The Temple of Apollo at Didyma or Didymaion was the fourth largest temple in the ancient Greek world. The temple’s oracle, second in importance only to that at Delphi, played a significant role in the religious and political life of both Miletus and the greater Mediterranean world; many rulers, from Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) to the Roman emperor Diocletian (244-313 CE)visited or sent delegations to this oracle seeking the guidance and favor of Apollo. The oracle played a significant role in initiating the “Great Persecution” of Christians under Diocletian and the temple was later converted into a church during the 5th or 6th century CE.
The Didymaion was the fourth and largest temple that the Greeks built around the site of a natural spring, which they believed to be the source of the oracle’s prophetic power. In the 6th century BC the people of nearby Miletus began construction on a second, much larger temple. This temple, however, was plundered and destroyed, either in 494 BC by the Persian king Darius or in 479 BCby his son and successor Xerxes. Legend has it that the sacred spring ceased to flow until none other than Alexander the Greatpassed through on a conquest of his own and re-consecrated the site in 331 BC. Not surprisingly, the first recorded pronouncements of the reestablished oracle were in favor of the young Macedonian king.
While Alexander reopened the site at Didyma, his siege left Miletus heavily damaged and the tariffs levied against the citizens as punishment for their resistance financially crippled the city for decades. When Miletus finally began to recover – some thirty years after Alexander’s conquest – the citizens began construction on yet another temple at the site of the sacred spring. It is this third and final temple that is known today as the Temple of Apollo at Didyma or the Hellenistic Didymaion. As was common for Greek temples of such an immense size, construction continued for centuries and the temple was never completed; even in the late 4th century AD the temple lacked a pediment or a cornice and much of the sculptural ornamentation and even several of the massive columns remained unfinished. Nevertheless, the temple must have been a magnificent sight as even the ruins can leave the modern-day visitors awestruck.
In a world where “church and state” were inseparable, the Temple of Apollo at Didyma played a critical role in the religious and political life of ancient Miletus. The temple complex served as the site of important religious festivals, sacrifices, and votive offerings while the oracle exercised a significant influence on Milesian civic statutes, treaties, public enterprises, and was relied upon to provide protection against enemies and to help direct public and foreign affairs.
The importance of the site meant that the office of the high priest (not to be confused with the oracle), whose job it was to preside over the sanctuary, was an immensely powerful and highly sought after position. Elected and limited to a one-year term, high priests were often “aristocratic gentlemen of Miletus, [who were] deeply involved in the politics and trade of that city…and whose clearest responsibility was to finance numerous activities associated with the sanctuary”. In fact, this office was so prestigious and the sanctuary so crucial to the religious and political affairs of Miletus and the larger Mediterranean that numerous Roman emperors, including Trajan, Hadrian and Julian, were “elected” to this position.