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The Oracles at Delphi

Introduction

Plutarch’s essay on the changed custom at Delphi is quite as interesting for its digressions as for its treatment of the main topic. Portents, coincidences, history, a little philosophy, stories of persons like Croesus, Battus, Lysander, Rhodope, finally lead up to the statement that many oracles used to be delivered in prose, although still more in early times were delivered in verse; but the present age calls for simplicity and directness instead of the ancient obscurity and grandiloquence.

We possess a considerable body of Delphic oracles preserved in Greek literature, as, for example, the famous oracle of the ‘wooden wall’ (Herodotus, vii. 141). Practically all of these are in hexameter verse. Many more records of oracles merely state that someone consulted the oracle and was told to perform a certain deed, or was told that something would or might happen, often with certain limitations. We have, therefore, no means of determining the truth of Plutarch’s statement, but there is little doubt that he is right. If we possessed his lost work, Χρησμῶν συναγωγή (no. 171 in Lamprias’s list), we should have more abundant data on which to base our decision.

The essay often exhibits Plutarch at his best. Hartman thinks that Plutarch hoped that the work

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would be read at Rome, and therefore inserted the encomium of Roman rule near the end.

The essay stands as no. 116 in Lamprias’s catalogue. It is found in only two mss. and in a few places the tradition leaves us in doubt, but, for the most part, the text is fairly clear.

The references to the topography and monuments of Delphi have become more intelligible since the site was excavated by the French. Pomtow, in the Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift, 1912, p. 1170, gives an account of the monuments visited by the company in this essay.

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.plutarch-moralia_oracles_delphi_no_longer_given_verse.1936