – “a festival that the Spartans took extremely seriously,” according to Pausanias (3.11.9) – was very much a festival of dance and song; it gave its name to a special dance, the  órkhsis, or “boy’s dance that is performed naked.” It was a summer festival whose main feature was dances executed by three choirs, of boys, of adult citizens, and of old men. The choirs performed on the Spartan agora, under the eyes not only of their fellow Spartans, but of images of Apollo Pythaeus, Artemis, and Leto, with the boys always performing in the center, the adults to their left, and the old men to their right. The leaders of the three choirs wore wreaths made of palm leaves, one of Apollo’s sacred plants (the victor in the Delia got a palm branch); the wreaths were called thyreátis, a name that recalled a major Spartan battle in the sixth century BCE. This battle, a Spartan victory over its main rival Argos that led to considerable gain in territory, was also recalled in another detail: the boys were said to sing paeans in honor of the Spartans fallen in that battle. The addressee of these paeans was Apollo Karneios, the most Doric Apollo, and a major form of the god in Sparta. Already to dance in the summer heat could be seen as a test of endurance of all Spartan men: while the boys danced naked, adults and old men were wearing full armor. Other contests, this time confined to the adolescents only, concerned boxing, playing ball games, and fighting ritual battles. The boxing recalls the same contest on Delus during the main festival of the Ionians, the regular and ritualized battles between the Cretan agelai.

Apollo the Ram and the Carneia

Whereas the Gymnopaidia was Spartan only, the Carneia was one of the most characteristic festivals of all Dorians. It named a month in the calendar of many Dorian cities, from Acragas and Syracuse in Sicily to Rhodes and to Cnossus on Crete, and added the epithet Karneios to Apollo’s name. Ancient grammarians tell us that in the Dorian dialect kárnos meant “ram”: Apollo Karneios thus is “Ram Apollo.” A coin from the Spartan colony Metapontum (ca. 400 BCE) figures the beautiful head of the god with ram’s horns inscribed in his lush hair (figure 9): this cofirms the grammarians’ notice and helps to understand archaic pillars with a ram’s head from Sparta as images of their Apollo. The ram is a rare sacrificial animal, but he is also the leader of the flock – and the symbolism of the flock is well present in Spartan and Cretan society where the adolescents were organized in agelai, “herds.” In a common metaphor, ancient societies understood the socialization of the young as turning animals into humans: Apollo the Ram, then, evokes the image of leadership in a band of adolescents. At the same time, he can be connected with the center of political power: his is the undying fire in the colony of Cyrene where the Carneia was the main city festival. The founders of Cyrene brought it from Thera, whose founders had brought it from Sparta.

In his Hymn to Apollo, Callimachus describes the Cyrenaean Carneia. It was a joyful spring festival where many bulls were sacrificed and where the altars were adorned with the first flowers. The Spartan festival looks gloomier. Demetrius of Scepsis, a writer of the third century BCE, calls it 

Figure 9 Apollo Karneios. Silver coin (stater) from Metapontum, ca. 425 BC. Author’s drawing.

“an imitation of their military education,” since the banquet followed a strict order:

There are nine spots that … look somewhat like tents. In each tent, nine men are dining, and everything is done according to the orders of a herald. Each tent holds three brotherhoods (phratríai ), and the festival is held for nine days.

“Brotherhoods” is Demetrius’ term for the traditional three Dorian tribes, the Hyloi, Dymanes, and Pamphyloi, the old subdivisions of every Dorian state and city, including Sparta. Each tent held three representatives of each tribe: the common banquet was a mirror image of the Dorian state in its overall structure. Tents, or rather sunshades, replace solid buildings not only in the army: in many Greek rituals, the underlying opposition between permanent house and temporary tent is used to indicate the suspension of ordinary time during the extraordinary period of the festival. The presence of a herald giving orders for everything may tie into this: the spontaneity and free will of ordinary life is replaced by the guidance of orders to which the entire group submits itself.

This rather stiff common banquet cannot have been all to keep the Spartans busy through the nine days of their main festival. Dancing and singing, again, was more important, although less unusual and thus less noteworthy. We hear of paeans sung by boys; and the musical contest of the Carneia was already famous in the Archaic Age. For Cyrene, Callimachus describes how at the first Carneia “the girded warriors of Enyo [a Greek goddess of war] danced with the blond women of Libya,” touching again on the topic of celibate settlers taking indigenous wives.

Another ritual, less banal than dancing and singing, again caught the attention of ancient writers. “In the festival of the Carneia,” according to a Byzantine lexicon,

a person adorned with ribbons runs and prays for the city. Young men pursue him: they are called staphylodrómoi , “grape-runners.” Should they catch him, the Spartans expect good things for the city, if not, the contrary.

This again leads away from Demetrius’ military interpretation, and points towards New Year rituals: the outcome of ritual races was an omen for the year to come. The runner was symbolically turned into the always rather elusive success of the future year; it might be that the enigmatic reference to grapes (after all, the ritual was performed in early spring, well outside the grape season) is simply another way of alluding to something highly desirable, with the future grape harvest standing in for all the goods one wishes for the coming year. As often in ancient ritual, agricultural symbolism could be used to designate much broader societal goals.

The myths associated with the festival give conflicting readings; the learned Pausanias collected them all (Guide to Greece 3.1.3). In one reading, Carneius was a pre-Dorian divinity in Sparta who received worship in the house of a seer named “Ram”; Ram’s daughter helped the Dorians to conquer Sparta. Another story turns Karnos into a local seer whom the invading Dorians killed. Apollo, protector of the seer’s art or even his foster father, punished them. In order to placate the god, the Dorians established a cult of the seer. In both stories, the hero is a seer because this explains Apollo’s intervention. Both stories connect the festival with the Dorian conquest of Sparta and the foundation of the Spartan state: the festival guaranteed a successful foundation. This is a mythical form of the same concept that was, in Cyrene, ritually expressed in the undying fire of Apollo Karneios. In a third story, the Greeks in Troy cut down a sacred grove of cornel trees (kráneia) to build the Wooden Horse; doing this, they called Apollo’s wrath upon themselves, and the festival was instituted to appease the god. Here, the foundation of the festival precedes the Dorian conquest. Myth understands the Dorian invasion of the Peloponnese as the return of the grandsons of Heracles who was thought to have conquered Troy a generation before Agamemnon and his army. The festival, however, is Panhellenic: the Dorians adopted it and by doing so insist on their fundamental Greekness.


Apollo the Ram was to the Spartans and their colonies what Apollo the Wolf was to the Argives, their arch-rivals in the domination over the Peloponnesus. “Wolf-Apollo,” at least, is the most reasonable interpretation of the epithet Lykeios that Apollo had in many Greek cities, Argos included (see the following chapter); the wolf sometimes appears as Apollo’s animal.

Although the cult of Apollo Lykeios is attested in many places all over the Greek world, it clusters around the Corinthian Isthmus and is central in Argos. Here, his sanctuary was built next to the agora, the place of market and citizen assembly. According to local myth, it was founded by Danaus, the mythical king of Argus from the line of Zeus and Io, the daughter of the local river-god, who fled to Egypt. Her great-grandson Danaus returned to Argos and demanded the ancestral kingship. The Argives already had a king; embarrassed, they asked for a day to think about this tricky demand. In the night, a wolf attacked a herd of cows and killed the lead bull. The Argives understood this as an omen (as they better would): the lonely wolf, an outside intruder who killed the much bigger leader of the herd, symbolized the foreigner Danaus who was about to oust the local king. They made Danaus king of Argus, and he thanked Apollo for his help by building his sanctuary in which Pausanias still admired the throne of Danaus.

More importantly, the sanctuary contained the undying fire of the city, kindled (as the Argives claimed) by Phoroneus, the first human who lived in Argos. It also contained an image of Aphrodite, dedicated by Danaus’ daughter Hypermestra. When Danaus came to Argus from Egypt, he brought his fifty daughters with him. The fifty sons of his brother Aegyptus cornered them there, and Danaus had to consent to a highly unwanted mass marriage – at least temporarily: he equipped his daughters with daggers and ordered them to kill their grooms in the wedding night. Forty-nine daughters obeyed; Hypermestra, however, had fallen in love with her cousin and saved him. Her father, incensed, put her on trial for treason, but Aphrodite personally defended her: hence the statue. When Danaus died without a male heir, Hypermestra and her husband founded a dynasty that ruled Argos for centuries.

Thus, the sanctuary was not only associated with the re-foundation of the city (after all, the Argives could be called Danaoi, after Danaus), but more specifically with marriage and the foundation of a dynasty: in a democratic city, every citizen belonged to such a dynasty since he had to have parents who were free citizen who had to have parents who were, etc. But there was more. Inside the temple, there was the statue of a famous athlete who carried a bull to the altar of Zeus, and an image of a famous runner. Somewhere else in the sanctuary, there was also the grave of a famous boxer: this is unusual, since graves could be neither in sanctuaries nor inside a city. Running and boxing were not just athletic disciplines in Greece, they were the ritual core disciplines of archaic education; to carry a bull to an altar was the ritual regularly performed by the Athenian ephebes who imitated Theseus’ feat at the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios. The themes surrounding the Argive sanctuary of Apollo Lykeios, thus, had extremely rich resonances. There was the story of the origins of the state and the connection with the undying fire; there was marriage and citizenship; and there was athletics and other ephebic occupations.

Parts of this rich nexus around Apollo Lykeios are visible in other cities as well. In two other cities, the sanctuary of the god was next to the agora – in Metapontum, a South Italian colony of Achaia in the north-west of the Peloponnesus, and in Sicyon west of Corinth. In Epidaurus and in Athens, the sanctuary was next to a gymnasion, a sports field; the Athenian Lykeion was not only a place famous for its running contests (and, in the fourth century, for the school of Aristotle, the ancestor of every lyceum or Lycée); it was also the place for the regular exercises of the Athenian infantry, cavalry, and archers: athletics and warfare are never far apart, not only in Greece. And it may be more than coincidence that the radically democratic reforms of Cleisthenes were debated in an assembly in the Lykeion, or that the city of Eressus on Lesbus, when overturning its undemocratic junta, made the judges who put them on trial take an oath on Apollo Lykeios.

It is tempting to explain this rich nexus of themes around Apollo the Wolf – wolf, war, foundation, and citizenship – by a somewhat hypothetical reconstruction of history. Apollo Lykeios is best attested in the Doric city-states around the Isthmus of Corinth, the natural path for any immigrant or invader to the Peloponnese. When at the end of the Bronze Age the powerful kingdoms of Southern Greece – Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylus, Cnossus – collapsed, the Dorians moved south from their home in Northwestern Greece and took over the land: their dialect, not attested in the Mycenaean texts, became the common dialect of most of the Peloponnese and the Southern Aegean islands, including Crete and Rhodes. Mythology describes this movement as a return of Heracles’ descendants and of their armies to their ancestral lands; but the myth of return is a narrative ploy to legitimate a conquest. Historical scholarship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used the template of migration to describe this movement and imagined the one-time influx of an entire new population group from Northwestern Greece. Archaeological research, however, found no trace of such a large-scale immigration and population change; all we have is a new dialect, some new cities, and new political structures. Thus, the template of migration has been replaced by that of a gradual take-over of population centers and fertile land by an invading military elite that slowly trickled into the area attracted by its wealth and no longer kept out by military power. In many early societies, bands of young men put themselves under the sign of some fierce and predatory animal, as we saw above; they sometimes clashed with the authorities or organized military campaigns or rather rampages. It is tempting to imagine young Dorian warriors under the sign of Apollo the Wolf pushing south, taking over former Mycenaean lands and founding new settlements such as Corinth where they dedicated the main city temple to their god.


Even the ancient authors, too, understood Apollo Lykeios to mean “Wolf Apollo,” but they gave a different explanation. Many stories connect the god with the wolves. We have already seen how the Argive cult of Apollo Lykeios was connected with Danaos and the wolf who symbolized him; but there were other stories. They tell how Leto, pregnant with Zeus’ children, was led by wolves from the country of the Hyperboreans to Delus to give birth there; or how wolves led her with her new-born babies from Delus to Xanthus in Lycia, her main shrine in Anatolia; or how Apollo sent a she-wolf to nourish his exposed son, Miletus, the founder of the most powerful Ionian city; or how Apollo slept with the nymph Cyrene in the shape of a wolf. The Delphians narrated that, after Apollo had killed Python, a wolf brought him a laurel twig from the Tempe valley. They also showed the statue of a wolf in their sanctuary and explained how once a thief had invaded it and got away with rich booty; but when he was sleeping, a wolf attacked and killed him, obviously sent by Apollo. In Sicyon near Corinth, Pausanias heard the story that once so many wolves were killing the sheep that the farmers were unable to fend them off; but Apollo showed them how to poison the wolves with the bark of a particular tree, and the grateful herdsmen dedicated a temple to Apollo Lykeios where visitors could still see pieces of the miraculous wood. The Corinthians must have had a similar story that competed with the myth of Danaus and the wolf, since Sophocles calls the Argive Apollo not Lykeios but lyko-któnos “wolf-killer,” as the protector of the Argive sheep against wolves.

Thus, whatever the story, the connection with the wolf is constant and obvious throughout antiquity; only Servius, the commentator on Virgil in the fourth century CE, offers an alternative, namely that Lykeios derived from the Greek word for white, leukós, “because Apollo is the sun.” Most scholars disregarded this interpretation as being based on a wrong assumption and followed the wolf interpretation; others derived the god from Lycia where Leto had a major shrine. A few assumed that the wolf connection was a remnant of animal worship, the wolf being a totemic animal. But totemism never really made an impact of Greek religion, and most scholars preferred another angle: among the many ancient stories, they picked the one that explained Apollo as protector of the herds, and jettisoned all other stories. They did so because there is some evidence that, among his many functions, Apollo is a protector of sheep and cattle. In this role, he was called Nomios, “herdsman,” whereas the Boeotians, according to Plutarch, called him Galaxios, “Milk-Apollo,” because “abundance of milk indicated his helpful presence.” Other epithets indicate a similar nature, “wherefore he is recognized as patron of cattle and a true herdsman,” as the late Roman Macrobius has it (Saturnalia 1.17.43). But already in the Homeric Hymnhe had his own cattle; and when Zeus punished him by having him serve a human, he guarded the cattle of king Admetus of Pherae. The fact that Apollo was so often connected with agélai, “herds” of young men, seemed to confirm this very connection: it was an extension of the original “agricultural” meaning.

Thus, we are confronted with several interpretations of Lykeios. There were three basic ways of understanding the epithet, as deriving from the Lycians, light, or the wolf; among the derivations from wolf, there were again three options: the totemistic interpretation, Apollo as wolf totem; the agricultural one, Apollo as protector of the herds against wolves; and the sociological one, Apollo as leader of adolescent wolf societies. Some theories were more easily refuted than others: the connection with “light” is linguistically unsound, the one with Lycia crumbled as soon as it became clear that Leto was no Lycian goddess, and totemism preceded shamanism as a widely over-used concept; neither should be generalized outside the cultures in which it was found. In the end, we are left with the sociological interpretation, and the agricultural one. Both resonate with the cult of Apollo: he truely is god of cattle and sheep, and he is the leader of young adolescents; the main question was which of these functions was prior or “original,” and which was secondary and derived. 

This raises an interesting methodological question. There are other instances in Greek religion where these two interpretations oppose each other. The most conspicuous one is the case of Demeter who presides over the crops, and over the fertility of the married women: here too, the priority was at stake, and the answer used to be the same as in Apollo’s case: “originally,” Demeter was a goddess of agriculture (and Apollo a god of cattle), but then this function was metaphorically transferred onto children, the fruit of women, or upon young men, organized in “herds” and living outside the polis, as cattle and herdsmen did. The only reason for this choice was the assumption that agricultural (or pastoral) concerns were at the core of religion because man was first an agriculturalist and pastoralist and only later turned into a city-dweller.

This frame of reference was challenged by Émile Durkheim, the founder of French sociology. For Durkheim, religion and ritual was not connected with fertility, but with social cohesion and identity: rituals created social unity and established social order, and religion was the main force that shaped early men into a functioning group. Thus, the interpretation depends solely on the frame of reference for the data that we have from antiquity. For the agricultural/pastoral frame, social concerns develop out of agricultural ones and are metaphors of them; for the sociological frame, agriculture/pastoral life is a metaphor for social concerns.

The development of prehistory has made it possible to decide between the two frames of interpretation. Prehistoric research has shown that agriculture and husbandry developed rather late, in about 8000/7000 BCE, in what has been called the Neolithic Revolution. Society preceded agriculture and husbandry for many millennia, already when homo sapiens (and even his predecessors) existed in the African savannahs, there were social groups, bands of hunters and gatherers, and they must have developed ritual instruments to hold these groups together. The agricultural interpretation of ritual is secondary, and relatively young.


This is, of course, prehistory, and like any prehistory, hypothetical. Apollo’s close ties with the political life in many cities of historical Greece, however, are undeniable, and not only among the Dorians, and so is his role as the ancestor of entire population groups. At a time late in the sixth century BCE, when the growing antagonism between the two main Greek powers, Sparta and Athens, made them conceptualize Greece in terms of an old and fundamental opposition between Ionians and Dorians, Doric Heracles was opposed to Ionic Apollo, father of Ion, grandson of an Athenian king.

In the cities of the Greek world, Apollo competed with Athena for the possession of the most important city sanctuary. Mapping them shows no clear pattern and certainly no Dorian/Ionian dichotomy, thus the distribution must precede this ideological construction. The favorite daughter and the favorite son of Zeus share not only the function of the principal divinity in the city, but also the care for the adolescent citizen-warriors; the two are related. The procession of the Athenian Panathenaia displayed the young horsemen who were the backbone of Athens’ army and the protégés of Athena, whereas in Sparta a similar display took place during Hyacinthia, Gymnopaidia and Carneia under the tutelage of Apollo. Only a few other cities selected other divine protectors, such as Hera in Argus where the young warriors marched in the procession from the city out to the sanctuary of the goddess far away at the border of the territory. In myth, Athena is the unswerving protectress of warlike heroes such as Heracles or Theseus, whereas Apollo kills as many heroes as he fathers and protects. Still, the Homeric opposition between Athena, the main patroness of the Greeks, and Apollo, the leading patron of the Trojans, looks as if it is constructed on the background of this functional overlap of the two divinities, although the singer also projected the acropolis temple of Athena, known to him from his own world, onto his imaginary city of Troy.

After Alexander’s conquest of the East, Greek cities lost part of their power and independence, becoming part of the kingdoms that succeeded Alexander’s conquest. From Alexander onwards, divine kings supplemented the protection the Olympian gods provided for Greek cities: ruler cult is the religious expression of the new distribution of power. But the forms of this cult were surprisingly flexible and ranged from seeking divine protection for the king to outright worship of a divinized ruler. In this world, Apollo appeared as the ancestor and protector of the dynasty of the Seleucids, the rulers of large parts of the Near East. The founder of the dynasty, Alexander’s general Seleucus who became king Seleucus I Victor (Nicator; died 281 BCE) invoked Apollo as the Leader (Hgemn) of his family. Accordingly, when a city instituted a festival in honor of king Seleucus, the assembly would decree the institution of “contests in music, athletics, and horsemanship, such as we perform for Apollo the Leader of the dynasty”; the same was true for his sons and successors. Over time, Apollo turned from being protector of the dynasty into its very ancestor, and historians could tell exactly how it happened:

When the mother of Seleucus married Antiochus, a nobleman at the court of king Philip of Macedonia, she had the impression that, when relaxing, she had intercourse with Apollo and became pregnant from him. To thank her for her love, the god gave her a ring with an anchor engraved on its stone, and told her she should hand it over to the son to whom she would gave birth.

(Justin, Epitome 15.4, 3–5)

The story, as strange as it sounds to a modern ear, has a rich ancestry: it was also told about Alexander’s conception from Zeus Ammon but goes back to the template of Egyptian royal ideology: every pharaoh was conceived by his mother when she slept with the ruling god of Egypt’s pantheon.

It seems a small step from the divinization of a mortal and living king to his identification with an Olympian god. No Hellenistic king, and few Roman emperors for that, made this step themselves or allowed a city to do it during their life times. It was a somewhat different matter to do it posthumously and to institute a cult to a deceased king in the guise of a Greek god. In a list of priests that held office in one of the Seleucid foundations, Seleucia in Northern Greece, we find not only a priest of Zeus Olympios and Koryphaios (“He of the Mountain Top”) and two priests of Apollo, but also a priest of Seleucus Zeus Nikator and of Antiochus Apollo Soter (“Savior”). Thus, after their deaths, the founder of the dynasty mutated into a form of Zeus, and his son and successor, Antiochus I, into Apollo, the god of the dynasty.

Rome’s emperors succeeded the Hellenistic kings, and they adapted these forms of religious representation of earthly power to their own purposes. Apollo thus became also the god of the Roman emperors: hardly the Roman god of healing, but the Greek ancestor of dynasties.

There was an Apollo Augustus, “Imperial” Apollo, on coins of Antoninus Pius in the middle of the second century CE. Less than a century before that, coins portrayed the emperor Nero as Apollo Citharoedus, in a clear allusion to Nero’s artistic ambitions. Nero’s connection with Apollo, however, was more complex than this and goes back to the ideology devised for him by his advisers. His teacher and secret chancellor Seneca wrote the Apocolocyntosis, a satire on Nero’s predecessor Claudius which was recited shortly after Nero’s accession in 54 CE. In this work a singing Apollo helps the Fates bring forward the ruler of the new Golden Age, Nero, a second Apollo whose “radiant face blazes with gentle brilliance and his shapely neck with flowing hair.” The identification of Apollo and Helios/Sol, the Sun God, is common in this epoch: when he traveled in Greece many years later, the Greeks addressed Nero specifically as “New Sun God,” Neos Helios; and when he returned from this trip where the Greeks celebrated him as their liberator and a most gifted singer and lyre-player, the groups of young noblemen that he had organized into the Augustanei hailed him as another Apollo.

Nero’s self-definition as Apollo, however, as outrageous as it seemed even to his senators, rested firmly on the adoption of Greek Apollo by the founder of the dynasty, Augustus. After Caesar’s death and yet another civil war, the young heir of Caesar, Octavian, who later was to call himself Augustus, and Caesar’s most faithful lieutenant Marc Antony had divided the world among themselves: Marc Antony took over the splendid and fabulous East, including the sexy and wily queen of Egypt Cleopatra, while his junior partner Octavian got the West with its big problems created by decades of civic unrest and civil war. In the ensuing propaganda war between the former allies, Marc Antony offered himself to the world as the new Dionysus, divine conqueror of the East and god of an easy life. Octavian first wavered about his own divine symbol, leaning towards calling himself Novus Romulus, a new founder of the state; this too had many Greek parallels. But his advisers pointed out that Romulus was an ambiguous figure not too well suited for the purpose of projecting a positive image since, after all, he had killed his brother; Augustus thus opted for Apollo as the god whom he would follow – not so much the Roman god of healing as the Greek youthful warrior and Averter of Evil. The first step had been done already in the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE: here, both sides had used Apollo’s name as military password, building on a tradition that associated Apollo, the oracular god, and his symbols with the hope for a better future. Once he had become ruler of the West, Octavian slowly adopted this symbolism: he made the sphinx, an Apolline creature, into his seal symbol and was wearing a laurel wreath in public ceremonies. In 36 BCE he attributed a resounding naval victory to the help of Apollo and Artemis, whose sanctuary was not far from the Sicilian coast where the battle occurred. He did the same on a grander scale when the propaganda war with Marc Antony turned into a real war: he attributed his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the sea battle of Actium (31 BCE) to the intervention of Apollo whose sanctuary, again, was not that far away; it seems that it was not too difficult to find a sanctuary of Apollo close by wherever in Greek lands one was. It does not surprise that in 17 BCE, when he inaugurated a new epoch, a saeculum, he put himself again under the protection of Apollo and his sister and had the poet Horace compose a hymn in their honor (Carmen Saeculare).

The association with Apollo was a brilliant move. Apollo the youthful god and warlike patron of young men was a fit protector for a ruler who was in his early twenties when he came to power. Apollo, the Averter of Evil, the god of music, of harmony, and of prophecy, promised solace from the ravages of a century of civil war and punishment for all arrogance, as he and his sister had punished arrogant Niobe by killing her seven sons and seven daughters: not by chance, this myth was represented more than once in the official art of Augustan Rome. The restrained harmony of Apollo was opposed to the excesses of Dionysus-Marc Antony, the Roman who had become a dissolute Oriental and sexual slave of a foreign queen: this exploited all the negative associations that could be read into Dionysus, especially in a Rome that was prone to associate Dionysiac rites with sex and crime. It was almost inevitable that Augustus, too, was inserted into the by now almost traditional royal mythology: even before Actium, a story was current about how his mother Atia became pregnant from a divine snake, another form of the god Apollo. Like Alexander, and like Seleucus, the new king of Rome was the physical son of his divine protector.

Augustus, unsurpassed master of political propaganda, did more than just foster these rumors. In a move that inscribed his closeness to the god Apollo into the center of Rome to be seen by all, he built a temple of Apollo on the Palatine, next to his own house and easily accessible from it, so that his house and the god’s temple were in fact one single palatial complex. Whoever looked up to the Palatine from the Forum or gazed at it from the top of the Capitolium would see and perceive the house and the temple, Octavian and Apollo, as a close unit. His own house door was guarded by symbols of the god, two laurel trees and two pillars of Apollo Agyieus, the Guardian of the House Door. United with Apollo, Augustus would finally bring back the Golden Age that the Cumaean Sibyl, another servant of Apollo, had prophesied, according to a celebrated poem of Virgil (Eclogue 4).


Apollo’s connection with communal and political life covers a wide area. At its center is the role he played for the young men: himself an eternal ephebe, he was their main protector, and his myths reflect their triumphs and problems. Groups of young men – perhaps the most dynamic, but also the most unstable part of the social body – have always been crucial in power politics, down to the role they play in today’s Islamic terrorist movements: hence Apollo’s involvement with the power of the city and with ruling bodies whose strange combination of music, dance, and power looks back to early forms of Greek political life. His political power, however, remained unbroken and transformed itself even into the protection of Roman emperors, starting with Augustus. The last Roman emperor to tie himself to Apollo was no other than Constantine, the first Christian emperor, whose image on top of a porphyry column in his new Rome, Constantinople, may well have started out as an image of Apollo.